Accommodationists have the most amazing ability to ignore the elephant in the room when discussing why America, uniquely among First World nations, largely rejects evolution. That elephant is, of course, religion. How many creationists, or opponents of evolution, aren’t motivated by their faith? Yes, there are a few, but you’d have to be completely blinkered not to see that America’s rejection of evolution is due largely to America’s extreme religiosity (also unique among First World nations).
One of the blinkered is British journalist Dennis Sewell. His new piece in the CatholicHerald.co.uk, “Jon Huntsman was crazy to back evolution,” explains why Republican politicians won’t embrace evolution. Unfortunately, Sewell blames everything but religion for that behavior.
Well, he’s right about one thing: the Republican fear of Darwin:
On a Thursday afternoon last August Jon Huntsman, then a candidate for the Republican nomination in the US presidential race, used Twitter to send the shortest political suicide note in history: “I believe in evolution… Call me crazy.”
I call him crazy. Had the man done no message research? This single tweet did more even than Huntsman’s decision to pose for Annie Leibovitz in Vogue to confirm that the candidate was out of touch – not only with popular opinion in the small towns that Sarah Palin likes to call “real America”, but also with a philosophical anxiety that pervades the United States, from sea to shining sea.
(Note the term “philosophical” anxiety, not “religously-based anxiety.”) And Sewell’s also correct about the dismal statistics on American acceptance of evolution, though he gets in a gratuitous swipe at Richard Dawkins and his ” smart alec” acolytes:
Smart alec acolytes of Richard Dawkins, who like to style themselves “Brights”, while dismissing anyone who questions their materialist outlook as intellectually deficient, will be peeved to discover that only one in four American voters who have been awarded Masters degrees accepts the Darwinian line on evolution. Indeed, Gallup found that scientific orthodoxy on this topic is a minority position at every level of education – from high school dropout to PhD – and in every category of political affiliation. Despite the barrage of publicity that attended the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species in 2009, the latest Gallup figures show that overall only 16 per cent of Americans today believe what they were taught about evolution in science classes at school. Consequently, any politician, of whatever stripe, who unambiguously sides with science on this issue puts him or herself at odds with the majority of voters.
(Really, does anyone us the term “Brights” any more?)
Don’t you sense here a bit of evolution-dissing here? More about that in a minute. Yes, the Gallup Poll shows that only 16% of Americans accept evolution (at least in humans) as scientists do: an unguided, materialistic process of which humans were one of millions of products. More Americans—38%—think that God guided the evolution of humans, but that’s a form of theistic evolution which, as Eric MacDonald argues in a new post, is simply a form of creationism, with humans reflecting God’s intercession in evolution. And 40% of Americans still believe in the Biblical view that humans were created instantly.
To what does Sewell attribute this problem? Not religion, although he mentions it tangentially. Rather, he sees it as the result of two factors:
1. Eugenics and evolution-inspired racism. Sewell says this:
The answer lies in the way evolution has evolved in the United States. It is not Darwin’s original scientific theory that so many sensible, well-educated Americans object to, but the ideological monstrosity that Darwinism has become over time. First, at the turn of the 20th century, scientists claimed that evolution had social implications. This found expression in Social Darwinism and eugenics, which saw the rural poor hunted across the Appalachians and young women forcibly sterilised for having children out of wedlock. Then came Scientific Racialism, which claimed that evolutionary science proved that America’s minorities – Blacks, Hispanics, Italians, Greeks and Jews – were biologically inferior to those of pure New England stock. Meanwhile, the Darwinists were asserting that evolution necessarily implied the triumph of philosophical materialism. Americans were told that the rights they held to be self-evident had no basis in reality at all and that a human life has no more intrinsic value than that of an insect.
Well, it’s questionable how much theories of evolution played into this racism, as opposed to the rise of genetics at the beginning of the 20th century. Yes, that was a dire time for the misapplication of science (see Steve Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man), but I think that theories of genetics and of selective breeding played far more of a role in eugenics than did evolution. After all, natural selection was in low repute until about 1930, although artificial selection—the basis for eugenics—had been practiced for millennia without any knowledge of evolution.
But that’s beside the point. Does Sewell really think that Americans reject Darwinism because of its supposed connection with racism and eugenics? I doubt that most Americans even know much about that, and they’re also not aware that Darwin campaigned constantly against slavery, though he did of course have some dire views on racial superiority. Sewell’s views here appear largely to derive from his book, The Political Gene: How Darwin’s Ideas Changed Politics. which pins all sorts of racism and eugenic ideas on Darwin (see a critical review by Marek Kohn in The Independent here). Of course we can’t hold evolutionary biology responsible for how its ideas are misused, but neither can we impute Americans’ dislike of evolution to those misuses, about which Americans are largely ignorant.
