For the second year, Sarah Wise, Mike Robeson, and Cathy Russell of the University of Colorado, Boulder's Science Discovery Unit have organized a workshop on "Teaching Evolution: Meeting the Challenge" at the University of Colorado, Boulder. The program was aimed at college and public school teachers, including elementary school teachers. The workshop's purpose was to "feature a full day of practical onehour workshops and panel discussions on Teaching Evolution, interspersed with opportunities to interact informally with other participants." During the workshop, resources relating to teaching evolution were displayed in common areas, and many are available for download at the event website, http://www.colorado.edu/eeb/EEBprojects/teaching/workshops.html.
Approximately 70 people attended the workshop. Of those, about 50% were high-school teachers; 15% were teachers from middle or elementary levels; 25% were university faculty, staff, or students; and 10% were from other scientific organizations such as the Denver Zoo and the Boulder Open Space Department. In a survey given in conjunction with the workshop, 57% of respondents reported that they self-censor their teaching of evolution to some degree and/or receive pressure to avoid teaching evolution from their school or community. This figure was highest among middleschool teachers (86%) and informal educators (62%), while the incidence among high school teachers was lowest (33%).
For those interested in organizing and holding similar events, Matt Young interviewed organizer Sarah Wise about the workshop.
Matt Young: What gave you the initial idea to hold a workshop like this one?
Sarah Wise: I attended a lecture by Patty Limerick, a well-known historian and the director of the University of Colorado's Center of the American West. She and her colleagues hold forums on controversial issues in the West, providing information that help the public gain perspective on those issues. While her group hadn't ever focused on evolution, her example inspired me to take action and provided a model for me to work from.
How did you get funding for the workshop?
The first workshop, which was a half-day, was funded by the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, an NSF-funded University of Colorado GK12 program, and the Colorado Citizens for Science. This year nearly all of the funding came from the University's United Government of Graduate Students (UGGS), which contributed $750 through its regular event-funding program. The EEB department graciously bailed us out when we had a cost overrun, however. We also received generous donations from Qdoba, Izze, and a local bakery, which we acknowledged during the introductory remarks and in the program.
The all-day workshop cost about $1000, not counting donations. This included $160 for breakfast, $530 for lunch, $210 for photocopies, and $100 for other office supplies. We did not charge a registration fee specifically in order to maximize access for teachers.
How did you motivate your department to get involved?
I didn't have to work too hard at that — our department chair had been involved in the first year's event, so he was very supportive and readily agreed to cover expense overruns, let me use the department copier, and obtained the assistance of our office staff. The staff was essential in getting the copying done, lunch set up and cleaned up, and the website designed and uploaded with content. It was easy to use our e-mail listserver to recruit other graduate students to help on the day of the event. A team of graduate students has organized to plan next summer's event, so I can now move into an advisory role.
How did you arrange academic credit and CDE (Colorado Department of Education) credit?
To maintain their certification, teachers have to earn a certain number of professional development credits. Additionally, some teachers can get a salary increase if they earn college credits. We arranged for participating teachers to earn college credit, at a minimal cost, if they requested it. Alternatively, teachers could apply to receive professional development credit from the CDE at no cost.
Arranging for these credit incentives was easy. The Biological Sciences Initiative at the University has an arrangement with the continuing education department at the Colorado School of Mines, so it was a simple matter to arrange college credit through CSM. The CDE required me to submit a form for each participant and to ensure that those participants had actually attended all 7.5 hours of the workshop, so I circulated a sign-up sheet at each session and crosschecked it with an attendance form that each participant filled out at the end of the event.
You had 16 presenters, counting the panelists. How hard was it to find presenters?
I was pleasantly surprised by the variety and quality of presenters who made their way to me. The 16 educators who presented came from a network of nearly 30 interested parties. The most significant of these was the participant list from the original half-day event, which I used to make a call for proposals. A few others contacted me after I posted the same announcement on a listserv for Colorado science educators. I met others by attending various area lectures and events having to do with evolution. Being connected to the university was very helpful overall in organizing presenters, since 15 of the potential presenters were affiliated with CU as a former student, current student, or faculty member.
You held the workshop on a Monday shortly after school was out. Why during the summer?
It was not possible to reserve the university lecture hall and other rooms during the academic year. I also wanted to avoid times of the school year when teachers are under a lot of pressure. The weekend was an option for reserving rooms at the university. I had been told, however, that weekend events are fairly unpopular with teachers, and they are definitely unpopular with university people. I considered a Monday holiday but found through an e-mail survey that holidays were also unpopular with teachers. I think the week after school gets out is good, and the week before school starts again may be even better. Of course, scheduling is complicated by the fact that school districts have different starting and ending dates. On the other hand, I have also been told that you get more no-shows in the summer than on school-year Saturdays. This year we had 30 no-shows, which was disappointing. If we do a summer event next year, we'll overbook a few to avoid this problem.
And, finally, what may be the big question for some: How much time did you spend?
About 80 hours during the semester, 40 in the last week before the workshop, and about 20 hours in follow-up work such as arranging for credit and assembling data. Other grad students spent about 40 hours altogether, but most of that was the day of the workshop, unless they were presenters. Presenting, by the way, is an excellent opportunity for a grad student to get some experience.
Any further advice for people who want to organize a series of workshops of their own?
Carpe diem! If this appeals to you, there's no reason to delay action. There will always be pressures on your time, and the issue is perennially controversial. On the other hand, just a few e-mails are likely to net you some committed, passionate helpers. Don't be shy about asking for help from local businesses, universities, and museums. I am willing to answer questions any time; just e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We have high hopes that this workshop will be repeated annually and further that it will be emulated in other states and at other universities.
Remove the book from sale from within the park; its proper place is for sale in private bookstores outside the public park. Equally important, finish the long-delayed pamphlet ... and distribute it to park rangers. The nation's public parks are not the place to promote religious theories about the formation and development of Earth.A spokesperson for the NPS, David Barna, told The New York Times (2007 Jan 5) that there was no formal review of whether the bookstores ought to discontinue selling A Different View in part because of differences among the NPS's specialists. According to the Times, "When officials got together to discuss the book, the geologists and natural resource specialists would say, 'Get this book out of here,' Mr. Barna said. 'But the education and interpretation people would say: 'Wait a minute. If your science is so sound, the fact that there are differences of opinion should not scare you away.'" In a written statement, the Times reported, Barna "notes that Park Service management policies require reliance on 'the best scientific evidence available' and, as a result, rangers tell visitors that "the Colorado River basin has developed in the past 40 million years." But the Times also reported, "the guidelines also say that material available from concessionaires in national parks should adhere to the standards used to evaluate Park Service materials." PEER's executive director Jeff Ruch was quoted as contending that selling the book promoted fundamentalist Christian views: "This is government establishment of religion in a fairly fundamental way, if you pardon the pun."
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Figure 1. A summary of the major arguments of "intelligent design", as they appear to its advocates, from Access Research Network's website http://www.arn.org. Merchandise with the cartoon is available from http://www.cafepress.com/accessresearch. Copyright Chuck Assay, 2006; all rights reserved. Reprinted by permission.
We know that information — whether, say, in hieroglyphics or radio signals — always arises from an intelligent source. .... So the discovery of digital information in DNA provides strong grounds for inferring that intelligence played a causal role in its origin. (Meyer 2006)What is this mysterious "digital information"? Has a message from a Designer been discovered? When DNA sequences are read, can they be converted into English sentences such as: "Copyright 4004 bce by the intelligent designer; all rights reserved"? Or can they be converted into numbers, with one stretch of DNA turning out to contain the first 10 000 digits of π? Of course not. If anything like this had happened, it would have been big news indeed. You would have heard by now. No, the mysterious digital information turns out to be nothing more than the usual genetic information that codes for the features of life, information that makes the organism well-adapted. The "digital information" is just the presence of sequences that code for RNA and proteins — sequences that lead to high fitness.
Figure 2. Two 101x100 pixel images, each with 3511 black pixels and the rest white. Both have equal information content. Which one has specified complexity, as judged by its resemblance to an image of a flower?
But invariably we find that when specified complexity seems to be generated for free, it has in fact been front-loaded, smuggled in, or hidden from view. (Dembski 2002: 204)Computer demonstrations of the power of natural selection to bring about adaptation do often have detailed targets that natural selection is to approach. It is easier to write the programs that way. In real life, the objective is higher fitness, and achieving that means having the organism's phenotype interact well with real physics, real chemistry, and real biology.
