Friday, February 29, 2008


Now There’s Yer Problem

There are some dribblings left over from the Florida flap that shows just how far the”debate” still has to go. There is, for example, this:

West Port High School science teacher Janice David said there shouldn't be a controversy about the theory of evolution and religious-based beliefs. Science and religion can live together harmoniously.

"The definition of theory is that it has not been proven," David said. "We really think it is the truth, but we can not prove it without a doubt."

Ummm, no! ... As a matter of fact, the word “theory,” as used in the concept “scientific theory,” does not have to do with any concept of proof beyond doubt.

A really well-supported scientific theory, such as common descent, has so much evidence on its side that any rational person exercising a modicum of objectivity will accept its over-all truth, despite the quibbles thrown up by creationists. As has often been said, evolution has been proved beyond all reasonable doubt ... just not beyond unreasonable doubt. But that still doesn’t have anything to do with the definition of “theory.” Perhaps Ms. David can learn along with her students when the new standards go into effect.

David said she tells her students that "there is no inherent conflict in fact-based science and fact-based beliefs."

Perhaps I should leave that straight line to PZ but I would like to know if Ms. David had ever heard of the term “oxymoron.”

"Evolution is a theory," she said.

In middle school, evolution is just a minuscule part of one life science chapter.

Hopefully, that’s a bit of educational malpractice that the new standards will force Ms. David and others of her ilk to correct, since they did not think to do so on their own.

Via Florida Citizens for Science.

Thursday, February 28, 2008


Modern Fears

A thought:

[T]he Presbyterian General Assembly declared in 1910 that there are five fundamental tenets of Christian faith: the miracles performed by Christ; the virgin birth; Christ's bodily resurrection; his sacrifice on the cross, atoning for humanity's sins; and the inerrancy of the Bible. The Bible's indubitable truth is the authority for the need and the promise of salvation. ...

The Presbyterians' Five Fundamentals (from which we get the label "Fundamentalist") were a direct response to the "higher criticism" of the Bible coming from sophisticated theologians and historians of religion in the universities, especially in Germany... Their challenges to the miracle of Revelation came to be coupled with contemporary science's challenges to the Bible's account of the miraculous genesis of species. ...

William Jennings Bryan urged, in 1924:

Commit your case to the people. Forget, if need be, the highbrows both in the political and college world, and carry this cause to the people. They are the final and efficiently corrective power."

How would "the people" of America exercise their corrective power? Through their representatives in legislative bodies. Personal commitment to Jesus Christ may be the axiom of Protestant Christianity, but mainstream churches operate a structure of authority, mediating the Word of God. The 1910 decision by the Presbyterian General Assembly to promulgate the Five Fundamentals is exactly such an authoritative interposition between the individual and God. The context of the declaration -- scholastics' "higher criticism" -- made it clear that laypeople should not presume confidence in their private judgment, but rely instead on the wisdom of their representatives in legislative church assemblies.

Henry Morris, founder of the Institute for Creation Research, sanctifies authority:

It is precisely because Biblical revelation is absolutely authoritative and perspicuous that the scientific facts, rightly interpreted, will give the same testimony as that of Scripture. There is not the slightest possibility that the facts of science can contradict the Bible. (Italics in original)

"Rightly interpreted" is of course the critical issue: Whose interpretation is right? Morris implies that "Baconian science" will produce scientific facts, as indubitable as Scripture. In actuality, a body of men decree the right interpretation.

Authority, and obedience to authority, is the crux of organized scientific creationism. ...

- Alice Beck Kehoe, "Why Target Evolution? The Problem of Authority," Scientists Confront Creationism: Intelligent Design and Beyond


Wednesday, February 27, 2008


Name Recognition

Hey! There is apparently a new science blogger out there who is tearing the place up so much that even Popular Science has noticed. But first it stoops to notice the ID fantasy piece fronted by Ben Stein, who has shown himself to be as clueless about science as he is inflection.

A quick search of the web provides the background: the production company for the film is the same that produced The Passion of the Christ; its CEO and one of the film's producers recently questioned the Godliness of the administration at Baylor University over an ID-related incident; and the producers used Stein as the narrator specifically because he wasn't "overtly religious."
Well, "used" is certainly the right word ... and that probably stems from Stein not being overly intelligent to match his not being overly religious.

But then there is mention of this new guy:

Professor Paul Zachary Myers at the University of Minnesota is one of the scientists interviewed for the film. He's recently been caught up in a blog exchange with the film's producers regarding this and other topics to do with the movie.
Do you suppose we should warn PZ Myearshertz?

Tuesday, February 26, 2008


Screamin' Memies

Arrrgh! Memed again!

Mostly I try to ignore the "duty" of passing them along but I do gratefully thank those who tag me with such nice ones as the totally unwarranted "E for Excellence" award sent my way by Ian at Further Thoughts.

But now John Wilkins has tagged me and a blood oath taken in the trenches at compels me to obey the call and see if I can join with him to produce memelettes. But this metaphor is getting creepy, isn't it?

Bastard that he is, he has tagged me with a history meme. Don't get me wrong ... history, particularly the history and philosophy of science, is some of my favorite reading. But the thing is that the subject is supposed to be 7 random/weird things about your favorite historical figure. I don't have one. I have many. Abraham Lincoln, the Armada, Cope and Marsh, John Adams, Winston Churchill, the Pilgrims, Alexander Hamilton, Asa Gray, James Madison, Charles Darwin ... I am a history slut.

I dip into these figures for a season, love them for a while, then I go a-rovin'.

So after many starts and stops, I have decided instead to go with a favorite type: the persistent public annoyance. A person who seems capable of eliciting hatred in his or her fellow humans without effort, frequently for the extremely irritating habit of being right, despite the clearly indicated popular opinion.

1) Miguel Servet y Reves, better known as Michael Servetus, was born in Northern Spain to noble parents sometime between 1509 and 1511.

2) Little is known about his childhood but his first notable act as an adult was to publish a book taking the side of Arianism, just in time for both the Reformation and the Counterreformation to decide that Arians were heretics. Needless to say, Servetus became a travelin' man.

3) In stops in Lyon and Paris Servetus learned medicine, eventually studying anatomy under the great Vesalius. Servetus, in service of his religious mysticism, developed an account of the pulmonary blood flow that sounds strange in our ears but was far closer to the truth than the ideas of his contemporaries. He starts by asserting that the spirit of God rested in three vital elements of the body: the blood, situated in the liver and veins, the heart and arteries and the spiritus animalis, a ray of light seated in the brain and nerves. The spirit is formed from the highest elements of the blood as it mixes with inhaled air. But then he gives the part we now remember. The union of the blood and air takes place in the lungs. The blood is conveyed through the right chamber of the heart to the lungs, where it is purged of "soot" through exhalation and mingled with inhaled air. Then it is returned back to the left chamber of the heart. He denied, as all had believed before, that the blood somehow passes directly through the wall between the right and left heart chambers.

4) Servetus at first courted the reformer Calvin but, when his religious views were spurned, Servetus not only published a book of his beliefs but ended it with a venomous attack on Calvin. Worst of all, Servetus neglected to remove himself from the jurisdictional reach of Calvin before doing this.

5) In an attempt to rectify his earlier error of judgment, Servetus managed to escape from prison but relocated himself only as far as Geneva, where he probably took up with an anti-Calvin party planning an attack on the religious leader. The plot was foiled, with Servetus recaptured and brought before the Inquisition.

