Not to beat a dead horse (I think it’s still alive), but I vehemently oppose those evolutionists and accommodationists who won’t affirm that evolution is unguided and purposeless (in the sense of not being directed by a higher intelligence or teleological force). For to the best of our knowledge evolution, like all natural processes, is purposeless and unguided. After all, scientists have no problem saying that the melting of glaciers, the movement of tectonic plates, or the decay of atoms are processes that are unguided and purposeless.
So when you hear people who accept evolution nevertheless refusing to admit that it’s unguided and purposeless, you know you’re dealing with someone who is osculating the rump of faith. For it’s only evolution that elicits these disclaimers, and it’s only evolution that requires such disclaimers to satisfy religious believers.
But evolution is, as far as we can tell, purposeless and unguided. There seems to be no direction, mutations are random, and we haven’t detected a teleological force or agent that pushes it in one direction. And it’s important to realize this: the great importance of Darwin’s theory of natural selection is that an unguided, purposeless process can nevertheless produce animals and plants that are exquisitely adapted to their environment. That’s why it’s called natural selection, not supernatural selection or simply selection.
Theistic evolution, then, is supernaturalism, and admitting its possibility denies everything we know about how evolution works. It waters down science with superstition. It should be no crime—in fact, it should be required—for teachers to tell student that natural selection is apparently a purposeless and unguided process (I use the word “apparently” because we’re not 100% sure, but really, do we need to tell physics students that the decay of an atom is “apparently” purposeless?).
One well-known advocate of evolution has taken great efforts not only to accommodate theistic evolution, but to prevent a major biology teachers’ organization from saying that evolution is purposeless and unguided. That is Eugenie Scott, director of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) and recipient of this year’s Richard Dawkins Award.
First the requisite encomiums. Eugenie and her associates at the NCSE have done awesome battle against creationism, both in the classroom and the courtroom, and she well deserves her praise (and the Dawkins award) for fighting the brushfires of creationism and keeping our classrooms a venue for pure science.
Except, that is, for theistic evolution, which she apparently refuses to disclaim, at least professionally. This story has been told before (see Larry Moran’s account at Sandwalk), but I came across it again yesterday when doing research for a book, reading a paper in Scientific American by Larson and Witham (1999; see reference below; free pdf at link). They recount this tale in a piece about science and religion in America:
Dawkins is well known for his uncompromising views and has likened belief in God to belief in fairies. He considers it intellectually dishonest to live with contradictions such as doing science during the week and attending church on Sunday.
Eugenie C. Scott, director of the anticreationist National Center for Science Education, is mindful of the public relations dividends at stake when combatants such as [Phillip] Johnson and Dawkins insist that the debate between science and religion, belief and nonbelief, evolution and creation, brooks no compromise. One of her showdowns came in the fall of 1997. On the agenda for the board of the National Association of Biology Teachers (NABT) was a vote about its 1995 “Statement on the Teaching of Evolution.” The statement had become infamous in creationist circles because it said that evolution is “an unsupervised, impersonal, unpredictable and natural process”—which to some implied atheism.
Note again that, as far as we can tell, evolution is indeed unsupervised, unpredictable, natural, and impersonal. Larson and Witham continue:
Two reputable scholars, religious historian Huston Smithand philosopher Alvin Plantinga, suggested that the board drop the words “unsupervised, impersonal,” to save biology teachers the grief of having to defend them. The board voted down this proposal. Then, with only hours to spare, Scott persuaded the board to reverse itself. NABT director Wayne W. Carley said the change was good, honest science. “To say that evolution is unsupervised is to make a theological statement.”
No it’s not: it’s a statement of what we know about the process. We see no evidence that it’s supervised, and there could be evidence that it is supervised. That evidence could include teleological forces behind evolution, pure directionality instead of responses to environmental contingencies, and a mutational process that is biased toward adaptive mutations. But we have no such evidence. The thought of Scott collaborating with the odious Alvin Plantinga to keep biology teachers from rejecting supernaturally-directed evolution makes my stomach turn.
The story continues:
But the vote came across in the popular press as scientists kowtowing to creationists, and thus began what Scott calls “l’affaire NABT.” A counter group of biologists disparaged her concern for public relations, insisting that indeed evolution is unsupervised and impersonal.
And so it is, just like every other physical process we know about.
Scott’s move was, of course, political. She and the NCSE have always maintained a NOMA-like stance that science can’t test or have any bearing on the supernatural, a stand that I find palpably false. Of course science can test the supernatural, and I’ve posted on this many times (see here, for instance). The reason that this false claim is pushed so hard by accommodationists like the NCSE is, of course, that if you say science and religion are completely separate areas, you don’t risk offending those believers whose faith is challenged by science. And that way you supposedly gain adherents, though that strategy hasn’t worked.
