Friday, June 01, 2007

What Senator Brownback Thinks About Evolution

In yesterday’s New York Times, Senator Sam Brownback wrote an op/ed column entitled What I Think About Evolution. He felt the need to articulate his take on the origin of species because of his reaction to a question at the first Republican presidential debate. Chris Matthews asked candidates to raise their hands if they did not believe in evolution, and Brownback’s hand went up. Because some viewers might have looked askance at Brownback’s disavowal of scientifically established fact, he set out to clarify what he meant.

In his op/ed, the Senator from Kansas asserts without qualification that “[i]f belief in evolution means simply assenting to micro-evolution, small changes over time within a species, I am happy to say, as I have in the past, that I believe it to be true. If, on the other hand, it means assenting to an exclusively materialistic, deterministic vision of the world that holds no place for a guiding intelligence, then I reject it.”

What does Brownback mean when he says he assents to “micro-evolution”? He means that he accepts that each species changes over time. For example, though he provides no examples, I take it that Brownback would not dispute the evolution of one type of bacterium that dies when exposed to an antibiotic like penicillin into a slightly different bacterium that survives in the presence of penicillin. By the same token, Brownback would probably accept the proposition that the human species has, over time, developed the immunological capacity to defend against various bacteria. “There are aspects of evolutionary biology,” he tells us, “that reveal a great deal about the nature of the world, like the small changes that take place within a species.” (emphasis added).

What, then, does Brownback disavow? He does not say explicitly, but one can read between the lines. The repeated focus on “small changes” and “micro-evolution” implies that he rejects the theory that human beings evolved from simpler life forms (including single-celled organisms). He accordingly rejects the idea that apes and human beings have a common ancestor (even though our DNA – the foundation of so-called “micro-evolution” – indicates that we are in fact very closely related). Perhaps because it says in the Bible that God created human beings from dust, Brownback believes that human beings spontaneously came into existence by the hand of their Creator.

Senator Brownback would like readers to think that his acceptance of “part” of evolutionary theory – the part that has individual species changing slightly over time – makes his rejection of another part a small matter. The problem with this view is that interspecies evolution is the centerpiece of “the theory of evolution.” It says that species in existence today, including human beings, evolved from different species that existed millions of years ago (a great many more years, incidentally, than creationists believe would be consistent with the Biblical account). So when Sam Brownback raised his hand at the Republican debate, he joined the creationists in rejecting the best scientific evidence regarding human origins. There is nothing rational or moderate about that.


Unknown said...

"So when Sam Brownback raised his hand at the Republican debate, he joined the creationists in rejecting the best scientific evidence regarding human origins. There is nothing rational or moderate about that."

As an atheist, I obviously have no issues with the theory of evolution, but this is an overstatement. Eugene Volokh has a good post on Brownback, with which I almost entirely agree (especially, point 2).

Michael C. Dorf said...

The only part of the quoted text that can plausibly called "overstatement" is the claim that Brownback's disbelief in evolution is immoderate. It certainly is not rational; at best, Brownback's decision to privilege faith over science is a-rational. As to moderation, since a great many Americans disbelieve in evolution, I suppose one could say that Brownback's position is moderate in the sense that he is somewhere in the broad middle of American opinion. But I think Sherry meant her use of moderate differently. Brownback was portraying his position as moderate in the sense of in the middle between full-on evolution and full-on creationism. He says he embraces a middle or "moderate" position that recognizes intra-species but not inter-species evolution. Sherry demonstrates that this is not a half-belief in evolution but disbelief in the scientific theory of evolution. As someone noted in an email to me, Darwin titled his own theory "The Origin of Species . . ." rather than "The Changes Within Species." So Sherry appears to be plainly right that Brownback's position is not moderate in the sense that he wants readers to think it is.

Caleb said...

I'm not sure that I think Brownback's position is defensible, but let me try out one argument for why it might be "rational". (Some of which was provoked by Volokh as well).

If we take as a starting point that there is an omnipotent God, then creation/evolution becomes something of a sideshow, since it is entirely possible that God created the entire universe 3 seconds ago with all our memories/etc intact (I can't remember whether it was Descartes or Pascal who talked about something along these lines). Brownback, I think, could be fairly said to believe in such a God.

Then the question becomes does God exist. I don't think (Aquinas aside) that Brownback could satisfactorally prove the existence of God. But, I also don't think that someone could disprove the existence of God.

Since science takes as a starting point (Forgive me if I'm wrong on this, I took political science, not the other kind), that all things have natural causes, once we define God as supernatural (placing him outside of "reality"), then science becomes an a-theistic explanation for reality. But this runs into the same problem of proof/disproof of the existence of God.

