Friday, December 02, 2005


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 01, 2005

A SETI Researcher on ID

There is a standard contradiction in the work of ID proponents. On the one hand they tell us that scientists dismiss design out of hand as a legitimate explanation. Then they turn around and tell us that, actually, many scientists are already in the business of drawing design inferences. They point to forensic pathology and archaeology as examples.

A third example used by ID proponents is SETI - The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. SETI researchers use radio telescopes to try to detect certain sorts of radio signals from space that would strongly indicate an intelligent cause. Most scientists consider the logic behind SETI to be sound, even if the search itself is almost certainly futile.

ID folks like to argue that their methods of design detection are merely an extension of those used by SETI. Now here comes an actual SETI researcher, Seth Shostak, to explain why that's nonsense. He writes:

The way this happens is as follows. When ID advocates posit that DNA—which is a complicated, molecular blueprint—is solid evidence for a designer, most scientists are unconvinced. They counter that the structure of this biological building block is the result of self-organization via evolution, and not a proof of deliberate engineering. DNA, the researchers will protest, is no more a consciously constructed system than Jupiter’s Great Red Spot. Organized complexity, in other words, is not enough to infer design.

But the adherents of Intelligent Design protest the protest. They point to SETI and say, “upon receiving a complex radio signal from space, SETI researchers will claim it as proof that intelligent life resides in the neighborhood of a distant star. Thus, isn’t their search completely analogous to our own line of reasoning—a clear case of complexity implying intelligence and deliberate design?” And SETI, they would note, enjoys widespread scientific acceptance.

I'm not sure if “self-organization via evolution” is really the best way of putting things, but otherwise these statements are correct.

After emphasizing that SETI researchers are not looking for complex messages embedded in the radio signals they detect from space (messages their equipment would be unable to discern), Shostak points out that they are looking not for complexity, but for artificiality:

And yet we still advertise that, were we to find such a signal, we could reasonably conclude that there was intelligence behind it. It sounds as if this strengthens the argument made by the ID proponents. Our sought-after signal is hardly complex, and yet we’re still going to say that we’ve found extraterrestrials. If we can get away with that, why can’t they?

Well, it’s because the credibility of the evidence is not predicated on its complexity. If SETI were to announce that we’re not alone because it had detected a signal, it would be on the basis of artificiality. An endless, sinusoidal signal – a dead simple tone – is not complex; it’s artificial. Such a tone just doesn’t seem to be generated by natural astrophysical processes. In addition, and unlike other radio emissions produced by the cosmos, such a signal is devoid of the appendages and inefficiencies nature always seems to add – for example, DNA’s junk and redundancy.

Consider pulsars – stellar objects that flash light and radio waves into space with impressive regularity. Pulsars were briefly tagged with the moniker LGM (Little Green Men) upon their discovery in 1967. Of course, these little men didn’t have much to say. Regular pulses don’t convey any information—no more than the ticking of a clock. But the real kicker is something else: inefficiency. Pulsars flash over the entire spectrum. No matter where you tune your radio telescope, the pulsar can be heard. That’s bad design, because if the pulses were intended to convey some sort of message, it would be enormously more efficient (in terms of energy costs) to confine the signal to a very narrow band. Even the most efficient natural radio emitters, interstellar clouds of gas known as masers, are profligate. Their steady signals splash over hundreds of times more radio band than the type of transmissions sought by SETI.

Shostak is making an excellent point here, but first we must correct a small error. The simple sinusoidal tones Shostak is describing are, indeed, non-complex in the everyday sense of that term. But in ID-land, most notably in the work of William Dembski, the term “complex” takes on a different meaning. Specifically it is synonymous with “low probability.” Thus, an event is complex if it has a low probability of occurring via chance or natural causes alone.

In other words, Shostak is essentially using the term “artificiality” in the same way ID proponents use the term “complexity.”

An ID proponent could claim that there is a very low probability that a natural radio emitter could produce the sort of tone Shostak describes. He might go on to argue that there is no known natural law that produces such signals with high probability, and that the tone is specified by virtue of its simple, sinusoidal pattern. It is this, an ID proponent would argue, that allows the SETI researcher to infer design.

