Evolution for Everyone

I have been neglecting my personal blog lately because I have been working to create EVOLUTION: THIS VIEW OF LIFE, a new online magazine that reports “anything and everything from an evolutionary perspective”. Whether I maintain a personal blog remains to be seen, but for the moment I’d like to call the attention of my readers to an essay on ETVOL titled “The New Atheism and Evolutionary Religious Studies: Clarifying the Relationship“.

My main point is that the New Atheism movement needs to accurately reflect the current state of knowledge in ERS, and that the selective invocation of scientific hypotheses is little better than the selective invocation of the bible. By my reading, new atheists invoke byproduct and cultural parasite (with negative effects on the human host) hypotheses more than warranted by the current ERS literature, and this is itself a hypothesis that can be empirically tested.

It is also my impression that evolutionists engaged in the purely scholarly study of religion tend to take a hands-off attitude toward the new atheism movement. To some extent this is a personal choice, but if one’s scholarly field is being mis-represented by people with a policy agenda, there is also an obligation to do something about it.

As a 100% atheist trying to apply evolution to public policy for a range of topics, I have nothing against an activist agenda, as long as it is ethical, based on the best current science, and suitably humble about the limitations of current knowledge. When this is not the case, I feel a special need to do something about it. The application of science requires mutual monitoring, no less than science itself.

EVOLUTION: THIS VIEW OF LIFE strives to be both a medium of communication for the general public and an intellectual forum at the professional level. This article is a good example of how it can function in both capacities.


  1. #1 Russell
    May 17, 2012

    Hear, hear.

    A surprising number of atheists, even those who are scientists, fall into a fallacy all too common with the religious: the notion that believing something false necessarily and always leads to bad consequences, and that believing something true necessarily and always leads to good consequences. Skeptics should see things with their eyes a bit more open.

  2. As a religious person, I don’t mind atheists attacking many religious activities where they are clearly harmful. As Michael Dowd uses to say, we should listen to them when they prophesy against the harms of our many religiious traditions. Religious thought throughout history has done much good, but it has also done much harm. You make a great analysis of this fact in “Darwin’s Cathedral”. I also think that your evolutionary analysis of religion is much closer to the truth than any of the “New Atheists”.

    Yet, I am also a philosopher, and I find myself (too often) at odds with the so-called “New Atheists” when they start dealing with philosophy, especially in recent years. For some reason, they seem to echo Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow’s unwarranted attacks on the whole of philosophy as a field, and they purely describe it as a caricature of existentialism. Of course, they ignore the huge contributions of ethics, analytic philosophy, phenomenology, philosophy of the mind and the like.

    In other cases, I feel that some of the “New Atheists” are re-discovering, not the wheels, but the logs. Take Sam Harris and his positions on ethics, at least as he portrays them in “The Moral Landscape”. Obviously he wants to state that ethical values are objective, but that they are not abstract philosophical principles of their own, but only based on facts of the world. This leads him to a well-known prejudice that ethics is about empirical facts, which would make ethics a branch of science. Unfortunately for him, this has been argued before in the philosophical tradition. Ethical norms are *not* about facts, but about what facts *ought* to be or how we *ought* to choose or to act … We all know that what *ought* to be or decide is never subject to empirical analysis, only rational thought (i.e. you can never observe empirically what things “ought” to be). Yes … the decisions we make should take science into account so we make those decisions that will lead to the best possible outcome, but this principle (that we should choose that which leads to the best possible outcome) is not founded empirically, it is never justified by science. Ethical norms, like this one, as well as ethical values belong to the realm of truths-of-reason, not to matters-of-fact. Since these principles should be justified rationally, not empirically, ethics becomes a branch of philosophy, *not* science. You know very well the naturalistic fallacy, which Harris mentions in his book, but never actually solves in any way. And Dawkins seems to blindly accept Harris’ careless line of reasoning, without talking to someone like … uuuhh… I don’t know… Dennett?!

    Needless to say that Harris’ dealing with the subject of free will is too poor in this book and in his most recent. He deals the subject purely on the basis of naïve determinism, and almost insinuates that everyone who doesn’t assume this position (e.g. a compatibilist view of determinism and free will) is either religious or influenced by religious thinking. I wish to know how he would actually tell that to thinkers like David Hume, Karl Popper, or Daniel Dennett. Any ethicist (even non-religious) can instantly recognize that Harris’ books on ethics, are really books to attack religion disguising as dealing with ethics. I would really love to watch Harris debate someone of Dennett’s caliber on the subject of free will.

