June 11, 2007

Ho megas anaginoskei (The Greatness reads)

You may recall a post from last April, in which I listed my various avocational goals. While I managed to get through the pile of unread books, much else is yet unachieved. (Nor, for that matter, have I got eight subordinates. Maybe this September.) But I'm making some real progress on New Testament Greek.

Those not in the know about ancient Greek pedagogy (which, I figure, is most of you) may not be aware of its profoundly statistical style of teaching, a pattern common to several other "closed" knowledge systems. For example, when I was studying music composition at JMU, I had points taken off an exam for writing a Bach chorale which, while not breaking any rules of the Common Practice period, nevertheless was something Bach himself had only done three times. This judgment did not seem fair to me, but I remember being impressed at how precisely they knew Bach's work.

Learning NT Greek exposes you to even more precision. As in: anaginosko ("read") and its forms are used 33 times in the NT, but only once in Revelation. Not sure what the present form of ecenodoxhsen ("showed hospitality") is? Don't sweat it; it never appears in the present tense, or in the aorist, imperfect, or optative, for that matter. If you memorize all of the words that occur more than 30 times, then you've got over 80% of the NT down cold. True, there are a lot of verb tenses. But take heart. Once you've learned how they work regularly and with the handful of irregulars actually found in the NT, you're done. That's all there is because there won't be any more Bibles written. Sure, you might have to hit the books again to read Xenophon or Homer, but maybe somebody's made a word list for those, too.

I passed a major milestone in this work by reading a whole book of the New Testament. Okay, so it was Philemon, a mere 25 verses. But you try it and see how far you get!

Posted by The Greatness at 03:22 PM | Comments (0)

May 11, 2006

What's wrong with Establishment Clause jurisprudence

Oh yeah, with that cracker of a title I'll be swimming in hits.

Anyway. A legal-eagle acquaintance of mine pointed out this article in the Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy that puts the whole evolution - intelligent design debate in its current legal framework -- that is to say, clueless. Good reading for mavens and those who want to know what's going on.

Posted by The Greatness at 12:09 PM | Comments (0)

January 20, 2006

Antibiotic resistance rethought

Sorry for the posting lag, y'all.. I've been spending my Net time plumbing the depths of self-important "knowledge" that is Wikipedia. Truly the most kaleidoscopic venue for flame wars ever conceived. CE/AD anyone?

As most of you know, I'm an incorrigible contrarian, relentlessly thumbing my nose at pretentions of certainty wherever they lie. Since positions of consensus tend to be right more often than not, sometimes this behavior makes me look pretty silly. Nowhere has this been more true than in the field of evolution, where I had dalliances with the deniers. I'm back in the evolutionary fold now, as I would have always stayed if I had simply snorted in derision at the likes of Behe and Johnson. But to do so would have been worldview-cramping and, frankly, not as much fun. My odyssey through the world of evolution denial taught me much about the various flavors of creationism and Intelligent Design, some of which are -- let me be clear -- as scientifically absurd as their detractors have always maintained. Too bad the "defenders of science" often prefer rhetoric to science when it comes to making a defense; their public attacks on ID don't engage ID at all but rather a straw-man of ID, or the shadow government of ID, or skip ID wholesale and go straight to ad hominem.

Antibiotic resistance is a good example of this phenomenon, popular enough to grace the panels of Doonesbury and educate the kiddies on PBS. The argument goes like this: when we take antibiotics, we kill all the susceptible bacteria, but some individual bacteria in each population are not susceptible due to some mutation or genetic variation they have. By killing off the susceptible bacteria, we create an advantage for those bacteria that are resistant, so they will prosper. Eventually the vast majority of bacteria of that type that we encounter will be those which have the mutation or genetic variation that enables antibiotic resistance, and our antibiotic has become useless. This account of antibiotic resistance is, of course, a scientifically correct one. It directly refutes the (mostly young-earth) creationist argument that evolution is merely a negative force with no creative power, as well as tacitly disparaging the less-stringent "limits to change" conceit a la Phillip Johnson. The example is also good politics, in that it shows why we should care about defending evolution education: because if we ignore it, the bugs will eat us alive. So what's the problem?

