Tag Archives: Charles Darwin

Does religion blur understanding of evolution?

Victor Stenger has a short, but important, blog post in the Huffington Post. Appropriately (because it’s about evolutionary science) dated February 12 – Darwin Day, 204th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth.

Stenger’s article, No Belief Gap, considers Gallup Poll data on the numbers of American who accept evolutionary science and who believe in a god. But in contrast to some commentators, he differentiates between those who see evolution as guided by their god or as a so-called “naturalistic” process – defined in the polls as: “Man has developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life [and] God had no part in the process.”

This is, of course, what we mean by evolutionary science. Guidance by gods, goblins, elves or whatever is not part of that science. (Nor is it currently part of any other science). The distinction is important and it is no accident that some religious apologists like Alvin Plantinga  misrepresent the issue and are trying to create the impression that “divine” guidance is an essential part of evolutionary science (see Naturalism and science are incompatible).

Stenger finds of those accepting a proper definition of evolutionary science:

“This is exactly the same percentage of Americans who declare themselves unaffiliated with any religion.

“It may be that the only Americans who accept naturalist evolution are those who do not participate in any organized religion.”

His last comment:

“Virtually all Christians who accept that species evolve, contrary to the Bible that they believe is the word of God, think evolution is God-guided. This is not Darwinian evolution. God-guided evolution is intelligent design creationism. How many American Christians believe in evolution, as it is understood by science? The data indicate none.”

Could we draw the same conclusion about New Zealand Christians? I would be interested to see similar poll data for our country.

See also: A specious argument for the comity of evolution and faith

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Time for philosophical honesty about Darwin


Credit: The Teaching Company

John S. Wilkins, at the Evolving Thoughts blog, has a nice short article, Why is Darwin’s theory so controversial?, on the so-called “controversies” around Darwin’s theories. I think he nails it. He shows that the usual tired old objections to Darwin’s ideas are just excuses.

The excuses

“Darwin thought species are mutable.” But:

“This was a widely held view by preachers, moralists, Aristotelians, naturalists, breeders, formalists, folk biology, and even biblical translators.”

“Darwin had racist ideas about humans.”

“He never did and the racism that is sometimes associated with his ideas preceded him by centuries (and were good Christian virtues) and were mediated by those who disagreed with him.”

“Darwin thought the age of the earth was large:”

“This preceded him also, and was settled in the late eighteenth century, although the present value wasn’t finalised until the 1960s.”

“Darwin’s claim humans are animals contradicted the Bible.” But:

“Linnaeus knew humans were animals a century earlier, and indeed the only issue was whether humans were animals with souls (or if all animals had souls), which Darwin never implied anything to the contrary.

Moreover, it was Christians who rejected the literal interpretation of the Bible, long before Darwin (beginning with the Alexandrian school in the second century), and those who realised that the global Flood was a myth (or an allegory) were Christian geologists a half century at least in advance of Darwin.”

The real controversy

John explains:

“No, the reason why Darwin was controversial is very, very simple. Darwin argued that complex designs could arise without a mind to guide it. In short, his controversial idea was natural selection (and sexual selection, but even that preceded Darwin). Almost from the day it was published, critics attacked the implication that the living world was not all that special, and that it lacked a Plan or Meaning. Theologians, moralists and even scientists objected to this, and while even most of the Catholic Church accepted common descent and modification of species, it was natural selection they hated.”

But instead of honestly confronting and debating the real issue they lie and slander:

“All the supposed “controversies” of Darwinism (or that phantom, “neo-Darwinism”) are post hoc attacks based on the prior objection to the lack of a guiding hand in biology. Don’t like natural selection? Attack Darwin by calling him a racist or blaming him for the Holocaust. Say he is antiessentialist. Say he is anti-religion. No matter how much evidence one puts forward that these are deliberate lies manufactured by those who hate Darwin for natural selection, it won’t stop the prevarication industry.”

