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An interview with Jerry Coyne

Greg Ross

February 2009 marks the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth, but the British naturalist's pathbreaking idea—the concept of evolution by natural selection—is still regarded with suspicion by some, particularly in the United States. When asked in a 2006 survey to respond to the statement "Human beings, as we know them, developed from earlier species of animals," more than 80 percent of French, Scandinavians and Icelanders agreed, but only 40 percent of Americans did so.Click to Enlarge Image

University of Chicago biologist Jerry Coyne believes that one reason people mistrust Darwinism is a lack of familiarity with the evidence. In Why Evolution Is True (Viking), Coyne draws on genetics, anatomy, molecular biology, paleontology and geology to explain why biologists find the theory so compelling. "I offer it," he writes, "in the hope that people everywhere may share my wonder at the sheer explanatory power of Darwinian evolution, and may face its implications without fear."

American Scientist Online managing editor Greg Ross interviewed Coyne by telephone in January 2009.

What led you to write the book?

I guess a couple of things. First of all, I only teach evolution. I've been teaching it for my whole career, which I guess is coming on 25 years now, and I realized when I started teaching that nobody ever taught the evidence for evolution, which is wide-ranging and cool. And I looked in the textbooks, and they didn't have it either. And yet when you read Darwin, the thing that's most fascinating is the evidence he musters in support of it. In talking with professional biologists and evolutionists, they didn't ever learn why people thought evolution was true, because you're not taught that in class. But I thought that that should be passed on to the students because of the second reason I wrote the book, which is the pervasiveness of creationism in this country. I wanted to educate the students so they know that evolution really happened, so they don't really doubt that, but also to arm them against the forces of irrationality that were going to be impinging on them and society.

It struck me that the book stands well as a general-interest primer on evolution, but also that you're trying to engage skeptics or doubters.

You can hardly write a book on evolution these days without doing that. It's almost our social responsibility to do something like that when you write a book. Plus, the evidence is just so pervasive, and very interesting. The other thing is that all the controversies that they talk about ...The New York Times covered the Dover trial [in 2005, regarding whether the biology curriculum in Pennsylvania's Dover Area School District could include a statement about intelligent design] and reported on what creationists said, offering equal time, almost, between creationists and evolutionists. That pissed me off, so I just wanted to put this book out. Because there isn't really a similar book. Now the textbooks have started putting the evidence in, and there's a few books that deal partly with the evidence, but most of the books that have come out are like [Brown University biologist] Ken Miller's book [Only a Theory], which is a good book, but it deals with refutation of intelligent design and doesn't have time to go into all the evidence. So I just wanted to put it all in one place for people to have and hopefully be convinced.

In the introduction, you write that "You can find religions without creationism, but you never find creationism without religion." Have you ever heard a challenge to evolution that came from a person who wasn't religious?

In a recent article in the New Republic, I say that all creationists share four beliefs [that God exists, that he intervened in the development of life, that one of these interventions was the creation of humans, and that some traits or species are too complex to have evolved]. But then I was reminded on some blog posts that [mathematics author and intelligent design proponent] David Berlinski has written several things for anti-evolutionist books and articles. He originally claimed not to be religious, but now I think he's a theist. To my knowledge, I don't know of any challenge to evolution that's ever come from a non-religious person. Personally I've never experienced one. The vast majority, certainly 99 percent or more, of all challenges to evolution come from religious people who are creationists—some Muslims, but mostly Christians.

What do you make of that? The Origin of Species was published 150 years ago. Why is the debate still ongoing?

Well, it's not happening in many other countries. I say in the book that of 34 industrialized countries in the world that were surveyed, we ranked 33 in accepting evolution, just above Turkey. In Europe acceptance of evolution is very high. There's no doubt that it's because of the pervasiveness of religion in the United States, and fundamentalist religion. That's the reason why the opposition persists and will keep persisting.

Some creationists seem to feel that it's the scientists who are being dogmatic here—that you're somehow invested in this idea or want it to be true, or that your training has blinded you to other possibilities. How do you respond to that?

I think they're the ones who are dogmatic, because the difference between religion and science, which is the difference between religion and evolution, is that we question things. Nobody worships Darwin as a religion. We don't adhere to a set of dogmas that are unchanging and unquestionable. We all recognize that Darwin was wrong about a lot of stuff. His theories of genetics were wrong, his theories of biogeography were wrong—that's been corrected by plate tectonics—his stuff on sexual selection is very good but not complete. Evolutionary biology is constantly changing and revising its conclusions. But the main conclusions that Darwin made—that evolution occurred, that it occurred through natural selection, that there were common ancestry and splitting and that it happened slowly—those have all been supported. We accept those things because mountains of evidence have shown them to be true. They've been subsumed in what we call neo-Darwinism or modern evolutionary theory. There's a lot of stuff that Darwin said and that other early evolutionists said that is wrong, so we're constantly revising and changing our stuff. It's just that Darwin happened to be right on the main points of the theory. We're not dogmatic about it. I might still be willing to give up my idea that evolution occurred if we got certain evidence from the fossil record, but we haven't gotten it. Whereas there's no observation that will make a religious person give up [his beliefs]. I say in the New Republic article that if the Holocaust didn't do that, then nothing ever will. That's the ultimate argument against belief in at least a certain kind of god.

