Sunday, December 6, 2009

The culture of science and the theory of evolution

(Young Charles Darwin.  For a great read on his early life and explorations, see "The Voyage of the Beagle".)

I find constantly that the general public doesn’t understand how science works, especially how university scientists do their work. For example, the university pays us a salary, gives us an office, and requires us to teach some courses (that applied to me before I retired). Then, they expect us to develop an active research program, but they usually give us no money to accomplish that. We have to find all of that money from funding agencies by writing research proposals, and this is a very competitive process. The National Science Foundation only funds about 10% of the requests they receive. If you do not develop this research program, you do not get tenure, and you lose your job after about 7 years.

This is relevant to the issue of doing research on evolution, or on any other established theory in science. If one of us could disprove Darwin’s theory, we would become absolutely the most famous biologist of the century. We would undoubtedly win the Nobel Prize for Biology, be elected to the National Academy of Sciences, obtain all the grant money we could ever use, be offered the very best university positions, get the best graduate students and that large corner office---in short, life would be really, really sweet. No one gets rich or famous in science by repeating what is already believed to be true; you make a name for yourself by being the first to come up with something new. Scientists are not like a group of people who get together to reaffirm their common belief. We go to scientific meetings, and we sit there and say to ourselves: “I know I can do better than that guy”, “I just know he is wrong and I am going to prove it”, “That SOB is full of %4$##”.

But after 150 years, Darwin’s theory still holds. There is almost no working biologist out of 10s of thousands who does not conclude that the theory makes sense, that enormous evidence supports it, and that nothing in biology makes any sense without it. Evolutionary biologists (FYI, I am not even categorized professionally as an evolutionary biologist) argue about mechanisms of natural selection all the time---whether meiotic drive is more important than mutation in bringing about change in species, whether genetic drift is more influential than selection, etc. But the overall theory always wins as the best explanation for the data.

Every so often the creationist community finds someone who will write a pamphlet or small book claiming that evolution can not be true. If they are lucky, they find someone with a Ph.D., but this is never taken seriously by the scientific community, because the arguments contained there are easily refuted. The same goes for arguing about the age of the planet. Thousands of geologists, paleontologists, and biologists have spent their entire lives over the past 300 years or so trying to get the best answer possible to this question, and they arrive at an estimate of about 5 billion years. Are all these people in some giant conspiracy to overthrow creationism? No. They did their work and that is their answer.

One more thing---what does the word “theory” really mean. On the street, we use that term all the time: “I have a theory why the Yankees are doing so poorly”, or “I have a theory why it is raining so much lately”. These are not theories in the scientific sense at all; they are hypotheses, which are of lower rank than a theory. In science, a published theory is a really, really big deal. Sir Isaac Newton’s theory on universal gravitation and his laws of motion, Einstein’s theory of relativity, and Darwin’s theory of evolution via natural selection are considered as close to facts as we ever get in science. They are comprehensive, well-considered, well-tested, well-argued.

It really is time for creationists to give up their reluctance to acknowledge organic evolution via natural selection as the formative process on this planet. Realize that Darwin’s theory never had anything to say about the very origin of life in the universe. Darwinian evolution is about the process of how life changes once it started; the same process would apply regardless of where in the universe life got started, however. So, I suppose, religious folks could then fall back on the role of their creator in the beginning. There are scientists who believe in the existence of some higher power, and who also believe that life evolved on this planet via natural selection. And that is fine if it gives you solace. What happened at the very beginning of the universe is incomprehensible to me. But then, just a few centuries ago, the fact that there was a large body of land west of Europe before you reach Asia (now called North America) was incomprehensible to almost everyone.

One goal of mine on this portal is to stress the importance of conservation, but another is to introduce evolutionary thinking. This will take some time. It is an extremely powerful tool to use to understand life on this planet, and to understand the behavior of all organisms, including humans. All sorts of human behavior start to make sense (e.g., racism, greed, love, aggression, infidelity, etc.) once you begin analyzing life as a cost/benefit ratio with survival and reproductive fitness as currencies. Once you begin to view the world through this lens, I doubt you will ever go back. It is downright fun!


  1. "Scientists are not like a group of people who get together to reaffirm their common belief."

    clearly you haven't been following the sociology of climate science lately . . .


  2. Jim, you are correct; I haven't been reading the sociology of climate change. I could guess that a group of scientists who belong to a discipline where the "theory" (is it even at that level yet?) is so recent and controversial might be defensive and band more closely together. This is much less true of the theory of evolution.

  3. Well said! Thanks. I'm sending this on. Audrey

  4. Nice post Tom. It's funny, your remarks about the incorrect usage of the word "theory" are so true (when people really mean hypothesis). I hear the misuse of the term all the time on radio, TV, and in person.

    Regarding creationism, I don't understand how some folks can adhere to that idea when evidence of evolution not only stares them in the face every morning (in the mirror), but probably licks their face in the morning (their pet dogs and cats). How do creationists explain the science of domestic animal breeding?