A basic philosophical conflict

Wilkins says:

“Sensible philosophical critics of Darwin focus on selection for that reason. It undercuts our prior belief that We Are Special. Human mentation, cognition, language, morality, religion or economics is somehow privileged in the universe. Bullshit. We are an animal and we arose without the universe seeking us.”

But some philosophers will devote their energies to attacking this position while refusing to justify their alternative:

“The human exceptionalism which critics like Fodor, Fuller, Plantinga and the rest presume but do not argue for unfairly places the onus on Darwinians. It is time to stop taking them seriously.”

Amen to that.

But I want to add something to John’s analysis – and I do hope he doesn’t feel I misrepresent him.

Time for philosophical honesty

Darwin’s approach of looking to nature, and not to scripture, for the explanation of nature was simply being scientific. It extended the progress made by modern science in physics, astronomy, etc., into the understanding of life – including human life. Galileo in the early 17th Century argued our understanding of the world should be based on evidence from the world – not on fallible interpretation of scripture. Scientific knowledge, or natural philosophy in those day, should be based on evidence from reality and resulting ideas and theories tested and validated against that reality.

Today, sensible philosophers (even sensible philosophers of religion) accept this approach in the physical sciences. We no longer hear them talking about, or justifying, divine guidance in the movement of stars and planets, or the reaction of chemicals. Why should Fodor, Fuller and Plantinga so adamantly wish to sneak divine guidance into the biological world?

As they are so keen on divine guidance why not try to find and deliver some evidence for it instead of relying on logical possibility alone? That would be the scientific approach. And if they were really consistent they would also be arguing for, and producing evidence for, divine guidance in the physical world.

Now, that would put them in context.

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Christmas gift ideas: One for the kids

Books are ideal Christmas presents. And as I am spending some time dealing with family business I thought reposting some of my past book reviews over the next few days could be useful am repeating some of my past book reviews.

I should have reviewed more books for children. But here’s a good one – about an important scientific topic.


Book Review: Evolution: How We and All Living Things Came to Be by Daniel Loxton

Reading level: Young Adult
Price: US$12.89, NZ$40.99
Hardcover: 56 pages
Publisher: Kids Can Press, Ltd. (February 1, 2010)
ISBN-10: 1554534305
ISBN-13: 978-1554534302

Today, February 12, is Darwin Day. The anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth 201 years ago. So I have decided to review a new book on evolution.

It’s a short book, but an important one. Important because it’s for kids – it’s aimed at children of ages 8 – 13. It’s about an important area of science, evolutionary science. I think kids will learn from this book, and they will enjoy the experience.

“Evolution” is beautifully illustrated and clearly written. Important evolutionary ideas are well explained in brief sections, often illustrated with examples and metaphors as well as pictures. Daniel Loxton is the editor of Junior Skeptic and regularly writes and illustrates for children so he is the ideal author for such a book.

I like the way that many of these sections use questions as chapter headings. “What about us?”, “Survival of the fittest?”, “If evolution really happens, where are the transitional fossil?”, “How could evolution produce something as complicated as my eyes?” are a few examples. The sorts of questions kids will commonly hear. Loxton devotes the second part of his book to such questions, ones commonly raised by creationist critics of evolution. This is good technique for capturing the reader’s attention and encouraging them to read further.

Loxton uses many examples and metaphors, as well as pictures, to illustrate ideas. His illustration of mutations acting over time with the metaphor of the children’s’ game “telephone” is done in both words and pictures.

My main criticism is that he didn’t use a metaphor to illustrate the important idea of “deep time.” A simple description of rock layers and differentiation of fossils is inadequate – even for an adult. One needs to compare the immensity of time with something pictorial, like the distance between people, houses, cities, countries, planets, and so on. An illustration of the process of fossilisation could also have helped.

However, kids of this age are continuously learning. They are always confronting ideas and words needing further explanation. So I think it is great that this book includes a short glossary (which does include a description of fossilisation) and index. This helps encourage the young reader to explore further – especially when they come across unfamiliar words.