2. Scientism, evolutionary psychology and “pan-Darwinism.” Yes, the trouble’s also due to Dan Dennett and those evolutionary psychologists, who impute everything to evolution:
Evolution began as a neat explanation of variation within species and a plausible hypothesis for the origin of species. But today it is held out as a sufficient explanation of the origin of all life, a general explanatory theory of the development of everything – including culture – a grand narrative to end all grand narratives. Evolution is presented by Daniel Dennett as a “universal acid” that dissolves all ethical and moral systems, and by Richard Dawkins as a compelling argument against the existence of God and a slam-dunk case for abandoning any search for meaning, purpose or direction in human affairs.
Does anyone seriously expect the American public to buy into all that? Science has broken its bounds. Instead of confining evolution to the natural world, scientists have sought to intrude its application into the social, political, philosophical and religious domains. Denying evolution’s veracity is for many ordinary Americans a way of rejecting that. It is righteous cussedness.
Well of course evolution does have implications for sociology, politics, and even philosophy, if for no other reason than those are the products of evolved brains, and those areas may also evince phenomena that are the result of evolution (male-male competition, for instance). But again, that’s not the reason America rejects evolution.
As you know, I’m not a wholesale fan of evolutionary psychology, but the application of evolutionary biology to human and animal behavior has been very fruitful. And yes, evolution is evidence against an important religious view: the design argument. Nor does the cruelty and waste of natural selection attest to the existence of a loving and benevolent God.
But that aside, the gist of Sewell’s article is that evolutionists themselves are to blame for America’s rejection of evolution.
That’s palpable nonsense. Every statistic shows that evolution-denial is born of religion. Religious people accept evolution far less than do secularists, and Biblical literalists far less than those who see the Bible as divinely inspired but not literally true. Church attendance is strongly and negatively correlated with acceptance of evolution. Countries that are less religious accept evolution far more readily. And, of course, creationism has repeatedly been thrown out of America’s public schools by the courts because creationism is a belief based on religion, not fact. Finally, and I’ve quoted this several times before, here’s an analysis of poll data by Dennis Masci writing for the Pew Forum:
When asked what they would do if scientists were to disprove a particular religious belief, nearly two-thirds (64%) of people say they would continue to hold to what their religion teaches rather than accept the contrary scientific finding, according to the results of an October 2006 Time magazine poll. Indeed, in a May 2007 Gallup poll, only 14% of those who say they do not believe in evolution cite lack of evidence as the main reason underpinning their views; more people cite their belief in Jesus (19%), God (16%) or religion generally (16%) as their reason for rejecting Darwin’s theory.
So while Sewell is correct in claiming that Republicans see evolution as a hot potato, he’s simply wrong to blame that on American’s fear of eugenics and evolutionary psychology. It’s palpably obvious that Republicans are pandering to Americans’ religiosity (much stronger among fellow Republicans than among Democrats), and their knowledge that religious folks, particularly conservative ones, who form much of the Republican base, see evolution as damaging to their faith and therefore destructive of meaning, purpose and morality.
I’ll have more to say about the influence of religion on American evolution-denial in a future article, but the connection is so obvious that you have to have some other agenda to deny it. One such agenda is accommodationism: the idea that we can’t criticize religion if we’re to convert the faithful to evolution. I don’t know if that’s what is behind Sewell’s views, and I find it strange that a Brit, who lives in a country so much less religious than America, can’t descry the effect of our religion on our views about science.
But I found one telling remark in an interview with Sewell published in Time Magazine in 2009. Here’s his response to a question about the influence of Darwin.
All things considered, do you believe Darwin was a great luminary in the path of human progress?
What has the theory of evolution done for the practical benefit of humanity? It’s helped our understanding of ourselves, yet compared to, say, the discovery of penicillin or the invention of the World Wide Web, I wonder why Darwin occupies this position at the pinnacle of esteem. I can only imagine he has been put there by a vast public relations exercise.
Yep, forget about how Darwin’s work transformed our understanding not only of ourselves, but of nature and our own relationship to other living creatures in nature, or how it made instant sense of so many observations that puzzled Darwin’s predecessors. (We all know the famous quote of geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky, “Noting in biology makes sense except in light of evolution”. That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but not far off.) No, to Sewell the influence of evolutionary biology reflects a vast public relations exercise engineered by self-aggrandizing scientists.
h/t: Dan Dennett