the official site of Michael Shermer

top navigation:
Scientific American

Vox Populi

published July 2002 | comments (10)
The voice of the people reveals why
evolution remains controversial
magazine cover

There is no more contentious subject in science today than evolution. This fact was brought to light for me in the overwhelming response to my February column on evolution and “intelligent design” creationism. I typically receive about a dozen letters a month, but for this one no less than 134 were submitted (117 men, four women and 13 whose identity was not revealed). I found reading the critical letters mildly disconcerting until I hit on the idea that these are a form of data to be mined for additional information on what people believe and why. Conducting a content analysis of all 134 letters, I discovered patterns within the cacophonous chaos. First I read them quickly and then separated them into about two dozen one-line categories that summed up the reader’s main point. I next condensed these into six taxonomic classes and reread all the letters carefully, placing each into one or more of the six (for a total of 163).

Excerpts from the letters illustrate each taxon. Not surprisingly, only 7 percent agreed on the veracity of evolution (and the emptiness of creationism). Nearly double that number, 12 percent, argued that evolution is God’s method of creating life. For instance, one correspondent concurred “that evolution is right — but still I see God in the will and cunning intention in the genetic system of all living organisms and in the system and order present in the laws of nature. Seeing all the diversity in the methods of camouflage in animals and plants for an example, I know that there is a will behind it.”

The 16 percent that fell into the third taxon — critics of evolution — hauled out an old canard that every evolutionary biologist has heard: “I want to point out that evolution is only a theory.” And: “To my knowledge, evolution is just a theory that has never been put to the test successfully and is far from being conclusive.”

That evolution requires faith to believe (the fourth class, an opinion held by 17 percent of the writers) found many adherents, such as this one: “In his zeal to defend his faith in evolutionary theory, Shermer violates those standards.” Another echoed a refrain we hear often at Skeptic magazine about misplaced skepticism: “I applaud your skepticism when it comes to creationism and astrology and psychic phenomena, but how can you be so thickheaded when it comes to the glaring weaknesses of Darwinian evolution? Honestly, you come across as both a brainwashed apologist and a high school cheerleader for Darwinian evolution.”

The penultimate taxon (at 23 percent) held that intelligent design creationism must be true because life is simply too complex to be explained by evolution. For example: “ID theorists also see a variety of factors, constants and relationships in the construction of the universe that are so keenly well adjusted to the existence of matter and life that they find it impossible to deny the implication of intelligent purpose in those factors.”

Intriguingly, the greatest number of responses, 25 percent, fell into a noncommittal position in which the readers presented their own theories of evolution and creation: “Evolution is not a theory. It is an analytic approach. There are three elements of science: operation, observation and model. An observation is the result of applying an operation, and a model is chosen for its utility in explaining, predicting and controlling observations, balanced against the cost of using it.” And: “There is nothing that scientists have ever discovered, or could ever discover, that can prove or disprove the existence of God. Thus, there is no conflict between the Bible and science when each is kept in its proper place.”

In my experience, correspondents in this final classification are more intent on launching their own ideas into the cultural ether than responding to the column in question itself. With no subject is this as apparent as it is with evolution; it is here we confront the ultimate question of genesis and exodus: Where did we come from and where are we going? No matter how you answer that question, facing it with courage and intellectual honesty will bring you closer to the creation itself.

topics in this column: , , ,

10 Comments to “Vox Populi”

  1. Kenn Says:

    cacophonous – harsh or discordant sound

    taxonomic – technique of classification

    taxon – category

    veracity – observance of truth

    canard – false or baseless, usually derogatory

    penultimate – next to the last

    glossary – list of terms with accompanying definitions

  2. teacherninja Says:

    I think the reason the smallest group are those of us who accept evolution by natural selection is that they are the people who read things like Scientific American, agree with you and feel no need to respond. On their behalf I say, OF COURSE evolution by natural selection is correct, just like atomic theory is correct, gravotational theory is correct, etc.

    Why can’t we say evolution is a FACT and that natural selection (or modern synthesis or whatever) is the theory or mechanism? I’m just sayin…

    Thanks, Michael!

