NTS LogoSkeptical News for 25 September 2009

Archive of previous NTS Skeptical News listings


Friday, September 25, 2009

Evolution education update: September 25, 2009

A new drama about Darwin is scheduled to air on public television, while Creation found a theatrical distributor in the United States. Plus new selected content from RNCSE is now available.

DARWIN'S DARKEST HOUR

Darwin's Darkest Hour -- a new drama about Darwin's decision to publish his work on evolution -- will air on October 6, 2009, on public broadcasting stations around the country. According to a press release:

***

NOVA and National Geographic Television present the extraordinary human drama that led to the birth of the most influential scientific theory of all time. Acclaimed screenwriter John Goldsmith (David Copperfield, Victoria and Albert) brings to life Charles Darwin's greatest personal crisis: the anguishing decision over whether to "go public" with his theory of evolution. Darwin, portrayed by Henry Ian Cusick (Lost), spent years refining his ideas and penning his book the Origin of Species. Yet, daunted by looming conflict with the orthodox religious values of his day, he resisted publishing -- until a letter from naturalist Alfred Wallace forced his hand. In 1858, Darwin learned that Wallace was ready to publish ideas very similar to his own. In a sickened panic, Darwin grasped his dilemma: To delay publishing any longer would be to condemn all of his work to obscurity -- his voyage on the Beagle, his adventures in the Andes, the gauchos and bizarre fossils of Patagonia, the finches and giant tortoises of the Galapagos. But to come forward with his ideas risked the fury of the Church and perhaps a rift with his own devoted wife, Emma, portrayed by Frances O'Connor (Mansfield Park, The Importance of Being Earnest, Steven Spielberg's Artificial Intelligence), who was a strong believer in the view of creation and honestly feared for her husband's soul. Darwin's Darkest Hour is a moving drama about the birth of a great idea seen through the inspiration and personal sufferings of its brilliant originator.

***

Further information about the film, including a preview and interviews with John Goldsmith and Henry Ian Cusick, is available at NOVA's website. Information on finding local public broadcasting stations is available via PBS's website.

For the press release (PDF), visit:
http://streams.wgbh.org/online/pressroom/2009_09/NOVAFall09.pdf

For further information about the film, visit:
http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/darwin/index.html

For information on finding local stations, visit:
http://www.pbs.org/stationfinder/index.html

CREATION FINDS DISTRIBUTOR

The new film about Darwin, Creation, will be distributed in the United States after all, according to a story in the Hollywood Reporter (September 24, 2009). The film is expected to be released by Newmarket Films in December 2009. Earlier the producer of the film, Jeremy Thomas, lamented to the Telegraph (September 11, 2009), "It has got a deal everywhere else in the world but in the US, and it's because of what the film is about. ... It is unbelievable to us that this is still a really hot potato in America." A few days later, however, NBC Bay Area (September 15, 2009) reported that a distribution deal was imminent.

In her review of Creation at The Panda's Thumb blog, NCSE's executive director Eugenie C. Scott described it as "a thoughtful, well-made film that will change many views of Darwin held by the public -- for the good." It also received praise from Steve Jones in Time Out London (September 22, 2009), who called it "a great film about a great man and a greater theory" and by Adam Rutherford in his Guardian blog (September 23, 2009), where he wrote, "we should ... be grateful that this film is moving and beautiful, just like the creation Darwin so luminously untangled," adding, "Creationists the world over deserve to see it."

For the story in the Hollywood Reporter, visit:
http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/hr/content_display/film/news/e3icbd5f8a8048766fc75dfd9b5e88dfce1

For the stories in the Telegraph and NBC Bay Area, visit:
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/usa/6173399/Charles-Darwin-film-too-controversial-for-religious-America.html
http://www.nbcbayarea.com/entertainment/movies/Creation-May-Cause-Big-Bang-in-US-59246832.html

For Scott's, Jones's, and Rutherford's comments on Creation, visit:
http://pandasthumb.org/archives/2009/09/eugenie-scott-r.html
http://www.timeout.com/film/features/show-feature/8775/close-up-steve-jones-assesses-creation.html
http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2009/sep/23/darwin-creation-film

For Creation's website, visit:
http://creationthemovie.com/

CATCHING UP WITH RNCSE

Selected content from volume 29, number 3, of Reports of the National Center for Science Education is now available on NCSE's website. Featured are Steven Schaferman's report on the adoption of a seriously flawed set of science standards in Texas, along with NCSE's Joshua Rosenau's testimony before the Texas state board of education. And Donald R. Prothero reviews Jerry Coyne's Why Evolution is True, Andrea Bottaro reviews Kenneth R. Miller's Only a Theory, and Peter Dodson reviews Donald Prothero's Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters.

If you like what you see, why not subscribe to RNCSE today? In the next issue (volume 29, number 5), NCSE's Joshua Rosenau explains how the Institute for Creation Research distorted a Nobel laureate's views, while Raymond Eve reflects on his visit to Answers in Genesis's Creation Museum and Randy Moore describes his visit to Carl Baugh's Creation Evidence Museum. And there are reviews, too, including Charles Israel's review of Reframing Scopes and David Koerner's review of Why the Universe Is the Way It Is. Don't miss out -- subscribe now!

For the selected content from RNCSE 29:3, visit:
http://ncseweb.org/rncse/29/3

For subscription information, visit:
http://ncseweb.org/membership

Thanks for reading! And don't forget to visit NCSE's website -- http://ncseweb.org -- where you can always find the latest news on evolution education and threats to it.

Sincerely,

Glenn Branch
Deputy Director
National Center for Science Education, Inc.
420 40th Street, Suite 2
Oakland, CA 94609-2509
510-601-7203 x310
fax: 510-601-7204
800-290-6006
branch@ncseweb.org
http://ncseweb.org

Subscribe to NCSE's free weekly e-newsletter:
http://groups.google.com/group/ncse-news

NCSE is on Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter:
http://www.facebook.com/evolution.ncse
http://www.youtube.com/NatCen4ScienceEd
http://twitter.com/ncse

NCSE's work is supported by its members. Join today!
http://ncseweb.org/membership


Monday, September 21, 2009

Dawkins says creationism largely a US problem

http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/ireland/2009/0918/1224254802479.html

Friday, September 18, 2009

RICHARD DAWKINS was preaching to the converted in Dublin yesterday evening. That is apart from one disgruntled audience member who walked out after shouting at the author and calling him a self-parody.

The 68-year-old evolutionary biologist received a very warm welcome on his arrival at the RDS Concert Hall for a public address.

The majority of the 600-strong audience at last night's event were men. However, they spanned the age gap, from student-looking types in their 20s to men in business suits to grey-haired men with canes.

At the front, devotees intensely studied copies of Dawkins's new book, The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution, which he described last night as his missing link. All of his other books assumed that evolution was a fact and this plugged the gap, he said.

He was speaking as part of a talk organised by The Irish Times and Hughes and Hughes.

Dawkins said that while creationism was still largely an American problem, we needed to take stock of what was going on in the United States.

On this side of the Atlantic, Dawkins said that an influx of a very large Muslim population was difficult for scientists because Muslims believe that every single word of the Koran is true.

However, the protesting audience member accused Dawkins of trying to fight fundamentalism with his own form of fundamentalism.

Dawkins made an appeal to religious preachers who did not believe Adam and Eve were real but failed to explain this to their churchgoing audience during sermons.

He said the pope accepted evolution too, but disagreed at the juncture where the human soul was injected – a comment which was greeted with laughter from the crowd.

There were more supportive laughs as he read out extracts from his books.

Playing on his own nickname (Darwin's Rottweiler), he told the audience that Rottweilers were very sweet and charming dogs.

On evolution's future, he said that ordinary evolution was probably not going on in developed countries any more due to medical and lifestyle advances.

The future of evolution would not be based on survival of the fittest, but on reproduction of the fittest, he said.

This article appears in the print edition of the Irish Times Curriculum Matters http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/curriculum/2009/09/louisiana_rules_on_teaching_ma.html

A wide-ranging forum for discussing school curriculum across the subject areas.

Louisiana Rules on Evolution Teaching Materials Move Forward

When Louisiana officials recently passed a new law governing the classroom materials that can be used to cover evolution lessons, some predicted that controversy—and possibly lawsuits—would follow. Now a committee of the state board of education has signed off on new rules that seek to clarify how complaints and challenges stemming from the law will be handled in school districts.

Whether those rules clarify things, or merely roil the waters on the bayou, remains to be seen.

Here's the background:

Last year, Louisiana's legislature and Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal enacted a law that allows teachers to use supplemental classroom materials that will help students "analyze, critique, and review" scientific theories, including evolution. (The law also says teachers can use those materials for discussions of the "origins of life, global warming, and human cloning.") The measure specifies that teachers can use materials "as permitted by the city, parish, or other local public school board," but it also left it to Louisiana's Elementary and Secondary Board of Education to create rules and regulations for carrying out the law.

That's what a committee of the board recently set out to do. According to the Baton Rouge Advocate, which has been doggedly following the issue, if a parent or member of the public complains about a supplementary material, a five-member panel will be set up to review that objection. The panel will consist of two reviewers named by the department and one reviewer each named by the challenger, the school, and the publisher, according to the story. The panel is supposed to judge the materials on whether they "promote any religious doctrine," are "scientifically sound," and are grade-appropriate.

