“We are a thinking species”: Carl Sagan on creationism, skepticism, and why science is the birthright of everyone

In 1981, Carl Sagan — astronomer and science educator par excellence — was named Humanist of the Year by the American Humanist Association, and delivered his acceptance speech at the association’s annual conference in San Diego. The AHA has now made the audio of the entire speech available online, and if you have 45 minutes, it’s absolutely worth your time. (If not, I’ve transcribed some excerpts below.)

The speech is wonderful for the same reasons that Sagan’s remarks and writings are always wonderful: his gift for eloquent, inspiring — and often humorous — prose; his powerful argument for the fundamental importance of science in our lives; his ability to communicate a clear-eyed and rational view of the cosmos that is yet open to poetry, astonishment, and wonder. But this particular speech is also notable for a couple of specific things. First, Sagan refers early and often to the accomplishments of the woman who introduced him to the audience: the astrophysicist Margaret Burbidge, who, like many female scientists, deserves much more public recognition for her scientific contributions. And second, Sagan takes particular aim at the threat of creationism — 1981 being the year of McLean v. Arkansas and the movement to have “creation science” taught in American public schools, a movement that sadly still has traction today.

I find it fascinating that Sagan’s decades-old speech still feels fresh and relevant today: not just his argument against the creationists, but also his stirringly democratic notion of science as every person’s birthright, and his description of “cosmic evolution” and the deeply intimate connection between humans and the universe — concepts that Neil deGrasse Tyson, considered by many to be Sagan’s heir, has been communicating to great effect.

Some lengthy excerpts below.

On the weakness of the “God of the gaps” argument, and the scientist’s comfort with uncertainty:

Now, the big question: where did it all come from? The standard religious answer […] in the West, it’s “God did it.” And this is generally considered to be an acceptable answer. The next question of “Where did God come from?” is usually answered “God is always here.” If you then say, “What about the possibility that the universe was always here,” and God isn’t needed, or at least is unemployed, that is considered, but clearly on emotional grounds only, as an unacceptable answer. […]

So we’re faced with two counter-intuitive alternatives […] mainly, either that the universe is infinitely old, or was made from nothing by some event which is beyond our ability to plumb. You don’t have to make up your mind right now. It’s alright to wait until the data are in. Unlike the usual procedure in matters of this sort to make up your mind first and then suppress the data, it is probably much better to keep an open mind and when the data is in, then it’s easy — just decide what the evidence shows.

On the popularity of Cosmos and why science is for everyone:

I believe that one of the reasons for the unexpected popularity of the Cosmos television series is that it presented a still not fully worked-out but scientifically supported and beautiful scheme of cosmic evolution. We of course didn’t invent it; Cosmos merely presented it. […] People like it. It’s very clear from the mail. We have gotten some four thousand letters […] I can tell you that there is enormous interest in this cosmic perspective that is clearly, from the letters, not being presented in the public schools or by the mass media. And another aspect of Cosmos — which by the way has been by far the most widely watched series in the history of public television in the United States — is its assumption that the viewer would have no trouble understanding what it’s about. People, it turns out, are far more intelligent than the opinions of middle-level publishing house executives and television producers might lead you to believe.

And should we have expected anything different? We are a scientific species. Science is part of our heredity. […] We are descended from the guys who figured it out. And going back through the four-billion-year history of life on the Earth, we are descended from the ones who, on some many fundamental levels, understood their environment, were in resonance with that environment. That’s the way evolution has made us. The ones who weren’t in resonance died. So of course science is natural for us. And the idea that it’s only for a small elite or a privileged few who have the time and inclination and, by the way, money to spend ten or fifteen years preparing, is simply wrong. It is the birthright of every human being to understand science. And it’s essential if we are to control, particularly in a democracy, a future which depends so clearly on science and technology.

Also, it’s enormous fun. Socrates said — and by the way he is not someone whom we give complete, uncritical praise to, if you’ve seen Cosmos — the greatest of human pleasures was to know a deep thing well. And I believe science provides that pleasure. And even if you can think of a pleasure that’s maybe one higher on the list, knowing a deep thing well must be high up in the list of the deepest and most satisfying human experiences. The idea that science is only for scientists deprives the rest of the human community of that pleasure. Suppose someone said that sex was only for scientists? I don’t think many people will accept that rule. Why should the idea that science is only for scientists be accepted — or indeed, why shouldn’t everybody, on some level, feel that science is accessible, part of the way they view the world?

On exercising skepticism in daily life — when buying a used car, say — and why that, quite simply, is science:

When you’re exercising that skeptical metier, you are being a scientist. That’s all it’s about. It’s figure things out, see how they fit together, be willing to do something quantitative, do not accept the words of people who call themselves authorities, make sure that the claims are valid. That’s all that science asks.

