Adam and Eve Did Not Exist. What Now?

Evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne, at The New Republic, states the problem succinctly:

The most recent scientific finding that’s causing Christian ferment is the calculation by evolutionary geneticists that the smallest size the population of humans could have experienced when it spread from Africa throughout the world was about 2250 individuals. That comes from back-calculating the minimum size of a human group that could have given rise to the extensive genetic diversity present today in non-African humans. Further, that figure is based on conservative assumptions and is very likely to be an underestimate.

2250 is, of course, not 2. That means that humanity could never have had just two ancestors within the time frame accepted by Biblical literalists. In other words, Adam and Eve did not exist—at least not in the way the Bible says. And that has huge repercussions for Christianity, for if Adam and Eve weren’t the literal parents of humanity, how did their Original Sin spread to us all? Original Sin is, of course, a pivotal part of most Christian doctrine, for without it there is no reason for Jesus to return and exculpate humanity from sin through his death and Resurrection. If Adam and Eve didn’t exist, but were simply a fiction, then Jesus died for a fiction.

Um, is this buh-bye for literalist forms of biblical monotheism?

Science and religion cannot live together–and cannot live apart. That’s the situation. You knew it from the start. And yes, I’m loosely quoting lyrics from a Genesis song.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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38 Responses to Adam and Eve Did Not Exist. What Now?

  1. Peter Smith says:

    It is obvious the obvious is not so obvious!
    You posted about trolling and confessed to making trollish posts.
    You also wrote about etiological narratives so you understand the concept very well, as a teacher of English should.

    So then, why did you make this clearly trollish post when you understand the matter so well?
    One answer could be that you are pursuing a sotto-voce anti-theist agenda, as some of your other posts suggest. Another answer could be that you hope the provocation can reveal some useful insights.

    In your case I think that both answers are true. But it doesn’t matter because there are some insights that I think will genuinely surprise you and this is a good opportunity for me to explain them.

    But first I must go for my daily long run on a hot summer’s day. When I come back and have re-hydrated I will endeavour to surprise you. Why do I mention this? Because it is relevant to my reply. In the meantime see the following graph as an intriguing clue to what I have to say.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Have a good run.

      One reason I posted is that Coyne had stated the problem as concisely and clearly as I’ve seen it formulated. I wanted to preserve that for my own thought later. And, of course, I think adults can hear things, so I’m not worried about offending people because I’m thinking aloud. (Which also chimes with “thinking allowed.”)

      : )

      • Peter Smith says:

        I usually think that anyone who reads Jerry Coyne is brain dead but I will make an exception in your case. The best one can say about Jerry Coyne is that he has a vacant skull that acts as the echo chamber for his vacant followers. That said, and as you said, adults can hear things and thinking is allowed, an admonition that Jerry Coyne would do well to heed.

        One reason I posted is that Coyne had stated the problem as concisely and clearly as I’ve seen it formulated.
        It is an imagined problem and I thought you would see that clearly.

        I have just come back from our Ash Wednesday evening Mass. The church was full to the rafters. Imagine that, a weekday Mass and the church was chock-a-block. There were people of all ages but predominantly young. None of them had to be there. Each one of them chose to be there. As the church filled up I was struck by the atmosphere of expectancy, awe and reverence. The sincerity and commitment was palpable.

        For those who don’t know, Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the Lenten season that ends with Easter when we commemorate Christ’s death on the cross and his resurrection.

        What explains this? Why is it that after 2000 years we still celebrate and commemorate the death of Jesus Christ with such strength and longing?

        The answer is, I suggest, a powerful etiological narrative underpinned by important truths.

        I mention this because that is true of the Genesis creation narrative. It is a powerful etiological narrative underpinned by important truths.

        More to follow later…

      • Santi Tafarella says:


        The obvious answer to the popularity of religion is that people need to believe, not that they have good reasons for believing. I understand the impulse: I want a personal God to exist as well. How comforting to know such a thing (especially if I knew I was on that powerful deity’s side). I’m just not prepared to mix my desire with my critical thinking on this matter.

        As for Coyne, he’s a hard eyed man, but I’ve learned a great deal from him. I’ve wrestled with him in developing my own thinking, and have come ever more closer to his views as time has passed. He is very good at cutting to the chase. He has an “emperor has no clothes” directness about him that I find admirable. There’s a lot that clouds thought, and he’s pretty good at cutting through it. He has got a gift for seeing the signal in the noise.

  2. Why yes, yes they can live apart where apart means one of them is dead.

    • Peter Smith says:

      Huh? Is there anything useful in your comment?

