Belief vs. Understanding

I suppose I ought to be happy that Newsweek gave over some space to excerpt Richard Dawkins's new book on evolution, especially since the excerpt is basically a solid, basic explanation of how creationists misinterpret the fossil record and a discussion of common ancestry among species, and it's not the kind of thing one often sees in a major US news magazine.

But who wrote this awful headline and subhead?:

The Angry Evolutionist
More Americans believe in angels than in evolution—and Richard Dawkins isn't going to take it anymore.
That's a really misleading title for an excerpt from a book about evolution. Now, it was effective--I clicked on the link because the title pissed me off--so if I'm being Sunday-morning-sunshine-out-my-ass about it, I guess that's a good thing, assuming others click through and read it. But there's no anger in this piece, although rational people certainly have reason to be angered by what the subhead posits.

I've written before about how I dislike the use of the word "believe" when it comes to evolution. It seems like a small thing--just a change from "believe" to "understand"--but the denotational differences are huge. To believe in something requires faith, requires a hint of credulity--it's the imaginative leap one takes in the absence of complete evidence. It's trusting that a person who makes a promise to you will keep that promise, for example. It's a function of human interaction, a metaphor.

But when we're talking about systems that can be understood, that don't require a leap of faith (even a small one), belief isn't a proper term to use anymore. We might say that we believe our car will start if we put our key in the ignition and turn it, but if it doesn't, we won't (or shouldn't, anyway) blame a lack of faith. We'll check under the hood to see if the battery connections are corroded or call AAA; we'll try to figure out what's wrong with the system, and if we have limited understanding as to how the system works, we'll find someone who understands it better than we do.

Evolution is that sort of system. One shouldn't believe in it--one should understand it, to a greater or lesser degree. I understand evolution to about the same extent I understand the workings of an internal combustion engine, which is just enough to get me into trouble, but it's an understanding of a process, not a belief in a mystical force.

One last thing: the anger bit. The title suggests that Dawkins is angry because more Americans believe in angels than in evolution, and maybe it's right. Maybe Dawkins is incredibly pissed about that. I don't think so, but I'm far from objective, because you know something? I'm pissed about it. You know why? Because our understanding of evolution underpins all the advances we've made in the biological sciences for more than a century now, and the more our understanding of evolution increases, the more advances we make. If you take medicine for an illness, if you're treated by a doctor, you're benefiting from the study and understanding of evolution. Hell, if you're eating regularly, you're benefiting from it, because agricultural science depends on evolution.

These are not things that require leaps of faith--these are processes that can be understood to a greater or lesser degree, and they affect our lives more immediately and more often than angels ever would, assuming they exist in the first place. But here's the thing--I'm not upset that people believe in angels. Believe is the perfect word to use there, as a matter of fact. I don't believe in them because I'm not willing to make the leap of faith required to do so, and there's no way for me to study them empirically. But I don't believe in evolution either. I understand it. And I'm upset that more people in the US don't.

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