Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Coyne on Brownback

This article by Jerry Coyne has been going around; it's in response to Senator Brownback's recent op-ed clarifying what he meant when he raised his hand to indicate he didn't believe in evolution. It's well-written, but the reasoning in the article is extraordinarily uneven; in parts it is very tight and careful, and in parts it begins to get sloppy. It seems to me that this is a standing problem with this topic. Here, for instance, is a part that I think gets sloppy:

Senator Brownback, along with his two dissenting colleagues, really should be forced to answer a rather more embarrassing question: who is responsible for their being so misinformed? Where did they learn the so-called "problems" with evolution: at their mothers' knees, or in Sunday school? Or perhaps from reading books; and, if so, what books, and who recommended them? Doesn't a public servant have a responsibility to stay informed across a wide spectrum of topics and issues?


No doubt public servants do; but it will never be the case that laypersons can avoid being misinformed about a technical field like evolutionary biology. Not being evolutionary biologists, they will have a difficult time filtering out good and bad information; not being evolutionary biologists, they will have a difficult time avoiding the importation of their own misunderstandings into the explanations they receive from evolutionary biologists. Coyne insists, as I think rightly, that Brownback has a "fundamental misunderstanding" of evolutionary biologist; but throughout he regularly makes the mistake evolutionary biologists tend to make in this area, namely, of treating "misunderstanding" as the problem feature. In fact, it is "fundamental" that is the issue; and Coyne's article, which begins making a decent argument of this sort, fails to come through, quickly meandering off into vague generalities about how embarrassing and dangerous it is for public servants to misunderstand scientific matters, and even more vague and poorly-supported claims about the relation between 'faith' and 'science'.

Moreover, Coyne completely misses a feature that is glaringly obvious in Brownback's actual comments, namely, that the term 'faith' here is being used to indicate, in Brownback's own words, "an understanding of values, meaning and purpose"; that is, he means a moral view of the world. As I have noted many times before, this in fact appears to be the core of the whole problem. The reason so many decent Americans oppose evolution is that they are decent, or at least try to be so, and they have gotten it into their heads that evolutionary theory is associated with the breakdown of decency -- that it takes away the foundations of moral life. And a perpetual problem in this dispute is the tendency of people like Jerry Coyne to get so carried away with their own righteous indignation that they fail to address this point entirely, even though it is both the most important and the most straightforward cause of contention in the whole mess. And this is a very sloppy thing to do. Evolutionary biology deserves a more rational defense than it here receives, one that carefully weighs the actual claims in order to show them, and deal with them, in their true light. It can be done. This article, while it has parts that show a great deal of potential in this direction, just fails utterly to fulfill that potential, and drags it in places down to a rant that simply shows a failure to understand where the rational high ground is to be found.

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