      • Alan says:

        To one with a familiarity of history and anthropology, one could see that comment as a fundamentalist jab at atheism and science. Religion has thrived in all human communities for about 70,000 years, science thrives only in the most privileged communities and for only a couple hundred years.
        A closer look by Jared Diamond: ‘The Third Chimpanzee’ and, suggests that human societies as we use the term today, have never even existed without religion. Pre-modern humans, such as Neanderthals, appear to have lived in family units of a few brothers, their wives and children. Far smaller than the ‘modern’ hunter gatherer bands that serve as the most ‘traditional’ human communities known to history. Science is useful, but unnecessary.

      • Santi Tafarella says:


        What if science is a form of religion? In other words, science has a community with norms; it gives its members a path where meaning is pursued; it has epistemically shared methods and practices; rituals (annual conferences, publications), etc.

        Maybe science is akin to Roman Stoicism or Epicurianism–a form of meaning pursuit palatable to the educated.

        If so, science is quite necessary to a civilization that is ever more literate and educated. It replaces or supplements religion (as does consumerism and romance).

        As the Titanic of our individuals lives sinks slowly toward death, we all have to find things to do to keep us busy. Science is one of those things.


      • Alan says:

        Santi, Santi, Santi! What’s with these snarky games? You well know there are plenty of educated among the religious. Religion is the norm, the functional standard for 70,000 years. Successfully evading or avoiding religion is what requires special privilege (peace, prosperity, precocious lead my list of observed requirements).
        Scientism is the name we give the effort to make a religion of science, and I think it fails horribly, but worse ideas (ie, Scientology) appear to have some at least temporary success as religion.
        As already stated, science is demonstratedly unnecessary for a literate, educated society. It is, however, fun and entertaining and quite necessary for maintaining the level of civilization and population that currently exist on earth. No sane person wishes to do away with science.

      • Perhaps this sheds light: My car has a flat tire, but I can’t go anywhere without a tire, so I guess I’ll just have to drive slowly.

        In fact I do not need a flat tire, but if I can’t change the tire or replace it with a better one, I just have to live with the flat one.

        My car and the flat tire do live apart: my car in my driveway and the flat tire in some junkyard somewhere, or perhaps recycled into something useful.

        Science and religion are like that.

      • Peter Smith says:

        that has to be the most strained and artificial analogy I have seen for a long time.
        Forcing your prejudices into an unlikely analogy only tells us about your prejudices.
        Surely you can do better than that?

      • Peter Smith says:

        What if science is a form of religion?
        …a form of meaning pursuit palatable to the educated.
        …It replaces or supplements religion.

        The kindest thing I can say to your comments is that you seem to have a faulty idea what religion is, and a poor idea of science.

        The easiest way of understanding the difference is to look at the behaviour of two representative institutions, the Catholic Church and science faculties at Universities.

        1) Moral priming. Every week the Church performs moral priming of its congregants. This keeps moral awareness alive and increases the chance of moral behaviour(as shown by Dan Ariely). This is the primary function of the Church. The science faculties at Universities teach students and conduct research. They are morally neutral and provide no moral priming to society.

        2) Compassionate work. The Church does a huge amount of work in this field, as I have detailed elsewhere. The science faculties at Universities do not consider it as part of their remit and would be horrified if you urged them to do this..

        3) Community support. Here I could go and and on about how our poor overworked parish priest supplies grief counselling, helps families in distress, gives life guidance counselling, provides marriage counselling, guides our community in its charitable work, etc. I could tell you about his work to guide teenagers through the difficult transitions facing them. Now try getting these kinds of support from the science faculty at your local university!

        4) Meaning and purpose. The Church supplies a narrative that provides a clear sense of meaning and purpose. This powerful narrative has inspired extraordinary acts of courage and sacrifice, it inspires a worldwide programme of compassionate work and it helps promote moral behaviour. This narrative can be interpreted in a simple manner that is accessible to all levels of society and it can be interpreted in sophisticated ways that readily make sense to highly intelligent academics(as I discovered in conversations with two Jesuit philosophers).

        Now ask what the science faculty does in this field. It will urge you to better educate your students, do more research, publish more papers, present more papers at seminars and work harder to get grants. Its narrative is focussed on these tasks. Its narrative does nothing to address existential issues, morality or compassion, and for good reason, it is not part of the science faculty’s remit.

        Now it is true that science supplies to some people an implicit narrative. This is known as scientism. It is a bleak account of a world lacking purpose or meaning, one where free will is an illusion, one lacking in inherent morality, one that does not inspire compassion. The clearest account can be found here: The Disenchanted Naturalist’s Guide to Reality by Alex Rosenberg.

