The Intersection

Over at Science Progress, I’ve been involved in putting together not one but two items timed for Darwin Day.

The first is an op-ed coauthored with my prof here at Princeton, D. Graham Burnett, who teaches Darwin. We argue for historical nuance, which leads one to reject the idea that Darwin should be considered an icon of conflict between science and religion. In fact, we call that idea “a hackneyed story, lacking in historical nuance and ultimately running counter to the project of drawing helpful lessons from the life of one of history’s greatest scientists.” A brief excerpt:

…Science-religion battles seem resurgent today, and it’s tempting to see in Darwin the modern originator of this enduring conflict.

Yet historical research on the relationship between science and religion, including work on the Victorian period and the Darwinian revolution, reveals a very different story. Not only did fundamentally theological ideas–the notion of the “perfect adaptation” of living organisms to their circumstances, for instance–actually help shape Darwin’s theory, but religious beliefs strongly influenced its reception in surprising ways. Who would have thought that several fervent early twentieth century neo-Darwinists right in Richard Dawkins’s beloved Oxford were actually exuberantly pious Anglo-Catholics, who saw in Darwin’s ideas a stick with which to beat back deistic Protestantism?

You can read the full column here.

Meanwhile, over at Science Progress I also interviewed Darwin’s great-great grandson, Matthew Chapman, who happens to be a screenwriter, author, and the founder of ScienceDebate2008–and who I call “Darwin’s Dangerous Descendent.” The interview is hilarious and also insightful, so I encourage you to read the whole thing, but I’ll just give an excerpt:

What was the view in your family about the Darwin legacy–were people living in its shadow? Did they make inside jokes about it?

I do think that some of the family lived in Darwin’s shadow. It’s hard not to, but it gets easier as time goes by. When I was young people did not make jokes in the way that I do. There were people, my mother included, who I think felt they had something to live up to, and, failing to do so, were made unhappy. Others I have met over the years–not my immediate family, I hasten to mention–seem to be rather excessively proud of it. I poke fun at the connection by saying that I’m the best argument creationists have because if you look at my family tree with Darwin at one end and me at the other this in itself disproves evolution. When I look at Prince Charles, he always seems rather rueful to me, as if he was saying to himself, “This is all very well, but it’s just an accident of birth.” He’s right about this, and it’s how I feel, except that in my case there are no perks.

You can read the whole interview here. Happy Darwin Day!


  1. #1 Ashutosh
    February 12, 2009

    Happy Darwin Day. It is extremely painful that today in this great country, you cannot have an opinion about evolution without being branded with a political or religious label. Darwin would have wept.

  2. #2 Jon Winsor
    February 12, 2009

    This is a great point:

    “There is no such thing as *the* relationship between science and religion. It is what different individuals and communities have made of it in a plethora of different contexts.”

    Asian religions have a different relationship. Christians in Germany have a different relationship. The biggest problems concern specific constituencies. To make a general claim that *all* religion has a problem strikes me as illiberal…

  3. #3 Lilian Nattel
    February 12, 2009

    Your post about the historical social context of Darwin’s day makes a good point and one I wish people would remember. It’s people who tell the story about what Darwin’s discovery means.

  4. #4 Wes Rolley
    February 12, 2009

    Since this is about the Intersection of Science and Politics the best way to honor Darwin might be to consider Politics as if Evolution Mattered. Fortunately, Lorna Salzman, a long time ecological advocate, has done that.

    To quote from the introduction:

    Rehabilitating Darwin is a large task and one best left to evolutionary biologists in the boxing arena with creationists. Rehabilitating an understanding of evolution as the other side of the ecology coin, however, has practical implications for environmental and social justice activists, who sorely need intellectual rather than ideological weapons to turn back against corporate greenwashers and biased media. Ecological principles underlie ecological relationships, and practically every environmental battle revolves around such relationships, their character, their value and the threats thereto.

    Environmentalists who are accused of being merely obstructionists, fearmongers and radicals with hidden agendas can dispel such charges only when they understand and utilize the tools provided them by the scientifically impartial concepts of ecology and evolution. A battle, not to mention a movement, founded on objective reality, on “real life” as it were, is not so easily lost as one founded only on abstract or subjective credos.