But this leads us to the strong point Shostak is making. For how can we determine that a given radio signal is complex (or artificial)? Dembski tells us that we are supposed to do an actual calculation to determine the probability that the radio signal could be produced by chance or natural causes. This method is rather silly, since there is almost never any empirical basis for such a calculation.

The way SETI researchers actually do it is by calling upon their vast experiences with natural radio emitters. An awful lot of radio signals from an awful lot of sources have been analyzed, and not one has ever produced the dead simple tone Shostak describes. It is this experience that allows us to say that a dead simple tone is artificial.

I made the same point in a different context in my recent series of essays on probability (go here and here). There I used the example of Mt. Rushmore (a favorite of ID folks). The way we know the faces on Mt. Rushmore could not have been produced by natural causes like weathering and erosion is that we have seen the effects of those forces on countless other mountains. It is this experience, not some bogus probability calculation, that tells us Mt. Rushmore must have been designed.

Summing up: SETI researchers argue that a dead simple tone would suggest an intelligent cause based on their massive experience with natural radio emitters. ID proponents argue that DNA embodies design-suggesting patterns based on nothing at all.

Shostak concludes with a second, related point:

There’s another hallmark of artificiality we consider in SETI, and it’s context. Where is the signal found? Our searches often concentrate on nearby Sun-like star systems – the very type of astronomical locale we believe most likely to harbor Earth-size planets awash in liquid water. That’s where we hope to find a signal. The physics of solar systems is that of hot plasmas (stars), cool hydrocarbon gasses (big planets), and cold rock (small planets). These do not produce, so far as we can either theorize or observe, monochromatic radio signals belched into space with powers of ten billion watts or more—the type of signal we look for in SETI experiments. It’s hard to imagine how they would do this, and observations confirm that it just doesn’t seem to be their thing.

Well said.

One other point Shostak might have made is that SETI researchers are looking specifically for intelligent agents that are similar in relevant ways to human beings. In other words, they are making assumptions about the nature of their designers, and the sorts of scientific skills and technology they have access to. Such assumptions are essential to the logic of the situation.

ID proponents, however, are quite explicit, that we can make no statement about the nature of the designer they are detecting. This is another reason why SETI arguments are based on sound logic, while ID arguments are based on ignorance and misunderstanding.

Meeting Scott in Vienna

Vienna, Virginia, that is. Had a pleasant drive down I-66 to catch Eugenie Scott's presentation, mentioned yesterday. Genie spoke for close to two hours to an audience of roughly 125 people. She provided an excellent overview of the history of creationism and ID, discussed a few standard anti-evolution arguments, and mentioned a few of the important court decisions in this regard. The talk seemed to go over well. She had no trouble unloading the copies of her excellent book Evolution vs. Creationism.

One insight, attributed to Nick Matzke of the NCSE, that I found especially interesting was the following: The first use of the term Intelligent Design to refer to a scientific theory came in the book Of Pandas and People. That's intended as a high school biology text. How many scientific theories can you name whose first mention came in the form of a high school biology text? The usual procedure is for a scientific theory to be kicked around among scientists for a while, gradually gain acceptance via proven usefulness, and only then trickle down into the science texts.

I got to speak to Genie after the talk. Very exciting! We had met previously after some presentations she gave in Kansas (my former home) but it had been a while. It was also nice to meet the excellent people from The Alliance for Science. The organization for the event was flawless. I'd like to personally thank Dick Lessard both for letting me know about the talk, and for providing flawless driving directions for how to get there.

I also got to meet some actual living, breathing people who read my blog. Assuming that they are still reading (and that the reality behind the blog persona wasn't too disappointing), thanks for coming over to introduce yourselves. The pleasure was all mine.

An excellent evening all around.


From today's Los Angeles Times:

Martin “Amok” Thomas is jabbing a right, but Frank “so-cool-he-doesn't-need-a-nickname” Stoldt is as elusive as a ribbon in the wind. He can't be hit.


The gloves come off, and the men hurry across the canvas to the chessboard. (You heard it right.) Amok took a couple of body shots, and he's breathing hard, but he'd better focus. That Stoldt, though, everyone in the gym knows he's this warrior-thinker, slamming the speed clock, cunningly moving his queen amid unraveling bandages and dripping sweat, daring Amok to leave him a sliver of opportunity.


