Sam Brownback Digs Himself a Deeper Hole

In an attempt to explain why he raised his hand when asked if he did NOT believe in evolution during the first Republican presidential candidate debate, Sam Brownback has an op-ed in today’s New York Times where he tries to elaborate on his answer:

As one of those who raised his hand, I think it would be helpful to discuss the issue in a bit more detail and with the seriousness it demands.

You know this is going to be good…

I’m no expert in evolution. But I found several mistakes he made. More educated biologists (or more well-read blog readers) could probably find a lot more.

If belief in evolution means simply assenting to microevolution, small changes over time within a species, I am happy to say, as I have in the past, that I believe it to be true. If, on the other hand, it means assenting to an exclusively materialistic, deterministic vision of the world that holds no place for a guiding intelligence, then I reject it.

Nice to know that he believes in microevolution. I’m not sure, though, that there is a proper dichotomy here. Microevolution versus no God? What’s that all about?

Fundamentalists like Brownback who don’t understand science typically reject the idea of macroevolution, where changes happen at the species level or higher… even though macroevolution is simply microevolution over a long span of time. That, at least, would’ve been a better pairing in the paragraph above.

There is no one single theory of evolution, as proponents of punctuated equilibrium and classical Darwinism continue to feud today.

So this is reason to discard it? All scientists with a brain believe in evolution, even though they may disagree on the specific mechanisms. It’s like Brownback is saying we should completely reject the idea of defense in basketball because some coaches prefer a zone defense while others prefer man-to-man.

The most passionate advocates of evolutionary theory offer a vision of man as a kind of historical accident.

No scientist says that evolution is an accident. To quote a very passionate advocate of evolutionary theory, Richard Dawkins, “Mutation is random; natural selection is the very opposite of random.” Natural selection acts purposefully by selecting for the most well-adapted genes. Those genes come about by random mutations that get passed on to future generations. It is no “historical accident” that man came to exist.

… I believe, as do many biologists and people of faith, that the process of creation — and indeed life today — is sustained by the hand of God in a manner known fully only to him.

Most biologists do NOT think God has a hand in evolution. And many people of faith understand this as well. If anything, some people may say God started the evolutionary process. But educated people understand that natural selection is, in fact, a natural process.

I hope my biology’s not wrong in anything I said above. If it is, I’m sure you’ll correct it.

In case you can’t log in to the NYT website, I’m reprinting the op-ed piece below the fold.

What I Think About Evolution

IN our sound-bite political culture, it is unrealistic to expect that every complicated issue will be addressed with the nuance or subtlety it deserves. So I suppose I should not have been surprised earlier this month when, during the first Republican presidential debate, the candidates on stage were asked to raise their hands if they did not “believe” in evolution. As one of those who raised his hand, I think it would be helpful to discuss the issue in a bit more detail and with the seriousness it demands.

The premise behind the question seems to be that if one does not unhesitatingly assert belief in evolution, then one must necessarily believe that God created the world and everything in it in six 24-hour days. But limiting this question to a stark choice between evolution and creationism does a disservice to the complexity of the interaction between science, faith and reason.

The heart of the issue is that we cannot drive a wedge between faith and reason. I believe wholeheartedly that there cannot be any contradiction between the two. The scientific method, based on reason, seeks to discover truths about the nature of the created order and how it operates, whereas faith deals with spiritual truths. The truths of science and faith are complementary: they deal with very different questions, but they do not contradict each other because the spiritual order and the material order were created by the same God.

People of faith should be rational, using the gift of reason that God has given us. At the same time, reason itself cannot answer every question. Faith seeks to purify reason so that we might be able to see more clearly, not less. Faith supplements the scientific method by providing an understanding of values, meaning and purpose. More than that, faith — not science — can help us understand the breadth of human suffering or the depth of human love. Faith and science should go together, not be driven apart.

The question of evolution goes to the heart of this issue. If belief in evolution means simply assenting to microevolution, small changes over time within a species, I am happy to say, as I have in the past, that I believe it to be true. If, on the other hand, it means assenting to an exclusively materialistic, deterministic vision of the world that holds no place for a guiding intelligence, then I reject it.

There is no one single theory of evolution, as proponents of punctuated equilibrium and classical Darwinism continue to feud today. Many questions raised by evolutionary theory — like whether man has a unique place in the world or is merely the chance product of random mutations — go beyond empirical science and are better addressed in the realm of philosophy or theology.

The most passionate advocates of evolutionary theory offer a vision of man as a kind of historical accident. That being the case, many believers — myself included — reject arguments for evolution that dismiss the possibility of divine causality.

