Friday, December 02, 2005


Sorry for the uninspired headline, but it's the only thing I could think of as I read this unbelievably bad column from USA Today. It's a dialogue between Democratic strategist Bob Beckel and conservative pundit Cal Thomas. Beckel starts off with this:

Cal, I'm going to stray from the consensus liberal line on the issue of intelligent design. The Dover, Pa., school board had a good reason to allow the teaching of intelligent design as a scientific alternative to Darwinism in the school system's science classes. Despite the overwhelming consensus of the scientific community that evolution is the sole explanation for all living things, these scientists have yet to prove the theory conclusively. Not only are there still gaping holes in the evolutionary chain from single cells to man, the science crowd hasn't come close to explaining why only man among all living things has a conscience, a moral framework and a free will.

Beckel, of course, can't be troubled to give any examples of gaping holes in the evolutionary chain from single cells to man. Nor does he give any reason for why we should trust his judgment more than the overwhelming consensus of the scientific community. I would be amazed if Beckel could even provide a coherent summary of what the theory of evolution actually says.

As for his specific points, it sounds like he's parroting the standard creationist trope about gaps in the fossil record. Of course, what's significant about the fossil record is that not one of the tens of millions of fossils that have been found is out of place from an evolutionary standpoint. On top of that, creationist propaganda notwithstanding, there are numerous examples of transitional series in the fossil record. And the fossil record is only one line of evidence we have in establishing evolution.

As for the business about conscience and free will, he's wrong for two reasons. The first is that human beings are almost certainly not the only species to have evolved a conscience and free will. All of those hominid species that predated Homo sapiens surely had a sense of right and wrong; and we now know there were rather a lot of them. And I wouldn't dismiss out of hand the possibility that apes have a sense of conscience as well. In fact, it seems likely to me that they do.

In other words, Beckel has no basis at all for his assertion of human uniqueness here.

The second problem is that there is nothing especially puzzling about why a certain adaptation might arise only in a small number of species. In fact, the problem is that there are several possible explanations for such phenomena but usually too little data for deciding between them.

Why do humans have the most developed sense of conscience in the known animal kingdom? Perhaps because there is a large element of chance in the course of evolution, and the appropriate combination of environmental conidtions and genetic variations only arose in one branch of the evolutionary tree. Or perhaps it's because once one species develops a big enough brain to have notions like conscience they are also srong enough to wipe out all the competing species that would otherwise have evolved such brains. Or maybe the primate body plan is the only one that is sufficiently plastic to be able to accommodate a large brain. And those are just off the top of my head.

Our inability to give the precise reasons for human uniqueness only reflects the fact that we have limited data about the past. It is not some defect in the theory.

Wow, all that from a few sentences. The column gets worse (oh, so much worse!) from here. Happily, P.Z. Myers has has saved me the trouble of doing a fuller fisking. Micheal Dunford offers some additional thoughts here.

However, I must, with great regret, correct one small statement in Myers' essay. He describes Beckel as a nonentity. If only that were so! He's actually a fairly prominent pundit.

Actually, Beckel is just another in a long line of “Fox liberals.” These are people who appear on Fox News ostensibly to defend the liberal view of things, but then just mostly pander to the right-wing hosts of Fox's chat shows. Beckel sits right alongside people like Alan Colmes, Juan Williams and Mara Liasson.

Beckel in particular is often seen on Fox's Hannity and Colmes. His typical performance begins by receiving some hate-filled pack of lies from Hannity. He then gives a “Oh Hannity, you scamp!” chuckle before conceding ninety percent of everything Hannity said. He concludes by offering an ineffective reply to the remaining ten percent.

It hasn't alwys been like this. In the nineties Beckel appeared regularly on CNN. He was the liberal host of Crossfire Sunday, and often sat in for Michael Kinsley or Bill Press on the regular Crossfire. And he was often pretty good in these venues. But in those days he hadn't yet sold out to Fox.

And what are his credentials as a Democratic strategist? Well, he ran Walter Mondale's campaign in 1984. Remind me how that one turned out...


At 1:58 PM, Anonymous darthwilliam said...

I agree this was a total piece of dreck. The other bad news today is that the U Kansas course that was going to teach ID as myth is now cancelled. Apparently the professor got in hot water by sending an email that made fun of fundies. I'm sure they will use this as more evidence of their 'persecution'.

On a semi-related note, who else is getting sick of all this 'take back christmas' crap. Like it was ever in jeopardy. If I see any more news fluff pieces on this, i think i'm going to puke.


At 3:53 PM, Anonymous Pope Zach 64 said...

"Ugh" is right. This piece of crap was painful to read through.

