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An open letter to the American Museum of Natural History September 30, 2010

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Ethics, Evolution, Religion, Science.

I recently had the opportunity to revisit the wonderful AMNH. Besides returning to many of my favorite exhibits, I enjoyed touring the Hall of Human Origins for the first time, which impressively utilizes the fossil record and DNA evidence to illustrate the gradual evolution of our species (alongside other hominids) over millions of years. I was unpleasantly surprised, however, by a video display in the last part of the exhibit, featuring various scientists speaking under the heading “What Makes Us Human — The Science of Evolution.”

One of the scientists on display (I have forgotten his name) asserts that “science cannot tell us what is right or wrong, what is good or evil, what is the meaning or purpose of existence. That’s what philosophy is for; that’s what religion is for; that’s what moral and ethical frameworks are for.” I found this statement to be incoherent and misleading (at best). First of all, note that nearby displays in the exhibit deal with the evolution of human art, tools, music and language — and their analogs in other species — and we can likewise recognize precursors of what we would call moral behavior, like cooperation and compassion, in other social animals. Science certainly does have much to say on the subject of morality — for instance, the theory of evolution itself has had profound implications for how we treat nonhuman animals (our cousins in the tree of life) and humans of different races. In general, science can potentially tell us whether and how much a given creature might suffer in a given situation — surely the primary concern of morality. As for meaning and purpose, the theory of evolution reinforces the understanding that there is no “cosmic purpose” behind our existence; that the universe doesn’t care about us and wasn’t created with humans in mind. The meaning to be found in our lives is the meaning we provide ourselves, having recognized our part in the unique and fragile tapestry of life — as revealed by science. In any case, there is no reason to think that religion has privileged access to some transcendent source of morality and meaning, and there is no justification for uncritically accepting its extravagant claims “on faith.”

I was further disappointed to see a video of Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, proclaiming that while science is the way to explore the natural world, he also believes in a personal God, and finds science and faith to be complementary. To realize how nonsensical and unscientific this statement is, replace the word “God” with the name of a specific deity — Allah, Shiva, Zeus, etc. After all, it’s not as if Collins is a deist or a generic theist (whatever that might be) — he is an evangelical Christian, and claims to believe many specific truth-claims of his doctrine: the resurrection of Jesus, the divinity of the Bible, and so on. A Muslim or Hindu scientist would hold different (often contradictory) beliefs. And yet none of these religious dogmas are supported by any good evidence, as is true for the belief that a personal God exists at all — indeed, 93% of the members of the National Academy of Sciences reject the belief in such a God (according to a 1998 survey).

It seems as if the curators were worried that people would emerge from the exhibit thinking, “Well, if we evolved naturally from nonhuman animals, then our lives are meaningless and there’s no reason to behave morally.” This is nonsense, but instead of highlighting how a scientific understanding of the world (and the theory of evolution in particular) can and should strengthen our appreciation of life’s value and our commitment to treating each other ethically, the exhibit chooses to reinforce the tiresome tripe about how science can’t address the big questions of life (while presumably religion can), and how we need to rely on a supernatural deity to give our lives meaning and tell us how we ought to behave.

Even if this particular part of the exhibit was intended to present merely personal opinions of individual scientists, it is not marked as such, and no alternative opinions are presented (though I’m sure there are many scientists who would support the position I have outlined). In any case, why is a museum of natural history invoking the supernatural at all? Religious faith represents the antithesis of scientific thinking, and the mindset portrayed in the aforementioned videos is at odds with the spirit of rigorous rational inquiry and critical thinking which is the foundation of institutions like the AMNH. There is no reason why children who come to the museum to learn about the theory of evolution should hear scientists proclaiming their belief in God. I hope the AMNH will reassess this video display, and either revise or remove it.


1. Reshef - September 30, 2010

come on Ezra, what did you expect? you talk the US, right? the country where legislators tried to
find a “better” value for Pi , perhaps motivated by the bible as well.

However, I do not think that (natural) science should have the last word in things like morality, purpose and such. While people (especially serious people like philosophers) should take into account scientific evidence where they exist, science still leaves much space for interpretation.

Also, a practical question: what is worse – people believing some inconsistent mashup of science and faith, or consistent, dedicated followers of the latter?

Ezra Resnick - September 30, 2010

Regarding morality, Sam Harris argues persuasively that questions of morality are really questions about the well-being of conscious creatures, and as such they have right and wrong answers which science can (in principle, though not always in practice) determine. It’s not that I think we will ever be able to run an experiment or consult a supercomputer and get the final answer to any moral question; the point is simply that morality lies within the realm of objectivity, and that moral progress can be made in the same way we make progress in any other field of knowledge: through open-ended inquiry based on evidence and rational argument.

