Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

Is selective rejection of science really a problem?

Posted 18 Jan 2013 / 1

2013-01-18In a recent short opinion piece (Scientific AmericanCreation, Evolution and Indisputable Facts“), Jacob Tanenbaum argues that selectively rejecting evolutionary biology is dangerous to the scientific culture of America. He rightly points out that our populace does not reject science as a whole, but instead picks and chooses what science to doubt and what science to trust. Tanenbaum points out that we all happily consume the products of well-executed science: planes that don’t fall out of the sky and heated/powered homes. When science matters, we have no problem believing it (as I like to put it, “there are no postmodern bridge engineers”).

But is selectively rejecting evolutionary science really all that risky to our society? For this to be true, evolutionary biology must deliver more than reliable knowledge: it must also deliver useful knowledge. And it seems to me that we have — as a scientific field — failed to deliver value. Sure, we have shed light on a few medical issues that matter — antibiotic resistance and phylogenetic understandings of human disease — but for the most part evolutionary biology fails to produce the kinds of deliverables that we have come to expect from organismal biology, chemistry, physics, and the earth sciences.

It is no coincidence that evolutionary biology and its findings are rejected by the religiously orthodox. Some may focus on orthodoxy as the source of the conflict, but if you look at the history of religions, none have clung to anti-scientific dogma for very long provided that acknowledging scientific findings proved useful. It turns out that the orthodox can be pretty flexible over moderate periods of time. Rather than being a productive of orthodoxy, I view the rejection of evolutionary biology as a product of being religious. What do religions teach? Most often, it is that there are universal morals. What does evolutionary biology teach? Overall, that nature is amoral. Humans are considered part of nature, and we are therefore amoral. And in the eyes of many evolutionary biologists, “human nature” goes beyond being simply amoral: many would have you believe that we have evolved to be evil (in other words, to behave in ways that violate religious morals). It is the failure of evolutionary biology to explain its place in relation to morality that has caused it to be rejected as not just without utility but also as threatening.

I am not suggesting that all orthodox religious adherents have consciously (or even subconsciously) assessed the moral implications of evolution, but if you read between the lines of much of the creationist ‘argument’, you will find morality front-and-center. And I do not think that a simple lecture in Hume’s Is-Ought distinction will  bring evolutionary biology and orthodox religion into harmony. Instead, it is up to evolutionary biology to explain the basis of human morality — including the invention of the supernatural and, eventually, religions — as an evolved adaptation. Evolutionary biology does such a poor job of explaining how humans manage to live harmoniously in such massive colonies, it is no wonder that supernatural explanations of human genesis and the maintenance of civilization still have such appeal. Pretty much every evolutionary biologist I know is blind to this simple fact: people want evolutionary biology to help us understand our own reason for being, and altruism, cooperation, and morality are all a big part of that reason for being. Until evolutionary biology can explain how we became so cooperative, it will not be able to tell us how to maintain that cooperation.

There is one thing that Tanenbaum is certainly right about, and that is that denying science is a serious threat to the continued existence of the civilization on which most modern humans rely. If we continue to believe that humans are incapable of over-exploiting the natural resources upon which we depend — or worse yet assume that divine intervention will save us — we will destroy the ecological basis of our civilization. And civilization is, after all, what makes social constructions like religion possible. Ironically, we need a better scientific understanding of how cooperation evolves in order to save the idea of God.

A Major Post, Adaptation, Altruism, Articles, Belief, Cooperation, Evolution, Gene-Culture Coevolution, Human Evolution, Human Uniqueness, Religion, System Stability

1 Comment to "Is selective rejection of science really a problem?"

Artem Kaznatcheev 13th February 2013 at 7:33 pm

I really like this stance, but I am worried that even with ‘concrete’ results, there will still be a fundamental barrier of wanting to feel special. Knowing how bridges stand doesn’t make a person feel less special, but viewing their morality as a product of a mechanistic process often does. Maybe this can be overcome, but even in psych/neuro where there seems to be less conflict with religion and more clear mechanisms at times, there is still a want of specialness (look at philosophers of mind like Chalmers). Further, I am not sure how one would ever arrive at these ‘concrete’ solutions to be perfectly honest, since our only tools are experiments on model systems (either simulation, or short-life spans) or theory, this will always be much less convincing that walking across the Brooklyn bridge yourself.

Leave a Reply