        The scientism narrative could never inspire such wonderful works of charity such as this one, in my locality, by Sister Ethel Normoyle. I need hardly remind you that the science faculty of our local university does nothing that even remotely resembles this. Need I say more?

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Well, if neither science nor religion are going away any time soon, somehow they have to figure out how to share the space in 70-90% of people’s heads who are both (at least somewhat) pro-science and profess a religious belief.

      Scientists are in the situation of the rich. If you don’t have some safety net for those not of your class, the pitchfork masses might disrupt your lifestyle. Somehow you’ve got to play nice even if you hold your opponents in private contempt. That’s Machiavelli.

      NASA scientists who say bad things about religion would probably soon find a Republican congressman (and it’s almost always a male Republican, isn’t it?) trying to cut off funding.

      • Peter Smith says:

        Well, if neither science nor religion are going away any time soon, somehow they have to figure out how to share the space

        Again and again you advance the fiction that science and religion are in opposition. Can’t you do better than making such an incoherent argument?

        NASA scientists who say bad things about religion
        What gives NASA scientists any kind of authority to make pronouncements about religion?

        Once again you advance that astonishing fiction that science and religion are in opposition. I know this is a popular strawman argument amongst atheist fundamentalists but surely you can see its falsity?

  3. Longtooth says:


    Fiction? Science and religion need not be in opposition, but in some culturally prominent instances they undeniably are. Christian Modernism for example with its allegorical view of scripture is largely not in opposition to science, but Christian Fundamentalism, which insists on a literal interpretation of scripture, clearly is.

    • Peter Smith says:

      at last, someone recognises some truth. That catch-all phrase ‘religion’ means many things to many people and to talk usefully about it we need to know which religion and who’s understanding of it. Then we have to go a step further. Do we judge religion by my plumber’s understanding of it, or by the understanding of the highly trained Jesuit philosopher? Do we attack a crude misrepresentation of religion or do we examine the best and most intelligently articulated version of religion?

      So you may ask why it is necessary to make these distinctions? Because we are people and we are endlessly inventive in the way we take core concepts and layer them with our cultural perceptions.

      Take democracy, a noble ideal. Now look around the world and see how many representations of democracy there are, some well done and others a travesty of the ideal. Have a look at that thug, Robert Mugabe’s, version of democracy(or Vladimir Putin for that matter, but I am a supporter of Putin 🙂 If you were to attack democracy on the grounds of Mugabe’s implementation of it most people would agree you had lost your mind.

      And yet atheists do exactly this when talking about religion. The error is so obvious that one can only conclude that they are being deliberately dishonest in their eagerness to score debating points.

    • Peter Smith says:

      I converted from atheism to Catholicism about five years ago. Since then I have attended Mass, on average, about two times a week. That means I have listened to a lot of homilies. Never once, in all that time, did I hear a scientific claim. What I did hear was a continuous exhortation to live a more moral life and and to exercise more compassion towards the suffering. The motivation for these exhortations was based on God’s existence and his love for his creation.

      So, the religion that I have been so carefully observing for the last five years had precisely nothing to do with science. It had everything to do with moral and compassionate behaviour based on a theistic warrant.

      Science makes claims about the ‘how’ of the operation of the universe. Religion makes claims about the ‘why’ of the operation of the universe. These are non-overlapping claims and neither domain is an attempt to explain the other domain. Religious claims are primarily moral in nature whereas science makes no moral claims. Religion addresses existential issues of purpose and meaning while science concerns itself with the mechanics of the world’s operation and is blind to purpose and meaning.

      The Bible is not a science textbook and to judge it on those grounds is plainly ludicrous. It is an etiological narrative undepinned by some core truths. This narrative explains the existential issues of purpose and meaning and provides moral guidance supported by a powerful theistic warrant.

      Now we have to introduce the element of time into this discussion. Science is a newcomer to the field dating from roughly 1600 AD. Scientific thinking spread slowly after that. Before that the religious acount was widely assumed to be an accurate account of the world’s operation. Now that is not at all suprising. In the absence of a scientific understanding of the world they could hardly understand the world in any other way. It was simply inevitable.

      As the scientific understanding of the world slowly gained ground it displaced the literal descriptions of religion while leaving the main part of it, the core elements, the existential and moral elements, untouched. All of this was perfectly natural and inevitable, after all, religion was never intended to be a scientific description of the world. It was intended to be a moral and existential account of the world in the form of an etiological narrative.

      Some people have been regrettably slow to accept this and today we call them fundamentalist Christians (or Muslims, whatever). The reasons for this are interesting and deserve a separate discussion. They deserve understanding and not blame. They may be misguided but they are sincerely misguided and are reacting instinctively to some ugly societal pressures. But if you are an atheist fundamentalist I am sure you will use every available stick to beat these folks over the head.

