20 April 2012
On Wednesday, I looked at a new paper by University of Chicago evolutionist Jerry Coyne, in which he declares all-out war on religion in the name of Darwin.
In that post, I mainly reflected on the remarkable fact that a premier evolutionary biology journal saw fit to publish such an essay and on what that reveals about evolutionary biology as a science.
Today, I want to explore the reasons Coyne gives in the paper to justify his holy war against, principally, Christianity.
Before turning to Coyne’s text, however, I must point out a crucial distinction he fails to make anywhere in the paper, and an assumption he fails even to attempt to justify.
No discussion of the place of the teaching of evolution in society can hope to make much headway against confusion unless evolution-the-historical-process is carefully distinguished from the neo-Darwinian theory of natural selection as an explanation of that process.
Coyne nowhere makes this distinction clear, but rather everywhere assumes that to question the all-sufficiency of Darwinism is to question the reality of evolution itself, which is simply a logical mistake.
Not only is it logically possible to deny that the Darwinian mechanism is an adequate explanation of the phenomenon of evolution, increasing evidence is streaming in from many quarters that natural selection, as Darwinists typically understand it, is in fact woefully inadequate as an explanation of the facts the living world presents us with.(1)
The important assumption underlying Coyne’s article—which he nowhere articulates, much less defends—is that it is the business of a professional evolutionary biologist to see to it that Darwinism is accepted by society as a whole. This is a bizarre conception of the calling of a scientist, but Coyne appears oblivious to its strangeness.
With these two observations out of the way, let’s turn to Coyne’s text.
In it, he is trying to do several things.
First, he wishes to establish that it is due to America’s high proportion of religious believers, compared to other advanced countries (basically Europe), that Americans are also uniquely skeptical of the claims made by professional Darwinists on behalf of evolution.
Second, assuming that America’s low Darwin quotient is a serious problem requiring urgent remedy, he wants to argue that “accommodationism”—basically, the policy of live and let live—on the part of scientists doesn’t “work.” That is, it doesn’t show much promise of addressing the problem that Coyne has identified.
Note that if the problem itself were described differently—say, in terms of social conflict between scientists and believers—the accommodationist strategy would look very different. But Coyne is not concerned with conflict. Indeed, he seems to relish the prospect of it, convinced as he is that he is fighting on the side of the angels.
Finally, Coyne wants to justify his own preferred strategy of confrontation—of mounting a holy war against religion, not to mince words—by appealing to social science data that purport to show that religious belief is not only a brake on belief in Darwin, but a major cause of social dysfunction in the United States quite generally.
Obviously, I cannot look at all these contentious claims in detail. Therefore, I will ignore the accommodationism issue, and focus on the claims that (a) lack of faith in Darwin in this country stems mainly from biblical fundamentalism and (b) Americans’ propensity for religious faith is the chief cause of our social dysfunction.
Reasons to Reject Darwinism
Now, Coyne is obviously right that biblical fundamentalists are likely for that reason to be hostile to any evolutionary scenario. But he himself recognizes that there is another important side to the matter, when he writes:
Evolution, of course, contravenes many common religious beliefs—not just those involving Biblical literalism, but those involved with morality, meaning, and human significance.[p. 4]
Why, then, does he give such short shrift to the latter sort of qualms, which are shared by a far larger group of people than biblical fundamentalists?
The heart of the problem with Darwinism is not evolution. It is not the fact that human beings are descended from primate ancestors.
The heart of the problem with Darwinism in its standard interpretation is that it is materialist and reductionist.
What does that mean? It means that Darwinists deny the objective existence of purpose, value, and meaning. They claim that these things simply do not exist—they are not, as philosophers sometimes put it, part of the “furniture of the world.”(2)
Obviously, this is not an observable, reproducible scientific claim. It is a philosophical claim. Nevertheless, it is a crucial part of Darwinism, which is far closer to a metaphysical system than it is to a laboratory science.
This claim is, at bottom, what the evolution debate is all about.
But everyday human life as we experience it is saturated with purpose, value, and meaning. Therefore, to ordinary people—as to most philosophers who have given the matter deep thought—the reductionist claims of the Darwinists are absurd on their face.
In fact, they are self-contradictory, and just plain silly. Every word that comes out of Jerry Coyne’s mouth contradicts his official philosophy. Why? Because he presumably means something by what he says. Because he obviously values some things (Darwinism) and disvalues other things (religion). And because he manifestly has the purpose of convincing his readers that he is right and religious believers are wrong.
