Friday, September 02, 2005


Looks like they're coming for mathematics now:

Forget about isosceles triangles and the Pythagorean Theorem—they're square. The hottest trend in high-school math these days is deometry, the study of how the Creator created points, lines, angles, shapes and proofs. While critics decry the entry of religion into math class, fans of the new teaching method maintain that by giving God a primary role in geometry and other fields of mathematics, they are merely restoring balance to an area that has sought to remove all vestiges of religion from the public polygon.

I'm pretty sure this is a parody...

Where Can I Learn to be This Shameless?

UPDATE: September 4, 2005: In the original version of this essay I referred to the crossing of an English cocker spaniel with a French poodle as an example of hybridization. As several commenters pointed out, that is not technically correct, since the cocker spaniel and the poodle are members of the same species. “Artifical selection” is the more appropriate term for what happens when breeders mate a cocker spaniel with a poodle to produce a new breed. I have corrected that error, and I thank the commenters for calling my attention to it.

If I do this blog for a hundred years I don't think I will ever understand what prompts people to write lengthy essays on subjects they know nothing about.

Consider this essay from The author is not identified by name, which is probably a good thing.

We will consider it in full (get comfortable):

Most people do not understand the meaning of the terms being bandied about recently regarding “Evolution” or “Darwinism” and “Intelligent Design”. For a proper understanding of the heated debate, a definition of terms is in order.

It's nearly always a bad sign when a right-wing website tells you that they understand things most people don't. And since outfits like RedState exist primarily to stoke the flames of partisan debate, it's an equally bad sign when they suggest they are going to bring clarity to heated discussions.

Darwinism is actually an archaic term that is used generically to refer to the concept of “macro-evolution”. Macro-evolution is Darwin's theory that random mutations over billions of years and survival of the fittest can account for the diversity and complexity of life on earth. This concept can also be generally called “naturalistic evolution”.

We're descending quickly. We haven't quite reached total insanity yet (that's still to come), but everything here is a bit off. Well, not quite everything. “Darwinism” is indeed an archaic term, and one that most modern biologists prefer not to use. It tends to give the impression that evolutionary biology hasn't progressed since 1859.

Another problem with the term “Darwinism” is that it means different things to different people. In his book One Long Argument, Ernst Mayr writes:

Charles Darwin was the most talked about person of the 1860's. T. H. Huxley, always a coiner of felicitous phrases, soon referred to Darwin's ideas as “Darwinism”, and in 1889 Alfred Russell Wallace published a whole volume entitled Darwinism. However, since the 1860's no two authors have used the word “Darwinism” in precisely the same way. As in the old story of the three blind men and the elephant, every writer on Darwinism seemed to touch upon only one of the many aspects of Darwinism, all the while thinking that he had the real essence of what this term signifies. (P. 90).

In the glossary to his textbook Evolution, Mark Ridley provides the following definition of Darwinism:

Darwin's theory that species originated by evoluton from other species and that evolution is mainly driven by natural selection. Differs from neo-Darwinism mainly in that Darwin did not know about Mendelian inheritance.

I suspect this is what most modern scientists have in mind when they use the term.

But “Darwinism” is surely not synonymous with “macroevolution.” Furthermore, macroevolution is not a theory about anything. It is simply a term of convenience to refer to large-scale evolution above the species level. Ridley again:

macroevolution: Evolution on the grand scale. The term refers to events above the species level. The origin of a new higher group, such as the vertebrates, would be an example of a macroevolutionary event.

You can accept the reality of macroevolution without accepting that natural selection is the main driving force behind it. To put it another way, the phenomenon of macroevolution is something that Darwinism attempts to explain.

And you're welcome to refer to this as “naturalistic evolution” if you want, but then to be consistent you should refer to the idea that the planets orbit the Sun as “naturalistic heliocentrism.” Makes about as much sense.

Red State continues:

Darwinists believe that during Earth's infancy, from a mix of water-born chemicals, weather and atmospheric conditions, known as Primordial Soup, sprang the first primitive living organism. From this first life form all living things evolved, including human beings. The skeptical saying goes “from primitive goo to me and you by way of the zoo”. Darwinism postulates evolution from lower life forms to higher life forms, including human beings.

Most Darwinists do, indeed, believe that the first life form was the result of the physics and chemistry of the early Earth, but that view is not, strictly speaking, implied by the term “Darwinism” However, evolutionists bristle at the terms “lower life forms” and “higher life forms” which imply some amount of progressivity in evolution that is not justified by anything in modern biology. And they definitely reject the view that human beings should be regarded as the highest life form in any meaningful biological sense. That view is plainly implied by the author of this essay.

Since the time of Darwin, much of his macro-evolutionary theory has been whittled away by the revelations of more sophisticated scientific methods. Darwin's more modern followers have “evolved” the theory of Darwinism to fit what they believe is a defensible position. The correct nomenclature for this modern iteration of Darwinism is “neo-Darwinism”. In essence, this continues to be the theory of macro-evolution by the mechanism of micro-evolution.

