Barash's Talk

University of Washington biology professor David Barash published this op-ed in The New York Times recently. The title: “God, Darwin and My College Biology Class.” Intriguing! Let's have a look.

EVERY year around this time, with the college year starting, I give my students The Talk. It isn't, as you might expect, about sex, but about evolution and religion, and how they get along. More to the point, how they don't.

I'm a biologist, in fact an evolutionary biologist, although no biologist, and no biology course, can help being “evolutionary.” My animal behavior class, with 200 undergraduates, is built on a scaffolding of evolutionary biology.

And that's where The Talk comes in. It's irresponsible to teach biology without evolution, and yet many students worry about reconciling their beliefs with evolutionary science. Just as many Americans don't grasp the fact that evolution is not merely a “theory,” but the underpinning of all biological science, a substantial minority of my students are troubled to discover that their beliefs conflict with the course material.

Until recently, I had pretty much ignored such discomfort, assuming that it was their problem, not mine. Teaching biology without evolution would be like teaching chemistry without molecules, or physics without mass and energy. But instead of students' growing more comfortable with the tension between evolution and religion over time, the opposite seems to have happened. Thus, The Talk.

That doesn't make a whole lot of sense, alas. He has many students, unsurprisingly, who have religious objections to evolution. So he addresses the issue by opening the semester with a talk aimed at confirming their fears? Why is that a smart thing to do? He had it right the first time. It's their problem, not his.

I have a real problem with Barash's talk. My problem is not with the substance of the talk, as I shall describe below. Unlike Jerry Coyne, I do not think there is any first amendment issue here. I'm not motivated by political concerns that challenging religion in this context makes it harder to protect science education below the college level. And my objection is not primarily that the talk seems tangential to the main business of the course.

Rather, my problem is that this seems like a needlessly aggressive way of starting the semester.

People who don't teach often think that teaching is just a matter of having a smart person standing at the front of the room, coldly transmitting knowledge to students who dutifully jot everything down in their notes. People who actually do the job, on the other hand, understand that teaching is far more than that. It has to do with building a rapport with the class. If you want to be effective, especially in math and science courses (where beginning students often start out nervous and fearful), you need them to trust you and to feel comfortable around you. They need to know they can talk to you about any concerns they might have. That includes the very religious students. Opening the class with an attack on their religion hardly seems like a way of building trust.

Please spare me any harangues about the value of challenging student's beliefs, or about how college is about making students think in new ways, or anything like that. I'm not saying that student's beliefs must always be respected or anything of that nature. In an evolutionary biology class, any student raising a misinformed religious objection to the material (or a faux scientific objection easily recognizable as standard creationist BS), should be politely but firmly smacked down. I am saying, though, that you shouldn't look for excuses to be confrontational with your students. I am saying that you will have all you can handle pounding the course material into their heads, without wasting time with a lot of irrelevant preaching about religion or politics.

Let's move on to the rest of the talk:

There are a few ways to talk about evolution and religion, I begin. The least controversial is to suggest that they are in fact compatible. Stephen Jay Gould called them “nonoverlapping magisteria,” noma for short, with the former concerned with facts and the latter with values. He and I disagreed on this (in public and, at least once, rather loudly); he claimed I was aggressively forcing a painful and unnecessary choice, while I maintained that in his eagerness to be accommodating, he was misrepresenting both science and religion.

On the subject of NOMA, Barash is right and Gould was wrong. Gould's book Rocks of Ages, in which he laid out his ideas about science and religion, was by far his worst. It was a quickie book, pure and simple, and it achieved its reconciliation of science and religion only by ignoring most of the real points of conflict between the two.

But Barash has also erred, I believe. In starting his talk with the idea that NOMA represents the compatibilist position, he has overlooked an important, and not so uncommon view of this matter. I am referring to those who argue not simply that science and religion are compatible because you can separate them with a big fence, but who go further in arguing that science and religion actually complement each other. Writers like Ken Miller and John Haught, among many others, argue that evolution strengthens and enriches their faith. And while I happen to find their views incomprehensible, they nonetheless deserve mention in any talk about the possible relationships between science and religion.

In some ways, Steve has been winning. Noma is the received wisdom in the scientific establishment, including institutions like the National Center for Science Education, which has done much heavy lifting when it comes to promoting public understanding and acceptance of evolution. According to this expansive view, God might well have used evolution by natural selection to produce his creation.

This is undeniable. If God exists, then he could have employed anything under the sun -- or beyond it -- to work his will. Hence, there is nothing in evolutionary biology that necessarily precludes religion, save for most religious fundamentalisms (everything that we know about biology and geology proclaims that the Earth was not made in a day).