Just about every line was a howler, but the thing about human conscience and free will struck me as particularly irritating. Just how the hell do human conscience and free will pose a problem for evolutionary theory?

First of all, I don't see why "conscience" and "free will" can't be viewed a result (or perhaps a by-product) of human-style "intelligence", i.e., self-awareness, critical thinking, etc. Second, I'd be willing to bet that self-awareness, conscience and free will exist to some degree in a far wider range of animals than just hominids and the other primates. But even if primates & hominids are unique in this respect, those clowns' comments display typical Fundie arrogance by seeing humans as the epitome of all creatures. After all, a shark is as superbly well-adapted to its environment as humans are to ours.

And that banana comment really shows the (lack of) professionalism and forthrightntess of the Creo/ID crowd.

At 9:09 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is clear evidence of non-human primates showing self-awareness. In several classic psychological studies (I don't have the references handy right...sorry), primates were observed to be aware of their own reflections in a mirror. In fact, in one of these studies, when a spot of red paint was placed on the primates' heads and they viewed themselves in the mirror, the primates touched their own heads where the paint was--clear evidence of self-awareness. Other organisms have not shown this same sense of self-awareness. Given that conscience likely contains some bit of self-awareness, this suggests that humans are not, in fact, the only species that possess a conscience. Moreover, given that the concept of "conscience" does not have clearly defined boundaries (i.e., it is hard to define) only weakens Beckel's statement. Pure drivel...

At 8:13 PM, Blogger mixedmessages said...

I agree with your comment. I have two comments. One, evolution may have things in it we are unable to explain with our current knowledge, however the universe made in 7 days is just a lie. Two, ID at best is philosphy and if the right wants to create full fledged philosophy classes in public schools that include ID, go right ahead.

At 10:09 AM, Blogger Carlos said...

If you have any doubts about the existance of ID, take a look to today's MIT's homepage:


At 1:11 PM, Anonymous BobbyEarle said...

Nasty article. I always wondered how one would go about proving to one's self that he is excersising free will...kind of like the "last Thursday" creation model. And if my thoughts and actions are slated by fate, then whoever is pulling the strings up there must be making me check in to the goings on at all of the anti-ID sites. Thanks to the god/gods for making sure I stay informed...

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At 11:43 PM, Anonymous Kevin said...

BOB "But there are a number of serious scientists who believe in intelligent design as a theory of evolution based on scientific argument.

Cal: Exactly right, Bob. And many of them have advanced degrees from the same universities from which the evolutionary scientists have graduated.

Was the later Darwin smarter than the combined wisdom of those scientists who believed the universe did not come into existence by chance but had a creator behind it?

Readers can Google “scientists and intelligent design” for the names of many more scientists who believed someone was behind what we see in the sky with our eyes and beyond through a telescopic eye.

Bob: Good, now you're talking science, not theology."


advanced degrees in blocks not evolutionary biology you nimwit!!

what and how did that have anything to do with science?

"The scientists who view intelligent design as a science, not a dogma, believe that the smallest building blocks of life are so complex that they couldn't simply evolve from amoebas. That's about as far as I can go in my understanding of all this.

HA HA we are supposed to get "building blocks" from an animal with a cell wall and differnt body parts? This guy is a jerk. This is gibberish...just like ID.

At 1:32 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What about that guy in Kansas who is using ebay to sell ad space all over his minivan to any business or organization who bids.
Wouldn't it be funny if he had to drive around Kansas with "Read your Darwin" plastered all over his van?

At 9:28 AM, Anonymous JC said...

Perhaps you should first read for yourself what you are referencing. If you go the site what you see is the article title...
"Intelligent design on MIT's evolving campus". If you actually click on the link you will find that the article is about MIT's new neuroscience complex. The title was tongue-in-cheek (a pun).

At 10:31 PM, Anonymous Anne said...

I have just come across your blog and I want to say thank you. This is a topic of discussion in my english class at the Georgia Institute of Technology, and I am glad to have found an evolutionist. I am amazed at the number of engineers and scientists here who believe in creationism and id. I agree with your comments. Even though evolution has not been proven 100%, it is a theory with the same weight as the theory of gravity in the science world. ID and creationism just do not have the scientific support.

At 1:35 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

the science crowd hasn't come close to explaining why only man among all living things has a conscience, a moral framework and a free will.

Yeah, really. I don't think anyone really knows to what extent other animals have a conscience, a moral framework, and definitely something as abstract as "free will."

Come on!

Hell, I KNOW my cat has free will. I can't get him to do anything he doesn't want to. ;)

I've also seen (not personally) examples of other primates and even dolphins displaying a "moral framework."

I would say that just about every kind of social structure in the animal kingdom is an example of a "moral framework."


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