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Brownback on Evolution

June 1st, 2007

Sam Brownback, one of the Republican contenders for president in 2008, has an op-ed in the New York Times on the topic of evolution. Perhaps he wants to clarify his stand on the issue because he was one of the three Republican candidates who raised his hand when the question “who does not believe in evolution?” was asked. In the op-ed, he says this:

The question of evolution goes to the heart of this issue. If belief in evolution means simply assenting to microevolution, 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.

The nod to “microevolution” is creationists’ way of getting past a strong argument in favor of evolution. Creationists sometimes argue that if evolution is real, why don’t we see it happening now? Well, that’s exactly what “microevolution” is. So creationists will dodge, saying, oh, those are small changes. Why haven’t we seen a horse change into an elephant in recorded history?

So they accept “microevolution” as a given, so long as it doesn’t mean that they have to concede that life was formed via evolution. And that shows in the latter half of Brownback’s paragraph, when he says that he accepts evolution only so long as it does not contradict his theology. Of course, he and many others ignore the view held by many religious people that evolution is God’s way of creating life and it did not all have to happen within a six-day time span. That would satisfy Brownback’s “place for a guiding intelligence,” but it’s pretty clear that Brownback is lying here and his real judge is either the six-day myth, or it is his right-wing Christian voter base that he feels it necessary to please. Either way, Brownback is guilty of an either-or fallacy here in rejecting what I suppose he would call “macroevolution.”

But the distinction between “micro” and “macro” evolution is in itself no more than a disingenuous method of denying facts in evidence. Both “types” of evolution are in fact the same thing; one happens over small periods of time, the other over long periods. The distinction, however, allows creationists to dismiss the process as it happens before their eyes by claiming that it’s not real because they don’t see the process as it happens over millions of years. It’s kind of like seeing a watermelon fall past your 30th-story window, then getting up and looking out the window to see it scattered over the sidewalk–and then postulating that the watermelon did not traverse the lower 29 floors, instead that god willed it into and out of existence just long enough to pass by your window, and then god magically created a squashed watermelon on the street below. When a person then shows you the video of the watermelon falling the intervening 29 floors (e.g., fossilized evidence of transitionary life forms), you claim that because the video consists of 1/30th-second frames and does not show every nanosecond of the fall, it is not valid evidence.

The reasonable middle ground in the fight between what the Bible literally says and what the world literally shows us is to believe that God created the universe, that the Bible tells us this in mythical terms, and that science reveals the technical details of god’s achievement which were too complex and intricate to be chronicled in an ancient text written by a scientifically primitive people. But we can’t have that crazy nonsense in our churches, now, can we?

But Brownback doesn’t stop there:

There is no one single theory of evolution, as proponents of punctuated equilibrium and classical Darwinism continue to feud today. Many questions raised by evolutionary theory — like whether man has a unique place in the world or is merely the chance product of random mutations — go beyond empirical science and are better addressed in the realm of philosophy or theology.

These statements fall into the category of disingenuous wordplay, exercises in dishonest semantics. The grandaddy of this category is the claim that evolution is “only a theory,” therefore it hasn’t been proven yet. Which is baloney because evolution is a “theory” in the same way that gravity is a “theory.” We know they both exist, the theories are about how they work. Brownback’s argument here is simply a variation, dismissing evolution because the details haven’t been worked out yet. Well, there are different theories of gravity as well, but I don’t see Brownback flying off the ground yet.

Meanwhile, his statement about “whether man has a unique place in the world or is merely the chance product of random mutations” is the same either-or fallacy I demonstrated in the prior paragraph, little more than code for “whether man was created by god or not.” Brownback also is either confused or lying here when he suggests that empirical science is posing the question. It is not. Science is not saying “god did or did not do this.” Science is only saying, “this is what we see and here is how it could have worked in specific mechanical terms.” It makes absolutely no statement about whether or not the observed processes were designed or simply came into being out of nowhere.

I could go on and on dissecting every statement in the piece, but I don’t have time, so let me end with this choice quote:

Ultimately, on the question of the origins of the universe, I am happy to let the facts speak for themselves. There are aspects of evolutionary biology that reveal a great deal about the nature of the world, like the small changes that take place within a species. Yet I believe, as do many biologists and people of faith, that the process of creation — and indeed life today — is sustained by the hand of God in a manner known fully only to him.

Read that again, this time noting how Brownback transitions from letting “the facts speak for themselves” on how the universe was created, to saying that the universe and life are “sustained by the hand of God in a manner known fully only to him.” And then explain to me how the “facts can speak for themselves” when they are known only to god? And, of course, what “empirical” facts support the existence of god in the first place? Exactly what facts are being spoken here?

In any case, Brownback is a bible-thumping creationist who, like most in that category, defies observation and reason, instead preferring to obfuscate enough so that a confused audience will settle down comfortably. In short, a strong Republican candidate.

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  1. Paul
    June 1st, 2007 at 17:27 | #1

    Good breakdown on the Brownback piece.

    The problem for folks who’re quite religious is that if they try and come to grips with the notion that evolution is true, then they suffer from some pretty severe cognitive dissonance.

    They’ve got these holy books, handed down by God Himself, and they’re supposed to believe in them. Many of the Christian based religious groups believe that if the Bible says it, it must be so. And it doesn’t say anything about evolution; it says that God made the beasts and plants and such, and that’s how it is, period.

    Well, obviously this sets up trouble. The observable facts say one thing, and Scripture says something else. What to believe?

    If they go with the facts and assume that the Book must be wrong, well, then they’ve got to start wondering what ELSE the book is wrong about- and there’s a lot of stuff in there.

    I’ve blogged about this in the past myself. I find the inner conflict that people struggle with to be more interesting in many ways than some blowhard like Brownback trying to have it both ways in public without alienating his followers.

    If we think about the distress that people of strong faith are put through when they are presented with the facts on things like evolution, it might make it easier for us to try and not lose our patience with them- and then we can explain it in ways that hopefully don’t get those folks of faith to feel defensive and shut down in terms of listening.

  2. matthew Simko
    June 3rd, 2007 at 16:05 | #2

    I think the key point about the evolution debate is most people cannot put their minds around the type of time spans we are talking about. A million years just cant be processed by our brains–much less tens or hundreds of millions. The idea that a creature could change from one species into another (the horse into an elephant) seems illogical to many because they cant process that it takes a few million years to do it. They just cant imagine what that much time really means.

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