My Two Cents on the Evolution Debate

I'm sick and tired of this debate of "do you believe in evolution?" Who cares? Who freakin' cares?

You see to me belief is cheap. Any person can claim to believe in any old idea. So what if Obama and Hillary believe in evolution and Huckabee believes in creationism? What I want ...what I expect from my elected officials (and from any well educated person) is that they understand evolution. Yes that is what truly matters.

When the debate revolves around belief, it is really about who do you trust ... the scientific establishment or the leaders of certain clerical movements. With this context, the evolution/creationism debate has devolved into a proxy war between two figures of authority, the current scientific establishment or the leaders of the religious right. Unfortunately the "clash" between these two "beliefs" has been encouraged by the media, and individuals (like these two nut cases). It shouldn't be this way. Lets be honest, although we crave respect, we, the members of the scientific community, unlike the leaders of the Christian right, are not interested is spreading dogma. Our job is to figure out how things work and to disseminate and apply this knowledge to ameliorate society. We need to remold this "debate".

So this is what I ask of all of you, be you a scientist, political pundit, election debate monitor, mom, dad or teacher: do not question whether someone believes in evolution but whether they understand evolution. It is not acceptable for anyone living in 2007 to either believe or disbelieve in evolution without understanding it. To believe evolution without comprehension of what the term means is to replace religion with science ... and science is not a religion.

But more then that, evolution once understood does not need defending. A recent study published in The American Biology Teacher demonstrates that the teaching of the logic and empirical evidence that supports evolution leads to wide acceptance of the theory. When asked about their thought students replied along the following lines:

But after learning about [evolution] I feel that it is in fact the way the world works, and I don't understand why some people feel threatened by it.
I did not realize how precise evolution was.

But the key is to spread understanding. Evolution should not just be some dogmatic principle. It should be thought like algebra. When is the last time you heard someone say that they "didn't believe in algebra"?

From the same study:

We categorically agree that no student should ever be graded on his or her beliefs--only on his or her understanding, and we feel that no teacher should adopt an evangelical strategy to "convert" students to "believe in" evolution. That would, again, perpetuate the common substitution of science-as-authority for God-as-authority. Rather, a teacher's goal should be the presentation of the evidence in light of students' preconceptions as well as natural selection theory. That thorough discussion and evaluation of the evidence is inherently persuasive is merely a bonus for future generations of students, on whom we hope this conflict may weigh less heavily.

So the question becomes how to teach evolution? A word of caution, we can't just spew out supporting data such as the fossil record and genomic analysis - we also need to explain the logic inherent within evolution, survival of the fittest.

First ask people if they believe in these things:
1) inheritance, as in do you inherit traits from your parents
2) exponential growth, as in if every breading couple within a species has >2 kids then the population of that species should increase exponentially
3) limited resources, as in there is a finite amount of space, food for the individuals within a species
4) the second law of thermodynamics, as in there will always be some amount of error introduced into information when it is duplicated

Then ask people what the logical conclusion will be. You generate variation (point 4) this variation is passed down from generation to generation (point 1) due to the increase in population size (point 2) and the limits of any environment (point 3) there is a competition for resources and the variant that is better at harnessing resources for its offspring will replace other variants found within the population.

The logic is so simple. Once you understand how this works, speciation is a cinch. One species becomes two when individuals from two two non-breading populations pile up enough differences until you reach the point of incompatibility for any number of reasons. They can't have a shared offspring and presto a species splits into two.

So that's my 2 cents. Now if only a presidential candidate would exclaim: "I understand how evolution works."

[HT: BB]

Jennifer R. Robbins, Pamela Roy
Identifying & Correcting Non-Science Student Preconceptions
The American Biology Teacher (2007) 69:460-466
Through an Inquiry-Based, Critical Approach to Evolution

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I understand your point, and agree on the substance. But I think "believing in evolution" is, in this context, synonymous with "understanding evolution." I fully appreciate the difference but the answer you will receive from Mike Huckabee is that of course he understands evolution, that it is a theory that has no place for a God creating man, that it relies on random rather than divine processes, and that it contradicts what he knows to be true, namely the literal word of God in the Bible. Therefore he "understands" evolution but can't believe it's true when it contradicts the Bible. You can argue that he doesn't really "understand" evolution, but it just conflates back into "belief."

The issue is very simple: You can't argue with such people about understanding and belief. But you can defeat them. This is a political and cultural battle, not an intellectual/scientific one. Using the techniques of intellectual/scientific persuasion have their place in such a battle, but they are not sufficient to win it. Ultimately you need simply to win. And that takes a far broader rhetorical strategy than simply saying, "do you understand?" That doesn't mean Mooney/Nisbet framing. That means doing genuinely serious work in forming coalitions and getting out the votes. And it most certainly means educating people in critical thinking, the techniques of scientific inquiry and the details of evolution.

Using phrasing like "believe in evolution" conflates it with things like "believing in Jesus", which are two very different things. You're right: evolution is real whether or not someone "believes" in it. What matters is if they ACCEPT it. And that, is a great moron test.

To really understand an argument one would have to be able to defend it regardless of whether one "believed" in it or not. Although Mike Huckabee might claim to understand evolution, he doesn't. He would not be able to play devil's advocate and explain evolution's logic.

It is imperative that we convey this idea to the public and to those in the media who shape how the whole debate is discussed. Although I'm not a big proponent of framing, I do think that in this case we need to "frame" the debate in these terms. Also I hate the idea of accepting evolution. Do you accept algebra? That statement doesn't really make sense. Maybe I'm a bit picky but evolution is on par with statistics and math. You can calculate selective pressures within genomes, you can model evolutionary change with simple artificial self-replicating algorithms. If Mike Huckabee stated "I don't believe in statistics" or "I don't believe in computer programs", most everyone would write him off as being nonsensical.

