Archive for the ‘evolution’ Category

Insights as mutations

2013/04/12

“Insight, untested and unsupported, is an insufficient guarantee of truth, in spite of the fact that much of the most important truth is first suggested by its means.” – Bertrand Russell, in his essay “Mysticism and Logic”

I like this line. I like it because Russell manages to combine the rational person’s wariness of “gut feelings” as tests of truth, with an acknowledgement of the great value that such intuitions have in formulating hypotheses for science to test.

I also like it because it triggered a connection in my mind that I hadn’t considered before, between the operation of science and the operation of evolution. It boils down to a simple analogy:

Insight is to science as mutation is to evolution.

The great strength of modern science is of course the rigorous methods we have developed (methods of measuring, methods of analysing, and methods of thinking) for testing competing hypotheses and determining which is more likely to be true. But none of this would be worth anything without hypotheses to test, and the birth of many hypotheses is in personal intuitions that sprang into people’s minds, for reasons that may have little or nothing to do with reasoning or logic.

The great strength of evolution as a process is the tremendous power of selection – through competition, predation, sexual selection, whatever. Variations in the genetic instructions that confer advantages tend to proliferate, because the organisms carrying them reproduce more. But selection would be powerless without variations to work on. Variations are largely produced by mutation, a process that is blind to the selective advantage of any particular genetic change.

Insights are the raw material for scientific advances, just as mutations are the raw material for evolution.

There’s more.

The popular conception of science is rather mixed, but you often see in movies a lone scientist working away and then, at a critical moment, shouting “Eureka!” and solving the problem. The coolest thing about science in the eyes of moviemakers is (I suspect) the moment of intuitive insight. (The other side is that scientists are often thought of as following set procedures to come up with answers, without any creativity or spontaneity allowed.)

A common conception of evolution (frequently trotted out by creationists) is that it’s all about random change miraculously producing complexity. This is understandably laughed at – by creationists, who suggest that therefore evolution couldn’t be true, and by biologists, who suggest that evolution is not just random mutations. (The other side of popular conceptions of evolution is that it’s an inexorable progression – all about moving from more primitive to less primitive, from simple to complex – which is just as wrong.)

I don’t want to stretch an already thin metaphor, so I think I’ll stop there.

I’m not trying to suggest that any of these parallels provide support for either the scientific method or evolution. (Each of those stands very firmly on its own grounds.)

I also don’t think that the parallels above reflect any deeper symmetries or underlying message. We are pattern-matching machines, and I think this was just an example of my brain making a match and sitting back to say “wow”.

Let me know if you think this is cool too. Or if you think I have missed some key consideration that demolishes the beautiful analogy.

At any rate, thanks to Bertrand Russell for inspiring this train of thought. Russell was the “New Atheist” of his day, and received at least as much ill-conceived condemnation and vilification as today’s generation get.

Evolving Free Will

2012/08/25

Usually, when arguing a point of religious philosophy, a writer will offer some premises and then argue that they support a particular conclusion. And often, especially with the theistic philosophers, the premises themselves fall apart when I look at them. So I dismiss the argument and move on.

But I have discovered something interesting while reading through offerings in the Ultimate Challenge. I’ve discovered that, even if I provisionally accept the premises, I can have fun with the argument. It doesn’t always have to go the way the original writer takes it. In keeping with my naturally inquisitive character, I thought I’d try articulating one or two of these byways.

The first was inspired by Greg Ganssle’s use of libertarian free will as “evidence” for theism over naturalism. Here is the basic structure of the argument:

Premise 1: Libertarian freedom exists.

Premise 2: Libertarian freedom is more compatible with theism than naturalism.

Conclusion: All else being equal, we should prefer theism over atheism.

Now, Premise 1 is easily dismissed as unproven. In fact, I suspect it is unprovable. So the conclusion collapses without even looking at Premise 2. But let’s see what we can do with Premise 2 anyway, shall we?

Anatomy of the premise

First, I think Premise 1 entails two further premises:

Premise 1a: There is a freedom ether - some realm or substance that can carries or bestows libertarian free will.

Premise 1b: There is some means by which a physical human being could access the freedom ether, thus becoming able to act without being fully caused to act.

If we take these as given, do we need to accept Premise 2? Well, a Christian creator god could be expected to plug humans into the freedom ether (provided it isn’t a Calvinist god). But we haven’t yet looked at what to expect from a naturalistic perspective.

