In the spirit of science as a process of constructive disagreement, ETVOL is pleased to feature a critique of my previous article “The New Atheism and Evolutionary Religious Studies: Clarifying Their Relationship” by evolutionist and prolific blogger PZ Myers, titled “You Want Evidence that Religion is Bad for Our Species? OPEN YOUR EYES.” Unfortunately, Myer’s critique raises the issue of whether he is functioning as a scientist at all on the subject of religion.

Imagine Myers teaching a class on his academic specialty—evolutionary developmental biology (evo-devo)—and telling his students that all they must do to understand the topic is to open their eyes. This would be absurd. The whole point of science is to understand topics that are too complex to be self-evident.

It is just as absurd for Myers to say that the impact of religion on human welfare can be understood merely by opening one’s eyes. At the very least, he should acknowledge that it is sufficiently complex to merit scientific inquiry. Myers should learn from another evolutionist, A.J. Cain, who said that “Only the shallowest mind can believe that in a great controversy, one side is mere folly”.

Who pretends that complex issues are so simple that they can be comprehended merely by opening one’s eyes? Religious fundamentalists and political demagogues come to mind. I do not mean to insult Myers by making this comparison. Fundamentalism and demagoguery are ways of thought that can be objectively defined and measured. They are forms of discourse with a purpose—to motivate a given suite of behaviors—and they seldom let factual reality get in the way. The real world has too many shades of gray for a fundamentalist or demagogue. Better to construct a black and white world where one path leads to glory and the other to ruin. When I say that Myers is thinking like a fundamentalist and a demagogue, I am stating a testable hypothesis.

Fundamentalists and demagogues are not stupid. In fact, the human mind is probably better adapted to operate in these modes than a scientific mode. Great intelligence is required to craft an effective ideology, although less intelligence is required to follow one, since the whole point of an ideology is to instruct anyone who falls under its spell exactly what to do. Constructing an ideology is so different from scientific inquiry that it’s easy to tell the difference. In the case of Myers, all we need to do is compare how he thinks and writes on the subject of evo-devo with how he thinks and writes on the subject of religion.

Myers the ideologue thinks that he can demonstrate the harmful effects of religion on human welfare with a single word—WOMEN. Here’s how a scientist would set about studying women in relation to men. The first step would be to ask what evolutionary theory predicts about male-female relationships and how the predictions are borne out in nonhuman species. That inquiry would show that sexual conflict is common in the animal world and that the kind of sexual equality that has become a virtue in contemporary western society evolves by genetic evolution only under special circumstances. Among the great apes, gibbons are monogamous, bonobos form female coalitions that resist domination by males, and males boss females around in all of the other species (and most other primate species). None of this variation can be explained by religion.

The second step would be to see if variation in male-female relations within the human species can be explained by the same evolutionary dynamics that explain cross-species variation. For example, it is likely that in both cases, the ability of males to control resources needed by females will result in sexual inequality. This is one reason why agricultural societies are more patriarchal than hunter-gatherer societies—regardless of their religions.

To measure the effect of a given religion on sexual inequality, that religion should be compared to the other cultural forms (religious and otherwise) that existed at the same time and place, such as early Christianity vs. Roman pagan society, early Islam vs. the many Arabic cultures of the region, or Christianity vs. scientific views about sexual equality in Britain during the Victorian era. I won’t try to second-guess the result of such an inquiry, but I do know this—it isn’t self-evident.

Myers and other new atheists seem to think that their action-oriented agenda doesn’t leave room for such scholarly footwork, but the reverse is true. Scholars who remain in the Ivory Tower can make mistakes without hurting anyone. Those who leave the Ivory Tower to make a difference in the real world need to be extra careful, lest they hurt people on the basis of faulty theory and information. Humility is called for, which is the very opposite of ideological braggadocio.

Elsewhere I have written about the problem of scientists who use their reputation in one topic area to hold forth on other topic areas without doing the same homework that a good science journalist would do, and even without functioning as a scientist in any way at all. PZ Myers has a fine reputation as an evolutionary developmental biologist, but on the topic of religion he is defrocked.

David Sloan Wilson

David Sloan Wilson

David Sloan Wilson is SUNY Distinguished Professor of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University. He applies evolutionary theory to all aspects of humanity in addition to the rest of life, both in his own research and as director of EvoS, a unique campus-wide evolutionary studies program that recently received NSF funding to expand into a nationwide consortium. His books include Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society, Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin’s Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives, and The Neighborhood Project: Using Evolution to Improve My City, One Block at a Time and Does Altruism Exist? Culture, Genes, and the Welfare of Others. .


