Posted by: Dan | May 27, 2008

Belief in Evolution, Minus Faith

A couple weeks ago, NPR’s This I Believe podcast presented a five minute essay from paleoanthropologist Holly Dunsworth titled I am evolution. As Dunsworth says, believing evolution is different from belief in something – as though one needs to believe that fossils exist. This is the sort of clear-headed thinking that more people need to hear about, to find some way of understanding that science is the antithesis of faith.

Of course I believe evolution.

But that is different from believing in evolution.

To believe in something takes faith, trust, effort, strength. I need none of these things to believe evolution. It just is. My health is better because of medical research based on evolution. My genetic code is practically the same as a chimpanzee’s. My bipedal feet walk on an earth full of fossil missing links. And when my feet tire, those fossils fuel my car.

To believe in something also implies hope. Hope of happiness, reward, forgiveness, eternal life. There is no hope wrapped up in my belief. Unless you count the hope that one day I’ll discover the most beautifully complete fossil human skeleton ever found, with a label attached saying exactly what species it belonged to, what food it ate, how much it hunted, if it could speak, if it could laugh, if it could love and if it could throw a curveball. But this fantasy is not why I believe evolution — as if evolution is something I hope comes true.

The correctness of these statements is reflected by the plain observations facts remain true whether you believe them or deny them, and that investigation and scrutiny are more akin to disbelief.



  1. I remember listening to this episode on my way to the studio for my radio show, and thinking “I would love to have Holly Dunwsorth as a guest on Atheists Talk.”

    Thanks for reminding me, Dan.

  2. Ithaca makes Outside’s best-places list

  3. “Belief” is involved in science also, however scientists have a hard time recognizing the element of “belief” in what they do.

    It enters ironically through the fiction of objectivity, the idea that knowledge “exists” “out there” somewhere by itself. (Which perhaps it does, but that’s another matter.)

    I notice it a lot in scientific discourse that many scientists elide over the problem of knowing and what it implies about the mind and subjectivity.

    But I didn’t come here to say that. You had posted a comment at my political blog so I came here to find out what you write about.

    So, hey, put me down as liking animals, the biological world, birds. I am very pro-bird. Ask the family cat, whose predatory business has been effectively shut down.

    In my other life, I do something entirely different from writing about politics. But for various reasons, I must keep it a BIG SECRET.

    Anyway, thanks for having visited my site. While we disagree on politics, we probably agree about a whole bunch of other things.

    Evolution was “in the air” during Darwin’s time, as is oft forgotten. Darwin did not invent the idea. And it makes an appearance in odd places like Hardy’s novel “Tess of the D’urbervilles” where Tess the main character is seen early in the novel wearing a significantly RED bow. It turns out to be something that exposes her to the gaze of her enemies. So there was a Darwinian theme of “survival of the fittest” going on in the novel, that grew out of Darwin’s science and its precursors.

    I’m not “against Darwin,” (how silly that would be!) yet one notes that the ramifications of Darwin’s theory are mostly, politely ignored in today’s strange love fest for the voyager of the “Beagle.” However, in Darwin’s own era the raminifications for society were not ignored. Not at all.

    Anyway, pro-bird. That’s me.

  4. So it’s post-modernism and social Darwinism then? Don’t you know anything about the evolution of cooperation, or the philosophy of science?

  5. P.S. If you want to know what I write about, or especially more about my worldview, please check out the “About Me,” “Bookshelf,” and “Quotations” pages with links near the top.

  6. Post-modernism. Please. I don’t have enough aspirin in the house to deal with that topic. These questions have a long pedigree, anyway. We could discuss them very elegantly without being hip.

    Anyway, I have provided a link to your site on mine.

    When it comes to birds, I’m entirely bi-partisan.

  7. I appreciate it on the birds. All the best.

  8. Personally i think evolution is a piece of crap.

    The first law of thermodynamics: “Energy cannot be created nor destroyed. It can only change form.” Which means nothing couldn’t have just blew and created millions of tiny creatures and organisms creating life as we know it…

    Newton’s first law of motion: “Any body continues to mantain its state of rest or of uniform motion unless acted upon by an outside force.” which means even if a giant non-existant explosian happened that the debris couldn’t have stopped and create the earth. The debris would’ve kept going and going and going and going and going…

  9. p.s.

    And if the “Big Bang” did happen it would’ve been very hard for the earth and sun and other celestial stuff to land the the perfect place. It would take some pretty good luck for it to end in the right spots…

  10. New Kid,
    Re: Thermodynamics… exactly. That’s one of the reasons that many people, myself included, can’t understand why so many people hold onto notions of Special Creation, as though something like a mammal could spring into existence de novo. It’s much more parsimonious to think of species under the heuristic of Descent With Modification.

    Even if you’re going to change the topic from evolution to origin of life, no one is suggesting that the simplest cell sprung into existence de novo except Creationists. Here, the Descent With Modification model implies that biochemistry developed out of organic and physical chemistry, which in turn developed out of the physical properties of matter.

    Re: Law of Motion… um, this is a post on biology, so I’m not sure what you’re getting at.

    Re: Big Bang… same deal.

    In a previous comment elsewhere you said something yesterday about staying on topic. This thread is about evolution (and consequently biology) – could you please “practice what you preach” and stick to the topic?


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