6) In Servetus, Calvin had a perfect "teaching tool." Roundly hated by both the Protestant and Catholic authorities, his death would not inflame undue tensions between the sides but would be an object lesson to everyone that orthodoxy of one sort or the other was the best policy.

7) On October 17, 1553, Servetus was burned at the stake in Geneva. A few days before, the Catholic Inquisition had burned Servetus' portrait in the absence of his corporeal form. It takes a rare talent to be burned by two opposing sets of religious zealots.

Oh, I said that I would try to pass on Wilkins' meme ... I didn't say I'd make it easy. It's selection, after all. Find the links if you can.

Monday, February 25, 2008


No Stone Unturned

A thought:

Ben Stein is not giving people the opportunity to win his money these days [Re: TV series "Win Ben Stein's Money" Aired 1997-2002]. Instead, he is making a documentary designed to spread ignorance and false information about intelligent design theory to the public. He is trying to convince viewers that intelligent design is a suppressed theory because scientists, especially evolutionary biologists, are atheists with some sort of agenda. ...

The attack actually comes from the creationists, in their attempt to inject religious doctrine into a scientific discipline without any evidence. Since creationists do not provide a verifiable model of creationism, it cannot be accepted as science.

He continues, "I've been on a mission in terms of trying to get people to think more about the role of God in their lives for a while."

And there you have it folks. It turns out Stein is not interested in conducting pure research in order to find out scientific truth "wherever it may lead". Stein is only interested in answers that lead him to a deity. Since science cannot provide these answers, he accuses it of being biased.....

Creationists are angry at evolution, because it does not conform to the answers they expect or want. ...

- Zachary Kurtz, "Expel Ben Stein," The Statesman, the paper of Stony Brook University, February 25, 2008
[And the best thing is that the University is where Dr. Michael Egnor teaches.]

Sunday, February 24, 2008


Filtering Out the Truth

A thought:

... Dembski's ["explanatory filter"] works like this: If you cannot think of a way for natural regularities and/or chance to explain something, then say that a "designer" did it. Dembski's "design inference" is nothing more than a formalization of a simple god-of-the-gaps argument. It is the standard argument from ignorance put in the form of a flow chart.

In the past, Dembski has tried to deny the charge that his is an argument from ignorance (e.g., Dembski [Intelligent design: The bridge between science and theology], 1999, p. 276) but in a recent statement in the Chronicle of Higher Education, he admits but tries to excuse this approach, saying, "An argument from ignorance is still better than a pipe dream in which you're deluding yourself. I'm at least admitting to ignorance as opposed to pretending that you've solved the problem when you haven't" (Monastersky, ["Seeking deity in the details. Chronicle of Higher Education. 48 (17)] 2001) .

However, design theorists do not just "admit to ignorance" but rather claim to find a transcendent designer in the purported gaps in our knowledge. When arguing against evolution, Dembski and other anti-evolutionists are fond of quoting the old saw that nothing can come from nothing. However, in this basic, recurring argument, they ignore their own rule and make an exception for design, which they leave unexplained. Given the religious assumptions that underlie the ID movement's hope for a "theistic science," it is not surprising that we find at its core this epistemic counterpart of creation ex nihilo.

- Robert T. Pennock, "God of the Gaps: The Argument From Ignorance and the Limits of Methodological Naturalism," Scientists Confront Creationism: Intelligent Design and Beyond


Saturday, February 23, 2008


Protecting Texas

Okay, you folks in Texas can forget about those Clinton/Obama and McCain/Huckabee sideshows! The real contests in the state's primaries are Berlanga/Gonzalez and Hardy/Maddox! As detailed by the Dallas Morning News:

Just two seats on the 15-member State Board of Education are being contested in the March 4 primary, but the results of the races could shape the outcome of a brewing battle over how evolution is taught in Texas public schools. ...

The board sets school curricula, selects textbooks and manages the $25 billion Permanent School Fund.

"When you think about the fact that the State Board of Education in Texas determines what every child in Texas public schools will be taught in K through 12, the impact that those members have is extraordinary on the future of Texas," said Kathy Miller, executive director of the Texas Freedom Network, which monitors religious teachings in public schools. "These races are absolutely critical."
The incumbents, Mary Helen Berlanga, a Democrat, and Pat Hardy, a Republican, are generally in opposition to the far-right faction on the board, led by chairman Don McLeroy, himself a creationist. In any event, their opponents are good enough reason to vote for the incumbents.

Berlanga is opposed in the Democratic primary by retired school-adminstrator Lupe Gonzalez who has:

... said he believes intelligent design -- a recent theory that the universe is so complex that science alone cannot explain the origins of life -- should be included in textbooks as an alternative to evolution.

"The ... issue can be minimized to a large extent if we present alternatives to the theory of evolution, give both of them equal weight and that's it," he said.

"I just think that there has to be something far more than just a big-bang theory ... that it just happened haphazardly. I just have a hard time believing that that would be the case."
That's nice ... a candidate for the state board of education who thinks his personal incredulity and ignorance should be used as a standard for the education of the next generation. If you aren't shuddering already in Texas, there is Hardy's opponent:

Barney Maddox, a urologist from Cleburne ... once testified that the state's science curriculum is an attempt to "brainwash our children into believing in evolution."
Worse, whoever wins the Hardy/Maddox primary is automatically going to the board, as there is no opponent for the seat in the general election.

Campaign support and contributions would be a good idea. You can be sure the anti-science candidates will be getting both, as shown by the support of the oxymoronic "Texans for Better Science Education."

Update: Here is some more information on Mr. Maddox from the Star- Telegram:

[S]ome of Maddox's views have emerged through his public testimony and published writings. In 2003, for instance, the Cleburne urologist testified against evolution at the State Board of Education with his characterization of Charles Darwin's theories as "pre-Civil War fairy tales." He urged board members at the meeting to reject new biology textbooks.

Maddox also questioned evolution in a 2006 letter to the Cleburne Times-Review and has had anti-evolution writings posted on the Web site of the Institute for Creation Research, a Dallas organization that attempts to find scientific evidence for the writings in the Bible. In published voters guides, Maddox has reported strong opposition to replacing abstinence-only education with more comprehensive sex education, strong opposition to providing school counseling or teaching about homosexuality, and strong support for displaying the Ten Commandments in public schools.



As should be expected, "it ain't over 'til its over" in Florida.

The latest maneuver is that the anti-science forces are pushing for an "academic freedom" law to add a provision to the standards permitting teachers "to engage students in a critical analysis" of evolution. Translating from disingenuity-speak, the push is on to permit shameless ideologues like Robin Brown to proselytize children on government payroll time. Unfortunately, this raid on the public coffers has no little support among local politicians. Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio is in the Florida Baptist Witness proclaiming:

Although he and other House leaders supported the theory compromise in a Feb. 19 letter to members of the Board of Education, Rubio said critics who believe explicit language protecting academic freedom is necessary "may be right."
According to the article, Rubio thinks the "crux" of the disagreement is:

... whether what a parent teaches their children at home should be mocked and derided and undone at the public school level. It goes to the fundamental core of who is ultimately, primarily responsible for the upbringing of children. Is it your public education system or is it your parents?

And for me, personally, I don't want a school system that teaches kids that what they're learning at home is wrong.

... [T]here are parents that passionately believe in this and they should be given the opportunity to teach that to their children without someone undoing it.

That's great. So we can't educate children beyond their parents' level of ignorance? If the some significant number of parents in a school district passionately believe that black slaves were better off before Emancipation, we can't tell the children what it was like to be a slave in the Old South?

