Jerry Coyne, Ph.D, professor Ecology and Evolution and the College, by Botany Pond Friday, Aug. 15, 2014, on the University of Chicago campus. (Robert Kozloff/The University of Chicago)

Jerry Coyne is professor emeritus in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago. A prolific scientist and commentator on a wide variety of topics, Dr. Coyne has made a name for himself not only because of his scientific inquiries and books, but his criticism against creationism, intelligent design, religion, and, recently, infringements on the principles of free speech. He has appeared on Waking Up with Sam Harris, The Rubin Report, and has given numerous talks around the world about evolution and the merits of science. His work has been reviewed in The Atlantic, Forbes, and Scientific American. I spoke to him about taboos in his field, defending free speech, and his thoughts on the idea of science and religion co-existing.

The following is our conversation transcribed and edited for clarity.

Malhar Mali: Let’s talk about the freedom to explore ideas in science. Are gender differences and race differences taboo or off limit topics? How much of this comes from the humanities? I remember a reading we were asked to do titled “The Social Construction of Race” where the author, Ian Lopez, eloquently argued out that race is not a biological reality and that it’s a “social construction.” 

Jerry Coyne: This is a difficult question and an ideological minefield. A lot of anti-scientific criticism comes from the humanities, — from postmodernists, by and large. That is a bit curious because postmodernists don’t think that any truth is privileged. So if you say “race is biological” is that any less true than “race is a social construct”?

Cultural anthropologists and Leftists have a problem with this, too. And I am a Leftist, but I’m also a scientist and I don’t like certain questions being considered useless or taboo if they’re scientifically answerable. For example, the question of race: At one time there were — before humans began intermixing and when there was transportation and movement around 200 years ago — genetically distinct groups of populations. These represented human isolates that had migrated throughout the world. North and South Americans, the Polynesians, Eastern Asians, Africans, etc. At that time they were pretty distinguishable.

Nowadays, with all the blurring by transportation and intermarriage, and population growth, we don’t see the same differentiation — but nevertheless we see some genetic differentiation throughout the world. You can call the different populations races, but I would call them “genetically distinct populations” just to avoid the ideology. The genetic differences aren’t large. That’s because we left Africa only 60,000 years ago and there hasn’t been time for profound and wholesale genetic differentiation to occur.

But the ideological purists go further. They say, “There are virtually no biological differences between groups of people.” And that’s wrong. The physiological differences, skin color, eye color, etc., are biological and genetic. So there are differences. The real questions is what other differences haven’t yet been found.

And this is where the ideologues basically deny racial, ethnic or any kind of biological differences because they think it’s going to lead to racism. But it’s possible to claim there are biological differences between populations without asserting an innate superiority of one group over another. But these people think we’re not smart enough to realize that. The same thing occurs with gender studies.

Everybody knows there are biological differences between males and females. If, for nothing else, in their sexual behaviors. There are evolved and adaptive differences. If you look at animals, in general, males are usually not very discriminating in who they pursue sexually, while females are discriminating. And that’s for very good evolutionary reasons. We have this in our own species too — but for humans it’s said to be a social construct, i.e. a result of social conditioning.

There are undoubtedly other gender differences as well. I am not fully familiar with every bit of the literature, but it’s hard not to accept that premise if we see that our bodies have evolved to be different — because, after all, why are men bigger than women? — then why not other aspects of humans. Body-size differences probably resulted from men competing for women. And if there are morphological differences between men and women that evolved in the past six million years of our history, why do we deny psychological differences?

Finally, that feeds into the third taboo, which is evolutionary psychology. There are certain human behaviors which evolutionary psychologists argue are the hold-overs from natural selection in our ancestors. The premise is simply that like our bodies, our minds also bear traces of our ancestry. That’s not controversial — the question is which behaviors? That’s the task of evolutionary psychology.

But there are people like PZ Myers who says “I reject the very premise of evolutionary psychology.” When he says that, he’s rejecting the premise of any evolution in our species! Their view is: we alone, because we have culture presumably, are exempt from biological ancestry in our brains and our behaviors.

MM: I see it as the Left-wing version of creationism. That we’re born blank slates. 

JC: That’s what Steven Pinker covers in his excellent book, The Blank Slate. I’m a Leftist. I don’t like sexism. I don’t like gender discrimination. But I find it very interesting to think about the differences between men and women and I want to know how much of it is biological. I want to know about any differences between human ethnic groups.

Some of those questions are hard to answer, granted. But that doesn’t mean they’re off limits. There are certain questions you might not want to investigate because they have a potentially more pernicious effect. For example: “Do Jews have a genetic basis to acquire money?” Why would anybody want to research into that question? Only because it feeds into a stereotype that’s already present.

I don’t think any questions are taboo. Some questions are just potentially more pernicious than others.