Now we have hit the total insanity I referred to earlier. As we saw from Ridley's earlier definition of “Darwinism,” neo-Darwinism does not represent some whittling down of Darwin's original ideas. Just the opposite. The triumph of neo-Darwinism was a vindication of Darwin's arguments from The Origin.

As we saw before, the heart of Darwin's theory is generally regarded to be the claim that all modern species are the result of descent with modification of prexisting species, coupled with the assertion that natural selection is the primary shaper of that descent. (We should note, however, that Mayr shaves things finer and describes five distinct arguments in Darwin's work). The biological community quickly accepted the first claim (common descent) but were very skeptical of the second (natural selection). This skepticism was well-founded, since almost nothing was known at that time about the mechanism of inheritance. Consequently, many biologists proposed alternative mechanisms that had a certain plausibility at the time. (We will reutrn to this momentarily).

Neo-Darwinism was the integration of Mendelian genetics with Darwin's original ideas. The work of mathematical population geneticists like Fisher, Haldane and Wright in the twenties and thirties established that large-scale evolution could be plausibly explained via natural selection acting on small genetic variations. The term “the modern synthesis,” synonymous with neo-Darwinism, comes from the title of a 1942 book by Julian Huxley. Huxley pointed out that data from many branches of the life sciences could be understood as the consequence of evolution by natural selection acting on small-scale genetic changes. The synthesis was contributed to by several other landmark books by people like Ernst Mayr, Theodosious Dobzhansky, G. Ledyard Stebbins, and George Gaylord Simpson.

Darwin's two claims were at the heart of neo-Darwinism, and they remain at the heart of modern evolutionary theory today. As rich and multi-faceted as modern evolutionary biology is, it is still Darwin's theory at its core. That, after all, is why people do still talk about Darwinism. So to suggest that neo-Darwinism is some sort of fallback position clung to by biologists desperate to salvage anything from Darwin's writing is completely absurd.

See what I mean about shamelessness? What the author is describing here is so far from the truth that we really must wonder where he got this from. He certainly did not get it from the writing of any marginally competent biologist. However, the claim that neo-Darwinism was the fallback position of desperate evolutionists is quite common in the writings of creationists. Likewise, the only place you will find the phrase “From goo to you via the zoo,” is in the writings of creationists. So it sure looks like the author of this essay is simply parroting talking points he go out of some creationist tract.

Let's move on:

A critical concept to grasp is that while neo-Darwinian theory is widely disputed, micro-evolution is essentially settled science. Micro-evolution is the process whereby small changes occur within species that may result in adaptive differentiation within species. An example is the mating of an English Cocker Spaniel and a French Poodle; the result is the popular mixed breed, the American Cockapoo. It should be noted that even conservative Biblical Creationists acknowlege that micro-evolution is settled science.

For sake of brevity, we will use the terms Darwinism, neo-Darwinian theory and macro-evolution interchangably. This is where the controversy resides, given the almost universal agreement on micro-evolution.

Among scientists, the part of neo-Darwinian theory that is disputed, though I would not say widely so, is the emphasis on natural selection of small genetic variations as the main driving force. Someone like Stephen Jay Gould, for example, would argue that over vast stretches of geological time, other sorts of processes become relevant that are not so important over shorter time scales. Meanwhile, Lynn Margulies believes that the importance of symbiosis has not been adequately recognized, while Stuart Kauffman would argue that the self-organization of complex systems underlies much of the order we find in organisms. These are all fascinating disputes, and big books get written on them.

But Gould, Kauffman and Margulies have no problem at all with macroevolution or common descent.

I'm pleased that the author describes microevolution as settled science. There was a time, after all, when creationists rejected even that. But mating an English Cocker Spaniel with a French poodle is not an example of microevolution. It is an example of artifical selection. Ridley again:

artificial selection: Selective breeding, carried out by humans, to alter a population. The forms of most domesticated and agricultural species have been produced by artificial selection; it is also an inportant experimental technique for studying evolution.

microevolution: Evolutionary changes on the small scale, such as changes in gene frequencies within a population.

Not exactly the same thing. Microevolution is not a difficult concept, but it seems to have completely defeated the author of this article. Shameless, shameless, shameless.

Back to the essay:

It is worth noting that some ardent Darwinists will sometimes state vociferously that evolution is "settled science", like gravity is settled science. If they are referring to micro-evolution, they are correct. However, there is ambiguity in the terminology. Macro-evolution (or neo-Darwinian theory) is far from settled science.

If by “settled science” you mean that the overwhelming majority of professionals in the relevant disciplines accept it, with the only holdouts being a handful of people who make patherically weak arguments based primarily on ignorance and general brain-deadness, then evolution is most definitely settled science.

Intelligent Design (ID) has its own issues of nomenclature. Critics claim there is no theory or even scientific hypothesis of Intelligent Design. This is not the case. Intelligent Design works by way of established good science. ID scientists work from emperical scientific method, as do most biologists, physicists, chemists, etc.