      • Longtooth says:

        Being predominantly an agnostic, I like to think that I’m somewhat more selective in the sticks I choose to beat them with. 🙂

        In spite of the displeasure the fundamentalists manage to provoke in me, I do ultimately desire to identify constructive approaches to dialogue. What I mean by “constructive” are vehicles that afford all parties involved some opportunity to get at the truth. What I feel escapes me all too often though are the ingredients of those “constructive” ways. I’m mainly referring to the fundamentalist driven antievolution movement and its relentless quest to alter the distinguishing boundary between science and religion.

        In another thread I wondered about Christendom’s more enlightened members not engaging their fundamentalist brothers and sisters about methodological naturalism and evolution science. Why is there not inter-sectarian dialogue over the matter? Being an insider maybe you can shed some light. Characterizing the issue as just a theist versus atheist controversy seems very short sighted, don’t you think?

        Without participation from the modernist side of Christendom’s house the defense of science falls solely on the backs of the scientists and their layman supporters in the secular world (such as myself). Is that how it should be?

      • Santi Tafarella says:


        I agree with you about the Bible’s character. I disagree with the sharp divide you make between “how” (science) and “why” (religion). Religion, in my view, is, like any creative language, a fantasy overlaid upon reality that more or less works for those who creatively work with it and adopt it (as Star Trek fans can attend conventions in Star Trek persona). There are all sorts of logically possible ways to explain why you walk through a room you do without hitting the walls, but that doesn’t mean that your explanation is in harmony with the real reason you walked across the room without hitting the walls.

        Science can get people closer to the truth of what makes for human flourishing, and so it can inform the “why” component. Religion’s advantage is trial and error practice over time. Nothing succeeds like success. If a religion hits upon a way of being in the world that makes its members flourish, it does so by accident and correction, accident and correction, accident and correction. It closes in on a happy situation; it evolves.

        You like your 21st century Catholicism, but I bet you would be a much, much less happy 14th century Catholic. It’s because religion gets better at serving people’s needs and reducing its bad side (over time). Part of this has to do with nonviolent competition among religions. If one congregation gets donuts on Sundays, the congregation down the street better start thinking about putting out donuts as well.

      • Peter Smith says:

        You like your 21st century Catholicism
        Yes, I do indeed, and for very good reasons which I have enumerated in the past.
        Watch this video to get a feeling for the joy of our religion, We are Catholic

        Now go to the websites of the leading atheist fundamentalists, note the tone of their content, the mean ugliness that characterizes so much of what they say, especially in the comments stream.

        Then go to the pronouncements of Pope Francis and compare the ugliness of atheist fundamentalism with the love expressed by Pope Francis, with his concern for social justice, for the poor and the suffering. Do you notice the stark contrast?

        I bet you would be a much, much less happy 14th century Catholic
        Isn’t all this counterfactual hypothesizing rather pointless? I happen to live in this century and deal with this century’s problems and circumstances. Today’s Briton would be much less happy in Tudor Britain, but so what? A pointless observation.

        It’s because religion gets better at serving people’s needs and reducing its bad side (over time)
        Your observation is trivially true of every aspect of society, without exception. Music gets better, roads get better, justice gets better, civil administration gets better, medicine gets better, philosophy gets better, etc, etc, etc. So what? Society makes progress. Are any of us surprised?

      • Peter Smith says:

        I disagree with the sharp divide you make between “how” (science) and “why”
        Then you are going to have to substantiate your statement.

        Let’s start with religion. It deals with three substantive issues:
        1) Purpose. Does existence and life have any purpose? What is it?
        2) Meaning. What is the meaning of our life? How can we know?
        3) Morality. How ought we to behave to other people?

        Do those sound like scientific questions to you? Can you derive laws of nature that determine purpose, meaning or morality? Good luck with that!

        Now read through the New Testament, especially the Four Gospels and tell me if that is a science textbook. No, of course it is not!!! It addresses purpose, meaning and morality. It does not purport to provide a scientific explanation of the world. The very idea is so ludicrous that it is hard to credit that anyone can in sincerity offer such an argument.

        Now let us turn to what science does. First we must distinguish between strong science and weak science.
        1) Strong science. This is based on the assumption that all observable phenomena are controlled by the laws of nature. Strong science sets out to elucidate the laws of nature and usually they have a mathematical formulation. E = MC**2 is the most famous example.
        2) Weak science. This is descriptive science such as sociology. It’s observations elucidate patterns that give useful insights, but not laws of nature.

