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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

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Britain's badger malaise: have the mistrust and misdirection gone too far to cure?

The expansion of the badger cull is dividing rural England and revealing a worrying lack of research enterprise on the part of the government.

Infra-red cameras that fit on top of drones, and devices that can track the signal from police radios: if the new tactics used by anti badger-cull activists appear almost military, that’s because they are.

A leading activist in the protest group Stop the Cull, Jay Tiernan, previously served in the British Army’s Royal Corp of Signals and has helped propel the movement’s technological upgrade.

But don’t mistake this army-like organisation for aggression. Jay left the armed forces when he could no longer reconcile himself to killing for a living – or even to eat: “I convinced myself to go vegetarian and became philosophical to the point where I believed that all life should be treated equal,” he says. He later stepped down from the fox-hunt saboteur movement because he found the risk of becoming caught up in a brawl too great: “I didn’t want to have to be worrying about that.”

In contrast, disrupting a badger cull carries less risk of person-on-person confrontation. Law-abiding protesters look out for badger traps near their local walks, Jay says, and inform others who are willing to go out and destroy them. More-involved activists also attempt to track down the groups of trained marksmen who gather to shoot the badgers. By simply revealing their presence, the activists can force the marksmen to leave the area for safety reasons, he explains.

Yet despite the emphasis on non-direct confrontation, the costs to the state of policing badger culls are still substantial. In 2016 the police costs in Somerset alone reached more than £700,000 – equivalent to £3,277 for every badger killed. Jay himself received a suspended sentence for breaching an injunction designed to keep him away from those involved in the culls.

Many farmers hold that killing badgers is a necessary part of the Government’s wider 25-year strategy for eradicating bovine tuberculosis in cattle. How else could isolated herds be contracting the infection other than via the disease-carrying badger, they ask?

But campaigners and scientists dispute this logic, pointing to the detection of the disease in everything from soil, to sheep and cats. Professor Rosie Woodroffe from the Zoological Society of London has told the Guardian that the benefits of culling remain “uncertain”. While according to Lord Krebs, who worked on a massive pilot cull between 1997 and 2007, the present government trial was not set up as a legitimate experiment, has not monitored badger numbers properly, and has no independent oversight.

The result is spiralling antagonism, both online and in the fields. Over the last week I’ve listened on the phone as one anti-cull campaigner broke down in tears: “If we can’t live with our wildlife in a country as wealthy and educated as this, what hope is there for the rest of the world?” she said. She also asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution from cull supporters – a fellow campaigner once had an “eviscerated” badger nailed to her gate, she told me.

On the other hand, I’ve spoken to farmers whose distress at losing their livestock shouldn’t be under-estimated. David Barton challenges anyone to not be moved by the video of his diseased cows being shot on his farm in Gloucestershire: “I’m getting out of beef because I can’t emotionally carry on doing this,” he says in the National Farmers Union-sponsored film. There are also claims that the anti-cull protestors resort to intimidation too – like this Tory MP, who in 2013 accused anti-cull “scroungers” of leaving a dead badger on his doorstep.

So why has the debate reached such deadlock? And with the cull set to be extended to 11 new areas this autumn, raising the possibility of up to 33,347 badger deaths, is this mutual mistrust set to become endemic?

Political history plays a part here. In 2013, Patrick Barkham, argued in the Guardian that there were symbolic reasons why it was beneficial for David Cameron’s government to show solidarity with rural communities over the cull. And after Theresa May’s campaign U-turn on scrapping a fox hunting vote, there is little chance she will want to undo that work.

The welfare debate also has aspects which undermine hope of reconciliation. Jay Tiernan is vegan, for example, and is heavily opposed to many aspects of mainstream cattle farming in the UK. He doesn’t “hate” farmers for this, he explains, because hate is unproductive – in fact he admires the hard work they put in. But this doesn’t extend to sympathy for their situation. “I used to be a soldier and would have killed for money, so who am I to judge,” he says, “but I don’t have sympathy for them: they should get another job.”

Some vegan views are problematic for farmers. It not only reduces their market, but can also be seen as a moral judgement on their whole profession. It all adds to a feeling of being ganged up on by activists and left-wing politicians.

When Green Party co-leader Jonathan Bartley called for the government to “fully roll out a humane vaccinations programme for both badgers and cows”, farmer David Barton found the statement “irresponsible and stupid” – considering there is at present no such cattle vaccine available to farmers. While farmer Philip Latham tells me the idea he dislikes badgers couldn't be further from the truth – he even has a hide on his farm from when he spent hours watching them as a boy.

Yet perhaps most problematic of all is the heightened focus on badgers, rather than on other ways the disease spreads. The government's latest report concludes that the unadjusted incidence rate ratios “revealed no statistically significant differences” between cull and non-cull areas – and says that more monitoring and analysis is necessary. But with pro-cull sympathisers often citing research that showed culling reduced TB in cattle by up to 16 percent, and anti-cull sympathisers citing the cover letter to the same report, which said culling could “make no meaningful contribution to cattle TB control”, there is little to suggest that new analysis won’t fall into the same black hole.

The result? A public ever less trusting of the value of evidence. “The data that has just come out has divided farmers and scientists,” says David Barton. "As ever they can do what they want with it and make it work for them.”

Surely a more productive solution is improved support for research into other aspects of disease control, such as improving cattle testing as I wrote about here? Even the National Farmers Union says it “would like to improve cattle testing and believe that the best way to do that would be through research on better diagnostics".

More research will cost more money, but so will killing badgers. And as Brexit approaches, we must improve confidence in our disease control – or risk digging our farming industry its own very big hole.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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