Brownback vs. Darwin?

I don’t think I’m saying anything wildly controversial when I say that it’s extremely unlikely that Sam Brownback will be our next president. And given his general philosophy of “compassionate conservatism” on steroids, I think that’s probably a good thing.

Still, it’s interesting that Brownback felt the need to take the pages of the NY Times to explain his position on evolution:

If belief in evolution means simply assenting to microevolution, small changes over time within a species, I am happy to say, as I have in the past, that I believe it to be true. If, on the other hand, it means assenting to an exclusively materialistic, deterministic vision of the world that holds no place for a guiding intelligence, then I reject it.

What’s noteworthy here is that these two options hardly exhaust the possibilities. It’s possible, and I believe true, that there has been not only change within species but between species and that this doesn’t imply “an exclusively materialistic, deterministic vision of the world that holds no place for a guiding intelligence.”

It seems that Brownback shares the concern of many religious believers that accepting “macro” evolution would undermine the uniqueness and worth of human beings:

I am wary of any theory that seeks to undermine man’s essential dignity and unique and intended place in the cosmos. I firmly believe that each human person, regardless of circumstance, was willed into being and made for a purpose.

In fact, I’d be willing to speculate that this, more than worries about literal vs. symbolic interpretations of the Bible, is the source of much religious anxiety about evolution.

Though it may sound plausible on the surface, I’m not sure that this is really a problem. Each individual human being comes into existence by way of natural processes, but that in no way justifies treating their individual worth as somehow diminished. So why should the fact that the species came into being by natural processes diminish the worth of human beings as such? If we can say that God intends my particular existence, even though I came into being through natural processes, then why can’t we say that God intended to bring human beings as a species into existence by means of natural processes?


29 thoughts on “Brownback vs. Darwin?

  1. I actually found a lot to agree with in Brownback’s op-ed piece. Like you said, the main issue is not that evolution conflicts with the Genesis account (although some Christians are fixated on this matter), but that it has led many to “a vision of man as a kind of historical accident” (to use Brownback’s words). Of course, this is a philosophical position that is not supported by the scientific data, but that hasn’t stopped many Darwinists from asserting it to be scientific fact. It is this conception of evolution that Brownback rightly rejects.

    I agree with you that there is nothing incompatible in saying that humans came into existence by way of natural processes but that they also have an essential dignity. But modern Darwinists go further by saying that the whole evolutionary process is random and unguided. No matter what anybody says, such a position can only diminish the sense of purpose and dignity with which humans have traditionally regarded themselves. So in my opinion, Brownback is right to call attention to the dehumanizing implications of Darwinism.

  2. Yeah, I think that’s the rub – the assertion that the whole process is random and unguided. Would you say this is an essential tenet of Darwinism? I always took “Darwinism” to refer just to the theory of evolution by means of mutation and natural selection without making larger claims about the purposiveness (or not) of the entire process, but maybe that’s not right.

  3. Also: an important questions for theists, ISTM, is how we are to conceive of God “guiding” the process of evolution. If it can be apparently explained without invoking purpose does God become superfluous?

    One view I toy with is that God chose to actualize a universe that he knew would contain the processes necessary to give rise to intelligent personal life. However, that strikes me as somewhat deisitc-sounding.

  4. I find it very curious that one of his objections to evolution is that it is “deterministic”. Does he really have that poor an understanding of the theory of evolution, or does he just not know what “deterministic” means? It’s hard to imagine anything less deterministic than evolution as imagined in a purely secular model.

    And then when explaining what he does believe, he says that “each human person…was willed into being and made for a purpose.” Now that is deterministic, isn’t it?

    This is why I love John Polkinghorne’s theology. Polkinghorne has a wonderful appreciation for the freedom that God has given to Creation — evangelicals, not so much.

    I did find this article, however, which seems to be saying that while all of the details of how evolution will get where it’s going are open, the basic structural patterns are bound to come out the same. The system is intrinsically free, and yet produces predictable results. To my thinking, that’s a model of evolution that is extremely theology-friendly.