The problem is that this story is a but not the scientifically correct account, and like evolution itself is much more nuanced than the point-scoring crowd will let on. Antibiotic resistance has all the thrill of a twisting-and-turning whodunit, at once fascinating and scary. You see, long before we were around to worry about bacteria, bacteria were worrying about each other. During those billions of years that they were on top of the pyramid, the bugs engaged in internecine chemical warfare (hmm, are we any different?). It was species against species in a world war, crafting diverse weapons of great potency. Countless antibiotics were made, and the lesser ones were usually lost forever as the genes of the defeated foe were obliterated. But sometimes an enemy's weapon still had use, so the victor kept the genes that coded for antibiotic synthesis and resistance, copied them, modified them, and handed them over to allies.

Fast forward to a few years ago. We had an antibiotic, vancomycin, isolated from the Actinomyces bacterium and well-nigh unbeatable. Antibiotic resistance had bit us in the past, but that was because there were options for mutation, it was thought. Vancomycin killed everything because it attacked the peptidoglycan coating of the bacteria, an all-encompassing packet that was essential to the bug's life. No mere point change of the genetic code, even the statistically unlikely handful of changes, could evolve resistance to this one because there were no options. A bacteria couldn't change the skin it's in, after all. But one day, we started seeing vancomycin-resistant enterococcus (VRE) in the hospitals. VRE is protected from vancomycin because it has altered peptidoglycan -- different skin. The peptidoglycan is altered by three genes vanH-vanA-vanX. Since the production of three genes ex nihilo would be every bit as miraculous as creationism, scientists rightly felt that they must have come from somewhere else. It turns out that they look very much like the genes from a strain of Actinomyces, which really shouldn't have surprised anyone, given that's where we found vancomycin in the first place. Why would the bacteria that makes an antibiotic want to kill itself in the process? The proposed path of the genes to Enterococcus looks like a terror network: from soil-dwelling Actinomyces on European farms to enterococci living in animals treated with the vancomycin derivative avoparcin, to a farmer with a stomach bug, to the hospitals in the U.S. somehow. Eventually somebody with VRE must have come in contact with Staphylococcus aureus and yet another superbug was born. Multi-drug-resistant Staph (MRSA) laughs at up to 18 antibiotics, and most of its defenses were acquired from some other species of bacteria.

Far from conforming to the just-so story for public consumption, most antibiotic resistance that human pathogens have developed in our lifetimes did not spring fully-formed out of the magical depths of Darwinian macroevolution. Sometimes a quick "point mutation" is enough to render an antibiotic impotent, but usually it's far more effective for a bacterium to grab somebody else's shield. And soil bacteria have quite the armamentarium, according to a new article in Science. This article and its accompanying perspective focus on the dark side of natural products: when you go searching for new antibiotics in nature, you'll likely find the defense is already in there too. Vanessa D'Costa and co-workers grabbed soil samples from a variety of environments, isolated 480 Streptomyces colonies, and subjected them to over a dozen antibiotics (including drugs in clinical trials and barely on the market). To their surprise,

Without exception, every strain in the library was found to be multi-drug resistant to seven or eight antibiotics on average, with two strains being resistant to 15 of 21 drugs (Fig. 1B). Reproducible resistance to most of the antibiotics, regardless of origin, was observed, and almost 200 different resistance profiles were seen (Fig. 1, A and C), exemplifying the immense genetic and phenotypic diversity of the collection of bacteria.

The perspective article by Alexander Tomasz dwells on past pathways of resistance (including the above example, vancomycin) and what we might do in the future to prevent it. Keeping cows from becoming superbug factories is a valuable protective step, but it's important to keep in mind that the study found antibiotic resistance in the soil "regardless of origin". I don't think it's right to assume that antibiotic resistance necessarily comes from a bacterium's being subjected to the new drug (how did soil from a Canadian forest end up exposed to gentamicin?). The soil simply has a lot of organisms in it, resistant to untold numbers of antibiotics, that can easily transfer their resistance genes to non-soil-dwellers. And they've been working at this game a lot longer than us.

Still, there's a bright side to it all: we have a golden opportunity to survey 3 billion years of chemical weaponry, analyze its weaknesses, and say "is this all you got?" I may be contrarian for saying so, but betcha it is. Exploring this reservoir of resistance gives us a chance to design really devastating antibiotics against which evolution will be no match.

