A Jerry Coyne Interview

We rarely post about news where someone is quoted as saying favorable things about evolution, because all we can add is that we agree. The rare exceptions to that rule are the now-discontinued columns by the splendidly-evolved Olivia Judson.

But today we came across an interview with Jerry Coyne that appears in Haaretz, Israel’s oldest daily newspaper. It’s titled Pray tell: Why religious people struggle with the theory of evolution.

It’s a long interview, and it’s a good one. You’ll want to read it all, so we won’t bother excerpting very much of it. This is typical:

[Question:] Of the whole battery of proofs you cite in the book for the existence of evolution, which is your personal favorite?

[Coyne’s response:] I like the flaws and vestiges we find in the bodies of living creatures. … The only way to understand these vestigial organs is as remnants of features which were in use by earlier ancestors of the modern animals. No creator or designer would have fashioned an unnecessary organ from the outset.

We find the same agglomeration of unnecessary elements in the genome. Each of us carries whole ‘graveyards’ of genes − ‘dead’ genes that are not expressed but which are still with us, because they are descendants of genes we received from our ancestors, for whom they did have a function. All these remnants are predicted by the theory of evolution and are totally unexplained by creationism. Yet, people still refuse to accept evolution. Creationism is like an inflatable roly-poly clown: when you punch it, it goes down but then immediately pops back up.

After a lot of good stuff like that, the interview turns to religion:

[Question:] Can science and religion not go hand in hand?

[Coyne’s response:] No, they are polar opposites, both methodologically and philosophically. Take the term ‘truth,’ for example. Truths in science − even though they are fundamentally provisional − are universal; whereas we all know that different religions make different claims, many of them contradictory, about reality. Many Christians believe that in order to enter paradise you have to believe that Jesus is the son of God, but the Koran asserts that anyone who believes that will be cast into hell. Such contradictions, of course, render the term ‘religious truth’ ridiculous.

So far this is routine stuff. It’s good, but we see such things all the time and we rarely bother to blog about them. But then the interview transitions from religion to politics, and this is where it gets interesting. Let’s read on:

[Question:] In Darwin’s time, persuading people to become atheists was considered a felony: The Church claimed it weakened people’s resilience to the difficulties of life. Faith exercises a profound impact on people’s ability to cope with the rigors of life.

[Coyne’s response:] Indeed, we all know that in times of economic crisis and in periods of personal hardship, people are more likely to turn to religion. What’s interesting is that this is also true at the level of countries. There [are] some huge sociological studies that show that the more a country is mired in economic difficulty, and the less well it functions socially, the more religious it is.

Skipping a big chink, we come to this:

[Question:] Maybe [the Scandinavian countries aren’t religious] because people have a feeling that they are not alone, that the society is looking after them.

[Coyne’s response:] I would definitely say so. Income disparities between people generate insecurity, and therefore heighten faith. When people have confidence and faith in the society in which they live, they feel generally more supported, and that allows them not to fall into religion.


And yes, these data also prove that there is no connection between religion and morality: the majority of Europe, Scandinavia in particular, is populated by atheists and agnostics, and those societies are, if anything, more moral than a religious country like the United States, in the sense that there is concern in them for the elderly and the weak. They are certainly not a hotbed of sinners.

Now we get to it directly:

[Question:] So social welfare can be a substitute for religion?

[Coyne’s response:] Maybe to some extent. The fact is that welfare states are less religious. I am neither a Marxist nor a diehard opponent of capitalism. But there has to be a certain degree of higher-level intervention to create a healthy society.

Some say it will never be possible to be rid of religion altogether, because, they claim, it does supply human needs. But I believe those needs can be fulfilled, as they have in many European countries, by oversight and by social guarantees. Look at Scandinavia. Three hundred years ago it was religious − the whole of Europe was religious − and now it is largely secular. Why? Because there is a well-functioning society there, in the sense that they have medical insurance and help for the needy. In such cases people do not need to turn to God.