        Weak science can examine religious behaviour or moral behaviour and draw some interesting conclusions from that. But what it cannot do is point to a law of nature that determines what moral behaviour should be. This is the famous is/ought problem that Hume first clarified. He stated that one cannot derive ought from is. That conclusion still stands unchallenged today.

        For example. Ethics has been broadly divided into three schools of belief, deontology, virtue ethics and consequentialism. Now which is the correct school of belief? How does science answer that question without begging the question? What law of nature determines the correct school of belief? Can you give it a mathematical formulation?

        The bottom line is simple. Religious thought is about purpose, meaning and morality. Scientific thought is about elucidating laws of nature. A physics textbook does not even remotely resemble a treatise on ethical philosophy, whether that be religious or secular.

        Your argument is worse than bad, it is ludicrous.

        The Catholic Church has very clearly recognized the differences. This is why it, a long time ago, established the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. See also this page and this page.

        This is the Church’s recognition that science is the best tool for uncovering the working of the natural world and a statement of its commitment to working with scientific organisations.

  4. andrewclunn says:

    As if we needed yet ANOTHER piece of evidence to tell us that religion is crap.

  5. The Alchemist says:

    I have just come back from a monthy astrology group meeting. The room was full to the rafters. Imagine that, a weekday astrology meeting and the room was chock-a-block. There were people of all ages but predominantly young. None of them had to be there. Each one of them chose to be there. As the room filled up I was struck by the atmosphere of expectancy, awe and reverence. The sincerity and commitment was palpable.

    What explains this? Why is it that after more than 3000 years we still celebrate and commemorate the zodiac with such strength and longing?

    The answer is, I suggest, a powerful etiological narrative underpinned by important truths.

    • Santi Tafarella says:


    • Peter Smith says:

      The scene I described really happened, not just where I live but in many places around the globe. The scene you described is a figment of your imagination. A profound difference.

      But the difference doesn’t end there. We run soup kitchens, aid distribution points, medical clinics, hospices, hospitals, schools, universities, etc around the globe. And that is only a part of the things we do for the suffering.

      Now what do your imaginary astrologers do? Perhaps you would like to sketch another fantasy even more disconnected from reality?

      More to the point, what do you atheist fundamentalists do except troll the Internet and indulge in fantasies?

  6. The Alchemist says:

    Peter Smith – Try google searching astrology conferences. You will see that it is indeed “really happening”, in many places around the globe. The “profound difference” is nothing more than a figment of your ignorance. Here below is an example of one such meeting. But don’t be mistaken, there are many more like them occuring all over the world, all the time. You should get on board with one of the most ancient and most widely practiced belief systems!
    But, aside from that, you’ve completely missed the point of the post, which illustrated the gaping, monster sized, hole in your logic. And the rest of your post is a complete non-sequitor that has no relation to Santi’s post or any of the follow up discussion. Though, i am glad to hear of the soup kitchen efforts…that’s a very cool and good thing!

    Take care, friend. May your horscope guide you to all that’s good in life!

    • Peter Smith says:

      My dear astrological friend,
      to even begin to compare the behaviour of astrologists with the behaviour of religious people like Catholics is bizarre beyond belief. The occasional meetings of astrologists do not bear the slightest resemblance in any respect whatsoever. Quite frankly, I think you are drunk on stardust.

      Let me give you some examples.
      1) Health care. The Catholic Church is the largest provide of health care services in the world.
      2) Schools. The Catholic Church operates the largest non-governmental school system in the world.(and consistently outperforms government schools)
      3) Universities. The Catholic Church operates 1,358 universities around the world.
      4) Charity. The Catholic Church operates of the largest charities in the US.
      5) International charity. The Catholic Church runs 164 Roman Catholic relief, development and social service organisations operating in over 200 countries.

      The extraordinary scope of the Church’s work illustrates the great power of sincere belief in good and in God, inspired by the Bible(an etiological narrative).

      The astrologers of your inane comparison do precisely nothing, not a school, not a university, not a hospital, not a clinic, nothing.

      More to the point, what do you atheist fundamentalists do?

      Hmm? Please enlighten me.

      You complain about the relevance of my comment. Please read again. It is strikingly obvious.

  7. Longtooth says:


    Mirror, mirror on the wall, what’s the greatest institution of them all? I have problems with the notion of science not being necessary. The supremacist implication being that religion is the big dog and science is just a nice to have upstart that should know it’s cultural better.

