Bill Nye on U.S. Denial of Evolution

Bill Nye made some comments concerning evolution that have since gone viral.

There are a lot of questionable claims in Nye’s comments. He believes that the “denial of evolution” is a “world view” that not only will “harm young people” but “hamper scientific progress.”

The first problem is that Nye never defines for us what he means by “evolution.” He does note that, “Evolution is the fundamental idea in all of life science, in all of biology,” but again, he does not define what this idea is. He also lists a string of entities he apparently thinks evolution includes, pointing out that, “Here are these ancient dinosaur bones or fossils, here is radioactivity, here are distant stars.” Virtually no one rejects the existence of dinosaur bones or fossils, radioactivity, or distant stars. Perhaps Nye means to say that the “idea of deep time” or “billions of years” is the best or only way to explain the aforementioned entities, but here Nye has started talking about disciplines that are not life science or biology, the disciplines which allegedly rest upon evolution, whatever that is according to Nye.

The second problem is that Nye plays the “children” card. If you have ever spent much time with militant atheists, then you know the drill. Here Nye claims that he is “fine” with adults wanting to “deny evolution” and live in their own world that is, “completely inconsistent with everything we observe in the universe.” He then pleads with those same adults not to, “make your kids do it.” Why not? “[B]ecause we need them. We need scientifically literate voters and taxpayers for the future. We need people that can – we need engineers that can build stuff, solve problems.” Nye should realize that the reason adults might try to persuade their children to believe the way they do is because those adults think they have the truth. Even granting Nye’s comment about voting, what on earth does paying one’s taxes have to do with evolution? This is laughable stuff. And has Nye been living under a rock since his show ended in 1998? Does he not realize that there are plenty of engineers around right now who can “build stuff”?

The third problem follows from the paragraph above. Nye seems to think adults can make children reject evolution and believe in something, “completely inconsistent with everything we observe in the universe.” And when children do this their, “world view just becomes crazy, just untenable, itself inconsistent.” Moreover one’s, “world just becomes fantastically complicated when you don’t believe in evolution.” Does Nye really think that adults can make children believe in something, “completely inconsistent with everything we observe in the universe,” “crazy, just untenable, itself inconsistent,” and “fantastically complicated”? That seems rather unlikely. Perhaps his greater concern is that the observations and alleged results of rejecting them are not as clear-cut as he seems to think they are. After all, even Nye praises the United States for its “technological innovation,” “intellectual capital,” and “general understanding of science.” Perhaps the “denial of evolution” that Nye rightfully ascribes to the country is not as detrimental to its health as he rather inconsistently thinks that it is.

The fourth and final problem is Nye’s ignorance of the role of presuppositions evidenced above. We can spend a bit more time on this difficulty. Nye does not seem aware that maybe, just maybe the reason people do not interpret the evidence the same way he does is because they have different presuppositions. Nye throws around bold proclamations about “everything we observe in the universe,” “ancient dinosaur bones or fossils,” “radioactivity,” and “distant stars” as though they prove something in and of themselves. Yet one cannot talk about facts without talking about philosophy of facts. Unfortunately, most scientists today are woefully inadequate when it comes to the realm of philosophy, and will sometimes even deny that their discipline is based quite firmly upon various philosophical principles. The evidences Nye cites do not say anything one way or another all by themselves. Rather, they are interpreted according to the presuppositions one brings to the evidence.

Now what presuppositions might prevent someone from interpreting the evidence the way Nye does? And why do most United States Americans reject evolution? It certainly is not because of scientific ignorance, because Nye credits the USA with a general knowledge of science. It is not because of lack of resources either. Nor is it because of an inclination to reject whatever allegedly authoritative view is out there in science, because Americans don’t reject all, or even most of those. Alvin Plantinga, noting the previous point, hits the nail on the head regarding the reason most Americans reject evolution.

The answer, of course, is obvious: it is because of the entanglement of evolution with religion. The vast majority of Americans reject atheism, and hence also naturalism. A solid majority of  Americans are Christians, and many more (some 88 or 99 percent, depending on the poll you favor) believe in God. But when that choir of experts repeatedly tell us that evolution is incompatible with belief in God, it’s not surprising that many people come to believe that evolution is incompatible with belief in God, and is therefore an enemy of religion. (Alvin Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies, 53)

Now I am not going to address whether or not it is true that evolution is an enemy of religion. I have made my thoughts on that matter as clear as possible elsewhere. I believe that the answer to that question depends largely upon what one means by “evolution.” As already mentioned, Nye is not clear on that. How might he respond to Plantinga?

He would likely exclaim that when science and religion are in conflict with one another, it is the religion that must go. But that is easier said than done. Beyond societal and emotional causes for belief in God and Christianity in particular, many believers are convinced that the scientific endeavor is impossible apart from a theistic worldview.

For example, what are we to make of the concern of the Scottish skeptic David Hume, who noted, “The contrary of every matter of fact is still possible; because it can never imply a contradiction, and is conceived by the mind with the same facility and distinctness, as if ever so conformable to reality…That the sun will not rise tomorrow is no less intelligible a proposition, and implies no more contradiction than the affirmation, that it will rise”? He continued, “As to past experience, it can be allowed to give direct and certain information of those precise objects only, and that precise period of time, which fell under its cognizance: but why this experience  should be extended to future times, and to other objects, which for aught we know, may be only in appearance similar; this is the main question on which I would insist.” Hume was sharp enough to see that inductive inferences involve a mighty assumption that the future will resemble the past. He was honest enough to admit that he had no reason for accepting that same assumption. But if we cannot move beyond the present testimony of our senses, we cannot make predictions concerning anything, and we have lost our basis for the scientific endeavor. Hume destroyed science with his so-called “problem of induction.”

Of course, if one is a Christian, then one believes that God has created and sustains the universe in an orderly fashion, enabling us to be confident about the future behavior of all of nature and the particular things within it, so that we can make successful scientific predictions without worrying about irrationality plaguing us at every step. This is just one example of how belief in God serves as a precondition for the intelligibility of science, rather than as a hindrance to it, as Nye would likely see things.

In my view, Cornelius Van Til is right about the quagmire of evolutionary debate when he writes, “It is quite hopeless to fight evolution in the public schools and think that in doing so you have gone to the bottom of the trouble. Back of evolution lie relativism and impersonalism.” (Cornelius Van Til, Foundations of Christian Education, 9) Back of relativism and impersonalism lie atheism. Naturalistic evolution is a symptom of a deep spiritual problem, not the problem itself.