Essay:Sam Brownback: What I Think About Evolution

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As of 20 October, Sam Brownback withdrew from the 2008 Presidential race. Mission accomplished.

A Point-by-Point Discussion of Senator Sam Brownback's Letter, "What I Think About Evolution."[edit]

Senator Brownback's Letter

Submitted to the New York Times on 31 May 2007, accessible here. Original work by the Senator. Reproduced with attribution for the sole and exclusive purpose of comparison.

RationalWiki's Response

Submitted to the RationalWiki staff, editors, friends, and goats on 9 July 2007, accessible here.


IN our sound-bite political culture, it is unrealistic to expect that every complicated issue will be addressed with the nuance or subtlety it deserves. So I suppose I should not have been surprised earlier this month when, during the first Republican presidential debate, the candidates on stage were asked to raise their hands if they did not “believe” in evolution. As one of those who raised his hand, I think it would be helpful to discuss the issue in a bit more detail and with the seriousness it demands.


The issue of creation is often oversimplified. Science especially is oversimplified and treated with only a cursory glance, and often dismissed when it's inconvenient. Unfortunately, science is often inconvenient... because some science is hard to understand. It turns out that it's a lot easier to read nothing more about evolution than what you remember from ninth grade, deliberately fail to learn any more, say you're on the side of "faith," get a lot of votes, and label anyone who tries to correct you as an atheist.

What the public really needs, in terms of rational discourse, is not more of this willful blindness towards science, but a few more voices to speak up for reason and intellectualism. That's where we (try to) come in.


The premise behind the question seems to be that if one does not unhesitatingly assert belief in evolution, then one must necessarily believe that God created the world and everything in it in six 24-hour days. But limiting this question to a stark choice between evolution and creationism does a disservice to the complexity of the interaction between science, faith and reason.


Notice how the good Senator has twisted the issue to make science sound unreasonable. He presents it as, "either you're an atheist, or you're a young-earth creationist." He creates two diametrically opposed sides (a false dichotomy), and builds a "straw man argument" by suggesting that science demands unflinching obedience. Despite the Senator's later assertion that public discourse oversimplifies the issue, drawing it as an "us versus them" issue when it's really not, he seems to buy into the "us versus them" dichotomy when it suits his rhetoric.


The heart of the issue is that we cannot drive a wedge between faith and reason. I believe wholeheartedly that there cannot be any contradiction between the two. The scientific method, based on reason, seeks to discover truths about the nature of the created order and how it operates, whereas faith deals with spiritual truths. The truths of science and faith are complementary: they deal with very different questions, but they do not contradict each other because the spiritual order and the material order were created by the same God.

People of faith should be rational, using the gift of reason that God has given us. At the same time, reason itself cannot answer every question. Faith seeks to purify reason so that we might be able to see more clearly, not less. Faith supplements the scientific method by providing an understanding of values, meaning and purpose. More than that, faith — not science — can help us understand the breadth of human suffering or the depth of human love. Faith and science should go together, not be driven apart.


How strange. Senator Brownback actually does, in this paragraph, drive a wedge between faith and reason. He says himself, they both address different questions. We agree. He also says that they help each other. We, again, agree.

Science and religion address different questions. Science strives to answer the question, "what happened?" Religion strives to answer the question, "what does that mean to me?" These are both meaningful questions, and without answers to each of these questions, human culture is incomplete. But neither discipline should seek to guide the other's answers.

To speak Platonically, science speaks to the nature of the physical world and the body [1] but is silent as to the nature of the soul. Religion is silent as to the nature of the body and the physical world but, instead, deals with non-scientific, spiritually-orientied notions.


The question of evolution goes to the heart of this issue. If belief in evolution means simply assenting to microevolution, small changes over time within a species, I am happy to say, as I have in the past, that I believe it to be true. If, on the other hand, it means assenting to an exclusively materialistic, deterministic vision of the world that holds no place for a guiding intelligence, then I reject it.


We learn something very important about him in this paragraph. For all that conservatives blast liberals for moral relativism, social conservatives appear to be the quintessential factual relativists. Brownback implies that science requires belief to be true - that facts, unless given the subjective nod of assent, are meaningless. By making this argument, Brownback shows that modern Christian fundamentalism's deepest roots lie in the idea that anything that disagrees with a Christian fundamentalist is simply, per se, wrong.

