The trouble with belief
Eight years ago, on a three-hour boat trip between stops in the Galapagos Islands, I sat with two traveling companions on an open foredeck and argued about evolution. Both of them outranked me. One was our provost, the other a popular dean on his way to the chancellor’s office. They were superstars; I was a scribe.
Our debate began when the dean observed that we were visiting the Galapagos two hundred years after Charles Darwin’s birth, and many people still rejected his theory. The dean asked me what I could do, as a writer, to convince the public to believe in evolution.
I told him I'd been taught that science was a system of inquiry not belief, and that its theories, methods, and motives were open to question.
He sharply disagreed. When people don’t believe in science, he said, they put their faith in superstitious bunk.
We argued for almost an hour as the provost retained her bemused neutrality. In the heat of our debate, the dean and I failed to remember what fair-skinned sailors had inferred from the evidence long before Darwin arrived there: Sunlight at the equator is intense, and seawater bounces it into the face. As we argued, we burned.
Fictions and beliefs
Strictly speaking, I do not believe in evolution.
You could take that sentence out of context and dismiss me as a religious kook or an ignoramus. Please don’t. The theory of evolution—or, if you’d prefer, natural selection—is by far the most plausible explanation we have for how life unfolds. Yes, of course we should teach it in school. Yes, of course we should defend it as science. But not as belief.
For most of us, the word believe has a versatile, casual utility. We believe the sun will shine today. We believe we’ll have another cup of coffee. But for evangelical Christians and others marching to a fundamentalist drumbeat, there’s nothing casual about belief. The word has scriptural gravity, especially when followed by in. If you’re a Christian fundamentalist, you believe in God. You believe in the literal truth of the Bible. You hold these beliefs as matters of faith, not logic based on evidence. Nobody except perhaps your pastor or priest can tell you what to believe.
The historian Yuval Harari, in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, argues that humans dominate the world because our imaginations evolved to believe in gods, nations, monetary systems, and other organizing “fictions.” Belief in these fictions allows us to cooperate in large numbers with unity of purpose. If he’s correct, and devotion to myth is hardwired, we can fathom why zealots would die for their causes.
Avoiding the polar express
Religion, for Harari, is mythmaking, but so are science and technology, if our faith in them tempts us to believe in our own godlike powers and rights of dominion. (We have no such powers and rights, Omar Ibn Said would say.)
When we try to convince fundamentalists to believe in evolution, we claim an authority they refuse to recognize. We also promote a false dichotomy: religion versus science. The two are neither parallel nor antithetical. They don’t plug the same psychological holes or gratify the same social yearnings.
And the scientific method, as I learned it, was never intended as a path to enduring belief. Think of all the theories we’ve adopted then rejected. Butter was toxic. DDT was safe. If we truly believe in a theory, we can’t debunk it without disavowing a belief. That’s a lot of epistemological baggage that science wasn’t meant to schlep.
When we push people to choose sides, all we get is polarization. Only 65 percent of Americans believe that people evolved over time, according to a report from the Pew Research Center. But the religious right is not the only group choosing belief over science. People who believe that genetically modified organisms are dangerous tend not to consider research findings that indicate otherwise (Washington Post). Nationally, people’s confidence in science is fickle and highly selective. As writers, how do we open some minds?
Fossils and potholes
Years ago, I carpooled with a traffic-signal builder, a hardworking family man and devout fundamentalist. He had a bone to pick with me about evolution, and he was all het up about it. We argued about it for days. One winter morning, he asked me how a scientist could know for certain that one ancient animal evolved into another. I tried to explain how researchers map changes in the fossil record. “But nobody saw it happen,” he said. “You can’t prove it.”
The morning was cold; potholes gleamed with ice. I reminded him that on the previous afternoon, those potholes had held rainwater. I asked him what had happened overnight. “They froze,” he said. I asked him to prove it. He thought this over and nodded. "I see your point," he said. I doubt that I convinced him of anything, but at least he stopped to consider the possibility.
I doubt that I convinced the dean, either. By almost any measure, he’s a smarter man than I am. And yet he never pulled rank. He allowed me to challenge his position, openly, in front of our provost. So his integrity gives me hope for this insurgency of words. One small step in our cause: Be wary of belief.
The travel mentioned here was not quite the junket it sounds. With the Universidad San Francisco de Quito, Ecuador, our team planned a new facility for research and education. It opened in 2013 on San Cristobal Island as the Galapagos Science Center.