Do Americans reject evolution because it’s a “bad story”?

Have a gander at the lucubrations of a professor who has too much time on his hands. Tom Bartlett, a senior editor at The Chronicle of Higher Education, interviewed me this week about one academic’s theory on why so many Americans reject evolution.

The theory was floated by Dan McAdams, a professor of psychology at Northwestern University—and head of his department—who specializes in “narrative psychology.” It’s described (and handily refuted by yours truly) in a piece at the Chronicle’s Percolator column: “Is evolution a lousy story?”  The theory:

Dan McAdams offers one possible, rarely discussed reason: Maybe evolution is a lousy story. Actually, McAdams, a professor of psychology at Northwestern University, doesn’t think evolution is a story at all. There is no protagonist, no motivation, no purpose—all crucial elements in a narrative, whether it’s Frog and Toad Are Friends or Fifty Shades of Grey.

He mentioned this idea recently during a presentation at the Consilience Conference,which also drew researchers from biology, economics, and literary studies. Afterward, a seemingly annoyed audience member questioned McAdams’s apparent criticism of evolution, countering that it’s in fact a wonderful, elegant explanation of life. McAdams agreed that it’s wonderful and elegant. He just doesn’t think it’s a story.

McAdams’s research focus is narrative psychology—specifically, the development of a “life-story model of human identity.” As he writes in his book The Redemptive Self,“People create stories to make sense of their lives.” When you think about it, we tell stories to make sense of pretty much everything. The problem is that evolution doesn’t fit neatly into the narrative box. As McAdams puts it: “You can’t really feel anything for this character—natural selection.”

The biblical story of creation, in contrast, couldn’t be richer. Talk about drama! Characters who want things, surprising reversals, heroes, villains, nudity. There’s a reason it outsells On the Origin of Species, and it may be why scientists haven’t had more success at moving the needle of public opinion.

Only someone who is completely ignorant of the facts about evolution-rejection in the U.S. could hypothesize that this rejection stems from evolution being a flawed narrative. That’s completely bogus.  The reason evolution is rejected is because it has implications that are inimical to religion: evolution rips away from the human psyche the idea that we’re the goal of God’s creation, and evolved by precisely the same process as did squirrels and dandelions. Yes, the Bible is a narrative that’s more widely accepted by Americans, but that’s because that narrative tells us things we want to hear.  Evolution is also rejected by many Muslims, but the Qur’an is no improvement as narrative over evolution, and is far worse than the Bible.

I talk about the reams of evidence implicating religion in the Chronicle article, much of it taken from my paper that will shortly appear in Evolution:  “Science, religion, and society: the problem of evolution in America.” I’m correcting the galley proofs now, and am told it will be freely accessible to all when the corrected manuscript is published online shortly. (I’ll let you know when.)

Let me just quote one thing from the paper: it’s a verbatim statement from a  2007 Pew Forum piece by David Masci, in which he analyzes the conflict between religion and science:

When asked what they would do if scientists were to disprove a particular religious belief, nearly two-thirds (64%) of [American] people say they would continue to hold to what their religion teaches rather than accept the contrary scientific finding, according to the results of an October 2006 Time magazine poll. Indeed, in a May 2007 Gallup poll, only 14% of those who say they do not believe in evolution cite lack of evidence as the main reason underpinning their views; more people cite their belief in Jesus (19%), God (16%) or religion generally (16%) as their reason for rejecting Darwin’s theory.

Note the reasons: belief in Jesus and God, religion in general, and “lack of evidence.”  Nobody says “evolution just isn’t a good story.”  Based on the above and much other evidence I cite in the paper, I told Bartlett that Professor McAdams didn’t know whereof he spoke.

In light of that, Coyne doesn’t think evolution’s failure as a thriller is the real issue. The only person who could conclude that, Coyne says, is “someone who hasn’t looked at the facts about why evolution is rejected.”

Indeed, read more about the ludicrous “narrative theory,” and why at least one literary Darwinist accepts it, in the Chronicle piece.

212 Comments

  1. Seyram
    Posted May 5, 2012 at 5:54 am | Permalink

    I agree with the sentiments echoed in this posting. Americans reject evolution because it is in opposition to their beliefs, beliefs that have been hammered into their psyche over several years. Additionally, how many of the scientific theories that are widely accepted by the American public have a scintillating story?

    • James
      Posted May 5, 2012 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

      Interesting article. I think rejection of theory of evolution has to do with paranoia. I was afraid to accept it because threats of damnation. Cognitive behavioural therapy could help. I have many times been stuck with rubbish assumptions until stronger ideas challenged them. What helped me was picturing that humans came to a stage in evolution of their self awareness and culture where they wondered how they came to be on Earth. So they made up hypotheses like in Genesis but the one which is best supported by evidence is evolution by natural selection. Also universalist ideas helped me. I think the key is to know all the options, to have a healthy biodiversity of ideas. See Robert Price, “Reason driven life “. Or save yourself the bother and just say, ” We evolved, end of .” and concentrate on your career etc

  2. newenglandbob
    Posted May 5, 2012 at 5:56 am | Permalink

    You placed McAdams at both Northeastern and Northwestern university. It is Northwestern. Since I did undergrad at Northeastern, I am happy to not claim him from my alma mater.

  3. Ken Pidcock
    Posted May 5, 2012 at 6:14 am | Permalink

    Beyond ridiculous.What’s McAdams suggesting? That we give up on helping Americans to understand the evolutionary process?

    • matt
      Posted May 5, 2012 at 6:54 am | Permalink

      one wonders if he’s even heard some of the greatest minds in science talk about the origins of life, etc. has he even read jerry’s book? the process of evolution IS the story! and it’s absolutely amazing. better than any narrative we could ever come up with. the bible’s accounts for our origins, etc. pale in comparison to the wonders of evolution. get lost, mcadams.

      • darrelle
        Posted May 5, 2012 at 8:57 am | Permalink

        Exactly. Either McAdams himself is an idiot, or he thinks of the general population as idiots that can not understand anything unless it is formulated into a childs story. Even if that were correct the answer to the problem is not to play to their weakness, but to figure out a way to raise their reasoning skills.

        • SmoledMan
          Posted May 5, 2012 at 9:27 am | Permalink

          Wow, that sounds so patronizing. If an adult lacks reasoning skills, they are not about to learn from you.

          • darrelle
            Posted May 5, 2012 at 9:36 am | Permalink

            Well, you may be right. I never suggested that I should be the one people should learn from.

            But, from my point of view McAdams is the patronizing one here. Maybe I am too optimistic, but I think even the average US citizen has more potential than McAdams seems to think. There is always the chance I could be wrong though.

        • Posted May 6, 2012 at 5:32 pm | Permalink

          Putting evolution into a narrative form is actually very difficult. And when it is done (and it has been) the work is inevitable panned for being too anthropomorphic and not scientific enough.

          The point is not that people can’t understand it if its not in narrative form but that the narrative form is easier to understand and sinks in deeper, then the non narrative form.

      • Posted May 5, 2012 at 7:54 pm | Permalink

        You are so right. The true story is absolutely amazing. And some writers have even been able to express it well.

  4. Filippo
    Posted May 5, 2012 at 6:18 am | Permalink

    I gather that Professor McAdams would find that the story of gravitation falls rather flat.

    • Chris Slaby
      Posted May 5, 2012 at 6:50 am | Permalink

      Now that’s my kind of humor!

    • Old Rasputin
      Posted May 5, 2012 at 7:03 am | Permalink

      What? You mean to say that the intrepid exploits of the gravitational constant G in his unending and omnipresent struggle to enforce his inverse square law didn’t keep you riveted to your seat?

      But not all of the scientific narrative is imbued with such gravitas. Try Maxwell; it’s light reading, and while it may not seem especially electrifying at first, I think you’ll find that his lines have force and exert a certain magnetic charisma once you understand them.

      • Filippo
        Posted May 5, 2012 at 7:10 am | Permalink

        Masterful riposte!

      • Tim
        Posted May 5, 2012 at 10:13 am | Permalink

        +1 Winner of the best cornball entry!

        • Filippo
          Posted May 5, 2012 at 11:29 am | Permalink

          Is there a ryeball or wheatball consolation prize?

          • Old Rasputin
            Posted May 5, 2012 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

            Personally, I would prefer rye or barley. To my palate corn just doesn’t ferment quite as well.

    • Pete Cockerell
      Posted May 5, 2012 at 9:37 am | Permalink

      On the other hand, the story or General Relativity would surely throw him a curve ball…

      • Pete Cockerell
        Posted May 5, 2012 at 9:39 am | Permalink

        And plate tectonics would merely leave him unmoved. OK, I’ll stop now.

        • Roz
          Posted May 5, 2012 at 8:45 pm | Permalink

          lols

          • Filippo
            Posted May 6, 2012 at 6:15 am | Permalink

            But he would be bouncing off the walls over the kinetic theory.

  5. Timingila
    Posted May 5, 2012 at 6:27 am | Permalink

    I’ve been waiting for the action thriller movie version of Germ Theory myself.

  6. Posted May 5, 2012 at 6:34 am | Permalink

    “Fifty Shades of Grey” contains crucial elements of narrative? Umm…

    • Posted May 5, 2012 at 7:21 am | Permalink

      I was gonna say…

      The reviews over at Amazon are not kind.

      • Pete Cockerell
        Posted May 5, 2012 at 9:44 am | Permalink

        At least Ellen treats it with the respect it deserves:

  7. Mattapult
    Posted May 5, 2012 at 6:35 am | Permalink

    You mean we are here by accident?

    That statement is bumper-sticker logic. It’s the basis of a strawman arguement. It’s hard to refute in a mere sentence or two. And it’s repeated over and over by the religious leaders.

    I think part of the problem of getting people to accept evolution is holding their attention long enough to put forward a decent explanation. Yeah, we can make pithy comments, but pithy often sounds snarky to the opposition. Snarky tunes them out or makes them defensive. Longer explanations tune people out, especially deep topics like science.

    • darrelle
      Posted May 5, 2012 at 9:06 am | Permalink

      You are correct, but I don’t think a short attention span is the only problem. Even the average US citizen has focused long enough to learn some fairly complex skills.

      As Jerry says, the main reason is the beliefs they already hold. They see no value in spending any time to further their understanding of evolution because they have already made up their minds about it, or because they just don’t want to deal with something that goes against their beliefs. Or they think they already no about evolution and don’t trust what an evolutionist has to say about it. Because of their beliefs.

      • Posted May 5, 2012 at 8:11 pm | Permalink

        Or they think they already no about evolution…

        I see that phalangeal Freudian slip.

  8. Robert Bray
    Posted May 5, 2012 at 6:37 am | Permalink

    Professor Coyne,

    ‘reason. . . is because’ is a redundancy. Strike it from your style book?

    • DTaylor
      Posted May 5, 2012 at 9:39 am | Permalink

      The reason is because this is an ongoing conversation and the style is conversational.

  9. Filippo
    Posted May 5, 2012 at 6:38 am | Permalink

    ” . . .annoyed audience member . . . countering that it’s in fact a wonderful, elegant explanation of life. McAdams agreed . . .just doesn’t think it’s a story.”

