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May 29 2012

The Naive Mr. Leakey

Richard Leakey, son of Louis and Mary Leakey and himself one of the most important and famous paleontologists in the world, showed his naivete when he told the San Francisco Chronicle that reluctance to accept evolution will disappear in the next few decades.

Richard Leakey predicts skepticism over evolution will soon be history.

Not that the avowed atheist has any doubts himself.

Sometime in the next 15 to 30 years, the Kenyan-born paleoanthropologist expects scientific discoveries will have accelerated to the point that “even the skeptics can accept it.”

“If you get to the stage where you can persuade people on the evidence, that it’s solid, that we are all African, that color is superficial, that stages of development of culture are all interactive,” Leakey says, “then I think we have a chance of a world that will respond better to global challenges.”

If we could persuade people based on evidence, evolution would have been universally accepted long, long ago. The opposition to evolution is immune to evidence. They’ve been inoculated against it by their religion.

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  1. 1
    Bronze Dog

    99%+ of Creationists don’t even know what evolution is. They make up straw men and refuse to listen to real explanations. They’re not even going to listen to the definition, much less think about the evidence.

  2. 2
    jamessweet

    I doubt acceptance of evolution can ever really be pushed much above 80%, even if you take the religious aspect out of it. It’s a counter-intuitive notion for too many people. For one, the time scales involved are beyond the ability for the human mind to concretely conceive of (neither you nor I nor any other human can really truly “imagine” what a million years is like). For another, we all tend to be natural Platonists, seeing all cats as variations on an ideal form of Cat, etc. And of course there is the blow to human exceptionalism.

    Religion, of course, makes the picture far worse.

  3. 3
    naturalcynic

    Never underestimate the power of human stupidity.

  4. 4
    kermit.

    I was taught that if evolution were true, the bible was wrong, and we wouldn’t get to spend eternity in that great Church Picnic in the Sky, alternating eating potato salad and telling God how awesome how is.

    But tribalism is also very important. Rejecting scientifical stuff like evolutionary theory establishes that one is not one of the hated liberal educate elite, nor a damn darn dirty hippie.

  5. 5
    Chiroptera

    Sometime in the next 15 to 30 years, the Kenyan-born paleoanthropologist expects scientific discoveries will have accelerated to the point that “even the skeptics can accept it.”

    If the majority of “skeptics” can accept evolution 30 years from now, it will be because the American fascist movement that is currently labeled “conservative” will have become so discredited that the resulting backlash will push US society back into accepting the Enlightenment values this country was originally founded on.

    Not that I expect that such a thing will happen in real life, just that Leakey is wrong; as Ed points out, if evidence has anything to do with anything in the US, evolution (and a whole heck of a lot of other things) would be accepted already.

  6. 6
    Taz

    You’re probably right, Ed. On the other hand, you might have written the same thing 20 years ago in response to a similar prediction about gay marriage.

  7. 7
    The Lorax

    And in 1961, we were going to be living on the Moon by the late 1980′s.

    Yes, scientific discovery will rapidly advance in the coming decades. Unfortunately, facts aren’t good enough.

    Thankfully, there is a trend, and it’s trending up. It’ll just take a lot longer than this man thinks, if indeed it ever happens at all.

  8. 8
    savagemutt

    “If you get to the stage where you can persuade people on the evidence, that it’s solid, that we are all African, that color is superficial, that stages of development of culture are all interactive,” Leakey says, “then I think we have a chance of a world that will respond better to global challenges.”

    This will undoubtedly be quote-mined to imply that the evidence is weak now, but he hopes it will be strong enough in the future to gain acceptance.

  9. 9
    Doug Little

    Sometime in the next 15 to 30 years, the Kenyan-born paleoanthropologist expects scientific discoveries will have accelerated to the point that “even the skeptics can accept it.”

    I think it is wrong to refer to people who deny evolution as skeptics. Evolution is far beyond the skeptic stage.

  10. 10
    tacitus

    You’re probably right, Ed. On the other hand, you might have written the same thing 20 years ago in response to a similar prediction about gay marriage.

    Yeah, but they are very different things. Gay marriage is a tangible concept easily within reach of the experience of ordinary folk–many Americans are getting to know gay couples and are beginning to understand, at first hand, why they aren’t a threat to their way of life.

    Evolution, on the other hand, is much harder to experience first hand. The concept is straightforward enough, but there is nothing like the experience of having gay friends or family members to make it real. Yes, there are examples provided by the experts, but that’s still one-step removed from personal experience, and it’s hard for many people to grasp the sheer magnitude and scope of the billion year evolutionary history of Earth.

