Evolution for Everyone

Imagine playing chess with someone who insists on continuing after his king has been taken. Or imagine a basketball game where the losing team insists on continuing after the final buzzer has sounded. These vignettes are so absurd that if they actually happened we would regard the protesters as insane. Yet something comparable happens all the time when creationists protest that it is unfair for them to be ignored–including some recent comments on my blog.

The idea that it is unfair to be declared a loser and to be made to retire from the field profoundly misunderstands the nature of fairness in all contest situations. Science is a contest situation, no less than chess or basketball. In the ideal scientific contest, alternative hypotheses make different predictions that can be tested with empirical observations. When the predictions of a hypothesis are not confirmed, it is declared a loser and is made to retire from the field. New hypotheses are always welcome to enter the competition, including modified versions of rejected hypotheses, but science without losers would be as pointless as chess without checkmate and basketball without the final buzzer.

Science is admittedly a much more complex contest situation than board games and sports. I should know, because I helped to revive a theory that was declared to be such a loser in the 1960’s that Richard Dawkins compared efforts to revive it to the continuing futile search for a perpetual motion machine (see my series on Truth and Reconciliation for Group Selection, including installment XI on Dawkins). There is no final buzzer for science and few tests of hypotheses are so definitive that they compare to a checkmate or basketball scoreboard. Science is also vulnerable to cultural and ideological influences. When a hypothesis seems like common sense to everyone or supports a widely cherished notion, the scientific playing field can become highly uneven.

Nevertheless, the scientific contest does result in the accumulation of durable knowledge. The earth is extremely old. Continents do drift. Species are descended from other species. Those who claim otherwise and demand that it is only fair to be heard are either deluded or cynically making a manipulative argument, a point to which I will return below.

The concept of an intervening god–a powerful supernatural agent who creates things in the same way people create artifacts, takes an active interest in the affairs of people, and actively intervenes to alter human affairs–is a perfectly good scientific hypotheses. It generates testable predictions, at least insofar as one knows the powers and will of such a god. It was the prevailing scientific theory for centuries, starting when science emerged as a recognizable cultural institution. The problem with the intervening god hypothesis is that it lost–again and again–for our understanding of the physical universe, the geological features of the earth, and life on earth. It failed so deeply that Darwin could quote this passage from William Whewell, written in the 1830’s, on the page facing the title page of Origin of Species, so that it was literally the first thing that would be read.

But with regard to the natural world, we can at least go so far as this–we can perceive that events are brought about not be insulated interpositions of Divine power, exerted in each particular case, but by the establishment of general laws.

The Origin of Species merely extended Whewell’s assessment, already accepted for physics, astronomy, geology and medicine, to the study of life. Today, creationists who protest that they are an embattled minority need to be reminded that they were by far the majority in Darwin’s day. Even then, with their superior numbers and much less information than we have today, they were muscled off the scientific playing field, especially with respect to identity by descent. The principle of natural selection took longer to become established among scientists, but that was a contest among materialistic hypotheses, so even in that case creationism was sitting on the sidelines.

The idea that losing is unfair in contest situations is so silly that one wonders why it persists for creationism. Beliefs are often accepted and defended, not because they are factually correct, but because they are useful for the community of believers. That’s true for other beliefs that are manifestly false as factual claims, from religions, to political ideologies, and even atheistic beliefs, as I recount in my atheism as a stealth religion series.

Still, we need to explain why the “rejecting creationism is unfair” claim is so successful, when it can be so easily dispatched. Consider the phenomenon of biological mimicry, whereby species resemble their background or masquerade as other species to escape detection by their predators and prey. An insect mimicking a leaf can be astonishingly convincing, right down the mid-vein and fake chew marks along the edges, but it’s easy enough to recognize as an insect with enough scrutiny. Mimics depend upon the fact that their predators and prey are too busy to recognize them for what they are.

So it is for the “rejecting creationism is unfair” argument. It sounds like it makes sense, but only for those who don’t have the time or expertise to seriously consider it. That’s why it fails to pass muster among actual scientists but still manages to survive among the general public and especially among those who would like it to be true. Unfortunately, that’s the arena where important decisions are made, such as whether to give creationism “equal time” in our public schools.

