Ray Comfort and I agree that "science is a wonderful discipline, to which we are deeply indebted." We agree that it would be nice for students to get a free copy of Darwin's best-known book, On the Origin of Species. I'll even go further than he might: The Origin — like Shakespeare and the Bible — should be on every educated person's bookshelf. If you do not understand evolution, you cannot be considered scientifically literate. And we agree that students should read the Origin thoroughly.
Unfortunately, thoroughly reading the version that Comfort will be distributing on college campuses in November will be difficult. The copy his publisher sent me is missing no fewer than four crucial chapters, as well as Darwin's introduction. Two of the omitted chapters, chapters 11 and 12, showcase biogeography, some of Darwin's strongest evidence for evolution. Which is a better explanation for the distribution of plants and animals around the planet: common ancestry or special creation? Which better explains why island species are more similar to species on the mainland closest to them, rather than to more distant species that share a similar environment? The answer clearly is common ancestry. Today, scientists continue to develop the science of biogeography, confirming, refining, and extending Darwin's conclusions.
Likewise missing from Comfort's bowdlerized version of the Origin is chapter 13, where Darwin explained how evolution makes sense of classification, morphology, and embryology. To take a simple example, why do all land vertebrates (amphibians, mammals, and reptiles and birds) have four limbs? Not because four limbs are necessarily a superior design for land locomotion: insects have six, arachnids have eight, and millipedes have, well, lots. It is because all land vertebrates descended with modification from a four-legged ("tetrapod") ancestor. Since Darwin's era, scientists have repeatedly confirmed that the more recently two species have shared a common ancestor, the more similar are their anatomy, their biochemistry, their embryology, and their genetics.
"Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution," as a famous geneticist said. That is why evolution is taught matter-of-factly in the biology and geology departments of every respected university in the country, secular or sectarian, from Berkeley to Brigham Young. That is why the National Academy of Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science wholeheartedly endorse the teaching of evolution in the public schools. That's why thousands of papers applying, extending, or refining evolution are published in the scientific research literature every year.
But there is no reason for students to refuse Comfort's free — albeit suspiciously abridged — copy of the Origin. Read the first eight pages of the introduction, which is a reasonably accurate, if derivative, sketch of Darwin's life. The last ten pages or so are devoted to some rather heavy-handed evangelism, which doesn't really have anything to do with the history or content of the evolutionary sciences; read it or not as you please. But do not waste your time with the middle section of the introduction, a hopeless mess of long-ago-refuted creationist arguments, teeming with misinformation about the science of evolution, populated by legions of strawmen, and exhibiting what can be charitably described as muddled thinking.
For example, Comfort's treatment of the human fossil record is painfully superficial, out of date, and erroneous. Piltdown Man and Nebraska Man — one a forgery, the other a misidentification, and both rejected by science more than 50 years ago — are trotted out for scorn, as if they somehow negate the remaining huge volume of human fossils. There are more specimens of "Ardi" (the newly described Ardipithecus ramidus) than there are of Tyrannosaurus — and any eight-year-old aspiring paleontologist will be delighted to tell you how much we know about the T rex!
But you would not learn any of this from reading Comfort's introduction. He says, "Java Man [a Homo erectus], found in the early 20th century, was nothing more than a piece of skull, a fragment of a thigh bone, and three molar teeth." Well, that was from a single site — excavated in the 1890s. What about the dozens of other sites where fossils of H erectus are found, from China to Kenya to the Republic of Georgia? Another whopper: "Java Man is now regarded as fully human." Trust me, if one sat down next to you on the bus, you would know the difference.
In fact, the fossil record for the human lineage is impressive, providing the evidence on which our understanding of the big events of human evolution is based. We and modern chimpanzees shared a common ancestor millions of years ago; the main feature separating us from our chimpanzee cousins is bipedalism, followed by toolmaking, and then brain expansion, and then the substantial elaboration of behavior we call human culture. More fossils will provide more details, but this outline of human evolution is not in serious doubt among scientists.
It is not just human evolution that Comfort misrepresents. His main gripe is the old creationist standby, the supposed lack of transitional forms in the fossil record. (Darwin addressed the objection in chapter 9 of the Origin, interestingly one of the chapters not included in Comfort's version.) Comfort sneers at the fossil evidence for the terrestrial ancestry of whales and the dinosaurian ancestry of birds. Too bad for him that he has a knack for picking bad examples: There are splendid fossils of dinosaurs that have feathers and of whales that have legs — and even feet. Faced with ignorance like this, I am reminded of a jeremiad: "Oh foolish people, and without understanding; which have eyes, and see not; which have ears, and hear not."
But if you are willing to use your ears to listen to what paleontologists say about transitional features and use your eyes to look at the evidence described in the scientific literature (as well as displayed in many museums and science centers around the country), you will find transitional fossils galore. There are clear transitional series from aquatic vertebrates to land vertebrates, from primitive land vertebrates to mammals, from dinosaurs to birds, from land vertebrates to whales, and of course a wonderful series of fossils leading to Homo sapiens. A good place to begin is a marvelous website dismissively mentioned (and erroneously described) in Comfort's introduction, the University of California Museum of Paleontology's Understanding Evolution (http://www.evolution.berkeley.edu).
This year marks the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species, both occasions worth celebrating by anyone who cares about our understanding of the natural world. So it is no surprise that creationists are trying to piggyback on the festivities with cynical publicity stunts like Comfort's. But I have faith that college students are sharp enough to realize that Comfort's take on Darwin and evolution is simply bananas.
[Originally posted under the title "How creationist 'Origin' distorts Darwin" at US News & World Report's God and Country blog on October 30, 2009, and republished by permission]
I am delighted that Ray Comfort has decided to provide a near-unabridged version in his next giveaway of On the Origin of Species. It is still missing a crucial diagram from chapter 4 as well as the epigraphs from Bacon and Whewell, which Darwin chose with care, but it is more complete than the first version, which was also missing four chapters and Darwin's original introduction.
In his response to my post (available on-line at http://www.usnews.com/blogs/god-andcountry/2009/11/2/ray-comfortresponds-to-genie-scott-oncreationist-origin-of-species.html), Comfort strangely failed to explain why he expurgated that material from the first version. Elsewhere he wrote that it was "abridged because it was too many pages (too expensive) for a giveaway." But now he is going to try to give away even more copies of this more complete version? I am glad that I am not his accountant.
Anyhow, now I am even more enthusiastic about encouraging students to accept a free copy of Darwin's valuable book. But I stick by my advice: Students who are interested in learning about science can skip Comfort's introduction, which, despite a few cosmetic revisions, remains a hopeless mess of long-ago-refuted creationist arguments.
Consider Comfort's view on the evolution of sex: "No one even goes near explaining how and why each species managed to reproduce (during the millions of years the female was supposedly evolving to maturity) without the right reproductive machinery." Of course not. That is because no biologist thinks males and females evolved separately!
Birds do it; bees do it; even educated fleas do it: but so do the majority of plants and even certain single-celled organisms. But they do it in radically different ways. A male bee has no father and cannot have sons, for example,while there are animals, even vertebrates — bonnethead sharks and Komodo dragons — in which virgin birth occurs. So it is not just for the obvious reason that sex is a fun topic for biologists.
The myriad ways in which organisms reproduce, sexually and asexually, have fascinated biologists for decades and have been examined, in a thoroughly evolutionary context, since Charles Darwin and August Weismann. But none of them has thought that lonely males waited patiently for millions of years for the first females. And anyone who, like Comfort, tells you otherwise is ignorant — or worse.
