The Q&A session
You may have heard the expression that some town is merely a “wide place in the road.” This applies in a major way to the city of Davis, a small town into which someone dropped a major university. As you approach Davis from the west, Interstate 80 widens into six lanes, accommodating the peak hours of traffic from UC Davis and the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts. I found a parking space in one of the public lots ($6 for a 12-hour permit—I wanted to go back the next day to use it again!), grabbed my umbrella, and trekked across the campus.
It was raining steadily on Thursday night when PZ Myers arrived in Davis to talk about creationists and their inanities. The venue for his appearance was 194 Chemistry, a large lecture hall I've been in before. It was on that very site back in the eighties when I was privileged to hear Duane Gish hold forth at length on the imminent death of the theory of evolution, which had been overthrown—according to Gish—by the second law of thermodynamics. (Curious how selective creationists are in the scientific facts they accept.) It was while Gish was talking that I realized he had undoubtedly heard why it was invalid to use the second law to argue against evolution, but he persisted because it was a useful ploy with which to impress the ignorant.
The creationist game hasn't changed much since then. PZ was going to hold forth on “A few things I've learned about creationists.” At least, that's what it said on his first slide. When he spoke, however, he rendered it as “Stuff that really pisses me off about creationists.”
While the audience was assembling for the talk, I took the opportunity to introduce myself to PZ. I asked him if he would be “holding court” later in the evening. “Is that what they're calling it these days?” (PZ is obviously unused to folks who talk with my arch and slightly archaic second-language manner.) “Well, it's the way that I say it, although it's a bit pretentious.” PZ appeared momentarily nonplussed. It later turned out that the second slide of his talk bore the word ”pretentious,” the first in a series of adjectives he would use that evening to define the nature of creationism and creationists. Perhaps he suspected I had seen his talk the night before in UC Santa Barbara, but that was really too far away. It was just an odd coincidence. Spooky!
The crowd settled down when “Mr. Deity and the Science Advisor” appeared on the lecture hall's projection screen. (Guess who plays the science advisor?) After an interlude of a few minutes for late arrivals to drip dry in the lobby and get seated, PZ launched into his talk.
As I mentioned the framework for his talk was a series of adjectives which PZ used as jumping off points for describing various creationist fatuities. It worked well, although it appeared that PZ could have spoken for an entire hour on any one of the adjectives. I presume PZ has been using the same basic spiel at each of his California stop. The Q&A that follows, however, will be unique to each venue.
The following report is a paraphrased narrative, not a literal transcript—except where I dare to include quote marks. (I'm afraid I lack the chops of a courtroom reporter.) I hope that I captured the essence of most of the exchanges.
Questions & Answers
Q. Michael Behe has dismissed Joe Thornton's brilliant work on gluticosteroid receptors as “piddling.” What's so great about Behe's own work?
A. Behe has published credible research on histones. It might also, however, be described as piddling—as is PZ's own work. “But much of scientific progress is just the aggregate of great amounts of piddling research.” The Biologic Institute was spawned as the research arm of the Discovery Institute, but its impact on actual science research is invisible.
Q. Have you heard the argument that natural selection may be real, but that's not proof that evolution is real?
A. That position is often taken by those who argue for a distinction between so-called macroevolution and microevolution. Natural selection is allowed to make small changes in their view, but it's supposedly incapable of transforming a creature's “kind”—the non-biological term used by creationists based on biblical phrases contained in passages like Genesis 1:25, “God made the beast of the earth after his kind.” The distinction is false, as if arguing that someone who could walk across a city could certainly never walk across a county.
Q. Do you get creationists in your classes at UM Morris?
A. “All the time. I treat their questions with respect and I encourage class participation in answering them. The better students leave the creationist arguments in shreds. As the professor, I get to stand back and be the referee. It's great fun.” It's extremely important that teachers make a distinction between the argument and the student, since someone in a position of authority can too easily make life miserable for students who are merely trying to convey dogma that others have inculcated in them. Besides, most students are in-between and may be willing to listen to new information. “I have occasionally planted doubts in their minds, causing them to think.” Sometimes, however, those wearing the armor of God are just too casehardened to do any critical thinking, such as those who filled out teaching evaluations that said, “This class made me love Jesus even more.” Those may well be hopeless.
Q. Isn't it counterproductive to label peoples' beliefs as nonsense when you're trying to engage them in scientific thinking? Isn't confrontation a bad way to influence people?
A. There are plenty of people trying to go the conciliatory route. The more accommodating science writers do not appear to be having significant success in promoting rational thought.