  3. skeptic griggsy Says:

    On many forums, I show the contradiction of theistic evolution:how theists discern teleology behind dysteology. They seem to assume that natural selection is an empty vessel that God directs rather than a power of its own,mindlessly forming new forms. Theirs is the new Omphalos argument!
    And such as Eugenie Scott and Michael Ruse can have their ruse of trying to get special creationists to accept evolution as part of God’s plan from the side of religion but they should not gainsay that theistic evolution from the side of science is contradictory.
    I am a New Atheist- an anti-theist! Why should we naturalists keep quiet about the contradiction? The arrogance of Scott and Ruse!

  4. aqk Says:

    Gee, thanx, Kenn!
    Not sure what (or who) that list of definitions was for…
    And any conclusions I might draw might lead to accusations (perhaps justified) of snobbery towards me! ;-)

  5. aqk Says:

    But WTF does “Vox Populi” mean?

    (Only kidding. ONLY KIDDING!!) ;-)

  6. Sungod Says:

    I have a sign on my office door:
    Evolution is just a theory … kind of like gravity

    Of course, it is wrong: gravity is a theory (or specifically Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation and Einstein’s General Relativity are theories) but evolution is bigger than just a theory. It contains theories, like punctuated equilibrium, and it contains sets of observations, like Darwin’s finches, but Evolution is an entire field of biology.

    A better comparison would be between evolutionary biology and classical mechanics – each are broad, intricate and not well suited to sound-bites.

    Still public discussions of evolution continue without explaining it and confusion is the sole result – and what makes this worse is many people mistake this confusion for understanding.

    As an example, Huckabee was asked if he believed in evolution during a debate – as politicians are wont to do, he side-stepped it and expressed his faith in god. He got great applause for it, but so what? If they had asked him if he thought string theory would ever be successful in uniting all known forces and he had said “With god all things are possible.” he would have gotten as much applause.
    And some would think “Gee, Huckabee really knows his physics!”

  7. Gus Spoon Says:

    Yea Sungod,

    I agree with you Huckabee has the physics figured out!

    He is the one getting applause!

  8. Jor-L5150 Says:

    shermer’s the man!!

    ID is inevitably an evangelical tool, even rush limbaugh has admitted that ID’ers should admit to being biblical creationists.
    the problem is that ID is a smokescreen, a veneer of science, proponets pretend to be religiously neutral but they are not. it is not some abstract Deism they are trying to establish, but ends up being fundamentalist christianity- and then it leads to theocratic government and sectarian warriing over dogmas that become law .

    btw- chuck norris is huckabees’ buddy and openly endorses biblical creation as part of public school curriculum.

  9. leb (Leon E. Benetier - do not publish my name) Says:

    I don’t know who or what invented the fabric of reality that we humans try to understand through our study of physics, probablity, astrophysics, parallel universes, spacetime, mechanics, chemistry, biology, evolution, mathematics, psychology, sociology, economics, zoology, etc., and you don’t know either and neither does anybody else. But it is fun for us to try and figure it out. There are some questions that physics will probably never be able to answer. Even if we answer the questions that science is asking today, there will be other new questions for sceince and scientists to try and answer tomorrow. At least we found out that the Bible is not inerrant and that the Pope is not infallible. No matter what the Huckabees and the preachers and the mullahs say, we now know that science is tentative and falsifiable and that it is the best method invented so far to theorize and test concepts of what the Universe is and is not. I hope and pray to God (aka the Universe) that science stays alive and continues to enlighten us. Amen!

  10. Kenn Says:

    Well, here’s news:

    “Chinese skull discovery may cause human origins rethink

    “Chinese archaeologists have uncovered a 100,000- year-old fossilized human skull in central China which may throw new light on the origins of the human race, national media said on Thursday.

    “The well-preserved skull was found in the central Chinese province of Henan, and Chinese scientists say it could disprove the widely-held theory that Homo sapiens originated in Africa.

    “The majority of Chinese scientists share the multiregional theory of human origin, which says that humans evolved separately in different regions.”

    http://en.rian.ru/science/20080124/97644883.html