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Evolution: What's the Problem? What Can We Do About It?

Paul Grobstein's picture

Notes for a discussion in the Cafe Scientifique at Bryn Mawr College on 23 February 2009

moderated by Paul Grobstein and Anne Dalke


Background (partial):

For discussion:

  1. What is/are the important disagreement(s)?
  2. Is there a way to get out of them?

Re 1:

  • common ancestry (dethroning human specialness?)
  • non essence-ism (dethroning traditional thinking?)
  • non-foundationalism (dethroning fixed meaning?)

"Evolution in the sense of common ancestry might be true, but evolution in the neo-Darwinian sense -- an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection -- is not. Any system of thought that denies or seeks to explain away the overwhelming evidence for design in biology is ideology, not science" ... Christopher Schönborn, New York Times, 2005

  • randomness - fundamental uncertainty/anxiety
  • lack of firm foundation for morality
  • problem of human responsibility
  • conflict about Truth?

Towards a way out?:

  • stop arguing about Truth
  • accept useful existence of multiple stories, even incommensurable ones
  • develop new stories about the origins of morality, the benefits of responsibility, the value of randomness
Add your thoughts below ...


stranger's picture


How can one imagine that via evolution such a universe came into being which is full wiseness< Surely there needs to be a CREATER.

Paul Grobstein's picture

Evolution: the problem and what to do about it

Interesting discussion last night. Based on it, I'd add several thoughts to the lists above. Additional problems with the story of evolution include

  1. wish of people to see themselves as different from/superior to other animals/living things
  2. following from randomness, a sense of being less in control than one would prefer
  3. following from randomness, a sense of being "imperfect," or less "perfect" than one would prefer to be
  4. difficulty in seeing things in terms of the very long times involved

All of these emphasizes, for me, the need not only to stop arguing about Truth and instead to create new kinds of stories that speak to the underlying observations/concerns that motivate existing stories.

Along these lines, its worth noticing, as we did last night, that for some religious people "God" plays the same role that "reality" does for some scientists, ie it is not something to explain things but rather something to become ever better at understanding. And worth noticing that the effort to find new stories is not the same thing as "compromising." The latter means trying to achieve consensus by locating a shared understanding somewhere between existing understandings. The former means making use of existing stories, and their underlying observations/concerns to create new stories that might be more appealing to all involved than existing ones.

There is clearly a need for "education," but in the sense of helping everyone discover the skills and enjoyments of thinking for onself rather than in the sense of teaching people what stories are "better." And maybe that's the starting point for a new story? Large expanses of space/time provide creative opportunities, as does randomness, a willingness to accept some absence of control and degree of imperfection, and a connectedness to other living organisms. Perhaps people would be more interested in the story of evolution if it was described in these terms? Rather than in terms of "Truth," "fact," "rationality," "anti-sentimentality," or the like? "We must embark on a cultural shift that places science in its rightful place alongside music, art, and literature as an indispensable part of what makes life worth living." Not only for the health of science but as a way to find new stories for everyone?

pbrodfue's picture

Evolution - probability and time

I appreciated Doug’s description of how a mathematician looks at randomness – bounded chance. Randomness does not mean that anything can happen, but there is a range of outcomes that could happen by chance, and some are more likely than others. For example, if you throw a pair of dice they are never going to add up to 13, and that throwing a 12 could happen, but it is less likely than throwing a 7. So, with evolution, randomness does not mean that any chance genetic change is going to produce a new species. In fact, most mutations are probably benign – changing one base pair in a non-coding region. Does this affect the organism? No. Moreover, large scale changes in DNA are probably lethal. However, every once in a while, a change in the DNA is viable and significant, and if selected for in a population, will spread. The probability of a beneficial mutation is extremely low, but it does happen. Think about the lottery. The chances of winning are extremely low, but every once in a while, someone does win the jackpot. This brings me to time scales. If a viable change in DNA is a very low probability event, and spreading throughout a population is a slow, slow process, then huge amounts of time / number of generations (may be millions of generations) are required for genetic change to manifest itself as a change in a population of organisms. Long time scales are hard to us to understand and put into perspective. Humans think that 100 years is forever! How can we possibly envision a process that takes millions of years? So, the core of evolution seems grounded in extremely low probability events and incredibly long time scales, two concepts that are difficult for most of us to appreciate. Is it any wonder that people look for other stories for the origin of the species?

A much better treatment of evolution, probability, selection and time can be found in chapter 2 of The Making of the Fittest by Sean Carroll.

Paul Grobstein's picture

Bounded chance and change

Yep, "bounded chance" might help people get beyond distaste for randomness. And thinking about lotteries/mutations in terms of the possibility of improvement might help as well ("sure there's a risk in that but its a hell of a lot better then sitting in one place and trying to hold everything together, particularly when it isn't really quite what you want and you know damned well that its all going to come apart one way or another anyhow." ... This isn't just my problem, friend). And, as per conversation with Peter this am, the point holds not only for randomness but more generally .... for change of any kind. Yes, change may produce less desireable things but it can also produce more desireable ones.

On space and time, see

Maybe what we need to do as educators is a better job of helping people see how much room and opportunity there is to get things less wrong?

Laura Cyckowski's picture

My feeling after listening

My feeling after listening to the discussion last night is that the most important issue at hand is individuals unable to accept both evolution and their religious beliefs simultaneously. And that "what can be done about it" is to approach this general problem in a more indirect way... by getting people (kids/students) used to "multiplism" or "accepting the useful existence of multiple stories" starting with other "stories", other than evolution/religion. By that I guess I mean giving people the experience of accepting other conflicting stories in science or elsewhere; for example, in chemistry putting more emphasis on how molecular orbital theory and valence shell electron pair repulsion theory are useful/not useful in different ways; and so on. I also feel like it would be valuable to have more prominent people who acknowledge both evolution and whatever their religious beliefs are to stand as an example of being able to do this. Seeing people who can do this makes science/evolution feel more "personal", I think.

jrlewis's picture

somewhat similarly

One concern I have about the evolution controversy is how to respond to people who simply believe what they are told.  They accept something as truth because a person in a position of authority has said it.  These gullible people are present on both sides of the issue.  Whether they were taught about how God created the world or the theory of evolution is irrelevant.  What is relevant is their understanding of the situation as necessitating a single exclusive permanent answer.  Perhaps a more skeptical approach is warranted, with respect to evolution, religion, and the stories that we tell ourselves.  A more reflective perspective could allow people to attempt to understand other ideas by examining the observations, drawing, and redrawing their conclusions.  This process would create more personal understandings of the intersection between evolution and religion.  To each, their own… 
Paul Grobstein's picture

learning to think for oneself?

Maybe that's the point of "liberal arts" education, even in a time of economic crisis, perhaps even particularly in .... ?  To provide people tools/encouragement to think for themselves?