In 1519, Hernando Cortez dropped anchor just off the coast of what is now Mexico. His men brought a native back to the ship. Cortez asked the name of the exotic land, and the native responded, “Ma c’ubah than.” The accent was unfamiliar, and the Spaniard heard it as “Yucatan.”
Today, maps the world over all agree that this piece of land is known as the Yucatan Peninsula. Which is fine. Except that “Ma c’ubah than” means “I do not understand you.”
This little anecdote is helpful in illustrating a basic principle of communication. We must ask the correct question and have enough understanding of the answer to make use of it. Cortez asked a reasonable question. He got a reasonable answer. But the dialog proved fruitless because neither person spoke the other’s language.
The same thing happens frequently when theists and non-theists converse. Especially when it comes to matters of science. Too often, one person has a thorough understanding of the subject matter and the other doesn’t. And when that happens, all that results is a misunderstanding.
Take for example the oft-cited link between “Darwinism” and “Social Darwinism.” Theists often cite Social Darwinism as one of the evils of evolution. But are they even speaking the same language as those of us who know something about the subject?
These arrangements did not in any way affect that which we understand by the word ” tenure,” that is, a man’s farm, but they related solely to cattle, which we consider a chattel. It has appeared necessary to devote some space to this subject, inasmuch as that usually acute writer Sir Henry Maine has accepted the word ” tenure ” in its modern interpretation, and has built up a theory under which the Irish chief ” developed ” into a feudal baron. I can find nothing in the Brehon laws to warrant this theory of social Darwinism, and believe further study will show that the Cain Saerrath and the Cain Aigillue relate solely to what we now call chattels, and did not in any way affect what we now call the freehold, the possession of the land.
This is the first mention of the topic. It’s from an article by Joseph Fisher in 1877. (If you’ve forgotten, On the Origin of Species“ was published in 1859.) By the time the idea was a solidified concept, Darwin had the chance to review it, primarily in the work of Francis Galton. He rejected the idea.
The aid which we feel impelled to give to the helpless is mainly an incidental result of the instinct of sympathy, which was originally acquired as part of the social instincts, but subsequently rendered, in the manner previously indicated, more tender and more widely diffused. Nor could we check our sympathy, even at the urging of hard reason, without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature. — Charles Darwin
The simple fact is that Social Darwinism has only the name “Darwin” in common with “Darwinism.” And “Darwinism” — if it ever existed — has long since given way to the scientific theory of evolution and natural selection. And anything remotely related to social darwinism cannot be found in this theory.
Let’s look at another example of mis-communication. Here’s a question from noted theist Francis Collins.
“If all of life is meaningless, and ultimately absurd, why bother to march straight forward, why stand in the queue as though life as a whole makes sense?” –Francis Schaeffer, The God Who Is There
Any atheist who’s thought about this question realizes that it’s loaded. In effect, it’s speaking a different language. We can’t even answer it without changing the question, since we don’t even think about “meaning” or “life making sense” in the same way. Unfortunately, any answer we give will be based on our worldview, which makes no sense to the theist.
We might as well be talking two different languages for the amount of knowledge we’re exchanging.
It’s a real problem, and I don’t know if there’s a good answer to it today. Anyone who has taken a course in debate knows the first rule of thumb: Know your opponent’s material at least as well as he does. The same holds true for less formal discussions. If both sides aren’t speaking the same language, and aware of the same set of information, nothing productive will happen.
The long term answer is simple. Education. The two examples I’ve given would simply never happen if everyone learned the real theory of evolution. Because evolution — or more precisely, evolutionary biology — accounts for perceptions of meaning, and it doesn’t include social darwinism. It’s as simple as that. But a lot of people don’t know it.
Admittedly, it is a puzzle how Francis Collins can understand evolution as well as he does, yet miss the obvious answer to questions of meaning. Education doesn’t guarantee total agreement. Not by a long shot. But education has always proved to be the best antidote to quackery of all forms, including religious ideology. I believe that the statistics bear this out. In countries where nearly everyone accepts evolution, there are virtually no Young Earth Creationists. No Biblical Literalists, either. Sure, there are always exceptions to the rule, but the rule is… well… the rule.
So the moral of the story is this: Before wading into a discussion, make sure you’re speaking the same language. If not, you may need to teach someone your language, or learn theirs.