Does questioning evolution make you anti-science?

Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry said that evolution was “just a theory” and that it had “some gaps in it.”

By
September 5, 2011 21:31
Gov. Rick Perry (R-TX)

Rick Perry 311. (photo credit: REUTERS/Jim Young)

Paul Krugman thinks that Republicans are dumb, knuckle-dragging Neanderthals. In the not-too-distant future he sees a Republican half-wit delivering his acceptance speech as presidential nominee at the convention in grunts, beating his chest, and bopping his wife over the head with the a club as he drags her on to the stage by her hair.

Writing in The New York Times, Krugman says, “One of these years the world’s greatest nation will find itself ruled by a party that is aggressively anti-science, indeed anti-knowledge.

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And, in a time of severe challenges – environmental, economic, and more – that’s a terrifying prospect.”

Terrifying indeed. What’s more frightening then the prospect of a bunch of underdeveloped orangutans with their finger on the nuclear button? But saying that Republicans are anti-science is about as accurate as saying that democrats are anti-religion, and one wonders which is more outrageous: the prospect of a primitive party of Republicans getting control of government, or a Nobel-prize winning columnist in one of the world’s most authoritative newspapers writing broad generalities about how they’re unlettered buffoons who hate learning and science.

What seems even more outrageous is the fact that Krugman’s ire was piqued by Texas Governor and Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry’s comment that evolution was “just a theory” and that it had “some gaps in it.”

I am not a scientist. But beginning in about 1990, I started organizing an annual debate at Oxford University on science versus religion where the focus was almost always on evolution and which featured some of the world’s greatest evolutionists, like Richard Dawkins and the late John Maynard-Smith of the University of Sussex – then widely regarded as the leading evolutionary theorist. While I moderated the first few debates, I later participated in a debate against Dawkins at Oxford that he later denied ever took place, forcing us to post the full video of the debate online; in that video, it can be seen that Dawkins is not only the principal proponent of the science side, but actually loses the debate in a student vote. I later debated Dawkins again at the Idea City Convention at the University of Toronto, the video of which is likewise available online.

What I learned from these debates, as well as from reading extensively on evolution, is that evolutionists have a tough time defending the theory when challenged in open dialogue.

This does not mean that evolution is not true or that the theory is without merit or evidence. It does, however, corroborate what Perry said. Evolution is a theory. It has never been proven beyond the shadow of a doubt to be true.

Indeed, Dawkins and the late and celebrated Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould fiercely debated basic assumptions about evolution, with Gould arguing that the large gaps in the fossil record make a mockery of a theory of gradual evolution, which is why Gould advocated “punctuated equilibrium” – a variation on Darwinism in which evolution takes place in dramatic periods of change followed by long eons of stasis. Gould maintained this position precisely because, as Perry said, the theory of evolution has “some gaps in it” – in the case of the fossil record, quite literally.

No scientist has ever witnessed evolution directly; science itself says this is impossible given the vast amount of time needed for species to evolve.

Rather, evidence for evolution is found primarily in the fossil record, and evidence for natural selection stems from some famous contemporary observations. For example, prior to the Industrial Revolution, the vast majority of peppered moths (Biston betularia), which can produce light or dark offspring, were light in coloration.

However, with the rise in pollution during the Industrial Revolution, the lichens and trees against which the light-colored moths habitually hid from predators were darkened with soot, making the light-colored moths conspicuous to predatory birds and allowing the dark moths to survive.

A similar proof brought for natural selection is the Galapagos Finch, which Darwin theorized was originally a single species but over time changed very slowly in response to the demands of the environment.

For example, the large ground-finch had a big, powerful beak that seemed well-suited to cracking open seeds, while the vampire finch had a long, pointed beak, which allowed it to puncture the flesh of other birds and drink their blood. In each case, Darwin reasoned, beak shape had evolved over time to provide an adaptive advantage.

THE PROBLEM with both these observations is that they are manifestations of horizontal, rather than vertical, evolution, as they document how members of a species may change within the range of characteristics that they already possess. No new traits are generated. Vertical evolution, whereby natural selection can supposedly create entirely new structures, has yet to be directly observed and is thus a theory.

Other challenges remain regarding evolutionary theory, most notably the anthropic principle, which maintains that if the physical laws and constants governing our universe were even slightly different, we would not be here to notice it because the emergence of life could not have occurred.

The English cosmologist Sir Martin Rees argues in his book Just Six Numbers that the values of six numbers determine to a great degree many of the large- and small-scale properties of our universe, and if any of these were changed, even slightly, the universe might not exist at all.

The second number, epsilon, which is roughly .007, describes, roughly speaking, how durable matter is, because it tells us how much energy is required to separate an atom into its constituent particles. If epsilon were .006 – a difference of about 14% – the universe would consist entirely of hydrogen. No other elements would form, because the process of nuclear fusion could not occur. There would be no planets, very little light, no nebulae, no comets and certainly no life.

The value of epsilon is one of the most profound mysteries of the universe.

Nobel laureate Richard Feynman, in his typically flamboyant way, said of it: “It’s one of the greatest damn mysteries of physics: a magic number that comes to us with no understanding by man. You might say ‘the hand of God wrote that number...’” Many leading scientists, like Francis Collins – described by the Endocrine Society as “one of the most accomplished scientists of our time” – therefore believe that while evolution may indeed be an accurate theory regarding the rise of life, it still requires the guiding hand of a higher power in order to operate.

Indeed, Dawkins himself said in a famous interview with Ben Stein that the intelligent life in our universe may have come from “a higher intelligence” consisting of space aliens that seeded our planet with intelligent life.

IN THE final analysis, however, the biblical account of creation easily accommodates an evolutionary ascent, seeing as the narrative expressly relates that God created the mineral, the vegetable, the animal and finally human life forms in ascending order.

It would be wise of Krugman to remember that the very essence of science is to question, and that stifling doubt is a sin of which religion has been quite guilty in the past – one science should refrain from repeating in the present.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is in the midst of founding GIVE, the Global Institute for Values Education, and is the author of the upcoming book The Church of Evolution. Follow him on Twitter: @RabbiShmuley.


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