But this means that the problem of finding a given target has been displaced to the new problem of finding the information j capable of locating that target. ... To say that an evolutionary algorithm has generated specified complexity within the original phase space is therefore really to say that it has borrowed specified complexity from a higher-order phase space ... it follows that the evolutionary algorithm has not generated specified complexity at all but merely shifted it around. (Dembski 2002: 203)He is arguing that the fitness surface itself must have been specially chosen out of a vast array of possibilities, and that this means that one started with the specified complexity already present. He is saying that the smoothness of real fitness functions is not typical — that without a large input of specified information one would be dealing instead with needle-in-a-haystack fitness functions where natural selection could not succeed.
In the ongoing and complex issue of teaching evolution in public schools, "intelligent design" (ID) purports to overcome objections to inserting religion into science classrooms and to illustrate conceptual and empirical shortcomings in evolutionary theory. ID supporters argue that students should be made aware of these shortcomings and suggest that "alternatives to evolution" need to be taught. A key issue that needs to be resolved is whether it is a sound pedagogical approach to teach "design" alongside evolution, which may in part be resolved by helping policy makers determine whether ID is a true rival to evolutionary theory — or has any scientific merit at all.
Even though creationism, in its various forms, has typically failed to pass legal muster, the Supreme Court has not categorically forbidden biology teachers from discussing "alternatives to evolution" as long as those lessons do not cause religion and science to be overly intertwined. ID supporters and other critics of evolution typically latch on to the Edwards v Aguillard ruling to provide legal grounds for introducing challenges to evolution in the classroom. According to the Edwards Court, "teaching a variety of scientific theories about the origins of humankind to schoolchildren might be validly done with the clear secular intent of enhancing the effectiveness of science instruction" (Edwards v Aguillard 482 US 578 : 594). In accordance with their interpretation of this case and other legal precedents, ID supporters seek to take advantage of a "legal opening" to offer what they argue is a secular, scientific body of claims.
Although the teaching of ID has not been specifically required in accordance with most states' science standards, several state school boards and legislatures have considered implementing proposals that would encourage teachers to discuss evidence against evolution (Carroll 2005; Taylor and MacDonald 2002). In Ohio, the state school board explicitly considered incorporating it into the curriculum (Stephens 2004). Missouri's legislature has considered a bill that would require teachers to discuss alternatives to evolution (Anonymous 2004). The school board in Dover, Pennsylvania, became the first one to mandate that ID be taught as part of the biology curriculum (Raffaele 2004). Yet a federal judge has since invalidated Dover's policy. At this point, the Discovery Institute, one of the main organizations defending the notion that ID is a credible scientific theory, is not openly advocating that it should be a mandatory part of biology education (Meyer 2002), opting instead for tactics that try to cast doubt on the validity of evolution.
One of the main arguments in support of teaching ID in public schools is that students need to be aware of the controversy circulating around evolution. If portions of evolutionary theory are truly on shaky ground, then ID supporters suggest that students need to be made aware of this fact. This is the so-called "teach the controversy"approach. Since ID supporters argue that there is substantial evidence contradicting at least some of the claims supporting evolution, students should be apprised of the situation and then make up their own minds on what is true. Further, even if there is evidence to support evolution, students need to be cautioned against merely assuming that it is "fact" just because it is presented in a classroom. According to ID supporters, there is momentum behind the "teach the controversy" approach as evidenced by a document that contains signatures from scientists who believe there are flaws contained within Darwinism (Discovery Institute 2001). Yet the "teach the controversy" approach, as articulated by Stephen Meyer (Meyer 2002), is profoundly misguided.
To begin, Meyer contends, "When two groups of expert disagree about a controversial subject that intersects the public school curriculum students should learn about both perspectives" (Meyer 2002). According to Meyer:
In such cases teachers should not teach as true only one competing view, just the Republican or Democratic view of the New Deal in a history class, for example. Instead, teachers should describe competing views to students and explain the arguments for and against these views as made by their chief proponents.
Yet it is not possible to present students with each and every dispute that is ongoing within the expert communities, let alone every dispute that is ongoing between scientists. It would be arduous and impractical to cover, as Meyer's logic implies, each particular political party's arguments, such as the ones offered by libertarians, socialists, the Green Party, and the Reform Party, on each controversial political issue. In other words, there are numerous other options beyond "both perspectives"offered by Democrats and Republicans that could be mentioned with reference to the issue. Further, we would certainly want to disregard the opinions of some groups, such as white supremacists and neo-Nazis, even if they do offer a "competing view" on politics. Not every "competing view" warrants consideration even though some might consider them to be rivals.
ID supporters defend the notion that students need to be made aware of "the controversy" in part because they see ID as being among the main candidates to be covered alongside evolution. Yet the logic of Meyer's argument opens the door to discussing various alternative views on the history of life, such as the one offered by the Raëlians that human life emerged on this planet through cloning procedures undertaken by human-like aliens. The Raëlian view is undoubtedly a "rival" (in some sense of the term) to evolution since it attempts to explain how human life on this planet emerged; it does challenge a number of evolution's tenets. Raëlians proclaim that they can offer a competing explanation for how life began and that their view merits serious consideration. As a result, the "teach the controversy" approach implies that such a view would not be discounted as a candidate to be discussed in biology classrooms, which is a profoundly troubling consequence.
Introducing students to each and every rival view as it emerges, such as the one offered by the Raëlians, can give them the wrong impression that each expert's or group's opinion is of equal worth and has the same level of supporting evidence behind it. In accordance with the goal of teaching students about controversies, teachers could plan lessons on witchcraft, astrology, and tealeaf reading, as Paul Feyerabend suggests (Feyerabend 1975), because there are inquirers who use these approaches in order to acquire evidence. Yet there are good compelling reasons to resist this type of thinking, which in part relates to the value and importance of obtaining evidence to support claims before students learn about them. There are plenty of individuals who purport to be "scientific" experts, but the mechanisms of science need time to evaluate and assess the relevant theories in question. It can be unwise to present an expert's arguments until relevant claims have been thoroughly examined by other experts. The implication that rival views are all on even grounds scientifically (have the same level of supporting evidence) does a disservice to how science works.
Thomas Murray describes a similar phenomenon within the context of debates over embryonic stem cell research (Murray 2001). As Murray points out, the manner in which disputes about science are typically presented to the public and to policy makers — by inviting one or two scientists on opposite sides of the spectrum to speak — implies that scientists are evenly divided on an issue. This approach can grossly distort how much consensus there actually is within the scientific community about an issue such as stem cell research. Similarly, if the views of a biologist and an ID supporter are presented at the same forum, it could mislead the audience to think that the scientists themselves are split, for example, on the issue of whether evolution is accepted as fact. Applying this insight to the classroom, presenting "both perspectives" to students implies that each one is on equal footing and that scientists are evenly divided into the two camps. Recognizing this implication does not necessarily prove that ID is false, but the biology curriculum needs to reflect accurately its standing within the scientific community.
Meyer and other ID supporters contend that there is active scientific "controversy" about whether evolution's key tenets are supported by evidence. Yet labeling it as a "controversy" about evolution is misleading because the disputes are not primarily within the scientific community. The controversy occurs among religious groups, politicians, parents, and advocacy groups. Disputes about whether evolution is a "fact" frequently are waged at school board meetings and at legislative sessions by these groups, but not among scientists in relevant disciplines.
There are of course active disputes within scientific communities regarding the specific mechanisms governing evolution, including the issue of how significant the role of natural selection is. There have also been debates about the tempo of evolutionary change (for example, Eldredge and Gould 1972) and the unit of selection (Sachs and others 2004). Although biologists ardently disagree on some of the details of how evolution works, they are largely convinced that it did in fact occur. According to the National Science Teachers Association, "There is no longer a debate among scientists about whether evolution has taken place"(NSTA 2003). Thus, couching the issue as a "scientific" controversy between the scientists themselves misrepresents how divided the scientific community actual is on the issue. For example, according to Chad Edgington (Edgington 2004):
...given the diversity of belief on the subject and the lack of accepted, substantiated evidence supporting any theory, whether one is a creationist or an evolutionist is largely a matter of opinion.
Vocal proponents of "intelligent design", such as Michael Behe and William Dembski, offer passionate defenses of their views, but they are noticeably on the outside of the scientific community. Neither creationism nor "intelligent design" is considered to be a viable alternative to evolution by most scientists. Scientists vehemently and consistently challenge the notion that evolution still needs to overcome the burden of proof to vanquish either "rival" theory.
