Thursday, December 16, 2004


I had intended to do a rousing, in your face post about the breathtakingly stupid evolution segment that showed up on MSNBC's Scarborough Country (guest host Pat Buchanan) last night. Sadly, the folks at MSNBC don't quite have their act together. The link that is supposed to take you to the transcript of last night's show actually leads you to the transcript of Countdown with Keith Olberman. Until that link is corrected, I think I'll just froth in private.

In the meantime, enjoy these cartoons over at Evolving Thoughts. Funny!

Light blogging today. Me and the cats are going to be watching the big finale of The Apprentice tonight. Will it be Kelly or Jennifer? Stay tuned!

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Would You Want This Guy On Your Side?

The following letter to the editor appeared in a small Virginia newspaper. Ordinarily I would ignore something so trifling, but the ID's over at Access Research Network were sufficiently impressed by it that they added a link to it in their news update. The letter was written by one Michael Shelton. So let's have a look at the sort of people the ID folks are happy to have represent them:

In his letter, Erik Misavage [“The scientific facts support theory of evolution,” Nov. 28] uses the same, tired defense of evolution when he stated, “The emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in recent years is one example.” He then conveniently tells us that we just haven't figured it out yet.

I have not read Mr. Misavage's letter, but Shelton is off to a very bad start here. It's not so much that he's committed any grave scientific error (that comes later), as much as that the two sentences above don't really make sense. Referring to the “same, tired defense” is nonsensical without answering the question “same as what?” And in the last sentence it is not clear what, exactly, we haven't figured out yet.

Evolution a priori requires a mindless, purposeless, and strictly materialistic view. It assumes that no deity is required or exists. This requires faith.

Total nonsense, of course. Evolution does not even imply atheism, much less require it “a priori”. Modern evolutionary theory does say that you do not need to invoke a supernatural deity to explain how a relatively simple sort of life can transform itself, over long periods of time, into more complex sorts of life. It is silent on the question of whether God exists, or where those relatively simple sorts of life came from. And there is no faith involved in accepting evolution. You only have to be willing to follow the evidence.

The late paleontologist Dr. Colin Patterson posed the following question several times to different audiences: “Can you tell me anything you know about evolution, any one thing that is true?” At one meeting in Chicago, following a long silence, a member of the audience replied: “I do know one thing. It ought not to be taught in high school.”

Proof by out of context anecdote, a favorite tactic. I guess our reaction is supposed to be something like “Golly! Some guy in Chicago gave a snarky response to Colin Patterson during a Q&A? I guess evolution's a lot of nonsense after all!

I won't rehash here the various ways creationists have abused Colin Patterson's public appearances over the years. Feel free to go here for one example.

Creation, like evolution, is a matter of faith, but it correlates well with science. Using a strict scientific application, let's arbitrarily select a 320-unit protein chain. Only 20 of more than 100 amino acids are used in life.

Of course, the idea that accepting the correctness of evolutionary theory is a matter of faith is one of those comforting delusions creationists are so fond of promoting. I would also point out that the word “application” is misused here. I think he just means “example”.

An experienced creationist-watcher, upon reading those last two sentences, will suspect a bogus probability calculation is on its way. He will not be disappointed:

Our protein uses eight of those 20 amino acids. Using permutation statistics, we determine the probability of a decimal point followed by 29 zeros and the numeral 2 that our protein example has self-assembled itself.

I'll respond to that as soon as I figure out what it means. I think he is saying that the probability of this particular protein forming by chance alone is 2 times ten to the minus thitieth power, and that he arrived at that number by reasoning that there are twenty to the 320-th power ways for twenty amino acids to permute themselves in a chain 320 slots long.

Of course, that's the sort of ignorant application of probability theory that we try to clear up in the first two days of a course on the subject. Complex proteins do not arise as the result of amino acids colliding randomly with each other. But, again, more interesting to me is the poor way the argument is expressed. No one who actually understands this subject would use phrases like “Using permutation statisitcs” or “self-asembled itself”.

Biological science rests on the foundation of information theory to be properly understood. No rational process that resulted in the automatic, spontaneous development of information in matter has ever been observed.