How do you foresee the new law playing out in Louisiana's science classrooms? Will the state's review process resemble what went on in Texas this year, with the state board debating the merits of the language in standards and textbooks? Given that seemingly any Louisiana district could propose a supplementary material—and anybody could challenge its scientific basis—will state hearings on these issues become a regular thing?

'Creation' Producer Called Out for 'Too Controversial for Religious America' Claim

http://www.christianpost.com/article/20090920/-creation-producer-called-out-for-too-controversial-for-religious-america-claim/index.html

A prominent young earth creationist said recent claims by the producer of the movie "Creation" are "nonsense" and simply part of an effort to create controversy and garner publicity.

Sun, Sep. 20, 2009 Posted: 11:29 PM EDT

A prominent young earth creationist said recent claims by the producer of the movie "Creation" are "nonsense" and simply part of an effort to create controversy and garner publicity.

In an interview with the London-based Telegraph ahead of last week's European premiere of "Creation," producer Jeremy Thomas had suggested that the debate over creation and evolution in America was what kept potential U.S. distributors of the Charles Darwin movie at bay.

"It has got a deal everywhere else in the world but in the U.S., and it's because of what the film is about," Thomas had said.

"People have been saying this is the best film they've seen all year, yet nobody in the U.S. has picked it up," he added. "It is unbelievable to us that this is still a really hot potato in America."

"Creation," which opened the Toronto Film Festival earlier this month and made its European premiere last Sunday, tells the story of Darwin and how the 19th-century naturalist's landmark work, "The Origin of Species," came to light.

It also reveals the world-renowned scientist as a dedicated family man struggling to accept his daughter's death and torn between his love for his deeply religious wife and his own "growing belief in a world where God has no place," according to the film's synopsis.

"You've got a film that is a very intimate biographical portrait of a man and that's a rich and beautiful and informing celebration of his life," said actor Benedict Cumberbatch, who stars in the movie as Joseph Dalton Hooker, one of the founders of geographical botany and Darwin's closest friend.

Despite the "very universal" storyline, the film's producer said "Creation" is apparently "too controversial for religious America."

"There's still a great belief that He (God) made the world in six days," Thomas told the Telegraph. "It's quite difficult for we (sic) in the U.K. to imagine religion in America. We live in a country which is no longer so religious. But in the U.S., outside of New York and LA, religion rules."

Ken Ham, founder of Answers in Genesis and the Creation museum, however, believes Thomas' claim is "nonsense."

"If a movie is controversial, I'm sure it would be shown - as it would probably get good attendance and make money," he commented Sunday. "And if the movie was anti-creation/anti-Christian, would that stop the movie industry taking it up? Not at all-to the contrary."

To make his point, Ham noted anti-Christian and anti-creationism movies such as Bill Maher's "Religulous" and "Inherit the Wind," which were shown in theaters nationwide.

"In fact, it seems to me that if a film attacks Christianity and is well produced, the movie industry in America would jump at the opportunity to show it to the public," he stated.

But that is if it would make money.

Ham suggested the reason why "Creation" has not picked up a U.S. distributor is because a film about the life of Charles Darwin may not do well in American theaters, though it might do well as a "docu-drama" on a television station such as the History Channel.

"I haven't seen the movie, but I have read a number of reviews - and it seems to me from what I've read that it is not really an exciting movie. Some have even called it 'boring,'" Ham stated.

That said, Ham reported that he does hope to hear from supporters of his ministry in the United Kingdom regarding the movie when it hits theaters there this Friday.

That is, however, if they do choose to spend money on such a movie.

Ham and his supporters, like other young earth creationists, ascribe to a literal understanding of the book of Genesis and therefore believe God created all things over the course of six literal days.

According to the Gallup organization, which has polled U.S. adults about their beliefs on evolution and creation since 1982, 44 percent of Americans surveyed last year said they believe God created man pretty much in his present form at one time within the last 10,000 years.

Thirty-six percent, meanwhile, said they believe that man has developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but that God guided the process, including man's creation.

Only 14 percent believe man has developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life and that God had no part in the process.

The figures have remained relatively the same over the past nearly three-decades, with the last group having shown a significant – though slight – increase.

Josh Kimball
Christian Post Reporter


Sunday, September 20, 2009

Court sides with persecuted student

http://www.onenewsnow.com/Education/Default.aspx?id=670374

Pete Chagnon - OneNewsNow - 9/7/2009 6:00:00 AM

California smallA California teacher has been told that he violated the Establishment Clause when he berated a student's religious beliefs.

Capistrano Unified School District history teacher James Corbett was sued by student Chad Farnan for calling his belief in Creationism "superstitious nonsense" and continually berating his religion in the classroom. Farnan even brought a tape recorder to class in order to document the tirades.

Now a California federal district court has ruled that Corbett's statements violated the Establishment Clause. Robert Tyler is with Advocates for Faith and Freedom, which represented Farnan.

"What we have done in this case is we have a ruling, the first ruling of its kind in the country, in that normally cases like this are brought against Christian teachers who share Robert Tyler (Advocates for Faith and Freedom)their faith in the classroom, who pray with a student, who do something that the left in this country would say, 'Wait a minute, you can't do that. That's a violation of separation of church and state,'" Tyler points out.

Tyler says the Constitution actually protects religious people from hostility from the government, and this ruling enforces that concept. He believes this ruling will set a precedent for other cases involving students who are ridiculed for their faith by government-employed teachers.

Judge: No financial damages from teacher

http://www.upi.com/Top_News/2009/09/18/Judge-No-financial-damages-from-teacher/UPI-53021253255585/

Published: Sept. 18, 2009 at 2:33 AM

SANTA ANA, Calif., Sept. 18 (UPI) -- A California high school student offended by a teacher's allegedly anti-Christian remark cannot collect financial damages, a federal judge says.

U.S. District Judge James Selna, who found in the spring that James Corbett, a teacher at Capistrano Valley High School in Mission Viejo, violated the First Amendment, said he is protected as a public employee from paying damages or legal fees, The Orange County Register reported.

Corbett, during a lecture in May 2007, called Creationism "religious superstitious nonsense." Chad Farnan, 17, went to court.

"Corbett is shielded from liability - not because he did not violate the Constitution, but because of the balance which must be struck to allow public officials to perform their duties," Selna said in his 33-page ruling Wednesday.

© 2009 United Press International, Inc.

OC teacher won't pay for anti-creationism remark

http://www.mercurynews.com/news/ci_13348886?nclick_check=1

The Associated Press
Posted: 09/16/2009 10:01:16 AM PDT
Updated: 09/16/2009 10:01:16 AM PDT

SANTA ANA, Calif.—An Orange County federal judge says a high school teacher who disparaged creationism in class violated a student's constitutional rights but won't pay any damages.

A ruling Tuesday effectively bars 17-year-old Chad Farnan of Mission Viejo from recovering damages or legal fees in his nearly 2-year-old lawsuit. The judge said James Corbett has federal immunity.

The teen's lawyer says he'll appeal.

The student claimed the Capistrano Valley High School teacher disparaged Christian beliefs and asked that he be fired or barred from making such comments.

The judge rejected that but ruled in May that Corbett had violated constitutional restrictions on government establishment of religion by referring to creationism as "religious, superstitious nonsense."

Information from: The Orange County Register, http://www.ocregister.com

Teacher won't pay damages for anti-creationism remarks

http://www.onenewsnow.com/Legal/Default.aspx?id=685810

Associated Press - 9/17/2009 7:20:00 AM

SANTA ANA, CA - A federal judge says a California high school teacher who disparaged creationism in class violated a student's constitutional rights, but won't have to pay any damages.

The ruling Tuesday effectively bars 17-year-old Chad Farnan of Mission Viejo from recovering damages or legal fees in his nearly 2-year-old lawsuit.

Judge James Selna ruled in May that Capistrano Valley High School teacher James Corbett violated constitutional restrictions on government establishment of religion by referring to creationism as "religious, superstitious nonsense."

But Selna rejected Farnan's request that Corbett be fired or barred from making such comments in the future, and ruled that the teacher has federal immunity from being held liable.

The teen's lawyer says he'll appeal that ruling.

MINIATURE T-REX DINOSAUR DISCOVERY OVERTURNS EVOLUTION THEORIES

http://www.express.co.uk/posts/view/128349/Miniature-T-rex-dinosaur-discovery-overturns-evolution-theories

Friday September 18,2009
By Emily Garnham for express.co.uk

A TINY version of Cretaceous killing machine the Tyrannosaurus Rex has been unearthed in China.

The 9ft dinosaur, called Raptorex, is almost identical to the carnivorous king with its puny forearms and athletic hind legs.

But the Raptorex - which predates the T-rex by 60 million years - is also 100 times lighter.

Experts say the discovery of the 'tinysaurus' has "thrown a wrench" into scientific understandings of evolution.

Stephen Brusatte, from the American Museum of Natural History in New York, who worked on the finds, said the discovery overturned previous thinking about tyrannosaurs.