In the United States we have some social nets in the form of Social Security, and now also ‘Obamacare,’ but we do not have something as important as national health insurance. I think that the government should intervene to a certain degree in order to give people a sense of security. By the way, that is the reason, I think, for America’s being in such a unique position among the First World countries: it has the highest religiosity and the lowest acceptance of evolution. Religion can be problematic, but weakening its hold requires some deep social change. A more just, caring, egalitarian society must be created. It seems to me that, irrespective of what people feel about religion, that could certainly be a goal which most people would be happy to endorse.

So there you are — starting with the controversy between evolution and creationism, Coyne ends up advocating a welfare state. Well, is Coyne correct? Does the welfare state weaken the hold of religion on the population? And if it does, is that a good reason to support it?

We humbly suggest that Coyne incorrectly presents us with a binary choice — it’s either science and atheism within a redistributive welfare state, or else it’s creationism and religious fanaticism, driven by income inequality. But we think there are more alternatives. For example, consider the Founding Fathers who made the American Revolution.

The Founders lived two or three generations before Darwin published his theory, but they were, for the most part, utterly rational and scientific — Ben Franklin being our favorite example. They compromised about slavery (an error that was later remedied), but otherwise they made all the right choices for the creation of a free and prosperous nation — including property rights and a free enterprise economic system. They had no concept of a welfare state, and if anyone had suggested such a thing we’re confident they would have rejected it. They were (to coin a phrase) Enlightenment driven. With all due respect to Coyne, we suggest that the Founders’ model for society is a credible alternative to that of the European welfare state. Within that context, science is strong enough to prevail.

Copyright © 2013. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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20 responses to “A Jerry Coyne Interview

  1. Johnny Relentless

    The founding fathers were all wealthy, so it fits Coyne’s assessment that poverty breeds religion.

  2. Johnny Relentless says: “The founding fathers were all wealthy”

    No, not all. For example, Sam Adams and Thomas Paine. And others became wealthy but started poor, like Ben Franklin and Alexander Hamilton.

  3. Ceteris Paribus

    SC says: “With all due respect to Coyne, we suggest that the Founders’ model for society is a credible alternative to that of the European welfare state. Within that context, science is strong enough to prevail.”

    With all due respect to TSC, the Founders’ model was agrarian, with plenty of unsettled land (not counting the indigenous tribes) to be exploited by enterprising Europeans at the beginnings of the scientific revolution which armed them with both advanced weapons and steel plows.

    Any member of the original Tea Party with a yen for more freedom than provided for in the constitution was welcome and able to simply head west to the Alleghenies and lay claim to enough acreage to support a family.

    But the American frontier closed by the end of the 19th century. As they say in real estate, they ain’t making any more farmland. In Kansas, half the acreage in production by modern farmers is now leased from absentee land owners.

    Oddly, the modern day Tea Partiers who now work the land with modern steel plows, and their relatives living in mega-cities, still hold on to the belief that they are following the Founders’ vision merely by adding a few more Glocks and Bushmasters to their guns safe collections. And also by irrationally reliably voting for Republican party know-nothings and theocrats, even when those votes serve the interests of the governors more than the governed.

    The philosophical clashes between Hamilton and Jefferson now need to be seen for what they were; bitter arguments over a historical landscape that neither would recognize today. As Jefferson said, the future belongs to those then living in it. He said that forcing the future population to hold sacred the provisions of the original constitution would be as illogical as to insist that a grown man wear the same clothes he did as a child.

  4. Ceteris Paribus says: “With all due respect to TSC, the Founders’ model was agrarian”

    That was certainly Jefferson’s model, but plenty of people back then, like now, prospered in other ways. Franklin is perhaps the best example, but he wasn’t alone. Look at this list of Signers of The Declaration of Independence. Loads of merchants, physicians, and lawyers.

  5. Coyne’s argument plays into the hands of the religious right who say that “Christianity = free-market fundamentalism”, because liberalism = worship of the state. This argument was especially advanced by fascist theologian Rousas Rushdoony. Rushdoony said everything he didn’t agree with was religion. So liberalism was worship of the state as God; the movement for civil rights for black people was worship of the state as God; etc. etc.

    Coyne’s argument is that not that the state is worshiped as God, but that having a welfare state makes the worship of God less necessary, because people are less insecure.

