Adam Gopnik has written an impertinent piece for the New Yorker (February 19, 2015), arguing that political candidates should be put on the spot and required to affirm their acceptance of evolution before being allowed to take office. Evolution, he writes, is “an inarguable and obvious truth” which is “easy to understand,” and if you oppose “Darwinian biology,” you thereby “announce yourself against the discoveries of science, or so frightened of those who are that you can be swayed from answering honestly.” A politician who fails to publicly embrace evolution “shouldn’t be trusted with power.” As Gopnik puts it:
It does seem slightly odd to ask a man running for President — or, for that matter, for dogcatcher — to recite a catechism on modern science…
But the notion that the evolution question was unfair, or irrelevant, or simply a “sorting” device designed to expose a politician as belonging to one cultural club or another, is finally ridiculous. For the real point is that evolution is not, like the Great Pumpkin, something one can or cannot “believe” in. It just is — a fact certain, the strongest and most resilient explanation of the development of life on Earth that there has ever been…
What the question means, and why it matters, is plain: Do you have the courage to embrace an inarguable and obvious truth when it might cost you something to do so? A politician who fails this test is not high-minded or neutral; he or she is just craven, and shouldn’t be trusted with power.
Let me note for the record that Gopnik, despite his numerous awards, has no scientific qualifications whatsoever; he earned a B.A. degree from McGill University and did some graduate work at the New York University Institute of Fine Arts.) To his credit, he appears to have read widely on the subject of evolution, but the most signal failing of his well-written but misguided piece is his inability to understand that evolution is a theory on many different levels. To affirm the theory of organic evolution in the broadest sense is quite different from affirming the theory of evolution as understood by most scientists. One can believe, as I do, that all living things are descended from a common stock, from which they evolved over millions of years, and that most of the genetic differences between the different kinds of organisms on Earth are due to either random changes (e.g. genetic drift) or non-random natural selection. But it is another thing entirely to affirm that these unguided processes are sufficient to account for the key structural innovations in the history of life – such as the origin of the nucleus of the eukaryotic cell, or the appearance of no less than 30 distinct animal body types over a relatively short period that comprises a mere 0.5% of the history of life on Earth, let alone the suite of genetic changes that took place in the human lineage within the last few million years and culminated in the most stupendously complex device the world has ever seen: the human brain. Moreover, there is certainly no scientific consensus at present regarding the claim that macroevolution is but microevolution writ large: in fact, a number of respectable biologists dispute this highly questionable assertion. To be sure, Gopnik does not explicitly make this claim in his piece – indeed, he acknowledges that evolutionists disagree on the question, “How gradual does ‘gradual’ have to be? – but it is implied by his contention that life on Earth “proceeds through the gradual process of variation and selection” and that “we arrived in bits and were made up willy-nilly, not by the divine designer but by the tinkering of time.”
And that brings me to another point: despite Gopnik’s vocal protestations that belief in evolution is compatible with a wide gamut of worldviews ranging from Marxist to Catholic to Wiccan, his own characterization of the theory of evolution is flat-out incompatible with the belief – held by a solid majority of Americans who embrace the theory – that evolution is a God-guided process. By shrilly insisting that we were “made up willy-nilly, not by the divine designer but by the tinkering of time,” Gopnik risks alienating his core constituency: people who are open to the findings of science, but who also believe that life – and in particular, human life – is the product of God’s design.
Gopnik evidently considers anyone who doubts evolution, after being presented with the evidence for it, to be deeply irrational. One wonders, then, what he would make of the testimony of Professor Richard Smalley (1943-2005), winner of the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Towards the end of his life, Dr. Richard Smalley became an Old Earth creationist, after reading two books (Origins of Life and Who Was Adam?), written by Dr. Hugh Ross (an astrophysicist) and Dr. Fazale Rana (a biochemist). Dr. Smalley explained his change of heart as follows:
Evolution has just been dealt its death blow. After reading Origins of Life, with my background in chemistry and physics, it is clear evolution could not have occurred. The new book, Who Was Adam?, is the silver bullet that puts the evolutionary model to death. (Montana News Association report, December 21, 2005.)
And what would Gopnik make of Professor James M. Tour, who was ranked one of the ten most cited chemists in the world in 2009, and who has forthrightly declared in an online essay that while microevolution (or small changes occurring within a species) is well-understood by scientists, there is no scientist alive today who understands how macroevolution is supposed to work, at a chemical level?
