Sunday, October 10, 2004

The Fallout

A while back Robert Wright wrote this article criticizng Stephen Jay Gould. Wright's charge was that Gould's overly dramatic writings challenging various esoteric items of orthodox evolutionary theory provided ample fodder for creationist misrepresentation. He wrote:

In truth, though, Gould is not helping the evolutionists against the creationists, and the sooner the evolutionists realize that the better. For, as Maynard Smith has noted, Gould “is giving nonbiologists a largely false picture of the state of evolutionary theory.”

Over the past three decades, in essays, books, and technical papers, Gould has advanced a distinctive view of evolution. He stresses its flukier aspects—freak environmental catastrophes and the like— and downplays natural selection's power to design complex life forms. In fact, if you really pay attention to what he is saying, and accept it, you might start to wonder how evolution could have created anything as intricate as a human being.

Wright is being very unfair towards Gould here. Nothing Gould ever wrote downplayed natural selection's power to design complex life forms. If you asked Gould where eyes or wings came from, he would give the same answer as every other biologist: the prolonged action of natural selection acting on chance vairations. He does precisely that during the PBS Evolution series, among other venues.

But what is relevant here is that Wright, in his overly sensational mischaracterization of Dennett's views, has done exactly what he accuses Gould of doing in this article. He has provided creationists with new ammunition to use.

For example, here's how the ID proponents at Access Research Network have characterized Wright's article:

Philosopher Daniel Dennett, who, in 1995, published a book called Darwin's Dangerous Idea is now reluctantly admitting that life on earth shows “signs of having a higher purpose.”

Totally false, but totally justified by Wright's article.

I'm sure we'll be seeing more of this in the future.


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