It's lovely that ID folks works “from empirical scientific method,” but what's the theory? The auhtor never tells us, for obvious reasons.

But Intelligent Design, like Darwinism, can be understood as a “movement”. As such, ID can be understood by way of two primary positions.

First, ID has done a thorough review of Darwinian evolutionary theory. Darwinisms beginnings start from the thoughts of naturalist philosophers like David Hume, from the 18th century. Darwin wrote “Origin of the Species” in 1859. ID propents believe there are numerous foundational problems with Darwinism. This first position of ID is to “teach the controversy” between comtemporary science and neo-Darwinian hypotheses.

Second, Intelligent Design uses multiple scientific studies to demonstrate that origins of the universe, life on earth as well as complexity in living organisms is not explainable by way of naturalistic, or Darwinian hypotheses. ID uses the scientific genres of biology, chemistry, physics, geology, archaeology, cosmology, among others to demonstrate that Darwinism falls critically short of its goals. Further, ID says that the complexity observed via emperical scientific observation and experiment yields life structures and processes that observationally look like non-living structures that are only a function of intelligent design.

Being charitable for the moment, there have been a handful of people throughout history who have tried to turn Darwinism into something more than a nifty scientific theory. In that sense you can just barely say that Darwinism is a “movement” Michael Ruse has been making a good living lately pointing that out. But these people are a tiny minority of evolutionists generally, and most evolutionists frown upon such people.

And that notwithstanding, there is a huge and obvious difference between evolution and ID. Whatever else evolution is, it is also a fully professional science with more than a century of bona fide results to point to. ID exists solely as a religious movement, specifically designed to introduce creationism into the schools in a constitutionally acceptable way. It has nothing in the way of scientific results to point to, and has only a motley collection of long discredited criticisms of evolution for substance.

Next, identifying the roots of Darwinism in the writings of David Hume is one of those delightful bits of nonsense pseudointellectuals like to toss off. It's nonsense. Hume had some enlightening things to say about the argument from design, but his points were entirely philosophical, not scientific.

Meanwhile, it is certainly true that ID folks believe there are foundational problems in evolution, but everything else in this paragraph is very misleading. The controversy ID folks want taught is not between contemporary science and neo-Darwinism. It is between the vast majority of the scientific community on the one hand, and the trumped up, fallacious assertions of a handful of malcontents on the other.

Next, naturalistic hypotheses are most definitely not the same things as Darwinian hypotheses. Darwinism has nothing whatever to say about the origin of the universe ot the origin of life, and it is simply wrong to use the term in conjunction with these questions.

As for the remainder of the paragraph, it's not so much wrong as it is just silly. ID proponents certainly make references to the branches of science the author mentions, but they make very little use of the techniques or findings of those sciences. And the observation that complex biological systems have certain attributes that are reminiscent of human-made machines is one that every biologist in the history of the world has made. The unique contribution of ID is to ignore the myriad ways in which biological systems differ from human devices, while simultaneously claiming that their poorly reasoned argument from analogy constitutes a revolution in science.

Intelligent Design does not make claims regarding who or what the intelligent designer might be. ID, like neo-Darwinian theory, is an observational field of study. It looks and makes statements. Neither Darwinism nor Intelligent Design contribute much to experimental biology; they are both focused on telling the history of the universe and life on earth.

“Looks and makes statements” is an excellent description of ID, but it is a lousy description of neo-Darwinism. The author is here ignoring the vast literature in which the statements made by neo-Darwinism are tested over and over again in the field and the lab. Likewise, while it is certainly true that ID contributes nothing at all to modern experimental biology, the same can not be said for neo-Darwinism.

As it happens, P. Z. Myers recently addressed this question: Click here and follow the links therein. But I have my own way of finding out what's relevant to practitioners of various branches of science. I just walk over to the library and browse through the relevant research journals. When I look at the biology section I find dozens, if not hundreds of journals devoted specifically to evolutionary biology in all of its forms. And the biology journals that don't specifically mention evolution in their titles routinely contain articles of evolutionary significance nonetheless.

I don't need to take anyone's word for it that evolution plays a vital role in experimental biology; I need only look at what biologists actually do. Such observation is apparently beyond the author of this essay. Looks and makes statements indeed. Shameless.

It is interesting to note that both Darwinians and ID proponents have philosophical underpinnings. But contrary to the conventional wisdom, Intelligent Design has less inference to religion than Darwinism.

Nothing worth reading ever followed a paragraph like that. But, what the heck, we've come this far...

Philosophically, Darwinism points to an atheistic world view; often called naturalistic atheism. As such, there is one overriding philosophical premise in neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory. It can be summed up with the phrase “Anything But Design”. This means essentially that any naturalistic process is possible to potentially explain the history of life on earth. The only possible causes that are rejected by Darwinists are those involving the potential for Intelligent Design, or “Anything But Design” (ABD).

