Planet Earth

Defending Evolution as a Matter of Political Strategy

The IntersectionBy Chris MooneyFeb 7, 2006 8:07 PM


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PZ disagrees with my suggestions about strategies for defending evolution. More specifically, he disagrees that we should be using, as messengers, scientists who reconcile faith and evolution (aka Ken Miller) to reach the broader American public. As PZ puts it:

Why, sure. And the ideal messenger to reach the public on Democratic ideals is a moderate Republican. The way to win friends and persuade people is to dilute your message so much that you sound just like them. Baa-aaa-aa-a.

Ah, but are we diluting our message here? I don't think that we are. The goal, for me, is to "defend the teaching of evolution," and any message will be consistent with that objective. But that objective is not in any way compromised if the defenders of evolution (the messengers) are theists. I guess I'm wondering what PZ thinks the goal is, if not to defend evolution itself as a first priority.

But PZ continues:

I disagree strongly with this whole idea of an "ideal messenger". Ken Miller is one messenger, a good one I will agree, but I object to the notion that the best representative of science is one who holds a set of non-scientific ideals.

I also confess to a bit of Miller Fatigue. He's a good guy, don't get me wrong, but whenever the conversation turns to how to get the scientific message across, it's his name that gets brought up. Why not mention Collins of the HGP, or Ayala, or…and there's another problem. These paragons of Christian thought aren't that common in science, and actually aren't very representative. If you want an "ideal messenger", it should be someone who really doesn't give a damn about religion, someone who rejects simplistic fundamentalism, someone who thinks the answers are found by looking at the world, not praying for a revelation. Fishing for the rara avis with notions peculiar for a scientist is not convincing to me, or most importantly, to the people we need to convince…unless they're so stupid they can't see through our façade. After having read this, I think I know why PZ and I always seem to disagree about science and religion. We're coming at the same topic from two different perspectives.

I view the evolution battle as a political fight in which the two different sides are competing to move the American public into their camps. Indeed, the "Wedge" strategy is an explicitly political strategy--one that involves dividing people over religion. By contrast, I believe that we need to unite people over evolution (which means, defusing the power of the Wedge to make religionists distrust "Darwinism" because they believe it entails atheism). And in doing so, we need to be just as strategic as the other side--if not more so.

PZ seems to come at it differently, at least in his emphasis. On an intellectual level, he just doesn't find those who reconcile science and religion to be very persusasive. (Frankly, as a non-reconciliationist myself, I can personally understand where the puzzlement comes from.) Such folks hold "a set of non-scientific ideals...aren't that common in science, and actually aren't very representative." They are not, in PZ's view, the "ideal" messenger, because the ideal messenger would be someone who actually embraces a thoroughly naturalistic outlook on the world and how to understand it--as (he contends) most scientists do.

Here's how I would reply to this. First, the question is, "ideal messenger" for what purpose? When I say "ideal messenger," I mean an individual who is able to break through the mountains of distrust and misinformation--sown by the ID camp and by fundamentalist churches nationwide--that are preventing so many Americans from accepting evolution. And because this is a political campaign we're fighting, I think we do need to have, if not a single messenger, then at least a unified communications strategy, insofar as it's possible. The other side certainly strives to achieve such unity, and it has done wonders for them.

And what shall our messenger say? Well, again, PZ thinks the "ideal messenger" will reflect the fact that many or most scientists have trouble justifying a religious leap of faith while simultaneously nourishing a commitment to understanding the world in a naturalistic way. But I say: Isn't this walking right into the "Wedge" trap? The "Wedge," remember, tries to make religious Americans suspicious of evolution by suggesting that it's inherently materialistic and atheistic. And PZ's strategy...well, it confirms that scientists are, indeed, materialistic and atheistic. Or am I missing something?

The point is, the "Wedge" is trying to use the power of religious devotion to defeat evolution. The reason this is a clever strategy is that, right or wrong, religious devotion is a very powerful thing in America. It is a core part of our history, and I think it would be foolhardy to try to defeat it head-on (not to mention potentially inconsistent with the more limited goal of defending evolution).

Rather, we need to defuse this powerful political weapon that our opponent is wielding against us. And that's where the scientists who are also people of faith come in. They have an instant credibility with religious Americans that atheist scientists do not and cannot have. They can speak in a language that such Americans can really understand. Thus, they stand in the best position to defeat the "Wedge." And that's what I really want to see happen.

Permit me to use an analogy. Some years ago, IDists sought to make peace with Young Earth Creationists by deferring a battle over the age of the Earth until such time as evolution was defeated. It didn't work perfectly, but it was, strategically, a smart move. And it's something we could learn from. If evolution defenders are wise, they will do something very similar: Defer a battle over the existence of God until ID and creationism are defeated.

Believe me, it would do wonders for our political chances in this contest.

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