Comfort complains that I did not provide enough detail in my brief essay about those fossil whales. You want a list of fossil whales showing the transitional features marking the evolutionary transition from land animal to marine,such as changes in the ears, nostrils, and limbs? Indohyus, Icthyolestes, Pakicetus, Nalacetus, Remingtonocetus, Ambulocetus ... Never mind. Start with "From land to water: The origin of whales, dolphins, and porpoises" (Evolution: Education and Outreach 2009; 2 : 272–88, available on-line at http://www.springerlink.com/content/whn1654v74t64301/fulltext.pdf), for a nontechnical review by a team of whale paleontologists.
Comfort trots out the old creationist warhorse that because scientists revise their theories in the light of new information, science is untrustworthy. Far from it. The ability to revise explanations in the light of new information is a strength of science, not a weakness. It is why we have learned so much about the natural world over the last few hundred years and why we have longer life spans,more reliable food supplies, fewer women dying in childbirth, and many other advantages of modern life.
Because science is a practical endeavor,when a theory is revised, the change is usually to the periphery rather than to the core. For example, the early fossil Ardipithecus ("Ardi") changed our understanding of the details of human evolution, but it did not cause us to reject the common ancestry of humans and chimps. The common ancestor of two descendant species is not expected to be identical to either of them. With Ardipithecus and other fossils, we are closer to knowing what that common ancestor of humans and chimps looked like.
Darwin himself knew that scientists need to change their minds when presented with new evidence. When he mentioned his "cold shudder," he was not — as Comfort misleadingly suggests — expressing serious doubts about his research. Rather, he was praising his friend the great geologist Charles Lyell for his eventual acceptance of evolution:
I rejoice profoundly that you intend admitting the doctrine ' of modification in your new edition; nothing, I am convinced, could be more important for its success. I honour you most sincerely. To have maintained in the position of a master, one side of a question for thirty years, and then deliberately give it up, is a fact to which I much doubt whether the records of science offer a parallel. For myself, also, I rejoice profoundly; for, thinking of so many cases of men pursuing an illusion for years and often a cold shudder has run through me,and I have asked myself whether I may not have devoted my life to a phantasy. Now I look at it as morally impossible that investigators of truth, like you and [Joseph] Hooker, can be wholly wrong, and therefore I rest in peace.
Whenever a creationist quotes Darwin, check for yourself to see if the original context reflects the creationist's claim. It is easy to do so at The Complete Works of Charles Darwin Online (http://darwin-online.org.uk).
I close with another quote. Todd C Wood is a young-earth creationist — indeed, the Director of the Center for Origins Research at Bryan College, founded in honor of the creationist hero William Jennings Bryan — who rejects evolution for biblical reasons, just like Comfort. Wood insists, "The Bible reveals true information about the history of the earth that is fundamentally incompatible with evolution."
But unlike Comfort, Wood is a trained scientist. And as such, he recognizes that the scientific basis of evolution is strong:
Evolution is not a theory in crisis. It is not teetering on the verge of collapse. It has not failed as a scientific explanation. There is evidence for evolution, gobs and gobs of it. It is not just speculation or a faith choice or an assumption or a religion. It is a productive framework for lots of biological research, and it has amazing explanatory power. There is no conspiracy to hide the truth about the failure of evolution. There has really been no failure of evolution ... as a scientific theory. It works, and it works well. (http://toddcwood.blogspot.com/2009/09/truth-about-evolution.html, emphasis in original)
Anyone who honestly examines the data supporting evolution — even a young-earth creationist — concludes that the science is strong. If you reject evolution, you are doing it for religious reasons. You're entitled to your religious opinions — but not to your own scientific facts.
[Originally posted under the title "Scientist Genie Scott's last word to creationist Ray Comfort: There you go again" at US News & World Report's God and Country blog on November 3, 2009, and republished by permission.]
In grammar school the nuns made a point of telling us that stealing constituted a terrible sin. Taking what belonged to others and claiming it belonged to you was distinctly frowned upon, would upset Jesus, would get you smacked with a ruler, and could start you down the road to Hell. I learned these lessons in the context of a religious tradition that Comfort would deny has any validity; and yet his "true" religious tradition did not seem to deter him from this unethical — some might say sinful — behavior.
As an historian of science whose work focuses on the history of evolutionary thought and its influences on popular culture, religion, and politics, I read Comfort's introduction to Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species on-line last spring. I had reviewed Comfort's preposterously silly board game Intelligent Design versus Evolution for the British magazine Endeavour the summer before, so I looked forward to more whacky hijinks. As I read I could not help but get a sense of déjà vu and the feeling that the writing was a bit too good. Making my way further into the text, I encountered the type of ham-handed and clumsy syntax, pseudo-literary flourishes, convoluted logic, and superficial attempts at sounding intelligent more in line with what I expected. While most of it was drivel, the beginning of Comfort's text sounded suspiciously like the introduction for the Barnes & Noble edition of The Autobiography of Charles Darwin that I wrote in 2005. Other duties occupied my time so I could not go through it carefully. It was the end of the semester and I was preparing to go to the United Kingdom for a round of conferences as well as the big Darwinopalooza at Cambridge, so I put Comfort aside, planning on returning to him when I wasn't doing something more important like staring at the ceiling. Throughout the summer, however, I began receiving e-mails from eagleeyed readers who also noticed that I had been plagiarized. Others pointed out that Stan Guffey of the University of Tennessee as well as the Darwin Foundation had their work pilfered and insulted too. And now Comfort and his pal in blinkered intellectual vandalism and strange views on fruit, Kirk Cameron, planned on giving away free copies of this thing.
While the plagiarism is telling, what is more so, I think, is the sources Comfort choose to steal from. Along with so many other things, Comfort's introduction shows simple laziness in that he went on-line and grabbed the first few easy sites he found for his sources. He engaged in the same kind of research tactics common among eighth-graders, but for which I would fail one of my university students. Guffey's short biography of Darwin and my own piece for the Autobiography are, with all due respect, not exactly deeply analytic or penetrating scholarly works. They are meant for audiences new to the material, which has been digested and simplified. Had Comfort been serious in his intent to engage in a discourse on the impact of Darwin's work he should have stolen from Adrian Desmond and James Moore's Darwin's Sacred Cause, or Peter Bowler's The Eclipse of Darwinism, John Van Whye, or a host of other world-class Darwin scholars rather than from me. He could have stolen bits from my Human Evolution: A Guide to the Debates; if nothing else I'd get some royalties. Had he done a little actual research and thoughtful reading, he would have seen that there is a vast literature tackling tough questions on Darwin's life and work as well as the role played by science in Nazi ideology. This in turn would have shown Comfort that far from Darwin, the work that most profoundly inspired Hitler came from eugenicists, political conservatives, and Christian fundamentalists, none of whom accepted Darwin's actual writings. He would have seen that Hitler's belief that he was divinely anointed and that God had destined the German people and the Nazi party for greatness made his vision of the world far closer to today's "intelligent design" theory than natural selection. Comfort could at least have corrected the misspelling of Alfred Russel Wallace's name. (I am also waiting for Ray Comfort or Kirk Cameron or any of their ilk to explain why if evolution causes so much death and destruction, the most violent and hate-filled groups in America, like the KKK, Neo-Nazis, and religious cults, all reject evolution and claim to embrace Christ and why a guy has never walked into a restaurant and shot up the place, saying Darwin made him do it? They always blame it on Jesus.) But that level of subtle analysis is beyond Comfort's abilities. Besides we wouldn't want him to behave like one of those socalled scholars he and others like him detest: the ones who "professing themselves to be wise become fools." So he went for the kid's versions instead of the ones for grownups with all the big words and the complex ideas.
