Friday, October 09, 2009

Cold case files

I’ll be commenting on some excerpts from Dawkins’ new book. Here’s the source:

Ironically enough, the title comes from a slogan by P. T. Barnum. Ironic, I say, because Barnum is also famous for another catch-phrase attributed to him: “There's a sucker born every minute.”

So Dawkins is the P. T. Barnum of Darwinians.

“The plight of many science teachers today is not less dire. When they attempt to expound the central and guiding principle of biology; when they honestly place the living world in its historical context — which means evolution; when they explore and explain the very nature of life itself, they are harried and stymied, hassled and bullied, even threatened with loss of their jobs. At the very least their time is wasted at every turn. They are likely to receive menacing letters from parents and have to endure the sarcastic smirks and close-folded arms of brainwashed children. They are supplied with state-approved textbooks that have had the word ‘evolution’ systematically expunged, or bowdlerized into ‘change over time’. Once, we were tempted to laugh this kind of thing off as a peculiarly American phenomenon.”

i) Yes, the last thing we want is for public employees to be answerable to the public. Where did taxpayers ever get the idea that they have some right to say what their tax dollars go to support?

ii) By the same token, it’s outrageous to think that parents should have any say in the education of their kids. After all, their kids aren’t really their kids. Rather, all children are wards of the state. Public education is a form of foster care.

iii) At the same time, I’m a bit puzzled about the specter of Darwinians who lose their jobs. Seems to me the reverse is generally the case.

“What we must not do is complacently assume that, because bishops and educated clergy accept evolution, so do their congregations. Alas there is ample evidence to the contrary from opinion polls. More than 40 per cent of Americans deny that humans evolved from other animals, and think that we — and by implication all of life — were created by God within the last 10,000 years. The figure is not quite so high in Britain, but it is still worryingly large. And it should be as worrying to the churches as it is to scientists… The history-deniers themselves are among those who I am trying to reach.”

That would be more convincing if he didn’t have a habit of studiously ducking debates with the very folks he says he’s trying to reach.

“This book is necessary. I shall be using the name ‘historydeniers’ for those people who deny evolution: who believe the world’s age is measured in thousands of years rather than thousands of millions of years, and who believe humans walked with dinosaurs.”

Of course, this is just a ruse. Dawkins is equally opposed to young-earth creationists, old-earth creationists, theistic evolutionists, and intelligent design theorists. He singles out young-earth creationists because he thinks they’re easy targets, and then uses that association to tar every other theistic alternative.

“To return to the enlightened bishops and theologians, it would be nice if they’d put a bit more effort into combating the anti-scientific nonsense that they deplore. All too many preachers, while agreeing that evolution is true and Adam and Eve never existed, will then blithely go into the pulpit and make some moral or theological point about Adam and Eve in their sermons without once mentioning that, of course, Adam and Eve never actually existed!”

It’s true that a certain percentage of clergymen lead a double life–saying one thing in public while they believe something very different in private.

“They may add witheringly that, obviously, nobody would be so foolish as to take their words literally. But do their congregations know that? How is the person in the pew, or on the prayer-mat, supposed to know which bits of scripture to take literally, which symbolically? Is it really so easy for an uneducated churchgoer to guess? In all too many cases the answer is clearly no, and anybody could be forgiven for feeling confused.”

Of course, this assumes that many or most churchgoers are uneducated. Since, however, many churchgoers are college-educated professionals, it’s not as though they’re totally dependent on the pastor for their information. For that matter, you don’t have to have a formal education to inform yourself.

“Evolution is a fact. Beyond reasonable doubt, beyond serious doubt, beyond sane, informed, intelligent doubt, beyond doubt evolution is a fact. The evidence for evolution is at least as strong as the evidence for the Holocaust, even allowing for eye witnesses to the Holocaust…Evolution is a fact, and [my] book will demonstrate it. No reputable scientist disputes it, and no unbiased reader will close the book doubting it… Evolution is an inescapable fact...”

Yes, evolution is a fact. Hard, incontrovertible fact.

And how do we know it’s a fact? By the number of adjectives we can line up in one sentence. That’s how you prove a scientific theory. By the cumulative use of emphatic, redundant adjectives. Rows and rows of adjectival evidence.

“It is the plain truth that we are cousins of chimpanzees, somewhat more distant cousins of monkeys, more distant cousins still of aardvarks and manatees, yet more distant cousins of bananas and turnips . . . continue the list as long as desired.”

I haven’t seen any actual polling data on chimpanzees, but I suspect the average, self-respecting chimp would bitterly resent undignified comparisons between his kind and Richard Dawkins.

And for fruits and vegetables, I’ll admit that the quality of Dawkins’ argument may well rival cognitive skills of even the best-endowed banana or turnip.

“We are like detectives who come on the scene after a crime has been committed. The murderer’s actions have vanished into the past. The detective has no hope of witnessing the actual crime with his own eyes. What the detective does have is traces that remain, and there is a great deal to trust there. There are footprints, fingerprints (and nowadays DNA fingerprints too), bloodstains, letters, diaries. The world is the way the world should be if this and this history, but not that and that history, led up to the present.”

That’s not necessarily a bad analogy for the scientific method. But remember that many cases go unsolved. Cold cases. Investigations where all leads lead to dead ends. Moth-eaten boxes on dusty shelves in musty warehouses.

And that’s in the case of recent events. Not events in the distant past. There are so often severe limits on our ability to reconstruct the past from trace evidence.

In addition, some cases go unsolved because the detectives suffer from tunnel vision. And we could apply that analogy to the Darwinians as well.


  1. I enjoy: "No reputable scientist disputes it, and no unbiased reader will close the book doubting it..." because it sounds so much like a "No True Scotsman" response.

    If you DO decide you disagree, you're clearly not reputable as a scientist, and went in with all your biases firmly in place. Bah.

    More to the point, where does he think he's going to find a person with no bias on this issue?

  2. Dawkins' tunnel vision: As long as he doesn't look outside his tunnel, he can pretend his tunnel is as big as he wants it to be and leads where he thinks it should.