Here, off the top of my head, are some evolutionary mechanisms that people have seriously proposed that are nowadays rejected: Group selection, Mutationism, The inheritance of acquired charcteristics, Saltationism, Orthogenesis, and Storms of genetic material from space. Meanwhile, things like hierarchical selection, symbiosis, self-organization and horizontal gene transfer are all plausible mechanisms of evolution whose relative importance is vigorously debated. In light of these entirely familiar and elementary facts, I'd say the author's assertion here amounts to little more than a smear against scientists.

Meanwhile, the only way Darwinism point to atheism is if the sole argument for theism is the premise that Darwinism is false. Otherwise the connection between Darwinism and atheism is based entirely on bad logic and bad theology.

And I defy you to find the phrase “natuarlistic atheism” in any serious book on these topics.

ID, on the other hand, begins from a different position. Intelligent Design relies on “emperical scientific method” to determine the origins of the universe, life on earth and life's incredible diversity and complexity. Contrary to the outcry of critics, ID makes no comment regarding either atheism or theism. Intelligent Design has no connection with the Biblical Creationism movement, which typically calls for a “young earth” (10,000 or so years old) and a strict interpretation of life on earth by way of the book of Genesis.

I just love the sneer quotes around the phrase `empirical scientific method'.

The critics, incidentally, are perfectly aware that in public the ID folks take no stand on the identity of the designer. It's simply that the critics, less credulous than the author of this essay, recognize that the reticence on the part of the ID folks to identify the designer stems entirely from legal and political concerns, and not from scientific integrity.

Meanwhile, in public the young-Earthers likewise do not talk about religion. They talk about `scientific creationism', and they make precisely the same claims to scientific leigtimacy as the ID folks. In particular, they claim their conclusions about the age of the Earth and the like stem from a detailed consideration of the best available scientific evidence. It is only a happy coincidence, in their telling, that the evidence points to the total reliability of the Bible.

In other words, there is no distinction to be made between ID and YEC on this score.

The specific scientific findings Intelligent Design has made state that structures and processes of living organisms compare to inorganic structures and process that are most certainly designed by an intelligent method or agent. ID analyzes living systems via standard scientific methodology and forms conclusions based on the emperical evidence, without any prior commitment to either atheism or theism. The origin or identity of the designer that is strongly inferred is not of interest to Intelligent Design. ID merely states and delineates the emperical presence of design in living organisms.

Having run out of things to say, the author has taken to repating himself.

Darwinism has a long history and paper trail. Intelligent Design is a more recent field of study, dating to the late 1980s. But ID has offered up some compelling work that merits even-handed consideration. For the debate on the relative merits of the opposing movements, a clear understanding of what each movement believes is critical.

I look forward to outlining the case for Intelligent Design going forward. This will include a careful evaluation of the shortcomings of Darwinism, including examples of scientific and educational fraud. Given the ongoing barrage of emotional outcry from lay-Darwinists claiming Intelligent Design is religion, I feel it is important to clear the air of that misidentification. Finally, I will outline the compelling scientific observations demonstrated by way of the science of Intelligent Design.

Is the author of this essay seriously implying that he's something more than a lay observer of these issues? As I have argued he is not even that. He is simply a fraud, strutting and preening for the benefit of ignoramuses too lazy to actually learn something about the theory they attack with such venom.

I suspect I could write the follow-up essays the author promises at the end of this essay. I predict they will consist entirely of a mindless parroting of standard ID talking points. I further predict that he will not even parrot these points properly.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Heddle's Twaddle

In a comment to his August 30th blog entry, pro-ID blogger David Heddle made the following observation:

I use genetic algorithms in my work. They are great at certain classes of optimization problems. They are nothing, however, like real life; they are not, at least at the moment, even realistic models of evolutionary adaptation. A GA for a circuit, for example, will find a nice solution, but it will be a Rube Goldberg machine with components that have no purpose. Biological systems, from anyone's perspective I would wager, are not Rube Goldberg's but elegant, um, designs.

Anyone's perspective? Gee, I could have sworn that just the other day I was reading the work of some biochemist or other who argued for the Rube Goldberg side of things:

Modern biochemists have discovered a number of Rube Goldberg-like systems as they probe the workings of life on the molecular scale. (p. 77)

Heck, Chapter four of the book this came from is entitled “Rube Goldberg in the Blood.” The book in question is Darwin's Black Box by some bloke named Michael Behe.

The fact is, Heddle would be hard-pressed to find a biologist who would describe biological systems as elegant designs, as opposed to Rube Goldberg machines. It is the nearly universal experience of anyone who has looked carefully at the inner workings of complex biological systems that they are invariably inefficient and, from an engineering standpoint, inelegant. They appear as if they were cobbled together from readily available parts and survived because they were just good enough to provide a survival advantage to the organisms who possessed them.

This is why Stephen Jay Gould talks about “the senseless signs of history” as being strong evidence for evolution. This is why vestigial structures feature so prominently in any discussion of evolution. And this is why ID folks spill so much ink desperately trying to explain away the problem of vastly suboptimal design.