  5. Well, I can sort of see his point – there’s definitely a strain in popular Darwinism that sees human beings as entirely a product of their genes & environment (I’m thinking also of some of the popularized sociobiology/evpsych stuff).

    I keep meaning to read Polkinghorne – any recommendations?

    Oh, and technically I think Brownback’s a Catholic (though a convert from evangelicalism I believe).

  6. Len

    So what if evolution isn’t guided? So what if random mutation is the engine of natural selection? So what if there’s no ultimate point to our existence? Is that really such an awful thing? All of this existential angst in regard to evolution from the religious set is nothing more than people deciding they want something to be true (i.e., that there’s a point to existence, that my life is endowed with a purpose, etc.) and therefore they’re going to believe it’s true. Evidence shmevidence. I think people in general would be much happier if they could just accept the pointlessness of it all. We’re here for no reason whatsoever–isn’t that a liberating thought? Go enjoy a good meal. Watch a sunset. Quit belly-aching about the lack of meaning and purpose in life. And quit injecting meaning where there is none.

  7. bs

    Thomas, a small nit-pick: scientists don’t say that evolution is random–if so,then Brownback’s connection to determinism would be largely unjustified, and it would be odd for you to side with him.

    In a related connection, it is sorta bizarre for Brownback to associate determinism with the rejection of a guiding intelligence (read: Judeo-Christian God). Isn’t it a popular Christian view that Jesus saw our entire future before he was taken by the Romans? And wasn’t it Einstein who said, “God doesn’t play dice with the Universe?” In Brownback’s defense, he did preface this comment with “materialistic.”

    Lee: I think you’re being a bit unkind to those who believe that macro evolution threatens human dignity. Let’s stipulate that essential dignity is Brownback’s definition, which is only fair: “each human person, regardless of circumstance, was willed into being and made for a purpose.” And let’s be clear that Brownback is not carelessly throwing around the word “human”; that is, he is saying that this dignity is something that humans have and other creations lack, and that there was no essential dignity until there were humans. So long as one views God as an all-powerful creator (a popular view), macro evolution is threatening precisely because macro evolution was not a particularly parsimonious way for God to create essential dignity. What took so long? Why create sub-humans? To be sure, one might be able to write off these apparent inefficiencies as God havin’ some fun, but wouldn’t that defense come with a cost of its own–namely, that the business of human creation was not a top priority?

  8. With regards to your point Lee, I always try to distinguish between Darwinism as a philosophical standpoint and Darwinism as a scientific theory (and I think that Brownback is also trying to make the same distinction). I am opposed to the former and in support of the latter. My main problem is with scientists who don’t think that such a distinction exists, and therefore think they’re practicing science when they’re actually delving into philosophical matters. As for how God guides the process of evolution, I don’t have a simple answer to that very complicated question. With Andy, I can only recommend reading John Polkinghorne, who has an excellent grasp on the relationship between divine and human/natural agency.

    The issue of determinism vs. randomness is quite complicated when it comes to evolution. As Andy points out, the process of natural selection requires a certain degree of randomness in order to move along. But at the same time, the objects that are participating in these “random” events are governed by the immutable laws of nature. Thus, the randomness proposed by the evolutionary biologist is something of an illusion, since if we had perfect knowledge of the system under study we could predict the results in advance. So I really don’t think that Brownback is wrong to associate Darwinism with a kind of determinism. Indeed, as Andy mentions, many evolutionary biologist have claimed that, given the basic parameters and constituents of the universe, the results of evolution were inevitable. Of course, theists can then claim that our universe was “fine-tuned” by the Creator for life, but (as Lee points out) this only gets us as far as deism. In the end, I think we have to admit that things are fuzzier than we think. Science is only capable of understanding necessity, but we also live in a world full of possibility and freedom. Where does this freedom come from? Science cannot account for it, except to claim that it’s a figment of our imagination. As you can probably guess, I don’t find that argument persuasive in the least.

  9. mgarelick

    Thomas Adams said:

    “No matter what anybody says, such a position can only diminish the sense of purpose and dignity with which humans have traditionally regarded themselves.”

    No matter what anybody says?? How can such rhetoric even make an appearance in a discussion that purports to be about science?

