Field of Science

Padian reviews Coyne while I groan

Sighs. Several of them. Kevin Padian, paleontologist and defender of evolution at Dover, has a review in PLoS Biology of Jerry Coyne's (not so new) book, Why Evolution is True. Let me explain why I sigh. Take Padian's quip with Coyne's title:
The problem is that, as Pilate implied, truth is a personal thing. This is not to say that all morality is subjective and all ethics conditional, and we don't need to rehash philosophy here. But it seems important in a book entitled Why Evolution Is True to engage the question of truth—and whose truth—at least a bit.
What is up with that? The well-known problem is that the word "truth" is overloaded by people using it to mean whatever they feel is appropriate. "This text makes sense to me. There is truth in what it says." That may be said about a poem about inhabitants of Andromeda, or the personal lives of fictional characters. Truth here means something else than what I think it should. Go hijack another word, would you? Besides, Coyne doesn't even use that word. "True" and "truth" aren't the same words. I don't think there is any ambiguity in saying that evolution is true. If people take it to mean some relative kind of true, then that's not good enough reason to change the phrase. Should we stop saying "evolution" just because half the country mean something else by it?
Scientists are rationalists, believers in the power of reason, of observation of the natural world, the formation of patterns, the testing of inferences. I said “believers” deliberately. Do we “believe” in the results of our investigations? We shouldn't; we should accept them provisionally pending further testing. The word “belief” should normally be reserved for statements of faith, which cannot be confirmed or denied on the basis of empirical evidence. My friend Alan Jones, Dean of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, often says that “faith is the opposite of certainty”—although it is unlikely that fundamentalist Christians, who regard their religion as absolute certainty, would agree. They would regard their beliefs as absolute knowledge, at least as strongly as the most positivist scientist would his own understanding of nature.
Big sigh. It's not that I don't know what Padian means. It's just that for the sake of differentiating between believing on faith and believing on evidence, I don't think we need to drop the word "believe" from the glossary. I believe in evolution because the evidence has convinced me. They believe in God because they have blind faith, and evidence means nothing to them. I believe it is seven o'clock, but will discontinue to do so once I see evidence to the contrary.
Based on the title of this book I would have expected a bit more engagement with the philosophy of knowledge. How do we know something is true, and what do we mean when we say something is true? What could make us abandon our claims, and realistically, would we ever do so?
Thank you, Jerry, for not living up to Kevin's expectations in this regard.
And despite complaints from the usual sources, we are not to take any moral or ethical lessons from evolution; it will not corrupt us; evolutionary psychology (if done properly) may get us to the roots of many of our behaviors; and we shouldn't turn to science to tell us how to lead our lives.
Here Padian is in agreement with Coyne, but I am wholeheartedly not. We should definitely turn to science to tell us how to lead our lives. And why not? I am not saying that we should let science dictate what is right or wrong, such as cloning humans because science allows it, for example. Rather, let the facts of science guide us in areas where we were only conveniently guessing before. Take fish. How should we treat them? They are captured en masse in huge nets and hauled up on deck. They don't scream, so we think they are not in pain. Would we allow this even if we knew that they were in pain? I think not. Thus, research into the sensorium of fish could indeed help to change what we consider moral behavior. In this way I think how we treat animals must be informed by science. What else is there, anyway? Tradition? Religion? Those are constantly updated, as they should be.


  1. I think you forget, that science impossibly can tell us how to live our lives. Science is about "How?" and imagine you know all answers, you would still not know if it is okay to murder or not. This can only be answered by us agreeing to the same terms. In fact we might agree that we don't want to live on scientific laws only. I personally don't care if fish feel bad in captivity or if the cow suffers when slaughtered... I want to eat meat. In fact I know that cows are affraid of death, why else would they run away from predetors? I still want to eat them. And what if we find that plants suffer even more when we eat them. Would we stop eating?

    I agree that morality/ethics should not be defined by religious mambo jumbo, true, but what is ethical or not, comes down to a decision.

    Cheers Arend

  2. I am not forgetting anything.

    People need information to make informed choices about morality, and science offers that information.

    I am not saying (nor writing) that there is a natural law that can be studied, just that learning that fish are in pain will change how we treat them, like similar information has in many other cases.

  3. I just wanted to point out, that having all information does not necessarily let you make good or "the right" decision. And we need guidelines for those moments...

    Cheers Arend


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