You probably sense a “but” coming. I agree completely with Barash that the vapid, but often heard, argument that maybe evolution is just God's way of creating, is not adequate, since it ignores the many non-Bible related conflicts between evolution and religion. It is from this point on that I start warming up to Barash's talk.

So far, so comforting for my students. But here's the turn: These magisteria are not nearly as nonoverlapping as some of them might wish.

As evolutionary science has progressed, the available space for religious faith has narrowed: It has demolished two previously potent pillars of religious faith and undermined belief in an omnipotent and omni-benevolent God.

The twofold demolition begins by defeating what modern creationists call the argument from complexity. This once seemed persuasive, best known from William Paley’s 19th-century claim that, just as the existence of a complex structure like a watch demands the existence of a watchmaker, the existence of complex organisms requires a supernatural creator. Since Darwin, however, we have come to understand that an entirely natural and undirected process, namely random variation plus natural selection, contains all that is needed to generate extraordinary levels of non-randomness. Living things are indeed wonderfully complex, but altogether within the range of a statistically powerful, entirely mechanical phenomenon.

Bingo! This is exactly right.

Now, a common retort here is that nothing in Christianity rides on the correctness of Paley's argument. A Christian can simply agree that Paley was wrong, shrug his shoulders, and move on as though nothing had happened. This is true as far as it goes, but it misses an important point.

As I discuss in more detail in Among the Creationists, Paley's intent was not just to make an intellectual argument for God's existence. Rather, he was also using his observations about nature as a vehicle for stressing God's nearness in our daily lives. There was an emotional component to the argument, and not just an intellectual one. So when Darwin and his successors refuted the argument, religion suffered two blows. On the one hand, a previously persuasive argument for God's existence was now untenable. On the other, God was made to seen very far away, if He existed at all.

Understanding this also makes it clear why another possible line of defense, that God's design is found not in the contrivances of organisms but in the fine tuning of fundamental constants and whatnot, is not very effective. Of course, there are strong scientific refutations of all such arguments. But there is also the fact that a lot of blather about fundamental constants, which are things you read about in physics textbooks, carries nowhere near the emotional force of Paley's arguments.

A few of my students shift uncomfortably in their seats. I go on. Next to go is the illusion of centrality. Before Darwin, one could believe that human beings were distinct from other life-forms, chips off the old divine block. No more. The most potent take-home message of evolution is the not-so-simple fact that, even though species are identifiable (just as individuals generally are), there is an underlying linkage among them — literally and phylogenetically, via traceable historical connectedness. Moreover, no literally supernatural trait has ever been found in Homo sapiens; we are perfectly good animals, natural as can be and indistinguishable from the rest of the living world at the level of structure as well as physiological mechanism.

Bingo again, though I think this argument could be made stronger. It is not just that humans are not central to the evolutionary story, it is that there was nothing inevitable about our appearance. That is a very serious blow to any religious view suggesting that humans are the reason for creation. The standard response here, and really the only serious one, is that the ubiquity of “evolutionary convergence” shows that humans were, indeed, inevitable. Scientifically this claim is highly dubious. Theologically it's not even clear if it solves the problem. If humans really are the inevitable end result of evolution, then it only becomes harder to explain why God felt the need to create through a lengthy process, let alone one that entails eons of cruel and vicious bloodsport.

Which brings us to this:

Adding to religion's current intellectual instability is a third consequence of evolutionary insights: a powerful critique of theodicy, the scholarly effort to reconcile belief in an omnipresent, omni-benevolent God with the fact of unmerited suffering.

Theological answers range from claiming that suffering provides the option of free will to announcing (as in the Book of Job) that God is so great and we so insignificant that we have no right to ask. But just a smidgen of biological insight makes it clear that, although the natural world can be marvelous, it is also filled with ethical horrors: predation, parasitism, fratricide, infanticide, disease, pain, old age and death -- and that suffering (like joy) is built into the nature of things. The more we know of evolution, the more unavoidable is the conclusion that living things, including human beings, are produced by a natural, totally amoral process, with no indication of a benevolent, controlling creator.

Hat trick!

Of course, there is a vast scholarly literature devoted to protecting religion from these arguments. That a vast literature is needed tells you something about the severity of the challenge. If Barash wants to provide a reading list that will persuade his students of the correctness of his views, it is this literature, and not anything by Richard Dawkins, that he should recommend. It contains little to mitigate the force of Barash's arguments.