    So Coyne’s argument is different, but the problem is that it’s a bit too similar to the fundamentalist “Jesus was a Capitalist” argument. Also, another problem is that it’s supported by not enough evidence.

    Of course, Christian fundamentalists worship the “genius of the market” as if it were God.

    Here Bug Eyes Bachmann is explaining how her deregulation policies will create a capitalist utopia with full employment.

    Bug Eyes: “If we took away the minimum wage—if conceivably it was gone—we could potentially virtually wipe out unemployment completely because we would be able to offer jobs at whatever level.” [Source]

    Who was the last person to promise a utopia with full employment? Josef somebody or other.

  6. Coyne oughta stick to evolution…he is a brilliant writer.
    You TSC are a far better analyst of the human condition. Your conclusion was excellent and correct!

  7. Cam says: “Your conclusion was excellent and correct!”

    M’god! Someone agrees with me.

  8. Another part that often gets over looked is the religious wars of Europe. The early immigrants of America went there to escape it with their faith, while many in Europe lived through it, leading to I believe a moving away from religion because of it.

    In Britain it is even more pronounced because you had 60 years of “Protestants, and Catholics” shooting, bombing kneecapping and terrorising each other, and occasionally the main land. The official stance may have been for, or against, an united Ireland but all the rhetoric was about catholic or protestant.

  9. “They had no concept of a welfare state…”

    That isn’t entirely correct. The Founders recognized a number of places where social welfare programs were beneficial for the country.“An Act for the Relief of Sick and Disabled Seamen” is a fantastic example. It was passed by the fifth Congress and signed by John Adams and required privately employed merchant sailors to pay a part of their wages when they entered port (you might call it a mandate on individuals) in exchange for medical care at government run hospitals as part of the Marine Hospital Service (what we call “socialized medicine” today).

    They did not “reject” programs such as this. Rather, they saw a problem and used the power of government to solve it. Sometimes that is the correct choice, and Coyne presents significant evidence in this interview and other writings that make a credible connection between no longer having to worry about how one will be able to pay for a doctor, for example, and no longer running to the last ditch effort of calling on supernatural aid. If you have a better explanation for this apparent connection, I think it would make a fascinating read.

    I agree that it’s dangerous to make the connection too binary, but it does appear that smart, capable social problems lessen religiosity by giving people a credible alternative to appealing to the divine when they face seemingly overwhelming problems.

  10. retiredsciguy

    SC “M’god! Someone agrees with me.”

    For what it’s worth (not much, because I’m more of a reality scientist than a political scientist), I agree with you as well.

    As to Coyne correlating a welfare state with acceptance of evolution, correlation is no proof of causality.

  11. As to Coyne correlating a welfare state with acceptance of evolution, correlation is no proof of causality.

    Nevertheless, all the social correlations are there and pointing in the same direction, especially that the greater the economic inequalities, the greater the religiosity. Saying that correlation is not causation in no way, shape, or fashion, sheds any light upon this interesting and stable relationship. Why, for example, are all the social factors related to this disparity unidirectional towards greater rates of religiosity when the religious typically assure us that lack of religious belief should yield exactly the opposite?

    In the same way, suggesting that Coyne correlates a “welfare state” to the acceptance rates for evolution utterly fails to address the fact that the greater the religiosity, the lower that rate is for accepting the science of evolution to be an accurate explanation for how life changes over time. The evidence is quite clear that the overwhelming number of real people who deny evolution to be such an explanation are those who choose creationism in its stead. Coincidence? And although one can find religion without creationism, one does not find creationism without faith-based religion. This is not a coincidence but demonstrably causal. Reminding us that correlation is not causality is entirely misplaced in regard to very strong causal evidence for Coyne’s point. By jumping between the “welfare state” rather than religion for impeding a greater understanding of why evolution is true, you misplace this strong causal evidence to be about the welfare state. This little maneuver is as transparently dishonest as it intellectually cheap.

  12. tildeb says: “Nevertheless, all the social correlations are there and pointing in the same direction, especially that the greater the economic inequalities, the greater the religiosity.”