The revival of group selection illustrates the day-and-night difference between an authentic scientific contest and a flimsy mimic of one. Group selection was so thoroughly rejected during the second half of the 20th century that one senior scientist (who will remain nameless) counseled a junior colleague “There are three things that you don’t invoke in biology: the phlogiston theory, Lamarkism, and group selection”. When I became a proponent of group selection in the 1970’s, I began by constructing a mathematical model to demonstrate its theoretical plausibility. As a graduate student, I had no professional credentials whatsoever, other than the model itself. Nevertheless, I brashly showed it to E.O. Wilson and asked him to sponsor it for the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. My argument made sense to him (and it was a delight to join forces with him over 30 years later in our review articles titled “Rethinking the Theoretical Foundation of Sociobiology” and “Evolution For the Good of the Group“) , but he also had it scrutinized by other theoretical biologists before he sponsored it for PNAS. Decades were required for group selection to make the transition from a pariah concept to a part of mainstream evolutionary science, but scrutiny has always been on our side. Scrutiny is the friend of an authentic scientific position and the enemy of a mimic.

In this fashion, creationists who have been fairly excluded from the scientific playing field, as surely as the chess player who has lost his king or the losing basketball team after the final buzzer, still inhabit the comment section of my blog and other low-scrutiny venues, where they complain bitterly about being unfairly excluded. The next time you hear this tedious complaint, just reply “checkmate” or “game over”.


  1. #1 Ben D
    December 26, 2010

    An interesting comparison made very well. To say science as a contest is a little more complex than chess or basketball is an understatement. Hypothetically I can see the similarity of the contests and having a loser but in reality they couldn’t be more radically different.

    you’ve made some powerful points that have been put into context that well they would be very hard to argue. view but very difficult to argue.

  2. #2 Sue Ann Bowling
    December 27, 2010

    My feeling is that the evidence for evolution in some form, with natural selection as the driving force, is considerably stronger than that required for the death penalty in many states.

  3. #3 Sam C
    December 27, 2010

    You don’t seem to get it, parroting naive arguments about the quality of scientific arguments. Creationism is nothing to do with science, you’ve filetered the whole issue through your monochrome glasses. Creationism is politics. The quality of their science (or rather, the profound lack of both quality and science) are almost irrelevant.

    Your game analogy looks tired with your repeated “I win! I win!” screeching about group selection – not much of a game when one of the competitors simply declares himself the winner, is it? Your arguments for group selection are generally unconvincing, being based on an invalid reification of “fitness”. You don’t win; you’re arguing about angels on pinheads.

  4. #4 Linda
    December 27, 2010

    Good points. Creationism is not science. Can’t believe any thinks it is, let alone the ‘scientists’ who propound it.

    However, I am a Christian and I do believe God created the world. I just believe God did so through the big Bang and Evolution.

    I also believe Quantum Physics is the language of God.

    But that’s my opinion.

  5. #5 Clay Farris Naff
    December 27, 2010


    An excellent argument, made in clear and concise language. So far as I know, it is original.

    I have only one quibble. You write: “So it is for the “rejecting creationism is unfair” argument. It sounds like it makes sense, but only for those who don’t have the time or expertise to seriously consider it.”

    It does not actually require expertise to reject creationism, only a sound general education in the sciences plus the emotional disposition to let go of the comforts of that particular type of belief. A significant number of creationists have the former but not the latter. Some — like Paul Nelson, Ph.D. — have true expertise but still cling to creationism and believe its exclusion to be unfair.

    Provided you take that into account, I would recommend you offer a version of this to the NCSE Journal.

    Best wishes for the new year,


  6. #6 Lanny Buettner
    December 27, 2010

    If I may extend the analogy slightly, a common tactic of the creationists is like making an illegal move in chess that, if legal, would checkmate your opponent, being told it is illegal and that there was no win, but then bragging about winning anyway, describing the move without mentioning its illegal status.

    I refer to the crop of “facts” bantered about in creationist circles which allegedly show evolution to be wrong, such as that there are no sets of fossils showing the transition from one species to another or the impossibility of the evolution of the eye. The scientists and science literate (the professional chess players) know these are bogus claims, but the unschooled gladly believe and repeat the stories.