Scott has published or spoken about the theological import of “unguided evolution” many times. Here’s an example from a paper she wrote in 1996 (p. 518-519, reference below and pdf at link):
G. C. Simpson is regularly quoted with dismay by creationists as saying “Man is the result of a purposeless and natural process that did not have him in mind. He was not planned.” A theist might respond that we do not know what God’s purpose is or what he planned. It is possible that if there is an omnipotent, omniscient deity, it was part of its plan to bring humans and every other species about precisely in what seems to us the rather zigzag, contingency-prone fashion that the fossil evidence suggests. Of course, this would be a theological statement, but that, indeed, is the point. Saying that “there is no purpose to life” is not a scientific statement. We are able to explain the world and its creatures using materialist, physical processes, but to claim that this then requires us to conclude that there is no purpose in nature steps beyond science into philosophy. One’s students may or may not come to this conclusion on their own; in my opinion, for a nonreligious professor to interject his own philosophy into the classroom in this manner is as offensive as it would be for a fundamentalist professor to pass off his philosophy as science. as science.
No, saying that we detect no purpose in evolution is simply a statement about reality. We detect no purpose in an ice cube’s melting at room temperature, either, but is it a theological statement to say that? If not, then is saying that there are no small godlets occasionally igniting the gas in my car cylinder also a theological statement? And is the statement that the throw of a die is guided purely by physical forces also a theological assertion? (Elliott Sober apparently thinks that’s a theological—or at least a philosophical—asssertion.) If we have to put disclaimers in every science class that “this mechanism appears purely natural, but of course we can’t absolutely rule out that it’s directed by God,” then we might as well stop doing science.
On pp. 518-519 of her piece, Scott makes the fallacious argument that science can’t touch or test the supernatural:
In dealing with hundreds of elementary and high-school teachers, I have found that the number of teachers that actually promote philosophical materialism along with evolution is vanishingly small. At the college level, it is more significant, but it is still not general. Vocal proponents of evolutionary materialism such as William Provine at Cornell, Paul Kurtz at the State University of New York, Buffalo, and Daniel Dennet at Tufts vigorously argue that Darwinism makes religion obsolete, and encourage their colleagues to argue likewise. Although I share a similar metaphysical position, I suggest that it is unwise for several reasons to promote this view as “the” scientific one.
First, science is a limited way of knowing, in which practitioners attempt to explain the natural world using natural explanations. By definition, science cannot consider supernatural explanations: if there is an omnipotent deity, there is no way that a scientist can exclude or include it in a research design. This is especially clear in experimental research: an omnipotent deity cannot be “controlled” (as one wag commented, “you can’t put God in a test tube, or keep him out of one.”). So by definition, if an individual is attempting to explain some aspect of the natural world using science, he or she must act as if there were no supernatural forces operating on it. I think this methodological materialism is well understood by evolutionists. But by excluding the supernatural from our scientific turf, we also are eliminating the possibility of proclaiming, via the epistemology of science, that there is no supernatural. One may come to a philosophical conclusion that there is no God, and even base this philosophical conclusion on one’s understanding of science, but it is ultimately a philosophical conclusion, not a scientific one. If science is limited to explaining the natural world using natural causes, and thus cannot admit supernatural explanations, so also is science self-limited in another way: it is unable to reject the possibility of the supernatural.
I am proud to proclaim, via the epistemology of science, that there is no Loch Ness Monster. There could have been one, and left evidence for its presence, but despite ardent searching we have no such evidence. As Victor Stenger notes, the absence of evidence is evidence for absence if that evidence should have been there.
Note that in the article Scott says this: “Although I share a similar metaphysical position, I suggest that it is unwise for several reasons to promote this view as ‘the’ scientific one.” In other words, she really does think that evolution is unguided, but won’t say that this is a scientific stand. Presumably, though, she has real empirical reasons to think that evolution is unguided, so that it’s not just Scott’s “theological position.”
What bothers me, then, is that Scott has affirmed this view in public, since she was one of the signers, along with Richard Dawkins, James Randi, and Kurt Vonnegut, of the Humanist Manifesto III (“Humanism and Its Aspirations“). Among the tenets of this manifesto is—wait for it—the notion of unguided evolution! (My emphasis in section below.)
Knowledge of the world is derived by observation, experimentation, and rational analysis. Humanists find that science is the best method for determining this knowledge as well as for solving problems and developing beneficial technologies. We also recognize the value of new departures in thought, the arts, and inner experience—each subject to analysis by critical intelligence.
Humans are an integral part of nature, the result of unguided evolutionary change.
I am baffled that somebody can affirm the notion that evolution is unguided in a public document, yet have that same view removed from a statement of the American Biology Teachers. It’s not because the notion of unguided evolution is a theological one, for the notion of unguided anything is a precept of science derived from experience. Rather, the removal occurred because the idea of unguided evolution offends religious people, and accommodationists want those people as our allies against creationism.
Well, I’m sorry, but I do not want Alvin Plantinga as my ally. For one thing, he has promoted Michael Behe’s idea of intelligent design. Nor do I want John Haught as my ally, for he thinks that behind evolution is a God pulling the strings—and making tea. That’s simply unscientific. Give me allies who favor pure, unsullied science, a science in which God isn’t directing things behind the scenes. For that, after all, is how things appear to be.
To those who disagree I say, “Sorry, but that’s the way things appear.” We have to live with unguided evolution, unpalatable as it may be to the faithful, in the same way we have to live with the unpalatable knowledge of our own mortality.
Larson, E. J., and W. L. 1999. Scientists and religion in America. Scientific American, Sept.:88-93.
Scott, E. C. 1996. Creationism, ideology and science. Ann. NY Acad. Sci. 775:505-522.