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Story of Evolution, Evolution of Stories
Bryn Mawr College, Spring 2004
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Arguing the Point

Elizabeth Deacon

There is a blurry and indistinct line between giving the best possible scientific support for a theory in which one strongly believes that has only incomplete evidence, and writing a persuasive piece that will draw people to one side of an argument based on feelings as well as facts. Indeed, there may be no line at all, upon close inspection, but that would be an unpleasant thought to most scientists, who value their ability to write objective reports on subjects and end up with one best answer, because science possesses answers that are definitely and provably better than other answers.

Unfortunately it is impossible to find all the facts needed to support some theories, and sometimes scientific theories get mixed into debates involving other thought systems, such as politics or religion. Evolution may be one of the theories most prone to these problems, so writing an objective report on evolution is intensely challenging. In writing What is Evolution? Mayr threw himself into waters full of sharks eager to eat the would-be objective writers that most scientists are.

Objective writing must be based completely on cold hard facts (Wikipedia:NPOV tutorial), and if it comes to a solid conclusion is it because those facts fit together to prove the theory. If all the relevant evidence was collected and evolution was indeed true then it would stand in the face of all comers without any persuasive techniques needed, but "all the relevant evidence" would be the genealogies of every creature ever born with extensive documentation. Absent that, which would be quite impossible to gather, the theory must be argued and supported and in the end some people will turn out to be impossible to convince, which is the habit of persuasive writing.

The impossibility of gathering all the evidence has drawn the argument over evolution away from science and tied it up in the politics of science, religion, and philosophy. The Creationists, who are the main opponents of evolution, rarely hold unbiased debates over unvarnished facts; that kind of debate is a scientific convention, and has little relevance to religion. With the debate over evolution only half in the world of science unbiased debates cannot really be used, because they only apply to the methods of one side of the debate. So emotion-laden, vague arguments are the norm.

Mayr is not, however, on the Creationist side of the debate. So would it be possible for him to write a proper scientific report? He is, after all, writing about science. The problem with that idea is that if he is facing off against the Creationists he must find some common battle field on which they can meet to argue. If Creationists argue solely in terms of faith and scientists argue solely in terms of facts they will be unable to have a discussion, because the two arguments never meet. Faith has no more impact on facts than facts do on faith. So Creationists must make use of facts and scientists must address emotions so that they can even debate the topic.

So arguments for one side or the other must absorb some of the traits of the opposition, but must this be an argument? What Is Evolution? seems to be presented as an explanation of evolution, which would conform to a definition of objective writing; "the goal of objective writing is to inform and predict using a neutral point of view." (Georgetown University Law Center) A book merely giving information on evolution could be an objective one, so there is not an absolute need to take an argumentative stance. Mayr clearly does argue, however. He takes the road of saying that his opposition is so terribly foolish that there is no reason to debate with them. He dismisses any need to explain why the Creationists are wrong on the first page of appendix A, saying that their opinions have been refuted in so many places that there is no reason for him to take up space for it.
In other places he is more subtle about saying that any theory competing with evolution is ridiculous; on page 235 he mentions in passing that "no well-informed person any longer questions the descent of man from primates," insinuating that if the reader disagrees with this then the reader is an idiot, or conversely that the reader must be smart and therefore agrees with him. He does not make a direct assault on disagreeing with him, such as saying right out "I'm right, they're wrong." He does not even admit the possibility of the opposition having enough of a case to argue about. This is quite a clever literary technique; most readers assume they are intelligent. If what they are reading says that intelligent people have a certain opinion, then the reader assumes she must also have that opinion, because she is intelligent. And because there is no direct attack on the opposing point of view that would make the reader carefully consider the debate, this thought process happens on a subconscious level where the reader cannot catch the gaping holes in that theory, and simply agrees with the sentiment behind it.

Despite his apparent arguing rather than presenting, it is entirely possible that Mayr wrote this book with the intention of merely explaining evolution. It is quite common for authors to be writing with a bias that they do not know they have (Wikipedia:NPOV tutorial). This can be hard to avoid when one is writing on a topic one feels very strongly about, and in the vicious fight over evolution feeling strongly on the topic is the norm. It is impossible to say whether Mayr intended to write an objective explanation of evolution or a persuasive argument for it without further investigation of his history or interviewing him personally. What he ended up with, however, was an argument to convince the reader that evolution is fact.

Mayr does not actually use a formal persuasive style of debate, but instead mimics a style Creationists commonly use. He assumes that his opinion is correct and any other opinion is so foolish as to be inconsiderable, and uses nuances of wording to subconsciously convince the reader that he is correct. It is certainly debatable how responsible this is, and whether he should rise above the level of his opponents who use this tactic, but if he intends to compete directly with people who use this tactic then it may be most effective to fight fire with fire.

1. Persuasive Writing. 2003. The Writing Center at Georgetown University Law Center. Accessed 22 Feb. 2004.
2. Scientific vs. Interpretive Writing. University of Hawaii Kapiolani Community College. Accessed 21 Feb. 2004.
3. Wikipedia: Neutral Point of View Tutorial. 10 Feb 2004. Wikipedia. Accessed 22 Feb. 2004.

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