Following on from my last two guest posts—The Insanity of Biotech by biochemist Paul Little, and Why I’m Through with Organic Farming by farmer Mike Bendzela—is this Q&A with evolutionary biologist Jerry A. Coyne who wrote the marvelous book, Why Evolution is True, and writes (extremely frequently) on his blog of the same name.
Evolution is one of those touchy subjects in the public sphere now (mainly in America) and I devote a chapter to debunking some of the more common myths surrounding the most important theory of the last 200 years in S3: Science, Statistics and Skepticism. But, given that I’m not an evolutionary biologist, I decided to steal some credibility from Jerry A. Coyne with this interview. Enjoy the read, and I hope that you, like me, learn something new.
Fourat: Hi Jerry, It’s nice to meet you.
F: I’ve been following your blog for some time now, ever since I got there by reading your post about religion and societal dysfunction, and I’ve been reading ever since. I find it great that someone from academia actually speaks with such candor. I feel it’s sorely missed in other parts of the academic sphere.
J: I’m old, so I have nothing to lose.
F: Fair enough. I just finished reading your book last christmas, Why Evolution is True. I actually thought I knew quite a lot about evolution until I read your book, and then I realized how much I didn’t know.
J: Well, I guess that’s good, not your ignorance, but the fact you learned something.
F: So, the main thing that I’ve noticed really with science is that people have a huge misconception about what it really is. They don’t know how scientists work, they don’t know why scientists are confident in facts and theories. So, if someone were to ask you the question; why do scientists believe—or understand—certain things that the public doesn’t really get. How would you respond?
J: Well, the public is fairly confident with most of the results of science. The things that they don’t get are the things they are opposed to on philosophical or religious grounds like evolution or cosmology. They get medicine; I mean, a lot of medicine is based on scientific research. So, I think, that to the extent they don’t understand science, they don’t understand that a scientific consensus is more than an opinion. That it actually comes from research, replication, review—that kind of thing. So, in the case of evolution, the most common opposition is that it’s only a theory, which comes from the lack of understanding from what we mean by scientific theory. I’ve often gone back and forth on the idea of whether or not you should give kids education not in science, but in critical thinking, and that would make them more understanding and accepting of science. But, I’ve just recently learned that courses like that don’t seem to work very well, so I don’t know what the solution is.
F: Is there any empirical data to suggest that courses like that don’t work very well.
J: Yeah, well, I saw some post on a website the other day that mentioned that, but I didn’t take note of the link. I know that one of my friends teaches a class in science vs. pseudoscience, which he finds extremely successful, so, I don’t think in principle those courses should not be successful. Everyone says this is the kind of course we need, but I’m not aware there are many such courses.
F: That might be something that needs to be looked at. So, in evolution, as in all sciences, there actually are debates between scientists on the details, and, of course, outsiders usually conflate these debates as saying the theory is crisis, but its not. What are the parts of evolution that are being debated between scientists; not that as evolution occurred, but how it occurred.
J: Well, there are lots. The part that everyone agrees on, let me underline in the beginning, is that evolution happened, it took billions of years, the Earth is 4.6 billion years old, and life has been here for at least 3.5 billion; that there is common ancestry of all forms of life because there is a branching bush of life, and that, in terms of the adaptive character of life was produced by the process of natural selection. So, those are the bedrock foundational principles of modern evolutionary theory, and those have not been called into question.
But, even Darwin was wrong on some of his predictions. He got genetics wrong, so it’s been evolving ever since, and we know a lot of things now. We know, for example, that birds evolved from dinosaurs, which Darwin didn’t know. We have a pretty good idea of the relatedness of living things and where they fit into the tree of life. The things that are being argued about are, does selection work in groups or individuals? That’s a big thing that E.O Wilson thinks group selection is the best explanation for human sociality. I came down on the individual selection side of that, but it’s still an unresolved debate.
