My personal experience that creationists gravitate to anything with even the faintest scent of scientific uncertainty (and what to do about it)Posted 22 Dec 2015 / 0
Last month, I published a rather long review of William Provine’s last book, The “Random Genetic Drift” Fallacy. The book is pretty obscure and I knew that a lot of other evolutionary biologists had dismissed the book as being a bit on the crazy side, so in the back of my mind I was wondering whether the time that I was putting into the review was time well spent. This is a fear with all my posts: that I will put in hours composing my text only to have it read by almost no one. But I had made a promise to Provine that I would review his book, and although the book was a bit of a mess I thought that it made some important points about the history of our field. So I wrote my review, and I hoped that my worst fears of it languishing in obscurity would not come to pass.
At first, things were looking bad: for the entire month of November, the post received only six page views. But I kept the faith — as I always do with this crazy blogging enterprise — that eventually my work would “pay off” as page views trickled in. Our craft is about the fitness of our ideas, and so it is easy to get caught up checking “how many page views my site got”, a very dilute proxy for actually transmitting one’s ideas to others. And as we hit December, things started to pick up, albeit slowly. A positive comment appeared in response to my review, and one or two page views accumulated each day. I know this level of traffic is very meager, but this sort of meager consistency is what my website seems to specialize in.
Two days ago all that changed. It started when I got a pingback on the review of Provine’s book. For those of you who are not familiar with this term, a pingback is basically a way of listing for your readers where a particular post on your site has been linked to by another site. On a WordPress site like mine, pingbacks have to be approved before they appear in the comments section of my site. I don’t get many pingbacks, so I was pleasantly surprised to see one for this review. I briefly looked at the post that was listing me to make sure it wasn’t something bogus, and I approved it. The site — UncommonDescent.org — sounded vaguely familiar, but I did not bother looking it over. After all, if a site wants to link to me, why not list that site? As long as the link isn’t some kind of spam, I am happy to make the connection.
And then the page views came rolling in: twenty-seven two days ago and sixty-two yesterday. Most of the traffic for the post originated from the link on the post on UncommonDescent.org. Now I do have a few posts that have gotten a lot of traffic (for instance this one, which was linked to by an article on Science Magazine’s website), but this explosion in views merited a bit of explanation. So I took an actual look at the site that was linking to my post and quickly realized that it was a site promoting a creationist explanation of biological diversity.
That’s right: my big pulse in traffic was most likely driven by a wave of interested intelligent design proponents. How should I feel about this?
To be honest, my first reaction was to chuckle at the irony: I work pretty hard to provide a review of a book written by a respected historian of evolutionary biology, and my main readership appears to be composed of people who seek to undermine the scientific explanation of biological evolution. Man, I can’t help but lose, huh?
The post that links to my site is pretty cursory. Clearly the author, who’s not identified by name, has some specific interest in anything that Provine has to say that questions prevailing evolutionary theory. Provine may be a particularly interesting character for creationists, as he was unafraid to directly debate creationists and had appeared in the intelligent design documentary Expelled. The post on UncommonDescent.org contained some errors: it mistakenly suggested that I knew Provine personally and that I am a population geneticist, and it seems to be confused about what the F statistic represents. But otherwise it is a pretty innocuous post, one that simply highlights the fact that Provine’s book questions some prevailing ideas in evolutionary biology.
Why are creationists obsessed with Provine’s book, and therefore flocking to my site? Well, one of the defining themes of the creationist movement — particularly this latest “intelligent design” manifestation of creationism — is that evolutionary biologists conspire to suppress all theories that explain existing biodiversity by any non-Darwinian mechanism. Provine — and I suppose I — offer grist for the intelligent design mill by suggesting that fundamental tenets of evolutionary biology might be erroneous. The fact that Provine’s book was self-published adds fuel to the already-burning conspiracy theory fires that keep a lot of the intelligent design folks warm at night: perhaps what Provine has to say is right, and if so it appears as though evolutionary biologists are actively trying to keep his ideas from being published.
Having actually read Provine’s book carefully, I can say that on a first pass such conspiracy theories are basically drivel: one can clearly see why this book would have been rejected by academic publishers solely on the basis of its meandering incoherence. Sadly we do not have Will Provine here to recount the path this book took before being self-published, but if it was pitched to academic presses I can see why it was rejected. As far as the writing goes, the book is a fine mess.
So I don’t think that Provine’s book offers much evidence that evolutionary biology is some grand conspiracy, a field that systematically excludes new ideas. But it does seem to me that many evolutionary biologists avoid unorthodox ideas like the plague. The way that group selection was handled by our field seems to me to be a classic case of — ironically — groupthink. Once Hamilton, Williams, and finally Dawkins unleashed the rhetorical firestorm that purged group selection from the field, most people treated the issue as settled. What has always been scary about that episode to me was how little data was brought to bear on the question of whether group selection was feasible; hypotheses were being argued, not tested. Provine’s suggestion is that the same thing has happened in population genetics, where theory was canonized before it had actually been well-supported by any sort of observational data. Knowing quite a bit less about population genetics than I do about the history of group selection, I can’t make a full assessment of Provine’s argument, but sadly it does not sound uncharacteristic of our field.
