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Ignorance is No Crime

"It is absolutely safe to say that if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I'd rather not consider that)." I first wrote that in a book review in the New York Times in 1989, and it has been much quoted against me ever since, as evidence of my arrogance and intolerance. Of course it sounds arrogant, but undisguised clarity is easily mistaken for arrogance. Examine the statement carefully and it turns out to be moderate, almost self-evidently true.

By far the largest of the four categories is 'ignorant', and ignorance is no crime (nor is it bliss ? I forget who it was said, "If ignorance is bliss, how come there's so much misery about?"). Anybody who thinks Joe DiMaggio was a cricketer has to be ignorant, stupid or insane (probably ignorant), and you wouldn't think me arrogant for saying so. Nor is it intolerant to remark that flat-earthers are ignorant, stupid or (probably) insane. It's just true. The difference is that not many people think Joe DiMaggio was a cricketer, or that the earth is flat, so it isn't worth calling attention to them. But, if polls are to be believed, 100 million US citizens believe that humans and dinosaurs were created within the same week as each other, less than ten thousand years ago. This is more serious. People like this have the vote, and we have George W Bush (with a little help from his friends in the Supreme Court) to prove it. They dominate school boards in some States. Their views flatly contradict the great corpus of the sciences, not just biology but physics, geology, astronomy and many others. It is, of course, entirely legitimate to question conventional wisdom in fields which you have bothered to mug up first. That is what Einstein did, and Galileo, and Darwin. But our hundred million are another matter. They are contradicting ? influentially and powerfully ? vast fields of learning in which their own knowledge and reading is indistinguishable from zero. My 'arrogant and intolerant' statement turns out to be nothing but simple truth.

Not only is ignorance no crime. It is also, fortunately, remediable. In the same Times review, I went on to recount my experiences of going on radio phone-in talk shows around the United States. Opinion polls had led me to expect hostile cross-examination from creationist zealots. I encountered little of that kind. I got creationist opinions in plenty, but these were founded on honest ignorance, as was freely confessed. When I politely and patiently explained what Darwinism actually is, they listened not only with equal politeness but with interest and even enthusiasm. "Gee, that's real neat, I never heard that before! Wow!" These people were not stupid (nor insane, nor wicked). They didn't believe in evolution, but this was because nobody had ever told them what evolution is. And because plenty of people had told them (wrongly, according to educated theologians) that evolution is against their cherished religion.

I think it was my colleague John Endler, author of Natural Selection in the Wild, a fine compendium of field evidence on that important subject, who told me this story. I may have got the details wrong, but it was approximately as follows. He was on an internal flight within the United States, and his neighbour casually asked him what he did for a living. Endler replied that he was a Professor of Biology, doing research on wild guppy populations in Trinidad. The man became increasingly interested, so, without ever mentioning Darwin, natural selection or evolution, Endler explained more about his research. The man was greatly taken with the brilliant simplicity of the theory underlying the experiments, and he asked Endler the name of this theory and where it came from. Only then did Dr Endler revealed his hand. "It's called Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection!" The man's whole demeanour instantly changed. He became defensive, asserted abruptly that he didn't believe in that theory, and terminated the conversation.

Ignorant certainly, stupid perhaps, but not wicked. I originally listed 'wicked' as one of my possibilities, only for completeness. I have never been sure whether there truly are intelligent, knowledgeable and sane people who feign disbelief in evolution for ulterior motives. Perhaps a political candidate needs some such dissimulation in order to get elected in certain States. If so, it is sad but possibly not much more reprehensible than the proverbial kissing of babies. Not deeply wicked. There are certainly many creationists who tell lies for propaganda purposes, wantonly and knowingly misquoting biologists, from Darwin on down. Such dishonesty is documented on several websites, and by the Australian geologist Ian Plimer in his book Telling Lies for God. Coincidentally, the worst occasion when I have been misrepresented in this way involved an Australian creationist organization, who fraudulently mis-cut the tape of an interview of me. The story, which is quite amusing although it irritated me at the time, is told in the Australian Skeptic by Barry Williams, Editor of that admirable magazine (http://www.freethought-web.org/ctrl/news/file007.html). But such minor examples of wickedness can be excused on the grounds that ignorance and stupidity trump wickedness.

Are there, then, any examples of anti-evolution poseurs who are not ignorant, stupid or insane, and who might be genuine candidates for the wicked category? I once shared a platform with someone called David Berlinski, who is certainly not ignorant, stupid or insane. He denies that he is a creationist, but claims strong scientific arguments against evolution (which disappointingly turn out to be the same old creationist arguments). Together with the great John Maynard Smith and others, he and I were guest speakers at a debate organized by a prominent Oxford rabbi. Maynard Smith spoke after Berlinski and, not surprisingly, he soon had the audience roaring with laughter as he lampooned Berlinski's bad arguments. But what amused me was Berlinski's tactic for dealing with this mocking laughter. He sprang to his feet, held up a reproachful open palm towards the audience, and said (approximately of course, I can't remember the exact words): "No no! Don't laugh. Let Maynard Smith have his say! It's only fair!" Happily, the Oxford audience saw through this tactic of pretending to think the audience were laughing at Maynard Smith rather than with him. And the rabbi, himself a devout creationist, afterwards told me he had been shocked at Berlinski's duplicity. By itself, this is too trivial an example to deserve the name wicked. But it did make me wonder about Berlinski's motives. As I said, he is certainly not ignorant, stupid or insane.

I don't withdraw a word of my initial statement. But I do now think it may have been incomplete. There is perhaps a fifth category, which may belong under 'insane' but which can be more sympathetically characterised by a word like tormented, bullied or brainwashed. Sincere people who are not ignorant, not stupid and not wicked, can be cruelly torn, almost in two, between the massive evidence of science on the one hand, and their understanding (or misunderstanding) of what their holy book tells them on the other. I think this is one of the truly bad things religion can do to a human mind. There is wickedness here, but it is the wickedness of the institution and what it does to a believing victim, not wickedness on the part of the victim himself. The clearest example I know is poignant, even sad, and I shall do it justice in a later article .

TAGGED: EVOLUTION, IRRATIONALITY, RICHARD DAWKINS


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