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Saturday, October 22, 2005

Weekend reading on the intelligent design controversy: Atheism's twilight?

In this ricochet off Alister McGrath's book, bookforum's Ronald Aronson notes:

By proclaiming that atheism is on its last legs, McGrath turns one of the most burning questions in American culture on its head. When everyone is asking about the growing strength of religion and its political ramifications, we might instead ask, Why is disbelief on the wane? Today's commonsense answer is that atheists, agnostics, and secularists are less and less relevant to the needs of Americans (and, McGrath adds, the rest of the world). Whether true or not, this is an amazing commentary on the self-confidence that once made atheism the modern creed, which McGrath summarizes as "the religion of the autonomous and rational human being, who believes that reason is able to uncover and express the deepest truths of the universe, from the mechanics of the rising of the sun to the nature and final destiny of humanity." Why, after predictions that religion had fallen into irreversible decline (in 1966, Time magazine famously asked, "Is God dead?"), does a recent Newsweek poll indicate that 64 percent of Americans call themselves religious and an equal number pray daily?

Aronson then turns his attention to the newer, younger atheist authors. He doesn't write like he thinks they can pull the fat out of the fire, but I have ordered/got/tried to get some of their books from the library, and we will see. If they are interesting and relevant, they will be reincarnated in small part in my quote box, and I will post a link ... By the way, here's Christianity Today's review of Twilight.

The latest from Genes 'r' Us!: Why European Jews are genetically smarter than other people — but do THEY see it that way?

An article arguing this case was rushed into print by The Journal of Biosocial Science:

Last summer, Henry Harpending, an evolutionary anthropologist at the University of Utah, and Gregory Cochran, an independent scholar with a flair for controversy, skipped cheerfully into the center of this minefield. The two shopped around a paper that tried to establish a genetic argument for the fabled intelligence of Jews. It contended that the diseases most commonly found in Ashkenazim—particularly the lysosomal storage diseases, like Tay-Sachs—were likely connected to and, indeed, in some sense responsible for outsize intellectual achievement in Ashkenazi Jews. The paper contained references, but no footnotes. It was not written in the genteel, dispassionate voice common to scientific inquiries but as a polemic. Its science was mainly conjecture. Most American academics expected the thing to drop like a stone.

It didn’t. The Journal of Biosocial Science, published by Cambridge University Press, posted it online and agreed to run it in its bi-monthly periodical sometime in 2006. The New York Times, The Economist, and several Jewish publications risked their reputations to legitimize it. Today, the paper has a lively presence on the Internet—type “Ashkenazi” into Google and the first hit is the Wikipedia entry, where the article gets pride of place.

Then the commentariat weighed in. Here's a sample:

In the 1860s, Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin and father of eugenics, argued that Protestants were smarter than Catholics because they let their smart offspring reproduce, rather than shipping them off to monasteries. The idea didn’t hold up too well over time. In the early part of the twentieth century, the mathematician Norbert Wiener suggested Jews were smarter because the daughters of wealthy Jewish men were married off to scholarly rabbis, who went on to have more children. Then Lewis S. Feuer, a sociologist, came along and showed that wealthy Jews married other wealthy Jews. "These were Fiddler on the Roof fantasies, a myth created by people in New York who romanticized the shtetl," says Sander Gilman. "The shtetls were horrible places. Do you think the man who wrote Tevye's story did it from a crummy little shtetl? No! He was sitting in the south of France on the Riviera. He’s no fool.

"This study is putting forward one of these arguments you hear regularly but with new window dressing," Gilman says. "Today, that dressing is genetics. A hundred years ago, it was vitamins—as soon as they were discovered, everything was explained by a vitamin deficiency. Cancer. Schizophrenia. Hair loss." He pauses. "Okay, not hair loss. I made that up. But you see my point."

The whole thing is hilarious, and a great weekend read. It's interesting how any idea, no matter how poorly sketched out, is rushed into print if it supports genetic determinism or evolutionary psychology. A science would not need that kind of support.
If you like this blog, check out my book on the intelligent design controversy, By Design or by Chance?. You can read excerpts as well.

Quotes of the day: Darwin, Alberts, Forrest, 'n' me


"There seems to be no more design in the variability of organic beings, and in the action of natural selection, than in the course which the wind blows."
(Francis Darwin (editor), The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin (New York: D. Appleton, 1887), Vol. I, pp. 278-279.)


"Man is the result of a purposeless and natural process that did not have him in mind. He was not planned."
(George Gaylord Simpson [major mid-20th century Darwinian evolutionist], The Meaning of Evolution, revised ed. (Yale University Press, 1967), p. 345.)


"We have established scientifically some disquieting facts: (1) human beings have evolved from nonhuman life forms, meaning that (2) at one time we did not exist, and that (3) according to paleontological and astronomical evidence, at some time in the future we shall cease to exist. Furthermore, from a scientific standpoint, there is no discernible reason that we had to evolve in the first place, and there is no guarantee that we shall continue to evolve successfully; more hominid species have become extinct than have survived. The price of such knowledge has been the gnawing question of whether human existence has genuine meaning if it was constructed with cranes rather than supported by skyhooks, as Daniel Dennett says.

