Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Interview on Evolution and Design

As the handful of regular readers of this blog know, recent posts by Dr Esler that touched upon the topic of Evolution created a burst of varied responses, mostly negative. Privately, friends complained that the comments were disorganized, too technical, and "too deep." Some said they didn't understand the points being flung back and forth. So we decided to interview Dr Esler to see if he could help.

Editor: Dr. Esler, thank you for giving us your time.
Vance Esler: Sure. Glad to do it.

Ed: Before we get started, we have noticed that the traffic on your blog has tripled in the past couple of weeks.
VE: Really? That's pretty cool.

Ed: Most of it seems to be legitimate discussion, but a number of the comments seem to have came from Anonymous bomb-throwers.
VE: Yeah, I have noticed that.

Ed: Who is doing that?
VE: I don't know. Probably some college kids with too little homework and too much time on their hands.

Ed: Does it bother you?
VE: Not really, but I did have to enable the Comment Moderation feature to cut down on the distractions. Some people are shy, so there are reasons to allow people to comment anonymously, especially on medical topics. But others use anonymity as a cover to lob insults and stupid comments. I thought about leaving the comments on the blog because it makes most of my friends laugh, but it gets old pretty fast. Besides, most of the bomb-lobbers don't have anything original to add. Contributors like Ben post links to support the points being made, which is helpful. The bomb-throwers, on the other hand, either cannot make or don't bother to make a real argument. Instead they just post links to web sites that do it for them.

Ed: Doesn't it frighten you that these people could retaliate?
VE: A little. After all, I use my real name. I don't know who these blog terrorists are or what they might do. Some of them can get pretty nasty. I guess I'm glad I belong to the NRA (smiles).

Ed: Okay. Well, let's get into the reason we're here. First, do you believe in God?
VE: Yes.

Ed: Do you believe in evolution?
VE: Yes.

Ed: Do you believe that science and religion are compatible?
VE: Yes.

Ed: Do you take the religious account of creation literally?
VE: Which one? Which language? I have studied various religious accounts of creation, from the Epic of Gilgamesh to the one found in the Bible. I studied the Genesis account formally in a class which was conducted completely in Hebrew. That was fun!

One thing I learned was that at the time Genesis was written, the Hebrew language did not have the mechanisms to convey scientific thought. The point of the account was only to say that the world was created and to say who did it. Hebrew differs from English in that it has a very different mindset. And the Hebrew word yom, which we translate as "day", can have many meanings. For example, it can refer to a 24 hour day. It can refer to an era. It can refer to an unspecified block of time. Which meaning did the author have in mind? Well, to a Hebrew reader in a Hebrew mindset, the question doesn't really come up.

So the answer to your question is, I don't know how to take it literally. I do not try, nor do I see a need to try.

Ed: Are you a Creationist?
VE: If I vote for a Republican, does that make me a Republican? If I vote for a Democrat (and I have), does that make me a Democrat? What if I vote for a few Republicans and a few Democrats in an election? Whether I am a Creationist depends upon how you define the term. I do believe the universe was created, but I'm not out trying to prove it to anyone. So you tell me.

Sometimes people attach pejorative labels as a way of attacking a position. It makes them feel better, but it doesn't really advance their argument. So I tell you what. If my critics won't call me a Creationist, I won't call them Darwinists.


Ed: Do you believe in Intelligent Design?
VE: I believe in a creator, and the creator must be intelligent. So, sure, I believe in intelligent design -- without the capital letters.

The notion that there is an intelligence who designed things was, to me, intuitive. I remember the first time I dissected a hand in the Gross Anatomy lab. Standing alone in a room full of dead bodies, I looked at the construction of the hand and thought, "Wow. What an incredible design." Those were my exact words even though this happened many years before the current Intelligent Design movement appeared. I suppose other of my classmates might have looked at the same hand and thought, "Wow. Look at what nature selected out." Most of them probably didn't think about it.

Ed: So do you identify with the Intelligent Design movement?
VE: In a way, but let me qualify that.

If, for the sake of explanation, we conceptualize the natural, physical world as contained within a box, I see science as the best describer and evaluator of the universe that lies within that box. The scientific method has been an invaluable tool in helping to bring us where we are today, and I rely upon it daily.

If science helps us investigate everything inside the box, then philosophy tries to describe and understand the metaphysical or supernatural universe which lies outside the box.

So how does one investigate the intersection between science and philosophy -- the point at which the supernatural touches the natural? Where does one begin and the other end? What are the boundaries? These are questions which have been addressed for as long as we know, and they continue to be addressed by various movements in our society.