Velcro rips. Amok slides back into his Everlast gloves, bites down on his mouthpiece, dances along the ropes. His king's in trouble, and his punches couldn't knock lint off a jacket. Stoldt floats toward him like a cloud of big hurt.

Such is the bewildering beauty of chessboxing, alternating rounds of four minutes of chess followed by two minutes of boxing. Victory is claimed in a number of ways, some of them tedious, but the most thrilling are by checkmate and knockout.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Olbermann Gets it Right

After my afternoon calculus class (finding volumes by the method of cylindrical shells - fun!) I will be jaunting off to Eastern Virginia to catch Eugenie Scott's presentation. So only brief blogging today.

This is a good opportunity to give a big shout-out to Keith Olbermann, host of the MSNBC show Countdown, for his show from Wednesday the 23rd. He has a humorous segment on the show in which he picks out the three worst people or groups for the day. Typically these are people who have either done really sleazy things, or else are people who did very stupid things. So who took the top prize last Wedensday?

But the winners, those fine folks behind the intelligent design nonsense. Because of them, the new exhibition of the work of Charles Darwin at the American Museum of Natural History in New York cannot find any corporate sponsors. The corporations are afraid they might tick off the intelligent design guys.

The folks who dreamt up intelligent design, the same people who brought you the world is flat, the earth is at the center of the universe, and let‘s burn a scientist at the stake today. Today‘s worst persons in the world!

Well said.

And just to head off any indignant commenters, no, I don't believe that ID proponents really want to burn scientists at the stake.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Eugenie Scott in Virginia - Update

Yesterday I mentioned that NCSE executive driector Eugenie Scott will be speaking in Virginia tomorrow, Wednesday, November 30. That event will be taking place at Oakton High School, 2900 Sutton Road, Vienna, VA, from 7:00-9:00 PM.

I have since learned that on Thursday, December 1, Scott will be speaking at the Fairfax campus of George Mason University, in the Johnson Center- Dewberry Hall South. That presentation will also begin at 7:00 in the evening. Driving directions and parking information can be found by clicking here.

Eugenie Scott's complete speaking schedule is available here.

I expect to be attending the Wednesday event. Sadly, a prior engagement will be keeping me away from Thursday's event.

The Heresy of Nosson Slifkin

That's the title of the cover story from the October 2005 issue of the Jewish magazine Moment. Nosson Slifkin is an orthodox rabbi living in Israel. His heresy - surprise! - is defending the theory of evolution.

Within Judaism there is no particular tradition of interpreting Genesis literally. And having frequently been part of a despised minority slated for genocide, American Jews have generally been suspicious of attempts to inject religion into the public sphere. For these reasons, among others, the Jewish community has historically provided little support for creationism.

More recently, however, some prominent Jews have shown interest in ID. Most notable in this regard is the willingness of Commentary Magazine, a politically conservative magazine of Jewish thought, to publish the awful diatribes of David Berlinski against evolution and other aspects of modern science.

The Moment article opens with a good summary of this state of affairs:

Although the supporters of intelligent design are overwhelmingly Protestant, the movement has also made inroads in the Catholic Church. In a recent New York Times op-ed piece, Christoph Schonborn, the Archbishop of Vienna and an influential theologian, declared that evolution should be challenged in schools, alarming the many American Catholic educators who see evolution as the only well-founded theory of how life developed on earth.

American Jewish organizations have traditionally championed Darwinism, but a small group of outspoken Jews, including scholar David Klinghoffer and Rabbi Daniel Lapin are now calling for their coreligionists to take a more serious look at intelligent design. At the same time, a debate over evolution is raging in the ultra-Orthodox world where Darwin's mid-19th century theory has taken center stage at the largest gatherings and become the focus of dozens of blogs.

For the record I'll just mention that I, for one, have taken a serious look indeed at ID. My conclusion is that it is total drivel.

From here the article gives a brief biography of Rabbi Slifkin, describing in particular his presentations at zoos; in which he uses examples from the animal kingdom as a segue into Jewish thought on the natural world. These presentations have led him to acquire the nickname “The Zoo Rabbi”

The article next describes Slifkin's views on biology:

When Nosson Slifkin looks at the animal kingdom, he sees what scientists see: a complex web of life and death governed by seemingly immutable laws. The difference is that Slifkin peers into this world through the lens of religion. Animals, to him, are clues dropped onto earth by a wise Creator; it is up to human beings to uncover what the symbols actually mean.