I'll let Barash close out the post:

I CONCLUDE The Talk by saying that, although they don't have to discard their religion in order to inform themselves about biology (or even to pass my course), if they insist on retaining and respecting both, they will have to undertake some challenging mental gymnastic routines. And while I respect their beliefs, the entire point of The Talk is to make clear that, at least for this biologist, it is no longer acceptable for science to be the one doing those routines, as Professor Gould and noma have insisted we do.

Despite these three evolutionary strikes, God hasn’t necessarily struck out. At the end of the movie version of “Inherit the Wind,” based on the famous Scopes “monkey trial” over a Tennessee law prohibiting the teaching of evolution, Spencer Tracy's character, fashioned after the defense attorney Clarence Darrow, stands in the empty courtroom, picks up a Bible in one hand and Darwin's “Origin of Species” in the other, gives a knowing smile and claps them together before putting both under his arm. Would that it were so simple.


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my problem is that this seems like a needlessly aggressive way of starting the semester

It also seems highly insulting to his religious students, applying a generalization or stereotype to kids who have just walked into his classroom. Imagine a chem/bio/physics professor saying, on the first day of the semester, "now I know some of you southern students have a really hard time with math. There will be math in this course, prepare yourselves..."

As someone who was still religious in my college years, I would've been incredily insulted by Barash's "the Talk." You say I'm going to have problems with evolution? How do you know? I don't recall ever meeting you before, Professor, let alone discussing my religious beliefs with you.

Another major problem with 'the talk' is that you've just renedered your low opinion of some of the students in front of the other students. What a terrible thing to do. "Professor thinks Alice is an idiot" is a terrible message to send to Bob and Charlene at any time, but it's especially terrible when you're doing it on the first day, before Alice has even said a word in class or taken a quiz. How about you let Alice show her chops, then you can form your opinion of private.

I liked this part from the op-ed:

I conclude The Talk by saying that, although they don’t have to discard their religion in order to inform themselves about biology (or even to pass my course), if they insist on retaining and respecting both, they will have to undertake some challenging mental gymnastic routines. And while I respect their beliefs, the entire point of The Talk is to make clear that, at least for this biologist, it is no longer acceptable for science to be the one doing those routines, as Professor Gould and noma have insisted we do.

To some degree this is an accurate and rarely-spoken point against NOMA (noma?). Indeed, attempts at compromise-for-the-sake-of-compromise in any area of life tend to ignore existing asymmetries. (Consider the thoughtlessness of pundits whose reaction to the US government shutdown was "both parties just need to get along and stop fighting".) In the 1850s, was it Darwin who went out of his way to demand that everyone interpret his theory as atheistic, while the religious community said "Whoa, hold on, not necessarily -- we can work out some agreement here"?

Of course not. The unease initially went in the other direction, and Darwin knew in advance that's how it would be, so he presented it without touching on theism at all, as he should have. Of course in the long run the scientific success of evolution has lead to numerous forms of reconciliation and compatibilism, and plenty of push-back against those views from both religious fundamentalists and new atheists.

The problem with this Talk, as Jason and Eric both point to, is that it's pre-emptively confrontational. It acts like my hypothetical Darwin rather than the real one, basically saying "Hey, religious folks -- I've got this wild new idea you're sure to hate!"

There's probably a subtly different way of making the same point to better effect. I once had a science teach begin with a disclaimer that we might discuss evolution even if it made some students uncomfortable. As it happened, we never did (it was a kind of multidisciplinary class that never got into biology).

I wonder what Barash would consider the primary reason for his Talk being necessary. He mentions students' "discomfort" with evolution, but has this actually translated into difficulties learning the material? If I were him I'd begin with something along the lines of "You don't have to agree with the theoretical framework, you just have to understand what the scientific consensus on that framework is. If you like, pretend this is an anthropology and history class about scientists. Your religious beliefs will be respected but not a valid excuse against studying, just as if you were an atheist in a history of religion class. And you might even come out of this with a stronger faith -- many religious people have had that reaction to learning about evolution, and I don't think they're lying."

Even though I do believe in the fundamental incompatibility between evolution and theism, I don't think it's any teacher's job to address that, any more than I think it would be a political science teacher's job to say that conservatives are wrong and liberals are right.

Barash's day one talk "seems like a needlessly aggressive way of starting the semester." Agreed. It reminds me a bit of my first day in an Intro to Music class where the professor called Rock 'n Roll "trash," and immediately cut off any hope of connecting with many of the students.