The religion question

Several reviewers have expressed reservations about Loxton’s short answer to the question “What about religion?” Perhaps it would have been better to leave this out – but on the other hand it is a common question which kids will have to confront. Loxton’s inadequate reply was unavoidable, given the unwritten social rule that religion has a special role in our society. That we are not allowed to criticise religion. Any properly adequate reply would have lead to people being “offended” and campaigns to exclude the book for schools.

So perhaps the best advice is that he gave – kids should discuss this with family and friends. I think there are many things in this book which will raise further questions in the reader’s minds. Maybe it’s religion, the way fossils are formed, how life began, the age of the earth or universe. If this leads to discussions with family, friends and teachers – great. It’s all part of education.

So, I can highly recommend this book. It will be a great gift for the target age group – but even some of us older “kids” could probably learn from this short clearly written and beautifully illustrated book.

That’s my opinion. Now I must pass it on to my 9 year-old granddaughter and get her reaction.

See also:
Evolution: How we and al living things came to be – available from Fishpond.co.nz.
forgoodreason Interview with Loxton about the book
Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe Interviews Daniel loxton
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Moral strawmannery

If you have ever searched the internet for a section of text from Darwin’s writings you will have noticed that most of the links that come up are to creationist websites and blogs. What we are seeing is simple dishonest quote mining. Somebody makes a claim about evolution, Darwin or Darwinism, attaches a mined quote – and the quote then has a life of its own. It gets repeated ad nauseum by the creationist echo chamber – with hardly any of the users bothering to check the quote against the original for accuracy – let alone context.

Mining quotes from Darwin

Here’s one taken from Darwin’s The Descent of Man.  It’s from Chapter IV: Comparison of the mental powers of man and the lower animals. In this Darwin discusses the evolution of a moral sense, sociability, social instincts and virtues, rules of conduct and religious beliefs. After arguing against the idea that a different social animal “if its intellectual faculties were to become as active and as highly developed as in man, would acquire exactly the same moral sense as ours” Darwin wrote:

“If, for instance, to take an extreme case, men were reared under precisely the same conditions as hive-bees, there can hardly be a doubt that our unmarried females would, like the worker-bees, think it a sacred duty to kill their brothers, and mothers would strive to kill their fertile daughters; and no one would think of interfering.” (Bold added)

Recently I have seen the quote reproduced by numerous religious apologists and creationists arguing against “secular morality.” (Almost always the section in bold is omitted – usually evidence that users are just copying and pasting from other apologist posts or articles). And they interpret this to mean that a moral and social code held by a human species that has evolved must be the same as the most basic of animals or insects.

See, for example Flannagan’s When Scientists Make Bad Ethicists and Weikhart’s Can Darwinists Condemn Hitler and Remain Consistent with Their Darwinism?  Flannagan asserts:

“it is unlikely that a loving and just person could command actions such as infanticide or rape whereas, evolution, guided only by the impersonal forces of nature, is not subject to such constraints.”

Weikart has made a reputation of ascribing the morality of Nazism to Darwin (he is the author of From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany and Hitler’s Ethic: The Nazi Pursuit of Evolutionary Progress). He says:

“if morality is the product of these mindless evolutionary processes, as Darwin and many other prominent Darwinists maintain, then “I don’t think [they] have any grounds to criticize Hitler.””

And

“To natural selection killing your siblings and offspring is all the same as loving them. Selection only favors what works to enhance survival and reproduction, and it does not matter if it is nice and moral, or harsh and brutal.”

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Some things for the kids

Well actually for their parents and grandparents. Especially with Christmas on the horizon.

Right where you are now

Right Here You Are Now is a bedtime story for kids. It’s also scientifically accurate, so it’s more than just a bedtime story—it’s an educational adventure. This book will help kids understand geologic time. Seems pretty important to me.