This position is a dangerous one indeed. It tends to supersede logic, subordinating rational decision making to (potentially) irrational beliefs. As such, fundamentalism is an unfit foundation for government. Christian fundamentalists themselves agree with this point regarding Islamic fundamentalists... but seem incapable of noticing the same flaw in their own political decisionmaking. Wisely, our founders sought to prevent just this type of fundamentalism from infecting our government, by building what Thomas Jefferson called a "wall of separation between Church and State." Brownback shows in this article, though, that belief is more important to him than reason. Quite simply, this renders Brownback unfit for leadership, and is reason alone to vote against him.

Additionally, note the straw man set up here. Mr. Brownback is trying to draw a false distinction between microevolution and macroevolution, and in doing so tries to burden macroevolution with the idea that one must also reject the belief in God, as mentioned above.


There is no one single theory of evolution, as proponents of punctuated equilibrium and classical Darwinism continue to feud today.


Creationists often focus on the question of "punctuated equilibrium" versus "gradualism" in an attempt to show that evolutionary theory has more holes than mainstream science would like the public to think. The debate amongst scientists, as to the best description of the evolutionary process, is made out to be a grand-scale, acrimonious conflict. However, there is no such scientific civil war, at least not one that throws the basic mechanism of evolution into question. The gradualism/equilibrium debate concerns at what rate evolution occurs, not if it occurs, and no respected scientist questions natural selection, the basic mechanism of evolution, and Darwin's most important discovery.[2]


Many questions raised by evolutionary theory — like whether man has a unique place in the world or is merely the chance product of random mutations — go beyond empirical science and are better addressed in the realm of philosophy or theology. The most passionate advocates of evolutionary theory offer a vision of man as a kind of historical accident. That being the case, many believers — myself included — reject arguments for evolution that dismiss the possibility of divine causality.


Senator Brownback seems to think that science profanes faith. Keep in mind this simple fact: science nowhere says that man is an accident. Sam Brownback says that.

It is absolutely beyond science's scope to describe man's place in the world, or to say whether man is holy or an "accident." Science's goal is to dictate what empirically occurred by verifiable, falsifiable analysis. Religion's goal is to make sense of science's result. Science stipulates plainly that man is a creation of nature, and that after being set in motion, nature required no guidance. It is up to religion and philosophy to tell us whether the nature that created mankind is a blind, accidental, bumbling nature, or a complex, non-random, elegant Nature, perhaps set in motion by a God. Remember, evolutionary theory is silent as to the origins of life, it just explains what happened afterwards.


Ultimately, on the question of the origins of the universe, I am happy to let the facts speak for themselves. There are aspects of evolutionary biology that reveal a great deal about the nature of the world, like the small changes that take place within a species. Yet I believe, as do many biologists and people of faith, that the process of creation — and indeed life today — is sustained by the hand of God in a manner known fully only to him. It does not strike me as anti-science or anti-reason to question the philosophical presuppositions behind theories offered by scientists who, in excluding the possibility of design or purpose, venture far beyond their realm of empirical science.


Brownback is changing the topic, albeit somewhat eloquently. Evolution does not try to answer philosophical or religious questions, but biological ones. In fact, Brownback's religion is the field that oversteps its bounds, attempting to testify to physical facts in a way that even St. Augustine himself decried.[3] He continually makes this argument, because it plays well for those who don't understand the exact distinction between religion and science. Arguably, it's sometimes hard to find. But it's a bad idea to stop looking for the line, and instead start arguing that one field always trumps the other. I think we've beaten this issue to death; time to move on.

Note also the "macro-" versus "micro-" evolution distinction that Brownback attempts to make. He's happy, he says, to agree that change occurs within species.[4] And how could he suggest otherwise? This type of change is seen every day by research scientists working with bacteria.

At the same time, he implicitly rejects macro-evolution, also called "speciation," or the idea that species can change enough to become different species.[5] While Brownback thinks that there's a distinction between micro- and macro-evolution, there is none.[6] Put simply, micro-evolution, given enough time, implies macro-evolution. If you separate a population, and let it evolve at the "micro" level for long enough, the populations will become too different to interbreed. The only difference between micro- and macro-evolution is time. And it's a lot of time.[7] But to argue that micro-evolution could not lead to macro-evolution is essentially just an argument from incredulity: "I can't imagine how much time that would take to happen; therefore it can't happen." And that's not a valid argument. Do not be fooled by terms like micro- and macro-evolution: it is a distinction without a difference.


Biologists will have their debates about man’s origins, but people of faith can also bring a great deal to the table. For this reason, I oppose the exclusion of either faith or reason from the discussion. An attempt by either to seek a monopoly on these questions would be wrong-headed. As science continues to explore the details of man’s origin, faith can do its part as well. The fundamental question for me is how these theories affect our understanding of the human person.

