What Does It Mean To Say 'I Believe in Evolution'?

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This video is Richard Dawkins speaking about his book The Greatest Show on Earth.  

Dawkins (at 0:45) says:

“In the United States, some 40% of the population doesn’t believe in evolution, but believes that the world was created in the last 10,000 years. That’s an educational disgrace. Those people—the majority of them—couldn’t possibly believe that if they were exposed to the evidence.”

First off, let me say that I agree with TJ that Richard Dawkins' book The Greatest Show on Earth is a really wonderful book. Dawkins’ aesthetic and moral argument in regards to evolution (“The Greatest Show on Earth is Life”—what a beautiful answer) is so much more learned and persuasive than his religion-bashing tracts. So overall, that is really the most important piece of the book. Any disagreements are pretty secondary.

With that said, onto the secondary disagreements!!!!

I find Dawkins’ assertion that the majority of those 40% couldn’t possibly continue to deny evolution if only they were presented with the facts to be deeply naïve (though I do agree with him that 40% is an educational disgrace). To me, this view is a form of faith—a naïve faith I think, but certainly a faith statement nonetheless. Dawkins describes as fact, when it seems much more like what he puts his trust in (the real meaning of the term “belief”).

I think that Dawkins is here falling into the classic myth of The Enlightenment. The myth of the Enlightenment (aka the myth of reason) is the supposition that when presented with reasonable facts the vast majority of people will be persuaded and hold beliefs only in accord with those facts. My experience is that this is often not the case. People are much more emotional when it comes to their deeply held belief systems and can filter out facts as is necessary to uphold their beliefs. This practice is true of any number of belief systems (theist, atheist, liberal humanist, Marxist, whatever).

Integral theory argues (correctly I believe) that humans develop through levels of increasing complexity and integration. Each level or worldview is a kind of faith. At a level, one is “subject” to the seeing of that stage. Most new information can be easily reconciled within one’s current worldview (called translation in integral terms), but every so often new information will come in that disrupts and challenges the foundations of one’s belief. Either a person then rejects that new information (as it is too much to handle) or they begin a process of re-structuring their entire way of seeing (called transformation). The latter is of course much more rare and much more difficult (as well as much more interesting) than the former.

The rationalist myth fails to take into account the difficulty of transforming worldviews.

Each worldview is adequate, the later ones being more adequate, more developed and better suited to more complex life situations. One generally accepted order (and labeling) of these levels is archaic, magical, mythic, rational, pluralistic, and integral.

The difficulty can be that prior to integral, the other levels tend to see themselves as the only true and right one. Levels tend to fight hardest against the level directly preceding their own—so rationality tends to be hardest of myth, myth hardest on magic, pluralistic hardest on rationality, and so on. For example, Dawkins’ rational beliefs are extremely harsh on mythic beliefs.

Dawkins’ faith is in modern reason. This is why he specifically cites education—education in the Enlightenment view is the primary illuminator of the darkened ignorant world. It is education that will save us from our ignorance. It is reason that is our salvation.

Now it should be said, there’s a good deal of truth and value in the modern worldview. The Enlightenment brought about the abolitionist movement and codified principles like inalienable human rights (including women and children in the category of humans), free speech, ability to assemble publicly and petition’s one government, so on and so forth. The place of reason helped destroy many forms of aristocratic hierarchy, freeing up (some) poor to become more wealthy and for a middle class to emerge.

But this same Enlightenment liberal humanism has its dark sides.

This rationalistic fundamentalism tends to see myth not as a healthy (if partial and deeply limited and now outgrown for an educated adult) level of development, but a disease, a virus to be eradicated. If the integral framework is correct in its assessment that we are all mythic (to a degree), as well as magic and archaic, then this rationalistic crusade against myth is itself problematic and in a literal sense, self-destructive.

Moreover (and possibly worse) as the postmodern philosophers showed us, reason has at its heart it’s own irrationality. Or at the very least the processes of rationality can be used to support any system of life, however unethical, even irrational. To use extreme examples, al-Qaeda’s terrorist attacks on September 11th, were highly reasonable in their planning, coordination, and execution. The Nazi Regime was also highly rational and logical in the formation of its ranks, camps, and logistics. This rationality was of course put to completely insane and immoral ends but that fact, to me, suggests that reason alone is not always enough.

And if you say well The Nazis and terrorists are such a small proportion of human beings, then consider this more widespread example. It is irrational that humans continue to deploy logical/rational means-ends analysis when it comes to things like the globalized economy and GDPs the world over, and yet are destroying the capacity of humans to live productive lives on the same planet.

Every thing holds a seed of its opposite within it. Reason pushed to the extremes becomes the very thing it claims to hate so much—namely dogmatic myth. Reason has too often since The Enlightenment sent our mythic constitutions into a collective shadow, only therefore to re-emerge in destructive ways.

The belief that reason is the last bastion of hope in this world (which I really think Dawkins believes) is itself a very dangerous and naively optimistic view in my experience.

