Five Quibbles for Blanchard

Rodin, The Thinker. Photograph: Frank Kovalchek, via Wikimedia Commons.

Over at The Week, Keith Blanchard recently contributed a piece under the headline “Why you should stop believing in evolution,” with the subhead, “You don’t believe in it—you either understand it or you don’t.” The prose is engaging; I particularly liked the sentence, “Poodles, Rottweilers, Great Danes, Hollywood red-carpet purse dogs—all this fabulous kinetic art was created, and continues to be created, by humans manually hijacking the mechanism of evolution.” (Did you notice the perhaps inadvertent echo of the last sentence of the Origin of Species, “…from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved”?) And the piece is well-intentioned: Blanchard recognizes that there’s overwhelming evidence for evolution, acknowledges that the bulk of the rejection of evolution is motivated by religious concerns, and understands that people of faith have managed to make their peace with evolution nevertheless. But I’m a nitpicker, and I want to register five quibbles.

First, as I explained at length in “What’s Wrong with ‘Belief in Evolution’?” (part 1, part 2), it isn’t false to say that I believe in evolution, contrary to what Blanchard says. True, it’s typically misleading for me to say that I believe in evolution, just as it would be typically misleading for me to say that I believe that 2 is the only even prime or that Columbus is the capital of Ohio. If I were to assert that I believe these claims, then my audience would be entitled to reason, plausibly if not unassailably, “If he knew these claims to be true, then he would have said so; since he didn’t, he must not know them to be true.” So that’s why I don’t generally assert that I believe in evolution—not because I don’t believe in evolution, but because it’s misleading to say that I do. At one point in his piece, Blanchard verges on couching his claim about belief in evolution in a way that I’d regard as defensible: “So if someone asks, ‘Do you believe in evolution,’ they are framing it wrong.” But the takeaway message is that belief in evolution per se is wrong.

Second, it’s not defensible to say that you either understand evolution or you don’t. That’s a logical tautology as it stands, of course, but in context, Blanchard is urging that the distinction between believing and not believing evolution is to be replaced with the distinction between understanding and not understanding evolution. In fact, both distinctions are needed to make sense of the phenomena. There are people who understand and believe in evolution: you and me, I hope. There are people who don’t understand but believe in evolution: people who don’t have time or means to study evolution in any detail but who are inclined, not unreasonably, to defer to the consensus of the scientific community. There are people who don’t understand and don’t believe in evolution: perhaps the bulk of the creationist rank and file. And there are people who understand evolution but don’t believe in it: the rare creationist who acknowledges the force of the scientific evidence but allows religious commitment to trump it.

Third, Blanchard seems to equate evolution, in the sense of universal common ancestry—“Go back far enough, and you'll find an ancestor common to you and to every creature on Earth”—with natural selection. Or, what’s about as problematic, he seems to identify natural selection as the one and only mechanism of evolution. As Stephanie Keep recently emphasized right here on the Science League of America blog, both of these are misconceptions: “Natural selection is a mechanism of evolution, a process that leads to shifts in allele frequencies within a population. But natural selection is just one way—albeit a really powerful way—that such change can occur.” Granted, for the purposes of Blanchard’s piece, there was no particular reason to invoke any of the other primary mechanisms of evolution (genetic drift, gene flow, mutation). But since his concern was primarily with universal common ancestry, it wouldn’t have been particularly difficult for him to write in such a way as to avoid reinforcing these misconceptions.

Fourth, and related to the confusion over the relationship between evolution and natural selection, Blanchard seems a little confused about whom to credit with the idea of evolution. “Darwin proposed it in 1859,” he writes—but what is it? What Darwin proposed in 1859 was evolution through natural selection; he and Alfred Russel Wallace proposed it separately in papers read at the Linnean Society in 1858. There’s a complex prehistory, with various ideas about evolution and natural selection and their interaction circulating but never reaching the systematic development of Darwin’s mature work, of course: Rebecca Stott’s Darwin’s Ghosts (2013) is a popular treatment. Remember, also, that Darwin was hesitant to affirm universal common ancestry, which is the evolutionary idea in which Blanchard seems to be primarily interested: “…this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one,” runs the famous ending sentence of the Origin (quoted from the first edition).

Fifth, even in so accepting of evolution as a piece as Blanchard’s, there are still hints of the Great Chain of Being lurking in the prose. Is the human body “in the process of becoming less…bestial?” (ellipsis in original), Blanchard asks. Humans are still beasts, still—to avoid the pejorative connotations of “beast”—animals, and no amount of evolution is going to change that. Likewise, when he advises the reader not to deny evolution because “[t]hat’s just covering your eyes and ears. And only monkeys would do that,” he’s not merely alluding to the three wise monkeys of Japanese lore (Mizaru, Kikazaru, and Iwazaru, if Wikipedia is to be trusted), he’s reinforcing the supposed visceral ickiness of having monkeys as kin. (If there were any doubt, he earlier asserts, “Listen, nobody wants to be related to monkeys.”) It’s understandable that Blanchard wanted to indulge in a bit of colorful writing, but it’s important not to cloud the message with counterproductive metaphor—why, it’s the sort of thing that could almost make me go ape!

Glenn Branch
Short Bio

Glenn Branch is Deputy Director of NCSE.