    Len said:

    “We’re here for no reason whatsoever–isn’t that a liberating thought? Go enjoy a good meal. Watch a sunset. Quit belly-aching about the lack of meaning and purpose in life. And quit injecting meaning where there is none.”

    Amen brother. I think there is a pronounced tendency on the part of anti-“Darwinism” to imagine that this means, quoting Dostoevsky, that “everything is permitted.” But think for a minute: do you *want* to commit rape, robbery, murder, sex with animals? Is it only “god” that is stopping you?

  10. mgarelick – The phrase “No matter what anybody says” was just my way of stating personal conviction, nothing more. Frequently, philosophical Darwinists claim that their views do not diminish the intrinsic dignity of human beings. I believe otherwise. You are free to disagree (after all, I still believe in free will. Most hard-core Darwinists don’t).

    As for your second comment about “rape, robbery, murder, and sex with animals”, I don’t really think it’s relevant to this discussion. Please understand that it is my humanist convictions, and not my religious ones, that make the kind of Darwinism offered up by Dawkins & Co so objectionable to me. Even if I did not believe in God, I would still consider philosophical Darwinism to be a threat to the human self, as it considers humans to be nothing more than mechanistic processes that operate out of pure necessity. To me, such a worldview represents the end of free will (in any meaningful sense), along with the demise of art, democracy, ethics, and love. What I fear is that, in the end, the main casualty of Darwinist philosophy will be humanism, not religion. That may not bother you and Len – after all, if we enjoy our meals and marvel at nature, who cares? – but some of us would like to live above the level of simple immediacy.

  11. bs

    I agree in spirit with Andy and Thomas, but I think that using the term “random” or “free” in conjunction with evolution is an unhelpful approach in a scientific discussion such as this. Were we talking about natural law theory (and by this I mean natural law in the moral, practical reasoning sense, not the physics sense), I’d be inclined to use terminology of that sort; indeed, Hegelians can be attracted to evolution theory because it can be thought of as the sort of ultimate freedom-preserving science–it was a backward-looking science, not one that cared to be predictive and, therefore, freedom-denying. Such freedom appeared to make a difference to our perceived deliberation. You know, “owl of minerva at sundown” and all that cryptic shit. But the truth is that there is nothing inherent in the methodology or substance of science, or even in evolutionary science, that is prediction-denying, freedom-affirming, etc in a sense that bottoms out in a claim about the state of the world, itself. That would be a conflation of Hegelian world with scientific world. Hegelians of a certain stripe understand, in my view, that the “freedom” to associate with evolution-style science is not an actual, noumenal freedom, but a sort of perceived freedom (remember that after Kant, many thinkers believe that we are in an Idealistic scenario, in which we are stuck in our mental world). [However, the important thing to remember is that, while they hold this chastened view, they flip everything around in their terminology and say that conceptual thinking is reality and nature is an appearance.] Still, the substance is, in this respect, unchanged (I think). But there is some debate: see, (scroll down to on evolution … marchetti would likely strongly disagree with me).

    In the final analysis, I suppose that what I mean to say is that, even though we find ourselves repeatedly faced with the antinomy of free will vs. determinism, that does not mean that we ought to switch back and forth between those two modes willy nilly.

  12. Wow – thanks all for the really good comments!

    bs – to your first comment. I think there’ something to the idea that human dignity is threatened by evolution if you think that the entire purpose of creation was to bring about human beings who posess a certain kind of dignity. But I don’t think that a theist must, or particularly should, think that.

    Even granting that human beings have a special kind of dignity, it doesn’t follow that other creatures have no value to God. In fact, I’d want to emphatically affirm that they do. It could be that one of God’s purposes in creation is to actualize certain values and that this is best realized by creating a multitude and variety of creatures who embody different values in different ways and to different degrees.

    So, I think it’s possible to say that God intended to bring into existence intelligent personal ceatures (like us) without saying that our existence is the sole reason for creation. It may even be (though it would be hard to show it, I think) that a universe like ours is the most parsimonious way for God to realize the multitude of values expressed by the entire process of creation (though the problem of evil and suffering still persists).

