Home > Research > Jerry Coyne’s anti-religious promotion of evolution

Jerry Coyne’s anti-religious promotion of evolution

I just finished reading a piece by Jerry Coyne published in this month’s issue of Evolution. Coyne lays out the problem of belief in evolution, belief in God, and questions whether there can be compatibility. He’s basically asking how we, as scientists, can get more people to accept evolution. Relying mostly on poll data and sociological assays of religiosity in the United States and elsewhere, he concludes that the problem is that the United States is a more strongly religious nation than most others. He then argues that science and religion are incompatible unless we redefine religion, and hence cautions that acceptance of evolution will have to wait until widespread social change makes religion less important to Americans.

Coyne’s primary argument that science and religion are incompatible is an argument also used by Richard Dawkins, based on the idea that scientists discover Truth (with a capital “T”) . Coyne distinguishes between “scientific truth” and “religious truth” and then conveniently shows that religious truths are not supported by science. There are some logical problems there, but I would rather ask the question: is that really what scientists do? Do we discover the Truth? What is the Truth? I don’t know any way to communicate Truth to anybody: what I experience as Truth is based on my subjective experience, and is inconvenient to communicate in any reliable way. What I think is going on here is that Coyne, Dawkins and many others take science too seriously: science is a way of communicating. Science is a way of using objective criteria to describe nature so that we can talk about the common aspects of our experience.

However, is that Truth? Or is it just what we can learn using science? Science is very effective in doing what it does, but it is also intentionally very limited. Science cannot do a lot of things that people might find very interesting: certain experiments would not be science because there would be no further experimenting with them. For example, there were widespread experiments with telepathy, prayer and other forms of supernatural communication around 1900, but the experiments were hard to conduct and the results were hard to interpret. So what did the scientists do? They did what scientists always do and they backtracked to something that they could work with. That’s the point: science is about experimenting with things in small steps that are fun to play with. Science is incredibly limited, very slow, and usually very crude in its means of experimentation (“Hmm, this week let’s cut out this part of the brain!”) . Such a method could hardly come close to finding “The Truth.” Nevertheless, it is still fun, enlightening, and people learn a lot doing it. There’s no greater hell for scientists than feeling that they are not learning. Let’s see science for what it is — a good way of learning and communicating — instead of relying on it for The Truth.

My real question is why this is so important to Jerry Coyne, Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens. The title of the essay is telling: “Science, religion and society: the problem of evolution in America” (my emphasis). Non-acceptance of evolution is a problem to be solved. Really? What is exactly the problem to solve? What do we accomplish by having more people accept evolution? What does anybody gain, except learning more science? This is kind of like complaining about not getting a third cookie: we scientists do accept and study evolution and get our own benefits from doing that. Do we really need more scientists? I think what is motivating these authors is that they believe that they are reporting The Truth, and it’s always in the best interests of people to know The Truth. Then I ask how evolution is different from Christianity or Islam: how are atheists any different from the religions they oppose in saying that they themselves have the truth and everyone would be better off to agree with them? Has evolution become ideology?

The other possible answer is that scientists believe that they are right in another sense. Not that they are ideologically correct, but that they have the right information, the right data, the right facts. This is a syndrome of people believing that being right is the most important thing. I would venture to ask if compassion is not more important than factual correctness. Have you ever been in a conversation with a person who absolutely didn’t care about your feelings in any way, but just wanted to show you how wrong you were about some arbitrarily tiny little matter of fact? If it was me, then I’m sorry.

Religion, Coyne concludes, is a symptom of a sick society, and America is completely sick. Might that mean that Americans need religion more than they need evolution? Is being factually correct really important when people are just hurting, feeling misunderstood, feeling abandoned by a rigid, competitive society? Again, perhaps compassion is more important — and the means of conveying that compassion is inconsequential. If you don’t think Americans are ill, then why are they killing themselves with terrible food? Why are they watching their neighbors kill themselves on TV? Why are so many Americans addicted to pain medication? I agree with Jerry Coyne here: if we live in a society where people are so bad off that they need religion, is making them accept evolution really important? What bothers me is that his only seeming concern for the problems of his fellow human beings is clearing it all up so that they’ll finally accept his version of Truth.

  1. August 20, 2012 at 12:54

    Here “Philosophical Entertainer” Alan Watts explains what I think is wrong with strictly viewing existence from a scientific point of view. Particularly he points out the social origins of the idea that the universe and everything in it is a machine. I used to be a prickly adherent to the idea that the universe is a heartless machine. I’m not strictly advocating an alternative, but I will point out that I was extremely skeptical of any idea (e.g. religion) that didn’t conveniently fit in with my own personal plan for world domination. Atheism (a misnomer) seems to be a way to try to scientifically justify this perspective of nasty individualism. If we want to talk about science, let’s talk about science scientifically and have a good time doing so, but all the while knowing what we’re doing.


  2. August 26, 2012 at 21:41

    I disagree with your emphasis on the whimsical in science and on science as merely a form of communication. True, many of us initially go into science because it is fun and awe-inspiring. However, at some point, if you’re lucky enough to work on a problem of some consequence, things will get more serious. And once you and the larger community of your colleagues reach a long-lasting consensus on what you have observed about a certain question and what it means, most scientists would treat that as “truth”, i.e., as the best statement about that aspect of the natural world that can be issued at the moment, at least until disaffirmed by some future observation. Coyne’s point is that science, unlike religion, is in a far better position to arrive at near universal consensus on what is “true” in that sense. I agree that this is based on communication, through peer review and publication, but it goes way beyond that because any scientific finding is open to challenge and disaffirmation. Thus, for scientific “truths” of some consequence, such as Darwinian evolution, rejection and denial have huge implications for our society. They are an affront to a rational system of decision making, especially when they represent political posturing. For evolution, climate change, childhood vaccination, contraception, and other scientific issues currently subject to denial and rejection by some in our society, the circumstances could not be more serious. These are indeed “problems” to be confronted. And while I believe that Coyne does probably consider himself to be a particularly important person in this fight, I certainly don’t think that Coyne is on a personal vendetta here. It is not merely “his” truth that he is defending, but truth that many in science have come to embrace.