  5. frankly, I don't think the "evolution vs. creation" discussion is all that interesting.

    But here's a post from Roger Pielke's blog earlier today about the PNAS paper separating climate change "believers" from "non-believers". I think this speaks directly to Dr. Tom's earlier statement that "scientists are not like a group of people who get together to reaffirm their common belief." I think this reaffirmation of common belief happens quite frequently in science.

  6. Jim, I agree that the evolution vs. creationism debate is rather passe to most of us now. The point of my essay was mainly that if a scientist soundly, and convincingly, refuted Darwin's theory of evolution via natural selection, that person would receive enormous accolades. The climate debate strikes me as one where the "dust is still settling", much like the debate over Darwin's theory was in the 1870s or 1880s.

    My blog was written some time ago when I was in some debates with non-scientists who had no clue how science proceeds, or how scientists do their work. It was written with that audience in mind. But your points are well-considered, as usual.

  7. agreed that the "theory" of evolution is settled science, but the point I was really making was directed more at the "culture of science" as suggested by the blog post title. Evolutionary biologists are not above making metaphysical pronouncements that share more in common with creationists' delusions than with "science." You should check out Mary Midgley's Evolution as a Religion to see just how much (some) scientists are very much committed to affirming non-scientific beliefs.

    While I agree that many non-scientists have no clue how science proceeds, I think it is equally true that many scientists have no clue how science (or scientism to be more precise) functions just as irrationally as creationism when making religious claims.

  8. Jim,


    1. First off, scientists are real people, subject to the same human faults (group conformity, confirmation bias, ego, etc) as everyone else. Nobody disputes that.

    2. Science as a method attempts to work against these biases. That's largely the point of the scientific method. You and other "sociologists of science" are free to try and come up with improvements if you like. But normally, people don't wholly criticize a method when it is the best alternative we have. Science is too politicized? How about sociology of science? Is that an example of a field unadulterated by politics and personal opinions? Is that an example of a group of people who don't just conform to each other's opinions? If not science, what is the bastion of skepticism and objectivity that we should look towards for inspiration? Sociology? Philosophy? Religion? Politics? Internet blogs?

    3. Clearly, scientists do form groups reaffirming common opinion, but- in every case I can think of- it's in opposition to some perceived common enemy (like creationists, or climate-change deniers). Take away the common enemy and everyone goes back to bickering about the details of how it all works exactly.

    4. Mary Midgley is one of these philosophers who criticizes science by attacking "reductionism" a term whose slippery definition strategically fluctuates from something obvious that all scientists do, to something dumb that nobody does. That's why you can call any science researcher a "reductionist" and sound like you said something meaningfully critical. In response to the book The Selfish Gene, Midgley wrote this now often-quoted sentence: "Genes cannot be selfish or unselfish, any more than atoms can be jealous, elephants abstract or biscuits teleological." At this point, anyone who has read The Selfish Gene should either find this pretty funny or be banging their head against the table. Talk about judging a book by its cover! (How about its title?) The frustrating thing is that this quote is fairly representative, not a cherry-picked gem. Look it up yourself. From here, we can clearly see why this philosopher would write something called "Evolution as a Religion".

    Most working biologists are actually interested in microbes and plants and animals, not the grandiose political, philosophical commentary which- to the philosopher- supposedly hides beneath the surface of every paper. Most scientists feel like they are wasting time if they are bickering about things they can't test.

    In a sense, natural science (with its wondrous quarks, compounds, butterflies, chloroplasts) can even be a kind of refuge from people's bickering about their worldly opinions. Or so we thought...

    As R. Ford Denison put it recently: "Once again this year [at the Evolution meetings], there are no sessions scheduled on atheism, pornography, abortion, etc., just evolution. It's almost as if evolutionary biology were a science, maybe even a branch of biology! Reminds of a job fair long ago, where they told me "ecology" was too broad a specialty, but "biology" was OK."

    5. You say science "functions just as irrationally as creationism when making religious claims". For some reason, I didn't realize science was in the business of making religious claims! Is Mary Midgley or anyone else able to make "rational" religious claims? If not, then what does it even mean to say scientists can't be rational when making religious claims.

    When scientists talk about religion, they are being social critics not scientists. And so what? Anyone can be a scientist when they perform an experiment. And anyone can be a social critic when they sit at their computer and write comments about science on someone's blog. Is that so wrong?

  9. Gerry:

    Wow. But did you disagree with anything that Jim said? LOL. Great to see you here.

  10. Hi Gerry,
    agree with Tom, it's great to see you here.

    I'm reminded of a quote I sometimes use in my sig, by Daniel Dennett, one of the most militant evolutionists going: "Scientists sometimes deceive themselves into thinking that philosophical ideas are only, at best, decorations or parasitic commentaries on the hard, objective triumphs of science, and that they themselves are immune to the confusions that philosophers devote their lives to dissolving. But there is no such thing as philosophy-free science; there is only science whose philosophical baggage is taken on board without examination." So if one doesn’t care for Mary Midgley, there are plenty of other philosophers who make much the same case about the ‘culture of science,’ which I take it is the subject here.

