It’s a deceptively simple question and it lies right at the heart of the creation/evolution controversies. Unfortunately, Keith Blanchard’s recent opinion piece on the subject seems to miss the point. Not because Blanchard doesn’t understand the issues, but because he deliberately hopes to change the conversation. But it’s not that simple. In at least two important ways, we need to wonder more deeply what we mean when we say we “believe” in evolution.
Blanchard writes from the heart of mainstream science. We shouldn’t say we “believe” in evolution, Blanchard writes. As he puts it,
if someone asks, “Do you believe in evolution,” they are framing it wrong. That’s like asking, “Do you believe in blue?”
Evolution is nothing more than a fairly simple way of understanding what is unquestionably happening. You don’t believe in it — you either understand it or you don’t…
Of course, we see what he means. I even agree with his position. But IMHO, this line or argument is nearly entirely beside the point. It puts us evolution-supporters in the silly position of insisting that there is no debate about evolution. Like Blanchard, we mean that the scientific facts of evolution are not open to debate, any more than is the fact of gravity or the fact of blue.
But so what? How does that position get us anywhere?
Because there IS a debate about evolution, obviously. Lots of influential people do not accept the facticity of evolution. They do not accept that evolution explains the deep history of species on this planet. Therefore, it matters to say that we believe in evolution. Saying we “believe” in evolution, politically, means taking a stand about educational politics and cultural politics.
On a more basic level, too, saying that we believe in evolution has a value beyond Blanchard’s knee-jerk empiricism. After all, in our society, we believe all sorts of things about which we only have a tentative or tenuous understanding. For instance, when we have a serious medical malady, we trust in what medical experts tell us. Not blindly, of course, but we talk to several experts and decide on a treatment course that seems to make sense to us. We don’t necessarily understand every jot and tittle of the medical science. But we take the life-or-death advice of doctors. When it matters, we trust our experts.
And that is also the case here. Saying we “believe” in evolution means something different than saying we understand its meaning. Saying we “believe” in evolution means we trust a certain set of authorities over others. Not blindly, of course, but in general outline. So, for instance, when the National Center for Science Education mounts its Project Steve, I’m convinced. The sheer numbers of mainstream scientists who publicly announce their “belief” in evolution convinces me.
After all, for educated folks these days, the un-interpreted evidence of our senses has long been suspect. Blanchard writes that we should all trust the “evidence of [our] own senses.” If we do so, he concludes, we’ll be convinced about the fact of evolution. But educated people know that their senses might mislead them. After all, the intuitive case for creationism is very strong. Things seem to have been created according to some system, some plan. Creationists might regularly appeal to people’s senses to prove their point, along the lines of Paley’s watchmaker.
As careful studies have proven, people who reject evolution don’t necessarily have a spottier understanding of science. Contrary to what Blanchard says, people can and often do understand evolution yet reject it. Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer, for example, concluded from their large-group study of science teachers that creationists have an edge beyond the logic of folks like Blanchard. Even among those Americans who understand that mainstream scientists agree on evolution, Berkman and Plutzer found, a large majority prefers that public schools teach both evolution and creationism. That’s right: Even those Americans who know what mainstream science says about evolution still want schools to teach creationism.
In a world like that, Blanchard’s argument seems at best irrelevant. Insisting that evolution is a simple fact, either to be understood or not understood, makes no sense in these circumstances. On the other hand, if we say we “believe” in evolution, we’re doing something important. Something with necessary political weight.
But there is one sense in which we should not try to “believe” in evolution. Not Blanchard’s sense, but a more nuts-and-bolts kind of meaning. As I’m arguing in an upcoming book with co-author Harvey Siegel, public schools need to get out of the belief business when it comes to evolution education. That is, the goal of evolution education must not be to convince students to “believe” in evolution. Rather, the goal should be to make sure all students understand it.
In a way, this is what Blanchard is saying, but I wonder if he would recoil in disgust from the implications. Blanchard wants people to understand evolution. We don’t “believe” in something that is obviously true. We don’t “believe” in facts of nature.
In contrast, our prescription for public schools is that teachers adopt the goal of leading students to an understanding of evolution, and no more. Students should be led to understand the principles of evolution, its mechanisms, and its evidence. If they then choose not to “believe” evolution, that is an entirely private matter, beyond the realm of public school goals.
I don’t know for sure, but I suspect that this sort of “understanding-not-belief” is not what Blanchard has in mind.
What about you? Do you “believe” in evolution? What does it mean to “believe” it, rather than to just “know” it? Or, from the other direction, what does it mean to “dis-believe” it, even if you understand it?