David Attenborough on Creationist Critics

Nice David Attenborough response in The Guardian to the creationists who apparently send him hate mail,

Telling the magazine that he was asked why he did not give “credit” to God, Attenborough added: “They always mean beautiful things like hummingbirds. I always reply by saying that I think of a little child in east Africa with a worm burrowing through his eyeball. The worm cannot live in any other way, except by burrowing through eyeballs. I find that hard to reconcile with the notion of a divine and benevolent creator.”

Attenborough went further in his opposition to creationism, saying it was “terrible” when it was taught alongside evolution as an alternative perspective. “It’s like saying that two and two equals four, but if you wish to believe it, it could also be five … Evolution is not a theory; it is a fact, every bit as much as the historical fact that William the Conqueror landed in 1066.”

Ah, the problem of evil — or in this case, the problem of banal cruelty.

Academic Freedom Day and A Fair Result

Apparently the creationists at the Discovery Institute are planning an Academic Freedom Day for Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday, February 12, 2009. On their website, the organizers make much use of this quote from Darwin,

A fair result can be obtained only by fully stating and balancing the facts and arguments on both sides of each question.

Not surprisingly, this is not quite the full quote, nor does it give the context in which Darwin wrote this. This is from the introduction to the Origin of Species where Darwin apologizes for publishing an “abstract” of his views that leaves many issues for future volumes,

This Abstract, which I now publish, must necessarily be imperfect. I cannot here give references and authorities for my several statements; and I must trust to the reader reposing some confidence in my accuracy. No doubt errors will have crept in, though I hope I have always been cautious in trusting to good authorities alone. I can here give only the general conclusions at which I have arrived, with a few facts in illustration, but which, I hope, in most cases will suffice. No one can feel more sensible than I do of the necessity of hereafter publishing in detail all the facts, with references, on which my conclusions have been grounded; and I hope in a future work to do this. For I am well aware that scarcely a single point is discussed in this volume on which facts cannot be adduced, often apparently leading to conclusions directly opposite to those at which I have arrived. A fair result can be obtained only by fully stating and balancing the facts and arguments on both sides of each question; and this cannot possibly be here done.

Of course the problem with the creationists is they constantly ask us to balance the argument of science with the arguments of pseudo-science. Ultimately, as the Discovery Institute laied it out in a 1999 memo, their agenda is the decidedly anti-scientific goal of rejecting materialism due to its “devestating” social consequences (which, of course, is precisely Philip Johnson’s entire argument).

Of course whatever else a non-materialist view of the universe may be, it ain’t science.

Creationist Psychiatrists Want to Return to Dualism (Seriously)

New Scientist ran a story in October about a bizarre movement among creationist psychiatrists(!) who want to return to Cartesian dualism in order to preserve their religious beliefs — the mind and the brain, they argue, are separate entities. Ugh.

One of the leaders of this movement, psychiatrist Jeffrey Schwartz, perfectly captures the idiocy of this idea,

I’m asking us as a world community to go out there and tell the scientific establishment, enough is enough! Materialism needs to start fading away and non-materialist causation needs to be understood as part of natural reality.

Non-materialist causation? WTF. David Hume would have had a field day with that! But what exactly does non-materialist causation mean? How would you ever measure non-material causation? According to New Scientist,

To properly support dualism, however, non-materialist neuroscientists must show the mind is something other than just a material brain. To do so, they look to some of their favourite experiments, such as research by Schwartz in the 1990s on people suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder. Schwartz used scanning technology to look at the neural patterns thought to be responsible for OCD. Then he had patients use “mindful attention” to actively change their thought processes, and this showed up in the brain scans: patients could alter their patterns of neural firing at will.

From such experiments, Schwartz and others argue that since the mind can change the brain, the mind must be something other than the brain, something non-material. In fact, these experiments are entirely consistent with mainstream neurology – the material brain is changing the material brain.

I can’t imagine how or why anyone would conclude that since the mind can alter the brain that the mind is non-material. In fact, it is only when we posit a non-material mind that this really becomes a problem (how exactly would this non-material entity exert influence of the material world).

Ron Bailey on Our Super-Intelligent Purple Space Squid Creators

Ronald Bailey’s Attack of the Super-Intelligent Purple Space Squid Creators is one of the best articles I’ve read in a long time that uses a bit of humor to expose the idiocy behind creationism, and especially the most unintentionally hilarious moment in Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed,

Near the end of the silly new anti-evolution film, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed—in which fellow panelist Steve Meyer appeared—host Ben Stein asks Richard Dawkins, who is arguably the best-known living evolutionary biologist on the planet, if he could think of any circumstances under which intelligent design might have occurred. Incautiously, Dawkins brings up the idea that aliens might have seeded life on earth; so-called directed panspermia. This idea was suggested by biologists Francis Crick and Leslie Orgel back in the 1970s. In the film, Stein acts like this is a great “gotcha,” like it’s the silliest thing he’s ever heard. Of course, the irony is that this is precisely what proponents of intelligent design are claiming—that a higher intelligence has repeatedly created life on earth.

So, since our esteemed opponents are agnostic with regard to the “source of design,” and because intelligent design cannot rule out the hypothesis that super-intelligent purple space squids are not the “source of design” of life on earth, I will provisionally accept that hypothesis for the remainder of my talk.