As a general rule, much of modern science restricts itself to methodological naturalism.
Pure-minded naturalists consider any other approach not to be science. That is, by definition and by convention, they believe science should confine itself to the things that go on inside the box and which can be examined using the scientific method. From a practical standpoint, this is beneficial. But limits are limits, and it necessarily follows, then, that science has limits on what it can reveal.

While many scientists are content to live within the boundaries of naturalism, not all are. In recent years we have seen the emergence of innovative schools of thought. For example, take biotheology which tries to figure out how objective processes within neurons are capable of producing subjective experiences such as the belief in a soul, the peace that comes with prayer, or the consciousness of self and of God. Such attempts to marry hard science and subjective experience have been criticized on a variety of grounds, but the point here is that there are respected scientists who want to know more about the world outside the box.

If we put aside the emotional and political ramifications for a moment, it is conceivable that scientists attempting to "think outside the box" with respect to origins might come up with an idea such as intelligent design. Just because they have not figured out how to test or to prove their hypothesis yet, it does not mean that they never will or that their trying is considered unscientific by everyone.

So this is a rather long-winded way of saying that I sympathize with creative thinking. While reality today dictates that most of us work inside the box, there is nothing inherently wrong with daring to look for the edges of the box. I must add, however, that even though I am intrigued by such inquiry, it
does not mean that I agree with or formally identify myself with any particular political agendas of those who engage in such pursuits.

Ed: If that is so, then why did you sign the Doctors Doubting Darwin list? Your critics claim that by signing that list, you did, in fact, align yourself with the Discovery Institute, an organization that has been active in trying to get Intelligent Design into science classes around the country. Your tacit support of that organization seems to have some people upset.
VE: (laughs) I've noticed!

Well, on one hand the uproar does induce a certain amount of cognitive dissonance. Since science is supposed to be open-minded -- entertaining any and all ideas -- it seemed innocent enough to me to consider the possibility that there might be alternatives to our current understanding of human origins. However, the critics have made some severe claims about the Discovery Institute that bear investigation. The most commonly used word seems to be liars. Obviously I do not want to be associated with liars, so I'll look into it.

On the other hand, the strident nature of the comments makes me wonder whether they doth protest too much. I mean, if evolution is a settled issue; if there is really no dissent; if all the scientists agree; if the courts agree; and if the only people making noise are a small group of lunatics, then what are the critics so worked up about?

Ed: About evolution. A minute ago you told me that you believe in evolution. Yet in your Doubting Darwin post and in subsequent comments, you said that you have questions about it. Explain that.
VE: First, let me say that
Doubting Darwin was just a catchy title -- perhaps a little too catchy. Some folks seem to have read more into that than they should have.

There is a drug called Rituxan that puts some lymphomas into remission. I know a good deal about how it works. I know when to use it and how to use it safely. But I do not know all that there is to know about it. Similarly, as a product of government schools and decades of scientific education, I know something about the biochemistry, the genetics, the physiology, and the other infrastructure which would have been formed by evolution and which would continue to support its processes. Several of my critics think I'm ignorant (you should read the unpublished comments), and, indeed, I have never claimed to know all there is to know about evolution.

Despite my admitted shortcomings, I feel qualified to say that evolution, in the grand sense, simply means that things change over time. Anyone can see that this happens. But, as they say, the devil is in the details. There are aspects of it that I do not understand.

Now, you might think that my science background would make it easier to figure things out, but in fact, the opposite is true. One of my partners is an NIH-funded hematologist who has published over 25 clinical and basic science articles in high-quality journals recently. He and I sometimes joke that the non-hematologists must know more hematology than we hematologists. The non-hematologists always seem to have the ready answer, whereas we hematologists struggle a bit more to make all the puzzle pieces fit. This is because there are pieces the non-hematologist doesn't even know about. The non-hematologist puts a corner of the puzzle together and thinks he is done!

More extensive knowledge can make things more ambiguous, not less. So a physicist might read a biochemist's explanation of the interaction between enzymes in the clotting system, and it may answer all the questions he has. But a hematologist who actually deals with humans, not just controlled systems in a lab, may find the biochemist's explanation lacking.

Ed: Are you saying that science can be vague, not always black or white, true or false?
VE: Exactly. As much as we would like certainty, it is not attainable. Science deals in probabilities. When the probabilities are very, very high, we may start calling them facts because it is convenient to do so. But that does not make them facts in reality. This is especially true in the life sciences where there are multiple processes occurring simultaneously, unseen and unanticipated confounding influences, and ambiguous test results. That's why we still rely upon "art" as much as "science" when dealing with patients.

