A high school classmate shared this image on Facebook (thanks, Kris!), and it got me thinking:

This image is an apt metaphor for many who struggle with their political choices.   Ethically, the high road is to be found through something like the Gospels:  being your 'brother's keeper', and caring for the poor, the widow, the orphan.  People not raised with the Bible might not express it that way, but Christians and Jews need not boast that they have a monopoly on common decency: most religions emphasize the value of compassion for others, including those outside their faith tradition.   The great world religions implicitly recognize the "brotherhood of man", and (at least some of the time) urge their believers to practice charity and compassion toward the less fortunate.

When we see that in this country one party is in danger of abandoning any commitment to their brothers, that they have lost their ethical core, those of us who carry this altruistic impulse feel that "nothing's right" with the right.   And, to my dismay, that is exactly what is going on with some GOP politicians who have taken Ayn Rand as their compass for economic policy.   An apostle for selfishness writ large, Rand regarded altruism as essentially evil, an immoral response that inevitably compromised individual responsibility and freedom.

Rand wasn't really as brilliant as her followers would have you believe, but one thing she didn't lack was chutzpah.   The reason that so many young people find her thought so bracing and inspirational is that she truly had the nerve to be unflinchingly consistent in her advocacy for the individual.   Rand saw quite clearly that the natural impulse to help your neighbor (and it is a natural impulse) was at odds with her Gospel of the Self, and so to maintain a seamless garment she not only condemned altruistic impulses in general, but utterly rejected religion (specifically theism) as schemes to rob the individual of their freedom to pursue their own interests.   Me, me, me and also I, and I also.  How many teenagers have bought this line of reasoning, hook-line-and-sinker, drawn in by its seductive alignment with the navel-gazing and self-absorption of youth? 

So, if we look in the mirror and we do not want to think of ourselves as followers of Ayn Rand, and especially if we are Christians who are aware that Jesus did not preach selfishness or individuality, the tilt by many in the GOP toward Objectivist philosophy is disturbing, even repugnant.  And so, come election season, we turn to the left.

But, could conservatives be right?   Is it, ultimately, unwise to yield to our altruistic impulses at the level of governance?   Many conservatives argue that they do not lack compassion, they simply see government as the wrong vehicle for the expression of compassion.   They think government's functions should be limited to those things that can only be accomplished by a collective, and that things like charity should be left to the individual, to exercise as they see fit in their private lives.   Part of this argument derives from the undeniable tendency of governments to grow, and from the perception that where political liberals are concerned, an unthinking willingness to address every social ill with a government program.   This eventually leads to deficit spending and the weakening of the economy (leaving "nothing left").  Since it is often assumed by conservatives that the only people who are in real danger of growing the government is "bleeding hearts" on the left, there is a felling that we should turn right.

It is a measure of how far that we have come that the word "liberal" has now largely been framed in terms of this caricature of fiscal irresponsibility.   But, in point of fact, as many who have tried to wear the seamless garment have pointed out, Republicans have been equally guilty of growing those aspects of government that promoted policies of interests to themselves.   People who consider themselves Ayn Rand-style libertarians have become fond of pointing this out in recent years, declaring with obvious self-satisfaction their dismay with both parties.  And, in the 2010 election cycle, for the first time a significant number of politicians who gave lip service to Ayn Rand-style libertarianism won seats in Congress.

You might wonder if I am going to say that such folk might represent a principled "middle path" between the fiscal excesses of both parties, a "road less traveled by" whose time has come?   Well, absolutely not.   The "Tea Party" and its fellow travelers do not represent a reform in government, as they would have you believe, but rather an enshrinement of the notion that government must fail.   In the House of Representatives, the rank-and-file GOP has demonstrated that it is utterly incapable of compromise, and indeed relishes its role of obstructionists, as if they were all Horatius at the gate.   But they are simply fanatics who are determined to get their way for themselves and their interests, which happen to coincide (for the moment) with populist sentiments that (for the time being) have been co-opted by conservative political groups.   Their hero, Congressman Ryan, has been adroit at painting himself as a brilliant budget analyst and a standard-bearer against big government and its ills.   And what does Ryan himself, a nominal Catholic, really believe about economic policy?    Let me suggest that the choices in Ryan's much-discussed budget from 2011 reveal his true priorities, his true allegiance.  Robert Reich says it better than I can:

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A couple of decades back, there was “Styxmania”. Propelled by the cross-over appeal of Dennis DeYoung’s schmaltzy ballad “Babe”, the already successful quintet from Chicago briefly commanded the kinds of stadium audiences previously only achieved by a handful of acts. They were an outfit of chameleons whose different members tended to craft very different types of tunes for different audiences, which generates tension, both musical and personal. At the height of their powers, they even produced something of a dance number in 1981 with “Too Much Time On My Hands”, an apt song for me in the summer after my first year in college, 31 years ago.  It was also (and this is no coincidence, where this post is concerned) one of my brother's fave tracks at the time.

In other words, if you’re under the age of 30, this post is not for you. We don’t have too much in common with you lot on this blog today, and it’s because I’m suffering, for lack of a better phrase, with a (hopefully brief) bout of emotional constipation. It’s not serious, and probably related to that adolescent ennui about the absurdity of the world received by their clueless elders. It has no claim to superior insight, any more than the (equally –risible) Breakfast Club universe, where only sensitive youths really understand what’s really going on, and all adults are idiots. It’s not something I’m proud of, kiddies, but whether you like it not, this is an emotion that cannot be understood by those who haven’t circled the Sun a sufficient number of times. Deal with it.

A person sits at a desk in an empty classroom, one of many scenes of emptiness in which the teacher tries to process the noise and clutter of the day. It is a day like any other in the life of a teacher with multiple periods and multiple preps, a time to gather your resources, to figure out where you’re going with your classes this year. Except, this year is not like the other years for a veteran entering their 14th year as a science teacher: for the first time ever, part of my course load has nothing to do with science education, which was my primary passion when I began this blog. I am even beginning to wonder if I am in danger of becoming “the science teacher who doesn’t teach science.”

Now, this is not a mid-life crisis of purpose, so much as it is a feeling that the amount of time remaining is disproportionate to the task at hand. I really do have too much time on my hands at this moment, and I’m really undecided as to how I feel about it. Part of me wants to think about how things in the past were better than they are now, and part of me wants to believe that the best is still yet to come. Part of me wants to believe that my new work situation will be a case of working smarter, not harder. Part of me fears that I am in danger of losing my identity as a science educator, and all the little parts of me are talking to each other. It’s a case of not being sure what direction I should go, or whether I can “go” at all. Like I said….constipation.

In general, I don’t like to live in the past, but my brother’s recent piece about me actually buries this Caesar in a vault of memory. I remember seeing the phrase “nostalgia-mongering” in an article taking Elton John to task for “Crocodile Rock”, and it resonated with me even while grooving to the record. The tendency to proclaim, “The King is dead, so long live Elvis, and they don’t make them that way anymore” is at its heart not an appreciation, but an ossification of history that all too quickly decays into an undeserved sentimentality about a time that was not really all that golden, nor all that hallowed. That kind of looking back at the past has never moved me, and as a consequence I’ve always tended to resist the idea of “Golden Ages” of any sort. That kind of thinking seems to devolve into a self-serving trap, and I was reminded of this vividly when reading Dr. Chuckle’s latest.

My brother the English prof gives me quite a bit of credit for inspiring his love of comics, and I’m not burdened by any false humility: he’s right, I did inspire him. But I also have to point out that inspiration has its limits. If my brother had really taken me as a slavish example of comics enthusiasm, he would’ve not developed his taste for all things Kirby (which I had “outgrown”), or his knowledge of industry practices, or his enthusiasm for comics as a medium for cultivated, ambitious adults. Here I must defer any honors, because in each case I was either disengaged, ignorant or openly scornful.

When it came to a real appreciation of the potential of comics, my brother left me behind within a few years of graduating from high school, and it took me nearly a decade to get over myself, to begin to appreciate his insights, and to accept the fact that my brother’s interests were not juvenilia or unworthy of an academic career. Yeah, sure, I still loved comics, but I loved the comics of my youth and imagined them to be a “Golden”, or at least a “Silver” Age of my childhood. My devaluing of comics at that stage of my life wasn’t just about imagining that I had put away childish things, but also about reimagining my youth (and the youth culture that helped define it) into some sort of “Wonder Years”.