Posted by The Greatness at 09:32 AM | Comments (0)

October 06, 2005

Dawkins grows a heart

I recently finished Unweaving the Rainbow by Richard Dawkins. Dawkins thinks himself another "Darwin's Bulldog" like T. H. Huxley, and his past books on science have been pointedly anti-religion, casting evolution as the hero that banishes all superstition and nonsense from the world. Despite this -- or maybe because of it -- The Blind Watchmaker gets my vote for the most important popular science book of the twentieth century.

So naturally I figured Rainbow would be a compendium of erudite, irreverently humorous prose articulating the triumph of science over God. And yeah, that's in there if you look hard enough. But Dawkins (or his editor, maybe) has softened his notoriously pointy dialogue, opting instead for a synthesis of poetry and science that channels the best of Sagan and S. J. Gould. I'm not sure the word "creationist" appears in the entire book! Moreover, much of the discussion avoids zoology, his area of expertise, choosing instead to explicate physical science subjects like optics and quantum mechanics. The electromagnetic spectrum according to Dawkins has a whimsical bent, including a paragraph on how you might use the wavelength of urine on a fossilized mastadon track to augur the size of the beast's, um, beasthood. While I don't find his artistic arguments too compelling, I never much liked Yeats anyway...

If this is what his new "Professorship of Public Understanding of Science" will bring us, we're in for a treat.

Posted by The Greatness at 09:06 AM | Comments (0)

September 15, 2005

Johnson, Lamoureux, and Asa Gray

I've been trying to catch up on my sundry evolution reading lately and have managed to finish two books. One was Darwiniana, a collection of essays by Asa Gray that was published in 1876. The other was Darwinism Defeated?: The Johnson-Lamoureux Debate on Biological Origins, which was published in 1999 and features Phillip E. Johnson and Denis O. Lamoureux. Both books are advanced treatises on evolution and its metaphilosophical brother "Darwinism" and whether they conflict with faith. You might think that over 100 years of new science and debate on the subject would have advanced the argument somewhat. Sadly, it is not the case.

Debate was occasioned by Lamoureux's decision to rebut Johnson's controversial bestseller Darwinism Defeated, the followup to Darwin on Trial (which I found beguiling yet weak on evidence, ironically enough). Johnson, a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley, has risen to a position of great importance in the popular community of faith by articulating two ideas: that naturalism, materialism, and Darwinism have been elevated to the status of untouchable religious dogma, to the detriment of Christianity and general morality; and that scientifically, evolution cannot account for the diversity of life and therefore an intelligent designer must have been behind it. These were not new ideas -- indeed, the latter is just Paley's nineteenth-century watchmaker argument -- but Johnson has been effective as the elder statesman for Intelligent Design, shepherding Michael Behe, William Dembski, Johnathan Wells, and their numerous book-writing colleagues.

Lamoureux, holder of PhD's in both evolutionary biology and theology, disputes both of these notions. Against the first, he points out several studies that show belief, even in a personal God who answers prayers, is still prevalent among leading scientists:

To be sure, during this century the biological theory of evolution has come to be the only paradigm for the origin of life in the scientific world. However ... it does not follow that to be an evolutionist one is necessarily a naturalist or materialist denying the existence of God, as Johnson constantly insists in his books. Rather it is reasonable to suggest that at least four out of ten scientists in the U.S. believe God created through a teleological evolutionary process ... Johnson is to be congratulated for pointing out blatant examples where materialism and naturalism are injudiciously expressed and imposed in certain sectors of our society. However, he overstates his case with regard to the pervasiveness of this philosophical view, and he is simply wrong in suggesting that materialism/naturalism is necessarily associated with the biological theory of evolution or that this dysteleological worldview is universally upheld by the modern scientific community. (italics in original)

Lamoureux also ably refutes many specific arguments under the second principle, demonstrating Johnson has not in any way refuted the scientific validity of evolution. Stunningly, Johnson's reply to Lamoureux entirely ignores this issue, except to say that

I doubt that the common ancestry thesis is true, at least at the higher levels (phyla) of the taxonomic hierarchy. However, I do not consider this issue to be of central importance and do not attempt to argue the question for now...

