Show Hide image

Since the dawn of time

Two hundred years after Darwin’s birth, scientists still can’t agree on whether evolution and religi

It has been the year of evolution. To coincide with the anniversaries of both Darwin's birth and the publication of On the Origin of Species, Richard Dawkins published The Greatest Show on Earth: the Evidence for Evolution. And Jerry Coyne (an eminent evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago) wrote Why Evolution Is True. Yet, amid the ongoing celebrations, a new storm has erupted. This is not the usual battle between creationist fundamentalists and evolutionists. The latest ruckus has broken out among scientists and philosophers who accept evolutionary theory as the explanation for the emergence of life's diversity.

Where they differ is on the public communication of science and evolution. Dawkins in particular is being rebuked for doing more harm than good to the public face of science. The basic claim - spelled out by the journalist Chris Mooney and the biologist Sheril Kirshenbaum in their book Unscientific America, published in June - is that Dawkins presents an unnecessarily divisive choice: you can accept evolution and a scientific world-view more broadly, and therefore reject religion, or cling to religion and sacrifice scientific understanding.

This strategy, critics argue, alienates moderate religious people who might otherwise be receptive to scientific theory. Faced with a mutually exclusive choice between their private faith and the objective world-view of science, moderates will turn away from the latter. Science loses out.
It's not just Dawkins. Coyne and all the "new atheists" (including the Darwinian philosopher Daniel Dennett, the neuroscientist Sam Harris and the cultural commentator Christopher Hitchens) are charged with alienating people from science. Lining up against them is a group of "accommodationists", including Mooney, an atheist, and Kirshenbaum, an agnostic, who believe that evolution and religion can live happily side by side - at least under an entente cordiale, if not in a mutually supportive relationship.

Dawkins calls accommodationism "the Neville Chamberlain school" of evolution, and its proponents the appeasement lobby. Yet it is the official line of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the US National Academy of Sciences and the National Centre for Science Education, which is dedicated to promoting the teaching of evolution in American school curriculums.

Appeasement lobby

The accommodationist critique has at least two strands. One is the increasingly common criticism that the new atheists are excessively mean to people of faith, "militant" in tone, and iro­nically fundamentalist in their non-belief. The accommodationist philosopher Barbara Forrest chastises the new atheists for combining rudeness with arrogance and closed-mindedness. (Like Mooney and Kirshenbaum, Forrest is no friend of creationism; she was a critical witness at a 2005 trial in Dover, Pennsylvania, in which parents blocked the introduction of "intelligent design" theory into state-school curriculums - see "Gorilla warfare" below.)

Forrest argues that new atheists should respect the personal nature of faith, and nurture a sense of humility by recognising that scientific evidence does not rule out existence of the divine. They should accept that there is a wide range of views, she says, and stop insisting that everyone follow the "one true way" of atheism. Failing to do so only turns people off in droves.

Yet it seems unlikely that the new atheists have been this damaging. They have been an identifiable group and social force for five years only - starting with Harris's The End of Faith in 2004, which was followed by Dawkins's The God Delusion in 2006. More significantly, polls indicate that the proportion of the US public that subscribes to a creationist account of human origins has remained relatively constant for the past 25 years, hovering around 45 per cent. The previous era, which advocated greater respect for religion, does not seem to have won over hearts or minds. So who is to say that taking the opposite approach will drive anyone away?

The second thread of the accommodationist argument is that science, in fact, need not be inimical to religious faith. Eminent scientists from Galileo to Newton have found little trouble reconciling their personal faith with a scientific world-view. Perhaps the most prominent contemporary example is the geneticist Francis Collins, who ran the American arm of the Human Genome Project and was recently appointed head of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the biggest funder of biomedical research in the US. Collins is also an evangelical Christian who speaks publicly about his faith and its relation to science. Exemplars of this sort show that a single human mind can hold two divergent world-views simultaneously, or at least accept the legitimacy of two very different ways of gaining knowledge about the world.

An interventionist God

But there is another side to this story. Steven Pinker, a Harvard psychologist and an atheist, has voiced grave misgivings over Collins's appointment - not just because of his religious beliefs, but because of his "public advocacy" that "atheistic materialism" must be resisted. Collins believes in an interventionist God who, in his own words, "gifted humanity with the knowledge of good and evil (the moral law), with free will, and with an immortal soul".