Rubio then puts a fake beard on the Hitler zombie and sends it out to eat more brains:

Rubio, a Cuban-American, made a comparison to the strategy employed by the Communist Party in Cuba where schools encouraged children to turn in parents who criticized Fidel Castro.
... while gleefully chortling that he really didn't intend the zombie to have lunch:

Of course, I'm not equating the evolution people with Fidel Castro ...
The only good thing in the article is that there are strong signs that Rubio may just be making soothing noises in the direction of his crazier constituents. Asked if the legislature would be open to academic freedom legislation, he was careful to hedge his commitment, saying that a vote count had not been taken in the House and that "we may have sufficient votes" to do something. In a classic move by lower-house politicos, he signaled that he was counting on the State Senate to save the House from any collective stupidity by quickly adding, "I can't speak for the Senate."

The good folks at Florida Citizens for Science are wondering how it might be possible to calm the fear represented by the reactions of Rubio and others.

Meanwhile, the Orlando Sentinel is demonstrating that fear is not universal in the state:

This academic-freedom law is just an attempt to sneak creationism through the schoolhouse's back door. Creationist theology that life on Earth is so complex it must have resulted through God's intelligent design belongs in a comparative religion course, not in a science class.

And to couch this in the noble principle of academic freedom is shameful. Would you defend a math teacher who fervently believes 2+2 = 5 and offers that as an alternative theory?

In teaching evolution, and Charles Darwin's thoughts on natural selection, the new science curriculum challenges students and encourages critical thinking.

Lawmakers should butt out.

The protracted debate over evolution was embarrassing enough. Florida's old science standards were a national joke that held the state's students back for years while children in other states excelled.
Well said!


Weird Science

Brandon Keim's science blog at Wired is host to some strange goings-on.

Carl Woese, the famous microbiologist, who is credited with the latest rearrangement of taxonomy into the three kingdoms comprised of Archaea, Bacteria, and Eukaryotes, when asked about the Florida standards flap, said:

My feeling is that evolution shouldn't be taught at the lower grades. You don't teach quantum mechanics in the grade schools. One has to be quite educated to work with these concepts; what they pass on as evolution in high schools is nothing but repetitious tripe that teeachers don't understand.

I certainly don't want any intrusion of religious ideas in the name of science -- but I don't want this bland soup that's taught as evolution in the name of science, either. It's not science -- it's catechism. Let's hold off until college, then hire some teachers who really know what to teach them. You have to go to the higest levels to find people with an understanding. That whole setup isn't there at all; all that's there is teaching the same old pap for 150 years, modfied by neo-Darwinists but not in an useful way.
Asked if neo-Darwinian evolution still explains, for example, the primate family tree, Woese said:

I don't know, when you put it that way ... you'd have to teach this stuff with the understanding that these are just the facts we can learn, and they don't have a religious explanation.

[Mainstream neo-Darwinian evolution] doesn't begin to talk about the evolution of the brain, and I think that's what the whole difference is. Man is working now on a higher level of organization than you can get form any other biological organization on the planet, and it doesn't do you a damn bit of good to say that the complex brain was a product of natural selection. It just doesn't help you.
Right. And teaching the Theory of Relativity's modification of Newton's mechanics is beyond grade and high school students, so we shouldn't teach that the planets orbit the sun? Last time I looked, education is necessarily a gradual process of building more sophisticated knowledge on top of a more basic understanding. Neither Rome nor an education is built in a day.

Abbie at ERV has a typically sedate and respectful dissent: "Has Carl Woese lost his friggen mind?"

Friday, February 22, 2008


Of Apples and Eden

There was a fine example on February 13, 2008 of the fact that the Discovery Institute was, for once, being completely truthful when it said of its "blog," Evolution News & Views:

The misreporting of the evolution issue is one key reason for this site.
The piece, entitled "What They Didn't Tell You about the National Academy of Sciences," by Cornelius Hunter, does its very best to confuse several different concepts and, in the process, to confuse those all too willing to accept confusion if it will conform to their religious beliefs. The topics Mr. Hunter wants to jumble include philosophical naturalism, the methodological naturalism of science and the tentativeness of science (as opposed to the dogmatism of religion). Mr. Hunter's complaint is with the supposedly "dogmatic naturalism" of "evolutionists," as exemplified by the National Academy of Sciences' recently revised booklet, Science, Evolution, and Creationism.

Evolutionists have always been dogmatic about naturalism. They believe that science must, in principle, be absolutely constrained to naturalistic explanations. This is a philosophical position — there is no scientific evidence that could make evolutionists think twice.

Like the creationist who mandates a particular interpretation of the scientific evidence (according to scripture), the evolutionist also mandates a particular interpretation of the scientific evidence (according to naturalism). All explanations must be thoroughly and completely naturalistic, no matter how contorted those explanations become.
It is, indeed, part of the philosophy of science that only natural causal processes can serve as scientific explanations. However, as Eugenie Scott points out, in the selection I quoted yesterday from her article, "Creation Science Lite: 'Intelligent Design' as the New Anti-Evolutionism," in Scientists Confront Creationism: Intelligent Design and Beyond, this insistence on natural explanations is a methodological one, applied only within the scientific enterprise, not a commitment to philosophical materialism, "the belief that matter, energy, and their interactions comprise the universe; no gods or supernatural powers exist." Of course, not a few scientists are also philosophical materialists and claim support for their philosophy from science. But it is equally true that many fine scientists, including biologists such as Ken Miller, Francis Collins, R.A. Fisher and Theodosius Dobzhansky, have been and are devout theists.

Mr. Hunter asks "how did life evolve?" and then presents chopped up phrases from the NAS booklet exhibiting the tentative state of research into the chemical origin of life (or "abiogenesis"). He then leaps precipitously to the conclusion "this hardly constitutes 'compelling' evidence for the 'fact' of evolution." But Mr. Hunter manages to jump over this part of the statement:

But the principles underlying life's chemical origins, as well as plausible chemical details of the process, are subject to scientific investigation in the same ways that all other natural phenomena are.
In other words, if a scientific explanation is to be found for the origin of life, we must look for it the only place that science works -- among the natural processes that are "amenable to solution" by science.

Mr. Hunter, though, cavils:

While [the claim that history shows that even very difficult questions may become amenable to solution as a result of advances in science] certainly is true, scientists also need to evaluate theories according to what is known. We can always hope our favorite theories will be saved by future findings, but this is no substitute for accurate theory evaluation according to the known data. It is simply misleading and irresponsible to state that it is a scientific fact that life evolved from non-living chemicals.
Of course, Mr. Hunter somehow conveniently forgets that, contrary to his claim that the NAS is presenting abiogenesis as a "scientific fact," he had, just a paragraph or two above, quoted all the tentative language in the NAS booklet. More importantly, Mr. Hunter is trying to convince the unwary that the very tentativeness he highlights one minute and denies the next is a basis for changing the very fabric of science. Mr. Hunter is backhandedly trying the maneuver that is well described in Robert T. Pennock's (author of the excellent Tower of Babel: The Evidence against the New Creationism) contribution to Scientists Confront Creationism, entitled "God of the Gaps: The Argument From Ignorance and the Limits of Methodological Naturalism":

... ID creationists (e.g., Meyer, "The Return of the God Hypothesis") promote [the design argument] under a second interpretation, discussed by philosopher of science Elliott Sober ([Philosophy of biology,] 1993) as what is known as an inference to the best explanation. This form of confirmation works by weighing the explanatory merits of competing hypotheses and concluding that the hypothesis that best explains the data is the true one.

