Evolution is not just for Democrats

Reading the news these days, one might get the impression that evolution is just for Democrats, not Republicans. For example, in a recent (23 August 2011) post for the Washington Post, Richard Dawkins calls Republican Governor of Texas a “fool” and an “ignoramus” for expressing some doubts about evolution, and implies that these labels apply to anyone voting Republican.  The next day (24 August 2011), Ann Coulter published her own post, calling Richard Dawkins “retarded” and trotting out a series of tired old arguments against evolution.

Coulter is just plain wrong on evolution. At the same time, though, Dawkins is wrong to disparage the political opinions of people who happen to vote Republican.

Coulter is wrong about evolution in many ways. For example, she claims that if “Darwin were able to come back today and peer through a modern microscope to see the inner workings of a cell, he would instantly abandon his own theory.” Darwin, however, spent many years peering through microscopes at the inner workings of barnacles, and it was the fascinating complexity of their anatomy that deepened his understanding of evolution. Modern understanding of the inner workings of cells has further deepened scientific appreciation for how evolution works. The patterns of DNA encoded within each living cell have confirmed Darwin’s insight that every living thing on earth is part of one big family, the Tree of Life.

The Tree of Life

Comparing the similarity of DNA sequences has revealed some interesting surprises – for example, humans and chimpanzees are closer kin than chimpanzees and gorillas, even though gorillas look basically like giant chimpanzees – but has also generally confirmed the big picture of the tree that would be expected from shared descent with modification: humans and chimps are twigs on the primate branch, sprouting from the mammalian limb, emerging from the great trunk of vertebrate life, which near the roots of the tree joins with other great trunks and side branches: fungi, plants, and a variety of different bacteria.

Similarly, Coulter brings out the old argument from probability theory, that “it is a mathematical impossibility, for example, that all 30 to 40 parts of the cell’s flagellum – forget the 200 parts of the cilum! – could all arise at once by random mutation.” But as Dawkins clearly explains in The Blind Watchmaker – which Coulter doesn’t seem to have read, or at least not understood – evolution doesn’t throw together everything at once. Evolution works with small gradual changes, building on what exists already. It would indeed be statistically highly improbable to throw even a small number of things together at random and have them work together at all, much less well. But evolution doesn’t do that. Instead, evolution blindly, mindlessly tinkers with what already exists, changing a little bit here and there at random, and then lets these different variants fight it out in the arena of natural selection.

Coulter has made a career of strident political writing, and while the tone of her piece may be more appealing to those who already agree with her than persuasive to her opponents, it is at least consistent with her genre. Richard Dawkins, however, is a scientist. Indeed, he is one of our clearest thinkers and writers on evolution. It is disappointing that he here conflates views on evolution – which he rightly calls a scientific fact – with views on politics – which are, after all, opinions.

We have abundant evidence from fossils, geology, genetics, molecular biology, physiology, development, biogeography, and numerous other fields of study that evolution has occurred and continues to occur all around us. In contrast, while political opinions bear some relation to facts, they nevertheless pertain mainly to matters about which people with intelligence, experience and expertise continue to debate vigorously. Political questions are generally much more complicated and harder to be sure of than questions in the natural sciences, and they often relate to values – what people care about – rather than things that can be objectively determined to be true or false. Many political questions concern economics – which is routinely insulted as “the dismal science” because economists have such a great diversity of opinions. And why is economic opinion diverse? Is it because economists are more stupid or quarrelsome than other academics? Or is it because economies are just incredibly complex and difficult to understand?

Contrary to what readers of Coulter and Dawkins might be led to believe, evolution is not just for Democrats. The scientific truth of evolution doesn’t depend on a person’s political affiliation. People with all sorts of different political views have made important contributions to evolutionary theory. The great population geneticist J.B.S. Haldane was an idealistic Marxist and from 1937 to1950 a member of the Communist Party. Haldane’s colleague Ronald Fisher, described by Dawkins as “the greatest biologist since Darwin,” was politically conservative. Nobody today much cares about Haldane’s or Fisher’s political views. It’s their scientific ideas that have survived the test of time.

Darwin’s own political views might be hard to categorize today, because political views change greatly over time. Darwin shared Lincoln’s exact birthday (February 12, 1809) and Lincoln’s abhorrence of slavery. Maybe, if Darwin had been American, he would have voted Republican. I don’t know. But we don’t remember Darwin for the stances he took on the pressing political issues of his day. We remember him for his idea of evolution by natural selection, which remains just as powerful today as it was 150 years ago, and will continue to be so 150 years from now, or 150 thousand years from how, when the political issues we care so much about today will long be forgotten.

