One Long Argument:
One small primate helping to defend science education against the advance of neocreationism.
Friday, August 12, 2005
Curses, you discovered my evil plan!
Huh. Always thought I went around saying that evolution is compatible with religion (if not strict biblical literalism) because I believed it. Turns out I don't, and it's all a clever ploy to hold the line until the universal acid of evolution can corrode away people's faith. ( I feel like I should let loose an evil laugh right about now . . .)
That's what Jacob Weisberg says, anyway, in a recent Slate article:
Many biologists believe the answer is to present evolution as less menacing to religious belief than it really is.Granted, I'm not a biologist, or scientist of any sense, so maybe it really is all true! But on second thought, perhaps we should look a little closer. In the interests of actually getting the lawn mowed today, I'm just reposting a slightly modified version of comments made at Thoughts from Kansas.
Weisberg discusses a 1993 NORC survey, mentioning that found that 63% and 35% percent of the U.S. public believed in God and evolution respectively, while the corresponding figures for Great Britain were 24% and 77%. (The survey apparently asked respondents to agree or disagree with the statement ""I know God exists and I have no doubts about it," and was combined with another survey which asked "In your opinion, how true is this? ...Human beings developed from earlier species of animals.."). It would be one thing if he simply said "You can believe in both - but not many people do" as a descriptive statement and left it at that (although what sort of thing it would be . . . . well, we'll see in a minute).
Instead, he immediately goes on to claim that it's evolution that erodes religious faith, completely skipping over any tricky questions about correlation or causation. True, I would be surprised if popular understanding of evolution had nothing at all to do with this. At the same time, if someone's an atheist or agnostic for some other reason, what explanation will they turn to for biological diversity? Could belief in evolution be one of several interacting factors? Are both actually the result of some other process(es)? These questions aren't even entertained: instead, they're sent to bed without supper and never get to join the party.
It gets worse. Several paragraphs prior to the NORC survey mention, he cites the following results from the 2004 (over a decade later) Gallup poll:
Theistic evolutionists: 38%
Unguided evolution: 13%
So "not many people" refers to 38% of Americans. Interesting. A similar theme will appear later in the article. It also notes that " belief that evolution is well-supported by the evidence is strongest 'among those with the most education, liberals, those living in the West, those who seldom attend church, and ... Catholics.'"
(The remaining 4% "offered different or no opinion" - I wonder what they'd say?)
[Edit: Don P. over in comments at the Panda's Thumb pointed out I hadn't read closely enough to realize that Weisberg was specifically referring to the "prevailing scientific view of evolution as an unguided, random process." That's an excellent point against my argument here. But does "believ[ing] in both require a metaphysical commitment of this nature, or is it sufficient to agree that science can only understand it as an unguided process? In this case I was going by religioustolerance.org's categories, and defining the Gallup statement "Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process" as theistic evolution, and considering it a valid from of "believ[ing] in both." I also felt that the "unguided" statement - "Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God had no part in this process" - might shift people who believed in a less hands-on God over to the middle category. However, that 38% is probably also harboring some unknown percentage of IDers. Certainly, my original impression that Weisberg was just being internally inconsistent to an absurd degree is not accurate. What remains to be seen is how well it matches up with the notoriously flexible reality insides people's heads. More study is needed! - DS, 8/14/05]
Additionally, when he claims that "many biologists believe the answer is to present evolution as less menacing to religious belief than it really is" - with a comparison to ID rhetoric, no less - well, perhaps he's trying to say that biologists just don't understand how people think. Maybe, but it's hard to see how this might to refer to anything but a deliberate act of deception, one echoing ID claims of Darwinian conspiracies. Now, I dunno, maybe all the biologists do get together and chuckle about how clever their little scam is, but that seems a wee bit unlikely . . .
"Evolutionary theory . . .surely does undercut the basic teachings and doctrines of the world's great religions"I suppose you could make an argument for kin selection undercutting "Love your neighbor as yourself" - but that seems a little shaky. I mean, if "basic teachings and doctrines" actually translates to "explanations for natural phenomena," if your beliefs require you to read the bible as a science textbook, well, he might be right. In that case, of course, evolution is almost the least of your worries. You also have to deal with physics, astronomy, geology, paleontology, archaeology, anthropology, linguistics . . .
One line I hadn't even noticed until I started writing:
To be sure, there are plenty of scientists who believe in God, and even Darwinists who call themselves Christians.Geez, why not just write "so-called Christians," complete with scare quotes? I mean, I'm a Jewish atheist (is too possible!) andI can feel the burn off this one. He really is intent on painting a certain picture, whatever polling data - or people - might say.
