The Lingering Bias Shared by Religious Fundamentalists
Posted on March 16, 2016
For a long time something about the history of the theory of Darwinian evolution bothered me a lot: why did it take so long to discover? Compared with physics theories that depend on calculus, or chemistry theories that require a lot of detailed knowledge, it is not all that difficult to understand. You can explain it to a high school student who has little prior scientific knowledge. It has very few moving parts. Why did evolution come later than orbital mechanics and electromagnetism? Why didn’t Aristotle, for example, figure it out? On the surface, the main problem was apparently a deficit of facts.
1. Animal and plant breeding. Aristotle knew about it, but the technology of the time was very vague and ill defined, so the facts of inheritance were hard to state.
2. Fossils. Aristotle knew about fossils, but not enough to see the patterns of change or the stratigraphy.
3. Age of the earth. No one outside of India had any idea how immensely old the earth could be, until the physicists and geologists figured it out much later.
4. Gradual change is imperceptible. People simply didn’t notice biological change was happening. Although I think Aristotle was smart enough to notice some changes, had he not been biased against noticing it.
Hence I think an even bigger problem was cognitive bias: human beings have an innate tendency known as “biological essentialism” which causes them to treat each species as a unique and well-specified and stable type that one can quickly learn to recognize. This bias is immensely useful for the human animal that depends on detailed knowledge of the natural world, but it directly militates against understanding evolution.
Which explains why creationism and antiabortionism often go together. Creationists believe species must remain essentially the same over time, while antiabortionists believe that a zygote is essentially the same thing as a socially functioning human being.
Of course another problem is that Darwinian evolution is missing two important moving parts: a theory of genetic inheritance and theory of mutation. But that didn’t prevent 19th century biologists from getting the gist of it, with inheritance and mutation treated as a black box.