Indeed, evolution by natural selection will necessarily occur wherever life exists in the universe. If intelligent beings exist on a planet orbiting, say, Alpha Centauri, we can be sure of two things: (i) life on their planet undergoes evolution by natural selection and (ii) the question of whether to vote Republican or Democrat will be entirely, er, alien to them.

10 thoughts on “Evolution is not just for Democrats”

  1. One does not have to travel to Alpha Centauri to understand that the question you ponder is one strictly arising in the current american context -even a short trip 200 Miles North will change that perspective and certainly crossing either ocean will shed some light and will help understand how utterly silly the current state of affairsin terms of this and other questions is around here. Nevertheless the Republican Governor of Texas is certainly a much bigger concern than Ms. Coulter since he -unlike her – just might make it into a position of even greater power – and it actually would than matter that the guy does not understand or is willing to accept evolution or scientific principles. Most of the current slate of Republican candidates talk about getting rid of the EPA and certainly a couple of them will do whatever is possible to get creationism on par with evolution – and yes in that context it might be that conservative and republican leaning scientists might just have to hold their nose and vote for the person in a two person contest who just happens to firmly support science, education, investment in the futuere and scientific principles – in my view this is our current President.
    But you are most certainly correct – evolution is not just for Democrats – but it is important to weigh ones options depending on the candidate since we are stuck around here with a two option political setup. In my view you ask not the correct or most pressing question.

  2. Thanks for your thoughts on this. The point I was trying to make was that however confident we are that our own particular political opinions are correct, we should be aware that they are just that — opinions — and if we are trying to persuade people about the truth of scientific issues, it doesn’t help if we act as if our political opinions have the same empirical grounding as our scientific views. If you’re trying to convince someone that evolution is true, for example, you’re not going to get very far if you start off by insulting their political opinions.

  3. Hey Mike. ‘nuther great descent into our descent. Couple quick observations:

    I don’t know how wrong Coulter is on evolution, but she’s pretty adept at stickin’ back in the face of evolutionISM.

    Dawkins commits a logical fallacy in equating creation (the christian doctrine of it, that is) with creationISM. Coulter may be a pundit, but she is also a political SCIENTIST (perhaps an even lower form than the ‘dismal science?) wielding her craft as she knows how to do. Since evolutionISM is duking it out in the market place of ideas with creationISM and quite a few other ISMs, she treats the subject politically. That’s her practice.

    Now to the specific question of probability theory. As I understand it (admittedly, crudely) PT does not stipulate that all necessary changes need erupt simultaneously, though that it one way to begin the thought experiment. It actually describes the accrual of necessary steps and likelihood of each occurring in sequence. Her example of Darwin’s ignorance of cells and substructures is valid, as it amplifies the problem of accrual change by orders of magnitude. From barnacles to bacteria is a huge leap in perceived granularity. And with increasing granularity you have increasing implied random events required, no?

    So the question is RAISED – not proven or disproven – as to how much time is required to accomplish a sequence of random changes necessary to accomplish complex organs and organisms. The only answer I seem to get from evolutionISTs is “Well the Earth is 4.4 billion years old, so shorter than THAT!” That’s a deduction, not evidence, proof, or even theory.

    Lastly, on the subject of scientific ‘fact’ – which part of evolutionary theory is not established fact? I ask that sincerely. It seems the theory itself continues to evolve, or should based on the scientific knowledge that has increased over time. So, who do we absolutely know? And how does it contradict the doctrine of creation?

    Thanks, friend.

  4. Hi Bram,

    Glad you enjoyed the post, and thanks for your thoughtful responses. Here are my attempts at responses to your responses:

    Dawkins commits a logical fallacy in equating creation (the christian doctrine of it, that is) with creationISM.

    Not quite sure what you mean here…

    Coulter may be a pundit, but she is also a political SCIENTIST

    Really? As far as I know, her training is in law, rather than any kind of science, dismal or otherwise.