He said: "Much of what we thought we knew about tyrannosaur evolution turns out to be simplistic or out and out wrong.

He pointed out the body design of T-rex was highly unusual, in particular the creature's enormous head and "pathetically tiny" forearms.

Previously it had been assumed the odd features of giant tyrannosaurs developed purely as a result of growing so big, enabling the dinosaurs to continue operating as efficient predators.

Earlier finds in the fossil record appeared to support the idea, showing changes that occurred as the animals got bigger.

He said: "Raptorex really throws a wrench into this observed pattern.

"Here we have an animal that's one ninetieth or one hundredth of the size of Tyrannosaurus Rex but with all the signature features that were thought to be necessary adaptations for a large-bodied predator.

"In short, we can say that these features did not evolve as a consequence of large body size, but rather they evolved as part of an efficient set of predatory weapons in an animal that was just one hundredth of the size of T-rex and lived 60 million years before T-rex.

"One new specimen can completely change our understanding about the evolution of ancient life."

An almost complete Raptorex skeleton was removed illicitly from an area of rich fossil-bearing rocks called the Yixian Formation in Inner Mongolia, north-eastern China.

The bones were bought by a private collector, Henry Kliegstein, who turned them over to US scientists at the University of Chicago.

A team led by Dr Paul Serano examined the fossils, which included the skull, teeth, nose, spine, shoulders, forearms, pelvis and hind legs.

Its skull revealed the creature's brain possessed the same enlarged olfactory bulbs as T-rex, indicating a highly developed sense of smell.

Raptorex, which lived 125 million-years-ago, had a body length of no more than three metres and weighed 65 kilograms, or 10 stone - about the same as an average human.

In contrast T-rex measured 40 feet (12.4 metres), stood 15 to 20 feet high, and weighed between five and seven tons.

Dr Serano said: "We have a new genus and a species of dinosaur. It's a very complete specimen.. but what's really important about it is not just that it's new; it's a blueprint for what would become in later years - one of the great radiations of predatory dinosaurs."

Tyrannosaurs only grew to colossal size in the last 25 million years of their reign, which lasted until the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, said Mr Brusatte.

The new evidence suggested that for most of their time on Earth, tyrannosaurs may actually have been quite small creatures living in the shadow of larger dinosaurs.

Dr Serano said: "We can begin to stage tyrannosaur evolution into an even earlier stage before Raptorex where just a few of these features give us an inclination that there was a branch of the tree headed towards the tyrannosaur radiation.

"Then we come to Raptorex at 125 million years when the body plan was put together, and then at about 90 million years that body size was ramped up 50 times and then almost 100 times during the late Cretaceous."

Time to evolve

http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2009/sep/19/creation-charles-darwin-us-release

John Patterson

He's a national treasure here, but to many Americans, Charles Darwin is the antichrist. Who will dare release his biopic there, asks John Patterson

The news that Creation, Jon Amiel's biopic of Charles Darwin, made it all the way through the Toronto Film Festival - at which it was the opening-night feature - without securing an American distributor proves once and for all that the only kind of science the American religious right is prepared to put up with is science-fiction.

1. Creation
2. Production year: 2009
3. Country: UK
4. Directors: Jon Amiel
5. Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Jennifer Connelly, Jeremy Northam, Paul Bettany, Toby Jones

However, I'm astonished to learn that its producer, Jeremy Thomas, is "astonished" at the lukewarm American interest in the movie. The briefest glance at the low priority granted to science during the Bush administration is enough to show that - where objectively verifiable facts are concerned - the American right has taken a giant leap backwards, down to the knuckle-dragging, bulging-forehead stage of the evolutionary table. Just don't try telling these folks that their grandaddy was a chimp: they may have the smallest brains in America, but they also have the biggest guns.

All summer, thanks to the rancorous healthcare debate, we in the US have been favoured with an extended look right down the gullet - the yawning maw - of the fundamentalist American right. If we thought we had buried the hatreds of the past when we elected a black president a year ago, this summer was a salutary reminder that you just can't kill ignorance and religious bigotry, especially if large and wealthy corporations put their money behind it. This is a country where billionaires like Howard F Ahmanson Jr use their vast fortunes to inseminate such science-hating think-tanks as the Discovery Institute and the public-stoning-friendly Chalcedon Foundation - whose essential mission is, to quote Ahmanson himself, "The total integration of biblical law into our lives" (Handmaid's Tale alert!). People of this disposition cannot accept that we are somehow related to monkeys. You can say that about the new president, but not about the ape-like thugs shouting down US senators nationwide throughout August.

In contentedly secular Britain, meanwhile, Darwin's bicentenary has prompted a surge of national pride, which is perfectly appropriate when your country has produced the Einstein, the Galileo, the Turing of the natural sciences.

In America, the right has demonised On The Origin Of Species as if it were Mein Kampf ("Darwin: a racist, a bigot and 1800s naturalist whose legacy is mass murder" says Christian website Movieguide), with the result that a field theory condoned by 99% of scientists is only believed in by a paltry 43% of US citizens.

It's therefore a pity that no venturesome distributor was prepared to stand up at Toronto and make a killing on the facts: nothing sells movie tickets like a good controversy, and it's time we secularists stood up for what could potentially be our equivalent of The Passion Of The Christ.

'The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution'

http://www.stltoday.com/stltoday/entertainment/reviews.nsf/book/story/E93A5AF57287B6598625763500702B9F?OpenDocument

By Harper Barnes
SPECIAL TO THE POST-DISPATCH
09/20/2009

I'm probably the wrong person to review the latest book on evolution by Richard Dawkins. "The Greatest Show on Earth" is theoretically aimed at people Dawkins refers to as "history-deniers," putting those who do not believe in evolution into the same rhetorical niche as people who loudly reject the Holocaust.

I, on the other hand, think that the theory of evolution is one of the grandest and most beautiful ideas ever conceived by man, a dazzlingly simple truth that embraces almost infinite complexity. It may well be the greatest show on earth.

I make that personal point because I fear that the only people who will read Dawkins' book are people who agree with him, except for a few professional anti-evolutionists who will scan it looking for ways to attack it. The British biologist's arrogant tone — "history-deniers," indeed — won't help attract nonbelievers.

But more importantly, there are plenty of good books out there that explain evolution in relatively simple terms, including several by Dawkins himself. And if those books haven't done the job, this one won't do it, either.

Dawkins is known for being anti-religious; a previous book was titled "The God Delusion." But this time, after mentioning that many religious leaders, including the archbishop of Canterbury and the pope, have "no problem" reconciling Christianity with evolution, Dawkins writes, "This is a book about the positive evidence that evolution is a fact. It is not intended as an anti-religious book."

He is careful to mention that he has worked with religious leaders to issue joint statements in support of evolution.

Dawkins' new book is at its best when it introduces new research and findings. Particularly fascinating is Dawkins' story of the scientists who have worked for 20 years with the E. coli strain of bacteria, putting countless millions of the little critters into various environments and keeping track of them through 45,000 generations — more than enough for, say, Homo erectus to evolve into Homo sapiens.

The experiment led to wide genetic and physical variations in various batches that seemingly can be accounted for only by natural selection. But such evidence is, I suspect, not going to change any minds.

"Well, sure," an anti-evolutionist might say, "bacteria might be affected by their environments, but that doesn't mean men came from monkeys."

To that sort of argument, Dawkins responds by pointing out that, in the past half-century, dozens and dozens of fossils have been found of extinct creatures that seem to be at various stages of intermediacy between apes and humans. The "missing link" is no longer missing: There are a lot of links. But that argument will go nowhere with those who have chosen by reasons of faith to reject evolution.

Dawkins frustratingly demonstrates that very point by quoting at length from a transcript of a debate he had with a creationist who, in the end, thought she had trumped everything he had said about fossils discovered in Africa and Asia by replying that she believed in "a loving God who created each one of us."

"The Greatest Show on Earth" is not going to win any converts, and Dawkins does himself a disservice with his explosions of rhetoric and his lengthy dissertations on such peripheral matters as nuclear physics and plate tectonics, both of which could be dealt with in a few paragraphs.

If you're looking for a good introduction to the theory of evolution, I could recommend some better books, including a couple of fairly recent ones: the wonderfully anecdotal "The Beak of the Finch" by Jonathan Weiner, which shows the author observing evolution happening in real time in the Galapagos islands; and Dawkins' excellent "The Selfish Gene," which explains, among other things, why survival of the fittest doesn't necessarily end with one man standing over the bloody bodies of all the rest of us.

Harper Barnes is the author of "

Never Been a Time
," a history of the 1917 East St. Louis race riot.


Saturday, September 19, 2009

Evolution education update: September 18, 2009

The leading exponent of Islamic creationism is unflatteringly profiled in New Humanist, while the new film about Darwin, Creation, is favorably reviewed by NCSE's executive director.

HARUN YAHYA EXPOSED IN NEW HUMANIST

A long, and occasionally lurid, story about Harun Yahya and the resurgence of Islamic creationism appears in the September/October 2009 issue of New Humanist. "Inspired by the high profile of its Christian American counterpart, Muslim creationism is becoming increasingly visible and confident," writes Halil Arda. "The patron saint of this new movement, the ubiquitous 'expert' cited and referenced by those eager to demonstrate the superiority of 'Koranic science' over 'the evolution lie', is the larger-than-life figure of Harun Yahya," the pseudonymous leader of the Science Research Foundation, headquartered in Istanbul, Turkey.