And here, instead of “rational” he really means “naturalistic”. And, actually, the ability of natural selection to add information to the genome has been documented on numerous occasions. It is possible Shelton is thinking of the origin of life here, but outside of creationist fantasy-land the origin of life is a problem wholly spearate from evolution.

Too many coincidences, too many just-right things, too many just-so stories, for this all to be an accident. It's worldview against worldview.

Creationists are fond of portraying themselves as the ones with the common, everyday horse sense to see clearly what those beknighted, overeducated scientists have overlooked. I would also point out that the second sentece here does not follow in any reasonable way from the first.

Across different command centers, information must be applicable to any and all functions that tie the command centers together. The first and second laws of thermodynamics and the property of chirality (left-hand orientation versus right-hand orientation) of carbon-based amino acids work against Mr. Misavage's worldview.

This paragraph makes no sense at all. I often tell people that you can spot a scientific crank even if you do not know all the details of a particular branch of science. Throughout this letter Mr. Shelton has misused several bits of technical jargon without making any attempt to clarify what he meana. For example, most people reading this letter aren't going to have the slightest idea what “chirality” is, and Mr. Shelton's parenthetical remark is no help at all. Nor is there any attempt to explain how “the property of chirality” works against evolution. There is also no attempt to explain how the first and second laws of thermodynamics speak against evolution. And the first sentence, about information command centers and whatnot, is just gibberish.

Using jargon without really understanding what it means is SOP among cranks.

I recommend that the interested reader refer to the following books: Darwin's Black Box by Michael Behe, Icons of Evolution by Jonathan Wells, and The Natural Sciences Know Nothing of Evolution by A.E. Wilder-Smith.

Enough said.

The ID folks are perfectly happy to be represented by folks like this. Just lovely.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Reasons for Skepticism

As I said in my initial post on this subject, I have no opinion one way or the other about the merits of Hamer's claim. I find it plausible, but that is a long way from saying it is true. Blogger Pajama Hadin offers some good reasons to be skeptical of Hamer's claims here.

More on the God Gene

One of my commenters has called my attention to this column from Town Hall columnist David Limbaugh. Apparently ignorance and arrogance run in the family.

Limbaugh opens with:

Don't get all nervous, but this new “discovery” of a God gene that finally gives us a scientific explanation for those whacked-out believers in God started me thinking about the sin of pride.

It is obvious just from this that Limbaugh has not made any serious attempt to understand what Hamer or anyone else is actually claiming, but that is not what struck me about this sentence. It's that first clause: “Don't be nervous...” Why would it make me nervous that Limbaugh is thinking about the sin of pride? The tone being created here is that of Limbaugh having a chat with like-minded friends. You know, the sort of people who are well used to Limbuagh's endearing ramblings but nonetheless recognize his keen wit and superior intellect.

The tone is reinforced by the linkage between the discovery of the gene and the sin of pride. What's the connection between those seemingly unrelated things, Limbaugh wants us to ask. Only Limbaugh's piercing intellect could see the subtle connections between them!

After Jon Stewart's now infamous appearance on Crossfire (the one where he accused hosts Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson of hurting the nation), James Carville appeared on The Tonight Show to defend the show's honor. During this appearance he said that you have to understand that people use Crossfire the way a drunk uses a lightpost. For support, not illumination. His point was that people aren't looking to Crossfire for nuanced arguments and subtle insight. Instead, they want to see someone on television saying what they already believe.

That is the purpose Town Hall serves. Its supporters aren't really looking to Town Hall's columnists to educate them on the day's issues. Rather, they want people with enough stature to be columnists for the site to repeat what they already believe anyway.

My first draft of this post involved me ranting some more about how jaw-dropping ingnorace coupled with relentless arrogance is a requirement for employment in the right-wing punditocracy. Hopefully what I said above is more constructive.

Romans 1:20 says: "For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities -- his eternal power and divine nature -- have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse."

In other words, human beings have to reject what their senses and intellects tell them in order to arrive at any other conclusion than that God created them and the universe.

Many learned scientists reject this idea, preferring to believe just the opposite: that a belief in the Divine Creator is counterintuitive, devoid of reason, blind to the facts and insufficiently deferential to science. You wouldn't believe the condescending e-mails I received from self-described scientists following my column on the book “I Don't Have Enough Faith To Be an Atheist,” telling me, essentially, what a moron I am.