(Lamoureux's response, paraphrased: "But -- !!") No, Johnson may resort to scientific arguments, but they aren't really his main concern (or, many would say, his forte). He instead focuses his rhetorical guns on the teleological/dysteleological distinction Lamoureux insists upon:

Some of us find confirmation of this principle [Romans 1:20] in the nature of living organisms, which incorporate many highly complex systems whose nature seems to point to the need for a designer ... Darwinian evolutionary biologists insist that this appearance of design is an illusion, and that unguided material processes, particularly the accumulated changes through natural selection, have actually produced the wonders of the living world ... Christian methodological naturalists usually call themselves theistic evolutionists ... I have written that theistic evolution can more accurately be described as theistic naturalism. Is the evolutionary creationism of Denis Lamoureux different from what I have just described as theistic naturalism? It might seem so, because he endorses teleological evolution ... On closer examination, however, it appears that the 'teleology' part is entirely subjective and has no more scientific content than the 'theism' in theistic evolution. What exactly did God do (beyond establishing the laws at the beginning of time) and how do we know that he actually did it? (italics mine)

Here Johnson lays bare the crucial presupposition of the Intelligent Design movement: if God is involved, his presence must be scientifically discernible. Nothing, not even scientific stabs at evolution, is more important to ID than this credo, which in church circles they say is supported by Romans 1:20:

For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities -- his eternal power and divine nature -- have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. (NIV)

Lamoureux's second response to Johnson tracks to a surprising degree Asa Gray's rebuttal to the geologist J. William Dawson a century ago. It is not hard to imagine Drs. Dawson and Johnson (contra Gray and Lamoureux) enjoying each other's company a great deal. Says Gray:

The difficulty with Dr. Dawson here is (and it need not be underrated) that apparently he cannot as yet believe an adaptation, act, or result, to be purposed the apparatus of which is perfected or evolved in the course of nature -- a common but a crude state of mind on the part of those who believe that there is any originating purpose in the universe, and one which, we are sure, Dr. Dawson does not share as respects the material world until he reaches the organic kingdoms ... he warns those who "endeavor to steer a middle course, and to maintain that the Creator has proceeded by way of evolution," that "the bare, hard logic of Spencer, the greatest English authority on evolution ... excludes the knowledge of a Creator and the possibility of his work."
Now, this is a dangerous line to take. Those defenders of the faith are more zealous than wise who must needs fire away in their catapults the very bastions of the citadel, in the defense of outposts that have become untenable. It has been and always will be possible to take an atheistic view of Nature, but far more reasonable from science and philosophy only to take a theistic view ... It is the best, if not the only, hypothesis for the explanation of the facts.
And elsewhere,
There are, perhaps, only three views of efficient cause which may claim to be both philosophical and theistic:
  1. The view of its exertion at the beginning of time, endowing matter and created things with forces which do the work and produce the phenomena.
  2. This same view, with the theory of insulated interpositions, or occasional direct action, engrafted upon it -- the view that events and operations in general go on in virtue simply of forces communicated at the first, but that now and then, and only now and then, the Deity puts his hand directly to the work.
  3. The theory of the immediate, orderly, and constant, however infinitely diversified, action of the intelligent efficient Cause.
... all three are philosophically compatible with design in Nature.

Lamoureux takes Gray's first position in trying to show an unbroken chain of creation, while many in the theistic evolution community would be comfortable with the last position with God as "sustainer" of the universe. But ID proponents choose to take the middle position, characterizing the first as mere deism and the last as glib materialism with a political veneer of so-called theism. They yearn for a knock-down positive apologetic for God the creator, a smoking gun that they can victoriously taunt atheists with: "Ha! Show me how that could have come about without God!"

But Romans 1:20 never required that kind of proof. It says that the natural world, taken in its entirety, should compel us to accept that there must be a Power that caused Nature, however directly or indirectly: simply put, a cosmological argument, albeit one that affirms design. It doesn't say that we should have a schematic to bludgeon people into belief with. After all, the prophets of anti-religion (Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, et al) hinge their argument against theism, not on the science per se, but on prosaic metaphysical arguments that they feel directly follow from it. Why should we expect such a stale positive apologetic for theism to be any less prosaic? More to the point, how could you possibly prove something in nature to have required special attention by the Creator?

