The Washington Examiner is a conservative website, so when one of its reporters, Eddie Scarry, called me yesterday to talk about Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s refusal to give his viewpoint on evolution, I asked if Scarry was himself against evolution. After receiving his assurances that he wasn’t, we then had a long conversation about Walker, and, in particular, a piece by Richard Cohen in the Washington Post, rightfully calling out Walker for his cowardice, pandering, or both. But Cohen, in an otherwise admirable piece said one thing that I found dubious. Here’s a bit of Cohen’s piece, and I’ve bolded the part to which the reporter asked me to respond:
But it was in London that a Brit, somehow overlooking the significance of cheese, asked the governor whether he believes in evolution. This is precisely no different than asking whether one believes in the theory of gravity or general relativity, but Walker would not answer. He said he had come to London to deal not with philosophical matters but, as cannot be emphasized enough, cheese. Good day, gentlemen!
It is in fact different from asking whether one believes (“accepts” is a better word because “believe” implies a religious-like faith) in theory of gravity or generality relativity, and the reason is obvious. The theories of gravity and relativity don’t impinge on anyone’s religious beliefs. Evolution carries implications that no other science does—save, perhaps some branches of cosmology. It implies that humans evolved by the same blind, materialistic, and naturalistic process involved in the evolution of every other species, and so we aren’t special in any numious sense. It implies that we’re not the special objects of God’s creation. It sinks the “design” argument for God—the most powerful argument in the canon of Natural Theology. It implies that we were not endowed by God with either a soul or moral instincts, so that our morality is a product of both evolution and rational consideration. It implies that much of our behavior reflects evolved, genetically-influenced propensities rather than dualistic “free will.” It implies that even if God did work through the process of evolution , He did so using a horrible and painful process of natural selection, a form of “natural evil” that doesn’t comport well with God’s supposed omnibenevolence.
That is why asking about whether people accept evolution differs from asking them about stuff like gravity or relativity: the latter two areas don’t have any implications for or conflict with traditional religious belief. That’s why it’s entirely possible to be pro-science except for evolution, and why a lot of people are. That’s what I told the reporter, though of course I added that the evidence supporting evolution is at least as that supporting gravity and relativity or the “germ theory” of disease. And I noted that while it’s possible to reject evolution and be pro-science, there is a correlation between anti-evolution and anti-science, which is mediated through not just religion (which sometimes promotes anti-environmentalist and anti-global warming views), but also through politics. It’s no coincidence that Republicans are not only the anti-evolution party in the U.S., but also the anti-science party.
As far as I could tell, I gave Scarry a full account of what I thought. But of course reporters have their own agendas, and here’s how it came out in his piece. I am the “Democrat biologist”! (click on screenshot to go to the article):
“Democrat biologist”? Really? What does my politics have to do with the issue? I also told him I was a liberal and an atheist, but those labels were ignored. This headline seems to be an effort to politicize my statements about science. Anyway, here’s what Scarry wrote:
Dr. Jerry A. Coyne, an evolutionary biology professor at University of Chicago and author of Why Evolution is True, told the Washington Examiner media desk Tuesday that the question itself lacks substance.
“You can’t tell anything about Walker’s views on science from that question,” he said.
Coyne, who identifies himself as a Democrat, said that it is not inherently “anti-science” to eschew a definitive stance on evolution theory.
As the media storm brewed last week over Walker’s evolution punt, he issued a statement via his Twitter account, saying “both science and my faith dictate my belief that we are created by God. I believe faith and science are compatible, and go hand in hand.”
Coyne said that science is divided into many fields and evolutionary biology is unique in that it stands at odds with many religions.
“Evolution is a particular view point,” he said. [JAC: I said “viewpoint” as one word!] “It’s the one form of scientific research that goes against people’s religious beliefs. You can’t say that about chemistry or physics. … So, you can be pro-science but deny evolution.”
Coyne added, though, that the evidence supporting evolution theory is as strong as germ theory (the assertion that microscopic organisms cause disease in the human body). “It’s irrefutable,” he said.
I suppose that’s generally correct, but the reporter neglected to mention that those who are against evolution are, through group identity with either a faith or political party, on average more against science than are those who accept evolution. That is, I qualified my statement “You can’t tell anything about Walker’s views on science from that question.”
Indeed, although I and others have called out Walker for either his cowardice or his ignorance (or both) for ducking the question about evolution, his views on evolution would tell us with reasonable confidence only if he favored teaching evolution in the public schools. And indeed, he should have answered that question. But if you want to know what Walker thinks about global warming, genetically modified organisms, vaccination, or other issues that are far more pressing for our species than is the teaching of evolution, then ask him about those other issues. You can’t simply use one’s views on evolution to represent one’s views on science as a whole.