His study of animals has forced him to confront a number of theological puzzles, not the least of which is the question of how life developed on earth. Persuaded by fossil records which offer straightforward evidence that the world is millions of years old and that simple, primordial creatures evolved into increasingly complex life forms he found evolution to be the most plausible explanation.

Slifkin knew that there were stringent Orthodox rabbis who found the theory unacceptable; it seemed to contradict the biblical pronouncement, “God created man in His image.” But the more Slifkin probed into science and Judaism, the more firmly he believed that there was no contradiction. “When God created man, he did not pull the design out of the hat,” Slifkin writes in NatureÂ?s Song, the second book in his “Torah Universe” series. “He used all the elements that had been created so far as the palette. The spiritual essence of all the stars, plants and animals provided the material for the goal of creation.”

Sounds good to me. I also liked this:

As [19th century Samson Raphael] Hirsch did, Slifkin sees evolution as an elegant theory for describing how the Divine operates in the world. “There's always been a very strong idea in Judaism that God uses miracles as little as possible,” he says. “As much as possible He works through nature.” For this reason, Slifkin rejects intelligent design theory. He offers the analogy of a faulty computer program: “When Microsoft has to issue a patch for an upgrade to Windows, it's because Windows is not good enough. Microsoft has to interfere.”

So what's the problem? Well, let's see:

[The voice on the phone] informed Slifkin that four prestigious rabbis had opened his “Torah Universe” series and found three of its four books to contain heresy. Two of the volumes centered on animal-related issues: The Camel, the Hare and the Hyrax discussed the kosher traits of animals that do not appear in the Torah, while Mysterious Creatures debunked the existence of mythical beasts including mermaids, phoenixes and unicorns that are discussed in the Talmud. The rabbis were especially troubled by The Science of Torah, a book that focused on Darwinism and the age of the universe. The man on the phone informed Slifkin that he had until the end of the day to retract his bookdidn'tf he didn't, the charge would be made public and other prominent rabbis would join the campaign against him.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am an atheist who generally has a low opinion of monotheistic religions. However, I am also Jewish, and that fact means something to me.

I have long felt that Judaism has certain big things going for it. The first is that what you believe is almost completely irrelevant to your status as a Jew. I may be a hard-core atheist, but I am not one wit less Jewish than the most orthodox rabbi. I once attended a Bar Mitzvah where the rabbi put it this way: “If you don't commit murder because you believe that human life is sacred and you would never presume to judge who is worthy and who is unworthy of life, that's great! But if you don't commit murder because you are afraid of the electric chair, that's fine too! God'll take that!”

Another thing I like is that Judaism is much more focussed on this life than on the afterlife. In fact, I've gotten so many conflicting answers about the Jewish view of the afterlife that to this day I don't know what that view is. I often tell my non-Jewish friends that to me Judaism has three main components: Following the law, being part of the community, and getting the goyim to leave us alone. It's a very practical religion. I also like the fact that a rabbi derives his authority simply from the fact that he has spent many years educating himself about Jewish history and tradition. You should trust a rabbi on issues related to Judaism for the same reason you trust a physicist on questions of physics. But the rabbi is no closer to God than the rest of us, and you are free to disagree with him without putting your soul in jeopardy.

I feel a certain kinship with other Jews that I do not feel with non-Jews. I recall Isaac Asimov, himself Jewish and an outspoken atheist, describing how though he believed that religion was pretty silly, he nonetheless felt an inexplicable, irrational moment of satisfaction any time a Jew accomplished something great (like, say, a Jewish scientist winning a Nobel Prize). Similarly, he felt a moment of embarrassment any time a Jew was caught doing something bad (say a Jewish politician caught accepting bribes). That is precisely how I feel.

Which brings me back to the article. The whole idea of a rabbi declaring someone else's beliefs to be heretical strikes me as profoundly un-Jewish. Rabbis may not be closer to God than the rest of us, but they are certainly held in high regard by the Jewish community in general.

But things get worse later on:

Within the next few hours, Slifkin received four faxed letters. Their authors represented both the Israeli and American ultra-Orthodox communities: Rabbi Elya Ber Wachtfogel and Rabbi Yitzchok Sheiner were yeshiva leaders in New York, while the others, Rabbi Michael Lefkowitz and Rabbi Elya Weintraub, were among the leaders of the Bnai Brak community. Slifkin spent the rest of that day trying to arrange discussions with each of them, hoping to find out exactly which of his statements had caused such fury. None would agree to discuss the matter with him. Three days later, hours before Kol Nidre, the rabbis' condemnations were posted on synagogue walls in Slifkin's neighborhood.

After the High Holidays, the four rabbis launched a full-scale campaign against Slifkin's books, photocopying the pages they found most radical and distributing them to leading Orthodox figures around the world. Some of the recipients were not fluent in English; for their benefit, the Brooklyn-based Rabbi Sheiner wrote a letter in Hebrew confirming that Slifkin's books were “hair-raising to read. He believes that the world is millions of years old-all nonsense!Â?and many other things that should not be heard and certainly not believed.”

By January, 23 rabbis had signed a full-fledged ban, which was pasted on walls throughout the ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem neighborhood of Mea Shearim. “The books written by Nosson Slifkin present a great stumbling block to the reader,” the ban declared. “They are full of heresy, twist and misrepresent the words of our sages and ridicule the foundations of our emunah [faith]. Heaven forbid!... I therefore declare that these books should be distanced and it is forbidden to read, own or distribute them.”

Kol Nidre, incidentally, refers to the evening portion of the Yom Kippur service.

I've read those paragraphs numerous times and I get a little angrier each time. Rabbis don't have the authority to ban anything. Jews can read whatever they please, thank you very much. It just goes to show that no matter how enlightened Judaism is on a variety of issues, when you examine the lunatic fringe it all comes down to power. If Slifkin's critics want to argue against anything he said then I invite them to do so. Instead they are more interested in showing their power to silence differing opinions. Shame on any Jew who took Slifkin's critics seriously.

The article next describes how Slifkin's publisher immediately halted the publication of his books. Slifkin also lost speaking engagements as a result of the ban, and several Jewish libraries removed his books from their shelves. Happily, many other rabbis came to Slifkin's aid and opposed the ban.

The article contains much more than I have included here, and I recommend the whole thing. There is a particularly good discussion of the differences between Jewisforms Protestant froms of creationism. Let me close with one further excerpt, which sums up the situation perfectly:

In the end, a number of observers agree that the Slifkin controversy has very little to do with science, evolution or the age of the universe. The ban represents a rift between two different factions of ultra-Orthodox Jewry. One looks backward to the days when fatherly rabbis in European shtetls could steer their followers away from troubling foreign ideas. The other resigns itself to a world where floods of information from television and the Internet might seep into even the most insular Orthodox communities. Slifkin's books were written for disoriented Jews who are seeking a new center in an increasingly decentralized world; the rabbis who signed the ban are holding fast to an old center that they believe science and secular society are threatening to pull apart.

Well said. The batlle is not between science and religion. It is between religious extremism on the one hand, and simple rationality on the other.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Eugenie Scott in Virginia

For my Virginia based readers, let me mention that NCSE Executive Director Eugenie Scott will be speaking at Oakton High School, 2900 Sutton Road, Vienna, VA, this Wednesday, November 30, from 7:00-9:00 PM. The title of her talk is “News From the Front: Creationist Efoorts in Our Schools and Legislatures.” Having seen Scott speak, I can say with confidence that it will be an interesting and informative presentation. If you can work it into your schedule, I heartily recommend it. For more information, write to:

Miller in the BAM

To start off our round-up of recent magazine articles on evolution, consider this profile of Ken Miller from the Brown Alumni Magazine. Much of it will be old news to devotees of the evolution\ID fracas. But the article also conatins some interesting nuggets:

Although Miller, a cell biologist, has been defending evolution in public forums for most of his adult life, in 1997 he become a national figure. That year he appeared with three other evolutionists on Firing Line to debate [William F.] Buckley and three anti-evolutionists. His host sensed Miller was something special. “Young man,” Buckley told a startled Miller after the show, “that was the most astonishing performance I’ve ever seen. That was absolutely remarkable.” The admiration was mutual. “I would place him as one of the four or five smartest people I’ve ever met in my life,” Miller says. “But he doesn’t know science. That’s why he was completely out of his depth. Like many brilliant people, he is also capable of profound self-delusion.”