The ID movement is on a mission to find such evidence, but it is an old errand imbued with futility, and better suited to Don Quixote than to Johnson and his band of credentialed worthies.

Posted by The Greatness at 01:42 PM | Comments (2)

February 10, 2005

Cladistics and evolution

Those who follow the Intelligent Design movement will no doubt be aware of the recent paper by Stephen Meyer in the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington. Plenty of ad hominem has been brought to the table for Sternberg, Meyer, and the Smithsonian staff. I'm not really interested in talking about that, though if you want to read about it, the relevant links can be found at Panda's Thumb (and Dr. Sternberg has his own web site if you want his side). My personal feeling is that Sternberg may just be a truly open-minded person who was more than a little naive about his (perceived) role as a gatekeeper.

I'm much more interested in Sternberg's claim that his work in systematics need not rely on evolution as an assumption. Thus, he unflinchingly advises chiefly young-earth creationist organizations on scientific issues surrounding the classification of living things. While most taxonomists would probably not be so ecumenical, methodological evolution-agnosticism is nevertheless a mainstream view in cladistics. How can taxonomy be assured of its correctness if it is divorced from evolution, you might ask? I did, too. It seems the whole argument hinges on a philosophical identity crisis: the ontological basis of systematics.

Consider this paper in Cladistics. In it, A. V. Z. Brower writes that "the assumption of evolution in process cladistics is a methodological plesiomorphy ... that no longer contributes to the discovery of heirarchical patterns of taxonomic grouping. Nowhere in the procedures ... which are those used by cladists of every stripe today, is an evolutionary assumption required in general or particular." The author agrees that macroevolution is true; neverthe less, "the theory of macroevolution is corroborated by evidence from systematics ... therefore, the a priori assumption of descent with modification fails to provide independent ontological support for systematics." Assuming that a certain evolutionary history is correct as currently known could taint a proper systematic study.

So it would seem that the approach taken by cladists keeps them from going astray. But does cladistics claim for itself an explanatory role? Because if it does, cladists must have a very hard time arguing that any particular evolutionary history is wrong based on systematics alone (their homology being typology, character, Platonic kind, or...?). I'm left scratching my head over the inscrutibility of it all.

Posted by The Greatness at 12:06 PM | Comments (0)

January 18, 2005

Those Tricky Stickers

You know the ones I'm talking about:

Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living beings. This material should be studied with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered.

As a scientist I'm supposed to tow the party line on such things, holding these two sentences in about as much esteem as Leo X held the 95 Theses. But as a lover of freedom, I find myself quite unable to condemn them. In fact I could even see how one might call the lowly "evolution sticker" an essential political document for our time.

Let me explain.

I should start in a prosecutorial mode. First, the content of the sticker contains several grievous errors of the strictly scientific kind. Evolution is a theory and a fact, and it is most certainly not aimed at the origin of "living beings."
(Darwin's book, after all, was called The Origin of Species, not The Origin of Life.) Second, the sticker makes use of a common use of "theory" meaning "conjecture" as opposed to "a plausible or scientifically acceptable general principle or body of principles offered to explain phenomena". This definition, while valid outside the science classroom, could confuse students into thinking that what they're being taught is vain speculation. Third, the specificity of this warning to only evolution and not, say, botany or microbiology, has the effect of undermining it -- by way of an exhortation for careful and critical consideration. (Crafty creationists!) Simply put, students are going to be told falsehoods about the state of our knowledge so that their parents might be mollified and their favorite origin story vouchsafed.

Now for the response, which is chiefly a political defense rather than a scientific one:

"The fact of evolution" is on extremely solid ground. (It's actually in the ground.) But "the theory of evolution" is a patchwork of schemas including natural selection, sex, genetic drift, etc. which are still being hashed out, though nobody but the Discovery Institute thinks it's an impossible mission. If scientists are going to complain about students getting confused, they, too, should admit they were absent when the English teacher went over the principles of clear writing. Who thought it was a good idea to use the same term to denote both the data and the hypothesis? Did they grow up in a shadow world where Sherlock Holmes found a half-used cigar, a print in the mud, and a dog that didn't bark, and called them all "Moriarty"?

