On the subject of science and religion, Karl Giberson and Francis Collins are not among my favorite commentators. That notwithstanding, this interview actually manages to be pretty interesting. Giberson’s questions are in bold face, Collins’ answers are in regular type.
You seem like a mirror image of the fundamentalists who struggle with this, as I certainly did in college. Fundamentalists like me grow up with a lot of confidence in biblical literalism and then they encounter evolution, so they are bringing their prior biblical commitments to this new problem. You were interpreting the Bible before you knew there was a biblical issue. You had enough confidence in evolution that when you read about origins in the Bible, you would read as we do today when it comes to those biblical passages that seem opposed to heliocentricity–we don’t think of a moving earth as a problem so we don’t even notice the biblical references.
Right. I will say, though, that I think evolution is a much tougher problem for a believer to get comfortable with than heliocentricity. Evolution comments on our biological nature, and that’s a lot closer to the “image of God” concept than whether the Earth floats around the Sun or the other way around.
Collins is making an important point here. In his book Tower of Babel Robert Penncok remarked that evolution is godless in the same sense that plumbing is godless. Other pro-evolution commentators have expressed similar sentiments. This statement is only true in a very trivial sense. Godlessness in plumbing is acceptable because absolutely no one is inclined to see anything of cosmic significance in the vagaries of pipes and water flow, or to find a supernatural explanation for a clogged drain. Evolution, by contrast, addresses subjects of far more fundamental significance, and posits things that are not at all what the world’s major religious traditions have told us to expect. Many people expect to find God and the supernatural implicated in our arrival on Earth, and therefore believe that any explanation leaving God out must be fundamentally flawed.
But aren’t you cheating to compare evolution to physics? Evolution is this gigantic, complicated tapestry of interwoven bits of explanatory power. But this big tapestry of evolution is filled with holes. It still hangs together, of course, but it does have holes. For example, evolution requires the invocation of common ancestors that we don’t have any fossil record for; we don’t really know anything about them, other than indirect dna inferences. A layperson is understandably skeptical when they are told that there’s this tree of life going back to a common ancestor and all these life-forms are on the tree but we have no direct evidence for most of them and we have to infer them hypothetically. Doesn’t it bother you that there are so many missing pieces in the puzzle?
Should people doubt the existence of electrons because they’ve never seen one? A lot of what we know to be true about physics is also inferred. I know it bothers people who are not really convinced yet about the consistency of evolutionary theory, but the much-emphasized gaps do not represent any real threat to the overall framework. And is the absence of a fossil representation of a specific organism all that troubling when you realize that fossilization is extremely unlikely to have happened?
Based on the DNA sequences of many mammals, we can now predict the genome sequence of the common mammalian ancestor. And it’s breathtaking that you can actually look now at the dna sequence, which is a fossil record of its own, of an organism that is long since gone, but that we and all other mammals are descended from.
Evolution may seem from the outside to have a lot of complexities, and certainly there are lots of details we haven’t worked out–and for anybody to say there are no arguments would be a total mistake. But nearly all scientists agree upon descent from a common ancestor, gradual change over a long period of time, and natural selection operating to produce the diversity of living species. There is no question that those are correct. Evolution is not a theory that is going to be discarded next week or next year or a hundred thousand years from now. It is true.
Pretty hard to improve on that. Well said, Dr. Collins!
When we talk about the enduring character of American anti-evolutionism, it seems to me the best way to understand that goes back to something that is as old as Aristotle. Aristotle talked about knowledge that we get from thinking and from experience. He also noted another category that I think is the most important–social knowledge.
We are all part of social groups, and people we trust tell us things. I believe in evolution because people like you that I trust have told me it’s true. I’ve never done a genome sequence; I’ve never done a fossil dig. So what do I–Karl Giberson–really know about evolution? All I know is that people I trust say it’s true and people that I have less confidence in say it is not. But how are people outside the scientific community supposed to navigate this complex web of social authority, to try and figure out which voices they should listen to, and which voices they shouldn’t?
Consider credentials. On paper the credentials of the better creationists and id people are like yours and mine. Take you and Michael Behe. You both have PhDs. You have both done research and published articles. So if somebody wants to put Behe up against Collins and say, “Well, here’s a guy and I like what he says. And here’s another guy and I don’t like what he says. And you’re asking me to follow Collins over Behe? Well, why should I do that?”
