Is Debating Creationists of the Mind Worthwhile?
Readers occasionally ask me why I don’t write about creationism, as some prominent evolution-minded bloggers do. To me, the benefits of discussing creationism is limited because my sense is that on this issue, there is little room for persuasion and therefore little value to continued discussion. People who adopt supernatural beliefs, it seems to me, tend to adopt them for reasons other than their evaluation of the relevant evidence and logic, so presenting evidence and logic has limited persuasive value. This debate really ended a century ago, when the Enlightenment teed up supernaturalism and Darwin spiked it. The discussion is, to my mind, over, and dissenters are simply history’s stragglers less interested in discovering truth than defending a worldview. Why bother fighting?
I suppose that things aren’t, really, as absolute as I’ve presented it here. Occasionally students tell me that taking my evolutionary psychology class changed their minds – or at least made them think about changing their minds – about their prior religious commitments. Still, my sense is that readers of this blog are unlikely to be creationists to begin with, further limiting the value of sharing any thoughts I might have about the topic. So I don’t.
Recently, I discussed some remarks by PZ Myers, who might be called – though I’m sure he would object – a creationist of the mind. (This term isn’t original with me. Anyone know who coined it?) By this I refer to the view that the theory of evolution by natural selection ought to be used to inform the study of the traits and behaviors of every living thing on the planet except the bits of the human mind that cause behavior, especially social behavior. Again, I’m not saying he’s literally a creationist; I’m saying that there are some who are very comfortable insisting that evolutionary ideas inform biology in all other domains except the human mind. This view is not unprecedented. Ed Clint directed my attention to this quotation from Alfred Wallace:
Because man’s physical structure has been developed from an animal form by natural selection, it does not necessarily follow that his mental nature, even though developed pari passu with it, has been developed by the same causes only.
So, Myers and people like him are in distinguished company. In any case, on the heels of my prior post, the question was raised: why do I bother?
Fair enough. I concede there is some justice to this view. Is pointing out Myers’ errors any more useful than trying to persuade creationists? The rest of my remarks here are some thoughts on this question.
First, the con side. Like creationists full stop, creationists of the mind take their positions for reasons other than looking at the relevant evidence. This is clear from the emotion that pervades their remarks about the discipline and, more convincingly, from the way they characterize the discipline. As I’ve shown elsewhere, critics’ errors about the field show that they haven’t understood the most basic assumptions that underlie the field. For instance, the complaint that PZ Myers recently voiced, that evolutionary psychologists assume a one-to-one mapping between genes and behavior, sinks to the level of “pants-on-fire” along the veracity scale, and such moves are in essence parallel to the old canard, “if we evolved from apes, why are there still apes?” from certain creationist quarters. This misrepresentation, so at odds with reality, betokens a willful disregard of the facts of the matter, illustrating that resistance to the field comes from a source other than the ideas of the field itself. Genuine critics – Fodor I think provides such an example – engage the logic that underlies the discipline and the relevant empirical evidence. Given that creationists of the mind’s opposition comes from a source other than their evaluation of the field, there would seem to be little value in trying to persuade.
So goes the con side, and I take the point. If creationists of the mind cannot be convinced that there is value to using ideas from evolutionary biology in formulating hypotheses about human psychology, then why engage them when there are other ideas to write about?
Having thought about this from time to time, I came down on the pro side, but I’m willing to be convinced otherwise.
First, there is counter-evidence to the claim that critics cannot be persuaded: Jerry Coyne’s conversion I think serves as a powerful example. His journey from staunch critic to defender of the discipline illustrates that smart people who know a lot about biology can be persuaded. Some of the field’s critics might be induced to read the primary literature, as Coyne did. More deeply, Coyne’s public change of heart, I think, will make it easier for others to say they were wrong. Indeed, my sense of the comments on his blog illustrate the point. I haven’t studied the comments systematically, but I have the impression that his critiques of evolutionary psychology elicited enthusiastic cheering and agreement from his readers, but these readers don’t seem to be posting objections to his new view, indicating, perhaps, either that they too have changed their minds, or that they are less willing to voice their dissent.
Related, there is already evidence that Myers is very sympathetic to evolutionary analyses of human behavior, even though he’s very bad at it when he tries. He applied an evolutionary sort of analysis to try to explain people’s positions on abortions, reasoning this way:
…it is in the man’s reproductive interests to have his genes propagated in any one pregnancy, while it is in the woman’s reproductive interests to bail out and try again if conditions aren’t optimal for any one pregnancy. This conflict is also played out in culture, as well as genetics — pro-choice is a pro-woman strategy, anti-abortion is a pro-man position. Sometimes, politics is a reflection of an evolutionary struggle, too.
From this, it is clear that Myers is clearly open to using fitness interests to explain policy positions – “Sometimes, politics is a reflections of an evolutionary struggle” – though he gets it wrong in the empirical sense that there’s basically no sex difference on this issue, and the best explanation around suggests that it’s more complex.
Second, I think punting on people like Myers underestimates modern readers and their ability to draw their own conclusions. Blogs are not hidden behind paywalls, and part of their raison d’être has to do with their being a forum for discussion among readers. Public blog dialogs are not private missives; they are a place for public discussions to start. So if Myers cannot be induced to engage with the field, this is not to say that his readers cannot be. “Shepherd of Internet trolls” he might be, but while many of his readers are likely to adopt his position and cheer his willfully ignorant bashing of the discipline, he has many readers, including dissenting commenters, many of whom link to information that undermines Myers’ claims. Some readers will follow these links, and look at the relevant source material for themselves. It seems to me that it’s a mistake to think of the blogosphere as a Clash of the Titans – Myers versus Coyne – with readers as spectators. A principal virtue of the blogosphere is that it’s a game everyone can play. If Myers cannot be persuaded to read in the discipline as Coyne did, that is not to say that some members of his audience cannot be.
Related, the creationists of the mind are not, to my way of thinking, like the garden variety creationist community. The fact that people read Myers’ blog, for instance, indicates an interest in science and the natural world. Similarly, the people from the community that brands itself “skeptics” are, I should think, curious, and interested in knowledge. Members of such communities are worth persuading, if for no other reason than they might eventually be in a position to contribute in one way or another.
Finally, it seems to me that in the modern scholarly climate, engaging creationists of the mind is sort of part of the job. If being a scientist entails a commitment to try to build and spread true ideas, then maybe there is also an obligation to try to defend against the spread of false ideas. Today, blogs are a major idea conduit, arguably more substantial than scientific journals in their ability to propagate ideas, good and bad. It feels like abdication to say that because such and such a community is stubborn, I will pretend not to notice them. My good friend and colleague Angela Duckworth has been persuading me of the importance of grit, the ability to persevere in effortful pursuits. If that means playing a never-ending game of Whack-a-Mole with the bad ideas of creationists of the mind, well, it seems to me that we have to be determined to get a little gritty.