If he took his own philosophy seriously, Coyne could not admit that he is doing any of these things in a literal sense.
According to the official story, Jerry Coyne is just a wind-up toy—a “vehicle for his “selfish genes.” Officially speaking, his tendency to behave as though his words were meaningful, his judgments evaluative, and his actions purposeful is just an elaborate ruse foisted on the meat-machine, Jerry, by a long series of genetic accidents.
But if all that were really true, then what reason could I have for believing a word of it? In such a world, there’d be no reasons, and so no better or worse reasoning. There’d only be what each of us happens to believe as a result of the inexorable working out of the blind forces of nature.
In such a world, no one would be entitled to believe or disbelieve anything. In my own case, I’d just go on believing what I like, no matter what Coyne or anyone else said.
So, Coyne would just be wasting his breath on me. Of course, he couldn’t help doing so.
But that cannot possibly be the world we really live in. In this world, it does matter what reasons we give to each other for what we say. And in this word, we are entitled to believe or disbelieve things on the basis of evidence, and not because we are genetically required to do so.
Therefore, materialist reductionism is clearly self-refuting. Anyone who maintains it contradicts himself in the very act of expressing it as an intellectual position.
Now, I admit that most Americans who are hostile to evolution could not articulate all this in so many words. But I have no doubt that they sense it on some level.
If nothing else, they know that a human being is not the same as a cat or a dog—after all, they have intimate personal experience of both humans and cats and dogs every day, and they do not find them all that similar.
Therefore, when their kids come home from school parroting the party line that people are just animals, they must suspect that somebody somewhere is pulling a fast one.
And they are right.
Is Religion the Problem?
Coyne—perhaps aware that he’s on thin ice attributing Americans’ suspicion of his creed to biblical fundamentalism alone—goes on to try to show that religion is bad news in many other ways, as well.
The line of argument, if you can call it that, seems to be: “Religion is so bad, we should get rid of it for lots of reasons having nothing to do with evolution. If we boost belief in Darwin as result, so much the better.”
Early on in the paper, he makes a half-hearted attempt to argue that religious faith is bad because it’s dogmatic, whereas science is good because it’s not.
Of course, this line of attack is liable to backfire, since there’s no one more dogmatic than a Darwinist.
But even apart from the question of whether Darwinism even qualifies as a real science in the first place, there’s the plain fact that Coyne’s dead wrong about the respective epistemic merits of Darwinism and religious faith.
To be more specific, Coyne makes the following claim:
Many of the “truths” once revealed by the Abrahamic faiths, for instance, have been disproven by science. . . . Needess to say, not one scientific truth has ever been disproven by religion.[p. 8]
Oh no? What about this one?
For many decades, it was accepted as “scientific truth” that Darwinism entailed that we ought to eliminate the weaker specimens of humanity for the good of the species.
In this country, our scientific and political leaders contented themselves with enforced sterilization programs, for the most part. However, the Germans—with greater logical consistency—set about really aligning their actions with their “scientific” principles.
It has been estimated that between 1939 and 1945 several hundred thousand mentally and physically handicapped people (mostly Aryans, mind you) were murdered, either by lethal injection, starvation, and gassing, as part of a program code-named “Aktion T4.”
One of the most outspoken opponents of Aktion T4 was Count Clemens von Galen, Bishop of Münster. Due to his fiery sermons, the Nazi regime publicly announced the discontinuation of Aktion T4 in 1941, though it continued on unofficially and in secrecy until the end of the war.
Presumably, Professor Coyne would agree that the scientists got that one wrong, while the bishop got it right. I would say that’s a pretty clear case of religion disproving a “scientific truth.”
But in any event, Coyne does not pursue the epistemological avenue of attack very far. Rather, he relies on some social-science studies—mainly one study—that preposterously claim to show that America’s social problems are the result of Americans’ religiosity.
Now, let me preface my remarks on this point by saying that I am not the sort of conservative who automatically prefers all things American to all things European. I am not particularly enamored of guns, and I even have my reservations about the hybrid healthcare system we’ve evolved that does many things spectacularly well, but other things—like taking care of the poor—spectacularly badly.
That said, I am even less enamored of the sort of blinkered, thumb-on-the-scale social analysis that Coyne indulges in toward the end of his article. His basic point is that life in America is hell compared to the European welfare paradise, and that the reason Americans are condemned to live in hell is because they are so religious.