    Not necessary for what? Imagine if things were rolled back to the time when our distant ancestors were naked in the bush scratching for roots and berries and scraps from the kills of other meat eating animals. From that perspective one might just as well conclude that even our finely developed brains are not necessary, not really. The notion of “unnecessary” can just as validly apply to art, language, literature, religion, medicine, you name it. Which is less necessary from a pre-historical perspective, stone spear points or religious rituals? Rudimentary tool making was going on long before anything remotely hinting at religion first appeared. One might therefore argue that both the roots and necessity of science and technology run deeper than those of religion. True, the enterprise of science has only been formally specified in the last handful of centuries. But attendance on the tangible properties of nature (the essence of science) with the practical goal of gaining an improved adaptive edge (the essence of technology) is as old as the hominid lineage itself. Religion is not.

    • Peter Smith says:

      I have problems with the notion of science not being necessary


      Are you talking to me??????

      Where did I assert that science was not necessary?????????

      Come now, don’t go all atheist fundamentalist on me and attribute statements and a position to me which I never supported.

      I expect honesty in argument.

      • Longtooth says:

        You are right. I mistakenly attributed the “unnecessary” thing to you when in fact the indulgence came from Alan. That’s what can happen when I let my displeasure get ahold of me a bit too much. Apologies.

      • Peter Smith says:

        Ah, I see you are right. My apologies for my intemperate outburst. I should have remembered what Alan said.

        I am a strong supporter of science. It does not directly advance the cause of morality but it does help to create the conditions where moral behaviour has a better chance of flourishing.

        I think part of the confusion revolves around the word ‘necessary’. The word is very context dependent. There are a long chain of things that are necessary. How far do we go back? Ultimately you might be forced to conclude that only the Sun is truly necessary or even the Laws of Nature.

        The sociologist, Christian Smith, made a strong case that we are moral animals, that this is our defining characteristic.

        This argument seems very plausible to me. All of our choices that impact on other people have a moral dimension. And most of our choices do impact other people. The way we conduct science has a moral dimension. The way we apply the results of science has a moral dimension.

        From this perspective one can argue that our moral capacity is foundational to everything else in life, including science. That does not make science unnecessary, but it does mean moral choices take precedence and guide the way we conduct science.

        An easy way to see this is to bring to mind the many cases of fraudulent scientific conduct. This conduct invalidated the science and this conduct was a failure of moral behaviour. In other words, we require honesty in science, and this is a moral requirement. When we conduct our science we have ethics panels that determine how we may conduct the science. The way we apply the results of science will be subjected to ethical constraints.

        So, most of us regard moral behaviour as essential and this underpins science. We have greater trust in science that has been conducted ethically. This applies even in physics experiments which would seem to be morally neutral. For example, I may generate a great number of measurements and some of them seem to be outliers. I may take the decision to exclude the outliers and this may bias the outcome. If I fail to report the censoring of the data(and the grounds for censoring the data) I am being less than honest.

        But be careful here, I do not think that the direction science takes should be controlled by moral choices, only that the way we conduct science is controlled by moral choices(honesty, integrity, fairness, attribution, etc). The direction that science takes should not be subject to constraints. That would be like putting blindfolds on ourselves.

  8. Longtooth says:


    Yes, science is basically neither moral nor immoral. It really boils down to what we as individuals and as a society elect do with it. This observation finds applicable parallel in confronting and understanding the reality of biological evolution. As Jerry Coyne puts it, “Evolution is neither moral nor immoral. It just is, and we make of it what we will.” (From Why Evolution is True. Page 234) 🙂

    You wrote,

    “The way we conduct science has a moral dimension. The way we apply the results of science has a moral dimension…… moral choices take precedence and guide the way we conduct science…..An easy way to see this is to bring to mind the many cases of fraudulent scientific conduct.”

    I have difficulty with the “many cases” part. I don’t know what your sources are, but my own sense is that the statement is hyperbolic. It’s a bit reminiscent of David Berlinski who’d have us believe that dishonesty is rampant throughout the evolution science community. There doubtless have been improprieties. But they are damn few in comparison to the seemingly bottomless list of improprieties committed by the fundamentalists in their obsessive quest to discredit evolution science. The Talk Origins website has compiled a comprehensive listing of these.

    For my own part I predominantly trust the science community to give it to us straight. They employ a pretty damn good system of checks and balances. With peer review of reported findings, open access to the information, and replication, most of the worst discrepancies do ultimately get discovered and filtered out. My own undistinguished experience is that the overwhelming majority of scientists would rather have their pet hypothesis disconfirmed than propped up with faulty data or analyses. The science community actually does possess a strong collective morality about such matters. What other institution in culture comes even close to competing in that regard?