Miller's co-panelists in that debate were Barry Lynn (of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State), Philosopher Michael Ruse, and NCSE leader Eugenie Scott. All fought well, but there is no question that Miller stole the show. The reaosn is not hard to find. Miller was the sole practicing scientist in the group. It was effortless for Miller to spot the flaws in the ID arguments, because he knows from years of quotidian scientific work that they are nonsense. And since he makes his living partly from presenting the basic facts of biology to bored undergraduates, he is very skillful in presenting the facts.

Much of the article deals with Miller's well-known religious faith:

Although Miller jokes that he’s never been spoken to by a burning bush, he is no stranger to the religious impulses that prompt so many to distrust evolution. A cradle Catholic who has “had personal experiences of God,” he is also a Darwinian for whom the world unfolds “enormously rich with life and with evolutionary possibilities,” he says. “To me the idea of God, the idea of a supreme being, is the intellectual peg that holds everything else together. That enables my existence, the world, the diversity of life, the magnificence of the universe to be put into a context in which they make sense.”

See, this is why I'll never understand religious people. I think this is precisely backward. To me the world makes sense when I can view it as the end result of a few simple scientific principles. To the ancients eclipses were mysterious and frightening things. Then came physics to show us that they are purely natural phenomena, predictable to the second centuries in advance. Eclipses make sense.

Throw God into the mix and nothing makes sense anymore. Eclipses happen only because it amuses God to make them happen? Why should he bother? This all-powerful being created an entire universe just so a handful of vastly inferior beings would worship Him? Does that make sense? For that matter, how does an eternal, all-powerful being keep from getting bored?

In viewing anything in nature as being the handiwork of God you are only replacing one mystery with a vastly greater mystery. If it is difficult to explain where the universe came from, how much more difficult is it to explain where God came from? If the fine-tuning of the fundamental constants of life is viewed as so inexplicable that only a supernatural entity could be responsible for them, then how much more inexplicable is the existence of a being capable of fiddling with those constants.

Now, I can certainly imagine things I might observe that would so fly in the face of anything natural causes could explain that I would begrudgingly concede the existence of God, or something like Him. But, ID protestations notwithstanding, we have nothing like that. That is why evolution is viewed as such a threat to religious belief. Not because there is some fundamental incompatility between evolution and religion, but because if a mystery as huge as the origin of species can be explained solely in terms of natural causes, it's hard to imagine what, exactly, God is needed to explain. And if God is not needed to explain some aspect of the natural world, then what reason is there for believing in Him.

I don't know what experiences of the divine Miller is referring to here, but I suspect the God hypothesis is not the most parsimonious explanation of them.

Or consider this:

“Darwin’s God,” Miller believes, presides over a world in which things are exactly as scientists observe them to be: “dynamic, flexible, and logically complete.” It is a world of free will and possibility, in which evolution is one of the mechanisms of realizing that possibility. Alluding to creationists, Miller writes, “Certainty of outcome means that control and predictability come at the price of independence. By being always in control, the Creator would deny His creatures any real opportunity to know and worship Him. Authentic love requires freedom, not manipulation.” That freedom, Miller concludes, “is best supplied by the open contingency of evolution, and not by strings of divine direction attached to every living creature.”

I'm sorry to be harsh, but that paragraph strikes me as total nonsense. There is no logical connection at all between God's desire to create beings capable of worship on the one hand with his desire to grant those beings freedom and independence on the other. There is no reason why God couldn't be in complete control during the creation of the world, while relinquishing some of that control when the creation was complete.

And even if we concede for some reason that some sort of evolutionary process is necessary to produce true human freedom, there is no reason at all why God had to choose the violent, amoral, bloody process of natural selection for its mechanism. An omnipotent being could surely have developed a more civilized evolutionary process than that.