Ordinarily, when a scientist infers a certain "best explanation," the inference draws on contrasts among different causal hypotheses grounded within a strong body of background knowledge. Under certain conditions, ... we can sometimes make a good case that a human being designed something. However, this interpretation of Paley's argument is even weaker than the [watchmaker analogy] when explanations are not constrained by natural causal processes. The moment one rejects the evidential requirement limiting appeal to lawful causal processes and opens the door to supernatural interventions -- which is what creationists do when they reject methodological naturalism -- explanatory chaos breaks loose. Since there are no known constraints upon processes that transcend natural laws, a supernatural agent or force could be called upon to "explain" any event in any circumstance; that is what miracles supposedly can do. However, the concept of a transcendent designer or other miraculous force that can explain any event under any set of conditions is no explanation at all (Pennock, [Tower of Babel], chap. 6). Moreover, because such a hypothesis neither makes any specific or general predictions nor rules out any possibility, no observation could count for or against it; it is in principle untestable. Thus, if the design inference is construed as the best explanation while rejecting methodological naturalism (as ID creationists do), it cannot possibly win in a comparative assessment of hypothesized explanations.
In short, no matter how "contorted" Mr. Hunter may find science to be, within science itself, there is no reason to choose his preferred "explanation" of a putatively unknown "Designer," with unknown powers, operating at unknown times and by unknown means, over the best explanations we have of how known natural processes, like chemistry and physics, might have resulted in what we see around us in the natural world.

Just as our knowledge of how life began is limited but our evidence for the evolution of that life over time is massive, our understanding of how gravity actually works across distances is tentative at best but its connection to mass is obvious. Would Mr. Hunter have us stop accepting the "dogmatic naturalism" of physicists and believe that apples will fall up unless some mysterious "Grappler" pulls them down?


Thursday, February 21, 2008


Origins of Antiscience

A thought:

From the beginning, the core of individuals who built the ID movement was concerned with the materialist focus of American society and of science, which they associate with materialism. For example, science explains events and observations through natural causes; the principle of methodological materialism rules out appeals to divine cause in science. Methodological materialism is distinct from philosophical materialism -- the belief that matter, energy, and their interactions comprise the universe; no gods or supernatural powers exist. But ID proponents claim that methodological materialism is merely a front for philosophical materialism; they see a slippery slope between the former and the latter. ...

ID's antimaterialism leads its proponents to propose radical changes in how science is done. In 1984, the authors of The Mystery of Life's Origin [Charles B. Thaxton. Walter L. Bradley and Roger L. Olsen] distinguished between regular (or "operational science") and a supposedly different kind of science, "origin science," which requires or at least permits an alternate sort of scientific methodology. Like future ID proponents, the authors attributed historical and biological events to "intelligence," where the "intelligence" was understood as operating supernaturally. Origin science is defined as the science used to explain singular, unrepeatable events (the origin of life, for example), which supposedly are untestable and thus outside of science. Therefore, attribution of causality to God is acceptable in "origin science," but not in "operation science."

The abandonment of methodological materialism in science was also championed by creation-science advocates; it appeared only three years later in a book by two young-earth creationists, Norman L. Geisler and J. Kerby Anderson [Origin Science, 1987], with a foreword by Waiter L. Bradley. Geisler obliquely claimed precedent for the distinction between "operation science" and "origin science" (which he called "science of origin") in an obscure 1983 publication, but in general, both ID and creation-science proponents cite Thaxton and others as the source of the distinction. Of Pandas and People in 1993, included a "Note to Teachers" by Mark Hartwig and Stephen Meyer in which they similarly distinguished "inductive sciences" and "historical sciences" and defended the idea of broadening science to include "intelligence" as a cause.

Other ID proponents have encouraged "theistic science" [Alvin Plantinga, 1991. "When faith and reason clash: Evolution and the Bible"] as a way of broadening science beyond methodological materialism. The argument is made that if we "arbitrarily" limit science to only natural cause, we may miss the true explanation -- which is direct or indirect supernatural design. [J.P. Moreland, in "Is Science a Threat or Help to Faith?"] has proposed that the essence of theistic science is

... a commitment to the belief that God, conceived of as a personal agent with great power and intelligence, has through direct, primary causation and indirect, secondary causation created and designed the world for a purpose. He has directly intervened in the course of its development at various points (for example, in directly creating the universe, first life, the basic kinds of life, and humans). And these kinds of ideas can enter into the very fabric of scientific practice.
[T]he abandonment of methodological materialism in science is part of the strategy of reviving a theistic -- in particular, a conservative Christian -- understanding of the world and humanity's place in it.

- Eugenie C. Scott, "Creation Science Lite: 'Intelligent Design' as the New Anti-Evolutionism," Scientists Confront Creationism: Intelligent Design and Beyond, Andrew J. Petto and Laurie R. Godfrey, eds., 2007



Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch ...

Well, people are catching on ...

Back when the notion of appending the word "theory" to "evolution" in the Florida science standards was first proposed, coming from a group of state legislators in early February, I labeled it as a "throw me in the briar patch" solution for the Board of Education. Then, with the able assist of the Florida Department of Education, which suggested calling it the "Scientific Theory of Evolution," along with the "Scientific Theory of" Electromagnetism, Atoms, Cells, et al., to go with the extensive explanation the proposed standards give of what a "scientific theory" is and how it differs from how most people use the word "theory," I suggested that this could be even worse for the creationists than if the original proposal had been implimented.

Now Brandon Keim has noticed too, in a post at Wired's science blog, entitled "Evolution Wins as Creationists (Accidentally) Switch Sides in Florida."

And, sweetest of all, there are squeals emanating from the Puget Peccary.

Okay, enough horn tooting, even if it is my own.

Via Pharyngula.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008


Legislative Thinking

Florida State Rep. Marti Coley, who had been making noises about having the legislature add "theory" to every appearance of "evolution" in the state science standards has pronounced herself satisfied with the last minute change made by the Board of Education to call it the Scientific Theory of Evolution" (along with the "Scientific Theory of Atoms;" the "Scientific Theory of Electromagnetism;" the "Scientific Theory of the Big Bang;" and the "Scientific Theory of Plate Tectonics").

Doubtless she is playing to her constituency, especially when she said this to the board:

We're just asking that you use the word 'theory' in conjunction with the word 'evolution,' to acknowledge that there are many theories of the origin of life.
Sir Harold Kroto, the Francis Eppes Professor of Chemistry at Florida State University, a Nobel laureate and director of the Florida Center for Research in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, had a good explanation of Rep. Coley's misunderstanding (or misdirection) in this article in the Miami Herald entitled "Theory of Evolution is a ‘fact’":

Now comes word that some influential state lawmakers want to ensure that evolution in the new science standards has the word "theory" before it, as in "theory of evolution." These lawmakers want to stress that evolution is a theory, not a fact - and they are said to be considering asking the Legislature to force the State Board of Education to adopt the wording change if it doesn't do so on its own.

These lawmakers fail to appreciate that there are two types of theory - scientific theories and unscientific theories.

