Morality, Utility, and Defending Evolution

Sean Carroll at Cosmic Variance, in an excellent post, argues that much of the opposition to evolution stems from opposition to (mis)perceived liberal elites (bold original; italics mine):

What scientists tend to underestimate is the extent to which many people react viscerally against science just because it is science. Or, more generally, because it is seen as part of an effort on the part of elites to force their worldview on folks who are getting along just fine without all these fancy ideas, thank you very much.
In the old-time (1980’s) controversies about teaching creationism in schools, pre-Intelligent-Design, one of the most common arguments was that school boards should have “local control” over the curriculum. Defenders of evolution replied that this was clearly a ruse to disguise a religious anti-science agenda. Which may have been true for some of the national organizations behind the movement; but for many school boards and communities, it really was about local control. They didn’t want to be told what to teach their kids by some group of coastal elitists with Ph.D.s, and creationism was a way to fight back.

This is why I’ve argued (and will argue on March 24) that evolution needs to defended, in part, as an integral part of biomedical research–that is, from a perspective of utility. This will upset some people because the discovery of how life came to be should be viewed as an intrinsic good–and it is an intrinsic good. But here’s what you should remember:

if you think this, then you don’t need convincing, do you?

I am not trying to develop arguments that self-validate those who support evolution, but, instead, arguments that reach those who are undecided or unaware*. The problem with defending evolution without drawing on the utility argument is that it leads to what Carroll writes next (bold mine):

But nevertheless — despite the fact that he is smart and educated enough to understand that evolution is “right” in the old-fashioned sense of right and wrong — he will state explicitly (and quote himself later in case you missed it) that

I couldn’t care less whether my president believes in the theory of evolution. In fact, reflecting on some recent experiences, I’m not sure that I wouldn’t prefer a president who didn’t. [Emphasis in original.]

And why is that?…The reason why is that scientific understanding is too often the bailiwick of elite leftist snobs.

Possibly as a result of having grown up in the lower classes of provincial England, I detest snobbery. I mean, I really, viscerally, loathe it. This is one reason I hate the Left so much…
Invited to choose between having my kids educated, my car fixed, or my elderly relatives cared for by (a) people of character, spirit, and dedication who believe in pseudoscience, or (b) unionized, time-serving drudges who believe in real science, which would I choose? Invited to choose between a president who is (a) a patriotic family man of character and ability who believes the universe was created on a Friday afternoon in 4,004 B.C. with all biological species instantly represented, or (b) an amoral hedonist and philanderer who “loathes the military” but who believes in the evolution of species via natural selection across hundreds of millions of years, which would I choose? Are you kidding?

The real point is not who you would choose in such a situation–it’s that Derbyshire sincerely believes that these are the kinds of choices one typically needs to make. One the one hand: character, spirit, dedication, and pseudoscience. On the other: amoral, hedonistic drudges (sic) who believe in real science.

Carroll is absolutely right: this is a false dichotomy. Genomic medicine simply can not be done without evolutionary biology–the methods, principles, and tools of evolutionary biology are integral to the field. Many of my colleagues (and I work at a 1200 person institute) have turned down far more lucrative job offers in the for-profit private sector–it’s not like there aren’t other options in biotech or computer science in Cambridge–because they think what they do could improve the human condition and reduce disease. Sure, there are other considerations, but that’s a big draw.
Yet, because we don’t argue from a standpoint of utility nearly enough, we wind up where, as Carroll put it, “it [evolution] is seen as part of an effort on the part of elites to force their worldview on folks who are getting along just fine without all these fancy ideas”, when, in fact, these “fancy ideas” just might make their lives better.
If nothing else, the utility argument puts creationists on the defensive (and rightfully so, since they’re fucking morons) by forcing them to justify why they want to harm our ability to cure disease.
Just something to consider.
*Since, for many of the ‘firm’ creationists, creationism is part of a larger worldview, nothing I say will change their minds (with a reasonable success rate anyway). Typically, it takes a major challenge to that worldview (e.g., a personal trauma) to shake it.

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7 Responses to Morality, Utility, and Defending Evolution

  1. —“when, in fact, these “fancy ideas” just might make their lives better”—-Bingo.
    Great post.
    Also, it is not just genomic medicine that cannot be done without evolutionary biology. I think most medicine depends on it. For instance, the use of model organisms is the ultimate recognition (and use) of the fact that many fundamental biological processes are evolutionarily conserved, correct? Take away, for instance, rodent and primate research and see how many diseases you can cure. Now, model systems are FAR from perfect–but, when ‘leads’, ‘candidates’ etc fail in humans after succeeding in animals, it is because we fail to understand, yet, in those instances, where the similarities end and the divergences begin, for the applications of the process/pathway/network in question in the model system being studied. The only way to optimize and enhance such studies (and, for instance, to improve drug screening and development) is to better understand the (evolutionary) biology that underlies the links (and disconnects) of model organisms to humans. And this is just one aspect of medical research.
    Anyway, great points and great post.

  2. bob koepp says:

    While it’s true that nothing in biology “makes sense” apart from evolution, the sort of sense at issue here seems highly theoretical and abstract. However, my impression is that the relevance of evolutionary theory to medical practice is really quite limited at this point. Apart from improved models of virulence, and some insights into how the immune system functions, what do you see as the clinical utility of evolutionary theory?

