Taking Darwin’s name in vain

Yesterday I prepared to write my Darwin Day post by attending a panel discussion at the Center For American Progress here in DC. The discussion was ostensibly about “evolution, transcendence, and the nature of faith,” which led my friend Colin and I to hope for a spirited debate – perhaps even a die-hard creationist who would speak for the three-quarters of frequent churchgoers who don’t accept evolutionary theory! But what we got was a predictable, rather boring discussion – at least until David Sloan Wilson arrived and threw me for a loop.

The first two panelists were Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite of CAP and Arthur Caplan of U Penn’s Center of Bioethics. They had an exceedingly genteel discussion with Rick Weiss (formerly a science reporter for the WaPo). Not one of the three expressed the slightest doubt of evolutionary theory, though there was some speculation over how far “upstream of evolution” one might place a Creator. Thistlethwaite, a thoroughly modern clergyperson, argued for the importance of a religious “presence” in people’s lives, but admitted that “sin is the only aspect of Christian doctrine that I can prove.” Rick Weiss jokingly warned against scientists failling into the trap of idolizing Darwin, but I got the impression that everyone agreed Darwin’s theory was above reproach.

On the other hand, despite their support for evolution, not one panelist argued that science should displace religion in the policy-making process. In fact, quite the opposite. As Caplan pointed out, science excels at discovering truths about the natural world, but science does not generate a moral framework or system of values. When it comes to controversial technologies like stem cell therapy or customizing the genome, science can tell us what is possible, but it cannot tell us what we ought to do.

All three panelists shook their heads over the “polarizing political agenda” which argues that science and religion are fundamentally opposed. They clearly preferred that no such conflict be forced. In an op-ed in today’s WaPo, Weiss argues that Darwin himself is the model we should follow. Agonizing over the unlikelihood of God, but uncomfortable with the implications of atheism (both personal and social), Darwin refused to take a position:

The “immense amount of suffering through the world” — not least of which his own, highlighted by the death of his 10-year-old daughter — argued against a benevolent creator, he wrote (with Facebook-like fanaticism, he maintained a correspondence with some 2,000 friends, including 200 clergymen). At the same time, he hedged, it seemed foolish to reject the assertions of so many intellectually “able men” who “fully believed in God.”

In the end, he did what any reasonable person might do: He punted. “The safest conclusion seems to be that the whole subject is beyond the scope of man’s intellect,” Darwin concluded. Do heaven and hell exist, and does eternal life follow death? “Every man,” he wrote, “must judge for himself, between conflicting vague probabilities.”

Darwin’s humility on this score was consistent with the contingent nature of truth in science. He didn’t feel he had enough evidence to be certain whether God existed or not. His position was consistent with his life’s work – although evolutionary theory necessarily contradicted traditional church teachings about the age of the world, the Garden of Eden, and so on, it was silent on the existence of God. But Darwin’s position was also a pragmatic strategy for maintaining comity with his religious wife and his large circle of friends and colleagues. Darwin, like the panelists, was a big fan of genteel, decorous discussion.

Some of my fellow biologists vocally disapprove of “punting” on this issue. But the comity Darwin valued is essential to the policy-making process, which is why I dislike any approach that makes religious Americans see science is a threat. Today, only 39% of Americans “believe in” (why do they keep using that misleading wording?) evolution. Telling the other 61% that their opinions are irrelevant, ignorant, and outdated is a sure recipe for conflict – and I say that as someone who has taught developmental biology to extremely religious students in a red state. I agree with Weiss: you have to pick your fights.

However, when it comes to panel discussions, a big fight is always better than a punt. Back at CAP, everything was so agreeable it was boring. The man sitting next to me nodded off briefly. At one point, one of the panelists had to tell the audience that he had just made a joke – and they still didn’t laugh. We desperately needed the intervention of a zealous Darwin-hating kook – or a fanatical Darwinian partisan wearing an ape hat; I didn’t really care which. Fortunately, the event was saved by the belated arrival of the final panelist, David Sloan Wilson of Binghamton University.

Wilson is the creator of the Evolution Institute, a nascent think tank which bills itself as “The World’s First Evolutionary Think Tank.” You should go check this out. According to the prospectus,

Pick any topic relevant to human welfare, from prenatal care to obesity, from psychotherapy to cooperation and conflict among nations, and evolutionary theory can provide insights that integrate and go beyond previous perspectives. In retrospect, it will become obvious that evolutionary theory is as important for managing human affairs as physics and chemistry are important for managing the physical world.

Just as evolutionary theory can be applied to virtually every human-related academic subject, it can be applied to virtually every major policy issue. In each case, viewing the subject from an evolutionary perspective can result in policy recommendations that have been missed by other perspectives. As a proof of concept, we have already organized a forum on early childhood education from an evolutionary perspective.

Wow! Really?

Evolutionary theory has powerfully influenced our conceptualization of human behavior in fields like sociobiology, neurobiology, psychology, and economics. On the other hand, while it provides an explanatory framework for how we got to be the way we are, can it really offer a template for a better future? Evolutionary processes sometimes favor developments that most people would agree are bad. For example, evolution has given Homo sapiens the unique ability to radically change our environment – so radically that the globe is now heating up and our fellow species are dying off. I don’t know if evolution has a problem with that outcome, but I sure do.