    All that, and the fact that nobody likes to ponder on the fact that we are all just the product of impossibly long odds, leads many to cling to the notion that there really is some kind of plan behind everything, some reason for being here. That all mitigates against the wholesale acceptance of evolution.

    Even when you look at very secular nations, like the UK, where regular church attendance has been well below 10% for decades now, only a quarter of the population believes that evolution is definitely true, with another quarter saying it is probably true. Therefore half of all Brits still don’t accept evolution, and worse, over half of all Brits still believe that other concepts involving the origins of life should be taught in schools.

    Thankfully, these poor numbers don’t translate into any major pressure to teach creationism in the UK. Creationists simply do not have the political muscle to influence government in this way (though the Conservative Party is indirectly opening a few doors with some boneheaded education policy decisions, so the situation bears watching).

    So, when we’re looking a long way ahead here in the US, I can certainly envisage a day when, like opposition to gay marriage, creationism loses its place as a hot political issue in most parts of the USA (it has in more liberal states already), but I don’t foresee a time (within the next 200 years at least) where acceptance of the theory of evolution is the norm. It’s just not that easy.

  11. 11
    pinkboi

    It could conceivably happen – if people just stop being religious. That could happen, though the quiverfull movement threatens to slow down that process.

  12. 12
    busterggi

    You can’t really blame Leakey for his conclusion. He’s used to working with H. habilis, H. erectus & such and therefor he isn’t used to more primitive creationist throwbacks.

  13. 13
    lancifer

    Unfortunately besides fundamentalist Christians and Jews there exist many millions of Muslims that are indoctrinated by their religion to see evolution as a threat.

    I fear Mr. Leakey is being too optimistic by an order of magnitude. Perhaps, if the three major religions atrophy at exponential rates, we could have a world where 99% of people accept evolutionary theory in 100 years time.

    I interact with Christians that openly mock evolution on a daily basis. Other than restricting their ability to engage in certain lines of biological research I don’t see that it has much of an effect on society.

    They send their kids to Christian schools that lie to them about evolution and they want the public schools to cast unreasonable doubt on evolution. While this is slimy and a disservice to young people I wonder what the real consequences of their efforts might be?

    Once a student begins to study biology at the college level they will find out they have been deceived. The faithful will suffer great cognitive dissonance. I think society has already settled into a sort of “don’t ask don’t tell” stand off to appease the religious among us. So long as it doesn’t start going the other way I’m not sure there is any great damage done by these religious people denying reality.

    My parents were strict Mormons and even coerced me into going to Rick’s College (now BYU Junior College) my first year. I was already an atheist and no amount of isolation and indoctrination was going to convince me that evolution was some sort of conspiratorial lie.

    I could evaluate the evidence myself and “God did it” wasn’t going to cut it.

    I assume that my experience is being repeated by bright and independent minded kids all over the religious world.

    The end of religion will come someday, and evolution will be viewed as mundanely as the pathogenic theory of medicine by all educated people.

    But the power of religion over the minds of the indoctrinated will not give up its grip quickly.

  14. 14
    erichoug

    I saw one professor once who said that the first question you should ask is what evidence they would accept that would cause them to discard their belief in creationism. If the anser is ‘none’ or some variation thereof, then don’t bother with further discussion.

    For me, what would cause me to discard my understanding of Evolution would be a better explanation for the observed and observable data.

  15. 15
    kantalope

    “Sometime in the next 15 to 30 years, the Kenyan-born paleoanthropologist expects scientific discoveries will have accelerated to the point that “even the skeptics can accept it.”

    Anyone else find the “Kenyan-born” part attached there kind of jarring?…Surprised they didn’t add that his nickname is Hussein or something. Maybe I have just become sensitized to “Kenyan-born” being immediately followed by some crazy.

  16. 16
    Ichthyic

    For me, what would cause me to discard my understanding of Evolution would be a better explanation for the observed and observable data.

    that, in and of itself, would be insufficient for me.

    not only would it have to possess greater explanatory power, but also greater predictive power.

    there’s nothing in the wings suggesting such a thing will even be conceived of within my lifetime.

    current evolution theory is one of our strongest scientific theories wrt to both of these aspects.

  17. 17
    Ichthyic

    The end of religion will come someday, and evolution will be viewed as mundanely as the pathogenic theory of medicine by all educated people.

    i hope so, but recall that there are still quite a few geocentrists and even some flat earthers out there.

    it’s the end of ignorance and authoritarianism we really have to hope for.

    otherwise, another religion will simply replace the Abrahamic ones that currently predominate.

  18. 18
    erichoug

    not only would it have to possess greater explanatory power, but also greater predictive power.