Scientific theories are those considered "true" or "facts" because they have been found experimentally to work and we know why they work. Unscientific theories, however, have been found wanting when similarly experimentally tested.
After giving Newton's Theory of Gravity, Maxwell's Theory of Electromagnetism and Einstein's Theory of Relativity as examples of "true" theories or "facts," Sir Harold continues:

The 1859 treatise by Charles Darwin, "The Origin of Species - By Means of Natural Selection," is arguably the most beautiful example of a "factual" or "true" scientific theory. It explained perfectly Darwin's meticulous, carefully documented, painstakingly detailed and accurately recorded observations. For the last 150 years, supporting evidence has flooded in from every branch of the sciences: paleontology, anthropology, physics, chemistry, biology, medicine, geology, etc. There are millions of pieces in the puzzle, and they all fit perfectly.
As to those "many theories of the origin of life" Rep. Coley is so interested in protecting, Sir Harold had a short but true description:

There are, of course, many theories that do not appear to work at all.
There is more to Sir Harold's article that is well worth reading. It is to be hoped that the designation of evolution under the rubric of "scientific theory," along with many other well-supported scientific propositions, and the thorough explanation the standards provide of what a "scientific theory" really is, will wind up conveying Sir Harold's distinction.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008


Netcetera Sucks

Orac tells the tale of cowardly, chickenhearted, craven, dastardly, faint-hearted, lily-livered, pusillanimous, gutless, yellow-bellied, ignoble, uncourageous poltroons at Netcetera who pulled the plug on Le Canard Noir's Quackometer site in the face of a threat of a lawsuit by a homeopathic woomeister by the name of Joseph Chikelue Obi and the equally wooish Society of Homeopaths.

As Orac says:

All I can say to those of you who support free speech on the Internet and have blogs: Blog it, people! Make Netcetera feel the heat. If you have your Internet connectivity through Netcetera, seriously think about finding another ISP.
After all, using Netcetera causes halitosis, the heartbreak of psoriasis and jock itch. If you have to use it, at least wear a paper bag over your head.

Update: The Quack is back! But the odious Joseph Chikelue Obi is too, as Orac notes.


The Deed Is Done

The Florida Board of Education has approved the new standards with, as was reported before, the addition of "the scientific theory of" before every use of the word "evolution." There is no report on whether the phrase was added to any other theories addressed in the standards. If it was, I think the addition is not a very big deal, given how far the standards also go in explaining that "scientific theory" doesn't mean "wild-assed guess." If not, then it was an unjustified watering-down of the standards on evolution, singling it out as somehow less scientific than the rest.

Still, the creationists aren't happy:

Terry Kemple, the executive director of the Community Issues Council in Tampa, opposed adding language 'scientific theory' during public comments. Kemple has said he supports the current science standards as they are [i.e., without any mention of "evolution"].

In his group's opinion, he said, adding "scientific theory does not begin to even address the problems" with the standards ...
And that can't be a bad thing.

Update: According to this story in the Orlando Sentinel:

[T]he board, by a 4-3 vote, adopted a last-minute alternative that inserted the phrase "scientific theory of" in front of evolution and other concepts.

Further Update: It looks like the political pressure is off for the moment:

State Rep. Marti Coley (R- Marianna) applauded the decision by the Florida Board of Education Tuesday to approve new science standards that will teach evolution as a scientific theory, not as scientific fact as had been earlier proposed.
But that might not last for long:

[O]pponents ... had urged the State Board of Education to add an "academic freedom" provision that would have let teachers "engage students in a critical analysis of that evidence." ...

[John] Stemberger [president of the Florida Family Policy Council] said his organization will ask the Legislature to add the academic freedom proposal to the standards. ...

The academic freedom proposal also would have referred to evolution as "a" rather than "the" fundamental concept underlying biology.


Of Forests and Trees

A thought:

Most working scientists see themselves as clearing a small patch of light in a great glowering dark forest of unreason. Confronted with pseudoscience like "Intelligent Design," they see the darkness pushing back at them, trying to reclaim what they have so painstakingly cleared and lit. That, I think, is what is behind the anger, to the degree that there is any anger. In fact, what there mostly is, is scorn for shallow second-rate ideas with no worked-out science behind them, and frustration that so many people are taken in by those ideas, when science has much deeper, more interesting, and more fruitful ideas to offer. I doubt many biologists feel "threatened" by I.D., any more than geographers feel threatened by the Flat Earth theory; it's just a reminder of the unhappy fact that when people are invited to choose between reason and unreason, they all too often go for the latter.

- John Derbyshire, National Review Online, February 18, 2008

Monday, February 18, 2008


Centers of Education

The Lakeland, Florida Ledger has Casey Luskin (dis)gracing its pages with another of his PR attempts at smoke and mirrors. The main complaint is that the factually accurate report by the proposed science standards that evolution is "the fundamental concept underlying all of biology" will "elevate Darwin's theory to a dogma that cannot be questioned." I suppose truth has the look of dogma to those who are grimly determined to believe in a falsehood.

Luskin's complaint boils down to the fact that the standards reflect the view of the most prestigious scientific bodies in the U.S., including the National Academy of Sciences, that there is "no scientific controversy about the basic facts of evolution," instead of listening to the kvetching of a few scientists, overwhelmingly religiously-motivated, mostly non-biologists, who have [cough] "fundamental doubts" about something unfairly portrayed as "Darwinian evolution." As far as I know, the NAS also doesn't think there is any scientific controversy about the Earth orbiting the Sun just because there are a few people, some with credentials, who think otherwise.

Fortunately, the editorial staff of the same paper is not buying Luskin's blather:

[The standard on evolution] accurately reflects the state of science on the subject. While critics will point out certain scientists who object to the idea of evolution as science, they are a slim minority, often with religious concerns.

Evolution is so firmly embraced by the nation's scientific community that the National Academy of Sciences has produced three books in support of evolution. The most recent, "Science, Evolution and Creationism," was released Jan. 3. ...

That certainty has inspired opponents to object heartily. They mostly represent Evangelical Christianity and Orthodox Judaism. They take the biblical description of Earth's creation literally.

They insist on the teaching in public school of creationism or the related idea of intelligent design.

Evolution is science. It belongs in science class. ...

While voting to uphold evolution as an appropriate subject for teaching in science class, the Education Board should advocate teaching about creationism and intelligent design in sociology class.

Further, when the category of standards pertaining to sociology come up for revision, the Education Board should ensure that these subjects of study are spelled out as specifically as those for evolution.

Sociology is the study of society, social institutions and social relationships - and how groups develop and interact.

The maturation process of students produces the ideal opportunity for undertaking such sociological studies. This would allow the students to learn how others have come to their conclusions and help them understand their own decisions as they form their beliefs. ...

Creationism and intelligent design, as beliefs, are sociological. They belong in sociology class.
While the editorial is, no doubt, somewhat naive when it suggests that creationists "will support this two-pronged approach to the study of our world's beginnings," it is, in fact, the only appropriate way for taxpayer-financed schools to deal, if at all, with the faith-based objections to science.


The Danger of Freedom

My opinion is that there would never have been an infidel, if there had never been a priest. - Thomas Jefferson
Carol V. Hamilton has an excellent article at George Mason University's History News Network on why the notion that the United States is a "Christian Nation" is, at the very least, misleading and, as propounded by the Righteous Right, is an outright falsehood. Jumping off from the article "Christianizing US History" in Nation magazine by Chris Hedges (author of American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War On America), about House Resolution 888, seeking to establish American Religious History Week, Ms. Hamilton proceeds to give, well, chapter and verse showing that the most important Founding Fathers neither wanted nor expected America to have a Christian government. As she rightly points out:

Ignorance of science and of intellectual history is endemic in this country, but it is exacerbated by home-schooling and religious schools, with their "Christ-centered" curricula.
She lists the great sources of the American attempt to establish political and personal freedom: "John Locke, Roger Williams, the Federalist Papers, the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, [and] the Bill of Rights." Of particular note was the praise James Madison, who, more than any man, was the author of our Constitution and the First Amendment, had for the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, authored by Jefferson. Madison called it:

[A] true standard of Religious liberty: its principle the great barrier against usurpation on the right of conscience.
In turn, Jefferson held, in a phrase I personally love, that its passage was "meant to comprehend, within the mantle of it's protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and infidel of every denomination." When the issue of Congressional chaplains came up, Madison warned of sectarianism:

Could a Catholic clergyman ever hope to be appointed chaplain? To say that his religious principles are obnoxious, or that his sect is small, is to lift the evil at once and exhibit in its naked deformity the doctrine that religious truth is to be tested by numbers, or that the major sects have a right to govern the minor.
We don't have to go back 200 years to see this in action, either.