  13. And on the freedom vs. determinism thing I don’t know that I have much to add to what’s already been said. I think Thomas is right that when scientists speak of “randomness” in the evolutionary process they don’t mean geniune randomness in the sense of uncaused or undetermined. I think the assumption is that the process is a deterministic one (bracketing quantum physics-type indeterminacy).

    The phenomenal/noumenal distinction that bs raises may be of some help here, though I personally wouldn’t want to be saddled with the metaphysical and epistemological baggage of Kant and Hegel (i.e. I’m more of an epistemological realist). I’m tempted to say that even our best scientific descriptions of the world are abstractions from a much fuller reality and that they leave out many important features of the world, including freedom (maybe this is similar to what Thomas was saying in #9).

  14. I appreciate the comments Len and mgarelick and their challenge to theists. However, my beef with their admonition to “get over it” and just accept that there’s no inherent meaning and purpose in the universe is that I think human beings are simply meaning-craving creatures. If there’s no meaning “out there” we’ll create it. The question is whether we can be satisfied with a meaning that is our own creation.

    It’s interesting that the figure I most associate with the view that we must create our own meaning in a meaningless universe is Sartre. Sartre himself didn’t seem able to sustain the existential vertigo of a meaningless universe and became an apologist for Stalin. Does this mean that every atheist is a crypto-Stalinist? Of course not. But it does make me wonder if it’s so easy to embrace meanlessness.

  15. bs

    I think that in most respects we agree here. I want to emphasize, however, that I was merely taking what appeared to be Brownback’s position in the quoted passages (specifically that human’s have a singular, privileged status) and, therefore, did not mean to articulate a position on what a theist should view. On that score, I’m truly stumped. Nevertheless, it is interesting that a post about Brownback’s editorial would help us to draw a connection between evolution and a seemingly unrelated aspect of this very website–animal rights. As for me, I’m inclined to embrace the idea that science is an abstraction, and for the same reasons I would not go so far as to say that freedom is a feature of the actual world. I would, of course, agree with the existence of a phenomenal freedom, albeit an uncomfortable and constantly challenged freedom.

    Just for fun, though, I was thinking about the parsimony argument. Christianity, like many other religions, appears to say something about the character of its god (bracketing off Augustine and some others, who, as I recall, argued that we can’t say anything of this sort with respect to redemption). In particular, the heartland view is that God is worthy of our worship and love. In a funny way, then, this is a kind of limitation on God–for it to work, He has to have aspects that are fathomable by humans, if not entirely human-like. With this in mind, there is something intuitive, then, in suggesting that God has the perfect human-like character; He has limitless power, limitless love, etc. This is bolstered by passages in the Bible (being created in His image comes to mind). And this thinking is extant elsewhere in theological discussion: it resembles the groundwork that sets up religious debates of which I am marginally familiar such as voluntarism, problem of evil, etc.

    If we’re willing to follow the thinking this far, we can start to identify certain states of affairs that seem inconsistent with a God-created world. Experientially, things like inefficiency in creation, suffering, evil, etc. fit the bill. Hermeneutically, problems like inconsistencies, meanness, or irrationalities in God’s biblical speech (whether through Jesus or otherwise) fit. This reasoning is where Brownback is coming from.

    Accordingly, the best move against Brownback, if you asked me, is to make arguments to the effect hat we simply can’t know quite so much about God’s character. Lee, your suggestion that it would be hard to show God that is or is not parsimonious is such an argument. It could be phrased another way, like “what are the metacriteria of parsimony in the creation context?” Another is your suggestion that we cannot be sure that evolution doesn’t respect other values that God has but that we are unable to know (or at least do not yet know). These arguments are very strong, but they do damage to the religion in one sense: they weaken the position that God is deserving of our highest respect and love, which as mentioned is (for many) premised upon an evaluation of the character, values, deeds, etc. of OT God and Jesus. If we’re going to say that these things do not give us the epistemological footing to say much about God’s character, does it follow that these things no longer serve as a sound basis for worship? And if the answer is yes, then what is the basis for worship?

  16. Charles

    The most interesting thing to me is that words are all that are used in the debates. The meanng of Creationsim and Evolution are defined by other words and it reaches back to the first word, “In the beginning was the WORD, the WORD was with god and the WORD was god.”

