Evolution Understood and Not Understood

I mentioned those John Brockman anthologies of science essays back on Feb 4th. They’re associated with the website Edge.org, one of those fascinating websites I’ve noticed over the years but have not followed regularly (others are Big Think, Quanta, Aero, Quillette…) but in this case perhaps should…. Well, except that it doesn’t seem to post much new material lately.Brockman is primarily a literary agent, facilitating hundreds (I would think by now) books by leading scientists since at least the mid 1990s when he published The Third Culture.

For years the site has posed an annual question (like “What have you changed your mind about?” or “What is your favorite deep, elegant, or beautiful explanation?”) and gathered answers from dozens, even hundreds of writers each year both on its site and then gathered into an annual trade paperback. A typical book is the one shown face-out above, collecting answers to that second example question. The book is 400 pages long; each answer, two to three pages. So you can see how each book really does sample nearly a couple hundred different points of view, from many leading scientists, and many I’ve never heard of as well. The table of contents is 11 pages long.

As I said back on Feb 4th, these anthologies are brilliant ways to sample current scientific thinking on many different topics, without having to read the individual tomes, often lengthy, by their contributors.

I do see that the annual questions seem to have concluded, in 2018, with a book published in 2019. Perhaps it became more difficult to think of fresh angles; there are only so many ways to spin the same sets of basic topics.

Glancing through the books that I have (about half of them, shown in the pic above), I looked for the one that might be most essential, getting to the very core of modern scientific understanding. And chose This Explains Everything with the subtitle “Deep, Beautiful, and Elegant Theories of How the World Works”. I had a notion for what the single leading theory that explains everything might be, and I was right. I’ll quote some of her (just over one full page of text), because she captures why people misunderstand it, and how understanding it is a kind of conceptual breakthrough. The entire contents of the book are online, though there aren’t links to individual items. Pages 1 – 2 of the book:


Of course it has to be Darwin. Nothing else comes close. Evolution by means of natural selection (or indeed any kind of selection — natural or unnatural) provides the most beautiful, elegant explanation in all of science. This simple three-step algorithm explains, with one simple idea, why we live in a universe full of design. It explains not only why we are here but why trees, kittens, Urdu, the Bank of England, Chelsea football team, and the iPhone are here.

You might wonder … why even today so many people fail to grasp it. The reason, I think, is that at its heart there seems to be a tautology. It seems as though you are saying nothing when you say that “Things that survive survive” or “Successful ideas are successful.” To turn these tautologies into power, you need to add the context of a limited world in which not everything survives and competition is rife, and also realize that this is an ever-changing world in which the rules of competition keep shifting.

This beautiful idea is hard to grasp, and I have known many university students have been taught evolution at school and thought they understood it, but have never really done so. One of the joys of teaching, for me, was to see that astonished look on students’ faces when they suddenly got it.

The limited world, and the ever-changing world. These are the keys.


Related to this is the opening of E.O. Wilson’s CONSILIENCE, which I’ve begun rereading, but which I did three posts about back in 2016. Wilson describes growing up a fundamentalist Baptist, in Alabama, and then discovering the natural world and going to college, reading a book on evolution by Ernst Mayr. Suddenly everything made sense.

I chose to doubt. I found it hard to accept that our deepest beliefs were set in stone by agricultural societies of the eastern Mediterranean more than two thousand years ago…

But most of all, Baptist theology made no provision for evolution. The biblical authors had missed the most important revelation of all! Could it be that they were not really privy to the thoughts of God? Might the pastors of my childhood, good and loving men though they were, be mistaken?


And the item I noticed yesterday (at the end of the post) about how a person either realizes at some early stage of their life (around adolescence) how the world actually works, contrary to their religion’s “divine plan,” or learns to spend a lifetime rationalizing reality away (e.g. God works in mysterious ways), to stay true to faith and community.


My take on evolution is first, that given the actual circumstances of the real world, it can’t *not* happen. And sometimes happens very quickly, when the environment changes quickly, as it has over the last few thousand years as humans have spread across and filled up the planet.

And second, the real motive for rejection of evolution isn’t that people don’t truly understand it. They reject it as threatening their religiously-inspired worldview. Unlike Wilson, they are unable or unwillingly to accommodate the reality of the actual world to the stories that bond their social groups together.


Meanwhile, at the other end of the human intellectual spectrum…

Boing Boing, Mark Frauenfelder, 8 Feb 2023: Montana bill would ban teaching of scientific theories in schools

Montana freshman Senator Daniel Emrich (R) thinks children shouldn’t be taught scientific theories. He introduced Senate Bill 235, which says, “The trustees of a school district shall ensure that science curriculum and instructional materials, including textbooks, used in the district include only scientific fact.”

We know what Emrich is up to. He wants to ban the teaching of the theory of evolution, which is a well-substantiated explanation based on a large body of factual evidence, not assumptions. His dangerous and misguided bill creates a false dichotomy between science and scientific theories, and undermines the principles of academic freedom and the separation of church and state.

I can’t get upset with Emrich, however. The GOP relies on a large base of poorly-educated voters and he is only doing his part to make sure there are enough ignorant people to keep his party afloat.


Jerry Coyne, Why Evolution Is True, 9 Feb 2023: Montana considers a bill that allows teaching of “scientific facts” but not “scientific theories”

Why are they doing this? Apparently because Emrich is after the “theory” of evolution and this is his way of banning it from being taught. (This won’t fly, of course; it’s hopelessly confused.) And I can tell without looking that Emrich is a Republican.

Recall that Coyne wrote an entire book called Why Evolution Is True and not “just a theory.”

This plays on the public confusion, promulgated decades ago by Ronald Reagan, who said this in 1980 (my emphasis):

I have a great many questions about it. It is a theory, it is a scientific theory only. And in recent years it has been challenged in the world of science and is not believed in the scientific community to be as infallible as it once was. I think that recent discoveries down through the years have pointed up great flaws in it.”

That’s all bullpucky, of course, especially the claim that evolution is becoming less accepted in the scientific community. My book Why Evolution is True dispels that claim, but it also shows that yes, evolution is a scientific theory, but it is also a scientific fact.

Coyne links this famous essay by Stephen Jay Gould: Evolution as Fact and Theory


The appropriate take on this is shown in this post:

Joe.My.God, 9 Feb 2023: GOP Montana Bill Bans Teaching “Scientific Theories”

Among several Twitter responses to this story, and evoking a common social media theme:

How to show you don’t understand science without saying you don’t understand science.


This is not to be belabored because this is just one dumb freshman Republican guy. Though it does reveal a persistent trend in conservative (saturated by religion) thinking.

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