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.
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