Lying Liars

In yesterday's post I praised conservatives John Derbyshire and Andrew Sullivan for their plain talk on the relative merits of evolution and ID. Sadly, American conservatism nowadays is mostly represented by people like Sean Hannity:

On the August 30 broadcast of his nationally syndicated radio show, Fox News host Sean Hannity falsely blamed "the anti-war left" for a protest at the August 28 funeral of Sgt. Jeremy Doyle of Indianapolis, who was killed while serving in Iraq. Hannity read excerpts of an article on the website of Indianapolis TV station WISH describing the protest, adding, "I guess this is just another example of how the anti-war left supports our brave troops." In fact, as The Indianapolis Star reported, the protesters were not anti-war liberals but, rather, members of Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) in Topeka, Kansas, who claim that the deaths of U.S. soldiers in Iraq are inflicted by God to punish the United States for its acceptance of gays and lesbians.

See the original for further commentary and additional links.

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

This is Vexing

The New York Times is reporting on a new poll from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life and the Pew Research Center for People and the Press. The results are annoying, but mostly unsurprising.

Here's one of the surprising ones:

The poll showed 41 percent of respondents wanted parents to have the primary say over how evolution is taught, compared with 28 percent who said teachers and scientists should decide and 21 percent who said school boards should. Asked whether they believed creationism should be taught instead of evolution, 38 percent were in favor, and 49 percent were opposed.

Creationism should be taught instead of evolution. Thirty-Eight percent. As Bill Maher likes to say, why must we live in a dumb country?

Meanwhile, 41% think parents should have the primary say over how evolution is taught. No doubt that's because 41% of parents have a deep understanding of modern biology, and are in a better position than teachers and scientists to know how to teach the subject.

Here are some other findings:

John C. Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum, said he was surprised to see that teaching both evolution and creationism was favored not only by conservative Christians, but also by majorities of secular respondents, liberal Democrats and those who accept the theory of natural selection. Mr. Green called it a reflection of “American pragmatism.”

“It's like they're saying, 'Some people see it this way, some see it that way, so just teach it all and let the kids figure it out.' It seems like a nice compromise, but it infuriates both the creationists and the scientists,” said Mr. Green, who is also a professor at the University of Akron in Ohio.

I often tell people, in an attempt to make them aware of the severity of the problem, that if you ever put this issue to a vote, and the courts agreed to get out of the way, then you would have creationism taught in virtually every school district in the country. They almost never believe me. No, no, they assure me, it's just certain parts of the red states where creationism has any following. Sadly, that's baloney. The number of fire-breathing creationists may be relatively small, but there are an awful lot of people who are sympathetic to their view of things. And their are an awful lot of people who think that simple fairness requires that popular crackpotism be taught alongside science.

A few more numbers:

The poll found that 42 percent of respondents held strict creationist views, agreeing that “living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.”

In contrast, 48 percent said they believed that humans had evolved over time. But of those, 18 percent said that evolution was “guided by a supreme being,” and 26 percent said that evolution occurred through natural selection. In all, 64 percent said they were open to the idea of teaching creationism in addition to evolution, while 38 percent favored replacing evolution with creationism.

Actually, that 42% seems lower than figures I've seen in other polls. There also seems to be some confusion in the poll questions. Believing that evolution occurred primarily via natural selection does not preclude also believing that evolution was guided by a supreme being.

Fiction from AgapePress

The Association of Christian Schools International (ACSI) has filed suit against the University of California system for alleged viewpoint discrimination. This is the result of a decision by UC to not give college credit for science classes taught from a creationist perspective, among other things.

Here's a brief description of the suit from Yahoo News:

A group representing California religious schools has filed a lawsuit accusing the University of California system of discriminating against high schools that teach creationism and other conservative Christian viewpoints.

The Association of Christian Schools International, which represents more than 800 schools, filed a federal lawsuit Thursday claiming UC admissions officials have refused to certify high school science courses that use textbooks challenging Darwin's theory of evolution. Other rejected courses include “Christianity's Influence in American History.”

Quite a few other bloggers have already weighed in. See Mike Dunford's excellent posts: here, here, and here.

Also have a look Ed Brayton's commentary on the subject here, here, and here.

Of course, you should only follow those links if you're interested in sensible commentary and factual reporting on the subject. If you prefer your news with a healthy dose of fantasy, check out what AgapePress has to say on the subject:

The University of California system is being sued for alleged viewpoint and content discrimination against Christian school instruction and textbooks.

The Association of Christian Schools International (ACSI), which represents more than 800 schools worldwide, has filed a federal lawsuit challenging a University of California policy that bars students taught from a conservative Christian viewpoint from being admitted to schools in the UC system. The suit accuses the university system of violating the free-speech rights of Christian students.