Even without the plagiarism, Ray Comfort's work shows an astonishing lack of knowledge of basic history or science, his attitude toward other religions is intolerant, and his sophomoric pontificating never rises above the level of a bumper sticker. He thus insults genuinely religious people as well as those he loves to call atheists: which is anyone who doesn't believe exactly as he does. He seems confused by the "intelligent design" theory he embraces so warmly, failing to see how it undermines the young-earth creationism his followers take as a rigid core belief. His now legendary discourse on banana morphology and his references to child murder in the Origin's introduction are creepy and humorous for all the wrong reasons. His fast-talking flim-flam sounds more like that of a used car salesman than someone who speaks for the Lord.
Like all demagogues, Comfort uses self-conscious underdog rhetoric designed to elicit donations from followers and denunciations from opponents which he uses to generate more donations (although I wonder how anyone can be on God's team and still be an underdog). This formula ensures that Comfort will continue his antics, get rich, and gather followers. He delights in explicating the horrors that await sinners, exhorts them to atone for their sins, and claims to know what God wants and does it with the giddy selfassuredness of the self-righteous. Ironically, as an added bonus he includes a little flying rubber band toy with the signed copies of the Origin he has given out. On it are printed the questions "Have you kept His Command-ments? Ever lied? Stolen?"
The following quotations are from Brian Regal's introduction to The Autobiography of Charles Darwin (New York: Barnes and Noble, 2005) and from Ray Comfort's "special introduction" to his edition of On the Origin of Species (Alachua [FL]: Bridge Logos Foundation, 2009).
|Darwin's father and grandfather were both doctors; his mother belonged to the Wedgwood family of pottery fame.||His father and grandfather were both doctors, and his mother was the daughter of Josiah Wedgwood, of pottery fame.|
|Darwin's parents expected him to go into medicine, and although he entered Edinburgh University to pursue a medical degree, for various reasons, including squeamishness, he left without graduating.||Darwin's father expected him to go into medicine, and although he entered Edinburgh University to pursue a medical degree, he found he couldn't stand the sight of blood and left after two years.|
|As a clergyman, he would have the free time to follow his real intellectual love: natural history.||As a clergyman, he would have the free time to follow his real intellectual love: natural history.|
|Darwin was a passionate student of nature, and while still in school he had amassed a considerable beetle collection as well as other specimens.||Darwin was a passionate student of nature, and while in school he amassed a considerable beetle collection as well as other specimens.|
There are two important issues in investigating plagiarism. One is whether phrases or sentences are simply copied without attribution from one source to another. This is the case in the boldface text in the table above.
The second has to do with how the reference material is used. It is considered plagiarism if an author uses the original sentence structure from the reference, merely substituting synonyms or near-synonyms: for example, the change from "parents" to "father" in the second quotation above would not exonerate Comfort from the charge of plagiarism.
Using phrases or expressions that are unique to the original author is also considered plagiarism. In this example, phrases such as "of pottery fame", and "to pursue a medical degree" would satisfy the criteria for plagiarism.
An extended discussion of plagiarism with examples of appropriate and inappropriate usage can be found at http://www.usp.edu/writing/plagrsm.shtml.
Using Darwin's Autobiography (written in old age), his notebooks (both those written during the five-year Beagle voyage and those kept during the post-voyage decade), his voluminous correspondence, family reminiscences, his and other students' course notes, and the secondary literature created by the Darwin industry, biologist and science historian Keith Thomson carefully and economically dispels the apparent paradox of "an ordinary boy, rather below the common standard of intellect" becoming the young genius in his thirties formulating the outlines of his revolutionary theory.
Thomson traces this intellectual trajectory in a thoughtful way, using all the documented evidence and, by delving within it, making his own compelling inferences about its interpretation. For example, in the Autobiography Darwin portrays Edinburgh professor Robert Jameson's lectures on geology and zoology as "incredibly dull," discouraging him from ever reading a book on geology or studying the science in any way. Yet, in a chapter devoted to Jameson, Thomson shows how, on the contrary, Darwin benefited greatly from this polymath, who was "intense and brilliant … a collector of specimens and information." Thomson emphasizes that Darwin "attended Jameson's lectures regularly and … compulsory sessions in [his] museum" of natural history." Darwin, who in his own words "was prepared for a philosophical treatment of the subject," was also introduced to the debates on the origin of the great classes of rocks: whether all primordially water laid (as the "Neptunists" held) or included significant amounts of lava periodically generated by the earth's internal heat (as the "Vulcanists" held). Jameson is reported even to finish up "with lectures on the origins of the species of Animals." Was Darwin perhaps a victim of the common disability of hazy recall in old age, or was Darwin, as Thomson suggests, distancing himself from Jameson to claim his future successes in geology and zoology as his own?
Thomson gives a full account of the role of other Darwin mentors when he was later at Cambridge including John Stevens Henslow (botanist and mineralogist) and Adam Sedgwick (geologist), both of whom found Darwin enough of an engaging young man to include him in their own natural history undertakings: with Henslow, collecting beetles in the local fens, and with Sedgwick, geologizing in north Wales. Because both were Anglican clergymen, they also served as role models for the vocation Darwin was preparing for, however desultorily.
It's often said that "evolution was in the air," and Thomson describes well the pro-and-con positions on Lamarckianism, William Paley's influence on Darwin's appreciation of fine-tuned adaptations, Georges Cuvier's views on animal extinction, and other similar debates. At the same time, Darwin was reading widely out of curiosity and for his final college examinations: including Hume and Locke, Homer and Virgil, Euclid and geometry, and Whewell's History of the Inductive Sciences.
Thomson thus makes a strong case that Darwin was a serious student with deep intellectual interests and that owing to his likeable personality he was able to befriend a broad range of men — usually older and more experienced — from whom he gained, like a composite protégé, a sound scientific education that would form the context for his own later scientific efforts. Darwin himself remarked in his Autobiography that "there must have been something in me a little superior to the common run of youths, otherwise [these] men, so much older and higher in academical position, would never have allowed me to associate with them."
Thomson argues that Darwin's selection as the Beagle's naturalist was therefore justified scientifically, and not just because Darwin was suitable as a "gentleman companion" for Captain FitzRoy. Henslow told Darwin that while he was not "a finished naturalist," nevertheless he was "amply qualified for collecting, observing, & noting anything worthy to be noted in Natural History." Thomson indicates how throughout the five-year voyage, Darwin continued to keep in touch with the current science from the publications he solicited from his family (especially volumes 2 and 3 of the geologist Charles Lyell) and from the advice of Henslow, his Cambridge mentor.
Thomson describes how "[as] the voyage unfolded, Darwin would encounter situation after situation that challenged or changed his world view, both in terms of science and of human affairs." The voyage can thus be likened to Darwin's "graduate education," where he started out as a somewhat green ingénue and ended as a fully fledged competent scientist. Thomson points out that Darwin, soon referred to by the crew as "Philos," had the necessary social skills, too, to win over the captain and other officers who willingly cooperated in his onboard and offshore science. Only after the voyage, when FitzRoy's religious persuasion turned fundamentalist, was there a falling out between the two men.
Upon his return to England from the voyage, Darwin was received by his colleagues as a firmly established member of their scientific circle. This reception was made possible by the flood of specimens — animal, vegetable, and mineral — Darwin sent back to England as well as Henslow's sharing (in some cases through publication) of many of his letters with their colleagues. Darwin had full entrée to this exciting, sometimes contentious, world of natural history research and debate.