    Finally, I am flabbergasted at the irresponsible attitude many of them have assumed regarding Jesus’ existence. Forget about those of us who are religious. Let’s talk about non-religious, agnostic, and atheist Bible scholars… the VAST majority of them accept Jesus’ existence and have written extensively about it in recognized and prestigious academic Bible journals. Why do I describe the behavior of some of these “New Atheists” as irresponsible? I am not an astrophysicist, nor a cosmologist. Imagine if I felt myself with enough academic authority to say that the Big Bang is wrong and that most cosmologists and astrophysicists know nothing about the universe, and that they should favor the Semi-Steady State Theory. If I am criticized by the scientific community, especially the most ardent critics of religion, for expressing a misinformed opinion, they would be right. Yet, don’t these simple ethical rules apply to *them* regarding Bible scholarship? Are the majority atheist and agnostic Bible scholars the famous Dawkinsian “Neville Chamerlains”?

    I’m sorry for writing this long comment, but my point is that there are clear indications that this zeal and war against religion is harming other fields: science, by making it overstep its bounds and invade other fields, while doing a disservice by not exploring other aspects of religion they may dislike; philosophy, by making a caricature out of it, being grossly misinformed about this field’s history and how it works; Bible Scholarship, by arbitrarily imposing a conclusion the majority of that field does not accept for reasons having nothing to do with religion; … in short, I think that in their mission to struggle against religion, the “New Atheists” are becoming exactly what they criticize about religion.

  3. #3 Olga Sorokina
    May 24, 2012

    One part starts the New Atheist movement – simultaneously the opposite part stars the promotion of the Social Doctrine of the Church here http://www.romereports.com/palio/modules.php?name=AvantGo&file=print&sid=6872 -le revanche de Dieu on the West,. the pussions are burning hoter and hoter… and as here, in Middle East, so in Russia…. Why? What is going on?

  4. #4 Olga Sorokina
    May 25, 2012

    Mr Wilson,
    This is Olga Sorokina, PhD in marine zoology, Russian Academy of Science, writing from Israel now.
    Again I’m trying to contact you, looking forward to your attention to the summary of my research.
    After having studied previous your posts, those on the Policies informed by evolution, on the neighborhood project and on your polemics with Jerry Coyne, on group selection and sociobiology and having read you latest post http://scienceblogs.com/evolution/2012/05/17/the-new-atheism-and-evolutiona/, I saw that you are interested in the same subject that was the subject for my research –what contribute the success in the group selection more than any economical and sociological progressive innovations, even if that success would be relatively short-time.
    I believe that the researches in sociopsychology of Mr Jonathan Haidt on the Hive psychology contribute a lot to the understanding of the nature of the group selection, atheism-religions relations and especially to the understanding of the eternal addiction of a person to some ideas – either it is atheism or some religious believe. It may even be not religion, some secular ideology would do as well – the early USSR was quite a secular state, but the effect of communism ideas on human behavior was similar to religious enthusiasm.
    In my research I tried to examine all those effects in the light of evolution of human kind and to its ability to enlarge the Earth biocenoesis carrying capacity in order to escape the Malthusian trap of overpopulation.
    I tried hard to make it as understandable and convincing as possible. Attached is the latest version.
    I badly need to learn your opinion on that work,
    And I am looking toward you paying attention to its ideas.
    Thanks you in advance,
    Olga Sorokina

  5. #5 Olga Sorokina
    May 30, 2012

    Several times I tryed to contact you via e-mail at blighamptomn.edu from olga270772@gmail.com. after I had read many your flogs and the Darwin cathedral book i ried to present to your expert attebrion the summary of my evolutionary research. the 30th of April i managed to reach you via phone, the 1st of May you sent me sgort reply:
    “Dear Olga,

    I found your email and will respond shortly. Apologies for not replying earlier.”
    I got waiting but the 20th and the 23rd of May I tried to cantact you via e-mail again and was twice speacking to your andwering mashine. Now i’m just at a loss – should i stay trust your words?