In order for something to be rational without a clear, agreed on, starting point, it would have to conform to our expectations and experiences of the world. This is where I'm least sure about Brownback, but for the sake of argument, I think his position could at least be "equally rational". So long as the expectations that his beliefs lead him to conform strongly with what occurs, I would call him "rational". Since his op-ed seems to suggest that he believes in much of the scientific method (and therefore I would assume in physics, etc), then his beliefs are at least as rational as those of someone who believes in the evolutionary process and denies the existence of God (I imagine their predictions of future events would be rather similar - with the possible exception of the rapture).

To me that suggests that belief/non-belief in evolution is really a proxy for other beliefs that Brownback holds and that we (probably correctly) are nervous about.

As an aside, imagine if the bible had provided a colourful, but possibly metaphorical explanation for gravity.

Unknown said...

Paraphrasing Caleb said:
[Brownback's belief may be rational assuming he has certain other beliefs about God]

I think this is a defensible view. The problem with the conception of rationality that underlies it, however, is that it simply demands that our beliefs be consistent, not necessarily true or even well supported. I think when Mike suggests that Brownback cannot rationally reject evolution, he is in fact claiming that neither Brownback nor anyone else has good reason to suppose that evolution is false. On this view of rationality, it is not enough to show that no one can prove the existence of the God you posit to render disbelief in evolution rational. You need also to show that Brownback has reason to believe that this God exists. If he doesn't, then Brownback's belief in that God is not rational and the mere fact that another belief is consistent with it does not make that other belief rational either.

Caleb said...


Do you mind elaborating more? I'm not sure why evolution should have the benefit of the doubt as opposed to any other argument?

I recognize the argument from consistency, and might have been making it partly, but I thought I was partially going further.

Absent an a priori decision that God (or some other explanation) does/does not exist (or, perhaps is/is not within the realm of "natural causes), the best "rationality test" i can think of is that beliefs must conform with past experience and be accurate (if not perfect) predictors of future experience.

On that scale, I think that Brownback could make equal arguments for the rationality of his beliefs. Certainly there are large numbers of people who claim to have experience of the supernatural. On a global scale, I would venture to bet that there are more theists than non-theists. While that certainly doesn't prove the existence of God (or anything else), it suggests that belief in something of that nature doesn't create such extreme cognitive dissonance with reality as to make itself untenable.

Nor does it seem to me fair to make the argument that the scientific method is co-extensive with rationality. Take emotions. I think that I could rationally assert that I know mostly what my fiancee's emotional response to certain situations will be. I don't think that I could prove that in a laboratory setting, since the setting itself would change those responses. Beyond that (potentially weak) example, I have always been drawn to Kierkegaard's argument from Hegel's dialectic. Roughly (and it's been a while since i've read it), Kierkegaard argued that creating a realm/category of known/knowable things means, by implication, that there is a category of unknown/unknowable things. He suggested that God was this category. Without going that far, it still seems to me to require something of an assertion (rather than mere logic) to suggest that cannot be tested/discovered/explained by science is therefore non-existent.

If that is so, why should Brownback have to justify his leap, and not the other way (In order to be "neutral", it seems to me that neither side should have to justify its belief beyond rationality).

Unknown said...


I agree with you fully that it is a mistake to equate a belief's being rational with its being "scientific" in any sort of prejudicial sense. In fact, my first impression of Mike's argument was that he was making precisely this mistake and begging the question against the theist. In suggesting that Mike was arguing that theists have no reason to believe that a god of the type necessary to make Brownback's position rational exists, however, I was taking him to be appealing to a a broader category of reasons than an evolutionary biologist might countenance.

Obviously, what counts as a reason for some belief will be a matter of controversy. I do, however, think that we tend to share certain pre-scientific conceptions of what does and that these tend on the whole to militate against appeals to religious experience in favor of a more properly "scientific" approach to the reasons we have for believing some proposition. So if I am privileging evolution in anyway in my interpretation of Mike's position, it's only insofar as our common sense conceptions of our reasons for belief tend to support it over an appeal to religious experience.

Of course, there might also be certain experience independent reasons to believe in the existence of God, and I think that these would be perfectly consistent with what I am calling our common sense conception of our reasons for belief. The problem here is that all extent versions of a priori proofs of the existence of God seem to be fatally flawed.

At any rate, there is probably no need to take Mike to be suggesting that there is no reason to believe in God, but only that whatever reasons we may have are outweighed by the reasons we have not to believe (reasons which, I suggest, are not based on any kind of strongly naturalistic or scientific conception of rationality).

PG said...

I don't care what Brownback himself believes; he can believe the earth is a disc supported by elephants on a turtle's back. What worries me is his apparent inclination to say what the scientific establishment, as supposed by the government, should accept as valid theory.

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