Many people have recently been offended by Rick Perry’s recent comments on evolutionary theory. Personally, I find it to be one of the most tedious and boring issues on the face of the earth. I am supremely uninterested in evolutionary theory. However, I would like to remind everyone how long this debate has been bouncing around the planet. Consider this passage from Plato’s Sophist Dialogues where Theaetetus is having a conversation with a Stranger (from c. 360 BCE).
Stranger: Looking, now, at the world and all the animals and plants, at things which grow upon the earth from seeds and roots, as well as at inanimate substances which are formed within the earth, fusile or non-fusile, shall we say that they come into existence – not having existed previously – by the creation of God, or shall we agree with vulgar opinion about them?
Theaetetus: What is it?
Stranger: The opinion that nature brings them into being from some spontaneous and unintelligent cause. Or shall we say that they are created by a divine reason and a knowledge which comes from God?
Theaetetus: I dare say that, owing to my youth, I may often waver in my view, but now when I look at you and see that you incline to refer them to God, I defer to your authority.
Personally, I just wish that people would stop talking about things with authority when they have no business doing it. I really don’t value Rick Perry’s authority on evolutionary theory. I’m not convinced that he has any training in the area. Evolutionary theory does very well answering “how” questions, but it gets a little confusing when it jumps over into “why” questions. So, in the same vein, when biologists start doing philosophy, I tend not to value their opinion very much.
Here are Kurt Vonnegut’s thoughts from an NPR interview with Steve Inskeep from a few years ago.
Mr. VONNEGUT: Where you can see tribal behavior now is in this business about teaching evolution in a science class and intelligent design. It’s the scientists themselves are behaving tribally.
INSKEEP: How are the scientists behaving tribally?
Mr. VONNEGUT: They say, you know, about evolution, it surely happened because their fossil record shows that. But look, my body and your body are miracles of design. Scientists are pretending they have the answer as how we got this way when natural selection couldn’t possibly have produced such machines.
INSKEEP: Does that mean you would favor teaching intelligent design in the classroom?
Mr. VONNEGUT: Look, if it’s what we’re thinking about all the time; if I were a physics teacher or a science teacher, it’d be on my mind all the time as to how the hell we really got this way. It’s a perfectly natural human thought and, okay, if you go into the science class you can’t think this? Well, alright, as soon as you leave you can start thinking about it again without giving aid and comfort to the lunatic fringe of the Christian religion. Also, I think that, you know, it’s tribal behavior. I don’t think that Pat Robertson, for instance, doubts that we evolved. He is simply representing a tribe.