So, as a naturalist, what would I expect from a universe that (1a) contained a freedom ether and (1b) had some means for humans to connect to it?

Well, it seems to me that the capacity to do an end-run around the clockwork universe would provide a selective advantage – one that would be stronger the more complex an organism’s brain is (so that it could evaluate the different options in its “choose-your-own-adventure” universe). So, if the means referred to in Premise 1b is something that could be acquired by genetic variation, we should positively expect evolution to plug humans into libertarian free will, sooner or later.

Now the whole question now looks slightly different. Given premises 1a and 1b, which seems more likely: that an all-powerful god exists that is inclined to grant its creatures libertarian free will, or that the means exist for evolution to grant humans libertarian free will?

Oh, I don’t really know which is more likely. In all this, I have been studiously ignoring the various metaphysical problems I have with the very idea of libertarian free will. But I think this line of argument casts considerable doubt on what Ganssle (and probably others) seem to think is a clear path from libertarian free will to theism.

And it was a fun thought experiment to try out.

Contending with evolutionary naturalism

2012/08/16

This is a review of the fifth essay in the book Contending with Christianity’s Critics.

The Moral Poverty of Evolutionary Naturalism by Mark D. Linville

The point of this essay is clear: evolutionary naturalism (that is, belief in evolution without belief in god) undermines belief in moral truth. (For important subtleties that this summary overlooks, check out the essay yourself.)

Linville does a competent job of arguing that, under the theory of evolution, the human moral sense doesn’t seem to connect causally with any moral order that exists fundamental to the structure of the universe. In other words, evolution undermines the warrant for belief in transcendent moral absolutes.

Here’s the argument in brief: if we evolved, then evolution had just as much chance to shape our moral intuitions as it did to shape our bodies in order to help us survive; therefore, our values have been shaped by our evolutionary history. So we cannot use our moral intuitions as guides to find some moral reality that might underlie reality.

He is basically pointing out the is/ought dilemma: that moral facts cannot be derived from physical facts. David Hume is most famous for identifying this dilemma. Linville’s formulation can be summed up as follows:

Theory X (evolution) describes how we came to have the moral values/beliefs we have. However, as a statement of physical facts, it cannot be used to justify claims about moral obligation.

Now, Linville’s alternative is of course theistic: if our moral sense was given to us by a god, then our values and beliefs are causally connected with that god’s values and beliefs. Therefore, if such a god exists and gave us our moral sense, we have good reason to trust our intuition that transcendent moral absolutes exist, and we can know about them.

Let me sum up this argument in another way – see if you can spot the problem I spotted:

Theory Y (theistic creation) describes how we came to have the moral values/beliefs we have. Therefore, it can be used to ground claims about moral obligation.

If you don’t see the problem, let me spell it out: “God did it” buys you no more in terms of moral absolutes than does “evolution did it”. You must insert, either explicitly or implicitly, some further ethical premises. For example, I suspect Linville’s hidden premise here is “God has reliable access to moral absolutes (part of his nature, seen by his omniscience, whatever), and would wish to share those moral absolutes with us by printing them on our moral sense.” For him, and many theists, this may be obvious enough to leave out. For me, it’s a huge bundle of claims that I have absolutely no reason to swallow – from the existence of a creator god to its moral perfection to its intentions regarding the rest of us.

But that’s not all.

Linville frames his arguments regarding evolution in light of atheism. Unfortunately for him, they work just as well under any view that accepts the vast evidence for evolution – whether that view includes a god or not. If we evolved, then evolution will have tinkered with our moral intuitions (ie, built them from scratch). The only way that belief in a god can get you around this is if you assume that your god directly intervened in the construction of your moral intuitions. Neither Linville nor the whole army of Intelligent-Design creationists have offered good evidence to suggest we should accept this.

Oh, Linville and his coreligionists are free to believe that it happened. And, once you take on that belief, the rest may follow. But given the evidence before us, all we know is that evolution happened, and it almost certainly acted to shape our moral intuitions. So we are left with no reason to think our moral intuitions track any transcendent moral absolutes.

At bottom, I think the disagreement I have with Linville is over the value of these transcendent moral absolutes. He seems to think that without them we’re wallowing in a sea of wishy-washy relativism. Certainly, many religious people I have encountered in person and online seem to think this way.

I think that human nature is stable enough. Even if our morality is only reliable relative to the current state of most humans’ moral instincts, we have enough to go ahead with. I acknowledge that I do not have a watertight moral theory that can oblige everyone to follow my pragmatic moral rules. But then, neither does Linville. The weakness of my moral stance is that it is relative. The weakness of his is that it is built on wishful thinking.

Which do you prefer?

Contending with a trick of the brain

2012/08/13

This is a review of the fourth essay in the book Contending with Christianity’s Critics.

Belief in God: A Trick of our Brain? by Michael J. Murray

This essay gives a pretty good account of why we should expect god-belief even in a naturalistic universe. It draws on psychology, evolution, etc. There are well-evidenced biases that suggest the common human intuition that gods exist is unwarranted. That is, a similar intuition could be expected whether or not any god actually exists. After a clear exposition of these biases, complete with a presentation of their epistemological implications, Murray closes with a casual reference to the cosmological argument, and so ends by asserting theism.

This left-field ending reminds me of the closing of Ecclesiastes. (Though in this case I’m less inclined to blame the editors.) My wife, Deena, doesn’t share my sense of the disjunction here, and I recognize that not everyone feels the end of Ecclesiastes is out of place.

Whatever one’s aesthetic take on the final argument, it seems to me to tacitly acknowledge one thing. All the psychological predispositions discussed in the first part of the essay do not provide good evidence for the existence of a god. If they did, the author would have said so rather than reaching out to cosmology to salvage his preferred belief system.

Oh well. At least the biases toward god-belief have been given a mostly unpolluted airing. Baby steps, right?

Selfish Gene

2011/04/05

I just finished reading The Selfish Gene, the first of Richard Dawkins’ many books popularizing the fascinating byways and unexpected consequences of evolutionary theory.

The Selfish Gene was first published the year before I was born. I was fortunate to be reading the 30th anniversary edition, which includes not only the original text, but also extensive notes by the author on more recent developments, as well as two all-new chapters (one of which seems to be a teaser for The Extended Phenotype – now on my reading list). For my money, the original text would have been worth it alone. I know that it’s not cutting-edge any more, but to a layman like me it’s all relatively new (even having read several of Dawkins’ other books – he’s not one to beat the same facts to death book after book).

So here I am, urging you to read it if you haven’t. It’s not stale or unreadable – it’s Dawkins through and through. And if you have read the original version, it still might be worth checking out the footnotes of this edition – they are a beautiful illustration of scientific eagerness to learn and willingness to admit mistakes.

I am not really into book reports, so I’m not going to draw this out too much. (I will say that the worst part of the book for me – through no fault of Dawkins – was the discussion of parasites. I read it while trying to get over a rather nasty bug: not wise. In retrospect, now that my gut is my own again, it is a fascinating and well-written discussion.)

I did want to point out, rather gleefully, a quote near the end. (Don’t worry – it’s not a spoiler.)

Indeed I suspect that the essential, defining characteristic of an individual organism is that it is a unit that begins and ends with a single-celled bottleneck. (p 264)

Why am I delighted? Because it (and the surrounding text backing up this claim) expands on a fact that I have contemplated with wonder in the past – for example, here on this blog not long before my son was born.

Think about it. Between any parent and child on a family tree, there was a time when the line of descent was reduced to a single cell – one fertilized egg. We have each, with the help of billions of years of evolution, built ourselves from such humble beginnings. We each, if we are to leave children ourselves, must humbly do so through a single cell yet again.

How ennobling science is, to give us such narratives from which to understand our place in the universe!

Cosmic Advent

2009/12/17

It’s that time of year again, when the Cosmic Calendar brings almost daily events to reflect on. Today we see the Cambrian Explosion (about 540 million years ago), and the first vertebrates (around 534 million years ago). See the list of upcoming events in the sidebar on the right for the next 5, or go to the Google Calendar for the whole schedule.

I’m still working out, for myself and my family, how to integrate the Cosmic Calendar into personal holiday traditions. I like the idea of building some sort of advent calendar around these last couple of weeks. How would you go about that? Would you used biologically-themed sweets? Toys? Snappy passages from The Ancestor’s Tale?

I’d also like to fill in the blank days – the 20th, 24th, 25th, and 29th. I’m sure things were happening during these periods – every day represents about 37.5 million years of time, after all. But the big-ticket events like the first amphibians, the first birds, etc just haven’t happened to fall on those days.