And this is why asking the question (as Dawkins does): “Do you believe in evolution?” is deeply problematic and raises questions as to how truthful we should take their results to be. Evolution (by Dawkins’ own admission) is a well-validated theory that interprets the facts of material change and speciation over the history of the planet. There’s nothing to believe or not in that. It’s like asking whether you believe in Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity. Or whether you believe in algebra or not. Who cares? It’s true whether you do or not (or I or anyone in particular for that matter). If someone wants to check that validity statement, they have to undertake the specific injunctions, check the data, learn the theoretical frameworks, and interact with the community of the learned. Dawkins’ book The Greatest Show on Earth does a very good job of describing the practices of evolutionary biologists, their data, and the rationale for the interpretative framework of evolution in making sense of the data. Dawkins is himself a strong representative of the community of the learned when it comes to biology.

Evolution is established and it doesn’t matter what non-learned say in this regard. [Here I’m actually offering my own defense of the power of the reason.] Just like, when Richard Dawkins says that mystical theology is like studying leprechauns, who cares—the guy (in this context) is a complete f#!@in’ idiot—he's being as stupid as some Bible-thumper saying Darwin is wrong because the Bible says so (first off The Bible doesn’t say so, and secondly, even it did, then The Bible would be wrong). When a person doesn’t undertake the practice, check the data, dialog with the interpretative frameworks, and confirm/disconfirm the results with the community of the learned, who gives a blank? Such a person has forfeited the right to have anything to say on such a topic. Dawkins clearly has never undertaken the practice of spiritual inquiry or meditation necessary to experience the data of spiritual awakening, nor studied the great frameworks of such awakening, nor checked the results with recognized spiritual masters. So who cares what he thinks? He’s so far off (on that one), he’s not even wrong.

As we can see, one and the same person (in this case Richard Dawkins but not exclusive to him) can be a member of the community of the learned in one area and a hot ignorant mess in another.  It's no great insult--one person can only do so many things and know so much.  I’m completely moronic when it comes to say heart surgery or Chinese calligraphy.  The difference I think is I've never pontificated about those subjects, as I'm smart (or scared) enough to realize my point of view is unlearned in those matters and therefore a waste of everyone's time (my own included).  

Now admittedly the question about belief or non-belief in evolution does matter in the realm of politics—since (and here is something Dawkins misses in his analysis), US educational standards are decided state to state and often via democratic elections. I find this notion that educational standards are up for democratic debate deeply abhorrent, but again there is much more going on than just “people haven’t been presented with the facts of evolution.” Politics is emotional territory and there are many facts that can be presented to defend all kinds of positions.

Now I’m actually an ally of Dawkins when it comes to teaching evolution in schools (and not teaching bogus intelligent design). But in terms of his public outreach (TJ’s point), Dawkins has a long way to go.

Of course I know in a simplistic sense what the question “do you believe in evolution?” is getting at it. But digging down just a bit, it’s not a very powerfully thought out question. When the question is framed as “do you believe in evolution?” then the question is making a theological/worldview statement about the potential meaning of things, their ultimate cause, their potential end trajectory, and the like. It starts to make evolution no longer a theory of material biological change but an almost metaphysical reality. This is where I think a number of people get off the train.

At this more reflective level, even Dawkins may not be said to believe (morally and politically) in evolution.

In Dawkins’ classic text The Selfish Gene, he wrote:

This brings me to the first point I want to make about what this book is not. I am not advocating a morality based on evolution. I am saying how things have evolved. I am not saying how we humans morally ought to behave. ... If you wish to extract a moral from it, read it as a warning. Be warned that if you wish, as I do, to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature. Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish. Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to, because we may then at least have a chance to upset their designs, something that no other species has ever aspired to do.

In that context does the question, “do you believe in evolution” even make sense? Especially when belief is understood to mean that which we place our trust in. Dawkins explicitly states that we should seek to work against evolution—a point that has been missed far too often as he has been wrongly accused of promoting selfishness. His biological valuation of selfishness over sociality (qua scientific inquiry) has been criticized by others members of the learned community, and leads him down this path, but still I get his point.

Arguably Dawkins himself does not believe in evolution. He believes in reason (which via Darwin helped uncover evolution). I don’t think Dawkins can see his rationalism and how it functions as a belief system and this is why he projects his belief shadow onto others of various religious beliefs—lumping all religious believers (unreasonably) into mythic believers.

As I’ve argued before on this website, one of the main flaws of modern rationalism is that it can’t understand the inherent hermeneutic element to existence—hermeneutic is a fancy word for “meaning-making”. Everything involves interpretation (as well as facts, not just facts alone). This insight comes from the postmodern worldview.   

If someone were to ask me, “Do I believe in evolution?”, my immediate response is “What do you mean by A)belief B)evolution C)belief in evolution?” Is the person asking me whether I think Charles Darwin was right that by natural processes of selection via a common ancestor we see the abundance of life forms on this planet? If that’s what they are asking, then yes I accept that interpretation as the proper one. I wouldn’t say I believe it because I think belief is the wrong term there.