    Now to the specific question of probability theory. As I understand it (admittedly, crudely) PT does not stipulate that all necessary changes need erupt simultaneously, though that it one way >to begin the thought experiment. It actually describes the accrual of necessary steps and likelihood of each occurring in sequence

    For this, I suggest you check out Dawkins’ book, The Blind Watchmaker. He does a far better job explaining this in his book than I can in a short blog post. But the gist is: evolution works by the accumulation of small changes, rather than by changing lots of things at once. This turns out to work rather amazingly well, both in biology and in computer simulations.

    For a fun demonstration of this, check out this site. This is based on a computer program Dawkins wrote and explains in chapter 3 of The Blind Watchmaker. Basically, Dawkins points out that the probability of getting a meaningful string of letters, such as a line from Shakespeare (e.g., “Methinks it is a weasel”), from pure chance, is vanishingly small. A whole zoo full of monkeys typing on computers would take longer to produce this string of letters by chance than the universe has existed. BUT if you use selection and the accumulation of small changes, you can evolve this string (or any other) in a surprisingly small number of generations, especially if you have a large number of “children” per generation. Evolution doesn’t work towards a specific target like this, but the basic insight is the same.

    Her example of Darwin’s ignorance of cells and substructures is valid, as it amplifies the problem of accrual change by orders of magnitude.

    I don’t see how. Darwin wasn’t ignorant of cells — cells were discovered back in 1665 by Robert Hooke, 200 years before Darwin. And the more recent discovery of how the molecular machinery of cells works has also made clear how evolution works. We now know about genes, which Darwin didn’t know about, and how heredity works, and how mutations provide genetic variation. And none of this makes sense without a Darwinian framework. Why, for example, does sex exist? Why do most, but not all, species have 2 sexes, instead of 1, or 20? Why do mitochondria have their own small genome, rather than having their instructions encoded in the nucleus along with all the rest of the cell’s genes? There are good evolutionary explanations for these features, but these aren’t the sort of design features that I think of as “intelligent.”

    So the question is RAISED – not proven or disproven – as to how much time is required to accomplish a sequence of random changes necessary to accomplish complex organs and organisms. The only answer I seem to get from evolutionISTs is “Well the Earth is 4.4 billion years old, so shorter than THAT!” That’s a deduction, not evidence, proof, or even theory.

    Biology is an empirical science. It’s not philosophy or theology. How long does it take to evolve life? Well, you have to look at the evidence and find out how long it did take. There’s no a priori way to come up with a time schedule for this — and it might well be different on other planets with different starting conditions.

    Lastly, on the subject of scientific ‘fact’ – which part of evolutionary theory is not established fact? I ask that sincerely. It seems the theory itself continues to evolve, or should based on the scientific knowledge that has increased over time. So, who do we absolutely know?

    Here are a few things I would say we know well enough to call robust facts:
    * The Earth is very old — around 4.54 billion years.
    * Species change gradually over time
    * Many species that once existed have become extinct
    * As species change over time, they gradually give rise to new species
    * Natural selection is the main agent of evolutionary change
    * Life evolved from non-living organic chemicals early in Earth’s history
    * Life evolved by natural selection (which works on organic molecules, just as it works on living things)
    * All living things on Earth – including humans – descend from a common ancestor

    There are still lots of things we don’t know for sure, which keeps evolutionary biology interesting. Did life originate from RNA molecules, or some other biochemicals? How did the first cells originate? Did life arise in clays along the seashore, or in thermal vents deep in the ocean? Is life common or rare in the universe? Why did humans evolve the many peculiar features that we have — upright stance, large brains, naked skin, and so on? There are lots of unanswered questions, but they have mainly to do with the details. The overall framework is robust.

    And how does it contradict the doctrine of creation?

    That depends on what you mean by the doctrine of creation. If you mean: the Earth and the things living on it were created pretty much as they are today, in the not too distant past (say, thousands or tens of thousands of years ago), then I would say yes, evolution contradicts that. If you mean that each living species was specially created by an intelligent designer at various points in Earth’s history, I would say yes, evolution contradicts that too. But if you mean something like: God created the Universe with a specific set of physical laws, such that the Universe has atoms, molecules, stars, planets, and evolution, I don’t see any necessary contradiction. And if you want to imagine God tinkering with things behind the scenes so that things come out with certain results, such as the origin of humans and other intelligent species, that seems at least possible — though hard to test scientifically.

  5. “If you’re trying to convince someone that evolution is true, for example, you’re not going to get very far if you start off by insulting their political opinions.”
    I fully agree and have to admit that I at first did not read your post along those lines.

