The NY Times had a good story on the Dover, PA evolution issue on Sunday. It seems to me that there are three classes of ‘issues’ people have with evolutionary biology:
Biblical literalism. Many can not accept that the Bible isn’t the literal word of God. I think we can beat this one pretty easily: the contradiction between Genesis 1 & 2, the earth is round, the earth travels around the sun, etc. To do so, we not only have to demolish it with logic, but also with proud declarations: “I am not a literalist.” Make literalism a bad thing (and I think it is). As one Dover resident said, “Science is figuring out what God has already done. But I don’t think Genesis 1 to 11 was ever meant to be a science textbook for the 21st century.”
Anthrocentrism. Other people have a hard time accepting that man is not the pinnacle of creation. How this jibes with the widespread notion that there is extraterrestrial life escapes me, but people aren’t always consistent (or coherent). I think the response here is to point out how wonderous it is that the relative of an ape could both paint and worship in the Sistine Chapel (or other place of worship). Tell them that this is humbling. Most evolutionary biologists are in awe of the diversity of life, albeit usually in either a secular or humanistic way. There’s common ground here.
Humanism (secular and religious). This is the problem. Many people want life to have some deep, extrinsic meaning or purpose. Evolutionary biology (and to an even greater extent, evolutionary psychology) don’t ascribe a purpose to life. In fairness, most evolutionary biologists (though not all, e.g., Gould’s earlier work) think evolutionary biology has no bearing on the purpose issue on way or another. Unfortunately, this is unsatisifying to many people, including those who support evolution. There is a fear that without extrinsic purpose, the Cartesian view of man as machine is right-this leaves many people empty and afriad. At its core is the notion that life (and humanity too) generates its own purpose. As a NY Times article on natural disasters put it:
Lisbon was no worse than London or Paris. Why smash the one and spare the others? Shattered babies were inert reproaches, not only to anyone wanting to call this world the best of all possible worlds, but to anyone wanting to make sense of it at all. Lisbon rubbed people’s noses in meaninglessness, and a savvier Enlightenment emerged. No longer did nature reflect moral order. The Lisbon earthquake left a breach between humankind and its planet that has been with us ever since. Nature and reason are different in kind, and any meeting they have will be accidental. This is one idea that makes us modern…we should remember Lisbon’s major lesson: if there is to be meaning in the world, we need to put it there.
That last sentence sums up the underlying dread many have of evolution-that we invent purpose & meaning: purpose was not designed into the world (at least consciously). To put this another way, when I’ve been asked what evolution tells me about life’s meaning, I reply along the lines of “If you want meaning, go do something meaningful.” Meaning is the issue we have to figure out to deal with, and why evolutionary biology is such a hard sell.