Ultimately, on the question of the origins of the universe, I am happy to let the facts speak for themselves. There are aspects of evolutionary biology that reveal a great deal about the nature of the world, like the small changes that take place within a species. Yet I believe, as do many biologists and people of faith, that the process of creation — and indeed life today — is sustained by the hand of God in a manner known fully only to him. It does not strike me as anti-science or anti-reason to question the philosophical presuppositions behind theories offered by scientists who, in excluding the possibility of design or purpose, venture far beyond their realm of empirical science.

Biologists will have their debates about man’s origins, but people of faith can also bring a great deal to the table. For this reason, I oppose the exclusion of either faith or reason from the discussion. An attempt by either to seek a monopoly on these questions would be wrong-headed. As science continues to explore the details of man’s origin, faith can do its part as well. The fundamental question for me is how these theories affect our understanding of the human person.

The unique and special place of each and every person in creation is a fundamental truth that must be safeguarded. I am wary of any theory that seeks to undermine man’s essential dignity and unique and intended place in the cosmos. I firmly believe that each human person, regardless of circumstance, was willed into being and made for a purpose.

While no stone should be left unturned in seeking to discover the nature of man’s origins, we can say with conviction that we know with certainty at least part of the outcome. Man was not an accident and reflects an image and likeness unique in the created order. Those aspects of evolutionary theory compatible with this truth are a welcome addition to human knowledge. Aspects of these theories that undermine this truth, however, should be firmly rejected as an atheistic theology posing as science.

Without hesitation, I am happy to raise my hand to that.

Sam Brownback is a Republican senator from Kansas.



[tags]atheist, atheism, Republican, Sam Brownback, New York Times, evolution, microevolution, God, Darwinism, punctuated equilibrium, Richard Dawkins, natural selection, Kansas[/tags]

  • http://www.skepchick.org writerdd

    No scientist says that evolution is an accident

    Actually, what he was saying is, I think, correct. Not that evolution, per se, is an accident but that the existence of homo sapiens as a species is a historical accident. That is quite true and, perhaps, the real reason that many people don’t want to believe in evolution. They want to be special. They want to think that human beings are the pinnacle of creation (or evolution) and that the purpose of creation (or evolution) was the existence of human beings.

  • http://olvlzl.blogspot.com/ olvlzl, no ism, no ist

    What Sam Brownback thinks about evolution is about as interesting to me as what he thinks about the implications of E8 or his evaluation of what color sneakers I should order from No Sweat. Why the nyt thinks he deserves an op-ed on a subject he clearly isn’t qualifed to talk about is interesting but not terribly surprising. Needless to say, if Brownback is digging a hole and standing in it, I’m more than willing to help fill it in as long as he stays put. Dawkins on religion, the same.

    I don’t know how many biologists think God has a hand in evolution, I’ve never seen a poll on the subject and I’m skeptical of polls anyway. It’s not impossible for a biologist to believe in evolution by natural selection in one of its non-theistic, really scientific manifestations (there are various schools, afterall) and apart from their scientific thinking also to believe that a God brought it about and sustains it. Some of those have mentioned that the natural selection was the mechanism of the design. The “design” isn’t science, it’s a belief about the science but it can’t have a part in the science. If they did mix their religious views with the science that would be a big problem, though they don’t seem to have a problem with mixing the science into their religious life. Unitarians, Quakers and a number of other liberal religious people do that kind of thing all the time.

  • Miko

    Some of those have mentioned that the natural selection was the mechanism of the design.

    What do you mean? Are you suggesting the possibility that god could have designed the mechanism of natural selection as a means of guiding evolution? Because if so, I should point out that natural selection is not a natural law but a consequence of other natural mechanisms which are themselves consequences of other natural mechanisms several orders of complexity removed from the natural laws which are causing the observed behavior.

  • http://olvlzl.blogspot.com/ olvlzl, no ism, no ist

    Miko, I’m suggesting that there are scientists who believe something along those lines. I’ve got a little time to visit this week so I don’t want to set off a war over the nature of ideas. All of our theories are constructs, those of science are just very reliable ones due to the careful verification of them.

    I think that one of the ways to fight creationism (as a pseudo-science) is to confound them with liberal religion’s ideas about these issues. It’s not science and liberal religion doesn’t pretend it is (not that I’ve ever encountered, at least) but it could make inroads into the support base of fundmentalism in a way that the Dawkinsite tactics don’t seem to. I’m beginning to look at what Lawrence Krauss has to say on these things. He seems to be more interested in promoting science than a secondary agenda. I don’t think history is proving that materialist fundmentalism is very successful at fighting religious fundamentalism. And I’d like science to win this one.

