Dr. Eugenie Scott, former head of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) and known as “Genie” to everyone, gave the keynote address on Sunday at the Kamloops “Imagine No Religion” meeting. Her title was “Why do people reject good science? Reflections on the evolution and climate science wars.” And it was a good talk, comparing evolution denialism to climate-change denialism, parsing out via statistics the relative contributions of religion versus politics to each (no surprise: religion contributes the main impetus for creationism; politics and conservative ideology to climate-change denialism), and suggesting ways to get people to embrace the conclusions of scientists.
But I want to talk briefly about one contention she made in her talk as well as one statement she made in the Q&A.
In the talk, Genie said several times that if you want to change people’s minds—about either climate-change denialism or evolution—the most effective way to reach them is through someone who has a similar “ideology,” be that religious or political. In other words, to make a creationist Christian accept evolution, the best way is for an evolution-accepting Christian of the same denomination to convince them that evolution isn’t inimical to their religious beliefs. (That’s what the “Faith Project” of the NCSE is about.) I suppose this wouldn’t work very well for fundamentalist believers, since no other fundamentalists accept evolution!
I vaguely recall some psychological research showing that people are more convinced in the “lab” under such circumstances, and certainly Dan Barker, in his talk, began his road to apostasy by pondering statements by fellow Christians. But I’m still not sure Genie was right.
Take the Dawkins Foundation’s “Converts’ Corner” page, where literally hundreds of former Christians testify that they gave up their faith (and accepted evolution) because of the ministrations of the “strident” Dawkins. (The page is no longer maintained.) Now compare the success of Dawkins, who as a vociferous atheist does precisely the opposite of what Genie recommends, with that of BioLogos, the evolution-friendly evangelical Christian site that aims to bring their creationist co-religionists around to evolution. I don’t recall BioLogos having a “converts’ corner,” or even boasting of any success at all.
Now I’m sure some Christians have succeeded in bringing other Christians to the altar of Darwin, but I don’t think Genie has hard evidence, beyond what’s been done in lab experiments with undergrads, that the absolute best way to “convert” people to evolution involves sharing their religious beliefs. We’re talking here about long-term change of mind, not short-term experiments in which students read a paper, or hear someone talk, and then answer questions about their beliefs. It seems to me that Genie’s claim is based more on faith rather than evidence. What evidence there is from the real world, it seems to me, goes in the opposite direction.
In the end, I’m of the view that all approaches should be tried. Some creationists are susceptible only to the blandishments of coreligionists, others need the push of strident atheism by people like Dawkins, and still others need the ice-cold shower of ridicule. (Of course, most creationists aren’t susceptible to anything!) There is no “best” way to approach everyone, as people have different personalities, different degrees of doubt, and different tolerance for disagreement. So let a hundred strategies blossom. Each of us is best at one strategy. I, for instance, would be useless at accommodationism, for I simply don’t believe it. The NCSE simply won’t consider abandoning their accommodationism. So, given the proven success of atheists in bringing people to evolution (even I”ve had a fair amount of success with my book, which is not an accommodationist tome), I can’t agree with Genie that the best strategy to bring people to evolution is to first osculate the rump of their faith, and then say, “Have you heard the Good News about Darwin?”
I’m curious about readers’ own “conversions” to evolution if they were once religious creationists. Similarly, some readers have been successful in helping others accept evolution. What strategy worked for you? And what strategy do you think would work for others?
One reader wanted to know if I was going ask Genie about theistic evolution—the view that evolution happened, but was somehow guided by God. They wanted to know if she considered that “real” evolution.
I responded on this site that I hardly wanted to get into a kerfuffle about the issue with Genie in public. After all, I know her position on it (theistic evolution is okay), she knows mine, and I didn’t want to do battle in public, particularly when she was giving a keynote talk.
But this website is a different matter.
In fact, the question of theistic evolution did come up in Genie’s Q&A, when one of the audience asked Genie whether she considered theistic evolution “science.”
The question clearly discomfited her a bit, but I knew how she would answer. She said, correctly, that there are a huge variety of positions falling under “theistic evolution,” ranging from pure deism (God created the universe, and then evolution proceeded purely naturalistically) to other forms in which God intervened to a greater or lesser extent. As we know, those interventions range from subtle ones (God tweaked certain mutations making it more likely that they would be more likely to be adaptive, or more likely to create human features), to less subtle (God inserted a soul in the human lineage) to pretty drastic interventions (God let some species evolve naturally, but brought others into existence ex nihilo).
Theistic evolution is in fact the most widely accepted form of evolution in America, at least for the evolution of our species. A Gallup Poll in 2012 showed that 46% of Americans thought God created humans ex nihilo within the last 10,000 years, 32% thought that humans evolved, but with the help of God, and only 15% thought that humans evolved without any intervention by God. In other words, roughly one in seven American accepts evolution in the same way scientists do. For every American who accepts naturalistic evolution, more than two accept God-guided evolution. (I think accepting that “God guided the process” rules out pure deism.)
