Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Dembski Misrepresents Tolstoy

I know this will come as an enormous shock, but William Demsbski has – yet again – misrepresented what someone else has said on the subject of evolution. This time it’s Leo Tolstoy, for some strange reason. Dembski writes:

Leo Tolstoy’s last completed letter, dictated from his sick-bed at the Astapovo train station on November 1, 1910 (six days before his death), and addressed to his son Seryozha and daughter Tanya, included a warning that Seryozha should not allow himself to be seduced by Darwinism. Here is the relevant passage:

“The views you have acquired about Darwinism, evolution and the struggle for existence won’t explain to you the meaning of your life and won’t give you guidance in your actions, and a life without an explanation of its meaning and importance, and without the unfailing guidance that stems from it is a pitiful existence.”

Except that relevant passage doesn’t support his representation of it. He’s not warning his son not to be “seduced by Darwinism”, he’s telling his son – quite rightly, in my opinion – that Darwinism can’t answer every question for him. Evolution is not a “theory of everything”, it is a theory that explains the development of the biodiversity of life on earth. And that’s all it explains. We may well be able to learn things from the study about some of the primary inputs to human nature, but it will not explain the meaning of life to us, nor does it attempt to.

Evolution is descriptive, not prescriptive, so it cannot answer moral questions for us – and again, it does not attempt to do so (yes, there are philosophers who have attempted to build an evolutionary explanation for various ethical choices, but these are philosophical inferences drawn from the science, not intrinsic to the scientific conclusions themselves). Dembski has taken a perfectly reasonable statement about the limits of scientific inquiry and turned into a warning against such inquiry.


  1. #1 steve s
    February 24, 2006

    Unfortunately, I can’t seem to find the full passage online.

  2. #2 llane1@unl.edu
    February 24, 2006

    Dembski readers would be far more appropriately warned against being seduced by apologetics

  3. #3 skipevans
    February 24, 2006

    This is classic creationism.

    Basically, Dembski is saying, “Evolution upsets my theology, and it scares me to think it might be true. Therefore, I won’t accept it and I’ll work hard to make sure other don’t, and then I’ll feel better about myself.”

    Ed rightly draws the distinction between what science can and cannot tell us. And this is something creationists like Dembski either can’t or refuse to understand.

    Face it, Dr. Bill, evolution happened. If you have a personal problem with that, we sure wish you’d resolve the issue for yourself in your own private prayer closet and leave public education to do its job.

  4. #4 Will
    February 24, 2006

    I think this actually helps highlight one of the issues that gets conflated with evolution in the public debate. There have been comments on the internets recently about the concern that scientists and others that are athieist shouldn’t be evangelical about their atheism because it hurts the public sentiment toward science, science education and scientists generally.

    The reason this problem occurs is because people mix in descriptive and prescriptive ideas. Evolution, global warming, etc.., are descriptive of how the world is, but suggest in some peoples minds prescriptive actions.

  5. #5 Roman Werpachowski
    February 24, 2006

    This is classic ahistoric thinking on the part of this guy Dembski. In the XIXth century (and 1910 Russia can be very well called the “XIXth century”), people really were seduced by the concept of Darwinism and applied it indiscriminately to human society, struggle in one’s life and so on. Also, they tended to associate Darwinism with “there is no God” (much like creationists today), it took some time for people to reconcile the two. Such stuff appears in other novels I read from this period. Tolstoy is obviously referring to that. I don’t know if Tolstoy accepted evolution or not, but why take him as an authority on that? He couldn’t even get the basic astronomy right (“The sun rose twice this morning…”).

  6. #6 ZacharySmith
    February 24, 2006

    Even if Tolstoy was warning against “Darwinism” , so what?

    Was Tolstoy a knowledgeable professional in biology? Why do IDiots think that condemnations of evolution from non-experts and ignoramuses are worth a damn?

    Just what the hell is Dembski trying to prove by citing Tolstoy? Maybe if he looks hard enough, he can find anti-Darwin passages in Vampirella comic books too.

    So this is the state of the art of ID research?!

  7. #7 Roman Werpachowski
    February 24, 2006

    For God’s sake people, stop bothering with the evolution. Here is a quote from a real authority.

    “There is no theory of evolution. Just a list of animals Chuck Norris allows to live.”

    Someone had to say it here.

  8. #8 Ocellated
    February 24, 2006


    One of the things we Christians who enjoy the sciences have known for a very long time is that many of evolution’s critics take evolutionary theory and turn it into something that it’s not, specifically for the purpose of villifying the science and convincing people who apparently won’t think for themselves.

