Growing up Darwin


This weekend the Citizen joins into the celebration of Darwin’s 200th birthday, with a fine essay by Tom Spears announcing the End of the Debate.

And here’s the money graf from my contribution:

To be committed to science is to be committed to the idea that there is no original design or purpose in the universe. What pushed God from the picture once and for all is the realization that science is a progressive endeavour that can in principle never come to an end: Something came from nothing, the more complex came from the less complex, and the appearance of design or intent is just that — appearance.

Filed under:

Growing up Darwin

  1. While probably true, it is useful if we allow theists to think that science and theism can be reconciled. One can hope that the cognitive dissonance will take a percentage of them every generation and cause them to abandon theism. Rejecting theism is a recipe for blood.

  2. “We can never say we have achieved the final truth, because there is always the possibility of further explanation in terms of broader or deeper laws.”

    I thought that was the ‘money’ sentence. Don’t know how you write off God but believe this to be true as well.

    I am a Deist and believe God to be a libertarian, which is handy because I am libertarian myself, who started the ball rolling however many years ago but has left us to our own devices ever since. I also don’t want religion to disappear because I believe the morality it has imposed on Western society is a good one. Stalin/Lenin, Mao, Hitler, Pol Pot … all tried godless societies and ended up killing and maiming way more people than anything Christians have done.

    And I find many libs/progressives belief that they believe in science more than others to be entirely specious. They like evolution but have big trouble with biology, which has debunked libs/prog’s belief in tabula rasa but still they pretend ‘nurture’ is the be all and end all.

    • Jwl
      I’m no anti-christian but a case could be made for Christians of earlier eras not being as brutal largely because they lacked acess to the states killing machinery.But I do think we do an ok job of living up to our professed beliefs or principles now that we do control the machines of war.
      Remember, if you can make god a libertarian evryone else is free to make him whatsoever they choose. Perhaps god defies human characterization.

      • “God is society, writ large.” – Emile Durkheim

        • Then again, many have made the case that science is just as much a reflection of social and cultural context, so there you go.

          I’m just finishing up “Galileo’s Mistake,” by Wade Rowland, which is an engaging look at how we’ve managed to read our own interpretations into both Galieo’s and the Catholic Church’s “conflict”, and to mistaken credit Galieo with a similar approach to science that AP argues for. Whether or not I fully buy his argument, Rowland does a credible job or arguing that science may not hold any privileged form of knowledge. (I’m a positivist to the core, so there’s limits to how far I’ll go down that path).

          • and why I keep omitting the second “L” from Galileo, neither God nor science can explain…

          • I agree that science may not hold any privileged form of knowledge. There will always be questions that have not been answered scientifically (yet, anyway). And there will always be theories that are overturned. So I feel people should feel free to explain things in their own ways. But science typically does a very good job of distniguishing a good theory (evolution) from a bad one (ID).

            However, it is also true that even Einstein had great difficulty in convincing his scientific peers with his theories. So I do not feel that attacks on God and religion are justified. Changing peoples’ minds about theories they have long held true is difficult no matter who is involved.

        • “I have my hand in my pants.” Pee Wee Herman

    • Good point. Try to get a liberal to discuss genetic differences between ethnic groups and you’ll see lots of hostility to science. How about getting a liberal to discuss genetic differences between sexes? Lawrence Summers knows what happens. Or try to get a liberal to allow a scientific approach to social policy, and then you’ll see science being thrown out the window.

  3. Andrew:

    I think it’s false to suggest science and faith can’t co-exist. There are some sects of Christianity and more then a few Christians who believe that to be the case.

    • Tell that to all of the famous and successful scientists who are Christian.

    • Sorry, I misread your statement, originally I thought you were saying the opposite of what you did. I guess I did not follow the double negative the first time.

      I agree with your statement.

    • Interesting story in today’s Globe about man in India who is leader of a Hindu sect and a scientist who is trying to clean up the Ganges. His faith and belief in science seem to co-exist just fine within him.

      • Yes, but he IS a Hindu, to whom even a turnip is god — and probably libertarian to boot.

  4. I found this passage in the Spears piece a bit confusing and contradictory:

    Flu viruses evolve the same way, which is why this year’s flu bug laughs at last year’s vaccine. So do all kinds of microbes from tuberculosis germs to useful bacteria in soil.

    “At a large scale, too, we’re seeing organisms adapting to changing environments,” she notes.

    I’m no Darwin expert, but my understanding of his theory was that organisms don’t “adapt” to changing environments, but rather the mutations of the organisms that are better suited to the changed environment tend to flourish, while those lacking the mutations tend to go extinct. The passage quoted above suggests to me some form of “intelligent design”.

    Can anyone elaborate if I am misinterpreting Darwin’s theory?

    • This piece was intended to be quoted as well in the above comment (in the blank section)

      “At a large scale, too, we’re seeing organisms adapting to changing environments,” she notes.

      • I too think that example might be unfortunate, in that there are a multitude of strains that can potentially spread amongst us each year. It’s not a case of the same strain evolving resistance to the vaccine, so much as scientists accurately predicting which particular strains will enter the human population.

