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.