    I.e., it’s not (sufficiently) “entertaining.” It seems most humans, in order to be “engaged,” first have to be “entertained.” The entertainment is what does the engaging.

    I doubt anyone repeatedly returns to this website (except its antagonists) in order to be somehow “entertained.” Surely intellectual curiosity is the the “engager.”

    I think of certain relgious meetings, political gatherings, and sports events. What they have in common, at the least, is whoopin,’ hollerin,’ ululating, genuflecting, gesticulating, expectorating and general “carrying on,” as my grandfather would have put it.

    Who feels the need to carry on so at a scientific get together or engrossing lecture? Is a comic needed to warm up such a crowd?

    • Roz
      Posted May 5, 2012 at 8:51 pm | Permalink

      That’s the wonderful thing about Dawkins books such as River out of Eden. They are engaging if not spellbinding

  10. Matt G
    Posted May 5, 2012 at 6:42 am | Permalink

    The newest logical fallacy: Appeal to Literary Criticism. If the narrative doesn’t grab you, it must be wrong.

    • Pete Cockerell
      Posted May 5, 2012 at 9:56 am | Permalink

      That’s not really McAdams’ position. He’s not casting any aspersions on evolution’s validity, just why people aren’t “grabbed” by it. Incorrectly, as it turns out (since as usual you can look at pretty much any developed country outside the US to invalidatehis idea) but McAdams himself doesn’t seem to be saying there’s anything wrong with the theory.

  11. Posted May 5, 2012 at 6:44 am | Permalink

    Surely there can be more than one explanation as to why evolution doesn’t get more traction in America? That is there might be more than one force pushing in that direction.

    If you want to concentrate simply on the stated acceptance of evolution in polls, then yes, you need an explanation like religion–something that distinguishes America from many of its peer nations.

    But what does the high rate of acceptance of evolution in, say, England, actually mean? Does it mean that most folks have soberly considered the evidence and the theory and thus decided that evolution does indeed present an “wonderful, elegant explanation.” Or does it mean that people have been made aware of what the acceptable answer to that question is. Much as they were once made aware of the appropriate answer to the question “Who is your God & savior?” or “What is the greatest nation on the earth?”

    Most people have no real interest in evolution or the questions it answers. They do not in short, have a considered opinion as to whether evolution is correct in the sense of right. They have a keen sense that it is correct in the sense of socially appropriate belief.

    That is the difference you see between Europe and America–not a difference between one country responsive to algorithmic development over billions of years and the other not, but simply a difference in custom.

    Difference in custom aren’t trivial. But they shouldn’t be treated as if they are different interpretations of a huge body of evidence–hardly anyone who responds to polls has actually taken the time to consider the evidence.

    That said, how do we begin to break the hold of custom? Not like this hasn’t been done before. And it’s not like people haven’t studied people’s acceptance of new stories, or what kinds of stories tend to get a lot of traction with people, etc. etc.

    And I think what a lot of that research will tell you is that algorithms don’t make for the kinds of stories most people readily embrace. It’s a weakness you ought to recognize, not deny in preference to an exclusive focus on beating up on religion.

    • Posted May 5, 2012 at 6:58 am | Permalink

      Very well said, Oran.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted May 5, 2012 at 7:55 am | Permalink

      Sorry, but your analysis doesn’t make sense to me. Americans would ALSO feel that evolution is a “socially appropriate belief” if their religiosity didn’t prevent them from embracing it. I never asserted that Europeans, for instance, accepted evolution because they’ve considered the evidence; like most people who accept it, they simply defer to the experts. But so what?

      I don’t see why this is a difference of “custom,” not of religiosity. I give evidence in my paper for the influence of religiosity; you give only your opinion, and no evidence, that it’s a difference in “custom.” And your remark about “beating up on religion” is gratuitious; my paper did not do that, but offer a sober analysis.

      • Posted May 5, 2012 at 8:59 am | Permalink

        “Sorry, but your analysis doesn’t make sense to me. Americans would ALSO feel that evolution is a “socially appropriate belief” if their religiosity didn’t prevent them from embracing it.”

        Umm. That’s precisely what I wrote: that more than one force could help account for the phenomenon and that religiosity was probably one of them. Countering your seeming insistence that only religiosity be considered.

        “I never asserted that Europeans, for instance, accepted evolution because they’ve considered the evidence” You never assert it, but you argue pretty consistently as if that is what is at issue: that religion prevents Americans from seeing the evidence that Europeans do see. That’s not what the poll figures are about, I’d argue. It’s a matter of which authority people symbolically defer to, which put rather a different color on things.

        A color on things which makes questions like “How compelling is evolution as a story?” perfectly legitimate, not “completely bogus.”

        • darrelle
          Posted May 5, 2012 at 9:28 am | Permalink

          Lets not dance around the point. Will you state clearly what other forces account for the phenomenon?

          You’ve mentioned custom, but custom and religion have some serious overlap. For a very high percentage of religious believers, the religion that they practice is due entirely to where they were born. Or in other words custom.

          Regarding the tension in the US between acceptance/non acceptance of evolution, name some sources that do not accept evolution that do not also have obvious religious roots.

          If by some miracle religious belief had died in the US post WWII, do you think that the majority of people in the US would still avow that the nearly unanimous consensus among the biological sciences regarding evolution is wrong?

          • Posted May 5, 2012 at 9:35 am | Permalink

            Let’s not dance around the issue: are you actually reading the posts you comment on?

            • darrelle
              Posted May 5, 2012 at 9:40 am | Permalink

              Nice non answer. Why don’t you enlighten me. I responded to an item that you offered and asked two questions that are directly on point. My reading comprehension is excellent, though admittedly not perfect. How about yours?

              • Posted May 5, 2012 at 9:47 am | Permalink

                You responded to nothing I wrote. Misinformed, prejudicial question already gets more than it deserves in a non-answer.

                Please show where something I wrote actually inspired your question.

              • darrelle
                Posted May 5, 2012 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

                From upstream.

                That is the difference you see between Europe and America–not a difference between one country responsive to algorithmic development over billions of years and the other not, but simply a difference in custom.

                You made several other mentions of custom in the same context. I responded to your points on custom with this.

                . . . but custom and religion have some serious overlap. For a very high percentage of religious believers, the religion that they practice is due entirely to where they were born. Or in other words custom.

                Both of my questions were on point. You stated there are several forces (perhaps there are), I asked you to provide examples, other than custom.

                I wouldn’t mind an explanation for this.

                You responded to nothing I wrote. Misinformed, prejudicial question already gets more than it deserves in a non-answer.

                Please show where something I wrote actually inspired your question.

                But regardless, per Jerry’s admonishment I will not clog up the comments any further on this thread.

            • whyevolutionistrue
              Posted May 5, 2012 at 9:51 am | Permalink

              Let’s not dance around the issue: you, Oran, have not provided any evidence beyond your personal opinion. And neither of you should insult other readers.

              Finally, I don’t want this thread to degenerate into one dominated by one or two people. Please be mindful of that.

              • Posted May 5, 2012 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

                What evidence have you produced or marshalled that you think would come as a surprise to McAdams (or to me)?

                This is a difference of interpretation of commonly accepted facts. These kinds of things are settled either by finding more evidence or by arguing for an interpretation using commonly accepted rules of reason and argumentation (what you call opinion).

                Calling McAdams ludicrous or bogus doesn’t follow from the evidence you present. As several people have noted here, rather than writing a screed about him, you ought to be adapting his points to your argument.

        • Notagod
          Posted May 5, 2012 at 9:54 am | Permalink

          There are plenty of studies correlating evolution denial with belief in christianity. The current cultural customs of the United States are heavily weighted toward christianity. Those facts aren’t something that is being made up by biologists to support an atheistic position, the fact of evolution denial by christians is supported by lots of data. If you have studies and data that support some other cultural problem why not present it instead of simply assuming without reason that it is so?

          • Posted May 5, 2012 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

            Sorry didn’t notice you down here . . . But what point would you like to see evidence of? That most people prefer narrative explanations to algorithmic one? That some sorts of narratives and narrative devices seem to have a great deal of prevalence across cultures? That the form which a story takes has a lot to do with its acceptance?

            These I think are all pretty much commonplaces in the field of narrative study. The wikipedia article on storytelling is a good start.

            • Notagod
              Posted May 5, 2012 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

              That’s OK, I don’t mind waiting. Once you get familiar with it the layout works good. Better than the flat layouts anyway (I think).

              If you can follow the indentation up it’s possible to figure out which comment is being replied to. In this case, it was your comment:

              ..that more than one force could help account for the phenomenon and that religiosity was probably one of them. Countering your [Coyne's] seeming insistence that only religiosity be considered.

              As you can see now, from my comment, I think the case for religion being the problem has been made. You could point to different paths, such as, denial by the christian sheep or blocking strategies enforced by the christian herders but, christianity is a base factor.

              As to trying a different storyline. I find the true story of the history and processes of evolution fascinating and captivating, felt that way as a preteen and still do today. It also happens to be the truth which is an important bonus. Have you had a chance to read Richard Dawkins new book; The Magic of Reality, I haven’t yet but have heard that it is excellent, you should try it! I’m wanting to get an iPad so I can experience it this way version very cool!

              Now, there are numerous people that have tried to create a characterization of the evolutionary processes by inserting one or more of the christian gods but, that approach has basically fallen flat, and with the additional problem that is of course, lying.

              So with that background in mind, do you have a better plan?

              • Posted May 7, 2012 at 7:22 am | Permalink

                Well, I think Dawkins has been working on precisely this problem–the difficulty of selling people an algorithmic process rather than a story–from the beginning of his career.

                Haven’t seen the new book yet, but one of his great gifts, as several people have pointed out, is for metaphor–he figures out ways of turning algorithms into compelling stories. This blessing can occasionally be a curse, though, as that translation from algorithm to story involves adding to or altering the actual scientific case in subtle ways.

                But this has more or less been going on from the get go: Darwin comes up with the idea of natural selection, and almost immediately it gets translated into “survival of the fittest”; or a justification for the status quo (social Darwinism); or a story of progress . . .

                I by no means want to deny the influence of religion in encouraging people to reject evolution (and neither does McAdams), or to say that it is *impossible* to present evolution in a way that will sell–it a way that might be a compelling part of people’s own stories (what McAdams says we’re looking for in our origin stories). I just say that it’s not as easy as just making something up that’s compelling (what religions try to do). We’ve got a rather un-story-like reality to account for, and that’s a weakness we’ve got to recognize, not deny.

                I think it is perfectly legitimate for us to now say–as you are–what of those (non-abusive) attempts to turn evolution into a compelling narrative? Are they compelling in the same way as, say, epics that have been passed down for thousands of years? Or do we find them compelling because we’re hobbyists (in the same way as “The Story of Numismatology” might be found compelling in certain, select, markets)? Can these evolution stories be adapted into people’s biographic narratives as stories of bravery, loyalty, treachery, endurance and heroism are?

                It may be–and I suspect it is so–that the desire/need to have our origins play into our identities is one of the higher-level psychological/cognitive problems we face–a problem whose primary manifestation may be . . . religion.

                Just one possibility of letting lines of thinking like McAdams bear fruit rather than trying to suppress them. Yes: it takes the focus off of actually-existing-right-now institutional religion, which I agree is largely pernicious. But it may give some better insight into what religion is, what it appeals to, and how it might be superseded or adapted.

