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Rabbi Shmuley Boteach Headshot

Does Questioning Evolution Make You Anti-Science?

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Paul Krugman thinks that Republicans are dumb-ass, knuckle-dragging Neanderthals. In the not-too-distant future he sees a Republican half-wit winning the presidency and dragging America back to the Stone Age. I could see it now. The Republican nominee for president, delivering his acceptance speech at the convention in grunts, beating his chest, and bopping his wife over the head with the a club as he drags her on to the stage by her hair.

Writing in The New York Times, Krugman says, "One of these years the world's greatest nation will find itself ruled by a party that is aggressively anti-science, indeed anti-knowledge. And, in a time of severe challenges -- environmental, economic, and more -- that's a terrifying prospect." Terrifying indeed. What's more frightening than the prospect of a bunch of underdeveloped orangutans with their finger on the nuclear button?

But saying that Republicans are anti-science is about as accurate as saying that Democrats are anti-G-d, and one wonders what is more outrageous? The prospect of a primitive party of Republicans getting control of government, or a Nobel-prize winning columnist in the world's most authoritative newspaper writing broad generalities about how Republicans are unlettered buffoons who hate learning and science?

What seems even more outrageous is the fact that Krugman's ire was piqued by Texas governor and Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry's comment that evolution was "just a theory" and that it has "some gaps in it," and his challenge to global warming, where Perry said, "I think we are seeing almost weekly, or even daily, scientists are coming forward and questioning the original idea that man-made global warming is what is causing the climate to change."

While I cannot comment on climate-change science, I do have a great deal to say about evolution.

I am not a scientist. But beginning in about 1990 I started organizing an annual debate at Oxford University on science versus religion where the focus was almost always on evolution and which featured some of the world's greatest evolutionists like Richard Dawkins, who appeared several times, and the late John Maynard-Smith of the University of Sussex, who, at the time, was regarded by many as the greatest living evolutionary theorist. While I moderated the first few debates, I later participated in a debate against Richard Dawkins at Oxford which he later denied ever took place, forcing us to post the full video of the debate online where Dawkins is not only the principal proponent of the science side but actually loses the debate in a student vote at the end. I later debated Dawkins again at the Idea City Convention at the University of Toronto, the video of which is likewise available online.

What I learned from these debates, as well as reading extensively on evolution, is that evolutionists have a tough time defending the theory when challenged in open dialogue. Indeed, David Berlinski, the author of The Devil's Delusion, was, although an agnostic, on the religion side of one of the debates against Dawkins and tore large holes in evolution that Dawkins and Maynard-Smith struggled to address.

This does not mean that evolution is not true or that theory is without merit or evidence. It does, however, corroborate what Governor Perry said. Evolution is a theory. Unlike, say, the laws of thermodynamics, it has never been proven beyond the shadow of a doubt to be true. Indeed, Richard Dawkins and the late and celebrated Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould fiercely debated basic presumptions about evolution. Gould was not a theist and did not believe in Creation. But he argued that the large gaps in the fossil record make a mockery of a theory of gradual evolution, which is why Gould advocated 'punctuated equilibrium,' a variation on Darwinism in which evolution takes place in dramatic periods of change followed by long eons of stasis. Gould maintained this position precisely because, as Perry said, the theory of evolution has 'some gaps in it,' in the case of the fossil record quite literally.

No scientist has ever witnessed evolution directly and science itself says that this is impossible given the vast amount of time needed for species to evolve. Rather, evidence for evolution is brought primarily from the fossil record and natural selection from some famous contemporary observations, like the peppered moths (Biston betularia) which produce offspring that can be light or dark, much like the same family can have redheads, brunettes and blonds. Before the Industrial Revolution, the vast majority of peppered moths were light in coloration, which helped them to blend in against lichen and trees and avoid predation by birds. Dark-colored moths stood out against this background, and so were more often eaten and killed. However, with the rise in pollution during the Industrial Revolution, the lichens and trees against which the light-colored moths habitually hid from predators were darkened with soot. Suddenly, the light-colored moths were conspicuous to predatory birds, and the dark-colored moths were well camouflaged. The plights of the two populations were reversed -- the dark moths survived, and the light moths were eaten and killed.

