I must confess that I don’t regularly read the excellent blog “why evolution is true” maintained by fellow evolutionist and atheist Jerry Coyne, mostly because he writes so much, and I read so slowly. Jerry somehow manages to generate a gazillion words per day, every day, and I’m the kind of stubbornly slow-mo reader who must carefully pronounce every polysyllabic name in a 19th century Russian novel. With so much wonderful material out there on the Web (not to mention all those great Russian novels!), we slow-pokes have to pick and choose carefully.
And so, I was grateful when a friend and colleague (who, with astounding assiduity, actually reads my blog as well as Jerry Coyne’s) just told me that some time ago, Dr. Coyne had preceded me in writing about the biology of race, concluding in a single, lengthy blog pretty much the same as I had done in a series of three, and even referring to the same science article in the process. Great minds evidently think alike … but I digress.
The full title of today’s sermon is “Science, Religion, and Society: the problem of evolution in America,” shamelessly purloined—albeit with gratitude—from an article by the redoubtable Professor Coyne that is scheduled to appear in the journal, Evolution, part of a special forthcoming issue concerned with the interaction between evolutionary biology and modern societies.
Here is Dr. Coyne’s own summary of his manuscript, which deals specifically with the impact of our notorious religiosity on the equally notorious American resistance to evolution:
American resistance to accepting evolution is uniquely high among First World countries. This is due largely to the extreme religiosity of the U.S., which is much higher than that of comparably advanced nations, and to the resistance of many religious people to the facts and implications of evolution. The prevalence of religious belief in the U.S. suggests that outreach by scientists alone will not have a huge effect in increasing the acceptance of evolution, nor will the strategy of trying to convince the faithful that evolution is compatible with their religion. Since creationism is a symptom of religion, another strategy to promote evolution involves loosening the grip of faith on America. This is easier said than done, for recent sociological surveys show that religion is highly correlated with the dysfunctionality of a society, and various measures of societal health show that the U.S. is one of the most socially dysfunctional First World countries. Widespread acceptance of evolution in America, then, may have to await profound social change.
In a recent piece for The Chronicle Review, I considered the political baggage that evolution has been forced to bear, noting how, Procrustes-like, evolution has variously been deformed and/or mutilated to fit different political ideologies. By contrast, Jerry Coyne’s forthcoming manuscript looks at evolution’s religious baggage, which is considerable. I second his analysis, except I would add one caveat: Not all religions are equally antagonistic to evolution.
I’m thinking especially of Buddhism (which, admittedly, some consider more a philosophy than a religion), and to a lesser extent, perhaps, Hinduism. Thus, not all religions are like the Abrahamic big three (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), whose fundamentalist devotees agree on at least one thing: They all resist evolution, insisting instead that living things in general and people in particular were specially created by God, such that Homo sapiens stands above and beyond other life forms. By contrast, theological world-views of the sorts that characterize most Eastern “religions” are far more accepting of evolution’s take-home message of shared ancestry, deep connection, and the permanency of change.
Certainly, it has been my personal experience that audiences in the Far East are relatively open to evolutionary science, whereas those of the West in general and of the U.S. in particular are much more likely to dispute it on religious grounds, consistent with their denial of organic connectedness more generally.
By contrast, once you acknowledge the deep relationship among all “sentient beings” and derive compassion from a literal sense of shared co-dependent existence—as Buddhists do—you have essentially become an evolutionist … albeit minus the science.
I’m not very sanguine about the prospects for “widespread acceptance of evolution in America,” at least in part because I doubt that my countrymen and women are suitable candidates for “profound social change.” More likely, I fear, is that the U.S. will continue to lag behind many other countries in the teaching of evolution, as it does in scientific literacy generally. With our increasing social dysfunctionality paired with growing distrust of science in general and an enhanced social and political profile of religion in particular, I fear it will take a long time before the United States accepts what Daniel Dennett aptly called “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea,” given that it is especially dangerous to the Abrahamic big three. In the meanwhile, if you’re interested in evolution, you could do worse than to keep up with Jerry Coyne’s informative blog postings. Especially if you’re a speed reader.