My crank mail can be categorized into several categories. There are the short, barely literate splutterings of abuse; the weird rants and threats; the reiteration of long-dead creationist talking points (yeah, I get email where the writer thinks he’s trumped me by saying “If evolution is true, why are there still monkeys?”); and then there are the long, rambling lectures from deeply clueless individuals. I’m afraid this is one of the latter. I’ll understand if you fall asleep partway through.
By the way, the author actually sent this to me pre-formatted in Comic Sans. I’m also rather peeved that he’s sending me a letter addressed to Eugenie Scott.
an open letter to eugenie scott
Dear Professor Myers: If you can refute this argument, I will commit myself to Darwin. As it stands now, I remain in doubt as to which theory is true: Darwin or intelligent design. Sincerely, Robert wood
Dear Eugenie Scott,
I am willing to be convinced of the truth of the theory of evolution—I mean as a final explanation for the origin and variety of species. However, as a non-scientist and someone who deems himself unequal to the challenge of debating this issue (evolution versus intelligent design) on its scientific merits, I can’t help but make one important observation concerning the respective disputants.
Those scientists who believe in evolution and who are strongly opposed to the idea of intelligent design, give the impression (tell me I am wrong in this, Eugenie) of being incapable of doubting the validity of the theory of evolution. Now let me explain. I believe that 2 plus 2 is 4; I believe in the theory of gravitation; I believe the earth goes around the sun—but should any of these beliefs be questioned, I only have to recall how it is and why it is I believe them to prove the falseness of any theory which would contradict those beliefs. In other words, I don’t just believe in the heliocentric theory; I have the satisfaction of confirming it by the manner in which I believe in it. The issue never touches me personally; therefore I take refuge in the objectivity of the truth of this theory, should it be challenged in any way by some competing theory.
Now the theory of evolution is deemed by the majority of scientists to have the status of scientific truth equivalent to that of quantum mechanics or the theory of relativity. Good. But, when it is questioned (perhaps by those who are willfully ignorant, or prejudiced, or fearful, or obstinate), do its proponents make contact with the inherent truth that would afford them a stance of detachment and sobriety?
In many cases they do not. Instead they act as if this is an ideological issue in which these supporters of Darwin are defending the honour and reputation and prestige of a theory without regard to a true assessment of its validity considered in the light of a context created by a competing theory (intelligent design).
And so what happens is that the theory of evolution does not provide on its own merits the same kind of confidence and equipoise that other scientific theories automatically provide in the face of possible criticism. The belief becomes just that: belief; and the exhilarating and vital contact with the empirical truth of the theory of evolution no longer can determine the experience of the person who is defending Darwin against intelligent design. The belief in the theory overwhelms the intrinsic truth of the theory—in the context of this debate.
And it should not be this way were Darwin’s theory comparable in its accordance with physical reality as other scientific theories are. And this is where it gets interesting. You see, if a scientific theory is correct (there is an agreement with reality), then in a sense the more it is challenged, the more it proves itself under this adversity. This is always the case. But this is not the case with Darwin in the present circumstance. The more the theory is criticised, the more the alternative theory (intelligent design) is attacked. But this is absurd. Darwin’s theory stands by itself. And if this is true, why is it that scientists who believe in the theory of evolution, separate themselves from the context which is provided them by the fact that Darwin’s theory is true, in order to make it seem that the only way the theory of evolution can survive is by making certain the opposition is silenced, censured, stigmatized, and punished.
This is a great paradox. But it points up an extremely important fact: the hard-core Darwinist is not existentially in control of his belief in Darwin, for if he were, he would not be capable of acting with passion, vehemence, hostility when he finds this theory challenged.
If someone successfully mounted a campaign that attempted to bring into question any other scientific theory, what would be the response of a given individual scientist to this campaign? Would it, Professor Scott, take the form of the attitude of the National Center for Science Education on their website? As I read that website, it strikes me that the enemy is at the gates, and we must put down these insurgents with whatever force is required.
We have given up the project of converting them, They are mysteriously perverse; they refuse to be reasonable, they refuse to look at the facts impartially, they are determined to destroy the very integrity with which science is done. What can we do but fight back—with everything we have?
But I ask you, Eugenie, is this the scenario which will meet with success, triumph, and eventual vindication?
No, it is not. And this is because it is being driven by a psychology which finds it impossible to conceive that Darwin might be wrong. You see, Eugenie, it doesn’t matter if I decide, for purposes of clarification, to doubt what I believe in—in this case, the theory of evolution. In fact, just like entertaining, for the benefit which might accrue from thinking against what I knew is true, the thought that: perhaps the sun does indeed go around the earth, so too it is an intellectually salutary act to wonder: on what basis, in the face of what evidence, could I conceive it possible that I could doubt Darwin (or conceive there to be an “edge of evolution”)? If I am secretly terrified by the thought (without knowing why) this may very well mean that I am invested in the idea of the truth of the theory quite independently of whether in fact that theory can stand the test of objective critical examination. You see, I won’t know the answer to this question (and therefore won’t have the tremendous satisfaction of re-believing in Darwin in the innocent way that I first came to believe in his theory), if I find that I cannot doubt the theory of evolution right now.
