Science

Author Interview: Part 3, The Top 10 Myths About Evolution

Here’s the third and final part of my interview with Cameron M. Smith and Charles Sullivan, authors of The Top 10 Myths About Evolution.


Myth 5: Evolution is Random
Skepchick:Great job on this chapter. I was very impressed with your arguments. I don’t have any question about this particular myth, but I’d like you to comment on the way these myths are perpetuated by religious and political leaders. Do you think the religious and political leaders who promote these myths actually believe them? Or do you think they intentionally foster false information in order to confuse their congregations and constituents?

Cameron M. Smith: I think through the course of human civilization, the ranks of the high priests have probably always included both devout believers and extremely powerful, devious manipulators. When the temple is in charge of agricultural schedules, for example – ‘plant now’, ‘harvest now’ – it’s easy to imagine all kinds of intrigue with regards to management of agriculture, which was the backbone of every ancient civilization. Now extend that to the manipulation of the readings, let’s say of divinations, by everyone from Shang priests (of ancient China) reading the future from the arrangement of cracks in pig skulls, to the reading of discolorations in the internal organs of sacrificed animals in Greece, and I think you have a system of generating ‘knowledge’ that is very malleable by the priestly elite.


Myth 6: People Come From Monkeys
Skepchick:I agree with your arguments in this chapter, but I don’t think it makes any difference to creationists and IDers whether our ancestors were actually chimpanzees or gorillas (species that exist today), or whether they were some yet-unknown hairy primate (a species that is now extinct). The insult of thinking that we come from any “lower” primate or animal life form is the central problem. My question is, “Well, so what if we did come from monkeys? We are obviously no longer the same as these other animals, and we have language, culture, and morals to guide us beyond our animal instincts to live more fulfilling and purposeful lives.” Would you comment on this further?

Cameron M. Smith: Yes, I’ve always been fascinated by connections to the rest of animal life, rather than revolted by it. I don’t understand that revulsion, though I’d like to know where it comes from. I do have to say that I’m not sure we have more fulfilling and purposeful lives than other animals. We have a lot of suicides, for example, and I think a lot of animals feel great satisfaction when the food supply is good, for example, or a mate has been found.

Charles Sullivan: I think the realization provided by evolution is that many of the differences between humans and chimps are more a matter of degree than of kind. And we can see many similarities to chimps in our emotions, social lives, moral feelings, and even our intelligence. I certainly value our human intelligence, language ability, creativity, rich emotional life, and reasoning ability, and because of these things I’d rather be a human than a chimp or any other animal. But perhaps by seeing our connection to other animals we can better understand what we have in common with them and what makes us unique.


Myth 8: Creationism Disproves Evolution and Myth 9: Intelligent Design is Science
Skepchick:I find these two myths very interesting. I’d like to ask you a question that has been on my mind for quite some time. It seems to me that scientists usually publish their ideas in professional peer review journals, while creationists and ID supporters primarily publish their ideas as press releases and popular articles. There’s an obvious difference between these approaches. However, in the past there havebeen many new scientific ideas that have not been accepted by the scientific community for many years, but that eventually turned out to be true. What do scientists with unusual ideas need to do to convince their peers that their ideas have merit? Or, to be more specific, what would it take for Intelligent Design to be taken seriously as science? Or, how could we recognize the work of an intelligent designer in biological systems, if such a designer did exist, and how could we tell it apart from the results of evolution? (Creationism, especially young-earth creationism, is so obviously unscientific and false, that I won’t ask you to comment on that further.)

Charles Sullivan: The British Scientist J.B.S. Haldane was once asked what would count as evidence against evolution. His answer was “fossil rabbits in the Precambrian.” Of course there are no such fossils in the Precambrian rock strata because mammals didn’t exist then. But such a find would certainly challenge the evolutionary explanation.

For Intelligent Design to gain legitimacy if would have to come up with some phenomena that cannot be explained in terms of natural processes. This does not mean a phenomena for which there is no present natural explanation; science is full of those. It would need to be something that cannot in principle be explained by natural processes. I really don’t what that would be. Perhaps some kind of barcode in the DNA that says “the designer was here.” But even that would leave open the possibility that the designers were extraterrestrials who had themselves evolved by natural processes.


Myth 10: Evolution is Immoral
Skepchick: That made me laugh, because I like to substitute “gravity” for “evolution” when I read absurd statements about evolution! I do think this is a very important topic, however, and of all the myths that you debunk perhaps the most important and the one that deserves much more discussion in the public arena. The idea that is prevalent in society is not, I think, that “Evolution is immoral” but that “Believing in evolution makes people immoral” or, perhaps, “Evolution can not lead to the development of moral beings, because morality must come from a deity.”

Charles Sullivan: Yes. And both of those ideas are covered in the chapter. But there’s a nice, short, punchy ring to “Evolution is Immoral” that grabs you by the scruff. Whereas, “Evolution can not lead to the development of moral beings, because morality must come from a deity” is, well, a chapter title that would run off the right margin, around the corner and meet you on the next page.


Skepchick: One reason I find ID completely unsatisfying on an intellectual level, is that its basic claim seems to be that if we can’t understand something, it must have been created by a supernatural being. The end result of such thinking is to squelch creativity and stunt intellectual growth. I believe that we will eventually find a biological explanation for morality, supported by scientific research. Do you know of any serious scientific work being done in the area of the evolution of morality? I’m sure the Skepchick readers would be interested in learning more about this topic and reading further.

Charles Sullivan: Even though evolution has shaped many of our moral emotions and impulses (for good and ill), I think that we have the ability to engage in moral deliberation and moral argument in a rational manner. And we often find no pleasure (in brain or body) in fulfilling some of our moral obligations to others, but we fulfill them (when we do) because reason tells us it’s the right thing to do. Moreover, I don’t see us as puppets whose moral decisions are wholly controlled by evolutionary “strings.” Simply put, we should try to do morally what there are the best reasons for doing, while taking into account everyone’s interests who will be affected by our actions, while also recognizing that everyone’s interests (including our own) count equally from a rational moral point of view.

As far as readings in the science of evolution and morality goes, Harvard psychology professor Marc Hauser and Princeton University philosophy professor Peter Singer have a fascinating little paper that touches on the origin and nature of morality at
http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/hausersinger1

Hauser also has a fascinating book called Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong (Ecco, 2006).

Also, Emory University’s Primatologist Frans de Waal has a book called Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved (Princeton UP, 2006).

I don’t necessarily agree with all that these writers say, but they offer ideas worth thinking about.


That’s it. Thanks so much to Charles and Cameron for taking the time to talk with us about their book!

writerdd

writerdd

Donna Druchunas is a freelance technical writer and editor and a knitwear designer. When she's not working, she blogs, studies Lithuanian, reads science and sci-fi books, mouths off on atheist forums, and checks her email every three minutes. (She does that when she's working, too.) Although she loves to chat, she can't keep an IM program open or she'd never get anything else done.

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4 Comments

  1. March 31, 2007 at 5:52 am —

    writerdd said:

    I believe that we will eventually find a biological explanation for morality, supported by scientific research.

    Now, for the first time, I can utter that needy and self-important phrase, "I wrote about this on my blog".

    That aside, thanks to all for a very nice interview!

  2. April 1, 2007 at 10:46 am —

    Interesting blob post. Thanks for the link.

  3. April 1, 2007 at 5:13 pm —

    "Blob post"?

    Sounds. . . gelatinous.

  4. April 2, 2007 at 5:12 am —

    hahha. Yeah, I can type! :-) And spell….

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