Although Islamic creationism is often regarded as a curiosity in the West, it is "treated far more seriously across the Muslim world," Arda warns. "From daily newspapers in Egypt and Bosnia to influential satellite TV stations like al-Jazeera and (the Iran-funded) Press TV, to small Muslim broadcasters in the West like Radio Ummah and Radio Ramadan, Harun Yahya's argument, with its appearance of scientific credibility, its crowd-pleasing critique of Western materialism and its promise of the imminent collapse of the 'Darwinist Dictatorship', is enthusiastically welcomed by a new audience hungry for compensatory narratives of Islamic superiority."

But how did a young interior design student named Adnan Oktar transform himself into the undisputed leader of the Islamic creationist movement? According to Arda, "Combining his undoubted charisma (something even his most ardent opponents concede) with a gift for manipulation, Oktar set out to build a cult around himself ... targeting disaffected but affluent and educated young people, insisting they turn their worldly goods over to the cult, and vigorously enforcing rigid hierarchies and punitive rules." As the group coalesced, "discipline was maintained through humiliation, the threat of expulsion and physical violence."

With a cadre of dedicated followers and their resources at his disposal, Oktar was able to gain political and economic influence with Turkey's Islamist Welfare Party in the mid-1990s. After the party was disbanded in 1997, however, Oktar turned to antievolutionism. In 1998, Arda writes, the Science Research Foundation, founded by Oktar in 1990, "launched its campaign against Darwinism, distributing tens of thousands of free copies of his book The Evolution Deceit in Turkey, paving the way for the Atlas of Creation and Oktar's new role as the spokesman for Muslim creationism."

The form of creationism adopted by Harun Yahya's group is not constant. The Science Research Foundation originally adopted its antievolution arguments from young-earth creationist organizations in the United States, but discarded claims about a young earth and a global flood flood not vouched for by the Qur'an or Islamic tradition. Subsequently, it evinced a degree of sympathy for "intelligent design" creationism instead, employing catchphrases like "irreducible complexity" and using the phrase "intelligent design" as equivalent with "creation." Later, however, Harun Yahya denounced "intelligent design" as insufficiently Islamic.

Arda comments, "Oktar's ideological and political promiscuity seem to support the claim that he has no genuine beliefs at all, and merely opportunistically jumps on issues which will further his notoriety, following the lead of smarter followers. As one former follower told me, 'We had something to please everybody: Ataturk, namaz (prayer), creationism and, if need be, cocaine.'" But his influence may be waning: in 2008, Oktar was sentenced to three years in prison for "creating an illegal organization for personal gain," and Arda reports that he is expected to lose his final appeal to Turkey's Supreme Court, with a decision expected in October 2009.

Contemplating the rise of Harun Yahya, Arda concludes, "Thanks to the 'War on Terror', Oktar could paint himself as a credible alternative to radical Islam; thanks to our timidity and incompetence around issues of faith he can gain credibility as a representative of Muslim sentiment and a champion of 'inter-faith dialogue'. And, most of all, for many disoriented Muslims, he provides a compelling vision of a superior Islamic science. He is a deluded megalomaniac who has artfully exploited the global resurgence of religious sentiment to cheat us all. A ludicrous man for ludicrous times."

For the article in New Humanist, visit:
http://newhumanist.org.uk/2131

For NCSE's previous coverage of Islamic creationism, visit:
http://ncseweb.org/rncse/19/6/cloning-creationism-turkey
http://ncseweb.org/rncse/19/6/islamic-scientific-creationism
http://ncseweb.org/rncse/26/5/turkish-creationist-movement-tours-american-college-campuses

EUGENIE C. SCOTT REVIEWS CREATION

In a guest post at The Panda's Thumb blog, NCSE's executive director Eugenie C. Scott reviewed the new film about Darwin, Creation, describing it as "a thoughtful, well-made film that will change many views of Darwin held by the public -- for the good." She described the science as accurate if limited and the history as satisfactory if not wholly accurate, explaining, "This isn't a documentary about Darwin, it's a movie about Darwin. And there's a difference. With the latter, you don't expect absolute fealty to the historical record -- though you don't have to -- and shouldn't -- accept wholesale violations."

Most important, Scott insisted, is the film's sympathetic and detailed portrayal of Darwin (played by Paul Bettany) as flesh and blood, as "a passionate, loving human being" as well as a dedicated investigator of the natural world. "By telling an interesting story, and making Darwin human," she wrote, "Creation will I think encourage some viewers to find out more about the historical Darwin and his ideas. From my standpoint as director of NCSE, that's useful, indeed. The more people know about evolution and its most famous proponent, the less they will fear it."

It is not yet clear whether Creation will find a distributor in the United States. The producer, Jeremy Thomas, told the Telegraph (September 11, 2009), "It has got a deal everywhere else in the world but in the US, and it's because of what the film is about. ... It is unbelievable to us that this is still a really hot potato in America." A few days thereafter, however, NBC Bay Area (September 15, 2009) reported that a distribution deal was imminent, quoting a spokesperson for the film as saying, "There is now a bidding war for the film in the US. A US deal will be in place by the end of the week."

For Scott's review, visit:
http://pandasthumb.org/archives/2009/09/eugenie-scott-r.html

For information about Creation, visit:
http://creationthemovie.com/

For the article in the Telegraph, visit:
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/usa/6173399/Charles-Darwin-film-too-controversial-for-religious-America.html

For the article from NBC Bay Area, visit:
http://www.nbcbayarea.com/entertainment/movies/Creation-May-Cause-Big-Bang-in-US-59246832.html

Thanks for reading! And don't forget to visit NCSE's website -- http://ncseweb.org -- where you can always find the latest news on evolution education and threats to it.

-- Sincerely,

Glenn Branch
Deputy Director
National Center for Science Education, Inc.
420 40th Street, Suite 2
Oakland, CA 94609-2509
510-601-7203 x310
fax: 510-601-7204
800-290-6006
branch@ncseweb.org
http://ncseweb.org

Eugenie C. Scott's Evolution vs. Creationism -- now in its second edition!
http://ncseweb.org/evc

Not in Our Classrooms: Why Intelligent Design Is Wrong for Our Schools
http://ncseweb.org/nioc

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Sunday, September 13, 2009

Saving gods by making them even emptier of meaning

http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2009/09/saving_gods_by_making_them_eve.php

Category: Religion
Posted on: September 12, 2009 10:14 AM, by PZ Myers

I was having a conversation with a colleague last night, and one of the things we were talking about is the way modern religion has rushed to emulate the trappings of science, where every explanation must have an epistemological foundation in real world observations. A paradigmatic example is Ken Ham's bizarre Creation "Museum", which on the one hand repeatedly rejects the power of human reason, while on the other constantly throws up pseudo-scientific displays that mimic those of real museums, trying to illustrate the apocalyptic fever dreams of a world-destroying flood with mechanistic explanations, from floating islands of logs that carried the koalas to Australia to faux-authentic maps of the path of the tidal wave that killed everyone; the literature of creationism is also thick with 'feasibility studies' of the engineering of the Ark, estimates of how many species could have fit aboard, peculiar adoptions of physics software that, by diddling certain inputs, they use to justify such nonsense as hydroplate theory, explanations of the distribution of fossils by hydrologic sorting, etc., etc., etc. Witness also the recent small surge of creationists maneuvering to get Ph.D.s from prestigious institutions, from Berkeley to Harvard, not with the intent of doing actual scientific research, but because it adds an illusion of authority to their apologetics and denial of science.

What we are witnessing is the obvious bankruptcy of spiritual thought. We know it, and they know it; it is not sufficient to declare the Noachian Flood to be a miracle, a catastrophe conjured up in an instant with a snap of God's omnipotent fingers, with all of its traces magically erased or juggled by God for God's ineffable purposes. It is not enough to say that God willed that trilobites would come to rest in certain layers of Flood sediments, and the bones of mammals would be buried in yet another graveyard of stone; no, they must invent natural processes that assist their enfeebled deity, that sound more plausible than that their god placed each dead clam in its final resting place, one by one, with loving attention to its stratigraphic layer and accompanying fauna.

Their work is an admission of failure. They are struggling to embed their deity in the natural universe of Newton and Darwin, steadily stripping him of powers in order to accommodate themselves to a very human success story, the power of rational, scientific thought, while somehow, they hope, not losing god among the protons and black holes and mitochondria and ion fluxes across neuronal membranes. It's not working. They dream of shackling dinosaurs to help them popularize creationist apologetics, but it only works if the people don't look too closely, don't get so enthralled with the gimmick that they look more deeply at the evidence than at the faith message, and discover that the creationists are lying to them. They are lost because they are praising the evidence of the natural world rather than the unfounded revelations of spiritual guesswork, and at some point, some people are going to notice the bait-and-switch of using dinosaurs to sell god.