By Jerry Hodge (not verified) on 02 Oct 2014 #permalink

I tend to agree with everyone else's opinion. It seems Barash is unnecessarily picking a fight here. If he wants to bring up the topic of religion at all to begin with, I prefer the way one of my high school biology teachers did it. He just taught us that belief in evolution and belief in creationism are two ends of a more or less continuous spectrum. There are many people who are quite able to reconcile their religious beliefs with evolution, so he didn't really see evolution as an attack on religion. He then went on to state that even if you can't reconcile them, you didn't have to actually believe that evolution is true. You just must understand the theory, its consequences, and its implications for biology.

It reminds me a bit of my first day in an Intro to Music class where the professor called Rock ‘n Roll “trash,” and immediately cut off any hope of connecting with many of the students.

I agree that calling Rock & Roll "trash" is provocative and possibly disrespectful, depending on the context. Doesn't that illustrate the divide though? Somebody's opinion, educated or otherwise, about Rock & Roll is an opinion, not a fact*. Creationism, on the other hand, is not defensible as a matter of fact in a biology lecture. Isn't Barash just explaining in advance why he doesn't want to entertain a bunch of irrelevant and distracting arguments in his class? He presents this respectfully, in a clear and reasoned talk. I don't see the problem. It's like my first year genetics prof: he was a Brit who established his reputation on the first day of class by waiting for people in one of those 200-seat halls to settle down, then asked politely for them to be quiet, and when that didn't work, turned up his microphone and yelled "SILENCE". He continued throughout the year to demand adult behaviour and hard work from his students, most of whom hated him. It was painful, but I learned a lot in that course, and 30 years later I don't think I'm qualified to criticize his methods. Again, where's the problem? And Americans think Canadians are too polite...

*I hope he followed through with careful arguments and plently of examples to show that Rock & Roll is indeed (mostly) trash. ;-)

First, for those who would rather hear the story than read a transcript the hour-long (repulsive!) This American Life episode is here (podcast):

I too am a "cultural" Jew, but would NEVER call myself "Jewish" as a religion; if you don't believe in and practice Judaism then you ARE NOT a Jew (and same for any other religion). Even though I understand your pride for Jewish accomplishments etc., I think you're being completely disingenuous (even a victim of indoctrination) to label yourself a Jew. The notion of "cultural Jew" is just a 'feel-good' sham, especially for one who is atheist.
In fact, it's incredible that you voice this stance right after pooh-poohing (prior post) Gould's “non-overlapping magisteria” view, when in fact Gould is right, that religion and science are so far apart as approaches to discerning "reality" that they cannot be judged or even discussed with the same set of criteria (not only that, but "religion" and "science" are broad terms both virtually defying precise definition).

Wrong thread, Shecky!

GregH: That creationism is false is indeed fact and not opinion. But for academic purposes the existence of God or truthfulness of religion are generally considered opinions. No one here has a problem with a biology teacher saying there couldn't be a literal Adam/Eve, although some might disagree with the teacher bringing it up out of nowhere. (I don't think I myself would do so, because it would almost come across as "protesting too much".)

I will focus on a different point than some have made above. The problem I have with this piece from Barash (though I like some of his other things) is how he casts the issue in terms of "evolution" vs. "religion." He's a biologist and I understand that he's making his points in a biology class. But his claim that it is "evolutionary insights" that have "undermined belief in an omnipotent ....God" I find misleading. I don't think that evolutionary theory is the key to the atheist's world. The greatests atheists of the last several hundred years were people like Hume, Marx, and Freud, whose collective case was devastating. For myself I think the case for atheism is already made by Hume in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779), before Darwin was even born. Yes I know that there are versions of the problem of evil that are exacerbated by the facts of evolution. But this only matters if you think that Hume hasn't already made the fatal blow to the design argument. So I find the attempt to make evolution so central historicaly misleading in this context.

Creationism, on the other hand, is not defensible as a matter of fact in a biology lecture. Isn’t Barash just explaining in advance why he doesn’t want to entertain a bunch of irrelevant and distracting arguments in his class? He presents this respectfully, in a clear and reasoned talk. I don’t see the problem.

If 'the Talk' was focused on creationism's incompatibility with modern biology, I would have much less of a problem (though I'd still probably see it as an unnecessary distraction). The problem is, evidently Prof. Barash gets up and says religion is incompatible; he implies that religious people may have trouble with some of the material he presents. Which IMO is a pretty large, fairly unwarranted generalization/stereotype.

Phil B, more Dawkins bashing - the blood sport of the spiritual?

You do realize there is a difference between what someone believes and what really is, no?

By Michael Fugate (not verified) on 07 Oct 2014 #permalink

Michael Fugate - O Dear. I feel you have profoundly misunderstood my purpose. I am the last person on earth to be a "Dawkins basher", and I understand the difference you allude to all too well. It's late at night and I'm tired, but will expand for your benefit tomorrow.