What a painful admission, but for my generation nostalgia writ large is often little more than a projection of our own ego upon the cultural landscape. We build narratives that serve our sense of self-importance, but at the price of historical integrity, and what’s really appalling about these stories we tell ourselves is the degree to which we immortalize artifacts of popular culture that, when you get right down to it, usually aren’t that great. Consider comics: the “Golden Age” that so many collectors revere is correctly understood as the birth of a new medium (the American-style ‘comic book’), a development that led to new genre and narrative conventions, innovations that have tremendous influence over the present-day culture.

But most of the “Golden Age” comics weren’t particularly well-executed. Even those that had verve and originality and a lasting influence on the culture were often the product of an “assembly line” whose main interest was selling wood pulp, rather than personal expression. By any reasonable standard, most of the collectables of the present were disposables in the past, rushed jobs that had little to commend them other than the fact that they were big and cheap , all in color for a dime.

Compare that with the present, where mythologies are deliberately crafted like multi-level marketing schemes. In the “Golden Age”, comics were “get-rich-quick” schemes revolving around supplies of paper: volume was everything, and virtually all income was derived from sales at newsstands and drug stores. Today, the actual physical comics of major publishers are but one part (albeit an essential part) of media empires that continually reinvent themselves. Intense competition and technical developments have “raised the bar” tremendously: whether we are talking about drawing, writing or production, the overall values for the comics industry in North America today are unprecedented.

Yes, there are certainly a lot of comics on the market today which are derivative and formulaic, slavish (and therefore enslaved) imitators of genre conventions. In fact, most of the comics in the stores hold little interest for me, but that is not because they lack quality. From a practical point of view, continuity and conventions have a greater hold on their target audience in the past, due to the relative ease with which new comics consumers can develop a taste for those very things.

When I was a kid, I would walk barefooted through blinding snow to reach something called a newsstand, and after braving the elements, I would often find my comics choices to be very limited. Comics shops didn’t exist at that time, and it was actually difficult to find a good assortment of comics in most places forty years ago. Comics circulation was haphazard: titles were simply stocked willy-nilly at various locations, and those titles that depended upon some sort of formal continuity would often be torpedoed by a distribution system that didn’t really care about the individual titles, but merely about the demographics of the distribution center. Unevenness and uncertainty were a fact of life for comics readers in much of North America. So, you might get Avengers #172 in August/September, but a few months would go by and then Avengers #174 would appear out of whole cloth around Christmas, and you would scowl and wonder “What the Felix Frankfurter happened to issue 173?” It’s enough to get your panties in a permanent bunch, True Believer.

Comics titles of that time were also notorious for screwing up both story arcs and the brand loyalty of their readership, because the penny-pinching (and creator-demeaning) practices of management would inevitably discourage and alienate talented newcomers, while prompting veteran artists and writers to constantly “shop” their talents to different publishers and projects. This would often wreak havoc with narrative flow, especially when the new talent wants to cast their imprint on an established title, or when reprints were periodically substituted (often with no explanation) as a cost-cutting measure. Why,#312 is gorgeously illustrated, and the guest inker did the coloring, too! Cool! But…wait….issue #313 has a new penciller and inker! All the characters look different! Why does Excessively-Endowed Woman have a new costume and, you know, the wrong number of fingers (five). Jack used to “get ‘er done” with just four digits, and I feel like extending one of my digits to the writer: Why is Dr. Canus now a villain? Why are you killing off great characters and resurrecting crappy ones? What will Gerry Conway do next to make me hate these strips I used to love?   (For that matter, why was Kamandi cancelled?  It had always had good sales figures.)