There is one other excerpt I think deserves comment:

As a cell biologist who spends much of his time using electron microscopy to study membranes in cells, Miller never intended to embark on a second career as a stand-in for Charles Darwin. But in 1981, during Miller’s first spring teaching at Brown, a student Christian group arranged to bring the creationist Henry Morris, of San Diego’s Institute for Creation Research (ICR), to campus. Morris challenged any Brown biology or geology professor to a debate on evolution. Students asked one professor after another to participate, but none accepted, including Miller.

“No. Get lost,” he told them.

The students wanted to know why.

“Because I don’t know anything about evolution,” Miller replied.

I can just see ID proponents pouncing on that last line. How could someone who recently completed a PhD program in biology not know anything about evolution? So much for evolution being the centerpiece of modern biology!

The answer, of course, is that Miller actually knew a great deal about evolution when his students approached him. But he was also aware that compared to someone specializing in evolutionary biology, he did not know very much. Knowing a lot about a subject and knowing enough to be confident discussing it on stage are two different things.

Anyway, the article is rather long and has quite a few interesting passages. I recommend reading the whole thing.

Popularizing Chess

I recently attended the wedding of an old college friend. While there I got to catch up with a lot of people I had not seen in many years. I described my blog to them, mentioning that I provide commentary on goings-on related to evolution and creationism on a daily basis. They seemed surprised that there could possibly be enough material on this subject to support such a blog.

Well, lately I've been suffering from the opposite problem. The amount of material being published lately on evolution related subjects is simply mind-boggling. It seems like every time I browse through the magazine rack at the local Barnes and Noble I come across yet another obscure magazine publishing something about Darwin. As a result I have accumulated a large pile of periodicals containing mountains of blog fodder, much of it not available online.

Most of this week's blogging will be devoted to going through this pile. But since I haven't done a chess related entry in a while, let me say a few words about this op-ed, from yesterday's New York Times. It addresses the age-old question of how to popularize chess. It's author is Jennifer Shahade, two-time U.S. Women's Chess Chamption. She writes:

How can chess save itself? No doubt it would make purists protest, but chess should steal a few moves from poker. After all, in the past few years, poker has lured away many chess masters who realized that the analytical skills they've learned from chess would pay off in online card rooms.

And that's a shame. There are plenty of smart people playing poker (and I love playing it myself), but there's no denying that when it comes to developing mental acuity, chess wins hands down, so to speak. Dan Harrington, a former world poker champion who quit chess because there wasn't enough money in it, laments that poker is thin and ephemeral in comparison.

So here are some poker-inspired ideas for chess:

Teach it more. Web sites and TV programs that explain the rules of poker abound. Chess needs to do the same. Programs like Chess-in-the-Schools in New York and the American Foundation for Chess, in Seattle, are improving chess literacy by teaching the game to schoolchildren.

But there are very few opportunities for adults to learn the basics. Chess Web sites, like that of the United States Chess Federation, should include interactive tutorials on how the pieces move. Chess tournaments, which are now closed gatherings of devotees, should include more basic commentary and instruction.

Treat it as a sport. Poker players are now respected as athletes, and tournaments are covered as major sporting events, with extensive ESPN coverage. Why not chess?

Actually, ESPN has done some coverage of major chess tournaments, some of it very well done. But chess faces a big problem relative to games like poker (or tennis or golf). The problem is that chess is a very hard game to learn.

Remembering how all the pieces move is the least of it. You must internalize this knowledge to the point where it is automatic. And then you have to be able to recognize basic mating patterns, you have to recognize check and simple tactics, and you have to learn the basics of piece coordination. All of this is very tedious, yet it all must be done before you can derive any enjoyment from playing chess.

A non-chess player tuning into a chess broadcast will have no hope of understanidng anything that is going on. The same person, by contrast, will immediately understand the basics of tennis and golf. Poker is a little more complicated, but its rules are simple enough to be explained in a minute at the start of most poker broadcasts.

Some of Shahade's suggestions may help, but they have all been suggested and tried before. In the end I think an anonymous writer had it right when he said (roughly, I don't have the exact quote in front of me): “Chess will never appeal to the masses until the masses realize that the joy of removing an enemy's toenails with red-hot pincers pales in comparison to the satisfaction of taking his pawn on the eighth move, and forcing him, for want of that pawn, to resign on the eighty-seventh.”