Weisberg wants to make grand proclamations about the nature of science and religion. Ultimately, the only thing he manages to is prove is how little he understands either.
Oh yes, Weisberg also claims that evolution "destroyed the faith of Darwin himself, who moved from Christianity to agnosticism as a result of his discoveries." Funny, I always though those wasps that lay their eggs in paralyzed caterpillars for their offspring to devour from the inside out, along with his daughter's death, had something to do with it. You know, the whole problem of reconciling belief in a merciful God with the existence of suffering and evil - but that couldn't have existed long before Darwin, right? (Shake head.) Well, for a view of Darwin's life and beliefs that's actually based on, like, evidence and stuff, read Carl Zimmer's excellent post: A Dog and the Mind of Newton.
One last thing. According to the Gallup poll, 35% said evolution wasn't well supported by evidence, and 29% said "they didn't know enough about it to reply." That's our job.
posted by Dan S. on 2:47 PM |
Tuesday, August 09, 2005
Today the New York Times reports on a striking case of convergent evolution. It appears that two (relatively) unrelated groups of poison frogs - the poison-dart frogs of South America and the Mantella poison frog of Madagascar - independently came up with roughly the same convoluted way to be poisonous. Both dine on ants that produce toxic alkaloids, with the frogs storing the alkaloids in their skin sacs until some foolish creature decides on a frog dinner. Helping guard against the merely posthumous revenge of poisoning the one who ate you, both frogs have evolved bright coloration that serves as a warning. And don't forget the unsung heroes of this story, the little people (ok, insects) who make it all possible - the ants. In both cases, they also seem to have separately evolved the use of alkaloids, something rare among ants; researchers don't yet know what they do with them. (Interestingly, researchers found a single Madagascan frog that had nicotine in its system, without any apparent sources in the plants or insects sampled.)
So to recap: on two separate continents, different ants evolved the use of alkaloids (either from food or by making it themselves), then, two different groups of frogs evolved to not only eat the ants, but store the alkaloids, and then they both evolved bright warning colors and patterns. Indeed, the article points out close similarities in appearance.
It's amazing. It can't quite be called irreducible complexity, but it's pretty impressive. Indeed, I wouldn't be at all surprised to hear it being used as "evidence" against evolution, and for the idea of intelligent design. So, let me make a two-part prediction.
1) Within a reasonable time, scientists will develop a plausible, evidence-based hypothesis on how this specific case of convergent evolution happened. Again, evolutionary biology will prove to be a practical tool to help us understand the material world. For some, it will also add to an appreciation of our varied and astonishing world, whether evolution is seen as a purely materialistic practice or one set in motion (even untestably guided) by the Divine.
2) Intelligent design won't.
I'm fairly confident in (1), but maybe it won't come to pass. When it comes to (2), I'm certain. So let's see.
As evolutionary biologists see it, the underlying principle of evolutionary convergence - that often there is one right tool for the job, and that selective pressures will reinvent the bio-utensil whenever the need arises - exemplifies just how non-random and ostensibly purposeful natural selection can be, and how readily it may be mistaken for evidence of supernatural "design."
The researchers see the nicotine-containing frog as "some of the most convincing evidence that plant-insect-frog toxin food chains do exist." It's astonishing to think about - the whole interlocking, interactive dance of change over time. Think of the all different factors in this small story, if that's accurate: plants evolving chemicals to protect against insects, ants evolving ways to use these chemicals and/or produce their own, frogs evolving the ability to eat the ants and store their poison. Now think of the effects on the different species: for example, ""Without the presence of the alkaloid ants . . . that nice little evolutionary niche of becoming diurnal and colorful would very likely never have opened up for the frogs." Now think of the effects on organisms interacting with them (including within this specific simplified food chain). Now think of . . .
Hold on, I'm getting dizzy. Off to read about the evolutionary history of frogs and ants. It's scandalous what I don't know . . .
posted by Dan S. on 9:31 AM |
Monday, August 08, 2005
August and everything after
You don't want to waste your life baby
As August began, President Bush answered a reporter's question by saying both evolution and intelligent design should be taught in school. If you didn't know that already, you've been far, far away from the political or scientific corners of the blogworld. A part of the reaction has been compiled by PZ Myers of Pharyngula here.
Because I don't get no sleep in a quiet room and...
Among those responding online was UWM paleoanthropologist John Hawks, who argues that "there has been far too much foaming at the mouth, and far too little constructive thought . . . Scientists cannot defeat this . . . with extremism." PZ replies:
screw the polite words and careful rhetoric. It's time for scientists to break out the steel-toed boots and brass knuckles, and get out there and hammer on the lunatics and idiots. If you don't care enough for the truth to fight for it, then get out of the way.Frankly, I don't think PZ takes this issue seriously enough. Now is not the time for soothing words! But anyway, Hawks says something I find very interesting:
The task of science education should be to explain scientific failures as well as successes, by explaining how science leads to changes in ideas. Right now, science education does a really bad job of this.And this, of course, made me think of the Wason selection task.
