Monday, March 13, 2006

Notable Book Reviews

The current issue of Quarterly Review of Biology has a couple of book reviews that are worth looking at.

First, Christoph Adami rips into Hubert Yockey's new book Information Theory, Evolution and the Origin of Life. Yockey will be familiar to devotees of evolution/creationism disputes because of his endorsement of various probability arguments against naturalistic explanations of the origin of ife. Yockey's arguments are considerably more sophisticated than the ones offered by the creationists, but they are no less wrong for that.

Anyway, Adami is very unimpressed with the present volume:


These are only mild idiosyncrasies compared to the author's serious departures from accepted scientific standards of conduct. To begin with, at least half of the (poorly edited) book is a nearly verbatim copy—including typographical errors—of the author's previous volume, Information Theory and Molecular Biology (1992. Cambridge (UK): Cambridge University Press). This information is disclosed nowhere in the current book. The parts that are new to this volume are a mixture of historical and philosophical notes on origin-of-life research and researchers (in a section entitled The Life of Walther Löb, we learn the names and ages of the four daughters of the electrochemist at the time of his death), and reiterations of the same points already put forth in the older material. Even worse, some literature sources are either changed to conform or falsified. The sequence data for much of the presentation in Chapter 6—unchanged since its 1992 inception—is ostensibly from the Protein Information Resource 2003, but checking with the 1992 book reveals that the source is a 1986 paper. Despite its appearance as rigorous by the use of mathematical jargon, many derivations in this book (all of them already present in the 1992 version) are deeply flawed either mathematically, or by the use of inappropriate biological assumptions, or both. What is most surprising is that such a volume could pass an impartial peer review process. Cambridge University Press would do well to examine the circumstances of this and the previous book's approval and editing process. (Emphasis Added)


Phony rigor to disguise mathematical emptiness? Small wonder creationists like Yockey so much.

The comments about peer review are also well-taken. Passing peer-review is a necessary condition for meriting serious consideration from knowledgeable people. Sadly, it is far from sufficient.

There is also this review, by philosopher Evan Selinger, of Michael Ruse's The Evolution-Creation Struggle.


Ruse provides a historical framework for understanding the current and seemingly interminable clash between proponents and detractors of evolution. In a manner reminiscent of Paul Feyerabend, Ruse even wants to examine the seemingly dogmatic (if not downright fundamentalist) position on evolution that some of its staunchest proponents take. He declares, “[e]volutionism— making evolution into something more than a science—is the cause of the trouble” (p 281). To articulate such a proposition is to create some conceptual space for symmetrical inquiry—and this, in turn, provides a diplomatic opening from which to get beyond the denunciatory platitudes that often render discussions of the topic incendiary and redundant. (Emphasis Added)


Selinger gives Ruse a mostly positive review, but I would like to address that bold-face sentence. I have blogged about this recently, but it bears repeating. If the trouble being referred to here is the widespread rejection of evolution and acceptance of various forms of creationism, then I suspect Ruse is wrong. And if he's right then the implication is that religious believers are so emotional and irrational that they can't be expected to base their opinions on an understanding of the basic facts of biology. Rather, they just hear some snide remarks from Richard Dawkins or E. O. Wilson, and run screaming to the other side.

As for denunciatory platitudes, here are a few more. There is a simple fact that people like Selinger never get around to discussing. In the evolution/creation dispute, the evolutionists are arguing from more than a century's worth of meticulously collected scientific data while the creationists are arguing almost exclusively from ignorance, religious extremism, and sleazy rhetoric. Selinger can talk all he wants about conceptual space and symmetrical inquiry, but the fact remains that there is nothing of any substance at all in creationist arguments or literature. Surely that fact needs to figure prominently in any philosophical analysis of this conflict.

7 Comments:

At 6:37 AM, Anonymous Doormat said...

...but the fact remains that there is nothing of any substance at all in creationist arguments or literature. Surely that fact needs to figure prominently in any philosophical analysis of this conflict.