              • Notagod
                Posted May 7, 2012 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

                Can these evolution stories be adapted into people’s biographic narratives as stories of bravery, loyalty, treachery, endurance and heroism are?

                Those types of injection have been and are being used, there is nothing new there except that you, a few others and, McAdams haven’t been paying attention. Personally, I find that type of injection deceptive because it implies that lions and tigers and bears, toads, frogs and catfish have brains that comprehend the evolutionary processes. However, those stories are already being used and have been used for a long time. And yes there is something of those bits in the real actions of many of the organisms involved but I have seen no evidence that they comprehend it as an act of causing evolutionary changes in their descendents.

                Either provide evidence that people don’t accept evolution because of something besides that it conflicts with their jesuses or get off the pot.

                The problem/solution combination you suggest is already addressed as you admit.

      • Dave Ricks
        Posted May 5, 2012 at 8:53 pm | Permalink

        Jerry, where Oran wrote about your “preference to an exclusive focus on beating up on religion,” his point was about your “preference to an exclusive focus,” which Sastra addresses below at 13.

        You could rewrite the rest of Oran’s phrase “beating up on religion” however you like to soften the tone, but that would not change Oran’s point about your preference to an exclusive focus.

    • jay
      Posted May 5, 2012 at 10:22 am | Permalink

      I agree strongly with this point. Belief (not truth) is often a socially consructed concept,human social structures based on shared belief are probably themselves a product of natural selection. In most cases, nature does not care about the truthfulness of the beliefs.

      I think that the majority of people who claim to believe in evolution (whether in US or elsewhere)probably have no more understanding about how it works than do the disbelievers; some sort of monkeys turned into cave men who turned into man kind of a story. That’s the way it is with much of science. People have a rough idea of how things work, and leave the details to scientists, because it doesn’t touch their lives beyond that (the same way they leave the details of auto repair to a mechanic).

      The problem is, and in a way the American Christians are probably a bit more savvy about this than their EU counterparts: Christianity completely falls apart if evolution is true. This is a much bigger problem than peripheral issues that they can push to outsiders like gay marriage.

      You can’t disrupt community belief without drastic results (this is bigger and more fundamental issue than the slavery issue which did quite a number on this country). As a species we are wired to hold high level cultural beliefs despite

      Our own secular shared belief in the Constitution has contributed to this. By placing religion in a special category, outside the reach of government (and by extension secular society), we’ve elevated its significance beyond most areas of life.

      It is no surprise the the fight here can be deep. It’s at the core of human psychology.

      • jay
        Posted May 5, 2012 at 10:24 am | Permalink

        missing sentence should read

        “..As a species we are wired to hold high level cultural beliefs despite intellectual challenges because the beliefs are more about culture and membership than they are about truth.”

      • SmoledMan
        Posted May 5, 2012 at 10:27 am | Permalink

        Organized Christianity has a lot at stake. I’ve seen a mega-church up close. These places have on-site daycare and Bible classes for adults and kids. It’s more then a religion, it’s a way of life, a community. So they circle the moats to protect it from the enemy called “logic”.

      • bernardhurley
        Posted May 5, 2012 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

        Our own secular shared belief in the Constitution has contributed to this. By placing religion in a special category, outside the reach of government (and by extension secular society), we’ve elevated its significance beyond most areas of life.

        I agree with you. I think an overtly secular constitution gives too much protection to religion which should have to argue its place in in the public arena like every other idea. I think a secular constitution in the would be a disaster and we would have the same sort of problems with religion as you have in the US. That is why I do not call myself a secularist. We do have problems through not having a written constitution but this is another matter. But I see no reason why a constitution should even mention religion any more than it need mention chess clubs, brothels or swimming pools.

    • Posted May 5, 2012 at 11:12 am | Permalink

      I’d note that in the particular case of England, patriotism also contributes to acceptance; Charles Darwin was British.

      • Filippo
        Posted May 5, 2012 at 11:20 am | Permalink

        Would that one could go back in time, make Darwin a U.S. citizen, and evaluate what if any effect doing so had on Amuricun patiotism and consequently Amuricun belief in evolution.

      • Posted May 5, 2012 at 11:34 pm | Permalink

        So, what about Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland? ;-)

        /@

      • Tim Harris
        Posted May 5, 2012 at 11:40 pm | Permalink

        Oh, really, what silly stuff. How the devil does patriotism contribute to the acceptance of Darwin’s theory in Britain? We seem to be getting close to those pitiful descriptions of Einstein’s theory as ‘Jewish science’ or Stalinist ideas about ‘bourgeois science’.

        • John Scanlon, FCD
          Posted May 6, 2012 at 2:41 am | Permalink

          Darwin’s not only English, but studied Divinity at Cambridge and Medicine at Edinburgh, is buried in Westminster Abbey and has his face on stamps and banknotes.

          These are obviously not negative factors for mainstream acceptance of evolution in the UK, so it would be moronic to assert, without evidence or discussion, that they’re not positive.

          There are still plenty of kooky Einstein-deniers for whom anti-semitism seems to be a relevant factor. The American geological establishment was in official denial about Wegener’s continental drift long after the rest of the world had got used to it – I don’t know if a nationalist motive can be ascribed (rather than conservative inertia), but it’s a fact that Wegener was not American.

          Anyway, I think abb3w has raised an interesting point. As did McAdams (I said something on a blog comment somewhere about how hard it was to tell a character-based story about evolution without misrepresenting it, but can’t find it at the moment).

          Also: Godwin!

          • Posted May 18, 2012 at 10:51 am | Permalink

            Another instance of patriotism influencing people’s attitudes toward scientific conjectures is the Piltdown Man hoax, where British patriotism seems to have led to excessive credulity (such as by Arthur Keith).

            Similarly, there seems a noticeable chunk of the US faction rejecting anthropogenic climate change, where the rejection is associated with the international (non-American) nature of the IPCC.

            Such contribution to belief is irrational; however, that doesn’t mean you can’t believe something rational for an irrational reason. It’s just that irrational rejections of rational conclusions tend to be more noticeable than irrational acceptance.

            • bernardhurley
              Posted May 18, 2012 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

              Another example of patriotism influencing belief would be the wide spread acceptance of Decartes’ cosmology, involving planets being carried around in vortices, in the French speaking world for a century or so after everyone else had plumbed for Newton.

        • Tim Harris
          Posted May 19, 2012 at 2:33 am | Permalink

          And no doubt it is due to a fervent love of English culture and a sort of anti-patriotism that the Japanese (I live in Japan) do not have the same kind of difficulty in accepting the theory of evolution that many Americans have… I have no doubt that there are certain chauvinistic Americans who dislike the theory of evolution because it was proposed by a furriner and a Limey to boot, but it is surely Xtianity that is the chief culprit. And before people get too excited about those patriotic British and their love for Darwin, in a survey of attitudes to the theory of evolution in the USA, 32 European countries, Turkey and Japan, Iceland, Denmark, Sweden, France (!) and Japan were all ahead of Britain in their acceptance of the theory; the USA was pipped from the position of having the lowest acceptance of the theory by Turkey.

          • Tim Harris
            Posted May 19, 2012 at 2:45 am | Permalink

            Just to make things clear and correct: the USA, Japan and 32 European countries including Turkey were surveyed. Iceland, Denmark, Sweden, France and Japan (in that order) were ahead of the UK in their acceptance of the theory of evolution. It is interesting to find Iceland at the top: I wonder how the widespread belief there in elves is reconciled with science…

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted May 6, 2012 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

      And I think what a lot of that research will tell you is that algorithms don’t make for the kinds of stories most people readily embrace.

      Evolution is a process which can be mapped to a lot of algorithmic mechanisms but doesn’t gain in clarity to do so on a generic descriptive level.

      Processes are known to make for the kind of description people embrace in these cases, you _could_ say by research. =D If you are arguing for religious creationist agent stories, fine, but they aren’t the kind that fit the de facto subject.

  12. Tim Harris
    Posted May 5, 2012 at 6:45 am | Permalink

    Oh, that humourless literary Darwinist, Gottschalk (I’ve probably spelled it wrongly)… Well, as a sort of literary person myself, for me, the story of evolution, as Darwin tells it in the Origin of Species, is a wonderful story – it is not that it is not a good story, it is that it doesn’t suit the prejudices of unimaginative and prejudiced people – and of course there are always academics like the silly MacAdams to pander to this sort of thing: it makes them popular, it makes them known!

  13. Sastra
    Posted May 5, 2012 at 6:52 am | Permalink

    Haven’t read the Chronicle piece yet, but my first reaction to what you’ve written here is that McAdams is right — and so are you. Your views can easily be combined: people reject evolution because of religion; people are religious because they think in narratives.

    At the primitive level, the human brain usually tries to make sense of its environment by telling social stories. In religion, it’s the human that’s the measure of all things. Everything is a person, or acts like a person, or is controlled by a person — if it’s significant. Children think this way naturally and they don’t necessarily mature out of it. The volcano exploded when it did and killed who it killed for a psychological reason; the stars and planets move in the sky the way they do because of what we did, and because of what we do. If the story isn’t specifically about us, and socially familiar, it’s not going to be a “satisfying” explanation. Me, me, me. Human beings are giant walking egos — and religion gives us what we want in that regard. Even when we’re “naughty,” we’re the focus of cosmic concern.

    Regardless of what McAdams thinks he’s doing, it’s possible that his theory then is not an alternative explanation for why people reject evolution. Instead, you could see his view as an extension of yours. Religion is the problem and narrative theory explains WHY religion is the problem.

    • onkelbob
      Posted May 5, 2012 at 7:13 am | Permalink

      The obligatory +1. Well stated and argued.

    • Tulse
      Posted May 5, 2012 at 8:40 am | Permalink

      Your views can easily be combined: people reject evolution because of religion; people are religious because they think in narratives.

      Exactly. Religion is a narrative, and almost all involve the individual believer in the story, as someone immensely important to it. Christianity about an individual’s path to salvation or damnation — they are the protagonist. That is very attractive, far more so from a narrative sense than just being the product of mindless historical forces.

      So I don’t really understand why Jerry is so hostile to this viewpoint. I think there is great value in understanding why people believe religion (and oppose evolution), and this is a reasonable and potentially helpful theory about that.

      • rhetoric
        Posted May 7, 2012 at 7:46 am | Permalink

        I am not sure why this is so hard to understand. Jerry is ‘hostile’ to it because there is no empirical evidence to back it up – just masturbatory thinking. There is, however, evidence behind his assertions.

    • Notagod
      Posted May 5, 2012 at 10:53 am | Permalink

      Children think this way naturally and they don’t necessarily mature out of it. The volcano exploded when it did and killed who it killed for a psychological reason; the stars and planets move in the sky the way they do because of what we did, and because of what we do.

      Did you think like that as a child? Maybe I did but I don’t remember it. I remember selfishly wanting things and at times being confused if an adult actually relented and provided what I wanted. It seems though, that my perception wasn’t that “everything” happened in relationship to me or even humans if generalized. However, later in life I encountered some christian adults thinking like that, and one that specifically believed that everything in the universe, all people, all everything, was a testing and teaching event setup by a god specifically and only for that person. Even to the extent that all other humans, except that person, were their god’s puppets. Everyone and everything, for that one person, seriously!

