Paul Krugman believes that Republicans are knuckle-dragging Neanderthals who would drag America back to the Stone Age given the chance. “One of these years,” he warns in The New York Times, “the world’s greatest nation will find itself ruled by a party that is aggressively anti-science, indeed anti-knowledge. And, in a time of severe challenges – environmental, economic, and more – that’s a terrifying prospect.” Terrifying indeed. What is more frightening than the prospect of a bunch of underdeveloped orangutans with their finger on the nuclear button?
Truth regardless of consequences To my mind, even more frightening is a Nobel-prize winning columnist in what claims to be the world’s most authoritative newspaper writing broad generalities about how Republicans are unlettered buffoons who hate learning and science.
Even more outrageous is that Krugman’s ire was piqued by Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s comment that evolution was “just a theory” and that it has “some gaps in it.” Also upsetting Krugman is the GOP presidential front-runner’s rejection of global warming theories.
I cannot comment on climate-change science, but I have much to say about evolution.
I am not a scientist. Beginning in the early 1990s, however, I organized an annual debate at Oxford University on science vs. religion, which almost always fosused on evolution and featured some of the world’s greatest evolutionists, including Richard Dawkins and the late John Maynard-Smith. I moderated the first few debates and participated in later ones.
What I learned over the years is that evolutionists have a tough time defending the theory when challenged in open dialogue. Indeed, an agnostic, David Berlinski, the author of “The Devil’s Delusion,” took the religion side in one of the debates against Dawkins and Maynard-Smith, and tore large holes in evolution that they struggled to address.
This does not disprove evolution – but it does support Perry’s contention that evolution is a theory, not a fact. So does the rejection of the standard theory of gradual evolution by the late and celebrated Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould. He often argued that the large gaps in the fossil record made “punctuated equilibrium” more likely (evolution takes place in dramatic periods of change followed by long eons of stasis). Would Krugman call Gould a neanderthal for saying that the theory of evolution has “some gaps in it”?
No scientist has ever witnessed evolution directly and it is unlikely one ever will do so. Science itself says that this is impossible, given the vast amount of time needed for species to evolve. Rather, evidence for evolution is brought primarily from the fossil record. The evidence for “natural selection” is at best anecdotal, based on contemporary observations, but little else.
The problem with such observations is that they are manifestations of horizontal, rather than vertical, evolution. They merely describe how members of a species may change over time within a range of characteristics they already possess. No new traits are generated. Rather, the traits that already exist are merely distributed differently. Vertical evolution, in which natural selection can supposedly create entirely new structures, has yet to be directly observed. That makes vertical evolution a possibility, but nothing more.
Other questions remains regarding evolutionary theory, most notably the anthropic principle, which maintains that if the physical laws and constants governing our universe were even slightly altered, all that exists may never have been-and if the universe did exist, it almost certainly would not be in a form we would recognize.
The English cosmologist Sir Martin Rees argues in his book “Just Six Numbers” that the values of six numbers for the most part determine many of the large- and small-scale properties of our universe. If any of these numbers were changed even slightly, the universe would exist in a radically different, and quite unfriendly, form, if it existed at all.
Let us look at the second number, epsilon, which is roughly .007. Epsilon describes, roughly speaking, the durability of matter; it tells us how much energy is required to separate an atom into its constituent particles.
Clearly, this is a very important number. Yet the remarkable thing about it is how delicately balanced it is against the other five numbers. If epsilon were .006 – a difference of about 14 percent-the universe would consist entirely of hydrogen. No other elements would form, because the process of nuclear fusion could not occur. The universe would be bland and uninteresting. There would be no planets, very little light, no nebulae, no comets and certainly no life – all because epsilon was .006 and not .007.
The value of epsilon is one of the most profound mysteries of the universe. Scientists have spent their careers trying to understand why it has the value it does. As Max Born, the brilliant and influential 20th-century physicist, put it, “The explanation of this number must be the central problem of natural philosophy.”
The Nobel laureate Richard Feynman, in his typically flamboyant way, put it differently: “It’s one of the greatest damn mysteries of physics: a magic number that comes to us with no understanding by man. You might say ‘the hand of God wrote that numberâ€¦.'”
Many leading scientists, such as Francis Collins, former head of the Human Genome Project and described by the Endocrine Society as “one of the most accomplished scientists of our time,” therefore believe that while evolution may indeed be an accurate theory as to the rise of life and species, it still requires the guiding hand of a higher power in order to operate. Indeed, Richard Dawkins himself said in a famous interview with Ben Stein that the intelligent life in our universe may have come from “a higher intelligence” consisting of space aliens which seeded our planet with intelligent life.
In the final analysis, the biblical account of creation easily accommodates an evolutionary ascent, seeing as the narrative expressly relates that God created first the mineral, then the vegetable, then the animal, and finally the human. The only question is whether this was guided or random.
Before Krugman attacks Republican politicians for simply questioning evolution, therefore, it would behoove him to recall (a) that the very essence of science is to question and (b) that stifling doubt is a sin that religion was quite guilty of in the past and that science should refrain from repeating it in the present.