Tuesday, August 19, 2008


Byron writes to dissent somewhat from my portrayal of Jim Wallis in God's Politics. His letter can be read on our feedback page.

I also received from Caleb this question:

I have two very good friends here at college; one a pro-life Republican, and the other a pro-life Democrat. Both obviously stand in stark opposition to Senator Obama's stance on abortion. For the Republican, Sen. Obama's extreme pro-choice stance is but one of many reasons why he will be (albeit reluctantly) pulling the lever for Sen. McCain in November.

For the Democrat, while he strongly disagrees with Senator Obama's stance on abortion, he feels that he "cannot be a single-issue voter...and [neither] should other Christians." The question I have, therefore, is this. While there are serious doubts amongst conservatives that McCain is truly "conservative" enough, would his generally pro-life stance be enough of an issue to tip the balance in his favor? By extension, is it proper to be a "single issue" voter, or is that dangerous naivety, especially with an issue such as abortion?

I know I don't really have an answer to that; I hope you might?

Well, I don't know if I have a good answer, but here's basically how I replied to Caleb:

I don't see anything wrong with being a single issue voter as long as the issue is of paramount importance. There are a lot of people who will vote for Obama solely because he opposes the war. There are others who will vote for him solely because they know he'll keep abortion legal. These are single issues, and for those voters they trump everything else.

The question is whether a person thinks that protecting the unborn is of such great importance that it overrides all else. If they do, then there's nothing wrong with voting on the basis of the candidates' position on that issue.

People who complain about single issue voters are generally those who don't like the issue, or the position taken on the issue, that the single issue voters assign such significance to. In other words, they have no trouble with voting for a candidate on the basis of his stance on just one issue as long as the candidate is one they themselves would support and the issue is one they themselves feel strongly about.

You won't hear too much complaining from Obama supporters, for example, about the single issue voting of those who will vote for Obama simply because he's African American or because he's against the war in Iraq. It's only when someone says that they can't vote for Obama because he's willing to tolerate infanticide that his supporters intone about the shortcomings of being a single issue voter.


In God We Trust

MSNBC is conducting a poll asking whether the motto "In God we Trust" should be removed from our currency. You can vote on the question here, but I don't know how long the poll will be up.

It would be interesting to see how the results, which can be accessed at the link, break down according to liberal/conservative voting preferences.


Why We Should Study Evolution

Olivia Judson offers three reasons in a New York Times opinion piece why evolution should be taught in our schools. I agree with her conclusion, but her reasons are riddled with confusions.

First, she makes the same error that so many make by contrasting evolution and intelligent design. ID is not incompatible with evolution. It's incompatible with the belief that evolution is a purposeless, random process guided only by unintelligent forces. Perhaps the most prominent of ID theorists, Michael Behe, believes in descent by modification. So do many others.

Judson then makes the claim that because there's controversy over evolution, "[I]t's discussed as though it were an optional, quaint and largely irrelevant part of biology. And a common consequence of the arguments is that evolution gets dropped from the curriculum entirely."

I would certainly like to see the data she relies on to make this assertion. I can't imagine that there's a public school anywhere in America that has dropped evolution from the curriculum, nor do ID people want them to.

Having raised our suspicions about her reliability on this topic, Ms Judson goes on to offer three reasons why evolution should be taught:

First, it provides a powerful framework for investigating the world we live in. Without evolution, biology is merely a collection of disconnected facts, a set of descriptions.... Add evolution - and it becomes possible to make inferences and predictions and (sometimes) to do experiments to test those predictions.

Fair enough. Evolution provides a coherent framework for thinking about relationships, but evolution can be taught without the materialism, and despite what Judson says, biology can be taught from a creationist perspective with no reference to the idea of common descent at all. Indeed, most of the actual evidence we have of evolution fits both models equally well.

The second reason she gives for teaching evolution is that "the subject is immediately relevant here and now. The impact we are having on the planet is causing other organisms to evolve - and fast."

Hunting animals to extinction may cause evolution in their former prey species. Experiments on guppies have shown that, without predators, these fish evolve more brightly colored scales, mature later, bunch together in shoals less and lose their ability to suddenly swim away from something. Such changes can happen in fewer than five generations. If you then reintroduce some predators, the population typically goes extinct.

Thus, a failure to consider the evolution of other species may result in a failure of our efforts to preserve them. And, perhaps, to preserve ourselves from diseases, pests and food shortages. In short, evolution is far from being a remote and abstract subject. A failure to teach it may leave us unprepared for the challenges ahead.

This is rather fevered rhetoric. In the first place what she's calling evolution here is not evolution as it's understood by most people. No one doubts that small changes can occur in populations of organisms because of stresses in their environment. Nor does anyone oppose teaching what we know about such variation (usually called microevolution). The controversy is over whether natural unguided forces can produce the molecules-to-man kind of evolution (macroevolution) that most people think of when they hear the word "evolution".