    • Scientismist
      Posted May 5, 2012 at 11:14 am | Permalink

      Thank you Sastra. I’m surprised Jerry doesn’t see that he and McAdams are both right. The only reason evolution (and not gravity) is the theory that religionists love to hate is that the Biblical God (according to the “story”) personally crafted Adam from the dust of the earth, but there’s not a chapter in Genesis about God lovingly tying invisible tethers to him to keep him from floating off into space.

    • aspidoscelis
      Posted May 5, 2012 at 11:32 am | Permalink

      Seconded. It seems at the very least plausible that people have a basic psychological predisposition to view the world in terms of motives & agency; that religions are successful in large part because they cater to that predisposition; and that science often has difficulty displacing religion because it doesn’t.

      I’m not sure that’s the right or best explanation… but it is neither as obviously absurd as Jerry suggests, nor incompatible with the idea that rejection of evolution is typically due to religious belief.

      • Posted May 5, 2012 at 7:54 pm | Permalink

        Thirded. I was at the conference and heard McAdams speak, and he did not at all seem to be suggesting that he was offering The One Explanation and dismissing the fact that religion plays a role in the rejection of evolution in this country. He was, as I understood it, emphasizing one particular facet of why religious explanations sometimes work so well compared to scientific explanations. It struck me as a useful insight. My only reaction at the time was to wonder whether it might not be a good strategy to teach kids about evolution in the context of the human history of how we learned about it–plenty of human interest, conflict, and striving against obstacles there.

    • Caroline52
      Posted May 5, 2012 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

      Yes. Jerry and all these commenters mocking McAdams’s theory should take a deep breath and pay better attention. Dan Dennett has talked about how religious ideas have evolved by natural selection, as memes, in that the ones that are better at getting themselves reproduced in people’s minds survive differentially over other ideas, resulting over time in religious ideas that are the best designed to stick in the mind and be reproduced. An interesting example of how religious ideas are good at surviving is the meme that “doubt” is God’s way of testing our faith. so anytime you doubt God’s existence, that’s part of your spiritual path, something God wants you to do, and so forth. here’s an idea that contains its own inoculation against getting disbelieved. Also,evolutionary psychologists such as Pascal Boyer who study the psychology of religion point to how certain adaptive features of our cognition, like believing what adults tell us about the world when we’re young, and attributing “essences” to animate objects, make us vulnerable to exactly the kinds of delusions that are characteristic of religion. The Yale psychologist Paul Bloom has also done work in this area. Similarly, McAdams is noticing something about our cognitive architecture: that among the different “narratives” in the world competing to be believed and reproduced in our brains, the ones that are constructed as narratives tend to win out. Any politician or motivational speaker knows this. Yes, people reject evolution because of their religion, and that’s partly because things that are structured as narratives tend to be believed. Since evolution is inconsistent with certain religious beliefs, the ideas are in competition with each other. the narrative structure of religious stories gives them a leg up in the competition. We should teach evolution using storytellers’ techniques – this doesn’t entail fictionalizing anything – because it will make the idea of evolution more competitive in the marketplace of ideas.

      • Pete Cockerell
        Posted May 5, 2012 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

        I think you’ve defeated your own argument by citing people like Pascal Boyer. He has looked deeply at particular neurological modules and interpreted their function (and dysfunction) across human evolutionary timescales. McAdams’ thesis seems like very thin gruel compared to that (and Dennett’s work), and doesn’t even seem to be applicable much outside the US, or to other equally valid scientific theories that contradict the holy books, as numerous people have pointed out. I’m not saying he’s totally wrong, just that it’s all a bit shrug-worthy.

        • Posted May 5, 2012 at 6:58 pm | Permalink

          My estimation as well, FWIW.

        • Caroline52
          Posted May 8, 2012 at 10:41 am | Permalink

          I agree with you about the shrug-worthiness of what McAdams says and how he says it.

          My comment was directed at those commenters and JAC) who were mocking the idea that the “story-form” of religious narratives could have anything to do with why they are believed in preference to evolutionary explanations.

          I cited Dennet and Boyer’s work in support of the observation that the form of a meme is crucial to its success in surviving the competition with other memes for space in our brains.

          Your reply to my comment suggests that you actually agree with me. Correct me if I misunderstood.

  14. Anthony Paul
    Posted May 5, 2012 at 6:56 am | Permalink

    I don’t know if “narrative psychology” is supportable by any rigorous scientific work or not. In a superficial everyday sense, it seems at least plausible, as many of us like stories, and many of us try to tell a story to illustrate a point because we apparently think, consciously or not, that a story format will make the point more attractive or easier to understand. If we go with that assumption for the sake of argument, I don’t have the impression that McAdams is saying that people consciously are thinking “I like that story better, so I’ll believe it,” which is what you seem to be saying he’s saying (or are you?). Actually, it seems consistent with human evolution, as I take him to be saying that (somehow) humans have developed an inherent unconscious weakness for a “good story.” In effect, he is saying that humans have a weakness for the story format that tends to overwhelm our ability to reason, i.e., we’re not really good rational thinkers and we have to work at it, while stories come “naturally” if you will. If this preference for stories is unconscious, as I take him to be saying, that is not inconsistent with the survey results you cite. The people who still prefer religion over science don’t say it’s because religion is a better story, but neither do they admit (apparently) that it’s just because religion tells them that humans are the crown of creation and that, regardless of evidence, they simply prefer thinking that they are the whole point of life, the universe, and everything. And anyway, a story that tells me I’m the center of the universe may not only be a good story in the technical sense of storytelling or “narrative,” but it even has a happy ending and I get to play the hero (or at least his trusty sidekick). So you could both be more or less right, and you don’t have to beat the guy up this much. Or did I miss the point somewhere?

    • Posted May 5, 2012 at 7:21 am | Permalink

      My knowledge here is a bit out of date, but I think there is at least *some* science on narrative psychology, but the bulk of the evidence in narrative study is historical: the same kinds of narratives gaining prevalence, multiple iteration and duration across a number of cultures.

    • Pete Cockerell
      Posted May 5, 2012 at 10:10 am | Permalink

      So what you seem to be saying is that humans evolved to be unreceptive to the concept of evolution because it’s not a ripping enough yarn, at least compared to Genesis. Oh, the irony! I guess we should be grateful that any Christians at all accept evolution!

  15. Posted May 5, 2012 at 6:56 am | Permalink

    Jerry, I don’t get your opposition to McAdam’s thesis. I think he’s onto something and I don’t see how his points and those you make in your upcoming Evolution article are in any way at odds. Seems to me McAdams describes WHY religion has the appeal it does (we like stories). I think this does capture an important part of human psychology. We may have more need for such stories when we live in an environment with uncertain security. Many people just can’t accept a worldview with no ultimate purpose, a very “unstory-like” aspect of reality.

    • tomh
      Posted May 5, 2012 at 8:05 am | Permalink

      Seems to me McAdams describes WHY religion has the appeal it does (we like stories).

      That doesn’t explain why 2/3 of Americans accept the stories as true when they know the stories have been proved false. Their religion tells them that the truth doesn’t matter. Mark Twain realized that long ago, when he said, “Faith is believing something you know ain’t true.”

  16. Kevin
    Posted May 5, 2012 at 7:03 am | Permalink

    I seem to have missed the large demographic that dismisses gravity for the same reason. Actually, gravity is an even less dramatic story since it has no characters at all. At least evolution has individual animals trying to reproduce (although with minimal character development).

    • Posted May 5, 2012 at 7:29 am | Permalink

      Before Newton theorized it, things still fell down and people expected them to fall down. For most people “accepting the theory of gravity” is nothing more than accepting the fact that things tend to fall down, which is not a bit different than what people accepted in 1000 AD. People may not reject Newton’s theory, but they don’t accept it either–it simply doesn’t matter to them.

      • Dave Ricks
        Posted May 5, 2012 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

        I agree, because

        Humans are more concerned with ethics than electrons, with laughter than with leptons, more interested in changing circumstances than in universal constants.

        — Daniel Harbour, An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Atheism (2001), p. 43.

      • Posted May 5, 2012 at 11:37 pm | Permalink

        Except that Newton was satirised for his ideas about gravity in his own day…

        /@

  17. Filippo
    Posted May 5, 2012 at 7:07 am | Permalink

    I can understand how stories like that of “Icarus and Daedalus” would be more appealing (entertaining) to certain “bread and circuses” humans, as opposed to their being curious about Reality and doing a bit of intellectual heavy lifting required to understand the science and mathematics of wing shape and “lift.”

    A staple of the pulpit has been the “miracle” of bumblebee flight. Just look at that bumbler! How can it possibly fly?

    • Posted May 5, 2012 at 11:43 pm | Permalink

      “Oh, sorry, Reverend. Are you not familiar with dynamic stall? That’s how it can fly!”

      /@

  18. Your Name's not Bruce?
    Posted May 5, 2012 at 7:08 am | Permalink

    I dunno, I think this version of our story is pretty cool:

    • Your Name's not Bruce?
      Posted May 5, 2012 at 7:09 am | Permalink

      Ooops. Just meant to post a link, not embed this.

      Sorry.

      • Roz
        Posted May 5, 2012 at 7:37 pm | Permalink

        I love love love this story! My fave

        • Mark Joseph
          Posted May 5, 2012 at 9:31 pm | Permalink

          Yes, the first I thought of when I read the post above was this brief narrative of Sagan’s telling the story of evolution.

  19. Posted May 5, 2012 at 7:09 am | Permalink

    Realistically, there is no compelling reason for most people to decide one way or the other. So they just go with the flow. And, in USA, “the flow” supports doubt about evolution.

    • Roz
      Posted May 5, 2012 at 7:48 pm | Permalink

      I agree. How many people are really inclined to do an indepth study of both sides of ‘the debate’? Who’s got the time? So just go with the general consensus, the popular culture

  20. Posted May 5, 2012 at 7:09 am | Permalink

    ” …in a May 2007 Gallup poll, only 14% of those who say they do not believe in evolution cite lack of evidence as the main reason underpinning their views; more people cite their belief in Jesus (19%), God (16%) or religion generally (16%) as their reason for rejecting Darwin’s theory.

    Note the reasons: belief in Jesus and God, religion in general, and “lack of evidence.” Nobody says “evolution just isn’t a good story.” ”

    Since this was a poll I’m thinking that the pollees probably had to select from a limited set of answers that did not include “evolution just isn’t a good story.” However I think it’s not likely many of them would have selected this answer.

    • raven
      Posted May 5, 2012 at 7:54 am | Permalink

      Good find.

      Data is to crackpots like crosses are to vampires.

      I suspect if you showed the actual data from polls and surveys to McAdams, he would run away in terror or burst into flames.

      • Posted May 5, 2012 at 8:23 am | Permalink

        Whereas I suspect that’s he’s already quite familiar with these widely reported poll numbers. But I suppose it’s nice to assume that everyone with a different point of view is a complete idiot. Happy days!

        • raven
          Posted May 5, 2012 at 8:36 am | Permalink

          But I suppose it’s nice to assume that everyone with a different point of view is a complete idiot.