A big one is how did life start. Many people don’t consider that a part of evolutionary biology, they consider evolutionary biology what happens once you get a replicator, but abiogenesis is a big unknown right now. We know life started once, we know roughly when it started, we don’t know the precise mechanism and we may never know, but at least we can approximate it.
There are questions about why there is sex, I mean, there is a profound disadvantage to having sexual reproduction. You lose half your genes if you mate with someone else as opposed to producing yourself. There are a lot of theories and some suggestions but no general consensus, but since sex is ubiquitous, then, explaining that would be really a good thing to do. Sexual selection and how it works, why males are ornamented and females are not; we have an idea of the basis of that because males don’t invest as much in their progeny, but it’s very hard to test those theories. There’s controversy about that. Actually, I wouldn’t call it controversy, since there aren’t people mad at each other.
F: Academic debate…
J: Yes, it’s academic debate. It’s not really acrimonious or anything. And, of course, one of the biggies is the evolution of consciousness, which is something that has eluded us, but I don’t think it will forever. Evolutionary psychology, how much of our present behaviour is caused by selection pressures that operated on our ancestors, so those are all debated questions that are unresolved. All these, in principle could either be solved or we could make substantial progress in.
F: So, in my book, I am trying to dispel a few of the myths of evolution. There are many facts in evolutionary science that are twisted and interpreted this way and that to support the Intelligent Design hypothesis and creationism, but what facts can’t be twisted or interpreted.
J: That’s a good question. Creationists are like theologians—in fact, they are connected through religion. There is nothing, there is no observation, I think that theologians or creationists cannot interpret through the lens of some kind of design. Never the less, there are things that they have trouble with, and, one of those, as I point out in my book, is the evidence of biogeography. It’s very, very hard to interpret that as creationist, and I still have not seen a definitive creationist interpretation of the kind of evidence that Darwin discovered of the distribution of plants and animals. I mean, why are we finding fossil marsupials in Australia; because they actually evolved in Europe or N. America and went through S. America to Australia. They happened to get there, and that’s why Australia has so many marsupials. The prediction was that they had to get to Australia somehow and, based on what we knew, Australia was connected to S. America through Antarctica, so the prediction was if marsupials transited from S. America to Australia, and sure enough, they found fossil marsupials in Antarctica not that long ago.
F: That’s amazing.
J: Yes, it’s a very predictive theory. There is no other theory, especially not one based on a creator unless you posit a creator who created things to make it look as if animals had moved and evolved, i.e., a trickster creator.
F: That doesn’t seem very omni-benevolent.
J: Yes, the other evidence is some of the fossil record, the finding of the intermediate whales. When I was in grad school, we knew that reptiles had ancestors to mammals—which, by the way creationists don’t address. And now we have an even better fossil record because we know that birds evolved from dinosaurs. So we have dinosaurs that can’t fly just at the right time, after the dinosaurs are already there and before we have modern birds. Same thing with whales, we see this whole intermediate group of whales about 45 million years ago, we have their ancestors and this whole series of animals losing their hind limbs, having their nostrils moved on top of the head, developing flippers, losing their ears, and not only do we have the fossil sequence, but it occurs in exactly the right time. The things with less hind-limbs occur more recently, so it’s hard to deal with that. Creationists just blather, but the fossil record is clear; the finding of dead genes is another. Why, in our genome, do we have all this DNA that doesn’t code for anything? Because they were once active genes that have been rendered inactive by mutation. I don’t know, I suppose if you were a creationist, you could say it happened during the fall. But if you posit a scientific explanation of biology, which even creationists are wont to do, and that’s what intelligent design is all about, trying to be scientific, then, you really come up empty trying to explain why a designer would act in such a way that exactly mimics evolution. So, you know, those are the big things, the fossil record, dead genes, and biogeography are things that creationists have an extremely tough time with.