This is how Tracy Reva describes the book in her review:

“While this book contains a lot of information it’s presented in a very appealing manner that will make children want to read it. The pages are bright and colorful, and the illustrations make children wonder what comes next. The facts are presented in a manner that encourages the curiosity of young readers and the passages of reading material are short ones. The book itself is 26 pages and it packs a lot of interesting facts into each and every page. I am so impressed with it I plan to buy a couple of copies to use as presents for my grandson, niece and nephews.”

See also: review by review by Lavanya Karthik

The book will be launched in the UK on 25 September.

Register here to be informed when the book is released and can be purchased.

Thanks to The Dispersal of Darwin

Charlie and the kiwi

Charlie and Kiwi: An Evolutionary Adventure is another book aimed at young children (4 – 8 yrs). And it has a local theme which will appeal.

It was supported by a grant from the US National Science Foundation, so again it will be scientifically accurate. It uses Charles Darwin to take the reader on a journal through time and through the important scientific principle of evolution.

Published last June it is available now.

Again thanks to The Dispersal of Darwin

Skeptics dictionary for kids

The Skeptic’s Dictionary for Kids is a web site – and obviously for the older kids. great for research, school projects and just searching.

This was set up in July and is being continually added to. The web page also has some interesting links which will be useful for kids interested in science.

And links to some kid’s sciency books:

Thanks to Phil Plait, The Bad Astronomer.

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Not about Einstein

Book Review: Einstein’s God: Conversations About Science and the Human Spirit by Krista Tippett

Price: US$10.88; NZ$12.97
Paperback:
304 pages
Publisher:
Penguin (Non-Classics) (February 23, 2010)
Language:
English
ISBN-10:
0143116770
ISBN-13:
978-0143116776

The media reports of Stephen Hawking’s new book with co-author Leonard Mlodinow (The Grand Design) attracted hostile reaction from some theological quarters (see The Grand Design – neither God nor 42). This reminds me of similar treatment meted out to Albert Einstein in his time.

Einstein had many religious critics for an article of his on the philosophy of religion in 1940. An Episcopalian responded “to give up the doctrine of a personal God . . . .  shows the good Doctor, when it comes to the practicalities of life, is full of jellybeans”. He was accused of providing fuel for the fanatical antisemitism of religious bigots and told that he should “stick to his science” and stop delving into philosophy (sound familiar). And this from the founder of the Calvary tabernacle Association in Oklahoma City “Professor Einstein, every Christian in America will immediately reply to you, ‘Take your crazy, fallacious theory of evolution and go back to Germany where you came from.”

Perhaps some of today’s scientists who hesitate to respond to their theological critics could learn from Einstein’s reaction. While criticising atheist reaction he described his theological critics as “numerous dogs who are earning their food guarding ignorance and superstition for the benefit of those who profit from it.”

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One for the kids

Book Review: Evolution: How We and All Living Things Came to Be by Daniel Loxton

Reading level: Young Adult
Price: US$12.89, NZ$40.99
Hardcover: 56 pages
Publisher: Kids Can Press, Ltd. (February 1, 2010)
ISBN-10: 1554534305
ISBN-13: 978-1554534302

Today, February 12, is Darwin Day. The anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth 201 years ago. So I have decided to review a new book on evolution.

It’s a short book, but an important one. Important because it’s for kids – it’s aimed at children of ages 8 – 13. It’s about an important area of science, evolutionary science. I think kids will learn from this book, and they will enjoy the experience.

“Evolution” is beautifully illustrated and clearly written. Important evolutionary ideas are well explained in brief sections, often illustrated with examples and metaphors as well as pictures. Daniel Loxton is the editor of Junior Skeptic and regularly writes and illustrates for children so he is the ideal author for such a book.