Whether a candidate "believes in" evolution or not is largely irrelevant to me as well. I don't even much care whether a candidate understands evolution.

What I care about is that a candidate should accept that the theory of evolution is highly validated, overwhelmingly supported by evidence, and the only theory appropriate for teaching in public science classes.

Whether they accept that because they personally understand evolution and the evidence that supports it, or because they accept the expertise of scientists and educators, is secondary to me. After all, no candidate can be expected to knowledgable in every possibly contentious area.

I don't even mind (too much) if a candidate personally believes that evolution is wrong (despite the evidence), and that some god created us. As long as s/he isn't pushing to have his/her belief taught in public schools or given other special treatment.

This post, as they say on the intertubes, is made of Win.
It seems bizarre the "believing in" evolution even has to be considered. After a decent education in biology it seems like "believing in" the fact that my nose actually remained on my face when, as a very young child, some adult would play the "got your nose" trick...

Stuart Kauffman in his book _At home in the universe: The search for the laws of self-organization and complexity_ states, "natural selection cannot be the sole source of the order we see in the world. In crafting the living world, selection has always operated on systems that exhibit spontaneous order" (viii). What do you think about his perspective and how does your affect your simplified version of evolution?

Nice post Alex, I 100% agree.

I have to comment on qetzal's - if a candidate takes a position on a subject, such as the teaching of evolution, we should insists that he/she knows what they are talking about. I don't think that people should just accept or believe in what they are told and then use that in their political platform, and that goes for individuals who believe in evolution and those who don't. If you take a stand, then make sure you know your shit. If you just state that you believe in something, and no one insists that you understand the topic in question, then the debate becomes this nasty and unnecessary confrontation between SEEMINGLY equal positions. If a candidate talks about evolution (or any topic!), he/she better understand the nature of what they are discussing. That's the least we can ask for from those making important decisions.

By Acme Scientist (not verified) on 24 Oct 2007 #permalink

To really understand an argument one would have to be able to defend it regardless of whether one "believed" in it or not. Although Mike Huckabee might claim to understand evolution, he doesn't. He would not be able to play devil's advocate and explain evolution's logic.

Hm. I've never thought of that: getting the creationist to play devils advocate.

By Skeptic4u (not verified) on 24 Oct 2007 #permalink

Nice idea for a perfect world, but getting people to separate logic from passion on this subject is next to impossible in my opinion. "Belief" or "faith" will always be cited as the penultimate evidence for creationism and this cannot be argued on any intellectual level.


Evolution deals with how self-replicating molecules change over time. With regards to life as we know it, I agree with some underlying order (i.e. atoms, molecules and the rules of physics) was present before self-replicating entities came into existence. Furthermore, the substrate used to build the self-replicating entity (and the substrate used by the entity to replicate itself) are ordered. But I'm not sure that a self-replicating machine needs pre-existing order? I'm not aware of any proof or argument that would pre-clude the existence of a self-replicating machine in the absence of order. Another issue is that this discussion deals with how self-replicating machine came into existence. Evolution deals with how life gradually changes, not how it was formed from scratch.


I misunderstood your comment - my fault. I looked up Kaufman (sorry this is not exactly my area of expertise) and it would seem to me that his ideas of self-organizing systems within biological organisms are similar to ideas put forward by Marc Kirschner and John Gerhart, except that in the Kirschner-Gerhart model self-organizing modules help to facilitate evolution. These modules (such as the cytoskeleton or the membranous compartments within the cell) help by providing a solid foundation that is easily moulded without falling apart. Evolution can alter these self-organizing modules by acting on peripheral players (for example by acting on cytoskeletal binding proteins and regulatory molecules). Thus these self-organizing modules contribute to the "evolvability" of an organism. I'm not sure if this answers your question, but I highly recommend their book "the Possibility of Life".

Acme Scientist:

I have to comment on qetzal's - if a candidate takes a position on a subject, such as the teaching of evolution, we should insists that he/she knows what they are talking about.

I agree, but it isn't necessary to understand evolution to take an informed position on teaching it.

Science classes should teach well-established science, with an emphasis of unifying theories. If it's necessary for a candidate to take a position on teaching evolution, then what they really need to know is whether it's well-established science (yes), and whether it's a unifying theory (yes). That can be determined through consultation with practicing biologists, educators, etc. Understanding the theory of evolution would certainly help, but it's not necessary.

Consider the same question as applied to basic quantum mechanics or relativity. Suppose somebody objected to teaching those topics in high school. Would we really expect a candidate to understand them before they could decide whether it's OK to teach them?

The larger issue is that asking candidates to take a position on the teaching of evolution is a mistake, IMO. In effect, it's "anti-framing." The important issue is whether religious conservatives should be able to water down or veto any topic solely on religious grounds. That's the position I want candidates to take a stand on.

That's why I don't much care if they understand evolution. I care whether they understand the importance of religious freedom and separation of church and state.

In this day in age we should expect, and insit, that the president be well educated and have a certain level of knowledge. And yes, I expect that a well educated person should have an understanding of the theory of evolution.

And one more thing, unlike quantum mechanics, the logic behind evolution is quite simple.


I hear what you're saying loud and clear. They are the same voices in my head too.

As a Biology student (even though we haven't studied evolution yet, I have read about it, in what I like to think is a moderate amount of detail), I have always wondered the same points that you have made.

How can anyone "believe" in evolution? It is either what is happening, or it is not, or there isn't enough evidence to prove either way.

How can people argue against the logic behind evolution, and the evidence we see to go with it?

I enjoyed reading this.. thank you.