Thursday, March 30, 2006

More on Farah's Lunacy

Several days ago, Ed Brayton over at Dispatches from the Culture Wars, posted comments on an article by Joseph Farah at WorldNetDaily entitled “Hitler’s Evolutionists”. Farah, citing an article in Archaeology entitled “Hitler’s Willing Archaeologists” rehashes the worn out creationist “evolution-leads-to-Hitler” argument that attempts to link evolutionary theory with the rise of the Nazi regime. This is, of course, a subset of the broader philosophy espoused by creationists and some Christian apologists, that “everything bad is the result of evolution; everything good stems from Christianity”, whether it’s Nazism, Communism, Columbine, abortion or a whole additional host of social ills. Brayton makes short work of Farah’s latest twist on this creationist myth by pointing out that even a superficial perusal of history reveals a much different story; one that Farah would rather his readership not know about. Hitler’s own writing and speeches show clearly that if he justified his ideology with any philosophical position, it was Christianity. Hitler claimed to be a Christian, cited biblical passages to justify his ideology, and was clearly familiar with centuries of church history documenting anti-Jewish attitudes on the part of many prominent Christian figures. Despite this, Brayton correctly clarifies that Christianity is no more to blame for the development of Hitler’s ideology than is evolutionary science:

Now, the Christian would obviously argue that what Hitler did was distort the true aims of Christianity, and I would agree with them. It is folly to blame Hitler's ideology of hatred on Christianity; his pathology was far deeper than a mere religious belief. But by the same token, neither was he motivated by a zeal for science. He was a manipulator who used every possible means to convince his followers to go along with him and changed his rhetoric depending on the nature of the audience he was speaking to. This should be obvious to any thinking person, which of course leaves Farah out right from the start.

Farah is the poster-boy for the creationist tactic of creating data where none exist while simultaneously ignoring volumes of legitimate information that counters his position. Brayton illuminated Farah’s idiocy with the light of reason, logic and a more comprehensive look at a available information. I would have left the whole issue there except that, as an archaeologist, I was curious about the connection Farah was attempting make between archaeology, Hitler and evolutionary theory. So I bought a copy of Archaeology and looked at the original article. It took only a few paragraphs to realize something I’ve always suspected of Joseph Farah: he needs to learn how to read.

The article is largely about Assien Bohmers, a Dutch national with a scientific background in soils analysis, stratigraphy and archaeology, who joined Heinrich Himmler’s elite research institute, the Ahnenerbe. The Ahnenerbe’s official mission was to “…unearth new evidence of the accomplishments and deeds of Germanic ancestors”. However, in reality it was clearly designed to bring “scientific methods” to bear on the question of a Germanic “Aryan” ancestry preferred by Hitler. Not only were the researchers tasked to identify common physical features between Germanic people and human fossils that were already being excavated in Germany and France, they were also to demonstrate the cultural superiority of these ancestors of the master race by showing significant developments in material culture. In other words, they were to cherry-pick data to demonstrate a preconceived notion to the larger public: everything culturally good originated from the Aryans; everything culturally bad originated with inferior races.

In reading through the article after having read Farah’s take on it, there were a number of issues that struck me. Brayton points out that in his own article, Farah cops to the fact that Ahnenerbe’s researches were manipulating data to demonstrate a particular viewpoint but doesn’t catch the relevance to doing proper science. Brayton demonstrates that is precisely the opposite of what science does. But the original article goes further in depth on this point, and is completely ignored by Farah. Despite the overt coercion from Himmler on what the Ahnenerbe researchers were to produce, many were clearly questioning the results, precisely because they were aware of the totality of the data. Bohmers reported enthusiastically to Himmler that his data suggested the ancestors of the Germanic race did not migrate in from the east as previously supposed, but “…must have developed in greater Germany”:

Bohmers was well aware, however, that the European scientific community would be considerably less enthralled by these ideas. Indeed, his foreign colleagues would need serious convincing, for Bohmers knew that many European scholars scoffed at the science of the Third Reich.