If my belief in the theory of evolution was predicated strictly on my own determination that it was true, then, when challenged by the theory of intelligent design, I could discriminate as to exactly why I still believe in Darwin, why I cannot believe in intelligent design.
But if metaphysically and psychologically I witness in myself that I will not, I cannot, I must not, doubt Darwin, then this, it seems to me, is prima facie evidence that my continuing to believe in Darwin is being determined by something outside of the control that I could exercise by my own will.
Do the intelligent design people (not the young earth creationists) conceive of the possibility that they might be wrong? I believe they do, Eugenie. Sure, they are confident they will displace Darwin at some point—for them this seems, based on the evidence, inevitable. But just as a private exercise in Socratic doubt, are they prepared to imagine they have been deceived and that Darwin’s theory will once again demonstrate itself to be a superior theory of speciation to that of intelligent design? I think (among those who are practicing scientists) they are. And so, what does that mean?
It means that their commitment to the validity of intelligent design is not being determined by their metaphysical and psychological need for it to be true. More than this, it means that whatever they are in contact with in expounding their views, it affords them a sense of normalcy which makes them naturally sensitive to the reasonableness and persuasiveness of the other side (the evolutionists). Simply because, evidently the belief in intelligent design stands or falls with the evidence; it is not being driven by a personal unwillingness to believe in the theory of evolution. More than this. It means that to believe in intelligent design is a personal choice, fully under the control of the individual scientist.
And this is the terrible irony, Eugenie: that the intelligent design theorist can see for himself the furious subjectivity of the ultra-Darwinist in his determination to destroy the reputation and credibility of a scientist who believes in intelligent design; this alerts him to an important fact: the Darwinist is not in control of his belief. His belief is held in place by something that exceeds even his (the evolutionist’s) assumption as to why he wishes to continue to believe in Darwin no matter what.
The conclusion I must draw, Eugenie, is that the reaction of the Darwinists is precisely the kind of reaction that is designed to bring about the most meaningful triumph of intelligent design, for without this intense opposition, the theory of intelligent design it could be inferred, can’t be true, because the real scientists, to a person (in this theoretical scenario) are treating it exactly like they would treat a challenge to the belief that the earth revolves around the sun, that 2 plus 2 is not 4, that quantum mechanics is wrong. They are letting the theory of evolution prove itself; and thus welcoming opposition, because as it turns out, opposition works on behalf of the theory of evolution to make it even more convincing.
Now the question you are no doubt asking, Eugenie, is: well, if we know a theory is true and people question its truthfulness, are we therefore just supposed to let this opposing (and unproven) theory have a respectable place in science? Well, of course not. But, you see, Eugenie, as a scientist you must proceed on the basis of a fair-minded, disinterested, and dispassionate investigation of the evidence which constitutes the competing claims of this rival theory. That rival theory must get exposure; it must be subjected to intense scrutiny—but impartially, not vindictively. The beauty of science is that it seeks to know what is factually the case. A fact is a fact. There is no excuse for scientists who believe in the absolute sufficiency of the theory of evolution, to act outside the role of a scientist in attempting to refute the validity of an opposing theory. And this is exactly what has happened.
In studying your own writings, I have to conclude that you are unable to contemplate the idea that intelligent design might have merit. For reasons which go well beyond science, this proposition is like a death threat, and it must be excluded from the realm of your experience. This is not the response of someone who knows something is true; it is the response of someone who (even if the theory is in fact correct) no longer has control over how that belief is acted out in the opposition to that belief.
And so, the Darwinist can’t help himself. The intelligent design theorist, he finds his theory does not and cannot create the existential inhibition of fanatical certainty that the theory of evolution must and does create inside the consciousness of the evolutionist.
Lord, how tedious. This fellow assumes the premise that scientists do not question evolution, that we think Darwin was never wrong, and that we never present evidence against Intelligent Design creationism or for biology, and that therefore the argument is all about ideology. And he’s wrong in every particular, but that doesn’t stop him from babbling at length.
We question evolution every day. Every evolutionary biologist is testing it continually — that’s his or her job.
We do not regard Darwin as infallible. In fact, there are huge chunks of Darwin’s version of the theory that we know are wrong (pangenesis, for instance).
It’s the job of the Intelligent Design creationists to propose ideas that show merit. They have not. They are not even a serious challenge that might drive new science — they are entirely ideologically driven, trying to find a pseudoscientific rationale. Evolutionary biology has come to the conclusions it has because we’ve been bouncing around tests of the idea for a century and a half, and it has held up well under a barrage of critical thinking and evidence-based testing by people much cleverer than the gang of religious apologists at the Discovery Institute.