Underselling Science

As anyone who consistently reads The Ratchet could tell you, I am an atheist.  I am not necessarily a militant atheist, but I believe it is important to critique religious belief.  Over the years I have made a point to observe how prominent atheists engage with believers, and the public in general.  Throughout this time, one issue has become particularly worrisome.  Atheists tend to undersell how much the scientific way of knowing has been able to reveal about our origins.  To illustrate this point, I have three specific examples:

Example 1: Richard Dawkins on The O’Reilly Factor (2007)

Bill O’Reilly: “You guys [scientists] can’t tell me how it all got here.”

Richard Dawkins: “We are working on it.”

Example 2: Richard Dawkins on The O’Reilly Factor (2009)

Bill O’Reilly: “You guys still haven’t figured out how it all began.”

Richard Dawkins: “There is a great deal that science hasn’t worked out, and we don’t know how it all began.”

Example 3: Penn Jillette on Piers Morgan (2011)

Piers Morgan: “I never here an atheist give me any answers: how did we get here?  And what happens at the end of our lives? […] How do you think we got here?

Penn Jillette: “I don’t know.”

The Problem

If prominent atheists are going to go on talk shows to espouse their position on religion and religious institutions, they have to adequately explain to the public why their scientific inquiry has led them to become non-religious.  It is not acceptable to appear confused or uninformed when it comes to the origin of the Universe, the Earth, life or humanity.  In fact, this does a great injustice to the work of countless scientists in various areas of inquiry.  More importantly, it leads the scientifically illiterate to believe that there are no deep or meaningful answers about life in science.  If I ever had the chance to answer a question similar to the questions Dawkins and Jillette encountered, I know exactly what I would say:

“Throughout the modern era of scientific inquiry, scientists in nearly every subfield have helped us better understand our place within the Universe, and consequently, have helped us piece together the narrative of ‘how we got here’.  Currently, we know that the Universe came into existence 13.7 billion years ago.  After its initial expansion the Universe eventually cooled enough to allow the formation of the first subatomic particles.  These subatomic particles eventually combined, creating the first elements: hydrogen and helium.  Within two billion years, large networks of galaxies composed of stars had coalesced from giant clouds of these elements.  At this time the Universe had the same amount of mass, but was considerably smaller.  As a consequence, the first galaxies were composed of massive stars that lived shorter lives than most stars in existence today.  These first generation stars forged more complex elements in their cores via the strong nuclear force.  This led to the development of second and third generation galaxies and stars with planets and complex chemistry.  One of these galaxies was the Milky Way, our home galaxy.  One of these stars was Sol, our Sun.  Approximately five billion years ago, an accretion disc of gas and rock formed around our early star, and eventually produced the planets, asteroids, and meteorites that became our solar system.  In the beginning, Earth was a chaotic and inhospitable place.  It took one billion years for Earth too cool down, but once it did, the first single-celled organisms formed from complex, self-replicating organic compounds that are still present elsewhere in our solar system today.  Simple single-celled organisms based on deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) dominated our planet for the first two billion years.  Around 1.9 billion years ago these single-celled organisms started to develop complex internal structures, and shortly after (1.7 billion years ago), many lineages started to form the first multicellular organisms.  Increasingly complex life forms formed after this period, leading to the first vertebrates (525 million years ago) and the first plants (450 million years ago).  In between 500-65 million years ago the Earth was dominated by several different orders of plants and animals.  Most notably, dinosaurs dominated the biosphere between 200-65 million years ago until the Cretaceous-Paleogene extincton event.  After this event mammals flourished by exploiting niches formerly occupied by dinosaurs.  One order of mammal, known as primates, became exceptionally successful by exploiting an arboreal niche.  They developed opposable thumbs, large brains, as well as binocular and colour vision.  Over time, several different clades of primates diversified in the tropics of Asia, Africa and South America, producing monkeys and apes.  Approximately six to eight million years ago one of these apes adapted to a terrestrial life in East Africa, eventually starting the hominid lineage.  Between two million and 200,000 thousand years ago, several species of hominid existed and experienced a dramatic expansion of brain size.  They also developed the world’s first known tool technologies.  Around 200,000 years ago, the first modern humans emerged in East Africa, and began to spread throughout the rest of Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, and the Americas between 70,000-10,000 thousand years ago.  These first modern humans replaced all other species of hominid, accelerated the pace of technological evolution, and created first known examples of art.  After this period, several groups of humans started to transition from a nomadic hunter-gatherer existence to a settled agricultural existence.  The first cities formed, trade networks expanded, writing developed, animals and plants were domesticated, and technological evolution continued to accelerate.  This transition was largely concentrated in Eurasia, but also occurred to varying degrees in the Americas, and Africa.  Over the next few thousand years, humans continued to organize themselves in increasingly complex political entities.  Several multi-continental empires developed throughout Eurasia, Africa and the Americas.  However, the next large transition occurred 250 years ago when the global economy became dominated by societies based on industrial-driven production.  In the modern era humans have become increasingly interconnected, forming a global community divided up into independent nation states.  That is the condensed version of what science has discovered about ‘how we got here.’”

I know that Dawkins or Jillette wouldn’t have been given enough time to tell that entire story, but some version of explaining what science has learned about our origins would be far better than saying that scientists are “working on it” or “I don’t know.”  Scientists aren’t “working on it”, they have pretty much figured out most of it.  And saying “I don’t know” is just preposterous.  Atheists are not doing the non-religious movement any good by insinuating that scientists have little to say about “how we got here.”  By communicating in this way, they are certainly not going to convince any religious individuals that there are real answers in the scientific understanding of our origins.  So I have one important request for any atheist, or non-religious individual, who will be in this position in the future: please do not make the mistake of underselling what scientists know about our origins.  We know a great deal about how we got here.  The story of our origins is more incredible than any of our early myths.  Finally, our true origin story is also important for everyone to know because it will help us understand the structure of the Universe.  It will help us understand how things change over time, and consequently how we may change in the future.  That message is worth spreading to the world.

“Our species needs, and deserves, a citizenry with minds wide awake and a basic understanding of how the world works.”

— Carl Sagan

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About Cadell Last
I am a science educator, freelance science writer, and founder of The Advanced Apes based in Toronto, Ontario. In the past my academic research focused on the evolution, ecology, and behaviour of non-human primates (i.e., chimpanzees, gorillas, ring-tailed lemurs). Currently, my official blog, The Ratchet, can be found via The Advanced Apes and Svbtle. I enjoy exploring recent research in human evolutionary sciences, as well as biology, ecology, astronomy, physics, and computer science. My work has been featured in Scientific American, American Humanist, Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, and Jane Goodall Institute of Canada. I am also exploring science popularization in new mediums in collaboration with PBS Digital Studios with an animated YouTube channel. You can contact me on Twitter (@cadelllast) or via email: cadell.last@gmail.com

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