Regarding the question of whether religious moderates are better or worse than fundamentalists, I think the answer is clear: moderates do not fly planes into buildings or kill people for drawing cartoons. If we could magically turn all fundamentalists into moderates, our world would be better. However, I still think that moderates are part of the problem rather than part of the solution, since their defense of religious faith provides a safe-haven in which extremism can thrive. When facing the intellectual bankruptcy and inconsistency of religious moderation, one sometimes finds oneself longing for the “honesty” of good old fundamentalism, which at least retains some respect for evidence and logic.

2. Ken Pidcock - October 2, 2010

I wouldn’t mind the inclusion of the perspective of the few religious scientists if it weren’t for the exclusion of the perspective of the vast majority.

3. steve oberski - October 3, 2010

I wouldn’t mind the inclusion of the perspective of the few religious scientists if it weren’t for the exclusion of the perspective of the vast majority.

Teach the controversy !

4. Ezra Resnick - October 3, 2010

Please write your own letter to the Museum and let them know what you think about their promoting religion in the Hall of Human Origins!

5. Amichai Schreiber - October 3, 2010

1. Morality: One might argue, as you do, that science can tell us things that relate to morality (e.g. does a comatose person suffer from having his finger cut off). However, clearly science cannot define what is moral and what is not. Morality is a human question; it is obviously a subjective question (in that there is no “truth” in it, there are only points of view). We cannot even theoretically expect all people to agree on a code of morality. Unlike science. Scientific things can – theoretically, given enough evidence – be expected to be agreed upon by everybody who follows the scientific methods. Therefore, I have to agree with the claim that non-scientific disciplines are the ones that should provide us with guidelines for morality.

2. Science and religion can be complementary. One can be 100% scientist, and – for the sake of argument – believe in Shiva. There is nothing in the belief in Shiva that contradicts science. Granted, this belief is not in itself scientific, but believing in it won’t make me a worse scientist. It will give me a different outlook on life, but not on its facts, merely on its moralities etc.. It also makes sense for two scientists to believe in different religions, since all that means is that they have different morals and different philosophies. They can still believe in all the same scientific facts.

That’ll be it for now 🙂

Ezra Resnick - October 4, 2010
  1. Your assertion that morality is inherently subjective is neither “clear” nor “obvious.” Please see here, for example.
  2. Being “a scientist” does not guarantee that every belief you hold is scientifically justified. The fact that it is possible to be a working scientist and also hold religious beliefs does not imply that religion is not unscientific. Christians, for example, believe that Jesus was resurrected. This is an objective question of historical fact (with implications for physics, biology, etc.), and it has a right (and a wrong) answer. The same is true for the origin of the Bible, what happens after death, and so on. Science insists that our beliefs about what is true be based on good evidence. Religion requires accepting certain truth-claims on faith, that is, in the absence of such evidence. Religious thinking is thus inherently unscientific.
Benjamin Resnick - October 7, 2010

Yet at the same time, Evolutionary Theory requires accepting certain truth-claims on faith, that is, in the absence of such evidence*. Evolutionary thinking is thus inherently unscientific.

*see works by Fred Hoyle, Nobel Prize winner George Wald (particularly when he retracted his Scientific American article on evolution), Harold Morowitz (Yale) Robert Shapiro (Chem @NYU), and others.

Have Fun!

Ezra Resnick - October 7, 2010

Based on the names you mentioned, I think you are confusing abiogenesis (the origin of life) with evolution. The theory of evolution does not deal with how life first arose on Earth; evolution states that the genomes of populations change over time, explaining how a single simple life form could eventually give rise to the great diversity of complex living species we see today. That evolution occurred on our planet is a fact (in the same sense that it is a fact that the Earth orbits the sun) — due to the overwhelming preponderance of supporting evidence. There is no faith involved.

Now, I never claimed that science has the answers to all questions in hand. Within evolution itself, as with any area of science, there are many unresolved issues under debate (for example, the relative importance of natural selection as opposed to other mechanisms of evolutionary change like genetic drift). On the question of how life first began on Earth — there are several theories, but there is not yet compelling evidence for any of them. So we just don’t know for sure. Maybe we never will — but that doesn’t give anyone a license to claim that he knows for certain that his own creation myth is true (without any supporting evidence).

Regarding the specific scientists you mentioned: Wald and Morowitz are usually quoted out of context; Hoyle has a fallacy named after him; and Shapiro has stated that science, and not the supernatural, is the way to find answers about the origin of life.

6. Carnival of Evolution #48: The Icelandic Saga! « Random Information - July 19, 2012

[…] A letter to the AMNH: please stop pandering to god belief. […]

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