I talked with Thomas Fowler about The Evolution Controversy, a book surveying the competing theories surrounding evolution. Fowler (ScD, George Washington University) is Senior Principal Engineer at the Center for Information Technology and Telecommunications at Noblis, formerly known as Mitretek Systems, a not-for-profit consulting firm working in the public interest in Falls Church, Virginia. He is also an adjunct professor at George Mason University and Christendom College. He has published over one hundred articles and reviews, and has translated two books. He is a member of several honorary fraternities including Phi Beta Kappa and Tau Beta Pi, and is a member of major scientific organizations including AAAS, IEEE, American Physical Society, and American Mathematical Society. Listen to part 1 and part 2 of Gayle’s discusison with Thomas Fowler to gain an unbiased understanding of the scientific issues involved in the evolution controversy. For further information, see the author’s website, http://www.evolutioncontroversy.net/.
Gayle Trotter: This is Gayle Trotter. Today I’m speaking with Thomas Fowler, author of The Evolution Controversy. Thank you for speaking with us today.
Thomas Fowler: Thank you for inviting me, Gayle.
GT: I’m very excited to talk to you about your book, and the topic is The Evolution Controversy. So why is evolution even controversial?
TF: It’s controversial for a number of reasons. First, within the scientific community there are a number of people who object to the theory. They feel that it, in its most popular form, Neo-Darwinism, has gone beyond the bounds of what it really should be able to explain. And outside of the scientific community, in the broader arena of society, you have a lot of people who feel that the theory of evolution has turned into some sort of surrogate religion, and therefore is intending to attack Christianity or other established religions.
GT: So why even write this book? Why do you apply a scientific overview to creationism – why dignify it this way?
TF: Well, the purpose of the book was to do what no other book has done to date, and that is to look at the evolution controversy and to examine the major schools of thought because all those schools of thought claim to have strictly scientific theories that can explain the observed facts. So, of course the Neo-Darwinian school has their theory, which is usually the one taught in schools. The Creationists have, over the last 50 years especially, developed what they claim are scientific theories that can explain the same set of facts. More recently, the Intelligent Design school and another school that we call the Meta-Darwinian school also have come forward with explanations. So the purpose of the book was to look at these major schools of thought with respect to their scientific theories, and every one of them claims to have a scientific theory to explain the observed facts. So our goal was to look at those theories, in an objective way, and report to the reader about exactly what each school says, and why they say it.
GT: Do you have a personal interest in this topic?
TF: Well, it’s one that’s been of interest to me ever since I was in high school. I guess I always had a somewhat uneasy feeling about evolution as a theory, especially compared to theories in physical science where you generally have a much closer relationship to experimental type of verification.
GT: And how many schools of thought do you go into in your book?
TF: Well, we just break the main explanations of evolution – or the facts, rather – into four schools, as I mentioned: The Neo-Darwinian school, which is the dominant school; the Creationist school, which is not dominant in the educational arena but is dominant in the broader cultural arena, at least in terms of allegiance; the Intelligent Design school, which is fairly small but growing; and the Meta-Darwinian school, which is also small but growing and is sometimes not clearly distinguished from the Neo-Darwinian school.
GT: Let’s start with Neo-Darwinism. What are the key tenets of this school of thought?
TF: It goes back to Darwin. The basic idea behind the school is that the nature and history of life forms can be explained by a fairly simple paradigm involving common descent from a single ancestor and then modifications, as it’s usually explained. And these modifications come about by random changes, in our current understanding, to genetic material caused by various factors, including maybe even cosmic rays, chemical effects, things like that. And the idea is that occasionally a random change will actually lead to an improvement in the organism, and over time these improvements can build up and lead to better organisms, maybe new species or higher-order taxa.
GT: And what kind of time frame are we talking about?
TF: This would require, of course, tens, hundreds of millions of years. This depends on how much change you want but the rate of change is very slow by this mechanism.
GT: And so can you explain to us a little bit about microevolution versus macroevolution?
