Dr. Jerry Coyne on Why Evolution is True
Dear Dr. Coyne,
I attended your lecture "Why Evolution is True," (based on your book of the same name,) at the Harvard Museum of Natural History(HMNH) last night. There were many things I liked about your lecture, and I have a few comments, and some information to share with you.
I really appreciated your emphasis on understanding what is true, explaining that a theory is a coherent group of propositions meant to explain facts about the world. Theories make assertions about that which is true, "a set of ideas for which there is so much evidence that it would be perverse to deny it." You attributed that last thought to Stephen J. Gould.
Your setting forth arguments against those who believe in creationism was well done. I like that you simply used the term "creationism," rather than giving credence to the variety of terms that creationists try to use these days.
Intelligent design = creationism, creation science = creationism, etc.
I appreciate your mentioning Buddhism and Confucianism in your talk, and just want you to know that there are other non-theistic religions, and there are people who identify themselves as religious who have a naturalistic understanding of evolution.
Ethical Culture is a religion which adheres to the Scientific Method, which uses a naturalistic framework, and which is non-theistic. I am an Ethical Culture Leader, which is the term we use for our clergy. Our clergy study philosophical and scientific reasoning, but have no particular authority or means of knowing the great “Truths” of the world. Sometimes, Ethical Culture is known as Ethical Humanism, and I'd be happy to share more information with you.
Humanists have developed a celebration of Darwin, evolution, and scientific thought, with the creation of Darwin Day.
When you were talking about what evolution is, I wish you had emphasized that it is a process based on chance. I agree with you that it is important to be able to counter the arguments of people who believe in creationism, or a theistically guided evolution. You spoke about adaptation and speciation, and gave good examples of how if creationism were true, it would not make sense for species to have vestiges of the earlier traits of species from which they are derived, and that would be good evidence for evolution, not of a not very intelligent designer.
I see talking about adaptations without talking about the initial randomness of the process having the potential to give the impression that there is a force which moves towards ever greater improvements in species. My understanding is that this is simply not true. There is no force, there is no mechanism, driving things forward, no intelligence acting to make things better. I think the focus on adaptation is one reason why there is such a high percentage of people, as you illustrated last night, who believe in evolution, but also believe that there is a theistic guidance to the process of evolution.
I think in our current world, people are so used to the proactive nature of adaptation. The best example I can think of concerns computers. For the computers that the majority of people use, we started out with very basic operating systems, and then those were proactively adapted and improved to better meet the needs of those using the computers, and to be able to expand the base of people who could use computers. We are used to having engineers who can perceive a need, then work to develop an adaptation which better meets those needs. This process of technological adaptation does not depend primarily on chance as does adaptation through natural selection. Natural selection is a reactive process, not a proactive one. I hope you will consider emphasizing this more. To me, it seems to have a better chance of eliminating the need in some people's minds for there to be a theistically guided evolution, rather than naturalistic evolution. (But perhaps I’m just a wishful thinker.)
My last concern is about your answer to why it is important that people accept the theory of evolution. I totally agree with you that understanding and accepting (I'm being careful to not use the word believe here,) evolution science as true may give people a deeper appreciation of the world of which they are part, an appreciation based in facts and reality. Yet there are other, perhaps more important, reasons why people need to appreciate science.
People need to have a basic understanding and appreciation of science because so many decisions in our world depend on that understanding. Most notable these days is climate science, and being able to understand that human beings are indeed living in a manner that is actively changing the natural climate of the earth and that this will have very negative affects on human beings around the globe. That so many people can deny that there is climate change, and use that denial to continue living in a manner which contributes to the increase of carbon dioxides, and other pollutants to the atmosphere, rather than making substantial changes in their consumption, is an example of why people need to understand and accept scientific thinking and reasoning.
There are many more examples of why an understanding and a respect for science is necessary for evaluating policies made in this country. Here’s a case just reported on democracynow.org: “Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal has signed into law a measure banning abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy except in cases where the mother’s life is in danger or the fetus is unlikely
to survive. In a statement, Deal based his signing of the law on the highly contested notion that a fetus can feel pain at that stage. At least six other states currently ban abortion at 20 weeks of pregnancy based on the assumption of fetal pain, despite medical research debunking the idea.”
Good science, potential for good laws. Bad science, bad laws.
So while I agree that it is good to have an appreciation for science for a fuller human experience, the need for understanding science is broader and more compelling. And the need to have good science education goes right along with that.
Thank you for your presentation, your science, your enthusiasm for evolution, and for reawakening my passion on these particular aspects of the evolution situation in our country. I look forward to reading your book and following your work.
Here are some pieces previous pieces about evolution and Darwin written by me and several colleagues.
Jerry A. Coyne, Ph.D is a Professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago.