Guillermo Paz-y-Mino-C is an Assistant Professor of Evolutionary Biology at UMass Dartmouth, the author of Evolution Stands Faith Up: Reflections on Evolution's Wars (Science, Evolution and Creationism), and a leading public speaker in the secular community. His work on the incompatibility hypothesis 'science versus supernatural causation' has been featured in The Boston Globe, The Standard Times, New England Science Public Series Evolution, and Secular World Magazine.
Professor Paz-y-Mino-C has published more than one hundred editorials about science and the environment and organized international discussions for scholars about the future of science education. Johnny Monsarrat interviewed him for the Richard Dawkins Foundation.
RDF: Thank you for speaking with me today. I hear you play guitar!
Guillermo Paz-y-Mino-C: I play a little bit of classic and Bossa Nova. I still have some of the Latin American tunes with me. I wish I could play more — I was a very serious player when I was in high school, now it is more sporadic. But, of course, I do have my guitar around. I also paint: the problem these days is that my hands no longer follow instructions from my brain. (Laughs) I've done mostly sketches on plants; I have those on my website. It's part of my background as a biology illustrator.
RDF: Were you raised in a religion?
Guillermo Paz-y-Mino-C: I grew up in South America. I'm native to Ecuador –I did my high school studies there– and come from a not very religious family. My folks were social Catholics, I would say; committed to justice and equality, progressive, liberal. But I went to a religious college, a very good university, the Pontifical Catholic University of Ecuador. My classmates and instructors always knew I was an atheist.
Guillermo Paz-y-Mino-C: I came to graduate school in the US right after getting my Bachelor of Science in Biology. I went to the University of Missouri in St. Louis. But I was in Ecuador until 1998. Now, I am an atheist American citizen.
RDF: It's difficult to be an atheist in Ecuador, but probably also in Missouri, I'm guessing.
Guillermo Paz-y-Mino-C: (Laughs) You know, I would say it's never been a simple issue. It's actually become more difficult to be an atheist now than before. Perhaps more than half of my family, I tend to believe, is atheist. It wasn't a big issue as a teenager to be a nonbeliever, perhaps because I wasn't an in-your-face secular. But now, I am.
RDF: But Ecuador is a place with a lot of Catholics, yes?
Guillermo Paz-y-Mino-C: Ecuador is essentially a Catholic country. It is very interesting that in Ecuador there is significant tolerance for some otherwise controversial discussions worldwide. For example, there are no major issues in terms of gay partnerships and gay marriage. There's not big opposition to it, particularly in the major cities –Quito, the capital of Ecuador, where I grew up, is more European, liberal in that respect. So you would be surprised at how progressive Ecuador can be as a Catholic Latin American countries in terms of secularism.
RDF: Doesn't Ecuador legally limit marriage to a man and a women, since 2009? Wasn't same-sex activity illegal until 1997? I'm getting all this from my friend, The Internet.
Guillermo Paz-y-Mino-C: But not culturally. There wasn't any persecution of it. I do recall this very well: how quick those discussions were, when the country was moving on to accepting peoples' rights to choose their sexual orientation, accepting legal unions of gays in the mid 1990s. In addition, Ecuador ranks seventh in the world in women involvement in the parliament and positions of power, so the country has its amazing peculiarities in terms of progressiveness.
RDF: We must have some readers who are adding it all up: famous atheist, author, plays the guitar, and they're hoping that you're unmarried.
Guillermo Paz-y-Mino-C: (Laughs) Well, my Ecuadorian spouse, Avelina Espinosa, is also a biologist. We came to the US as graduate students. Nowadays we collaborate as researchers. Coming to the US has been an enjoyable challenge. Graduate school was tough. Also, making a career as an academic has been difficult, in a competitive environment. But I would say that once you are an open atheist, once you are opinionated about it, once you defend your rights and those of others to be atheists, additional challenges start. If your credentials are, like mine: male, Hispanic, evolutionist, atheists, the rest of the ride is destined to commotion.
RDF: What's your most recent challenge, academically speaking?
Guillermo Paz-y-Mino-C: Right now, I'm interested in several discussions around cognition and the origin and evolution of the complex brain. One of them involves how people perceive reality, how people understand it, and what conflicts they have when being religious at the same time that the world of facts come upon them.
RDF: For example, if I look at a handful of French fries, and I choose to believe that I'm not going to gain weight if I eat it, that's a kind of cognitive dissonance: are you looking at stuff like that?
Guillermo Paz-y-Mino-C: I'm more interested in how people learn about reality, and the conflicts they experience between what is factual and their beliefs, illusions. For example, how pseudoscience can affect proper judgment of reality and evidence. In the studies that we have done in collaboration with Avelina Espinosa, what we see is a connection between understanding science and also accepting evolution, one feeds the other. But what we find most interesting is that both [science and evolution literacy] are impacted if belief in supernatural causation is involved. High religiosity correlates with low science or evolution knowledge.
RDF: So a belief in religion is strongly counter-correlated with learning science and accepting evolution?
Guillermo Paz-y-Mino-C: What religion does, what belief does, is to disrupt, distort, delay proper acceptance of evidence. We consider belief in the supernatural to be a cultural pollutant. If beliefs are strong, an individual can end up rejecting evidence, either about science –or about climate change, or about vaccines — and particularly evolution.
RDF: You're saying that religion not only proposes alternative theories to science, but that it also affects how people see any type of evidence that's presented to them?