I went and saw Expelled about a week after it came out, and happened to be the only person in the theater watching it — which was nice because I could use my Blackberry throughout the film to fact check it. Which, of course, was beside the point since the movie was so bad it was self-refuting, as in the moment with Dawkins where Stein and the filmmakers poke fun at the panspermia hypothesis. Of course the panspermia hypothesis is extremely unlikely — but it is orders of magnitude more likely than the god hypothesis which Stein and Expelled were pushing.

Anyway, from there Bailey indulges in heresy by questioning the wisdom of choices made by our super-intelligent purple space squid creators,

If that is the case, it would seem the record shows that the intelligent designers—which I am hypothesizing are super-intelligent purple space squids—evidently spent more than 2 billion years tinkering with single-cell algae and bacteria before they got around to creating multi-cellular species. Do intelligent design proponents have a theory to explain that? Were the space squid creators just lazy?

In addition, the record clearly shows that when more complex forms of life were created by super-intelligent purple space squids, they apparently arranged their creations in a specific order. Why did the purple space squids arrange the fossils in a sequence in which fish appear before amphibians which appear before reptiles which appear before mammals? And why did the purple space squids arrange 390 million years ago for the first amphibians to resemble Crossopterygian fish that were also alive at that time? These first amphibians had such characteristics as internal gills, fish-like skull bones, and—interestingly—eight digits just as the Crossopterygian fish did. Apparently our intelligent purple space squid creators (or whoever) found eight digits displeasing, and simply eliminated the extra three digits after they killed off the early amphibians and individually created thousands of later species of amphibians with only the now standard five digits.

It’s almost as if there weren’t any super-intelligent purple space squid creators at all, but rather the slow mindless operation of some natural process — lets call it natural selection for argument’s sake — that over billions of years led to gradual adaptive changes that explain the variety of life in both the fossil record and on our planet today.

Nah, that couldn’t be, could it?

Ben Stein – Creationist Idiot?

Ben Stein — the Win Ben Stein’s Money Ben Stein — is fronting a pro-creationist documentary called Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. The movie is set to come out in April, and looks to advance the typical sort of creationist claims that they’re being oppressed because the scientific community rejects their claims.

Stein has been blogging about the movie, and if his blog posts are any indication, the movie’s going to be an outright embarrassment. This post in particular, illustrates just how far off the rails Stein has gone.

The post, titled “Darwinism: The Imperialism of Biology” makes an fairly standard argument against Darwinism, but one that usually comes from the Left rather than Right,

Darwinism, the notion that the history of organisms was the story of the survival of the fittest and most hardy, and that organisms evolve because they are stronger and more dominant than others, is a perfect example of the age from which it came: the age of Imperialism. When Darwin wrote, it was received wisdom that the white, northern European man was destined to rule the world. This could have been rationalized as greed–i.e., Europeans simply taking the resources of nations and tribes less well organized than they were. It could have been worked out as a form of amusement of the upper classes and a place for them to realize their martial fantasies. (Was it Shaw who called Imperialism “…outdoor relief for the upper classes?”)

But it fell to a true Imperialist, from a wealthy British family on both sides, married to a wealthy British woman, writing at the height of Imperialism in the UK, when a huge hunk of Africa and Asia was “owned” (literally, owned, by Great Britain) to create a scientific theory that rationalized Imperialism. By explaining that Imperialism worked from the level of the most modest organic life up to man, and that in every organic situation, the strong dominated the weak and eventually wiped them out.

This is, of course, simply the radical feminist/postmodernist critique of science — those imperialist white men created it, so it must be simply another tool of oppression. Under this view, science becomes an inherently political activity.

On the one hand, this is a lousy argument because it can be just as easily applied to Stein’s arguments — just posit that Stein and his ilk advocate their views simply for political purposes, and write them off. The ultimate end is that science becomes held hostage to politics (Google Lysenkoism sometime for an indication of where that leads).

On the other hand, when the science is not on your side — as it definitely is not for Stein — this is one of the few arguments left (in other blog posts, Stein picks up the other creationist meta-argument by attacking the idea of “materialist science” as if a “non-materialist” science makes any sense at all).

Similarly, Stein wants to smear Darwinism by blaming it for the Holocaust,

Alas, Darwinism has had a far bloodier life span than Imperialism. Darwinism, perhaps mixed with Imperialism, gave us Social Darwinism, a form of racism so vicious that it countenanced the Holocaust against the Jews and mass murder of many other groups in the name of speeding along the evolutionary process.

First of all, despite what the term implies, most of the Social Darwinist ideas preceded Darwin’s publication of The Origin of Species and some were not even Darwinists at all. For example, the archetypal Social Darwinist Herbert Spencer was a Lamarckian who advocated a precursor to a laissez faire political theory.

And, of course, anti-Semitism and massacres of Jews plagued Western Europe for centuries completely unaided by Darwin. Presumably those who marched in the German Crusade of 1096 did not have godless natural selection in their hearts when they slaughtered Jews in the Rhineland. Edward I knew nothing of DNA or genes when he achieved in England what Hitler would try in German centuries later — the complete expulsion of Jews for almost four centuries.

Certainly Hitler wrapped his anti-Semitism in part in a crude distortion of Darwinism, but it was the centuries of Christian progroms and oppression of Jews across the European continent that created the fertile soil for the Holocaust to take hold.