Would you like to participate? Do you have any thoughts for things to include in the Cosmic Calendar? Corrections on the dates I’m using? Other ideas? Please let me know!

Defending Dawkins (2)

2009/12/04

This is a further entry in a back-and-forth between me and bettynoirbettyblanc (henceforth “Betty”), on evolution and Richard Dawkins. It began in this post of hers, to which I responded here. She followed up with a response here. The following will make more sense if you have read those posts first.

Betty, I can certainly understand your dislike of Richard Dawkins. He often neglects to soften his critique of religious ideas (individually and collectively), and it is natural that many religious people feel that he misrepresents them. Some of their complaints – your complaints – are justified.

However, I feel that your response ignores or misses many of the key points I was trying to convey, and exaggerates Dawkins’ faults beyond reason.

First, I did not accuse you of denying evolution. You will notice, if you look again at my post, that I direct my criticisms on that point at creationists.The language of your original post leaves plenty of room for people to assume that you are more sympathetic to the creationist perspective than the scientific perspective, but I was (and continue to be) careful not to pigeonhole you unjustly.

You say “I would guard against listening to anyone who claims they are an expert on something just because they have a few ladybird guides on their shelf.” You certainly shouldn’t believe me, just because I’ve read some popular science books on evolution. Nor should you even take an expert’s opinion as incontrovertible fact. As I said:

These outreach biologists (Dawkins, Gould, Wilson, etc) don’t make arguments of the form “I believe this, and I’m and expert so just take my word for it.” They make arguments of the form “Here’s some evidence. Here’s why it supports evolution.” With plenty of references to original research so that you can independently verify their claims if you don’t trust them. 

As for Dawkins’ “obsession” with religion – you make a valid point. Much of his online presence seems to be centred around religion. I offered a possible explanation, which is supported by an excerpt from Dawkins’ new book – an explanation which you seem to have ignored. I’ll reiterate it here, as I think it is important. Dawkins is a biologist, and studies evolution. One of the greatest forces opposing science education is the creationist movement, which undermines the teaching of evolution in schools. By far the most common motivation for this opposition is a particular literal take on the Abramic creation story. Thus, Dawkins is well-motivated to oppose this particular version of religion. He recognizes that it is not the whole of religion. Here are his own words (talking about his new book):

The Archbishop of Canterbury has no problem with evolution, nor does the Pope (give or take the odd wobble over the precise palaeontological juncture when the human soul was injected), nor do educated priests and professors of theology. The Greatest Show on Earth is a book about the positive evidence that evolution is a fact. It is not intended as an anti-religious book. I’ve done that, it’s another T-shirt, this is not the place to wear it again. Bishops and theologians who have attended to the evidence for evolution have given up the struggle against it. Some may do so reluctantly, some, like Richard Harries, enthusiastically, but all except the woefully uninformed are forced to accept the fact of evolution. 

Note that he’s explicitly stepping out of his role as a critic of religion in this book.

In that same article (I encourage you to read it, so that you can see the context for yourself), Dawkins explains his use of the Holocaust-denier comparison – a comparison that you, Betty, seem particularly offended by. You ask, in your response post, “The Friendly Humanist says this [is] accurate, but says he would not use this analogy himself. Why not? Could it be that comparing creationists to Holocaust deniers is grossly offensive?”

First, you are right: the reason I would not use the analogy is because it is offensive. Holocaust-denial is associated with more than just a denial of historical facts; it is associated (rightly) with an evil political and social ideology. Here is what I said in defense of his analogy:

First, it is accurate inasmuch as both holocaust-deniers and evolution-deniers reject the overwhelming preponderance of evidence in favour of a position that is based entirely on ideology. 

A better analogy, which shares this important characteristic while not being so offensive, might be to moon-hoaxers – people who believe that humans have never stepped on the Moon, and that the Apollo landings were an elaborate deceit.

You also suggest that supporters of evolution harbour “smug assumptions which lurk not too far from the surface: ‘we are smart, they are not’ followed by ‘we are European and sophisticated, they are American and primitive’ or ‘we are Western and progressive, they are Middle Eastern or Oriental, and barbaric’.”

I can only respond that I have never come across this attitude, either explicitly or implicitly. As I said in my post, the biologists I’ve read point to the evidence, explain how it was interpreted, and draw their conclusions. The claim, then, is “we have followed the evidence, they have not”. Is this smug? Perhaps, but only to the extent that anyone is smug who defends one position based on the evidence, in the knowledge that some people sincerely hold another.

I realize that you are not interested in getting into a debate over evolution, and I don’t intend to engage you in one. I am not a biologist, after all, just a fan of science.

For all that I sometimes disagree with the tone (and occasionally the content) of his writings, I feel that you have misrepresented Dawkins in your posts, Betty. He is not a diplomat, but he is not the mean, attention-mongering anti-theist that you make him out to be. He works together with religious people on causes of common interest (as noted in the aforementioned excerpt from his new book). He acknowledges the literary value of the Bible (in The God Delusion). He objected to the title of his BBC documentary, The Root of all Evil, because he recognizes that religion is not the root of all evil.

Of course, he remains an atheist. He has reasons for his position, and he shares them in books and articles. He makes money from his writing. You are free to continue to dislike him for this or any reason. You are even free to be skeptical of evolution if you are so inclined. But I implore you, if you do read anything he writes, to do so with a more sympathetic eye. Give him the benefit of the doubt. He may disappoint you in places, but I think it will be far less frequently than you expect.

We are animals

2009/10/19

Erich Vieth at Dangerous Intersection tells us “Why it matters that humans are animals”. An interesting and clear expression of the consequences of our biological and medical understanding of humanity’s place in the pageant of life. The only point I’d strongly quibble with is where he echoes Johnson’s claim that there are no absolute truths. I think most of science, and indeed of human pursuit of understanding, presupposes the existence of absolute truths. It’s probably true that we can never be sure that we have apprehended those truths perfectly, but I think it’s important to act as if they exist nevertheless.

Meditation on the origin of life

2009/09/27

In the Cosmic Calendar, the Origin of Life falls somewhere around now.* About three and a half billion years ago, the great abundance of life on Earth began, probably with a single replicating molecule – a precursor to DNA. Every living organism today, from the tiniest bacterium to the largest whale, descends in an unbroken line from that tiny bundle of atoms.

Today, I invite you to consider this:

We still reproduce as single-celled organisms.

Every act of human reproduction involves one cell from each parent. A single cell. For all our wondrous complexity, our bountiful organs and tissues, our towering intellects and tender thoughts … for all that, we still have to humble ourselves to the level of our distant, millions-of-generations-past ancestors in order to participate in that most ancient, most definitive act of life: reproduction.**

Footnotes:

* In fact, the details of this event, including its exact date, are difficult to pin down. The Wikipedia article on abiogenesis gives possible dates ranging from 4.2 billion years ago (bya) to 2.4 bya – that is, 11 September to 29 October. However, today falls somewhere in the middle of the range, just over 3.5 bya. The fact that 28 September is also my daughter’s birthday makes me even more prone to contemplating life’s origins today.

** Not all multi-cellular organisms are so constrained. Many plants do a significant part of their reproduction by sending out shoots or otherwise cloning themselves, rather than going through the whole one-cell business. Who’s superior now, eh?

Defending Dawkins

2009/09/25

I recently came across Bettynoirbettyblanc’s blog, and this post in particular, where she discusses her problem with Richard Dawkins. I was composing a response to post in the discussion, but it grew into something a little long for a comment. Here it is, with relevant excerpts from her post.

In the post, Betty discusses her take on Richard Dawkins – a man who, for good or ill, is the first person people think of when atheism is mentioned in Britain, especially in connection with evolution. I encourage you to read what she writes before continuing here, as I will not cover all of what she says, nor present her thoughts in the order she does.

Why do I find him interesting? I just wonder about his dogged obsession with religion and with those that practice it. He is a scientist and yet he seems to spend [much] of his time trying to argue that following a religion is at best ridiculous and at worst positively harmful. I just don’t understand why.

I’ve read several of Dawkins’ books, and I think that this misrepresents him. While I think his tone regarding religion is not particularly helpful, it’s worth noting that of the ten popular books he has written, only one is about religion (yes, it’s The God Delusion).* Not exactly a dogged obsession. More of an unavoidable side-note for someone in his field who wishes to engage the public.

A whopping 40% of Americans are creationists and Dawkins compares them to holocaust deniers. This is highly offensive. A holocaust denier is someone who twists the facts of the historical record in order to bolster a racist agenda. These people are motivated by their hatred of Jews. The facts do not matter. For a creationist, evolution has not been proven beyond reasonable doubt. There are questions about the theory that they believe have not been adequately answered. They believe the story of creation not in order to further a hate campaign, but as part of a belief system.

While I wouldn’t personally choose to compare evolution-deniers to Holocaust-deniers, I understand Dawkins’ choice of such an analogy. First, it is accurate inasmuch as both holocaust-deniers and evolution-deniers reject the overwhelming preponderance of evidence in favour of a position that is based entirely on ideology. As Betty says, they “twist the facts of the historical record in order to bolster an agenda. … The facts do not matter.” At least that part applies equally well to both sorts of deniers.

For someone in Dawkins’ position – someone who has spent his life working to learn more about our biological origins – it is certainly understandable that he will view creationists as the enemy. He feels passionately about his work. Every one of his books that I have read (even, at times, The God Delusion) bursts with enthusiasm about what we, as a species, have learned about our origins through dogged scientific effort. He has committed his life to this pursuit. He has submitted himself to the scientific community, which tends to be ruthless in its attempts to disprove new ideas, and which only accepts them after repeated failures to disprove them. (One prominent example is the idea introduced in the mid-19th-century that the diversity of species is due to the accumulation of small changes accumulated over time and channelled by natural selection.)

Not only that, but for much of Dawkins’ career he has also engaged in the admirable task of sharing this wonder and these discoveries with the public, in his very readable and accessible books of science.

Creationists belittle not only Dawkins’ work, but the careful work of hundreds (thousands?) of scientists leading back to Darwin. They belittle it without any good arguments, without any good evidence, and usually with a complete failure to grasp the evidence they’re trying to refute.

They are not interested in submitting themselves to the rigours of science. They are not interested in letting the evidence rule on which answer is right. Their actions suggest that they are only interested in convincing everyone that the scientists are wrong (and/or evil) and that we should set science aside in favour of their ideological commitment to a disproven belief. (I’m referring there to young-earth creationism and ID, not religion in general.)

Either he wants people to know about evolution and to ‘convert’ the creationists or he just wants a nice argument to bolster his book sales. I think if it was the former then he would be wise to act in a more conciliatory manner, and watch his language (ie the use of the word ‘ignorant’, I would also like to point out at this point that some of the people I know who are most knowledgeable about evolution are in fact creationists).

While it may not be nice of him to call evolution-deniers “ignorant”, it is difficult to see how the term is wrong. The only way to confidently proclaim evolution false is to set aside (deliberately or in ignorance) the entire geological, molecular, geographical, and experimental bodies of evidence that support evolution. Though I’m sure most creationists’ motivation for this is simply to carry on believing what they wish to believe, not to promote hate (has Dawkins or anyone else ever claimed that?), that doesn’t change the facts. One has to remain ignorant (ie, not knowing of or understanding the evidence) to honestly deny evolution. (I can’t say much about the claim that “some of the people [Betty knows] who are most knowledgeable about evolution are in fact creationists”. Would they seem knowledgeable to a biologist, or only to someone like Betty who confesses little understanding of or interest in the science behind this “debate”?)

I can’t verify much of what he says because I don’t have access to the research or fully understand the terms and the processes involved. It’s been a long time since I did higher biology and chemistry! I suspect that for most of his vociferous cheerleaders on websites and forums across the globe, this is also the case. Perhaps they don’t wish to seem stupid for questioning?

In this respect, I find his followers similar to those of religious faiths. They are taking what he says at face value because they believe in him. They may well be correct – I don’t know. The argument seems reasonable, but who knows?

Is that a rhetorical question, “who knows?” Because there’s an obvious answer. The actual biologists (ie, people who dedicate their lives to understanding this stuff) know. And a good number of them have produced books that Betty and I and any of our readers can understand. These outreach biologists (Dawkins, Gould, Wilson, etc) don’t make arguments of the form “I believe this, and I’m and expert so just take my word for it.” They make arguments of the form “Here’s some evidence. Here’s why it supports evolution.” With plenty of references to original research so that you can independently verify their claims if you don’t trust them.

On the other side of the issue, I have read creationist apologists like Lee Strobel and John Blanchard argue for an evolution-denying ideology. They consistently fail to accurately represent the case for evolution, and then inexpertly demolish the straw men they have invented. (I’ve discussed Blanchard’s attempt here. Strobel is being taken apart in exquisite detail by Ebonmuse here.)

So, the supporters of evolution rely on the evidence, occasionally spending some time pointing out the flaws in the deniers’ arguments. The deniers of evolution paint caricatures of the evidence, attack the caricatures, and pretend that they’re doing science too. They don’t do real science: they don’t make falsifiable predictions, and they certainly don’t do experiments to test them.

When I read Dawkins, I can trust that most of what he says about science is based on the scientific method. He’s reporting conclusions that have been carefully tested, which qualified people have tried and failed to disprove. I take what he says at face value because I trust the procedure that has been followed to arrive at those conclusions. When I look further, the people who are qualified to understand the evidence all tend to agree with him.

On the other hand, he clearly isn’t speaking as a scientist in many of his comments about religion, and so I don’t take them at face value. In fact, I often disagree with him, vocally, in settings where that sets me apart (ie, among other humanists). I’m not treated as stupid for questioning because my humanist acquaintances – like Dawkins, like most atheists and humanists – value questioning. We believe that any claim should be open to question, no matter how popular it is. If the question has nothing to back it up – no evidence to motivate a shift in our beliefs, then we set it aside. But if the questioner has a sound reason for dissenting from popular opinion and solid evidence to back up their dissent, then that dissent spreads.

It was that sort of questioning that led to Darwin’s great breakthroughs. It is that sort of questioning that has led to every refinement and revision in the theory of evolution since then. It is that sort of questioning that has driven science for the past few centuries, with countless concrete benefits as proof of the process.

And, although religion is not uniformly anti-knowledge or anti-progress, the opponents of science have almost uniformly been religious.

Worse, I believe his words convert more people to fundamentalist ideas than anything else as they engender a sense of victimhood and persecution amongst those who don’t agree with what he says.

I would object to the use of the term “fundamentalist” here, as it seems completely divorced from any useful definition I’ve come across. But yes, to the extent that he overstates the religious antipathy to science, and exaggerates the incompatibility of science and religion, he does encourage an unhelpful us-versus-them mentality among atheists, and it’s one that I try to combat where I can. There are many, many religious believers who have nothing wrong with atheists or with evolution. Many of them are acquaintances and friends of mine.

Recent centuries and decades have seen a dramatic reduction in institutional discrimination against the non-religious. Keep in mind, however, that “victimhood” is not always an inappropriate feeling. Sometimes you are a victim, and you need to be aware of it. Some laws favouring religious over non-religious belief still remain, even in the enlightened West (even in uber-secular Finland). Dawkins is a scientist, and as Betty says, 40% of Americans deny the evidence that is at the foundation of his field. To the extent that they try to challenge the teaching of that science in schools, and seek to warp people’s perceptions of it in universities (for example, see this development), there is a concerted attack on precisely the field of knowledge Dawkins has devoted his life to. It’s worth noticing and acknowledging that scientists (and everyone who benefits from their work) are victims of the creationists’ campaign of science-denial. That way we can do something constructive to counter it.

I really don’t like my first mention of such an apparently pleasant person as Betty to come off so negative and critical. (I enjoyed this post of hers, and this one.) I hope that I have made it clear that Dawkins has by no means a free pass to my credulity, particularly when he talks about religion. Whether that helps encourage her to look deeper into the whole evolution/creation thing is up to her.

I hope Betty will respond to what I’ve said, either in the comments here or on her own blog post (where I’ll point her to this post). And of course, anyone else who agrees or disagrees with either of us is invited to comment too.

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* From the same list of publications, using just the titles as a guide, I count no more than 8 of 16 popular articles dealing with religion (at least 11 of the 16 have a scientific slant), and only 3 of 30 academic articles can plausibly be said to be about religion, the remainder being biological. So, out of 56 items listed, no more than 12, or about 21%, are about religion – most of these being popular articles. At least 48, or about 86%, deal primarily or exclusively with science. (Totals exceed 100% because some articles seem to deal with both science and religion. Also note that I think one or two articles appear both in the scientific and the popular list.) Readers can decide whether this amounts to a “dogged obsession with religion”. Perhaps the dogged obsession belongs to those apologists who wish to diminish his influence, Dawkins being a well-known and widely-respected public figure.


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