TF: Yes, this is really the focus of the controversy. Contrary to popular belief, all the schools of thought accept the existence of natural selection, which is commonly identified with evolution but really isn’t. Natural selection is really just the mechanism by which certain organisms in a population are selected because they can survive better in a given environment. All schools of thought agree that this can occur, and it was well-known at least 25 years before Darwin. So natural selection is one factor; random mutation is a second factor, which is, just as I mentioned, the way in which supposedly new information gets incorporated into the genetic code. Now, microevolution says basically that you can have small changes in the distribution of characteristics of a population over time in response to environmental factors. For example, if you had … oh there was an experiment that was done, fraudulently as it turned out, but there was a famous experiment that was done in the past in which light and dark moths were released and the light moths survived better in certain trees where there was lighter bark and the dark moths survived better on the other trees where the bark was darker. So there’s a main example of what we call microevolution. No new information was involved, just the distribution of characteristics changed. You had more of one type than another. Macroevolution, on the other hand, claims that you can get substantial changes to the genetic material and thus to the physiological organization of organisms as a result of an accumulation of small changes. Now, the controversy centers around the fact – or the hypothesis – that microevolution and macroevolution are actually the same thing, just to a different degree. So the Neo-Darwinian school says that the small changes that you see through microevolution, which Darwin himself observed from looking at the selective breeding of animals, can lead over time to whole new species and whole new higher taxa.
GT: And what is their evidence for making that claim?
TF: Actually, there is not a lot of evidence for making that claim. It is an extrapolation from what can be observed. Darwin observed the action of breeders who could make dogs or other animals larger or smaller, but what happened of course in every one of those cases was that a point was reached where you couldn’t go any farther and either the animals wouldn’t get bigger or smaller or they would just die. And so this has been one of the key points in the evolution debate – that this type of microevolution always seems to have limitations beyond which you can’t go.
GT: And is this typical in science in general, that you would take certain evidence like microevolution and extrapolate to macroevolution, or is the idea that you keep testing it so that you can make that leap to the macroevolution?
TF: Science historically has gotten into a lot of trouble when it’s tried to do long-range extrapolation, but it is a natural tendency. Just to go to an example from physics: Newtonian physics, developed in the seventeenth century, more or less was based on a deterministic paradigm, and it was extrapolated from Newton’s ideas that ultimately the universe was composed of little particles, and if you knew the position and momentum of all these particles, at any given point and time, you could predict the whole future of the universe and retrodict the whole past of the universe. So this was enshrined in something called “Laplace’s demon” and so this was obviously a very long-range extrapolation from Newton, but it became the dominant way of thinking in science and so when quantum mechanics came along in the beginning of the twentieth century – in the first decades of the twentieth century – it became apparent that this paradigm had broken down and that you really couldn’t believe that anymore. It triggered a terrible reaction and a controversy within the scientific community that lasted really for about fifty years until it was returned back to experiment – Alain Aspect and his group in Paris finally did an experiment that showed the quantum mechanics people were right. But still it was an example of an extrapolation which is not really quite as long a range as the Neo-Darwinian school is doing.
GT: Well, you talk about that in the book, about a paradigm shift, and how that’s something in science where you can have the same set of facts, and it’s just how you look at it, and then once that changes, the conclusions you draw change, too, and I think that’s a good way to start talking about Creationism, and they see it as a paradigm shift, right?
TF: Yes, the situation in evolution, and it’s no different than in any other branch of science, is that we have a certain set of facts which are accessible to us right now. If you want to look at the fossil record you can go out and, if you want to spend time, dig into the ground and find fossils and you can assemble these fossils into records, you can associate the fossils with certain types of rock and then you can look at the physiology of organisms today and you can compare their structures with what you see in the fossils in the past. In other words, there are a lot of facts you can look at right now. So the Creationists say that we’re all looking at the same set of facts, but we see something different when we look at those facts.
GT: And who are the players in this area?
