"Totally coup, yo."

Critical Massimo

Oct

07

by

BY JOSH BUNTING

Massimo Pigliucci, Ph D., is a professor of evolution and of philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook. He has three doctorates – in genetics, botany, and philosophy. He contributes to Skeptical Inquirer and Philosophy Now, and his musings can be found at rationallyspeaking.org . We wrote to him and he wrote back.

It seems that people who are secular and/or have an understanding of evolution tend to procreate less. Does knowledge about evolution demystify the “miracle of birth,” and if so, doesn’t that indicate natural selection working against itself?

No, I don’t think demystification or natural selection have much to do with it. Certainly a naturalistic understanding of human reproduction does make one disinclined to think of life as a “miracle,” but that doesn’t mean it has less value, or that procreation becomes less of a strong instinct and a source of joy (and plenty of pain, of course).

I think the reason so many secular people have fewer children is the same that so many people in modern open societies have fewer children: education. Education means that one realizes that there is a limit to population growth, and that there are many other fulfilling things to do in life, besides just raising children.

As for natural selection, that was the old eugenics argument, but it fails because there is little if any link between being secular and having a certain type of genes (nobody has discovered — nor is likely to discover — the “gene for atheism”). Secularism is something that is acquired culturally, not transmitted by sperms and eggs.

Have any of your colleagues tried to persuade you to not debate with creationists?

Plenty. I don’t do debates very often, it depends on who the opponent is and what the circumstances and rules of the debate are. The thing to understand about debates is that your target is neither your opponent, not his die-hard fans. You aim at the fence sitters, the people who are genuinely curious and come to really learn something.

But it is also true that many scientists don’t feel comfortable doing debates because the outcome depends much more on one’s rhetorical skills than on who is right or wrong — just like in Presidential debates at election time. It helps is you are good looking, smartly dressed, and especially funny.

Still, the argument often advanced by my colleagues that by debating one “legitimizes” the opponent and offers him a platform strikes me as obnoxiously snob. It’s time for scientists to come out of the ivory tower and get their hands dirty by explaining to the public what they are doing and why taxpayers should keep funding their research.

What is the funniest argument you’ve heard from a creationist?

Kent “Dr. Dino” Hovind, who I have debated several times (and who is now serving time in federal prison for tax evasion), once kept saying that evolution is that insane theory that says that people come from bananas. I don’t know what perverse sexual fantasy Hovind had about people and bananas, but what evolutionary theory actually says is that people and bananas share a (very remote) common ancestor, many hundreds of million years ago — just like all other species on earth. That ancestor looked nothing like either a human being or a banana. Then again, Hovind believes the earth is only 6,000 years old. I wonder whether I could interest him into buying a bridge I happen to own in Brooklyn…

Do you ever get the feeling that those who try to present ridiculous pseudoscience as legitimate science (the Flat Earth Society, for example) are just being contrary for its own sake?

Perhaps, but more often they are actually convinced of what they are saying, and they can martial an impressive array of (bogus) arguments in support of their positions. Excluding those who do it for money (and there are several), most of these people either defend a particular religious ideology no matter what (you know, faith means believing something *in spite* of evidence to the contrary), or they take pleasure in arguing that the “official” position maintained by all those stuffed PhDs is in fact wrong. The latter case is often justified by phrases like “They laughed at the Wright brothers.” Well, yes, but they also laughed at the Marx brothers, and for good reasons!

Tell us about your criticisms of Richard Dawkins.

I tend to agree with Dawkins’ view on religion, and I certainly am with him when it comes to defending science from irrationalism. However, I think that in “The God Delusion” Dawkins makes the common mistake of crossing the line into scientism — the attitude that attributes to science more power and fewer limits than it actually has.

In particular, Dawkins’ main weapon against what he calls “the God hypothesis” is his “argument from improbability.” This simply says that one should not invoke the (unexplained) existence of a highly complex entity (such as God presumably is) to explain the origin of a simpler one (the universe), considering that science offers perfectly valid natural explanations instead. This argument, contra Dawkins, is *not* a scientific but a philosophical one, otherwise known as Occam’s razor. Dawkins takes for science the credit that rightly belongs to philosophy, and I suspect he does so because — like many scientists — he is simply contemptuous of what he sees as the “armchair speculation” that philosophers typically engage in (never mind that any theoretical scientist, including Dawkins, also engages in “armchair speculation”).

Why are you making God cry all the time by figuring stuff out?

It’s nothing personal, but if God were to stop telling his followers to use the Bible or the Quran as if it were a science textbook (or a manual of moral philosophy, for that matter), we would all get along so much better.

Dr. Pigliucci’s newest book is Making Sense of Evolution, co-written with Jonathan Kaplan.

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