How Best to Propagate Darwin’s Science
Two book reviews recently discussed the problem of “scientific illiteracy” in society, which the authors equated with doubts about Darwinian evolution.
- Dumb public: In a review in Science of A Scientist’s Guide to Talking to the Media by Richard Hayes and Daniel Grossman (Rutgers, 2006), Barbara Kline Pope began with an anecdote to illustrate the pitiful state of scientific literacy in America. She had overheard a lady in a doctor’s office waiting room saying, “Well, I can sort of believe in evolution, but I just can’t see that the big bang really happened.” Kline was appalled at this example of the “dismal state of scientific literacy.” She pointed to evolution and the big bang as “some of the most established scientific theories.” It was not clear, however, what connection these two theories had with the rest of her review, which focused on the theme that “knowledge of basic scientific ideas is necessary for adequate citizen participation in decision-making, preparation for employment, and the practical aspects of daily life.” How many include the big bang in their job applications, or evolutionary theory in their town hall meetings?
- Group conundrum: In Nature, Mark Pagel gave a surprisingly unenthusiastic review of David Sloan Wilson’s Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin’s Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives (Delacorte Press, 2007; see entry from 11/01/2005). He left it doubtful this book will convince anyone to become an evolutionist.
Like the previous review, this one bemoaned why so few people accept Darwin’s theory. It’s a source of endless frustration to evolutionary biologists that the number of doubters remains high: currently 54% – up from 46% in 1994. One answer might be that creationists are having more kids. The other answer, however, is the tack Sloan Wilson prefers: evolutionists just haven’t done a good enough selling job: “if the evidence for darwinian evolution is presented clearly enough and often enough, any reasonable personwill come around to the darwinian view.” But Pagel realizes this will be a hard sell to human-type primates:
What is there to say? The usual answer, that we share more than 98% of our genes with chimpanzees, is becoming hackneyed. It is the strangeness of human behaviour that really puts the darwinian view to the test. And here there is much to discuss. We have enormous brains that make us shrewd beyond belief in comparison to other animals, we have the only fully developed symbolic language on the planet, we cooperate with and engage in elaborate task-sharing and reciprocal relations with people we don’t know, we help the elderly, give money to charities, put on matching silly shirts to attend football matches, obediently wait in queues, die for our countries or even sometimes for an idea, and we positively ripple and snort with righteousness and indignation when we think others don’t do some of these things. We even have a word for this sense of how others ought to behave – morality. Chimpanzees, and for that matter other animals, aren’t like this. No wonder the creationists don’t believe the darwinian account.
Though Pagel called it an “agreeable little book,” he thought Sloan Wilson oversold the group-selectionist view of human sociality. For every example of evolutionary altruism, Pagel had counter-examples of selfish individualism. If group selection is so effective, he puzzled, why do bees with much smaller brains do a better job of cooperation than humans, if we have enjoyed such big brains for 3.5 million years? With the Darwinists themselves still debating whether human altruism can be explained by group selection or individual selection, he considered Sloan Wilson’s approach too optimistic.
And at this point, we award Mark Pagel Stupid Evolution Quote of the Week for his ending logical conundrum:
But perhaps even Sloan Wilson should not expect to change people’s minds about religion. If our minds evolved to help us wade through the complexity of social life, to use groups for our own gain, and to help us rebound from ‘the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’, which set of beliefs, on balance, will be more useful, religious ones (whether true or not) or a belief in natural selection?
This seems to be saying that if evolution invented religion, it must be useful, so don’t knock it. But then why even try to convince anyone that a useless idea like natural selection is true?
A bigger conundrum is raised by Pagel’s quote: how did the evolutionary biologists figure out natural selection’s conspiracy to hide the truth from everyone else? Maybe they are the ones that are deceived. How could they tell? There is no truth in Darwinland. There is no standard of usefulness, either; i.e., useful to whom? Is survival even useful? Whatever useful means, it appears evolutionists aren’t very useful themselves. Maybe they are just mutants that need to be selected away from the gene pool. How ironic. By pushing a useless theory called Darwinism, they won themselves a Darwin Award.
We need a new category: Evil Evolution Quote of the Week. The rabid atheist Sam Harris was at it again, as Madelaine Bunting wrote for the Mail&Guardian online. Lumping Christians and radical Muslims in the same category, Harris pondered, “some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them.” What constitutes an atheistic standard of ethics, he did not say. Vicki Baker used this quote for a pop quiz on the Dangerous Intersection blog. It prompted a variety of heated responses. Apparently, Sam Harris never quite got around to realizing this has already been tried (see 11/30/2005 entry).