Shorter Sam Brownback: Science and theology don’t conflict, but when they do, science is wrong.
Even shorter Sam Brownback: Vote for me. I’m the real conservative.
What fun we had when Sam Brownback, Tom Tancredo and Mike Huckabee distinguished themselves from the pack of Republican candidates for the presidency by declaring that they didn’t believe in evolution. Many were surprised that only 3 out of the legion of candidates took that bold stand against science and empirical evidence.
In today’s New York Times, Kansas Senator and protector against manimals Sam Brownback is trying to walk that back. He begins his Op-Ed with a sentiment familiar to theistic evolutionists:
The heart of the issue is that we cannot drive a wedge between faith and reason. I believe wholeheartedly that there cannot be any contradiction between the two. The scientific method, based on reason, seeks to discover truths about the nature of the created order and how it operates, whereas faith deals with spiritual truths. The truths of science and faith are complementary: they deal with very different questions, but they do not contradict each other because the spiritual order and the material order were created by the same God.
Most people who take that view conclude that religion goes beyond its role when it is used to refute scientific evidence about evolution in populations or the origins of new species or higher orders. Not our Sam, though. Later, he writes:
Biologists will have their debates about man’s origins, but people of faith can also bring a great deal to the table. For this reason, I oppose the exclusion of either faith or reason from the discussion. An attempt by either to seek a monopoly on these questions would be wrong-headed. As science continues to explore the details of man’s origin, faith can do its part as well.
In the biological evaluation of human origins, the issues at play are “truths about the nature of the created order [sic], and how it operates.” That is, by Brownback’s own admission, entirely the realm of science.
While no stone should be left unturned in seeking to discover the nature of man’s origins, we can say with conviction that we know with certainty at least part of the outcome. Man was not an accident and reflects an image and likeness unique in the created order. Those aspects of evolutionary theory compatible with this truth are a welcome addition to human knowledge. Aspects of these theories that undermine this truth, however, should be firmly rejected as an atheistic theology posing as science.
This is roughly how we got to war with Iraq. We looked under a bunch of stones, found no evidence of ongoing WMD programs, concluded that any evidence which undermined the truth President Bush already knew “should be firmly rejected,” and now our troops are stuck in the middle of a civil war.
If we treat Brownback’s analogy seriously, it would go something like this. We look under a bunch of rocks for evidence about human origins. We find a lot of fossils that look like humans to varying degrees. Some (the more recent ones) have a lot of traits in common with modern humans, and older ones have fewer and fewer of those traits, with those unique traits forming a nested hierarchy. This is exactly what we would predict if more ancient primates had evolved over time, acquiring characters which were then tested by time, nature and other primates. Over time, those traits accumulated along one line of descent until we reach modern humans.
Under none of the rocks to we find God. Some people conclude that if God existed, we’d find him/her/it under one of those rocks, so God must not exist. Others conclude that we just haven’t found the right rock, but there are still a lot of rocks to look under, and some suggest that the rocks themselves are some sort of atheistic hoax. A third group believes in a God that can’t be found under rocks, and think that what’s under the rocks is interesting enough.
Brownback is clearly trying to reach out to that third group with his opening paragraphs, but by the time we get to the end, we see that his opening platitudes are not his true feelings. He is squarely in the second group, only interested in looking under rocks that show him what he wants to see, and to attack anyone who tells him about the other rocks.
This attitude permeates the essay, as it has run through his career. As an Agriculture Secretary in Kansas, he ignored scientific evidence of the dangers of atrazine, preferring research funded by the agriculture companies. He lost that office when a court ruled that a system in which regulated industries literally selected their own regulator with no input from elected officials was unconstitutional. He then served in the House, and now the Senate. As a Senator, his science advisor has been David Prentice, a stem cell research opponent who tries to claim that we don’t need to fund embryonic stem cell research because adult stem cells can do so many things. As evidence, he claims that adult stem cells have treated at least 65 human diseases. When scientists evaluated the list of diseases, they found that one was included because of an anecdote in a newspaper article, others only because of statements in Congressional testimony, and many of the cited references do not actually support any claim of a treatment.
Brownback has surrounded himself with rocks he’s comfortable looking under, and relies on people like Prentice to keep him from seeing the other rocks. This is the same approach taken by the creationist museum that just opened, which will undoubtedly attract similarly blinkered people, some of whom will vote for Brownback.
Why does he, or the creationist museum’s patrons, regard evolution as so troubling? He gives hints, but they all seem sufficiently oblique or contradictory as to be meaningless. He writes, “the unique and special place of each and every person in creation is a fundamental truth that must be safeguarded,” as if some scientific theory would make anyone less unique. Evolution works on exactly that uniqueness; it doesn’t just support Brownback’s point, it requires it. What theory is it that he thinks would “undermine man’s essential dignity and unique and intended place in the cosmos”?
His inconsistency is even clearer when he tries to actually engage with what the science says:
There is no one single theory of evolution, as proponents of punctuated equilibrium and classical Darwinism continue to feud today. Many questions raised by evolutionary theory — like whether man has a unique place in the world or is merely the chance product of random mutations — go beyond empirical science and are better addressed in the realm of philosophy or theology.
Set aside that punctuated equilibrium builds on classical evolutionary biology, and that the feud seems to have died down. Biologists studying evolution do not ask the question of “whether man has a unique place in the world.” Products of random chance can, after all, have a unique place in the world, and uniqueness is much easier to generate from randomness than from non-randomness. His concluding sentence stands as an effective critique of his own article. This inconsistency and inconstancy is a deep and dangerous character flaw. It speaks to more than his antagonism toward (or at least misunderstanding of) science. It speaks to a worldview which embraces the inherent biases of our unique minds, rather than seeking to create something stronger than one flawed individual.