Austin Hughes, an molecular evolutionary biologist at the University of South Carolina at Columbia, has penned a critique of my recent evolution talk in The State, apparently a local paper. (You may remember Hughes as the author of a piece in The New Atlantis, “The folly of scientism,” which I critiqued on this site.)
In Columbia last week, I gave a talk on the evidence for evolution, finishing up with 15 minutes of discussion of why Americans won’t accept evolution. My take was that religion is the proximate cause of antievolutionism, for evolution is inimical to many religious people’s view of themselves, and all opposition to evolution is palpably motivated by faith. But the ultimate cause for antievolutonism must also be the cause of religion, which I provisionally take to be, in modern life, dysfunctional societies that require people to find succor in faith. Without such dysfunctionality, I argued, faith would ultimately disappear.
Hughes apparently attended my talk, but didn’t like it—at least the last part of it—and he registers his disdain in a longish op-ed in The State, “Stop treating evolution, religion as incompatible.”
I’ll comment briefly on some of his criticisms. Hughes:
Unfortunately [Coyne] veered off course when he ventured into sociology. When Coyne lamented the fact that the American public seems more reluctant to accept evolutionary theory than other well-established scientific theories such as atomic theory or germ theory, he based his analysis on the assumption that no one who accepts evolution but also believes in God can be said to accept evolution.
Hughes is simply dead wrong here. It is a palpable fact that rejection of evolution comes from religion. Further, I claimed that “theistic evolution”—the form of God-guided evolution that is what most Americans “accept” when they accept evolution (although about 40% of Americans accept evolution, only 16% see it as an unguided materialistic process, which is how evolutionists also see i)t. Theistic evolution is not deistic evolution (i.e., God created the universe and evolution was an inevitable consequence), and deistic evolution does not conflict nearly as much with scientific evolution as does theistic evolution.
For Coyne — like too many in our society today — the term “evolution” stands for a package consisting of the scientific theory of evolution plus a metaphysical commitment to atheism. If you don’t accept both aspects of that package, you are anti-evolution.
I have never claimed that science, much less evolutionary biology, requires a metaphysical commitment to atheism. Hughes is simply lying when he states this. I have always argued that most scientists, including myself, take the absence of God as a provisional working hypothesis based on the history of science, for, like Laplace, we have never needed the assumption of God. I am, and have always been, willing to entertain evidence for the presence of a divine being. I just haven’t seen any. And there’s no evidence that God has guided evolution, either, since that process appears to be without direction. It’s purely unguided and materialistic nature comes from both empirical observation and a knowledge of how evolution works. Hughes continues with a familiar argument:
This view is particularly ridiculous given that the modern theory of evolution owes so much to biologists who were also religious believers, including such seminal figures in evolutionary biology as R.A. Fisher, Theodosius Dobzhansky and David Lack. By this logic, modern evolutionists are defending a theory developed by people who did not accept their own theory. The same logic would seem to imply that Isaac Newton did not really believe in his own theory of gravitation, since he also believed in God.
This is ridiculous. Of course biologists who believe in God have made contributions to science, and some of them, early on, were actually motivated to do science as a way of understanding God’s plan. That tactic stopped about 150 years ago. Religious scientists still contribute to evolution, but there is not the slightest iota of evidence that religion has contributed to those contributions. I would claim, for instance, that evolutionary biologists who are theistic evolutionists—who think that God guided the process—are in cognitive dissonance, just as much as are physicists who do physics while thinking that God guides every electron.
. . . In reality, evolution is a scientific theory, whereas arguments for or against the existence of God belong to the realm of metaphysics. Evolutionary biology no more requires a metaphysical commitment to atheism than does any other scientific theory.
One way to illustrate the difference between science and metaphysics is to consider two hypothetical theories. The first includes all the statements of modern evolutionary theory, plus the statement that God exists. The second includes all the statements of modern evolutionary theory, plus the statement that God does not exist.
In science, we decide between alternative theories by comparing their predictions to what we observe in nature. But in the case of these two alternative theories, there is no way to decide. Both theories make exactly the same predictions. The metaphysical add-on (whether or not God exists) has no effect on the predictions of the theory.
