Dr. Niles Eldredge is curator of the Department of Invertebrates in Manhattan's American Museum of Natural History. In 1982 he published his first book for a non-scientific audience: Monkey Business, a look at the Creation Science movement that had reemerged in the late 1970s. Since then Dr. Eldredge has written over a dozen books meant for scientists and the general audience alike. His latest, the soon to be published What Drives Evolution? The search for a unified theory for the earth and the living world, deals with biodiversity and the lessons of evolutionary history
Q .Why do people accept so many aspects of science, especially medicine and technology, yet vehemently oppose the science behind the science of origins like evolution and cosmology?
A. There is an ambivalence towards science in American society. Scientists are respected because they give you a new way to clean your dishes and good stuff like that. People also recognize that the military might of our country and the great technological basis of our society are both due to science research.
But when science conflicts with a belief system, the belief system tends to win. Currently, we are in a era that is pro-grassroots conservative, and because of the conflict with conservative values, especially fundamentalist Christian values, evolution easily comes under fire. In addition, people are also wary of science we have that old image of the "mad" scientist.
Q. What makes Americans so wary of science?
A. People appreciate the bad side of science. Along with cures for disease and marvels of technology, science has given us weapons of mass destruction, pollution, and all sorts of ills that are the by-product of technology. There is a strong anti-intellectual streak in the American people which, I think, is the downside to Yankee ingenuity. Americans value their independence; they don't like others in authorities telling them they are wrong. There is a backlash against ivory towers and authorities, and unfortunately scientists are seen as representative of both.
Q. So, what is the role of science in society today?
A. We have gone so far as a technological civilization that we can't
go back and still remain the same people. It would be catastrophic. Likewise
we cannot maintain the pace we are now. Aside from the creationist controversy,
the other big issue that I have focused on is the biodiversity crisis.
[The loss of animal and plant species] is just the larger picture of the
rapid growth of the human population. We are so used to abundance that
we feel that everything is for the taking.
We can't behave like this forever, so our only choice is to go forward. We need an understanding of science to create a sustainable future.
Q. What can scientists do?
A. Scientists must be more vocal and, increasingly, we are. We are disturbed and alarmed at the loss of the species, the hole in the ozone layer and global warming (to whatever extent that global warming truly is occurring).
The idea is to get the ears of both the public and the politicians. Despite what most people think, politicians listen to what their constituents are saying. Scientists do have a number of lobbying groups working for them the biggest of them is the National Academy of Sciences. They have been an independent and effective source of information that Washington has regularly used for advice.
Q. How realistic is it to feel that education can solve these problems?
A. We can't do it all, and no one would listen to us if we tried to do it all. The best thing we can do is to ensure the quality of public education. We should give people, especially children in our public schools, the opportunity to make informed decisions based on the best evidence available.
This reminds me of when I was in a crowded open-air flea market in Gainesville, Florida last week. I took a moment to sit down and watch the crowds pass by when it dawned on me: these folks, in general, don't give a damn one way or the other about evolution.
But if pressed, they would be against it.
Evolution has nothing to do with their lives-and that is okay by me. They can think whatever the hell they want. Just as long as faulty science is not shoved down the throats of our kids at school. That's what really matters.