Before long, after being overwhelmed by all this attention and marrying his cousin Emma Wedgwood, Darwin retreated to the country in Downe, Kent, where he spent the rest of his life in semi-isolation, surrounded by an ever enlarging family. But, of course, he didn't in any sense retire. On the contrary, through the half-dozen years in London and the next few years at Down House, Darwin wrestled with the "species question" that had been stimulated by his time at Edinburgh and Cambridge and became more pressing from his voyage experiences. Using the extensive notebooks that Darwin kept during this period, from 1836 t0 1844, Thomson traces the irregular path Darwin followed in eventually developing the outlines of his theory of organic change. He comments that "reading the notebooks shows the vast range of intellectual debts that Darwin owed to others as he developed his theory — a useful counterpoint to the impressions he gives in the Autobiography."
In summary, in this well-written and interesting book, Thomson works out and demonstrates in detail the education of Charles Darwin. He removes that apparent discrepancy between the "ordinary boy" and the man buried in Westminster Abbey nearby that other English genius, Isaac Newton.
At scientific meetings, Steve Gould was usually as mobbed as he was at his public lectures. Everyone had something to discuss with him — a point, a quibble, an idea, a request for help. Whenever we spoke, usually after the throng had dispersed, we would talk about Darwin, dinosaurs, Owen, punctuation, homology, species, and adaptation. But first, we would talk about baseball. As diehard American League fans, we had the endless vicissitudes of pitching, hitting, strategies, and injuries to rehash. Steve was a very public person, and his observers have often been puzzled by his fascination with baseball — as with cathedrals, choral music, and antiquarian books. But the answer is obvious, really, encapsulated in the T-shirt motto: "Baseball is Life." The players have different ecological roles, for which they are selected, but few players are good at everything. There are constraints of the rules of the game, contingencies of the consequences of a fielding error or an unintentional fat pitch hit for a homer. The dynamics change with every hesitation before the next ball is thrown; and just when you think nothing is happening, that's often when the most is happening.
Structure, contingency, and history were three major evolutionary themes that also resonated in Steve's non-scientific preoccupations. None of the authors in this tremendously informative and accessible volume talks much about baseball or Steve's other passions, though. That's interesting, because he saw much of evolution — although in strictly analogical terms — through the lenses of his favorite pursuits. But the essays in this indispensable book are less about style than substance, and they comprise a collection of lasting value for any evolutionist.
Do the authors, many of whom are Gould's former students, come to praise him or to appraise him? The latter, although it is difficult not to celebrate the man who was not only the most publicly visible and influential paleontologist of the last half of the 20th century, but also the most publicly visible and influential evolutionary biologist. The only scientist who even came close was Henry Fairfield Osborn, who died in 1936 but used the American Museum of Natural History and a slew of books and articles to keep interest focused on the history of life (Rainger 1991, Regal 2002). Osborn's notions about evolutionary progress, vitalism, and teleology are long dustbinned. Will Gould's ideas about punctuated equilibria, species selection, exaptation, and the hierarchy of evolutionary levels meet the same fate?
The authors of this collection don't think so, on balance, although they are clear-eyed about the reception of Gould's ideas in various corners of the field of evolution. The perspectives of a cadre of leaders in paleobiology, all of whom grew up hearing Gould's ideas straight from the source, trying to test and elaborate upon them, are invaluable as an historical record of one of the most original evolutionary theorists of the century. Yes, Gould had his quirks, his inadequacies, and his blind spots, like any scientist. But how many scientists would merit this kind of theoretical analysis?
At the heart of most assessments of Gould's work is punctuated equilibria, which he originated with Niles Eldredge. Several authors (Allmon, Geary, Kitcher, Lieberman) discuss it with great insight. In particular, they note that the critical issues of PE are whether stasis in evolutionary lineages is predominant, and what causes morphological stasis. These are not only central to PE but to all of evolutionary biology. If stasis really is predominant in evolutionary lineages, then most of what we have been taught about population genetic models of tempo and mode, and the tracking of small-scale environmental change by selection, might just be wrong — or at least due for a revision, as Gould suggested in 1980 and explored at length in The Structure of Evolutionary Theory (2002).
The authors in this compilation seem to accept Gould (and Eldredge's) contention that PE is a hypothesis about the deployment of speciation through time. But is it? All that the fossil record shows is morphology; speciation has to be inferred. That would be easy if one lineage clearly divided into two through time, but does it usually? In the classic formulations of PE, including coordinated stasis (Brett and Baird 1995) of many lineages simultaneously, no clear splitting is found. Rather, in classic PE form, one rather stable, vacillating lineage swiftly gives way to another. Is this speciation (cladogenesis) or simply rapid anagenesis? If the former, then competitive replacement of one lineage by another must be geologically instantaneous. In either case, how will diversity increase, as it clearly has through the Phanerozoic Era?
There are many perceptive and useful essays in this collection, and anyone interested in the development of 20th-century evolutionary thought will be fascinated by their insights. They explore the implications of Gould's theories for mass extinction (Kendrick), systematics (Yacobucci), creationism and evolution (Kelley), and ecology (Allmon and others, with the conclusion that Gould never cared about it anyway), among other subjects. Dick Bambach contributes a very useful historical chronology of Gould's ideas, which has the effect of limning clearly the various phases in his intellectual development. Philip Kitcher provides a fascinating and well argued essay on the logic of Gould's major ideas. Lewontin and Levins explore Gould's status as a "radical," by which they mean one who returns to the roots of the field (missing only his "radical" emphasis on original historical literature to dispel the myths of evolutionary history). And Warren Allmon contributes both a sweeping perspective of Gould's contributions to the field and an exhaustive (can it be complete?) bibliography of Gould's work (it runs to 44 pages). The elegant final essay by Robert Dorit, on how the promise of evolutionary developmental genetics has (and hasn't) borne out Gould's perennial theme of the importance of ontogeny to evolution, is a masterpiece not only of content but of writing.
The only thing really missing from this book, apart from assessments by Niles Eldredge, Elisabeth Vrba, David Raup, and other close co-authors of Gould, is an appraisal of his debates with the principal critics of his later years, such as Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and John Maynard Smith. There will be other essays, tribute volumes, and biographies that assess Gould's work historiographically and scientifically, but as a survey of Gould's contributions to the field, this volume is an instructive and indispensable beginning.
Brett CE, Baird GC. 1995. Coordinated stasis and evolutionary ecology of Silurian to Middle Devonian faunas in the Appalachian Basin. In: Erwin EH, Anstey RL, editors. New Approaches to Speciation in the Fossil Record. New York: Columbia University Press, New York. p 285–315.
Gould SJ. 2002. The Structure of Evolutionary Theory. Cambridge (MA): Belknap Press.
Rainger R. 1991. An Agenda for Antiquity: Henry Fairfield Osborn and Vertebrate Paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History, 1890–1935. Tuscaloosa (AL): University of Alabama Press.
Regal B. 2002. Henry Fairfield Osborn: Race and the Search for the Origins of Man. Aldershot (UK):Ashgate.
For nearly forty years, Peter J Bowler has been contributing significantly to our understanding of the development of evolutionary thought. His published works have included such studies as the elegant survey Evolution: The History of an Idea (originally published in 1983 and now in its third edition), Charles Darwin: The Man and His Influence (1990), and the insightful The Eclipse of Darwinism: Anti-Darwinian Evolution Theories in the Decades around 1900 (1983), the last of which fundamentally changed the way historians looked at the "Darwinian Revolution". His latest effort to provide a more complete understanding of the evolution controversy will not disappoint those who have come to expect well-written and thought-provoking books from this author.
