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