Now add to this another reality of human nature: Individuals with different backgrounds, different educations, different experiences, different inherent biases often require different levels of evidence to be convinced of the same thing. Some people can look at a beautiful sunset, and that is all they need to be convinced that God exists. Others could have their arms cut off, have the arms regrow instantly after a prayer, and they would still demand more proof.

I realize that a lot of smart people are satisfied with the explanations evolution scientists have offered so far as to how life came to be. For them it is a settled issue. The puzzle is complete. For me, it is not.

Ed: Do you mind telling us what your questions are?
VE: I'd rather not go into that right now. It is technical. Besides, if I tell you, then I'll only get more comments from evolution evangelists who already think they know what I think. I appreciate their offer to educate me, but I can work this out on my own, thank you.

Ed: Can you be fair in your approach? Can you be unbiased?
VE: No one can be completely unbiased. We all bring bias to the table. And even though some of my quickly composed blog posts might give a different impression, I think I have been darned fair so far. When pressed, I know how to step away from the emotion and look at things objectively, and I hope this interview will demonstrate that. But it isn't easy, so I understand when other people display the occasional outburst.

Lest readers think I have been one-sided, they should check the blog archives. If they do, they will see two things. (1) This is not an origins blog. (2) I have posted links to web sites that are run by people on both sides of the issue.

Until the bombs started dropping, I also published dissenting comments. I still do, but my new policy is to not publish an anonymous comment unless it makes a reasonable attempt to construct an argument and avoids personal insults.

Look. This blog is usually simple. It's just me thinking about stuff, playing with the computer, keeping a diary of sorts. It is a hobby. But if a reader thinks I am off base, and if he or she wants to help me out, then try being nice, not condescending.

Ed: All right. Next question. If you have questions about evolution, do you object to it being taught in middle school and high school science classes?
VE: Not at all. But I like the way Paul R. Ehrlich (Bing Professor of Population Studies in the Department of Biological Sciences) taught it at Stanford when one of my best friends was working on his PhD in biology there. Robert, who now teaches biology and microbiology at the college level, tells how they spent the whole semester discussing why evolution was true, learning all the evidence for it, etc. When it came time for the final exam, the students were shocked to find that the exam consisted of one question:

Discuss the weaknesses of the theory of evolution and make a case for why it might not be true.
Ehrlich quickly sorted out who were the real critical thinkers in the class, and who had simply memorized facts and arguments that supported their own biases.

Ed: Do you object to Intelligent Design being taught in science classes?
VE: In private schools, no. In government schools, I might. It depends upon the grade level and the goals of the instruction. It would be inappropriate for some, but might be completely appropriate for others. I'd have to see the curriculum. But in any case, whether the topic is evolution, intelligent design, or any other theory, I will certainly object to a bigoted approach which says: Sit down. Shut up. Learn this. Don't ask questions.

If a teacher with an agenda tells the students that a particular god fashioned the universe in a particular way; if the reference was something such as the Bible; if the teacher refused to accept or to explain data obtained from science; and yet this was all passed off as science, I'd be upset. But if all someone wants to do is try to ask questions about the intersection between the natural and the metaphysical, I do not mind. In fact, it seems like a worthwhile exercise for students to see whether certain questions can even be framed in such a way as to allow proper investigation. How else will they convince themselves of the boundaries of science?

Look at Francis Crick, one of the co-discoverers of the DNA double helix. He wondered about the relationship between the mind and the brain, between science and religion. He speculated that humans do not really have souls, that they only imagine them as the result of chemical reactions taking place in the brain. (This was a topic of much discussion in several of my upper level psychology courses in college.) While I disagree with Crick's conclusion, I would have enjoyed being in his classes, watching him play the devil's advocate, pushing the boundaries of scientific inquiry. Crick attempted to use the methods that work well inside the box to try to glimpse the outside of the box. He was able to pursue such inquiry without abandoning science or being accused of doing so. How did he get away with it?

Ed: Proponents of evolution claim that there is no viable alternative to evolution, so there is nothing else to teach in science class. They claim that Intelligent Design is religion, not science, so it should not be taught. Your comments?
VE: Well, first of all, the anti-intelligent design forces are missing an opportunity here. Why don't they bring intelligent design into the classroom and critique it? Put it to rest. Kill it. But, alas, we are no longer free to do such things in government schools anymore. Someone will be offended, and they will sue the school board. Every dispute is settled in court nowadays. Is this really what society wants?

Look. This whole debate is much more intricate than it appears at first glance, and I tried to illustrate how it gets that way in my Swimming Upstream post. The public conversation has become so complicated that any single blog post cannot easily focus upon more than one or two points at a time, if that. There are several issues in play here. Consider the following.

