Eugenie C Scott Interview – Prominent People Project
This is the third in a series of interviews with people who are prominent in the worlds of atheism, science, skepticism and rational thought.
This interview is with the prominent anthropologist and anti-creationist Dr Eugenie C Scott. Eugenie is well known for her criticisms of young-earth creationism and the tenets of Intelligent Design, and is actively outspoken against these ideas. She is also the director of the National Center for Science Education.
Eugenie took some time from her busy schedule and kindly answered a series of questions for me. This interview took place in October 2010. Eugenie also joins James Randi and Brian Dunning among many others as a keynote speaker at next month’s TAM Australia, which takes place in Sydney Australia.
MSP: Wikipedia describes you as a “Physical Anthropologist”. For those not familiar with you and what you do, what does this mean?
ECS: Physical anthropology is one of the four subdivisions of anthropology besides archaeology, linguistics, and cultural anthropology. We study human beings from a biological standpoint, looking at humans across geographic space and through time. So evolution is a natural for us.
MSP: As any rational person should, I see evolution as the only viable explanation for the origins of humanity. It seems that right now there is a lot of misinformation surrounding these ideas, with most of the opposition to evolution coming from religious groups, and especially in the USA. They seem to fear that a natural progression over billions of years threatens to destabilise the foundations upon which religions are built. To what extent do you think that this is true? Is evolution in opposition to religions?
ECS: Evolution and science in general is in opposition to any religion that believes its holy text explains the natural world. But something interesting about religion is that people tend to pick and choose. So most Hindus don’t interpret the Vedas as disallowing evolution – but the Krishna Consciousness people do. Most Christians don’t interpret the Bible as disallowing evolution – but biblical literalists do. Muslims don’t necessarily interpret the Koran as prohibiting acceptance of evolution – but some do. The Torah in the hands of the ultra Orthodox is incompatible with evolution, yet some Jews are leading evolutionary scientists. It’s inaccurate to make sweeping generalizations about “religion is X”.
MSP: You are known as somewhat a champion of supporting evolution against the foes of young-earth creationism and Intelligent Design. You may have heard that here in Australia we are in the throes of battling against certain special interest groups and their insistence that Creationism be included in the National Curriculum. To me this is reason for concern. In your experience, how prevalent is the insistence on either the inclusion of ID/creationism in schools, or the replacement of the sciences in classrooms with ID/creationism?
ECS: In the US, the Constitution’s First Amendment requires public institutions to be religiously neutral, which means that legally, creationism can’t be taught in public schools. That said, there is a lot of pressure on teachers either to bring in creationism of some variety or downplay or omit evolution. I would be concerned for Australian education if ID or any other form of creationism were included in the national curriculum. It is not science.
MSP: [The following question comes from fellow blogger and online friend Jack Scanlan, author of the Homologous Legs blog] Jack says: The Discovery Institute has recently taken to quoting scientists who are critical of the Neo-Darwinian model (also known as the modern synthesis) of evolutionary change out of context, implying that the problems they identify with the model can be extrapolated to the entire theory, while in reality they are simply promoting what has been called the “postmodern synthesis”, a newer model of evolution that has a larger role for neutral and non-adaptive mechanisms, and places less emphasis on natural selection as the dominant evolutionary force.
Some ID proponents at the Discovery Institute have claimed the NCSE supports Neo-Darwinism, using the growing anti-Darwinian/pro-postmodern trend in academic circles to cast you in a dogmatic light, seemingly holding onto a failed theory as it crumbles around you. Does the NCSE support Neo-Darwinism, or is it neutral with respect to the broad model of evolution that is supported at any one time?
ECS: This is why I encourage people to understand evolution as a three-part idea. The big idea is common ancestry, which we study by examining the patterns of evolution (how the tree of life branches) and the processes of evolution (the mechanisms that affect it). Neo-Darwinism and the new-new-synthesis are both in the process category and it is a category mistake to, as do the creationists, confuse that if scientists argue about the process, then the big idea of common ancestry is called into question. Personally, I think it’s obvious that evolutionary biology like any other science is going to modify its explanations over time. We’re not in the 1950s and ‘60s, and we know more about how biology works. The post-modern synthesis folks it seems to me are just expanding the ideas of Mayr, Dobzhansky, et al with new insights, mostly from molecular biology. In academia there tends to be a somewhat unfortunate tendency to present every new interpretation as a big breakthrough, but the “old guys” of the neo-Darwinian synthesis were more pluralistic than they are held to be by some of the neo-neos! And you can probably guess that I don’t have a dog in that fight.
MSP: In the past few days astronomers have released news of the apparent discovery of an earth-like planet 20 light years distant. If it turns out to be true, and it turns out that there is life on this planet, I see that religions will have to reconcile this discovery with their faiths. At the same time, The Vatican’s head astronomer claims he will Christen any willing extraterrestrial being who arrives on earth. Whether or not this finding holds any water, what do you think are the implications of this potential discovery for organised religions? Are organised religions worried about the potential for the discovery of alien life?
ECS: Some are, some aren’t. As you note, Catholics no longer feel threatened that Earth isn’t the center of the universe, and the only place where God’s providence is supposed to play out. Biblical literalists, on the other hand, refuse to accept any possibility of life elsewhere in the Universe. This issue arose in 1996 when there was a question over whether organic substances from a meteorite from Mars had originated from living organisms or non-living chemical reactions. The consensus tended towards the latter, but the mere possibility of life elsewhere in the solar system generated many interviews of religious leaders. They split along predictable lines, with literalists flatly denying even the possibility of life elsewhere and moderate denominations being intrigued by the idea.
MSP: Would the discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence have an effect on anthropology? What do you think the greatest effect would be?
ECS: Alas, the effect would probably be pretty minor, since communicating with any intelligent life would take so long that a question would have to be asked by one anthropologist (“how do you reckon kinship?”) and be answered to his descendant thousands of years hence!
MP: Recently I have become interested in the future of humanity, mostly in the areas of longevity, overpopulation, famine and medicine. Also very interesting at the moment are the predictions that, at the current rate of technological advances, we may have the ability of significantly increasong human longevity in the next 20 years. This is what makes me want to continue to fight for our combined futures as human beings. What, if anything, excites you about the future of humanity?
ECS: The possibility that we will be able to end war, hunger, and want, and reduce illness, while still coexisting with other organisms on the planet in a sustainable way. That would be a true testimonial to humankind’s ability to reason and organize.
MSP: The human population has skyrocketed with the advent of certain technologies. Some say that the human race will reach 9 billion by 2050. This poses several threats to humankind including supply of food, water and medicines, as well as the potential for civil unrest and wars over land. What do you think are the biggest challenges we face, and what do you see as the solutions?
ECS: I am not an expert on this topic, although they exist. But it seems reasonable to me that increasing the human population on the planet will place stress on all resources, and probably the first will be clean water, which already is in short supply in too many parts of the world.
MSP: You are a keynote speaker at The Amazing Meeting in Sydney next month. I can’t attend unfortunately, but I know a lot of people who are going. Without giving too much, what do you have planned for the conference? What do you look most forward to at The Amazing Meeting?
ECS: Returning to Australia and seeing old friends and meeting new ones! My husband will accompany me and we plan to take some vacation time before the conference.
Thank you so much Eugenie for taking the time to answer my questions. Eugenie is the director of the National Center for Science Education and will be a keynote speaker at The Amazing Meeting Australia in Sydney on November 26-28.