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Why religious people struggle with the theory of evolution?

Prof. Jerry Coyne, one the world's foremost scholars of evolution, is especially proud of his 'Emperor Has No Clothes Award.'

Of all the titles and prizes awarded over the years to Prof. Jerry Coyne of the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago, he is most proud of the Emperor Has No Clothes Award. The gilded statuette, cast by the same company that makes the Oscar statuettes, was given to him by the Freedom from Religion Foundation. Coyne thus joined a long list of distinguished recipients: scientists such as Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker and Oliver Sacks, media mogul Ted Turner and jurist Alan Dershowitz. All were awarded the prize for “plain speaking” on the shortcomings of religion.

In his latest book, “Why Evolution Is True,” Coyne cites evidence from a large number of fields to prove the existence of evolution. The book, which has been translated into 16 languages, has now been published in Hebrew...

A colobus mother holds her baby. Precursor of Eve?
Photo by AP

Richard Dawkins said of your book that he would defy any reasonable person to read it and still take seriously the “theory” of intelligent design. Quite naive, isn’t he?

Coyne: “How so?”

Because it is impossible to persuade someone to accept the idea of evolution if he is predisposed to object to it, no matter how many proofs you show him.

“That is true. I once gave a talk to businesspeople about the various proofs of evolution, based on the book. After the talk, one of them came up to me and shook my hand, saying, ‘Wow, I found your evidence for evolution very convincing. But I’m still not convinced.’”

In the same way as it is impossible to persuade an anorexic that she is not fat?

“That’s a good analogy, because in both cases there is blindness to the truth: a subjective refusal to accept objective data. There is so much evidence from so many fields showing that living creatures developed in a long evolutionary process. And all the evidence attests to the fact that the animals were not created all at one time in their present form about 6,000 years ago, as the creationists claim. But there are people who are simply unwilling to be persuaded.

“Take, for example, what the creationists call the ‘missing links.’ The theory of evolution posits the existence of transitional forms, which link earlier groups to later ones. If we say, for example, that the land vertebrates developed from marine vertebrates, we expect to find fossils of forms that constitute the intermediate stages between those two forms. And indeed, not only do we find such fossils, we find them in the rock layers in which we predicted they would be found − their age matches the period in which we think these groups branched out.

“We have an abundance of these fossils, but nevertheless the creationists insist on talking about the ‘missing links.’ We now have the transitional forms between the dinosaurs and birds, between the whales and the landlubbers from which they developed, and between modern human beings and their ancient ancestors, which probably resembled modern apes more than modern humans. All of them have always been found in the appropriate rock layers, and never has a fossil been found that refutes evolution.”

You are referring to “fossil rabbits in the Precambrian.”

“Yes. When the distinguished biologist J. B. S. Haldane was asked what observation would be considered a refutation of evolution, he replied, ‘Fossil rabbits in the Precambrian,’ by which he meant a highly complex animal in a rock layer that is too old. Of course, no such rabbit and no such anachronistic fossil has ever been found.

“If evolution were false, we would not find fossils that attest to a gradual change, and the fossils would not appear in an order that is consistent with evolutionary theory. After all, if God had wanted to create a bird, he would have done so from scratch and not started with a dinosaur that has feathers so small it could not fly. We can, of course, say that God ‘tricked us’ and arranged the fossils in a way that would make us think that evolution had occurred; but that is a ‘trickster’ God, and creationists don’t really like that.”

Of the whole battery of proofs you cite in the book for the existence of evolution, which is your personal favorite?

“I like the flaws and vestiges we find in the bodies of living creatures. One paleontologist remarked of the appendix that its primary function appears to be to provide financial support for the surgical profession − because it is difficult to find an efficient function for it in the human body. It is the remnant of an organ which we inherited from our leaf-eating primate ancestors where it did play a part: in the digestion of cellulose. The same is true for the sightless eyes of the mole, the vestigial wings of the kiwi and the tiny, superfluous hind-limb bones of the whale. The only way to understand these vestigial organs is as remnants of features which were in use by earlier ancestors of the modern animals. No creator or designer would have fashioned an unnecessary organ from the outset.

“We find the same agglomeration of unnecessary elements in the genome. Each of us carries whole ‘graveyards’ of genes − ‘dead’ genes that are not expressed but which are still with us, because they are descendants of genes we received from our ancestors, for whom they did have a function. All these remnants are predicted by the theory of evolution and are totally unexplained by creationism. Yet, people still refuse to accept evolution. Creationism is like an inflatable roly-poly clown: when you punch it, it goes down but then immediately pops back up.”