        At least that’s how I understand it.

    • I think your description is more accurate than Spears’. Organisms do not “adapt”, as individuals. Organisms simply try to survive. Organisms “adapt” collectively, in the sense that you have described. The strains of virus that are resistant to vaccine are not the same as those that were not. They are simply more likely to survive and flourish and pass on their genetic material than their unfortunate cousins.

      Eventually the variations within species caused by this process can result in a divergence into new species.

    • Yes, you’re reading the sentences wrong. When they say “flu viruses evolve…” or “organisms adapting”, they don’t mean the individual organisms deliberately adapting to their environment, but the species as a whole passively adapting to their changing environment as per evolutionary biology.

      No conflict here, or any sign of intelligent design.

      • i don’t think anyone was suggesting intelligent design, so much as a poorly chosen example.

        The point is, the sometimes failure of influenza vaccines is not a particularly great illustration of evolution, since it has a great deal to do with the predictive models of medical scientists.

        If successive generations of the same virual strain, in the same flu SEASON, were evolving resistance to the vaccine developed by scientists, it would be a compelling case. But it’s more a matter of how well scientists can anticipate which particular strains will be prevalent for any given season, and formulating vaccines on that basis. We can’t change the formulation of vaccines “on the fly”, so if unanticipated strains arise in a given flu season (like this one), we’re screwed.

        No one is denything that viruses change from generation to generation, or that evolution doesn’t apply to them. Simply that the paticular case of human-made vaccines has little to do with natural selection, as used in the article.

        Unless I’m totally wrong about how the whole flu and vaccine thing works, which may be the case too.

        • Here is the wiki entry for natural selection related to viruses. I vaguely remembered the “mutation” requirement as I recall the yeast experiment /demonstration in a Psch 101 class years ago:

          An example: antibiotic resistance

          A well-known example of natural selection in action is the development of antibiotic resistance in microorganisms. Since the discovery of penicillin in 1928 by Alexander Fleming, antibiotics have been used to fight bacterial diseases. Natural populations of bacteria contain, among their vast numbers of individual members, considerable variation in their genetic material, primarily as the result of mutations. When exposed to antibiotics, most bacteria die quickly, but some may have mutations that make them slightly less susceptible. If the exposure to antibiotics is short, these individuals will survive the treatment. This selective elimination of maladapted individuals from a population is natural selection.

          These surviving bacteria will then reproduce again, producing the next generation. Due to the elimination of the maladapted individuals in the past generation, this population contains more bacteria that have some resistance against the antibiotic. At the same time, new mutations occur, contributing new genetic variation to the existing genetic variation. Spontaneous mutations are very rare, and advantageous mutations are even rarer. However, populations of bacteria are large enough that a few individuals will have beneficial mutations. If a new mutation reduces their susceptibility to an antibiotic, these individuals are more likely to survive when next confronted with that antibiotic. Given enough time, and repeated exposure to the antibiotic, a population of antibiotic-resistant bacteria will emerge.


  5. “We can never say we have achieved the final truth, because there is always the possibility of further explanation in terms of broader or deeper laws”


    “To be committed to science is to be committed to the idea that there is no original design or purpose in the universe”

    I don’t see how these two claims can co-exist. The first sentence is the reason why there are so many scientists who are also religious.

    • In the specific circumstances (unsicentific attacks on the scientific theory of evolution) it makes sense. If science comes across something which explains the development of life better, hopefully scientists and strictly rational human beings will become equally dedicated to what that may be.

      Since the scientific evidence of original design or purpose is essentially zero, scientific commttment to these ideas is foolish. If circumstances change, science will change with them.

  6. Regardless of its possible truth, belief in some kind of god or gods clearly confers an evolutionary advantage, or it would have died out by know. As conscious beings, we seek meaning. If none exists, it is difficult for many to find reasons to live. As Mark Steyn would be glad to tell you, those who believe in God have more children.

    I believe (and I am led to believe that Andrew Potter does not believe) that the evolutionary advantage conferred thus far on Earth by a belief in a higher power is on the verge on becoming an evolutionary disadvantage. The belief that God has granted humans dominion over every living thing (to paraphrase the Old Testament) supports a complete lack of respect for preservation of the natural environment. In the next century or less, we will realize the price we have to pay for that.

    Of course, one can also find religious writings of many belief systems, including those popular in the West, that can be used to support environmental stewardship. Those are less popular. As some of the earlier comments show, humans tend to believe in a God who wants them to do what they want to do anyway.

