A video of my talk at Harvard

May 11, 2012 • 4:28 am

Below is a video of the talk I gave at the Harvard Museum of Natural History nine days ago, “Why evolution is true and why many people still don’t believe it.” The original website of the “Evolution Matters” lecture series is here, where you can see other talks in the series by Jack Szostak, Randolph Nesse, and Iain Couzin.

The introduction is by my old friend Andrew Berry, a lecturer and advisor at Harvard. What he says is true, except that my draft number was low—#3—instead of high, a number that was a recipe for going to Vietnam in those days.  The Harvard folks are trying to add the Q&A to this video, and the sound is a bit weak at the very beginning of my spiel, but improves about a minute in.

62 thoughts on “A video of my talk at Harvard

    1. You must drink tea slower than I do. I only managed half at breakfast, and the second half after dinner.

      Very enjoyable talk, Jerry. But, where do we go now? It seems like the problems before us are almost insurmountable.

  1. Here’s the question that I wanted to ask after the talk: at the end, you set up a formula for a dysfunctional society leading to a stronger belief in religion/god. This very well might be true for many or even most Americans, but it’s certainly not true for all of them. I’m of course thinking of people like Ken Miller, Francis Collins, and others, who both accept evolution and god. What’s the solution or the future (in your view) of the disagreement between theistic evolutions who are scientists (like Miller and Collins) and scientists like you who see religion/god and science to be in conflict?

    1. Some statistical distributions have longer tails than others, and the views of Miller and Collins reflect this “spread.” I see time and education as the solution; beliefs will wane largely through attrition.

    2. The problem with both is that they don’t “really” accept evolution. They think god rigged the deck.

      Evolution is random mutation, altered phenotype, and differential survival in a specific environment.

      Their version is entirely different. Their version is random mutation, altered phenotype, and differential survival in a specific environment. Because god said so.

      (Hint: think violation of the principle of parsimony. There’s one variable too many in their version. And a hidden one at that.)

    3. But they don’t believe this because of evidence– they believe this because they imagine themselves “saved” for believing this and “damned” for doubt. Consequently, they really have to blind themselves to the more horrific parts of evolution and make excuses for why there is no actual evidence for their deities’ involvement. Moreover, they have to keep themselves ignorant of the evolutionary aspects of consciousness in order to imagine it can exist outside of an evolved brain rather than being a product of such.

      I think promises of salvation and threats of hell are the real threats to the understanding and acceptance of evolution. Evolution without magical input is fairly easy to understand– figuring out gaps for god to play a role requires purposeful ignorance of knowledge that threatens that faith.

      Moreover, theistic evolutionists promote the delusion that religion and science are not in conflict and/or that religion has nothing to do with peoples distrust of the theory and the scientists who teach it– when it is entirely to blame.

  2. The smartest people in the smartest field in the smartest school in the smartest country (well used to be) still haven’t figured out how to do a sound check before the event begins. Mind-boggling.

    –A musician 😀

    1. p.s. I wasn’t commenting on the sound quality but rather starting an event with “hello hello is this thing on? can you hear me?” I just cracked up from that. Have you ever heard a concert begin that way?

      Anyway I enjoyed the talk and the slides and the points raised, though right wingers will probably just take it as another lefty attempt to quash religion and turn the country into a nanny state. As long as they’re the ones that die from dysentery, cholera, and starvation they’re welcome to the kind of world they want to create. When it comes to the rest of us, not so much.

  3. Ouch! Draft lottery number of 3.

    Mine was 306. If I had been born three hours earlier, it would have been 6. I called mom to thank her for having a long labor.

    It think they took up to 20 that year.

    1. Ouch! Draft lottery number of 3. Mine was 306. If I had been born three hours earlier, it would have been 6. I called mom to thank her for having a long labor.

      Sorry, but I have you both beat. My B/D is Sept. 14’th, number one in the lottery.

      First tho, a little history:

      We used to drive from Detroit to Toledo to hit the great North Shore beer-bars, and using my ‘altered’ draft card to get in, it worked for a while, but a shrewd ID checker at one place confiscated mine. Charged with a federal offense, my draft status was changed from 1-A to 1-Y.

