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David Sloan Wilson

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PZ Myers: Not Functioning as a Scientist on the Subject of Religion

Posted: 05/30/2012 8:32 am

In the spirit of science as a process of constructive disagreement, Evolution: This View of Life is pleased to feature a critique of my previous article "The New Atheism and Evolutionary Religious Studies: Clarifying Their Relationship" by evolutionist and prolific blogger PZ Myers, titled "You Want Evidence that Religion is Bad for Our Species? OPEN YOUR EYES." Unfortunately, Myer's critique raises the issue of whether he is functioning as a scientist at all on the subject of religion.

Imagine Myers teaching a class on his academic specialty -- evolutionary developmental biology (evo-devo) -- and telling his students that all they must do to understand the topic is to open their eyes. This would be absurd. The whole point of science is to understand topics that are too complex to be self-evident.

It is just as absurd for Myers to say that the impact of religion on human welfare can be understood merely by opening one's eyes. At the very least, he should acknowledge that it is sufficiently complex to merit scientific inquiry. Myers should learn from another evolutionist, A.J. Cain, who said that "Only the shallowest mind can believe that in a great controversy, one side is mere folly".

Who pretends that complex issues are so simple that they can be comprehended merely by opening one's eyes? Religious fundamentalists and political demagogues come to mind. I do not mean to insult Myers by making this comparison. Fundamentalism and demagoguery are ways of thought that can be objectively defined and measured. They are forms of discourse with a purpose -- to motivate a given suite of behaviors -- and they seldom let factual reality get in the way. The real world has too many shades of gray for a fundamentalist or demagogue. Better to construct a black and white world where one path leads to glory and the other to ruin. When I say that Myers is thinking like a fundamentalist and a demagogue, I am stating a testable hypothesis.

Fundamentalists and demagogues are not stupid. In fact, the human mind is probably better adapted to operate in these modes than a scientific mode. Great intelligence is required to craft an effective ideology, although less intelligence is required to follow one, since the whole point of an ideology is to instruct anyone who falls under its spell exactly what to do. Constructing an ideology is so different from scientific inquiry that it's easy to tell the difference. In the case of Myers, all we need to do is compare how he thinks and writes on the subject of evo-devo with how he thinks and writes on the subject of religion.

Myers the ideologue thinks that he can demonstrate the harmful effects of religion on human welfare with a single word -- WOMEN. Here's how a scientist would set about studying women in relation to men. The first step would be to ask what evolutionary theory predicts about male-female relationships and how the predictions are borne out in nonhuman species. That inquiry would show that sexual conflict is common in the animal world and that the kind of sexual equality that has become a virtue in contemporary western society evolves by genetic evolution only under special circumstances. Among the great apes, gibbons are monogamous, bonobos form female coalitions that resist domination by males, and males boss females around in all of the other species (and most other primate species). None of this variation can be explained by religion.

The second step would be to see if variation in male-female relations within the human species can be explained by the same evolutionary dynamics that explain cross-species variation. For example, it is likely that in both cases, the ability of males to control resources needed by females will result in sexual inequality. This is one reason why agricultural societies are more patriarchal than hunter-gatherer societies -- regardless of their religions.

To measure the effect of a given religion on sexual inequality, that religion should be compared to the other cultural forms (religious and otherwise) that existed at the same time and place, such as early Christianity vs. Roman pagan society, early Islam vs. the many Arabic cultures of the region, or Christianity vs. scientific views about sexual equality in Britain during the Victorian era. I won't try to second-guess the result of such an inquiry, but I do know this -- it isn't self-evident.

Myers and other new atheists seem to think that their action-oriented agenda doesn't leave room for such scholarly footwork, but the reverse is true. Scholars who remain in the Ivory Tower can make mistakes without hurting anyone. Those who leave the Ivory Tower to make a difference in the real world need to be extra careful, lest they hurt people on the basis of faulty theory and information. Humility is called for, which is the very opposite of ideological braggadocio.

Elsewhere I have written about the problem of scientists who use their reputation in one topic area to hold forth on other topic areas without doing the same homework that a good science journalist would do, and even without functioning as a scientist in any way at all. PZ Myers has a fine reputation as an evolutionary developmental biologist, but on the topic of religion he is defrocked.

This article first appeared in Evolution: This View of Life


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