Review of The Faith Instinct

December 27, 2009 • 10:39 am

It is a truth universally acknowledged that if a New York Times writer produces a book, it will also be reviewed by the New York Times — and favorably.  The latest instantiation is Judith Shulevitz’s review of Nicholas Wade’s The Faith Instinct in today’s NYT.  What “criticism” she levels is halfhearted.

I was asked to blurb this book by the publishers, but refused on the grounds that it was financially supported by the Templeton Foundation and its contents were, apparently, vetted by Templeton-selected reviewers (see the acknowledgments).

Lest you think that NYT authors always getting favorable reviews is just a happy coincidence, I have heard of at least once case in which the solicited review turned out strongly negative, so the Times rejected it and commissioned a more favorable review.

UPDATE:  The Economist heads its review of The Faith Instinct thusly: “An Evolutionary Biologist on Religion.”  Wade, of course, is a journalist, but The Economist in its wisdom apparently thinks that anyone who writes on evolution is an evolutionary biologist.

22 thoughts on “Review of The Faith Instinct

  1. Ahhh – I’m reviewing that for Free Inquiry. I’ve read only a few opening paragraphs so far, but my heart sank – lots of grand generalization with no support at all. I didn’t know it was a Templeton product.

    Ho hum.

  2. Well his review of Dawkins was a lamentably supercilious attempt to educate us all (well, Dawkins in particular) in the vagaries of the philosophy of science. Can’t expect too much.

  3. Going by the review, it sounds pretty run-of-the-mill.

    He thinks we have a God gene? Groan.

    His core argument sounds a bit like game theory 101 as well: the concept of God disincentivises cheating. Yawn.

    1. > He thinks we have a God gene?

      Our only ‘god gene’ may be our propensity to believe fantastical things. It’s the same gene that makes some folks believe in ghosts or crop circles. The *real* ones, of course. 🙂

  4. I must admit even I’m getting tired of my contrarian comments here, so I’ll make a point of praising more often because I enjoy/agree with most posts, but…

    I am quite sure that Sam Tannenhaus would not acknowledge that all NYT writers’ books are favorably reviewed in the NYT BR. Not panned would be closer to the truth, I think.

    Because in fact, the review wasn’t favorable. It was a very straight-forward summary – a literal “review” – with only a few opinions ventured. Most of which were negative. (“At its best” is damning with faint praise indeed)

    True, it wasn’t “criticism” in the all negative, all the time sense (with an exception to prove the rule, of course) that is so prevalent with professional “critics.” But that’s fine with me. I’d rather know what the book argues, and if interested enough to read it, evaluate the claims myself.

    Finally, “I’ve heard” and not naming the book/reviewer at least? If a creationist made that claim, you’d rightfully tear it to shreds.

  5. I’d be inclined to review it by writing a parody – ah, I still miss Bill Gaines even though I disagreed with him on so many things. A working title would be “The Faith, It Stinks”.

  6. For me each to his own, I have no faith system but one does get bored with the playground sniping to the already converted groups of righteousness. This was posted on “ Forum” and after the initial yawn, 24 hours later my view has changed. What do you think ?
    What would you add to the open source belief system of Darwins Church as a mission statement / creed ?

    It seems to me that famous quote by Voltaire “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him” is still true but we have evolved to the time when Darwins Church with an existing infinite life membership of all from amoeba to primate, religious order to atheist group, all faiths and philosophers accept the origin of species as the natural theology. It is possible that through Darwins Church atheist’s can always work through reason and ambiguity rather than in isolation / antipathy

    Your comments please

    Encompassing all entities
    The science of life
    Infinite congregation
    Encompassing all primate belief systems, faiths, creeds, ……….. from totem poles to cathedrals all that once gave social order
    Will be an open source organisation

    The science of life or living matter in all its forms and phenomena, esp. with reference to origin, growth, reproduction, structure, and behavior.

    A branch of knowledge or study dealing with a body of facts or truths systematically arranged and showing the operation of general laws: the mathematical sciences.

  7. If I may, I would like to make a couple of questions about the book (which I have just read in the spanish translation -by the way, when you list the SIX elements of darwinism in ch. 1, the translation rightly says “6”, but it only mentions five!!!); (by the way, don’t think my questions are critical, I have enjoyed the book a lot):
    first, why is it that you pass almost without mentioning two such important events in evolution as the appearence of eucariots and the Cambrian ‘explosion’? Is it because you think they are not relevant?, or because they are problematic for gradualism?, or for some other reason?
    second, what do you think it is the relevance of the discovery that all (or not all?) types of eyes are regulated by a common genetic base?
    Best, and congratulations for the book and the blog

  8. A short comment in defense of The Economist: the subtitle is, indeed misleading, but the second paragraph of the review correctly identifies Wade as a journalist (and lists two of the publications he has written for, including the NYT).

  9. The NYT review, as some have pointed out, was not in the least gushing, even if it wasn’t pointedly critical. At the end the author seems to side with Pascal Boyer’s ideas over Wade’s.

    This idea that religions are the product of group selection is not new, and it sounds essentially similar to that of David Sloan Wilson (yet strangely he’s not mentioned in the review…I assume his ideas are discussed in the book). I think it’s worth considering whether group selection has explanatory value in this case beyond what “religion as accidental by-product” explanation or the “meme” explanation have. Of course if group selection is a priori impossible, then it’s not even in the running, but my impression is that fewer evolutionary biologists would today say this. (Am I wrong?) Of course these explanations that are always presented as alternatives are not mutually exclusive. They could, in fact, all be operative and mutually reinforcing. Wade’s case that selection has favored human genetics favorable for the acceptance of religious ideas should be judged on its own merits, not based on where he stands in the new atheist/accomodationist debate.

    I’d be interested to read your take on higher level selection in a future blog post, Jerry. Your take on the plausibility of a role for group selection in human religion or eusociality in insects?

  10. The Economist in its wisdom apparently thinks that anyone who writes on evolution is an evolutionary biologist.

    Dude, awesome, I reviewed a couple of albums for my high school newspaper (wow, that was over a decade ago now…), so I guess that means I am a rock star! Awesome.

  11. Another example of Jerry Coyne’s puissant intellect: Wade’s book must be bad because it was financially supported by the Templeton Foundation, and two, it would have gotten a bad review in the NYT if it were not written by a Times reporter. Withering criticism indeed.

    1. Well, it certainly seems as though Templeton is pushing the idea of religion-as-adaptation, as opposed to byproduct. In addition to Wade, they are funding David Sloan Wilson’s new project, ERS, that pushes the group selection model.

      If you are interested, a more thorough review can be found here.

    2. How can you judge on Coyne’s intellect if you are erecting a strawmen on it?

      An abstinence of review is not the same as reviewing as bad. Nor can statistics, or as here anecdote, showing that the linked review is worthless be evidence for that a valuable review would be reviewing bad.

      OTOH the displayed argument can be used to judge your intellect.

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