This is another important point. Questions about the age of the Earth are pretty abstract. I’ve read books about radiometric dating and I have had knowledgeable people explain to me the mechanics of the process, but I have never personally tried to date a rock or dig up a fossil. I trust scientists, and more importantly I trust the process that produces scientific findings, and that is why I accept that the Earth is very old.
For many people not immersed in a pro-science environment, pro-evolution arguments can often sound like, “Don’t listen to your guy with a PhD listen to my guy instead!” The creationists know this, of course, which is why they are so keen to debate all the time. The problem is often (though certainly not always!) not that anti-evolutionists are chronically opposed to gathering facts and evidence, it is that they are listening to the wrong people, and consequently have a distorted view of what the facts are.
Here’s Collins’ answer:
Well, that is a fundamental problem we’re facing in our culture, especially in the United States. It’s why we have such a mismatch between what the scientific data would suggest and what many people believe about things like the age of the Earth and about whether evolution is true or not.
If you ask about data-driven questions, about what is true and what is the evidence to support it–you would want to go to the people who are the professionals who spend their lives trying to answer those questions and ask, “Is there a consensus view?” So you ask, “What is the age of the Earth?” Well, who does that work? It is the geologist and the cosmologists and the people who do radiocarbon dating. It is the fossil record people and so on. So you ask, “Is this an unanswered question?” And the answer you would get is that the issue is settled. The age of the earth is 4.55 billion years.
But of course, that’s not the way things are. Our society is polarized because the materialist perspective that guides science is assumed in many instances to be an over-arching worldview that excludes anything outside the material world. Large numbers of people in our very religious society are suspicious of this.
This negative reaction to scientific consensus is not about the facts. It’s actually about an atheistic worldview that people fear is behind the claims of science. They’re worried about that–afraid–and therefore ready to reject anything that sounds like it might be colored by that materialistic perspective they assume is hidden there. So they look for other sources of authority, like the biblical literalists who say the earth is only a few thousand years old.
I think this is largely correct. Anti-evolutionists are putting their trust in the wrong authorities, and they do this in large part because they fear challenges to their religious faith. Where I disagree with Collins is that I think they are right to be afraid (to the extent that a materialistic perspective is anything to be afraid of.) Learning about and understanding science really does tend to challenge traditional religious faith, to the point where many people are moved to give it up altogether. Indeed, fundamentalist religious faith is flatly impossible to maintain in the face of science.
Here’s an interesting fragment from Collins:
But it’s an awful circumstance we’ve put young people in. Many of them, raised in conservative Christian homes and taught that evolution is wrong, send emails to me every week. They are in crisis, trying to figure out whether the church that seems to be lying to them about origins is lying to them about everything else. The God of all truth cannot be served by such noble lies, and yet the church has been caught up in that, despite its best intentions.
If I may channel my inner PZ for a moment: Yes the church is lying to them about everything else. And I definitely don’t credit the church with the best intentions.
One more from Giberson:
One of my theologian friends once said, in great frustration over this issue, “I wish they had never put the Bible in the hands of ordinary people.” It seems to me that we need to take more seriously the teaching ministry of the church. We encourage people to read the Bible on their own, but certain misunderstandings are bound to emerge with that approach. Young people are going to read Genesis and think of Adam and Eve as real biological parents of the human race.
Those silly Protestants. How ridiculous to think normal people can read and understand the Word of God for themselves. You need clerics and scholars to tell you that Genesis actually means almost the exact opposite of what it plainly says.
I have no problem with the idea that the Bible can often be difficult to interpret, but that is because I have no doubt that the Bible is an anthology of ancient documents that are purely human in origin. If you are inclined, however, to see the Bible as the holy and inerrant Word of God, I would think that Giberson’s remark here is pretty offensive. Does it make sense that God’s word would be written in a style so opaque that if a normal person tries to read it, he will come away with ideas that are almost the exact opposite of the truth? Is it really asking too much that God might have expressed himself a bit more clearly?
These were just a few highlights. There are lots of other interesting nuggets, so go have a look!