Total nonsense. No one is being barred from admission to the UC system based on the religious content of their high school education. UC has simply made the entirely correct decision to deny college credit for classes based on religious poppycock. Indeed, it would have been unethical for UC to have made any other decision.

In fairness, the article switches gears and gets it right in the next paragraph:

Wendell Bird, an attorney for ACSI, says UC admissions officials have told Christian schools that several courses taught from a Christian perspective -- subjects such as English, science, history, and social studies -- no longer qualify for credit.

Conservatives Talking Sense

Here's National Review's John Derbyshire discussing the appropriate subject matter for high school science classes:

What, then, should we teach our kids in high-school science classes? The answer seems to me very obvious. We should teach them consensus science, and we should teach it conservatively. Consensus science is the science that most scientists believe ought to be taught. “Conservatively” means eschewing theories that are speculative, unproven, require higher math, or even just are new, in favor of what is well settled in the consensus. It means teaching science unskeptically, as settled fact. (Emphasis in Original)

And later:

And Darwinism ought to be taught conservatively, without skepticism or equivocation, which will only confuse young minds. Darwinism is the essential foundation for all of modern biology and genomics, and offers a convincing explanation for all the phenomena we can observe in the life sciences. It may be that, as we get to finer levels of detail, we shall find gaps and discrepancies in Darwinism that need new theories to explain them. This is a normal thing in science, and new theories will be worked out to plug the gaps, as happened with Newtonism a hundred years ago. If this happens, nobody — no responsible scientist — will be running round tearing his hair, howling “Darwinism is a theory in crisis!” any more than the publication of Einstein's great papers a hundred years ago caused physicists to make bonfires of the Principia. The new theories, once tested and validated, will be welcomed and incorporated, as Einstein's and Planck's were. And very likely our high schools will just go on teaching Darwinism, as mine taught me Newtonism fifty years after Einstein's revolution. They will be right to do so, in my opinion, just as my schoolmasters were right.

The whole article is so good, it was difficult choosing just two excerpts. It's a pity there are so few liberals and progressives willing to speak that bluntly on this issue.

Meanwhile, here's Andrew Sullivan weighing in on the Derbyshire article:

I have to say that, although it happened while I was avoiding the news, president Bush's endorsement of “intelligent design” for teaching in public schools really does strike me as the dumbest idea he has ever expressed. There are two views of Bush-as-evangelical. The first is that he uses the religious right; the second is that he is the religious right. Of course, they're not exlcusive. I think he's around 30 percent cynical on these matters and 70 percent sincere. It's the 70 percent that more thoroughly worries me.

Right on.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

The View From Lehigh

The Lehigh University Department of Biological Sciences has issued this statement about evolution and ID:

The faculty in the Department of Biological Sciences is committed to the highest standards of scientific integrity and academic function. This commitment carries with it unwavering support for academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas. It also demands the utmost respect for the scientific method, integrity in the conduct of research, and recognition that the validity of any scientific model comes only as a result of rational hypothesis testing, sound experimentation, and findings that can be replicated by others.

The department faculty, then, are unequivocal in their support of evolutionary theory, which has its roots in the seminal work of Charles Darwin and has been supported by findings accumulated over 140 years. The sole dissenter from this position, Prof. Michael Behe, is a well-known proponent of “intelligent design.” While we respect Prof. Behe's right to express his views, they are his alone and are in no way endorsed by the department. It is our collective position that intelligent design has no basis in science, has not been tested experimentally, and should not be regarded as scientific.

You can be sure the ID folks will respond to this by pointing out that you don't see physics department issuing statements in support of relativity. The difference, obviously, is that physicists are not besieged by well-funded, dishonest political operatives trying to convince the public that relativity is a dying theory.

While you're at it, you can check out this brief but informative op-ed from Lehigh biologist Lynne Cassimeris, published in the Morning Call, a newspaper published out of Allentown, PA:

More than 10 years ago, my Lehigh University faculty colleague Michael J. Behe asked me to read a chapter of a manuscript that was later published as “Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution.” In this book, Dr. Behe suggested that biochemical systems inside of cells are “irreducibly complex” and cannot have evolved without the hand of a supernatural designer. Over the past decade, I have had considerable time to ponder the ideas Dr. Behe put forward in his book, and time and again I concluded that his arguments lack scientific credibility and are equally offensive to religious faith.

Everyone Feels Qualified to Comment

Precisely because evolution is commonly thought to have profound moral and spiritual consequences, everyone fancies him or herself competant to comment on the subject. The result is an almost endless series of brain-dead commentaries from people who must surely be aware they haven't the faintest idea what they are talking about.

For example, have a look at this column from Washington Post sports columnist Sally Jenkins.

P. Z. Myers has saved me the trouble of giving the column a proper fisking. I'll just comment on one brief excerpt:

Athletes do things that seem transcendental -- and they can also do things that are transcendentally stupid. They choke, trip and dope. Nevertheless, they possess a deep physical knowledge the rest of us can learn from, bound as we are by our ordinary, trudging, cumbersome selves. Ever get the feeling that they are in touch with something that we aren't? What is that thing? Could it be their random, mutant talent, or could it be evidence of, gulp, intelligent design?