      Later on, while working as a QA Inspector at Autonetics, the Minuteman and S.I.N.S (Ship’s Inertial Navigation Systems) facility in Anaheim, I heard on the news that 1-Y’s were being reclassified to 1-A’s, and for those so classified to stop at a local recruitment facility to make the change.

      Drat, for some reason I just never got around to doing that. Funny how you tend to put things off.

      Much later, back in Kalamazoo Michigan, and as a student at WMU, I attended numerous anti-war rallies, and filmed them as well. Unfortunately, my ex later on disposed of all my footage.

      So in sum, I openly defended Ali/Clay in ’67, the end-of-war rallies ad infinitum, and felt a little cheated that when the draft lottery ensued, I came in ‘first’ but was disqualified due to being a little beyond the age limit for the draft. Oh well …

  4. If one is using Firefox, the video can be downloaded using Download Helper and played on a video player like Itunes or VLC, where the sound can be beefed up, if necessary. The sound quality can be modified if one is using the VLC player but not Itunes which, for some unknown reason, the equalizer doesn’t work on MP4 files.

  5. I enjoyed your talk a great deal. As an engineer I never took biology in college (I once saw a study that showed that engineers tend to have a strong aversion to insects and blood). So I was/am in need of remedial education in the life sciences, and this talk was right at my level.

    At the end of your talk you showed a graph with a strong correlation between belief in god and dysfunction in modern-day societies. You could have also observed that ancient societies were horribly dysfunctional and it was in this environment that religions were in fact born (and haunt us to this day).

    Years ago I read Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin and learned the fascinating story of tiktaalik. Soon afterward I was in DC and went to the Natural History Museum expecting to see a display on tiktaalik but saw none. I mentioned this to the lady at the Information Desk before I left. She was quite knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the museum but had never heard of tiktaalik; I hope the museum now has a tiktaalik display.

  6. Great talk! I had no trouble with the sound, despite requiring two hearing aids. I find the argument persuasive, but it seems to depend pretty much on the specifics of the social dysfunction metric. Are there some independent works that support the interpretation that social dysfunction promotes religious belief?

  7. Extremely interesting talk. Thank you for sharing. I wonder though, where Canada sits on the scale of religiosity. I never seem to see us mentioned. LOL
    Great talk as always!

    1. I’ve seen that slide a few times now, and I can’t help thinking that the US and Turkey should be treated as the outliers that they almost certainly are. Eliminate them from the analysis, and the correlation between belief in god and non-acceptance of evolution becomes more statistically significant, and much weaker.

  8. Great talk as always! I was wondering where us Canadians fit, on the scale of religiosity. I never seem to see us mentioned! LOL
    Great talk! Always interesting!

  9. I will no longer plan on descending on my nearest church in order to tell the faithful that they have an intellectual capacity that is less than one of those irreducible dinoflagellates they are always telling me about. Instead Jerry Coyne recommends a much more enlightened tactic. I will not give the ending away; I will just encourage you to watch the video.

  10. Very well done, Professor Coyne.

    You pointed out that religious people have trouble accepting evolution because it doesn’t make them feel “special”. I agree with that statement, and understand its somewhat chiding tone, but I also think this is the point where atheism and science become largely ineffective at changing human minds.

    Simply put, many people who are suffering in this life need existential comfort. They absolutely need to feel a sense of hope, and they need the promise of a better life in the future. The disenfranchised in this world, by and large, simply will not join up and be counted as atheists until we can do much, much better than say “Buck up, man, you’re a child of the stars!”

    (A statement which now fills me, a former believer, with awe, and even a modicum of peaceful contentment, as it were.)

    In other words, the truth very well may be that until atheism can demonstrate that it can (and will!) improve the plights of the long-suffering in the one life they have on this planet, we may not make much headway against our religious competition, who simply defer the matter and blithely (and justifiably, in their minds) point sufferers to the intangible (and therefore glorious) rewards of the “next” life.

    Something like The Clergy Project, on the other hand, in my opinion has a very good chance of making significant progress, simply because the project gives those it touches a way out: a chance for a brand new start, and the possibility for a new life. It may not help them if they read a lot of Camus, but a new job and money in the pocket certainly can’t hurt the confidence, now can it?