I think you hit the nail on the head here. Unless the analysis gets to grips with the religious-political foundations of creationism, then it's simply false to consider evolution and creationism on the same level.

There are almost no debates (and I think literally zero mainstream debates) about quantum mechanics, or relativity, say. But these theorises are *much* more counter-intuitative than evolution, and basically require a lot of mathematics to get to grips with. Their implications for the nature of the universe also seem about as profound as evolutionary theory is (I'm not sure how one reconsiles the idea of an all-powerful Creator with Quantum Mechanics, where things are actually, by definition, random).

The only reason evolution/creationism gets this special status is because of a delibrate attempt to make evolution seem, in many ways, more like politics. I suspect it's for this reason that people like Dawkins are picked upon. If you can (rightly) point out that Dawkins is often pretty intolerant, and fairly abusive, then you don't have to engage at all with his argument. In politics, this is a fair game, but it should have no place in science. It's a shame that Ruse seems to be getting in on playing this game, but I haven't read any of his earlier work...

 
At 11:10 AM, Blogger Salvador T. Cordova said...

Jason,

Thank you for alerting me to Adami's review.

I posted on Uncommon Descent regarding Adami's review of Yockey.

Thank you again.

Salvador

 
At 3:31 PM, Anonymous MWR said...

Interesting progression of logic!


Did God create everything that exists? Does evil exist? Did God create evil?

A University professor at a well known institution of higher learning challenged his students with this question. "Did God create everything that exists?"

A student bravely replied, "Yes he did!"

"God created everything?" The p rofessor asked.

"Yes sir, he certainly did," the student replied.

The professor answered, "If God created everything; then God created evil.
And, since evil exists, and according to the principal that our works define who we are, then we can assume God is evil."

The student became quiet and did not respond to the professor's hypothetical definition. The professor, quite pleased with himself, boasted to the students that he had proven once more that the Christian faith was a myth.

Another student raised his hand and said, "May I ask you a question, professor?"

"Of course", replied the professor.

The student stood up and asked, "Professor, does cold exist?"

"What kind of question is this? Of course it exists. Have you never been cold?"

The other students snickered at the young man's question. The young man replied, "In fact sir, cold does not exist. A ccording to the laws of physics, what we consider cold is in reality the absence of heat.
Everybody or object is susceptible to study when it has or transmits energy, and heat what makes a body or matter have or transmit energy. Absolute zero (-460 F)
is the total absence of heat; and all matter becomes inert and incapable of reaction at that temperature. Cold does not exist. We have created this word to describe how we feel if we have no heat."

The student continued, "Professor, does darkness exist?"

The professor responded, "Of course it does."

The student replied, "Once again you are wrong sir, darkness does not exist either. Darkness is in reality the absence of light. Light we can study, but not darkness. In fact, we can use Newton's prism to break white light into many colors and study the various wavelengths of each color. You cannot measure darkness. A simple ray of light can break into a world of darkness and illuminate it. How can you know how dark a certain space is?
You measure the amount of light present. Isn't this correct? Darkness is a term used by man to describe what happens when there is no light present."

Finally the young man asked the professor, "Sir, does evil exist?"

Now uncertain, the professor responded, "Of course, as I have already said.
We see it everyday. It is in the daily examples of man's inhumanity to man.
It is in the multitude of crime and violence everywhere in the world.
These manifestations are nothing else but evil.

To this the student replied, "Evil does not exist, sir, or at least it does not exist unto itself. Evil is simply the absence of God. It is just like darkness and cold, a word that man has created to describe the absence of God. God did not create evil. Evil is the result of what happens when man does not have God's love present in his heart. It's like the cold that comes when there is no heat, or the darkness that comes when there is no light."

The professor sat down.

The young man's name -- Albert Einstein A true story?

 
At 4:25 PM, Anonymous Doormat said...

http://www.snopes.com/religion/einstein.asp

I think the problem of evil is a bit more complex than that; but, yes, it is one of the many reasons why I am an atheist.

But try doing a Google search next time, eh?

 
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