MM: Moving on, it seems what skeptics should focus on is constantly changing. In the 90’s and early 2000’s it was the Christian-Right and against creationism. In the past decade or so it’s been Islamism, morphing into postmodernism and “victimhood culture” in Academia. Do you think the time has come to turn more attention to Trump and his administration — or the picture is more complicated?

JC: A lot of the Left seems to think we should concentrate all our energies on a single issue.  That is misguided. I can certainly see Western feminists trying to root out sexism in the U.S. but not worrying so much about female genital mutilation — even though that’s a more serious problem, certainly in terms of damage. We can’t fix everything at once, and often it’s easier to tackle problems in our culture rather than in other places.

I think the most pervasive danger facing the U.S. now is Trump and his administration. There’s only so much we can do about this. We can’t impeach the guy. We can write our senators and representatives, but most of those people are Republicans anyways. So I’ll devote a certain percentage of my energy to that, but I’ll also spend time calling out the excesses of the Left — mainly because I have more influence on fellow liberals.

What I don’t like is people saying you need to pay attention to this and stop paying attention to that. I get that all the time on my website.

MM: Right. I see some critics who adopt this stance. That liberals are spending too much time focusing on campus craziness and infringements on the principle of free speech. But I always think: well, there’s millions of dollars being spent almost everyday in criticizing Trump and his administration by practically all media outlets. His every action is scrutinized. What more can you say that hasn’t been said already?

JC: Everybody writes about Trump. I scroll through my newsfeed and everything is about Trump.  What can I say that people haven’t said about Trump before? There’s plenty of megaphones against Trump. Look at the Oscars, for crying out loud (laughter).

But not that many people are talking about free speech so much — especially on the Left. Free speech can disappear a lot quicker than people think. Trump’s now in the business of infringing on free speech in many ways, through government agencies, by accusing the media like the New York Times of being “fake news.” So a general focus on the First Amendment is healthy for the country as a whole. Believe me, though, I’ve done my share of Trump-bashing. I despise the guy but when you’ve said it several times there’s not much more to say.

MM: Agreed. Next topic: you’ve been a strong proponent against the idea of religion and science co-existing — against Stephen Jay Gould’s hypothesis, can you speak about that?

JC: There are two ways that people say that science and religion are compatible. The first is to say there are religious scientists and religious people who like science. Which is true. But that’s not compatibility, it’s compartmentalization (I go into this in my book).

What I mean by “incompatibility” is that science and religion both make statements about what is true. Religion makes statements about the existence of a God, hell, etc. Each religion has its own fact statements and morality statements. Those statements are sometimes incompatible. That alone tells you there’s something wrong with religion.

The main incompatibility is that in science — but not in religion — we have ways of finding out whether or not its claims are true. So the incompatibility between science and religion is the incompatibility between superstition and rationality. It’s an incompatibility between the methodology science uses to find truth — which is the scientific method — versus the methodology that religion uses: revelation, authority, scripture, and dogma. Further, the outcomes of that search for truth are different. Religion spouts many “truths” that aren’t true: Noah’s Ark, The Flood, Mohammed flying on his winged horse, all this stuff. So the outcomes are incompatible, the methodology is incompatible, and the philosophy is incompatible as well (science has rejected the supernatural as a possible explanation; religion accepts it).


Science rejects the supernatural because in practice it’s not been shown to work. Gould’s claim is that you can accept science and religion at the same time. An example would be Francis Collins, head of the National Institute of Health, who is a Christian.

But that doesn’t prove compatibility. When Francis Collins walks into his lab he becomes an atheist. He will not use anything about the supernatural in his research. Yet when he walks through the doors of his church on Sunday he accepts a different way of adjudicating the truth. He accepts myths about the resurrection and salvation for which there is no evidence whatsoever — that’s the incompatibility.

Stephen Jay Gould’s solution was to parse religion and science — faith and fact — apart. He said that science and religion are compatible because they’re not overlapping areas, non-overlapping magisteria or “NOMA” as he called it. In his opinion, the purview of science is to make statements about reality, while the purview of religion is to talk about meanings, morals, and values. Because they operate in different areas, claimed Gould, they’re compatible and can co-exist without antagonism. Well he’s wrong there because religion refuses to not make statements about the real world! What is creationism, of which 40% of Americans adhere to, but a statement about the origins and the development of life and how it came about? Religion constantly makes factual assertions.

The biggest opposition to Gould’s claim that religion doesn’t make statements about reality comes from theologians. In my book I document statement after statement by religious people who say “We do make claims about reality. It’s in our scriptures!”

Gould’s claim that religion doesn’t make statements about reality is completely bogus. I don’t know where he came up with that. I don’t really think he believed it because I knew the guy. I think he was just trying to be nice to people.