Speaking of which, what is meant by "evolution" anyway? Darwin's theory and subsequent improvements, yes, but beyond that, what should be taught? If it's abiogenesis as "the origin of life," then people should be critical, because there's not a bit of evidence for it except the trivial evidence: we're all here. Also, what shall we teach on the issue of teleology? Does evolution necessarily result in more complexity? Several generations of evolutionists (including co-discover A. R. Wallace, Teilhard de Chardin, and Dobzhansky) say yes, and they all agreed there was a very powerful reason (omnipotent, really) for that. But Dawkins, Dennett, and the other contemporary popularizers require "directionless" to be part of a truthful (read: orthodox) education in evolution -- and they drive the political discussion.

Let's be realistic here. Most of kids aren't paying attention anyway, because they're high school students. Those that listen are still statistically unlikely to become biologists, and the knowledge will do them little good in their careers. And only a miniscule number of them are going to be evolutionary biologists. But all of them will have some preconceived / received notion of how we got here. It's disingenuous to make evolution out as "theory", but it has to be equally disingenuous to pretend that 1) science has it all figured out, 2) religion is wrong, and 3) questions that come out of a critical discussion of these matters don't have a place in the science classroom.

Parents are the recipients of the fallout from this kind of "education," and they are almost univerally unprepared to give meaningful answers. They're just adults trying to give their children a good start in life, which, in the opinion of many, requires a moral training of some kind. Sure, they may be operating under all sorts of prejudices and misunderstandings about evolutionary theory and science in general. But they still have the vote, and I'm not about to tell citizens to shut up and take it, for they have the right to decide whether, and how, these things should be taught.

What did I mean about the sticker being an essential political document? That the variegated texture of truth doesn't fit very well in a centralized knowledge base, mandated by the public trust. Universal public education has the effect of making the law the arbiter of truth. Say you believe X, and I believe ~X. There is much evidence for X, many believe, and so you and they convince the government to begin teaching X for the sake of the public good. Does this make X more true? No. X's truth is not dependent on who believes it. If X is innocuous, then it makes little difference if I retain the right to demur. Say I even believe ~X for bad reasons. Are my reasons made worse by putting the force of the law behind X? No. Yet in the public sphere, it does. What if X were not innocuous, but rather something environmentally damaging, or crypto-fascist, or demogoguery?

What we decide about truth has consequences.

Posted by The Greatness at 03:43 PM | Comments (0)

Creation/Evolution Must-Reads and Misses

#include "old-thegreatness-dot-com-stuff.h"



The blind watchmaker: why the evidence of evolution reveals a universe without design
Richard Dawkins

Darwin's dangerous idea: evolution and the meanings of life

Daniel Dennett

Both of this books -- one by a zoologist, the other by a philosopher of consciousness -- make a sweeping, unflinching (even bigoted) case for evolution and go on to examine what they believe to be necessary consequences: God does not exist, there is no afterlife, free will is an illusion as we are essentially just robots, etc. A goodly portion of both books is devoted to trashing Stephen Jay Gould's lukewarm semi-adaptationist position on Darwinism, and I don't blame them one bit for that. Dawkins, unsurprisingly, spends more time discussing the biological evidence, while Dennett is more concerned with demolishing teleology and promoting the so-called "strong AI" that he believes is indistinguishable from our own "consciousness." These two books should be read for their convincing physical cases for evolution, but make no mistake, they aim to make the analogous metaphysical cases for atheism.

Dawkins and Dennett believe that evolution entails atheism, and that those who disagree probably haven't thought about it very carefully. In fact, much like the logical positivists of days long past, they hold that the notion of God is nonsensical and deserves no intellectual standing whatsoever. They have discovered the answer to everything, it seems. Abiogenesis? Well, not proven technically, but Dawkins says any alternative is a "feeble argument" because it doesn't explain anything (whether something conforms with the facts apparently matters little). Fine-tuning arguments about the universe? Simply silly, says Dennett: we merely need to postulate a Darwinian multiverse generator and explain those away. Why is there something rather than nothing? Well, why not? (Robert Nozick's Philosophical Explanations explores this topic and seriously considers this possibility that something has no ontological advantage over nothing. In which case, he mused, the default position in an existence proof could just as easily be pro rather than con. Whence Dennett's opposition to theism? But I digress.) Both men, purveyors of what Nozick called "coercive philosophy," can be counted on to denigrate and question the motives of anyone who would use "pseudoscience" against their impeccable position. Attached is the OED's definition so you can judge for yourself whether that's the pot calling the kettle black: a pretended or spurious science; a collection of related beliefs about the world mistakenly regarded as being based on the scientific method or as having the status that scientific truths now have.

