Letter to the New York Times

The New York Times has opted not to publish this letter from Daniel Dennett, so B&W is pleased to make it available. Judith Shulevitz’s review is here.

Thanks to Judith Shulevitz [“When Cosmologies Collide,” NYTBR January 22] for unwittingly exposing the serious flaw in Michael Ruse’s attempt to distinguish the science of evolution (of which he approves) from the more far-reaching implications of “evolutionism,” which he characterizes as “a metaphysical world picture.” Since she grants that those who expound “evolutionism” “may well be right” in the cosmological implications they see flowing from contemporary biology, she recommends teaching “evolutionism in religion class, along with creationism, deism and all the other cosmologies that float unexamined through our lives.” By the same reasoning, as soon as any science has implications that suggest that we should do something fast about global warming, say, or an impending meteor collision, it should be banished from the science curriculum and shunted into the religion class, alongside treatments of Judgment Day and other myths about the end of the world. Yes, the theory of evolution by natural selection has implications that upset many traditional religious ideas, but that doesn’t turn it from science into religion. When Copernicus demonstrated that the Earth went around the Sun, that contradicted traditional religious cosmologies, but his work still belongs in the astronomy curriculum.

Evolutionists have an obligation to inform the world about all the implications of their science, and when they overreach or make mistakes – as they often do – they should be carefully rebutted by other scientists who know better. The suggestion by Michael Ruse that this activity of extending the reach of science is tantamount to turning science into a religion is a transparent example of a well-known cheap trick: when you don’t like the implications of some science, and can’t think of any proper scientific refutation, call it ideology – then you don’t have to take it seriously! On the contrary, it is crucial that we scrutinize these candidate implications with scientific intensity, so that we can figure out which are true and which are false. They are too important to be treated as mere differences of “faith.”

Daniel C. Dennett

Daniel Dennett’s latest book is Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon.

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