Today, I no longer fret about the body blows dealt to favorite series by such shifts. I understand that long runs on strips by the same group of collaborators, year in and year out, is the exception rather than the norm. I’m resigned to these problems as systemic, and yet oddly enough the current crop of comics have made pitfalls that once were glaringly obvious all but invisible. The role of the editor at DC and Marvel has really shifted since my generation. In the past, editors would patrol continuity and make sure the Comics Code wasn’t tweaked too hard, but their main task seemed to be about making sure that the writers and artists met their deadlines. These days, editors spend much of their time as (for lack of a better word) “meta-plotters”, with an eye toward shaping storylines across the collective “universe” of their comics line in such a way as to maximize reader interest, and thus sales. These collective events often feel forced and manipulative, but fans lap them up even when they don’t like what happens to their favorite character: in many cases, the editors have succeeded in turning a liability (ever-shifting continuity) into a positive.

On the other end, it is a rarity these days to see a poorly-drawn or indifferently-printed comic from the major publishers: there are simply too many fans who expect more in the production side, and too many young and hungry artists and writers eager to take their place at the creative helm. Plus, we tend to romanticize past comics and evaluate them by a standard different from the one we apply to present-day titles. There really were a lot of crappy comics in the “Golden Age”, with amateurish drawing and indifferent production, quickly slapped together but rather successful at their main mission, which is to say to leverage supplies of paper and wood pulp in a war economy. The real literary and artistic merit of “Golden Age” collectables probably has less influence on their value than their rarity, and the capacity of these objects to invoke nostalgia, and an alternate history of “the good old days.”

This is not just a problem for comics collectors of a certain age. Why, another “Age” was Gilded, and another decade (the 20’s) Roared: so what? Each period had its eulogists, but it would be a very peculiar person who would trade enormous gains in life expectancy , opportunity and mobility for steam locomotives, or for speakeasies. You saw Jimi at Woodstock? Nifty, but isn’t it a bit much to imagine that no one has ever played the guitar at least as well as Hendrix? My word, is there anything more tiresome than the aging flower children of the generation that preceded mine, extolling the 60’s, as if the Age of Aquarius was the peak of human civilization, rather than a blip of unwarranted enthusiasm for the politics of hedonism?

Each period no doubt had its charms and its glories, which today we romanticize for effect. Armchair history can be fun, but if you really lived it, you would experience death and suffering on a grand scale, and for most of us, the further back you go the more unpleasant it would be with comparison to the present. In general, the past sucks. The greatest virtue of our personal past, is that youth is more forgiving of bumps and bruises. Call it innocence, or call it ignorance, but for most of us our youth is that time of our life when our greatest mistakes are in front of us, the time when we are least likely to remember that we are mortal.

I’ve often told anyone who cares to listen that “the good old days are now”, and in general, I still feel that way. There’s a tendency to get so wrapped up in our own personal narratives that we forget to live. We can’t help but draw on the past, and attempt to take lessons from our own survival and try to write them as large as we can. We want our lives to have meaning, and the longer we are spared crossing our own river Styx, the more we tend to invest the past with significance, and compare it favorably with the present. It’s an understandable tendency, but when we indulge it, we make it more difficult for us to engage with the present. I never want to be that person who forgets that the “now” is the only place I really inhabit, and that the “present” is really a gift.

When I think about those who live in the “now”, even those folk who are further on in years than myself, I see that there is no Age which is truly Golden unless it is arrayed with the precious jewels of the present. One of the great thrills of my last ten years was in meeting the great comics creator Will Eisner, who died in 2005, but even in his golden years remained marvelously engaged with the present, in stark contrast to many retired pros who cut their teeth in the “Golden Age” of comics.

Eisner, for whom the comic industry’s Eisner Awards were named, was one of the talents who crafted the best comics of those times, but he could’ve been excused for having little interest in contemporary comics. He had not worked for a major comics publisher since well before I was born, and had done much freelance illustration work outside of the comics field, and enjoyed great financial and personal success doing so. As an ‘elder statesman’, he had nothing to prove.

Yet Eisner continued to not only create new comics in his golden years as a means of self-expression, but to actively tout the medium’s potential for artistic and literary expression to anyone who would take it as seriously as he did. He wrote one of the first books to ask how comics actually worked, how words and pictures in comics came together to tell stories. And, (unlike a lot of industry professionals) Eisner enthusiastically encouraged academics like my brother, who approach the business of comics from the ivory tower, rather than from the inside.