What accounts for this resistance?

“It is due to religion, and I say that without hesitation. Studies repeatedly show an inverse correlation between the degree of a person’s religiosity and his acceptance of the simple scientific fact of evolution. Generally, the central assertion to which people are asked to respond is: ‘Human beings developed from simpler animals without divine intervention.’ In 2006, a study conducted in developed countries − 33 European countries, the United States and Japan − found clearly that the more religious a country is, the less it tends to accept evolution. The U.S., which is a very religious country − 92 percent of Americans profess to believe in God − ranks at the bottom of the developed world in the acceptance of evolution. Only Turkey ranked lower.

“That correlation holds equally for states within the United States and for individuals. An inverse correlation also exists between frequency of church attendance and acceptance of evolution. Only 14 percent of those who go to church at least once a week think that evolution occurred by means of natural processes. The number rises to 36 percent among people who attend church monthly, and to 51 percent for those who rarely attend or not at all. No matter how you look at it, religion is generally inimical to evolution.”

Maybe it’s not just religion? Tests with high-school students who are studying evolution show that most of them have no problem accepting micro-evolution − gradual change that occurs within a particular species − but that they do have a problem with macro-evolution, namely gradual change that brings new species into being. After all, intellectually it’s the same thing, a logical extrapolation.

“Yes, that ‘non-extrapolist’ view is truly ridiculous. People can accept without any problem that broccoli, cauliflower, kale, kohlrabi and Brussels sprouts all developed via artificial selection from the same common ancestor − wild cabbage − the descendants of which changed gradually until the different vegetables were formed.

“If these plants were found in the fossil record, their differences would clearly be regarded as a case of ‘macro-evolution.’ But the only difference is that humans rather than nature did the selecting. If people reject this, they will reject all evidence. It’s apparently a psychological block.”

Maybe thinking about processes that take place across millions of years does not come naturally to human beings. The human brain has not evolved the ability to think on that scale. We can perhaps imagine 100 years of solitude, 2,000 years of exile, 10,000 years of history − but how is it possible to imagine billions of years?

“People do not have a problem extrapolating other long processes. For example, they see the Grand Canyon and have no problem understanding that it was formed over an immense time span by a river, even though the time scales involved are not human.

“The reason evolution is especially problematic is that it touches the very heart of human existence and shifts human beings away from their centrality in the world. So once more I come back to religion.”

Can science and religion not go hand in hand?

“No, they are polar opposites, both methodologically and philosophically. Take the term ‘truth,’ for example. Truths in science − even though they are fundamentally provisional − are universal; whereas we all know that different religions make different claims, many of them contradictory, about reality. Many Christians believe that in order to enter paradise you have to believe that Jesus is the son of God, but the Koran asserts that anyone who believes that will be cast into hell. Such contradictions, of course, render the term ‘religious truth’ ridiculous.”

But if, as you said, 92 percent of Americans believe in God and nevertheless 16 percent of Americans accept evolution as a natural, unguided process, it means that some believers do accept evolution. So maybe evolution can be reconciled with religion.

“That is a small minority, which doesn’t prove a harmony between science and faith. People also like to point out that there are religious scientists, but they too are a tiny minority. Whereas 6 percent of the American public term themselves atheists or agnostics, 93 percent of the scientists who belong to the National Academy of Sciences, which is the most scientifically elite body in the United States, categorize themselves as such. It’s almost a mirror image of the numbers among the general public.

“The fact that people can hold two conflicting viewpoints is not proof that the two are mutually compatible. As Walt Whitman said, ‘Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.’ To say that science and faith are reconcilable is like saying that Christianity and adultery can go together, because many Christians are also adulterers.”

What about the argument that these are two separate authorities, which deal with completely different issues: Science offers answers to questions related to nature, and religion offers answers to questions about goals, meaning and values?

“That is a cooked-up definition of religion, which does not fit most faiths, which actually do purport to explain things about nature. Surveys examining the connection between religion and evolution find that 38 percent of Americans actually accept evolution, but as God-directed. That does not mean they accept the scientific theory of evolution − science does not deal with supernatural forces.

“By the way, if you ask people what they would do if scientists should refute a tenet of their faith, almost two-thirds of them say they will continue to adhere to the faith and would reject the scientific findings. So we see again that people want religion more than they want truth.”

