My evolutionary litmus test

Whenever I criticize a political candidate’s or other public figure’s lack of acceptance of evolution the refrain I often hear is, “Why does that matter? How does that impact their ability to make decisions regarding other issues that I actually care about?” This essentially translates to: as long as they’re making decisions that I agree with (and may even benefit from) in other areas, they’re free to believe whatever they want. I see where those people are coming from but I have to disagree – the moment a political candidate makes any positive remark concerning intelligent design, or saying that evolution is “only” a theory, they’ve lost me forever.

First of all, when it comes to worldly matters such as governance, I should hope that scientific reasoning based on material processes trumps metaphysics. That is almost a given, right? Can we all agree with that?

Evolution is a grand scientific theory in it’s purest form: it is a powerful explanatory hypothesis regarding how things on Earth came to be. It makes many predictions about things we cannot observe directly (and some we can observe directly). But it does so in a rational and falsifiable way. The particulars of the evolutionary hypothesis change all the time as new evidence comes to light. This, to me, is the great triumph of science: the constant reappraisal of a paradigm as facts emerge. This kind of pragmatism strikes me as a great way to govern.

To me it seems that evolution in particular (more than relativity or Newtonian mechanics) is the best indicator that a person can think rationally about a historical concept that cannot be directly observed. Obviously, we cannot directly observe that humans and chimpanzees shared a common ancestor ~6 million years ago. But a variety of evidence – morphological, paleontological, and molecular – points to that conclusion. It is this integration of fields that makes the study of evolution distinct from other sciences, as well as making it an appropriate analogy to the “real world” of politics. When making a large decision, a ruler will hopefully have input from a variety of disparate sources. It is the ruler’s job to integrate those into a coherent picture and make an appropriate decision.

Unlike other scientific paradigms, evolution does not require advanced math to truly understand it (though math certainly helps in the more reductionist descriptions). One cannot follow a pure mathematical argument and come to the conclusion that the present life on earth has arisen from previous (and different) biotas. Similarly, the grand theory  of evolution cannot be “proven” in a deductive Popperian sense – though all of it’s separate components have been deductively proven time and time again. A ruler generally does not have the luxury of making deductive inquiries and must rely on historical and inductive arguments to make decisions.

Obviously, this has all been prompted by this midterm election happening tomorrow, and the fairly large proportion of candidates that profess some sort of “doubt” regarding evolution and/or it’s place in the public school curriculum. This never ceases to impress me – I could understand it coming from candidates for state office, or possibly even the House of Representatives. But candidates for the Senate! Now, I’m not arguing that candidates who accept evolution are automatically better rulers or legislators than those who don’t – I’m simply saying that I think it reflects a way of thinking that I think is more conducive to governance than say, creationism.

ANYWAY, vote (if you must) for whoever the hell you want.



About alexclaxton

Paleoanthropology grad student, pop culture obsessive
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