Psychologist Andrew Shtulman, who directs the “Thinking Lab” at Occidental College in Los Angeles, calls skeptics of Darwinian evolution “science deniers.” And Shtulman agrees with Bill Nye “the science guy” that “science denial is a threat not just to our intellectual lives but to the wellbeing of society as a whole.”1
Darwinian evolution is currently the “scientific consensus,” which means that a majority of biologists presently affirm it. Yet if skeptics of the scientific consensus can be called “science deniers,” then Copernicus was a science denier in 1543; Galileo was a science denier in 1616; and Einstein was a science denier in 1900. Even Charles Darwin was a science denier when he published The Origin of Species in 1859.
Clearly, Shtulman and other people who call skeptics of Darwinian evolution “science deniers” are confusing a transient opinion poll with science itself.
Schtulman’s recent book, Scienceblind: Why Our Intuitive Theories About the World Are So Often Wrong, is filled with other confusions, too. The author claims Darwin realized that evolution is a product of mutation and selection (Darwin didn’t know about mutations); he claims Darwin was impressed by finch variations during his visit to the Galápagos Islands (Darwin learned about them only later); and he claims religious believers once burned people at the stake for denying that the Earth revolves around the Sun (Giordano Bruno was burned in 1600 for denying core Catholic doctrines, not for being a follower of Copernicus).
But these confusions are secondary. Shtulman’s primary point is that “science denial” is based largely on childhood intuitions. He argues that children are born with “intuitive theories” that distort reality, and “children are not likely to be affected by changes in the availability or accessibility of scientific information.” Intuitive theories thus blind us to science. They make us “get the world wrong.” To get the world right, “we need to do more than just change our beliefs; we need to change the very concepts that articulate those beliefs. That is, to get the world right, we cannot simply refine our intuitive theories, we must dismantle them and rebuild them from their foundations.”2
Scienceblind includes chapters on matter, energy, gravity, motion, the Earth and solar system, life, growth, inheritance, and illness. But the two most important chapters deal with evolution. “Of all the intuitive theories covered in this book,” the author writes, “intuitive theories of evolution are the ones I know best. I’ve spent over a decade studying their content, structure, and origin.”3
So according to Shtulman, skepticism of Darwinian evolution is based largely on childhood intuitions that must be replaced with correct concepts.
The first correct concept is adaptation by random mutation and natural selection. Adaptations arise by chance, without regard for the needs of the organism. According to Shtulman, “Teleology, or need-based reasoning, is particularly pernicious.”4
The author illustrates adaptation with the story of peppered moths. In the early 19th century, most peppered moths in England were light-colored. But during the industrial revolution, moth populations in polluted areas became mostly dark-colored. Individual moths did not change. Instead, light-colored moths were more visible on pollution-darkened tree trunks. So the light-colored moths were eaten by birds while dark-colored moths survived to leave more offspring. After anti-pollution laws took effect, light-colored moths became more common again.
The peppered moth story shows “that evolution cares nothing for individuals. Individual organisms come and go, their reproductive success largely predetermined by their luck in a random genetic lottery. Only species endure and thus only species evolve.”5
But are species even real? In the same chapter Shtulman criticizes “essentialism,” which regards species as more real than variations among individuals within a species. Children are intuitive essentialists; they consider it more important to call a swan a swan than to focus on differences among swans. But Shtulman writes (quoting an excerpt from Stephen Jay Gould), “All evolutionary biologists know that variation itself is nature’s only irreducible essence. Variation is the hard reality.”6 Apparently, Shtulman (like some evolutionary biologists) regards species as abstractions — fortuitous combinations of traits that “must have existed in other forms at some point in an animal’s evolution.” Shtulman calls this a “selection-based view.”7
So only species endure and evolve, but they are not as real as individual variations. If you find this confusing, it may be that your mind is not sufficiently advanced. According to Shtulman, “It takes an evolved mind to embrace evolution — and only evolution — as the reason for why living things are so exquisitely adapted to their environment.”8
The second correct concept is common ancestry. “One of the most profound insights of evolutionary theory,” writes Shtulman, “is that all life is interconnected. Every organism on the planet is connected to every other organism through common ancestry. Humans share a common ancestor with sparrows, frogs, jellyfish, and algae.”9
What does this mean? It does not mean (Shtulman argues) that algae evolved into jellyfish, which evolved into frogs, and so on. People under the spell of childhood intuitions mistakenly believe that “the only way a new species could emerge from an old one is if the old species metamorphosed into a new one.” This type of evolution “has been termed anagenesis, or linear evolution, and it contrasts with cladogenesis, or branching evolution. Anagenesis is consistent with an essentialist view of life, but it is inconsistent with a selection-based view — in other words, it is inconsistent with reality.” The origin of a new species (if we may even use that word) “is a process of divergence, not metamorphosis, and common ancestry is a branching relationship, not a linear relationship.”11
But if a population of algae were simply to diverge into two populations, we would be left with two populations of algae. More rounds of cladogenesis would likewise yield more populations of algae. Unless the algae evolve into something else, only algae would exist. In other words, cladogenesis without anagenesis cannot explain why we have jellyfish, frogs, sparrows, and humans.
Shtulman laments that many people “prefer a creationist explanation for the origin of species.” Why? Because “it’s much simpler than evolution. Creation is instantaneous, whereas evolution is slow and complex. Creation involves the well-understood process of intentional design, whereas evolution involves the not-so-well-understood process of mutation and selection.” Since “creation is simpler than evolution, it tends to be children’s preferred explanation for the origin of species.”12
But evolution, as Shtulman explains it, is illogical. And we haven’t even gotten to comparing it with the evidence!
“Science has refined and expanded human thought,” Shtulman writes, “allowing us to entertain ideas that previous humans had never been able to entertain before, as long as we are receptive to those thoughts and not completely blinded by our intuitive theories.”13
Of course, we should not be blinded by our theories, intuitive or otherwise. But Darwinian theory has not “refined and expanded human thought.” Quite the opposite!
At the risk of being called a “science denier” — or of being told I lack an “evolved mind” — I prefer trusting logical intuitions to entertaining illogical nonsense.
(1) Andrew Shtulman, Scienceblind: Why Our Intuitive Theories About the World Are So Often Wrong (New York: Basic Books, 2017), p. 255.
(2) Ibid., pp. 5, 7.
(3) Ibid., p. 207.
(4) Ibid., p. 218.
(5) Ibid., p. 219.
(6) Stephen Jay Gould, Bully for Brontosaurus (New York: W.W. Norton, 1991), 476.
(7) Scienceblind, p. 213, 224.
(8) Ibid., p. 219.
(9) Ibid., p. 224.
(10) Ibid., p. 223.
(11) Ibid., pp. 223-224.
(12) Ibid., pp. 233-234.
(13) Ibid., p. 243.
Photo: Texas blind salamander, by Ryan Hagerty/USFWS [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.