If we could just get rid of our burden of religious belief, then we too could join the European post-Christian societies in secular nirvana. That evolutionists could then hold their heads up high in American society would be an added bonus.
The study Coyne mainly relies on is an article published a few years back in an obscure journal called—you guessed it—Evolutionary Psychology.(3)
This article takes so little trouble to appear objective—is so manifestly parti pris—that a real social scientist would be embarrassed by it, however far to the left he might be politically.
Nevertheless, the essay does advance some striking statistics. Most of them are fairly well known. I can only discuss a few of them here.
One that is very widely known is our homicide rate, which is roughly triple that of most European countries.(4)
Now, it’s hard to argue with Professors Paul and Coyne that America’s higher level of religiosity is surely not protecting it from this and other social ills. The idea that American society is uniquely good and American religiosity makes it so is surely absurd.
But the converse claim—that American society is uniquely evil and American religiosity makes it so—is even more ridiculous. It is obviously not the fact that Americans are religious that leads them to kill each other. This is not Northern Ireland. This is not Bosnia.
The main reason why America’s homicide rate is so high is obviously because our laws regulating gun ownership are so lax.* And the reason why our gun-ownership laws are so lax is certainly to be sought in various historical factors unique to this country, but it is highly doubtful that religiosity is very important among them. At any rate, neither Paul nor Coyne makes any effort to show that it is.
A more telling example is suicide rates. As Paul himself has to admit (Coyne glosses it over), suicide rates overall are higher in Europe than here.(5) And remember that all those gunless Europeans have to go to greater trouble to kill themselves than Americans do.
Not exactly a recommendation for the secular socialist paradise!
But the best thing in the Paul study is the statistic on self-reported “life-satisfaction,” or overall-happiness, rates. On this measure, Americans and Europeans score about the same.
Does that, then, lead sociologist Paul to conclude that his hypothesis must be wrong? Not a bit of it!
Here is what he writes:
The nation’s good ratings in life satisfaction and happiness are compatible with a large segment of the population using religion to psychologically compensate for high levels of apprehension.(6)
A model of scientific reasoning, that!
I wonder what he would have said if Americans’ life satisfaction had been a lot lower than the Europeans’?
The whole article—on which Coyne rests much of his own paper—is subjective rubbish in which every assumption and every interpretation is skewed to fit the preconceived conclusion that religion is to blame for what ails American society.
As a population’s understanding of the meaning of life shifts from a spiritual to a purely materialistic plane, church attendance drops and evolution flourishes.
Whether that is a cause for celebration or for suicide is another matter.
* * *
*Note added 4/21/12: A reader has written to tell me that what I found intuitively “obvious” is nevertheless dead wrong. For example, the rate of U.S. non-gun homicides alone is still higher than total homicide rates in many European countries. (For the statistics on national gun ownership and homicide rates, see here.)
Therefore, lax U.S. gun laws by themselves can hardly account for this country’s sky-high murder rate. So, I am clearly at fault for not having done my homework—for which I apologize to my readers.
How does this error affect my overall critique of Paul’s and Coyne’s argument? Well, I never denied that the U.S. has severe social problems. But I ought to have written far more cautiously and admitted that they needed to be factored in, in explaining our elevated homicide rate.
That said, I believe two points remain valid, which speak against the Paul-Coyne thesis:
(a) The ready availability of firearms in the U.S. is still an important contributing factor to our high homicide rate, though perhaps not the most important factor.
(b) Of the other factors that need to be taken into account, the ones that come most readily to mind are such things as the heterogeneity of our population compared to Europe and especially the lingering social and cultural effects of our peculiar history: the Wild West; Prohibition; slavery and Jim Crow; etc.
Obviously, these are not matters about which scientific certainty is possible. But in my judgment, religiosity remains among the least likely explanations for the high homicide rate in this country, compared to Europe.
(1) For further discussion, see my three-part series “What Is Life?”: Part I, Part II, and Part III.
(2) See, for example, Paul Sheldon Davies, Subjects of the World (University of Chicago Press, 2009) and Alex Rosenberg, The Atheist’s Guide to Reality (W.W. Norton, 2011).
(3) Gregory Paul, “The Chronic Dependence of Popular Religiosity upon Psychosociological Conditions,” Evolutionary Psychology, 2009, 7: 398–441.
(4) Ibid.; p. 409.
(5) Ibid.; p. 412.
(6) Ibid.; p. 421.