We should point out that Limbaugh wrote the foreward to the book he is promoting here. That book was coauthored by Norman Geisler, who testified on behalf of the creationists in the 1981 Arkansas creationism trial. I have not read it yet, but I have read some of Geisler's previous work. If he remains true to form in the present volume, then you would, indeed, have to be a moron to take seriously anything he says.

I wonder what these smug critics would tell Britisher Anthony Flew, one of the world's leading proponents of atheism, who has now abandoned his disbelief in God. Flew observed, quite rightly, that the latest biological research “has shown, by the almost unbelievable complexity of the arrangements which are needed to produce (life), that intelligence must have been involved.”

Zing! Anthony Flew has begrudgingly concluded that there's a nonintrusive, deistic sort of God, therefore Geisler's writings are entirely correct. Somehow I don't think Limbaugh would be impressed if I pointed out people like E. O. Wilson, who was gradually persuaded that his conventional religious beliefs were not correct.

As for Flew, John Wilkins has everything you need to know right here. Wilkins makes it clear that Flew's reasons for his conversion, such as it is, are not teribly persuasive.

At this point Limbaugh asserts that Christian theism is well-supported by evidence and that it is only human pride that keeps people from seeing that.

Finally, we come to Hamer:

It's hard not to conclude that such pride is responsible for the above-mentioned bizarre theory of American molecular geneticist Dr. Dean Hamer (The God Gene: How Faith Is Hard-Wired Into Our Genes), that a person's capacity for believing in God is genetically determined.

Those with VMAT2 -- the God gene -- apparently have freer-flowing mood-altering chemicals in their brains, making them more inclined toward spiritual beliefs. Environmental influences, such as growing up in a religious family, supposedly have little effect on our beliefs.

Uninhibited by humility, Dr. Hamer doesn't limit his conjecturing to his area of expertise. He ventures out into the spiritual and historical realms as well, telling us his findings aren't antithetical to a belief in God because “Religious believers can point to the existence of god genes as one more sign of the creator's ingenuity … Buddha, Mohammed and Jesus all shared a series of mystical experiences or alterations in consciousness and thus probably carried the gene.”

Perhaps Hamer's pride obscures from him the pitfalls in over-generalizing and presuming to lump together believers of different faiths. How could Christ, who claimed to be God in the flesh, have shared any mystical experiences with Buddha and Mohammed, neither of whom asserted their own deity?

Limbaugh clearly knows nothing about genetics generally or about Hamer's work in particular, yet he is perfectly happy to write a column on the subject. In that column he accuses Hamer of being arrogant. Lovely.

He makes no attempt to engage anything Hamer actually wrote or the evidence he used. Instead he proceeds straight to speculation about Hamer's motives. Of course, the idiot right-wing lickspittles he's writing for don't really care about evidence.

As for the quote from Hamer given above, let's take it at face value. In his public appearances Hamer has made a point of dstinguishing “spirituality” and “religion”. He is arguing that your openness to spiritual assertions, by which he means openness to things that are supernatural or transcend the natural world, is determined partly by your genetic makeup. How that openness gets translated into specific religious beliefs is not influenced by your genes. The fact that Jesus, Mohammed and Buddha had different ideas about humanity's place in the cosmos and our relationship with God has nothing to do with Hamer's claim.

Limbuagh closes with an impressive troika of ignorance:

Perhaps Dr. Hamer's conceit prevents him from recognizing that a God-gene is hard to square with Biblical Christianity. How could Christians subscribe to the idea of a God gene when the God of the Bible, if nothing else, is a god of accountability and judgment? Surely even Five-Point Calvinists would consider the notion a grotesque twist on the Doctrine of the Elect. But these distinctions are doubtlessly lost on the likes of Hamer, whose theories necessarily elevate the concept of determinism and demote personal responsibility.

Here we see him aping his brother's brain-dead notion that accepting a genetic component in our openness to certain beliefs is the equivalent to accepting moral relativism and rejecting personal responsibility.