I do have scientific problems understanding macroevolution as it is usually presented. I simply can not accept it as unreservedly as many of my scientist colleagues do, although I sincerely respect them as scientists. I simply can not accept it as unreservedly as many of my scientist colleagues do, although I sincerely respect them as scientists. Some of them seem to have little trouble embracing many of evolution’s proposals based upon (or in spite of) archeological, mathematical, biochemical and astrophysical suggestions and evidence, and yet few are experts in all of those areas, or even just two of them. Although most scientists leave few stones unturned in their quest to discern mechanisms before wholeheartedly accepting them, when it comes to the often gross extrapolations between observations and conclusions on macroevolution, scientists, it seems to me, permit unhealthy leeway. When hearing such extrapolations in the academy, when will we cry out, “The emperor has no clothes!”?…
I simply do not understand, chemically, how macroevolution could have happened. Hence, am I not free to join the ranks of the skeptical and to sign such a statement without reprisals from those that disagree with me? Furthermore, when I, a non-conformist, ask proponents for clarification, they get flustered in public and confessional in private wherein they sheepishly confess that they really don’t understand either. Well, that is all I am saying: I do not understand. But I am saying it publicly as opposed to privately. Does anyone understand the chemical details behind macroevolution?”
Gopnik is silent in his article regarding the origin of life – and for good reason. Evolutionary biologist Dr. Eugene Koonin, in his peer-reviewed article, The Cosmological Model of Eternal Inflation and the Transition from Chance to Biological Evolution in the History of Life (Biology Direct 2 (2007): 15, doi:10.1186/1745-6150-2-15), has calculated (using a “toy model” which is not intended to be realistic, but which deliberately errs on the side of generosity in its scientific assumptions) that the odds of even a very basic life-form – a coupled replication-translation system – emerging anywhere in the observable universe are astronomically low: 1 in 1 followed by 1,018 zeroes! To overcome these daunting odds, Dr. Koonin is forced to postulate the existence of a multiverse containing a vast number of universes, of which ours just happens to have a planet on which life evolved. But the problem with this kind of explanation is that it explains too much: you can explain away literally any level of complexity by invoking a multiverse, if you really want to.
Finally, the central contention of Gopnik’s article is that scientific belief in evolution is driven purely by the evidence, and that any open-minded person, examining the evidence in a detached manner, would arrive at the same conclusion. But in that case, what would he make of the following admission by Professor Richard Lewontin, in a memorable review (New York Times, January 9, 1997) of Carl Sagan’s book, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark:
Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door. The eminent Kant scholar Lewis Beck used to say that anyone who could believe in God could believe in anything. To appeal to an omnipotent deity is to allow that at any moment the regularities of nature may be ruptured, that miracles may happen.
Given such an a priori commitment, we might well ask: can we reasonably expect scientists to examine the alleged evidence for Intelligent Design in a fair and objective manner? I think not.
Of course, Professor Lewontin himself has no doubts about the fact of evolution: in a more recent review (“Why Darwin?”, New York Review of Books, May 28, 2009), he praises Jerry Coyne, the acclaimed author of Why Evolution Is True, for presenting “the incontrovertible evidence that evolution is a physical fact of the history of life on earth.” Nevertheless, he is honest enough to draw his readers’ attention to a vital weakness in Coyne’s case. Demonstrating organic evolution is one thing; showing that it was driven by the unguided process of natural selection is quite another:
In referring to the theory of evolution he [Coyne] makes it clear that we do not mean the weak sense of “theory,” an ingenious tentative mental construct that might or might not be objectively true, but the strong sense of . In this he is entirely successful.
Where he is less successful, as all other commentators have been, is in his insistence that the evidence for natural selection as the driving force of evolution is of the same inferential strength as the evidence that evolution has occurred…
There is, of course, nothing that Coyne can do about the situation. There are different modes of “knowing,” and we “know” that evolution has, in fact, occurred in a stronger sense than we “know” that some sequence of evolutionary change has been the result of natural selection.
It is a great pity that Adam Gopnik, in his piece for the New Yorker, fails to display the same nuanced understanding of evolution that Lewontin does.
Gopnik contends that “Darwinism is easily falsified, and it has survived every possible test.” I would advise him to carefully read Dr. Douglas Axe’s article, The Case Against a Darwinian Origin of Protein Folds, in BioComplexity 2010(1):1-12. doi:10.5048/BIO-C.2010.1. Dr. Axe is certainly a qualified scientist: after obtaining a Caltech Ph.D., he held postdoctoral and research scientist positions at the University of Cambridge, the Cambridge Medical Research Council Centre, and the Babraham Institute in Cambridge. He has also written two articles for the Journal of Molecular Biology (see here and here for abstracts). He has also co-authored an article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, an article in Biochemistry and an article published in PLoS ONE.