  3. hibob says:

    Actually for many people, I think utility is a strong argument for remaining religious. Take an average person – someone not involved directly in a biological science. A car salesman in Kansas. A bank manager in Georgia.
    What benefits do they *personally* receive by switching from being publicly Christian to being publicly atheist?
    I realize that “appeal to consequences” is a logical fallacy, but the consequences themselves are not part of the fallacy. So let’s look at the consequences.
    Medical care? Same. There’s a very very small chance that they may need a procedure that conflicts with their religion, but they can alter their beliefs slightly to meet their current needs. Or they just lie to their friends about getting the procedure. You say hypocrisy, they say revelation. You can argue that if more people are less religious, medical technology will advance more rapidly, but that argument doesn’t apply to the differences in medical care one salesman receives depending on his conversion.
    Social? probably a net negative. Many social spheres are predicated to some extent on recognition of a common religion. If you want to alienate your friends and family, reject their cherished beliefs.
    Income? probably none, possibly negative in many workplaces, same as the social issues. They’d get to skip the tithe after leaving the churc- so add 10% to the atheist side of the chart. But tribalism will always be alive and well, and if your job depends on gaining the trust of religious clients, you better pay homage to the beliefs of the tribe. On the flipside: how many atheists, already in the minority, consciously steer their money toward atheist businesses? I’m sure there are anecdotes, but try extrapolating to the sum of businesses and colleagues the bank manager in Georgia would deal with. Then think about the growing number of national chains of corporations and franchises chartered by fundamentalist christian churches.
    Personal Happiness? Quite possibly negative. I read (in a newspaper, couldn’t track down the original research – consider this a pop. psych warning) about a study that looked at factors that were the strongest influences on personal happiness. Social relations, health, etc. The grouping they talked about as very important that really struck me was their definition of autonomy: the degree to which you *feel* that you are in control of your life. It’s not the actual degree of control you have over your life and surroundings that’s important, it’s your perception of the degree of control over your life that determines how you feel about it. What is religion if it isn’t a way to feel like you have a bt more control over an unpredictable and hostile world?
    Truth: well, being right is certainly nice. From a personal utility point of view, is being right better than feeling right? Sure, when it’s a question of aeronautical engineering, but where are the direct physical or emotional benefits of not believing in gods?
    So here’s my challenge: Lets drop the work issue. Come up with a utilitarian argument that shows a net gain in personal benefits when a person whose social network is in part strongly religious drops their religious beliefs. Show them(and me) how they will be better off if they *personally* drop their religion.
    Rule one: arguments based on more people dropping their beliefs don’t apply – there’s no reason to believe the person’s friends will drop their beliefs as a consequence of that person dropping theirs. There’s no reason to believe there will be widespread social consequences if this one person drops their beliefs.
    Rule two: the personal benefits have to be benefits in the eyes of this religious person. I consider reading Scienceblogs almost every day a benefit – lots of people would not.
    One wishy washy rule: “new opportunities” arguments seem sketchy to me, because of opportunity cost. It’s all very nice to say that a 40 year old guy in Kentucky can now jump into a social circle of marine biologists – but be prepared to contrast it with the number of social circles he will no longer be as welcome in. We’re talking *net* personal benefits, as defined by the 40 year old religious guy in Kentucky.

  4. Hibob,
    As I understand it, this is not a question of personal utility for individual rednecks or fundies.
    It is a matter of demonstrating how intricately entwined evolutionary science and medical research are, and thereby eliminate some grounds for their objection to evolutionary sciences. If you show it to be inseparable from medical research (and to be not just a snobby curiosity), the fundies have a tougher time keeping evolution out of school curricula, for instance.
    BTW, the McCain-type “Bear DNA? ha ha” commercial can be demolished by counter-messages pretty easily. “XYZ-million to study organisms from thermal vents? Do you plan on living at 200+oF? Ha Ha!”
    “Excuse me, allow me to introduce you to PCR”
    That’s a reasonable connection to make.
    Not quite therapeutic-medical, but the first thing that popped into my head—besides PCR has made a bit of impact on diagnostics, no?
    Anyway, I’m sure we can make an impressive compendium of medically relevant and valuable breakthoughs that have come from the equivalent of studying “BearDNA hahaTM”. That’d make for a good set of counter-commercials to combat the McLame strategy.
    Hmm, maybe a good viral GooTube project for enterprising scientific GooTube-smart young uns.
    Finally, this has nothing to do with directly converting anyone to atheism like you surmise. The way I see it, we just need to keep evolution alive and well in the classroom—this is the key first step—to give the tidal-wave of present-day and emerging facts a chance to speak for themselves. The facts will be enough to turn the tide, if presented as they should be.
    And the scheming fundies know this very well, which is why they really want to prohibit teaching of evolution and promote teaching the craptoversy.

  5. Julie Stahlhut says:

    Very few things seem to get people worked up more than “elitism”, which is bizarre because:
    * First, the word is often used as a synonym for “expertise”. (Yeah, THAT’S a good thing to reject. Forget doctors, lawyers, teachers, auto mechanics, and plumbers. They know too much.)
    * Second, if the word is instead used in its other common connotation as a synonym for “rich and powerful”, it’s often exactly what elitist-phobes hope and pray their kids will become.

  6. “Second, if the word is instead used in its other common connotation as a synonym for “rich and powerful”, it’s often exactly what elitist-phobes hope and pray their kids will become.”
    That’s actually one of the problems. When we think of “elite”, it makes sense to think of those who are rich and powerful. But “elite” in American discourse almost invarably refers to the professorate and the intelligentsia in general. Not, say, the corporate and finance sectors, which are rich, powerful and much more influential than the perceived snobs in Cambridge, Manhatten and San Francisco.

  7. mirc says:


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