R. J. Riggins: Do You Believe in Evolution?

In my part of the country I get asked that a lot by students. That’s partly because of the part of the country I’m in (South Texas). Fundamentalism-creationism is endemic around here, and somehow that noisy minority has convinced the indifferent majority that to be a Christian of any sort, one must reject evolution. Ironically, even many of my Catholic students think their church is “against evolution” (it isn’t). Somehow Protestant fundamentalism has “converted” them, at least on this article of faith, without their even realizing it. Perhaps their own church has not strongly, positively, and publicly stated its position to parishioners. Perhaps it ‘s also because, as an English teacher in a science-oriented magnet school, I often include science fiction novels and, at least once a year, a science nonfiction book as assigned readings. Inevitably, there will be something (probably a lot of things) in those books that rub the creationists the wrong way, since to maintain their structure of beliefs they have had to reject the facts established in practically all areas of science, from astronomy through nuclear physics to geology and biochemistry. Perhaps they’ve actually never encountered a teacher who openly “believes in” evolution (a very real possibility around here). Now that’s scary! No wonder on those international comparisons our students score worse than kids in Lower Slobovia or wherever.

But the problem I want to deal with here is how to answer that question. It’s easy to say “Yes!” but that’s not right. The problem is that the question itself is wrong. It’s like the old “Have you stopped beating your wife?” question: either a yes or a no gives the wrong impression.

I certainly don’t want to say no, since that would create an entirely wrong impression. But answering yes isn’t quite right, either. The problem is the phrase “believe in”, just as the “have you stopped” is the trap in the earlier example.

Concentrate on the believe in: no, I don’t believe in evolution. Think of how that phrase is often applied. Little kids believe in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. We often judge their maturity by finding out which things they still believe in and which they have “grown out of” (“Aren’t you a little old to believe in the Tooth Fairy?”). The phrase believe in in common parlance seems to mean to take something literally for which there is little or no objective evidence. You must believe in the Easter Bunny, because you’ve never seen the real one yourself, there’s nothing he has done that couldn’t be simply explained by ordinary phenomena (parental trickery), and there’s no objective, physical, replicable (in other words, scientific) evidence that he’s real. If you had those last things, then you wouldn’t have to believe in the Easter Bunny, you would know he was real.

That’s the difference: you absolutely know some things are real, through your own experience or other kinds of really solid proof. That’s knowledge, not belief. Other things you believe in. You want them to be true. It would be nice if they were true. It’s probably fun to believe in them. But you don’t have solid, irrefutable (scientific) proof, so you have to keep believing in them, rather than knowing them (or you could just throw them out entirely, like most of us over 6 have done with Santa Claus). If you had that kind of evidence, then the folks whose job it is to find out the physical facts about the world (scientists) would know them too, and belief wouldn’t be required. A mark of the immaturity of small children is that they haven’t learned this distinction yet. About the only proof they may demand is what someone older tells them, or what they see on TV. Note also that you can’t trust the believer. He may, of course, say he knows his favorite belief is true, and may trot out what to him is adequate proof (But I saw Santa in the store, and look at all the stuff he brought, and on the news they saw him on the radar, and… and…). Or he may be one of those incredibly shallow people whose answer amounts to, “I don’t know why, I just believe it,” or the ludicrous contradiction, “I just know it’s true”.

There’s another common meaning for “believe in”, as in “Do you believe in democracy?”, “Do you believe in the American Dream?”, “Do you believe in abortion under certain circumstances?”, “Do you believe in the justice of our cause?” Here the meaning of “believe in” seems to be something like “trust”, or “think it’s probably best”, or “are willing to go along with”. That doesn’t seem to be what someone is getting at when he asks me if I believe in evolution, or at least that’s not how I take the question. So in that sense, no, I don’t believe in evolution: it’s not a matter of personal opinion, or philosophy, or a gray area where one must decide what might be best overall.

But back to the real distinction: no, I don’t believe in evolution–I know that it’s real. It doesn’t require believing in. And I don’t “just know it”, like the vacuous air-head. I have all the objective evidence I need for real knowledge. The reality of evolution having occurred and continuing to occur is every bit as strongly established as the knowledge that the Earth is round, that germs cause disease, that electrons exist, or that the speed of light is ~300,000 kilometers/second. If anything, I have more daily-life experience to show me evolution happening than I have for those other things. I can see that offspring aren’t identical to their parents. I have seen new varieties of plants and animals developed within my own lifetime. I live in an area where boll weevils often win the evolutionary race to develop resistance to pesticides. I can easily catch a case of (newly evolved) resistant staphylococcus, which might very well kill me. I have seen and touched and personally found the fossils of the now-extinct ancestors of living creatures.

As a matter of fact, I have more down-to-earth proof of the reality of evolution than I have of the other things mentioned above, which I know to be real. I will never see an electron. How would I ever come close to accurately measuring the speed of light? My chances of ever getting far enough away from Earth to actually see for myself that it is round are practically nil; and I don’t have the equipment or the expertise to ever really prove for myself that a particular breed of bacteria actually causes a particular disease. Then don’t I just take those things “on faith”? Don’t I believe in them, rather than actually knowing them? NO. As a society we have hired specialists to find out these kinds of things. We’ve done everything we can to assure that they are highly trained, that they are objective (not letting their philosophies or beliefs get in the way), that they are honest, and that their answers are true (they constantly check on each other, compete, and repeat experiments to make sure the results are real). We’ve set up a system (science) in which wrong answers are quickly thrown out, all answers are tested over and over in every imaginable way, right answers get righter all the time (like relativity doesn’t “disprove” Newtonian mechanics, it just improves on it; punctuated equilibrium doesn’t “disprove” Darwinian evolution, it just clarifies it further), and the best way to make a name for yourself is to disprove an older idea (with enough proof of your own to stand up to the toughest tests). And finally, that system works far better than any other way mankind has ever tried for finding out about the physical world.

So what science knows, I know. They are my agents for finding out things I can’t find out for myself. Science knows (and tells me) that there are electrons and what the speed of light is. I would be foolish to reject that knowledge. Science also tells me, with just as much assurance, that living things have evolved. I know that knowledge has been tested, tried, experimented with, and applied to real situations, and has proven its “fitness” by growing stronger through 150 years of severe testing. I would be foolish to reject that knowledge.

So no, I don’t believe in evolution; I know that it has happened and still does. As a matter of fact, I should probably feel insulted. If you asked me if I believe the Earth is round, that would be insulting. Do you think I could be so ignorant as to believe it is flat? The same goes for evolution. Do you think I would reject the last two centuries of scientific progress and the evidence of my own eyes? I should be thoroughly offended. *** R. J. Riggins
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