TF: The Creationist school – we call them a school, it’s a rather loose collection of people. You have a lot of people in the broad community who don’t know much about science but just simply are concerned with a certain literal interpretation of the Bible but within that group there’s a much smaller group of people who are concerned with developing solid – or at least what they think are solid – scientific theories based on a Creationist outlook that can explain the observed facts better than the Neo-Darwinian paradigm. And there’s several miniature, or small, schools in that area – you have the Institute for Creation Research in California, you have Answers in Genesis, which I believe is based in Tennessee, and then you have Walt Brown’s Center for Scientific Creationism which is in Phoenix. And those are the three major organizations that are really trying to do something along strictly scientific lines.
GT: So they’re wed to the six-day creation account in Genesis?
TF: Yes, they’re what we call the young-earth Creationists. There’s another group called the old-earth Creationists but they’re not really a big factor in the current evolution wars.
GT: And why do they care? What is animating them in their pursuit of this?
TF: Well, they come at it from the point of view that the Bible is really a reliable source of knowledge about everything, including the creation of the world. Their usual comment is, “Well, God was there when the world was created and you scientists weren’t, so He’s giving reliable testimony.” So that’s where they come from. They start from that but they do believe that the facts support the six-day or the young-earth, whether it’s six days or a longer period. They do believe that the facts actually support this time period for the world better than the other theories that are out there. Now this does cause some problems because of course the dating of the history of universe involves not just, of course, evolution but involves physics, astronomy, chemistry, and other disciplines.
GT: And how does their credibility rank with most Americans, or an average number of Americans?
TF: Well, the polls consistently show that the majority of Americans support the Creationist position and only a relatively small number, less than ten percent, believe in the Neo-Darwinian school.
GT: So are people who dispute the claims of Darwinian theory the type who, in Tina Fey’s phrase, think Adam and Eve rode dinosaurs to church?
TF: Well, there probably are some people who are in that category. As I said, in the Creationist camp you have people of all stripes and many of them are really largely ignorant of science, so they don’t have straight in their mind what the facts are, what the general time frames are, and so forth. But there are people in that camp who are very serious and who do understand the issues and who do understand the facts and who do present at scientific conferences and things. So there are some who know what they’re talking about, let’s put it that way.
GT: So in the Intelligent Design camp, what animates them and what is their approach to the evolution controversy?
TF: They are also a bit spread out in terms of their beliefs but you have some people in that camp who are more or less approaching it from a religious standpoint and they tend to give the Intelligent Design camp… they caused it to be labeled as a branch of Creationism which it’s definitely not. On the other hand, you have people in that camp like David Berlinski who are really more or less agnostic types. So what really animates the people in that camp is they feel that the Neo-Darwinian theory has glossed too many scientific – strictly scientific – questions and that there are scientific issues with the Neo-Darwinian theory that need to be addressed if for no other reason than to put it on a solid scientific theory footing. And in my opinion – and this is my opinion – it’s this situation that’s caused so much consternation among biologists with respect to the Intelligent Design camp because in some ways the Intelligent Design people are telling the biologists that it’s necessary to do something that they should have been doing all along, which is to ask hard questions, like: Can the proposed mechanism for Neo-Darwinism – which is natural selection acting on random mutations – can that actually produce the kind of changes that are needed for the theory? If it can’t, the theory collapses. And I think at some level there are a lot of people in the Neo-Darwinian camp who are very afraid of that question.
GT: So that’s the main issue for the Neo-Darwinian camp and the main issue for the Creationist camp is the young age.
TF: The young-earth, yeah. There’s no question, of course, that if they can establish that the earth is young: 10,000 years, 20,000 – pick a number. Of course, evolution immediately collapses as a theory because it needs hundreds of millions or billions of years for it to work. On the other hand, that’s the big issue for the Creationists because you just take a backyard telescope and look at the sky and you can see galaxies and things out there which we know are hundreds of millions of light-years away; obviously it took that long for the light to get to us so how could the universe be 10,000 years old? So they also recognize that this is their make-or-break issue.