    • Peter Smith says:

      An easy way to see this is to bring to mind the many cases of fraudulent scientific conduct.
      There doubtless have been improprieties

      You are being too defensive by half and thus you are missing my point. My point was that “… our moral capacity is foundational to everything else in life, including science. That does not make science unnecessary, but it does mean moral choices take precedence and guide the way we conduct science“.

      In other words, I am saying that moral behaviour underlies all other behaviour, it is the foundation for what we do. I was not singling out science as being especially bad, merely pointing out that it too has problems with moral behaviour, that moral behaviour is a necessary foundation for scientific endeavour.

      You then go on to say
      The science community actually does possess a strong collective morality about such matters.“, which effectively admits my main contention.

      However, don’t for one moment kid yourself that all is rosy on the moral front in the way we conduct science. Let me give you just two examples. Many more are available but these ones are shocking:

      1) An Ethical Breakdown in Medical Research

      “Despite reforms to protect patients from being harmed by medical research in recent decades, 23 academic institutions authorized a research project that failed to meet the most basic standard: providing an informed consent document to parents that accurately described the risks and benefits of the research to be conducted on extremely premature babies.”

      “This failure was startling, and deplorable. Federal officials have rightly demanded that the University of Alabama at Birmingham, the lead institution, and Stanford, Duke and Yale, among others, take corrective action to prevent a recurrence.”

      “But, in this case, the federal Office for Human Research Protections concluded that the consent forms failed to reveal that there was a greater risk of dying in the low-oxygen group and a greater risk of severe eye damage in the high oxygen group. The form also stated that, because both groups would receive oxygen within the standard of care, there would be no predictable increase in risk no matter which group a baby was in.”

      2) Questionable research practices are rife in psychology, survey suggests

      2.1. falsified research data (10 per cent)
      2.2. selectively reported studies that “worked” (67 per cent)
      2.3. not reported all dependent measures (74 per cent)
      2.4. continued collecting data to reach a significant result (71 per cent)
      2.5. reported unexpected findings as expected (54 per cent)
      2.6. excluded data post-hoc (58 per cent)
      2.7. doubted the integrity of their own research (35 percent)

      Not so good, hey!
      Do you know how many failures there have been in replicating research results?

  9. Longtooth says:


    I don’t necessarily disagree that morality is a defining characteristic of our species. What I do question though is whether morality alone can exclusively claim the top seed. What may be closer to the truth are an entwinement and or interaction of an array of special qualities that define the species for what it uniquely is. Other candidate qualities that come to mind are our extraordinary intelligence and creativity relative to all other species that we know of. This includes awareness of self and other, of past, present, and future, and thus detailed memory of the consequences of our own actions and those of others. Being that we are social animals, these qualities would seem to inevitably motivate the development of social contracts that serve to distinguish desirable from undesirable behavior. The property of morality seems to have its origin in these things. But also, like no other animal we embrace awareness of where we have come from and of our impending and seemingly inescapable fate. And that would certainly influence our sense of meaning and morality just as certainly as science can impart meaning and inform the moral decisions we make. If you get the sense that I’m struggling for words here, it’s because I am. I haven’t pondered the matter within a “species uniqueness” context to any degree of personal satisfaction. But you put me on to it, so I give it this quick shot.

    It’s nevertheless clear to me that issues of morality cannot be effectively pondered in isolation. They ultimately are or should be balanced with considerable respect for matters of wisdom. Wisdom dictates that moral certainty can be an extremely expensive indulgence if not an extremely destructive one. An obsessive insistence on some moral prescription or another can be just as ugly in its consequences as an abandonment of morality altogether. As you also must know, the most prominent culture wars inevitably involve clashes between moral prescriptions (or interpretations thereof) with issues of ends versus means usually noticeably in attendance.

    • Peter Smith says:

      we seem largely in agreement. What separates us is a matter of emphasis. Our property of intelligent thought and the ability to imagine a better future is what makes moral thought possible. I agree with you on that matter. But once it is possible, moral thought assumes a powerful role. It underlies all social interaction. Every single wrong in the painful history of our species was a moral failure on the part of individuals. Every single wrong(and there are a great multitude of them) committed today is a moral failure. Every good we do for each other is a moral choice. Our prisons are full to the brim with people who made the wrong moral choice. Our hugely expensive policing and judicial system reflects the cost of bad moral choices. Our war graveyards are filled with people sacrificed on the altar of bad moral choices. Our insanely expensive military exists to protect ourselves from other people’s bad moral choices(and maybe to enable our own bad moral choices).

      They ultimately are or should be balanced with considerable respect for matters of wisdom.
      Moral thought is an important part of wisdom. One cannot treat them as separate and independent categories. Wisdom without morality would be a deficient form of wisdom.

      can be just as ugly in its consequences as an abandonment of morality altogether
      The distortion of moral judgements is in itself a moral failure.