As Ms. Hamilton points out, Madison's objection:

... articulates a primary concern of the Founders: to prevent what Alexis de Tocqueville later characterized as "the tyranny of the majority." "Give all power to the few, they will oppress the many," warned Alexander Hamilton at the Constitutional Convention. "Give all power to the many, they will oppress the few."
Those who would impose their religion on our government are un-American and, along with others who would ignore the Constitution, pose the greatest threat to our democracy. Terrorists will never take our freedom from us. The real danger is that we will give it away.

Sunday, February 17, 2008


Where Have We Heard This Before?

A thought:

[P]rotestations often come from both creation-science and ID proponents that they are not trying to remove evolution from the classroom. They claim that they merely want to give students "all the evidence" or "the complete range of scientific theories" -- which, of course, in practice includes giving them creation science and/or ID along with evolution. But given their view that evolution is evil in and of itself, or at best a stalking horse for philosophical materialism, it is difficult to take such pronouncements at face value. I believe that creation-science and ID proponents deliberately avoid trying to ban evolution because they know such approaches are illegal (as in the 1968 Supreme Court case Epperson v. Arkansas). They also are savvy enough to realize that the public equates efforts to ban evolution with backwardness: the state or community that attempts to do so becomes a source of ridicule in editorial cartoons and late-night talk shows, as did Kansas in 1999 when its state board of education attempted to remove evolution from the state science education standards. A strategy promoting inclusion of alternatives to evolution is far more publicly palatable.

- Eugenie C. Scott, "Creation Science Lite: 'Intelligent Design' as the New Anti-Evolutionism," Scientists Confront Creationism: Intelligent Design and Beyond, Andrew J. Petto and Laurie R. Godfrey, eds., 2007



That's a Plan

A thought:

In a move that could endanger Florida's flaky backwater reputation, the state Board of Education is poised to endorse the teaching of evolution as a science.

This is a dangerous idea -- not the presentation of Darwinism in schools, but the presentation of Florida as a place of progressive scientific thought.

Over the years the Legislature has worked tirelessly to keep our kids academically stuck in the mid-1950s. This has been achieved by overcrowding their classrooms, underpaying their teachers and letting their school buildings fall apart.

Florida's plucky refusal to embrace 21st century education is one reason that prestigious tech industries have avoided the state, allowing so many of our high-school graduates (and those who come close) to launch prosperous careers in the fast-food, bartending and service sectors of the economy.

By accepting evolution as a proven science, our top educators would be sending a loud message to the rest of the nation: Stop making fun of us.

Is that what we really want? ...

Keep your elite biotech payrolls up North and out West -- we've got hundreds of thousands of low-paying, go-nowhere jobs that require little training and minimal education.

- Carl Hiaasen, "Our reputation for flakiness is at stake," Miami Herald, Feb. 17, 2008

Saturday, February 16, 2008


That's Entertainment

Well, Variety has now gotten into the act.

Reporting on the fantasy flick, Expelled, it said:

Producers of the $3.5 million film, which has been enthusiastically backed by anti-evolution think tank the Discovery Institute, have harnessed some big guns to get the film's message out. They've hired Motive Entertainment, the marketing brains behind "The Passion of the Christ" and "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe," to spread the intelligent design gospel and tapped powerhouse PR firm Rogers & Cowan to handle the film's media campaign.
Marketing is always the star of any Intelligent Design production.

The story notes that Ben Stein, who scripted Richard Nixon's speeches and became "famous" when he trod the boards as Ferris Bueller's monotonous teacher said:

It's not important to me whether it makes money. I've already been paid, and I might add quite modestly at that.
Yeah, but there other ways to receive residuals. It's being reported that "Ben Stein Wins Money from Intelligent Design Community" through his being given, in lieu of any Oscars, the oxymoronically entitled "Phillip E. Johnson Award for Liberty and Truth" from that bastion of science, Biola University, otherwise known as Bible Institute of Los Angeles. It is also reported that he is "making the rounds" of college campuses and evangelical church screenings.

Stein claims:

I'm hoping that (schools) will at least allow in science classes someone to say, 'What if it's not Darwinism, but what if there was some intelligent designer who created the universe?'
As far as I know, every school in America allows people such soliloquies. They just direct them from the science class down the hall to the religion class or across the street to the church or synagogue or mosque. But Variety may sum it up best, even if not quite intentionally:

[U]nlike most movies, "Expelled" may be looking to effect policy change more than rack up B.O.
From downwind, the second objective has been already achieved in spades.

Friday, February 15, 2008


Parceled Out

Uh, oh ... They may be catching on!

The Associated Press is reporting that the Florida Board of Education may append the phrase "scientific theory of" to "evolution" and all other scientific theories mentioned in the new standards. As I pointed out, this is something of a Brer Rabbit solution, since the standards do a good job of also laying out the difference between what a scientific theory is and what the vernacular sense of "theory" is.

John Stemberger, president and general counsel of something called the Florida Family Policy Council, seems to be going for it, saying "That sounds like it's a significant step in the right direction."

However, Kim Kendall, an activist from St. Augustine, smells a rat: "To me it says exactly the same thing." Why, yes it does, doesn't it? But her intelligence returns to her prior low standards in the next breath: "Just allow in the other scientific data, not creationism, not intelligent design." The only problem being that there is no "other scientific data." All you've got is the same old stale objections from creationism that intelligent design has slapped a coat of cheap paint on.

And so it goes ...


Into the Future

A thought:

In this information age, when science is the key to national prosperity and to protecting the planet, there needs to be more emphasis, not less, on understanding the concept of a scientific theory.

A scientific theory is not conjecture. It is a coherent framework that successfully explains natural phenomena. For the last 150 years, the theory of evolution has been affirmed by observations in the natural world. The more we learn about biology and genetics, the more evolution becomes undeniable. There is no alternative to it as an explanation for life on Earth that has any scientific foundation.

Supernatural offerings such as intelligent design or creationism, in which the hand of a designer is presumed, are not alternative scientific theories. They have never been tested and cannot be. To teach them in a science class is to purposely subvert learning in order to appease certain religious sensibilities. Instead, they belong in the realm of faith and in religious instruction. ...

Twenty-first century businesses in biotechnology and other sciences are watching Florida's efforts to create an educated work force. Right now, our unwillingness to accept well-established scientific theory is making headlines - just the kind of thing that keeps us a low-wage, tourist-dependant state.

Tuesday's vote is about Florida's future, and nothing less.

- St. Petersburg Times Editorial, February 15, 2008

Thursday, February 14, 2008


Educational Malpractice

Just out of curiosity, I keep asking what "evidence against evolution" or "alternative theories" are the creationists in Florida asking to be taught to the state's children. The answers are less than forthcoming. Well, if there was any doubt about the nature of the "evidence" they are talking about, this article in the Florida Baptist Witness should dispel it. It has three quote mines, two from Stephen Jay Gould and one from Sir Carl Popper:

[S]cientists deny that gradual change can be seen in the fossil record. A few scientists now even question whether fossils necessarily show that evolution itself occurred. Harvard scientist Stephen Jay Gould says the fossil record does not show evolution occurring gradually. "The fossil record with its abrupt transitions," he writes, "offers no support for gradual change." Gould calls these repeated unfilled gaps, "the trade secret of paleontology." ...

