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Shutting Down the Evolution Debate, the "Mainstream Science" Way

We noted the other day our biologist colleague Cornelius Hunter's online adventure, parachuting into a discussion with theistic evolutionists over at the BioLogos website. The debate in a thread at their Open Forum, "What is Universal Common Descent?," is long and discursive. It runs to 212 entries so far. I can't claim to have read every word, but this struck me as telling.

At comment #203, Washington University's Joshua Swamidass weighs in, seeking to call a halt to the proceedings. It's partly a suggestion to his BioLogos friend Dennis Venema, a biologist at Trinity Western University, to move along and stop engaging Dr. Hunter. Notice the repeated appeal to "mainstream science" -- seven mentions of that exact phrase. It almost seems like it should be in all caps with a trademark symbol after it. Swamidass writes (emphasis added):

This "debate" can go on indefinitely. I really do not see its purpose.

@DennisVenema takes a position largely accepted by mainstream science. @Cornelius_Hunter does not. There are irreconcilable differences in how these two think about data, science and evidence. This conversation mirrors larger schisms between the ID movement (that has its own way of interpreting data) and those of us in mainstream science.

Of course, I have my opinions about who is "right", but this disagreement cannot be adjudicated in this forum. This is not how scientific arguments are litigated. @Cornelius_Hunter, even if you are to "win" this argument, you will have no impact on how science sees this topic. Literally zero impact. This is a totally futile way of impacting how science is done.

Rather than pretending that this is a useful debate, I think it would be better to end this line. For those interested in the science here, rather than a debate, I think there is value in explaining how mainstream science works and why it is so certain about evolution. Disagree if you must, but there is value in understanding how mainstream science works. It is not nearly as ideological or unreasonable as some might assume.


So, I have no interest in continue a debate here of any kind. I have no interest in participating in an entirely futile effort.

On the other hand, those curious about how mainstream science works and how it comes to the conclusion of evolution, well I am happy to explain that =). Despite the fears, evolution is not an assumption of science, it is the conclusion arrived at based on a vast amount of scientific evidence. Of course, using rules other than mainstream science (e.g. assuming YEC) one will come to different conclusions.

It is clear that many people disagree with that conclusion. Great. We all know that. Our effort here, however, is to explain why mainstream science has come to this conclusion. I do not have the desire to debate it.

I understand tiring of a discussion that you don't see as going anywhere helpful, and Dr. Swamidass deserves credit for participating at all. Most evolutionists wouldn't dare. That might be because they fear they won't have answers to challenges, or because they fear being shamed by colleagues. For entertaining fundamental criticisms of Darwinism, they face the prospect of being tainted by contact with an unforgivable "sin against the Holy Ghost," as Yale University computer scientist David Gelernter has wryly put it. Either way, it's all about losing face. So Swamidass wins kudos for having the guts to show up.

And I accept as being offered in good faith his statement about why he thinks discussions with ID proponents are useless. But take a moment to appreciate what is really a masterpiece of a condescending put down, discouraging skeptical evaluation of the major questions that probably draw readers to a discussion like this in the first place.

His main point is that Hunter is engaged in some other activity than MAINSTREAM SCIENCE®, so for a real scientist like Joshua Swamidass to exchange views with him is a waste of Joshua's scarce time. And yours too if you're on board with MAINSTREAM SCIENCE®. Generously, he is willing to inform and correct you, but that's a different deal.

There's more than a whiff of an implication that anyone failing to get on board is not merely wrong but a loser. As for the non-losers, they can be winners, "despite the fears," if they will merely allow the kindly Dr. Swamidass to hold their hand and educate them: "those curious about how MAINSTREAM SCIENCE® works and how it comes to the conclusion of evolution, well I am happy to explain that =)."

I suppose it's a bit of a Rorschach test. If a smiley face and a pat on the head from a patronizing evolutionist don't make you roll your eyes, then you're probably already on board with Dr. Swamidass, and so are in no need of persuasion.

On the other hand, if you're genuinely curious about science, like what you'd hear from biologists associated with the ID community, that gives every reasonable impression of being mainstream (without reaching the majority conclusion), then Swamidass's invitation will fall on deaf ears. As a defense of Darwinism, it is "an entirely futile effort."

"Mainstream science," says Dr. Swamidass? Over at Uncommon Descent, Barry Arrington contributes the wonderful phrase "steampunk science" to describe Darwinism, "an analog-based Victorian relic trying to make its way in the digital information age." The reference is to a genre of science fiction.

Steampunk science is exactly what Swamidass is trying to defend. Being in a defensive, intolerant majority doesn't make you right, as some BioLogos readers surely understand. It's precisely those folks who will not be persuaded by Joshua's urging them to disperse obediently.

Note, finally, his suggestion that science questions can't be "litigated" or "adjudicated" in an informal discussion like this. So, says Joshua, even if Hunter "'win[s]" this argument," he will have "no impact on how science sees this topic. Literally zero impact."

Well, that depends on whom you're trying to reach. Is it science consumers among the public at large? In that case, a debate at BioLogos is not a bad place to expend a bit of energy. Or instead, he probably means among professional scientists, whose journals and university departments are largely locked, with threats of career retaliation, against an honest consideration of competing views on origins.

The truth is that evolution skeptics are indeed having an impact, as the recent Royal Society meeting on "New trends in evolutionary biology" makes clear. Where Isaac Newton once presided, they are very much aware of what skeptics say. That awareness, in often-subterranean ways, is leaving evolutionary biology in increasing turmoil. "Futile"? Not in the least.

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