Having communicated for so long by blog and e-mail, it was a pleasure to finally meet Jerry Coyne in person last night. He was speaking at the University of Maryland. It was not the easiest trip in the world. Driving was out of the question since it would have involved braving the Beltway near rush hour. With all due respect to Jerry, there ain’t no one worth that kind of trouble. But UM has its own Metro stop. So I drove to the Vienna station, took a long train ride that involved three of DC’s five Metro lines, then a bus over to the campus, and then the following conversation:
ME (to a random student): Excuse me. Could you tell me where the Biosciences Research Building is?
STUDENT: (pause) We have a Biosciences Research Building?
ME: According to the advertisement for the talk I’m trying to get to you do.
STUDENT: Oh. Well, the Biology/Psychology building is right over there, so maybe it’s nearby.
It was! Yay! So here’s Jerry doing his thing:
And here’s “the thing:”
The presentation was well-attended. My rough count puts the audience at around 200-300.
Most of the hour-long talk was devoted to the first part of his title. Jerry opened with several polls, dealing with the acceptance of evolution in various countries and people’s opinions about what should be in science curricula. Among other documents he showed us this famous table, from Science:
He briefly mentioned the Dover trial, and got a big laugh for thanking God that the courts have so far blocked overt attempts to teach creationism.
After several minutes of this he moved on to the evidence for evolution. He gave three reasons for thinking it was important for everyone to learn about this subject. The first was that evolution represents the supreme achievement of the human intellect. Our ability to unravel our origins and natural history is a triumph of which everyone should partake. Second was that it is a good example of scientific reasoning, as you test various hypotheses for explaining the data we have. The final reason was simply that the evidence for evolution is just cool in its own right. If you have any interest in biology at all, it’s just fascinating to see how evolution makes so much sense of what we find there. That last point had resonance with me, since it well describes my own feelings when I first started to investigate this subject just over a decade ago.
The next forty minutes represented the meat of the talk. He briefly addressed the nature of science and described the various claims made by standard evolutionary theory. He identified five major components: that evolution occurs, that it is usually gradual, that speciation occurs, that modern species are related by common descent, and that natural selection is the primary mechanism of evolution. From here he launched into a lucid discussion of the standard lines of evidence: fossils, embryology, atavisms, vestigial structures, molecular comparisons, biogeography and field studies of natural selection. His specific examples are likely to be familiar to people immersed in this issue, but they were illustrated with appealing slides and seemed to go over well with the audience.
I especially liked one of his examples of the “senseless signs of history” as Stephen Jay Gould called them. Referring to the male prostate gland, and the fact that it surrounds the urethra, he said, “No good designer would put an organ prone to swelling around a collapsible tube.” Referring to a line from a Robin Williams movie he described that as being comparable to running a sewage line through a playground. Ha! The point was not simply that the design was bad, but that its poor design is readily understood in the light of its evolution.
And that’s when things got really interesting.
We were now roughly fifty minutes into the talk. It was time to address the second part of Coyne’s title. Why do so few people accept evolution? Take a wild screaming guess!
As the main conflicts between evolution and religion he identified the damage evolution does to notions of human specialness, the question of whether our lives have meaning and purpose, and questions about morality. It was interesting that he did not mention the Bible as an issue. I think that is essentially correct. For all the talk about a young Earth and Biblical literalism, I tend to think that scriptural concerns are really secondary in anti-evolutionism taken as a whole. Conflicts with the Bible are certainly part of the problem for many people, but I would not say they are the main problem. On the other hand, I would have added the problem of evil to the list. I certainly have had no shortage of creationists tell me that natural selection is a cruel process that God would not use as His means of creation.
He then showed a graph, based in part on the diagram I showed earlier, plotting acceptance of evolution against belief in God in various countries. There is an obvious negative correlation between the two. He pointed to a poll result showing that 64 percent of people say they would reject a scientific fact that conflicted with their religious beliefs. Considering that many people learn their religion at a young age, but don’t hear about evolution until high school (if at all), you can see why we might have a problem here.
The conclusion? He said, “I think the way to get evolution accepted in this country is to get rid of religion.” He then clarified that he was not suggesting that the government do anything or that religious liberty be curtailed in any way, but simply that so long as the dominant form of American religion is not amenable to scientific facts there was little hope of increasing the rate of acceptance of evolution.
His final argument was to point to data that had been collected relating religious faith in various countries to “societal success,” where this was measured by considering a variety of indicators of social health like the suicide rate, the homicide rate, availability of health care, and many other variables. To be clear, we are not talking about material wealth, but general measures of harmoniousness in societies. It turns out that the US scores rather poorly on these measures. There was a clear negative correlation between between the level of success of the society and the level of religiosity.
Jerry suggested that one possibility for explaining this data is that a strong social safety net and a harmonious society can provide for many of the emotional needs that religion satisfies in less successful societies. There could be something to that, but I would note that there is certainly no shortage of very wealthy and contented religious folks.
That ended the talk, and a lengthy Q and A period began. Most of the questions were generally supportive, I felt, and even the challenging questions were not rude or belligerent. With one exception. One fellow, clearly miffed by Jerry’s negative feelings towards religion, asked him to explain “his faith” that an atheistic society would be morally superior to one in which religion is a major force. He cut Jerry off several times, always putting special emphasis on the word “faith.” When he finally quieted down, Jerry pointed out that the most atheistic societies on earth also seem to be among the most decent and socially conscious. He also pointed to examples of awfulness that do seem specifically religious in origin.
So that’s the long and short of it. Keep in mind that I have left out rather a lot, so if anything about this is unclear you should blame me and not Jerry. For example, I left out the part (until now!) where he mentioned my forthcoming book about evolution and creationism. Jerry is one of my proofreaders, you see, so he got an advance copy. After the talk a person who turned out to be an English professor at UM asked me for the title of the book. I told her, alas, that I have only completed a first draft and that there is a ways to go before the book is published and available. She offered to help me proofread, and I took her up on that offer. Very cool!
Jerry and I chatted for a few minutes after the talk. He said he generally liked the book (Woo Hoo!) but also thought my writing was too analytical in places and that some of my anecdotes might have missed their mark (D’oh!) Well, that’s why we don’t hand in the first draft!
Then I retraced all my steps from earlier in the day, stopping to have a nice dinner in DC, and got home around one in the morning. A very enjoyable day. It was great to finally meet Jerry in person, the talk was interesting, the question period was lively, and I met some very cool people from the UM biology (and English!) departments.
And yet all of that just might be topped next week, when RIchard Dawkins is coming to UM. I’m giddy with anticipation!