The "teach the controversy" approach also takes advantage of the notion that the public seems comfortable with teaching "alternatives to evolution" along with the theory. There is some basis for Meyer's statement that "voters overwhelmingly favor this approach" (Meyer 2002). For example, according to one Gallup poll, 68% of Americans favor teaching both creationism and evolution in biology classrooms (Moore 1999). A Zogby poll suggests that 71% of Americans would prefer that evidence both for and against evolutionary theory be taught (Zogby International 2001). However, even though Meyer's assertion about public opinion may be accurate, it is not necessarily sound educational policy to allow the public to dictate what is taught within a discipline, especially in the sciences where extensive knowledge of technical concepts and background information is typically needed before claims can be properly assessed.
Along these lines, there is evidence to indicate that the public's understanding of science may be inadequate (National Science Board 1998; National Science Board 2000; Russell 1994; Sanchez 1997). For example, many individuals operate with the misconception that antibiotics can help treat a viral infection and that having a flu shot immunizes against the various different strains of the virus. For some time, the public believed that AIDS only affected homosexual populations and later that it could be contracted through casual contact. But it would be profoundly dangerous if these beliefs were perpetuated by teachers, because they are false. Accordingly, ID should not be taught to students merely because the public demands it. It should be discussed only if ID proponents succeed in convincing the scientific community that ID has supporting evidence behind it.
It has been commonly argued within the context of the "teach the controversy" approach that "academic freedom" (Hacker 2004) and "good pedagogy" (Meyer 2002) demand that alternatives to evolution be taught. It is ironic that ID supporters appeal to these notions to support the inclusion of anti-evolution evidence, considering that biology teachers avoid teaching lessons pertaining to evolution because they fear reprisal from politicians and from parents (Jacoby 2005). Some school administrators have even recommended to teachers that they sidestep the topic (Dean 2005). Further, the Georgia State Superintendent of Schools, Kathy Cox, temporarily removed the term "evolution" from Georgia's science standards "to give teachers some leeway to teach it without having to use a word that antagonizes some parents," (Tofig 2004). In Dover, Pennsylvania, an administrator had to read the district's policy on "intelligent design" to students because teachers refused to do so (Anonymous 2005).
A profound cost associated with distorted arguments against evolution is that widespread misunderstanding about and ignorance of evolutionary theory endure. According to a study by Lawrence Lerner, evolution is poorly treated in the state science standards of at least a third of US states (Lerner 2000). It seems to be the case that American students do not receive adequate instruction about the fundamentals of evolution and do not appreciate how integral evolution is to numerous scientific and non-scientific fields. As a result, misconceptions about evolution are abundant, including the notion that humans are merely a product of "random chance", that evolution is inconsistent with laws of thermodynamics, and that there are no transitional fossils (Rennie 2002).
This is not to say that evolutionary theory is untouchable. As mentioned previously, there are certainly active controversies about evolution and gaps in biologists' explanations. Rather, it is to assert that evolution must be understood thoroughly by students before its merits can truly be assessed. Yet since many students may only be learning a caricature of evolution or perhaps nothing substantive about it, teaching them about challenges to evolution might not be very meaningful (Moore 2001).
Even though the "teach the controversy"approach has its flaws, the question still remains whether it is warranted to discuss "intelligent design" specifically in biology classrooms. ID proponents contend that their view is scientific and thus should be taught alongside evolution. They claim that design arguments are more attuned to scientific evidence than older versions, including the ones offered by William Paley. Indeed, instead of doing original research, ID proponents have dedicated much time and effort to identifying problems with evolution and suggesting how design might be compatible with a scientific picture of the world.
However, it is difficult, if not impossible, to disentangle ID from discussions about religion. Even if ID proponents could be taken at their word that ID could be taught without religious overtones (Behe 2005), questions about the designer will inevitably emerge. Metaphysical and religious assumptions built into any version of ID are not easily separable from the "scientific" lessons that would be offered to students. For example, one of the chief assumptions built into current formulations of "intelligent design" is that the designer is a single entity or "intelligent agent", which means that some contemporary views about the nature of the designer(s) are dismissed. Of course, monotheism tends to be the preferred view of ID supporters but one could legitimately question whether that assumption should be granted and whether it is appropriate to allude to one subset of religious views at exclusion of others. As Hume asks, "Why may not several Deities combine in contriving and framing a World?" (Hume 1779: 192).
Discussion of ID in a classroom opens, perhaps unintentionally, the door to religious conversation about the identity and traits of the designer. Yet it is not clear that it would be wise for biology teachers to stray into religious instruction. Even if a biology teacher can successfully dodge questions about the nature of designer, how will teachers explain the causal mechanisms of the design process? ID proponents do not offer much in the way of an explanation. Creationists, for example, offer a forthright and direct answer on this issue. Duane Gish "bites the bullet", so to speak, and argues, "We cannot discover by scientific investigations anything about the creative processes used by the Creator" (Gish 1979: 40).
Assuming that evolution is accepted to some degree, which ID proponents largely say that they do, at what point do the designer's actions end and evolution begin? One potential hypothesis is that the designer was involved in the initial formation of the universe and that ended the designer's role. Another hypothesis is that the designer is continually involved in designing the universe. Alternatively, the designer may act intermittently. On what basis should a biology teacher (or any human for the matter) distinguish between these competing explanations? Yet it seems crucial that we have some means to sort through these explanations if ID is to help us understand better how the universe works.
When the issue of evolution emerges in the classroom, students should not be left with the impression, with which much of the current debate might leave them, that evolution is scientifically "controversial" and that it is the only area of science where scientists themselves have disputes. In all these issues, the current crop of "intelligent design" proposals significantly misleads students regarding the nature of science and the evidence for evolution. Teaching that evolution is dubious or controversial within the sciences does the students a disservice because the "controversy" is over how science is to be understood and applied in modern society.
If the outgrowth of the legal, religious, and scientific disputes about evolution leads to the emergence of a high school class dedicated to the intersection of science and values, that would be a welcomed addition. Considering how central science is to our lives and how often its social, moral, and religious implications are not examined thoroughly enough, a class that looks at the broader aspects of scientific disputes might be a wise — and desirable — approach.
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Who is William A Dembski? We are told that he has PhD degrees in mathematics and philosophy plus more degrees — in theology and what not — a long list of degrees indeed (Dembski 1998: 461).
We all know, however, that degrees alone do not make a person a scientist. Scientific degrees are not like ranks in the military where a general is always above a mere colonel. Degrees are only a formal indicator of a person's educational status. A scientist's reputation and authority are based only to a negligible extent on his degrees. What really attests to a person's status in science is publications in professional journals and anthologies and references to one's work by colleagues. This is the domain where Dembski has so far remained practically invisible. All his multiple publications have little or nothing to do with science. When he writes about probability theory or information theory — on which he is proclaimed to be an expert — the real experts in these fields (using the words of the prominent mathematician David Wolpert ) "squint, furrow one's brows, and then shrug."
When encountering critique of his work, Dembski is selective in choosing when to reply to and when to ignore his critics. His preferred targets for replies are those critics who do not boast comparable long lists of formal credentials — this enables him to dismiss the critical comments contemptuously by pointing to the alleged lack of qualification of his opponents while avoiding answering the essence of their critical remarks. (See, for example, Dembski's replies to some of his opponents [Dembski 2002b, 2002c, 2002d, 2003a].) These replies provide examples of Dembski's overarching quest for winning debate at any cost rather than striving to arrive at the truth. For example, in his book No Free Lunch (Dembski 2002a), he devoted many pages to a misuse of Wolpert and Macready's (1987) No Free Lunch (NFL) theorems. (Some early critiques of Dembski's interpretation of the NFL theorems appear in Elsberry [1999, 2001]. A detailed analysis of Dembski's misuse of the NFL theorems is given, in particular, in Perakh [2004a].)
Dembski's faulty interpretation of the NFL theorems was strongly criticized by Richard Wein (2002a) and by David Wolpert (2003), the originator of these theorems. Dembski spared no effort in rebutting Wein's critique, devoting to it two lengthy essays (Dembski 2002b, 2002c). However, he did not utter a single word in regard to Wolpert's critique. It is not hard to see why. Wein, as Dembski points out, has only a bachelor's degree in statistics — and Dembski uses this irrelevant factoid to deflect Wein's well-substantiated criticism. He does not, though, really answer the essence of Wein's comments and resorts instead to ad hominem remarks and a contemptuous tone. (Wein 2002b replies.) He cannot do the same with Wolpert who enjoys a sterling reputation as a brilliant mathematician and who is obviously much superior to Dembski in the understanding of the NFL theorems of which he is a co-author. Dembski pretends that Wolpert's critique does not exist.
