A Response to Dennis Garvin’s ‘Reflections of A Former Darwinist’

This post is a response to a piece written by Dennis Garvin in the Roanoke Star on August 31st called Reflections of a former Darwinist. In it, I hope to address some of the claims that Dennis makes about evolution and what he sees as its implications, as he requested in the comment section of the article.

As the title of the piece would suggest, Dennis no longer believe in the reality of evolution. He came to reject it in his mid thirties. Why? Because altruism exists.

In my mid thirties, I was vexed by a question that, to many, might seem small. But it drove me crazy. Altruism. It existed. I had seen proof of its existence. Yet, it was completely counterintuitive to a Darwinist. Why would a man endanger himself to rescue a child he does not know? He is risking sacrificing himself (thereby denying the gene pool the benefit of his input) for a human creature with unknown genetic potential.

I will agree that altruism, when presented in this way, seems counterintuitive to the idea of evolution by natural selection. This criticism of evolution is similar to ones that intelligent design proponents like William Dembski have made in the past. But does the existence of altruism really present a problem for evolution?

Humans are not the only species who exhibit altruistic behavior. It is also well documented among many other members of the animal kingdom. And this makes complete sense from an evolutionary standpoint. A problem Dennis seems to make is misunderstanding what is meant by “survival of the fittest.”

It gets worse when we consider the soldier who throws himself on a grenade or IED, permitting his own destruction in order to save his friends. This man, by his mental and physical quickness in realizing the risk and acting upon it, is demonstrating that he is a better contributor to the gene pool (and therefore the survival of the species) than those he seeks to save.

Dennis’s understanding as demonstrated by this quote is problematic, for several reasons. Evolution is all about the survivability of populations, not individuals. First of all, a person’s position in relationship to a live grenade has nothing to do with how good of a contributor to the gene pool he or she is. Nor is this person necessarily the one with the best “mental and physical quickness.” Survival of the fittest does not mean that the strongest and quickest of a species survive. It means that populations who are the best adapted for survival (fittest) will survive and pass on their genetic information. Humans have evolved to be social creatures. We have evolved traits like cooperation and compassion because they provided an evolutionary advantage. A species dedicated to the survival of its own, even to the point of self-sacrifice, presents to problem from an evolutionary standpoint. In fact, this propensity for cooperation is likely one of the traits which have allowed humans to thrive to such an extent.

However, even if we had yet to find any explanation for the existence of altrusim, this wouldn’t mean that there was no explanation out there yet to be discovered. This sort of argument from ignorance is all too common among creationists and ID proponents. Evolution is the cornerstone of modern biology. One aspect that we have yet to fully understand is just that: Something we have yet to fully understand.

I had to conclude that, while altruism was nonsense in Darwinian terms, it was exactly consistent with the major religions of the world.  So, with as open a mind as is possible in a smug atheist, I investigated my previous bias against religion and, effectively, a Creator.

Again, here Dennis is appealing to an argument from ignorance. Just because altruism might not make sense in evolutionary terms (even thought it does), that does not mean one can then propose an alternative explanation as true. Especially when that explanation is a supernatural one. That is neither now logic nor science works. The fact that human cultures have written stories to explain the world around them doesn’t make those stories true, even if the world appears consistent with them.

Dennis then goes on to list a number of complex scientific concepts which he feels make perfect sense within a religious context:

  • Einstein’s theory of time dilation
  • Big bang cosmology and the existence of cosmic background radiation
  • Quantum mechanics, double-slit experiments, and entanglement in quantum phase transition

I am not going to try to respond to any of these claims, since Dennis doesn’t actually explain how he thinks they point to a personal creator, only that they do. Perhaps if he goes into further detail in a future article, I can respond to it at that time. He continues:

None of these generally accepted advances in science and physics proves the God of the Bible.

We’re in agreement here.

But they do make it hard, indeed impossible, to scientifically reject Him.

Again, based on the explanations Dennis has given for how these things point to a God (he hasn’t), I’m not sure how he can assert this. I don’t “scientifically reject” God. I evaluate the claims about God/gods that I am presented based on the evidence I have available. It is perfectly rational to reject claims where I feel there is insufficient evidence.

This still leaves you free to be an atheist; even God gives you that prerogative. Just don’t claim that modern science backs you up. It makes you look like a fool, just like I was.

If modern science does not prove the God of the Bible, as Dennis has already stated, how can he claim I “look like a fool” when I agree with him on that point? I don’t think modern science proves God, and neither does Dennis. I don’t believe in God. So how, exactly, does that make me a fool? This is a pretty strong claim on his part, and I would love to a hear a little more justification for it.

Dennis then begins laying out his primary objection about atheism, evolution, and modern science in general: A lack of supermatural meaning.

Now let’s look at the implications of Darwin and, indeed, all of modern science.  Lacking a Creator and a purpose for our being here on earth, Darwinism concludes that all of us are an accident, a meaningless convergence of oddities.  As a human being, you are a collection of quarks arranged into atoms-molecules-tissues, then organs.  You move about this earth, yet another condensation of quarks.

You making funny noises, interact with other equally odd human quark-piles.  You consume other quark condensations referred to as ‘food.’  Then, one day, you stop making noises, interacting, or consuming.  Your quarks return to the big quark pile we have named ‘universe.’  Because nothing exists of you beyond your quark pile- no spirit, no essence- you ceased to exist.