Also worth reading by Dawkins: Climbing mount improbable

and by Dennett: The mind's I: fantasies and reflections on self and soul (co-written with Hofstadter of Gödel, Escher, Bach fame)

The demon-haunted world: science as a candle in the dark

Carl Sagan

Part memoir, part debunker's manual, Sagan's The Demon-haunted World is a treasure. He earnestly proclaims science and reason as the hope for mankind, unmasking the delusions of the world with a mixture of clarity and kindness not often seen in the skeptical literature (e.g. he is always careful to identify his misguided creationist quarry as being of the "literal" variety, and he respects religion even though he thinks it jumps to unwarranted conclusions). Like Michael Shermer in Why People Believe Weird Things, Sagan is inclined to think that good science is done by imaginative, yet disciplined, people; and (he thinks) disciplined people don't believe anything until it's proven. To that end, he includes what he calls a "Baloney Detection Kit" with a list of fallacies and questionable tactics employed by cranks. Sagan wrote a beautiful book that I've read and re-read, each time enjoying it anew. But... (you could have guessed)

I have two minor beefs with Sagan's book. The first has to do with his all-or-nothing view of belief. It's been my experience that I tend to hold beliefs of varying confidence. I am extremely confident, for example, that 2 + 2 = 4, but less so regarding the Schrödinger equation, though I believe it also. Do I believe in Hawking's theories of black hole formation? The theory fits the evidence, I'm told, so I'd put it in the "plausible" category. And so on. My second complaint involves his list of "fallacies" on pp. 212-215, many of which are not broadly logical fallacies at all. In fact, some of them betray a political bias, especially "inconsistency" and "short term vs. long term." He obviously disbelieves in mutually-assured destruction and believes in the necessity of space exploration, but were his reasons for belief based on unimpeachable reason in those cases?

The case for the Creator: a journalist investigates scientific evidence that points toward God

Lee Strobel

Strobel has a background as a hard-hitting, "just-the-facts" reporter, and as an atheist. He has, however, left much of that incredulity behind since becoming a Christian. This book's format largely mirrors his previous books The Case for Faith and The Case for Christ, presenting its cumulative case by way of interviews pieced together with personal narratives. There are no hostile witnesses in this book, which is disappointing; Strobel gives his former opinions as the other side, but this device tends to generate straw men rather than solid objections. Nevertheless, he asks at least one tough question per interview. The material in this book gives a decent overview of the in-vogue cosmological, astronomical, and biological (Intelligent Design) arguments for Christian theism -- it's "Reason for the Hope Within-lite." Its hidden curriculum can be contrasted with Pennock's book, listed below.

Intelligent design creationism and its critics: philosophical, theological, and scientific perspectives

Robert Pennock, editor

Rather than attempt to read Behe, Dempski, and Johnson -- to say nothing of the Discovery Institute's burgeoning library of follow-ups -- I recommend this comprehensive, albeit biased, collection. It includes the core arguments for the evolution-as-atheism of Johnson, the irreducible complexity of Behe, and the abstruse "complex specified information" argument of Dempski, as well as Plantinga's peripheral contributions to the area. Rebuttals by well-known evolution proponents follow each article, differing in quality and viewpoint. Curiously, ID proponents don't get a chance to give short remarks on the rebuttals, unlike what is customary in this type of collection. The real reason to check out this volume is to see firsthand the catcalling and stereotypes that each side sometimes employs. In one instance, Johnson writes a three-page note attempting to demonstrate Darwinism as incoherent by (dubiously) linking it to "a form of dualism." Dawkins responds with a paragraph of rebuttal and another page of vitriol against the eeevil lawyer Johnson and how he's been educated beyond his ability to form rational thought. I'm not exaggerating; that's practically a quote.

