Evolutionists, Darwinism and Crackpot Theories

Recently someone told me they were “not an evolutionist”. I was less surprised by the “not” than by the term “evolutionist”. In my mind, for there to be an “ist” there has to be a corresponding “ism”, yet I am not familiar with the term “evolutionism”. There is “creationism”, which deserves the “ism” at the end. But “evolution” is no more of an ideology than “biology”, unless one treats it (as Daniel Dennett does, for instance) not as the explanatory framework that unites our scientific knowledge in biology, genetics, and paleontology, but as a “universal acid” that cannot but change the way we think about every subject. But addressing that sort of “evolutionism” is something that many biologists and philosophers of science have themselves taken on (e.g. Mary Midgley).

“Darwinism” is another example of the attempt (mostly on the part of the opponents of science) to depict evolution as though it were an ideology, the vision of a single individual (like “Marxism” and “Leninism”) that one can take or leave, rather than the dominant scientific understanding representing the consensus of by far the vast majority of experts in the relevant scientific disciplines.

In my class on the Bible, a student reacted to the suggestion that the Israelites might themselves be Canaanites by saying this sounded like a “crackpot theory”. This provided a nice opportunity to ask just what a “crackpot theory” is and how to recognize one (since I’d be much happier if students leave my classes with that ability than if they lack it but have memorized the dates for king Jehu’s reign).

With respect to some questions (whether they be in the realm of science, history, or something else) the experts are divided and have competing explanations for a particular phenomenon and the relevant evidence. In such cases, the best a non-specialist can do is try to grasp the underlying issues, and conclude that at present the evidence underdetermines the conclusions, and is most likely compatible with more than one possible explanation. This doesn’t mean that there is nothing that is certain – just that there is, over all, some legitimate uncertainty.

In the case of other questions, the vast majority of specialists agree. In such cases, the only thing a non-specialist can conclude (and rightly so) is that the evidence and its implications must appear pretty clear-cut to those with the relevant expertise and knowledge. Evolution fits into this latter category, not surprisingly (at least for those who know anything much about it). The possibility of evolution was being discussed before Darwin’s time. The diverse variations within types of similar animals, the evidence of fossils, and other sorts of evidence was making some sort of evolutionary scenario seem likely by the 19th century. What was missing was an explanatory mechanism, and Darwin helped provide more than one of these, drawing attention not only to natural selection (variations benefitting survival because they give an advantage in getting food or escaping predators) but also sexual selection (a peacock’s impressive plumage won’t help it find food and may make it more visible to predators, but the fact that size matters to peahens gives an advantage in passing on genes to another generation). There are legitimate debates within the scientific community about the relative importance of various mechanisms, and there may yet be contributing factors and influences on evolution that we do not yet know about. But the fact of evolution itself is not denied by anyone who understands the relevant data and the predictive power and accuracy that this explanatory framework (or “theory”, to use the scientific term in the appropriate scientific rather than the popular sense). Genetics had not even begun to be understood in Darwin’s time, yet not only did the means of transmitting data to the next generation discovered by Mendel fit Darwin’s theory, but more recently comparative DNA analysis has essentially settled the matter in a way that individual fossils could not: all living things on this planet that have been compared in this way are related, and the distance of relationship considered genetically matches the predictions of evolution. There is no longer any serious doubt.

Yet there are not merely individuals but groups that insist on pointing to things that scientists do not yet know and imagine that somehow the fact that there are still unanswered questions invalidates prevailing understandings. Clearly those who make this argument don’t understand science. Science is the quest to explain and understand, and to point to things we do not yet know as proof that a scientific explanation is wrong, rather than wonderful opportunities for further research and investigation, shows that such views are not merely not scientific but anti-scientific.

Webster’s Dictionary defines “crackpot” as “an eccentric person”. Eccentric literally means “not having the same center”, but more figuratively means deviation from an established norm, usually in one’s behavior. I have no interest in discussing which scientists may or may not be crackpots as far as their behavior is concerned. But one that is clear is that it is those who call evolution a “crackpot theory” who are themselves the eccentrics, the crackpots. There is no mistaking it. Evolution is central to the mainstream understanding of biology, genetics, anatomy and paleontology (and one might perhaps add other fields). Young-earth creationism and intelligent design are on the fringe – indeed, it is debatable whether they are even in the same circle, but for now suffice it to say that they do not have the same center.