Indeed, perhaps it is pride that leads the anti-theistic among us to reduce everything to deterministic molecules and DNA because such things are within their eventual grasp and control. To acknowledge that there may just be certain things beyond their eventual comprehension and, thus, control could be tantamount to recognizing that there is something -- Someone -- greater. Such blasphemy cannot stand.

Detemrinistic molecules? Huh??? Here we have him implying that scientific investigation is motivated by atheism. And finally:

Perhaps the good doctor's arrogance precludes him from considering that for many Christians, believing is not a matter of some chemically induced emotional state. It is based on things far less vulnerable to the vicissitudes of our emotions, such as a belief in the Bible as the unchanging, inspired Word of God.

He closes with one last caricature of Hamer's findings. And I love the idea that a belief in the Bible as the inspired Word of God has nothing to do with the vicissitudes of our emotions.

Monday, December 13, 2004

The Religious Response

After writing the previous post, I found this article from the British newspaper The Telegraph. I think this is the article Limbaugh was reading from, since I recognize some of the quotes.

The article gets off to a very bad start with:

Religious belief is determined by a person's genetic make-up according to a study by a leading scientist.

As I pointed out before, that is precisely what “a leading scientist” is not saying.

Happily, after this overly provocative opening the article makes it clear that we are not talking about genetic determinism here. What I found most interesting about the article, however, were the two quotes it includes from prominent British clerics.

The first comes from Rev. John Polkinghorne:

The Rev Dr John Polkinghorne, a fellow of the Royal Society and a Canon Theologian at Liverpool Cathedral, said: “The idea of a god gene goes against all my personal theological convictions. You can't cut faith down to the lowest common denominator of genetic survival. It shows the poverty of reductionist thinking.”

Oh, well, if it goes against his theological convictions then I guess it's all a lot of eyewash. Obviously there's something wrong with Hamer to even think in such terms. Of course, Polkinghorne doesn't explain why, exactly, a predilection for faith can't be related to the evolutionary history of the species. Nor does he explain what it is about Hamer's work that shows the poverty of reductionist thinking. It offends his religious sensibilities, so he dismisses it.

The second quote comes from the Rev. Walter Houston:

The Rev Dr Walter Houston, the chaplain of Mansfield College, Oxford, and a fellow in theology, said: “Religious belief is not just related to a person's constitution; it's related to society, tradition, character - everything's involved. Having a gene that could do all that seems pretty unlikely to me.”

Seems pretty unlikely to me also, and I'm sure it seems unlikely to Hamer too. So it is a good thing he claimed no such thing. Here we see Houston making the same silly error that Limbaugh made. It is evident from this that Houston understands nothing about what Hamer is actually claiming or the evidence upon which he bases his conclusion. Yet the newspaper felt it terribly important to include his opinion in the article.

It's funny. If you tell people that their genes can increase their chances of getting heart disease they take it in stride. No one says, “Golly! Scientists are saying that whether or not I get heart disease is determined solely by my genes. I might as well not exercise and eat lot's of high cholesterol foods, since my fate is already sealed.” In that context everyone seems to understand that your genes might make certain maladies more or less likely, but that you can mitigate that risk by living a healthy lifestyle.

But as soon as you suggest that your genes make certain beliefs or attitudes more or less likely, suddenly you are a genetic determinist or a moral releativist or something equally unpleasant. When you think about it, however, it's hard to imagine how it's even possible for your genes to have no influence at all on what you believe. As Steven Pinker would put it, you are not born with a blank slate.

That does not mean that you should blindly accept the latest pronouncement from anyone claiming to speak on behalf of evolutionary psychology. But it does mean that such claims should not be dismissed out of hand.

Limbaugh on Genetic Determinism

I was listening to Rush Limbaugh in my car today. He was discussing the work of Dean Hamer, author of The God Gene. Hamer claims to have identified a particular gene that makes people who possess it more likely to be spiritual.

I have not read Hamer's book, so I have no opinion on the merits of this claim. I find it plausible that religious belief has a genetic component and that is as far as I go.