    Looking into our ignorance, an ignorance we will never transform into fact perhaps, we go to Opinion, Belief, and Faith as variations on our ignorance. The facts do not exist no matter our “Thinking Reed” creation. Patterns are recognized based on the design of the eye and brain, our capacity for Intuition revealing itself and Intuitions emerging as Ideas. But our labeling Intuitions as Intuitions does not change them, it only isolates them, catagorizes them, when they, perhaps, should never be isolated. The design of our eye and brain is not to say that is all that exists in the universe. We do not usually wish to be ignorant and “create” answers that seem to help our confusion, our anxiety.

    A baby stimulated in vrious ways grows neural connections different than any other child, a brain “fingerprint” if you will, and the old statistical curve emerges so we can create patterns within patterns. Creationists look to the concept as literally power and authority. How to structure social behaviors when folks do not like your personal ones. What to do? Elevate them to godliness since faith has no dimensions of proof.

    In the beginning was the word…and the WORD was god. When man discovered its power, words became more than words. A Thinking Reed? What a disgrce to man. It does not change a reed to say it thinks, which incidentally, it may very well do in a different way than we. A reed thinks in its dimension, a man in his dimension, and if a reed could master man, I am sure it would.

    Here is a poem I wrote and seems pertinent to me.



    You’re not a poet til you write the wind
    Instead of the reed with its delicate bend,
    You’re not a poet til you write the call
    Of a songbird in the color of fall.

    You’re not a poet til you write the peach
    As it hangs just beyond your outstretched reach
    You’re not a poet til you write the smell
    Of last years rose as it silently fell

    You’re not a poet til your mother dies
    And you write her last soft-murmured sighs
    You’re not a poet til the hand of time
    Has written your last forgotten rhyme.
    Chales N.

    (Try writing so I hear and feel the wind)

  17. plunge

    I think the best way to understand Brownback’s article is simply as trying to be everything to everyone. He takes virtually no stand on any issue of fact or science: he is careful to make it seem as if he is touching an weighing in on subjects like a 6000-year old earth without actually saying anything against the idea. The most he says is the old bait-and-switch where “small changes within species” is “graciously” conceded, and then all the rest is lumped into philosophical atheism (a rhetorical move that also allows him to completely avoid having to clarify things such as whether or not his rejection of “evolution” includes such things as common descent or man’s common ancestry with apes).

    As such, I think the concern for human meaning and a fear of science invalidating a God-given purpose is basically just exploitation. If you believe in a God-given purpose: really believe in it, then you should not fear any particular finding of science about the world we live in in the first place. Nothing about the idea of a God-given purpose requires a particular natural state of affairs, after all. But instead, that boogeyman is continually raised in order to shoo people away from science without having to actually make a good argument against its findings.

    He also uses a number of other very common misrepresentations (like the claim that debates over PE and other issues are so wide that they make it reasonable to say that scientists cannot agree on all the basic elements of evolutionary change and common descent: an argument effectively tantamount to saying that scientists disagree on how precisely to formulate quantum gravity, so therefore we need not worry about jumping off tall buildings) that paint him as either misinformed or dishonest about the subject.

    Frankly, I’d find it far more convincing and satisfying if Brownback’s answer was something along the lines of “I don’t believe in evolution because learning about it and debating the issue and coming to a conclusion on it just is not a priority for me: I have my values and my goals for the country, and debates over science are best left to scientists rather than politicians.”

  18. mark

    My question is directed to those who believe in evolutionism but also believe in a loving God. For those who can combine the two I ask if they believe that all forms of life have a soul and can receive eternal life. If only man is promised eternal life then at what point on the evolutionary ladder was he given a soul? I can’t understand how the last link of sub-human to human would have been denied a soul.

  19. plunge

    I don’t think that’s an easy question, but then it’s a heck of a lot easier than reconciling a loving God with volcanoes and earthquakes that wipe out infants and pregnant women indiscriminately, and that’s no barrier to many people’s belief in a loving God either.

