Straw Men of Evolution Ablaze!

Here’s the guest opinion I mentioned that got printed in the Aggie today. Richard Spencer organizes the GVCC’s anti-evolution lectures, and he wrote a guest opinion for the Aggie back in November. I’m responding in part to some of his statements, but also the proximity of Darwin Day, Evolution Sunday, and my interview with Phillip Johnson gave it relevance for printing.

Funny thing was, I was going to write a guest opinion for Darwin Day, but last week, while looking for something else in The Aggie’s online archives, I found reference to professor Spencer’s guest opinion. However, there was no online version of it, so I had to go down to the Aggie office Monday to pick up a back-issue. I typed it all out exactly as it was printed, so here’s his article in its entirety, followed by my response.

Burn up your straw men

November 16, 2006

The Teaching Resources Center recently sponsored three talks on teaching evolution by professors Stanton, Vermeij, and Strong. The purpose of these talks was to discuss how to teach evolution when you have people in your class who object to the theory.

These professors use a two-pronged approach to avoid dealing with any of the scientific objections raised to the theory of evolution: First, they set up a straw man in place of the real arguments and, second, they redefine science to do away with the objections.

The first of these approaches is inimical to honest inquiry and debate and the second would be extremely damaging to science if allowed to stand. The picture painted of intelligent design (ID) was very much a straw man designed to elicit ridicule.

For example, Dr. Vermeij said it is not the science that bothers the critics of evolution, it is emotion. He asked why they believe in a 6,000-year-old Earth and said they would be utterly lost without a divine guiding hand to give meaning and purpose to life. But, accusing them of not having the courage it takes to deal with the cruel facts of life is ad hominem, sophomoric psychoanalysis and contributes nothing of value to the discussion.

And the vast majority of ID proponents think the Earth is roughly 4.6 billion years old. They also agree, by the way, that biological systems evolve over time to adapt to their environment (micro evolution). They simply disagree that this ability to adapt can explain all of the biological diversity we see (macro evolution).

ID researchers postulate that one can reliably detect that an intelligent agent created something. This exact principle is used, for example, by archaeologists when they pick up a rock and recognize that it was used as a tool by some previous intelligent being.

ID researchers do not try to use science to explore the nature of this intelligence. The definition of science used in these talks assumes that science is limited to searching for the best natural explanation for natural phenomena. But no one can prove that nothing exists outside of our material universe, so to simply disregard the possibility of a cause outside of it is an a priori assumption that represents faith in naturalism.

If this definition of science is used, then it necessarily follows that a natural explanation exists for all living organisms; in other words, macro evolution is true by definition. Any argument against it is removed from consideration as lying outside the realm of science because it at least implicitly points to something outside the material universe. So macro evolution itself becomes completely non falsifiable.

If we allow this new definition of science, we no longer have a search for truth – we have a search for the best possible explanation within the context of naturalism, which is a faith, not a conclusion of science. If we are interested in truth, logic and open discussion, we must burn up our straw men and deal with the real issues raised by those who disagree with us.

We must recognize our own presuppositions and how they affect our conclusions rather than pretend that we are completely unbiased; all evidence is viewed through our worldviews.

If you are interested in considering these issues further, I invite you to attend “An Evening with Phillip Johnson” on Friday, Dec 1, in 123 Sciences Lecture Hall. Professor Johnson is the author of Reason in the Balance and other books. He is the Jefferson E. Peyser Professor of Law, emeritus, School of Law, University of California, Berkeley; and is called the father of ID.

RICHARD SPENCER is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at UC Davis.

Straw men of evolution ablaze

February 15, 2007


In his Nov. 16, 2006 guest opinion, “Burn up your straw men,” Professor Richard Spencer said straw men – caricatures – are “inimical to honest inquiry and debate.” I couldn’t agree more. Spencer, however, is no stranger to straw men himself – not only did he tolerate them, he also set up his own.

Although I was not able to attend the December event with Phillip Johnson, the Grace Valley Christian Center kindly provided me with a copy of the lecture that I could review. Two weeks ago, I also interviewed Phillip Johnson on my radio show.

Johnson, considered the founder of the “intelligent design” (ID) creationist movement, not only misrepresented the state and extent of evolutionary science, he made logical fallacies and caricatures.

I have attended or listened to four of the antievolution presentations hosted by the GVCC in recent years, and they haven’t once presented any evidence against evolution. What they have done is point to an area of evolutionary biology that hasn’t been worked out yet, and claim that evolution “cannot” explain it.

Johnson et al then say this has falsified evolution. But even if it were true that they falsified an evolutionary account, it is fallacious reasoning to say that this kind of negative argumentation lends support to the notion of design. Unless all possible evolutionary accounts have been discovered and falsified, it is a false dilemma. This is their strategy for avoiding putting up a testable hypothesis, or doing experiments that support their ideas.