          That is Postmodernism.

          All viewpoints and stories are equally true and valuable. Data is not important.

          Even most philosophers have rejected it these days or so I’m informed by philosopher fans.

          Some viewpoints and stories are simply idiotic. They are just wrong.

          BTW, since you don’t seem to realize it, for some of us data and facts are important. I don’t assume McAdams is an idiot. There is ample evidence, freely provided by him, that he is, in fact, an idiot.

          • Posted May 5, 2012 at 9:09 am | Permalink

            What is post-modern, precisely, about what McAdams is arguing?

            • raven
              Posted May 5, 2012 at 9:20 am | Permalink

              He isn’t arguing Postmodernistically.

              You are.

    • raven
      Posted May 5, 2012 at 7:59 am | Permalink

      “blockquote>” …in a May 2007 Gallup poll, only 14% of those who say they do not believe in evolution cite lack of evidence as the main reason underpinning their views; more people cite their belief in Jesus (19%), God (16%) or religion generally (16%) as their reason for rejecting Darwin’s theory.

      I see the problem with this and a lot of similar data.

      It doesn’t fit into McAdams’ narrative box. It’s not a good story for him.

      It doesn’t help him makes sense of his life, advance his career, impress other academic psychologists, or get grants from the Templeton foundation. It means he is a crackpot with as Dr. Coyne kindly said “too much time on his hands” and as I will add, “not enough brain cells.”

      • Posted May 5, 2012 at 8:18 am | Permalink

        A little confusion here, I think. Jerry was pointing out that none of the pollees said “evolution just isn’t a good story” and using this to support his claim that religion is the problem. I was simply observing that the poll likely didn’t even offer “evolution just isn’t a good story” on the menu of choices, which makes it possible for McAdams to claim that his thesis wasn’t even considered in the polling question. But I doubt that many pollees would have chosen “evolution just isn’t a good story” if it had been an option, and I think that religion is likely the main barrier to acceptance of evolution.

    • Scientismist
      Posted May 5, 2012 at 11:35 am | Permalink

      Maybe you’re right, not likely many would have selected “evolution just isn’t a good story.” How about “evolution contradicts the true story of God’s love and purpose in creating mankind in his own image”?

  21. Posted May 5, 2012 at 7:11 am | Permalink

    What utter bullshit. Anyway here’s an extract from the Curriculum Vitae [pdf] of Dan P. McAdams, Ph.D.

    “Awards and Grants

    2010-12: A New Science of Virtues Grant, funded by University of Chicago and the
    John Templeton Foundation
    : The Good Story: Generativity and the
    Intergenerational Transmission of Virtue. ($60,000)”

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted May 5, 2012 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

      Guilt by association?

      As has been pointed out, many respectable (from a Darwinian point of view) scientists have accepted Templeton grants. Jerry wishes they wouldn’t, but it doesn’t necessarily invalidate their results.

      • bernardhurley
        Posted May 5, 2012 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

        No but it does mean one needs to be extra careful about assessing them.

  22. jpliving1
    Posted May 5, 2012 at 7:17 am | Permalink

    While I don’t know much about narrative psychology, there is evidence from cognitive science that religious stories are easier for our brains to process than scientific theories. Robert McCauley’s book, Why Religion is Natural and Science is Not, is a good introduction to this evidence.

    • Posted May 5, 2012 at 9:32 am | Permalink

      Think McCauley *is* narrative psychology

    • darrelle
      Posted May 5, 2012 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

      . . . there is evidence from cognitive science that religious stories are easier for our brains to process than scientific theories.

      Do you recall if McCauley’s study(ies) compared stories in general, i.e. non religious stories, to scientific theories? I would think that any sort of technical description of how something works, e.g. instructions for assembling a model kit, are more difficult for the brain to process than any kind of story.

      Not disagreeing with what you say McCauley has said, I just think that the phenomenon is much more general than what you described here.

  23. Jim Jones
    Posted May 5, 2012 at 7:18 am | Permalink

    Quote: “Indeed, read more about the ludicrous “narrative theory,” …”

    It isn’t that ludicrous.Observation shows that juries all too often pick the ‘winner’ on the relative strengths of the the two narratives, irrespective of the evidence.

  24. MAUCH
    Posted May 5, 2012 at 7:34 am | Permalink

    If you think evolution has a lousy narrative you should see gravity.

    “Things go up then things go down…”

    Do they actually expect me to buy into this gravity nonsense.

    • bernardhurley
      Posted May 5, 2012 at 8:07 am | Permalink

      You forgot the tide!

      • Notagod
        Posted May 5, 2012 at 11:34 am | Permalink

        Oh’ Reilly, know body nose Y that happens.

        • Pete Cockerell
          Posted May 5, 2012 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

          I think he’s admitted it’s because of the sun and moon, but his new question is, “But where did the moon come from?” See, gotcha again!

  25. Posted May 5, 2012 at 7:34 am | Permalink

    Maybe McAdams has just a hint of a point. As Jerry notes, religious narratives tell the unthinking what they want to hear. Evolution doesn’t. From the perspective of an uncritical mind, the religious narrative is more attractive.

    But, as is too often the case with scholarship in the humanities, McAdams’ idea only scratches the surface. Evolution is interpreted by many as a lousy story because of the religious alternatives.

    The real underlying problem is exactly as Jerry explains.

    • Posted May 5, 2012 at 7:44 am | Permalink

      You say this on the basis of how much actual knowledge of scholarship in the humanities? Have you read, say, the Russian formalists’ analyses and categorizations of folk tales (Propp, Morphology of the Folk Tale)? Or is that too superficial a consideration of the phenomenon for you?

      • Posted May 5, 2012 at 7:59 am | Permalink

        “Too often the case” =/= “always”.

        But I will admit that when I wrote “humanities”, I had in mind primarily the arts, in one of which (music) I have my degrees and am professionally active.

        McAdams’ idea here strikes me as exactly the kind of trivial observation Chomsky derided as he expressed his frustration with postmodern philosophy and its ilk. A kernel of obvious truth gets inflated and distorted in an attempt to create a grand, intellectual theory.

        • Posted May 5, 2012 at 8:21 am | Permalink

          There’s nothing at all post-modern about asking what kinds of narratives people are liable to readily accept. The Russian formalists I mention above were writing mostly in the early 1900s.

          • Posted May 5, 2012 at 8:29 am | Permalink

            Not to continue down an extremely tangential…tangent, but I didn’t claim McAdams’ idea could be described as postmodern. Only that it “rose” to a similar level of triviality, and left much of the explanation unexplained.

            • Posted May 5, 2012 at 9:12 am | Permalink

              How is it trivial to wonder what kinds of stories people readily accept and whether evolution comports with that?

              • Posted May 5, 2012 at 9:42 am | Permalink

                It’s trivial to note that people tend to prefer stories over brute facts that perhaps don’t coalesce into a grand narrative – this is why we prefer a conspiracy theory to no theory. It’s also trivial to note that we prefer to believe things that we want to believe.

                A lot more work would need to be done to weave these observations into a compelling piece of scholarship, IMO.

                Which I don’t think McAdams has done. Raven points out, below, a major flaw with McAdams’ idea. A flaw which demonstrates that it can’t be anywherenear a complete explanation, and that McAdams probably hasn’t thought much about his idea beyond “we like good stories that tell us what we want to hear”.

              • Posted May 5, 2012 at 9:54 am | Permalink

                “A lot more work would need to be done to weave these observations into a compelling piece of scholarship, IMO.”

                Wouldn’t you say it was trivial to observe that a quote in what is essentially a newspaper article is not a compelling piece of scholarship?

                And the supposed trivial observations are offered in answer to a current question. They may be trivial to you, but if they are being neglected in the conversation, they aren’t trivial, but potentially the root of significant error. It’s like saying that pointing out a conversion error in a formula is trivial–it doesn’t break new ground, but it’s important.

              • Posted May 5, 2012 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

                Like I’ve been saying, I don’t think McAdams is wrong – I more-or-less agree with Sastra’s comment above.

                And yes, powerfully explanatory scholarship comprises and synthesizes many more mundane observations. But you don’t often see scholars come out only with one or two of those mundane kernels in “Extree, extree” fashion. Especiallywhen the rest of the explanation is already available.

          • raven
            Posted May 5, 2012 at 8:45 am | Permalink

            There is a huge amount wrong with this whole concept and it is blatantly obvious.

            For one thing, Europeans, Japanese, Canadians, and Chinese don’t have a problem accepting the Theory of Evolution.

            Why are first world people outside the USA likely to accept a well established scientific theory while people in the USA are not?

            We knew that a century ago. It’s fundie xian religion. The Scopes trial established that and countless events ever since.

            • Tim
              Posted May 5, 2012 at 11:53 am | Permalink

              This was exactly my first reaction. What I’m uncertain about is why there is a greater level of acceptance of evolution in Europe, Japan, Canada, and China. This is not to say that Jerry isn’t absolutely correct in saying that religion is the problem – much to my dismay, in the US, religion is a dominant narrative – less so in other first world countries.

              My knee-jerk reaction was to pronounce McAdams an idiot, but upon reflection I’m beginning to think that Sastra may be on to something: both Jerry and McAdams are right. Does the general public in other first-world countries really know the scientific case for evolution – at the level of WEIT (the book), for example? Scientific literacy is probably higher in most of the first world, but I’d guess it isn’t really so much better that the average person can make a decent argument for WEIT (the acronym). I suspect (but don’t know) that most people in the non-US first-world accept evolution because it is the socially acceptable thing to do – and because the christian narrative has lost its influence.

              Darwin probably had much to do with why christianity has lost influence in Europe, but my feeling is that if the elites in Europe still found religion/evolution-denial to be politically or culturally useful (as elite conservatives in the US do), Europe would be where the US is in terms of both religion and evolution-denial.

              • Tim
                Posted May 5, 2012 at 11:54 am | Permalink

                Sorry about the italics fail!

            • Christian
              Posted May 5, 2012 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

              For one thing, Europeans, Japanese, Canadians, and Chinese don’t have a problem accepting the Theory of Evolution.

              Well, that isn’t entirely true either, at least for Europe and Canada. There are minorities in these countries that do indeed reject the theory of evolution.
              However, as you can guess, these groups are not members of the RCC or mainline Protestant churches but they practice a more fundamentalist/evangelical Christianity that’s closer to the version of conservative American Protestants.

  26. raven
    Posted May 5, 2012 at 7:41 am | Permalink

    Do Americans reject the Theory of Heliocentrism because it is a “bad story”?

    “Oh look, the theory that the earth orbits the sun in something called the “solar system” is a bad story. Let’s just tell a different one, that they sun orbits the earth which is the center of the universe”

    20% of the US population are Geocentrists, 60 million people. We have more Geocentrists than Canada has people.

  27. raven
    Posted May 5, 2012 at 7:49 am | Permalink

    The problem is that evolution doesn’t fit neatly into the narrative box. As McAdams puts it: “You can’t really feel anything for this character—natural selection.”

    Quantum mechanics, Relativity, Newtonian physics, gravity, the Germ Theory of Disease, or thermodynamics don’t fit neatly into the “narrative box”, whatever that is.

    They aren’t supposed to. They are scientific theories that describe our world.