Why might evolutionary biologists suffer from an aversion to new ideas? Or, perhaps stated more aptly: why might evolutionary biologists have a tendency to overstate the certainty of our existing ideas?
I would suggest that creationism has shaped the way that many evolutionary biologists think and behave. Think about it: most scientific fields don’t face the cultural pressures that evolutionary biologists do. Physicists and chemists don’t have to worry about folks picketing their conferences, denying the existence of subatomic forces. People may sometimes mock the inconsistency of meteorological forecasts, but no one’s positing a sham alternative mechanism for continental air mass movements. Most of us have a foot in both evolution and ecology, and you just don’t see the same kind of defensiveness coming from ecologists. Perhaps the only other field that faces a similar external cultural pressure is climate science, and they have only been stalked by scientific deniers for a couple of decades. Ever since Darwin dropped The Origin of Species, our field has been under cultural siege. I think we suffer from serious combat fatigue, and that fatigue has the potential to impede progress in our field.
I see activist creationists — and especially intelligent design advocates — as intellectual terrorists. They don’t really want to have anything to do with the real scientific enterprise, but they pretend to be scientific in order to create havoc and confusion. They are cultural interlopers: unhappy that scientists have their own way of understanding the natural world, the creationists try to discredit the work of honest, open scientists, often using deceitful and/or misleading tactics. If science is a civil society with relatively clear rules — which I think it mostly is — then activist creationists seek to disrupt that society; in this sense, activist creationism is fundamentally nihilistic.
Now let me make it clear that intellectual terrorism is wholly preferable to actual physical terrorism, but that does not mean that intellectual terrorism is harmless. Just as physically-violent terrorism’s biggest effect comes through modifying the everyday behavior of citizens, the intellectual terrorism wreaked by creationists has changed the way we as evolutionary biologists do business. Primarily, we seem less comfortable with uncertainty than other kinds of scientists, and for good reason: we know that the creationists will jump all over anything that smells of scientific lack of certainty. So we might suffer from the tendency to be a little bit too sure about what we do and don’t know. The problem is that healthy, productive science relies on confronting what we do and do not know with certainty. One way to make sure that the terrorists don’t win is to go about our daily business as normal, as if terrorism does not exist; sadly we are not very good at behaving as if activist creationism does not exist.
My own recent (admittedly minor) experience with intelligent design advocates reinforces my sense of the effects of these folks. Just realizing that my site was being linked to by a creationist website was pretty off-putting to me. Having something you have written recommended by creationists is sort of the evil twin of being protested by creationists: just by virtue of being recommended by these folks, I became a bit defensive. For just a moment, I started to question whether what I had written was somehow wrong. Had I betrayed my field by writing something that was seized upon by the creationists?
Luckily, that feeling wore off for me pretty quickly. I am well-suited for these sorts of “controversies” because — despite my very collectivist nature — I have a viciously independent streak. Trust me, my middle digit is locked and loaded for anyone — evolutionist or creationist — who tries to tell me what does and does not belong in our social dialogue about scientific ideas. Go ahead, tell me that I am wrong, beguiled by wacky ideas about alternative evolutionary mechanisms. Hell, I don’t know if my skepticism about aspects of conventionary evolutionary theory is warranted: I’m just a skeptical thinker following where logic and evidence point me. As a scientist I think that it is healthy to be wrong, and also healthy to suggest that others are wrong, especially when adequate evidence has not been offered to support a prevailing theory.
The specific issue at hand, raised by Provine’s book, is whether the Modern Synthesis actually provides a comprehensive bridge between Darwinian evolutionary theory and genetics. Evolution occurs in populations, and the promise of population genetics is that it can explain why genetic changes accrue in populations through evolutionary time. I think that there’s good evidence that we don’t fully understand how genetic changes in populations have produced the evolutionary patterns we observe. There’s still a lot of uncertainty about the mechanisms by which evolution occurs.
What if the Modern Synthesis does provide an inadequate bridge between genetics and Darwin’s evolutionary theory? To me, that just means that there is exciting new science to be done. I want to know how complex genetic architecture was influenced — and influences — the evolutionary process. And if science has things wrong, I certainly do not want to continue pursuing misconceptions based simply on the desire to maintain the appearance that “we have it all figured out”.
Evolutionary theory as laid out by Darwin is exceptionally robust. Does everyone remember that Darwin knew nothing of the mechanisms of inheritance? Even without genetics, Darwin had some pretty prescient ideas about how and why organisms evolve. The discovery of genetics — and the incredible flowering of genomic science — has certainly enriched our understanding of evolution. I just don’t see that our work is done on this front. And that’s no knock on Darwinian evolution.
Finally, for all the new readers in my very small audience who are creationists, let me remind you: what you do is faith, not science. Intelligent design is a non-hypothesis because it cannot be tested. And please be honest: you all do not engage in science. I love many non-scientific cultures, but just admit that is what you are: a way of viewing the world that’s not based on an assessment of available evidence. If our natural world is the product of intelligent design, science is not going to uncover that fact. That leaves you with your faith. Isn’t that enough?
Image of Three Monkeys courtesy of John Snape via Wikimedia CommonsA Major Post, Belief, Creationism, Data Limitation, Evolution, Fluidity of Knowledge, Hypothesis Testing, Natural Selection, Population Genetics, Web, WordPress