F: It’s funny, before I read your book, it had been some time since school and evolution in science class. I kept hearing this claim, there are no transitional fossils, the missing links are not there. While I still of course believed and understood evolution, as soon as I read your book, I realized that the fossils actually are there, it’s not so much as their not dealing with them, they’re just denying that they exist in the first place, hoping that they will eventually go away. If they shout loud enough, people will just assume it, as happened to me though I still got evolution. It’s just fact-denying.
J: Yes, creationists tend to not listen, because if they would listen, they’d give up creationism and become evolutionary biologists, so they maintain creationism, and remember, this is all religiously based. If you have a religious opposition to evolution, it’s only two ways to go: you maintain it, where you have to dispel every bit of evidence that science comes up with, or you try to harmonize it like the accommodationists do. And that’s been very successful with many people. So, in terms of the fossils, if you have any interest in learning for yourself, there is a lot of stuff. My book is just the start, Donald Prothero’s book, Evolution: The Fossils Say Yes is magnificent. But, I mean, the fact is most people don’t want to investigate that. They either don’t have an interest in science, or they don’t listen to the scientists, they listen to their preacher, or they’re blind. Remember that, at least in America, 64% of Americans say if science came up with a fact that contradicted one of the tenets of their faith, they would reject that fact and keep their faith. So with that kind of attitude, would progress can you make?
F: Yes, I saw your statistics recently where you show that only 16% of Americans accept purposeless evolution by natural selection. Where do you think this is going to go in the future, do you think it’s going to get better?
J: There’s been an uptick to about 20% in the last decade in the naturalistic worldview. But, given that it starts so low, it’s not much of an actual percentage increase, it’s a couple of percent, but it’s only going to increase as fast as religion goes away. My view is that, you can educate people until their blue in the face about evolution; that’s what I tried to do in my book. You can lead them to the facts, but you can’t make them drink, and the reason is because they’ve already drunk at the well of religion. So, that’s why I’ve become more atheistic about religion in my old age, because I think that’s the thing that needs to go away before people start accepting evolution. Every creationist in the world is motivated by religion. I only know of one out of hundreds of thousands that is an atheistic creationist. So it’s always from religion, and religion gives these blinkers that stop you from receiving the facts. I think that acceptance of evolution is only going to increase in our country, the US, as fast as religion goes away. That’s why the US is so resistant to evolution, and why countries like France, England, and Scandinavia accept it a lot more—because they’re less religious.
F: And it seems to be in the last ten years that the none’s are the fastest growing demographic in America, so it would seem to be that acceptance of evolution should get better.
J: But it’s going to take a while because it will take a while for religion to loosen its grip. Certainly, not in my lifetime. It took a couple of hundred years in Europe, but because its happened in Europe, I’m confident because A: We know its happened, B: Those societies are fine, they’re not dysfunctional, in fact, they are better than American society, and C: I just see this march, from Stephen Pinker’s book, to increasing secularization and enlightenment in the world, and eventually, we won’t need religion anymore. I think it’ll happen.
F: Is that the Better Angels of our Nature?
J: Yes, he doesn’t talk much about the rise of atheism, but he shows that there has been an increase in morality. That’s his thesis. An increase in morality and rationality, the latter probably causing the former. And, with an increase in rationality comes a decrease in religion, which is profoundly anti-rational. I think it’s going to happen, though we might not be around to see it.
F: Well, I hope I am!
J: Well, if that happens, then we won’t have a problem with creationism anymore.
F: I look forward to that day. But, take me back to this atheist creationist. How does that compute?
J: There’s only one that I know of and that’s David Berlinski. Oh, there’s Thomas Nagel. He’s not an creationist—he just published a book—but he’s a philosopher in New York. I don’t think he’s an creationist but he embues evolution with some teleology and the book is execrable. I’ve read a part of it now and it’s been reviewed by evolutionists very negatively. So, I wouldn’t call him an atheist creationist, he’s an atheist; I’d call him an atheist teleologist because he doesn’t believe that there is necessary supernatural origin of things. So there is a few of them, but anybody who knows about activist creationism throughout the world, not only in the English speaking world but in Islamic countries like Turkey, knows it always come from religion. They just don’t like materialism.