  20. mark

    Thanks for your response, plunge. To be honest it is easier for me to try to reconcile the horrible events you point out because they do not deny eternal life to their victims. I don’t claim to understand why they happen.

    I hope not to be misunderstood with my question, it is not meant to be clever. I have just never heard an explanation or theory offered to explain what appears to me to be an incompatible combination of beliefs. I am a newcomer to Christianity and would like to understand how intelligent believers can accept the theory of “macro evolution” while holding to their belief in Christ. (I’m also new to discussion boards and hope that my question is delivered with the respect I intend)

  21. Primate

    Thanks to all for a very interesting discussion; I’m particularly impressed by the cordial temperment of the posters.

    I simply want to point out that terms like “microevolution” and “macroevolution” are the invention of creationists, and are meaningless from a scientific point of view. Brownback’s use of “microevolution” was simply a signal to his constituents that his op-ed piece was no in way a violation of creationist tenets. Similarly, his comments on the different sub-arguments going on within the evolutionist community are another well-known creationist canard – akin to arguing that the differences between Protestants and Catholics make Christianity a mere hypothesis. Finally, I’d also like to point out that random mutation, coupled with the filtering action of natural selection, is an essential component of mainstream evolutionary theory. One may argue that God is so situated that what appears random to us is, in fact, transparent and ordered to him – but one cannot discuss the science behind the TOE without understanding the foundational importance of random mutation.

    From these perspectives, I found Brownback’s statements to be at best willfully ignorant, and at worst, deliberately misleading.

  22. bs – you make an excellent point. There’s definitely a tension between saying that God is good and saying that God’s ways are not our ways. This tension exists in the Bible, I would say, and it’s something that any serious theist has to grapple with.

    And you rightly point out the dilemma: the more we take refuge in God’s inscrutability to explain aspects of the world that seem inconsistent with the divine goodness, the more we seem to make God’s goodness something that bears no resemblance to good as we know it.

    I’m not going to lie and say I have a fully satisfying answer to this. 😉 One resource that I think Christians at least have to bring to bear on this is the fact (as we believe) of the Incarnation. Whatever else we may want to say about God and creation, the idea that God in some way chooses to share in the lot of his creatures provides some kind of hint of the divine character and the fact that it can both empathize with us (cf. Hebrews 4:15: “For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin.”) and yet affirms the goodness of creation. I’m inclined to think that part of the answer lies in that direction.

  23. Pingback: More on evolution, human dignity, etc. « A Thinking Reed

  24. I’d like to point out that evolution is in no way random. Each species eveolves in a way that helps it best live and bear offspring. The ones within a species best suited to do those things do indeed live and bear offspring, and the ones that are less well suited don’t live as long or get to mate as often and when they do, their offspring also have trouble getting by.
    This is not random. We humans cannot speak just because some random mutation millions of years ago randomly took hold in a random group of primitive humans who just randomlly happened to have more children than anybody else. We can speak because the earliest humans who could speak–back in those days it might “speak” might well have meant, “grunt in some meaningful way and make others among them understand to some extent what they meant, and could understand the meaningful grunts of others like them”– were best suited to survive and thrive, because they could work together, where non-speaking humans could not.
    Over time, the grunts became more meaningful, and could carry more information, and in each generation, the better speakers were more likely to live, thrive and mate, and slowly, through God knows how many years and generations, human speech evolved into what it is today.

  25. plunge

    Primate, while creationists misuse and apply false significance to the terms mirco and macroevolution, a quick literature search on the terms will show that they did not originate with creationists and have useful meanings in science. There really IS a distinction between a population that can interbreed and two or more populations that can’t, and what happens to them (most important is, of course, that genes cannot flow or spread between the two any further, meaning that they will inevitably drift apart over time).

    Just a nitpick, but when it comes to arguing over language, it pays to get things right.

  26. mark, check out Francis Collins. He’s the guy behind the Human Genome Project, and also a believer. He’s an evolutionist. His book “Language of God” is fantastic.

    Collins believes in a non-literal creation account as outlined in Genesis. He believes that the forming of humans, specifically the Breath of Life into the first humans, was the imparting of conscience and soul into humankind, setting them apart from animals.

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