  • QrazyQat

    First, natural selection is not the only identified mechanism of evolution. Even Darwin also identified sexual selection, and several other things have been identified since (creationists often seem to think that no progress has been made in evolutionary science in the 100 plus years since Darwin died).

    It’s true that people who feel that theistic evolution is the answer generally feel that god used these natural methods we’ve identified as the mechanisms to do god’s bidding. The thing there is that with that explanation, it works equally well with or without god, and there’s no evidence of god, so why include this extra thing — that’s part of where parodies like the Flying Spaghetti Monster came about.

    The problem with words like accident or chance is that they are often mangled as they go along the “telephone” (like the game). Change in evolution is random, selection is not, but that doesn’t mean that selection is directed (that’s where [those few] creationists who attempt to be thoughtful often go wrong). Chance is another thing. People are often disturbed by the thought of the role of luck in evolution. For instance, with hominids and apes splitting, the changes were a matter of luck as to which branch you ended up in. Both the ape changes and the hominid changes worked very nicely for millions of years. It was just a lucky break for hominids that their changes turned out to support later changes that made it possible to live in multiple environments. This led to our getting to the point where we could live almost anywhere, while apes were still restricted to a more restricted set of environments, which in turn led to the point where we can and almost have) wipe them out. Bad luck, magnified by years and later changes.

    One way to think about the role of chance and why it doesn’t look like it in hindsight (fooling many) is to think of crossing a snow-covered field which is strewn with logs and crossed by gullies, while blindfolded. You shuffle along, with many possible paths (the future) to take — paths you can’t see. You get to the other side and look back and you have a clear path. It looks like you deliberately took that path, but in fact you didn’t do it deliberately. It was chance and selection but it looks like deliberate action in hindsight.

  • http://prosthesis.blogspot.com macht

    Can you explain what you mean by “Natural selection acts purposefully…?” I thought only sentient beings could act purposefully. It seems like a very odd statement to me.

  • QrazyQat

    Can you explain what you mean by “Natural selection acts purposefully…?”

    Let me try that one. First thing is that it’s very difficult, without being really stilted, to not use words and phrases that have several possible meanings, or carry connotations and baggage, that can’t be misconstrued (or among creationists deliberately twisted). I would say that’s what happened there. When I talk about natural selection myself, I try not to say “selected for” or “purpose” or a few other words, but it’s not always easy to do especially in a popular venue. I also tend to say natural selection never selects “for” but instead only “against”, because the former suggests that natural selection is trying to accomplish something when all it really does is stop a specific organism from continuing its line. The language we have available does make it hard to construct an explanation without verbal traps when talking about evolution. In a newsgroup posting 12 years ago I tried putting it this way:

    Natural selection works only by basically wiping out organisms; it “selects” by not “allowing” effective raising of young (at any stage of that process) (and my quote marks are proliferating because of the inherent problems and baggage associated with words like “allow” and “select”). In that sense, natural selection only selects “against”, never “for”. It only happens when something doesn’t work, and the fact that things that do work are left (and sometimes get “better”) is an artifact.

  • http://prosthesis.blogspot.com macht

    That was kind of my point – Hemant is sort of “smuggling in” the idea of purpose when he shouldn’t be. And that ruins his argument that no scientists think of man as an historical accident. He was essentially using, as you say, “connotations and baggage” of popular language in order to argue his point.

  • Miko

    I also tend to say natural selection never selects “for” but instead only “against”

    I would disagree with that. Take mating rituals, for example. Bright colorful feathers usually have no benefit other than attracting other birds. They develop through evolution because the birds that have them mate more often and not because the birds that lack them die sooner more often.

  • http://off-the-map.org/atheist/ Siamang

    Miko… that’s an example of sexual selection, not natural selection.

  • Miko

    Miko… that’s an example of sexual selection, not natural selection.

    From what I’ve heard, the term sexual selection is usually used in contrast to viability selection, fecundity selection, and survival selection, with all four considered as subcategories of natural selection. Natural selection is then most often contrasted with artificial selection through husbandry, etc. However, if by natural selection you mean only viability selection, then I’ll agree that it would have to always work in the negative direction.

  • http://olvlzl.blogspot.com/ olvlzl, no ism, no ist

    I don’t believe in strict adaptationist fundamentalism. I think that the mechanisms that the Gould-Lewontin type of biologists suggests make more sense than strict adaptationism. Evolution happened over such a long time and it was so complex that I doubt even a small part of how it works has been discovered. Biology is at the beginning of discovery, not at the point where they’ve got a grand unified theory in the offing. I suspect that some of those who have taken rigid positions in the past are scrambling to cover themselves even as their school’s influence is at its peak. Remember behaviorism was at its peak just before it fell.