By the way, I wouldn't bother with Pennock's shorter treatise, Tower of Babel. His best arguments are contained in the larger volume (he at least thinks that he's being fair); and while his discussion on the similarities between Intelligent Design theorists and Raelians is amusing, his analogical argument against ID by way of "evolutionary linguistics" and a literal Babel story is too confused to be of much use.

The Genesis flood: the Biblical record and its scientific implications

John Whitcomb and Henry Morris

Actually, I'm not recommending that you read this book, but take a look at least. It's important to the debate largely due to its grand-daddy status as the bedrock of "creation-science." Using the Scriptures as their ultimate guide, Whitcomb and Morris shoehorned every century-old idea they could into making the facts of geology fit the Genesis story. This is young-earth creationism at its most beguiling, generated by men whose devotion to a literal reading of the Bible trumped science, no matter what the evidence. For their part, I'm sure they felt this philosophical commitment was necessary. But the political odium that belonged to them has been accrued to all other Christian scientists. I suspect that every time a militant Darwinian picks up a book questioning evolution, they read that book as though they're reading this one.


Anything written by
Stephen Jay Gould

Well, maybe not anything. Gould may very well have been the most prolix scientist in history. His passionate, wide-ranging, and fantastically urbane essays, liberally festooned with truly sophisticated adjectives and obscure Latin sayings, left readers in awe of his wordsmithery. To that end, I submit that his baseball book, Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville, is likely a good read; his real strength in natural history emphasized the history, as Time's Arrow, Time's Cycle ably demonstrated. But Gould's coruscating writing style largely got in the way of his scientific message. I wrestled in vain with his behemoth, 1,433-page The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, hoping to glean a thorough understanding of evolution in among the desultory ramblings on architecture, Baupläne, creationism, and many other things that I am loathe to further name abecedarially. Gould apparently believed that penning a simple declarative sentence would be the death of him. In fact, on many occasions in the book he seemed to be apologizing in advance for writing one! If there were such a thing as a Gould drinking game, "-- I can't think of another way to say this --" would be a social opportunity. (As it happens, he died shortly after publication, so maybe he had good reason to think thus.) On a more substantive note, many of his critics feel that Gould was unduly self-congratulatory, expertly weaving a slanted view of evolution which feels mystical and vaguely Marxist.

Incidentally, since Gould freely proclaimed his Marxism, his works stand particularly vulnerable to such charges. He held to the belief that some scientific research, such as sociobiology, should be resisted merely on the basis of its consequences to man's equality, regardless of its possible truth. His much-celebrated polemic The Mismeasure of Man, conveniently reprinted with new material contra The Bell Curve, illogically tried to crush all notions that there might be any utility in intelligence testing or that intelligence might be measurably different between populations. I don't happen to believe that Herrnstein and Murray had anything approaching proof, but they were not simply trumpeting pseudoscience. They were maligned in every public forum, largely by people who made no attempt to understand their work, simply because they had some evidence that intelligence was hereditary. Admittedly, it is a dangerous idea. Maybe Dennett would like to try his hand at this one.

Can a Darwinian be a Christian?: the relationship between science and religion

Michael Ruse

Ruse, it must be charitably said, seems like a nice guy. His books are thoroughly anti-polemical and he evenhandedly plumbs the social consequences of evolution in Mystery of Mysteries and From Monad to Man, pointing out everyone's biases along the way. Like Dawkins, Dennett, William Provine, and (strangely enough) ID bigwig Phillip Johnson, Ruse believes that if evolution is true, then naturalism is true. But unlike Dawkins, who is an evangelical atheologian, Ruse doesn't think that Darwinism necessarily gets in the way of Christianity. To be sure, one must be willing to accept an old earth and a continuous creation. And maybe that affects the status of Adam and Eve somewhat, but the spiritual message of the Fall and subsequent salvation history can be understood in an organism-agnostic context, even extending the grandeur of God's mercy to multiple galaxies. But his thoroughgoing naturalism damns Christians with faint praise. What, precisely, is left of Christianity after we deny all miracles, even the resurrection? Ruse's tenuous position doesn't feel much more comforting than Gould's non-overlapping magisteria, where religion reigns over everything... that isn't in the universe. I believe science and religion can be harmonized, but any paradigm that gives God no right to enter the world He created is a non-starter.

Posted by The Greatness at 04:07 AM | Comments (0)