Dembski has behaved similarly in a number of other situations. For example, the extensive index in his latest book The Design Revolution: Answering the Toughest Questions About Intelligent Design (Dembski 2004a) completely omits the names of most of the prominent critics of his ideas. Totally absent from the index to the book are the following names of serious critics: Rich Baldwin, Eli Chiprout, Taner Edis, Ellery Eels, Branden Fitelson, Philip Kitcher, Peter Milne, Massimo Pigliucci, Del Ratzsch, Jeff Shallit, Niall Shanks, Jordan H Sobel, Jason Rosenhouse, Christopher Stephenson, Richard Wein, and Matt Young. All these writers have analyzed in detail Dembski's literary output and demonstrated multiple errors, fallacious concepts, and inconsistencies which are a trademark of his prolific production. (I have not mentioned myself in this list although I have extensively criticized Dembski both in web postings [Perakh 2002, 2003a, 2003b, 2003c] and in print [Perakh 2004a, 2004b]; he never uttered a single word in response to my critique, while it is known for a fact that he is familiar with my critique; the above list shows that I am in good company.)
Thomas D Schneider, another strong critic of Dembski's ideas, is mentioned in the index of The Design Revolution but the extent of the reference is as follows:
Evolutionary biologists regularly claim to obtain specified complexity for free or from scratch. Richard Dawkins and Thomas Schneider are some of the worst offenders in this regard.
Contrary to the subtitle of Dembski's book — Answering the Toughest Questions About Intelligent Design — this remark can hardly be construed as an answer to Schneider's questions. But even this is more of a mention than most serious critics get from Dembski.
Essentially, all the critics listed above have asked Dembski a number of specific questions regarding his concepts. The absence of any replies to the listed authors suggest that the title of Dembski's new book should have properly been The Design Revolution? Dodging Questions about Intelligent Design. Is Dembski also of the opinion that selectivity in choosing when to respond to opponents and when to pretend they do not exist is compatible with intellectual honesty?
One of beloved themes of Dembski's diatribes is his claims that "Darwinism" (the creationists' term for evolutionary biology) is either dying or is already dead ( see for example Dembski 2004a). In that assertion, Dembski joins a long list of "Darwinism"'s deniers who started making such claims almost immediately after Darwin published his magnificent On the Origins of Species. Predictions that "Darwinism" (read: evolutionary biology) will very soon be completely abandoned by the majority of scientists, claims that it has already died, assertions that it cannot withstand new discoveries in science — all this stuff has been a regular staple of the anti-Darwinian crowd for 148 years (see Morton 2002). Despite all these claims, evolutionary biology is alive and well and the evidence in favor of most of the Darwinian ideas is constantly growing.
Dembski asserts time and time again that evidence favoring "Darwinism"was always weak and that new discoveries make it less and less plausible. His claim (bolstered by the Discovery Institute's so-called "Scientific Dissent from Darwinism" advertisement), concludes that this lack of evidence is causing more and more biologists to abandon Darwinian ideas. In fact, he is proclaiming something he desperately wants to be true but that in reality is utterly false — at least if the evidence from the current research literature is any indication. It is hard to believe Dembski himself does not know that his claims are false. Indeed, Dembski is well aware of Project Steve (Dembski 2003b), conducted by the National Center of Science Education (http://ncse.com/taking-action/project-steve).
This endeavor by NCSE has unequivocally demonstrated that the overwhelming majority of scientists, and more specifically of biologists, firmly support evolutionary biology based largely on Darwinian principles. According to these data, the ratio of scientists who are firm supporters of the neo-Darwinian synthesis to those who doubt the main tenets of modern evolutionary biology is estimated, as of March 10, 2004, to be about 142 to 1. Dembski knows about this ratio and even tried to dismiss its significance (Dembski 2003b) by asserting that Project Steve was "an exercise in irrelevance" because the support of evolution by the majority of scientists is "obvious" anyway and was not disputed. It is remarkable that such a statement plainly contradicts Dembski's incessant claims in his other writing about scientists' allegedly abandoning "Darwinism" in droves; this contradiction apparently does not make Dembski uncomfortable. Of course self-contradictory claims in Dembski's output are too common to be surprising.
Dembski is a relatively young man and will most probably continue emanating repetitious philippics against "materialistic science" for many years to come. Science is not impressed, though (and hardly will be), by a relabeled creationism, supported not by evidence but only by casuistry in a pseudo-mathematical guise. (The purely religious motivation underlying Dembski's relentless attacks on evolutionary biology — in which he has no training or relevant experience — and on "materialistic science" in general is obvious from his numerous statements to non-scientific audiences — see, for example, Dembski 2004b, in which he told his audience, "When you are attributing the wonders of nature to these mindless material mechanisms, God's glory is getting robbed").
In his latest book, Dembski (2004a) says:
I take all declarations about the next big revolution in science with a stiff shot of skepticism. Despite that, I grow progressively more convinced that intelligent design will revolutionize science and our conception of the world (p 19).
Is the Design Revolution, so boldly forecast by Dembski, indeed imminent? I suspect that Dembski is in for a deep disappointment. He may continue generating noise within the shadow region underneath science, but at some point in the future all this brouhaha that "intelligent design" allegedly will replace "materialistic science" most probably will result in adding one more item to the amusing collection of absurdities that already contains Barrow and Tipler's Final Anthropic Principle with its prediction of a neverdying intelligence (Barrow and Tipler 1986; Gardner 1986), Tipler's further prediction of the imminent resurrection of the dead as computer-reincarnated entities (Tipler 1994), homeopathic quasi-medicine, and other fads and fallacies that so easily earn cheap popularity among the benighted crowds. Paradoxically, these "scientific revolutions" occur regularly in the same country where efforts by the avant garde of honest scientists and inventors lead the world in the progress of technology and genuine science. Dembski's work may be remarkable among these only in its quantity.
I appreciate helpful comments to the initial draft of this essay by Matt Young, Alec Gindis, Wesley R Elsberry, and Gary S Hurd.
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Dembski WA. 2002b. Obsessively criticized but scarcely refuted: A response to Richard Wein. Available on-line at http://www.designinference.com/documents/05.02.resp_to_wein.htm. Last accessed September 3, 2007.
Dembski WA. 2002c. The fantasy life of Richard Wein: A response to a response. http://www.designinference.com/documents/2002.06.WeinsFantasy.htm. Last accessed September 3, 2007
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For several years we have taught a course, Science as a Candle in the Dark, to help students deal with questions about the foundations of their belief systems and to promote science and skepticism as a way of inquiry. Our goal was to help students learn how to challenge ideas in a constructive manner that would lead to further insight and understanding. We examine issues where religion and science tend to interdigitate. Another goal was to help students begin to understand ambiguities that arise when religion and science seem to conflict. We take no religious position in this class; the students have a right to their own beliefs and religious views. We emphasize the differences between science and religion. We discuss the conflict between evolution and creationism to focus attention on problems that seem to arise between these two domains.
The majority of our first-year students are creationists whose beliefs span the spectrum from young-earth creationism to "intelligent design" (ID). They have been told evolution is "only a theory" with troubling gaps that scientists do not acknowledge. Part of the problem is that many public schools ignore evolution, and teachers are afraid to broach it. One high school biology teacher in Oregon said he would not touch it with a ten-foot pole. Another said she uses only the word "change"— the word "evolution" is not used in her classes. This seems to be a common experience in our state and perhaps throughout the US. We have found that most of our incoming students were woefully ignorant of evolution. The only place most students were exposed to evolution concepts was in biology classes, but frequently not until they enrolled in college level courses. Even after learning about evolution, some students remained unconvinced. We have students in our program who memorize everything about evolution needed to pass a test, but state flatly they do not "believe in" evolution.
We try to help our students to understand the issues surrounding this divisive artificial controversy. In our classroom, we have advantages over other venues. First, we have a captive audience and adequate time to explain the science behind evolution and argue against creationism. Second, the seminar is not a biology class, so we do not sacrifice critical science content for this issue. Finally, we have the advantage of having sufficient time to discuss evolution and religious beliefs in the classroom; we are not confined to sound bites and a 5- to 20-minute terse counterargument. We have time to educate the audience.
Science as a Candle in the Dark examines the issues of evolution versus creationism. Until recently, we presented evidence for evolution, but gave no time for presenting creationist or ID views. Students are assigned readings from Carl Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World (1996), Stephen Jay Gould's Rocks of Ages (1999), Chet Raymo's Skeptics and True Believers (1998), and an article on evolution by Ernst Mayr. This year we are adding Edward J Larson's Summer for the Gods (1997) to provide more extensive historical background. We give about six hours of lecture on the subject of evolution itself including the history of evolutionary thought, as well as evidence for evolution. We present clear arguments for evolution to help students understand what evolution is. We have had success with more than half of our students as evidenced by them questioning creationist explanations because of the class. Unfortunately, we do not persuade them all; many true believers do not budge despite our efforts.