Imagine I lay four two-sided cards down on the tabe:
I tell you that if there is a vowel on one side of the card, then there is an odd number on the other. Of course, I'm a dirty Darwin-believing atheist lacking any objective moral standard, so I could be lying. So, using the least number of moves, which cards would you have to turn over to see if I'm telling the truth?
People under 21 can't drink beer. Imagine you're a harried bartender and the cards are people at the bar. Spending the least time possible, who would you have to check to make sure that everything was all legal?
posted by Dan S. on 12:40 PM |
Tuesday, June 21, 2005
Isn't it ironic?
Meanwhile, back on the ranch . . .
HARRISBURG - Only hours after Gov. Rendell and several lawmakers participated in the ribbon-cutting that opened the global biotechnology conference in Philadelphia yesterday, other legislators in the state Capitol were resurrecting the debate over evolution.The Inquirer describes ID as "a concept advanced in the 1980s," which may be technically correct but neglects to mention the extent that it's just a warmed-over version of Paley's 1802 blockbuster Natural Theology, which insisted on "the necessity, in each particular case, of an intelligent designing mind for the contriving and determining of the forms which organized bodies bear." As he said, in his famous (borrowed) metaphor
. . . when we come to inspect the watch, we perceive. . . that its several parts are framed and put together for a purpose, e.g. that they are so formed and adjusted as to produce motion, and that motion so regulated as to point out the hour of the day; that if the different parts had been differently shaped from what they are, or placed after any other manner or in any other order than that in which they are placed, either no motion at all would have been carried on in the machine, or none which would have answered the use that is now served by it. . . . the inference we think is inevitable, that the watch must have had a maker -- that there must have existed, at some time and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers who formed it for the purpose which we find it actually to answer, who comprehended its construction and designed its use. . . . The marks of design are too strong to be got over. Design must have had a designer. That designer must have been a person. That person is GOD."Modern ID differs in only a few details - talk about methodological naturalism (Johnson), mathematical games (Dembski), and examples drawn from modern biology (Behe) rather than "the hinges in the wings of an earwig, and the joints of its antennae," which to Paley were "as highly wrought, as if the Creator had nothing else to finish. We see no signs of dimunition of care by multiplicity of objects, or of distraction of thought by variety. We have no reason to fear, therefore, our being forgotten, or overlooked, or neglected."
That's touching. I'm serious. Unfortunately, a relative of this fear - much of the motivation behind the ID movement - comes through loud and clear in the comments of the State Representative sponsoring the bill, Thomas C. Creighton (R., Lancaster). After all, he says, ""The current code has a bias toward atheists who promote evolution theory." And I suppose this is true - just as it has a bias towards atheists who promote heliocentrism, or lightning rods . . .
It's not about God. (Despite what Rep. Creighton and others have been led to believe). It's about science.
posted by Dan S. on 8:34 AM |
Saturday, June 11, 2005
The Know-Nothing Theory, or, No There There . . .
Courtesy of two posts by Red State Rabble.
This week a pro-creationist subcommittee of the Kansas Board of Ed. voted to water down the presentation of evolution in the state science standards. Among their changes is the following (Benchmark 3, Indicator 7 for grades 8-12 (p. 80):
"The student explains proposed scientific explanations of the origin of life as well as scientific criticism of those explanations."
Red State Rabble argues that the inclusion of this origins "controversy" is a cynical ploy, but forget for a moment about issues of appropriateness, accuracy, or relevance. Just note that two of the three listed criticisms involve unknowns.
We still good? Ok, let's travel, via the magic of the internet, back in time. No, we're not traveling back to the Mesozoic on a sport-hunting trip that will end in the accidental squashing of a bug that changes history (maybe next post, ok?) - we're popping in on the May 7 cross-examination of Angus Menuge, presented by the IDers as an expert witness during the Kansas Science Hearings, promoted as Snopes II: Return of the Monkey Trial.
PEDRO IRIGONEGARY: Sir, I have a few questions that I'd like to ask you for the record, please. What is your personal opinion as to what the age of the earth is?
And there you have it, folks. Who says ID is just one big mutual admiration circle with no capacity for self-criticism?
Of course, for science, "I don't know" is the first step of "Let's try to find out!" For Intelligent Design and other forms of creationism, it's an excuse. After all,irreducible complexity is really just a fancy way of saying "I don't know how this could have evolved, so it must have been Go - I mean, The Designer." "I don't know" is also a clever political technique to keep a range of creationist groups - from young-earth literalists to evolution accomodationists - under the big ID tent. Scientifically, there's just no there there.
