Sad to say, I’m discovering that some people got the wrong message from my talk last night. Something went awry, I’m not sure what, because they took home exactly the opposite idea from what I intended. I’ll try summarize what I meant to say here.
I was supposed to talk about creationist misconceptions about evolution, so I started with a couple of real questions I’ve received in my email.
One was the extremely common “if evolution is true, why are there still monkeys” question. What I said about it was that if you’ve got any knowledge of biology at all, it seems trivial and rather stupid, but it actually represents a fundamental misconception about how the world works, with the idea that there is one ideal to which all life must aspire. I gave the usual flippant response (“I was brought up a Lutheran, but I became an atheist…so why hasn’t everyone torn down all the churches?”) but asked the audience to give a better answer. And yes, some people did explain that life was a branching tree, not a simple ladder.
Then I read this one.
I think species should have evolved first with only one eye. After realizing that one eye cannot create depth perception, nature would have generated another eye following thousands of years of evolution. We know this is not true. Someone or something already knew that one eye would not be enough.
What I said about it was that it was not a stupid question — that if a young kid asked this, we’d be deeply impressed with his insight. It is a good question, but again, it’s one that those of us who already have a background in biology take for granted, and it can look stupid to us. So I asked the audience how they would explain it. It was interesting that most people gave explanations based on the utility of two eye (for instance, that early vision would not have been sterescopic, but that more eyes just widened the field of vision). My answer was to attempt a developmental explanation with a demo: make a rorschach blot with a folded piece of paper and some splattered ketchup, and what you get is paired structures. It’s harder to generate single structures than paired structures with that kind of symmetry, and the real question is how the anterior-posterior and dorsal-ventral axis is generated…and it’s not an easy one to answer!
My conclusion from it all was that if we want to find the reason for the creationist problem, it isn’t in simple stupidity. I don’t even fault them for ignorance—that may ultimately be a significant part of the problem, but correcting ignorance is our business. So what is the root of the creationist conflict?
Arrogance. The common theme in creationist objections, in the letters I get, in the whole damn culture war, is that creationists arrogantly assume that their ignorance is shared and that it is a valid data point in our explanations of the world. It isn’t the scientists who are the arrogant ones in this debate, it’s people who come out of 6th grade sunday school utterly convinced that they have all the answers.
Something that came out later in the Q&A was how we address the issue. I think there is some deep confusion out there. There is this idea that we should be nice and polite and patient in explaining the issues, and that is correct: that is exactly the best way to handle ignorance. If I’ve got someone who is sincerely asking questions and looking for honest answers, yes, what I need to do is take the time to explain. Nicely. No biting.
Making nice and being obliging is not how we correct arrogance,however. The way to handle arrogance is to rub the persons nose in their error and make them a little bit ashamed, and perhaps a little more reluctant to insist that they are precisely correct in every particular in subjects on which they have absolutely no knowledge. The creationist pretense to absolute knowledge is their failing, not their ignorance of the details of biology—I really do not expect everyone in the world to have taken even college biology 101.
So if someone wants to complain that I was darned mean and called all those god-fearing creationists “arrogant”, it’s a fair cop. It completely misconstrues my talk to say I called them stupid, however, especially since I rather plainly said “creationists aren’t necessarily stupid” and “these aren’t stupid questions” several times.