The unique and special place of each and every person in creation is a fundamental truth that must be safeguarded. I am wary of any theory that seeks to undermine man’s essential dignity and unique and intended place in the cosmos. I firmly believe that each human person, regardless of circumstance, was willed into being and made for a purpose.


To reiterate, no scientist will ever object to the unique capabilities of religion and philosophy to interpret facts, to give facts deeper spiritual meaning, and to describe mankind's place in the universe. But science's unique capability as a factfinder is also unassailable, and not subject to objection on the grounds of intellectual discomfort.

The Senator remains hung up, still, on the idea that evolution denigrates mankind's place in the universe. As discussed above, the removal of humanity from its pedestal is not a necessary implication of scientific facts. It is up to religion and philosophy to form the lens through which we interpret the philosophical meaning of the facts. But this lens cannot distort the facts themselves without being disingenuous in the extreme.

Finally, Brownback's words in this paragraph are particularly noteworthy. He states that evolutionary theory "seeks" - as an affirmative act - to remove mankind from its special place in the universe. This particular word choice is deliberate, and suggests the old creationist idea that evolution is a conspiracy theory, deliberately fabricated by science (for some nefarious reason) to destroy faith. Such an argument is too absurd to be entertained, but shows us just what the Senator's true thoughts are, and just what he is capable of deluding himself into believing. Scary stuff.


While no stone should be left unturned in seeking to discover the nature of man’s origins, we can say with conviction that we know with certainty at least part of the outcome. Man was not an accident and reflects an image and likeness unique in the created order. Those aspects of evolutionary theory compatible with this truth are a welcome addition to human knowledge. Aspects of these theories that undermine this truth, however, should be firmly rejected as an atheistic theology[8] posing as science.

Without hesitation, I am happy to raise my hand to that.


Sam Brownback summarizes his argument here, stating (in relevant parts): "Evolution, as I understand it, obviates the need for God. That disagrees with my personal, subjective beliefs. Therefore, evolution is objectively wrong."[9] There are many things wrong with Brownback's argument. First, his understanding of evolution is at the bumper-sticker level. Evolution doesn't obviate the need for God, or suggest that mankind is an "accident": Brownback just thinks it does. But most importantly, you cannot disregard scientific fact just because it makes you uncomfortable, which is what he would have us do. Science is about discovering the true nature of the universe, and oftentimes, the universe's true nature is not all that pretty. But that doesn't make science irrelevant: in fact, it makes it all the more relevant. But it also leaves a lot of room for religion to step in, and harmonize scientific fact with our philosophy of life... so long as the harmonization doesn't destroy the facts along the way.

Humanity is not privileged to ignore scientific facts, and when we start down that path, we do so at our peril. More importantly, though, no single man, no matter how deeply held his subjective beliefs, is privileged to ignore scientific facts on behalf of his country, which is what (we suspect) Sam Brownback would do. If selective ignorance of science is foolish for one person, it is nothing short of dangerous if incorporated into America's educational policies (as the Discovery Institute seeks). Such foolishness must be stopped.

Without hesitation, we are happy to commit our ballots to that campaign.


  1. Good thing it does, too; I don't know about you, but I like my doctors),
  2. For more on this topic, read Richard Dawkins' The Blind Watchmaker: How the Evidence for Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design. Yes, it's by Dawkins, a "pro-science partisan," and so not fully objective, but come on. We've read the Bible. Do us the same courtesy.
  3. Augustine, De Genesi ad litteram libri duodecim (The Literal Meaning of Genesis).
  4. Again, apparently he has to "agree" with science, before it is actually science. Absurd.
  5. Presumably he rejects this because macro-evolution is the real proof of common descent: if species can become other species, common descent is the logical conclusion. And that would be against the Bible. Ergo, for Brownback, it is not "science." While he tries to sound reasonable, and like just another rational scientist, it really is all about religion for Brownback.
  6. The distinction is fabricated by creationists, and advocates of intelligent design. You will never hear a real scientist use the terms, except to rebut creationists.
  7. But, of course, the Earth has been around for long enough... see Evidence against a recent creation.
  8. Paradoxical phraseology - it would, by definition, be physically impossible for anything atheistic to have any theologies. Ever hear of 'asexual intercourse'? Didn't think so.
  9. Imagine an argument like this in the trial setting! It would be like a defense attorney objecting to evidence on the sole grounds that it's bad for your client, and despite the evidence's relevance and admissibility, evidence that's bad for your client shouldn't be admitted. Brownback goes even farther than this. Despite the relevance and objective truth of evolution, and despite assurances by "opposing counsel" that evolution does not "destroy God", Brownback doesn't believe in it, because he assumes it's in conflict with his beliefs. Sheesh.