“One thing this did do was recruit me into the public defense of evolutionary science. Once I had a sense of what ID was all about, I was more prepared to tackle it head-on.”
—Nathan H. Lents
In October 2019, Dr. Nathan H. Lents was a featured speaker at CSICon, and his presentation was one of my favorites. His talk was titled “Human Errors: What Our Quirks Tell Us about Our Past,” and even though I consider myself fairly knowledgeable about evolutionary matters, I learned quite a bit. Much of what I learned from Lents has been great ammunition for use in conversations with friends and foes alike who are Bible literalists. You know: those folks who maintain that humans, and indeed all life on earth, were intelligently designed.
What Lents’s presentation made crystal clear was that if life were designed by a thinking agent, it certainly was not by a very intelligent one. Perhaps it was too busy to attend some mandatory deity training classes, something like “M-Class Planet Life-form Design 101.” Or maybe it is just extraordinarily incompetent in general. (That would explain a lot more than our biological quirks.) In any case, perhaps fundamentalists should consider renaming their pseudoscientific ID “theory” to SD “theory” … “Sloppy Design.” Or if they want to keep the current acronym, “Inept Design” works just as well.
I reached out to Lents a few months ago requesting an interview to discuss this topic and discovered that the otherwise healthy and fit forty-one-year-old had just had a serious battle with COVID-19. As an aside, if you think your age or physical condition makes you impervious and you feel no need to take all possible precautions to limit exposure, then you owe it to yourself to read Lents’s account of his battle with the virus in Psychology Today. Scary stuff.
Lents has a B.S. degree in biology, a PhD in pharmacological and physiological sciences, and is a full professor at John Jay College. He has published research in the areas of cell and cancer biology, genetics, forensic science, and toxicology, as well as the teaching and learning of science—particularly evolution. He has authored two books, and his articles have been published in journals and magazines such as Skeptic, Science, the Wall Street Journal, the Observer, Psychology Today, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Lents also maintains The Human Evolution Blog and authors most of its content. He also blogs for Psychology Today under the tagline “Beastly Behavior: How Evolution Shaped Our Minds and Bodies.” He is the host and executive producer of the podcast This World of Humans, which focuses on new research in the area of biology and social science.
Rob Palmer: Hello, Nathan. Your CSICon presentation, which I thoroughly enjoyed, was about flaws in human biology and was based on your most recent book, but you wrote an earlier book on a different evolutionary topic. Please tell me about that one.
Nathan H. Lents: My first book, Not So Different: Finding Human Nature in Animals, was on comparative human-animal behavior. It looks like it’s a book about animal behavior, but really it’s just looking at animals as a lens for understanding why humans behave the way we do.
This was a popular science book, so there was nothing new and earth-shattering about animals in there (even though sometimes I am still quoted in the media as an “animal behavior expert”—hah! I have not done one bit of research on animal behavior!). Instead, my three goals for the book were: 1) help people see that animals have most of the same complex emotions and drives that we have; 2) show that those drives are parallels and share an evolutionary origin and history, so we can learn something about human behavior by examining animal behavior; and 3) educate people on human evolution more broadly with a focus on behavior.
What I like to do with my teaching and writing is expose people to data so they get a sense of how we know what we know. In this case, it’s how we draw inferences about human behavior by observing animal behavior. The book has been called an evolutionary psychology book, which doesn’t bother me, but I didn’t intend it as such.
Palmer: And can you describe the book that the CSICon presentation was based upon?
Lents: My second book, Human Errors: A Panorama of Our Glitches, from Pointless Bones to Broken Genes, is about the unfinished business of evolution throughout the human body, from genes and cells to diet, disease, and even behavior/psychology. My goal for this book was to dispel two big misconceptions: that evolution produces perfection or anything like it, and that humans are the pinnacle of evolution.
Palmer: Amazingly, proponents of ID believe that humans are the apex of creation, the most perfectly designed life-form as we were made in the image of God.
Lents: In fact, I make the argument that human bodies may be more flawed than most other animals simply because we have shifted to cultural selection and cooperation, rather than living and dying based on how good our bodies work. Along the way, I hope to educate others about the sloppy mechanisms of evolution and get in some jabs at intelligent design. However, I did not write the book as a rebuttal to intelligent design. That would be a whole different book, with different examples and a focus on mechanisms of mutation and selection and all that. I didn’t think that the ID proponents would even notice the book—and if they noticed, they wouldn’t read it. And if they read it, they wouldn’t care. But I was deeply wrong on that. Not only did they notice and care (but not read!), they came out with guns blazing, and I was public enemy #1 in that community for a few months.
