Monday, March 13, 2006

Cognitive science of evolutionary biology   posted by Razib @ 3/13/2006 04:33:00 PM

Chris of Mixing Memory has a long post on the cognitive science of evolutionary biology, or, more precisely, how people tend to interpret and perceive evolutionary biology. The whole post is worth reading (and linking if you have a weblog). I hit upon some of the points in my post Endless Forms Most Continuous, but Chris points out three primary blocks to an acceptance of evolutionary biology:

1) Intuitive theism, the tendency to see design in complex objects and phenomena.
2) Intuitive essentialism, the tendency to not frame populations as populations as opposed to iterations of an idealized "type."
3) And, "The role of explanatory power in determining the value of beliefs, and the fact that we may resist explaining our most cherished beliefs in order to avoid devaluing them." This is basically the connection between fundamentalist religious beliefs and their explanation of the world around us.

Chris sees #3 as the big hurdle:

As recent world events have shown, when beliefs are as cherished as religious beliefs are for many, defense of those beliefs against any perceived threat can be extremely passionate, even violent. If many people really do perceive that the potential explanatory power of evolution could pose a threat to the value of their religious beliefs about the origins of man, beliefs that they cherish deeply, it's unlikely that any amount of education will overcome their defensiveness.

And yet how deep is fundamentalism? International surveys suggest that the belief in God is not a necessary bar to acceptance of evolution, rather, a particular form of American Protestantism has hewed to a literalist and inerrant interpretation of the Bible. But, this fundamentalism is not a necessary implication of Christian faith, metaphorical readings of the Bible are as old as the Church Fathers, and older Christian traditions (Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy) never accepted a literal reading of the scripture as normative. In other words, the power of fundamentalist Christianity in the United States to some extent blinds many Americans as to the specific nature of the relationship between religion & science in the modern world. Of late I have posted about the fact that I perceive some beliefs to be powerfully held, and yet upon further reflection they lack depth. I believe in some ways "fundamentalism" as a fixed phenomenon is such a thing, one age's "fundamentalism" is simply the rebellion against modernity for that time. There was a time that fundamentalism might have implied a rejection against the spherical earth or heliocentrism, but no one who is a fundamentalist aside from Wahabbi clerics in Saudi Arabia would hold to those positions. References to the four corners of the world or the sun standing still in the Bible obviously do not imply the world is flat or that the sun circles the earth, obviously, right? American style fundamentalism is a fact of the world around us here in the United States, and the power of anti-evolutionary thought is something we must always consider, but, we need to be cautious about extrapolating from one point in time and space as if there is something essential about "fundamentalist" Christianity which demands a Creationist paradigm.