We begin reading from Sagan's book. This taps into students' sense of awe and wonder of their world and begins their education in skepticism. We emphasize the careful and precise use of definitions and concepts. When we bring up the concept of skepticism, we help students understand that skepticism is not pejorative. We teach them to differentiate between skepticism and cynicism as part of their vocabulary. Using Sagan's examples, we illustrate how easy it is for them to be gullible and believe everything they hear or read in popular media. We emphasize that skepticism is a tool to separate factual knowledge and ideas from misinformation. We introduce them to Sagan's Baloney Detection Kit, an excellent tool students can use when evaluating ideas.
In our discussions, we explain that religion is a different domain from science. We classify the paradigms (Gould's Non-Overlapping Magisteria) of religion and science as Type I and Type II teaching disciplines or knowledge. Type I is religious belief or knowledge based in faith, not evidence; it is a philosophical construct evolving from the suppositions of faith. We explain this kind of knowledge is not wrong or bad; it is just a different magisterium from that of science. We give several examples of different kinds of Type I beliefs, but avoid discussing which, if any, are correct, pointing out that such views are typically faith-based and not something we can debate. We emphasize that Type I beliefs cannot be tested using scientific methods.
We define Science as Type II knowledge, which is testable and based in evidence, not faith. We define science as a method of inquiry so it is not misinterpreted as just another religion. We emphasize that science, unlike Type I knowledge, uses skepticism as one of its tools. We define and distinguish between the concepts of hypotheses, theories, and scientific laws. It is too easy for proponents of creationism to talk about creationist or ID theories, implying these are scientific theories, when they are Type I beliefs with no testable supporting hypotheses. Using clear definitions and making sure that students use words correctly in our discussions helps us to clarify real issues in evolutionary science. Clear understanding of terminology sets limits about the discussions that follow.
Using Type I and Type II terminology avoids some of the emotional pitfalls associated with words such as faith, religion,and evolution. This helps defuse the animosity some students have toward science and scientists. Because many fundamentalists see scientists as atheists, we want to avoid the dismissal of our teaching just because students think we do not share the same worldview. We refer to Kenneth Miller's Finding Darwin's God (1999) as evidence that not all scientists are atheists. We try to defuse stereotypes and keep students interested and open to new ideas.
We review several articles that help students to begin developing skeptical skills. They read about and challenge ideas such as therapeutic touch and the use of polygraphs as lie detectors, and learn how courts of law misinterpret science because the judiciary often lacks adequate science knowledge or proper expert testimony.
Assigned readings from Skeptics and True Believers by Chet Raymo gives students a sensitive view of how one scientist looks at the universe from a perspective of gentle skepticism and wonder. The first contact with the subject of evolution is from Raymo's book. We show Inherit the Wind with Spencer Tracy and Frederic March playing the protagonists. Whereas the film distorts what really took place, it accurately describes the emotional tone permeating the current debate about evolution. We want students to get the drama from the Scopes Trial and understand what creationists mean when they say "Scopes Monkey Trial". True believers in the class squirm with the portrayal of fundamentalists in the film. We take advantage of this discomfort by asking them if the film expresses how they feel. Typically, they deny such feelings, and this gives the opportunity to question what the issues really are. We point out the real issue:Type I beliefs from religion cannot explain ideas and theories in the Type II magisterium of science and vice versa. That issue is blurred in creationist arguments.
Students are then assigned readings from Gould's Rocks of Ages that explain what really happened in Dayton, Tennessee, in 1925. The farcical part of the issue becomes clearer and students are amused at what really happened. This is followed with six hours of lecture on the history of evolutionary thought, the evidence for evolution, and the history of life on Earth. During and following the presentation, students are encouraged to ask questions about evolution.
Next, students read Greg Easterbrook's article "The new fundamentalism" (2000). In this cleverly written opinion piece, Easterbrook advocates "teaching the controversy", the darling of the ID movement. He also advocates changing the definition of science from natural explanations to logical explanations. He expresses a cynical view of biologists and attacks biologists openly. We ask students to write two responses to the article. One must agree with Easterbrook's contentions and state why. The other takes the opposite position. The purpose is to encourage students to articulate in writing and discussions their understanding of the issues. This assignment helps students evaluate their own beliefs and separate science from religion. It also provides insight into how ID proponents distort and twist arguments about evolution, and gives us the opportunity to help students express their arguments clearly and concisely focusing on careful use of definitions and concepts. We want no blurring of concepts and issues.
We show the video Icons of Evolution (based on the book of the same title by Jonathan Wells) to provide an opportunity to take a hard look at ID. This video takes the student to the core of the issues from the perspective of the ID enthusiast. The video is intelligently designed to deceive the viewer. Showing this video to church groups and school boards would likely convince the lay public that evolution is a "theory in crisis". In reality, the video is a mendacious attack on the integrity of scientists and scientific research. We follow the video with an extended discussion of issues raised by Wells and his ID colleagues.
We challenge several basic arguments central to the video's thesis and cast doubt on the veracity of the entire video. Several well-written articles available from the NCSE debunk Icons of Evolution and we use these to help make the case against the video. Two of these examples are familiar to RNCSE readers: the case of Roger DeHart, and the misuse and misinterpretation of data from evolutionary studies.
Roger DeHart, a teacher in the Burlington-Edison school district in Washington state, presented ID and other creationist misinformation about evolution to his high school biology class. Icons of Evolution portrays Dehart as a victim and martyr to generate sympathy and create the view that science and school boards unfairly undermine alternative (creationist) views. The fairness doctrine used by ID advocates plays a major role in this first part of the video. However, the Burlington-Edison Committee for Science Education's website on this issue (http://www.scienceormyth.org) gives a different picture of what happened. DeHart, a die-hard creationist, taught creationism in his classes. The school board and superintendent initially worked out an agreement with DeHart, which he subsequently deliberately broke. Our students, at first sympathetic to DeHart, did not like his duplicity. For Icons to be effective, it is necessary to have sympathy for the fairness argument and for DeHart. We told our students that science has nothing to do with fairness; it is evidence that counts. That approach also helped undermine sympathy for DeHart.
Once sympathy for DeHart is challenged, the students are open to a more critical analysis of the deliberate deceptions, omissions, and distortions of science that make up most of the "evidence" in Icons. For example, the video argues that if antibiotics are removed, bacteria revert to the wild type that lack resistance; therefore bacterial resistance has not "evolved". Whereas bacteria do revert under certain circumstances, Icons ignores evidence showing bacteria subjected to the selective pressure of antibiotics for longer periods of time retain the resistance even after the antibiotics are withdrawn. In essence, research on bacterial resistance to antibiotics supports evolutionary theory and does not contradict it.
Scientists are at a disadvantage when ID rears its head in school board meetings and community meetings. Our approach requires a significant amount of time and a willingness of the audience to listen and think about these issues. Addressing these issues in the classroom context is an ideal setting for grappling with the real arguments that ID proponents make. The value of exposing and examining ID arguments in detail was shown during the Kitzmiller trial in Pennsylvania when plaintiff's witnesses were given a chance to testify. The arguments took time, money, and careful examination by a judge who listened. This is a rare opportunity, but we are heartened that whenever anti-evolutionism has had its day in court, the courts have had no difficulty seeing through its pretences to scientific respectability.
In the classroom, however, we can take the time to explore, compare, we are not constrained by time limits for testimony or sound-bite reporting. One advantage is that students begin to understand the difference between scientific arguments and ad hominem attacks. We also engage the emotional responses of people who feel that their belief systems or values are under attack by scientists, especially those who teach evolution. By addressing these issues head on in the classroom, we helped our students see that we were not afraid to confront the issues, but that we wanted to have a conversation that was rational and fair — and one that did not distort the scientific studies that support evolution.
We began teaching this class because we were frustrated with the assault on reason promulgated by creationists. We were concerned that teachers should not be forced to teach science through the lens of creationism. Instead we decided to confront creationism, especially ID, directly and honestly with an understanding that both religion and science are part of human culture, but with the understanding that the two domains do not overlap. We found students are interested in learning about these issues. Not addressing them gives the argument to the creationists. We thought it was time to confront the issue. Most of our students have appreciated the opportunity to learn the facts about evolution and the conflict generated by "intelligent design" proponents and other creationists.
Mark Terry, as well as Glenn Branch and Alan Gishlick from the NCSE, provided essential information and resources for our rebuttal to Icons of Evolution.
Easterbrook G. 2000 Aug 8. The new fundamentalism. The Wall Street Journal.