Genie said something like this (I didn’t write down her words), “What we care about is getting the science accepted, and yes, all of these positions are compatible with science, so I have no problem considering them as science.” In other words, she’d be okay if she or the NCSE could simply make religious people accept theistic evolution. For, in her view, they’d be accepting a scientific view rather than a religious one. And then they might be our allies in keeping straight creationism out of public schools.
And here I think Genie is wrong—dead wrong.
Theistic evolution is neither science nor scientific. While it may help some religious people oppose the teaching of strict creationism in schools (the real goal of the NCSE’s accommodationism), it inculcates people with the idea that God and his supernatural acts can work hand-in-hand with physical laws to bring about a process that scientists think is purely naturalistic.
Further, we have evidence against certain types of theistic evolution. There doesn’t appear to be any telelogical forces driving evolution in a certain direction; there is no evidence that mutations are more likely to be useful when the environment changes, so that mutations for longer fur in mammals would occur more frequently when the climate becomes colder (this is what scientists mean when we say that “mutations are random”, although “indifferent” is a better word than “random”); and we don’t see violations of Darwinian natural selection, that is, we don’t see natural selection creating “irreducible complexity,” as intelligent-design advocates maintain.
As far as we can see, then, evolution, like all things that occur in nature, is purely naturalistic; it does not require or give evidence for the intervention of a god. As Laplace famously said, “We don’t need that hypothesis.” Theistic evolution says otherwise. And that’s unscientific. There is, after all, a reason that Darwin called his best idea natural selection, not “divinely-aided selection.”
Think about it. Saying that theistic evolution is scientific is equivalent to saying that yes, chemical bonds form between sodium and chloride ions, but those bonds are formed with the help of God. Why not have theistic chemistry? Or that the universe is expanding, but God is helping it expand. Why not have theistic cosmology?
Those hypotheses are unscientific because they not only posit an intervention that isn’t observed, but invoke a superfluous and supernatural intervention to explain a process that can be explained adequately using pure naturalism. God is a useless “add-on” here, and that’s not the way science works. Science works best when we make theories that assume no more than we need to. While it’s logically possible for God to be guiding particles and directing evolution, we have no evidence that this is true. Theistic evolution is not required by science; it is, as we must admit, simply something tacked on to make religious people feel better about a process that, if purely naturalistic, is taken as a direct attack on their worldview.
Further, theistic evolution is, to use Genie’s own term, a “science stopper.” If you say that God is making mutations, or expanding the universe, then we need investigate no further. What we don’t understand can simply be fobbed off on the will of a divine being. There’s need to look for that elusive naturalistic explanation.
The tactic of considering theistic evolution as “scientific” is a purely political one. The NCSE and others (viz., the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Academy of Sciences), feel that to get evolution accepted and taught in schools, we need religious allies. And to get those allies, we have to accept their view that evolution was guided by God, even though we don’t believe it ourselves.
Science makes progress only when it doesn’t evoke a God. Even the NCSE accepts that “methodological naturalism”—the rejection of divine hypotheses—is the way that science has progressed. So why reject God when you’re doing science, but then admit on the sly that he might be in there working away subtly and, perhaps, undetectably? That is a political view, not a scientific one, and it dilutes and pollutes the scientific enterprise. It also gives the public the false idea that theistic evolution is somehow okay with scientists.
It isn’t. No evolutionary biologist puts in her scientific papers a note to the effect that God might be involved in the process she’s studying. Anyone doing that would be laughed out of the field. So if scientists reject theistic evolution in their own work, why accept it when the public believes it? It’s pure hypocrisy to do so, and a blatant attempt to coddle believers.
I’d rather stand up for the purity and naturalism of science than accept forms of science that invoke God. Yes, I’ll be glad to work with religious people to help expel creationism from schools—and theistic evolution is a form of creationism!. What I won’t do is give my imprimatur to a form of evolution that includes the supernatural. Until we have some evidence for the supernatural in science—and we certainly don’t at this point—let’s not grant it simply to gain allies. That is a false alliance that, in the end, creates a public misunderstanding of science.
It is ironic that the National Center for Science Education is willing to include theistic evolution as “scientific.” It is wrong, it is hypocritical, and it’s a cynical political tactic unbecoming to scientists. The NCSE has done terrific work in keeping creationism out of schools. But in saying that theistic evolution is “scientific,” as Genie did on Sunday, we are shooting ourselves in the foot. What is science profited if we help evolution get accepted more widely, but in so doing lose our own scientific soul?
Note: While I don’t object to religious people trying to bring co-religionists around to Darwin, I do object to them doing so by saying that evolution “was guided by God.” That’s bringing them around not to science, but to an unholy mixture of science and superstition. If they’re going to sell evolution, let them sell it for what it is: naturalistic science.