Johnson also caricatured the definition of science. He said, “The New York Times and the Darwinist authorities say that science is defined as… the assumption that natural causes will explain everything because that’s the only kinds of causes that there are.”

Science is not the assumption that the supernatural doesn’t exist – it is a method of investigating the natural world that restricts itself to natural explanations because only natural claims can be observed and tested with experiments.

Last April, in the same “Faith and Reason” lecture series, Nancy Pearcey said ID “challenges the notion that you can only look for naturalistic solutions – if by that you mean that you can’t consider intelligence as part of an answer, as part of an explanation.”

This is also a caricature. As Spencer said in his editorial, scientists such as archaeologists can invoke intelligent causes “when they pick up a rock and recognize that it was used as a tool by some previous intelligent being.” Humans are intelligent, and they are also natural causes. As he admitted himself, science doesn’t exclude intelligent causes by definition – yet he supported that same contradictory straw man about the definition of science in the same editorial.

Also, Spencer implied that Dr. Geerat Vermeij misrepresented ID proponents, saying they believe in a 6,000-year-old Earth. In fact, Vermeij did not single out ID proponents from all the critics of evolution – and the vast majority of people who do not believe in evolution do not accept that the Earth is 4.6 billion years old.

I wonder, why didn’t Spencer stand up for honest inquiry and debate when these straw men and logical fallacies were made while he was sitting in the front row during Pearcey’s lecture, or leading the talk with Johnson? Why did he imply that Vermeij said something he did not?

Evolution has progressed leaps and bounds beyond mere finches on the Galapagos. Advanced molecular techniques and a richer array of fossils from Ethiopia, China, India and the Canadian Arctic (can we say Tiktaalik?) are allowing us to reveal the history of life with incredible detail.

Evolutionary biologists need to do more to help convey what we have discovered, and I applaud professors Stanton, Strong and Vermeij for addressing it. Those in the religious community who don’t feel that evolution contradicts their cherished religious beliefs should also speak up – that is the major stumbling block to acceptance in this country.

On Sunday the 11th, coinciding with the birth of Charles Darwin on the 12th, the second annual Evolution Sunday event was held with over 600 congregations around the country holding talks on evolution, and so far there has only been one in Davis. I think I know just the organization that ought to show that they are open-minded, and for once invite someone who can convey science faithfully.

My interview with Johnson is available online at and I will replay that episode today at 6 p.m. on KDRT 101.5 FM, and again Sunday at 9 p.m. Happy Darwin Day, everyone.

KARL MOGEL is a UC Davis alumnus.

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4 Responses to Straw Men of Evolution Ablaze!

  1. George Bright says:

    I so wish people would stop applying the words “natural” and “supernatural” to science. Science can be defined far more simply and completely without reference to those terms at all.

    Science is, quite simply, the process of developing predictions about the world that work. That is, the predictions come true.

    While science also has significant explanatory power, what distinguishes science from non-science is that science’s explanations stick their necks out and make meaningful predictions. (A more formal word for “meaningful” is “falsifiable”, which is why the predictions in horoscopes don’t qualify.)

    Now, whether the predictions are in terms of angels, devils, and spirits, or electrons, protons and neutrons makes not one tiny difference to their merit. What matters is whether the predictions come true.

    To compare two scientific theories, you look for circumstances in which they make conflicting predictions, then go and observe those circumstances.

    The lesson to be learned is that to be allowed to play in the scientific theory sandbox, you have to make predictions. That is the single most fundamental requirement for admittance. When the intelligent design bunch make some falsifiable predictions, we can start having a meaningful discussion about their ideas.

    Until then, their ideas are simply not science and can be filed alongside Kipling’s Just So Stories as amusing but uninformative.

  2. Thanks for stopping by.

    Science is a practical endeavor – as you said, it is about devleoping models that make predictions that work. IDists don’t make predictions that work.

    It is interesting how many of these antievolutionists, while trying to maintain that the “designer” could be an extra-terrestrial to say this isn’t about religion, they go right ahead and say that ID “challenges materialism/naturalism.” So much for the it-could-be-an-alien cover. Aliens wouldn’t violate naturalism, which means that they’re trying to have it both ways.

    You make a good point. The natural/supernatural division is often used to argue that science is arbitrarily defined, which it is not. The people who are asking for science to be redefined are asking that we allow ideas that don’t work or that can’t be tested into an enterprise that has proven itself again and again with ideas that do work.

  3. Jorg Donde says:

    Spencer said,”The picture painted of intelligent design (ID) was very much a straw man designed to elicit ridicule

    I may be a rude and inconsiderate person, but from where I stand, ID elicits nothing but ridicule and no-one has to try to “paint” it so. It is natural to laugh at idiocy. What would Monty Python do?

  4. Check out Episode 64, I added some subtle humor in the background while Johnson was talking about the Discovery Institute.