    One or two other points in response to your reply:

    Re: 2. “Science as a method attempts to work against these biases. That's largely the point of the scientific method.”

    Here your own potential bias toward scientism may be revealing itself. There is no “the scientific method,” a point made by Henry Bauer in Scientific Literacy and the Myth of the Scientific Method. There are many methods, some better or more effective than others.

    Re: 4. Mary Midgley
    In the Dawkins versus Midgley wars, I guess I’d still default to siding with Midgley. Her arguments are echoed by people like Howard Kaye (The Social Meaning of Modern Biology) and Stephen Jay Gould. Gould accused Dawkins, Dennett, and others of “Darwinian fundamentalism,” and I think the term nicely captures the gist of the critique Midgley makes in her book-length treatment of the topic. In the Dawkins vs Gould wars, I’d side with Gould as well—if you’re keeping a scorecard. ;-)

    Re: 5. “You say science ‘functions just as irrationally as creationism when making religious claims’. For some reason, I didn't realize science was in the business of making religious claims! Is Mary Midgley or anyone else able to make ‘rational’ religious claims? If not, then what does it even mean to say scientists can't be rational when making religious claims.”

    Gerry, you’ve had some of my classes, so you know I emphasize the importance of reading what someone says versus reading into what someone says.

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but you seem to think I am saying religious claims = irrationality. Nonsense. Pascal’s Wager for belief in God is as rational and calculating as it gets—which is the reason it is such a celebrated and well-known trope.

    Note I qualified the statement with the use of the term “scientism”—used here in the pejorative sense of ‘exaggerated trust in the methods of natural science applied to all areas of investigation’. Sorry if that wasn’t more clear.

    As an aside on the alleged irrationality of faith claims, one of the most militant philosophers of atheism, Anthony Flew, experienced an intellectual conversion to a belief in intelligent design late in his life—an experience I take to be completely “rational.” FWIW his book about his “conversion” has made me much more respectful of intelligent design (at least some versions of it) as an intellectual position than I was previously.

    Anyway . . . a nice exchange.

  11. I differ with the assessment of the creationism versus evolution debate as passe. As a subject for scientific debate, I agree. As a subject of public debate, that is far from the case. I will simply state that in no way is intelligent design a scientific theory. It is, more than anything else, an anti-theory - anything that can not be proven to be the result of evolution must therefore be the result of some outside power. Any complex biological doohicky will do, irreducible complexity, if one (the eye) is shown to have arisen through natural processes, another will take its place. As long as there is something that can't be satisfactorily explained by evolution, there will be seen by some a reason to invoke an outside force. But don't mistake that for science - ID does not generate hypotheses, it can't be tested, it can't be challenged, it is safe as long as there is something that science is still striving to sort out. But its main purpose, the purpose admitted to by most who promote it (the Discovery Institute, as a leading example) is not, never was, and never will be as an alternate scientific theory - its support comes from an entirely different motivation, and that is cultural. Most advocates of ID don't give a hoot about scientific debate, they care about what they think the influences of a naturalistic, godless world view is doing to societal values.

    It is no accident that the creationist textbook Of Pandas and People started out as a text of scientific creationism, and stayed that way until creationism was ruled in court to be a religious view and not a scientific one and therefore banned from public science classes. The textbook was edited, primarily through a global text replace operation that substituted intelligent design for creation science. Now ID died in Dover. It isn't science either.

    Watch Lousiana - the new front is school board lingo protecting academic freedom of public school teachers. Except the specific areas where academic freedom must be protected is presenting weaknesses and alternatives to evolutionary theory (but in this case, Lousiana has enough experience to know you get dinged for singling out evolution, so they added, ironically, climate change).

    The documents from the Discovery Institute and all the other lobbies trying so desperately to get some sort of faith based thought into science classes make it clear this has nothing to do with their interpretation of the scientific evidence. It has to do with fighting to get Christian thought and ideals back into public schools.

    It is not about science. It is about what role religion should play in our country. As scientists we can say it is no longer fruitful to debate creationists, because we don't see the point - evolution is a sound scientific theory, creationism isn't (even if creationism is a valid explanation for anything, it is certainly not a scientific one). But that is not the battle as it is being framed. We have a public that overwhelming possesses some level of faith in a higher power. We have a public that may see many aspects of society veering off in directions that are not easy to swallow, and we have a strong lobby working to say that naturalistic explanations of how the world works are at the very root of the problem. I have heard evolution described by one leading evangelical as the single greatest evil ever imposed on mankind.

    Part of the lobby also works to frame scientists as some elite group that has no time for public concerns - vilify us, then attack our results. Very effective. We must do a better job interacting with the public, because if we don't, somebody else will do it for us - and we will not like how we look at the end of that process.

  12. Everyone: this has been a great discussion. There is obviously a great deal to talk about. No reason to stop, but if this is the end, thanks for participating.