GT: So where do the Meta-Darwinists come in?
TF: Well, they’re a group of scientists who actually started before the Intelligent Design school. They share some of the same criticisms of Neo-Darwinism. They also believe that there are problems with Darwinian theory, especially with respect to the observed facts. The Meta-Darwinian school really started with Eldridge and Gould and their theory of punctuated equilibrium and they came out early on, saying: If you look at the fossil record it really doesn’t support Neo-Darwinian theory. Neo-Darwinian theory is really based on what we call phyletic gradualism, which means gradual changes in organisms leading to gradual formation of new higher taxa and eventually to phyla. And what the Meta-Darwinian school says is: This really isn’t what you see in the fossil record. You see stasis followed by change, and more stasis. You don’t see any of this gradualism. And they also note the Cambrian Explosion, which was a very short period of time during the Cambrian Period when all the major phyla – almost all but one – emerged almost simultaneously, which is not what should have happened according to phyletic gradualism theory.
GT: So they kind of get rid of the transitional form issue, through this punctuated equilibrium theory.
TF: Well, they claim that the transitional form issue is really a difficult problem for the Neo-Darwinians because the transitional forms, which should be there, and which Darwin said, back in 1860, should be found as we examine more and more fossils, basically were never found. Now, that said, the transitional form problem is well-recognized and there are a number of different explanations of it that you find, ranging from people saying that there are plenty of them out there, which doesn’t seem to be the case, to people who say that everything’s a transitional form, to other people who say, well, it’s just really not an issue. But nonetheless it is recognized and it is one of the reasons the Meta-Darwinian school was established.
GT: So the frieze above the main door of the National Cathedral is entitled, “Ex Nihilo,” depicting the account in Genesis of divine creation from nothing. Is punctuated equilibrium all that different from creation ex nihilo?
TF: Punctuated Equilibrium and the Meta-Darwinian school in general believes that some sort of scientific explanation of the history of life is possible. So it doesn’t really believe that we need any sort of external intervention, which is obviously a key part of Creationism and to some extent of Intelligent Design. It doesn’t believe that we need any sort of external intervention, and the issue of creation ex nihilo is an interesting one because it’s often confused in the minds of people. There’s a difference between creation of things, such as organisms coming out of primordial soup or whatever, versus the creation of being from nothing – that’s a whole different question. But in any case, the Meta-Darwinian school, the “punc eq” people, don’t believe that we need to rely on any sort of interventionism; they just think other mechanisms are needed than the ones that are in the Neo-Darwinian school.
GT: Well, thank you very much for laying out all the general overview of these four schools and this ends Part One, and we’ll come back for Part Two.
GT: This is Gayle Trotter. I’m speaking with Thomas Fowler about his book, The Evolution Controversy. In this second part of our discussion, we’re going to talk about the cultural issues surrounding the evolution controversy. Thank you so much, Tom, for speaking with us.
TF: Thank you, Gayle.
GT: Let’s talk about why evolution is so hot a topic.
TF: Evolution is a hot topic because as people on all sides of the controversy recognize, it has implications that go beyond strictly scientific theory. It has implications in the area of philosophy, in the area of theology, in the area of ethics and many other areas that affect our daily life in the way that perhaps theory about quantum mechanics does not.
GT: Right. Well, you in your book outline five areas that are hot topics of public policy issues. The first one is the question of who is the legitimate spokesman for science, and why is this a compelling issue for all sides of the debate?
TF: The reason is that science in our society has an enormous amount of prestige. Well-earned, I would say, because it’s the basis for our technological society and basis for medicine and a lot of other things. So, if some group, some school of thought on evolution, can claim it is the only legitimate spokesman for biology or evolution, then it’s sort of a bully pulpit. It can say: We’re the only ones who can say what science is so if you don’t believe what we believe, you’re just wrong. So that’s the reason that people argue about who should be saying what about science and who should have a right to speak about it and what they should be able to say.
GT: And what is your reaction to that, as a scientist?
