It’s that Guy! An Interview with 2010 Humanist of the Year Bill Nye Part One

Bill Nye, best known for his fast-taking, high-energy “Bill Nye the Science Guy” TV persona, is on a mission to reach young people through every available medium. Following his hotly contested debate with creationist Ken Ham in February, Nye teamed up with Discover editor Corey Powell and pounded out a book in defense of evolutionary theory. Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation, published by St. Martin’s Press, has just been released. Our Science and Religion Correspondent Clay Farris Naff caught up with Nye in New York for a telephone interview and found that neither his energy nor his humor have flagged since the iconic television show ended.

Read part one of the interview below and read part two here. Since your wonderful show, Bill Nye the Science Guy, you’ve spoken out on quite a few scientific issues. What prompted you to rise to the defense of evolution?

Bill Nye: Well, a guy challenged me to a debate. I pondered on it for a few months, but I thought it would be a way to raise awareness of this very troubling situation in the Commonwealth of Kentucky. So, Ken Ham reached out to you?

Nye: Oh yeah. It was a fundraiser for them—and that’s the big risk. However, I believe in the next five years they will have a great deal of difficulty raising money. I was on CBS this morning, and here’s what I was able to squeeze in. (You gotta talk fast on TV!) I pointed out that that the Answers in Genesis website has some job openings where you have to provide testimony as to your religious beliefs and you cannot be gay. I guess you can do that if it’s your own private business—the whole Hobby Lobby thing—but you cannot accept state tax dollars if you do that. Their claim is that their facilities bring in tourists. Be that as it may, you can’t have religion or sexual preference as a condition of employment if you’re going to accept state dollars. We have the First Amendment and all that, you know! Is it true your new book sprang from this debate?

Nye: Well, I was working on another book, about climate change. After the debate the publisher, St. Martin’s Press, said, “Nope, you gotta change! We want it about evolution. Let’s get it done. Let’s go!” So, man, I’ve really pushed. You know Nespresso brand coffee? The make fancy coffee with a fancy espresso machine. I filled two recycling bags with their high-end capsules. That’s a lot of coffee! The book’s title (Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation) is certainly ironic, and almost stealth. Are you hoping that some people who are already committed to creationism will pick it up expecting to find what they’ve already heard?

Nye: I hope they pick up and read it. I consider it a primer on basic evolutionary ideas. I’m the first to admit I’m not a full-time evolutionary biologist, but I am a science educator and so I feel strongly that this book has the potential to educate people about the fundamentals of evolution: why it’s such an important theory, and why it’s such an amazing idea, and how diligent Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace were to pull this thing off. Did you go back to On the Origin of Species as you wrote your book?

Nye: Absolutely! And I read some of Wallace’s stuff, which, frankly, I was not as familiar with. Wallace’s Rule is in the book. It’s about speciation of isolated populations. He discovered this principle. He was out in the field even more than Darwin was. It was a living for him.

Nye: Yes, but the key thing really was that Darwin was sixteen years older and he got around to writing his tome before Wallace did. And he wrote well enough that we can all understand it. Also, Darwin was quite the experimentalist. He messed around with roses and barnacles and bees and stuff. I had a chance to visit his home in 2009, on the bicentennial anniversary of his birth. It’s just amazing to walk around there and think of him pottering around the grounds of his estate doing experiments.

Nye: It’s also important to think of Darwin as a young guy, as a grad student who thought, “Go on a trip for five years? Cool!” We have all those pictures of him with a long white beard, but when he really got out there in the field and made discoveries he was a much younger guy.  But he was famously reluctant to pull that manuscript out of the drawer…

Nye: He was like Copernicus, afraid to say anything because of what might happen. And he was married to a woman who was a believer.  I think young people who grow up in intensely religious families and religious communities also face social pressures not to accept evolution.

Nye: That’s my big concern—young people. What approaches did you take in your book to try to get past that resistance? You’re such a wonderful science communicator. My two girls grew up on your TV show, but this is a somewhat different kind of challenge.

Nye: I tell personal stories associated with aspects of the theory, and I hope they are interesting and compelling. I don’t feel you’re going to change a grownup’s mind in one reading. People have to be exposed to scientific ideas over and over again for years. It’s also not a textbook. One of the reasons people sometimes give for rejecting evolution is that it belittles the importance of humanity. You seem to validate that when you write that from nature’s point of view we are just another species, but you go on to note that we are the only species that can wonder about how we got here.

Nye: So far as I can tell. I was with the dolphins one time in Hawaii. I got a chance to talk to the dolphins and I said, “So you guys thinking about building a library?” They didn’t seem to have the slightest inclination.  So in the end you come down on the side of humanity being special?

Nye: We are special in the sense that we can know our place in the cosmos. We can know our place in space. We are at least one of the cosmos’s ways of knowing itself. That fills me with reverence and joy. Another insight I really want people to consider is this: everyone has gotten this far. Everyone you meet has made it this far. Nobody is superior to anyone else from an evolutionary standpoint. And the odds against anyone coming this far are pretty staggering.

Nye: Yes, most of the people who’ve ever lived are dead. Most of the species that have ever lived are dead— in mind-boggling numbers.

Read part two of this interview here.