    The idea of “purpose” certainly can’t enter into it at this point. That starts with the idea that the how is sufficiently known to even be able to know anything about why. Why is a question for too many generations in the future to deal with, we can’t even imagine what they’ll even need to know before dealing with why. And that’s assuming that could become relevant to science. We don’t know and to predict the future is equally futile.

  • QrazyQat

    From what I’ve heard, the term sexual selection is usually used in contrast to viability selection, fecundity selection, and survival selection, with all four considered as subcategories of natural selection

    Some people do, while others don’t. I strongly side with those who think sexual selection shouldn’t be considered a subset of natural selection precisely because it often does work quite differently, in that there is active selection (albeit often not consciously) by a living agent, unlike natural selection.

    On the “historical accident” business: I think this is yet another of these language pitfalls. There are simple accidents where bad luck wipes out a species — local population, big meteor, they’re toast, no matter how long they might otherwise have lasted — but by the time we became a pretty good environmental generalist and spread around (say a million and a half or more ago) we weren’t very susceptible to that kind of bad luck. Even disease has a hard time wiping out a species that is spread out over a couple continents and doesn’t travel huge distances in any individual’s lifetime. In the sense that we, as we are, are here that would fit in with some meanings of “historical accident”, except that I would try to find and use some other, less loaded, and perhaps more accurate term. It isn’t easy to avoid these pitfalls, though — I usually try pretty hard not to and I stumble into them at times.

  • Maria

    Most biologists do NOT think God has a hand in evolution. And many people of faith understand this as well. If anything, some people may say God started the evolutionary process. But educated people understand that natural selection is, in fact, a natural process.

    This is very true. That is what most liberal religious believe

  • http://olvlzl.blogspot.com/ olvlzl, no ism, no ist

    Maria, poll numbers on those biologists, please. And I’d like to get a good look at the questions on the survey.

    If there was a God who created the universe then natural selection would be no less a natural process. But that isn’t a question science deals with because it isn’t a question that is quantifiable or even observable. It’s a matter of presonal belief or non-belief or disbelief. I find that entirely reassuring because it means people are free to have their own ideas about it. I’d love to ask a representative sample of biologists some qustions about the nature of science and the limits of the questions it is able to handle.

  • QrazyQat

    Maria, poll numbers on those biologists, please. And I’d like to get a good look at the questions on the survey.

    I don’t think you’re going to find what you’d like to. I’ve seen some numbers from various surveys, including one that has continued with the same question over a period of many years, but what they usually ask is whether or not the scientist has a belief in god. This isn’t the same, necessarily, as an interfering god, and could even include deism which consiers nature’s laws as the embodiment of “god”, which is not a god in the sense that any of the major US religions preach about.

    I have some links somewhere, but I’d have to sort through the studies to see which come close to answering your question (and I think, as I said, that none actually do answer your specific question). But that’s a bit of a chore, and besides the movie coming on, we’re painting the place tomorrow and that’s no computer for a while.

  • http://olvlzl.blogspot.com/ olvlzl, no ism, no ist

    QrazyQat, what I’d like to see is that people who think they are supporting the position of science have something to back up what they’re saying. My experience with materialists of many kinds is that they assume their position is science (it isn’t, it’s an ideological position since science can’t be done to back them up) and that “most scientists” back up their ideological position. I know you’ve read me on other issues, in other places, but you might not have read the several things I’ve posted about opinion polling. Opinion polling is an absurd way to try to figure out politics, as “science” it is insane. You’d have to give equal time to pseudo-science of the type Brownback supports if you believed that peoples’ opinion on science matters.

    My personal experience talking with people with some knowledge of science is that even those who lean towards materialism have positions that are too complex and varied to show up in any but the most expensive polls and I’m guessing the results would show that there was no “majority” opinion on the overly broad questions surrounding materialist orthodoxy. I’ve also noticed that when an intelligent person is discussing these issues that the phrase “I don’t know” or “no one knows” crops up all through the discussion. The problem I’ve got with dogmatic materialists is that their opinion is that they do know and that everyone should agree with them because they are absolutely certain that they’ve got the truth. Well, that’s not science, it’s opinion AND it’s exactly the same thing as Biblican fundamentalism, just without a God. It’s my experience that Dawkins or Kurtz or some other big name materialist takes the place of one. Used to be Russell, clearly materilist fundamentalism has seen better days.