    This gives all the more reason to make sure legitimate evolution gets taught in the schools, not watered down versions that avoid confrontation by not bringing the subject up.

  7. #7 Amy Alkon
    December 28, 2010

    There was a recent video where creationists talked about Job nuzzling up to a brontosaurus. Fossil record, phooey!

  8. #8 Amy Alkon
    December 29, 2010

    David, I’ve blogged your piece, and there’s some pretty interesting discussion on it — the religious and the evidence-requirers debating.

  9. #9 Amy Alkon
    December 29, 2010

    David, I’ve blogged your piece, and there’s some pretty interesting discussion on it — the religious and the evidence-requirers debating.


  10. #10 Sabba Hillel
    December 30, 2010

    “Evolution” as the method used to run the world cannot prove or disprove the existence of G0d. By definition, creation means that the world (universe) appeared from nonexistence into existence. By the definition of G0d as omnipotent and omniscient, the universe could have been created at the “Big Bang” or just now with you sitting at a computer and this message on the screen. There is no falsifiable way of determining what happened.

    In science, we must assume that the physical evidence did indeed exist at a previous time and, unless there is an obvious discontinuity, the “laws of nature” were consistent throughout. In fact, the Jewish calendar is based on calculations that go back to the “New moon before creation”. Science and the physical universe cannot be considered to prove or disprove creation. All it can do is assume that at whatever point creation may or may not have occurred, the “laws of nature” were consistent from that point on.

    The bible actually implies this. As an example consider the sentence in Genesis “Fruit trees bearing fruit”. Also consider the logical implication of Adam being created able to see stars. This implies that the stars were created with a sufficient ring of light around them to be visible from however far away they are.

    Animals would have been created in sufficient numbers and with a sufficient range of ages to be a viable population. Consider the passenger pigeon as an example. Many people who argue against creation (not creationism) seem to assume that everything had to be created at the beginning of whatever process they wish to assume.

    BTW, atheism means the rigid belief that there is no G0d. agnosticism means that a person has not come to a fixed conclusion. deism means that a person believes that there is a G0d but does not know what He requires of us or what his specific relationship (active or passive) might be with us.

  11. #11 Paul adams
    December 31, 2010

    Sabba – atheism means exactly what it says, ‘a’ – ‘theism’, or lacking a belief in gods. This does not imply a belief that gods do not exist, there is an important distinction between the two. Agnosticism is the belief that it is impossible to attain knowledge about the existence, nonexistence or nature of gods. Sorry to nit-pick but that’s a common and lazy mistake that really annoys me.

    David – great article, I’ve never thought about it that way before. As an addition, could one not say that creationists also decide the final score of the game before play has even commenced whereas the core of the scientific method is playing the game and observing the rules top see what the outcome is?

  12. #12 anon
    December 31, 2010

    David, I wish you would have spoken to my ex-wife during our marriage about games, sports, chess, science, and fairness. So many topics would come up, long after I thought they had been settled. And it turns out she won them all, in the long run.

  13. #13 Alan
    January 1, 2011

    Not everybody is right in science but everybody who plays by the rules wins since the goal is to improve knowledge. Creationists play a different game using the rules of dogma and blind faith, try as they might they cannot win at science using those rules anymore than someone can win a footy match by declaring checkmate.

  14. #14 Eleanor
    January 5, 2011

    Dear Professor,

    Very inspiring, clear and appreciated. These type of context based elaborations are a source of creative energy, energizing the community. I was brought up with my first paradigm aptly being evolution, group selection was always something I instinctively understood as logical though I never entered any debate on the subject, it’s the natural extension of the survival of the family, post-capitalistic isolation.

    Forgive me if this is retardly obvious.. Now group selection works via social memes, genetically we are all similar enough for suitable survival within our environment, it’s less genes fighting for survival but ideas, spreading ideas secures a compatible environment, support and a legacy. Creationists are fighting to protect their ignorance, if protecting their ignorance is their game then they’re doing fairly nicely. (Sometimes saying the stupidest thing in the room gets the most attention.)

    As for reality, evolution is a structural base for a plethora of positive, progressive world liberating and sustaining practices. Socially, psychologically, we’re still evolving; working systems of life, those which provide real data by virtue of their truth, support our creative and positive choices. These are the reintegrations of subjugated knowledges, these are the things that the masses understand and care about.