This objection is an all-too-common one among theists. If life has no ultimate cosmic meaning being handed down to us from an all-powerful creator, then have has no meaning at all. Dennis voiced this point again in the comments, hoping to elicit a response from a person who accepts evolution:

I grieve over the fact that no one has addressed my point over the implications of Darwinism in regard to our vulnerable youth. Adolescents already have a tenuous self-concept. Darwin forces the inescapable conclusion that the human species is a product of chance with no redeeming value.

The first thing I would point out is that accepting the reality of evolution does not necessitate a worldview devoid of God. There are plenty of Christians who accept evolution. It does, however, conflict with a literal interpretation of the Biblical account of creation. But if human beings are the result of natural processes, does this make us devoid of value? Dennis seems to think that humans have no value apart from the fact that God has love for us. I disagree.

Even if no God exists, my life still holds great meaning for me. My daughters and my family hold great meaning. Love, joy, music, beauty, kindness, trying to make the world a better place….these are not meaningless pursuits in a world without God. I recognize that this is a question of value, so Dennis is never going to agree with me. But I can not even begin to understand how believers can think that there is no meaning just because there is no eternal meaning.

Another point I would make is that these sorts of arguments like the one Dennis has presented here amount to an appeal to consequences. IF evolution is true, then Dennis believes it could have a negative impact on our youth, who “already have a tenuous self-concept.” Won’t somebody think of the children!?

When believers steer the argument in this direction, the important thing to recognize is that they are no longer arguing about whether or not something is actually true. They are arguing that they don’t like what they think that means. If I think that children believing in evolution is a bad thing for whatever reason, that doesn’t mean that I am rationally justified to reject it. Especially considering the mountains upon mountains of evidence for it.

Darwin renders foolish all your pretensions. ‘Celebrate diversity?’ Why in the hell should we? Our diversity is no more valid than the diversity obtained by throwing mudballs against a wall.

What? I honestly don’t understand this point. What does it even mean for diversity to be valid? Why do we have to place the same value on mudballs and humans just because they both came about as the result of natural processes? Humans have the capacity for experience. We have sentience and sapience. We can feel pleasure and pain. We have self-awareness, and the ability to reason about our place in the universe. Not at all like mudballs.

Establish a government that cares for the ill and incapable? Rank stupidity – Darwin’s survival of the fittest would make short work of, say Diabetes, if we only let everyone who has the condition die as a result of it.

This makes Darwinist sense. Why waste money on poor contributors to the gene pool? Everyone is beautiful and special in their own way? There is no Darwinist support for such a vacuous and unempirical conclusion; quite the contrary.

Here Dennis is committing a pretty blatant naturalistic fallacy. Value doesn’t come from nature. It comes from us. Nature doesn’t care if my sick grandmother dies of diabetes, but I sure as hell do. Because I value her, even if nature doesn’t. The value I place on individuals is not based on my understanding of evolution. Humans don’t think about others in evolutionary terms. Again I think I need to remind Dennis that evolutionary science is only about explaining the diversity of life. It doesn’t pretend to propose a system of values or norms for human behavior, something that he seems to like to fault it for.

Moreover, Dennis seems to be missing an important point about natural selection: it favors populations with the greatest diversity. There are no “best contributors to the gene pool,” because as things around us change, those traits which help species be better adapted for survival change. This is why those who would argue for eugenics have a horrible understanding of how natural selection works in the first place.

Unfortunately, as Dennis wraps up his piece, things really go off the rails.

The suicide rate among young people, ages 15-24, is double what it was in 1960. I choose this decade because that was when religion was frogmarched out the door of the public schools.

As usual with statistics placed in the hands of secularists, this epidemic is attributed to many social pressures. But never, never in their wildest epiphanies, would they point out that we have placed our impressionable youth in an educational system that has silenced the philosophies that accord nobility to the human species, replacing it with a doctrine that informs a student that he is of less value than a pizza. At least a pizza had a creator.

Of course, Dennis. How silly of “secularists” (I think you mean social scientists) to think that something as complicated as suicide rates could be attributed to more than one factor, the one that you think proves your.

I’m sorry, not only is that a ridiculous thing to assert, but Dennis is using the worst sort of statistic mining to illustrate his point. He points to a specific age bracket in the NCHS suicide statistics, because it is the one age bracket that conforms to his narrative. Interesting that he doesn’t point out that suicide overall has decreased among all individuals since 1960. I’m pretty sure people continued to attend public schools after 1960. I’d also like to point out that I’m pretty sure people continued to be religious even if they have not continued to receive mandatory bible readings and teacher-led prayer in public schools. To this day, most children in the US receive some form of religious instruction, be it in Sunday school or their church’s religious education program or just from their family. It’s just not tax-payer funded anymore. Because of that whole “separation of church and state” thing.

The final point that I want to address is Dennis’s use of the word “Darwinist” throughout the piece. I understand why he does this, because it’s something that many evolution-deniers do in an attempt to make acceptance of evolution appear to be some sort of dogma or doctrine. It is no such thing. I accept the reality of evolution and common ancestry because of evidence. But my acceptance of this scientific fact does not bring with it a set of values I must hold, or behaviors I must engage in. This is what makes it different from a religion or ethical philosophy.

I don’t call myself a Darwinist just like I don’t self-identify by any other scientific fact I accept as true. I don’t refer to myself as a gravitationalist, or a geo-centrist, or a “germ theory of disease-ist.” I accept these things as our best understanding of reality at this time given all of the evidence we have access to. And I’m willing to change my position based on new evidence. That is what makes science a far superior method over religion for determining what is true. Science adjusts itself based on new evidence. Religions require us to ignore evidence so that belief can be preserved.

Photo courtesy of Tambako The Jaguar via Flickr.

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