At least some people are noticing, though. The Wall Street Journal commissioned Karen Armstrong and Richard Dawkins to answer the same question: Where does evolution leave God?. Of course, Richard Dawkins slams that one out of the park. Evolution leaves the gods nowhere, with nothing to do. The world trundles along on the laws of physics, with never a violation in sight, and god has become a cosmic irrelevancy, and worse, a boojum that defies reason and evidence. We have no need of that hypothesis, and it is nothing more than an obstacle to comprehension.

Karen Armstrong takes a different tack. She has noticed that religion has been busily undermining itself by coupling faith to fact. When theologians accept the explanations of science and try to absorb them into their religious understanding, they are binding their notion of god to a rather more limited body of abilities; now God's actions are suddenly constrained by E=MC2. Not that they would say such a thing, of course; God is omnipotent, so he can break all the speed limits if he wanted to, he just chooses not to. She admits that Darwin has created a crisis for religious thought because "Christians [had] become so dependent upon their scientific religion that they had lost the older habits of thought and were left without other resource."

For once, I agree with Armstrong. She's precisely correct — rational thinking, evidence-based reasoning, and science in general are inimical to the spiritual state of mind, and draw us away from superstition and other failed modes of thinking. What has occurred over the course of the last few centuries is a growing (but by no means universal or certain) recognition that science gets the job done, while religion makes excuses. Sometimes they are very pretty excuses that capture the imagination of the public, but ultimately, when you want to win a war or heal a dying child or get rich from a discovery or explore Antarctica, you turn to science and reason, or you fail.

If you're one of these New Atheists, the lesson is obvious: ditch the useless faith, and follow science. But then, we're the results-oriented children of the Enlightenment, so of course we prefer to do what actually works. If you're a die-hard faith-head like Karen Armstrong, though, you instead turn to that religious style of thinking, and make excuses for happily following the path of failure and nebulous, airy-fairy know-nothingness.

But Darwin may have done religion--and God--a favor by revealing a flaw in modern Western faith. Despite our scientific and technological brilliance, our understanding of God is often remarkably undeveloped--even primitive. In the past, many of the most influential Jewish, Christian and Muslim thinkers understood that what we call "God" is merely a symbol that points beyond itself to an indescribable transcendence, whose existence cannot be proved but is only intuited by means of spiritual exercises and a compassionate lifestyle that enable us to cultivate new capacities of mind and heart.

Neat trick, that; she takes the notion of a worldly god, one tied to the operation of the world, and calls that "primitive", while suggesting that a god that is a symbol, a transcendence, a spiritual (whatever that word means) intuition, is somehow the more sophisticated god. As Dawkins explains, mere existence and effect are trifles with which a truly awesome god does not trouble himself. Armstrong carries it even further: her god is a sublime state which we can only appreciate by contemplating the pain and suffering of life and distancing ourselves from it — god seems to be that which we get when we reject the universe. She even asserts that religion explains nothing, as if this were a positive attribute.

Religion was not supposed to provide explanations that lay within the competence of reason but to help us live creatively with realities for which there are no easy solutions and find an interior haven of peace

Shorter Karen Armstrong: Ignorance is bliss.

I don't want to live peacefully with difficult realities, and I see no virtue in savoring excuses for avoiding a search for real answers. I am the product of millions of generations of individuals who each fought against a hostile universe and won, and I aim to maintain the tradition. I want my children to do the same, and I want all of my fellow human beings to struggle to wrest a better world from the rocks and gasses and radiation of this universe we find ourselves in. There are no easy solutions. Each of us can think of a thousand thorny problems, from the personal to the global, and we all know this: we will not solve them by going to church and kneeling down and praising an immaterial god whose primary attribute in the sloganeering of theologians like Armstrong is that he is a symbol of that which doesn't exist.

In my conversation last night, my friend reminded me of a quote from Friedrich Nietzsche that is appropriate here: "Mystical explanations are thought to be deep; the truth is that they are not even shallow." Let's work to spare humankind from further further religious 'thought', that shallow pretentiousness with delusions of profundity.

God, Science, and Evolution (RJS)

http://blog.beliefnet.com/jesuscreed/2009/09/god-science-and-evolution-rjs.html

Friday September 11, 2009
Categories: Science and Faith

Yesterday we finished off a discussion of John H. Walton's fascinating look at The Lost World of Genesis One. In the discussion of scientific explanations of origins in proposition 16, p. 136 Walton draws an analogy (He uses a few examples, I am going to paraphrase a bit to use only one example).

We believe that God controls the weather, yet we do not denounce meteorologists who produce their weather maps day to day based on the predictability of natural cause and effect processes. Can evolution be thought of in similar terms?

It would be unacceptable to adopt an evolutionary view without God. But it would likewise be unacceptable to adopt ... meteorology as [a process] without God. The fact that ... meteorology [does] not identify God's role, or that many ... meteorologists do not believe God has a role makes no difference. We can accept the results of ...meteorology (regardless of the beliefs of the scientists) as processes we believe describe in part God's way of working. ... Why should our response to evolution be any different?

I would like to pose a few questions today as a wrap on Walton's book - and as a lead in to future posts on the questions of science and faith or intellectual integrity and how it melds with the Christian faith.

Why is an evolutionary explanation for the development of life a concern - but predictability in weather and an underlying assumption of naturalism in the description of weather is not a concern?

Why are intelligent design or the suggestion that the Cambrian explosion undermines Darwinian evolution appealing ideas? What does it achieve to cast doubt on evolutionary biology?

Why don't we try to cast doubt on current theories of weather based on the assumption of naturalism, or organize campaigns to force our public schools to offer the theological alternative of God's role in the discussion of weather and meteorology?

Why should our schools specifically teach the cutting edge questions that pose "problems" in evolutionary theory - but not in any other science? (After all the entry level teaching of any science in high school brushes a myriad of complications under the rug - as does much of the intro undergraduate curriculum for that matter.)

What do you think?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail [at] att.net.

Man vs. God

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203440104574405030643556324.html

Richard Dawkins has been right all along, of course—at least in one important respect. Evolution has indeed dealt a blow to the idea of a benign creator, literally conceived. It tells us that there is no Intelligence controlling the cosmos, and that life itself is the result of a blind process of natural selection, in which innumerable species failed to survive. The fossil record reveals a natural history of pain, death and racial extinction, so if there was a divine plan, it was cruel, callously prodigal and wasteful. Human beings were not the pinnacle of a purposeful creation; like everything else, they evolved by trial and error and God had no direct hand in their making. No wonder so many fundamentalist Christians find their faith shaken to the core.

But Darwin may have done religion—and God—a favor by revealing a flaw in modern Western faith. Despite our scientific and technological brilliance, our understanding of God is often remarkably undeveloped—even primitive. In the past, many of the most influential Jewish, Christian and Muslim thinkers understood that what we call "God" is merely a symbol that points beyond itself to an indescribable transcendence, whose existence cannot be proved but is only intuited by means of spiritual exercises and a compassionate lifestyle that enable us to cultivate new capacities of mind and heart.

But by the end of the 17th century, instead of looking through the symbol to "the God beyond God," Christians were transforming it into hard fact. Sir Isaac Newton had claimed that his cosmic system proved beyond doubt the existence of an intelligent, omniscient and omnipotent creator, who was obviously "very well skilled in Mechanicks and Geometry." Enthralled by the prospect of such cast-iron certainty, churchmen started to develop a scientifically-based theology that eventually made Newton's Mechanick and, later, William Paley's Intelligent Designer essential to Western Christianity.

But the Great Mechanick was little more than an idol, the kind of human projection that theology, at its best, was supposed to avoid. God had been essential to Newtonian physics but it was not long before other scientists were able to dispense with the God-hypothesis and, finally, Darwin showed that there could be no proof for God's existence. This would not have been a disaster had not Christians become so dependent upon their scientific religion that they had lost the older habits of thought and were left without other resource.

Symbolism was essential to premodern religion, because it was only possible to speak about the ultimate reality—God, Tao, Brahman or Nirvana—analogically, since it lay beyond the reach of words. Jews and Christians both developed audaciously innovative and figurative methods of reading the Bible, and every statement of the Quran is called an ayah ("parable"). St Augustine (354-430), a major authority for both Catholics and Protestants, insisted that if a biblical text contradicted reputable science, it must be interpreted allegorically. This remained standard practice in the West until the 17th century, when in an effort to emulate the exact scientific method, Christians began to read scripture with a literalness that is without parallel in religious history.

Most cultures believed that there were two recognized ways of arriving at truth. The Greeks called them mythos and logos. Both were essential and neither was superior to the other; they were not in conflict but complementary, each with its own sphere of competence. Logos ("reason") was the pragmatic mode of thought that enabled us to function effectively in the world and had, therefore, to correspond accurately to external reality. But it could not assuage human grief or find ultimate meaning in life's struggle. For that people turned to mythos, stories that made no pretensions to historical accuracy but should rather be seen as an early form of psychology; if translated into ritual or ethical action, a good myth showed you how to cope with mortality, discover an inner source of strength, and endure pain and sorrow with serenity.

