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

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

This is a great little book that’s fun to read and jam packed with information. If you’re ever involved in conversations about evolution, or you just want to know more about the different issues that have been in the news lately but you don’t want to get a degree in evolutionary biology, this book is for you. It’s a quick read, and because each chapter is like a short article, you don’t have to have an entire weekend free. You can read a bit at a time when you have a few minutes of free time.

I first asked the authors some general questions about why they wrote the book and what their goals were for this book, as well as their outlook on some recent political issues.

Skepchick: Writing and publishing a book is a lot of work. These tasks are not usually taken on lightly. What inspired you to write this book?

Cameron M. Smith: I urgently needed to write the book. For years, in my introductory archaeology courses I was finding that a lot of freshmen and even sophomores — even those who believed in evolution — had some pretty shocking misconceptions about what it was, and how it worked. I wanted to at least be able to say to myself, “I’m doing everything I can about this slide back into Medieval thought.”

Charles Sullivan: In our many discussions together we had both been bemoaning postmodernist relativism, with its view that truth is in the eye of the beholder. And we agreed that science and rational thinking are how to get at the truth. Then some of the intelligent design stuff started popping up in the news, and we would email links about the news stories to each other, and bemoan some more about the dreadful state of scientific literacy in America, most specifically related to how evolution works. And then I guess we just got tired of bemoaning and doing nothing, so we figured we’d throw our hats into the ring, as it were, by trying to make a contribution to scientific literacy. And, of course, there’s something quite sexy about being a published author.

Skepchick: Many people are afraid that science will rob them of their spirituality and will even cause them to lose their faith, some even believe that this will doom them to eternal damnation. In fact, I used to be a born again Christian, but after I started reading about science in my mid-20s, I did lose my faith. I still consider myself a spiritual person, however. I just look for my spiritual fulfillment in different
places now. As you state in the introduction, myths are quite powerful. You also say, “Many of these myths are based on ignorance, for which the best remedy is knowledge.” Do you believe that knowledge of science and the ability to think logically can actually cause people to stop believing beloved myths?

Cameron M. Smith: Absolutely. As we grow as individuals, we drop away the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus because what we once thought was good evidence for them turns out to be not such good evidence. Science is about integrity and being honest with yourself; if your evidence doesn’t support your favorite hypothesis, well, you have to ditch or modify it, unless you want to lie to yourself. My mentor once told me to be most careful about my favorite theories, and I work hard to do that. You do it by not getting too invested in any given idea until you have a good pile of facts and observations to support it. In the late 19th and through the 20th centuries, a portion of humanity – those who believed in science – have given up a number of ancient, cherished myths, such as humanity being at the pinnacle of the Natural world. If I didn’t think knowledge of scientific fact could influence people’s though-processes, I wouldn’t write, or teach.

Charles Sullivan: Generally, yes. Clear critical thinking, and evidence-based reasoning can lead people to question and discard many of their most dearly held superstitious and irrational beliefs. It’s not always easy, though, especially when there are strong emotions connected with those beliefs, as is often the case with the religious kind. Some people feel a sense of liberation when they’re able to see through the hocus-pocus of their superstitious beliefs. Others feel a void, as if they had lost a loved one. And there will probably always be those who refuse to question these beliefs at all because of fear.

The word “spiritual” is tricky because it means many things to many people. But I have no problem with the word as long as it’s divorced from mysticism and other forms of supernaturalism.

Skepchick: Do you think this result is desirable?

Cameron M. Smith: Absolutely! I love mythology and wouldn’t be interested in a culture lacking parables, morality tales, and so on. But we have to recognize them for what they are; they’re symbols of what we value in culture, not factual truth. I can love the myth of John Henry versus the steam engine – in all its detail – without believing that there was an actual John Henry, and so on. When we start to believe in mythical accounts as though they’re literal, we’re lying to ourselves, and starting to separate ourselves from reality, and I don’t think either of those can be any good. If we don’t question things, we ignore our most precious ability as a species: the ability to reason.

Charles Sullivan: As far as whether it’s desirable to stop believing beloved myths, the late Carl Sagan said it well: “It is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however
satisfying and reassuring.”

Skepchick: I’m quite disturbed by the prevalence of libertarian thinking in the United States, and especially within the skeptical community. Many people seem to believe that the United States would be better off without a public school system. In my state of Colorado, a bill was recently introduced to the legislature that would have allowed students to opt out of classes that did not coincide with their religious
beliefs (fortunately this bill did not make it to the floor.) Do you think that by improving public education we can cut down on the amount of pseudo-science that is believed by the general public?

Cameron M. Smith: I hope so – if not, what are we doing? Science is so simple; it’s a system of generating knowledge that recognizes the truth of things by compiling facts and observations about them – there’s no great mystery to that. If we can’t teach that in school, we might as well quit and just start making up explanations out of thin air.

Charles Sullivan: It seems hard to imagine how improving public education (especially if it included critical thinking) could not reduce the general public’s overall belief in pseudo science.

Skepchick: Or will more people simply take their children out of the public school system and even lobby for an end to public schools, claiming that parents should be able to control what their children are taught?

Cameron M. Smith: I suppose that’s possible, though I doubt the public school system can be shut down entirely. Nobody would have the time to take care of their kids, much less educate them. I think if public schools were shut down, our civilization would be coming to a close.

Charles Sullivan: It’s hard to predict how parents will react. In terms of science curriculum, we should focus on teaching what the general consensus is among scientists in their respective fields. Therefore, just as we wouldn’t teach an earth-centered planetary system in a science class dealing with astronomy (regardless of how many parents believed in it), we likewise should not omit the teaching of evolution in biology classes, nor should we teach unsubstantiated “alternatives” to evolution.

More about each of the 10 myths to come next week.


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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  1. I think the public schools would be improved if more busybody anti-education parents would just give up and take their kids elsewhere. The teachers would have more time to spend on kids who aren't being brainwashed when they get home.

  2. Now that's an interesting thought! :-) But would the country be improved if more kids got a non-education?

  3. But it wouldn't really be more kids; it would benefit all kids in districts that are on the line about ID, and those that are in a position to be withdrawn by their parents really aren't in for the best education, simply because it will be tainted by their parents' beliefs.

  4. I don't think that's true. My mother was a born again Christian when I was in school, and we learned all kinds of stupid things in church and at home, but my public school science education still made a huge impact on me and ultimately led to me being able to leave superstion behind. It took a long time, but it still happened. I don't know where I'd be today if I hadn't had that public school education.

  5. Good interview. For the record, there was a real John Henry. It is the story of the race against the steam engine that was the myth, not the man himself.

  6. TheCzech–could you elaborate a bit, please? I'm certain that there have been in the past myriads of people named John Henry, and there have probably been dozens of black men named John Henry who drove tunnels for railroads. What distinguishes one of these from all the others; enough to inspire the legend of the race with the steam drill?

  7. I second that, TheCzech. Mythology fascinates me; I'd love to hear of a real basis for the story of John Henry.

  8. I got this from Richard Shenkman of George Mason University in his book Legends, Lies, and Cherished Myths of American History. When I actually get some free time at home, I will try to look up a specific quote and see if he names sources.

    I've done a bit of searching, and it seems that not everyone agrees with Shenkman. I found a video clip from one of the History Channel's History Quiz segments and their answer to the question of whether or not John Henry was real was that no one knows for sure. Yeah, the HC is not much of a source, but it is interesting none-the-less.

    Anything further on this, I will post in the forums since this is now undeniably off-topic.

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