Guillermo Paz-y-Mino-C: Religion, blind belief, lead people to be open to pseudo-explanations about realty. So it affects all aspects of understanding, of comprehending reality. It's good to have imagination because it's part of creativity, even, for example, in the scientific process. But imagination can be overwhelmed by religiosity, and together can send any individual down the wrong path, the path of superstition.
RDF: We atheists tend to focus on the most dangerous religions. But it sounds like you're saying that even the liberal and friendly religions can be corrosive, because they encourage people to rely on faith and ignore evidence.
Guillermo Paz-y-Mino-C: I agree with that because, at some point, even mild religion is a stopper. When an individual has faith, he is prone to belief in whatever reality may be, rather than in what actually is; faith can be a stopper of thought in many dimensions. And in areas of science, it is a stopper of progress. In our studies we have found that, for example, people who accept evolution also accept the reality of climate change, they're pro-environment, pro human rights, pro individuals making decisions about their own reproduction.
RDF: So their actual perception of reality is changed? It's not just that they want to resist evidence, it's that they almost can't see it?
Guillermo Paz-y-Mino-C: Yes. And that's a very important distinction to make. Because the process of understanding reality is a process of education: it's about applying science logic and methods to everything. It's not only about bench science, or about sending a rocket to Mars, or about how you perform a surgery. It's everything around you. It is amazing that we live in this world of high technology, where everything is available to us (computers, cell phone satellite, medicine) and individuals can take that for granted, individuals accept it. One has to keep in mind that what gave us such comfort comes from applying the scientific method to solve ordinary problems. But, disturbingly, people can be perfectly comfortable with such applications of science, and live with them, but not with the implications of science: that once we understand reality, the non-realistic explanations about it, the beliefs about it, the superstition, should be just discarded, and forever.
RDF: You've just written a book called <i>Evolution Stands Faith Up: Reflections on Evolution's Wars</i>. There does not seem to be a single theme. Do you consider it to be a collection of essays?
Guillermo Paz-y-Mino-C: You are right about that sentiment. Actually, the book is a collection of editorials that I wrote over the past few years. They've appeared in newspapers, magazines, and websites, and I decided to compile them in a book. The book has 21 chapters in which I address diverse topics, such as medicine, healing, the Boston Charles Hayden Planetarium, Darwin Day, or the Galapagos islands. There are quite a few topics in there. But the common denominator is the "evolution discussions in society".
RDF: Would it be fair to say that a lot of books educate you about evolution, but they don't educate you on the history of debate, and the most common arguments made by both sides, but your book educates you in those areas, as well?
Guillermo Paz-y-Mino-C: What I tried to do was pick up a topic that was being discussed –it could be at the national or international levels– and gave it the twist of its relevance for the evolution debate. When we're discussing, for example, science education problems in the US, let's say, I took that opportunity to address science standards in the context of acceptance of evolution; or link that discussion with the future of Academia in the US; or create a bridge to discuss how atheists rank high in science, evolution, history awareness, in contrast to the religious.
RDF: To me the most interesting part of your book, outside of religion, is medical science. Your second essay is titled "Faith Healing vs. Medical Science". What is it about modern medicine that causes so many people to be distrustful, and even resentful of doctors, who have got to be responsible for saving millions of lives?
Guillermo Paz-y-Mino-C: I think that overall, people tend to trust physicians. There is evidence in surveys documenting that. When you ask "Who do you trust most?", and if you posit the question to the general US public, science ranks first. People tend to trust scientists and physicians: I think that there are several components to this, geographic location, social and economic backgrounds. But there is trust of physicians overall.
Guillermo Paz-y-Mino-C: But let me put it this way, in matters of how harmful belief in the supernatural can be to society: It's very convenient to suddenly believe in faith-healing in an system where most people have been vaccinated, where the food we eat tends to be clean, where there is already reduction of pathogens that can affect us. So the probability of becoming sick in a semi-sterilized environment, say Boston, is by far reduced compared to when you live in remote locations. The idea of vaccines is to secure most of the population remains healthy. So when everybody has been vaccinated, and if a few individuals choose not to, the latter can do well for a while. But the not vaccinated "by choice" don't understand how vaccines operate at the level of a population. They may not realize that as soon as those numbers of not vaccinated people increase, then pathogens will infect them, thus threatening themselves and others. Mandatory vaccination exists in many countries to secure public good, and this policy comes from a scientific rationale.
RDF: Do you think that knowledge of the scientific process can help?
Guillermo Paz-y-Mino-C: It's the foundation: There is this concerning idea that's also been sold: "it is wrong to put artificial things in your body that don't belong there." It sounds naturalish, and it makes sense somehow, but people are wrong, because "common sense" tends to be wrong. Actually, while a vaccine comes from the outside, from the artificiality of a medical laboratory, it is good for your body, and there's a scientific explanation for why it is ultimately good for all around you. If the public is not educated properly, then the public can be lured in any direction. And going back to the notion of not trusting medical science, and replacing it with belief, or faith healing, the big problem for society is that public health, the good done to others can be disrupted in the name of supernatural causation. And that is the problem. Ignorance is the problem.
RDF: That's a great place to end. Thank you so much.
You can find Evolution Stands Faith Up: Reflections on Evolution's Wars (Science, Evolution and Creationism) on Amazon.com, and see Professor Paz-y-Mino-C's lecture to the Atheist Alliance of America here, and read his blog, Evolution Literacy.
Written By: RDFRS