  • Dave Gerstle says:

    Anyone employing the authority of science toward political arguments should be regarded with suspicion. Myers is clearly doing that. On the other hand, I couldn’t ask for a clearer demonstration of this same phenomenon than this sentence: “When I say that Myers is thinking like a fundamentalist and a demagogue, I am stating a testable hypothesis”. Come on, David, really?

    As for whether or not Myers has not been doing his homework, I don’t know. But your counterargument is wrong – that is not “how a scientist would set about studying women in relation to men”. That is how a brash, uncritical, EVOLUTIONARY scientist would set about it. You mercifully do not continue with your pontification, but your assumptions are loaded from the start. Of course non-human primates do not have religions, but neither do they have gender categories. Researchers in the human sciences typically do not look to non-human primates when studying women in relation to men because non-humans do not have ‘women’ or ‘men’. Those are genders, not biological sexes. There is a big difference. Do your homework.

    Finally, I have to ask: did you actually read Myers’ commentary, or just the parts that were in all caps?


  • David Sloan Wilson says:

    Thanks for the even-tempered and constructive comments so far.

    To David Gerstle: I’m serious that fundamentalism and ideological thought can be studied objectively, and I have made a study of Ayn Rand, the “New Atheist” of her day. Here is the academic reference, which I describe in the chapter of Evolution for Everyone (the book) titled “Ayn Rand: Religious Zealot”.

    Wilson, D. S. (1995). Language as a community of interacting belief systems: a case study involving conduct toward self and others. Biology and Philosophy, 10, 77-97.

    Michael Shermer has also made of study of Rand. Since ideological writing is prose with a purpose, why can’t it be analyzed on the basis of its design properties, just like any other adaptation?

    I’m well aware that human attitudes about gender are highly socially constructed, which must be understood in addition to biological sex differences. But evolution can be helpful in predicting which social constructions about gender come to exist in a given culture, and that kind of cultural variation as a result of cultural evolution can parallel cross-species variation caused by genetic evolution, which is close to what Anthony L. suggests.

    Finally, yes, I did read the PZ Myers piece carefully and in its entirety. How does my reply suggest otherwise?

    To John Jacob Lyons: I take issue with your distinction between “what is” and “what has been”. Discovering the role of religion in current-day gender attitudes requires the same considerations as for the past. If you could construct a 2×2 table for “religion vs. secular” and “egalitarian vs. non-egalitarian”, all four cells would be filled. If you compared given religions with their non-religious cultural backgrounds, it is not obvious to me that the impact of religion per se on sexual inequality would be consistently negative. In many cases it might be positive, as we know for other progressive movements such as civil rights.

    A good example is described in the book “Dry Bones Rattling: Community Building to Revitalize American Democracy”, by Mark R. Warren, which describes how social activists in the tradition of Saul Alinsky are working with religious communities in the American southwest to achieve potent results. According to Warren, women in impoverished communities have almost no political power but they do occupy leadership positions within their churches, which can be drawn upon for political action. Religions also add a values dimension to political action that is more potent than non-religious political activism, which tends to focus on self-interest and single issues. This is a good example of how women can have more power in a religious context than in a political context within the same culture, and how the policy recommendation of eliminating religion would destroy the main social fabric that is left remaining in impoverished communities.

    I also take issue with your assumption that if PZ Myers wrote a book, it would be much different than his blog. PZ Myers writes prolifically and there is nothing atypical about this particular post. His New Atheist colleagues have written books, two of which (by Dawkins and Dennett) I have carefully reviewed. It’s not a matter of length—it is a matter of the enterprise. Seriously consulting the facts about religion is one enterprise, fashioning an ideology is another. With an ideology, adding length results in more of the same.

    It might seem distressing for this kind of altercation to take place, but productive discourse is a form of cooperation that requires policing, as I describe in my ETVOL articles titled “Pugilistic Science” and “The Nature of Discourse”.  In game theory, it is important to recognize the distinction between non-cooperative strategies and their punishment. I’m attempting to play the role of an “altruistic punisher” in game theory models, where science-based discourse is the game. If you and other commenters wish to criticize my conduct, let it be with this in mind. 




  • Anthony L. says:

    Hi D. Gerstle,

    I think your point about the science of human relationships is a bit confusing, and maybe somewhat incorrect. You distinguish between gender and sex, which is of course right. However, beyond the sentence you highlight (“Here’s how a scientist would set about studying women in relation to men.”) I think it’s pretty clear that D.S. Wilson is talking about sex differences, not gender categories. Both sexual selection and parental investment theory have made great strides toward explaining sex differences and sexual conflict, not only in non-human animals, but in humans as well. Furthermore, despite the real and important distinction between gender and sex that you rightly point to, I think it would a mistake to assume (as you seem to) that we can learn nothing about gener roles from what we know about sex differences. I don’t speak for D.S. Wilson, but I take the point above to be about sex differences; even so, sex and gender are not fully independent constructs.
    Also, do we really know that non-human primates do not have gender categories? The more we learn about chimps and bonobos, for example, the more we realize that they possess cultural variability that continues to surprise those who study them. Should we be surprised then if this cultural variability extends to self-concepts regarding sex/gender? I would hesitate to make a conclusive argument in this domain.

  • Tim Tyler says:

    Women are more religious than men.  That fact alone speaks volumes against the idea that religion is bad for women.


    In his piece, PZM outlines his take on what ‘is’ with regard to the impact of religion; taking WOMEN as the main focus for his comments. DSW responds as if the issue is what ‘has been’ and what processes – evolutionary/cultural – have been at work. Yes, PZM would have to produce much more evidence to make his case. But this is a short blog article David, not a book.

    The contribution that religion makes to society is neither all good nor all bad. At present, we can each make a value judgement on the issue. We really need a thorough empirical exploration of the question from a neutral starting point.

    In the meantime, these fractious altercations at cross purposes – between eminent scientists in our field – are pointless and potentially damaging to our common scientific mission.

  • Dave Gerstle says:


    I asked about the all-caps (‘OPEN YOUR EYES’ and ‘WOMEN’) because those are the only parts of Myers’ essay that you directly challenge. When I asked if those were the only portions you read, I was joking. Sort of.

    Regardless, you’ve missed my points:

    – You have not done your homework before discussing topics outside your area of expertise. I don’t really care, but you can’t turn around and condemn others for the same thing. Above, you present the view from evolutionary biology on relations between men and women as if it were the view of science at large. This is misleading and suggests you have not done your homework. Further, here and elsewhere, you have been extensively using the terms ‘ideology’ and ‘discourse’ with near-total disregard for the multitude of ways that these concepts have been theorized in the last 200 years. Those of us who study discourse and ideology are obliged to know what we are talking about – why shouldn’t you hold yourself to the same standards? Do your homework.

    – I was not questioning your ‘testable hypothesis’ because I think that language and ideology can’t be studied empirically. Of course they can – that is at the heart of human science. But you are doing something else here. You are invoking the scientific method to lambaste one of your critics. To this, I will say again: Come on, David, really? How could you tackle such a project objectively? And how do you exclude yourself from being swayed by ‘ideology’? And, again, what is ‘ideology’ anyway? Why do you consider this concept self-evident when you have not looked what many, many, many others have said and are still saying about it?

    Generally, it seems like you’re conflating ‘ideology’ with ‘falsehood’ and ‘science’ with ‘truth’ (and ‘evolutionary science’ with ‘science’). As a result, your response to Myers’ essay is bizarre and not just a little irresponsible. Again, I don’t really care, except where you assume the profundity of your contributions to subject areas that you have not taken the time to study. That is irresponsible. What is bizarre is your idea of empirically testing the ideological bias of your critic, in order to prove him to be a fanatic. That just sounds… well… fanatical.

    Sorry. Sort of.


  • Dave Gerstle says:

    Here’s something more interesting…

    it turns out that Stephen Jay Gould’s challenge to sociobiology was part of a Jewish plot to overthrow Darwinism in the social sciences!

    Soooo… I guess Kevin MacDonald has just given up on trying to convince anyone he’s not an anti-Semite?



    Thanks for your interesting response David.

    You write “Discovering the role of religion in current-day gender attitudes requires the same considerations as for the past.” Of course. But we need to distinguish between the subject under discussion and the epistemology. You didn’t need to change the subject in order to critique the epistemology.
    The rest of your response is, indeed, a very interesting and relevant counter-argument to PZM and his fellow ‘new-atheists’. May I suggest that your response (on ETVOL) to the PZM piece would have been improved by featuring this argument and avoiding the ad hominems – whatever the provocation. Best wishes.

  • James Graham says:

    Rather than call them “new atheists” it think it would be more accurate to call them “religion-obsessed” atheists.

    PZM is not the most religion-obsessed atheist on the planet (that would be Richard Dawkins) but on the blogosphere?

    These ROAs have become the mirror-image of the religious anti-evolutionists. The latter are obsessed by Darwin, the former by the fact that a large percentage of the world’s human population continues to believe in the existence of supernatural entities.



  • r says:

    Given the science of the idea of the importance of small bands of people and their face-to-face communications in the context of human social evolution, and the unsurprisingly beneficially revolutionary effects of communication technology bringing a similar leverage, isn’t the burden of evidence (‘proof’ being a myth) on the claim that religion is a healthy servant of humankind rather than an emergent crystallization of humankind’s maladaptive response to mass settlements and the lack of transparency that came with them?

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