Although, in principle, religious beliefs need not affect one's day-to-day science, in practice, they might. Take research on the foundations of human sociality and ethics, currently one of the hottest areas in behavioural science. Researchers are probing these questions with evolutionary theory, comparative primate studies and neurobiology, among other approaches, but no one invokes non-natural or non-material explanations. Are these instances of atheistic materialism to be resisted?

How would Collins's views affect the priority he might give to funding such research, if his prime belief is that ethics and the moral law are God-given? It is perfectly possible that he would accept the materialistic explanation of morality, and just add that everything was set up by God in such a way that naturalistic processes were bound to produce a big-brained moral species. Time will tell if, and how, NIH funding changes under his leadership. It would be unfair to prejudge the case.

In the meantime, there is little reason to suppose that the world will reach any meaningful consensus on the question of how best to engage the public with science in general, and evolutionary theory in particular. Perhaps, in true Darwinian fashion, those arguments and ideas best adapted to the modern world will prevail. In an era of resurgent religion, it is far from clear which approach this will be.

“Unscientific America" by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum is published by Basic Books (£15.99)

Dan Jones's writing on science has appeared in Nature and New Scientist magazines

This article first appeared in the 09 November 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Castro

Show Hide image

Sturgeon's mission: how Brexit changes the SNP's argument for independence

With Labour in disarray and Westminster focused on leaving the European Union, the next Scottish referendum - whenever it happens - is the SNP’s to lose.

If the political events of a single day can set the tone for what follows, the UK is on its last legs. Calling for another independence referendum at Bute House in Edinburgh on the morning of Monday 13 March, Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, appeared typically poised and (apparently) in control of events, while from Downing Street that afternoon there was the distinct sound of flapping.

Brexit highlights the contradictions on both sides of the constitutional divide. There is an obvious flaw in the SNP leader’s argument that the UK extracting itself from an economically beneficial union – the EU – would prove “catastrophic” while Scotland leaving the UK will be fine. Equally, Theresa May cannot credibly talk up the benefits of UK “independence” while casting the Scottish equivalent as a calamity.

Yet the optics in Edinburgh and London don’t give the full picture. By any empirical measurement, the economic case for Scottish independence is weaker than it was in 2014. However, the trouble for unionists – as for Democrats in the US and Remainers in the UK – is that the political conversation is no longer taking place in the realm of balance sheets or, indeed, of objective reality.

Sturgeon probably knew that this was coming from the moment she put a second independence referendum back “on the table” the morning after a majority of UK voters (but not Scotland) chose to leave the European Union. Yet between then and Monday morning, she had to appear reasonable, as if she had exhausted every possible compromise. The British government’s inflexible response to the First Minister’s quixotic plans for a “differentiated” Scottish settlement strengthened her hand.

No one in the SNP expected Theresa May to deliver the requested compromise. And while many believe that Sturgeon got a little carried away on 24 June 2016 in her expectation that pro-European sentiment would boost support for independence significantly, Brexit has been a political gift. Not only did the differential outcome in Scotland reinforce long-standing arguments about the “democratic deficit”, it also enabled the SNP to recast Scottish nationalism as internationalist and cosmopolitan, in contrast to the “Little Englander” variety.

Nevertheless, the First Minister ended up taking the plunge slightly earlier than anticipated, probably because newspapers had suggested that Article 50 could be triggered on 14 March. Sturgeon will now get a second media “hit” at her party’s spring conference in Aberdeen this weekend. Forcing her hand was not Alex Salmond, as some spurious reports implied, but the realisation that circumstances would never be this good again. Yes, there is the backdrop of Brexit, but equally important are the existence of a pro-independence majority in the Scottish Parliament (which is unlikely to be sustained beyond the 2021 Holyrood elections) and the continuing dysfunction of the Labour Party. Jeremy Corbyn might go down in history as an unwitting facilitator of both Brexit and Scottish independence.

This time last year, Nicola Sturgeon was telling interviewers that she would pursue another referendum only if opinion polls showed a sustained lead for independence. Though two recent surveys suggest a modest tilt towards Yes, this has not transpired – at least not in public polling. It seems likely, however, that private polling tells a different story, which is another reason why the SNP leader felt able to move as she did.

Crucial to the next vote is the group that we might call “Yes-Leavers”. With a degree of intellectual consistency, its members want to regain “sovereignty” from both London and Brussels. In an attempt to keep hold of that constituency, the First Minister has attempted in recent months to detach a second referendum from Brexit, arguing that independence “transcends” this and almost every other political consideration. SNP advisers also floated the idea that an independent Scotland might settle for membership of the European Economic Area, like Iceland or Norway (the party’s favourite constitutional case study), rather than full-blooded membership of the EU.