The other claim — that meanings, morals, and values are adjudicated by religion — is also bogus because we have this history of secular investigations in ethics, morality, and values of life, beginning with the ancient Greeks, going into Spinoza, Kant, Hume, and present day we have Peter Singer, John Rawls, Anthony Grayling, all of whom are secular philosophers. They talk about morality and ways to live without ever referring to God, for they’re all atheists.

In his book, Gould suddenly realizes that there is this secular tradition. But then he says, “Screw it. We’re just going to construe these types of discussions as ‘religious in nature.'” So he just finessed his argument by simply redefining what religion is. By Gould’s standards, Peter Singer or Anthony Grayling could be said to be religious — even though they’re complete atheists! So the whole idea doesn’t work. I reviewed Gould’s Rock of Ages book for The Times Literary Supplement and basically said the whole book doesn’t work. That’s a faux reconciliation between science and religion.

Religion and science are not compatible.

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  1. “I can certainly see Western feminists trying to root out sexism in the U.S. but not worrying so much about female genital mutilation — even though that’s a more serious problem, certainly in terms of damage”

    Hmm. FGM is a serious issue, but I’m not sure how one can say it’s a more serious problem than sexism. One could easily argue that sexism lies at the root, or at the very least contributes to FGM as it does to other forms of sexual violence. This makes the above statement nonsense.

  2. It is obvious to me that if we are going to continually springboard back to the definition that ‘religion’ involves a bearded grandfather in the sky – then declare all who refuse that symbol to be ‘science’ – that we are going to be highly confused. Soon there will be thousands of 14 year olds on social media claiming the name of science (and the t-shirt and superiority complex), simply because they rejected the god icon of a small sect of people.. Wait… we uhhhh… well anyway… we passed that milestone of shame long ago. Congratulations Jerry.

    Religion is indeed ANYTHING which is forced upon me as truth, which has not been vetted by science. Plain and simple. That includes statements like “Science rejects the supernatural because in practice it’s not been shown to work.” I about fell out of my chair on that one.

    Science does not make comment upon things it cannot measure or observe, simply because it cannot reliably measure or observe them – not because it ‘rejects’ them a priori. This is the difference between the real and fake science crowd. Truly understanding what science is, and how pretenders craft language to appear to BE scientific.

    Finally, wearing the clothing of political correctness completes the entire ensemble.

    Bravo, encore!

  3. Some good points. I agree that religion has often been detrimental to science.

    However, other statements by Coyne seem very untrue. For instance, he states that “The other claim — that meanings, morals, and values are adjudicated by religion — is also bogus because we have this history of secular investigations in ethics, morality, and values of life, beginning with the ancient Greeks, going into Spinoza, Kant…”

    What?! Many of the ancient Greek philosophers were “religious” including Plato, Aristotle, etc. And Kant was very religious. Spinoza has been called “god-intoxicated” was a pantheist.

    Then Coyne speaks of “free speech”!! Heck, according to his published writing he thinks all humans have no choice, not even so much as to choose what they eat for lunch. He claims that murderers and rapists aren’t even “morally responsible.” His view is that humans are “wet robots.”

    If I am a “wet robot,” it is of course, unreasonable to talk as if I have “free speech.” Robots don’t have inherent rights, or free speech of any sort.

    And Coyne says that the Christian scientists, Francis Collins, when he goes into the lab, “he becomes an atheist.”

    LOL:-)! No Collins doesn’t On the contrary, Collins goes into the lab, according to Collins, because he does think that the universe makes sense, that humans do have the ability to figure out a “meaningful” reality using their minds, and that using ethical truth and their “free will,” they can seek to improve what is. Collins goes into the lab as a theist.

    1. Daniel, I think you need to see what religion does to societies. In the past, it wasn’t always without risk, expressing ideas that opposed those of the religious people in power. When you deal with irrationality, you know you cannot rely on reason. It might have been necessary to pose as religious, just to avoid the wrath of the irrational.

      I think there is one truth, one reality, that is the same for all of us. At any point in time, we have a view of this reality. Science keeps revealing more and more. Religion takes a snapshot, and then starts seriously slowing down the progress of updating the view of reality. I see a knowledge tree that not only contains facts, but also belief. The leaves of this tree are thus both facts and alternative facts. We all have a view of reality that consists of both kinds of leaves.

      But science and religion differs, in that religion seeks to have a static view of which leaves represent reality, while science actively seeks to remove the alternative fact leaves.

      Also, you seem to have a narrow idea about robots. You say robots don’t have inherent right or free speech. But if we are actually “wet robots”, this proves you wrong, unless you claim we don’t have these rights. Maybe it’s your idea of what a robot is that has to change? Genes carry information, and are passed from parents to offspring. What we call instincts may very well be memories passed along through genes. Maybe strong or consistent experiences alter the genes we pass along to our offspring, so that instincts are a result of evolution. This concept is also used in machine learning, and I am certain we at some point will succeed in creating real AI.

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