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Friday, January 05, 2007

Recent events in the intelligent design controversy - 5

■ "Where science and ethics meet," Gregory Lamb's review of Freeman Dyson's The Scientist as Rebel notes,
For Dyson, scientists are neither secular saints who have an answer for every human need nor irresponsible devils without regard for human values. Science, for example, doesn't have solutions to the great issues of war and peace. But scientists can be advocates for international understanding and cooperation by serving as models of those values themselves, he says.

Science needs both its revolutionaries and conservatives, Dyson explains - those eager to abandon past views and those who defend them. It also needs both hedgehogs and foxes, scientists who dig deeply at a few fundamental problems (hedgehogs include Albert Einstein) and those who have wide interests and move quickly from problem to problem (foxes include Dyson's mentor, Richard Feynman).

I wonder how Dyson would feel about materialist scientists just leaving the ID guys alone to just get on with their work: One of them wrote me recently, saying poignantly, "If only they would just leave us alone, but they can't and won't." Of course not. If ID is right in any particular, materialism is dead.

■ In Commentary magazine, Eric Cohen's "The Human Difference" offers to explain why most North Americans do not accept the current science pundits' vision of the world:
On the evidence provided by nature, Darwin’s claim of common descent seems undeniably compelling; man’s emergence via genetic mutation and natural selection seems likely; and the possibility of man’s never emerging seems all too possible. Yet for all its insights into the development of complex life, the theory of evolution ends before the most interesting questions begin. Where did matter come from in the first place, and with it the latent possibility of man? What is the source of nature’s fixed laws, by which the chance process of evolution plays itself out? Why do animals seek to survive and reproduce at all, hungering for life even with its manifold sufferings?

To these questions, modern Darwinian theory has no compelling answer, and its methods are poorly equipped even to initiate the right sort of inquiry. Evolution may explain the mechanisms of man’s descent, but not the mystery of his ascent, including the wonder he exhibits about the origins and destiny of the cosmos—a wonder that serves no useful animal function. A theory of man’s origins is not yet a theory of man, let alone a theory about why there is something rather than nothing.

Well, exactly.

■ Do "molecular clocks" really predict history of evolution? Someone sent me this item from Trends Ecol Evol. (2006 Dec 6;: 17157408) by Mário J.F. Pulquério, and Richard A. Nichols School of Biological and Chemical Sciences, Queen Mary, University of London, London, E1 4NS, UK:
Opinion: Dates from the molecular clock: how wrong can we be?

Large discrepancies have been found in dates of evolutionary events obtained using the molecular clock. Twofold differences have been reported between the dates estimated from molecular data and those from the fossil record; furthermore, different molecular methods can give dates that differ 20-fold. New software attempts to incorporate appropriate allowances for this uncertainty into the calculation of the accuracy of date estimates. Here, we propose that these innovations represent welcome progress towards obtaining reliable dates from the molecular clock, but warn that they are currently unproven, given that the causes and pattern of the discrepancies are the subject of ongoing research. This research implies that many previous studies, even some of those using recently developed methods, might have placed too much confidence in their date estimates, and their conclusions might need to be revised.

Well, no one should be surprised that the history of life, like all other histories, can be very complex to untangle.

■ It is apparently not in principle the case that US judges are allowed to simply adopt the arguments of one side in a court case for their judgement, as some argue that Judge Jones did at Dover. I think the case is more complicate than that and in any event, I doubt Dover matters very much. Here is what I wrote to a group of (mostly) Yanks about it:
1. Think for the long term. The people who understand what you are saying about information [as a fundamental feature of the universe, not produced either by law or by chance] were born after 1990, and have never known a world that was not driven by information. I have pinned "1991" to my bulletin board, to remind me that the audience I am writing* for on my current wage job is about 16 years old. Not 60 years old. Just sweet sixteen.

2. Distinguish between (1) smoke, noise, and screaming and (2) direct hits on key targets. Possibly because I am a Canadian, but also because I am a journalist, I have trouble staying awake when people carry on about Dover and other accidents of the American judicial system.

See, Dover is mostly just smoke and noise. Judges and politicians cannot change reality by their rulings.

Case in point from one of my current jobs: In 1299, the city council of Florence (Firenze) in Italy banned the Arabic numbers and zero. This new system that could calculate numbers up to any size and do all kinds of other weird math. That frightened people who were used to clunky Roman numerals that had no zero and conked out after 1000. And how can you have a number like zero? T'ain't right.