    I completely agree. I simply worded it the way I did for brevity. Most creationists have no idea that the theory of Evolution is actually predictive.

  19. 19
    Rich Stage

    Leakey has made up his mind:
    Soon even ‘skeptics’ will find
    that we finally solved
    the facts we evolved
    I think we’ll still find them blind.

  20. 20
    Ichthyic

    Most creationists have no idea that the theory of Evolution is actually predictive.

    nor do they care, unfortunately.

  21. 21
    lancifer

    Ichthyic,

    it’s the end of ignorance and authoritarianism we really have to hope for.

    otherwise, another religion will simply replace the Abrahamic ones that currently predominate.

    Amen Brother.

    Those are definitely two necessary if not sufficient conditions to end religious dogmatism.

  22. 22
    lancifer

    Imagine the mental landscape of the creationist. There are no fixed “laws” of nature because every event and process could be subject to the capricious and unpredictable actions of a megla-maniacal and pernicious deity.

    What exactly is the point of studying science in such a world? Just lay prostrate and mutter praises to your omnipotent and omniscient overlord.

    Of course the truth is that they imagine that they are the favored child of this cosmic tyrant and that His mind echos their own petty desires.

    They are, after all, worshiping themselves.

  23. 23
    dingojack

    Lance – “There are no fixed “laws” of nature because every event and process could be subject to the capricious and unpredictable actions of a megla-maniacal and pernicious deity”.

    and then they project ‘moral relativism’ onto everyone but themselves.

    :) Dingo

  24. 24
    puppygod

    I think there is important distinction to be made: there are creationist who are simply uneducated – they were told world was created, never paid much attention anyway so they believe it. And there are people who should know better, but for one reason or other (mostly religious) they doesn’t accept facts. I think that first group is much larger than the second. I also think that if they were properly educated, shown evidence (and taught to recognize evidence as such) and thus provided with alternate explanation to their naive creationist vision of the world, they would accept evolution.

    The second group, on the other hand, is probably beyond hope. I don’t think any action could change their beliefs. (Well, any ethical action – I don’t think mass brainwashing is answer we should accept even if it was shown to be possible to perform.)

    With emerging new education technologies, swift and ever permeating access to collective global knowledge I presume that first group will be shrinking – probably not as fast as Leakey predict, but I think he is generally right. Since the first group of creationist comprise most of people in the polls, the percentage change might be larger than it seems when we look at the numbers now.

    The second group, on the other hand, not only won’t shrink, but they will be actively trying to convert as much people as possible to their cause. This is one of the reasons why the state boards of education are so important. Their hijinks will decide our future.

  25. 25
    sosw

    I doubt acceptance of evolution can ever really be pushed much above 80%, even if you take the religious aspect out of it. It’s a counter-intuitive notion for too many people.

    It’s already above 80% in some countries (from what I remember from that old graph with US and Turkey at the bottom), none of which are even close to eliminating religion.

    Evolution is only counter-intuitive if explained incorrectly. Refusing to listen to the explanation is almost always either religiously or culturally influenced (and cultural anti-intellectualism correlates well with religiosity).

    It should also be intuitively obvious that the sum of many small changes amount to large changes. There’s also no reason there should be any limits to those changes.

    It’s even more obvious when looking what humans have achieved by selective breeding over a relatively short period of time.

    Natural selection is pretty much inevitable (regardless of acceptance of evolution), although its mischaracterization as survival of the fittest is often harmful (it leads people to think in terms of “goals” and “optimal forms”). A more accurate characterization would be the survival of a variety of “good enough” forms, where good enough is relative to the environment at that time and place. This is slightly more complicated but still very straightforward.

    Anatomical similarities between species diverge gradually and branch. Many anatomical structure are common across many superficially different species, often in different forms. Intuitively, this is highly suggestive of common ancestry.

    Once things have been explained properly, the only intuitive-seeming objection I’m aware of is irreducible complexity. The explanations why the supposed examples of IC actually aren’t are quite complicated. But IC doesn’t lead to a rejection of evolution (even though it is often used as a post hoc justification), but rather to the supposition of mechanisms in addition to evolution occasionally interfering with the currently known process. Michael Behe himself claims to accept common descent, despite the company he keeps…

    Still, I’m not particularly optimistic about the future of evolution acceptance. I doubt religion is going away very quickly, and its cultural effects can outlast the actual religious beliefs. But there’s nothing inherently counter-intuitive about evolution, and evolution acceptance is already at a decent level in places with less religious and cultural bias against it and science in general.

  1. 26
    The evidence for evolution | physicistical

    [...] The Naive Mr. Leakey [...]

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