TF: I think that that’s a legitimate point. Clearly in many areas nobody would dispute that a body like the National Science Foundation, for example, could talk about chemistry or most areas of physics or things like that. They’re just not that controversial and if anybody has any question about the periodic table, it’s pretty easy to demonstrate experimentally what is said there. Whereas with evolution, a lot of it is based on inference and extrapolation so it is more controversial. In addition, as I mentioned, it does have a direct impact on religion, ethics and morality and more aspects of society.
GT: The second big issue is one that concerns all walks of life is money, and research money, and being in D.C., we’re very familiar with the kind of behind-the-scenes stuff that goes on to try and funnel money into certain types of research. an you talk about how evolution is implicated in this?
TF: Yes, it sort of flows from the first topic. The complaint of the critics of evolution, especially among the Creationists and the Intelligent Design school, one of their big complaints is that when evolution is taught, you’re teaching not just the strictly scientific theory that explains observed facts, but also philosophical and essentially religious – or surrogate religious – theories are also being taught at the same time. So the question is, if this is true, since a lot of this research – publishing and so forth – is funded with public money, or at least in part with public money, then everybody else should get their share of the money or else you should refrain from talking about any sort of non-scientific questions. So the argument there runs along those lines. The evolutionists claim that they aren’t, but when you read a lot of the writings that you can find rather easily, you see that actually these other issues do come up all the time. And in fact, the National Science Foundation itself has published a couple editions of this booklet that looks at the relationship between science and religion in attempts to diffuse the whole issue. The only problem is, when I first saw that booklet I said, “Well, the National Science Foundation doesn’t actually have any expertise in theology so why are they writing about this?” and secondly, “Why are they doing it with public money?”
GT: Underscoring the whole point!
TF: Underscoring the whole point, right! So the issue is, in this society, where you have these rules about what you can and can’t do with public money, it’s an important question.
GT: So that’s a question that’s not going to go away.
TF: No, it’s not going to go away. And related to the first question, one group claims it’s the only spokesman, that they’re the only ones who should get any money and so forth and the other groups say: No, you either have to shut up or you have to give us money, too.
GT: Well, the third hot topic on the controversy with evolution is dissent about evolution being taught in the classroom and/or equal time for Creationist theories. Can you explain a little bit about that controversy?
TF: Of course, this goes back to the Scopes trial in the twenties and the question… it’s actually changed a lot since the days of the Scopes trial. In the Scopes trial, the question was: Could you teach evolution at all in the classroom? Now we’ve shifted 180 degrees to: Can you teach anything BUT evolution in the classroom? Well, there are two issues here. First, there’s the one that follows from the last one, which is, if evolution is really being taught as a surrogate religion, then you need to give equal time for other religions in the classroom is one issue. The other question – perhaps I think the more interesting question – is: Can you teach criticism of evolution theory in the classroom? Now this has been argued different ways in the courts, but what especially the Intelligent Design school claims is that there are actual problems – scientific problems – with the theory of evolution that have nothing to do with the questions of theology or philosophy or anything. Just straight scientific problems with the theory that the children should be taught about, because we teach about problems with astrophysics and other theories so there’s no reason why we shouldn’t teach about problems with evolution. So that’s the crux of the theories. To date, the courts have not been sympathetic to that, but the interesting thing is that it doesn’t really matter because in the age of the internet, the idea that you can suppress opposing views, especially when most of the people in the country don’t believe in the view that you’re trying to promote, the idea that you can suppress this is hopeless, and in fact, it backfires as a strategy as it largely has in this case.
GT: Well, your book is a great resource for the non-scientific mind because it goes through all four of the schools, and it has a very good primer on what even scientific theory is. And is it eight or ten things that you check each theory to see; falsifiability and all the different criteria, so it goes through that even for people like me who are not scientists. So if you have an interest in this area, this book can really explain the situation to you and it’s not taking sides. It’s not advancing any of these agendas. But at the end of the book, you do talk about your thoughts on all of this and, related to the children in the classroom, you have a good comment on how the Darwinists do not want the children to be exposed to the complications with their theories, but they do want, on these moral and ethical issues, for the kids to be questioning.