As I read through this, the depth to which Farah himself manipulated the article’s data to demonstrate his own warped sense of history became increasingly apparent. But the most egregious example was to come. Farah either didn’t read the whole article or (more likely) specifically ignored the following gem:

Himmler also found time to take Bohmers aside at a gathering to convey his personal views on the subject of human evolution. It must have been an instructive conversation. As Bohmers later reported, Himmler dismissed outright the notion that the human race was closely related to primates. He was also outraged by an idea proposed by another German researcher that the Cro-Magon arose from the Neanderthal. To Himmler, both these hypotheses were “scientficially totally false”. They were also “quite insulting to humans.”

Himmler, head of the SS and Gestapo, the person whose activities and ideology Joseph Farah would most like to lay at the feet of evolutionary theory, did not believe in evolution! In fact, it is quite clear that Himmler’s ideas on the subject of evolution were exactly the same as…Joseph Farah’s!

There was a final parallel I couldn’t help but notice. In an opening paragraph to the article I found the following description of Himmler’s need to establish the Ahnenerbe, which was partly to correct the fact that scholars had not uncovered evidence of the designers of the “master race”:

The answer to this problem, in Himmler’s mind, lay in more German scholarship – scholarship of the right political stripe. So he created the Ahnenerbe, which he conceived of as a research organization brimming with brilliant mavericks and brainy young upstarts who would publicly unveil a new portrait of the ancient world, one in which Aryans would be seen coining civilization and bringing light to the inferior races…”

The concept of conscripting “brainy young upstarts” to “publicly unveil” a new way of looking at things sounded vaguely familiar. And I didn’t have to go far to find where I had originally read it:

Scientific revolutions are usually staged by an initially small and relatively young group of scientists who are not blinded by the prevailing prejudices and who are able to do creative work at the pressure points, that is, on those critical issues upon which whole systems of thought hinge….The primary purpose of Phase II is to prepare the popular reception of our ideas. The best and truest research can languish unread and unused unless it is properly publicized….We intend these to encourage and equip believers with new scientific evidence's [sic!] that support the faith, as well as to "popularize" our ideas in the broader culture…

These are from the Discovery Institute’s Wedge document. Will ironies never cease?

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Maybe Mark Just Made A Mistake

I have been reading Bart Ehrman’s book, Misquoting Jesus, The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why. It’s a great book, one that I would recommend to any of you interested in bible interpretation. Ehrman chairs the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and is an authority on the history of the New Testament, the early church and the life of Jesus. I am just now getting through the body of the book, but there was a part in the Introduction, where Ehrman describes his personal odyssey leading to his current views on scripture, that has stuck with me in much in the same manner as the original episode stuck with him. Upon his arrival at Princeton Theological Seminary he took a course on the exegesis of the Gospel of Mark with Professor Cullen Story. Ehrman’s final term paper was to be on an interpretive problem of his choosing and the young student proceeded to develop a “long and complicated argument” that an apparent error in scripture was really not an error at all, but a problem of interpretation. Ehrman concludes:

I was pretty sure Professor Story would appreciate the argument, since I knew him as a good Christian scholar who obviously (like me) would never think there could be anything like a genuine error in the Bible. But at the end of my paper he made a simple one-line comment that for some reason went straight through me. He wrote: “Maybe Mark just made a mistake”.

Maybe Mark just made a mistake.

Shouldn’t that be our answer to a lot of the Bible-thumping done by the Christian Right?

Back to Blogging...

Sorry for an absence of posts this last week. I was out of town all week, first to California State University-Chico for a lecture on determining seasonality in archaeological sites; then to the Phoebe Hearst Museum in Berkeley for a couple of days to look at artifact collections from some Lassen County sites excavated in the 1940s. Had a great time, but was unable to connect for a blog post or two (not to mention taking in all the good food in the Bay Area - coming from northeastern California we were all like kids in a candy store with the ethnic food choices!). I'll start posting again shortly...