Limbaugh, however, was in full dudgeon. After reading part of a newspaper article describing Hamer's work, (I turned on the radio when he was in the middle of this excerpt, so I do not know where the article came from), Limbaugh went off on a rant about how “arrogant, pointy-headed scientists” are trying to suggest that we are nothing but robots. This is all an attempt to eliminate any sense of right and wrong, or to absolve people of any responsibility for their actions. He repeated, several times, the idea that Hamer was claiming that people have no control at all over their religious beliefs, that you either have this gene or you do not and that is all there is to it.

Of course, the excerpt from the article Limbaugh read said nothing close to that. The article was perfectly clear that Hamer was claiming only that having this gene makes it more likely that you will have religious beliefs. Limbaugh subsequently played an audio clip of Hamer being interviewed on Fox News. Hamer made it perfectly clear that he was talking about likelihoods and predilections, not determinism. Indeed, that's what scientists always mean when they refer to “genes for” something or other.

But in his confusion and ignorance Limbaugh thought this constituted a weakness in Hamer's claims. If religious belief is all in the genes then what's all this business about probabilities, he thundered. The he heaped some random derision upon Hamer and scientists generally, claiming that this is how they react to anything they don't understand (religious faith, in this case), and that they won't be happy until they have shown that human beings are nothing more than soulless automatons.

He closed, I'm not kidding, by saying something very close to the following, “I keep telling you folks, once they start losing elections they just keep getting funnier and more desperate.” Lovely. Science is a liberal plot.

Now, it is safe to say that if you interpret the claim that there is a “gene for” some physical characteristic or behavior to mean that having or lacking that characteristic is determined entirely by possessing or lacking that gene, then you know nothing at all about genetics. That is a misunderstanding so basic and so fundamental that you immediately dismiss yourself from serious consideration just by making the claim. It is up there with asserting that the second law of thermodynamics contradicts evolution, or that in jumping into the air you are briefly violating the law of gravity.

Yet here is Limbaugh committing one scientific howler after another, and larding it up with a lot of smears and sterotypes of people who know vastly more about the subject than he does. Limbaugh is surely aware that he knows nothing about genetics, but he feels no shame in lecturing about the subject on national radio.

Twenty million people a day listen to Limbaugh's show, and most of them come away believing they know more after listening to him than they did before. These are people who believe that if on the one hand you have the entire scientific community saying that global warming is a real threat, and on the other you have Limbaugh saying that's all a lot of liberal nonsense (he has said precisely that on many occasions), then Limbaugh is the one who knows what he is talking about and the scientists are just liberal hacks. We are talking about a large segment of the population who don't know anything about anything, and haven't the faintest idea how to distinguish reliable sources of information from unreliable sources. Not about scientific issues anyway.

Remind me again why I should be optimistic about America's future.

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Hartwig on Cobb County

ID proponent Mark Hartwig has offered these thoughts on the trial over the Cobb County textbook warning labels about evolution. We consider his remarks in full:

It's hard to imagine a more innocuous statement than the one the Cobb County, Ga., school board recently ordered pasted into their biology textbooks: “Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered.”

Yet this disclaimer is the subject of a nationally publicized lawsuit, in which the plaintiff alleges that the wording violates the separation of church and state.

So what's the problem? After all, evolution is indeed a theory. And it seems ironic at best that calling for open-minded, critical thinking would somehow be construed as religious advocacy.

Hartwig knows perfectly well, of course, that it is neither open-mindedness nor critical thinking that is being construed as religious advocacy. Nor is it the wording that is objectionable (well, not on constitutional grounds anyway). Rather, it is singling out evolution for special treatment that should be construed as religious arvocacy.

No one objects to encouraging students to think critically about things they are taught in school. Let's stop pretending that's the issue here. The objection is to lying to school kids about the status of one particular theory for the purpose of promoting religion.

Nonetheless, there are many - folks who insist that evolution is a fact, or well-nigh to it - who read dark intentions between the lines. To them, any talk about critical thinking is simply religiously motivated rubbish.

Hartwig is so fond of that little jab, he decided to repeat it!

As is perfectly clear to anyone who pays attention to these things, and as Hartwig will effectively admit later in the column, what we were seeing from the ID side in this is an elaborate dance. The label exists because some religious parents in Cobb County see evolution as a threat to their beliefs, and therefore want to protect their children from it. They would love to have evolution removed altogether, or barring that require some sort of creationism be taught alongside it. Sadly, the courts have ruled against such measures. So, in a desperate bid to do something, anything, to persuade their children that evolution is a lot of bunk they came up with these silly warning labels.