Palmer: So, you were surprised? What were the criticisms?
Lents: I was a bit blind-sided since I just didn’t expect it, but also because their criticisms were extremely incoherent. They don’t have a cohesive theory, just a series of criticisms that can often be incompatible with each other. Half the time they were attempting to pick apart my individual examples and find ways to present them as good design, not bad design, and then the other half they would say, “we never said perfect design.” They are totally unmoored by the constraints of consistent logic with their arguments because, as I said, they don’t have a unifying theory. I don’t even think they understand that they don’t have a theory and that’s why they are unbothered by their own contradictions and inconsistencies. They exploit gaps in our knowledge and then, as we fill those gaps, they just move on.
Palmer: Did this experience change anything for you?
Lents: One thing this did do was recruit me into the public defense of evolutionary science. Once I had a sense of what ID was all about, I was more prepared to tackle it head-on. So, when I heard that Michael Behe was putting out a new book, this time on something he calls “devolution,” a totally unscientific nonsense word, I was ready. I got my hands on an advance copy and began writing a critique of the main point. Then, someone in the skeptical community heard I was working on it and Science invited me to review it for them. Of course, I said yes.
I ended up with way more material than I could use, so I chopped it up into different reviews, I think three of them in other outlets and some I put in my own blog, The Human Evolution Blog. Once again, the ID folks went crazy and wrote all kinds of nasty articles about me. But this time I was prepared and kept the discussion to the science. Some of my colleagues and I just kept pummeling Behe’s terrible treatment of the science in his book. Besides his misinterpretations of basically everything he writes about, he made some sloppy errors that even his allies began to admit were mistakes. In the most charitable interpretation possible, his first book, Darwin’s Black Box, forced the field to work on some stubborn problems regarding the evolution of complexity. However, his next two books totally missed their marks and were easily dismissed by the scientific community.
Palmer: What can you tell me about your CSICon experience?
Lents: Of course, I had heard about CSICon, but this was my first time going, and I had a wonderful time. I met a lot of interesting people that I’m still in touch with, both among the other presenters and the attendees. It’s a vibrant community of deep thinkers, but it’s also a lot of fun. I think the best people are those who take their work but not themselves seriously. I am slated to be among the presenters again at the next CSICon, whenever that might be, and I very much look forward to it.
Palmer: Now that you survived COVID, what are you currently working on?
Lents: My third book. It doesn’t have a title yet but is on the evolution of human sexuality. I begin the book by discussing the new era of sexual upheaval that we now find ourselves in. Many young people are eschewing labels and approaching sexuality in a very free and open way. No one is gay or straight anymore, they’re pansexual or demisexual or whatever else; it’s the same with gender. They are nonconforming or nonbinary or gender fluid. And even relationships are changing. For the first time in history, the majority of adults in the U.S. are unmarried. Polyamory, lifelong bachelorhood, and serial monogamy are all on the rise, as are open marriages and other nontraditional relationships. Everything we thought was the anchor of family and society is being questioned or even tossed out and this is unsettling to more than just religious conservatives (although they are certainly the most bothered).
But, actually, my book will argue that this is a return to a more natural and expansive relationship with sex and gender that our ancestors once had. Other animals have much more diverse uses for sex in their societies, and they experiment more with gender roles. Both anthropological and historical evidence argues that we did once also. What we are seeing is not a radical departure from the “natural” use of sex and relationships, but a radical return to the natural state of our sexuality and sexual relationships. Things like monogamy and fidelity, strict heterosexuality, the gender binary—these are all social constructs that have little basis in biology and are much more recent than most people think. That doesn’t mean they are bad, but it does mean that they are malleable or even optional. Evolution has shaped us to be far more sexually diverse than modern society has allowed us, until now.
Palmer: And besides writing the new book, what else have you been up to?