In the ancient world, a cosmology was not regarded as factual but was primarily therapeutic; it was recited when people needed an infusion of that mysterious power that had—somehow—brought something out of primal nothingness: at a sickbed, a coronation or during a political crisis. Some cosmologies taught people how to unlock their own creativity, others made them aware of the struggle required to maintain social and political order. The Genesis creation hymn, written during the Israelites' exile in Babylonia in the 6th century BC, was a gentle polemic against Babylonian religion. Its vision of an ordered universe where everything had its place was probably consoling to a displaced people, though—as we can see in the Bible—some of the exiles preferred a more aggressive cosmology.

There can never be a definitive version of a myth, because it refers to the more imponderable aspects of life. To remain effective, it must respond to contemporary circumstance. In the 16th century, when Jews were being expelled from one region of Europe after another, the mystic Isaac Luria constructed an entirely new creation myth that bore no resemblance to the Genesis story. But instead of being reviled for contradicting the Bible, it inspired a mass-movement among Jews, because it was such a telling description of the arbitrary world they now lived in; backed up with special rituals, it also helped them face up to their pain and discover a source of strength.

Religion was not supposed to provide explanations that lay within the competence of reason but to help us live creatively with realities for which there are no easy solutions and find an interior haven of peace; today, however, many have opted for unsustainable certainty instead. But can we respond religiously to evolutionary theory? Can we use it to recover a more authentic notion of God?

Darwin made it clear once again that—as Maimonides, Avicenna, Aquinas and Eckhart had already pointed out—we cannot regard God simply as a divine personality, who single-handedly created the world. This could direct our attention away from the idols of certainty and back to the "God beyond God." The best theology is a spiritual exercise, akin to poetry. Religion is not an exact science but a kind of art form that, like music or painting, introduces us to a mode of knowledge that is different from the purely rational and which cannot easily be put into words. At its best, it holds us in an attitude of wonder, which is, perhaps, not unlike the awe that Mr. Dawkins experiences—and has helped me to appreciate —when he contemplates the marvels of natural selection.

But what of the pain and waste that Darwin unveiled? All the major traditions insist that the faithful meditate on the ubiquitous suffering that is an inescapable part of life; because, if we do not acknowledge this uncomfortable fact, the compassion that lies at the heart of faith is impossible. The almost unbearable spectacle of the myriad species passing painfully into oblivion is not unlike some classic Buddhist meditations on the First Noble Truth ("Existence is suffering"), the indispensable prerequisite for the transcendent enlightenment that some call Nirvana—and others call God.

—Ms. Armstrong is the author of numerous books on theology and religious affairs. The latest, "The Case for God," will be published by Knopf later this month.

Richard Dawkins argues that evolution leaves God with nothing to do

Before 1859 it would have seemed natural to agree with the Reverend William Paley, in "Natural Theology," that the creation of life was God's greatest work. Especially (vanity might add) human life. Today we'd amend the statement: Evolution is the universe's greatest work. Evolution is the creator of life, and life is arguably the most surprising and most beautiful production that the laws of physics have ever generated. Evolution, to quote a T-shirt sent me by an anonymous well-wisher, is the greatest show on earth, the only game in town.

Indeed, evolution is probably the greatest show in the entire universe. Most scientists' hunch is that there are independently evolved life forms dotted around planetary islands throughout the universe—though sadly too thinly scattered to encounter one another. And if there is life elsewhere, it is something stronger than a hunch to say that it will turn out to be Darwinian life. The argument in favor of alien life's existing at all is weaker than the argument that—if it exists at all—it will be Darwinian life. But it is also possible that we really are alone in the universe, in which case Earth, with its greatest show, is the most remarkable planet in the universe.

What is so special about life? It never violates the laws of physics. Nothing does (if anything did, physicists would just have to formulate new laws—it's happened often enough in the history of science). But although life never violates the laws of physics, it pushes them into unexpected avenues that stagger the imagination. If we didn't know about life we wouldn't believe it was possible—except, of course, that there'd then be nobody around to do the disbelieving!

The laws of physics, before Darwinian evolution bursts out from their midst, can make rocks and sand, gas clouds and stars, whirlpools and waves, whirlpool-shaped galaxies and light that travels as waves while behaving like particles. It is an interesting, fascinating and, in many ways, deeply mysterious universe. But now, enter life. Look, through the eyes of a physicist, at a bounding kangaroo, a swooping bat, a leaping dolphin, a soaring Coast Redwood. There never was a rock that bounded like a kangaroo, never a pebble that crawled like a beetle seeking a mate, never a sand grain that swam like a water flea. Not once do any of these creatures disobey one jot or tittle of the laws of physics. Far from violating the laws of thermodynamics (as is often ignorantly alleged) they are relentlessly driven by them. Far from violating the laws of motion, animals exploit them to their advantage as they walk, run, dodge and jink, leap and fly, pounce on prey or spring to safety.

Never once are the laws of physics violated, yet life emerges into uncharted territory. And how is the trick done? The answer is a process that, although variable in its wondrous detail, is sufficiently uniform to deserve one single name: Darwinian evolution, the nonrandom survival of randomly varying coded information. We know, as certainly as we know anything in science, that this is the process that has generated life on our own planet. And my bet, as I said, is that the same process is in operation wherever life may be found, anywhere in the universe.

What if the greatest show on earth is not the greatest show in the universe? What if there are life forms on other planets that have evolved so far beyond our level of intelligence and creativity that we should regard them as gods, were we ever so fortunate (or unfortunate?) as to meet them? Would they indeed be gods? Wouldn't we be tempted to fall on our knees and worship them, as a medieval peasant might if suddenly confronted with such miracles as a Boeing 747, a mobile telephone or Google Earth? But, however god-like the aliens might seem, they would not be gods, and for one very important reason. They did not create the universe; it created them, just as it created us. Making the universe is the one thing no intelligence, however superhuman, could do, because an intelligence is complex—statistically improbable —and therefore had to emerge, by gradual degrees, from simpler beginnings: from a lifeless universe—the miracle-free zone that is physics.

To midwife such emergence is the singular achievement of Darwinian evolution. It starts with primeval simplicity and fosters, by slow, explicable degrees, the emergence of complexity: seemingly limitless complexity—certainly up to our human level of complexity and very probably way beyond. There may be worlds on which superhuman life thrives, superhuman to a level that our imaginations cannot grasp. But superhuman does not mean supernatural. Darwinian evolution is the only process we know that is ultimately capable of generating anything as complicated as creative intelligences. Once it has done so, of course, those intelligences can create other complex things: works of art and music, advanced technology, computers, the Internet and who knows what in the future? Darwinian evolution may not be the only such generative process in the universe. There may be other "cranes" (Daniel Dennett's term, which he opposes to "skyhooks") that we have not yet discovered or imagined. But, however wonderful and however different from Darwinian evolution those putative cranes may be, they cannot be magic. They will share with Darwinian evolution the facility to raise up complexity, as an emergent property, out of simplicity, while never violating natural law.

Where does that leave God? The kindest thing to say is that it leaves him with nothing to do, and no achievements that might attract our praise, our worship or our fear. Evolution is God's redundancy notice, his pink slip. But we have to go further. A complex creative intelligence with nothing to do is not just redundant. A divine designer is all but ruled out by the consideration that he must at least as complex as the entities he was wheeled out to explain. God is not dead. He was never alive in the first place.

Now, there is a certain class of sophisticated modern theologian who will say something like this: "Good heavens, of course we are not so naive or simplistic as to care whether God exists. Existence is such a 19th-century preoccupation! It doesn't matter whether God exists in a scientific sense. What matters is whether he exists for you or for me. If God is real for you, who cares whether science has made him redundant? Such arrogance! Such elitism."

Well, if that's what floats your canoe, you'll be paddling it up a very lonely creek. The mainstream belief of the world's peoples is very clear. They believe in God, and that means they believe he exists in objective reality, just as surely as the Rock of Gibraltar exists. If sophisticated theologians or postmodern relativists think they are rescuing God from the redundancy scrap-heap by downplaying the importance of existence, they should think again. Tell the congregation of a church or mosque that existence is too vulgar an attribute to fasten onto their God, and they will brand you an atheist. They'll be right.

—Mr. Dawkins is the author of "The Selfish Gene," "The Ancestor's Tale," "The God Delusion." His latest book, "The Greatest Show on Earth," will be published by Free Press on Sept. 22.


Saturday, September 12, 2009

Evolution education update: September 11, 2009

A chance to hear Everett Mendelsohn describe "The World Before Darwin" and to read a forthcoming review of Richard Dawkins's The Greatest Show on Earth. Meanwhile, Nick Matzke wins a prize for finding a source of a spurious Darwin quotation. And NCSE is now twittering!

WEBCAST: THE WORLD BEFORE DARWIN

Hear the distinguished historian of science Everett Mendelsohn describe "The World Before Darwin" on-line! From 8:00 to 9:30 p.m. (Eastern) on September 16, 2009, Mendelsohn will deliver the inaugural lecture of the 150th anniversary Origin of Species lecture series, hosted by The Reading Odyssey and the Darwin Facebook project -- and the whole lecture will be webcast live.