    I am reading right now a collection of essays called the “Joy of Secularism” and
    one intersting essay by Philip Kitcher in essence makes that very point – only in his case in terms of peoples religious believes. ‘Darwinian atheist’ aka Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens are not gaining ground for us ‘Secularists’ by insulting what the large majority of humans around the globe from the beginning of times found important enough to engage in – Religion and believe in supernatural entitie/s.

  6. For the record Republican outlier Gary Johnson is firmly in the evolution camp. He’s also anti-war and pro-choice, so he’s most definitely an outlier.

    Thanks for this. Just to give some context to the extent to which Johnson is an outlier: According to a 2008 gallup poll,, about 36% of Republicans answered that they believed “humans developed over millions of years” (adding together the percentages for “Evolution, God guided” and “Evolution, God had no part), compared to 55% of Independents and 56% of Democrats. So more than a third of Republicans do say the believe in evolution. But 60% of Republicans, compared to 38% of Democrats, answered that “God created humans as is within the last 10,000 years.”

  7. ‘Darwinian atheist’ aka Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens are not gaining ground for us ‘Secularists’ by insulting what the large majority of humans around the globe from the beginning of times found important enough to engage in – Religion and believe in supernatural entitie/s.

    Yes, I think the main reason that so many people in American are skeptical of evolution is that they see it as a threat to their religious beliefs. People who regularly go to religious services, pray, and enjoy fellowship with other members of their religion enjoy all sorts of benefits from religion, whereas what does evolution do for them? Diddly squat, as far as they are concerned. So forcing people to choose between evolution and religion is a no-brainer for religious people, and a losing proposition for science educators.

    Larry Arnhart, in a comparison of many interesting similarities between Darwin and Lincoln, quotes Lincoln as saying this:

    “I do not think I could myself be brought to support a man for office, whom I knew to be an open enemy of, and scoffer at, religion. Leaving the higher matter of eternal consequences, between him and his Maker, I still do not think any man has the right thus to insult the feelings, and injure the morals, of the community in which he may live.”

  8. Mike – your blog is rapidly becoming my go-to reading at lunch. And I find the discussions are entertaining and enjoyable as well (unlike the comments on so many blogs, that rapidly *devolve*) I just have a little smidgen to add to two topics:

    One problem with the website you link to (and Dawkins’ original argument?), is that it allows “directed” evolution, i.e. there is a “goal string” against which to measure fitness. That’s just intelligent design by another mechanism. In order to model actual evolution, one would have to apply a (set of) rule(s) to determine fitness of the descendant string that are themselves blind to the goal. One possibility here would be incorporate rules of well-formedness for English words and sentences. But, although I think the effect would be similar (evolution of the goal string in a small number of generations) even this presupposes that the goal is to end up with an English sentence. So that won’t work as an analogy unless we accept that evolution had as a goal the creation of humans (and that is one form of creationism). On the other hand, given enough iteratations, even completely random mutation of a random string of characters would end up with *some* intelligible string. Maybe it wouldn’t be English, maybe it would be Finnish. Or Esperanto. Or pig-latinized Albanian written in Morse code. Or a digitization of the plans for Fort Knox. But it would be something, and probably relatively quickly (and even more quickly if there were fewer characters, i.e. 4 base pairs, or two digits). So I think this highlights two issues: First, one question about evolution that really hasn’t been answered thoroughly yet is what determines fitness (what are the rules that select one descendant for reprduction and not another). The other is that, in many cases, it seems that Creationists’ real problem with evolution is that it does not require the inevitability of their own, or humanities’, existence. All it requires is that, once molecules began replicating themselves, something would come about that was better at self-replication than what came before. I would not be surprised if, eventually, that something (whatever it might be) would necessarily become complex enough to look around itself and say “Wow, I’m pretty amazing. I can’t possibly have evolved from something less amazing.” But that’s philosophy (or science fiction), not science.

    Secondly, as to what evolves, I think it does not have to be limited to organic molecules, does it? Anything that replicates itself with a less-than-perfect reproduction is subject to evolution, I would think. Including things that “live” entirely in silicon, such as computer worms. The only reason they haven’t gotten very far is that their ecology is still so sparse, and so specialized, and there are so few of them.

