Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Ron Paul's terrible argument against evolution

In his book, Liberty Defined, congressman Ron Paul says the following about evolution. 
There is one argument against evolution that deserves consideration. If man is evolving and progressing, why is man’s involvement in mass killings getting worse and the struggle for peace more difficult? Government wars and exterminations in the twentieth century reached 262 million people killed by their own governments and 44 million killed in wars. I fear that doesn’t say much for the evolutionary process
When I first read this statement, I did not know how to interpret it. Since Ron Paul has a medical doctorate, I immediately thought this had to be some sort of pun or play on words. Someone who completed multiple college level biology classes certainly could not think that natural selection entails some sort of upwards progression towards a godlike state. Upon hearing other statements made by Paul, however, I have come to the conclusion that he is indeed a creationist and this objection to evolution is dead serious.

Before I explain what is wrong with this criticism of evolution, however, I need to take a second and speak to Ron Paul supporters. If you are someone who admires Ron Paul, please know that this post is not written with the intent of grinding some sort of political axe. I am not out to discredit Paul, nor do I hate civil liberties. I am merely correcting a man with a misconception about science and I would do the same if he was progressive.

My first criticism of Paul's idea is that it totally misunderstands what evolution does. Despite popular belief to the contrary, natural selection (the engine of evolution) is a blind mechanism that is not directed towards any goal. Its only requirement is that you live long enough to pass on your genes to the next generation. It does not care if this is carried out by cruelty or kindness. It is simply irrelevant to the process. With that said, however, it should be noted that there is plenty of evidence which suggests human beings have flourished as long as they have by using the strategy of cooperation.

This may sound counter-intuitive but when you compare human interactions to those of other apes and pack animals, we are (at least comparatively) the most harmonious large species on the planet. As thinkers like Richard Dawkins have pointed out, our cooperation is a very effective tool for survival and it helps to ensure the survival of our own genes. These ideas are not in the least bit controversial and are built on the prisoner's dilemma thought experiment from Game Theory to model strategic interactions between organisms. To see what I am talking about, watch this video. 

My second criticism is that it is not at all obvious that the world is deteriorating into a more violent and horrifying place. Even including the two great wars of the twentieth century, there has been many breakthroughs in the advancement of human well-being over the last few centuries. Vaccinations for polio and smallpox, as well as advancement in crop yields by people like Norman Borlaug, have saved billions of lives. People are also living much longer and (for the first time in history) even middle class people have free time to educated themselves and take up a hobby. Through the institution of science and technology, the world has become better in many measurable ways.

Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker has recently argued (much to the chagrin of theologians, luddites, and pessimists) that violence has plummeted worldwide since the Enlightenment. Since I do not feel like posting a lot of his stats, I will do you the favor of posting Pinker's TED presentation on the topic.

I would like to make a note, however, that the truth of evolution is supported by multiple independent lines of evidence. Regardless of what strategies humans have employed to survive, fields like biogeography, embryology, genetics, paleontology, and homology provide overwhelming evidence for the theory that man shares a common ancestor with the other apes. This fact is separate and not contingent on how violent or virtuous current human affairs are (even though Mr. Paul's perceptions seem to be way off either way)..

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