Chris Matthews, who has lately been hammering the Republicans for their problem with science in general and evolution in particular, had a guest on to ‘debate’ the issue: Tom Tancredo, the ignorant Republican congressman who ran for president in the last election, and was one of the candidates who proudly announced that he did not believe in evolution. It was awful. Two people who know nothing about the science babbling at each other. While Matthews’ heart might have been in the right place, he was more interested in stammering out apologies for believing a god might have guided evolution, and sat their stunned and incomprehending as Tancredo blithered out falsehood after falsehood. Tancredo was simply inane.
What an appalling waste of time. At one point, the two were proudly comparing their backgrounds in science — they both went to Catholic schools as kids. In other words, all the knowledge they have is based on the brief high school level exposure to evolution they might have gotten 30 or 40 years ago, and both have gone on in careers where they’ve never had to think about science again. Why are they debating evolution with one another, and why does MSNBC think this tripe is worth airing to a national audience? Both were out of their depth.
Matthews should have brought on someone qualified to address the topic. We have a host of smart scientists who seem to be fairly comfortable standing before a lay audience and explaining the basics of evolution: bring in Eugenie Scott, Neil Shubin, Jerry Coyne, Kevin Padian, or even Ken Miller (especially if you want to go over and over that nonsensical line that god did it via evolution): any one of them would have destroyed Tancredo. Or even me: I don’t have the prestige of any of those luminaries, but even a guy from a small liberal arts college can demolish Tancredo’s awful arguments.
So what did Tancredo claim?
“There’s Darwinian evolution, and there’s Intelligent Design…the one is equal to the other in terms of the number of people who support it in terms…especially of their backgrounds and the research out there.” Absolutely false. If you go to any biologist, there is maybe a one in a thousand chance you’ll find that he or she gives even a moment’s consideration to intelligent design. ID is a fringe theory held by a tiny minority of scientists. The number of IDists in biology is probably about equal to the number of kooks who have made it through graduate school. To claim parity is simply a damnable lie.
“Crossing a species there is no evidence of that you have to make an assumption. I’m just saying that assuming that is just as tough as assuming that there is intelligent design.” No. We do of course have direct evidence of interspecies hybrids, if that’s what he’s talking about; we also have evidence of species evolving into new species, if that’s what he’s trying to say. His conclusion is sloppy thinking: it is easier to assume natural processes occurred than to postulate magic events without evidence. At least for a scientist, that is — deranged right wing politicians may differ.
“In intelligent design, there is no argument about whether the world was made 8 thousand or 8 billion years ago.” This is a symptom of a problem, not a virtue. The evidence is overwhelming that the earth is approximately 4.5 billion years old. Any so-called scientific discipline that believes there is ambiguity and that 8 thousand years is just as good a guess as 8 billion is bankrupt.
“You can see on the micro level we see evolution but we cannot make the assumption on it about the macro level cause there’s nothing there to look at, we have no scientific data.” I have a special level of contempt for people who make this bogus macro/micro level argument — they always get it backwards. Macro evolution is on rock solid ground, and has been for 150 years. Darwin’s work was largely on a macroevolutionary level: the evidence from paleontology, biogeography, systematics, comparative anatomy and physiology, and embryology, all disciplines that Darwin drew upon, describes the big picture of life’s history, and shows common descent. In recent years, molecular biology has provided an even greater body of evidence; where Darwin had to speculate that maybe there were multiple origins for the different kingdoms of life, we now know that they can all be traced back to one common root. When a developmental biologist compares the molecules behind the evolution of eyes in a sea anemone and a cow, he is describing macroevolution. We have scientific data out the wazoo on this one.
In Darwin’s day, micro evolution was the wobbly leg of the structure of evolutionary theory. He didn’t have an explanation for heredity. That has also changed, of course: we now have a robust understanding of genetics, and especially of population genetics. Speciation is complex and there are all kinds of details that we don’t fully understand, but it also is not doubted by scientists.
“Here’s a group of people highly educated, well rounded, and well respected in their field who believe in evolution, Darwinian evolution. Here’s a group of people, highly respected, who believe in intelligent design. These are two theories.” The people who believe in intelligent design do not have any kind of parity with the proponents of evolution. Few IDists have any training in the relevant biology; most are philosophers, theologians, lawyers, engineers, and dentists, among other fields. The few who do have legitimate qualifications in any kind of biological sub-discipline, like Michael Behe, are either pariahs in their own departments or have to seek shelter under the umbrella of conservative think tanks, like the Discovery Institute.
And no, they are not two theories. Evolution is a legitimate theory in the scientific sense: it is well supported by the evidence, and provides a productive, integrated, explanatory framework that guides ongoing research and ties together a large body of data. Intelligent Design creationism does not qualify as a scientific theory at all. At best, it is a highly speculative hypothesis, one assembled without any reasonable evidence, and so far it has been a spectacular failure at provoking any useful research.
Tom Tancredo is an ignorant old fool who knows nothing and simply puked up creationist talking points. Chris Matthews also knows nothing and was a lousy representative for the scientific view. The whole show was pointless, except as an aid to creationists who want to sow doubt and confusion.