When my brother introduced this industry legend to me, the first thing he told me was how lucky I was to have a smart guy like Chuck as my brother, and how highly he regarded my brother’s first book on alternative comics.

Wow. By that point (the summer of 2002), I had already come to realize just how little I understood or appreciated my brother or his interests, and had already come to terms with the fact that I had failed to give him his due, and honor his scholarship and passion, and treat him like the man he was. I was a citizen of Nazareth who had not recognized the prophet in my own country. But, with a few gracious and insightful words, Will Eisner not only reaffirmed my new understanding of comics, but validated the reawakening of my conscience, of my love of comics, and an abiding pride in my brother’s character and accomplishments. It was a quiet moment that completed a process of transformation that even now, a decade gone by, is deeply meaningful.

A few months ago, my brother’s second book earned him an Eisner Award. It was a great moment for him, and for our family, but it was also a validation of the enduring power of the comics medium itself, and the growing community of fans who see the medium not as a repository of cultural artifacts, but as an active, expanding means of literary and artistic expression. At the ceremony, my brother hoisted his Eisner high and proclaimed, “Kirby lives!”. A journalist seized upon that moment as emblematic not only of the enduring appeal of creators like Kirby and Eisner, but as a legitimization of comics academics in general, and wrote it up as such. I am glad to see that I am not the last person to come to the party on that point, and I hope that in the future that more people will share the same appreciation, especially in this country. For comics, “the good old days” are now, and no one shared that belief with greater conviction than Will Eisner. I can only hope that I will show the same passion and willingness to engage “the now” when I stumble through my golden age.

As for my brother? Chuck, this post is for you, and not just because you’re over the age of 30, but because you inspire me.

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What IS biological evolution ?   It is not metaphysical, it is not a philosophical movement, it is not a theory, it is not a belief system.   Educated people know this, but the general public, for a variety of reasons, continually swallows the idea that evolution is a  "world view", a way of looking at things, rather than an empirically-determined fact about the natural world.   What follows is spleen....


“Evolution” is a word precisely defined within the field of biology, but which is often used very loosely by others outside that field.  The word literally means “the unrolling of a scroll”, an image that suggests the gradual revelation of some changing pattern.  Thus, “evolution” is often used very generally by non-biologists to mean “change over time”.

That might seem harmless if a bit vague, but this imprecise language allows “evolution” to be associated in the popular imagination with ideas that are beyond scientific investigation.  For example, many equate “evolution” with naturalism, a philosophical position claiming that you, I, all living things, indeed all of the universe are the impersonal and improbable products of nature. 

To put it bluntly, this understanding of “evolution” is often seen grounds for denying the purposefulness of the Creation and the possible existence of a Creator.  Small wonder, then, that so many sincere people of faith have come to regard the idea of evolution as the biggest of all Big Lies, one designed to deceive the faithful.

It should go without saying that this is not a scientific proposition.  Even a religious skeptic might well reject this argument as appealing to a hypothesis which is non-falsifiable.

This is a very unfortunate state of affairs for the working biologist who routinely observes the fact of biological evolution, which could be broadly defined as a genetic change within a population. Obviously, the frequencies of genes and their various combinations within a group of the same species of organisms will change over time by the addition or subtraction of individuals due to birth, death or migration.  Some come, some go, some stay----and as they do what they do, the total percentage of certain versions of genes (what biologists call alleles) will either rise, fall, or stay about the same.  Evolution, to the biologist, is precisely this continual pattern of genetic change within populations.

Biologists, of course, have no ability to determine how non-biologists use the word, and this even applies to our colleagues: geologists who study “the evolution of the earth” or astronomers interested in “cosmic evolution” are using the term “evolution” in a general way that is not appropriate to biology, which makes a distinction between individual development and changes within a population.


There’s an old idea that seems to never go out of style: the “Great Chain of Being” championed by Aristotle, and rediscovered by those who followed Linnaeus, a connecting thread sometimes depicted as a “ladder of life”, ascending from the humblest slime mold, perfectly situated for its lowly estate, step by step, till you reach that penultimate rung.   There, Aristotle intoned in all seriousness, you would find pachyderms, which according to the sage of Stageira, found “its best purpose” by virtue of being “the beast which passes all others in wit and mind.”

Really?   I kind of thought that the beast that fits that description is human kind, though if we could interview the rest of the animal kingdom, they might demur.   As Elvis Costello has sung, our lot tends to “fills the air with his pride and praise / he’s a big disgrace to our beastly ways.”

But, of course, there’s a reason that Aristotle gives the elephant first billing among the beasts, rather than second billing.   To Aristotle and every one who followed, the “Great Chain of Being” was part of man’s puffed-up sense of self-importance, as humans were placed at the top of life’s ladder, at the Chain’s pinnacle, not one of the beasts himself, but (imago Dei?) set apart to a special station, “one reserved for him, and for him alone.”

So, paradoxically, follows a popular misconception of evolution: the idea that different species are moving in some sort of preordained path towards greater complexity.  In this view, the cauldron of nature boils up products that are superior to the many who perished before, and (as with the “nation of shopkeepers” that produced Darwin) nature’s economy mirrors the ideas of Adam Smith, wherein an “invisible hand” compels the actors on the stage of life toward progress.  Thus, the well-worn and oft-parodied trope embodied in countless cartoons, with a monkey the last to appear, entering stage left, the caboose of a train of progress.  At the front of the train, at the highest run, the clear goal of all this suffering and death: modern man.

Except, of course, that it’s nonsense.   Evolution is simply a change in a population: any change, whether to more or less complex, larger or smaller in size, generalist or specialist.   There is no preordained “direction” to evolution writ large, once you take in a large enough view.  We can acknowledge short-term trends in geological time, but selection doesn’t make an organism better adapted for all the possible conditions of life past, present and future.   Rather, the engines of sex and death that drive populations to both adaptation and extinction tend to fine-tune the local population for the conditions of life at a given time.   As Gould put it, the results of evolution are largely a product of contingency, rather than some sort of manifest destiny.   Given a different environment, our ancestors might not have become bipedal, might not have got such big brains, might never have left Eden, where our mothers never strained to bring our even more sizeable skulls out of their wombs.

Certainly, I’m still with Aristotle in admiring our wit and mind as being even greater than the elephants, but I don’t regard it as an inevitable result of a chain whose parent is necessity, where every step along the way has been part of a preconceived natural order.   Rather, the connection I see produced wit and mind, but it was a chain forged not of one set of links, but of many ever-branching chains.   If Darwin had been an organic chemist, he might even have used the analogy of a chain, but he would’ve asserted that life is more like glycogen than cellulose.   Instead, Darwin was a boy who grew up in the fields and forests of the English countryside, and so the metaphor that he seized upon was entirely natural.

 “The affinities of all the beings of the same class have sometimes been represented by a great tree. I believe this simile largely speaks the truth. The green and budding twigs may represent existing species; and those produced during each former year may represent the long succession of extinct species. At each period of growth all the growing twigs have tried to branch out on all sides, and to overtop and kill the surrounding twigs and branches, in the same manner as species and groups of species have tried to overmaster other species in the great battle for life . . .As buds give rise by growth to fresh buds, and these, if vigorous, branch out and overtop on all sides many a feebler branch, so by generation I believe it has been with the great Tree of Life, which fills with its dead and broken branches the crust of the earth, and covers the surface with its ever branching and beautiful ramifications.” (from Chapter 4 of the Origin, "Natural Selection").

Notice, though, there is no reason to believe that the branches at the top are superior to those of the past, nor is any particular part of the canopy singled out for praise over the rest.   It is the whole tree, “ever-branching”, which is the object of wonder and even adoration, not any particular primate.


In his book, ‘The Evolution-Creation Struggle’ (2005), Michael Ruse claims that the term ‘evolution’ has at least three meaning: evolution as fact, evolution as a theory, evolution as a belief system.

Strictly speaking, evolution itself is not a theory.  By itself, evolution is a fact, whether we are talking about the changes in the frequency of some gene within a living population,  or about the dramatic changes so vividly established by the fossil record in rocks of different ages.   While we may not have the blow-by-blow description of the latter, geneticists in the last century were able to show how the large-scale patterns of change (macroevolution) are easily extrapolated from the summation of innumerable tiny changes (microevolution).

