September 2, 2019 Reading Time: 7 minutes

Many people who believe in evolution in biology are creationists, culturally. What’s going on?

The evolution debate in biology centered on the idea of emergent order, which results in the remarkably complex designs for arrangements of matter and behavior that we call plants and animals. Defenders of the Biblical genesis story argued that design required a designer. William Paley famously advanced the metaphor of the watch, and the implication of a watchmaker. As Paley put it:

In crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there; I might possibly answer, that, for anything I knew to the contrary, it had lain there forever: nor would it perhaps be very easy to show the absurdity of this answer. But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place; I should hardly think of the answer I had before given, that for anything I knew, the watch might have always been there…. There must have existed, at some time, and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers, who formed [the watch] for the purpose which we find it actually to answer; who comprehended its construction, and designed its use…. Every indication of contrivance, every manifestation of design, which existed in the watch, exists in the works of nature; with the difference, on the side of nature, of being greater or more, and that in a degree which exceeds all computation. (Natural Theology, 1802)

The analogy to the human eye was the centerpiece of the defense of creationism, because the complexity and the organic connectedness of the different parts of the eye in collecting and focusing light could not evolve by random chance. 

The problem is that the evidence for the eye as an evolved, rather than designed, structure is actually quite strong. As David Attenborough noted:

It is often argued that the eye is so complex that it could not have evolved naturally. The idea being that an eye with only “half” the parts in place would not work, therefore evolution would have never favored it and the more complex human eye we have would never have evolved.

However, the evolution of the eye has been studied extensively, and its history is more-or-less well established. First, there were light-sensitive cells which merely indicated which way was the Sun. A slight indentation makes a sense of direction possible. Mucus in the pit focuses the light. If the mucus hardens, you have a proper lens, and so on.

In fact, every stage of the eye’s development is still around on Earth today. A snail’s eye is less than “half” a human eye, yet it serves the snail well enough to help its survival.

Overall, the argument for emergent order in the environment has an implication: if you don’t understand it, don’t mess with it. The argument goes like this: 

  • There exists a variety of complex structures we observe, but do not understand. 

  • When we investigate the historical origin and function of the structure, it is clear that it comes from somewhere, and has crucial value in the survival of individuals and the evolved system.

  • One cannot simply look at the structure, or any part of it, and draw any conclusions about whether it is useful or where it came from. 

  • Even though the system is not designed, it is highly complex and interdependent; each element has an important function.

This kind of argument for biology and the environment can take extreme, almost mystical, forms. The argument for preserving species is often precisely that we do not know what “purpose” they serve in the system. For example, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service argues that ignorance of the “function” of a species is a powerful argument for preservation:

All living things are part of a complex, often delicately balanced network called the biosphere. The earth’s biosphere, in turn, is composed of countless ecosystems, which include plants and animals and their physical environments. No one knows how the extinction of organisms will affect the other members of its ecosystem, but the removal of a single species can set off a chain reaction affecting many others. This is especially true for “keystone” species, whose loss can transform or undermine the ecological processes or fundamentally change the species composition of the wildlife community. 

This view flips the “What good are they?” approach on its head. I’ve heard people say, “What should I care about some moth, or a spotted owl? What good are they?” Right in my hometown of Raleigh, North Carolina, there was a huge debate about “preserving” the dwarf wedgemussel, a tiny freshwater invertebrate bivalve that happens to live in some creeks that would disrupt construction of a new “outer beltway” to ease traffic congestion. 

The argument by environmentalists is that the very fact we don’t know the function of a species in an ecosystem is the best argument for preserving that species. If we don’t know the evolutionary reason for why that ecological niche is occupied, we can’t possibly foresee the consequences of having that niche emptied by human activity.