    As intractable as it seems, New Atheism must provide similar encouragement/incentives to people in poverty. We essentially must answer the (rather naive) question: “What can converting to atheism do for me?”

    Now obviously we can’t offer financial assistance and/or employment to everyone. So it must be our “message of hope” that turns the tide. We must be able to convince the religious that conditions in their lives, and quite possibly in society as a whole, will improve. I mean, if you were destitute and headed toward years and years of suffering in your own life, which message would sound good to you:

    A) Take heart. You are a child of the stars in a Universe that doesn’t care about you, and we atheists wish you the absolute best of luck in locating your next meal.

    — or —

    B) Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven.

    In America, the choice of (B) has thus far been pretty clear, apparently.

    1. I agree that religion often provides a source of solace to people in distress, whereas atheism offers none. But that’s not the job of atheism; a profession of atheism, of the new or old variety, is simply the response of someone who notes that the emperor has no clothes on. If there weren’t so many people running around declaring belief in a god for which there is no evidence the word “atheism” might not even be in the dictionary. I don’t see atheism as a “movement” of some kind whose purpose it is to offer comfort to people. Ideally Jerry’s talk might encourage people to elect politicians who would make citizens more secure and less in need of bogus religious comfort, but I would not label that “New Atheism”.

      1. I’m not trying to define the “job” of atheism. Was there a point (besides simple negation) in your post? (I suppose I should thank you for responding, however curious the content.)

        By and large, people need existential comfort. Do you disagree?

        Religion provides this comfort.

        In the absence of any clear, comforting alternative, people — by and large — will therefore remain religious. It’s nothing more complicated than a young child’s reluctance to venture into the deeper waters of a swimming pool. Furthermore, many people even gravitate toward religion in search of existential comfort. (I know I did.)

        Religious parents don’t raise atheist children, and they don’t send them to atheist schools. So how to best break this cycle? Expecting politicians (with the notable exception of Sean Faircloth) to improve our lives seems a bit like trusting foxes to guard the henhouse. Scientists improve lives; politicians generally spend their time looking for profit$.

        If atheism (or at the very least true secularism) doesn’t provide hope for a better future, then why do we even care about these things? Richard Dawkins usually answers this question with “I care about what’s TRUE“. This may be fine and dandy for a respected, beloved and vastly accomplished man of letters whose books are bestsellers… but what about the other billions of people? What about all those impoverished African families? The imprisoned? The homeless? Hell, the middle class?

        If atheism doesn’t carry a message of hope for people, it seems a bit naive to expect it to take root and flourish. The song Imagine by John Lennon is a perfect example of the “message of hope” that I’m talking about.

        Now, I fully realize carrying around pictures of Chairman Lennon won’t turn the tide for atheism, either. I don’t have any real good answers. All I know is what I said above: without hope for a better future, people will tend to become, and stay, religious. If non-atheists are to convert to atheists, there has to be something in it for them, whether it is an improved standard of living, a hope for a better future, or simple peace of mind. That was my main point.

        1. “If non-atheists are to convert to atheists, there has to be something in it for them” — So what was in it for those of us who already have?


          1. Maybe you can tell me.

            When I converted I felt an immense sense of relief, like some huge emotional burden was lifted off my shoulders.

            Alternatively, I’ll happily buy you an ice cream cone as a belated prize for your own conversion, if that’s what you’re driving at…


    2. I am bordering on destitute and message A. still sounds better to me.

      Mind you, I did have an overlapping kind of a cognitive dissonance – for years after I accepted that evolution is true I STILL believed I was going to be one of the ‘Millions Now Living Will Never Die’ ie I was going to live forever in a paradise on earth with all my JW freinds and family. Then one day I woke up and it dawned on me – I’M GOING TO DIE LIKE ALL THOSE OTHER SUCKERS

      A love of nature and love of people – that’s what makes life worth living

    3. First, a disclaimer: I haven’t had time to listen to Jerry’s talk yet.

      But I’m largely allergic to the suggestion that “atheism must do this or that”. Jerrry’s thesis, or apparently Paul’s and Gregory’s original, is that societies that allow for personal insecurity are correlated with religiosity. It is strongly supported by the available evidence.

      Presumably then it will suffice to observe less dysfunctional societies, promoted by democracy, freedoms and a soon to be seen stabilization of population sizes.

      As for providing “existential comfort” that comes out less insecurity but also the meaning you find for yourself. If anything atheism is allergic to ‘meaning’ and ‘purpose’, as agnostics and other traders in forms of religiosity tries to impute absolutes out such relatives.

      Maybe they can sway those already thinking and feeling on the matter. All sorts of methods can be useful, and none should be dismissed out of hand.

      But I suspect the comfort blanket is indeed used to peddle agnostic theological doubt, which harm rather than support the overall process of enlighten societies. I would rather have statistics on its usefulness.

      As of now all the indications are that it doesn’t work – atheists have their Convert’s Corner which accumulates case studies just by existing, the accommodationists have nothing like it despite specific large scale efforts.

      The next step would be to study – if it doesn’t work – is it harmful, say by inserting doubt?

      1. More precisely, I think the statistics of Rosling shows that less dysfunctional societies are correlated with democracy, free markets and social medicine. These 3 factors, combined with a stabilized population size, is presumably all that is needed, for happy societies and many happy atheists.

        1. Good posts. What you are saying is so true, atheism is not an ‘answer’ it is simply one description for how a person is oriented thiestically.

          I think there is a kind of spiritual need that is some way unique to humans although possibly just more pronounced in humans than other animals; to try and understand the unknowable, to care for others with nothing in it for themselves, to feel love and empathy..so many things. How to find a repository for these ‘spiritual needs?’

    4. What about all the people who reject evolution because they are afraid they will go to hell if they don’t believe the right creation story?

      1. Fear and guilt are big motivators not to take on board evolutionary theory. There is probably not much that can be done with people in whom fear of hell is already deeply ingrained, but for the upcoming generation there is hope

  11. I was able to see the top of the back of my head at the end of the video as the camera pulled back. I was sitting front row, center, since I arrived 75 minutes early.

    I also want to thank Drs. Herman and Joan Suit for funding this lecture and the entire series of lectures.

    Thank you, Harvard (and the museum, etc.) for allowing us non-students to attend.

  12. I have now crunched the data on the USA Human Development Index vs the Gallup poll on Religiosity. Here is a link to the results, together with access to the data:


    I believe the analysis supports Jerry’s proposal by showing that the relationship works within the USA as well as between countries.

    1. Nice! I was going to do that tomorrow. Do you have a probability value for the correlation?

      And can I steal that graph (with attribution)?

  13. At around 59:00 on the video you list things that would falsify evolution. One of them is the existence of altruistic behavior between nonrelatives. I don’t think this would falsify evolution since there are ways that this can theoretically happen (e.g., group selection). And this is fortunate since arguably there are examples of altruism (suitably defined).

  14. Building a better society is difficult because the religious will oppose your efforts. And, failure to improve strengthens the religious grip on society by making more of the desperate religious. Are we past some sort of tipping point here in the U.S.?

    1. I think this fall’s election is the last chance the US has to survive as a (sort-of) liberal democracy.

      Were Mittens (“Willard” to his friends) elected president, you’d see…

      Sorry, I can’t finish that sentence. I don’t even want to think what you’d see. But rest assured, it wouldn’t be nice.

      1. I’ll take a stab at finishing the sentence.

        ” . . . you’d see that ‘Corporations are people, my friend!’ and flesh-and-blood human beings are human ‘resources’ and ‘capital.'”

        Whoops! It’s pretty much already that way, eh? With Mr. Romney the Barber, we’d get even more of a “haircut,” as is said in political parlance, like he gave his prep school classmate.

  15. Can it really be a coincidence that socialism kills religion and that the religious tend to reject socialism? Religion needs people to live in fear of bad luck, if they know that the state will make sure they have a minimum standard of living regardless of their health or employment status, then they don’t have to pray to god for their daily bread. It’s no surprise that religions prefer to hand out charity at their own whim, rather than have the state provide it as a right to those in need.

  16. Jerry, your talk was beautiful. But, like you said at the start, you were preaching to the converted [sic, choir].

    I do, however, wish you would inject some “Hollywood” into your magic though. You’d probably retort by asserting that the facts are the facts and they speak for themselves. And you’d be correct, they do.

