PZ Myers doesn’t care for Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future by Chris Mooney, Sheril Kirshenbaum. In objecting to it, he quotes Jerry Coyne’s objection:
I could find little in Unscientific America that has not been said, at length, elsewhere.
Setting aside the merits of this claim for a moment (a full review will come shortly, but I’m in the midst of unpacking from one trip and getting ready to embark on another), this is a somewhat odd complaint for either of these men to level.
Coyne, after all, is blogging in support of his recent book Why Evolution Is True. Which is a perfectly good book which covers material not wildly different from that in recent books Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters by Donald R. Prothero and Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body by Neil Shubin and Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul by Kenneth R. Miller and Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution by Kenneth R. Miller and even The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief by Francis S. Collins, not to mention the bazillion earlier works demonstrating the importance of evolution. And that’s OK. The fact that it reiterates points others have made is evidence that Coyne did not simply make it up. His original contribution is not that he is describing new research in evolutionary biology, or that he is offering a novel defense of evolution, but that his research lends a unique perspective on the topic, and his experience as a teacher positions him well to explain the topic to the general public. Material which would otherwise be inaccessible to nonscientists is explained clearly. This is why Eugenie Scott, reviewing the book in Nature writes, “Coyne’s book will be a good choice to give to the neighbour or teacher who wants to know more about evolutionary biology.” (Coyne considered that review “tepid,” for reasons not fully explained). It’s also why NCSE used the book as a membership premium.
I find it odd that the author of a book intended to bring already published information to a new audience would criticize another author for publishing material already available in the technical literature in a way more accessible to the general public.
I find it doubly odd that PZ would echo this criticism. Not only did PZ rise to fame by rendering the technical literature in developmental biology accessible to those outside his field (adding not argument, but clarity), he is now famous for plowing the fields of atheism with arguments not dissimilar to those already made famous by recent writers Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Chris Hitchens, Vic Stenger, etc. He is (I believe) writing yet another book in that vein. It is a well-worked vein, with works touting evolution as an attack on theism dating back to Darwin’s day, and no discernibly novel arguments in these popular atheist writings since that time. As one student of the field writes: “There’s really only a handful of arguments for atheism in the first place.”
At the risk of committing the supposed error of reiterating points previously made, I note that Darwin himself objected to that style of argumentation. Replying to Edward Aveling, an author who proposed to dedicate his work of popular atheism (The Student’s Darwin) to the great man himself, Darwin demurred graciously (emphasis added):
I am much obliged for your kind letter & the enclosure.? The publication in any form of your remarks on my writings really requires no consent on my part, & it would be ridiculous in me to give consent to what requires none.? I shd. prefer the Part or Volume not to be dedicated to me (though I thank you for the intended honour) as this implies to a certain extent my approval of the general publication, about which I know nothing.? Moreover though I am a strong advocate for free thought on all subjects, yet it appears to me (whether rightly or wrongly) that direct arguments against christianity & theism produce hardly any effect on the public; & freedom of thought is best promoted by the gradual illumination of men’s minds, which follows from the advance of science. It has, therefore, been always my object to avoid writing on religion, & I have confined myself to science. I may, however, have been unduly biassed by the pain which it would give some members of my family, if I aided in any way direct attacks on religion.?
I am sorry to refuse you any request, but I am old & have very little strength, & looking over proof-sheets (as I know by present experience) fatigues me much.
This, I note, is largely the point raised by Mooney and Kirshenbaum: that advocates for atheism would do better not to cause insult and pain by attacking religion directly, and instead should focus on increasing public acceptance for science. That it is an argument with some history hardly diminishes its merits. If Coyne and Myers can rework Darwin’s argument (itself an attempt at popularizing evolution), then surely Mooney and Kirshenbaum ought not to be criticized for reworking a different (and less well-known) part of Darwin’s argument. Indeed, I suspect that Coyne does not disagree utterly with Darwin, nor with Mooney and Kirshenbaum, on this point. There is surely a reason why his own book does not parallel Aveling’s path of using evolution to attack religion. Coyne follows Darwin’s path, the path advocated by Mooney and Kirshenbaum, explaining the science and working toward “the general illumination of [people]‘s minds.”
I happen to think that in its presentation and in its argument, Unscientific America does offer much that is new to the general public, and indeed to scientists and science communicators. Even if it did not, a well-written and well-sourced book that weighs in on a subject of public controversy is surely welcome. And Unscientific America is well-written (though I have various quibbles), it is well-sourced, and the flurry of reactions to it shows that it is both timely and central to issues of current concern.