Lents: When I’m not writing about topics like this, I teach and run my own research lab. I work on genetics and evolution and, lately, I have been working on how new genes evolve, focusing on the human genome and occasionally the other apes. My lab has identified several new human-specific genes, and we are now working on our hypothetical model for how they emerged. We tend to think of our genomes as relatively stable, but that’s because we think in timescales of a generation or two. Over thousands or millions of years, our genomes are highly dynamic. Chromosomes break and then fuse together, often sloppily. Some regions get duplicated, often repeatedly, while others get chopped up. Genes jump from one chromosome to another, mobile elements come crashing through and so on. For we who study this, we have to try to piece together past events with limited data. It’s like a puzzle with most of the pieces missing.
Without a time machine, we often cannot definitively know exactly what happened, let alone how it happened. Instead, we model the events, make hypotheses, and then develop statistical ways to test them. Gradually, with the collective contributions of thousands of scientists, the truth is revealed and refined. However, with the increasing ability to get DNA from ancient extinct species, we are beginning to fill in more and more of the gaps. We’ve gotten powerful confirmation of some of our key inferences, but we’ve also gotten some big surprises that forced us to toss out things we thought we knew. It’s a very exciting time to be studying the evolution of the human genome because the tools we now use every day didn’t even exist just a decade ago. I can’t wait to see what’s possible in another decade!
Palmer: Did your bout with the coronavirus change your perspective on things, personally or otherwise?
Lents: The day the news broke that refrigerated trucks were called upon daily to transport the deceased from the hospital right down the street from my house was the same day that I realized that my emerging symptoms could be COVID-19. So yes, my own experience with the virus was frightening. But observing the selfishness, antiscience bias, and willful ignorance of my fellow Americans is downright terrifying. It is infuriating that so much of the country watched New York suffer through one of the most tragic episodes in our history and then refused to learn any lessons from it, preferring instead, it seems, to learn those painful lessons firsthand.
In the chapter in Human Errors on our flawed minds, I briefly touch on why our brains work this way, but I now wish I had given it a more thorough treatment. There is a great deal of research on how and why our brains simply dismiss and distort facts that we don’t want to believe. What is curious, however, is how much more profoundly Americans suffer from this mental disease than do others.
Also, in the closing chapter on the future of humanity, I discuss the many ways through which we could bring about an apocalyptic scenario and reverse the past six centuries of our scientific, technological, and humanitarian progress. An infectious pandemic is right at the top of the list, but I didn’t map out the way it would actually progress. The simplistic view is that some virus suddenly kills most of the people and we’re left with a plucky band of survivors struggling to rebuild an empty crumbling world. But that’s almost certainly not how it would play out.
Palmer: So, what do you think is the more likely scenario?
Lents: An apocalyptic pandemic would begin with a period of intense death and suffering but would be followed by a more gradual economic collapse, poverty and famine, widespread strife and desperation, the dismantling of political systems, and the complete deterioration of social order. Furthermore, it wouldn’t have to fully encircle the globe to lead to catastrophe. Hitting only the most powerful countries could be enough. A pandemic would most likely lead to chaos and collapse over the course of years, not weeks.
Palmer: I’m afraid to ask, but do you think we are on that course right now?
Lents: While I don’t think that’s the path we’re currently on, we are seeing hints of it. Now imagine if the next virus is even more infectious and even more deadly. We are experiencing a stress test of our ability to contain a pandemic and failing miserably, at least in the United States. The optimistic view would be that we learn from this pandemic on how to better prepare for the next one. That is the view that I am taking, less because I think it is accurate and more because the alternative is unthinkable. In the short-term, I think the way that we truly “end” COVID-19 is with a vaccine, and there are two currently in phase III trials and many more in the pipeline. That’s where I’m putting my hope, so we need to gear up for the next battle: anti-vaxxers.
Palmer: Absolutely! Some of the COVID-19 conspiracy claims widely circulating now seem to be targeted toward frightening folks away from the anticipated vaccine—our only hope of returning to normalcy. Crazy! Thanks for your time. I hope to see you again soon at a future COVID-free CSICon made possible through vaccination science.
Photo credits: Unless otherwise attributed, all photos of Lents are courtesy of Karl Withakay.
For further exploration:
- The Human Evolution Blog
- Harriet Hall’s review of Human Errors
- Lents on Facebook
- Lents’s WordPress site
- Lents’s Wikipedia article
Other articles by Rob Palmer pertaining to Creationism: