Mike the Mad Biologist

And it’s free! Bob Altemeyer, whose work on the authoritarian mind significantly influenced John Dean’sConservatives Without Conscience, has released a free online book, The Authoritarians, which is about, well, authoritarians. Here’s an interesting bit from the book about evolution from Ch. 4:

For the record, Darwin never said humans evolved from monkeys, even though many other people besides fundamentalists think he did. Even with the limited knowledge available to him 150 years ago, Darwin realized that humanity’s ancestors had long separated from the evolutionary path that led to monkeys. Instead, he correctly inferred that the “anthropomorphous apes” (chimpanzees, gibbons, gorillas, orangutans, and ourselves) had descended from an ancient anthropomorphous forerunner (Charles Darwin, The Origin of the Species and the Descent of Man, New York: The Modern Library, p. 518-519.)

Our “grandma” and “grandpa” were not monkeys or chimps but australopithecines, whose fossil record now goes back several million years. It is one thing to look at a rhesus monkey and say, “We could never have come from that.” It is another thing to look at “Lucy”and say the same thing–and fundamentalists would go much farther out on a limb and deny the relevance of even Homo erectus. But of course most fundamentalists probably have no knowledge of such discoveries which– while they have an endless capacity for igniting controversy among paleoanthropologists–long ago supplied many possible “missing links” between humans and our “recent” predecessors. The problem is not, “Where is the link?” but “Which one was it at this point in time?”That said, the total primate fossil record is by no means complete; fossils only form under certain rare conditions, and exploration for them is still going on.

As for evolution being “just a theory,” people who say this are using “theory” in the sense of a theory being an untested hypothesis, a hunch. When scientists talk about the theory of evolution, they mean “theory” in the sense of a set of testable propositions that have been shown to explain and predict a lot of things. Thus you have Newton’s theory of gravity (and on a broader scale, Einstein’s). Does anybody think gravity is unproven because there is a theory of gravity? If so, I hope they don’t try stepping off a tall building.

In just the same way, virtually every scientist working in a relevant field believes evolution occurred and is still occurring. Evolution itself is not a hypothesis, not a hunch. Evolution is as accepted as a fact in science as the belief that if you lift a pencil now and let go, it will fall. (Go ahead, try this, even at home.) And if you want a demonstration that evolution still occurs, get yourself infected by one of the treatment-resistant bacteria that have evolved and spread since the introduction of antibiotics. (No, don’t try this, anywhere.)

Also, there’s this fascinating bit about the psychology of creationists; if you’re part of the Coalition of the Sane, the last paragraph will slay you (also from Ch. 4; italics mine):

If fundamentalists have added one thing to the authoritarian follower’s armor of compartmentalized thinking, double standards, rationalization, and so on, it is a preference for selective ignorance. You can see this most clearly in their rejection of evolution.

Instead of learning about one of the major scientific advances of all time, with all its explanatory power and steady flow of amazing discoveries, fundamentalists embrace “creation science”or “intelligent design.” As many a court has ruled, these are “science” in name only since they lack a clear statement of propositions, make no predictions, cannot be tested, and are usually just a back-door attempt to teach the Bible as part of the public school curriculum. Still fundamentalists work tirelessly to give creation science or intelligent design “equal time” with evolution in public schools–which would mean cutting in half the time devoted to real science instruction–hoping to accomplish by zeal, clamor and pressure what is unjustified by scientific accomplishment.

How does this connect to “selective ignorance”? If you ask fundamentalists about evolution, it becomes clear that they seldom understand what they are opposing. Instead they seem to be repeating things they have heard from the leaders of their ingroups, such as “Darwin’s theory of evolution says that humans descended from monkeys,” and “There is a crucial ‘missing link’ in the fossil evidence that shows humans could not have descended from apes,” and “It’s just a theory.” They will sometimes tell you evolution violates the laws of thermodynamics, but when you ask them what those laws are, the conditions under which the featured Second Law applies, and what it has to do with evolution, they stumble all over themselves.

As well, they will say most scientists today have rejected Darwin’s theory, when evolution is probably the most widely accepted explanation of things in the biological, geological, and astronomical sciences. (Debates certainly arise in science about how evolution takes place but not, anymore, whether it occurs.) They will tell you “many famous scientists” don’t believe in evolution at all, but they seldom know any names. They will give you the famous “A watch, therefore a watchmaker” argument-from-design that introductory philosophy students tear to shreds year after year. But when you point out the logical fallacy in this argument it becomes clear they never thought about it, they just stored the argument. They will tell you, mistakenly again, that evolution has never been observed happening. They know well the arguments against evolution that they have heard from their trusted sources, but they know almost nothing about the theory of evolution itself or the overwhelming amount of evidence from all the relevant fields that support it.

