Friday, December 30, 2005

New Creation Watch Column

If you're just dying to know what Judge Jones actually wrote in his 139 page opinion, but for some reason you don't want to slog through the whole thing, feel free to have a look at my Cliff's Notes version. I go through the entire opinion, summarizing every major point from page one to page 139. Enjoy!

Himmelfarb in The New Republic

The December 12 issue of The New Republic featured a lengthy review of two new anthologies of Darwin's work. The anthologies are significant mostly for the fact that one features an introduction by E.O. Wilson while the other features an introduction by James Watson. The article is not freely available online.

The review was written by Gertrude Himmelfarb, author of Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution. I have never read any of her work, but she has a very bad reputation among evolutionists. I've been told that in the past she has bought into some of the hoariest anti-evolution cliches. That didn't make me optimistic about this review, and I was right not to get my hopes up.

The review really has very little to say at all. Mostly it's just tediously building up to the final paragraphs, in which Wilson and Watson are chided for their alleged “scientism.” Not very original.

The frustrating part of the review is that in many places it becomes clear that Himmelfarb doesn't really understand what she is talking about. Consider the opening two pargaraphs:

In 1958, at a cocktail party in London, I was introduced to Sir Julian Huxley, one of England's most eminent scientists. (He had just been knighted). My hostess, seeking, in good English fashon, to esptablish some common denominator between her two guests, told him that I was writing a book on Darwin, and then, perhaps to provoke him, went on to say that the book might put evolution in a new light. “New!” Huxley protested. “There is nothing new to say about evolution. Everything that needs saying has already been said. The theory is incontrovertible.” That was the end of that conversation, Huxley promptly going off to find a more congenial drawing-room partner.

I have had occasion to be reminded often of that remark in the almost half-century since, as scientists discovered many new things about fossils, mutations, and genetics, all of which have prompted some adaptation of Darwinism, in token of which the doctrine is now known as “The Modern Synthesis.” Julian Huxley would no doubt have been pleased with most of these findings.

Ahem. The term “Modern Synthesis” comes from a book published in 1942 with the title Evolution: The Modern Synthesis. The author of that book? Julian Huxley.

So here we have a supposed scholar of Darwin and his work who apparently believes that the Modern Synthesis was based on developments occurring after 1958. On top of that, she is unaware that it was Huxley himself who coined the term. Yet she is allowed to discourse at length on the significance of evolution in high-brow venues like The New Republic. Lovely.

Here's another one:

Both editors are eminent scientists: Edward O. Wilson is best known as the proponent of sociobiology, and James D. Watson as the co-discoverer of the DNA molecule.

Watson and Crick, of course, did not discover the DNA molecule. Everyone knew long before 1953 that our genes were made of the stuff. Actually, their accomplishment was to elucidate the physcial structure of that molecule: the famous double helix.

Edward O. Wilson, meanwhile, is not the proponent of sociobiology. He is a proponent of the subject. Sociobiology is nowadays a perfectly mainstream branch of biology that has shed a lot of light on the behavior of a lot of different critters. Wilson gets credit for coining the term and for being the first to assemble a large quantity of data in support of its importance. His main contribution was to see connections across broad swaths of biology and unite them into one discipline. His study of the famously social ants led him to some of these insights. Curiously, his role in the development of sociobiology is similar to Julian Huxley's role with respect to the Modern Synthesis.

I'm sorry if this seems petty, but when you're writing about science it's important to be precise. Somehow Himmelfarb's sloppiness here reminds me of a story my older brother told me about his eighth grade science class. It seems the teacher described Einstein's famous equation e=mc^2 by saying that energy is equal to mass times light squared. My brother raised an eyebrow and pointed out that light is not the sort of thing that can be squared, and that surely she meant the speed of light squared. No, the teacher insisted. It was the light itself that got squared.

One more:

Natural selection, then, not evolution, was Darwin's claim to fame, evolution having achieved scientific status, so to speak, only by virtue of the mechanism that brought it about. This was how it appeared to Darwin and to his contemporaries - his critics as well as his admirers.

Total nonsense. As Himmelfarb described previously in the essay, other people throughout history had suggested that species were not immutable. But prior to Darwin, very few people really believed it. Darwin's great success in the Origin was to amass overwhelming evidence for the reality that species had evolved through time, tracing out a branching tree as they did so. The evidence he presented was sufficient to convince just about everyone that evolution had, indeed, occurred. But his proposal of natural selection as its mechanism was not well-received at the time or for decades afterwards. Indeed, it was the Modern Synthesis that represented Darwin's vindication on this count.

Anyway, the essay meanders on in this vein. At every turn Himmelfarb reveals that she does not really care about the fine points of the science, she is just concerned to remind everyone that science isn't everything. Fine. I just wish she had said that at the beginning instead of making us wade through her rambling and incoherent precis of this subject.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Bloom in The Atlantic

The December issue of The Atlantic has a lengthy article called “Is God an Accident.” Its author is Paul Bloom, a professor of psychology and linguistics at Yale. The article is only available online to subscribers, so I will have to make do with transcribing some representative quotations.

Bloom begins by describing the inadequacies of some older attempts to explain religion. In particular he considers Marx's idea that religion is an opiate that makes it easier to deal with the unpleasantness of daily life, and the idea that religion promotes social cohesiveness which in turn is favored by natural selection. He then describes his main premise:

Enthusiasm is building among scientists for a quite different view - that religion emerged not to serve a purpose but by acident.

This is not a value judgment. Many of the good things in life are, from an evolutionary perspective, accidents. People sometimes give money, time, and even blood to help unknown strangers in faraway countries whom they will never see. From the perspective of one's genes this is disastrous - the suicidal squandering of resources for no benefit. But its origin is not magical; long-distance altruism is most likely a by-product of other, more adaptive traits, such as empathy and abstract reasoning. Similarly, there is no reproductive advantage to the pleasure we get from paintings or movies. It just so happens that our eyes and brains, which evolved to react to three-dimensional objects in the real world, can respond to two-dimensional projections on a canvas or a screen.

Supernatural beliefs might be explained in a similar way. This is the religion-as-accident theory that emerges from my work, and the work of cognitive scientists such as Scott Atran, Pascal Boyer, Justin Barrett, and Deborah Keleman. One version of this theory begins with the notion that a dstinction between the physical and the psychological is fundamental to human thought. Purely physical things, such as rocks and trees, are subject to the pitiless laws of Newton. Throw a rock, and it will fly through space on a certain path; if you put a branch on the ground, it will not disappear, scamper away, or fly into space. Psychological things, such as people, possess minds, intentions, beliefs, goals, and desires. They move unexpectedly, according to volition and whim; they can chase or run away. There is a moral difference as well: a rock cannot be evil or kind; a person can.

Is this distinction something that is learned, or is it something that is hard-wired into the brain? Bloom presents evidence that this distinction between the physical and the psychological is actually an inherent part of human nature. For example, he describes various experiments that were performed with babies and children to justify his conclusion.

By itself, the fact that this distinction is hard-wired into the brain does not explain religious beliefs. It is when these natural predilections go wrong that we get religion:

At this point the religion-as-accident theory says nothing about supernatural beliefs. Babies have two systems that work in a cold-bloodedly rational way to help them anticipate and understand - and, when they get older, to manipulate - physical and social entities. In other words, both these systems are biological adaptations that give human beings a badly needed head start in dealing with objects and people. But these systems go awry in two important ways that are the foundations of religion. First, we perceive the world of objects as essentially separate from the world of minds, making it possible for us to envision soulless bodies and bodiless souls. This helps explain why we believe in gods and an afterlife. Second, as we will see, our system of social understanding overshoots, inferring goals and desires where none exits. This makes us animists and creationists.

As I said, the article is quite long, so let me just add two more excerpts:

This notion of an immaterial soul potentially separable from the body clashes starkly with the scientific view. For psychologists and neuroscientists, the brain is the source of mental life; our consciousness, emotions, and will are the products of neural processes. As the claim is sometimes put, The mind is what the brain deos. I don't want to overstate the consensus here; there is no accepted theory as to precisely how this happens, and some scholars are skeptical that we will ever develop such a theory. But no scientist takes seriously Cartesian dualism, which posits that thinking need not involve the brain. There is just too much evidence against it.

Still, it feels right, even to those who have never had religious training, and even to young children. This became particularly clear to me one night when I was arguing with my six-year-old son, Max. I was telling him that he had to go to bed, and he said “You can make me go to bed, but you can't make me go to sleep. It's my brain!” This piqued my interest, so I began to ask him questions about what the brain does and does not do. His answers showed an intresting split. He insisted that the brain was involved in perception - in seeing, hearing, tasting and smelling - and he was adamant that it was responsible for thinking. But, he said, the brain was not essential for dreaming, for feeling sad, or for loving his brother. “That's what I do,” Max said, “though my brain might help me out.” (Empahsis in original).


But the real problem with natural selection is that it makes no intuitive sense. It is like quantum physics; we may intellectually grasp it, but it will never feel right to us. When we see a complex structure, we see it as the product of beliefs and goals and desires. Our social mode of understanding leaves it difficult for us to make sense of it any other way. Our gut feeling is that design requires a designer - a fact that is understandably exploited by those who argue against Darwin.

The whole aritcle is fascinating and convincing, and I recommend picking up a copy. Bloom is persuasive that the physical/psychological split is hard-wired into our brains, and that this distinction gives us a natural predilection for religious and supernatural beliefs.

What is left unclear is where this split came from in the first place. Did natural selection for some reason prefer creatures for whom this split was part of their neural hard-wiring? Or is this split itself an accidental by-product of evolution? The second explanation seems more likely, but it raises the obvious question: by-product of what?

Our brains can do a great many things that plainly were not the result of natural selection. For example, with proper training we can solve partial differential equations, but this ability surely did not give certain of our Australopithecine ancestors a survival advantage over their less mathematically inclined brethren. So of all the manifold things our brains can do, which were the ones specifically selected for? A fascinating question, but not one I'm optimistic about answering in a compelling way.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Thomas Talks Sense?

I'm a little pressed for time today, so the periodical survey will continue tomorrow. In the meanime have a look at this surprisingly sensible column from right-wing pundit Cal Thomas. He writes:

The decision by U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III to bar the teaching of “intelligent design” in the Dover, Pennsylvania public school district on grounds it is a thinly veiled effort to introduce a religious view of the world's origins is welcome for at least two reasons.

First, it exposes the sham attempt to take through the back door what proponents have no chance of getting through the front door. Judge Jones rebuked advocates of “intelligent design,” saying they repeatedly lied about their true intentions. He noted many of them had said publicly that their intent was to introduce into the schools a biblical account of creation. Judge Jones properly wondered how people who claim to have such strong religious convictions could lie, thus violating prohibitions in the Book they proclaim as their source of truth and standard for living.

Wow! Couldn't have said it any better myself. And I love the sneer quotes around intelligent design.

These paragraphs are all the more remarkable considering that Thomas is a proud member of the religious right. He is not happy that, for example, prayer has been removed from the public school. But he also believes that Christians make a mistake when they make political power their goal, as this inevitably leads to a corruption of the Christian principles they originally sought to uphold.

Thomas writes:

This leads to the second reason for welcoming Judge Jones' ruling. It should awaken religious conservatives to the futility of trying to make a secular state reflect their beliefs. Too many people have wasted too much time and money since the 1960s, when prayer and Bible reading were outlawed in public schools, trying to get these and a lot of other things restored. The modern secular state should not be expected to teach Genesis 1, or any other book of the Bible, or any other religious text.

That the state once did such things, or at least did not undermine what parents taught their children, is irrelevant. The culture in which we now live no longer reflects the beliefs of our grandparents' generation. For better, or for worse (and a strong case can be made that things are much worse), people who cling to the beliefs of previous generations have been given another chance to do what they should have been doing all along.

Again, well said.

So what should religious conservatives have been doing all along? Home schooling their kids, or placing them in prviate school, of course. And even here, I agree with him. In general I'm highly skeptical of home schooling, and I think all too often it's merely a device for brainwashing children into accepting truly bizarre religious beliefs. I would prefer that every one support the public schools. Frankly, I think that would go a long way towards solving some of the problems the public schools face. But I am enough of a libertarian to accept that in a free society the government can not kidnap your child for most of the day and force him to attend a government run school.

If you really can't abide the idea that sending your kid to public school will result in his exposure to ideas you find objectionable, then the proper response is, indeed, to home school him (or find a private school you can tolerate). What you do not do is try to use the power of the government to promote your preferred religious beliefs. And you definitely don't get to corrupt science education to bring it line with whatever fairy tales you happen to believe.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Schonborn in First Things

Reactions to the Dover decision are coming in thick and fast, but I've had enough of that subject for the time being. Instead I'd like to spend a few days whittling down the big pile of periodicals I have on my desk.

Take this article, by Christoph Cardinal Schonborn, from the January 2006 issue of First Things. You probably recall that Schonborn published an op-ed in the New York Times a while back in which he criticized something called the neo-Darwinian theory of evolution.

The Times piece caused some consternation since it superficially appeared to be a retreat from the Catholic Church's previous position on evolution. In reality it was just a poorly written restatement of the familiar Catholic view: Evolution is fine as long as it sticks to bodies. But only the Church can tell you about the true meaning of things. Nonetheless, the present essay is meant to be a clarification of his views on this subject.

Overall it's just the usual religious simple-mindedness. Science is all well and good, but we shouldn't let it distract us from the self-evident truths that God exists, that humans are the point of it all, and that the Church has something to contribute to a discussion of these topics. Yawn.

But some of the specifics are worth looking at. We begin at the end:

Some may object that my original small essay in the New York Times was misleading because it was too easily misunderstood as an argument about the details of science. As a matter of fact, I expected some initial misunderstanding. Even had it been possible to state in a thousand words a highly qualified and nuanced statement about the relations among modern science, philosophy, and theology, the essay would likely have been dismissed as “mere philosophy,” with no standing to challenge the hegemony of scientism. It was crucially important to communicate a claim about design in nature that was in no way inferior to a “scientific” (in the modern sense) argument. Indeed, my argument was superior to a “scientific” argument since it was based on more certain and enduring truths and principles.

Well, that's just lovely. Scientific in sneer quotes. Arguing from groundless “enduring truths and principles” is better than basing your argument on meticulously collected evidence (science in the modern sense, indeed). Making his Times essay appear to be commenting on science was just a clever ploy to make us not dismiss his argument out of hand.

When used by clerics, expressions like “hegemony of scientism” should be understood as code for the frustration they feel that very few people take them seriously anymore. Everyone realizes that if you want to understand the natural world you look to the methods of science, not revelation, and certainly not the addle-brained musings of clerics who have no basis at all for the assertions they make.

This last point is especially important in light of Schonborn's repeated claims that his is an argument based on reason. He writes (replying to a previous essay by physicist Stephen Barr):

Barr’s essay addresses at some length the question of design in biology, but does not clearly affirm that reason can grasp the reality of design without the aid of faith. If my reading is correct (and I hope I am wrong), in that respect Barr has followed the overwhelming trend of Catholic commentators on the question of neo-Darwinian evolution, who gladly discuss its compatibility with the truths of faith but seldom bother to discuss whether and how it is compatible with the truths of reason. (Emphasis in original).

In light of such statements you might expect Schonborn to provide some reason-based argument for the reality of design in nature. I sure was. But he never provides any such thing. Instead he repeatedly says things like this:

Instead, my argument was based on the natural ability of the human intellect to grasp the intelligible realities that populate the natural world, including most clearly and evidently the world of living substances, living beings. Nothing is intelligible—nothing can be grasped in its essence by our intellects—without first being ordered by a creative intellect. The possibility of modern science is fundamentally grounded on the reality of an underlying creative intellect that makes the natural world what it is. The natural world is nothing less than a mediation between minds: the unlimited mind of the Creator and our limited human minds. Res ergo naturalis inter duos intellectus constituta—“The natural thing is constituted between two intellects,” in the words of St. Thomas. In short, my argument was based on careful examination of the evidence of everyday experience; in other words, on philosophy.

Schonborn seems to think that making bald assertions, about modern science only being possible under a presumption of theism, for example, is the equivalent of making a reasoned argument for those assertions. I find this frustrating.

Let me be more precise. In recent months I have read Brain Greene's book The Fabric of the Universe and Sean Carroll's book Endless Forms Most Beatuiful. Currently I am working my way through Leonard Susskind's book The Cosmic Landscape. The first and last of these are about modern theories of physics, while the middle one is about the role of embryology in evolution. When I read books like these I see scientists going to a great deal of trouble to try to make complex ideas comprehensible to the layman. Chapter after chapter they marshall their facts, discuss the ingenious techniques used to ferret them out, and give you some sense of the history of the ideas they are discussing. After many pages of this foundational material, they offer a few cautious speculations about where things are going.

When I contrast their writing to that of a phony like Schonborn, I am reminded anew of how empty and worthless theology is. It offers nothing beyond mere assertion. It derives its authority solely from the willingness of people to believe it, and not from any agreement with the facts of nature. Scientists try to bring clarity to that which is mysterious. Clerics try desperately to create mystery where there isn't any.

Virtually every paragraph of this essay deserves a response, but let me close with one more excerpt:

The Darwinian biologist looking at the history of life faces a precisely analogous question. If he takes a very narrow view of the supposedly random variation that meets his gaze, it may well be impossible to correlate it to anything interesting, and thus variation remains simply unintelligible. He then summarizes his ignorance of any pattern in variation by means of the rather respectable term “random.” But if he steps back and looks at the sweep of life, he sees an obvious, indeed an overwhelming pattern. The variation that actually occurred in the history of life was exactly the sort needed to bring about the complete set of plants and animals that exist today. In particular, it was exactly the variation needed to give rise to an upward sweep of evolution resulting in human beings. If that is not a powerful and relevant correlation, then I don’t know what could count as evidence against actual randomness in the mind of an observer.

Some may object: This is a pure tautology, not scientific knowledge. I have assumed the conclusion, “rigged the game,” and so forth. But that is not true. I have simply related two indisputable facts: Evolution happened (or so we will presume, for purposes of this analysis), and our present biosphere is the result. The two sets of facts correlate perfectly. Facts are not tautologies simply because they are indisputably true. If the modern biologist chooses to ignore this indubitable correlation, I have no objection. He is free to define his special science on terms as narrow as he finds useful for gaining a certain kind of knowledge. But he may not then turn around and demand that the rest of us, unrestricted by his methodological self-limitation, ignore obvious truths about reality, such as the clearly teleological nature of evolution.

Number me among the objectors. This is a classic case of assuming what you are tyring to prove. Yes, of course, if you start from the assumption that human beings are the point of it all, then it is remarkable indeed that the vicissitudes of four billion years of evolution brought us right where we wanted to be. But Schonborn has no basis for that assumption. I could more plausible argue (following Stephen Jay Gould), that nature was designed to provide an hospitable place for bacteria, with large species like humans and elephants being an occasional aberration. But the overwhelmingly dominant life forms on the planet, today as it has always been, are the bacteria. What are we to conclude from that.

What it really comes down to is this. Scientists have certain facts to confront. They look at our extensive fossil record and see that random mass extinctions play a pivotal role in the direction of natural history. They find no general trend toward increasing braininess, or even increasing complexity. Geneticists have a good grasp of the mechanisms of genetic variation, and can find no directional or guiding principle in any of it. Field biologists find that the trajectory of evolution is crucially shaped by environmental changes, and these changes are unpredictable as far as we can tell. Anatomists tell us that there is nothing in our physical make-up to distinguish us from the other animals, and that we are the product of the same evolutionary forces as every other species. Based on all of this evidence, scientists begrudgingly conclude that evolution has no overall direction or purpose, and that human beings are just one more species among many.

And in reply people like Schonberg come along and accuse scientists of arrogance. They assert that it is completely obvious that humans were designed, the evidence notwithstanding. Just look at their big brains! They say this is obvious to anyyone who has not been blinded by the limitations of science. Then they tell us the Catholic church is the only outfit that can reliably guide us on questions about morality, God, and our fate in the afterlife.

As Richard Dawkins once said, scientists are amateurs at arrogance.