So ... well, like I said, my key readers are sweet XVI, not LX ... and so ... oh, where was I? Ah yes, on to Point III ...

III. Dawkins ... can probably see at least what I can see - that is all isn't working any more. People know they have a spiritual nature. It's just a fact - and the life and times of West African apes or computers don't in fact shed much light on that. (Bonzo, quit stomping on that keyboard or I am whacking you back into your cage and nada bananas for you ... )

IV/4. I can't speak for other professions, but I can tell you how most media will behave at this point, and you will see my predictions come true time after time in the new year. Most media people respond to their anxiety about a paradigm change by seeking confirmation that the paradigm they actually believe in is correct. They often seek/manufacture stories that demonstrate that and they always frame stories to reflect it. I could almost write a book about that, but why bother?

Did I really write "why bother"? Come to think of it, I am the co-author on a book that addresses that precise situation - among other things (Mario Beauregard and Denyse O'Leary, The Spiritual Brain, Harper 2007).

■ Some clowns are happy, some sad, and a few are ... well, nasty. Someone alerted me to this item from the Thumbsmen's blog (the self-constituted anti-ID group):

Posted by Steve B on December 9, 2006 5:08 PM (e)
Brad is clearly an inferior and unfit individual who should not survive in a forum such as this. In fact agnostics, IDists and creationists should be exterminated or at the very least put in camps somewhere - obviously since their presence does nothing but hinder evolutionary progress.

With these thoughts in view I commend Glen Davidson, Poppers Ghost for having the courage to eviscerate Brad for even suggesting that evolution might not be correct. The others here also deserve high commendation for helping present a unified front in this regard.

My correspondent suggests that this might be intended as a joke, to see if anyone takes the bait by taking the correspondent seriously. If so, it is el floppo grande , but I reasonably believe that some threats against ID types, etc., are not. My usual practice in these matters is to reproduce such writings. Better to reproduce a failed joke than fail to produce a police lead.

■ For anyone who assumed otherwise, Edwin T. Oakes' review of Richard Weikart's From Darwin to Hitler makes clear that Darwin was indeed a social Darwinist.
One of the most pernicious and widespread fictions ever foisted on an unsuspecting public claims that Charles Darwin was not a social Darwinist. Not so. For example, in a letter to one William Graham dated July 3, 1881, Darwin wrote:
I could show fight on natural selection having done and doing more for the progress of civilization than you seem inclined to admit. Remember what risk the nations of Europe ran, not so many centuries ago, of being overwhelmed by the Turk, and how ridiculous such an idea now is! The more civilized so-called Caucasian races have beaten the Turkish hollow in the struggle for existence. Looking to the world at no very distant date, what an endless number of the lower races will have been eliminated by the higher civilized races throughout the world.

The part I find fascinating is why anyone would doubt that a Victorian Brit toff like Darwin would have that view on such matters, or bother to deny it. Why bother, if he is not the messiah of a new religion? But then, he is, isn't he?

(Note: Re, being overwhelmed by the Turk: This could happen in Toronto if you are looking for a great computer guy who charges reasonable prices and won't sell you stuff you don't need.. In fairness, however, my most recent great computer guy happened to be from Iran.)

My other blog is the Mindful Hack, which keeps tabs on neuroscience and the mind.

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 looking for one of the following stories?

My review of Francis Collins’ book The Language of God , my backgrounder about peer review issues, or the evolutionary biologist’s opinion that all students friendly to intelligent design should be flunked.

Lists of theoretical and applied scientists who doubt Darwin and of academic ID publications.

My U of Toronto talk on why there is an intelligent design controversy, or my talk on media coverage of the controversy at the University of Minnesota.

A summary of tech guru George Gilder's arguments for ID and against Darwinism

A critical look at why March of the Penguins was thought to be an ID film.

A summary of recent opinion columns on the ID controversy

A summary of recent polls of US public opinion on the ID controversy

A summary of the Catholic Church's entry into the controversy, essentially on the side of ID.

O'Leary's intro to non-Darwinian agnostic philosopher David Stove’s critique of Darwinism.

An ID Timeline: The ID folk seem always to win when they lose.

Why origin of life is such a difficult problem.
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