Of course, some people who have been labelled “crackpots” have had their views vindicated. But let us not make any mistake about how eccentric views move from the periphery to the center. It is always through investigation using the appropriate disciplinary methods.

No one is going to overturn a prevailing scientific theory by getting widespread support from churches or multiplying web pages. If you are reading this and think that the majority of scientists are wrong and you (perhaps together with a small minority) are right, then I congratulate you: you are a crackpot! But let us not assume that you cannot persuade the scientific community. Let me therefore explain to you how to do it: Get relevant degrees, including a PhD, in a relevant scientific discipline. Understand the basic data and relevant approaches used in that scientific field. Do careful scientific research. Scientists who have had unusual and unconventional ideas and have done these things have at times provided evidence for their hypotheses that won the assent of the scientific community. Because that is how science works. It isn’t a popularity contest, it isn’t about popular opinion, it is about data, and about making the best possible sense of all the relevant data which scientists know in greater detail than anyone else.

So the choice is yours, crackpot! You can do serious scholarship and provide the evidence that can persuade the experts that you are right. Or you can stand on your soapbox like a sore loser and denounce the hard-working scientists and researchers whose hard-won conclusions do not match up your presuppositions. You are free to choose either path. But if you choose the latter, be aware that you will remain a crackpot forever. Because in science, history and other such areas of human knowledge, what determines crackpot status is not your views, but your willingness to subject them to critical analysis and test them against the relevant evidence.

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  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15978997781556741350 Mike L.

    Nicely done!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07306357650551548310 Brian

    Don’t forget that those who study Biology are Biolog-ists, even though there is no Biologism :)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Quite right, Brian! I realized as I thought about it more that I was probably making too much out of the specific word that had been used. Note that Ayala used it in one of the quotes from him that I posted recently, too! :)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03089281236217906531 Scott F

    I like the example of Cold Fusion. The scientists made their big announcement (It was a big deal, if true) other scientists attempted to recreate the phenomenon in their labs and largely failed. The incident was put behind them.The point was, that the scientific community took this “crack pot” idea seriously. They bestowed the greatest compliment in their power – they tested it. If some Japanese lab manages to produce some astonishing results in Cold Fusion research, they will get complimented in the same way.God, I love science!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17674933163892451352 Nick Bohannan

    Bravo, sir. Bravo!

  • Anonymous

    I am not a scientist nor do I claim to be well versed in any of the sciences, so please excuse my ignorance. However I have always been an avid fan of programs like Nova and Carl Sagan and the like since I was a kid. After recently viewing “History of the Universe” on the History Channel, I was left with a nagging question. According to the program, our universe is expanding, which would obviously mean at some point it was quite small, and suggesting that our universe had a beginning. My question would be, what did that beginning look like? Ok, so the Big Bang Theory has been widely excepted, but what caused the Big Bang? A culmination of elements and particles intermingling in our then tiny universe in such a way as to cause an explosive reaction? Ok, well what was our infant universe like before the BB? It had come from somewhere. Just as human infants are spawned from the genetic imprints of their parents, it would seem to me that something “gave birth” to the existence as we know it today. My mind tells me it is illogical for something to come from nothing as that defies the law of physics. For every action there is an equal and/or opposite reaction.Let me just state very clearly that this is NOT a quest to convert people to Creationism. I am simply sharing some of my ponderings and welcome any input. I realize this venue deals more in the realm of biology, but any thoughts or other ponderings are welcome.And thank you for endulging me!Lydia

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Lydia, it isn’t an inappropriate line of questioning or one that is in any way naive. What happens is that eventually (unless we give up sooner) we get back to something that we posit to simply exist, to always have existed. For some, the universe is as far as they will go, but the evidence that our visible universe had a beginning leads those who seek to answer the question in natural terms to posit something beyond the visible universe that was already there – for instance a “multiverse”.Many religious traditions view God as that which always existed and gave rise to the universe we see. In Hinduism Brahman is this ultimate reality. For the Abrahamic faiths, the “unmoved mover” tends to be thought of in much more personal terms. Ultimately, however, we have the paradox of something that simple exists and we can’t explain why. There is no denying that this is a mystery. The question is whether we choose to use metaphors and symbols to point to the mystery, and if so which ones! :)

  • Anonymous

    Thanks again!Lydia