I'm interested in how you teach this in your classroom. You mentioned that in the past the theory was taught without going through the evidence for it. How do you approach it?

I teach two classes on the straight evidence for evolution. Two hours—I wish I could do more. I start off by saying, "In physics we don't start off with how we know that atoms exist. In chemistry we don't start off with the evidence for chemical bonds. But evolution is different, because the evidence is so cool and not a lot of people know it, but also because I want you to go out into the world knowing that it's important that this is a fact, it's a true fact about where we came from." I don't really hammer on religion too much, but I have to talk a little about it because that was the going theory when Darwin wrote his book. When the Origin came out there was his theory and there was the creationist theory, and they were equally viable at that time. And so when I teach the stuff I teach it as sort of an object lesson in how to adjudicate between competing theories in science. And that's the way I wrote the book, too. I'm constantly asking the reader, "How does creationism explain this observation? It can't." So it's more than teaching the evidence; it's teaching them how to discriminate between good science and bad science, and that's a good lesson for students too.

How do they receive it, generally?

Oh, pretty well. A few religious students don't like it; they say Dr. Coyne is too hard on creationism. But most of them, that's what they remember when they come back 15 years later. They say, "I remember about goosebumps, or male nipples, or how you wiggled your ears in class to demonstrate the vestigial ear muscles." So I think it's gone over pretty well. Some of my undergrads have become professional historians of evolution and even gone on to graduate school in evolutionary biology, so I think it's been okay.

What do you think about the idea of teaching the debate, that there are two sides to this issue and that both should be represented in the classroom?

I don't agree with that. The other side doesn't have any credibility. It's not that we have two theories here, both of which have good reasons to explain the data. It's that one of them has explained the data, and the other was ruled out a hundred years ago. That teaching-the-debate thing is done for one reason only, which is to cast doubt on evolutionary biology, which is what's going on in Texas this week, and to inculcate creationism into the classroom. [The Texas board of education was debating whether to restore a rule requiring that the "strengths and weaknesses" of evolution be taught in high school science classes. The final vote was a 7-7 tie, meaning the measure was defeated and evolution would continue to be taught as a strong scientific theory.] What I say to people who ask me this is "Okay, if you want to teach the debate, then in our medical schools we're going to have to teach shamanism, faith healing and spiritual healing; and in our psychology classes we're going to have to teach astrology as an alternate theory of human behavior, that we're guided by the stars; and we're going to have to teach flat-earth geology because there are still some people who believe in that." When we teach history, we're going to have to teach the alternate view that the Holocaust didn't take place, because we have a lot of Holocaust revisionists. It's not good to teach two theories and pretend that they're equal when one of them has been discredited. It only confuses students as to what real science is and how it's done. We already have a problem with people understanding real science in our country, with all the opposition to global warming and the stem-cell debate, so I don't want to confuse them further. That said, I think that we should teach creationism, not in biology class but as a way to adjudicate good from bad science in sociology classes.

Do you have any thoughts about how the media cover this? A lot of journalists seem to think, "Well, there seem to be two sides here, so the responsible thing is to cover both of them."

It's okay to cover the Dover trial and report what happened, but they're absolutely deficient in how they cover it. The New York Times is a prime example. During the Dover trial they would say something like "Intelligent design says that the blood-clotting system couldn't have evolved by evolution, and scientists say it could" [laughs]. In their desire to present things objectively, they lose sight of the fact that the facts show that one side is wrong and the other one isn't. And it's wrong to present them like that. That's another reason I wrote the book—on the dust jacket it says that one thing is missing from all these journalistic debates about coverage of evolution, and that's the evidence. I don't think any newspaper that I've ever seen has gone through it as it should have done. There's this controversy in Texas this week about whether the students are going to be forced to learn criticisms of evolution. The journalists never publish anything saying, "Here's why scientists believe that evolution has happened." They never do it.

Last question: What would you say to a creationist who read the book and remained unconvinced?

I'd like to find out why. I guess that's the first thing I'd ask him. And if he said, "Well, what you told me contravenes the Bible"—which is going to be the reason—then I would say, "I'm sorry, I can't talk to you anymore. You can't be convinced by reason and evidence." But my first question would be to find out why. Either I didn't do a good job on the book or there's something else that's keeping him from accepting this evidence. It's usually the latter. Not that I did a good job on the book, but anybody can present evidence that will convince people that evolution is true. Just show them the fossils.

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