Thursday, October 27, 2005

Letters bring letters

As I mentioned in my last post, my most recent letter to the editor of the York Daily Record regarding Creationism was published just over three weeks after sending it. Such a delay can be quite frustrating if responding to rapidly-changing situations, however, that's certainly not the case when dealing with Creationists' arguments. On the other hand, the Postal Service quickly delivered a response to my letter: an envelope postmarked Lancaster the day after my LTE appeared in the paper arrived in my mailbox two days later. Some generous but anonymous person must have been concerned that I might not have enough Jack Chick bible tracts and very kindly sent me a copy of Big Daddy?.

I have to wonder if a person would really think that I would discard knowledge and rationality after reading such an infantile caricature--does that person think these tracts present something even remotely resembling reality? I can just picture him or her muttering, "Yes, that is just what university science classes are like!"

Of course, it could be that the anonymous tract donor was suggesting that Big Daddy? could be used alongside of the copies of Of Pandas and People that were donated to the Dover school board.

Monday, October 24, 2005


It took just over three weeks from submission for my last letter to the editor to be printed in the York Daily Record (see previous post). But you know, that hardly matters--because the same questions are raised again and again, and the same refutations can be repeatedly applied. Some people just aren't paying attention.

This point brings to mind a book I happened to return to recently, "Evolution and its Relation to Religious Thought," by Joseph Le Conte, published in 1888. Le Conte was professor of geology and natural history at the University of California, and had written other works on geology, vision, and the relation of religion and science.
This book contains discussions that are being repeated today, 117 years after it was published. Frequent use of these old, long-refuted arguments is a hallmark of Creationism, including its latest gussied-up version, Intelligent Design. Le Conte writes in his preface:

"...There is a deep and widespread belief in the popular mind, and even to some extent in the scientific mind, that there is something exceptional in the doctrine of evolution as regards its relation to religious thought and moral conduct. Other scientific theories have required only some modifications of religious conceptions, but this utterly destroys the possibility of all religious belief by demonstrating a pure materialism. Now this, I believe, is a misconception. Thinking men are fast coming to see this; some, indeed, have mistaken the change for a reaction against evolution. It is a reaction not against evolution, but only against its materialistic implication. Evolution is more and more firmly established every year..."

In the text, Le Conte provides evidences of evolution and answer objections--the familiar "There are no fossils of transitional forms," "Animals today look pretty much as they do in ancient Egyptian art (no one has observed speciation occurring)." He refers to puctuated equilibria ("But we must remember that such changes are usually more or less paroxysmal; not, indeed, so suddenly as to break the continuity of life, but far more rapid at some times than at others" almost 100 years before publication by Eldredge and Gould (1972). (The apparent long periods of stasis were known in Darwin's day--Gould, in his grand opus "The Structure of Evolutionary Theory" notes the observations of Hugh Falconer, a contemporary of Darwin, regarding stability of species and the significance of the sudden appearance of new, evolved forms.) Le Conte even considers Irreducible Complexity ("...the first steps of advance toward usefulness"). However, he cannot offer an explanation for natural selection of "incipient stages" and suggests that future work will shed some light on this mystery ("They only show that we do not yet fully understand this process; that there are still other and perhaps greater factors of evolution than is yet dreamed of in our philosophy").

In the century-plus since "Evolution and its Relation to Religious Thought" was published, we have come to understand a lot more about the mechanisms of biological variation and evolution, yet it seems that many people remain stuck in that bygone age, raising the same objections that were addressed long ago.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

What are evolutionists afraid of?!

I just read a letter to the editor that once again repeated the tired old Creationist question, "Why are evolutionists afraid of letting students hear about alternative ideas about the origin of species?" It's a disingenuous question, because it's not a matter of simply mentioning another, equally valid scientific explanation, but, rather, a thinly-veiled attempt to inject a particular religious viewpoint into the science classroom as if it were science while deprecating the theory of evolution (and mischaracterizing the scientific method in general).

Here's a letter to the editor I wrote in response:

To the Editor:

A question often asked by the anti-evolution crowd is, “What are the evolutionists/Darwinists/scientists afraid of?” This question is posed in the context of an effort to present creationism (which includes Intelligent Design) as a valid, scientific alternative to evolutionary theory, sometimes as a seemingly innocuous addendum, statement, or disclaimer to a discussion of evolution.

Scientists are concerned about such actions for several reasons. For one thing, such statements are untrue and give the impression that there is significant doubt amongst scientists about the power of evolutionary theory to explain biology and that evolutionary science is of trivial importance. We worry that engendering an attitude like that would have unfortunate consequences for the progress of medicine, technology, and, indeed, all of the other sciences, at a time when our nation requires constant progress in these fields in order to remain competitive in the global economy.

We also are concerned that such actions, especially when encouraged or sponsored by the government, can lead to the displacement of the scientific method (which has been enormously successful in solving many problems) with an ideological orthodoxy. We understand the serious repercussions of such a state of affairs, having witnessed the devastating effects of Lysenkoism in the Soviet Union. Lest anyone doubt the situation here could get as bad as that, let me remind you that several of the leading Intelligent Design proponents, and their “manifesto,” the Wedge Document, have explicitly stated the goal of replacing science as currently practiced with what they call “theistic science.”