Friday, November 04, 2005

My Amazon Rejection

The following is a book review that I wrote for Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea. Amazon rejected it as being off-topic. I rather agree with them -- I went on a little bit of a rant.

Let’s try this little experiment: hold a piece of paper towel by one edge and lower it partially into some water. Hold it steady, and what happens? The water starts to travel up the towel, against the pull of gravity! We’ve just proved there’s no such thing as gravity! I doubt that even a creationist would agree that capillary action falsifies the theory of gravity and yet the same kind of twisted reasoning is used against evolution with charges of "special pleading" and "begging the question." In fact, one reviewer below, in a fit of apoplexy, decrees that evolution apparently defies physical laws. I’m skeptical of such truly unfounded generalizations, especially now, after reading Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea.

As Carl Zimmer so concisely points out in the book, no scientific theory can ever be directly proven. But a theory generates hypotheses that make predictions, which can be tested. Zimmer, delivering the most up-to-date information on the scientific consensus, shows that evolution has amassed over a century’s worth of such testable predictions. He explains evolution’s global journey, getting right to the point and illuminating with representative examples along the way. Zimmer also delivers a brilliant knockout punch to Intelligent Design, exposing it as repackaging of the irreducible complexity argument. It used to be thought that the eye was far too complex to have developed in a step-by-step process. Take away any part of the eye and, like taking a cog out of a clock, it becomes useless, right? As it turns out, there are many examples of "partial" eyes in nature. I love how the editors have boldly used this icon of creationism on the cover of the book. Zimmer even gives examples of how complex biochemical reactions evolved, like blood clots, which depend on a cascade of different interactions, any one step of which, if missing, will cause the process to fail. It seems proponents of irreducible complexity must keep reducing the area defined as "too complex."

The joke is, there's a Creationist screed called Icons of Evolution.

Anti-evolutionists always want to have their cake and eat it, too. They see debates between evolutionists as proof of the theory’s imminent demise and yet also make the contradictory claim that evolution is dogma with no dissenting voices allowed. Often, they make the concession that small genetic changes can and do occur in populations (micro-evolution), but somehow fail to concede that small differences, accumulating over time, eventually result in big differences (macro-evolution). Zimmer explains why you can’t have the former without the latter. In reference to intermediate forms, Zimmer says, "Creationists used to get enormous pleasure out of the lack of walking whales, for example. That was before paleontologists started gigging up whale feet."

Creationists, in the interest of free speech, lobby for equal time for their views to be expressed in schools (perhaps in response to so many evolutionists demanding equal time during church services?). I think there could indeed be an appropriate forum for discussing creationism in a school setting – say, in a theology class where many points of view could be explored, not just Christian creation. But perhaps this is no longer seen as reasonable. Even though many creationists clamor for "equal time," this appeal to a sense of fair play is disingenuous, for their true goal is to eliminate the competition altogether – not through superior reasoning, but by stifling the free exchange of ideas. Pat Robertson’s 700 Club recently posted an article about how Patrick Henry College was denied academic accreditation because the faculty must submit to the school’s official policy that states that "evolution ‘theistic’ or otherwise will not be treated as an acceptable theory." Tellingly, the college is appealing the decision on religious freedom grounds (I guess at Patrick Henry College you can’t have both freedom of religion and freedom of speech). This tactic prompts me to wonder: if creationism is supposed to stand on its scientific merits, why must the school resort to what they recognize as a religious justification? At any rate, Patrick Henry president Michael Farris said teaching evolution in a science class and creation in a religion class would lead to "intellectual schizophrenia." Now the creationists are calling themselves crazy!

It’s understandable why Farris would have a hard time reconciling evolution and creationism. Evolution – like all scientific theories – is dynamic: it is not simply one of many equally plausible explanations, but the single best explanation for the evidence, open to refinement, testability and falsifiability. Creationism is stagnant: it is an absolute that cannot be reasoned with, deriving its truth from theological authority rather than testable or falsifiable methods. Acolytes of creationism travel an inward turning spiral of self-deception that rewards ignorance and unquestioning capitulation, circling ever closer to an intellectual void barren of critical thought. If creationism is allowed equal time in scientific discussions without being required to meet the same rigorous standards of proof as evolution, then down that path lies a vast wasteland strewn with the tatters of reason and the howl of intellectual privation on the wind – nothing short of a new Dark Age. Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea goes a long way towards avoiding this fate.


Anonymous said...

vrzlci've heard it said that the developement of the fetus parallels our own evelutionary developement (a notion to which i subscribe). want to know how the eye developed? watch it develope in the fetus, and you'll get a good idea.


Anonymous said...

oh, crap! where's the edit button!

and i don't know what the hell "vrzlc" is!