Biological Evolutionists Become Political Creationists

Fair enough. One might take that argument too far, but it seems prudent to require knowledge of the “purpose” of a species before one could reach any conclusion about the problems caused by eliminating that species. Note that I put “purpose” in quotes because I am not claiming any design or telos behind the existence of the species; rather, the species has a function in the evolved ecosystem, and the interdependence among species is so complex that it is likely opaque to observers. So, I agree, for the most part, with those who argue for a strong presumption in favor of preserving species, even if such preservation is expensive. We don’t know what will happen, and we don’t even know much about what we don’t know about why that species exists.

What I find surprising is that the very people in Western society who are most likely to take the “prudential preservation” position on natural structures such as species and ecosystems are exactly the same folks who are most willing to throw away the cultural traditions and moral systems from the past. If a political group encounters a rule or custom they find inconvenient, their solution is to tear the whole thing down and start over. 

We see this remarkable overconfidence come a cropper over and over in history when intellectuals are given free rein to implement their schemes. The French Revolution, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and Roosevelt’s “New Deal” are each unique historical events, but they shared the feature that those in charge thought that they could achieve fast and dramatic improvements by destroying many of the existing rules and norms. 

One of the clearest statements of this view, in the U.S. at least, was made by John Dewey:

The state has the responsibility for creating institutions under which individuals can effectively realize the potentialities that are theirs… [While] social arrangements, laws, institutions are made for man… [these arrangements] are not means for obtaining something for individuals, not even happiness. They are means of creating individuals.… Individuality in a social and moral sense is something to be wrought out. (Reconstruction in Philosophy)

If it matters, Dewey was himself a believer in science, as opposed to “mystical” experience, when it came to metaphysics and the origins of biological order. But social “order” was for Dewey entirely constructed, and the very idea of individuality was dangerous to society. Why? Because Dewey and most people who take a collectivist approach to social institutions don’t see any important function for individuality. It’s just something to be gotten rid of, or worked around.

I hope the reader sees the problem. It is precisely those who (plausibly) preach prudence in manipulating the natural world who are most cavalier about smashing and rebuilding social institutions. One might think that the argument “But we don’t understand the function of, or connections among, these rules well enough to replace them!” would carry some weight, since (1) social institutions are also highly complex and interdependent, and (2) this argument is already understood and used by such analysts in understanding the environment.

The most important exponent of this “If you don’t understand it, don’t mess with it” view was the author G.K. Chesterton (kudos to Megan McArdle for explaining this to me!). He proposed an illustration, now often referred to as the “Chesterton Fence” example, which I quote at some length to give the full context and impact of his insight.

In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”

This paradox rests on the most elementary common sense. The gate or fence did not grow there. It was not set up by somnambulists who built it in their sleep. It is highly improbable that it was put there by escaped lunatics who were for some reason loose in the street. Some person had some reason for thinking it would be a good thing for somebody. And until we know what the reason was, we really cannot judge whether the reason was reasonable. It is extremely probable that we have overlooked some whole aspect of the question, if something set up by human beings like ourselves seems to be entirely meaningless and mysterious. There are reformers who get over this difficulty by assuming that all their fathers were fools; but if that be so, we can only say that folly appears to be a hereditary disease. But the truth is that nobody has any business to destroy a social institution until he has really seen it as an historical institution. If he knows how it arose, and what purposes it was supposed to serve, he may really be able to say that they were bad purposes, that they have since become bad purposes, or that they are purposes which are no longer served. But if he simply stares at the thing as a senseless monstrosity that has somehow sprung up in his path, it is he and not the traditionalist who is suffering from an illusion. (Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton, Ignatius Press, 1990, p. 157)

There is nearly universal agreement among political collectivists that “we” don’t understand the biological environment well enough to risk changes. But many of those same people imagine that “we” can muck about with religious and political rules without consequence. But all complex systems are … well, complex. We would do well to treat all such matters with humility. 

Michael Munger

Michael Munger

Michael Munger is a Professor of Political Science, Economics, and Public Policy at Duke University and Senior Fellow of the American Institute for Economic Research.

His degrees are from Davidson College, Washingon University in St. Louis, and Washington University.

Munger’s research interests include regulation, political institutions, and political economy.

Books by Michael Munger

Get notified of new articles from Michael Munger and AIER.