As a consequence I have had fundamentalist university students in my classes who had apparently managed to avoid all instruction in genetics in their lives, and who did not know what a gene, or a mutation was [Mad Biologist: This explains all of the creationist blather about mutation]. Others, almost as extreme, have heard the human genetic code “can never be broken” and so doubt the value of learning anything about it. Or else that research should be forbidden on DNA because it is the “secret of life” that humanity was not meant to have. Or else everything that science has discovered fits in perfectly with the story of the Great Flood, which is part of the explanation most fundamentalists want everybody to have to learn in school instead of biological science. Adam walked with dinosaurs, they insist.

The theological conservatives murder sarcasm. Oh well.

It’s a very interesting book, and very well written. Check it out.


  1. #1 Jonathan Vos Post
    February 24, 2007

    Among over 2,000 students I’ve taught in classrooms, more than a handful told me openly that they didn’t believe:

    (1) Evolution by Natural Selection;

    (2) Men actually landed on the Moon;

    (3) They’ll get Social Security checks when they retire.

    (1) made for interesting Socratic dialogue, because when I broke it down, they went right along:

    “Do you belive that brothers and sisters of the same parents are different from each other?”


    “Do you believe that some people are more successful in life, and thus able to have more children?”


    … and so forth. Eventually I’d say: “Oklay, you’ve told me that you believe A, B, C, D, E, and F. If you put those together, it’s called Evolution by Natural Selection.”

    “But I don’t believe in Evolution.”

    (2) Did you hear that a big-budget remake of Capricorn One (1978) is in the works? My students seemed to think it was a documentary. The only way I could convince them otherwise was an ad hominem argument about who did they believe more, me or O. J. Simpson?

    (3) My teenaged and early 20s students. Not my students 50-95 years old, of course.

    Of the youngsters, by show of hands, far more believed in flying saucers than believed that the government would NOT go bankrupt before they retired. True or not, I’m reported what they say they believed.

  2. #2 Mark Duigon
    February 24, 2007

    Not only are Creationists ignorant about evolution, but many who claim they favor teaching Intelligent Design do not understand that, either, as was evident in Kitzmiller v. Dover.

  3. #3 Colugo
    February 24, 2007

    Because creationists don’t understand evolution, assuming that is something like the Chain of Being on an escalator, many (including a dentist I once had) inevitably ask, “If we evolved from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?” So today we tend to emphasize that we did not evolve from monkeys (or apes, or reptiles, fish, flatworms, etc.).

    But we did, in fact, evolve from apes, monkeys, fish, flatworms, and so on. Just not modern representatives of these groups. The paleontological evidence indicates that the last common ancestor of humans and chimps (bonobos and troglodytes) was, well, a lot like a chimp.

    Besides being a rejoinder simplistic creationist fallacies, the “We didn’t evolve from monkeys et al.” saying is used for a number of reasons:

    1) To counter the tendency to conflate modern species and taxa with ancestors and the related tendency to emphasize their ancestral/primitive traits while ignoring their derived traits.
    2) To counter gradistic thinking and orthogenesis-like assumptions, which are related to the Chain of Being tradition. (I not completely against grades myself. The group “monkeys” is itself a grade, not a clade.)
    3) To emphasize the “bushiness” of evolutionary history.

    Instead of saying “we didn’t evolve from ‘fill in the blank’” we ought to say “we didn’t evolve from modern representatives of ….” Unless it’s completely off-base, like a notion that we evolved from, say, dolphins.

  4. #4 Steve Brungard
    February 24, 2007

    It forever amazes me that persons who want so much to believe in a creator god are so compelled to ignore the information provided by that which their god created.

  5. #5 Ktesibios
    February 24, 2007

    @Jonathan Vos Post: Moon Hoax believers are very likely to have fallen prey to a set of infinitely-recycled fallacious claims that, zombie-like, keep rising from their graves to eat the brains of the living. I can recommend a few online resources where the standard-issue Moon Hoax arguments are examined by people who genuinely know what they’re talking about, which you might find useful:

    Jay Windley, the webmaster, is an engineer who has a comprehensive familiarity with Moon Hoax claims, an even greater knowledge of the Apollo record and aerospace engineering and a very clean, clear prose style. This is probably the best Hoax-debunking site on the ‘net.

    The “Moon Hoax” section of Bob Braeunig’s Rocket and Space Technology site. Bob is a civil engineer who has acquired considerable technical knowledge of spaceflight; this page isn’t as exhaustive as Clavius but is still a valuable resource. There’s a very good list of links as well as examinations of most of the standard Moon Hoax arguments.

    And, of course, the Moon Hoax page at Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy site;


    I hope you find these helpful.

    Mike, thanks for the link to Altemeyer’s new book. I found his The Authoritarian Spectre fascinating when I read it a few years ago.

  6. #6 Sniderman
    February 24, 2007

    Wow, Steve… that’s about the most succinct, pleasant way to put that ever. Thank you. May I quote you?

  7. #7 Blake Stacey
    February 25, 2007

    I’m glad to see Altemeyer’s work getting a little publicity. It showed up in a Pharyngula thread a few weeks back (thanks, Chris!) and I’ve been recommending it to people ever since.