May 31, 2007

What does Sam Brownback think about evolution?

Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Krazy) has an Op-Ed in the New York Times today titled What I think about evolution. It comes after Brownback was one of three candidates who raised his hand during a debate to indicate that he did not believe in evolution, and it is his attempt at sounding reasonable. Sounding reasonable is not Brownback's métier, so let's at least give him credit for the effort.

Unfortunately, this is not Brownback actually being reasonable. Just trying to make himself sound less nutsoid while convincing his base that he still is. "I think it would be helpful to discuss the issue in a bit more detail and with the seriousness it demands," Brownback writes, and then goes on to do the exact opposite. (Not that you need much more detail beyond "yes" when asked if you believe in evolution.)

Brownback begins by noting

The premise behind the question seems to be that if one does not unhesitatingly assert belief in evolution, then one must necessarily believe that God created the world and everything in it in six 24-hour days. But limiting this question to a stark choice between evolution and creationism does a disservice to the complexity of the interaction between science, faith and reason.

Brownback seems to be distancing himself from Young Earth Creationism. According to a recent Newsweek poll 73 percent of evangelicals do believe that God created the world and everything in it in six 24-hour days "sometime within the last 10,000 years." Note that Brownback doesn't actually say he disagrees with that -- he just says the choice isn't that stark. Still, since his constituents believe it firmly -- and many think it's pretty important -- he ought to be asked point blank.

Throughout the rest of the essay Brownback kicks up a lot of dust about how faith and reason needn't be in conflict -- a statement most people can assent to, despite what Sam Harris would wish. But he does this merely to confuse us so that we don't notice what happens when he gets to his central point, which is 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.

This paragraph is a neat piece misdirection for the benefit of the presumably pro-evolution readers of the New York Times with a big wink to the anti-evolution voters. Read it again: one choice is "microevolution -- small changes within a species." The other choice is "an exclusively materialistic, deterministic vision of the world." But the second choice is not the alternative to the first choice. The alternative to "microevolution -- small changes within a species" is "macroevolution -- the change of a species over time into another." In other words: evolution. These are real scientific terms, but they are also crucial creationist buzzwords. TalkOrigins has more: "Basically when creationists use 'macroevolution' they mean 'evolution which we object to on theological grounds', and by 'microevolution' they mean 'evolution we either cannot deny, or which is acceptable on theological grounds'." Make no mistake. What Brownback has just said in this essay is that he does not believe that humans -- or any species -- have evolved from previously exisiting species. What he thinks about evolution is: not much.

But he can't be that explicit, because it would undermine the point of condescending to address Times-reading liberal elites, which is to convince them that he's not a wack-job. So instead he goes on to say other things that sound reasonable on the surface.

The truths of science and faith are complementary: they deal with very different questions, but they do not contradict each other because the spiritual order and the material order were created by the same God.... 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."

In his debate with Sam Harris, Andrew Sullivan said something superficially similar:

I believe that God is truth and truth is, by definition, reasonable. Science cannot disprove true faith; because true faith rests on the truth; and science cannot be in ultimate conflict with the truth. So I am perfectly happy to believe in evolution, for example, as the most powerful theory yet devised explaining human history and pre-history.

But Sullivan's meaning is very different. He goes on to say, "I have no fear of what science will tell us about the universe — since God is definitionally the Creator of such a universe; and the meaning of the universe cannot be in conflict with its Creator." Brownback, however, goes on to say that he does fear certain things that science might tell us, and to insist that they be ruled out in advance:

While no stone should be left unturned in seeking to discover the nature of man’s origins, we can say with conviction that we know with certainty at least part of the outcome. Man was not an accident and reflects an image and likeness unique in the created order. Those aspects of evolutionary theory compatible with this truth are a welcome addition to human knowledge. Aspects of these theories that undermine this truth, however, should be firmly rejected as an atheistic theology posing as science.

We should leave no stone unturned -- except the ones that might have bugs under them. Fossilized bugs! At times Brownback sounds as if he might be endorsing Intelligent Design, but it's equally or more likely that he accepts Old Earth Creationism. Despite his promise to use this space to answer questions, he's only raised them, and I hope some right wing creationist outfit will try to pin him down.

Coming down hard on that final note of "atheistic theology" reveals Brownback's other half-coded message to his fan base. Here's another sort of subtle misdirection he slips in:

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.

Yes, Sam, your philosophical and theological argument that has nothing to do with evolutionary theory is better addressed by philosophy or theology. As the TalkOrigins has noted of the "random chance" argument, "There is probably no other statement which is a better indication that the arguer doesn't understand evolution." Three short paragraphs after saying "we cannot drive a wedge between faith and reason," Brownback attempts to do exactly that with this tired straw man. Brownback is posing as a modest believer in theistic evolution -- I accept the evolutionary process as the manner in which God created humans -- while making it quite plain to anyone who knows the code that he means something very different.

More from Liberal Values, Tristero, Panda's Thumb. Dr. X, Friendly Atheist.

Posted by Daniel Radosh


Very nicely dissected.

God, these people drive me nuts.

The microevolution-only belief has 3 nice selling points for creationists:

1. They can claim scientific understanding.
2. They don't have to believe that they are some sort of accident, or god damn dirty ape, or whatever they are afraid of.
3. They get to drink from the trough of scientific racism. Bonus! (Of course, Brownback doesn't get into this in his essay.)

Excellent post. I wrote some similar things about this, noting that Brownback is talking the Catholic view of "science" out of one “rational” side of his mouth and the fundamentalist-evangelical view out of the other side of his mouth. Through it all, as you point out, he manages avoid stating his belief about so-called macroevolution.

mypalmike's comments are particularly interesting to me. He/she does a nice job of deconstructing the motivation behind the evangelical attachment to the concept of microevolution. The third motive is one I hadn't considered; it certainly opens the door to a "scientific" rationale for racism.

Strictly speaking, the alternative to microevolution is not macroevolution, as the two are not counterposed in reality but get along quite nicely; the alternative is "no microevolution." In other words, on that particular passage I think you're giving him even more credit than he deserves: It's simply a flagrant false dilemma, in this case positing two things against each other that really have absolutely nothing to do with each other, least of all being alternatives to each other.

Great job otherwise.

Yeah, I worded that badly. I meant only that when you hear someone say "if you mean microevolution, fine" you expect the next sentence to be "but if you mean macroevolution, no." Every one of his creationist readers would read it that way. So by not following with the obvious grammatical alternative, he was being deceptive. Obviously, microevolution and marcroevolution are not alternatives from a scientific standpoint.

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