I like the way that many of these sections use questions as chapter headings.  “What about us?”, “Survival of the fittest?”, “If evolution really happens, where are the transitional fossil?”, “How could evolution produce something as complicated as my eyes?” are a few examples. The sorts of questions kids will commonly hear. Loxton devotes the second part of his book to such questions, ones commonly raised by creationist critics of evolution. This is good technique for capturing the reader’s attention and encouraging them to read further.

Loxton uses many examples and metaphors, as well as pictures, to illustrate ideas. His illustration of mutations acting over time with the metaphor of the children’s’ game “telephone” is done in both words and pictures.

My main criticism is that he didn’t use a metaphor to illustrate the important idea of “deep time.”  A simple description of rock layers and differentiation of fossils is inadequate – even for an adult. One needs to compare the immensity of time with something pictorial, like the distance between people, houses, cities, countries, planets, and so on. An illustration of the process of fossilisation could also have helped.

However, kids of this age are continuously learning. They are always confronting ideas and words needing further explanation. So I think it is great that this book includes a short glossary (which does include a description of fossilisation) and index. This helps encourage the young reader to explore further – especially when they come across unfamiliar words.

The religion question

Several reviewers have expressed reservations about Loxton’s short answer to the question “What about religion?” Perhaps it would have been better to leave this out – but on the other hand it is a common question which kids will have to confront. Loxton’s inadequate reply was unavoidable, given the unwritten social rule that religion has a special role in our society. That we are not allowed to criticise religion. Any properly adequate reply would have lead to people being “offended” and campaigns to exclude the book for schools.

So perhaps the best advice is that he gave – kids should discuss this with family and friends. I think there are many things in this book which will raise further questions in the reader’s minds. Maybe it’s religion, the way fossils are formed, how life began, the age of the earth or universe. If this leads to discussions with family, friends and teachers – great. It’s all part of education.

So, I can highly recommend this book. It will be a great gift for the target age group – but even some of us older “kids” could probably learn from this short clearly written and beautifully illustrated book.

That’s my opinion. Now I must pass it on to my 9 year-old granddaughter and get her reaction.

See also:
Evolution: How we and al living things came to be – available from Fishpond.co.nz.
forgoodreason Interview with Loxton about the book
Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe Interviews Daniel loxton
Buy Now banner 240x52

Permalink

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An Introduction to Evolution

Book Review: The Tangled Bank: An Introduction to Evolution by Carl Zimmer

Price: US$43:16
Hardcover: 394 pages
Publisher: Roberts and Company Publishers; 1 edition (October 15, 2009)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0981519474
ISBN-13: 978-0981519470

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This Tuesday is the 150th anniversary of the first publication of Charles Darwin’s bookOn the Origin of Species“. And earlier this year we celebrated the 200th anniversary of his birth.

These anniversaries have been marked by publication of books about Darwin’s life, his ideas and various aspects of evolutionary science. Most of these are aimed at the adult reader. But here is one which will appeal to school children and young adults – an important section of readers.

The Tangled Bank is an introductory text book. It will be ideal for introductory classes on evolution and biology. But it is also going to appeal to many adults, and especially to families.

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Distorting Darwin

Poor old Charles Darwin. In this year of celebration, when we mark the 200th year since his birth and the 150th year since the publication of his great work The Origin of Species, he is being subjected to a real deluge of misrepresentation. The ideological opponents of science, particularly evolutionary science, have been working overtime to quote him out of context, to cherry pick quotes, to “prove” he was a horrible person and that the “materialist” heart of science must be ripped out.

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Empathy’s origins

Book Review: The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society by Frans de Waal

Price: US$17.15
Hardcover: 304 pages
Publisher: Harmony (September 22, 2009)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0307407764
ISBN-13: 978-0307407764

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This book might ruffle the feathers of the biblical literalists. They will find themselves challenged on two grounds:

  1. We can explain human feelings of empathy, sympathy and the like naturally, without resort to divine causes;
  2. Ideas of a special or divinely ordained character for humans, of human exceptionalism, are not supported by the evidence.

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