      I agree with you that moral certainty is dangerous but then so is political certainty and scientific certainty. We are all capable of mistakes in all spheres of our life. Certainty is what prevents us from recognising and correcting our mistakes, whatever the sphere of life.

      Life is a continual conflict between self-interest and moral interests and this conflict affects all areas of our lives.

      the most prominent culture wars inevitably involve clashes between moral prescriptions
      We are human, we inevitably disagree about everything which is why we have elaborate political systems in an attempt to resolve these differences. So it should not be surprising that there are differences in moral judgements. But we should never use that as an excuse for amoral behaviour. We should instead be searching for better moral understanding.

      • Longtooth says:

        Thanks for the reference links. No, I didn’t miss your point(s), but neither did I miss my own. I reserve the right to be defensive. I’ve elected to be in defense of evolution science, which is evidently less of a priority to you. In any exchange like this you can’t expect my interests, agenda, or emphasis to be in accordance with your own. So maybe you could see through to lightening up on the authoritarian stuff.

        In spite of your hair raising reference links about questionable research practices, I stand by my assertion that dishonesty among the evolution science people is damn little compared to their fundamentalist adversaries. Did you get a chance to review those Talk Origins listings?

        I nevertheless did take considerable interest in your reference links. Although I’ve set the one on medical research aside, I actually did closely reviewed the paper on questionable research practices in the psychologies. It sometimes seems that everyone wants to throw the poor psychologists under the buss. 😉

        The study raises obvious questions relative to my own interests. Is misconduct in scientific research the exception or the rule? It would be unfortunate if the casual reader took the evidence in this thread to be indicative of the latter. Secondly, can the study’s results be validly generalized to the evolution science community? Although I doubt you Intended, the suggestion of generalizability lingers. Defensively biased I am, but I should legitimately expect to see a replication, or the equivalent thereof specific to the population in question.

        You wrote,

        “Do you know how many failures there have been in replicating research results?”

        Well no, but isn’t one of the implicit goals of replication, to separate the wheat from the chaff? That’s part of the system of checks and balances I previously wrote about.

        What constitutes a real breach of ethic in psychological research? And I’m not sure that the research paper in question doesn’t do more damage than good in addressing the issue. The comments section in the article you linked to confirms the former if not the latter. The study’s detailed results also confirm the latter. Consider for example the information provided in Table 1 of the submitted paper.

        On a 0 to 2 scale from least defensible to defensible, only one of the survey’s ten question items received a score of less than 1. All but one of the items received a score of at least 1.3. The only item that scored really low was falsifying data (an unequivocal breach of ethic). In spite of the study’s built in penalty for lying, less than 1% of the respondents admitted to ever committing this particular breach (0.6%). The other nine items did however show substantially higher admission percentages. As whole though, the ten question items in the present study collectively represent a mixed and potentially misleading array.

        Let me give you a taste relevant to your concerns about omitting outliers. What if it was discovered that a measurement instrument was out of calibration when the data points in question were obtained? What if a respondent was discovered not to be adequately representative of the measurement group in question, or had been contaminated by information about the study they weren’t supposed to possess? Would omitting those scores constitute a breach of ethic? Could omitting such scores possibly amount to a routine cleanup of the database, the reporting of which would bog down the submitted paper in minutia? Would the use of a term like “questionable” or “grey area” really even apply?

        The study did endeavor to compensate for these kinds of instances with its defensibility scoring. But the papers narrative was somewhat slanted toward interpreting defensibility in favor of rationalization rather than legitimate justification. For what it’s worth, I did notice that the study’s author was a business management toad not a psychology insider.
        I’ve got other detailed concerns about the study, but I won’t bore the present exchange with them, unless in some other post you might be interested. 

        In your last post you wrote,

        “I agree with you that moral certainty is dangerous but then so is political certainty and scientific certainty. We are all capable of mistakes in all spheres of our life. Certainty is what prevents us from recognizing and correcting our mistakes, whatever the sphere of life.”

        I’m sure you would normally include religious certainty at the forefront of your listing of institutional perpetrators, yeah? It’s quite evident, or at least should be, that we can’t for a moment kid ourselves that all is rosy in the way that religion is conducted in the present age.

        Diverting things to the question of morality’s antecedents, the attached video provides an entertaining treatment of manifestations of the “two pillars of morality” among our neighbors in the animal kingdom. Enjoy.

  10. Longtooth says:


    “The study’s detailed results also confirm the latter.”

    The sentence should read, “The study’s detailed results also confirm the former.”

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