Tuesday, January 06, 2009



PZ Myearshertz may get interesting email, but William Nedblake at Skiing Mount Improbable got some interesting snail mail. Specifically, it is a fundraising letter dated 11 December 2008 from the Discovery Institute attempting to capitalize on the tragic death, probably by suicide, of Jesse Kilgore. According to Kilgore's father, it was reading Richard Dawkins' book, The God Delusion that caused his son to kill himself.

It's not the fact that the Discovery Institute would stoop to using a young man's death and a father's grief to further their political and financial aims that's interesting -- the DI stalwarts have long ago made plain that nothing is beneath them in the name of their God -- it's this part:

[C]ontrary to the pseudo-scientific claims of Darwinists like Dawkins, modern science does not point to atheism. In fact, a growing number of scientific discoveries are supportive of faith in God. The fine-tuning of the laws of physics, intricate molecular machines inside the cell, the digital information encoded in our DNA - all of these discoveries proclaim the truth that life is the product of intelligent design. Of course, these scientific findings do not "prove" that God exists, but the do provide powerful evidence that faith in God is consistent with the facts - contrary to the claims of Darwinists like Dawkins.

"Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture exists to support, defend, and promote the work of scientists who are challenging Darwin's theory of unguided evolution by finding positive evidence for intelligent design throughout nature.

"Our efforts were never more needed than they are now. Next year marks the bicentennial of the birth of Charles Darwin and the 150th anniversary of his book On the Origin of Species. Darwinian atheists like Dawkins are going into overdrive trying to hijack these anniversaries to spread their gospel of atheism..."

It's been no secret, of course, that the DI's claim that ID is all about the science and not about religion was a bald-faced lie. But with the fight in Texas coming up (don't think that because the latest draft of the science standards has omitted the "strengths and weaknesses" language that the battle has been won), the likely attempts of local school boards in Louisiana to take advantage of that state's newly enacted (and badly misnomered "academic freedom bill") and more state legislatures likely to take up legislation similar to Louisiana's, you'd think that the DI would be more circumspect. Casey Luskin, not content with his badly misfired squeak about Ken Miller's testimony at the Kitzmiller trial, has been attempting to put the blogosphere into a coma with another interminable multi-part screed, this time against Edward Humes' book, Monkey Girl: Evolution, Education, Religion, and the Battle for America's Soul. In his latest installment (the fifth!), Luskin has this to say:

Humes asserts that Darwin "did not come to doubt God and religion because of his scientific research or because of his theory of evolution, as critics of evolution sometimes allege," (pg. 120) a claim countered by some leading Darwin scholars and Darwin's own autobiography. Darwin scholar (and die-hard Darwinist) George Levine explains that Darwin saw in biology a "horror" because there is "so much that goes awry, so much that is distorted, cruel, violent," leading to deep "resentment against the beneficent, omniscient Creator who might be thought to have produced such horrors." Thus Darwin himself wrote, "I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae [a large family of parasitic wasps] with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars."

In his Autobiography, Darwin took aim at belief in a personal God which he believed was superseded directly by his theory of natural selection, writing: "Although I did not think much about the existence of a personal God until a considerably later period of my life, I will here give the vague conclusions to which I have been driven. The old argument of design in nature, as given by Paley, which formerly seemed to me so conclusive, fails, now that the law of natural selection has been discovered. We can no longer argue that, for instance, the beautiful hinge of a bivalve shell must have been made by an intelligent being, like the hinge of a door by man. There seems to be no more design in the variability of organic beings and in the action of natural selection, than in the course which the wind blows. Everything in nature is the result of fixed laws." Readers can decide for themselves if Humes is correct to state that it is only "critics of evolution" who claim that Darwin's scientific research impacted his personal faith.

It is interesting that Richard Dawkins disagrees with that version of Darwin's loss of faith (from his River Out of Eden):

Charles Darwin lost his faith with the help of a wasp. "I cannot persuade myself," Darwin wrote, ---that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars." Actually, Darwin's gradual loss of faith, which he downplayed for fear of upsetting his devout wife Emma, had more complex causes.

His reference to the Ichneumonidae was aphoristic. The macabre habits to which he referred are shared by their cousins the digger wasps. A female digger wasp not only lays her egg in a caterpillar (or grasshopper or bee) so that her larva can feed on it. According to Fabre she also carefully guides her sting into each ganglion of the prey's central nervous system so as to paralyse it but not kill it. This way, the meat keeps fresh.

It is not known whether the paralysis acts as a general anaesthetic, or if it is like curare in just freezing the victim's ability to move. If the latter, the prey might be aware of being eaten alive from inside, but unable to move a muscle to do anything about it. This sounds savagely cruel but nature is not cruel, only pitilessly indifferent. This is one of the hardest lessons for humans to learn. We cannot accept that things might be neither good nor evil, neither cruel nor kind, but simply indifferent to all suffering, lacking all purpose.

The more cogent account (such as that of Randal Keynes, Darwin's great-great grandson in Annie's Box: Charles Darwin, his Daughter, and Human Evolution) is that Darwin's loss of faith had more to do with his beloved child's long and painful lingering death, a common enough experience of those who lose belief in God, than anything arising out of his scientific work.

Indeed, Luskin's take on Darwin's statement doesn't make any sense even on Luskin's own terms. The knowledge of the wasp's method of securing food for its offspring was not dependent on Darwin's work and was, as Dawkins notes, merely Darwin's aphorism for the problem of evil, which has been a stumbling block for religious belief for time immemorial. The response to that problem of attributing "evil" in the natural world to the working out of natural law, while nature, overall, works to accomplish some mysterious providence known only to God, was a common belief of scientists and knowledgeable lay people long before Darwin published the Origin and natural selection was simply another brick in the edifice of "secondary causes" that science had been accumulating. One has to wonder if Luskin, as Michel Behe apparently does, believes that God deliberately designed malaria parasites to bedevil humans and cause suffering. If not -- if he, like so many "Bible-based" Christians, believes that such things are the result of The Fall -- then what quibble does he have with Darwin's statement that a benevolent God would not intentionally design organisms so that they have to do evil in order to survive?

But beyond all that, Luskin cannot avoid making two points in his efforts to signal his fellow believers as to the real reason for opposing "Darwinism": 1) it is faith and the danger of losing it that is the real concern of ID advocates and 2) it is science and scientific research that is the real enemy ... as it must be to all simplistic beliefs.

Did you not get the letter too, John? I can scan it and post it... it makes for interesting reading, all told. Somebody has surely put up a copy already...

I've always found the parasitic wasps to be a compelling argument about a creator. I think that Mark Steel brought it up in his lecture about Darwin a few years back as well. It's the sort of fact that makes you think: "well, if there is a creator, the he's a complete and utter swine". Although, to be honest, cancer makes me think much the same thing too.

Thanks for the mention... it got me a traffic spike as usual... =)
No, I didn't get the letter. If you scan it or find anyone else who did, I'd be interested.

The wasp's (cough) tale makes for an interesting point (ouch) but the counter argument is that, without a sophisticated brain/mind, there is no suffering involved and putting ourselves in the caterpillar's shoes is mere anthropomophism. The malaria parasite, Hanson's disease and even the E. coli flagellum are another matter however.

As to any spike I may have sent you, I would have thought I'd have to have traffic myself for that to happen ...
I guess you'll want to add a twitter button to your site. Just bookmarked this blog, but I must make this manually. Simply my suggestion.
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