  15. #15 Eleanor
    January 5, 2011

    I was going for *pre-capitalistic isolation 😉

  16. #16 Douglas Watts
    January 5, 2011

    I like Mr. Wilson’s approach here: there is no reason that invocation of the existence of a ‘super-deity’ cannot be a scientific hypothesis per se. But once invoked, to be considered anything more than speculative it should be able to survive a set of falsification tests typical of any other scientific hypothesis. And as with any hypothesis, it should have explanatory powers which exceed other competing hypotheses without the crutch of special pleading, ie. an inherent characteristic of the super-deity is that it is uniquely impervious to falsification. Lastly, the super-deity hypothesis should be able to make testable predictions. What will the deity ‘do’ next? This appears to be its most fundamental failing.

  17. #17 Douglas Watts
    January 5, 2011

    Scrutiny is the friend of an authentic scientific position and the enemy of a mimic.

    Well put. Also, as Richard Feynman said, science has two co-equal spheres. Devising a hypothesis and then devising ways to falsify it. You need both.

    As an example, the Atlantic sturgeon (Acipenser oxyrhynchus) love to make giant, loud leaps in their spawning rivers at spawning time. This is a well-documented behavior. But why do they do it? Nobody knows, except them, of course. Given the time and effort, there are all types of ingenious experiments you could do to get at this question. For example, are the leapers only the males or only the females or both? Even getting an answer to that one simple question would be a great advance. If the leaping is done by only one gender, it strongly suggests a mate-attracting behavior. If both sexes do it, this explanation is less powerful.

  18. #18 David Gerstle
    January 28, 2011

    As always, a provocative argument. This is a difficult position for you, David, as someone identifying as both biologist and anthropologist. Creationism comes in many colors, and one could argue that some of those varieties (such as Native American origin narratives) have in fact been unfairly backgrounded by contemporary science (and religion, commerce, politics, etc). I sense that what these folks think is “unfair” is not that their outlook doesn’t survive scientific scrutiny (it does not), but that their beliefs and identities are being trumped by another set of beliefs and identities (i.e. secularism, the “intellectual left”, and so on). This is a political issue, not just a scientific one.

    Unfortunately for us (and I mean anthropologists), our field asks that we consider both science and faith without claiming either one as our master. It may be (like some Native American First Nations) that the creationists have reason to argue (and be heard) which are not best met by proclaiming the explanatory dominance of evolution or that their position is illogical. Now, of course, what I’m proposing is the most pernicious kind of relativism, and I promise to whip myself with my computer cable, right after finishing this point. My point is that the “high ground” of logic is also a moral one, and implying that a belief system or its followers are insane isn’t an especially productive, empathetic, or flattering thing to do.

  19. #19 Bruce
    February 9, 2011

    Your chess analogy reminded me of this quote:

    “Debating creationists on the topic of evolution is rather like trying to play chess with a pigeon – it knocks the pieces over, craps on the board, and flys [sic] back to its flock to claim victory.” — Anonymous

  20. #20 Vernon Varnish
    March 26, 2011

    My Dear Dr. Wilson,

    These are certainly wonderful discussions. I am, however, confused about one particular point– which I would very much appreciate you clarifying:

    Why do all (many, most?) conversations about our origins seem to devolve into “we said/they said” type discussions about the same two old (tired?) alternatives (ceationism/darwin).

    Are there absolutely No other alternatives? I thought “science” is supposed (?) to be (at least theoretically– maybe Very theoretically) a “discovery process”, wherein alternatives are continually investigated– not rejected “out of hand” because they are “obviously impossible”.

    I seem to recall a time when the “earth was flat” with no other possible alternatives. When string theory was positing nine dimensions. etc., etc. I’m sure that between you & your readers you all know far more such cases than I do.

    I also seem to remember (please correct me if I’m misinformed) Sagan apologizing to Velikovsky.

    So, when do “we” start postulating/ investigating alternatives?

    (I might here mention one small idea: is Vallee’s math really invalid? I’d really like to know. Thanks in advance.)

    Illumination is here very much appreciated.

    when Do “we” start postulating/ investigating alternatives?


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    May 21, 2012

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