But let us continue. Gopnik writes: “There were not enough fossils in Darwin’s own lifetime to do more than offer a hunch about what they’d show, but the fossils unearthed since show that Darwin’s hunches were right…” But Darwin himself acknowledged “the almost entire absence, as at present known, of formations rich in fossils beneath the Cambrian strata” as a difficulty “of the most serious nature” for his theory (Origin of Species, sixth edition, London: John Murray, 1872, Chapter 10, p. 289). And while we can now trace the history of life back over 3.5 billion years, the relatively brief 20-million-year Cambrian explosion, in which at least 30 animal body types burst on the scene between 540 and 520 million years ago, remains an enigma. Indeed, one of Britain’s top geneticists, Dr. Norman C. Nevin OBE, BSc, MD, FRCPath, FFPH, FRCPE, FRCP, who is Professor Emeritus in Medical Genetics, Queen’s University, Belfast, has publicly praised Intelligent Design advocate Stephen Meyer’s recent book, Darwin’s Doubt as a welcome contribution to the literature on the subject:
With the publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859, Darwin acknowledged that there wasn’t an adequate explanation for the pattern in the fossil record in which a wide diversity of animal life suddenly appeared in the Cambrian geological period. His doubt about the “Cambrian explosion” centered on the wide range of body forms, the missing fossil intermediates and the lack of evidence for antecedents.
Meyer’s book examines the implications of the “Cambrian explosion.” It is a fascinating story and analysis of Darwin’s doubt about the fossil record and the debate that has ensued. It is a tour de force…
Many leading biologists criticize key aspects of evolution. The main problem with neo-Darwinism is the origin of new biological information. Building a living organism requires an immense amount of information. The issue that arises is the source of the information and how can random mutations and natural selection generate the necessary biological information to produce such a diversity of animal forms without antecedents.
This book is well informed, carefully researched, up-to-date and powerfully argued. Its value is that it confronts Darwin’s doubt and deals with the assumptions of neo-Darwinism. This book is much needed and I recommend it to students of all levels, to professionals and to laypeople.
Another thing Darwin certainly didn’t predict was the discovery of orphan genes – a subject on which Dr. Ann Gauger has written a very fair-minded essay for interested laypeople (see here for another viewpoint). I’m not going to argue here that orphan genes demonstrate design, but I also think it would be premature to rule it out, especially when I read that some of these genes played a key part in the evolution of the human brain. To focus, as Gopnik does, on the (admittedly impressive) “sequence of skulls and skeletons” which seem to indicate that humans evolved gradually, is to overlook the most important evidence of all: the human brain, whose historical evolution is chronicled by Holloway et al. in their 2009 article, Evolution of the Brain in Humans – Paleoneurology ( New Encyclopedia of Neuroscience, Springer, 2009, pp. 1326-1334), by Karin Isler and Carel P. van Schaik in their article, How Our Ancestors Broke through the Gray Ceiling (Current Anthropology, Vol. 53, No. S6), and by Benoit Dubreuil in Paleolithic public goods games: why human culture and cooperation did not evolve in one step (Biology and Philosophy (2010) 25:53–73, doi 10.1007/s10539-009-9177-7). At the present time, scientists are in no position to affirm that the brain, whose complexity dwarfs that of the entire Internet, could have arisen by a purely unguided process, and for Gopnik to declare that it was generated “not by the divine designer but by the tinkering of time” is sheer dogmatism – which is precisely the kind of thing which he declares to be incompatible with science, in his piece.
One of the most comical contentions in Gopnik’s piece is his assertion that the DNA evidence for Darwinism “slips into the fossil evidence seamlessly.” What? Is Gopnik completely unaware of scientific conflicts regarding the base of the tree of life? And has he never heard of the bitter wrangling between paleontologists and molecular biologists over the family tree of mammals (for instance, which mammals are bats’ closest relatives?) – which was not satisfactorily resolved until 2013, with the publication of a paper showing that the different groups of placental mammals diverged relatively suddenly after the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event of 66 million years ago? Or what about the timing of the split between the line leading to orang-utans and the line leading to humans, chimps and gorillas – a subject I blogged about here? Fossil evidence dates the split to somewhere between 9 and 13 million years ago, while new molecular evidence suggests a date of between 34 and 46 million years ago. Is this what Gopnik would describe as seamless congruence?
Let me close with a final suggestion of my own. If Adam Gopnik really wants to sort out the wheat from the chaff, when assessing political candidates’ openness to science, the question he should ask them is this: “Do you believe that high school and college students should be presented with the scientific evidence for the modern theory of evolution, along with peer-reviewed articles critiquing the various outstanding problems with this theory?” That’s a question to which any Intelligent Design proponent would unhesitatingly answer, “Yes.”