Our world is filled with complexity and nuance, yet we always seem to try to reduce it to black and white choices. Evolutionary psychologists say that this tendency has actually helped us to survive and thrive â€" it is beneficial in an evolutionary sense. You don't have to believe in evolution, however, to realize that the way humans live today is dramatically different from what it was like during the Stone Age. Back then, humans were often in dangerous situations. We still get into them today, but back then it might well have been a daily occurrence. It was important to be able to distinguish friend from foe, as well as dangerous versus safe animals. Doubtless, those who didn't make good choices in that regard didn't survive long enough to reproduce. Thus, the gene pool of human "survivors" was no doubt biased towards those who could make quick decisions about who and what was friendly, and unfriendly.
We are the beneficiaries of that genetic "inheritance", but it doesn't always benefit us in our modern, complex world as it did in Stone Age societies. Thus, when confronted with complex, nuanced situations, we still tend to classify things as black and white, good or bad, or either/or. Besides the genetic provenance, most likely we also tend to do this because we only have limited time, or feel we have limited time, to make decisions. After all, most people are pretty busy! Moreover, when confronted with a dangerous situation, or at least one perceived as dangerous, like our Stone Age forebears, we're not going to consider subtleties and nuances!
As with other human behaviors, the tendency to reduce decisions to "black and white" has a positive side as well as a negative side. The positive side, of course, is that it does help us survive and navigate difficult, dangerous situations. The downside, of course, is that we tend to gloss over complexity and nuance and go for the black and white choices, to our detriment when the matter really isn't just "black and white".
If you doubt this, take a look at the picture below. You'll tend to see one of two things: 1) a side view of a vase; or 2) the profile of two human heads facing one another. Sometimes one or the other is hard to pick out. Now try to look at the picture and hold both the image of the faces and the vase in your mind at the same time. Nearly impossible to do â€" you can see either one image or the other, but you can't see both at the same time. This is somewhat similar to the way our mind thinks in "black and white".
When it comes to the question, "how was the universe created, and how did humans emerge?", the tendency to seek out "black and white" very much applies. Those of you who have read my book, The Unexpected Perspective, know that it applies to the question of evolution versus the Bible. There are at least seven different viewpoints on the issue, ranging from evolutionary naturalism on one end to young earth creationism on the other, and many shades of grey in the middle. The interesting thing is that many who haven't spent time thinking about the issue tend to think it's a black and white issue: you either believe in evolutionary naturalism or you must believe in young earth creationism.
Of course this is a huge oversimplification, and a false dichotomy, a false choice. What I've found interesting is to meet many, many people who have said they're somewhere in the middle of the continuum. Many have said they can easily see how Christianity and Darwin fit together nicely. That fact that can happen testifies to the idea that the either/or choice is a false one, and that there is a lot of nuance between the extremes.
Unfortunately, those on the extremes tend to be the people who are most invested in the issue, and devote the most time to it. This, too, is probably natural, because most people are too busy doing other things to worry about these issues. After all, the average person has more important things to do on a daily basis than worry about some tradeoff between God and science. That leaves it to the true believers, those on the extremes, to set the terms of the debate. All subtlety is lost. As such, viewed from the outside, the debate looks like an either/or proposition: either you support Richard Dawkins, and those like him who believe in evolutionary naturalism, or you must be a young earth creationist who believes Genesis is literally true!
The funny thing is, this same principle seems to apply to many important social issues. Take, for example, the issue of gun control in the USA. On one end of the spectrum is the National Rifle Association, a group that says it has about five million members. As a percentage of the total US population, that's about 1.5 percent. The group influences gun policy and gun rights far out of proportion to its membership. On the other extreme are those who more or less favor significant restrictions on gun ownership. Unfortunately, all nuance in the debate is lost, and extremists on each side have painted the issues as purely either/or: the NRA would have you believe that ANY restriction on gun ownership puts the country a step away from repeal of the Second Amendment. Conversely, extremists on the other side see significant restrictions on gun ownership as the only way to limit gun violence. Both sides paint a black and white, either/or world.
You can look at other issues and reach the very same conclusions. In the case of abortion rights, on one end are those who want absolutely no restrictions on a woman's right to have an abortion, effectively "abortion on demand". On the other side are those who want to outlaw legal abortions in all cases. Unfortunately, once again, while there is a range of views in between these extremes, the world is painted by the extremists as either/or. As an example, even strongly "pro life" advocates generally tend to believe abortion may be acceptable in certain circumstances (e.g., in the case of rape or incest, or if it endangers the life of the mother).
The issues of entitlements reform (i.e., reforms to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid) are painted in similar ways by their respective sides. Same tends to be true for climate change: at one extreme are those who believe that rises in carbon dioxide and other gases in the atmosphere are speeding us to an environmental Armageddon in the next fifty years; and on the other side are those who think it's all a hoax.
This capacity to define issues in black and white has helped humans survive. Yes, occasionally the average person has seen a dangerous situation where it really didn't exist (what's called a "false positive"), but while that is annoying, it is far better than a "false negative", where someone failed to appreciate a real threat and "ended up dead." We all have a genetic legacy of being able to assess situations in black and white terms and make quick decisions to avoid danger. Unfortunately, that genetic provenance has led us to perceive a range of other situations in similar black and white terms, to our detriment.
The good news, of course, is that when someone can get humans to focus on an issue for at least a certain period of time, we humans do have the capacity to appreciate the details and nuance of most any issue. We can see that there is more than the either/or, black and white of the extremes. The challenge is to get people to take time to pay attention long enough. So when we take a little time, we can appreciate that the science versus the Bible issue, as well as each of the other four I mentioned above, is not a black and white one. In an ever more complex, time constrained world, and with more and more issues to consider, that seems to be getting harder and harder to do, and the unintended consequences are predictible.