Is the question asking me “Do I only believe in evolution?” Emphasis on only. That seems implicit in the question and perhaps some who responded no in the survey reacted negatively to what they felt was a scientific over step into philosophical realms (without being upfront about doing such a thing).

The late great paleontologist, Stephen Jay Gould, a chief critic of Dawkins during his life had this to say:

I do not deny that natural selection has helped us to explain phenomena at scales very distant from individual organisms, from the behavior of an ant colony to the survival of a redwood forest. But selection cannot suffice as a full explanation for many aspects of evolution; for other types and styles of causes become relevant, or even prevalent, in domains both far above and far below the traditional Darwinian locus of the organism. These other causes are not, as the ultras often claim, the product of thinly veiled attempts to smuggle purpose back into biology. These additional principles are as directionless, nonteleological, and materialistic as natural selection itself—but they operate differently from Darwin’s central mechanism. In other words, I agree with Darwin that natural selection is “not the exclusive means of modification.” (my emphasis)

In other words, though Gould and Dawkins disagreed about the precise number and weight of mechanisms that caused evolution, they did not disagree about the directionless, materialistic, and non-goal oriented (teleological means oriented towards an end or goal) nature of evolution.* This view of course far and way the dominant one in the scientific community.

Directionless and non-teleological are of course interpretations. They might be correct ones, they be might be incorrect ones, but they are interpretations nonetheless. In an integral view, I would the views of directionless evolution are more a consequence of only relying on 3rd person objective (I-It) perspectives. In the 3rd person natural world this might be right, but who is to say that this the only definition of truth in this universe? What about 1st and 2nd person modes of being in the world?

This underlying question about meaning has a much stronger influence on the so-called fight between religion and science I believe than someone like Dawkins is willing to admit. This is why, again, I think his view that presenting the facts alone (while not being more open on these more philosophical levels) will not convince as many as he thinks it will or should. That view is to me as naively unquestioned and faithful (in the worst sense) as nearly any supernatural creed.

From within the 3rd person world the best one can do is speak with a kind of natural awe and majesty towards Life. Dawkins does this well in his latest book. There can be a kind of child-like curiosity and wonder about the overwhelming scale of life, distance, and time in the universe. One could even, like Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry, make of this scientific story a New Creation Tale.

All this is well and good, but still we come back to the question: “Do I believe in evolution?” Yes, no, whateves. I find the question becomes increasingly meaningless the more I think about it. It’s less koan and more façade.


* Robert Wright has been the most articulate spokesmen for the position that through strict Darwinianism one can still hold to a direction in evolution. Wright was therefore very critical of Gould. Wright believes his view could be sold as a reconciler (or at least non-combatant) with traditional religion. I’m fairly skeptical of this project myself, but he makes the best case one can in this regard.

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  • Comment Link Daniel O'Connor Wednesday, 10 November 2010 20:26 posted by Daniel O'Connor

    Hi Chris.

    Your insights on the question, "Do you believe in evolution?" are all the more interesting given the mediating role I imagine you must play in the larger debate.

    For my two cents, I don't care much for the question as it is so commonly phrased, with the framing in terms of "belief vs. non-belief," as this seems to preclude the reason (whether rationalistic, pluralistic, or integral) necessary to adequately discuss the topic of evolution. Maybe it's just my limited definition of the term, but the "belief in evolution" sounds like metaphysical evolution.

    Of course, we're all entitled to our own cherished (dis)beliefs and some of us like to politicize them to such an extent that we all must deal with them as part of the public discourse (such as it is).

    Therefore, the key questions for me with regard to any stated (dis)belief are:

    1. How did you arrive at that belief?
    2. What could persuade you to change your belief?

    Both questions are trying to surface the paradigm being used and if that happens to be mythic, rational, or whatever, then we know what we're dealing with.

    I actually used this line of inquiry with a very smart, capable executive coach (who makes his living facilitating dialogue among others) who pronounced to me, for no apparent reason, his disbelief in evolution. He was unwilling to even have the conversation, which was as clear an answer as I required in order to let the matter rest.

    Take care,


    btw, having just found this new publication of yours, i'm very impressed with what you and your co-authors are creating.

  • Comment Link Chris Dierkes Friday, 12 November 2010 21:04 posted by Chris Dierkes


    Great to see you on the site and thank you for your kind response to our site. We are in the process of opening the site up to guest contributions from the integral community (to really let this be a place where a number of voices can be heard). I was wondering if you might want consider a guest essay for the site? I would love it. We're needing more voices in the business/economics world. Would you be interested?

  • Comment Link Daniel O'Connor Wednesday, 17 November 2010 00:04 posted by Daniel O'Connor

    That's a nice invitation, Chris. I'd really enjoy contributing something once I get some bigger writing projects completed in the next several months.


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