Still, sometimes people speak of evolution as a theory, or (with less precision) “just a theory”, which not only gets the biology wrong, but also betrays its speaker as someone who doesn’t understand the nature of science.   Saying that any idea in science is “just a theory” is like saying, in effect, that the idea is just an incredibly powerful and useful model that has passed many critical tests, a model that has been widely-adopted by the scientific community.”   This is a curious way to argue, and can only be excused on ignorance of how the scientific usage of the word ‘theory’ differs from a hunch or wild speculation.

If evolution is simply the pattern of genetic change in a population, then it is no theory, but a fact!  If it is fact, then, why refer to “evolutionary theory” or “the theory of evolution”, as so many writers on the topic do ?  The answer is that these phrases are often chosen by men who should know better out of laziness or a desire to oversimplify the matter for lay people.  Such phrases are really seen as being a convenient shorthand for something like the following: “The Evolution of Life Through Natural Selection and Other Related Processes”. 

Take a look at that last phrase.  It is long-winded and inconvenient, perhaps, but close examination should make it clear that neither evolution or natural selection (two distinct concepts!) are in way the theory itself.  What is theoretical is the exact nature of the past relationship between natural selection (and other processes) with the fact of evolution.  There is nothing theoretical about evolution itself----it has occurred, and is occurring all the time!  There is nothing theoretical about natural selection----it has been observed, and is continually being confirmed by new observations, to the point where its action is trivial.   Testing whether or not a population will change genetically over time is not a good way to win a Nobel Prize, any more than dropping a hammer is likely to lead on its own to a published article in Physics A.  Our present and its immediate, unfolding future are jam-packed with confirmation of the facts of evolution, of natural selection and even those particular cases where it can be directly shown that natural selection leads to evolution, rather than some other phenomena.

It is not the present, or the future, which troubles so many, but rather it is the past.  This is where we can speak of the “Theory of Evolution Through Natural Selection and Other Related Processes” and know that any current model is at best probable rather than certain.  Simply put, we weren’t around in the past to directly measure genetic changes.  Genetic relationships in fossils typically must be inferred from morphological similarities and dating techniques, though some advances have been made in extracting DNA sequences from the long-dead.  Without direct measurement of the actual genetic changes and with limited knowledge of the precise environmental conditions in which the long-vanished fossil life forms flourished and died the scientist is left not with supposition, with a strongly-supported inference, but hardly the certainty and narrowed focus of the results obtainable with present-day populations.

So evolution properly speaking is a fact, and people often use the word by itself as shorthand for Darwin’s theory, but evolution itself is not in any way theoretical.   When is it appropriate to consider evolution a belief system?   Ruse, for one, acknowledges that “the term can mean the whole metaphysical or ideological picture built around or on evolution---strictly speaking, this is called evolutionism.”  This is ‘evolution’ with a capital ‘E’: in general, when you start hearing sentences that begin with ‘Evolution does this’ or ‘Evolution does that’, as if it were some being with personality, you’re really talking about ‘evolutionism’ or (and some people treat this as if were the same thing) ‘Darwinism’ !  To Michael Ruse and others who make the same distinction, this understanding of ‘evolution’ loads the terms with values that can not be supported by the science, and leads the advocates of evolution to, without even realizing it, “competing for space in the hearts and minds” of religious believers.

These last two terms open up a can of worms.  Evolution’s critics, especially the supporters of intelligent design, love to use the word ‘Darwinism’ as a substitute for ‘evolution’ or ‘evolutionary biology.’  To further the confusion, many legitimate scientists still use these terms as shorthand for “evolution by natural selection”, as when Dawkins remarks that “Darwinism is widely misunderstood as a theory of pure chance” (Climbing Mount Improbable, pg. 70).

What a mess!  One word, three different meanings in popular usage, but only one of them is really accurate.    I am not an “evolutionist”, I am not a “Darwinist”, and I do not consider evolution or natural selection to be either theoretical, or items in a belief system.   I will go further: well-educated people who understand the science and still make those sorts of claims are simply unprincipled liars who are exploiting the general public’s ignorance on these topics.   A plague on their houses.

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