Sponsors of the lecture series include the National Center for Science Education, National Geographic, Citrix Online and its HiDef Conferencing Division, Campaign Monitor, the Harvard University of Comparative Zoology, and the New York Academy of Sciences. Future speakers in the series include Jonathan Weiner, the author of The Beak of the Finch; NCSE Supporter Sean M. Carroll; and E. O. Wilson.

For information on the webcast, visit:
http://darwinlecture1.eventbrite.com/

For information about the hosts, visit:
http://www.readingodyssey.com/
http://www.darwin150.com/

THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH

Richard Dawkins's new book The Greatest Show on Earth (Free Press, 2009) "is a positive commemoration of the triumph of a grand arching theory that has withstood the continuous onslaught of 150 years of new data, including the tsunami of molecular, genetic, and sequence data from the past fifteen years," according to Douglas Theobald, whose review now appears in the advance on-line section of NCSE's website.

"No other book currently available approaches Dawkins's comprehensive yet accessible treatment of the extraordinarily diverse and massive body of data that drives ineluctably to the same conclusion, the only conclusion that makes sense of everything in biology: that all the 'endless forms' of known life share a common genetic kinship, as they have been, and are being, evolved," writes Theobald, a professor of biochemistry at Brandeis University.

Theobald's review will appear in a forthcoming issue of Reports of the NCSE. So if you like what you see, why not subscribe to RNCSE today? Reviews of books such as Dawkins's, detailed reports on antievolution activity across the nation and around the world, original scientific articles and critiques of creationism, discussions of how to defend the teaching of evolution in the public schools -- what's not to like? Don't miss out -- subscribe now!

For Theobald's review, visit:
http://ncseweb.org/rncse/29/review-greatest-show-earth

To buy The Greatest Show on Earth from Amazon.com (and benefit NCSE in the process), visit: http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/asin/1416594787/nationalcenter02/002-9119745-6094654

For subscription information, visit:
http://ncseweb.org/membership

NICK MATZKE, QUOTE HUNTER

Former NCSE staffer Nick Matzke found a source for a spurious Darwin quotation -- and won a prize for it! The passage in question -- "It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change" -- is due not to Darwin but apparently to Leon C. Megginson, Professor of Management and Marketing at Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge, who offered substantially similar statements, intended as paraphrases of Darwin, in two articles published in the 1960s. The Darwin Correspondence Project comments, "At some stage Megginson's paraphrase of Darwin, slightly recast, was turned into an actual quotation from Origin. That part of the story remains to be told, and we look forward to Nick finding out more."

Discussing his search for the source of the spurious quotation at The Panda's Thumb blog, Matzke explained, "The quote appears to start as a paraphrase; there is no evidence that Megginson initially intended this to be taken as an exact quote; rather, at some later stage, someone copied down the phrase (perhaps in lecture notes, for example), and then later assumed it was an actual quote of Darwin." He added, "The quote has apparently evolved over time to become shorter and pithier. I suspect that quotes that are shorter and more pithy have an 'adaptive advantage' in collections of inspirational quotes, motivational seminars, and similar venues which seem to be common habitats for the quote in the business world. I hereby dub this process 'pithification.'"

Matzke, who worked for NCSE from 2004 to 2007 and is presently a graduate student in the Department of Integrative Biology at the University of California, Berkeley, will receive a copy of volume 16 of The Correspondence of Charles Darwin. The search for the source of two other spurious Darwin quotations -- "In the struggle for survival, the fittest win out at the expense of their rivals because they succeed in adapting themselves best to their environment" and "In the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed" -- is still continuing. And anyone who is able to find a closer and earlier match for the "It is not the strongest of the species" quotation will still be eligible to win a prize from the Darwin Correspondence Project.

For the Darwin Correspondence Project's announcement, visit:
http://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/content/view/164/30/

For Matzke's post at The Panda's Thumb blog, visit:
http://pandasthumb.org/archives/2009/09/survival-of-the-1.html

For the details of the spurious Darwin quotations, visit:
http://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/content/view/157/1/

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Eugenie C. Scott's Evolution vs. Creationism -- now in its second edition!
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Not in Our Classrooms: Why Intelligent Design Is Wrong for Our Schools
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Monday, September 07, 2009

Evolution: Contrary to science

http://www.examiner.com/x-13237-Indianapolis-Christian-Issues-Examiner~y2009m9d7-Evolution-Contrary-to-science

September 7, 9:53 PM

Evolutionists dogmatically decry the examination of their own words, particularly when their words expose the truth about their faith in evolution. We will continue to look at what Dr. Lowentin wrote in 1997.

Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment to materialism.

It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute for we cannot allow a Divine foot in the door.

Dr. Robert Lowentin, Geneticist - 1997 (emphasis added)

It is troubling to me that evolutionary hypotheses are force fed to the world as fact, when indeed they are so far fetched that even common sense tells us it did not happen that way. Dr. Lowentin even admits as much.

Dr. Lowentin states here "It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world". With evolutionists continually claiming evolution is science, yet admitting that the very methods and institutions of science do not compel them to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world. How is it so many of them actually take themselves seriously?

"...but, on the contrary,..." Contrary to what? Contrary to the methods and institutions of science. That an evolutionist as brilliant and highly esteemed as Dr. Lowentin would admit that evolutionists believe in evolution contrary to science is quite astounding. Now you know why evolution is not truly science, for it is contrary to science. Evolution is religion. Evolution is a religion with its theology, practices, purposeful blindness and fanciful "just-so" stories built around one presupposition. There is no God, particularly the God of the Bible. This is stated slightly more tactfully by Dr. Lowentin, as we will see in our next article.

Why Intelligent Design is not a scientific theory

http://www.examiner.com/examiner/x-8922-Portland-Skepticism-Examiner~y2009m8d26-Why-Intelligent-Design-is-not-a-scientific-theory

August 26, 9:15 PM

Proponents of Intelligent Design (ID) believe that certain aspects of biology are too complex to be explainable through natural selection and evolution. They suggest that a supernatural designer is necessary to explain the complexity of the world, and in particular, the biology of higher life forms. It is not a new, or even controversial, concept; it could be argued that this is a foundational concept of most religions.

Controversy arises, however, when members of the ID Movement try to say that ID is a scientific theory, and that as such, it deserves equal time to evolution in science classrooms. The James-Michael Smith (the Methodist Examiner) has suggested that ID is not ready for the classroom, but that it is a scientific theory. These articles are in part a response to James-Michael's arguments.

For some ID proponents, the false claim of scientific legitimacy arises from a misunderstanding about the definition of "scientific theory." For others, such claims are an attempt to redefine science to fit a religious agenda. In either case, ID is not science, and by definition it can never be a scientific theory.

In popular culture, the word "theory" is used almost synonymously with the word "idea," but the definition of a scientific theory is much narrower. According to most scientists, including the National Academy of Sciences, a scientific theory must:

1. offer a natural explanation for observed facts;
2. make specific predictions about facts that have not yet been observed;
3. be testable; and
4. be subject to change in light of new data, new interpretations, or demonstration of error.

Intelligent Design meets none of these criteria.

By requiring supernatural intervention to explain certain observed facts, ID immediately disqualifies itself as a scientific theory. That does not mean there was not a designer, but science concerns itself with what can be explained naturally. This focus on natural explanations is not a bias against faith; it's just that once someone starts accepting supernatural explanations for what they don't understand, there is no point in researching other possible explanations. Science keeps asking questions no matter what.

ID also makes no specific predictions beyond what has already been observed. Evolutionary theory, by contrast, has historically made many predictions that were later fulfilled by evidence. It has made so many accurate predictions that it is considered more than just a theory (in the same way that atomic theory is more than just a theory).

ID is not a testable theory. In order for a theory to be scientific, it must be testable and "falsifiable," meaning that scientists will know if the theory is wrong if certain evidence arises. Until we know what would prove a theory to be false, it is not a theory.

Because ID explains all unknowns with a supernatural explanation, it is untestable. No amount of evidence can disprove a theory that readily admits some things have no natural explanation.

ID is not open to change in light of new data, new interpretations, or demonstration of error. Intelligent Design already has all its own answers, so no change is needed. By positing irreducible complexity, ID throws up its hands and stops looking for natural explanations. The end of the logical road has been reached once we say with certainty that something is too complex to be explained by anything but supernatural intervention. . None of this is to say that there is not an intelligent designer. Many who acknowledge evolution believe that there was also a designer involved. The majority of scientists are people of faith. The question of an intelligent designer, however, must be answered outside the realm of science. Intelligent Design can be taught in homes and Sunday schools, but it does not belong in a science classroom or laboratory.

Why Intelligent Design is not a scientific theory (part 2): ID the anti-concept

http://www.examiner.com/examiner/x-8922-Portland-Skepticism-Examiner~y2009m8d30-Why-Intelligent-Design-is-not-a-scientific-theory-part-2-ID-the-anticoncept

August 30, 10:23 AM

In a previous article, it was discussed that Intelligent Design (ID) is not a scientific theory because it does not meet the necessary criteria to be considered one.

1. It does not offer a natural explanation for observed facts.
2. It does not make specific predictions about facts not yet observed.
3. It does not offer a testable hypothesis.
4. It does not leave itself open to adaptation as new information arises.

If not a scientific theory, what then is Intelligent Design?