Gould SJ. 1999. Rocks of Ages. New York: Ballantine Publishing Group, 1999.
Larson E. 1997. Summer for the Gods. New York: Basic Books.
Miller KR. 1999. Finding Darwin's God. San Francisco: Cliff Street Books.
Raymo C. 1998. Skeptics and True Believers. New York: Walker and Co.
Sagan C. The Demon-Haunted World. New York: Random House.
In this sizeable book, Dennett, a philosopher already famous for his earlier work Darwin's Dangerous Idea (1995), undertakes to convince his readers that religious beliefs have no empirical foundation and hence should be abandoned to prevent religious fanatics from destroying the world in a nuclear holocaust. In developing his argument Dennett relies on two sources: Charles Darwin's theory of organic evolution by natural and sexual selection and Richard Dawkins's theory of cultural evolution by the copying and competition of "memes" (ideas, rhymes, behavior patterns, and so on) which lodge themselves in the brain and compete for survival in human societies. Religious memes — gods, spirits, and so on — have no reality except as memes because their extra-human existence cannot be proved scientifically by observation and experiment.
Armed with this criterion of believability, Dennett presents an imposing array of scientific studies of religion by philosophers of religion, sociologists and psychologists, anthropologists, and neuroscientists. His purpose, he confesses, is to "cajole" his readers into abandoning some of their religious convictions and thereby to alleviate the world's "moral crisis" and make possible scientific solutions to the world's momentous political decisions by "delv[ing] into the evolutionary history of the planet" (p 53).
It then turns out that the reasons we love the things we love — religion, romantic love, folk art and music, sugar and spice, and so on — are not the reasons we give when asked about them. The real reasons, Dennett argues, are evolutionary reasons, free-floating rationales that have been developed by natural selection, that "blind, mechanical, foresightless siftingand- duplicating process that has produced the exquisite design of organisms" (p 79–80).
The second part of Breaking the Spell devotes four chapters to the "current version" of what scientific "proto-theories" tell us about how religions came to be what they are. It all began, says Dennett, with mutations in hominin genes enabling humans to speak. Language then spread rapidly, perhaps by sexual selection (women like to talk and hence would choose talkative males as partners). Language then gave rise to a virtual world of imagination, a world of intentional agents with beliefs and desires, a world gradually shaped by natural selection so as to improve cooperation within, but not among, social groups. Eventually — here Dennett cites Richard Dawkins — these "protomemes" produced what neuroscientists call the "god center" in human brains, paving the way for shamans to take charge as "stewards" of the beliefs and practices of folk religions. As religions were "domesticated", carefully crafted reasons for these beliefs and practices replaced earlier free-floating rationales.
As folk religions evolved into organized religion and priests took over as stewards of the sacred memes, Dennett continues, secrecy, deception, and the devising of doctrines designed to protect the body of beliefs from being discredited by scientific methods emerged, and rival systems of religious memes competed for adherents in the religious market place.
Moving forward in time, Dennett presents David Hume's essay "Of Miracles" and William James's The Varieties of Religious Experience as models of the empirical study of religion. Like Darwin's cousin Francis Galton, Dennett proposes a scientific study of the efficacy of prayer. On this question and on the question whether religion is good for people Dennett finds the evidence "mixed". On the related question whether religion is the foundation of morality he concedes that "nothing approaching a settled consensus among researchers has been achieved" (p 280). At the same time he aligns himself with the "brights" — atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, secular humanists and others — who have "liberated" themselves from specifically religious allegiances and who "channel [their] charity and good deeds through secular organizations" because they do not want to be "complicit in giving a good name to religion" (p 300–1).
Dennett then mounts a spirited defense of "scientific materialism" — "the theory that aspires to explain all the phenomena without recourse to anything immaterial." Spirituality, he insists, does not require believing in "anything supernatural". Instead it is grounded in an "awestruck vision of the world" viewed with a "humble curiosity" and a sense of wonders and beauties still to be discovered by scientific inquiry (p 303). The presumed relation between religion and moral goodness, Dennett declares, is an illusion.
In a final chapter, "Now What Do We Do?", Dennett describes his depiction of religion as "a family of 'proto-theories' in need of further development," acknowledging that it "is not yet established and may prove to be wrong"(p 309–10). His only "categorical prescription" is: do more research. To ensure that the scientific researchers are well trained for their task, he suggests that priests, imams, and theologians prepare an "entrance exam" which researchers must pass before beginning their research. They can then tackle such questions as: Is religion the product of blind evolutionary instinct or rational choice? Confessing that he is "deeply moved" by religious ceremonies, music, and art, although unpersuaded by the doctrines which gave birth to them, he concludes with his "central policy recommendation": "... that we gently, firmly educate the people of the world, so that they can make truly informed choices about their lives" (p 339).
Can we accept Dennett's reliance on Dawkins's much disputed theory of "memes" as cultural replicators and the supposed analogy between the copying of "memes" and the replication of biological traits? Dennett acknowledges the objections raised to this analogy by some of the scientists he cites as exemplifying the scientific study of religion and does all he can to answer them in Appendix A of his book. But this is not the only difficulty confronting Dennett. Religions such as Judaism and Christianity are historical religions claiming historical validation by the testimony of witnesses, as, for example, the resurrection of the crucified Jesus.
How would a scientist set out to prove that, in principle, miracles can never occur? The question whether they have occurred in any particular case must be settled by historical evidence,but Dennett shows very little interest in history or in historians like Thomas Cahill, Garry Wills, and John Pairman Brown who have taken the trouble to master the languages and perspectives of the ancient world. Like David Hume, one of his favorite philosophers, he excludes miracles as incompatible with the laws of nature (Hume's criterion) or with "scientific or philosophical materialism" (Dennett's criterion). But there is nothing scientific about materialism as a philosophy, which the Oxford American Dictionary defines as "the opinion that nothing exists but matter and its movements and modifications."
Among philosophers the mathematician- logician-philosopher Alfred North Whitehead took the lead in rejecting the concept of matter and expanding the idea of experience to embrace all natural entities, each entity prehending (taking into its own being the rest of the universe in some degree) in its occasions of experience. Among scientists the population geneticist Sewall Wright concluded that for humans "reality consists primarily of streams of consciousness. This fact must take precedence over the laws of nature of physical science in arriving at a unified philosophy of science, even though it must be largely ignored in science itself" (1977: 80). In science, he adds, the richness of the stream of consciousness is impoverished because the scientist restricts his investigation to "the so-called primary properties of matter" (p 80), which, ironically, can be measured only by voluntary actions. Wright concludes that we must acknowledge the necessity "of dealing with the universe as the world of mind" (p 85).
On the subject of the historical relations between science and religion in the Western world Dennett's remarks are equally sketchy. He concedes that priests collaborated with astronomers and mathematicians in fixing the dates of religious festivals, but he seems unaware of the numerous books and articles on important developments in medieval science by scholars like Marshall Claggett, David Lindberg, and Carl Boyer, or of the religiosity of Johannes Kepler, Robert Boyle, and Isaac Newton, to say nothing of scientists such as John Dalton, Michael Faraday, Clerk Maxwell, and the early English geologists and paleontologists, or of the polls taken of the religious views of twentieth-century scientists.
Dennett seems equally ignorant of the views of writers like Whitehead, Michael Foster, Reijer Hooykaas, and Denis Alexander who have argued cogently that the Christian world view helped to pave the way for the rise of modern science by conceiving nature as a contingent phenomenon intelligible only by empirical investigation, by raising the status of the manual trades essential to Bacon's experimental method, and by glorifying natural philosophy and natural history as the study of God's works (for example, Alexander 2001).
What, then, shall we conclude about Dennett's wide-ranging effort to discredit religious beliefs in the hope of preventing a nuclear holocaust? Shall we permit his "memes"(that is, ideas) to infect our brains, or shall we use our brains to detect the weaknesses in his argument? No doubt his intentions are good. He believes in spirituality ("whatever that is") but not in a human spirit (something science cannot conceptualize or explain). He concedes that science cannot give us moral values but thinks it can accumulate a "pool of knowledge" from which we can infer "what is just and what is good." Apparently he is not aware of the words of the Hebrew prophet Micah: "What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God," a prescription which TH Huxley, known as "Darwin's bulldog", considered "a wonderful inspiration of genius". "But what extent of knowledge [Huxley adds], what acuteness of scientific criticism, can touch this? Will the progress of research show us the bounds of the universe and bid us say 'Go to, now we comprehend the infinite?'" For his part Dennett relies on "respect for truth and the tools of truth-finding".
