Talking Back to Goliath: Some Advice for Students in the Evolutionary Biology Classroom

by Paul Nelson

A student in David Barash’s animal-behavior class at the University of Washington might feel a bit like David facing Goliath — even though Goliath, in this case, happens to be named David. Goliath occupies the podium at the front of the class, holds the professorship, and has the authority of the scientific community (apparently, anyway) on his side.

And, like the biblical Goliath, he is confidently outspoken when he delivers what Barash in this past Sunday’s NY Times called “The Talk.” Wesley Smith has already noted the article here.

To keep things civil, let’s identify Goliath not with David Barash himself, but with the neo-Darwinian theory of evolution. Barash delivers “The Talk” on behalf of the power of neo-Darwinism, and the Talk brings bad news for theists, on three fronts:

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  1. There’s no evidence for intelligent design in biology, because random variation and natural selection — an entirely mechanical, undirected process — can do the designing. Thus there are no evidential grounds for believing in a creator of life or biological complexity.

  2. There’s nothing special about you or any other human being. You’re an animal like every other animal. Deal with it.

  3. There’s no solving the problem of natural evil. “The more we know of evolution,” says Barash, “the more unavoidable is the conclusion that living things, including human beings, are produced by a natural, totally amoral process, with no indication of a benevolent, controlling creator.”

Now, it’s been a while since I was an undergraduate studying evolutionary biology (1980-84), but I had self-professed atheist professors like Barash. Their confidence and knowledge were intimidating.

But I also had mentors cut from very different cloth, such as National Academy of Sciences theoretical physicist Robert Griffiths. When I became discouraged, I would walk across Schenley Bridge from the Pitt campus to Carnegie-Mellon, into Bob’s office, where he would encourage me not to be fearful. Work hard to understand the arguments against your own position, he would say, and inevitably, you’ll find the weaknesses in those arguments.

So, in the spirit of Bob Griffiths’s advice to me, I offer the following suggestions to any students dealing with their own academic Goliaths…

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Talking Back to Goliath: Some Advice for Students in the Evolutionary Biology Classroom