Q. Intelligent design creationists and theistic evolutionists think that a god or a designer needs to interfere in the natural world to create the life we see today. Do they ever specify where God does his tinkering?
A. Most appear to be focused on the notion that it's important to distinguish between the evolution of humans and the evolution of other animals. About half of the United States is okay with the idea that man evolved in some way, speaking broadly. However, about three-quarters are okay with the idea that dogs evolved. That suggests that God needs to be present to give humans their special characteristics. Other than that, most don't seem to care exactly where God does his tinkering. They just know that he does.
Q.Do you agree with Richard Dawkins when he says that evolution is corrosive to religion?
A. “Actually, I believe that all science is corrosive to religion.” Science is based on evidence and critical thinking, which are contrary to received doctrine and dogmatic thinking. Michael Ruse has wondered whether the courts could eventually decide that religion must be protected from science. Is there a fundamental right to religiosity that courts will rally to defend? It's not as though courts base all of their decisions on logic. Purveyors of religion, such as youth ministers, fret that higher education will deprive young people of religious beliefs. Science teachers should be direct in their response. If classes in science and logic and critical thinking cause young people to turn away from the religious ideas that they were taught, the implication is clear. The earth is not 6000 years old. The Grand Canyon was not gouged out overnight by Noah's flood. Jesus did not have a pet dinosaur when he was a young man. “It means that you [the youth ministers] have been lying to them all their lives.” No wonder that they turn away when they find out.
Q. Where is the creationism in practical technology?
A. As in the Salem hypothesis? That's the observation that engineers who are creationists like to describe themselves as scientists. Not all engineers are creationists, but those who are seem to think they should claim that they are scientists.
Q. No, I mean where are the technological applications of creationism? If it's a science, there should be applications.
A. But they aren't. Creationism is a belief system rather than a science.
Q. What are species, exactly?
A. There are many different biological formulations. It pleases creationists that the definition of species is fuzzy, because they can attack different aspects of it. Breeding isolation is an important factor. New species are emerging all the time, such as the breed of mosquito that lives in the London Underground. Clearly that's a species that arose recently, since the Tube has not been there very long.
Q. Why is Behe a creationist?
A. Probably religion, because religion is a comfort to many people and involves friends and family members. Religion is one of the older systems of social organization and contact, a predecessor to Facebook and Twitter. And the thought of burning in torment in hell for eternity can be quite persuasive. It compels compliance.
Q. Do you believe in the historicity of Jesus?
A. Richard Carrier says that Jesus is a myth. He has a forthcoming book in which he sets out his arguments. I agree with him. There may well have been a real person named Jesus about whom the myth was constructed, but it's mostly myth.
Q. Is evolution goal-directed?
A. Evolution's “goal” is better adaptation to survive in a given environment. Our language is full of words that suggest intent and purpose, which can be misleading, but evolution is the natural selection of randomly occurring advantageous mutations.
Q. Religion can be a comfort. Is that why some people don't care about science?
A. There's more comfort in the thought that there is no cosmic jailer! “People also say that religion is a crutch. Throw away your crutch and walk! That would be liberating. It's patronizing to suggest that most people are too weak to do without religion.
“Personally, I'm looking forward to the arrival of the first gay, female, atheist president.”
Q. Religion is used mostly to manipulate people.
A. Thomas Frank documented in his book how Kansas used to be a radical state, but religious extremists were part of the movement that pre-empted the moral high ground and persuaded people that they had to vote against their interests in order to be “good.” As a result, Kansans now regularly oppose programs and policies that would benefit them.
Q. Are you aware of Conservapedia's Bible project?
A. “I brought it to the world's attention. It's a project to remove the ‘liberal’ parts of the Bible.”
Q. Is there a direct correlation between the level of atheism and the amount of scientific thought? Does that mean we should be concerned about an increase in non-scientific thinking?
A. Science has a lot of authority, which is why people try to co-opt it in support of their positions. That's why advertisements say things like “9 out of 10 doctors recommend.” That's why a mockery of science like the Creation Museum exists. The United States is not science-positive in the sense of correct science. We need to exploit the validity of and power of science in order to diminish the influence of pseudoscience.
Q. Are atheists poorly organized?
A. Yes, but there is strength in diversity. There is no official dogma of atheism. “There is no pope of atheism—except for Dawkins.” There is no requirement that atheists subscribe to a particular set of political positions. Some atheists are in favor of abortion. Some are opposed—“even though that's where we get our babies to barbecue.”
Q. Ray Comfort seems to confuse spontaneous generation with evolution.
A. Ray Comfort doesn't even know where the first dog came from. He would say it's creation.
Q. We should tell our science students that they need to understand evolution in order to qualify for good-paying jobs in the future.