Dr. Karl Popper, the world's leading philosopher in science states, "Darwinism is not a testable scientific theory, but a metaphysical research program."
Then it trots out this tired chestnut:

Sir Fred Hoyle said, "The chance that higher life forms might have emerged through the evolutionary process is comparable with the chance that a tornado sweeping through a junk yard might assemble a Boeing 747 from the material therein."
Sir Fred was a great astronomer/cosmologist but his understanding of evolution was less than stellar.

A quotation from "Professor" Phillip Johnson is given (without mention that he is a lawyer, not a biologist) about how the question is not "whether the vast claims of Darwinian evolution conflict with Genesis but whether they conflict with the evidence of biology." Given the article's contention that Intelligent Design brings "difficult questions about Darwin's theory to the fore," it is telling that it ignores what Johnson himself had to say about ID's scientific qualifications:

I also don't think that there is really a theory of intelligent design at the present time to propose as a comparable alternative to the Darwinian theory, which is, whatever errors it might contain, a fully worked out scheme. There is no intelligent design theory that's comparable. Working out a positive theory is the job of the scientific people that we have affiliated with the movement. Some of them are quite convinced that it's doable, but that's for them to prove ... No product is ready for competition in the educational world.
For once Johnson was correct about science and education. Whatever "difficult questions" ID may pose, they are not scientific and have no place in science education. Instead, they belong, if at all, in civics or comparative religion classes.

The rest is the familiar hubbub of misdirection and non sequiturs. The dead body of the Discovery Institute's list of 700 "dissenters" from Darwin is dragged out for another turn around the square in its reliquary. The Anthropic Cosmological Principal is given a whirl without the least attempt to show how evolution relates to the origins of the universe. And, finally, an argumentum ad populum is presented in the form of a Zogby poll that claims that 71 percent of the public favors allowing teachers to acknowledge the scientific controversy over the origins of life, itself an issue that, strictly speaking, has nothing to do with evolution, the study of how life has developed since the first simple form of life arose, by whatever means.

But worst of all, this compendium of blather comes from Robin Brown, a recently retired teacher from Polk County who taught for 31 years with the last 15 years being middle school science.

It's enough to bring the validity of the diplomas of a generation of Polk County students into doubt.


Wednesday, February 13, 2008


Falling in Line

You may remember Florida State Representative Marti Coley, who has been pushing to append "theory" to every mention of "evolution" in the proposed science standards there. Asked if it should be called the "theory of gravity" in the standards, Coley said: "Sure." She went on to say, however, that people aren't calling her about gravity.

She continues her relative honesty about the source of her concern in this article in The Jackson County Floridian:

It has suddenly become a hot topic. I have been contacted by many constituents.
But this part is ... interesting:

There are many parts of the study of evolution that have been crucial in the progress of agriculture, the health arena in combating diseases ... and we certainly want our students to be equipped with the same information as other students. ...

But also there are portions of the theory of evolution that can't be proven, and because there is uncertainty and areas that are debatable, I think it would be very appropriate to continuing using the word theory as we currently do.
Um ... quite beyond the fact that the present standards don't use the word "evolution," with or without "theory" appended, it may be a good thing for Florida voters to know, since gravity is a theory where we do not presently have a good idea as to how it works, that means, as far as the Florida legislature is concerned at least, that there is uncertainty and debate about whether it occurs or not.

Ms. Coley, may I suggest you keep away from cliff edges anyway?



They say "Nothing succeeds like excess," so you can stand some more about Darwin, right? Brian Switek, in a fine Darwin Day article (that I had only a minor quibble with), brought up this quote from Darwin in Animals and Plants Under Domestication:

Some authors have declared that natural selection explains nothing, unless the precise cause of each slight individual difference be made clear. If it were explained to a savage utterly ignorant of the art of building, how the edifice had been raised stone upon stone, and why wedge-formed fragments were used for the arches, flat-stones for the roof, &c.; and if the use of each part and of the whole building were pointed out, it would be unreasonable if he declared that nothing had been made clear to him, because the precise cause of the shape of each fragment could not be told. But this is a nearly parallel case with the objection that selection explains nothing, because we know not the cause of each individual difference in the structure of each being.
Now, where have I heard such an "objection" before?

Q. And I'm correct when I asked you, you would need to see a step-by-step description of how the immune system, vertebrate immune system developed?

A. Not only would I need a step-by-step, mutation by mutation analysis, I would also want to see relevant information such as what is the population size of the organism in which these mutations are occurring, what is the selective value for the mutation, are there any detrimental effects of the mutation, and many other such questions.

- Michael Behe, testifying at the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District case
The truly disingenuous part of Behe's evasion, when presented with massive amounts of scientific work on the evolution of the immune system, resides in the fact that none of the ID advocates, including Behe, will (except in friendly religious settings) even venture a guess at the identity of the supposed "Designer," much less suggest a step-by-step explanation of how he, she or it created the system and inserted it in some early form. In short, they demand not just unreasonable detail, as Darwin pointed out, they apply a double standard when it comes to the level of evidence they themselves have to produce.

As always, Darwin was way ahead of the creationists.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008


199 and Counting

From Darwin's Origin of Species: A Biography by Janet Browne:

Twenty-three years after publishing the book that made him famous, Darwin died at home, aged seventy-three. He was buried in Westminster Abbey, in London, the more usual location for state funerals, royal marriages and national celebrations. Such a burial site for the author of On the Origin of Species was ironic in many ways, for the nation was well aware of Darwin's reputation for having undermined church authority. By the time of his death, however, Darwin was fêted as a great scientific celebrity, a grand old man of science, someone who had looked further and seen more than others, of an intellectual rank as great as Newton, and certainly deserving to be honored in the country's primary commemorative setting. Professors, churchmen, politicians, medical luminaries, aristocrats and members of the public crowded the Abbey to see him to the grave. 'Happy is the man that findeth wisdom' sang the choir. It is hardly possible nowadays for us to guess whether Darwin died a happy man but he was certainly revered for his achievement and personal character, the very model of what a man of science ought to be.


Monday, February 11, 2008



Darwin famously stated in the Origin of Species:

To suppose that the eye, with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest possible degree.
Generations of creationists, out of ignorance or duplicity have quoted that passage as some sort of "evidence" against evolution. Of course, Darwin went on immediately to say:

Yet reason tells me, that if numerous gradations from a perfect and complex eye to one very imperfect and simple, each grade being useful to its possessor, can be shown to exist; if further, the eye does vary ever so slightly, and the variations be inherited, which is certainly the case; and if any variation or modification in the organ be ever useful to an animal under changing conditions of life, then the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection, though insuperable by our imagination, can hardly be considered real.
Darwin then proceeded to give examples of "much graduated diversity in the eyes of living crustaceans" as an example of how slight modifications could lead to more complex eyes. But there is a less quoted passage a bit further on that might be appropriate for the hoopla now going on in Florida:

It is scarcely possible to avoid comparing the eye to a telescope. We know that this instrument has been perfected by the long-continued efforts of the highest human intellects; and we naturally infer that the eye has been formed by a somewhat analogous process. But may not this inference be presumptuous? Have we any right to assume that the Creator works by intellectual powers like those of man? If we must compare the eye to an optical instrument, we ought in imagination to take a thick layer of transparent tissue, with a nerve sensitive to light beneath, and then suppose every part of this layer to be continually changing slowly in density, so as to separate into layers of different densities and thicknesses, placed at different distances from each other, and with the surfaces of each layer slowly changing in form. Further we must suppose that there is a power always intently watching each slight accidental alteration in the transparent layers; and carefully selecting each alteration which, under varied circumstances, may in any way, or in any degree, tend to produce a distincter image. We must suppose each new state of the instrument to be multiplied by the million; and each to be preserved till a better be produced, and then the old ones to be destroyed. In living bodies, variation will cause the slight alterations, generation will multiply them almost infinitely, and natural selection will pick out with unerring skill each improvement. Let this process go on for millions on millions of years; and during each year on millions of individuals of many kinds; and may we not believe that a living optical instrument might thus be formed as superior to one of glass, as the works of the Creator are to those of man?
Linear thinking is the great ally of creationism and the greatest failing of creationists. As with much else for and against his theory, Darwin saw it as clearly as with a telescope.

