By Julien Musolino
Professor of Psychology, Rutgers University
In a recent piece entitled Creationism Has Merit, Daily Targum columnist Ed Reep explains that “[he] just want[ed] to show the public how it is that a rational person who understands evolutionary science can believe in creationism”. This statement reminded me of another one by master satirist Stephen Colbert: “Every night on my show, The Colbert Report, I speak straight from the gut, okay? I give people the truth, unfiltered by rational argument”. Mr. Reep tried the rational route, but in the end, he too couldn’t help speaking straight from the gut when he wrote, referring to the complexity of life: “You’re going to tell me it’s far more likely that was developed by chance?”
This remark betrays a very common intuition shared by people who do not believe in evolution. It is the unshakable feeling that there is no possible way for a naturalistic process to produce something as beautiful and complex as human beings starting from more humble beginnings, no matter how much time the process is allowed to run. If you also happen to be troubled by this intuition, let me offer some relief.
Imagine that we could remove all traces of modern human civilization from the surface of the earth and restore the planet to what it must have looked like say, 20,000 years ago. Now imagine a brand new SUV equipped with all the latest bells and whistles sitting right there in front of a dazzled group of human ancestors. The vehicle would contain, among other things, different metal alloys, various types of plastics, and an assortment of electronic components.
Next, we send Mr. Reep back through time with the mission of explaining to our baffled ancestors that no miracle was involved in the making of the SUV; just a naturalistic process unfolding over 20,000 years – an evolutionary blink of the eye. But our pre-scientific ancestors, who had nothing but their gut to trust, would not believe a word of Mr. Reep’s story. They would assure him with utter conviction that you can bang two rocks together all you want, you’ll never produce polymethyl methacrylate. No, no, no, to get the SUV out of what was available on earth 20,000 years ago, you need divine intervention, period.
The moral of this short story is that you should trust your intuitions if they tell you that you have found the love of your life, but you should not expect them to deliver reliable estimates of what is or isn’t possible in the course of 20,000 years, let alone a few billion years (the age of the earth). As for evolution, it is both a fact and a theory, to borrow words from the late Stephen Jay Gould, and your gut had better learn to live with it.
Julien Musolino, PhD (Faculty Board of Advisers, Humanist Community at Rutgers) Dr. Musolino is an Associate Professor of Psychology and the Center for Cognitive Science at Rutgers University. He received his Ph.D. in 1998 from the U. of Maryland and held appointments at the UPenn and Indiana before moving to Rutgers in 2007. Dr. Musolino specializes in the psychology of language and he is the director of the Psycholinguistics Laboratory at Rutgers. More broadly, he has a deep interest in science, its history, and the public understanding of science. He is the author of the popular science book The Soul Fallacy in which he argues that the notion of soul that most people in America believe in corresponds to a set of scientific hypotheses and that modern science gives us reason to believe that human beings do not have souls. You can read more on his website.