    Dembski’s quote here is no different, and I thought the exact same thing when I read it this morning. Meaning and purpose are assuredly metaphysical things.

    One of the things I like to do when reading YECs or IDists is replace the word evolution with the word gravity.

    Both are similar in the overwhelming evidence that lies around us. Both are similar in that there are many things we still have to learn about each. But if you read their objections with the word gravity instead, you really get a sense for how silly their arguments are.

  9. #9 Roman Werpachowski
    February 24, 2006

    Both are similar in the overwhelming evidence that lies around us.

    Hm. I dare say we have a tad more evidence for gravity. Like, laboratory experiments.

  10. #10 Foggg
    February 24, 2006

    Tranlation of a Tolstoy poem “Epistle to M.N. Longinov on Darwinism” (1872):

    Dembski’s scholarship exposed yet again.

  11. #11 Ed Brayton
    February 24, 2006

    That’s Alexei Tolstoy, not Leo Tolstoy.

  12. #12 Will
    February 24, 2006

    Roman – There are plenty of laboratory experiments for evolution (just ask Mendel or PZ). The visible examples are around us everyday, just like gravity. They are similar in that we don’t really understand some specifics of how each of the theories work.

    Other than one is a physics theory and one is a biological theory I think the analogy is fairly apt.

  13. #13 Scott Simmons
    February 24, 2006

    Personally, I derive my moral values and my life’s meaning from quantum electrodynamics, so I don’t need to worry about stuff like this.

  14. #14 Roman Werpachowski
    February 24, 2006

    No, you only need to worry about the divergencies.

  15. #15 Ocellated
    February 25, 2006

    Hm. I dare say we have a tad more evidence for gravity. Like, laboratory experiments.

    Mr. Werpachowski, there have been plenty of labrotory experiements involving evolution. Can we “run” the Cambrian explosion or the Permian extinction again in the lab? No. Can we observe natural selection and other effects of evolution in the lab? Yes.

    I said they’re similar. You can watch certain aspects of evolution and gravity in the lab all day long. Big evolutionary changes and black holes are two things falling under their respective theories which which are studied by observation and comparitive methods, not lab experiments.

  16. #16 Roman Werpachowski
    February 25, 2006

    There is a question of the precision of the experiments, and simplicity of the problem.

    Gravity has been measured to a high precision (Cavendish experiment using lasers). Experiments with evolution in the lab have to be only qualitative by nature, and thus will be inherently less precise. Additionally, it is easy to extrapolate the results of gravity lab experiments to large masses — gravity is additive. It’s not that easy with evolution, thus one can say that big evolutionary changes were confirmed by observation only and cannot rely on the laboratory experiments as much as Newtonian gravity. As Anderson said, “More is different”.

    BTW, black holes are:
    1. described by General Relativity, not Newtonian gravity — and GR hasn’t been tested in the lab at all, BUT
    2. it is possible that we create a tiny black hole and watch it evaporate.

    I think that is nothing strange that biological theories are confirmed less than physical theories. Physics is simply a much more accurate science than biology. That’s all I wanted to point out.

  17. #17 Ocellated
    February 25, 2006

    Fair enough… I was just trying to say they’re similar. Not the same but similar.

  18. #18 Dave S.
    February 25, 2006

    Roman says:

    I think that is nothing strange that biological theories are confirmed less than physical theories. Physics is simply a much more accurate science than biology. That’s all I wanted to point out.

    Physics is very accurate in those systems that are very simple, but less accurate for those that are not. The statistical comparison of independently confirmed phylogenetic trees appears to be very favourable compared to the measurement of the gravitational constant G. See HERE for details.

  19. #19 Ed Brayton
    February 25, 2006

    Roman wrote:

    Physics is simply a much more accurate science than biology. That’s all I wanted to point out.

    I don’t think this is a reasonable statement, unless by “accurate” you simply mean “more quantitative”. Even on that one, there are certainly some aspects of evolutionary theory that are quite open to both experimental confirmation and mathematical rigor; much of the work in population genetics, for example. There is much in physics that can be expressed mathematically than there is in biology, of course, but that doesn’t mean the explanations are more “accurate” in the sense that the explanations better explain the evidence.

  20. #20 Roman Werpachowski
    February 25, 2006

    Dave S. and Ed: I’ve underestimated the biologists 😉

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