Maybe it’s because the truth is that it is hard to live with the awareness that there is no guiding hand, and that life has no purpose? That is an awareness that bespeaks solitude.

“That is people’s primary problem with evolution: that it seems to take from you meaning or purpose that supposedly is given to you by an external force, by religion. Religion does, in fact, offer people, as they see it, a type of consolation.”

This is not a trifle, is it? In Darwin’s time, persuading people to become atheists was considered a felony: The Church claimed it weakened people’s resilience to the difficulties of life. Faith exercises a profound impact on people’s ability to cope with the rigors of life.

“Indeed, we all know that in times of economic crisis and in periods of personal hardship, people are more likely to turn to religion. What’s interesting is that this is also true at the level of countries. There some huge sociological studies that show that the more a country is mired in economic difficulty, and the less well it functions socially, the more religious it is.

“The two most societally backward and dysfunctional regions in the world are the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa, and that is where people believe the most. Healthy countries are less religious.”

What is a “healthy country”?

“A researcher called Gregory Paul constructed a test of 25 indices that, when combined, give a measure of a country’s societal health. These indices include the proportion of people in the prisons, the abortion rate among adolescent girls, suicides, sexual diseases, alcohol consumption, poverty level and income disparities.

“Paul estimated these parameters for 17 prosperous countries in the Western world and gave each a weighted score of 1-10, with 1 being the most dysfunctional score and 10 the most functional. The United States ranked lowest with 2.9 points, Japan received 6 points and Sweden 7.1. Paul noted two correlations: societal dysfunction goes together with religiosity, and religion goes inversely with the acceptance of human evolution.

“Other studies, conducted in regard to 67 countries worldwide, showed a strong positive correlation between the level of income disparities and the degree of religiosity of the country. Here, too, it emerged that a turn to religion, and hence a rejection of evolution, stem, at least in part, from a dysfunctional society. The Scandinavian countries − Finland, Denmark, Norway and Sweden − have the most highly developed social-welfare systems in the world, and they are also the least religious countries ‏(for example, only 23 percent of Norwegians and 34 percent of Swedes describe themselves as religious‏). They are also the most receptive to evolution.”

Maybe because people have a feeling that they are not alone, that the society is looking after them.

“I would definitely say so. Income disparities between people generate insecurity, and therefore heighten faith. When people have confidence and faith in the society in which they live, they feel generally more supported, and that allows them not to fall into religion.”

These data refute the argument that an absence of religion is liable to lead to moral deterioration.

“Indeed, and in any case this argument does not meet the test of reality. Religion has no advantage in the realm of morality. To begin with, a long tradition of solid secular morality has existed since the ancient Greeks. Second, we of course are familiar with the execrable deeds that have been perpetrated in the name of religion down through history.

“Even today, religion-based morality often entails the denial of civil rights − for example, of women, infidels and homosexuals. As liberal individuals, we obviously must reject that type of ‘morality.’ And yes, these data also prove that there is no connection between religion and morality: the majority of Europe, Scandinavia in particular, is populated by atheists and agnostics, and those societies are, if anything, more moral than a religious country like the United States, in the sense that there is concern in them for the elderly and the weak. They are certainly not a hotbed of sinners.”

So social welfare can be a substitute for religion?

“Maybe to some extent. The fact is that welfare states are less religious. I am neither a Marxist nor a diehard opponent of capitalism. But there has to be a certain degree of higher-level intervention to create a healthy society.

“Some say it will never be possible to be rid of religion altogether, because, they claim, it does supply human needs. But I believe those needs can be fulfilled, as they have in many European countries, by oversight and by social guarantees. Look at Scandinavia. Three hundred years ago it was religious − the whole of Europe was religious − and now it is largely secular. Why? Because there is a well-functioning society there, in the sense that they have medical insurance and help for the needy. In such cases people do not need to turn to God.

“In the United States we have some social nets in the form of Social Security, and now also ‘Obamacare,’ but we do not have something as important as national health insurance. I think that the government should intervene to a certain degree in order to give people a sense of security. By the way, that is the reason, I think, for America’s being in such a unique position among the First World countries: it has the highest religiosity and the lowest acceptance of evolution. Religion can be problematic, but weakening its hold requires some deep social change. A more just, caring, egalitarian society must be created. It seems to me that, irrespective of what people feel about religion, that could certainly be a goal which most people would be happy to endorse.”

By Smadar Reisfeld