The SNP is confident that, come the crunch, the majority of Yes-Leavers will end up backing independence. The tenuous claims, made during the last Scottish referendum campaign, that an independent Scotland would “automatically” become or remain an EU member are dead in the water. Instead, the Scottish government tacitly accepts – indeed, welcomes – the possibility that it will be outside the EU, at least for the time being.

On 13 March the First Minister said the Yes side would “be frank about the challenges we face”, yet another indication that the independence proposition will be less Pollyannaish than it was in 2014. Its advocates have little choice. Not only have North Sea oil revenues dwindled, but the sizeable gap between what Scotland raises in taxation and what it spends on public services – somewhere between £9bn and £15bn a year – is given an annual airing with the publication of the Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland (GERS) figures.

Just as the SNP reversed its opposition to membership of Nato in 2012, the party is now closing down potential lines of opposition attack. The benefit of having fought a referendum just a few years ago is that nationalist strategists know where their weaknesses lie. Central to this process is a “growth commission”, led by the former SNP MSP Andrew Wilson.

Wilson has said that oil revenues will no longer be “baked” into the economic case for independence. His remarks were not intentional but proved useful, neutralising the oil issue early on, but the twin challenges of currency and the deficit remain. Last time, the SNP adopted the least bad option of a “currency union” with the rest of the UK, but since then opinion within the SNP has shifted in favour of a separate Scottish currency. Whether that becomes policy, however, is not yet clear.

There has also been a change of tone regarding the deficit, if not a wholehearted acceptance that the early years of independence would necessitate both steep tax rises and deep cuts to public spending. “It’s going to be tough for the first few years,” one Salmond-era adviser admits, but how frank the SNP is about that in public will be a test of the new realism.

Like Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, the SNP has been better at calling for an alternative economic model than articulating what it would be. That won’t matter much in the heat of another referendum battle. The meta-narrative remains strong, and as the EU referendum and US presidential election demonstrated, a beguiling story of apparently easy solutions to difficult problems – even in the absence of any details – can prove a winning formula.

The central role of Andrew Wilson in the SNP’s pivot away from land-of-milk-and-honey predictions is also interesting. He and Sturgeon were colleagues in the first Scottish Parliament between 1999 and 2003, but they were far from close, and Wilson is typical of the Salmondista nationalists who once thought the idea of her leading the party was a bad joke but now view her with increasing admiration, not least for her willingness to gamble her career on a second referendum. The First Minister’s kitchen cabinet is small, but over the past few months, as a source puts it, “there’s been some reaching out” to Salmond-era advisers. A divided movement is not in any nationalist’s interest.

So where does that leave those who want to preserve the United Kingdom? Not in a good place, as the initial response demonstrated. The carrot-and-stick approach of the 2014 referendum is subject to the law of diminishing returns; offering yet “more powers” is difficult, now that the low-hanging fruit has been picked, and Project Fear II would likely suffer the same fate as last year’s Remain campaign. Organisationally, each of the three unionist parties – the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats – will fight its own anti-independence campaign, thus appearing disunited (the Yes campaign will probably be much more disciplined than in 2012-14).

More to the point, with Northern Ireland once again in tumult, what precisely is it that binds Ulster, Wales and Scotland to England, beyond a balance sheet? In recent weeks, everyone from the Prime Minister to the Scottish Lib Dem leader, Willie Rennie, has attempted to articulate the Holy Grail of a “positive” case for the Union. None has got beyond the usual platitudes about past (the tense is revealing) British greatness and fuzzy rhetoric about “solidarity”. There is also English public opinion to factor in. A few years ago, the English, on balance, wanted Scotland to stay, but who can say if that sentiment will survive Brexit and a second independence referendum?

As Europhiles know all too well, defending a union that can appear harsh and remote is no easy task. It doesn’t matter that independence is a conclusion in search of an argument – oil in the 1970s, Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, the Iraq War in the 2000s and now Brexit – or that economic reality favours the status quo. Success in 2019 (or perhaps even later) will come down to who tells the better story. Brexit gives the Yes side a more compelling good v evil tale than it had in 2014. If the No campaign relies on the same old boring story of economic woe (what else is there?), a second indepen­dence referendum is the SNP’s to lose.

David Torrance has written biographies of Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon

This article first appeared in the 16 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit and the break-up of Britain