Last week I wrote a critique of Nicholas Wade’s specious prescription, published in the New York Times, for curing the rift between fundamentalists and those who accept evolution.
I faulted him on two counts. First, he blamed atheists for the persistence of creationism, mentioning “militant atheists like the biologists Richard Dawkins”. Second, he suggested that scientists should characterize evolution as a “theory” rather than as a “fact”—an action that, he claimed, that would heal the rift by offering creationists a “fig leaf” to save (or cover) face. In his original piece, Wade wrote this:
By allowing that evolution is a theory, scientists would hand fundamentalists the fig leaf they need to insist, at least among themselves, that the majestic words of the first chapter of Genesis are literal, not metaphorical, truths. They in return should make no objection to the teaching of evolution in science classes as a theory, which indeed it is.
I objected to that because it plays straight into the hands of creationists by suggesting that evolution is “only a theory”—their most powerful rhetorical weapon. And why would calling evolution a “theory” make any thinking person (or unthinking creationist) be strengthened in believing the literalism of Genesis? Those people already believe it strongly! Wade is suggesting that scientists make a Devil’s bargain, and I won’t have it.
I couldn’t rest by just posting my response in this website, and so I wrote a letter to the New York Times’s Science editor. Today, on p. 5 of the “Science” section, they printed that letter (the first one below) along with several others and Wade’s lame response. Here’s a screenshot, since it doesn’t seem to be online (maybe they’re too embarrassed by Wade’s inanities); click to enlarge:
And, in regular print, my letter and Wade’s response (my original was severely edited for space: cut by more than 50%):
To the editor:
Nicholas Wade argues that creationists will be converted to evolution only when scientists “show respect for all religion.” That claim is patently false. Organizations like BioLogos, founded by National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins, have spent many years and much money trying to turn Christian creationists toward evolution by “respecting their faith”. It hasn’t worked.
Teaching that the book of Genesis is a metaphor, as Wade suggests, is anathema to fundamentalists since it implies that Jesus died for a metaphor—the original sin of a nonexistent Adam and Eve.
Reconciliation doesn’t change minds; reason and logic do.
Jerry A. Coyne
Jerry A. Coyne is a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution of the University of Chicago and author of “Why Evolution is True.”
Nicholas Wade replies:
Was I too hard on Senator Rubio? Our politicians have to cope with increasingly complex and technical issues. If they do not distinguish between good science and nonsense, they will be without guidance and, as I said, rudderless. But the thrust of the article was to blame the unresolved war between fundamentalists and scientists for putting politicians like Mr. Rubio in such a difficult position.
As Rabbi Cahana suggests, creationists like to say evolution is “just a theory,” as if it were mere speculation. In scientific parlance, however, a theory is a vast intellectual edifice that explains and is supported by a large array of facts and scientific laws. Evolution is a theory in the latter sense only.
Still, many diplomatic treaties are written so the two sides can interpret critical terms in their own way and allow business to proceed. This is the basis for a compromise: let fundamentalists interpret the word “theory” as they wish and in return cease to oppose the teaching of evolution in schools.
I confess that I lack Dr. Coyne’s zeal for converting the creationists to Darwinism. Nor did I suggest it would be either possible or desirable.
What would be desirable is to get them to drop their opposition to teaching evolution in schools. That is a practical issue to be settled by negotiation. Unfortunately, the extremists on both sides are so fond of striking militant stances that the gap between them has only increased.
Most of the other letters also castigate Wade for misunderstanding what a scientific theory is, and I can’t resist highlighting Eric Schwaber’s letter, which is terse and to the point:
To the editor:
Admitting evolution is a theory won’t change anything. Gravity is a theory, but you don’t see fundamentalists jumping out of 10th floor windows. The problem here is not in the semantics of the discussion, but in the irrational refusal of empirical and scientific evidence by religious organizations.
In contrast, Wade’s “response” is a non-response, failing to deal with the substantive issues about how creationists use “theory” when characterizing evolution. Nor does he consider whether his suggestion would work (anybody who knows fundamentalists realizes it wouldn’t). He could have backed off, but remained intransigent.
What strikes me is his almost prideful statement that he “lacks Dr. Coyne’s zeal for converting the creationists to Darwinism.” (Note the words “zeal,” and “conversion” which implies militancy or even the religiosity of evolutionists. Wade could have said “enthusiasm”! And what’s wrong with trying to teach evolution?)
But fine—leave the “conversion” to the evolutionists. But what’s really dumb is Wade’s suggestion that if we characterize evolution as a “theory,” the faithful won’t necessarily accept the factuality of that theory, but will stop opposing the teaching of evolution in public schools. What a ridiculous notion! If fundamentalists don’t accept evolution but see it as the Devil’s work, and themselves believe in creationism, what on earth makes Wade think that by characterizing evolution as a “theory”—but still teaching the evidence for it—creationists won’t try to stick their own noses in the tent? For make no mistake: any good science teacher is going to do more than say “evolution is a theory.” That teacher will show how it’s a scientific theory buttressed by innumerable facts.
Finally, the issue of teaching creationism in the schools is certainly not one “to be settled by negotiation.” There is no compromise that is desirable or possible: it’s an issue to be settled by legal battles and unrelenting opposition to the superstitions and lies of creationists.
And once again Wade uses the “atheists-and -fundamentalists-are-both-militant” trope:
Unfortunately, the extremists on both sides are so fond of striking militant stances that the gap between them has only increased.
This man is an embarrassment to that newspaper, which is rapidly becoming a haven for accommodationism.
And that statement, of course, brings to mind the famous xkcd cartoon:
h/t: John Brockman for the scan and alert