A very strange review of WEIT on Huffington Post

February 12, 2009 • 9:38 pm

Stuart Whatley has reviewed the book on Huffington Post, here. It is favorable, but is strange in one respect: Whatley seems to require that if the fact of evolution dismantles some peoples’ consoling religious or spiritual beliefs, then the onus is on evolutionists to provide for those people a substitute belief system. Whatley get into this point by talking about creationist arguments:

Though a majority of biologists have refuted these arguments from a scientific standpoint, what matters to rejecters of Darwinism is not that it is bad science, but that it gets away with adopting the appellation of “science” at all–they require no further confirmation to be satisfied. It is for this reason that Coyne’s book may have little effect on those who hold such concrete beliefs.

Tragically, this is even admitted in his Preface, when Coyne writes that, “for those who oppose Darwinism purely as a matter of faith, no amount of evidence will do–theirs is a belief that is not based on reason.” And while Coyne and his colleagues have been forced to address Intelligent Design’s scientific claims head on, they are also obliged to offer commensurate psychological/spiritual rewards for accepting Darwinism over creationism. (My emphasis)

This is undoubtedly their most daunting challenge. Belief in a designer has all the appeal to mystery and security and lazy axiomatic explanation that gave rise to religion in the first place. Darwinism offers the beauty of nature and the pursuit of knowledge. But in the fight for many peoples’ visceral convictions, it is abjectly outgunned. Naturalists can attempt to substitute for their inherent metaphysical bankruptcy until they turn blue, it surely will not satisfy the truly faithful.

Nevertheless, Coyne concludes with a plea to his reader to not give in to the misconception that “accepting evolution will somehow sunder our society, wreck our morality, impel us to behave like beasts, and spawn a new generation of Hitlers and Stalins.” This may be demonstrably true on a broad societal basis, but it is difficult to see how most individual believers, who just aren’t satisfied by the beauty of nature alone, will ever embrace Darwinism entirely–even if it is an indisputable fact. This is unfortunate, but it is certainly no fault of Coyne’s.

This is a common reaction, but I really don’t get it. My job in that book was convincing people that evolution is a scientific fact, not to devise a way to make Darwinism itself satisfy peoples’ “psychological and spiritual needs”. I recognize that this may undermine or dispel peoples’ psychological comfort. But am I then obliged to tell people how Darwinism itself offers commensurate rewards? I can’t, because for those not caught up in the wonder and majesty of evolution, it won’t give much consolation. I hoped to offer a taste of this wonder, but I am not foolish enough to say that The Origin will replace the Bible. Were Galileo and Copernicus obliged to show people how accepting a heliocentric solar system would give them spiritual comfort?

We find our comfort where we may. All I aimed to do was tell people what is true. Presumably people would prefer to construct their ideology and psychology around the plain facts of the world, but maybe I am wrong.

7 thoughts on “A very strange review of WEIT on Huffington Post

  1. My reading of that passage suggests that the obligation “to offer commensurate psychological/spiritual rewards for accepting Darwinism over creationism” is not a ethical or moral requirement, but a tactical one.

    If we accept that people reject evolution on emotional grounds, then appealing to their logic is a tactical error.

    Carl Sagan knew this, and pitched his science popularizations at both the head and heart. When he waxed poetic about starstuff he was tapping into the same emotions that religions manipulate so skillfully.

  2. Jim, you are probably right. But Sagan’s tactic hasn’t worked, has it?
    Eventually I think people will have to make their own peace with evolution.

  3. Well, Sagan’s tactic did work for me, helping to shape my perceptions of reality at an impressionable age. But you’re right that the people of the USA in general has not been swayed by his approach. As widely-viewed as Cosmos was, it simply was never seen by the people who needed to see it the most. And Sagan’s particular talent in evoking those emotions was a rare one, even among skillful science writers.

    Watching from my perch here in Montreal — one of the most liberal and secular spots in North America, the whole spectacle of religious-driven anti-intellectualism is simultaneously amusing and terrifying. It’s like watching a whole civilization self-administer a prefrontal lobotomy.

    All that said, I’m looking forward to reading WEIT, and wish you luck in your own efforts to engage and enthrall your audience.

  4. Philosopher David Benatar (author of the notorious and rigorously argued Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence) has an interesting review of The God Delusion that, I think, bears interestingly on this issue.

    “The Dawkins Delusion”http://vorosh.blogspot.com/2008/03/optimism-delusion.html

  5. I really don’t get this point of view. Evolution doesn’t necessarily kill God, though it does kill the creation myth. Are they saying that people take comfort in being made out of clay?

  6. I wish I had found this thread sooner. I suspect I wasn’t as clear as I could have been in the outlined segment. My point here was to point out the unfortunate, intractable and frustratingly inherent nature of the debate. When I say “they are also obliged to offer commensurate psychological/spiritual rewards for accepting Darwinism over creationism,” I say this as a lamentation, not as a statement of how it ideally should be.

    In a way, its similar to the political clash we see now, where Democrats are said to have ideas, but where Republicans still have discipline and well-practiced tactics that are effective enough to nullify the other side. I see this happening with Intelligent Design in some parts of the US (though it is fortunately, on the whole, fighting a losing battle). The thing with ID is that its really an argument that satisfies neither side. Scientists rightfully and obviously reject it, but so to do the truly religious, who would prefer to believe the Genesis myth. ID is a tactic (be it dishonest). And ff this is a tactical fight, then so be it — the multitudes who do not think for themselves will require an less scientific approach.

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