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Evening Grosbeaks Are Back

I'm not nearly the birder that B and B and some others are, but I've certainly come to enjoy watching the local avifauna. I have my copy of Sibley's (plus a few others) next to the binoculars near the patio door and try to keep the bird feeders clean and well stocked with an assortment of seed. During the summer, if I sit quietly on the deck next to the thistle seed bag, the goldfinches will come in and seem not to notice me. Even though I still have trouble with some identifications, I find it quite relaxing.

This morning some of my favorite birds, Evening Grosbeaks, came back in abundance (the photo doesn't show the other eight at the neighboring tree and feeder!). I consider this a sign of spring in our area as I don't see them in the winter, although the Sibley's map suggests they're probably here all year. It's good to see them again - they're like old friends.

The Oregon Juncos are still here, however; and that means we might still have some winter to go through...

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Archaeology and Creationism

I have yet to write on issues of archaeology in this blog, despite the fact that it’s my area of expertise. The creationism/evolution debates are most notably about biology, and of course it is biologists who contribute the greatest to blunting the flood of false information coming from creationist sources, be they of the young-earth or intelligent design varieties. Archaeology, however, has a significant role to play in the discussion, for a number of reasons. Like all other sciences, archaeology stands to loose credibility when its methods and concepts are twisted or falsified to prove an existing “truth” rather than engage in the honest search for knowledge. More importantly, archaeology is being co-opted by creationists to advance their agenda in ways that are not readily apparent to most archaeologists, let alone the rest of the science community.

First, archaeology is inextricably linked to human biological evolution, which is distasteful for creationists of all stripes. With the first flaking of a river cobble some 2.5 million years ago (or perhaps with the first use of digging sticks by Australopithecine ancestors a million years prior to that) the technological and material culture of humans went hand-in-hand with their biological evolution. To deny one is to deny the other, which means that Paleolithic archaeologists must also be concerned with human biological evolution and hence, evolutionary theory. Arguments against the evolution of horses, therapsids or dung beetles are by default arguments against human biological (and cultural) evolution. Archaeologists need to be as concerned with mutations in regulatory genes between chimps and humans as their geneticist counterparts. And because many of us deal in time scales measured in millions of years, archaeologists must also fight the same inane arguments against the efficacy of radiometric dating methods as any paleontologist. Nor does this concern necessarily end with later time frames. Despite a current rough limit of 10,000 years on prehistory in northern California, I am still occasionally met with comments in public forums that the earth can’t possibly be more than 6000 years in age (not to mention oddball creationist hypotheses such as Native Americans being descendant from lost Israeli tribes). Creationism follows archaeology throughout the latter's spheres of influence.

Second, archaeology is crucial to fundamentalist reconstruction of biblical history: if King David was a real person in the way the Bible suggests, then the Bible must be correct on other matters, including Genesis. And to this end, archaeological data are cherry-picked, archaeological concepts and methods misconstrued, and archaeologists’ statements taken out of context by creationists to provide “confirmation” of the particular version of biblical history that best serves them. Recent posts on the resurrection of the search for Noah’s Ark illustrate the frequency with which creationists cite archaeological terms to give the appearance of scholarly pursuit, without actually applying professional archaeological methods. Even legitimate archaeological discoveries are taken out of context to make broad proclamations that “archaeology proves the Bible” without due consideration for complex issues of correspondence between written and archaeological sources. The archaeological reality of Jericho no more “proves the Bible” than the archaeological reality of Troy “proves the Iliad”. In the context of archaeology, the Bible is simply another historical manuscript (one of thousands throughout the world and across time) that may or may not be useful for aiding interpretation of the archaeological record.

