Evolution Wars

Sociologist Tom Aechtner on why complexity is better than conflict, and how we change our minds.


Monkey on our Back: Unravelling the Evolution “Myth”

“Even from the very beginning, Christian resistance to evolutionary theory, or also Islamic resistance to evolutionary theory, wasn’t necessarily bound to people reading Genesis and saying, ‘this is in opposition to evolutionary theory’. A lot of the early opposition came about because evolution seemed to be supporting racist ideas, and there was moral opposition to the idea that we could rank people evolutionarily.”

Tom Aechtner lectures in science and religion at the University of Queensland. That means he spends a lot of his time trying to introduce nuance – not to mention solid historical data – into some of the more inflamed, and inflammatory, conversations we’re having as a culture.

Whether it’s Galileo, Darwin, vaccines, climate change … the history, and the issues at stake, are sure to be more complicated than we imagine. And yet black-and-white cultural myths – like the idea that science and religion are necessarily at odds – continue to be perpetuated. Tom has spent a lot of time thinking about why, and how.

“I got interested in this when several years ago I was teaching a course in Canada on science and religion. At least one student came to my office and said, your teaching runs against what I’m learning in another class. It had to do with Galileo, the idea that Galileo was imprisoned, which is not true. I heard from another student that Galileo was beheaded! So eventually I went and started looking at anthropology textbooks – modern, 21st-century anthropology textbooks – and lo and behold, I found significant myths about religion and science history.”

Reading undergraduate-level textbooks is just a fun side project, though. Mostly Tom’s research looks at the broader context of why some of these conflicts continue to vex us as a culture. In this episode, we discuss mass persuasion, why we believe and disbelieve things, and how we can get past pointing fingers and yelling at each other.

“These are not just scientific issues for people, and that’s one thing you have to recognise. If you’re going to get into a conversation with people, you’re not just dealing with facts, you’re dealing with values people hold very closely to their hearts. I’m not saying that’s a valid or invalid reason to accept or reject a scientific premise, but that’s just the reality –and those values are then tied to the communities those people are part of.”

This interview was recorded at ISCAST’s 2018 Conference on Science and Christianity (COSAC). Find out more about ISCAST here: www.iscast.org