Weiss asked Wilson outright, “is this a “red in tooth and claw” policy making body?” Wilson responded “Puh-leez!” and proceeded to explain that his think tank would be used for good. Since that’s what mad scientists always say, I wasn’t reassured. But going back to the Evolution Institute prospectus again:

A common theme that will unite most of our specific projects is prosociality as a successful evolutionary strategy. We define prosociality as any belief or practice that is oriented toward the welfare of others or society as a whole.

So that’s good, right? Yay for the common good!

But something bothers me here. Many people would argue that religion – the ostensible block to widespread acceptance of evolution – is itself a prosocial practice that confers an evolutionary advantage. Spirituality promotes individual health. It can unite communities, conferring social structure, ethics, and common purpose. Wilson himself commented that “religion is good at turning human societies into beehives.” When pressed to clarify whether that transformation was a good thing or a bad thing, Wilson said it depended on one’s perspective. And he’s right: bees are clearly a very successful species – or were until the last year or two. But I don’t want to live in a beehive. Do you?

Chimps are our closest relatives, subject to many of the same evolutionary pressures as we are, but they don’t exactly have an egalitarian utopia going on. Maybe you like our cousins the bonobos better – or maybe you have concerns about a matriarchal society built on sexual promiscuity. Yet in each case, the behaviors are adaptive. If you use evolutionary theory to drive policy, how do you guard against discrimination, inequity, and other undesirable outcomes which are evolutionarily favorable? If a division of labor (into hunters and gatherers, say) is evolutionarily favorable, how do we ensure the equity of the sexes? If solidarity among communities and distrust of outsiders is adaptive, how do we avoid discrimination and generate good international relations? How can approaches that were favorable for primitive nomadic societies inform policies designed for the technological anthill we live in today? And if humans evolved to be as we are – demonstrably flawed – how do we use the toolkit of evolution to eliminate those flaws from society?

I don’t want to oversimplify Wilson’s position. He’s a smart guy, and has clearly contemplated many of these issues (I wish his Institute’s prospectus were more detailed). Evolution has indeed improved our understanding of why humans behave as they do; using that understanding to generate better social policy makes a great deal of sense. It also appears to be trendy to identify with Darwin: A related initiative is underway to inform security policy at But I worry that initiatives like this can be misinterpreted. There’s danger in thinking that just because something is or was evolutionarily adaptive, it is good for us. Science can shed great light on why humans might perceive things as good or bad, but it can’t tell us what is good or bad. That’s a question with which we have to constantly struggle, just as Darwin struggled with the existence of God.

One of the difficult realities evolutionary theory has made clear to us is that the human mind is not optimized for truth. It’s optimized for survival. We routinely embrace adaptive fictions. If we want to use our understanding of evolutionary processes to improve society, we must accept that evolution did not bestow upon us a dispassionate, non-spiritual, strictly evidence-based worldview. We’re passionate, spiritual, emotional, irrational, subjective creatures who are poorly equipped to imagine incremental change taking place at an invisibly tiny scale over millions of years – because we evolved this way! Getting the human mind to run the scientific method as its primary OS is a bit like getting a Nintendo to run Linux: we should be impressed that it can be done, not complaining that it’s hard. And when people express deep spiritual reservations or conflicted feelings about the religious implications of evolutionary theory, just as Darwin did, scientists have to understand that it’s not just because they’re ignorant or obstinate. It’s because they’re human.

Happy Darwin Day.


  1. #1 Larry Ayers
    February 12, 2009

    A very thoughtful and timely essay, Jessica! Would you mind if I deftly extract a few choice quotes from it?

  2. #2 Jessica Palmer
    February 12, 2009

    Thanks, Larry. Quote away. :)

  3. #3 bluewyvern
    February 13, 2009

    Very, very well put. There’s a pernicious idea (among those who have managed to “believe in” evolution in the first place, that is) that evolution is some kind of unstoppable progression towards an objective good, incrementally approaching perfection — hence such misguided sci-fi concepts as superhumans with enhanced abilities representing “the next step” in evolution, or the possibility of “de-evolution” to a more primitive state.

    Evolutionary theory is great at explaining how we got here, but I agree that it in no way offers a roadmap for the future. What a curious idea.

  4. #4 Jan-Maarten
    February 13, 2009

    ‘Science fails at telling us what we ought to do’, happy little truism that is. And yes, religion never fails at telling us what we ought to do, much like my grandma who would always have an opinion, but not necessarily one based on facts or sound reasoning. But maybe its better to do something right for the wrong reasons than the other way round.. Alert! Philosophical quicksand ahead!

  5. #5 Julie Stahlhut
    February 13, 2009

    There’s danger in thinking that just because something is or was evolutionarily adaptive, it is good for us.

    That’s mainly a danger of oversimplification. It’s obvious that not everything that’s adaptive, in the biological sense, is good for us in a personal, ethical, or practical sense. But understanding how a health or social problem may have evolutionary roots is a good start on solving the problem.