"'What is truth?' said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer," wrote Francis Bacon, an early advocate of experimental science. Bacon does not answer Pilate's question, but in an essay "Of Goodness and Goodness of Nature" he links goodness to the character of the Deity and to the theological virtue of charity. He writes: "The desire of power in excess caused the angels to fall;the desire of knowledge in excess caused man to fall: but in charity there is no excess; neither can angel nor man come in danger by it. ... But above all if he [the good man] have St Paul's perfection, ... it shows much of a divine nature, and a kind of conformity with Christ himself" (Bacon 1909). Apparently this early prophet of a new kind of science based on observation and experiment had none of the animus against religion which inspires the author of Breaking the Spell.
Alexander D. 2001. Rebuilding the Matrix: Science and Faith in the 21st Century. Grand Rapids (MI): Zondervan.
Bacon F. 1909. Of goodness and goodness of nature. In: Eliot CW, editor. Essays Civil and Moral. The Harvard Classics. New York: PF Collier & Son. p 34–6.
Dennett DC. 1995. Darwin's Dangerous Idea. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Wright S. 1977. Panpsychism and science. In: Cobb JB, Griffin DR, editors. Mind in Nature: Essays on the Interface between Mind and Nature. Washington (DC): University Press of America. p 79–88.
Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone circling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.class="rncse"> And in an 1871 letter to the botanist Joseph Hooker, Darwin wrote:
It is often said that all the conditions for the first production of a living organism are present, which could ever have been present. But if (and oh! what a big if!) we could conceive in some warm little pond, with all sorts of ammonia and phosphoric salts, light, heat, electricity, &c., present, that a proteine [sic] compound was chemically formed ready to undergo still more complex changes, at the present day such matter would be instantly devoured or absorbed, which would not have been the case before living creatures were formed.class="rncse"> Darwin added, "It is mere rubbish thinking at present of the origin of life; one might as well think of the origin of matter."
1. Life appeared early in Earth's history while the planet was still in its primordial state.class="rncse"> Predictions 1-3 are identical with those of origin-of-life research. From geochemistry, it is known that the chemical signatures of life are present in the earth's oldest sedimentary rock (Rosing 1999, which is actually cited by Rana and Ross). A decade earlier than Rana and Ross, and well before Rosing's confirmation, Antonio Lazcano and Stanley Miller predicted that life appeared in as little as 10 million years following the establishment of favorable conditions (Lazcano and Miller 1994, 1996). Part of the second RTB prediction is trivial — life today began at some point and then persisted. The rest — the notion that the early earth was particularly hostile to life — is absurd. Modern life is found from alkaline to acidic conditions, from below freezing to near boiling temperatures, from harsh sunlight to total darkness, from alpine lakes and hyper-salty lagoons to the driest sands, in solid rock miles beneath the surface, and in forms dependent on molecular oxygen and in others destroyed by it.
2. Life originated in and persisted through the hostile conditions of early Earth.
3. Life originated abruptly.
4. Earth's first life displays complexity.
5. Life is complex in its minimal form.
6. Life's chemistry displays hallmark characteristics of design.
7. First life was qualitatively different from life that came into existence on creation days three, five, and six.
8. A purpose can be postulated for life's early appearance on Earth.
1. Chemical pathways produced life's building blocks.class="rncse"> The first "prediction" is amply demonstrated experimentally and by direct observations from geochemistry and astrochemistry. The second claim seems innocuous; after all, complex biochemicals are produced everyday by chemical pathways. However, Rana and Ross augment the second claim by explaining that it means that DNA, RNA, proteins, membranes, and cell walls "condensed" from the prebiotic environment. This does considerable violence to actual origin-of-life research and theory, which offer specific hypotheses about how such biomolecules formed and outlines cumulative sequences, rather than proposing life simply "condenses".
2. Chemical pathways yielded complex biomolecules.
3. The chemical pathways that yielded life's building blocks and complex molecular constituents operated in early Earth's conditions.
4. Sufficiently placid chemical and physical conditions existed on early Earth for long periods of time.
5. Geochemical evidence for a prebiotic soup exists in Earth's earliest rocks.
6. Life appeared gradually on Earth over a long period of time.
7. The origin of life occurred only once on Earth.
8. Earth's first life was simple.
9. Life in its most minimal form is demonstrably simple.
There are several excellent textbooks on the market for upperlevel courses on evolution for biology majors in colleges and universities, but there are few recent books suitable for a class meant for general liberal arts students or for intelligent adult readers curious about the subject underlying all of modern biology. Kardong's An Introduction to Biological Evolution begins to fill the gap. It covers most aspects of the science of evolution, gives an excellent historical introduction, and sometimes points out the broader societal implications of particular aspects.
After a historical introduction, Kardong lays the groundwork with chapters on time and on heredity. The origin of life is covered only briefly, but the course of evolutionary change over time is well presented, perhaps somewhat incongruously in the same chapter with discussions of genetic coding, protein formation, and cellular metabolism. A strong chapter on the evidence for evolution is perhaps placed somewhat too early in the book, before most of the evolutionary mechanism has been discussed. The core material — selection, variation, and speciation — is handled well and in some detail. Perhaps the weakest part of the book is a chapter on life history because the reader might not see the relation of this subject to the evolution process.
The two chapters on human evolution present the material clearly while steering a middle course between the whirlpools of views among paleoanthropological experts. While the dispersal of Homo sapiens from Africa is well covered, there is no mention of the genetic tools by which some of these migration paths are studied. One learns little of such techniques as blood typing, haplotyping, mitochrondrial DNA analysis, X- and Y-chromosome analysis, and so on, as tools for migration studies or intra-specific evolution.
A final chapter, "Evolutionary biology: Today and beyond", tells many interesting biological tales but does not always show their evolutionary components. A discussion of the evolutionary patterns seen in the HIV or flu viruses would have helped bring evolutionary biology into the reader's life. Three short appendices — on cell division, taxonomy, and molecular clocks — contain materials of a slightly more technical nature. A glossary helps with the specialized terminology.
There is, however, a glaring omission: The book says virtually nothing concerning the attacks made and being made on the concept of evolution and on the unhindered teaching of this science. Surely an educated citizen should know something of the groups in our society that are attempting to bring their supernaturally-based views into the biological sciences classroom. Equally important, the reader should learn to recognize the axioms and procedures of science so that he or she cannot be fooled by those who falsely claim that their views are equally good science as alternatives to evolutionary biology. The intended readers of this book are or will shortly be the votes who elect members of school boards, state legislators, and governors. If these voters cannot distinguish good science from bad or from nonscience, it will not be surprising if their children will be taught something other than good biology.
The author deliberately chose to use colloquial language, sometimes resulting in the use of fifty words where forty might suffice, but making for easy reading. He does not shy away from technical terms when these are needed. The sequence of topics is suitable for class use without major rearrangement and the general continuity is good. While there are the usual misprints and minor problems, the material is, with perhaps a very few exceptions,accurate and properly presented. The black-and-white illustrations are mostly clear and helpful.
In summary, we have here a fine book suitable for the layperson, whether student or not, but one that could be substantially improved in an anticipated second edition.
Jack Repcheck's book is a well-written account of the career and times of James Hutton. Hutton, a well-known figure in geological circles, is the man credited with discovering so-called Deep Time. Unfortunately, Hutton's contributions to science, unlike those of Charles Lyell, remain unrecognized by the general public. Repcheck's stated task is to give Hutton his due by enlightening the general public about Hutton's seminal contribution to our understanding of earth history.
As Repcheck paints his portrait of Hutton, he takes us through the period of the Scottish Enlightenment and the history of Scotland at that time. Repcheck does a decent job at situating Hutton in his proper cultural and historical context. Hutton, as Repcheck notes, was part of the Scottish Enlightenment, one of the most astonishing periods of original thought and intellectual contribution in recorded history (earning Edinburgh the moniker of "the Athens of the North"). Other figures of this remarkable era in Scotland are the economist Adam Smith, the sociologist Adam Ferguson, the philosopher and historian David Hume, the poet Robert Burns, the novelist Sir Walter Scott, and the great chemist Joseph Black.
Beyond the general background material of Hutton's life, Repcheck also introduces the reader to Hutton's scientific contributions. First, Repcheck escorts his readers deftly through the phase of Hutton's life when he discovered the rock cycle. Hutton was the first to recognize the importance of erosion in the rock cycle, and the place of eroded sediments in producing sedimentary rocks. Hutton was also the first to recognize igneous intrusion in rocks (such as sills and dykes). At the time, many of his conclusions were quite controversial.