    Anyone who rejects scientific theories because they aren’t narratives that help makes sense of their lives is an idiot.

    Ignoring some of these theories, like Newtonian physics or the Germ Theory of Disease can get you killed. There is a raging whooping cough epidemic in Washington state right now thanks to the anti-vaxxers and people die from Newtonian physics every day by getting run over by cars or falling.

    • Your Name's not Bruce?
      Posted May 5, 2012 at 8:52 am | Permalink

      The bible has a whole big section that offers an incorrect version of how the universe came to be that violates almost everything we’ve come to learn about what probably, actually occurred. For some reason biology (in the form of evolution by natural selection) gets to be the fall guy for killing off this particular narrative when in fact it was a gang killing in which physics, astronomy, chemistry and geology are all implicated. For some reason, biology seems to be stuck with having to defend itself more than the other sciences for overturning the story of Genesis. None of these other sciences needs to have any compelling “narrative” to be accepted (or at least benignly neglected) by the American public. Perhaps the greater explicitness of denying our being created in a god’s image will draw more flak than pointing out that this god creates light before creating the sun.

      • raven
        Posted May 5, 2012 at 8:58 am | Permalink

        That is partially true.

        For a lot of creationists, biology is just the first step. They are acutely aware that all sciences and history contradict their two pages of iron age mythology.

        After they kill biology, they absolutely intend to go after Cosmology, astronomy, physics, archaeology, geology, and history. They already do so sometimes. The creationists hate Cosmology, geology, and astronomy as much as they hate biology.

        • Christian
          Posted May 5, 2012 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

          Of course, but they don’t make such a fine distinction.

          For the average creationist everything is “Evolution” that contradicts their reading of Genesis.

          • raven
            Posted May 5, 2012 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

            Of course, but they don’t make such a fine distinction.

            It’s not a fine distinction at all.

            Biologists don’t use multi-billion dollar orbiting telescopes or send robots to Saturn. Nor are they out in the field chipping out rock samples for the mass spec.

            Anyone who can’t tell the difference between biology, astronomy, geology, or physics is so profoundly ignorant, they (probably) don’t really matter.

            I do see the point sort of though. Some creationists just hate all science just in case they miss something. Then again they hate most of humanity as well. Fundie xianity is based on hate.

            • Your Name's not Bruce?
              Posted May 5, 2012 at 5:14 pm | Permalink

              But lots of creationist stuff I’ve read claims to be “scientific”. They can’t just ignore science because science works. It worked over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it worked on the Sea of Tranquility. They know science is cool and hip and where it’s at and want their views seen to be “scientific” too. They often claim to be defending “true” science and that the evolutionists are wrong scientifically. Never mind that their “science” is crap, they know they have to at least appear to be science scented (even if it’s just to be secular seeming enough to make it into curricula).

  28. Naked Bunny with a Whip
    Posted May 5, 2012 at 7:53 am | Permalink

    So what evolution needs is real-life X-Men, I guess.

    • Posted May 5, 2012 at 8:48 am | Permalink

      I’d like to think that’s where the genes come in. ;)

      • Posted May 5, 2012 at 11:53 pm | Permalink

        XY-Men, surely?

        /@

  29. raven
    Posted May 5, 2012 at 8:08 am | Permalink

    I don’t see where the “jesus narrative” helps people make sense of their lives. In fact, most of the time it seems to screw them up. Fundie xians score higher than the general population in any social problem you care to name, and low in intelligence, education, and socioeconomic status.;

    According to xianity, we are all deeply flawed creatures thanks to an incompetent creator.

    We deserve to go to hell and be tortured forever but our incompetent creator had himself killed as jesus so a few of us, xians from the True Cult can go to heaven.

    Our lives aren’t important, just a test and a few seconds in all eternity in heaven or hell doing who knows what. It isn’t even much of a test for Calvinists since everything is predestined anyway.

    And none of this really matters. The jesus Sky Fairy is going to show up any minute 2,000 years late and destroy the earth and kill 7 billion people.

    And BTW, jesus loves us and hates you, especially if you are gay, female, nonwhite, nonxian, from the wrong xian cult, or a Democrat.

    What an inspiring and unlifting great story.

  30. Posted May 5, 2012 at 9:03 am | Permalink

    I am from India, and with all due respect, I have to say that the “story” of the Bible doesn’t hold a candle to Indian mythology, at least as far as “richness” and drama is concerned. I am pretty sure that the same is true of Greek and Norse mythology, and perhaps also of Native American myths.

    So, by McAdams’s theory, why isn’t everybody in the US a Hindu or a follower of Greek or Norse paganism?

      • Posted May 5, 2012 at 11:05 am | Permalink

        Well, shouldn’t McAdams’s theory disagree with the accident of birth explanation (which seems to me to be the most logical) and predict that just because those mythological stories are so much “richer” than the Bible myth, they ought to have, by now, trumped the Bible myths in any kind of popularity contest?

        • Posted May 5, 2012 at 11:48 am | Permalink

          I understand your point, but most people in the US are never exposed to anything other than the Christian myths. If they were also exposed to the Indian myths, and if they are as “rich” as you say (I wouldn’t know), then perhaps they might choose to be Hindus rather than Christians, which would support McAdams thesis. It would be interesting to see statistics on the number of people in the US who have converted from Christianity to another religion and what reasons they give for it. Did they like the the other religion because it spun a more spell-binding tale? Or because they felt compelled to adopt the religion of their spouse? Or because the other religion was right and Christianity was wrong? Etc, etc.

          • SmoledMan
            Posted May 5, 2012 at 11:50 am | Permalink

            Imagine if religion was completely widespread in our society. There would be no Apple, Google. We’d be Afghanistan.

            • Posted May 5, 2012 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

              Well now that I think of it we do have Mormonism, Scientology, and The Flying Spaghetti Monster in the US. They have pretty spellbinding tales, so why is Christianity still in business? (Personally I believe in Ceiling Cat even though there’s not much of a story there).

            • Filippo
              Posted May 5, 2012 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

              Re: Afghanistan: if I accurately remember, the other day I heard on National Public Radio that the average Afghan security force recruit reads(if he reads) at no higher than the first grade level, and that their officer at no higher than the third grade level.

              Apparently some officers cannot enumerate. The U.S. trainers draw a rectangle in the dirt, have recruits stand in it and, when no more can fit in, at that point show the officer in charge how many men he is in charge of.

          • infiniteimprobabilit
            Posted May 5, 2012 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

            “It would be interesting to see statistics on the number of people in the US who have converted from Christianity to another religion and what reasons they give for it. Did they like the the other religion because it spun a more spell-binding tale? Or because they felt compelled to adopt the religion of their spouse? Or because the other religion was right and Christianity was wrong?”

            Interesting point. I think there are two factors here –
            Probably most people in a religion are there because they were brought up in it. Plus a number who were pulled in by their spouses etc. Of converts, I very much doubt there were any who didn’t like the ‘story’ of their proposed new denomination, or who said “I hate that idea but it’s obviously correct so I’ll join”. In making converts, I suspect liking the ‘story’ is significant.

    • raven
      Posted May 5, 2012 at 11:19 am | Permalink

      For that matter the Lord of the Rings is almost infinitely superior to the bible. In fact, at the very end, the good guys win.

      Or Star Wars. Or Star Trek.

      The nunber of uplifting dramatic narratives with benign moral messages that are far superior to the bible is vast.

      McAdams should really be looking at why the Lord of the Rings hasn’t spawned a new religion. Yet.

      • RFW
        Posted May 5, 2012 at 11:41 am | Permalink

        Tolkien was a devout Catholic and said that the LotR is — I forget his exact words — “deeply imbued with the Catholic spirit.”

        As for the good guys winning, their victory was to a degree a Pyrrhic one in that it led to the last of the High Elves leaving Middle Earth and the undoing of all good carried out using the three Rings of Power. One might say, in the context of the book the good guys winning brought an end to the ages of magic and initiated the modern age.

        Two striking things about the LotR: no temples, no churches, no chapels, not even in Hobbiton; and significant women in the plot are few in number and entirely sexless. In that regard, I much prefer E. R. Eddison’s “Worm Ouroboros” because its hairy chested protagonists are clearly fond of fleshly delights.

    • Tim
      Posted May 5, 2012 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

      This is one web site where you don’t have to offer the qualifier “with all due respect”. Most people here don’t have a whole lot of respect for the “richness” of the bible. :)

      • Kevin Alexander
        Posted May 5, 2012 at 7:36 pm | Permalink

        ‘With all due respect’ is one of my favorite phrases.
        Most take it to mean ‘with all respect’ when the speaker may not think that any is due at all.

    • SmoledMan
      Posted May 5, 2012 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

      With all due respect, Hindu religion is the same man-made bullshit as any other religion. Then I look at all the violence that goes on in India perpetrated by Hindus.

      • Posted May 5, 2012 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

        With all due respect, Hindu religion is the same man-made bullshit as any other religion.

        I agree, I was just making the case that there are far “richer” and “more dramatic” mythologies out their for someone to make the point that the only reason a majority of Americans don’t embrace an idea is because it does not contain a story “rich” or “dramatic” enough.

        Then I look at all the violence that goes on in India perpetrated by Hindus.

        I fail to see what this has to do with how “rich” and “dramatic” the mythological stories are.

  31. bismarket
    Posted May 5, 2012 at 10:31 am | Permalink

    Thankee kindlee for the NEW word, when i’m Lucubrating should i be doing it alone or with company, how do YOU lucubrate?

    • Filippo
      Posted May 5, 2012 at 11:24 am | Permalink

      Deliberately, protractedly and assiduously, I should think.

  32. bismarket
    Posted May 5, 2012 at 10:43 am | Permalink

    MOST religious types of the Christian persuasion here in the UK Don’t see it as a threat to their religion & accept evolution. So how would his “theory” account for that, i wonder?

  33. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted May 5, 2012 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    I agree w/ JAC’s args. However I do not see how this guy’s idea would undo that, and sounds to me to be merely restating the JAC point about ripping away in different language – perhaps that of a writer of fiction than someone untrained to use units (psychologists don’t have units).

    At the limit, no scientific story has eyeballs, so it is challenging to evoke the appeal in an infant’s storybook – maybe that is where McAdams ought to place his hypothesis – infant literature.

    • Nom de Plume
      Posted May 5, 2012 at 11:58 am | Permalink

      I agree w/ JAC’s args. However I do not see how this guy’s idea would undo that

      Me neither. I think there’s something to what the guy says, and it is not mutually exclusive to Jerry’s points. It’s why we have Occam’s Razor: people will often leap to an elaborate, fanciful explanation for something, when a more mundane (to them) but plausible explanation would serve better. I know from personal experience that this sometimes occurs simply because the less fanciful explanation is less interesting to some people–i.e., a “bad story”. One sees this especially in conspiracy theories, but I don’t think it’s unknown in religion vs. science debates.

  34. Pray Hard
    Posted May 5, 2012 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

    I find it rather funny that people “reject” evolution when they don’t even know what it is. They don’t know anything about it except that their politicians and preachers say that it’s a false doctrine and that it’s a “belief” that we “came from monkeys”. And, you know, too, those silly scientists are always changing their minds about things based on new evidence; whereas, their preachers and politicians can spoonfeed them unchanging dogma and make them feel comfortable. Personally, I think it’s ONE HELLUVA story!