TF: Yes, well, that is one of the strange things. There’s a lot of strange things about evolution, and one of them is this idea that you can suppress any controversy about evolution with respect to purely scientific questions. You should never address that; never allow it to be addressed. Well, as you say, at the same time, you encourage the kids to think critically about history, about morality or ethics or whatever, and it just doesn’t work. And in the end, I think, a lot of the kids really aren’t buying it either, and they know there is something funny going on. Now, there are some in the Neo-Darwinian camp who are aware of this and who claim this is a wrong approach, that, you know, the best approach, and I agree, is to confront the opponents head-on. I often teach physics classes and if it were the case in my physics classes that half the class believed the moon was made of green cheese or anything like that… I mean, even if I thought the theory was ridiculous, I would say, “Well, you know, science exists in the context of society and all these students out there believe this, so I have to give my reasons why I think the moon isn’t made of green cheese.” Or if they believe that the sun went around the earth or any other theory, no matter how ridiculous I thought it was, I would have to take time out from the class and say, “A lot of people in the class believe this theory; here’s why I think they are wrong.”
GT: And just shutting down the discussion gives credence to the other side.
TF: Well, that’s exactly what happens. And that’s just exactly what actually does go on in the classrooms, and that’s well-documented. And the other issue that’s come up is – there was an article in The Wall Street Journal a little while back in which a professor at a large state university who teaches biology classes says that now in his classes he teaches evolution as a theory, simply because he knows that if he doesn’t, there are enough kids in the class who have learned from the internet, from the AiG and these other Creationist organizations, to ask certain questions that are very hard for him to answer. So one way or the other he ends up having to deal with this, so he just heads them off by just saying, “OK, we’re just going to teach evolution as a theory.”
GT: So the Creationists are being successful at some level.
TF: They are being successful because they have learned to use a means of communication outside of the classroom.
GT: So you’ve studied this intensely, over a period of years, and you’re very knowledgeable about this subject. What are your views on the overall controversy?
TF: I think it’s going to be very difficult for the Creationists to prove the short age of the universe that they need for their theories to work. On the other hand, I think the Intelligent Design people have raised some good points about the problem of whether or not the mechanisms that are proposed by Neo-Darwinism can actually succeed in explaining the facts that they need to explain. So I think that what needs to be done is that we need to work more along these lines of putting the theory in a testable form and proposing experiments that can be done. And this is true for some of the Creationist theories as well as some of the Neo-Darwinian theories. Let’s just have some sort of objective body that will say: Alright, your theory says this; we’ll just propose this experiment which will test your theory. And will do it. And while this would not be cheap, clearly the cultural issues involved here are huge, so I think it would be a worthwhile expenditure of the public’s money rather than just prolonging this controversy – which, by the way, unless something like that is done, is never going to go away because all sides in this dispute, to their own satisfaction at least, can explain all the facts that there are now, and there aren’t likely to be any dramatically different new facts in the future. So either we go on with this kind of odd situation of all the sides arguing with each other and never agreeing on anything, or we try to get together and come up with some hard experiments that will actually differentiate the schools. I don’t think that this is going to happen, frankly, because for it to happen, the Neo-Darwinian school would have to admit that the Creationists actually have some level of credibility, which they’ll never admit, and same thing with the Intelligent Design. Nevertheless though, that’s where I feel we are; that the evidence is not sufficient to prove anybody right and we need more. We need to do some more investigation.
GT: Well, it sounds like your conclusion is just applying the scientific method to this and not saying this is a verboten topic for anyone.
TF: That’s correct.
GT: Well, thank you so much for this Tom. I so enjoyed your book, and I hope all of our listeners will get a chance to pick up a copy and read it and join the discussion.
TF: Thank you, Gayle. It was a pleasure being with you.
First published in First Things in January 2011