  7. Hmmmm … science can never come to an end eh! Oh yes it can quite easily – no people … no science. This so called term science nowadays is currently being used as a form of worship and can no longer be debated if you do the thought police will take your name! ScienceMagicPhilosophyReligion these are all merely products of the human mind and in a way are illusions as they exist only in the human mind. To think otherwise is folly and hubris and a form of self delusion. There is a comfort in a temporary feeling that somehow we have gained some specific insight into the makings of the universe and this is somehow special but ultimately this course of logic is a form of mental masturbation at best. Take the concept of the big bang the natural arguement is what was before? -> however if you study the thesis you see that time and space were created at the big bang therefore it is only logical that there was no before! – what no before how that be it’s a a paradox beynd the human minds comprehension which incidentally what I think god really is ? – my favorite part of the bible king james – JOB! God answers a question from Job! = 1 Then the LORD answered Job out of the storm. He said: 2 “Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge? 3 Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me. 4 “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand. 5 Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it? 6 On what were its footings set, or who laid its cornerstone-

    • Science as illusion eh Wayne? Why don’t you go stand in front of the E&N, since it only exists in yr mind i can expect you back soon! But to be on the safe side i’ll say it was nice knowing ya! Oh by the the way Stevie boy loses. I”ve taken yr advice and popped next door to visit the future – it’s bad i foresee Harper’s humiliation…and wait, yes i see a train with yr name on it.

      • ROFL : let me see if I understand your semi-tirade. You disagree that science exists only in the mind and extrapolate this to my boy Stevie losing the next election … hmmmmmm .. well okay if in your mind you have come to this connection then indeed you have proved my point. First let’s try a thought experiment .. now pay attention closely because what I am about to educate you on has been proven by science and there is no argument on this as it is a scientific fact. You are standing on the train tracks and you see a train approaching you from 1 mile away (a Liberal election train)… it is travelling at 1 foot per second and you note the time -now here comes the rub – you time the up and comin collison by waiting until the train is halfway and then divide by 2 to determine the collison time and make a note of that – then – you wait until the train again travels half the distance and make a note of the time – you then again wait until the train travels half the remaining distance note the time = you keep repeating this … again and again and again and again and … well what’s happening here something odd is occuring – you have entered the realm of illusion as you have entered a mathematical concept that math itself proves and yet doesn’t make any sense (as usual) -Tee TRAIN never collides with you as there is always half the distance left!!!! it is called Zeno’s paradox

  8. Does it take any religious belief to accept the understanding that a single celled being with the ability to invent itself, sustain itself, reproduce itself and have the desire to produce competion for itself could come into existence without design.? Just a side note before you answer. Survival of the fittest tell us it would be suicidal to produce a superior offspring. Just sayin.
    If as Tom ( the obviously balanced reporter – no bias here folks – don’t look for any dissenting views in my essay) Spears would have us believe, God uses evolution to produce His creation, then Mr. Spears has to be willing to admit that God might not have.
    I will always see macro-evolutionists as fools, no matter how many grants they extort.

  9. Science makes no claims to describe subjective experience — it’s only concerned with objectivity — and subjectivity in the end is all we have as individuals (even if it’s the subjective experience of scientifically authenticated objective phenomena). The problem is not that science has replaced religion (of “faith”) but that religion insists on clinging to its pre-scientific dogma about objective reality; meanwhile “believers in science” (fine irony) seem to want to elide the difference between subjectivity and objectivity, between individual and group knowledge. What we need is a philosophy that articulates the difference and allows the two to coexist peacefully without trampling on each other’s domaines. The lack of philosophy in modern society is one of our most basic problems.

    • Great scientist of the past and present were and are able to find faith in God and carry out scientific endevour. I’m sure a well read fellow like yourself, Jack, doesn’t need a list of those famous names. My point, however is, science is God’s invention and God is not ours.

      • Nanu, nanu. Ma wants you to go home now.

        Your brother,


      • Ridiculous, there is not the slightest evidence for the existence of gods, goddesses, vampires and werewolves. But unsurprisingly, religious people confuse their personal opinions with facts, something that can’t be more obvious here: science is an entirely man-made methodology, your god played absolutely no role in this.

        Also, scientists can believe in anything they want. Even a molecular biologist can probably do a good job and publish coherent papers despite that he honestly believing that the Earth is flat (or that space aliens “seeded” life on Earth). Same thing with any other delusion; as long as it doesn’t hinder the reason of the person then it’s unlikely to effect his work negatively. In other words, it is because those past and present scientists were able to put aside the religious dogmas prevalent in their time (i.e. life isn’t “magical”, Earth wasn’t always the same as is is now, species can go extinct, Zeus doesn’t really throw lightning at us when he is angry) that they were able to contribute to the collective knowledge. Because I seriously doubt that a fundamentalist christian geologist who believe that Earth is 6000 years old would be able to do something else than promoting ignorance.

        • Well, I don’t think it’s totally ridiculous to say that God created science. It depends on what your definition of God is. Until you have that down, you really can’t say much about His / his relationship to anything.

          What do you mean Zeus doesn’t really throw lightning at us when he is angry? If John Baird can, I think Zeus might be able to too.

  10. Potter, your “definition” of science is in fact a hypothesis about nature itself and nothing about Science, which is an endeavor.
    And that’s your money graph?

  11. Someone ought to tell Francis Collins (director of the Human Genome Project) and John Polkinghorne (physicist from camridge and co-discoverer of the quark) That as Mr. Potter said “To be committed to science is to be committed to the idea that there is no original design or purpose in the universe.” Obviously men like Collins and Polkinghorne need to learn at the feet of a scientist like Mr. Potter, who with his long list of scientific accomplishments is clearly better able to deal with such matters.

Sign in to comment.