As has been the case with Bowler's earlier contributions, the current volume is primarily concerned with correcting some of the mythological aspects of the evolution controversy. In this case, he attempts to break down the long-held view of two diametrically opposed perspectives on the evolution debate, one defined as "science" and the other defined as "religion". This polarity has been a commonly accepted one for decades, as currently witnessed by the anti-evolutionism practiced by evangelicals and the evolutionism preached by avowed atheists such as Richard Dawkins. Bowler's great contribution in the current volume is to show that this dichotomy is largely an artificial one and that, in fact, these two perspectives represent merely the two extremes of the long-standing discussion. There is a vast center in this debate, populated by figures who are neither evangelical nor atheist.
Bowler focuses on the "liberal" religious perspective of the late 19th and early 20th century, which in fact represented mainstream religious thought of the time. This perspective largely accepted evolutionary ideas because the concept of "progress" underlay their theological view. The acceptance of organic change paralleled the liberals' progressive mindset, but the Darwinian emphasis on random variation posed a significant problem. Without a directed goal, evolution could not be perceived as God's way of doing things. Fortunately for the liberal perspective, evolutionary concepts of the period increasingly emphasized non-Darwinian explanations, the most successful of which was the neo-Lamarckian explanation that stressed the inheritance of acquired characteristics and the innate tendency of an organism to change. It required little imagination to define the source of that innate tendency in divine terms, thus preventing a theological clash with evolutionary concepts.
Bowler also points out, however, that the liberals' focus on evolution as progress led to a significant change in their theological perspective as well. Religion was no longer defined in terms of the innate evil in humanity (the concept of "original sin") that required salvation through Christ's sacrifice. Now, human progress was the key to religion. Intriguingly, evangelical opponents of evolution (especially Darwinism) saw this new view of sin and redemption as a danger from the beginning. If the new system focusing on progress were accepted, they asked, where would the concept of original sin and the need for salvation fit?
By the early 1920s, mainstream churches had largely accepted a new perspective known as modernism. The modernists maintained the liberals' progressivist perspective and also wanted religion to be more in tune with modern science, continuing their predecessors' acceptance of evolutionary concepts and reinforcing the idea that certain theological concepts (for example, original sin) would have to be modified. The modernist perspective was dramatically shown by a series of sermons given in Westminster Abbey by future bishop Ernest William Barnes, soon described by the press as "gorilla sermons". Barnes argued that religionists must accept modern science, including the ape ancestry of humans and the idea that God operated through law, not miracles. He specifically noted that the concept of original sin must be rejected and that Christ was a great teacher who showed humanity what it could become. The rejection of modernism by American fundamentalists is well documented and is rightly viewed as central to the famous Scopes trial. Here, too, Bowler provides additional insight, stressing that William Jennings Bryan and his colleagues might well have railed against Darwinism, but they were actually reacting against the non-Darwinian evolutionary concepts based on innate progress.
The carefully crafted and largely successful liberal view of evolution and faith collapsed in the 1940s, however, as the evolutionary concepts known as the Modern Synthesis re-established Darwinian random variation as the foundation for organic change. Without a guarantee of progress, the liberal perspective could no longer argue that evolution was merely God's way of doing things. As a result, biblical literalism increased during the post-World War II years, with young-earth creationism becoming the focal point of anti-evolutionism. The rest of the story is well known. That much of the current debate is still couched in terms of science versus religion is a result of a polarization that Bowler's work clearly shows is neither intellectually nor historically legitimate. Rejecting the extremism of anti-evolutionists and atheists, Bowler argues that a middle position that recognizes both scientific knowledge and the cultural importance of religion might remain the most profitable course of action.
Bowler's study does suggest a possible escape mechanism from the current clash between two divergent world views, but many of us probably question his optimism. In a troubling coincidence, the mail that brought my review copy of Monkey Trials and Gorilla Sermons also contained the fall 2008 issue of National Forum, the quarterly journal of the interdisciplinary honor society Phi Kappa Phi. The editor published four letters from readers in response to an earlier essay supporting the teaching of evolution in public school science classes. All four readers objected to the exclusive teaching of evolution in these classes, insisting that "intelligent design" or creationism be taught alongside evolution to foster the free exchange of ideas that marks true education. If this is the attitude of supposedly well educated individuals, Bowler's solution may not have much chance of success.
The Lost World of Genesis One is divided into a series of eighteen "propositions" plus an introduction, conclusion, and FAQ. The chapters are short, each focusing on a key point Walton wishes to make. Most provide ancient Near Eastern background material as well as recommendations for further reading. Walton emphasizes the importance of understanding ancient cultures and creation accounts if one wishes to understand the biblical creation narratives. It is not that ancient Israel's authors "borrowed from" or were "influenced by" ancient cultural currents.They inhabited an ancient cultural context and shared many points in common with other peoples and languages located in their vicinity in time and space. Even when certain differences are highlighted by such a comparison (for example, Israel's emphasis on one God alone as creator), in the process it also becomes clear that the "Israelites received no revelation to update or modify their 'scientific' understanding of the cosmos" (p 16).
According to Walton, statements in the Bible about the nature of the creation should be treated as part of the assumptions of the biblical author, not the teaching of Scripture. If one does not do so, one will find oneself not only arguing without good reason about the age of the earth or evolution, but also compelled to defend the existence of the dome that Genesis says was made to hold up the waters above, and into which the lights are placed (see p 56-8,94-5).For that is the literal, plain meaning of the Hebrew term used in Genesis 1:6-8, and Walton further emphasizes that no one ought to be discussing the literal meaning of the Bible based on reading it in English translation.The literal meaning can only be the meaning of the texts in the original languages.
Walton reinforces his point by highlighting another component of the biblical authors' worldview: their location of thought and emotion in organs where we cannot literally locate them, and in some cases would not even do so metaphorically (biblical references to "bowels" being a case in point). Such language was assumed to be literally, factually accurate among ancient peoples in this part of the world, and the biblical text does not reveal an alternative understanding of human physiology. Just as no one argues on the basis of the Bible that we think with our entrails, likewise there should be no attempt to defend the Bible's statements about material origins as an alternative to modern scientific understandings thereof (p 18-9).
Walton's most distinctive argument is that the days of Genesis 1 depict the organization of the cosmos so as to function, rather than focusing on its material origins.This argument is supported by both a careful analysis of key terms from Genesis 1, as well as comparison with other creation accounts from antiquity.Walton argues that Genesis 1 is better understood as a depiction of the inauguration of the cosmos to serve as God's temple. Against this background the idea of the deity resting in the completed temple becomes central, rather than the final day being something of an anticlimax as in most modern readings of the English text.Walton reiterates his point that "science cannot offer an unbiblical view of material origins, because there is no biblical view of material origins aside from the very general idea that whatever happened, whenever it happened, and however it happened, God did it"(p 113). Although the latter point has been made by others, few have made the case in such a detailed fashion in a way so well suited to an evangelical readership.
Many who subscribe to RNCSE will be troubled by Walton's noncommittal view of evolution, but this may in fact be a strength when one considers the intended primary audience of his book.Walton writes as professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College, and he thus is approaching a question of biblical interpretation for the benefit of a conservative evangelical primary readership.What he has to say about the creation narrative in Genesis 1 is extremely valuable and highly relevant to those concerned about science education. For the main point of the book is that Genesis 1 is not intended to be an account of material origins, and so Christians should neither oppose nor promote science's best current understanding on the basis of Genesis. Nevertheless,Walton at times seems to place the ancient understanding of the cosmos on a par with the modern scientific understanding of the universe. While there is some truth in his statement that science is constantly revising its understanding in light of new evidence, it would seem that sufficient evidence has amassed and sufficient investigation occurred that it is more accurate to view science's understanding of the natural world as constantly improving rather than merely changing. And it would seem that there is no better that one can do, unless perhaps one is a researcher engaging in pioneering research in the natural sciences,than accept the consensus of the scientific community as it currently stands.Yet when one considers that Walton is making a case against an understanding of Genesis 1 often used to oppose quality science education, and that his intended audience has been indoctrinated with a bias against evolution, it is perhaps for the best that Walton does not connect his arguments about the Bible directly to questions of science. Walton makes a case about Genesis 1 as a biblical scholar,and does so in a way that undermines and challenges many arguments made about the Bible by proponents of pseudoscience. It remains for others to address matters of science in a manner appropriate to that same audience, for which Walton helpfully clears the ground.