F: It seems to me his thesis is that because science and natural selection by random mutation hasn’t yet understood consciousness, that evolution must be wrong. It seems to be a very short-sighted viewpoint.
J: That’s the god of the gaps argument. I mean, consciousness is the hard problem, but, everything we are learning about neuroscience tells us the mind is the brain and consciousness is part of the mind. The mind is what the brain does, as Steve Pinker put it, and consciousness is part of what the brain does. You can eliminate consciousness—I had a sinus operation a couple of years ago that got rid of my consciousness by putting a mask over my face, and they bought it back. Clearly, it’s a materialistic process and once we know that, we can start figuring out how it works and how it evolved. That’s going to be a long time to come but to say that because we don’t understand it now, is just the god of the gaps argument. Who was it, Robert Engelson who said “What we know is science, our ignorance is god.” We’re ignorant about consciousness, but look at the whole history of things that used to be impugned to god when we didn’t understand it. Newton thought that god pushed the planets around, kept them in their orbit. Before there was Darwin, God made the animals and plants, because we couldn’t conceive of how that could happen otherwise. So the best view when faced with a problem like consciousness is not to say there must be god, or there must be some teleological force that we don’t understand, it’s to say let’s work on it for a hundred years and see what we get. I’m absolutely confident that within the century, we’re not only going to know how consciousness works, we’ll be able to reproduce it, maybe in artificial intelligence.
F: That will be amazing. I know some futurists think your prediction is wildly conservative. Some say as soon as 20 years.
J: I doubt that. Neuroscience is a very, very difficult endeavour, and consciousness is a very slippery phenomenon.
F: It’s amazing that people haven’t caught on to the fact that when we don’t understand something, you don’t say something else did it, you just wait a little while longer for someone to discover it. If critical thinking classes ever come out on a wide-scale, this should be the main thesis, if you don’t understand something, don’t make up your mind beforehand.
J: Yes, and you certainly don’t say that God did. I just read a book by Carl Giebersan who is an evangelical Christian who paired up with Francis Collins, the most powerful scientist in America and head of the National Institute of Health, they wrote a book about reconciling Christianity and evolution, and in there they caution against this God of the Gaps argument. They say, look folks, don’t just say that God is ignorance, because science has made such progress, and then, in the last sections of the book, they use the fact that we don’t understand how human morality got there, and the fine-tuning of the Universe, those annoying physical principles, as evidence for God; so they violated their own dictum.
F: Cognitive dissonance.
J: Yes. I mean, if you’re going to find evidence for God, it’s not good to do it by saying we don’t understand something, therefore God did it. You need to give positive evidence for God, and not negative evidence. I’m just reading a book on that now by a philosopher called Philipse, God in the Age of Science. It’s probably next to Hoffman’s book, Critique of Philosophy and Religion. This is the best book on refuting religion that I’ve seen in the last couple of years, he is a Dutch Philosopher and it’s extremely thorough. He says what I just said, that you can’t find God in the gaps and you need to assert positive evidence for God and what is that positive evidence; and then he shows than there isn’t any.
F: I’ll put that on my reading list. [I still haven’t read it, it’s a $62 book!]
J: It’s a tough slog, but it’s well repays your effort.
F: You obviously deal with creationism quite often. I even watched a documentary featuring yourself, which took 5 creationists through California showing them all the evidence for evolution, so, what is your favourite argument against evolution that has no value?
J: The flood, I suppose. If you can explain the flood, then you have to be a creationist. That’s so easy to dismount, but you can see from that video that you can’t even make any headway with a real creationist. That was my part in that program was to argue with the creationist about the flood, but you know, four out of the five of them wouldn’t bend.