    But morons are not as open to facts as they are to Hollywood so I’d hope you’d get a speech-writer in and maybe an elocution adviser which would do wonders in the realm of evolution-conversion…

    P.S., You on a sofa with Edward? That might be serf and master stuff…, but that’s stuff we’d all love to see…

    P.P.S. One hour of exercise a day is awesome.

    1. In other words, to inform and enlighten is not sufficient; one must also entertain and excite.

      I understand your point. The Bread and Circuses crowd requires bells and whistles and dogs and ponies. There was a time when slides and Power Points were sufficiently entertaining. No more. In K-12 we’re raising a generation accustomed to (being entertained by) computer games as rewards for getting a sufficient number of questions correct on online tests. Whereas, in the “ancient” days (pre-1990?), academic excellence and success were their own rewards. How did we manage back then?

      As I recall the word “moron” originally described some level of mental retardation. I gather that you mean people of at least normal cognitive ability who are significantly intellectually non-curious.

      As regards an elocution advisor, how about Neil deGrasse “When In Doubt, Shout!” Tyson? Or, how about Larry the Cable Guy? He seems to be quite $ucce$$ful with the elocution of his comedic presentation/entertainment.

      Or, following the lead of at least one morning talking heads TV/radio show, and numerous TV ads, maybe Dr. Coyne should have a low-volume “edgy” fuzz-rock guitar riff going continuously throughout his 45 minute-plus presentation? Or maybe start off by doing some sort of Rap/Hip-Hop song/dance? (“Chicken Noodle Soup! Chicken Noodle Soup! Chicken Noodle Soup with a soda on the side! Let it rain, clear it out! Let it rain, clear it out!”) 😉

      1. “In other words, to inform and enlighten is not sufficient;”

        It is for many of us. We know how to listen. How to digest facts. How to draw conclusions. No matter the delivery.

        Jerry has a great message and there are many people who are not getting this message because he is not “clickable” enough for them.

        The monotone delivery does not detract from the message for me and I’d probable feel a little uncomfortable if he suddenly became a rock-star scientist with a zoot suit.

        But I’m already a convert… just thinking about all the other souls that need saving…

  17. You say that America is more religious due to it being far more dysfunctional…

    I would flip these two and say that America is more dysfunctional due to the religious implications; Societies free of religious indoctrinations (or with far less) can be shown to raise their kids in a more peaceful, respectful manner – which translates to a more respectful, functional adult.

    Great video…LOVE YOUR BOOK.

    1. I didn’t realize:

      ഡാര്‍വിനേക്കാള്‍ ഭേദം ദൈവം!

  18. What Coyne asserts implies that if eg Newton and Leibniz (and Galileo) showed up and read his book and the primary sources he cites, they wouldn’t be theistic evolutionists. Since they were *rather* sharp Christians, that’s just plain dumb. Whatever else theistic evolution is, it surely includes two propositions: (1) God exists; and (2) Evolution of biological organisms by mutation and natural selection has taken place in the past. But if (1) is true, no physical event occurs unless God wills that that event obtain — and indeed for that matter from (1) we can deduce that no physical law is in place and operative unless God wills/willed it to be so. How could it be that (1) and (2) are inconsistent?

    The notion that the theory of evolution is the highest achievement of the human intellect is utterly preposterous. Evolution is a thoroughly simple process that a youngster with a modicum of intelligence can understand. Your average theorem that answers an open conjecture stands to evolution as as the game of Go stands to tic-tac-toe.

    For me to take evolution as a process seriously, it needs to be a process defined mathematically. As such, it must be an implemented mathematical function from natural numbers to natural numbers. We have a very mature mathematics of such functions (though it appears to be a part of math that biologists are unaware of). Eg, some of these functions are Turing-computable; some are not. To say that a function is Turing-computable is to say that a Turing machine can compute it. As many have pointed out (eg Daniel Dennett), evolution is a Turing-computable function, implemented (and a simple such function at that!). But then no device capable of processing beyond Turing machines can be produced by evolution. This is a theorem, easily proved. Since I have shown that the human mind is capable of processing beyond the reach of Turing machines, it follows that Coyne and Darwin (the latter in his fatally flawed *Descent*) wrong regarding the human case, just as Wallace himself (the co-discoverer evolution) held. “Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools.”

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