"The problem of meaning is easily resolved for those who embrace a preconstructed system of meaning such as religion. However, religion cannot help us find meaning in any honest sense unless it can assimilate the truth about where human beings have come from, and the only real knowledge we have about where we came from we have acquired through science."
(Barbara Forrest [current Darwin lobbyist who testified in the current Dover case], "The Possibility of Meaning in Human Evolution," Zygon: Journal of Religion & Science 35.4 (Dec 2000), 861-889, p 862, notes omitted.)

This last comment, by Forrest, is interesting because it is incompatible with any "revealed" historical religion such as Christianity, Islam, or Judaism, all of which insist that the most important knowledge of who we are and where we come from is received through revelation. Actually, Buddhism would claim that too, if we go by the importance attached to the Buddha's sermons The fact that some Churches Nobody Goes To Any More ( in the words of the Relapsed Catholic have made their peace with this kind of thing - and after all, what current fashion haven't they made their peace with? - is really irrelevant to the fundamental contradiction. This is part of the background to the Caldwell suit against UCal Berkeley, and fundamental to understanding the public opposition to Darwinism (as opposed to various theories in science advanced against it, such as Behe's concept of irreducible complexity).


From By Design or by Chance?:

Many of the greatest scientists of previous centuries, for example, Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Pascal, Newton, Faraday, and Kelvin, believed that the universe was intelligently designed, and that its design was detectable.21 So great was the influence of these men that key terms or units of science measurement are named after them (e.g., the Galilean moons of Jupiter, the Copernican solar system, and units of measurement such as the pascal, newton, farad, and kelvin.) Newton, who died in 1727, is widely regarded as the greatest Briton who ever lived.
(Denyse O'Leary, By Design or by Chance?: The Growing Controversy on the Origins of Life in the Universe (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 2004), p. 193.)
If you like this blog, check out my book on the intelligent design controversy, By Design or by Chance?. You can read excerpts as well.

Weekend reading on the intelligent design controversy: Columns and articles of note

Opposition to Schonborn from Vatican science advisor:

Here's Professor Nicola Cabibbo, for twelve hears head of the 78-member Pontifical Academy of Sciences, an expert panel which advises the pope on science, in interview with National Catholic Reporter's John L. Allen Jr.:

When Cardinal Schönborn says that purpose and design can be clearly discerned in the natural world, would you agree?

Not scientifically. As a scientist, I cannot draw this conclusion. What I can say is this: If the will of God was to create man, he certainly organized things in a beautiful way to do it. Of course, we know by revelation that God wanted to create man, but we don't know how he did it. This is what science attempts to explain. There cannot be any clash or controversy between science and religion, because they work on different planes.

Does the scientific understanding of how life was created and how it evolved, in and of itself, demand belief in a creator God?

I would say no. Scientifically, we don't know. We know the universe is highly complex, and we have no reason to believe there is only one universe, the one we can see around us. Theoretically this could happen in two different ways: some interpretations of quantum mechanics suggest the idea of parallel universes, with histories different from our own. Cosmologists speculate on a multiplicity of "Big Bangs", giving rise to a multiplicity of universes. These are fascinating ideas and we find ourselves in a situation similar to that of Giordano Bruno when he proposed that stars are really suns, that there may be other planets and other solar systems, that the universe is much larger than previously thought. This was part of what got him into trouble! We really don't know. Science is incapable of supplying answers to ultimate questions about why things exist and what their purpose is.

Hmmm. It strikes me that the problem here is not a conflict between Cabibbo and Schonborn but between Cabibbo and the plain meaning of key passages in the Bible. Paul the Apostle says, for example, in Romans,
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. (Rom 1:18–20, NIV)

Most Christians would be more inclined to listen to Paul than to Bruno, a scientist and freelance theologian who was burned at the stake four centuries ago for heretical doctrines. (If you think having an alternative viewpoint is bad now, you should have lived back then!) Some of Bruno's science speculations hit pay dirt, as Cabibbo notes.

But more and more I am beginning to see why the Vatican will have to revisit this whole area. The only reason that science and religion can't be in conflict, in Cabibbo's formulation, is that the are on different "planes" and neither can apparently enable us to draw firm conclusions about the real world. But, faced with a choice, the Church should prefer current expert opinion to th wisdom of the ages? Aw c'mon.
If you like this blog, check out my book on the intelligent design controversy, By Design or by Chance?. You can read excerpts as well.

Are you by chance looking for one of the following stories?

"Academic Freedom Watch : Here's the real, ugly story behind the claim that 'intelligent design isn't science'?".

Roseville, California, lawyer Larry Caldwell is suing over the use of tax money by Darwin lobby groups to promote religious views that accept Darwinian evolution (as opposed to ones that don’t). I’m pegging this one as the next big story. It will be interesting to see the line that the “separation of church and state” people take.
How to freak out your bio prof? What happened when a student bypassed the usual route of getting frogs drunk and dropping them down the chancellor’s robes, and tried questioning Darwinism instead.

Joseph, Cardinal Schonborn is not backing down from his contention that Darwinism is incompatible with Catholic faith, and Pope Benedict XVI probably thinks that’s just fine. Major US media have been trying to reach rewrite for months, with no success.

Museum tour guides to be trained to "respond" to those who question Darwinism. Read this item for an example of what at least one museum hopes to have them say.

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