A brilliant argument against the creationists’ pleas for “equal time,” and their misuse of the terms “theory” and “hypothesis”:

I think we all agree that fair play is important, and that if there were only one view being presented to the bulk of Americans, that that is an evil which ought to be undone. But let us look a little more closely at what the evil is. Every Sunday, all over America, on many different channels, it is possible to see the representatives of one view presenting their opinion. How many programs are there on Darwin, compared to how many programs there are on the account in the first chapter of Genesis? The preponderance is […], just in national media, by far towards the creationists. If they were truly concerned with equal time, I think that would be terrific. The first thing that they would do would be to preach Darwin from the pulpit. […]

I would even, in the interest of fair play, be happy to accept the appellation “theory” in its everyday use, for evolution, if the creationists were willing to talk about the “the God theory,” “the God hypothesis.” It might be right. It’s certainly possible, particularly a God who is sufficiently remote in the scheme of causality, who does not intervene in everyday life — it is perfectly possible that something called God, I don’t know exactly what it is, set things in motion and established the physical laws some fifteen to twenty billion years ago. There is no compelling evidence for it, there is no compelling evidence against it. It’s a hypothesis. I believe that if we were to use words like “hypothesis” and “theory” in an equitable manner in this confrontation, we would be in fine shape. The trouble is when the well-established bodies of knowledge in science are given this slightly pejorative use of the word “theory” and the Babylonian cosmology which is enshrined in the Book of Genesis is not called a theory or hypothesis. That’s an inequity.

A prescient warning about creationists’ attempts to purge evolution from the school textbooks — are you listening, Texas State Board of Education? — and its likely effect on generations of American students:

If the teaching of biological evolution is successfully challenged, it doesn’t have to be done in every state. Because of the profit motive in the publishing business, you have only to convince a few states — Texas, say, or California — that you shouldn’t teach evolution, and the textbook manufacturers will change their texts, and all the other states will willy-nilly have to follow […] So there is a real danger that a generation of American youngsters will grow up not only ignorant of biological evolution — the Darwinian insight, one of the great scientific ideas of all time — but afraid of it, having a vague sense that there’s something unclean about it.

On the perils of narrow-minded fundamentalist religion, the ignorance it fosters, and the need for a broader awareness of the world’s cultures:

Let’s take another example: the intolerance and ignorance of the creationists towards other cultures. It is astonishing that in all those pleas for equal time, we don’t hear from them a plea for the Buddhist or the Hindu view of creation […] Should not Native American cosmologies be taught in the schools? Should not West African cosmologies be taught in the schools? Should not Polynesian cosmologies be taught in the schools? Are we talking about the teaching of science, or are we talking about the teaching of creation myths of many cultures, each of which represents a dignified and courageous attempt by people of a pre-scientific age to understand the universe around them?

Now the sense that it’s just science and fundamentalist Christianity, and there’s nothing else in the world, is dangerous for another reason — because we are moving into a time when the United States cannot — even if it wished, and it certainly has wished — cannot dominate the rest of the world. It’s essential for us to understand other cultures, other religions, other ways of life. […] The implicit teaching that there are no other cultures worth mentioning, that there are no other religions with equal claims to validity, equal scholarship, equal historical importance, equal poetic significance, is not only a deprivation in a profound human and educational sense; it is dangerous for the future of this country.

On how appeals to tradition and authority shut down thinking, the most powerful tool we have:

And in general, the idea that we must accept arguments from authority, that we must memorize by rote, is an encouragement to stop doing the one thing which humans are better than any other plant or animal on the planet in doing — and that is thinking. We are a thinking species. That’s the only thing we’re good at. We’re not faster than the other animals. We’re not better camouflaged. We’re not stronger. We’re only smarter.

And sometimes we outsmart ourselves. Certainly many of the problems — a list as long as my arm, everyone knows them — are concerned with the misapplication, the misuse of science and technology. Nevertheless, if you think about any of those issues — environmental pollution, the threat of nuclear war, all the rest of it — there is no conceivable solution apart from science and technology. We must have that general understanding of science and technology to survive.

And the stirring conclusion:

If […] we are being taught, generations of bright youngsters, […] not to question, not to think for yourself, only to go to the traditional values — by the way, that tradition goes back less than a tenth of a percent of human history; it’s traditional only if you, as Margaret said, are myopic and have tunnel vision — that poses enormous dangers. Instead, we need the kind of attitudes that, as far as I understand, the American Humanist Association has always been dedicated to: courageous questioning; the best possible intellectual efforts to understand what the world in fact is, as opposed to what we wish it to be; compassion for other human beings; a devotion to the entire human species and not just one subset of it; in other words a planetary perspective, which in the broadest sense comes out of the vision of a cosmic evolution.

Yes.

Believe it or not, there’s much more to that speech, and it’s all worth listening to — if only to be reminded of what a powerful champion for science and humanism Carl Sagan was, and how much voices like his are still needed today. Check it out in its entirety here.

(Photo via AGU)

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