When the repackaged version of "scientific creationism" emerged in the 1990s as "intelligent design", it notably did not include physical geology in its central arguments about a grand designer. It was obvious to all that the entity supposedly responsible for all that irreducible complexity in life also created the entire physical universe, but the proponents of ID confined their arguments to biological issues and political "fairness" in public education. Geology, with the prominent exception of paleontology, was a source of conflict within the creationist camp and was thus virtually ignored to promote unity under this new banner of anti-evolutionism.
I saw this geologically-induced tension in 2002 after the godfather of ID, Phillip E Johnson, gave a rousing speech in Cleveland presenting his usual case for a "reasonable" science. During the question session, one of my students asked about his views on the age of the earth: Is it 6000 years old, 4.6 billion years old, or somewhere in the middle? In a sudden flash of anger, the normally avuncular Johnson denounced the question as "irrelevant" and moved on to the next, providing not even a hint of his views on the earth's antiquity. It was a wedge question of its own which would split the young-earth and old-earth creationists apart in the shaky ID confederacy. As such, it showed a fundamental weakness in the arguments of ID proponents, and the power of geology to make a hash of their agenda.
The editors of this multi-authored volume, then, faced a dilemma when they collected essays to include. Ever since Hutton and Lyell, the geological sciences have provided devastating critiques of creationism in the broad sense. The specific incarnation of "intelligent design", though, has for the most part avoided geological arguments. One author (Timothy Heaton) says it directly: "Very little attention is paid to geology in ID publications, and this may be because ID proponents have unwittingly selected examples lacking a fossil history in their search for 'gaps' in structural development" (p 31). (I disagree only with the word "unwittingly".) How then can the force of geological evidence be applied to the debate over ID? Ten authors, all geologists, give it a try in this book.
One approach, unfortunately deployed in the first chapter, is to caricature the ID position and force it into a geological argument. The author (Jill Schneiderman) describes a complex cross-section across the Hudson River and then writes, "An intelligent design creationist might well summon the mighty hands of a creator to have upended some rocks while having squeezed and consequently bent the hardest among them, the gneiss and schist, with one hand while using the fingers of the other hand to gouge a channel along which the Hudson River now flows" (p 14–5). Even the crudest of the young-earthers at Answers in Genesis would not make such an anthropomorphic argument, much less an advocate of ID.
Most of the other authors (with the exception of the paleontologists, who have some ID material to work with) solve the dilemma by addressing creationism in general. Much of the book, then, is not specifically geological but consists of geologists discussing metaphysical issues informed by their experiences as successful earth scientists. A better subtitle for the book would have been "Geologists on Creationism", which would include but not be limited to ID.
The most practically useful chapter in this book is "Missing links found" by paleontologist Donald Prothero. In a relatively few pages, Prothero efficiently devastates creationist arguments about the evidence for evolution in the fossil record, and he shows why ID advocates try very hard to ignore paleontological evidence. This chapter should convince anyone who hasn't already to read Prothero's excellent book, Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007). Allison Tumarkin-Deratzian's contribution on "Dino-Birds" is very good as an introduction to cladistic methodology as well as the most common arguments concerning the extraordinary evidence connecting birds with their dinosaur ancestors. She also shows how creationists are often confused by mosaic characterstates when it comes to sorting out lineages. Charlie Mitchell manages successfully to blend a metaphysical discussion of origin accounts with details of graptolite evolution.
Most of the other chapters sort out philosophical, political, and religious issues in the debates about "intelligent design". They are written by working geologists, and their content is informed by geological experience and knowledge, but they do not have many specifically geological arguments in them. Keith Miller discusses various ID misconceptions and misrepresentations of methodological naturalism by the ID crowd. David Goldsmith has an interesting essay on the intellectual construction of Darwin's seminal work and why the ID movement is not even close to understanding it. Tricia Kelley has a short chapter on her attempts to reconcile her religious faith as a Christian with her life as an evolutionary paleobiologist. Warren Allmon ends the book with a long chapter on how scientists approach the religion–science debates, using an interesting "God spectrum" table to pin down otherwise slippery definitions of the deity (at least in a Western sense). He managed to get some geologists to speak candidly about their belief systems, and he effectively presents the issue as one of fundamental importance to humanity.
Despite the awkward packaging as a text in which geologists specifically take on "intelligent design", and the occasional argumentative misstep, this eclectic book is a valuable contribution to the literature on creationism and the earth sciences. Several of the essays will especially interest geologists and students of geology in large part because they are written by colleagues with the courage to enter one of the most contentious and complicated debates in intellectual history.
The first thing I wondered when opening the pages of this fine book was why in the hell — almost a decade into the 21st century, supposedly in the most technologically and scientifically advanced country on earth — why is it that this book is even necessary? Have we utterly failed in promoting rational thinking about the world around us, an effort that should penetrate beyond the walls of academia? I'm not sure that any chapter in this book answers my question satisfactorily, but without books like this, what hope is there?
In their preface, the editors note a quiescent period in creationist activity following McLean v Arkansas (1982), brought about by Judge William Overton's penetrating opinion. But a few short years later, none other than Justice Antonin Scalia stated in his dissent to Edwards v Aguillard (1987):
The people of Louisiana, including those who are Christian Fundamentalists, are quite entitled, as a secular matter, to have whatever scientific evidence there may be against evolution presented in their schools.
Scalia's "whatever scientific evidence" eventually took on the moniker of "intelligent design".
This book is an update of a 1983 book — Scientists Confront Creationism — edited by Laurie Godfrey that was published in an effort to thwart the creationism of the '80s. A few of the participants in that volume are here again (disclosure: I was one of the original culprits), but numerous other experts have been added to create a volume more relevant to today's brand of creationism. Like the 1983 book, this book is also caught in an interregnum of court cases, following as it does the Kitzmiller v Dover trial (2005) that put a large nail in the coffin of "intelligent design". Yet although we are in somewhat of a quiescent period once again, hardly a week goes by without pernicious activity in one state legislature or another. Which is why this new volume will have a readership for some time.
There is a lot packaged into this book. It comes with an introduction by Massimo Pigliucci and is followed by fifteen chapters. In part 1, "Creationism and Intelligent Design, "there are three chapters by Ronald L Numbers (the history of creationism and "intelligent design"), Eugenie C Scott ("intelligent design" as the new anti-evolutionism), and John R Cole (on how the "wedge" strategy has empowered "intelligent design" creationism). In the seven chapters of part 2, "Scientific Perspectives," Victor Stenger writes about physics and cosmology, G Brent Dalrymple writes about earth science, Antonio Lazcano treats the origin of life, Kevin Padian and Kenneth Angielczyk discuss transitional forms, Robert Dorit holds forth on biological complexity, Wesley Elsberry dissects the smoke and mirrors of Dembski's so-called "design inference," and C Loring Brace focuses on human origins. Finally, part 3 contains five chapters on "Understanding Science": Robert T Pennock dissects "intelligent design" arguments from his broad philosophical perspective, Norman A Johnson discusses the nature of theory in evolutionary biology, J Michael Plavcan examines the logic of creation science, Alice B Kehoe writes about why evolution is being targeted by creationists, and finally the editors explain why we should be teaching evolution.