We have questions of fact: Is evolution true? Is intelligent design true?

We have questions of definition: Is science confined to naturalism? What exactly do we mean by "evolution"? Is Intelligent Design science?

We have questions of value: Are scientific data more important or more believable than questions answered by philosophy or religion? Is it more important for kids to learn science facts or to learn how to think?

And finally we have questions of policy: What should we do with the information? What should be taught in government schools? Should we force evolution science upon kids from religious homes? Should we impose the possibility of a creator upon kids from secular homes? Can we discuss the limitations of science? Should we require studies in philosophy? Should we require courses in comparative religions?

In informal discussion it is easy to get the issues mixed up. So, for example, debating the question of whether evolution is true does not answer the value and policy questions. At best it can only help to answer them by supporting the claims that will be made in those discussions.

If that is not complicated enough, there are many stakeholders in the fight. On both sides there are scientists, pastors, educators, lawyers, taxpayers, news media -- each having a point of view and/or agenda. Each is vying for attention (if not money), and the conversations can get noisy.

Ed: You have claimed that some people use evolution to say there is no god. Do you think there is some kind of conspiracy among scientists and teachers to eliminate religion?
VE: As I have said before, there will always be ideologues on both sides, and teachers who feel a need to impose their values on others. But most teachers, I believe, just want to do the right thing -- to teach science without stepping on anyone's faith. Many of them feel
helplessly trapped in the middle of a big fight. And they are.

Ed: What do you mean by that?
VE: Well, ask yourself, "Why is it that the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) keeps showing up in these cases?" The ACLU, notorious for its relentless attacks on anything it construes as the promotion of religion, was instrumental in both landmark, highly publicized trials having to do with evolution, Scopes and Dover. They supported Clarence Darrow in the Scopes trial of 1925 (which really got started as a publicity stunt, by the way), and in the 2005 Dover trial they provided the court with documents the judge later used (almost verbatim) to write his opinion.

Is it coincidence that the ACLU is involved in these cases? Is it because the ACLU is interested in pure science? Clearly not. The ACLU is involved precisely because this is not simply about science.

Ed: So you think the larger context is that the controversy is not really about science, but about religion?
VE: Exactly. It doesn't matter who started it, the evolutionists or the religionists. The fact is that there is now a war over worldviews. The ACLU is fighting for a world where religion is not advanced, and their opponents are fighting for a world where religion is not restricted. Neither side wants the other dictating what everyone should believe or how they should behave. The battle is being fought on many fronts, and one of them is the classroom.

Ed: So what does any of this have to do with evolution?
VE: From a purely scientific standpoint, nothing. Evolution is neutral with respect to religion. But ideologues can and do use it as a weapon, and sometimes they do it in the classroom.


Those who do not believe in god find in evolution a convenient and perfectly rational explanation for how life came to be. Unfortunately, some teachers feel free to use it like a gun to "prove" that there is no creation, and therefore, that there is no god. Anyone who thinks that has not happened in school either has his head in the sand, has no kids in a government school, or both.

Well, when that happens, the religious parents are offended and frightened. They may try to take away the gun by attacking it directly. Or, if that cannot be done, they may try to arm the kids with something else, an alternative.
Neither set of parents wants their kids indoctrinated with ideas or beliefs that oppose those in the home, so the fight proceeds to court.

And to be fair, the skirmish can be started by the religious ideologues, too. Both sides have ways of picking fights.

Ed: What is the solution?
VE: I don't see an easy answer. There are too many stakeholders, too many emotions, too many issues, and too many unwilling to have a calm conversation. I expect that the pragmatic result will be that methodological naturalism will prevail in the science classrooms in government schools. That is, they will be forced to teach kids what we know about evolution without any "contamination" from religious influence. Some teachers may cross the line and step on some kids' faith. But kids are resilient, and they know that there are ways to get answers outside of school, outside the restrictions that some want to place on them. The door swings both ways. If kids don't like what they are hearing in a private religious school, they have options, too.

Anyone who really wants to can dig into this further and spend much more time than they probably should on the web, visiting sites that explain evolution and those that propose other ideas. They can ask the questions they want, read the sources they want, and make up their own minds instead of having something forced down their throats.

Ed: Do you think this interview will satisfy your critics?
VE: Are you kidding?

Ed: Do you plan to publish any more posts on the topic of evolution?
VE: Not any time soon. Life's too short.

Ed: Dr Esler, I think that about wraps up our time. Thank you very much for your thoughts.
VE: My pleasure.