Again, ludicrous. Metaphysical naturalism is not an a priori commitment, but a provisional conclusion from observing the consistent absence of divine intervention in natural phenomena. I would gladly accept the existence of God if I saw convincing evidence for it. I haven’t seen any. Has Hughes? “God exists” is not the same thing as “God exists and intervenes in the evolutionary process.” Got that, Dr. Hughes?
Coyne ended his talk with a political diatribe, revealing his distaste for religious freedom and apparently for America in general, as well as a fondness for big-government-style socialism. Whatever one thinks of his politics, it was hard to see what connection they had to the subject of his talk.
Since Hughes touts himself as a respected scientist (see below), I’m puzzled that he didn’t see the connection. What causes Americans to be the most anti-evolutionist people among First World countries? It’s because we’re the most religious of First World countries! Why are we the most religious First World country? Because we’re the most socially dysfunctional First World country. Or so my argument went. You might not accept the last bit, but the ultimate explanation for creationism in the U.S. has to tell us why America is so damned religious.
As for my distaste for religious freedom, Hughes is again lying. I said nothing in favor of abrogating that freedom. In fact, I was exercising that freedom by criticizing religion. My distaste for America in general? Give me a break—that argument smacks of the “love it or leave it” arguments of the sixties, and Hughes does himself no credit by making it. I happen to love living in the U.S., even though much of it is imbued with reflexive sympathy for superstition.
Finally, “big-government-style socialism”? Really? Well, if that means public health care for all, I’m all for it. I also argued we need to reduce incarceration rates, child mortality, and other things that make America dysfunctional, and that doesn’t involve “big-government-style socialism.”
What is Hughes going to complain about next: that I’m trying to take away his guns? Perhaps he doesn’t like Medicare or Social Security, either, since they’re both “big-government-style” socialistic programs.
Finally, Hughes make the inevitable argument that if an evolutionist happens to be a vociferous atheist, he or she turns people away from Darwinism:
As a scientist with more than 300 peer-reviewed publications in the field of evolutionary biology, I cringe at such arguments, which do real harm to the cause of public understanding of evolution and of science in general.
When evolution is presented as part of a metaphysical package that many Americans find repugnant, is it surprising that so many are unwilling to examine dispassionately the scientific evidence in favor of evolution?
Yes, Dr. Hughes, I admire your parade of publications, but give me a break! BioLogos has been trying to connect evolution with evangelical Christianity for a long time, and it hasn’t worked. Creationists are not going to accept evolution simply because they’re told it can be compatible with their faith. If that were true, then the rise of New Atheism in the last decade should be coincident with a sharp downturn in public acceptance of evolution. In fact, that hasn’t happened.
As the following graph based on a Gallup poll up to 2008 shows, acceptance of creationism and theistic evolution have been pretty much static over the past 25 years, but acceptance of “scientific evolution,” not guided by God, has increased. Granted, it’s only a 5% increase since 2000, but that’s about 50%. At any rate, Hughes’s Theory would predict that since New Atheism arose, acceptance of evolution would plummet. This graph doesn’t show it.
Actually, P. Z. Myers recently wrote about this same specious argument on Pharyngula, in a piece called “Atheists are responsible for creationism.” There he took apart the Hughes-style argument that we atheist evolutionists should shut up about God, for that hurts our cause. Myers’s language is, as usual, pungent, but his point is similar to mine. P. Z.’s conclusion:
The recent rise of public atheism can be traced to a number of influential books. Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, by Susan Jacoby, published in 2004. The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason in 2004 and Letter to a Christian Nation in 2006, by Sam Harris. The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins in 2006.
It’s been less than ten goddamned years.
And we’ve still got idiots claiming they see a correlation between creationism/public religiosity and outspoken atheists.
Listen, whenever you see someone making that claim, you know you’ve found an idiot talking out of their ass. Give them a look of contempt and walk away.
Well, I won’t argue that Dr. Hughes is speaking from his nether parts, but I am contemptuous of his careless arguments, his accusation that I hate America and religious freedom, and his insupportable claim that atheism turns people away from evolution.
So, Dr. Hughes, as I walk away from your ill-conceived editorial, I leave you with the opposite thought: it’s religion, not atheism, that turns people away from evolution, and we’re not going to boost American acceptance of evolution until we get rid of theistic religion.
A last thought: when people like Hughes go after me, I know I’m doing something right.