  5. #5 Jon Winsor
    February 12, 2009

    Wes Rolly said:

    A battle, not to mention a movement, founded on objective reality, on “real life” as it were, is not so easily lost as one founded only on abstract or subjective credos.

    I’m not so sure that’s true. Religious conservatives and the people who ran the GOP did it successfully for quite a while.

    What they do is turn religion into a wedge issue that separates the working class from professional elites. This was actually quite calculated. Thomas Frank does a good job of explaining how it works in this video. The idea goes back to the right wing populism that Nixon and McCarthy pioneered. You polarize the middle and working classes against the “elite” professionals who say “we’re right and you’re not.”

  6. #6 Jon Winsor
    February 12, 2009

    And just to give you an idea how calculated it’s been, take a look at this famous passage from a manifesto by Irving Kristol (this was a big part of the argument used to get funding for the right wing think tank infrastructure):

    [The] New Class is not easily defined, but may be vaguely described. It consists of a goodly proportion of those college educated people whose skills and vocations proliferate in a ‘post-industrial society’… We are talking about scientists, teachers and educational administrators, journalists and others in the communication industries, psychologists, social workers, those lawyers and doctors who make their career in the expanding public sector, city planners and the staffs of the larger foundations and upper levels of the government bureaucracy, and so on…

    … they are acting upon a hidden agenda: to propel the nation from that modified version of capitalism we call ‘the welfare state’ toward an economic system so stringently regulated in detail as to fulfil many of the traditional anti-capitalist aspirations of the Left.

    So it’s a conscious strategy of stoking popular resentment against elites for economic and regulatory policy purposes.

    But it can be applied to “culture war”-fare purposes as well. You just pump out studies, get press attention, and try to get enough people to “teach the controversy.” Pretty soon people hear it enough and people on the street think you have a legitimate, authoritative point of view. Controversy generates attention. And again, the angle that people are telling you “we’re right and you’re wrong” is pretty compelling.

  7. #7 Ashutosh
    February 12, 2009

    In fact Darwin regularly supported his local parish and was close friends with a reverend, John Innes. Darwin certainly did not start the conflict between science and religion. His ideas did. And all religions certainly don’t have a problem with religion as much as the three big monotheistic religions do. For instance there is an actual atheist strain, the Carvaka strain, in Hinduism. The problem is when you make certain rules or laws a requirement for being part of a religion, rules that are based on an acceptance of blond faith.

  8. #8 Ashutosh
    February 12, 2009

    That should be “blind”!

  9. #9 Jon Winsor
    February 12, 2009

    That’s a good point. Blonds have a right to their opinions too! (Sorry, couldn’t resist the blond joke.)

  10. #10 Norman Doering
    February 12, 2009

    Religion in the big and broad, “blond faith,” sense may have no problem with those theories of evolution, but I can prove that Ray Comfort, the world’s only other true Christian besides Kirk Cameron, most certainly has a problem with it:

  11. #11 Jon Winsor
    February 13, 2009

    I read this guy Paul Graham, kind of a computer biz guy turned philosopher. Anyway, this recent essay has some interesting things to say:

    What’s different about religion is that people don’t feel they need to have any particular expertise to have opinions about it. All they need is strongly held beliefs, and anyone can have those. No thread about Javascript will grow as fast as one about religion, because people feel they have to be over some threshold of expertise to post comments about that. But on religion everyone’s an expert.

    Then it struck me: this is the problem with politics too. Politics, like religion, is a topic where there’s no threshold of expertise for expressing an opinion. All you need is strong convictions.

    Do religion and politics have something in common that explains this similarity? One possible explanation is that they deal with questions that have no definite answers, so there’s no back pressure on people’s opinions. Since no one can be proven wrong, every opinion is equally valid, and sensing this, everyone lets fly with theirs.

    But this isn’t true. There are certainly some political questions that have definite answers, like how much a new government policy will cost. But the more precise political questions suffer the same fate as the vaguer ones.

  12. #12 Jon Winsor
    February 15, 2009

    By the way, if you think the whole “New Class” stuff I wrote above is far fetched and doesn’t have much to do with today’s politics, check out this recent post by former Bush speech writer David Frum, especially where he takes on Chris’s foe from a while back Yuval Levin.

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