  9. Mike – your blog is rapidly becoming my go-to reading at lunch. And I find the discussions are entertaining and enjoyable as well (unlike the comments on so many blogs, that rapidly *devolve*)

    Great to hear that, Alex! I really appreciate the contributions that you and others make. This sort of interaction really makes the blogging worthwhile.

    One problem with the website you link to (and Dawkins’ original argument?), is that it allows “directed” evolution, i.e. there is a “goal string” against which to measure fitness. That’s just intelligent design by another mechanism.

    Yes, that’s right, and Dawkins is aware of it. This little program models just one aspect of natural selection: the accumulation of small change. It is a response to the probability theory argument that goes at least back to Fred Hoyle’s argument:

    The chance that higher life forms might have emerged in this way is comparable to the chance that a tornado sweeping through a junkyard might assemble a Boeing 747 from the materials therein.

    This little program very nicely illustrates that the probability of getting even a short target string to “evolve” all at once by chance is nil — but that by tweaking things to permit the accumulation of small changes (e.g., allowing a single mutation per child, and allowing each string to have multiple children, and allowing only the ‘fittest’ offspring to reproduce), you can get the target string to evolve rapidly.

    Dawkins follows that up with another program, the Biomorph program, that is more similar to real natural selection, in that there is no preselected target. This is super fun to play with. It is unlike evolution in that it requires the user to act as the selector. But by allowing the accumulation of small changes in just a few “genes” (I think there are 9), you can evolve Biomorphs that are quite complex and interesting, and surprising to the user. Very lifelike that way.

    On the other hand, given enough iteratations, even completely random mutation of a random string of characters would end up with *some* intelligible string.

    Well, the odds are surprisingly quite low that you end up with interesting English, at least. (Including all languages of course improves the odds, but maybe by less than you would think.) The mean number of generations needed to produce any particular string of length n by purely random iteration of one change per generation and only one child per generation is 27^n (26 letters plus a space character). Once n gets even a little bit large, even though the number of meaningful strings of length n in all existing human languages is Vast, the number of strings of that length that have no meaning whatsoever in any human language is Vaster still.

    First, one question about evolution that really hasn’t been answered thoroughly yet is what determines fitness (what are the rules that select one descendant for reprduction and not another).

    Fitness is a big and tricky concept! Here’s one definition from Wikipedia:

    Absolute fitness (wabs) of a genotype is defined as the ratio between the number of individuals with that genotype after selection to those before selection. It is calculated for a single generation and may be calculated from absolute numbers or from frequencies. When the fitness is larger than 1.0, the genotype increases in frequency; a ratio smaller than 1.0 indicates a decrease in frequency.

    So from a gene’s point of view, fitness is the rate of change of the frequency of that gene in the population. If it is negative, the gene is being selected against. If fitness is zero, the gene has a neutral effect. If it is positive, the gene is favored by selection and is becoming more common in the population. The criteria for determining whether a gene has a positive or negative fitness effect depend on what the gene does, and what sort of world the gene is placed in. The gene that makes peppered moths black has a positive fitness effect when pollution darkens trees, but that same gene has a negative fitness effect when pollution is controlled and trees lighten in color and white moths blend in better.

    it seems that Creationists’ real problem with evolution is that it does not require the inevitability of their own, or humanities’, existence

    That’s one issue. Another is that it doesn’t seem to leave God with much left to do. If you can get cells, plants, animals, dinosaurs and human beings from a blind, mindless process, then what need is there for God? And in a world without God, what is the meaning of it all? Where do morals come from? What is the point of the universe and of human existence? And this dilemma goes back further than Darwin, of course. Newton raised similar problems by showing how the motions of the heavens can be explained through just a few basic physical laws, such as gravity and momentum. If the heavenly bodies just move on their own, like clockwork, where does God fit in? If the universe is just a big clock, does that reduce God to the role of a clockmaker, who winds it all up at the start and then lets it go on its own? This sort of God might provide some intellectual satisfaction, but doesn’t seem likely to come to your aid in times of hardship.

    Secondly, as to what evolves, I think it does not have to be limited to organic molecules, does it?

    Not at all! Anything that can make copies of itself, and that makes occasional mistakes (however rare) will evolve. Dawkins introduces the concept of Meme in the Selfish Gene as a metaphor for how evolution can occur in the cultural realm (e.g., catchy, infective tunes and ideas). And of course computer viruses act precisely like biological viruses (though these seem mainly to be maliciously or irresponsibly engineered, rather than naturally evolved).

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