News+and+politics religion philosophy the cynic librarian: Watson and Wilson on Evolution and Religion

Friday, October 28, 2005

Watson and Wilson on Evolution and Religion

The following article represents the views on evolution and religion by two of the most pre-eminent evolutionary scientists alive: James Watson, Nobel laureate and co-foundewr with Francis Crick of DNA; and E.O. Wilson, the founder of sociobiology. Their comments on why most of the American public does not accept evolution are noteworthy, different in view.

Also note that Watson is more optimistic about the possibility of more Americans accepting evolution as they begin to undergo genetic testing and to benefit from its advances in terms of health and medicine. Wilson is more pessimistic, feeling that the two ways of looking at the world are inherently opposed to each other.

October 25, 2005
Long-Ago Rivals Are Dual Impresarios of Darwin's Oeuvre

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"In their editorial comments on Darwin's four books - "The Voyage of the Beagle," "On the Origin of Species," "Descent of Man" and "The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals" - both note the strange disconnect that Darwin's theory is the bedrock of their discipline yet is doubted by large segments of the American public.

It is "surpassingly strange," Dr. Wilson writes, that half of Americans who responded to a recent poll said they did not believe in evolution at all. Dr. Watson writes that evolution is disputed only by those who "put their common sense on hold."

The repudiation of Darwin by religious fundamentalists is largely an American phenomenon, dismaying to Europeans, Dr. Wilson said in an interview. He attributes the difference to the frontier nature of early American society.

The religion of the frontier, he said, was "very simple, very evangelical in nature, and could summon people to quick action together." In Europe, religion was "far more hierarchical, more closely connected with the ruling class and more likely to be a state religion."

The fundamentalist strain of American religion has continued to the present day, and its collision with Darwin is one that Dr. Wilson finds perturbing. "Evolution is one of the best proven ideas of biology, so when you reject that you are beginning to turn away from what is becoming the pre-eminent science of the 21st century," he said. "So it will make a difference if the public refuses to believe in evolution."

Dr. Watson is less perturbed that so many Americans do not believe in evolution. "Oh, but eventually they will," he said in an interview in his office at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island. "As people get themselves genetically tested and see that it helps them, they will realize their biological instructions work this way."

He has little time for intelligent design, the proposal that evolution is shaped at the level of DNA by some thoughtful demiurge. "If I have any message for intelligent design, it is that it will come and go," he said.

Dr. Watson says he wants no war between science and religion, and sees other reasons besides religious belief for people's sometimes feeble embrace of science. "I think the reason people are dealing with science less well now than 50 years ago is that it has become so complicated," he said.

But Dr. Wilson sees the two world views as irreconcilable. He believes that the propensity for religious belief was "hard-wired into us," because the tribes that believed they were favored by the gods "were the tribes that beat the other tribes." The advance of science can only undermine the religious view of the world. "I don't see the modern scientific view of the human condition will do anything but move away from traditional religious thinking," he said." . . .


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