Kevin Padian, a paleontologist at the University of California at Berkeley, has done pathbreaking work on the evolution of flight, and on other paleobiological issues. He’s also been a stalwart defender of evolution against creationism, and is the president of the National Center for Science Education.
In the latest issue of Public Library of Science Biology (known as PLoS Biology), Padian has written a review of Why Evolution is True. I wish I could say I was pleased with it. After all, Padian did start the review by praising the book:
First, make no mistake: this is a wonderful book, as far as the explanation of many of the interesting lines of evidence and case histories for evolution go. . . Coyne hits all the right notes, without over-dazzling the general reader with too many molecular complexities or obscure examples. This is a very readable, companionable work that takes its place alongside other fine recent explanations of evolution such as Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters, by Donald R. Prothero , and Your Inner Fish, by Neil Shubin , as well as a great many Web sites that explain the evidence for evolution. It would be an excellent text for a freshman or non-majors course in evolution, or for a local book group.
So why am I grousing? Because his review is not about the science — or even about the book. Rather, it’s about a book that he wanted me to write but that I didn’t. Padian spends most of his review calling me to task for not emphasizing strongly enough that evolution is compatible with religious faith.
First, a scientific quibble. Padian criticizes me for not using strict cladistic terminology: we should not say, for instance, that amphibians evolved from fish because “fish” is a term reserved for an ancestor and all of its descendants — which is not strictly true because some descendants of early fish became amphibians, and, ultimately, reptiles, birds, and mammals. This is the same criticism that Eugenie Scott leveled at the book in her review in Nature (that’s no surprise, because Scott is executive director of the NCSE and a close associate of Padian). I can see their point from a cladistic stand, but it’s not necessarily the best way to present evolution to the public. Under cladistic terminology, no group could have evolved from any other group! All of us (including Neil Shubin, the discoverer of the transitional form Tiktaalik) call the aquatic, lobe-finned ancestors of tetrapods “fish”. It’s common parlance, and not misleading to the public. What would Padian call those lobe-finned ancestors? At any rate, I don’t think using common parlance is a serious crime here; in fact, it makes things clearer. So we can agree to differ on this (see the comments by Greg Mayer and Nick Matzke here). But that’s not Padian’s main criticism.
Padian says that “truth” (as in the title of my book) “is a personal thing.” And he complains that I have not explained to the readers what I mean by saying that something is “true”:
Based on the title of this book I would have expected a bit more engagement with the philosophy of knowledge. How do we know something is true, and what do we mean when we say something is true? What could make us abandon our claims, and realistically, would we ever do so?
But Kevin doesn’t seem to have noticed the following passage in the first chapter (page 16):
Because a theory is accepted as “true” only when its assertions and predictions are tested over and over again, and confirmed repeatedly, there is no one moment when a scientific theory becomes a scientific fact. A theory becomes a fact (or a “truth”) when so much evidence has accumulated in its favor– and there is no decisive evidence against it– that all reasonable people will accept it. This does not mean that a “true” theory will never be falsified. All scientific truth is provisional, subject to modification in light of new evidence. There is no alarm bell that goes off to tell scientists that they’ve finally hit on the ultimate, unchangeable truths about nature. As we’ll see, it is possible that despite thousands of observations that support Darwinism, new data might show it to be wrong.
And on p. 222-223, at the end, I show why evolution qualifies as “true” under this definition, and also give examples of possible observations that could disprove evolution.
But his real point is the NCSE’s standing policy of courting religionists, as articulated by Eugenie Scott: “This is not a problem that you can solve merely by throwing more science at it.” You have to cater to believers.
Three points here:
1. The Dover decision rested on throwing science at Judge Jones, not convincing him that you could believe in evolution and God, too. You don’t have to be a believer to refute creationist claims or to show that they were inspired by religious belief.
2. You can’t solve the problem without throwing science at it. That’s what I was trying to do. That’s what I was trained to do. So I’m trying to solve the part of the problem that I’m capable of addressing without hypocrisy.
3. Twenty-five years of hard work by scientific organizations like the NAS and NCSE, involving pushing religion/science accommodationism, have had no perceptible effect in changing the public’s acceptance of evolution. It stays at about 40-50%, no matter what. Yes, court cases are won, but minds don’t seem to be changed. I have pondered this long and hard, and have concluded that these figures won’t budge much until the United States becomes, over what will be a long period, a more secular nation: much like the countries of western Europe.
What should I have written, according to Padian? That “truth” is philosophical, not objective, and that we should recognize and respect the philosophical “truths” of the faithful:
Creationists—people who deny evolution because it conflicts with their religious precepts—often tell us that whether we accept a naturalistic or a supernatural explanation of the world around us is a philosophical choice: a belief. They’re not wrong. That first decision—what kind of “knowledge” is going to be privileged in your mind—is ultimately a question of belief, a leap of faith, a decision about truth, if you care to use the term at all. . . . .
. . . Coyne does a very good job in this book of presenting the actual evidence for evolution. He is less complete on the philosophy and methods that underlie science, particularly in specific disciplines. And one would have liked to see more
about dealing with people who are apprehensive about the “truth” of evolution.
But this is something I’m incapable of doing. I can’t tell people that faith and science are compatible, because I don’t believe it, and I don’t want to be a hypocrite. Nor do I want to pander to religion. And I’m not so sure that it is a “philosophical” choice” or a “belief” “to “accept a naturalistic versus supernaturalistic explanation of the world around us.” Is it a philosophical choice to take antibiotics when you have an infection, rather than calling on a shaman or Christian Scientist? (I bet you do take antibiotics, Kevin–is that a philosophical choice?) And is it a “philosophical choice” to say that AIDS results from drug-taking and a dissipated lifestyle rather than from a virus? Is it a “philosophical choice” to believe that the world is 6,000 rather than 4.6 billion years old? Well, if these are philosophical choices, one of them works and the other one doesn’t.
The postmodernist claim that accepting scientific rather than spiritual truths is simply a matter of taste is a claim of breathtaking inanity. Science helps us understand the world — it works. Religion can soothe us, but I don’t see it coughing up equivalent truths, nor have I heard a convincing argument for what “truths” faith presents to us, as opposed to those revealed by secular reason alone. Somehow I can’t believe that in his heart Padian accepts this philosophical equivalence, but maybe I’m wrong. What exactly is his position vis-a-vis the supernatural? Can cancer be cured by both shamans and chemotherapy? Is he perhaps saying that books defending evolution should go easy on those religious views from which he himself isn’t fully emancipated?
Finally, Padian makes the following statement:
All these are worthy and sensible statements. And yet Coyne begins his last chapter with the statement of an audience member to him after his public lecture: “I found your evidence for evolution very convincing—but I still don’t believe it.” Well, nothing says that our job is to convince people of the “truth” of evolution—I don’t think it’s my job—but we would like people to understand it.
This is a remarkable admission. Does it mean that The National Center for Science Education doesn’t care if Americans accept evolution? All that money and work, just so people can understand a theory they reject?