Wednesday, May 18, 2005

The Designs of Nature

Three weeks ago today, Nature devoted some attention to intelligent design. The results were mixed, to say the least. A clever cover and a sensible editorial were offset by an outrageous News Feature. As usual, Pharyngula was quick to point out two egregious problems with the piece. First, it is largely devoted to Salvador Cordova. I'm not one to only argue from authority, but this is too much. Who is this "scientist" exactly? Has he ever published a scientific paper in a peer-reviewed journal? Apparently not, according to the ISI and PubMed databases. If Nature thinks his work is so great, why don't they publish one of his papers? Second, the article talks of the efforts of poor, well-meaning "intelligent design supporters" to get a fair hearing at University campuses. Apparently they are being persecuted by evil, intolerant "Darwinists". This is all very telling because "Darwinist" is a term that, at present, you are most likely to hear from creationists and their compagnons de route. (Not that I have any problem with the term itself. I happen to think that Darwin's contributions to biology are among the greatest scientific achievements of all time, and would be honored to be considered among one of his intellectual descendants. It's just that the word is not one commonly used by evolutionary biologists.) Naturally, the intelligent design supporters were delighted with the article.

What I found to be most disappointing was that in four pages (rather long for a News Feature) there was essentially no discussion of the evidence for or against evolution (or intelligent design for that matter). Are we supposed to accept that intelligent design should be taught in Universities because it makes some students feel better? And this from Nature!

This week's issue features some counter-attacks from the forces of reason. Dan Graur, my next-door neighbor here at the University, managed to get some delightfully scathing remarks past the editors. Sarcasm may be the lowest form of wit, but the nonsense of intelligent design deserves no more.

Update: I agree with everything this distinguished panel of "Darwinists" (which includes my PhD supervisor) wrote.

Read on

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Defending Evolution

Apologies for not posting in over a week, despite such interesting developments as the Kansas show trials. In fact, I was defending evolutionary biology in other ways: from the students in my class. The final, it turned out, was very tough. But now it's all over so I have the time to write again.

This weekend I bought a copy of a book called Science and Creationism, a collection of essays edited by Ashley Montague and published in 1984 (a nice Orwellian coincidence), two years after the trial which reversed Arkansas' decision to give equal time to evolution and "creation science" in the state's classrooms. The book contains some excellent essays by the likes of SJ Gould, Isaac Asimov, Gunter Stent and Sidney Fox. However, it makes for depressing reading because it shows that the debate has not progressed in over 20 years. Sure, Dembski and Behe are marginally more sophisticated (emphasis on sophistic) than Gish, Whitcomb and Morris, but that is no consolation. To borrow the World Wide Rant's beautiful turn of phrase, the trials have been like concentrated stupid people. To see that I'm not exagerating, check out the posts from last week here and here (avoid CNN at all costs). Here's what Gould had to say back then (he's alluding to the Scopes trial of 1925):

When I think that we are enmeshed again in the same struggle for one of the best documented, most compelling and exciting concepts in all of science, I don't know whether to laugh or cry.

I couldn't agree more.

As another antidote to the stupidity and lies peddled by creationists, I recommend PZ Myers' wonderful essay about the Niobrara Chalk, the famous Kansas geological formation.

Read on

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Dawkins, God's Epidemiologist

Richard Dawkins has just given a long interview to Salon where he discusses his recent book "The Ancestor's Tale" and gives a taste for his forthcoming "The God Delusion". As usual it is a pleasure to read. Here are a few juicy bits:

You won't find any opposition to the idea of evolution among sophisticated, educated theologians. It comes from an exceedingly retarded, primitive version of religion, which unfortunately is at present undergoing an epidemic in the United States. Not in Europe, not in Britain, but in the United States. [...]

A delusion is something that people believe in despite a total lack of evidence. Religion is scarcely distinguishable from childhood delusions like the "imaginary friend" and the bogeyman under the bed. Unfortunately, the God delusion possesses adults, and not just a minority of unfortunates in an asylum. [...]

A delusion that encourages belief where there is no evidence is asking for trouble. Disagreements between incompatible beliefs cannot be settled by reasoned argument because reasoned argument is drummed out of those trained in religion from the cradle. Instead, disagreements are settled by other means which, in extreme cases, inevitably become violent. Scientists disagree among themselves but they never fight over their disagreements. They argue about evidence or go out and seek new evidence. Much the same is true of philosophers, historians and literary critics. [...]

[How would we be better off without religion?] We'd all be freed to concentrate on the only life we are ever going to have. We'd be free to exult in the privilege -- the remarkable good fortune -- that each one of us enjoys through having been being born. An astronomically overwhelming majority of the people who could be born never will be. You are one of the tiny minority whose number came up. Be thankful that you have a life, and forsake your vain and presumptuous desire for a second one. The world would be a better place if we all had this positive attitude to life. It would also be a better place if morality was all about doing good to others and refraining from hurting them, rather than religion's morbid obsession with private sin and the evils of sexual enjoyment.

Apart from being the creationist movement's public enemy #1, Dawkins also has the dubious distinction of being largely responsible for my having dedicated my professional career to evolutionary biology. For some of my generation it was David Attenborough's "Life on Earth" documentary; Dawkins' "The Selfish Gene" (immediately followed by "The Blind Watchmaker") did it for me. The following year I began studying Biology at the University of Lisbon.

Read on

Hey, I'm half as Republican as PZ Myers!

I am:
"You're a complete liberal, utterly without a trace of Republicanism.  Your strength is as the strength of ten because your heart is pure.  (You hope.)"

Are You A Republican?

The 1% must be the Lincoln part. PZ Myers, on the other hand, is a lot more Republican than I am and he doesn't like it one bit. There's a serious point here, though -- I mean besides the "how to lie with statistics" one -- American politics is insane! In Europe I would be considered center-right or center-left on a range of political issues. But in the US I consider myself 0% Republican. I wish I could be as optimistic as Dawkins.

Read on