Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Wright Fight

Robert Wright is one of those public intellectuals who manages to be wrong no matter what subject he discusses.  Well, he's done it again, and this time it wasn't easy.

His take on the political battle between creationism an evolution is bizarre.  It would seem here's one area where we might agree.  After all, we both accept that evolution is the proper scientific explanation for the known facts.  But that's not what interests him.  He wants to know why it's become such a pitched battle in America and why it's led to right-wing mistrust of the scientific establishment in general.

Here's his explanation:

A few decades ago, Darwinians and creationists had a de facto nonaggression pact: Creationists would let Darwinians reign in biology class, and otherwise Darwinians would leave creationists alone. [....]

A few years ago, such biologists as Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers started violating the nonaggression pact. [....] I don't just mean they professed atheism--many Darwinians had long done that; I mean they started proselytizing, ridiculing the faithful, and talking as if religion was an inherently pernicious thing. They not only highlighted the previously subdued tension between Darwinism and creationism but depicted Darwinism as the enemy of religion more broadly.

If the only thing this Darwinian assault did was amp up resistance to teaching evolution in public schools, the damage, though regrettable, would be limited. My fear is that the damage is broader--that fundamentalist Christians, upon being maligned by know-it-all Darwinians, are starting to see secular scientists more broadly as the enemy; Darwinians, climate scientists, and stem cell researchers start to seem like a single, menacing blur [....]

I reiterate that this theory is conjectural--so conjectural that "hypothesis" is a better word for it than "theory". The jury may remain out on it forever.

Meanwhile, some data to keep your eye on: Check out the extreme right of the graph above [of the Gallup poll showing American belief in evolution]. Over the past two years, the portion of respondents who don't believe in evolution has grown by six percentage points. Where did those people come from? The graph suggests they're people who had previously believed in an evolution guided by God--a group whose size dropped by a corresponding six percentage points. It's as if people who had previously seen evolution and religion as compatible were told by the new militant Darwinians, "No, you must choose: Which is it, evolution or religion?"--and pretty much all of them chose religion.

I'm glad he admits his theory is conjecture, but I don't think the jury is out.  I think it's obviously wrong.

First, the battle over evolution goes back to Darwin, if not earlier.  It's always been a hot topic and has affected politics of the day on a fairly regular basis.

Second, the big battles of the present were hardly started by Dawkins and Myers and their ilk in recent years.  I'd say they goes back to the emergence of the religious right, which happened in the 70s.  Evangelicals supported Jimmy Carter, even saw him as one of them.  But once he was in office, they felt betrayed for a number of reasons--such as Carter's opposition to aid for religious schools--and became solid members of the conservative camp.  In general, the religious right was feeling, more than ever, that the secular world was invading their space--they sure didn't think there was some sort of "deal" that worked, as Wright so blithely assumes.

Thus, there was a movement--that continues to this day--to take over school boards and pass laws introducing creationism into the curriculum. Dawkins and Myers' loud atheism comes far too late to have had much effect on this mindset.  (There are also other, even older, roots of right-wing suspicion of science, which is part of a larger suspicion of what they see as a liberal establishment overturning traditional beliefs.)

To top it off, Wright misinterprets the Gallup data.  He sees a jump from 40% to 46% in creationist belief in the past two years as significant.  This is a blip, since the rest of the chart, going back to 1982, shows belief regularly charting in the mid-40s. As long as he's playing number games, how does he explain the drop from 44% to 40% from 2008 to 2010 (and from 46% to 40% if you start in 2006)?  The New Atheist movement that he believes is causing the problem had already come out in full force by 2008, so it's easier to argue that their effect was to raise belief in evolution.  Perhaps the number jumped up because Christopher Hitchens died and so is no longer around to keep people honest?

Whether or not angry arguments against creationism are helpful is one thing, but to claim that the right's distrust of science is caused by it gets it backwards.  Rather, the angry arguments seem to be caused by years of anti-evolution fervor spearheaded by the religious right, who themselves believed they were pushing back against a secular government's intrusion into their lives.

PS  Wrights calls this "An American Story."  It's certainly notable here, but fundamentalists around the world fight against the theory of evolution, and I bet most of them have never even heard of Dawkins or Myers.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well the general problem with the form of columns and blogposts is that they necessarily have to oversimplify. I am sure that there are some members of the religious right who were perhaps motivated by the publicity of Dawkins, Sam Harris and Penn Jillette on atheism. However, I think the right has a bigger issue with the popularity of those views. Madeleine Murray O'Hare never got this kind of traction (true she was shrill and nasty while Dawkins is smarter and more rational and understandable and Penn is at least funny). I generally agree agree with LA guy's analysis too and think they are largely compatible if we get beyond the claim of "the one true cause of this phenomena" point

There are a lot of reasons for why people and movements do what they do but columns are boring if they have too many reservations and qualifications.

Let me go off on a tangent--I recall Wright was a little nutty on evolution about 15-20 years and went wild explaining every single modern aspect of modern human behavior was perfected by thousands of years of evolution. How about all us near-sighted folks Bob?- I can explain it through evolution and human behavior but I wouldn't call it perfection*) Thats another post but Wright has shown this tendency toward oversimplification of thorny complicated issues.

*My favorite oversimplified explanation- While the big hunters with good eyesight claimed the best mates, they had to go and use their gift to go ahead and kill prey and the weak-eyed intellectual types stayed back in camp while the jocks were out hunting and knocked up their wives

5:18 AM, June 19, 2012  
Blogger LAGuy said...

I think you're underrating the impact of Madalyn Murray O'Hair and those Supreme Court decisions on school prayer in the 1960s. They were a huge deal--I'd say bigger than the New Atheist movement. Life Magazine didn't call her the most hated woman in America for nothing.

9:08 AM, June 19, 2012  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

O'Hare was legally effective but not popular, as you note. The new atheists- or perhaps better to say the idea of atheism, is popular. This very much worries the faith adherents

3:09 PM, June 20, 2012  

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