The third reason to teach evolution, Ms Judson tells us, is more philosophical:

It concerns the development of an attitude toward evidence. In his book, "The Republican War on Science," the journalist Chris Mooney argues persuasively that a contempt for scientific evidence - or indeed, evidence of any kind - has permeated the Bush administration's policies, from climate change to sex education, from drilling for oil to the war in Iraq. A dismissal of evolution is an integral part of this general attitude.

Moreover, since the science classroom is where a contempt for evidence is often first encountered, it is also arguably where it first begins to be cultivated. A society where ideology is a substitute for evidence can go badly awry.

This is plainly ridiculous. The science classroom is often the one place in our postmodern world where evidence is actually honored. If anyone is impervious to evidence it's the evolutionary materialists who believe steadfastly in their theory despite the lack of evidence for it. By this I mean that there's no evidence that blind, undirected forces plus chance are capable of creating a universe fit for life, originating life, or evolving the complex structures and pathways that are ubiquitous in living things. Nevertheless, every materialist believes that it happened despite the enormous odds against it and the total absence of evidence that it did.

But for me, the most important thing about studying evolution is something less tangible. It's that the endeavor contains a profound optimism. It means that when we encounter something in nature that is complicated or mysterious, such as the flagellum of a bacteria or the light made by a firefly, we don't have to shrug our shoulders in bewilderment.

Instead, we can ask how it got to be that way. And if at first it seems so complicated that the evolutionary steps are hard to work out, we have an invitation to imagine, to play, to experiment and explore. To my mind, this only enhances the wonder.

Very well, but this is an aesthetic reason for studying evolution. Why couldn't someone reply that the mystery of nature fills him with far more wonder when he considers that these things were engineered just for our enjoyment by a loving Creator? If a sense of wonder and optimism is to serve as justification for teaching something should we not insist that the view that there is a purpose underlying the world we study also be taught?

It's interesting that Ms Judson nowhere argues that we should study evolution because it's true. This, of course, would be the salient reason for including it in the curriculum, but its truth is, despite the adamantine asseverations of its proponents, notoriously difficult to establish.

Nevertheless, I agree that we should study evolution but for a reason having little to do with those advanced by Ms Judson. It should be studied because most practicing scientists believe some version of it, and we should therefore examine the theory and the evidence both for and against it in order to be familiar with the current state of scientific thinking. If and when it falls out of favor and is no longer thought to be true then we should no longer spend time on it, other than as a historical curiosity, regardless of whether it still performs the functions adduced by Ms. Judson.


Say it Ain't So, John

John McCain could very well defeat Senator Obama in November, and he has certainly helped himself toward this end by being resolute on all the issues that separate him from his rival. One of those issues is abortion, concerning which McCain said Saturday at Saddleback church that, "As president of the United States, I will be a pro-life president and this presidency will have pro-life policies. That's my commitment. That's my commitment to you." Such assurances are catnip to conservatives, and they sound so much more robust than the rather weasely refusal of Senator Obama to answer Rick Warren's question Saturday night about the point at which a human being should have the right to life.

Obama bobbed and weaved and finally opined that such questions are "above his pay grade". The man is running for president, and such questions are matters that government leaders must decide. If he has no opinion on a question of human and civil rights then he should not be holding an office in which he must vote on legislation that involves such rights nor should he be running for an office in which he will appoint jurists who will rule on the matter. It's ironic that as an Illinois senator Obama felt it well within his pay grade to vote to allow born infants to be left to die, but now that he's running for president he suddenly finds himself unqualified to make such judgments.

The abortion issue is a winner for McCain, especially if he points out Obama's implicit support for infanticide. No one to the right of Peter Singer and Barack Obama thinks letting babies die is anything other than evil and when the American public finally learns that Obama voted against the Born Alive Infants Protection Act they'll no doubt lose a lot of their enthusiasm for him. So why then the talk in the McCain camp of selecting a pro-choice veep? McCain has mentioned both Joe Lieberman and Tom Ridge as possible running mates and both have been accompanying him on his campaign town hall meetings (both spoke to the audience at York, PA last week).

McCain is beginning to not only win conservatives' votes but also their enthusiasm. He'll lose both, though, if he picks a liberal like Leiberman who is as far left as Obama on almost every issue besides the war, or Ridge who is moderate to liberal. If he picks a pro-choice running mate, how, conservatives will wonder, do we know he would keep his implicit promise to appoint pro-life jurists to the Supreme Court?

The safe choice for McCain is Mitt Romney, but anyone less conservative than he is himself would be a disaster. The election is within his grasp today only because of his efforts to allay conservative fears that he'd sell them out. If he turns around and sticks his thumb in the eye of his pro-life supporters millions of them will just stay home in November.

The editors at NRO agree that a pro-choice veep would be an epic political blunder.