    Social correlations — bah, humbug! There’s still a causal link missing. Because creationism is entirely a religious phenomenon, and it’s mostly Genesis-based religion that offers a barrier to evolution acceptance, then almost anything which replaces that religion would automatically enhance acceptance of evolution and the rest of science. The example of the Founders is undeniable evidence that acceptance of science is not inherently linked with acceptance of the welfare state.

    But what replaces religion? Other than pure philosophical doubt, which is uncommon because it requires a lot of thinking, it’s almost always a substitute belief system. The believer just swaps one belief package for another. These days the redistributive welfare state seems to do the job. That, however, isn’t a positive argument for the merits of such a setup — it’s merely an acknowledgement that it’s one of the things that can relax religion’s grip on the minds of science deniers.

    But there are lots of alternative belief systems — “isms” — out there, and any one of them can do the job of replacing Genesis-style creationism. It’s possible that even another religion, maybe Buddhism, permits a greater acceptance of science, although I’ve seen no data about that. We all agree that clearing the road for science is a good thing, but many “isms” can do that, which doesn’t automatically mean that every “ism” is desirable. Which of them is worth your time depends on their stand-alone merits.

    The kind of co-relation argument that Coyne presents gives the welfare state a free ride to respectability merely because it removes a barrier to science; but it really has to stand on its own merits — and by that I mean in comparison to alternative economic systems. (You know where I’m going from here, so I’ll quit.)

  13. Your sidewalk creationist believes unflinchingly in special creation because he is told to believe. Chances are, said creationist believes, as Diogenes puts it, in the “genius of the market.” This is also because he is told to believe. Often, the teller is the same person or persons.

    When asked for evidence, the creationist will point to Genesis. He does not need any knowledge of biology, genetics, anatomy or any of the other –onomies or –ologies. He does not need an understanding of the Bible for that matter. He just needs to listen and repeat what he is told.

    Likewise, when discussing economics, he will point to the “free market” without any understanding of what it is. When asked for evidence, he will mumble something about Ayn Rand and the Invisible Hand. When pressed, he will sheepishly admit that Atlas Shrugged and The Wealth of Nations are still on his need-to-read list. Again, just listen and repeat.

    So the true nature of the creationist is revealed, which is: no further inquiry required. If the neo-theocrats told their congregations it is the Intelligent Designer’s will that the government’s role includes building a larger social safety-net, they would happily go along.

    That our creationist is both incredibly wrong in terms of biology and, for the most part, right in terms of economics is a happy coincidence – he’s a “stopped clock.” It’s just impossible to have a reasoned discussion with him on either subject.

    Finally, “Ayn Rand and the Invisible Hands” is a kick-ass name for a Rock’n’Roll band.

  14. retiredsciguy

    SC“We all agree that clearing the road for science is a good thing, but many “isms” can do that, which doesn’t automatically mean that every “ism” is desirable.”

    How about we settle on “realism” and call it a day.

    A problem with a welfare state is that it weakens individual motivation to achieve by removing the reward for one’s achievements.

  15. “A problem with a welfare state is that it weakens individual motivation to achieve by removing the reward for one’s achievements.”

    Do you have any evidence for that claim, or is it just an article of right-wing faith like Rand Paul’s assumption that Latinos support the GOP on social issues?

    Considering that half of welfare recipients leave the program within a year and 70% within two years, I would say that they are highly motivated to do so. But, of course, if they are hard workers in a bind rather than lazy welfare queens, it makes it a lot more difficult to justify cutting programs to them, so we have to pretend that the “welfare state” creates permanent dependents rather than providing a much needed and temporary helping hand to people who would otherwise starve to death.

  16. A problem with a welfare state is that it weakens individual motivation to achieve by removing the reward for one’s achievements.

    The “welfare state” Coyne is talking about are those that have provided what the religious think is the domain of faith-based compassionate care. It is not an argument against the correlation between states that have provided a secular framework for this social care and the higher rates of religiosity in states that do not to promote the standard trope that “welfare states” weaken individual motivation by removing individual rewards. It’s a false dichotomy against Coyne’s position.