A lot of familiar names are here and I salute them for their uniformly excellent chapters. There is a lot of information in these pages that will be of use to a wide audience — professional biologists and educators, teachers at all levels, the general public, and even public officials and school boards who need to understand the issues better before making decisions that might dumb down science, or worse, introduce religion into the classroom masquerading as science. The contributors avoid polemics for the most part, which should facilitate its impact with its audience.
The book contains much pointed refutation of creationism, especially its "intelligent design" form. Thus, readers will learn why "intelligent design" is vacuous for philosophical (Pennock, Plavcan) as well as scientific reasons (all the chapters in part 2), and multiple authors trace the history and sociology of creationist movements as they have mutated over the years in an attempt to keep ahead of the constitutional noose that always seems to dance around them (Numbers, Scott, Kehoe). In his chapter, Numbers argues that these debates will continue as long as our constitutional democracy allows both religious fundamentalism and science to give vent to their respective points of view. So cycles of controversy and culture wars will continue. This is a depressing future indeed.
What is not discussed much in this book is how the cycle might be broken (the exception is the chapter by Petto and Godfrey on teaching evolution). Science has often carried a chip on its shoulder, conveying the impression that scientists know how to think and explain the natural world but, by and large, nonscientists/laypersons don't. Scientists are held in high esteem by the public, because the latter relies on science to reveal and interpret new knowledge, and to look after its welfare with discoveries and innovations. But science is largely the codification of rationalism in the context of learned, special knowledge. Laypeople need to understand that they too are "scientists" because they also largely understand phenomena and events around them through the use of evidence and reasoning. The growth of knowledge, whether within the sciences or not, accrues via this approach. Thus, whether people realize it or not, they are "scientists" much of their lives.
Recent polls indicate people are tired of the culture wars. They seem to be responding to a new American administration that promotes science, evidence, and transparency in decision-making. I take this as evidence of a latent reservoir of rational thinking. One should not get overly optimistic, however, given all the miracle-mongering in the media and everyday life. But now is the time to expand scientific thinking. Some evolutionists have not always been helpful, I think, by belaboring the theme that science and religion are compatible. In the sense that a person can be both religious and a scientist, there's truth in this, and often it is an expedient way to gain some acceptance for evolution. But it is incomplete: merely pointing out that there are people of faith who accept evolution doesn't itself help educate the public about the nature of science. So let's focus instead on teaching how we come to have knowledge, whether in everyday life or in the science lab.
A book like this could not hope to cover all the new and exciting aspects of the science or explain in detail the role of evolution in making people's lives better, but it succeeds in showing the merits of evolution and the bankruptcy of "intelligent design" in juxtaposition and thus is an important contribution. Now we have to get it into the hands of people who matter.
Bob Park was saved by a miracle. He's not at all young. It's God's will that he is alive at all. A big tree fell on him as he passed by, and after a long spell in the hospital he returned from the dead. God brought him back so he could write eloquently to tell us all what a bunch of crap this kind of thinking is.
I could end the review here, but I suppose many would find that somehow lacking, so I will go on. Park is a distinguished physicist who devotes himself to writing, mostly about the nonsense he sees in the world. He has a brief weekly topical news-editorial e-mail (available on-line at http://www.bobpark.org) which applies his acerbic wit to all kinds of things from perpetual motion cons to the space station to energy policy and population issues. The book I review here is written in much the same style, with much of the same kind of appeal.
The book shows no particular respect for its targets, one of which is religion. Thus targets of his attack include not only the fundamentalists who attack evolution, but also the Templeton Foundation which seeks to find and promote commonality between science and religion, and the physicists who promote fine-tuning arguments and the anthropic principle and are financially rewarded for it with funding in excess of the Nobel Prize. Other targets include alternative medicine and closely related New Age beliefs, quantum consciousness mysticism, recovered memories, the medical efficacy of intercessory prayer, the alleged religious base of morality, environmental problems, overreaching technological optimism, and more. However, he does show some respect for certain individuals with whom he disagrees, symbolized by a pair of Catholic priests named David and Shaun who reappear throughout the book.
The book is written in the same style as his weekly column, which I would describe as "deceptively simple". It has none of the literary elegance or complexity we associate with some of the best science writers, but it is of equally high quality. If I were to look for a model in fiction, it would be Kurt Vonnegut. Thus, the writing is broadly accessible without insulting one's intelligence, which is extremely valuable in this sort of book.
I have some disagreements with Park. Like Richard Dawkins, Steven Weinberg, and many others, he equates religion with "believing things". He rightly notes the absurd and/or damaging beliefs associated with many of the world's religions. This is a very Western-centric interpretation of religion. There exist major religious groups for whom following some set of laws is what matters; there are others that emphasize meditational practices or simply love. He is right that most religions devolve to cult-like or magical practice, but this is not universal.
In his discussion of alternative medical research, he emphasizes the avoidance of double-blind, placebo-controlled, statistically significant research. While it is admittedly not superstition and therefore off-topic, he nevertheless fails to do more than note in passing the extent to which funding by the pharmaceutical industry corrupts research in mainstream medicine. We all know the stories of side effects which were suppressed in early studies and then emerge to injure thousands of people. This is a form of cherry-picking results, which he does discuss in the context of parapsychology, for example, so it would be fair game and would contribute to a balanced discussion.
The longest chapter deals with the attempts by some in the religious community to repress the teaching of evolution, told mostly from a historical perspective. It is condensed (as a single chapter must be) but tells the essentials from the days of Thomas Huxley, through the Scopes Trial, the evolution of creationism into "creation science", the mutation of "intelligent design" which allowed the movement to speciate and enter a new ecological niche in the United States middle class, pioneer species such as Jonathan Wells, and the Dover trial. It brings out all the important points and can be highly recommended. It is valuable in that the issue is put into a broader perspective.
There's something here to offend almost everyone. My New Age friends who support the teaching of evolution will be upset by the attack on their herbs. If they can get past that, they will enjoy this book, learn from it, and most importantly allow it to clarify their thinking. It worked for me.
Opinions are the author's and not necessarily shared by NCSE, but they should be.
"Theology made no provision for evolution."
— EO Wilson, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (New York:Alfred A Knopf, 1998), p 6.
The Religion and Science Debate is an attempt, by six authors, to "provide new insights into the contemporary dialogue as well as some ... suggestions for delineating the responsibilities of both the scientific and religious spheres." The authors (Keith Thomson, Ronald Numbers, Kenneth Miller, Lawrence Krauss, Alvin Plantinga, and Robert Wuthnow) represent a spectrum of disciplines, each with a different focus on the controversy. As is the case with all multi-authored texts, the success of each author in shining their particular light on the topic varies.
As one can imagine, the broad arena of the book's title is actually much overstated. There is little debate between much of science and most religious traditions. However, there is a fierce debate between evolutionary biology (and to a lesser extent geology) and a fundamentalist Christian tradition found almost exclusively in the United States. Other branches of science and other religious traditions are apparently quite compatible with each other. So it is somewhat jarring, throughout the book, to see the broad terms "science" and "religion" used as synonyms for "evolutionary biology" and "fundamentalist Christianity". Perhaps a more appropriate title for the book was rejected, but this usage only serves to inflate the importance of the religious arguments while ignoring the vast fields of science that are accepted by nearly everyone.
Thomson, a professor emeritus of natural history at Oxford University, gives a brief introduction to the controversy that sets the historical stage. He attempts to summarize and contrast the arguments of the other authors, and logically concludes that "the real enemy is ignorance". As part of an ongoing attempt to dispel that ignorance, then, the other authors weigh in.