    Of course, making that determination with regard to humans is notoriously difficult; we’re behaviorally flexible, our lifespans are long, and it’s neither ethical nor practical to address this question experimentally.

  6. #6 Jessica Palmer
    February 13, 2009

    Jan-Maarten, I obviously don’t know your grandma. :) But I have to maintain my opposition to the claim that because A) organized religions can be misguided, misused, even destructive, that means B) science is the correct source of values for human societies. A may well be true – but it does not imply B. It’s not like there are no other ways to build value systems.

    I think you may be conflating rationality with the scientific method. My friends and I tend to place a very high premium on rational thought, and the values espoused by the scientific/academic culture, in our personal value systems. But I’ve never heard anyone claim that getting a PhD in science made them a better human being. Science produces models for understanding the world, not prescriptions for how to live one’s life. And if I ever meet anyone who bases their personal value system on a lab experiment, I’ll run away! (Unless they have a *really* good explanation for why).

  7. #7 Jessica Palmer
    February 13, 2009

    “It’s obvious that not everything that’s adaptive, in the biological sense, is good for us in a personal, ethical, or practical sense.”

    Julie, I’m not so sure that’s obvious to everyone. I hope it is, but I have my doubts. :)

  8. #8 Adrian Morgan
    February 13, 2009

    I don’t understand why you say that three quarters of frequent church goers reject evolutionary theory, while linking to a site that clearly states that only one third (35%) of frequent church goers reject evolutionary theory. The majority (65%) of people who go to church every week either accept evolution as true or are open to the idea that it may be true. It’s not reasonable to expect everyone to share our passion for science, and therefore not to be resented that a lot of people have no opinion either way.

    I see no half-empty glass here.

  9. #9 JohnJay60
    February 14, 2009

    The study I read showed 39% accepted evolution, and 25% rejected, with a large number of ‘don’t know or don’t care’.

    This is not the overwhelming defeat that it appears to be in Ms. Palmer’s passing mention. It looks like science has won more converts than non-science, for those who have an opinion on the topic.

  10. #10 Jessica Palmer
    February 14, 2009

    JohnJay, the poll of the general public said 39% accepted evolution, which is exactly what I said in my article. Among weekly churchgoers, only 24% accepted it. I didn’t describe it as an overwhelming defeat either way.

    Adrian, according to the Gallup graph “belief in theory of evolution, by church attendance”, 41% of frequent church goers say they do not believe in evolution, and 35% say they have no opinion. (I think you switched those two numbers). But fair enough, my wording was misleading on that one, because the “don’t knows” aren’t equivalent to the “don’t believes.” I changed it to reflect that.

    But based on my personal experience, I think some fraction of those “don’t know” people are people who feel that if they accept evolution, it threatens their faith, and they’re conflicted about what to do. I don’t like that they feel that way, because I don’t think the conflict is real. That’s what I “resent” – that often science is presented as necessarily in conflict with faith, and that appearance of conflict is often used as a political wedge issue. I don’t “resent” people having no opinion about it

  11. #11 Comrade PhysioProf
    February 14, 2009

    Excellent essay, BioE!

  12. #12 Jan-Maarten
    February 15, 2009

    Oh, my grandma was a lovely woman! 😉 I totally agree with ‘B’ not following from ‘A’. I guess I felt you left moral behavior to be the prerogative of religion. Whether values can or should stem from science rather than other sources would be more of a topic for a different post library.

  13. #13 Jessica Palmer
    February 15, 2009

    “Whether values can or should stem from science rather than other sources would be more of a topic for a different post library.”

    But a very interesting question indeed. . .

  14. #14 Hungry Hyaena
    February 17, 2009

    Another brilliant post, Jessica! Thank you for it.

    Reading it (and the comments preceding this one), I again lament that our culture has bought into the science-religion dichotomy. Unquestionably, a great many religious people are too certain of their “knowledge,” and too quick to deny other peoples’ ideas and perspectives. The result of such willful ignorance is often disastrous. It is also true, though, that a great many out-spoken and secular scientists are too sure of their denial of what might be called “unknowledge,” those possibilities that remain unquantifiable and unprovable, but also impossible to scientifically dismiss. Both scientists and believers – some of them, anyway – are guilty of uncritical faith and tribalism.

    But what of those people who choose to reside in the question, to treat faith as an adventure and ongoing conversation, much in the same way a curious, impassioned scientist treats her vocation? There is more overlap than both sides might expect (or accept), and I wish that more conversation, even more debate, were had between those skeptical believers and agnostic scientists.

  15. #15 JohnJay60
    March 3, 2009

    Thank you for correction and clarification of my post (Feb 14). And realistically, even a large number of ‘don’t knows’ while superior to ‘don’t believe in Evolution’ is not much of a bragging point for our scientific community on such a well documented subject.

    I’ll try to keep my numbers straight – I usually do but got sloppy here.

  16. #16 Jessica Palmer
    March 3, 2009

    If you can’t be sloppy on a blog, where can you? Seriously! :)

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