Nicholas Wade on Evolution: Strike Two

A few weeks ago, the New York Times ran a review of Richard Dawkin’s latest book on evolution, The Greatest Show on Earth. The review, written by Nicholas Wade, had a very troubling slant. In what I view as its most grievous error, Wade contended that Dawkins “doesn’t know what a theory is,” In saying this, Wade gave support to the discredited view that “evolution is only a theory” and thus easily dismissed. Frankly, I expected better from the New York Times.

This isn’t just my opinion. The Times initially posted two Letters to the Editor from eminent scientists, both critical of the review. Adding that they received an “unusually large number” of letters “from readers who identified themselves as scientists or philosophers,” the Times posted a further collection of letters — all critical.

Apparently, this was not enough to convince the Times to itself be a bit more critical in evaluating Mr. Wade’s writing. He was back again with a Week-in-Review column titled “The Evolution of the God Gene.” Here he makes at least three very questionable assertions.

First is the claim that the ubiquity of religion in human culture suggests that there may be a gene for religion, favored by natural selection. Hence the title of the column. A gene that directly codes for a belief in God is almost certainly a gross over-simplification of how genetics and evolution works — even if there were some overall truth to Wade’s assertion.

But it gets worse. Wade next asserts that the presumed presence of a God gene implies that religion has a “constructive role” in society and should thus be viewed “favorably.” This logic runs counter to a wealth of literature that correctly points out that just because something may be favored by natural selection does not mean that we should view it as “good.”

For example, there is research that suggests a genetic evolutionary basis for human infidelity and even rape. There is certainly not a consensus of agreement on this matter. But even among those who support the viewpoint, no one would argue that this means human societies should promote infidelity or rape. Nor does it mean that humans should not consciously work to override what, in our present society, is a negative evolutionary inheritance. More generally for any trait, even if it was useful in our evolutionary past, this does not mean it remains so today. This extends to any supposed “God gene” as well.

Finally, Wade’s assertions move from the distorted and incorrect to the truly absurd. He correctly notes that a supposed evolutionary basis for religion would “neither prove nor disprove the existence of gods.” The problem is that the rest of the article implies that this point is largely irrelevant. That is, he argues that, if religion has the “benefits” he proposes, we should support religion even if its most fundamental assertion is false.

I’m sorry. To travel from what is at best a questionable premise to a conclusion that we should all close our eyes and support a belief even if it has no more veracity than a fairy tale — borders on the ridiculous.

Once again, I am a bit mystified that the New York Times saw fit to publish this article, which now amounts to “strike two” for Wade. Maybe, one more and he’s out.

As for Wade himself, he has just published a book titled “The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why It Endures.” I’m guessing that the God Gene column amounts to a summary of and promotion for his book.

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