First, you can dismiss out of hand any commentator who pretends she is doing something subversive by bringing up intelligent design. It's a sure sign that she's more interested in seeming open-minded and above-it-all than in saying anything intelligent about biology.

Second, what exactly is the implication here? That athletes have the abilities they do because God willed them to be that way? That great athletes are doing something supernatural?

Now, I am what you might call a casual sports fan. I'm usually aware of what's going on in the big four (baseball, basketball, football and hockey) and occasionally I even watch a sporting event on television. I especially like those World's Strongest Man competitions that seem to be on ESPN ten hours a day. I get back pain just watching the things that they do!

I've seen athletes do things that would leave me in traction for months were I to try them. Despite this, it has never once occurred to me to describe anything I've seen in a sporting event as transcendental. When I watch professional athletes I feel I am seeing the results of years of intense physical training. Probably they get an assist from good genes. But, alas, they are not in touch with anything that is not accessible to the rest of us.

But people really want it to be supernatural. People really want to believe that when they see Michael Jordan take off from the foul line and dunk the ball, they are seeing something utterly inexplicable. It's a very ego-soothing reaction. It can't be that athletes do incredible things because they have made the sacrifices and the committment necessary to achieve that level of skill. Certainly not. That would imply they have a strength of character that I lack. Their superiority to me in this area can only be the result of their God-given abilities; abilities God did not see fit to grant to me.

Of course, if there is a group of people in touch with transcendental abilities out of reach to ordinary mortals, then surely mathematicians are that group. Why, just the other day I was trying to explain the quadratic formula to a group of stern-looking undergraduates. Seemed trivial to me, but not so to my students. I may as well have been speaking in tongues when I got to the part where you bring the c to the other side, divide by a and then complete the square. Looked like magic to them.

So, I guess y'all better show me some friggin respect, or I'll smite you with a thunderbolt.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Dennett States it Plain

Yesterday's New York Times carried this excellent op-ed from Daniel Dennett. I especially liked this part:

Instead, the proponents of intelligent design use a ploy that works something like this. First you misuse or misdescribe some scientist's work. Then you get an angry rebuttal. Then, instead of dealing forthrightly with the charges leveled, you cite the rebuttal as evidence that there is a “controversy” to teach.

Note that the trick is content-free. You can use it on any topic. “Smith's work in geology supports my argument that the earth is flat,” you say, misrepresenting Smith's work. When Smith responds with a denunciation of your misuse of her work, you respond, saying something like: “See what a controversy we have here? Professor Smith and I are locked in a titanic scientific debate. We should teach the controversy in the classrooms.” And here is the delicious part: you can often exploit the very technicality of the issues to your own advantage, counting on most of us to miss the point in all the difficult details.

William Dembski, one of the most vocal supporters of intelligent design, notes that he provoked Thomas Schneider, a biologist, into a response that Dr. Dembski characterizes as “some hair-splitting that could only look ridiculous to outsider observers.” What looks to scientists - and is - a knockout objection by Dr. Schneider is portrayed to most everyone else as ridiculous hair-splitting.

Exactly right.

Buckley Weighs In

William Buckley offers some thoughts on science, religion, church and state in this recent column. As with most things Buckley writes, it is thoughtful and interesting, but ultimately not very convincing. Let's consider some excerpts:

A recent survey in the New York Times spoke of the eminent C.S. Lewis. He grew up a skeptic. But in his twenties, he gradually admitted the evidence in favor first of the existence of God, then of the divinity of Christ. In his book Mere Christianity, Lewis argues that the idea of right and wrong is universal, a moral law that human beings “did not make and cannot quite forget even when they try.”

With the encouragement of some Christian friends, I read Lewis' book some years ago. He opens with the argument Buckley describes. It's a ridiculous argument, I"m afraid. Lewis has no basis for his assertion that human beings did not make the moral laws civilizations agree to live by. Indeed, the need for some code of morality becomes obvious as soon as people start organizing themselves into societies.

Biologically, the ability to understand the distinction between right and wrong seems to be hard-wired in the brain, just as Lewis suggests. But which things are considered right and which are wrong changes a great deal from culture to culture. And the handful of things that can be said to be universal (prohibitions against murder, for example) are precisely the things that would spell the end of any society that did not adhere to them.

In other words, evolution by natural selection and scoial necessity are far more plausible than divine warrant as an explanation for humanity's sense of morality.

Buckley continues:

Such an epiphany won't get you too far in Christian taxonomy, but it is a step in that direction. The crowning reservation of the man seeking to believe wholly in science may be that, in the scrawny hands of the evolutionists, too much is left unexplained.