  • QrazyQat

    First, I have no idea why the italics can’t seem to be shut off [Hemant's note: Taken care of!]. And I’m having my last coffee break before starting the painting, so can’t get into much. I have to say that “materialist fundamentalism” is one of those nonsense phrases, at least for science — the bottom line there is that while you certainly can claim — as many do — that god works in ways that look exactly like there is no god, that’s not helpful for figuring things out in science, and simply adds a step for which there’s no evidence and really can’t leave evidence. If god works in some way that can be recognised, then science can use that.

    Anyway, here’s 3 links to surveys about what scientists believe, god-wise. I agree that a survey about a science matter is useless, since majority opinion in science means little to nothing. But a survey about belief does tell you something. These links are all about a survey, but each may have (just skimmed them again for the first time in a while) varying info about the survey. As I mentioned, I don’t think it will actually give you the info you want, and if you don’t believe that surveys can tell you anything, it puzzles me why you asked to see any. Seems pointless.

    Link

    Link

    Link

  • http://olvlzl.blogspot.com olvlzl, no ism, no ist

    Why I asked is that generally people who make those kinds of statements are going on a hunch. I’d like to read more of the methodology of the polls before I spoke about them but I wonder what the scientists polled would say about any of the questions if allowed to go into detail instead of just giving a pat response.

    As to the figures they come up with? It doesn’t matter what anyones opinion on the issue is, at least as far as the question of material fundamentalism is concerned. My point is that the opinion isn’t based in science, though it’s probably a reflection of the present day culture of science. That’s not a big surprise since science is exclusively concerned with the physical universe and it’s heavily weighted towards those who hold the ideologies of materialism, positivism, and even the absurd superstition of scientism. That does cause problems for some science, especially in the behavioral and cognitive areas through over confidence in the ideological basis of the scientists assumptions (and an absurd confidence in the development of these very young fields studying what is some of the most complex and unobservable phenomena yet attempted).

    All in all, it doesn’t bother me.

  • Dorian de Wind

    Re: Senator Brownback’s NYTimes Op-Ed, “What I think About Evolution”
    I was well on my way to give Senator Brownback credit for a
    dispassionate and balanced essay on the evolution vs. creationism
    debate, until I read his disappointing “my way or the highway”
    conclusion. In his summation, the Senator graciously declares that he
    will consider aspects of evolution “passing as science” just as long
    as they do not contradict or undermine his indisputable beliefs in
    creationism. With “thinkers” like Senator Brownback, we would still believe that the sun revolves around the earth.

    Dorian de Wind

  • FromUpNorth

    There is no one single theory of evolution, as proponents of punctuated equilibrium and classical Darwinism continue to feud today.

    There is no one single theory of God either, as proponents of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity (to name just three of the world’s religions) continue to feud today with each other, Of course there are feuds within as well as between each of those groups. In at least some cases the word “feud” is not to be taken merely figuratively.

  • http://olvlzl.blogspot.com/ olvlzl, no ism, no ist

    Feud

    You ever read how they go at each other? Since Gould died it’s been pretty one sided, though some of Dawkins’ cultists are still sniping at him. I first became suspicious of Dawkins through his determinism and adaptationism, I was always on the side that said that rigid view of things was almost certainly not right due to the enormous complexity of evolution and the enormously long period it covered. I was also scandalized at how much stuff first the sociobiologists and then the evolutionary biologists were in the habit of just making up out of no evidence at all. Anything that suited their ends was just assumed to have been there, even if there was no fossil record or even neurological location known.

    Carolyn Murphy said that it didn’t trouble her that the understanding of morality evolving and developing didn’t trouble her any more than the understanding of chemistry developing over time did. I’m not sure I accept that though it’s interesing to think about.

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  • Maria

    umm, I was quoting Hemant when I said “Most biologists do NOT think God has a hand in evolution. And many people of faith understand this as well. If anything, some people may say God started the evolutionary process. But educated people understand that natural selection is, in fact, a natural process.” I was just saying I’ve seen many liberal religious people (not biologists) who agree with this. Sorry for the confusion.

  • Darryl

    The upshot for me is this: Brownback is prepared to deny whatever is necessary to conserve his religious beliefs–he will doubt those with evidence in favor of those without it. He is over-confident if not fatuous, and he expects us to admire him for his insight and candor. He spreads his hands wide and takes a tone of voice that expresses surprise that the rest of us just don’t see how simple it all is: faith and reason are not opposed to each other. He exemplifies the arrogance of the erudite theologian just before the next scientific discovery that sends him running back to his books. Thank God he has no chance of winning the Oval Office.