    If you wish to promote ‘realism’ about Coyne’s position and you say you do -, then walk the walk and stop pretending that he is trying to promote the “welfare state”. I keep putting that in quotation marks because I suspect you do not attribute some evil and subversive socialist intention to publicly fund your local fire and police departments. Yet these departments – just like socialized medicine and national defense – are real examples of real socialism providing a real social service for effectively and economically addressing real problems, so I have no clue how you equate these constituent bits (of what Coyne suggests is part and parcel programs of a modern first world secular “welfare state” better able to respond to what the religious often assume is their faith-based contribution to the public good) with “removing the reward for one’s achievements” or how the public funding of these services shows any causal evidence for Coyne’s supposed and sly attempt to use the “welfare state” to promote evolution.

  17. tildeb says:

    The “welfare state” Coyne is talking about are those that have provided what the religious think is the domain of faith-based compassionate care.

    Yes, and that does compete directly with religion and other private charities. Does the state do a better job? I don’t know. But he’s also talking about a system to smooth out “income disparities” — an alleged evil which he seems to assume is what drives people into the arms of religion and away from science. Yet I doubt that you will embrace creationism merely because professional athletes and others make more money than you do. And we know from experience that religion — and creationism — is not only supported by low-income people, but also some very wealthy people, like those who fund the Discovery Institute. Coyne may have a good point about compassionate programs that help the unfortunate. But that’s not the same thing at all as a program to redistribute income in order to achieve some kind of utopian dream. Is that Utopia better for science? Someone needs to explain why.

  18. Perhaps a better way to express Coyne’s position that doesn’t frighten you so much with the specter of comie pinko economic fascism is to alter the language used: the greater the percentage of the population that falls into the middle class (versus the greater percentage living at the bottom end of a system that sustains and promotes gross economic disparity), the less religiosity there is. The less religiosity, the less support there is for Oogity Boogity-ism (versus the lesser percentage of the population willing to support creationism). The less support for Oogity Boogity-ism, the greater the support for respecting reality (versus the greater the percentage of the population willingness to respect why evolution is true).

    As an aside from describing Coyne’s position accurately, let me just point out what should be obvious: supporting any economic system that promotes the greatest good for the fewest number is not clever. And there are real world negative ramifications from acting as if it is.

  19. retiredsciguy

    Kaoru Negisa, This discussion is drifting far afield from the focus of the Curmudgeon’s blog, so I’m not going to dwell too much on this. But the “welfare state” I had in mind is not the same as what you cite in your response — I’m all for the helping hand when someone is temporarily unemployed. The Curmudgeon said it well — “Coyne may have a good point about compassionate programs that help the unfortunate. But that’s not the same thing at all as a program to redistribute income in order to achieve some kind of utopian dream.”

    It’s that second plan — the “program to redistribute income in order to achieve some kind of utopian dream” that I think would weaken the individual’s motivation to achieve. It’s a rare person who will work 70-hour weeks and risk huge amounts of capital, mostly for the benefit of people he or she doesn’t know and will never meet. Yes, it is selfish to say, “What’s in it for me?”, but there is no denying that self-benefit is a strong motivating force. This would seem to be self-evident, like evolution being driven by natural selection. Of course, there are those who won’t believe that, either.

    For most of my career I taught junior-high science in a public school system. Most of my rewards were other than monetary, and I like to think my work benefited society — all of humanity, for that matter. But before I taught, I did have personal experience of the de-motivating nature of receiving benefits whether I worked or not. I was temporarily unemployed and drawing unemployment benefits. I was also eligible for education benefits under the G.I. Bill, and for a while I was “making” more than I had earned while working in a large corporation as a jr. manager. I was supposed to be actively seeking new employment, but I was not highly motivated to do so, especially since I was in a graduate program earning the credits needed for a teaching certificate. Granted, one person’s anecdotal experience is hardly proof of anything, but it’s what contributed to shaping my viewpoint.

  20. retiredsciguy

    tildeb“…supporting any economic system that promotes the greatest good for the fewest number is not clever.

    Sounds like North Korea — Kim Jong Un and cohorts get approximately $5 billion of North Korea’s estimated $50 billion GNP. (There was a news article stating this recently [probably AP], but I’m not motivated to find it.)