F: And one of them cried…
J: Yeah, I taught a class in the University of Maryland on evolution vs creationism. On Monday, I would lecture as an evolutionist on things like radiometric dating; then, on Wednesday I’d come on, and because I knew the literature so well, I’d argue as a creationist, and tell them “Everything I told you on Monday was completely wrong, Here’s the facts.” And the students would be completely confused. And on Friday we’d sit down and discuss them. You know, they would be confused but the thing that really turned their minds around eventually was flood geology, because it’s so ludicrous to think that the sorting of animals and plants in the fossil record is due to a flood incident. To think that there wouldn’t be a few humans washed down into the Cambrian; why the whales stay on top with the other mammals instead of at the bottom with the fishes. It didn’t make any sense, so at that point the students started realizing that this is all a put-up job by religion and at the end of the class, a lot of the creationists had come around to evolution because of that argument, but none of them had gone the other way, so I was quite pleased with that.
F: That’s amazing, it just goes to show you can educate people, and that evolution is falsifiable. I keep hearing that Karl Popper quote that evolution is not falsifiable, so therefore bladdy blah blah.
J: Yes, Popper changed his mind on that. Eventually, later on, he come around to realizing that evolution was falsifiable. And, I have a list in a talk I gave of 10-15 things that would falsify evolution, so, it’s definitely falsifiable; there’s lots of observations that could show it to be wrong; we just haven’t seen any. That’s why I say it’s true in the scientific meaning of the word.
F: What are some of those things that might falsify it?
J: The first one is fossils in the Cambrian, lack of genetic variation, and any adaptation in one species that evolved for the use of another species. There’s a whole list of them. You could make these observations but they haven’t been made. Evolution is true in the scientific sense in that it’s accepted so wildly and there is no contradictory evidence, so you have to be perverse to reject it. That’s Stephen J. Gould’s notion of scientific truth.
F: Has there ever been an argument against evolution that stumped for longer than a few minutes?
J: Well, there have been facts, no arguments because I’m familiar with them, but when I started out my career, there were all these facts that creationists, like Dwayne Gibs, would throw at you, and, because, as a scientist you have one field, you’re not an expert in physics, so you couldn’t easily answer them. But, they were never obviously convincing. One of them found a living snail whose shell was dated at 15,000 years ago, so how can you trust radiometric dating; it’s crap was the implication there. But I found out that the snail had been eating limestone, and the limestone incorporated itself into the shell and the date come from the ancient material that it incorporated into its body. Nowadays, there’s nothing that I can hear that stumps me for more than a few minutes. That’s what the internet is great for. There’s all these websites with refutations of creationist arguments in them.
F: Yes, but few people actually check those websites. More people end up on a theologian’s website or a creationist website than a science website.
J: Yeah, maybe.
F: Well, thank you very much for your time. I do have one last question however. Where do you get all the time to write? You write blog posts every single day.
J: I do it between 6am and 8am. I get up about 5am, which I normally do anyway. Get to work by 6am, then I have a strict regiment where I write from 6am to 8am, all the post for the day, and I’ll just post them. Occasionally, something will strike me and I’ll take a few minutes to write a post and put it out. I got to do my day job as well so, doing a blog, or website, has opened a lot of doors for me, I’ve gotten a lot of people, gotten a lot of invitations through writing that blog that I haven’t got through academia, and it gives me a chance to work out my ideas on religion and stuff. I have a very good group of commenters who criticize me, they’re very smart. I’m glad I do it, it just makes life a little bit hairy.
All in all, I hope you learnt a little about evolution, why it’s true, and if you still have doubts, make sure to check out Jerry’s book, which is a very informative and easily laid out read. He goes in detail (thankfully, entertainingly) on the evidence for evolution and why that evidence can only be interpreted in one way: evolution is true. Thanks for reading.
P.S. I’ll still be giving out free copies of Random Rationality to anyone who emails me his or her S3: Science, Statistics and Skepticism receipt, until my next post as I’ll be going back to my regular postings. Don’t ask me when my next post will be, could be tomorrow, next week, or next month. It’s as random as the subjects I cover, so if you want both books for a buck, get S3 now. What do you have to lose? At the very worst, you’ll learn some science.