    As you know, Coyne has taken Ken Miller to task for not fully acknowledging the role of religion as an institution in promoting science denial, while at the same time seeming to lay all the blame on scientists. However, I find it interesting that, in the article you have reviewed, he is essentially proposing that scientists can contribute significantly to the decline of religiousness in American society by being more forceful in their defense of evolution as fact. On this, I heartily agree. We scientists can and should do much more to promote and defend the institution of science. For my part, that’s the primary reason I started “dissectingpublicscience.com”.


    • August 27, 2012 at 14:08

      Here’s my basic thesis on science as a form of communication (note that I did not say “merely”): imagine doing a scientific investigation and not having to tell anyone about it, perhaps not even yourself. How would you make your measurements? How would you decide that you had solved the problem, or answered the question? How would you know that you knew more than you knew at the beginning? What would be your justification for making those conventions, remembering that “easy to communicate to others” is not a requirement?

      Here’s another perspective: what’s the definition of a planet? How about of a cell? What’s the definition of an individual organism? How did we come to those definitions? What purpose do they serve?

      My point about science versus religion is that religion, in its purest form, which we might instead call spirituality (forgetting all the power structure that goes along with it), is primarily about subjective experience. Those subjective experiences are incredibly hard to communicate, especially in religions that focus on mystical experience, like Theravadan Buddhism, or Rinzai Zen. They are so hard to communicate that they resort to all sorts of linguistic tricks to try and just get people pointed in the right direction. However, they always point out that the words are not the truth. This is a very different idea of religion from “…and the word was God.” It’s also a very different from saying “Here is my data: it’s the truth.” In fact, I see a lot in common between the latter two points of view.

      I definitely agree that people benefit from hearing the scientific facts about contraception, vaccines, climate change and everything else. But to tell those people that they should make science the absolute truth in their lives, as many scientists are perfectly okay with doing, is a little presumptuous. I think we’ll have more success in educating people if we present science as helpful, rather than presenting it as the absolute truth.

      Another way of looking at it, is that in science we get at what science can get at; do you think that means it is the truth? Just because I’ve developed an experimental technique that can tell me more about something than my older techniques could, does that mean my new results are now the truth? What happens to my previous knowledge at that point?


  3. August 27, 2012 at 22:25

    Note taken. True that.

    The examples you give at the outset of your comment fall into the category of what I call “private science.” As far as I’m concerned, it is still science as defined by technique, logical reasoning, and overall process, EXCEPT for the lack of public communication. So, if your point is that public communication is what sets apart much of what you and I do as scientists, in our laboratories and in what we publish (or try to…), REGARDLESS OF THE OUTCOMES, then I agree with you on that point.

    I also agree that, as a personal matter, people are entitled to their beliefs. And I agree that scientists can sound strident and arrogant when they seem to challenge the primacy of personal belief or to claim there is only one absolute “truth”, and it probably does not help the cause. However, when science arrives at a consensus about something of broad import in our society (and, yes, probably arriving at a new “truth” that is either a variation or a frank replacement of former “truths”), then our social compact must be to favor the objective over the subjective as the greater good. Vaccines are just one example (and I suspect one to which you’ve given some recent thought as a young parent). We are now entering a minor health crisis because people have been given to believe that childhood vaccination is optional. It must not be, or we are going to see more than just the incidence of pertussis rising once again as a childhood ailment.


  4. August 29, 2012 at 13:40

    I entirely agree with you about all your points, I just want to clarify one thing I said:

    Tom Schoenfeld :

    The examples you give at the outset of your comment fall into the category of what I call “private science.” As far as I’m concerned, it is still science as defined by technique, logical reasoning, and overall process, EXCEPT for the lack of public communication.

    I’m not really referring to public communication, e.g. publication and peer review. I’m referring to how if you don’t have to tell anybody about your results (i.e. your experience) then you will probably use different criteria to describe them. Think of what colors would be like if you didn’t have to agree with anybody about what purple was. If you were to do science on that basis, I think you would get something like Wilhelm Reich’s theory of Orgone, i.e. pseudoscience. In fact, one reason I find psychoanalysis so interesting is that it tries to be scientific, but can’t find objective criteria for communicating about neuroses. That’s why the study of neurosis (as opposed to psychopathology) has shifted toward more Krapelinian criteria, although the therapy methods are still rooted in subjective psychoanalytic paradigms (e.g. CBT).


    • August 29, 2012 at 13:59

      Yes, and I guess that’s why I’m not particularly interested in psychoanalysis. But, sure, I see your point. I for one am strongly driven by external standards and forces. On my own, I’m like the circadian clock that drifts in the absence of the sun acting as a zeitgeber. Interesting to think about as it applies to science.


      • August 29, 2012 at 14:21

        Well, there you go: should we really be urging people not to trust their own experience? When a situation involves a microorganism, then I can see it, but science is getting applied to a lot more than infectious diseases and cancer. Take a look at the toddler toy section next time you’re in Target and you’ll see what I mean. Do people really need to hear “studies have shown” in order to be nice to their kids?


  1. August 23, 2012 at 08:23
  2. March 29, 2013 at 12:54

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