Aug 05 2016

Mike Pence Does Not Understand Evolution

Pence-EvolutionIt is my universal experience, after more than thirty years of confronting various forms of evolution denial or creationism, that creationists simply do not understand evolution. If any do understand it, they pretend not to. I guess they have no choice – they are motivated to deny an established scientific theory. They need to pretend they know better than the world’s experts, or that the world’s experts are lying and deceitful.

Mike Pence is a run-of-the-mill creationist. His denial of evolution is unremarkable and unimaginative, but now he is running for Vice President so his views serve as a ripe target for criticism. In a speech before the House he decided, for some reason, to go on a rant against evolution. For those who are interested, it is a good opportunity to play “name that logical fallacy” and you may want to watch the video and count the errors before reading ahead.

Pretty much everything Mike Pence says in the speech is wrong or misleading, except for trivial facts. He starts by setting the stage with Darwin publishing On the Origin of Species and presenting the theory of evolution. That evolution is just a “theory” is a main theme of his speech, which I will get to in a moment, but first he follows up by saying that Darwin expected his theory to be proven correct by the fossil record. He concludes that Darwin did not live to see this happen, and neither have we.

Is Evolutionary Theory Proven?

I don’t expect a speech before the House to be scientifically rigorous (although wouldn’t that be nice), but I do not think Pence is oversimplifying his views for brevity. He talks about the “theory of evolution” and does not distinguish the various parts of this theory.

Evolutionary theory includes the idea that life on earth changes over time and that all species are related through common descent. It also includes the idea that the mechanism of this change is natural selection acting on essentially random variation. Further, it includes the details of how life has changed over evolutionary history – what are the patterns of genetic and evolutionary change, and what evolved from what?

Common descent is rock-solid scientific fact. The fossil record, in fact, has proven common descent beyond reasonable doubt. There is no other theory that both accounts for and predicts what we have found in the fossil record as does common descent. It can be taken as a proven scientific fact.

So Pence is simply lying about the fossil record, or is grossly misinformed despite his assurance at the beginning that he has been interested in origins for a long time as a “vocation.”

Pence also pretends that the fossil record is the only possible evidence for common descent. He ignores the genetic evidence, which by itself is a home run. There is also evidence from comparative biology, and developmental biology. There are multiple lines of evidence that all come together powerfully to prove, beyond any scientific doubt, that all life on Earth is connected through common descent.

Scopes Trial

Pence even gets basic history wrong. He says that the Scopes “Monkey” Trial resulted in evolution being inserted into public schools. This is simply not true. The trial was the result of a Tennessee state law banning the teaching of evolution. The point of the trial was to challenge the constitutionality of that law. Scopes was convicted of teaching evolution, but this was overturned on a technicality (he was fined too much) and so the purpose of the trial failed – it never made it to the Supreme Court.

The result of the trial was not the teaching of evolution, but the exact opposite. It made evolution too controversial for textbook publishers. A generation of Americans was raised without hearing the “e” word at all in school. It was not until the 1960s that the law banning the teaching of evolution was finally struck down.

Subsequent Supreme Court decisions have reaffirmed that you cannot ban the teaching of a legitimate scientific theory in science class, nor can you mandate the teaching of a religious faith in the public schools.

Linear Evolution

Pence tells us he is a lawyer, and (with all due respect to the legal profession) he shows it in how he argues. He builds a lawyer’s case against his cartoon of evolutionary theory. His logic is this: for 70 years we were all taught that man evolved from monkeys in a linear fashion (referring to the iconic image). We were taught this as fact. Now paleontologists have discovered a new fossil humanoid (he is referring to Sahelanthropus tchadensis) and are saying that human evolution was really a branching bush, and will likely teach that as fact.

This is the “they were wrong before” gambit. Pence laments that we will now have to change the textbooks, as if this is a huge scandal.

First, the notion that evolution proceeds in a linear fashion was never the prevailing view (at least not since Darwin). That is perhaps a pre-Darwinian antiquated view of evolution. Even Lamarck, in his later career, realized the linear model did not fit the evidence. But if you believe Pence, the linear model has been taught for the last 70 years and is only just now changing.

I remember reading 40 years ago that the linear model was a myth. Our picture of human evolution has been an increasingly complex branching bush for the last 70 years, not the linear cartoon. Pence cannot distinguish what scientists claim from popular misconceptions about evolution.

It is also revealing that Pence believes it is scandalous that the findings of science would change over time, and that we would have to rewrite the textbooks. This also gets back to his primary confusion between the notion of common descent and our ideas about patterns of evolution. Evidence and our thinking about patterns of evolution can change over time without challenging the more basic fact of common descent.

This is a common error that science deniers make – they confuse scientific conclusions that a phenomenon is real with more detailed knowledge about how the phenomenon works. We can prove the former beyond a doubt even before we fully understand the latter.

Just a Theory

Now Pence gets to his dramatic conclusion – he falsely believes that he has established with his mangling of history and science that evolution (not defined) is just a theory. Therefore, we should teach it as a theory, and we should teach other theories.

The “just a theory” gambit teaches us a couple of things. First, creationists either do not understand what scientists mean by “theory” or they don’t care. They substitute the colloquial use of the word as just a guess, with the technical use of the word, which refers to an explanatory system that brings together many lines of evidence under one common phenomenon.

Being a scientific theory, like gravitational theory, plate tectonic theory, and the germ theory of disease, is not incompatible with also being an established scientific fact. Because we call it the “germ theory” does not mean we should also teach the theory of miasms or the bodily humours in biology class (except perhaps for historical reference).

Second, Pence is making a false equivalency between evolutionary theory, and other beliefs about life origins, specifically creationism. He is pushing a 50 year old strategy, that has already legally failed – the idea of equal time, that “evolutionary theory” should be taught as a theory alongside “creation theory.” He simultaneously misrepresents the scientific status of evolutionary theory, and then falsely presents his religious belief as if it were also a scientific theory. It’s odd that he would choose to re-fight this lost cause.

As an aside, he tries to make an argument from authority that all the signers of the Declaration of Independence believed in creation. So what? Who cares what politicians believed almost a century before Darwin enlightened the world about evolution. It does show how regressive creationists are.

He finishes with an appeal to future authority – this is the tactic of saying that scientists in the future will discover that he has been right all along. He might as well shake his fist at the air and shout, “One day!” He briefly plays the “intelligent design” card, but does not go into detail. ID is just warmed-over creationism, and Pence gives us further evidence of that.


Pence clearly does not understand evolutionary theory, and gives evidence that he does not understand science in general. But, as we often point out, “understanding” is more complicated than just factual knowledge.

Pence is also giving us a clear example of motivated reasoning. His knowledge of the science of evolution, and even recent history, is systematically distorted in one direction – the denial of evolution and the support of his creationist faith.

Lack of factual knowledge is not the core problem. He is a lawyer and therefore probably has some legal expertise, but he mangles the legal issues as well. He misrepresented very simple legal facts about the Scopes trial, and ignored the legal issues of creationism in public schools in the US.

I conclude that creationists don’t know and don’t care. Their motivated reasoning has completely taken over. They are content to learn about evolution through secondary hostile sources. They fail to meaningfully engage with actual scientists and science communicators. They never seem to abandon arguments even after they have been definitively demolished, which further displays profound intellectual dishonesty (which goes hand-in-hand with motivated reasoning).

Pence got up before the House of Representatives and regurgitated tired old creationist arguments, that have already been objectively refuted, as if they were still viable, even profound.

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