UC Press Science Publisher Chuck Crumly recently interviewed Eugenie C. Scott, author of Evolution vs. Creationism, about science, religion, and the evolution-creationism controversy.
Scott is Executive Director of the National Center for Science Education and along with President Barack Obama and other luminaries, was recently named one of the Scientific American 10 for “guiding science for humanity.” She is also the recipient of the National Academy of Science’s Public Welfare Medal for 2010.
Chuck Crumly (CC): Why is there so much resistance, especially in America, to evolution—one of the best-supported theories in all of science?
Eugenie C. Scott (ECS): Evolution more than any other scientific explanation has consequences for the way people look at themselves and their relationship to the rest of the world. Evolution therefore has consequences for religion. Although Catholicism and mainstream Protestantism long ago made their peace with evolution, conservative Christianity, with its focus on biblical inerrancy, finds the naturalism of evolution difficult to deal with. And in the US, we have a more conservative form of Christianity than Europe or Great Britain, because Fundamentalism was invented here during the early 1900s.
CC: Where does the evidence for evolution come from?
ECS: From all of the places where Darwin found it, plus new sources not known to him: biogeography, comparative anatomy, the fossil record, embryology—and today, molecular biology and genetics. To anyone willing to look, the evidence is omnipresent. A famous geneticist once said, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution,” meaning that evolution tells us why biological organisms are like they are instead of some other way. That species can be arrayed in a hierarchical arrangement that looks like a family tree reflects the common ancestry of all living things.
CC: How is the relationship between science and religion affected by the acceptance of evolutionary theory?
ECS: Contrary to a popular misconception, there is not an inherent “warfare” between science and religion, though there certainly are Christian theological views that are not compatible with what we’ve learned from science. But the question perhaps focuses on one area of overlap, when science and religion primarily are answering different questions. Science explains the natural world using natural causes, and does a superior job at this task. Most people don’t turn to science to explain the meaning of life. Similarly, even if some religions make claims about the natural world, people really don’t turn to religion for the answer to why water flows downhill. Religion speaks to other needs of humans—needs nonbelievers meet not through science but through philosophy.
CC: What do you hope to accomplish through your work?
ECS: My goal as director of the National Center for Science Education is to help people understand the nature of science, and the science of evolution. I would like people to learn that evolution is an exciting science that their children should be taught in school. When I am reading evolutionary biology or geology, or cosmology, I often think to myself, “wouldn’t it be great if school kids could hear about this!” because there are so many exciting new ideas coming out in these fields.
CC: Why is the separation of church and state so important with respect to the teaching of science in public schools?
ECS: Some Americans strongly hold religious views at odds with secular American society, and the schools, being the places where much of our culture is passed on to the next generation, become the battlegrounds for these “culture wars.” Science is only one discipline that is affected, by the way: social studies and history are also battlegrounds. And you can imagine what goes on in “health” (i.e., sex education) classes! But the First Amendment to the Constitution calls for governmental institutions to be religiously neutral, which means that religion can be neither advanced nor inhibited. To some Americans, teaching evolution is offensive to their religion, so they try to get it removed from the curriculum, or “balanced” with some form of creationism, or denigrate it as something not to be taken seriously (“theory, not fact”). To other Americans, doing any of these things promotes a sectarian religious view, and should be avoided. Courts universally have sided with the latter, properly, in my opinion, since antievolutionism is uniformly the product of religious opposition.