A similar proof for natural selection is brought from the Galapagos Finch which Darwin theorized was originally a single species of finch but over time each population of finch changed very slowly in response to the demands of the environment in which it found itself. The signal trait that Darwin seized upon to distinguish one species of finch from another was the shape of its beak. For example, the large ground-finch had a big, powerful beak that seemed well-suited to cracking open seeds while the vampire finch had a long, pointed beak, which allowed it to puncture the flesh of other birds and drink their blood. In each case, Darwin reasoned, beak shape evolved over time to provide its possessor with an adaptive advantage.

The problem with both these observations is that they are manifestations of horizontal, rather than vertical, evolution, as it describes how members of a species may change within the range of characteristics that they already possess. No new traits are generated. Rather, the traits that already exist are merely distributed differently. Vertical evolution, whereby natural selection can supposedly create entirely new structures, has yet to be directly observed and is thus a theory.

Other questions remains regarding evolutionary theory, most notably the anthropic principle which maintains that if the physical laws and constants governing our universe were even slightly different, we would not be here to notice it because the emergence of life could not have occurred. Our universe is a delicately interconnected network of laws that is balanced and tuned for the seemingly express purpose of supporting self-aware life.

The English cosmologist Sir Martin Rees argues in his book Just Six Numbers that the values of six numbers determine to a great degree many of the large- and small-scale properties of our universe. If any of these numbers were changed even slightly, the universe would exist in a radically different, and quite unfriendly, form, if it existed at all.

Let's look at the second number, epsilon, which is roughly .007. Epsilon describes, roughly speaking, how durable matter is, because it tells us how much energy is required to separate an atom into its constituent particles. Clearly, this is a very important number. But the remarkable thing about it is how delicately balanced it is against the other five numbers. If epsilon were .006 -- a difference of about 14% -- the universe would consist entirely of hydrogen. No other elements would form, because the process of nuclear fusion could not occur. The universe would be bland and uninteresting. There would be no planets, very little light, no nebulae, no comets and certainly no life.

The value of epsilon is one of the most profound mysteries of the universe. Scientists have spent their careers trying to understand why it has the value it does. As Max Born, the brilliant and influential twentieth-century physicist put it, "The explanation of this number must be the central problem of natural philosophy." The Nobel laureate Richard Feynman, in his typically flamboyant way, put it differently: "It's one of the greatest damn mysteries of physics: a magic number that comes to us with no understanding by man. You might say 'the hand of God wrote that number....'"

Many leading scientists, like Francis Collins, former head of the Human Genome Project and described by the Endocrine Society as "one of the most accomplished scientists of our time," therefore believe that while evolution may indeed be an accurate theory as to the rise of life and species, it still requires the guiding hand of a higher power in order to operate. Indeed, Richard Dawkins himself said in a famous interview with Ben Stein that the intelligent life in our universe may have come from "a higher intelligence" consisting of space aliens which seeded our planet with intelligent life.

In the final analysis, however, the Biblical account of creation easily accommodates an evolutionary ascent, seeing as the narrative expressly relates that G-d created first the mineral, then the vegetable, then the animal, and finally human life forms. The only question is whether or not this was guided.

So before Krugman attacks Republican politicians for simply questioning evolution, it would behoove him to recall that the very essence of science is to question and that stifling doubt is a sin that religion was quite guilty of in the past and that science should refrain from repeating it in the present.



Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is in the midst of founding GIVE, the Global Institute for Values Education, and is the author of the forthcoming book The Church of Evolution. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.

This essay is dedicated to the memory of Machla Debakarov.