In reality, ID exists only as an anti-concept to evolution. ID's two main ideas are irreducible complexity and specified complexity, neither of which makes any sense unless used as a contrast to evolutionary theory. Here is why.

Evolutionary theory says that biological features develop slowly and as the result of successive small mutations. Each step in the evolutionary process had to have some advantage over the previous steps or natural selection would not have favored that feature. Over time, for instance, eyesight might have developed first as cells with sensitivity to light that allowed early life forms to turn toward the sun, a source of energy. Each successive improvement in the cells provided an advantage, so that at each step in the evolutionary process, the developing eyesight served some purpose.

Irreducible complexity says that some features of biology are so complex that the ID proponents can't imagine what independent purpose their parts would serve, and that they therefore could not have evolved separately. Irreducible complexity is not necessary for belief that something was created or intelligently designed. It only is necessary as a contrast to evolution.

Specified complexity seems to be a restatement of irreducible complexity, namely that ID proponents can not imagine how complex patterns like DNA can develop through evolution, and therefore there must be a designer. Specified complexity is not a concept that is necessary to believe biology was invented by an intelligent designer. It is only necessary as a contrast to evolutionary explanations for those complex patterns.

Both of these concepts are ultimately just arguments from ignorance. Proponents of ID are saying that certain biological features had to be supernaturally created all at once if ID proponents can not imagine how they might have evolved.

If scientists routinely accepted this kind of reasoning, there would be no forward progress in science at all. As soon as they came across something they could not explain, scientists would have to take that as proof that something supernatural happened, and research would end there.

Why Intelligent Design is not a scientific theory (part 3): attacks on science

http://www.examiner.com/x-8922-Portland-Skepticism-Examiner~y2009m8d31-Why-Intelligent-Design-is-not-a-scientific-theory-part-3-attacks-on-science

August 31, 6:31 AM

One irony of the Intelligent Design (ID) movement is that ID needs a movement in the first place. Legitimate scientific theories stand on their own merits and have seldom if ever enlisted popular movements to lobby the scientific community. Scientists, like all humans, have their biases, but legitimate theories are considered, even when most scientists question their veracity. Having failed to mold ID so that it meets the criteria for a scientific theory, however, ID proponents have made coordinated efforts to undermine science itself. Many of their as yet unsuccessful efforts have made headlines.

In 1999, Phillip Johnson, one of the acknowledged founders of the Intelligent Design movement, wrote an organizational document that essentially declared war on science itself. The document was written on behalf of the "Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture" at the Discovery Institute, which has been described as the hub of the ID movement. The name of the document was "The Wedge."

In the document, which was written as a manifesto for the Intelligent Design movement, the Discovery Institute lists the governing goals of "defeating scientific materialism" and "replacing materialist explanations with the theistic understanding that nature and human beings are created by God."

In essence, the document clarifies that Intelligent Design advocates want theism to be taught in science classrooms. One of the five-year goals was to "correct the ideological imbalance" in science classrooms and have the schools in ten U.S. states teaching intelligent design. This was before any pretense of research had been done on whether ID was actually scientific.

Johnson acknowledged that such research was needed as the first phase of the wedge strategy. "Without solid scholarship, research and argument, the project would be just another attempt to indoctrinate rather than persuade."

Ten years later, however, efforts to undermine traditional science continue even though there still is no scientific theory to put forward on behalf of Intelligent Design. According to an article on the institute in Seattle Weekly, Discovery Institute fellows have been "expert witnesses" or behind the scenes strategists in trials in Kansas, Texas, Kansas, Ohio, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, and California.

The Discovery Institute played a key role in the most public trial provoked by the ID movement: Tammy Kitzmiller, et al. v. Dover Area School District, et al.. In that case, a conservative Republican judge appointed by a conservative Christian president agreed that Intelligent Design could not be separated from its religious roots to be taken seriously as a scientific theory.

To date, non-religious advocates of ID have been few and far between. They have been so scarce that when a single philosopher-atheist wrote a book defending ID as science (and at the same time recommending that there be no further distinction made between science and pseudo-science) his anti-science literature is being put forward as evidence that ID is not entirely religious in nature.

It should be pointed out that these three articles on ID were inspired in part by misunderstandings about science observed on the Methodist Examiner website comments section. A review of the Methodist Examiner's work, however, shows that he seems to have taken a respectable and balanced approach to the question of Intelligent Design. This examiner sincerely appreciates the dignity and respect with which the Methodist Examiner discusses controversial issues, even when we disagree.

So what does all this say about whether the universe was created supernaturally? Nothing. Advocates of ID misunderstand science as being hostile to religion because science can not be used to confirm supernatural phenomena. It is simply that science is not equipped to answer questions regarding what happens outside natural law.

It is important, however, that only evidence-based reasoning be used in our classrooms and laboratories. All meaningful technological and medical progress has been the result of evidence-based experiments and argument, and allowing a faith-based concept to trump the evidence in biology would effectively undermine the goal of research: answering the unanswered questions. If ID proponents were successful, whenever science came up against a question for which it had no answer, the supernatural would be used as an explanation, and research would end. That would not be science.

Book Reviews at NCSE

http://scienceblogs.com/evolutionblog/2009/08/book_reviews_at_ncse.php?utm_source=sbhomepage&utm_medium=link&utm_content=channellink

Category: Anti-Creationism
Posted on: August 31, 2009 2:17 PM, by Jason Rosenhouse

If you're in the mood for some Darwin-related reading, have a look at these four offerings from the website of the NCSE. They are reviews of four recent books about Charles Darwin. I recommend especially the eloquent smackdown of The Darwin Myth: The Life and Lies of Charles Darwin by Discovery Institute flak Benjamin Wiker. Reviewer Sander Gliboff puts his finger on precisely why this was such a poor choice of title:

Using that "life and lies" formula in the subtitle of this anti-Darwin book was not a wise move by Discovery Institute Senior Fellow Benjamin Wiker. It invites unfavorable comparison to a similarly titled book about a similarly celebrated white-bearded English sage with an ugly nose. I mean, of course, The Life and Lies of Albus Dumbledore, by Rita Skeeter, a book within a book in the Harry Potter series.

For the uninitiated: Skeeter is an unscrupulous witch of an investigative reporter. She takes Dumbledore's own remarks and other peoples' recollections out of context and makes him seem guilty of everything from racial prejudice, elitism, claiming credit for the accomplishments of others, and manipulating friends, family, and the public, to valuing the greater good over individual rights, inspiring a militaristic and eugenical ideology, and fomenting world war.

In a spooky case of life imitating art, Wiker makes essentially the same accusations against Darwin, using Skeeter's exact methods. Those methods do not require "facts" to be conjured out of thin air, although both authors are quite capable of doing it. The real trick is to select, isolate, and exaggerate the facts you like, while making the ones you don't like vanish. Wiker's favorite way to get rid of them is to wave his hands and pass them off as lies.

Zing! The other reviews treat works of actual scholarship, and are consequently less amusing. Very informative though. It seems my "To Read" list just got a bit longer.

Bloggingheads: Capo non grata

http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2009/09/04/bloggingheads-capo-non-grata/

My colleagues and fellow Hive Overmind bloggers Sean Carroll and Carl Zimmer have written lengthy essays on why they will no longer participate on BloggingHeads.tv, a video interview site.

Sean and Carl are fine writers, and they wanted to be careful when they make their point; thus the longish essays.

But I'll be more succinct. Bloggingheads had full-blown creationists being interviewed, making all the same long-debunked claims while the other person talking basically supported them. And BloggingHeads called that science.

So Bzzzzzzzt! I'm done with them. I was on BloggingHeads (with Carl) a few months ago, and I won't ever do it again either. If they want to cast creationism as science, they might as well say Holocaust denial is real history, 9/11 truthers are engineers, and Birthers are patriots. They can do that, but it's a crock.

Folks, the debate is over, and has been for decades: creationism is wrong, and provably so. And it's certainly not science. Portraying it as such is either breathtaking ignorance, or a lie. Sorry, BHTV, but creationism is the shark, and you're Fonzie.

September 4th, 2009 8:01 AM by Phil Plait

Phil Plait ditches bloggingheads, too!

http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2009/09/phil_plait_ditches_blogginghea.php

Category: Communicating science
Posted on: September 7, 2009 12:03 AM, by PZ Myers

This is not good for bloggingheads: that makes the third high profile science blogger to announce their rejection of bloggingheads, after Sean Carroll and Carl Zimmer. Phil would be #4, except I realize I was rather ambiguous about it when I mentioned it before.

So, just to clarify, NO, I won't be conversing on bloggingheads in the future…which I regret, since I think the site had some real potential.

Several of the commenters on Phil's site do not think it is a good idea, because lunacy like creationism ought to be confronted whenever we can do so. I agree! The problem with bloggingheads wasn't simply that creationists were given a venue — it was that creationists were given a venue without voices opposing their ideas. It was setting up crackpots with softball interviews that made them look reasonable, because their peculiar ideas were never confronted. That's what has to be rejected, not the idea of arguing with bad ideas (although Sean Carroll makes a good case that some ideas are so bad they don't even deserve debate), but a site that promised discussion yet became open mic night for loons.