More importantly, though, Repcheck gives a good account of Hutton's discovery of an important geological outcrop and its implications: Siccar Point, Berwickshire, in southern Scotland. This outcrop may be called the "other Rock of Ages", for it was here that Hutton was able to convince his skeptics of the antiquity of the earth. This outcrop is composed of Silurian greywacke (known as "schistus" to Hutton) of marine origin (established by the fossils contained in the greywacke), tilted into a vertical orientation. It forms an angular unconformity (that is, two stratified rock units, with the lower one being tilted and eroded while the upper unit, deposited on the lower unit, is at a lower angle than the bottom unit) with the overlying Old Red Sandstone, also of marine origin (again established by fossils), in a normal horizontal position above it.
Hutton, using common sense and a few established principles, was able to figure out the general sequence that produced this particular rock outcrop. The Silurian greywacke had been deposited horizontally in a marine environment, which, Hutton reckoned, took thousands of years to accomplish. Thousands of years more was needed to accumulate enough sediment over this strata to cause the kind of pressure and heat necessary to lithify the graywacke. Later, heat and other additional forces caused the originally horizontal strata to be contorted and lifted up into a vertical plane. The once-submerged rock was then uplifted out of the water and erosion began immediately to wear at the graywacke. Once again the graywacke was submerged under the water (either through subsidence of the land or through a transgression from the sea) and the Old Red Sandstone, which contains a different assortment of fossilized marine life, as well as sediments derived from a different rock source,was laid down on top of the Silurian greywacke. The Old Red Sandstone and the Silurian greywacke that we see today were both covered with sufficient sediment to produce the necessary heat and pressure to lithify the Old Red Sandstone. Finally, both the Silurian greywacke and the Old Red Sandstone (which is today recognized as Devonian in age) were lifted up and exposed to the processes of erosion (for a photograph of the Siccar Point outcrop, see Doyle and others [2001: 20]).
As he worked out the sequence of events for Siccar Point, Hutton realized that this one outcrop could not have formed in the single year of the Flood, or even in the 6000 years generally believed to have transpired since the beginning of Creation. It was an astonishing conclusion! Hutton would later take those who doubted his claims to Siccar Point and use it as an incontrovertible testimony to the antiquity of the earth. It was at Siccar Point that biblical chronology fell to the observations of science, and for that reason alone, it deserves to be better known among the general public.
As for the influence of Hutton's observations, they were enormous, as Repcheck observes. In the end it was Charles Lyell who recognized the significance of Hutton's work, reserving a place of honor for Hutton in his historic textbook Principles of Geology. Lyell was taken to Siccar Point after Hutton's death by Hutton's friend James Hall — and Siccar Point worked its magic once again. Lyell became a believer of Hutton's claims. Later, a young Charles Darwin read Lyell, on his trip to the Galápagos Islands, and recognized the significance of Hutton's and Lyell's work for his own developing theory of evolution. Simply put, without Hutton's contribution, we would never have had the theory of evolution from Darwin.
It is when discussing the reception of Hutton's work, in chapters 8–10, that the book really shines. Repcheck chronicles in detail the reception of Hutton's presentation to the Royal Society of Edinburgh in March 1785 and his battle to win over his skeptics; he then progresses to the time when Darwin read Lyell's discussion of Hutton and accepted the conclusions of both men. The three chapters are really the heart of the book and make for engaging reading.
Repcheck documents the resistance to Hutton's ideas both from those still committed to biblical literalism and from the Neptunists, proponents of Abraham Gottlob Werner's idea that the rocks found in the present era were revealed when a "universal ocean" that formerly covered the whole world receded.
I must level one criticism, however. Although Repcheck discusses some of the scientific opposition to Hutton's ideas, he fails to consider the position of the Church of England or the Church of Scotland concerning Hutton. This leaves several questions unaddressed such as: Did the Church of Scotland weigh in on the controversy surrounding Hutton? What about other denominations? What about the so-called chattering classes? Did they accept Hutton's ideas, condemn them, or just ignore them? From the perspective of those interested in church/science issues, this is an unfortunate gap in Repcheck's research. Understanding the interactions with the religious authorities is vital to Hutton's story, and regrettably Repcheck has not included this dimension.
Doyle P, Bennett MR, Baxter AN. 2001. The Key to Earth History: An Introduction to Stratigraphy. 2nd ed. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons.
What if mutations are not random? A mechanism that curtails mutation in critical housekeeping genes while allowing exploratory mutations in certain contingency genes would be a boon to a population of organisms. In a highly variable or changing environment, directed mutations could provide an ideal survival strategy; a species could in a sense regulate its own evolution, not leaving its fate entirely to chance. Is this possible? Molecular biologist Lynn Helena Caporale, in her book Darwin in the Genome: Molecular Strategies in Biological Evolution, argues that the mechanisms by which genetic variation occur are themselves subject to natural selection. The result, she contends, is that genomes have evolved mechanisms that enhance the possibilities for beneficial mutations and genomic changes, while limiting changes that are likely to be detrimental. In other words, organisms have evolved mechanisms to harness genetic change to their advantage.
Nearly one hundred and fifty years ago, Charles Darwin laid the foundation for a scientific understanding of biological evolution. Darwin built a strong case for the common ancestry of living organisms and gave biologists a mechanism to explain the vast diversity of life; the process of natural selection is his legacy.
Evolutionary theory has not remained static, however. In the first half of the twentieth century, new insights about mutation and the genetics of variation revitalized Darwinism, leading to the development of powerful mathematical approaches to study evolution. Neo-Darwinism, as the synthesis of genetics and natural selection came to be labeled, possessed great explanatory power and continues to dominate much of evolutionary thought. In this view, heritable variations, the raw material for evolution, result from random mutations in a population. Biotic and physical constraints, acting through natural selection, then shape the evolution of a population in a non-random way.
During the past twenty or more years, we have seen an explosion of molecular and biochemical investigations into the nature of genetic systems. Our understanding of how information is stored, maintained,retrieved,and transmitted has changed considerably as a result of genome exploration. Biologists are now more hesitant to talk about "junk DNA", for there are clear examples of non-protein-coding, repetitive DNA sequences that modulate gene expression. We now recognize a variety of small RNA molecules that affect genomic interpretation. We have documented genomic reorganizations by retroviruses and transposons. We now know that the structure of DNA is not uniform throughout a genome, and we have learned that the rate, type, extent, and location of DNA mutations can vary within a given genome.
These new understandings have led some biologists to suggest that the traditional gradualism of neo-Darwinism may not be the only pattern of biological evolution, and that speciation might in some instances have occurred quickly and dramatically through processes such as endosymbiosis, horizontal gene flow, or genomic reorganization by retroviruses.
Caporale presents examples of both non-random and large-scale genomic changes. She describes, for example, how mutational hot spots in genes for vertebrate antibodies can enhance the capabilities of our immune system and how similar hot spots in cone snail toxin genes expand their arsenal of toxic weaponry. Caporale argues that some DNA sequences are more prone to mutational events because of their chemical nature and the biochemistry of DNA replication machinery. She points out that blocks of genetic information can be shuffled within a genome and even passed to the genome of another species. The strength of her book is in collecting and detailing relevant examples from the literature. She maintains throughout that not all mutations are random and that "focused, regulated variation is biochemically possible."
Caporale's idea of "variation-targeting mechanisms" has been criticized for implying foresight in the selection process. She argues,however, that naturalistic mechanisms can explain what appears to be directed purposeful mutation. Caporale offers an approach to working out the molecular and biochemical details, and challenges us to consider the idea that the mechanisms for generating genetic diversity can themselves evolve.
Of course, creationists will attempt to portray such theorizing by biologists as a crisis in neo- Darwinian thought. They will be wrong, as usual. "Survival of the fittest" via natural selection remains the cornerstone of evolutionary theory. Now under discussion are the mechanisms for generating genetic variation; that is, the "arrival of the fittest", with molecular biology demonstrating that genetic change is not limited to an accumulation of random point mutations.
Although written for a lay audience, Caporale's prose is clumsy and cloudy at times, and unfortunately small errors crept into the text, as, for example, when she gives the size of the human genome as three billion base pairs distributed in forty-six chromosomes instead of the haploid number of twenty-three (twenty-four if we make allowance for two different sex chromosomes).
She uses informal language, attributing "anticipation" or "strategy" to genomes. Although it should be clear to biologists that these are rhetorical devices, this distinction may be lost to others, and could provide fertile ground for that creationist specialty, quotation out of context. To talk of genomes as having "worldviews", or to say that "information can flow back from survival to the places in the genome that affect the generation of diversity," will leave some readers uncomfortable.
Despite these weaknesses, I recommend this book to anyone interested in learning more about the molecular complexities of genomes and current discussions on genetic variation.