This is weird. First, he's pretty clearly implying that evolutionists are people (men, in fact) seeking to believe wholly in science. Since earlier in his essay he held up Ken Miller as an example of a religious evolutionist, this characterization does not hold up. Second, I'm not sure what it means to believe wholly in science. Presumably this is some sort of euphemism for atheist, but if that is the case then he should simply have said so. Finally, it is certainly true that science leaves a great deal unexplained. But the implication is that there must be something else that is capable of explaining that which is beyond scientific investigation. Usually religion is nominated for the position of “something else.” I find this tendency very puzzling.

What formerly mysterious phenomenon becomes clear by invoking divine action? It seems to me such arguments simply replace one mystery with a far greater mystery. The problem of imagining a being with the capabilities Christians attribute to God is far more vexing to me than any unanswered question of nature. I find it far less confusing to confess ignorance than to invent, out of whole cloth, a being of unimaginable power and inscrutable motives.

The Christian religion depends very heavily on revelation for its acceptance, and revelation acknowledges the interventionist finger of God, on which we cannot rely, but which we cannot dismiss.

Very eloquent, but what does it mean? If Buckley can provide some basis for distinguishing the true revelations from the false ones then I will take this seriously. Otherwise, “revelation” sounds an awful lot like “making stuff up”

Skeptics who incline away from any belief in divine intervention can nevertheless find themselves pondering questions of right and wrong which issue from moral divisions in which science plays no part. One such is cited in the New York Times essay. Dr. Joseph Murray, who won the Nobel Prize in medicine in 1990 for his work in organ transplantation, once divulged that when he was preparing for the first-ever human organ transplant, a kidney that a young man was donating to his identical twin, he and his colleagues consulted a number of religious leaders to inquire whether they were doing the right thing. “When you are searching for truth you should use every possible avenue, including revelation,” Murray said. He has described the influence of his faith on his work in a memoir, Surgery of the Soul.

Buckley is being too glib in the first part of this paragraph. It is true that science, by itself, tells us nothing about right and wrong. But science still has a major role to play in a resolving many moral dilemmas. Science can bring to light facts that are relevant to informed moral judgement. Anyone incpabale of giving a coherent description of what happens when an animal is cloned has no business commenting on the morality of the process. And anyone who says something as stupid as “It's a scientific fact that life begins at conception!” should be dismissed from all serious consideration.

And, as I suggested before, revelation is an avenue to the truth only if you can distinguish the true revelations from the false ones. I doubt Dr. Murray has any reliable method for making that distinction. Consequently, I don't see how justifying a moral stance on the basis of revelation is different from providing no justification at all.

More to the point, Buckley's clear implication here is that religious leaders have some special insight into moral questions that lay people do not have. I do not accept this. If I have a question about physics I will seek out a physicist. But if I have a question about morality, I see no reason for valuing the opinion of my rabbi over the opinion of a trusted friend.

Buckley's silliest moment, however, comes in the next paragraph:

In the United States, the battlefront is in the schools, on the question of evolution and creationism. If a 14-year-old student is introduced to the contingent possibility that life evolved as it did because its creator so willed it, which of the following risks, from the hard-line evolutionists’ point of view, is that student taking? 1) His intellectual disqualification by admitting creationism, for which there is no scientific no warrant, into his thinking? 2) A lifelong intellectual confusion, perhaps disabling in its consequences, which will keep him from prevailing as a responsible thinker and actor? Or perhaps, 3) a lifetime as an agent of teleological confusion, with the result that he will not only mislead himself, but also mislead others?

First of all, no 14-year-old needs to be “introduced” to the idea that God had a role to play in creation. That's pretty much the default position in our society. On the other hand, the idea that religious faith is superfluous to an understanding of nature is something that many kids do not get exposed to. Somehow I don't think Buckley would be so sanguine about using the science classroom as an introduction to atheism.

The reason the contingent possibility of God's role in evolution should not be discussed is that it goes well beyond anything that science can justify. Buckley could as easily have asked, “What harm would come to a 14-year-old who is introduced to the contingent possibility that America triumphed over the British because of divine intervention?” Such intervention is possible, but historical scholarship provides no reason for believing it happened. So why would you even raise the subject in a history class?

Buckley closes his essay with a change of gears:

In Iraq, the national assembly that has met to devise a new constitution appears to be stalled on several points, one of them being the nature of the new Supreme Court. Should it be a secular body, or should four of the nines seats be reserved for clerics? Will civil law prevail, or will the court be charged with ruling on whether any proposed measure conforms to the sharia? Thus the question of women's rights would become not a question of positive law, but a question of Koranic fidelity.

There are factions, Kurdish, Sunni, and even Shiite, which argue against such distribution of power, but there is no denying the strength of those who argue that only adjudications traceable to divine warrant have the authority to prevail. There has never been a neo-society so desperately in need of the idea of a division of church and state.

Well said, but it hardly fits with the rest of the essay. If the revelations of Islamic clerics are not a sound basis for deciding legal questions in Iraq, why should the revelations of Christians be considered a sound basis for deciding questions in America? That's the problem with revelations. They are only a source of evidence to those who choose, arbitrarily, to believe them.