The labels exist solely to promote religion, and the motivations of everyone who supported these labels were religious. Hartwig knows that as well as anyone else. The only legal issue is whether they some plausible sounding “secular purpose” can be concocted in defense of the labels.

We are told that the popular distinction between “fact” and “theory” - that one is certain and the other a matter of guesswork - is naive and conflicts with how scientists view the terms. In place, critics offer “more scientific” definitions of “theory” - which exorcise the notion of uncertainty. A theory is not a hunch, an educated guess or even a hypothesis, they tell us, but a well-substantiated naturalistic explanation for related facts.

Hence, evolution's status as a theory indicates strength and durability, not uncertainty. And if you want critical thinking about evolution, why not include other theories, such as germ theory or the theory of relativity? Indeed, we are told, singling out evolution smacks of a religious agenda masquerading as science.

If only everything Hartwig wrote were so sensible! Not to worry, Hartwig will return to form in the next paragraph:

To many, this is entirely plausible. But it is seriously flawed.

If you look in the science journals, you'll see that the use of the word theory often diverges from this definition. There, you can read of such things as tentative theories, failed theories, controversial theories, promising theories, and unconfirmed new theories.

Yes, indeed, the word “theory” can be used for several different purposes. Occasionally, a sloppy writer will use the word “theory” when it would be more appropriate to say “conjecture” or “hypothesis.” So what? The fact remains that in referring to the “theory of evolution” scientists intend the technical meaning Hartwig described earlier. And in no case is there some simple dichotomy between fact and theory.

Thus, contrary to the definition championed by Darwin's defenders, scientific theories vary greatly in their trustworthiness. And a school district is fully warranted in singling out such theories, especially when they have been a source of widespread, ongoing controversy - like Darwinism.

The logic here seems to be that since occasionally a particular writer will use the word “theory” to suggest something that is unreliable or unproved, it is perfectly acceptable for the school district to identify evolution as such a theory.

The simple fact is that the small portion of evolutionary theory that is being taught to high school kids is, indeed, uncontroversial among scientists. That does not mean that you can't occasionally find someone with a PhD who prefers to fold his arms and shake his head. It means, rather, that the consensus in support of evolution among scientists is as strong as it is for any other major theory. Since, again, Hartwig knows this, we can safely conclude that he is simply lying when he says there is “widespread, ongoing controversy” about the issue.

Hartwig seems to think that it is perfectly acceptable for a scientifically ignorant school board to substitute their judgment over that of the scientific community in assessing evolution's trustworthiness. Lovely.

Not only is the theory controversial at the cultural level, but some pro-evolution scientists have nonetheless expressed skepticism about Darwin's theory: The processes that produce bacterial resistance to drugs or changes in birds' beaks, they say, simply can't generate the massive diversity that characterizes the living world - much less produce the bursts of wildly disparate animal forms found in the fossil record.

Such skepticism, long evident in scientific literature, has made its way into textbooks. Indeed, one major college text, Biology, reports that “many evolutionary biologists now question whether natural selection alone accounts for the evolutionary history observed in the fossil record.”

Actually, I think you'd be hard pressed to find any scientists who believe that natural selection alone accounts for evolutionary history. If Hartwig simply wants more emphasis placed on such things as genetic drift, self-organization or symbiosis then we have no disagreement at all.

But that's not Hartwig's intention. Rather, he wants students to come away with the impression that no one has a plausible naturalistic explanation for how complex adaptations have come into being. And that is not the case. In reality, scientists are often confronted with several possible explanations, and lack the data for deciding between them.

There is thus every good reason to state that “evolution is a theory, not a fact,” even in some popular senses of those terms. Of course, that doesn't mean the label's backers are free of religious motivation. But motivations notwithstanding, there's a legitimate secular purpose in urging kids to approach the theory with an open but critical mind.

That's far healthier than defining critical thinking out of the classroom. I only hope the judge agrees.

As promised, here is Hartwig tacitly admitting that what is going on is a dance.