Sunday, February 10, 2008


Darwin's Place

The Rev. Timothy McLemore, senior pastor at Kessler Park United Methodist Church in Oak Cliff, Texas, has some good thoughts on this Evolution Weekend:

If we believe God is truth, we don't need to shrink from truth in whatever way it presents itself. We don't have to be threatened.

I think the Bible gives us a great creation account, and I think it's profoundly true. I just don't think it was ever intended to be scientifically true or even historically true.

The Bible is true when it teaches who God is and what God is like. The Bible is true when it describes the human condition. The Bible is true when it teaches us about human relationships.

As I understand the complexities and intricacies of what has been produced through human evolution, not only does it not make me want to run away from God, it strikes a chord of wonder and awe that I can only describe as worship.

Concerning attempts to inject Intelligent Design Creationism into science classes:

It seems profoundly unhealthy. Do we really want the government deciding what religious beliefs and viewpoints are taught in school? It's our job to promote our understanding of faith, not the government's job.

From a vastly different perspective, John Wilkins has exercised his usual excellent exposition on the issue of "What's so cool about Darwin?" And Richard Dawkins gives yet another view of Darwin as evidence that science can, ultimately, answer all questions the cosmos presents.

The fate of all discoverers of big ideas is to be many things to many people.


James McGrath has gathered many resources for Evolution Weekend from the NCSE.

Saturday, February 09, 2008



As my contribution to James F. McGrath's suggested Blog-A-Thon this Evolution Weekend, I'd like to explore a bit Stephen Jay Gould's argument for religion and science occupying "Nonoverlapping Magisteria" or "NOMA." First of all, in Gould's reformulation of an old idea, the supposed "conflict" or "warfare" between science and religion is mistaken:

The net of science covers the empirical universe: what is it made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory). The net of religion extends over questions of moral meaning and value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry (consider, for starters, the magisterium of art and the meaning of beauty). To cite the arch clichés, we get the age of rocks, and religion retains the rock of ages; we study how the heavens go, and they determine how to go to heaven.

This resolution might remain all neat and clean if the nonoverlapping magisteria (NOMA) of science and religion were separated by an extensive no man's land. But, in fact, the two magisteria bump right up against each other, interdigitating in wondrously complex ways along their joint border. Many of our deepest questions call upon aspects of both for different parts of a full answer -- and the sorting of legitimate domains can become quite complex and difficult.
Gould was not proposing a black-and-white division between the fields, as he is so often mischaracterized as having done, but an interaction, featuring sharp elbows but no necessary blows. As we all know (and as a major topic of this blog), some religious sects and some individual religious believers cannot refrain from crossing the conceptual line between the magisteria and attempt to impose their religious beliefs on the empiric results of science. However, it has not, historically, been a one-way street.

In John Hedley Brooke's well-respected study, Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives (p. 305-308), it is noted that intelligent people could come away from Darwinian evolution with the understanding that:

... humanity could no longer delude itself that there was a caring providence, that pain and suffering had an ultimate rationale, or that there was any destiny other than engineering the future course of evolution.

This was, however, a destiny of a kind. And if social improvement, even human perfectibility, was grounded in a law of nature, then there was a basis for a secular religion pursued with all the fervor of the sacred.
Brooke notes that the language of the exponents of such a destiny hints at scientific naturalism taking on:

... the mantle of a religion in which human values were corroborated, if not positively derivable, from the facts of biology. T. H. Huxley would preach what he called "lay sermons" to a public whose consciousness of the value of science he sought to raise. His campaign to gain greater social prestige for the scientific professional, having as its corollary the exclusion of the clerical amateur, can easily be parodied as the bid to create a "church scientific." For Herbert Spencer there was a power behind evolution, an "Unknowable Power" that nevertheless made for righteousness. In 1884 he declared that it was a power that "stands towards our general conception of things, in substantially the same relation as does the Creative Power asserted by Theology." For Darwin's cousin Francis Galton, as for Huxley, it was vital that any prerogatives claimed by the clergy to control the machinery of education should be denied. The pursuit of science, he wrote, is "uncongenial to the priestly character." As a member of the scientific priesthood, Galton had his alternative religion, which he called practical Darwinism. Its creed was a eugenics program, which was also a response to the fears of middle-class intellectuals in Britain that their social values were at risk from the higher rates of reproduction of the poorer classes. ...

The ease with which Darwin's science could be inflated into a naturalistic world-view, and thence into a rival religion, can be seen most clearly in the writings of [Ernst] Haeckel, who cherished a vision in which Christian churches would not be so much empty as taken over by like-minded monists who would refurbish them with symbols of nature and science. The altar would give way to Urania, the Greek muse of astronomy, while the walls would be decked with exotic flowers, trees, and aquaria. In due course Haeckel would be elected anti-pope by the apostles of free thought. His view of nature, as one historian has observed, "resembled a giant work of art, almost yearning for the creator he kept begrudging it." The possibilities of Evolution as an alternative religion were similarly perceived by a later popularizer, Wilhelm Bölsche, who spoke of the scientific movement as having effected a "Second Reformation." There had been an Old and a New Testament; now there was a third, the testament of science, which transcended both.
Today, not a few scientists venture across the frontier between science and religion, which is, of course, their right. But trying to ignore or erase the borders, instead of acknowledging them, can cause as much trouble in philosophy as it would at national frontiers. Gould's view is close to my own and, naturally, I think it is the right one:

I am not, personally, a believer or a religious man in any sense of institutional commitment or practice. But I have enormous respect for religion, and the subject has always fascinated me, beyond almost all others (with a few exceptions, like evolution, paleontology, and baseball). Much of this fascination lies in the historical paradox that throughout Western history organized religion has fostered both the most unspeakable horrors and the most heart-rending examples of human goodness in the face of personal danger. ...

I believe, with all my heart, in a respectful, even loving concordat between our magisteria -- the NOMA solution. NOMA represents a principled position on moral and intellectual grounds, not a mere diplomatic stance. NOMA also cuts both ways. If religion can no longer dictate the nature of factual conclusions properly under the magisterium of science, then scientists cannot claim higher insight into moral truth from any superior knowledge of the world's empirical constitution. This mutual humility has important practical consequences in a world of such diverse passions.
Despite the heat on both sides, it is still right and proper for people of good will to try to reach out to each other and talk instead of shouting. As the 1880 cartoon from Punch above suggests, that may be more effective in the long run. Let's hope that this Evolution Weekend and the ones to follow can facilitate dialogue over dogma of all sorts.


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