    • darrelle
      Posted May 5, 2012 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

      What’s really funny (gotta laugh else I would cry) is that so many of them believe that they DO know some things about evolution.

      And they think that any attempt to explain something about it, by someone who has some accurate understanding of it, is actually an attempt to mislead them. Or to “change the story” when confronted by a ridiculous “fact” they have pulled out of their stock of standard anti evolution sound bites, provided by their favorite religious authority figures.

  35. Ian Belson
    Posted May 5, 2012 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

    What do you mean evolution is is not a wonderful narrative? What about those Ice Age movies? I think they should be shown in every Sunday school classroom.

  36. emmageraln
    Posted May 5, 2012 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on emmageraln.

  37. Posted May 5, 2012 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

    If a rich, dramatic, and compelling story is the reason people choose a religion then one might expect to see people changing religions for this very reason. Hence I went to The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life
    (http://www.pewforum.org/Faith-in-Flux.aspx) to see what data they might have on this question. They do present data on people changing religions and they even allowed them to say in their own words why they did so. Some people apparently changed because they “found a religion they liked more”, but it’s not clear that this was because they found the story of their new religion to be more compelling — especially if one considers that the Pew survey deals almost exclusively with churning between Catholicism and the various sects of Protestanism, all which have the same fundamental story/myth. It would be nice to see data on crossovers between Christianity and Hinduism, for example, where the underlying myths are entirely different.

    • Your Name's not Bruce?
      Posted May 5, 2012 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

      Like Marvel and DC….

  38. Posted May 5, 2012 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

    I think McAdams has a point. In medicine, a mountain of data (that homeopathy doesn’t work, for example) can be overthrown – for some people – by one Friend of a Friend who uses Arnica for headaches and it works. There must be studies that show what correlates with believing data vs believing stories.

    And I really wish RD had called “The Greatest Show on Earth” “The Greatest Story Ever Told”. Maybe he wanted to, only its probably copyrighted.

    • tomh
      Posted May 5, 2012 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

      Maybe he wanted to, only its probably copyrighted.

      You cannot secure a copyright on a title.

      • Posted May 5, 2012 at 8:42 pm | Permalink

        Trademarked? “King Kong” seems to be one or the other.

        • Posted May 6, 2012 at 12:01 am | Permalink

          Character names are protected, iirc.

          /@

        • bernardhurley
          Posted May 6, 2012 at 12:53 am | Permalink

          In UK legislation, at least, three types to so-called intellectual property rights: copyright, trademark and patent. Copyright is automatic whereas the others are not. Copyright is subject to an originality test that something as simple as “King Kong” would fail. The purpose of trademarks, which have to be registered, is to stop people passing off one product as another. Thus if I sold my own chocolate bar as a “Mars bar” then the trademark owner would have a case against me. However I am still free to use “Mars bar” in other contexts. E.g. a rock formation discovered on Mars.

        • tomh
          Posted May 6, 2012 at 7:48 am | Permalink

          In some cases, in the US, titles, short phrases, slogans, or names may be protected as trademarks.

          • bernardhurley
            Posted May 6, 2012 at 10:00 am | Permalink

            In the UK the situation re trademarks is quite complex. For instance the Beatles Memorabilia Store in London successfully defended itself against an accusation of trademark violation. At present there is an issue of a pub called “The Hobbit.” If the owners take on the Tolkien estate I suspect they will win but they might not feel they have the finances to do so.

  39. MadScientist
    Posted May 5, 2012 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

    It’s fine example of someone so obsessed with their own work that they believe their ideas must apply to absolutely everything. Evolution is the greatest story ever told (suck on that one, Jesus).

    Gee, how obsessive and narrow-minded does one have to be to miss the blinking obvious fact that religious belief is the primary barrier to the acceptance of evolution in the USA?

  40. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted May 5, 2012 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

    I think McAdams has a point. Why is it that any ‘factual’ program or technical report on TV has to have a ‘human interest’ angle? They can’t just say ‘sodium explodes in water’, they have to have some named (and otherwise entirely irrelevant) person tossing the sodium into the water and talking about it. Or explaining why Mercury is freezing on one side and roasting on the other. Etc. Or why Mythbusters make a huge OTT production about any ideas they ‘test’.

    This seems to be the only way any non-fiction can be shown on TV.

    I know they usually make a hash of it and ‘media people’ are mostly full of it, but it seems to me unlikely they’re 100% wrong about the need to ‘hook’ viewers with a story.

  41. Posted May 5, 2012 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

    Do some of you remember the TV show Cosmos? It dealt with science and was very popular. Think about why it was so popular.

    • Posted May 5, 2012 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

      Also think about the documentaries by Ken Burns, and why they’re so popular.

  42. Posted May 5, 2012 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

    Sorry: it may be true that the major reason that many reject evolution is religion, but there are some who are not religious but reject evolution anyway because, well, it “doesn’t make sense to them.”

    Seriously; I know of one atheist and one non-religious person (my dad) who never accepted evolution because it sounded like BS to them.

    Oh, they think that the Bible is BS too.

    It is frustrating.

    • Kevin Alexander
      Posted May 5, 2012 at 7:51 pm | Permalink

      Actually the popular (mis)conception of evolution doesn’t make any sense. One species changes into another? What? One day some ape stood up and his hair fell out? Ridiculous.
      How many times have you seen the clip with the fish morphing into a frog morphing into…etc? If you already have an understanding of evolution then that clip looks OK as shorthand but if that clip is all you get, American education being what it is, then it must look ridiculous to you.

      • Posted May 6, 2012 at 3:18 am | Permalink

        Yes, but it isn’t just the bad educational system but also how evolution is portrayed in the media (as you have shown).

  43. Roz
    Posted May 5, 2012 at 8:22 pm | Permalink

    I agree; The reason evolution is rejected is because it has implications that are inimical to religion: evolution rips away from the human psyche the idea that we’re the goal of God’s creation, and evolved by precisely the same process as did squirrels and dandelions.

    Yes, it rips at peoples egos doesn’t it? I don’t understand why. What’s so bad about the thought of descending from other mammals? They are beautiful and intelligent too. Maybe some people think their poop doesn’t stink.

  44. Mark Joseph
    Posted May 5, 2012 at 9:44 pm | Permalink

    So, evolution is not a compelling story? James Morrow disagrees:

    “The real reason Charles Darwin distresses people, I would argue, is not that he stumbled on an argument against theism. No, the problem was that he *replaced* theism—replaced it with a construct more beautiful and majestic than any account of the Supreme Being outside the Book of Job, a construct that invites us to see every variety of life, from aphids to archbishops, zygotes to zoologists, as vibrant threads in an epic tapestry, its warp and woof stretching across the eons and back to the Precambrian ooze, the seminal sea-vents, the primordial clay-pits, or wherever it all began. An astonishing construct, a mind-boggling construct, a construct of which Jehovah is understandably and insanely jealous.” (The Philosopher’s Apprentice, p. 401).

    • raven
      Posted May 6, 2012 at 12:21 am | Permalink

      As I wrote above the bible story isn’t majestic, compelling, or beautiful at all.

      It’s actually pretty stupid and ugly and not very believable.

      We are created by an incompetent Sky Monster. We are all flawed creatures deserving to go to hell. Said Sky Monster already genocided us once except for 8 people.

      Life isn’t important, most people are going to hell anyway mostly due to where they were born, and jesus is going to show up any minute, kill 7 billion people and destroy the earth.

      Any number of other stories, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Star Trek, or Harry Potter are more uplifting and coherent.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted May 6, 2012 at 4:41 am | Permalink

        Yeah, but everyone loves a good disaster movie.

        • Posted May 7, 2012 at 12:52 am | Permalink

          Especially when they believe that they are the special ones who are going to escape the disaster and live happily ever after in heaven.

  45. David Johnson
    Posted May 5, 2012 at 9:48 pm | Permalink

    I don’t read Prof. McAdams as suggesting that evolution isn’t true because it isn’t a good story, or that it shouldn’t be taught because it isn’t a good story, just that we might understand better why so many people reject it by considering the appeal of a good story. Nor do I hear him saying that that is the ONLY reason that many people reject evolution. Even if Prof. Coyne is correct that the overwhelming source of opposition is religion, McAdams’ point isn’t refuted since the presence of a appealing narrative is precisely one of the sources of religious belief in the first place.

  46. Mark Joseph
    Posted May 5, 2012 at 11:50 pm | Permalink

    And now for something completely stupid. IDiot David Klinghoffer of the Disco ‘Tute has weighed in on the “story” question, and the Sensuous Curmudgeon has slapped him down in his usual humorous style. http://sensuouscurmudgeon.wordpress.com/2012/05/04/klinghoffer-its-all-about-story-telling/

  47. garardi
    Posted May 6, 2012 at 2:28 am | Permalink

    Lord of the rings is a better story than the bible but I’m not thinking that Gandalf will save me.

  48. greyhound1405
    Posted May 6, 2012 at 10:46 am | Permalink

    The average Joe likes a good story, whether they are intelligent or not. So, how can the Evolution story be made more interesting?

    The Bible is full of interesting fables, even though they are lacking in the moral fibre that Christians want you to believe they contain.

    If Physics can be made interest with top viewing figures and DVD sales with such programmes as Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Science now series, why can’t Evolution be made interesting enough to stimulate interest to search more.

    I am 65 next week and was never exposed to evolution until 10 years ago. Although it has been a slow slog, I am now becoming fascinated. the next generation will hopefully be exposed from an early age. I thoroughly enjoyed Richard Dawkins book ‘The Magic of Reality’ and Alice Roberts book ‘Evolution: The Human Story’
    I know it is going to sound trite, but there are lots of pictures in both of these books, making it easy to follow along. Even Christians relate to these 2 books. So maybe we should condemn them if they can’t understand the heavier stuff?

    Perhaps Richard Dawkins could make a film/DVD about his book?

    • Filippo
      Posted May 6, 2012 at 11:22 am | Permalink

      ” . . . why can’t Evolution be made interesting enough . . . .?

      I could be wrong, but I think it’s rather that, for a great bulk of humans, the “bread and circuses” types, it apparently has to be made not more “interesting,” but more “entertaining.”

      Take CSPAN; one can learn a lot of background information about and history of news/current events and a depth and breadth of academic subjects. But that does require some effort. (Though precious little effort from my perspective.)

      CSPAN programs, unlike the commercial broadcasters, make no effort to “entertain,” for which I am thankful. I don’t want to be “entertained” against my will; I resent having to wade through the flotsam and jetsam of “entertainment” window dressings. I want to be informed, and possibly enlightened.

      (On one of the morning cable talk shows, I happened to notice a low-volume continuous audio loop of fuzz-rock guitar music while the talking heads were talking. Apparently the “music” serves as “background” noise – “white noise”? – to “entertain” and keep viewers from changing the channel. “The Weather Channel” used to be CSPANish in its presentation, but now it’s just about as much about sports[as in the effect of weather upon sports events], and seeks to entertain one regardless of whether one wants to be entertained.)

