Italian interview

WEIT came out in Italian last week, and somehow my Italian publisher secured us a lot of publicity in the local press.  One item was a blurb and an interview in Il Manifesto, which I understand is a left-wing but popular newspaper loosely associated with the Communist Party (Italian readers: please clarify).

Anyway, if you read Italian, the blurb is here and the interview is here.  If you don’t read Italian, below are the three questions they asked me—in writing—and my written answers (questions are in italic).  Note the use of the classic “man evolving” graphic.

I like the title, which I take to be “Evolution is a fact”; I’m not so wild about the title for the interview, which seems to be “The militancy of Jerry Coyne about Darwin’s theory.” (Italian readers: please clarify this too.)  Thanks to Marco Mazzeo, who did the interview, wrote the blurb, and was generally congenial.


1)   What can you say about the contemporary debates on evolutionism in America? Has anything changed for evolutionism since Obama’s election?

With respect to American debates about evolution, nothing has really changed in nearly 30 years!  Creationists have mounted numerous court challenges against the teaching of evolution in the public schools, but these have all failed—always on the grounds that the American Constitution prohibits the injection of particular religious views into government, of which the schools are a part. (This is the American doctrine of  “separation of church and state”).  But, sadly, public acceptance of Darwin’s theory has not increased over the years.  For three decades surveys have shown the same result: about 40% of the American public rejects evolution entirely, believing the Biblically-derived view that all life was created at one instant within the last 10,000 years. In contrast, in Italy acceptance of evolution is nearly 70%!

Now President Obama, like most Democrats, does accept the truth of biological evolution, although the Republican party generally rejects it.  Obama’s stand is good for science, but, unfortunately, will not do much to influence the rest of America.  This is because most people who reject evolution in America do so on religious grounds, and America is a highly religious nation—even more so than Italy.  And American religion is often evangelical, adhering to the literal truth of the Bible. So long as that is the case, I don’t see much hope for America to become a more Darwin-loving land.

2)  The most striking aspect of creationist attacks on evolutionism is their theological pointlessness. After all, evolutionism is consistent with faith in God. You have only to say that “In the beginning was the Word”, that is, the spark which created the universe was divine (the spark of the Big Bang, for instance, or the spark of Life). So, why creationists persist in refusing evolutionism?

The claim that “evolutionism is consistent with faith in God” is not exactly true, for it depends on exactly what one means by “faith in God.” Clearly, there are many religious people who accept evolution and see no conflict between science and their faith.  Deists, who believe that a god created the universe and then let it unfold without any further intervention, are one class of these.  But there are a large number of people, especially in America, who don’t agree with that brand of theology.  These include fundamentalist Christians, such as the Southern Baptists of America, who see the Bible as literally true, including the idea of a young earth, a great Noachian flood, and the instant creation of animals and plants.  This also holds for many Orthodox Jews as well, and for fundamentalists Muslims who accept the Qur’an as literally true.

It’s instructive to consider the data from polls, which show that 81% of Americans believe in the literal existence of heaven, 70% in the existence of Satan and hell, and 78% in the existence of angels.  These are not people who see the Bible as a metaphor, but largely as a book of empirical truths.  And if your religion is of that sort, then you don’t consider evolutionism consistent with God.

I should add that many of us see science and religion not as compatible, but as inherently incompatible because of their different ways of understanding the world.  Science relies on data, rationality, empirical observation, and constant questioning, while religion relies on dogma and personal revelation.  In religion, faith is a virtue, but in science it’s a vice.

3)    A more bitter question. Doesn’t the contraposition between evolutionists and creationists risk restraining the debate within evolutionism? Perhaps, this is the real danger. In your book the controversy against creationism does not leave space for any discussion, for instance, of Fodor’s and Piattelli Palmarini’s book What Darwin Got Wrong.

Well, I would disagree that my book doesn’t leave room for debate in evolutionary biology.  As flourishing area of science, evolutionary biology is full of  vigorous scientific debates. Evolutionists argue about such topics as the relative role of natural selection versus random processes in evolutionary change, whether that change occurs very slowly and gradually or can sometimes be rapid, and which behaviors of modern humans evolved via natural selection in our distant ancestors.  I discuss many of these unresolved questions in my book.

We evolutionists must remember, however, that these are scientific controversies, and they give no support to the discredited views of creationists.  And we must also remember that although creationists take advantage of these controversies to claim that “evolution is in crisis,” this is a red herring that should never make us mute our scientific disagreements.

As for the book What Darwin Got Wrong, I flatly disagree with the authors’ argument, which is that not only is there no evidence for natural selection, but that the very idea of natural selection is incoherent. These claims are simply wrong. I have written a long critique of the book which you can find here: http://www.thenation.com/article/improbability-pump

38 thoughts on “Italian interview

  1. Asimov comments somewhere that he was once terribly hurt to see a piece in French about his contribution to “the vulgarisation of science” until he recalled that in French “la vulgarisation des sciences” means science popularisation.

    I think your militanzia is fine 🙂

  2. That was hardly militant! You should have brought in some analogies that the Italians would really understand – like the Templeton Foundations approach to science is like Berlusconis approach to 17 year old girls.

    1. It is all about status – Berlusconi I mean – & all very much him trying to project himself as still young & virile.

  3. I like the title, which I take to be “Evolution is a fact”; I’m not so wild about the title for the interview, which seems to be “The militancy of Jerry Coyne about Darwin’s theory.”

    Both look right to me. (My Italian is a bit rusty, though.)

  4. Il Manifesto proudly sports a headline: «Quotidiano comunista», “Communist newspaper”.

    It started in 1969 as a reference for the left wing of the Italian Communist Party. Now it is not related to any political party, and is owned by its journalists.

    1. And as far as I understand Italian politics – which is not much at all 😉 – the communist party is more like our slightly left of the Socialdemocrats-parties.

      1. Since the communists were about the only group to stand up to the fascists, they seem to be highly respected in Italy, even by the majority who disagree with their ideology.

        (Or at least that was my impression, 20+ years ago when I worked there.)

        1. I think you are right, Ray Moscow. My impression too. I just wanted to put into perspective that there communists, and then there are communists. I think the Italian communists have been doing loads of good to the country. But then again – my knowledge of Italian politics are not very “in depth”.

  5. ‘Flatly disagree’ isn’t quite militant. Maybe it’s the way you non-combatively articulate a point, making their heads explode that gives it that impression.

  6. «Militanza» means an active participation to a group or movement, especially a political one.

    Only in some situations it might mean participation in violent acts.

  7. JC: “Creationists have mounted numerous court challenges against the teaching of evolution in the public schools”

    I hate myself for being so intolerably picky, Jerry, but Creationists do not initiate court challenges, they generally infest the school boards, and try to get the school district (or state) to teach creationism and then Genie Scott and crew initiate court proceeding against them. But your point stands.

    1. I asked Marco about that specifically. Here’s his response:

      It’s impossible to translate “Red herring” literally in italian. I used a circumlocution (“un argomento retorico il cui intento è distogliere l’attenzione dal vero problema”, i.e. “a rhetorical tactic of diverting attention away from the real problem”)

      1. @Jerry

        That’s excellent. I am going to try to work “a rhetorical tactic of diverting attention away from the real problem” into my conversations.

        It’s actually amazing how much understood meaning we can attach to such a simple phrase.

      1. A falsa pista would be the result of an honest mistake, wouldn’t it? A red herring is someone’s deliberate attempt to divert attention. Creationists (at least those leading the charge) know that evolution is not in crisis.

        1. I dunno ~ my only Italian is from the two Hollywood Mario’s…

          Mario Lanza & Mario “e sleeps wit da fishes” Puzo

        2. “Falsa pista” is perhaps best translated as “wrong scent,” which I suppose is related to, but not the same as, a “red herring”.

          1. Hi there, I’m Italian and I’ve never heard “falsa pista” as to mean something like red herring. Right now I cannot think of any short idiom to mean that, I think the journalist was right to write that rather long sentence
            In Italian we also miss the cool expression “catch-22”. Too bad

  8. Good show!

    The conflation in the asking of question 2 annoys me no end as always: cosmology # abiogenesis # evolution, so easy to see from the perspective of science, so hard to get grasp for the nature illiterate. I wish there was a press water mark for *FAIL* to stamp all over journalist writings asking the wrong questions, or the right questions wrongly.

  9. Militanza doesn’t have the same connotations as militancy in English, perhaps “activism” would be a good translation. It can also mean doing something over a long period of time (though probably not in this context)

  10. Jerry – did anyone translate to you the article before the inverview? I think it’s quite well written. The following paragraph especially (pardon me for not having the time to translate it all, in case you’re brave enough to trust some internet translator you can copy it from here: http://www.ilmanifesto.it/il-manifesto/ricerca-nel-manifesto/vedi/nocache/1/numero/20110211/pagina/11/pezzo/297032/?tx_manigiornale_pi1%5BshowStringa%5D=jerry%2Bcoyne&cHash=7ee75717f00a67eb9f9a0b36288b55cb)

    “The creationist and the evolutionist have a radically different stance towards a common mood, wonder. The former is amazed by perfection: it is in the adequacy of bird feathers for flying or in the swim efficiency of dolphins that he [sic] finds the natural manifestation of the divine design. For the latter, instead, the imperfection of the living is central: useless vestigial organ (our appendix), the apparently useless morphological stratifications (those which make animal feti [or do you say fetuses?] suprisingly similar to each other) or the not homogeneous distributions which of those life forms which make Australia the land of kangaroos”
    … Ok actually the last sentence is quite strange, I suspect this journalist, though familiar with some scientific jargon, hasn’t written a lot about biology… Still better than the average Italian scientific journalist tho!

    1. Checking the Italian interview (http://www.ilmanifesto.it/il-manifesto/ricerca-nel-manifesto/vedi/nocache/1/numero/20110211/pagina/11/pezzo/297034/?tx_manigiornale_pi1%5BshowStringa%5D=jerry%2Bcoyne&cHash=9d6c1374f2ec2c05580f8d4798dab9ae), seems like the interviewer changed some bit:
      – “But, sadly, public acceptance of Darwin’s theory has not increased over the years” – The word public, which you emphasised in italic here, is not present
      – “and America is a highly religious nation—even more so than Italy” – this also is missing
      – “After all, evolutionism is consistent with faith in God” becomes “After all, evolutionisms and faith in God SEEMS compatible” [emphasis mine]
      – Uhm. “In your book the controversy against creationism does not leave space for any discussion, for instance, of Fodor’s and Piattelli Palmarini’s book What Darwin Got Wrong” is actually written as “…In your book you do not mention at all the much discussed Fodor’s etc.” This could be a gaffe – WDGW went out in Febryary 2010, WEIT came out months before right?

      1. Thanks for the corrections. Indeed, some of the translation seems misleading, perhaps accidentally. But the omission of my quote on the religious nature of America is disturbing. Yes, my book came out well before Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini’s book.

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