A. Would they believe that? It's better to tell them that understanding evolution makes other things easier to understand. For example, ecology makes a lot more sense if you've understood evolution first.
Q. Creationists often attack the radioactive dating of fossils.
A. The dates conflict with the young-earth idea. Therefore they say that you can't assume that decay rates have been in the past what they are today. If they were faster, then everything could be a glowing mass today. Creationists are willing to pay the price of invalidating all of physics in order to make their point.
Q. what about abiogenesis?
A. It's mostly straightforward. “All of biology is chemistry and there is no magic in molecules.” Study chemistry if you want to know how life could have arisen. Read Robert Hazen's Genesis for more.
Q. What is your opinion on humanity's ability to be a responsible steward of the biosphere?
A. We're balanced on the edge. The United States is not a good role model for the developing nations of the world because the U.S. is not sufficiently committed to adopting a sustainable way of life. Despite some hopeful optimism that people are beginning to wake up, things could definitely go in a bad direction.
Q. Why do so many creationists refuse to acknowledge that religious people can believe in evolution? Many Christian denominations have no problem with evolution. One example is the Catholic Church.
A. Many creationists would deny that Catholics are Christian. The Creation Museum contains displays that attack liberal Christians who don't accept young-earth creationism. They define creationism as part of their Christianity.
Q. What about Islamic creationism?
A. In countries like England, which has never had a significant problem with creationism, communities of Islamic immigrants are agitating in favor of creationist beliefs. Turkey, for example, is a very secular nation on paper, but in reality the influence of Islam is very strong. It's like the United States, officially secular but really very Christian.
Q. I fear the rise of a charismatic creationist leader from the fundamentalist ranks, someone like [Heinlein's] Nehemiah Scudder, who creates an extremist theocracy.
A. We need charismatic atheists, but that's not our strong suit. “Perhaps the recent coming out of Brad Pitt as an atheist gives us cause for hope.” Our best response is to concentrate on educating the children, making them critical thinkers. Teach your children. And if you don't have children, consider adopting.
Q. How does altruism fit into an evolutionary scheme of things?
A. This is a community. [indicating the audience] Social cohesiveness is important to our lives and comfort. We work together to maintain our environment. To live well, we rely on cooperation, which is the basis of morality. And we don't eat babies—no matter how delicious.
Q. I am a public school science teacher and some of my students reacted negatively when I introduced the astronomy topic of stellar evolution. I was called into a conference with my principal.
A. Is stellar evolution in your state standards? Point this out to your students and your principal. Tell your students they don't have to believe, but they have to understand. It's a requirement. Tell your principal he doesn't want to be out of compliance with state standards.
Q. Should we teach the flaws of creationism in the science classroom?
A. I do. It can be difficult for a public school teacher whose students might take offense, but I use a historical approach to science. I demonstrate that evolution was not established by atheists who were in league with the devil. Devoutly religious scientists like Lyell realized that the earth was at least millions of years old because that's what the evidence showed. Science is a product of both believers and nonbelievers.
Q. What about the God gene?
A. I don't believe that there are specific genes for emergent properties like belief in God or homosexuality. Those are too complex to be simply identified with genes.
Q. What is creationism's pre-Cambrian bunny rabbit?
A. If someone found a rabbit fossil from the pre-Cambrian, it would not immediately invalidate evolution for me. I would want to do a lot of investigation first. However, creationists do not point to any specific item of evidence that would cause them to abandon creationism. “Creationists work around the evidence.” Nothing persuades them. And they don't understand evidence, pointing to things like the “crocoduck” as a missing link that evolutionists would expect to find. [PZ was resplendent in his crocoduck tie.]
Q. Do religious leaders sometimes go too far and destroy the faith of their followers. Do they commit errors that are faith-crackers?
A. No, hardly ever. Look at Pat Robertson and his statement on Haiti's earthquake being the consequence of a pact with the devil. Most of his viewers probably agree with him. Persistent education is needed to overcome a mindset that lets people agree with pastors no matter what stupid things they say or do.
Q. Why are people susceptible to magical thinking?
A. It's part of our nature. We don't like the thought that some events are not purposeful. People like narrative and they want causal relationships. Magic covers the gaps.
Q. Atheists should move away from “believing” in evolution and emphasize “accepting” it on the basis of evidence.
Q. Right. Our language implies causes where there are none. We say that certain biological features are “designed” for certain functions when we do not mean to imply any designer other than natural selection. It can be misleading. However, we also lose our audience when we speak over-precisely, so there's no good remedy. We have to be as careful as we can, within reason.