      I speculate that if many Americans forsook the commercial news channels for CSPAN – forsook their apparent need for entertainment – “infotainment” – the industry would shut down CSPAN.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted May 7, 2012 at 12:53 am | Permalink

      Don’t know if you’ve seen them, but you would probably like David Attenborough’s books ‘Life on Earth’ and ‘The Living Planet’. They’re probably out of print now but they should be easy enough to pick up used. Beautifully illustrated (they were the book version of the TV series of the same name), and Attenborough’s writing is as good (IMO) as Richard Dawkins’. They’re not about evolution specifically, but Attenborough just assumes that evolution is the natural way of things.

      • greyhound1405
        Posted May 7, 2012 at 10:28 am | Permalink

        Yes Thanks, I have all David Attenborough movies and most of the books. I just brought ‘Inside Natures Giants’ book as well. I found the Video a bit queasy, but the pictures in the book are fantastic along with commentaries and Richard Dawkins ‘ Just So’ summaries of how the elephants got his trunk etc.

        BTW I have all RD’s books in hardback, except ‘The Extended Phenotype’. Which ion HB is selling for horrendous prices. I hear it is very technical, so I might not understand it?
        But as a pensioner next week I will have more time for study.

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted May 8, 2012 at 12:36 am | Permalink

          I too have all Richard Dawkins’ books – in paperback – except Extended Phenotype and Magic of Reality. Magic of Reality I expect I’ll pick up soon, Extended Phenotype I’ve found, as you have, that it’s quite hard to get hold of. It’s the one book from RD that doesn’t have a catchy title, I just checked out some of the reviews here: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/61538.The_Extended_Phenotype
          The general consensus seems to be that it’s a little more technical than Selfish Gene, but still written with Dawkins’ usual flair and worth the effort, but maybe don’t try to read the whole book in one go.

          • greyhound1405
            Posted May 9, 2012 at 1:52 am | Permalink

            Thanks for that. Shall look later…

  49. Posted May 6, 2012 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

    > nobody says “evolution is just isn’t a good story”

    True, but that does not mean that story has nothing to do with their decision making. You are talking about a situation where facts are getting in the way of a story that the particular person is already invested in.

    I think it is well established by this point that human cognition has quite a number of known flaws and that our naive powers of introspection are limited. Explaining why we make a particular emotive choice is one of these areas. This is a fact that the every advertising company in the world exploits daily.

    Meanwhile it has been shown experimentally that children do prefer explanations of things that suggest purpose, that we may indeed be hard wired to assume that things happen because some one made them happen.

    When people say that if evolution is true then life has no meaning, isn’t it the lack of narrative that they are objecting to?

    On the face of it MacAdam’s hypothesis appears to me to have merit. I wouldn’t discount it without further investigation.

  50. aspidoscelis
    Posted May 6, 2012 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

    “True, but that does not mean that story has nothing to do with their decision making. You are talking about a situation where facts are getting in the way of a story that the particular person is already invested in.”

    Agreed. Further, no one says, “I don’t believe in evolution because I’d rather believe myths than facts,” either… that’s probably a correct interpretation of what’s actually going on, but it isn’t how people characterize their own positions. Whether we go with Jerry’s preferred hypothesis, or McAdams’, or both, we can’t just trust self-reports.

    Jerry’s approach of taking self-reports seriously when they conflict with McAdams’ hypothesis, and brushing them off when they conflict with his own seems somewhat disingenuous.

  51. Posted May 6, 2012 at 6:10 pm | Permalink

    Dr. Coyne, I’m an avid reader of your blog and look forward daily to your many and varied posts.

    I am unfamiliar with Dr. Dan McAdams’ work. However, he appears to have proposed a testable hypothesis. Your premise that “Only someone who is completely ignorant of the facts about evolution-rejection in the U.S. could hypothesize that this rejection stems from evolution being a flawed narrative” is very likely false: it’s been well-established in the literature that people do not consistently make economically rational decisions, and that presenting factual evidence often serves only to reinforce people’s existing counter-factual views (respondents then attribute their reinforced opinion to “lack of evidence” on the other side.)

    In my opinion you have too hastily flamed down a potentially valuable piece of work: Whether or not Dr. McAdams’ hypothesis bears fruit, it is nonetheless directly on point to the problem of how and why the majority of our species comes to believe in the supernatural.

    • Filippo
      Posted May 6, 2012 at 8:13 pm | Permalink

      Let’s grant that Professor McAdams is simply and solely remarking that evolution does not readily lend itself to “storytelling.” I look forward to hearing him further hold forth on the influence of religion.

      There is obviously a certain per centage of humans, however nominal it may me, who don’t require the window dressing of storytelling, who don’t have to be “entertained” in order to be engaged.

      Does this just reflect the current state/stage of human evolution? Some (no doubt greater rather than lesser number of) centuries or millenia from now, shall we reasonably anticipate that humanity will just a little less “bear the stamp of our lowly origin” (Darwin) and be a little more rational and a little less in need of being “entertained” and rescued by someone else from “boredom”?

      What are “economically rational decisions”? Do economists have a monopoly on “rational” decision-making?

      No doubt economists and Wall Street analyst-types wailed and railed about the owner of Malden Mills in Massachusetts, not being “economically rational” in being financially supportive of his employees after the mill burned down some years ago.

      Years ago the local high school band was selling oranges to raise funds. One local omniscient redneck Philistine had sampled them and took it on himself to announce to anyone who came within earshot, to-wit: “Them oranges ain’t no good!” (From my experience there are lots of redneck fruit experts.) They did not meet the exacting standards of the highly discriminating, self-regarding redneck palate.

      Upon examining them myself, I was reasonably persuaded that they were edible but not particularly enjoyably so.
      Nevertheless, to his shocked surprise, I bought a unit (of whatever size they were – a half-bushel?). He presumed to repeat his evaluation to me, as if his initial assessment hadn’t taken with me. I told him words to the effect that nevertheless I WOULD purchase a unit. (I didn’t tell him so, but I did not owe him an explanation.) I was bound and determined to support that marching band, even if (as my my grandfather used to say) “it hair-lipped the Devil.”

      Whether I bought oranges, or simply decided to donate some money to the cause, either way, do I correctly gather that mine was not an “economically rational” decision? (It never occurred to me at age 19 to itemize it come income tax filing time.)

      I submit that there are certain decisions in Life – involving solidarity and sympathy with and support of others – where “economically rational decision” – making has no bearing.

      • Filippo
        Posted May 6, 2012 at 8:19 pm | Permalink

        It occurs to me to ask: is “economic rationality” relevant to the decision to join the military and go in harm’s way to possibly be killed or maimed for life? I gather that “economic rationality” was relevant for the principals of, for example, Bain Capital, who accordingly opted not to so go in harm’s way.

  52. Posted May 7, 2012 at 1:12 am | Permalink

    I just came across this article which seems to lend some credibility to McAdams thesis, albeit from quite a different context:

    WHY STORYTELLING IS THE ULTIMATE WEAPON
    BY: JONATHAN GOTTSCHALL

    Jonathan Gottschall, author of The Storytelling Animal, says science backs up the long-held belief that story is the most powerful means of communicating a message.

    /@

    • Posted May 7, 2012 at 3:36 am | Permalink

      And it’s worth considering the fact that virtually all young children are exposed to religious stories and other forms of religious indoctrination, whether from their parents or other sources. Children are even more susceptible to stories and other forms of indoctrination than adults are, and that’s why religious zombies put a lot of planning and effort into “Sunday School”, religious children books, videos, and other types of brainwashing agendas. Anything implanted in a young mind is really hard to discard.

  53. Notagod
    Posted May 7, 2012 at 8:10 am | Permalink

    There seems to be a number of people thinking the makeup an evolution story is a good idea. I think it is a horrid idea but have any of you thought about what story you would have told? Have you even looked to see if there are already any children’s book that tell evolution as a story? Does the story you want told compromise facts about the processes of evolution or would you compromise facts about the organisms that have been produced while retaining the true processes? Do you realize that the christians are trying to do exactly that, that is, make up evolutionary stories?

    Dr. Coyne is an educator, do you want him to teach biology as a story? Do you want all the organisms dressed up in Star Wars outfits?

    If some story did succeed, so now everyone believes evolution in the way that story characterizes evolution, aren’t the educators left with the same problem of deconstructing a false story in order to get students to know the truth? And wouldn’t the christian stories still persist? So aren’t you just compounding the problem?

    My thought is that this story concept is a veiled attempt to take the heat off the real problem, christianity, and place the blame on something else, to be determined as it is created. And wouldn’t it be great for the christians if they could get atheists on their side to do it?

    • Filippo
      Posted May 7, 2012 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

      Concur.

      Do we want to “entertain,” or educate, inform, enlighten?

    • Posted May 8, 2012 at 9:07 pm | Permalink

      Yes it has been done. There is a very good series of picture books:

      Born with a Bang
      From Lava to Life
      Mammals that Morph

      I’ve bought all three for my kids, and I see them as most appropriate for the age group they were in at the time. And frankly necessary as I cannot prevent my kids from being exposed to the Christian stories.

      In the Same Vain the
      “Here comes Science” album by They might be giants, is a great counter to catch evangelist jingles.

      Tailoring your explanations to the age of your audience is normal, and perfectly effective. what you do is give them the simple version first, and then present more
      sophisticated versions as refinements to the knowledge.

  54. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted May 7, 2012 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    If he had just said that religion generally has narrative-qualities and that evolution does not insofar as religion postulates an anthropomorphic quality on the universe, this would have some credibility. But it would be a further explanation of what we already know about the conflict of science and religion. But to put this forward a new/alternative explanation is odd.

  55. Posted May 7, 2012 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    Who said that the evolution story has to be “false”?

    I brought up the TV show Cosmos and the Ken Burns documentaries because they’re presented in a story telling sort of way. They’re very popular, yet not “false”. Real facts can be presented in interesting and even entertaining ways.

    Some people want nothing but cold, hard, technical facts but most people find that boring and way too complicated. I’m not saying that a story telling approach is the only thing that should be employed but if done properly it could really help to educate the masses and get them more interested in science and the subject of evolution, and it would be especially effective with children.

    • Notagod
      Posted May 7, 2012 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

      That approach has been used for a long time, I assume that isn’t what McAdams is interested in.

      Richard Dawkins Magic of Reality is a more recent example from a GNU atheist. There are lots of example so if that is what McAdams is referring to he must be clueless.

      Christianity IS the problem, the herders obviously see evolution as not supportive of the jesus tale and want to suppress the truth.

  56. greyhound1405
    Posted May 7, 2012 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

    Five fingers

  57. Posted May 7, 2012 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    I cannot help but wonder what McAdams would say to the notorious John Angus Campbell, of DI fame. He has a talk (which I heard before his affiliation with the DI was obvious or, likely, in existence) _Why Was Darwin Believed_, which makes the case that Darwin was believed because of his use of appropriate rhetorical strategies and techniques, including some familiar in the religious scene. At the time I heard it, my only real exposure to the “rhetoric of science” stuff was through a bunch of vaguely “postmodern” stuff, so I took it as more of the same. But now I realize there was likely more going on there. In any case, now we’ve got two people, supposedly experts in language and word usage (admittedly from different perspectives) with semi-duelling claims …


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