When traveling in London recently Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was asked whether he believed in evolution. As you know, he refused to answer the question. To be more precise, he punted.
Many other Republican presidential candidates have offered a similar response to similar questions.
Obviously, they all believed that it was a trap-question. Had they said Yes they would immediately have been accused of not believing in God.
To the atheist mind, you either believe in Darwin or in God… not both, and effectively, not neither. The same pertains to some who believe in a literal reading of the Bible.
The question is not merely tendentious; it lacks substance. Science, Adam Gopnik points out, is not a catechism; it does not contain beliefs and dogmas. If I may say so, it beggars belief.
Whatever the common mind thinks, and however Darwinian theory has been used by militant atheists, nothing about the theory of evolution disproves (or proves) the existence of God. To think otherwise is to misunderstand either science or theology or both.
When Newton discovered the laws of thermodynamics he did not conclude thereby that he had proved that God does not exist.
Gopnik understands this, but still he insists that politicians should answer the question. How else can voters know whether they are on the side of Enlightenment or the side of dark superstition?
But the notion that the evolution question was unfair, or irrelevant, or simply a “sorting” device designed to expose a politician as belonging to one cultural club or another, is finally ridiculous. For the real point is that evolution is not, like the Great Pumpkin, something one can or cannot “believe” in. It just is—a fact certain, the strongest and most resilient explanation of the development of life on Earth that there has ever been.
Shades of settled science.
At the risk of sounding churlish, Gopnik is neither a scientist nor a philosopher. Heck, he isn’t even a theologian. One marvels at his grasp of the issues, but his expertise is borrowed, not earned.
One recalls that Nobel laureate Richard Feynman once explained that science is never totally certain, never really settled. The scientific mind always maintains a healthy skepticism. It knows that it does not know whether a new experiment or an overlooked fact will one day appear to upend the edifice of settled science.
Assuming that evolution is, in Gopnik’s words, “the strongest and most resilient explanation” of the forms of life on earth, that does not, by his own argument tell us anything more than that it is the best we have for now.
Pile up all the superlatives you want; you have not precluded that another theory might arise to improve on Darwin or even refute Darwin.
Does this mean that evolution should not be taught in schools? Of course, it does not. If it’s the best that biology can produce, then it should be taught in biology courses.
Happily for those who are seeking enlightenment, Gopnik summarizes the basic principle of evolution:
Evolution may be hard to accept, but it’s easy to understand. All the available evidence collected within the past hundred and fifty years is strongly is in its favor, and no evidence argues that it is in any significant way false. Life on Earth proceeds through the gradual process of variation and selection, with the struggle for existence shaping its forms. Nobody got here all in one piece; we arrived in bits and were made up willy-nilly, not by the divine designer but by the tinkering of time.
Actually, most of us arrived in this world in one piece. I would not want to think of the infant who was born in bits and pieces.
Gopnik should be more careful with his locutions.
In truth he is suggesting that the alternative to evolution is a literal reading of the Bible. Since no serious theologian believes that the Bible recounts literal facts, one is within one’s right to say that he is striking out against a straw God—pardon the expression.
Many theologians would agree that life did not develop willy nilly, according to a random process, but they would add that saying that God created life means that the process is ordered and intelligible. This is what the theory of evolution shows.
Why should politicians be obliged to say whether or not they believe in evolution? Gopnik explains:
Do you have the courage to embrace an inarguable and obvious truth when it might cost you something to do so? A politician who fails this test is not high-minded or neutral; he or she is just craven, and shouldn’t be trusted with power. This catechism’s purpose—perhaps unfair in its form, but essential in its signal—is to ask, Do you stand with reason and evidence sufficiently to anger people among your allies who don’t?
This assumes that those who question evolution are irrational. It fails to notice that rationality was alive and well before the arrival of the Enlightenment philosophers. Surely, Thomas Aquinas was a rational thinker, as were many of the other medieval theologians who are so often derided by their intellectual inferiors.
Gopnik is most opposed to those who believe that the Bible is literal truth and thus, who reject Darwin on those grounds:
Opposition to evolutionary biology is overwhelmingly tied to an investment in some kind of defiantly anti-rational ideology: in our time, to fundamentalist Christian reaction; in dark days past in the Soviet Union, to the Lysenkoist belief in culture-made traits. To oppose Darwinian biology is not to announce yourself neutral or disinterested or even uninterested. It is to announce yourself against the discoveries of science, or so frightened of those who are that you can be swayed from answering honestly.
He adds this point:
But scientific reasoning is the basic way human beings achieve knowledge about their world.
The point is well taken, if you believe that the only relevant kind of knowledge is knowledge about the world. As is well known, since David Hume explained it, science has nothing to say about ethics, about what “should.” Science is about what “is” not what you should or should not do.
And that’s without considering metaphysics. Since, as Alexander Meiklejohn said, no one has ever seen, heard, touched, tasted or smelled an idea, our knowledge about ideas does not have a scientific basis.
There’s more to human knowledge than science.
To explain why a candidate’s belief in science matters, Gopnik offers a glib example:
But couldn’t someone who thinks the Earth is flat still be a perfectly fine dogcatcher? Well, yes—until he stops chasing the dogs racing ahead of him because he thinks they’re about to run off the edge of the Earth.
What would Gopnik say about those who believe that gender, for example, is merely a social construct? Surely, Darwinian biology would reject such a notion.
And what would he say about those who believe that the purpose of human sexuality is to produce pleasure? Surely, Darwinian theory suggests that human sexuality and the institutions that regulate its expression have an ultimate procreative purpose: the survival of the fittest members of the species.
Should politicians risk offending certain constituent groups by saying that they believe that heterosexual intercourse has a greater potential biological value than other forms of sexual activity?
What would Gopnik say about those who believe that gender is a matter of belief… that you are the gender you believe you are, biology be damned. Are Democratic politicians willing to take on the transgender lobby?
Doesn’t the debate about transgenderism really concern the question of whether you believe that biological fact is less important than someone’s beliefs?
As long as journalists do not ask Democratic politicians whether they believe that gender is a social construct or a biological fact, Republicans should punt on trap questions that are addressed only to them.