. . . Danae, of course, makes it seem so obvious . . . .
posted by Dan S. on 8:34 PM |
Thursday, June 09, 2005
I've been meaning to post more frequently, but between the last days of school (the 8th graders are, mostly, going off to high school! How could that be? They're so smalll!), upcoming quasi-graduation ceremonies, gradschool coursework, the middle school science praxis test in (gulp) two more days, and, of course, the wedding . . .
Well, you get the idea.
But within the next few days you will be treated to: editorial board respect for ID, the Tulsa Zoo, and more!
posted by Dan S. on 9:29 PM |
Monday, May 30, 2005
Evolutionary Biologist KOs Creationist!
Welcome to One Long Argument! (Don't you feel tired already?)
This Sunday the Philadelphia Inquirer printed part of a debate between Stacey Ake (Drexel philosophy prof, PhD in biology, Mennonite), and Paul G. Humber (Baptist minister, math teacher, and young earth creationist (YEC)). In my opinion, Ake just relentlessly pounded Humber (forgive me, I just saw Cinderella Man last night, and my inner eight year old wants to bounce around pretending to be a boxer). It didn't help that Humber revealed he was non-dogmatic enough to consider a slightly older than 10,000 year-old world. He also suggested that the coelacanth was evidence of a young earth and "may have been lost somehow in the flood of Noah. somehow with the sediment and the churning up of the water."
But enough of Humber. Ake was truly in fine form. Just marvel over the following exchange:
Inquirer(to Ake): Is science closed to the supernatural?
And Ake lands a hard right to his jaw!
Later on Humber complains that if you're a creation scientist, "You would not be able to have a Ph.D. or tenure if you were a creation scientist. The elite evolutionary establishment won't allow it." Ake responds:
"Who are these people? . . . There is no grand program, there is no coven of scientists sitting together saying, "How can we get the teenagers of America to disbelieve?" Nothing like that."
Beautiful. And very important. Throughout the entire debate, Ake hammered away at the one point that matters - evolution is science, and creationism (whatever kind) isn't: "Biology ends when theology begins." Pharyngula has an excellent post today about explaining the complicated real world in order to combat the simplistic metaphors and appeals to ignorance of the ID crowd. Unfortunately, when it comes to the world of soundbites and slogans and public opinion, this sort of approach often just gets us sucked into the nonsense. No matter how well PZ writes, or what truly useful metaphors he uses (proteins as popbeads! That's great!) he's still trying to explain molecular biology.
Of course, there are people who have genuine concerns about this or that aspect of evolutionary theory, and they deserve the best arguments we can give them (after all, we're certainly wrong about something). We can't forget, however, that we're engaged in a PR battle. In these circumstances, the scientists' boycott of the Kansas hearings made a great deal of sense. That's not to say that bringing in science is never a good idea - not at all! - but that the most important point is a very simple one: not science.
Humber does a good job of explaining this, ironically: "We are playing a game of understanding the universe without God. To say this is the only game that you can do in science [and] if you do bring in God, we're going to flunk you." He doesn't quite get it, though. You can't win in checkers by having your pieces act like chess queens. In science, you are playing a game of understanding the universe without reference to God, whatever scientists themselves might think, and without imagining that this implies atheism. After all, as Ake points out, "Science can say nothing about God qua science. That's why science cannot say that there isn't a God, either." In engineering you are playing a game of building bridges without God. Medicine is a game of trying to make people better without God - and most people can deal with going to a doctor and praying. It's the good ol' concept - one that most people understand implicitly in less loaded fields - of non-overlapping magisteria.
Stressing this point is especially important with the neocreationist attack on "methodological naturalism" (read: science) and their aim of replacing it with theistic science (see The Wedge). Even Humber gets into the act - he insists that "Darwinism" is a religion, talks about creation scientists (religion as science) , and implicitly claims that science should be more religious. It's all very confusing, but Ake punches through the obscurantist fog with a beautiful jab:
Humber:You don't need anything about evolution to understand science. There are a lot of good scientists who don't believe in evolution who do good science. So the statement of faith that science doesn't make sense without evolution is both wrong and false.
Pow? In a respectable scientific debate? But of course, this isn't, and (in these kind of venues) we can't forget it.
Note: Red State Rabble comments on another aspect of the debate, one that proves Ake's bold claim that "it's the idolatry of Christians and the idolatry of religious people that requires science, which they worship, to verify their beliefs. Which actually says they believe more in science than they believe in their God... ."
posted by Dan S. on 6:00 PM |