Monday, February 15, 2016

Stephen Jay Gould On Justice Scalia's Misunderstanding About Evolution Science

The United States Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died a couple of days ago. I remembered an  essay on him written by Stephen Jay Gould. The occasion was Justice Scalia 's dissenting opinion in the 1987 case that invalidated the State of Louisiana 's "Balanced Treatment for Creation-Science and Evolution-Science Act." Louisiana was in effect arguing that "Creation Science" be put on the same footing as the theory of evolution in science classrooms.

Here is an excerpt that goes to the core of Justice Scalia's misunderstanding about what the theory of evolution seeks to elucidate:

 Justice Scalia has defined evolution as the search for life's origin--and nothing more. He keeps speaking about "the current state of scientific evidence about the origin of life" when he means to designate evolution. He writes that "the legislature wanted to ensure that students would be free to decide for themselves how life began based upon a far and balanced presentation of the scientific evidence." Never does he even hint that evolution might be the study of how life changes after it originates--the entire panoply of transformation from simple molecules to all modern multi-cellular complexity.

and a wonderful concluding passage-

   Consider also, indeed especially, Scalia's false concept of science. He equates creation and evolution because creationists can't explain life's beginning, while evolutionists can't resolve the ultimate origin of the inorganic components that later aggregated to life. But this inability is the very heart of creationist logic and the central reason why their doctrine is not science, while science's inability to specify the ultimate origin of matter is irrelevant because we are not trying to do any such thing. We know that we can't, and we do not even consider such a question as part of science.

    We understand Hutton's wisdom. We do not search for unattainable ultimates.

We define evolution, using Darwin's phrase, as "descent with modification" from prior living things. Our documentation of life's evolutionary tree records one of science's greatest triumphs, a profoundly liberating discovery on the oldest maxim that truth can make us free. We have made this discovery by recognizing what can be answered and what must be left alone. If Justice Scalia heeded our definitions and our practices, he would understand why creationism cannot qualify as science. He would also, by the way, sense the excitement of evolution and its evidence; no person of substance could be unmoved by something so interesting. Only Aristotle's creator may be so impassive.

    Don Quixote recognized "no limits but the sky," but became thereby the literary embodiment of unattainable reverie. G.K Chesterton understood that any discipline must define its borders of fruitfulness. He spoke for painting, but you may substitute any creative enterprise: "Art is limitation: the essence of every picture is the frame."

Let me add here that although the problem of the origin of life is not addressed directly by the theory of evolution, it does come under the purview of being a scientific problem. When Gould writes "we do not even consider such a question as part of science", he means specifically the theory of evolution.  Creationists would have you think that life began as some miraculous spark, a forever mysterious event that is beyond scientific inquiry. Not so. Basic chemistry is making headway in our understanding of how inanimate matter can aggregate to form self replicating entities. See this fine post by Ashutosh Jogalekar on how chemists ponder the Origin Of Life problem. 


  1. Terrific! Thanks for sharing, Suvrat. Such a good example of Gould's articulateness.

    Now let us brace for the fight over Scalia's successor!

  2. Absolutely Hollis!

    btw The Onion had a classic headline..

    "Justice Scalia dies after a 30 year old battle with social progress" !

  3. I didn't know that about Scalia, but I should have guessed. Scalia Naturae...

    To add to chemistry, there is also the geological work. [Say, "The Drive to Life on Wet and Icy Worlds", Russell et al, Astrobiology.]

  4. thanks for the reference Torbjorn Larsson... yes geology also can much to contribute via understanding of the conditions on early earth..