Numbers lays out an excellent historical timeline, beginning with natural philosophy in the pre-Darwin era, and ending with Dembski's and Dawkins's scuffles over "intelligent design" (ID). This is a valuable preparation for the later chapters, because it clearly dispels the notion that the current "controversy" has been with us since Darwin. Even before Darwin, Christian theologians were attempting to reconcile the new discoveries of science with the old interpretations of Scripture. These attempts at "harmonization" continued in the latter half of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. The post-Sputnik science education renaissance, with its flood of evolution-containing textbooks, triggered the controversy that continues in the US today, although there are still attempts at harmonization (including some of the chapters in this book).
Miller uses the next chapter to discuss the demise of ID in the Kitzmiller v Dover decision. He dismantles the icons of ID (irreducible complexity as epitomized by the bacterial flagella or the human immune system) just as thoroughly as he did during the trial itself. He shines a bright light on the creationist roots of ID as well, pointing out the well-documented mutations that morphed Of Pandas and People from a creationist text to an ID text overnight. Talk about your hopeful monsters! He ends with an analysis of why science is not the enemy of religion in any global sense, and shows how Christians, in particular, need to better understand evolutionary biology in order to accommodate scientific reality into their beliefs about their deity.
Plantinga, the sole ID advocate in this book, predictably sets up the usual strawmen and knocks them over. Methodological naturalism is a constraint on proper science? No, it is proper science. He attacks evolution and seems to assume that a successful attack would provide evidence for ID. The argument from incredulity is deployed multiple times, unconvincingly. Plantinga argues that the aspect of evolutionary biology that is most vexing to Christians is that it seems to be unguided, but his skepticism about this and his belief in a guided process are never buttressed with any evidence for a guided process. Most amusingly, on page 106, this philosopher of ID concedes that youngearth creationists are the recruits in the ID brigades, giving the lie to the oft-repeated complaints from the Discovery Institute that it is unfair to equate creationism and ID. In other words, there's not much new here.
Krauss starts his chapter with a quote from physicist Stephen Weinberg — "Science doesn't make it impossible to believe in God. It just makes it possible to not believe in God." This epigram sums up the chapter quite well. He also makes the excellent point that the current US debate about evolution is a colossal waste of time;we should be spending our time and energy teaching science more effectively, rather than discussing old, tired, and unscientific notions. Regarding the Discovery Institute's latest ploy, "teach the controversy", he provides the best sound bite of the entire book when he writes, on page 142, "the purpose of education is not to validate ignorance, but to overcome it." He ends the chapter by reiterating what Thomson said in the introduction; neither science nor faith is the enemy; the enemy is ignorance. Education is the way out of this debate.
The final chapter, by Wuthnow (a sociologist) covers ground that is covered in more detail by other authors in a recent book (John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, and Richard York's Critique of Intelligent Design, New York: Monthly Review Press, 2008). Sociologists have been relatively late to the discussion of this debate, but there is plenty of fertile ground for them here. The compartmentalization of science and faith into different spheres is difficult; the ragged boundary between them provides opportunities for conflict and commentary. Wuthnow ends with an interesting insight, asking why the conflict is not worse. The answer is, as noted above, that this conflict involves one branch of science and one sect of religionists, none of whom seem to see any conflict in benefitting from scientific advances in computer technology, medicine, or agriculture.
In summary, the book is a useful primer on this debate, giving historical and philosophical perspective as well as scientific evidence. It provides yet another small step toward a future when science education focuses on science, and miracles are not invoked as explanations.
Over a hundred authors, including molecular phylogeneticists, systematists, and paleontologists, contributed to The Timetree of Life, which its editors say is the first volume to publish calibrated divergence times against phylogenies for all major groups of living things. The results are truly impressive reviews of the histories and current knowledge of molecular and other determinations of when the major groups of living things diverged from each other.
In assembling this book, the authors submitted to certain conventions. Alternate phylogenies are not considered. Only timetrees based on molecules are used. The editors say that only one kind of molecule needs to be used, and that it doesn’t have to be independently validated by other (including non-molecular) lines of evidence. If different molecules give different divergence estimates, the estimates are to be averaged. (This strikes me as strange, inasmuch as it equally values or doubts all studies, rather than asking questions about the reliability of certain molecules or studies over others.) In fact, the editors in particular seem to be glossing over a lot of legitimate debate and cognitive dissonance, which seems odd for a scientific book.
For example, in their opening chapter the editors reject fossil evidence as reliable for estimating divergence times. Instead, they advocate “associated geological dates,” an approach first proposed by Charles Sibley in the 1970s and quickly discredited. (What is the “date” of the opening of the Atlantic Ocean?) They give the emergence of islands as good events by which to calibrate divergence times. But what major groups of organisms first diverged on islands? The editors actually don’t give a single example of a reliable “geologic event” that can calibrate molecular phylogenies.
The editors state that “fossil calibrations are always minimum times of divergence,” which would be true if one simply used the first recorded appearance of a member of a stem or node group. More reliable is the assessment of the timing of appearances of characters that are diagnostic of that group. Let’s say that node group A shares derived features 1–5, and that its immediate relatives can be recognized because they have progressive subsets of 1–5 (for example, one critter has 1, another has 1 & 2, and so on). Knowing when these immediate relatives lived provides very strong control on divergence dates based on fossils. Of course, the fossil record may not be good enough to decide these questions in the great majority of cases. On the other hand, unconstrained extrapolations from molecular differentiation rates, with no independent lines of evidence to test them, are technologically impressive but empirically unsatisfactory.
It is interesting that the other introductory chapters disagree with the editors’ methods. John Avise forthrightly extols the use of fossils to calibrate divergence times. Gradstein and Ogg lay out the geologic time scale and the important certainties and uncertainties in its calibration. Benton, Donoghue, and Asher, all paleontologists, in a particularly impressive review (with over 500 references) show how using both fossils and molecules in tandem can produce reliable results for much of the phylogeny of Metazoa.
So the editors seem to be broadminded in including eclectic approaches to assembling the timetrees of life. It is too bad, then, that the prescriptions of Benton and others are not followed throughout the book. Some entries induce head-scratching. Van Tuinen (p 409), for example, says that the two major groups of living birds (paleognaths and neognaths) separated about 120 Ma, whereas Benton and his coauthors list it at about 66 Ma (“soft maximum” dates are often ridiculously old and can generally be disregarded). Here is an example of where a character-based approach to fossils may help constrain molecular estimates. If one examines the fossil record of birds about 120 Ma, and even later in the Cretaceous, what do we find? Well, the fossil birds found in the Jehol Biota of China (Early Cretaceous, about 125 Ma), where the famous “feathered dinosaurs” are also found, include things like Confuciusornis that are hardly advanced beyond Archaeopteryx. Through the Cretaceous we find thousands of bird fossils, but they are all of primitive toothed groups and Enantiornithines, none of which is regarded as close to Neornithes. More importantly, the morphological features that are in any way similar to those of living birds do not appear until the latest Cretaceous (66–70 Ma). To accept the molecular view of life, molecules are doing the diverging, but this is very seldom reflected in morphology.
Is this a reasonable view of life? Space prohibits a review of the editors’ strange take on rates of diversification of taxa, especially where we have an actual fossil record that is pretty reliable. Suffice it to say that there is forty years of literature on Phanerozoic diversity that cannot be reduced to the unsatisfactory alternatives of “dampened exponential curve” or the “exponential model”. This book will be a fabulous basis for advanced interdisciplinary seminars, but I put the accent on “interdisciplinary”.