Third, archaeology’s greatest public benefit can also be its greatest weakness. Some aspects of archaeology, unlike other disciplines, are quite amenable to non-professional public involvement. Volunteers are not only welcomed, but frequently encouraged to participate in professional excavations. Digging square holes is not quantum physics, and most people with an interest in the past can be taught to dig and screen dirt with the best of us. Don’t get me wrong: there are frequently times when finesse, experience and skill are required for intricate excavation of special features and the skill level of most non-professionals is inadequate to the task – it is here where the professional archaeologist will usually take over. But a significant part of most large scale excavations is removing lots of dirt and not finessing the excavation of intricate features. Volunteers certainly make valuable contributions to archaeology and some gain a measure of expertise (I work with a few) – but they are not professional archaeologists. Excavation is really only a minor part of archaeology: it is the analysis and interpretation that requires significant expertise in the method and theory of archaeology, the ability to adhere to the methods of science, and skill at formulating cohesive arguments. Most non-professionals know the limits of their often significant contributions. Some, however, pick up a piece of pottery and suddenly become self-proclaimed experts in the field…and creationists will rush in and create expansive expertise out of shoveling dirt for a day faster than you can say “Indiana Jones”. We certainly have the usual creationist cast such as Carl Baugh, Willie Dye, Richard Fales and Clifford Wilson claiming to be professional archaeologists when they have no academic training, no professional field experience, and no track record of having produced reviewable contributions to the discipline. But there are also a growing number of Christian volunteers, willing to pay to participate in archaeological fieldwork in the Holy Land, who then return home to go on the “lecture circuit” and recount how their archaeological experiences are “proving the Bible correct”. Many clearly participate in order to gain a measure of professional authenticity that they then parade in front of home audiences. This is bad enough for archaeology, but it also broadly translates into the perception that these people can speak authoritatively on science in general. After all, they’ve participated with professional archaeologists on professional excavations. If they know something about potsherds, they must also know something about the failings of “macroevolution”, right?

Finally, Intelligent Design advocates have completely butchered archaeological principles by constantly citing archaeology as a metaphor for recognizing the presence of intelligent “design”. They seem to think there is an analogy to be drawn between an archaeologist’s recognition of intelligent design in artifacts with their own identification of intelligent design in biological systems. Nothing could be further from the truth. Design in archaeology is not “self evident” – the simple statement, “this is an obsidian arrowhead made by humans” belies centuries of thought on archaeological method and theory, ethnographic analogy, experimentation with raw materials and an appreciation for context. A lot of hard methodological and theoretical work has gone into understanding the signatures of human intervention in the natural world. The larger lessons of human “design” tell us more about the constraints on the designers rather than their abilities. More importantly, archaeologists never separate the design from the designer: understanding the material culture is only a proximate goal of archaeology. Archaeology’s ultimate goal is to understand human behavior, i.e. the nature of the designer. To suggest that direct study of the Designer is irrelevant is intellectual cowardice.

Archaeology is being used and abused by creationists of all stripes just like other disciplines. It’s time to start pointing out the falsehoods…

Friday, March 17, 2006

Of Links, Moms and Agnostics

I've spent some time updating my links to other interesting and thoughtful blogs (and alphabetizing, like everyone else!), so be sure to check them out. I have to mention one in particular, however: Agnostic Mom. She had comments on my DaVinci Hypocrisy post at her own blog and naturally, I wanted to see what she said about me (after all, it's all about ME isn't it?...So when do I get that Koufax award???....). Of course I stayed to read through some of her posts, which are all very good, but my eye kept coming back to the subtitle of her blog: Raising A Healthy Family Without Religion.

I despise the notion that morality requires religion. "Despise" isn't even strong enough. If that idea were to ever take animal form, I would track it down and kill it. I've known far too many wonderful and moral agnostics and atheists, gay people, Muslims, women who have had abortions (pick your pariah group in this country) and far too many religious assholes (including a few wearing the white collar) to even begin to think that morality ultimately has anything whatsoever to do with religion. Or that religion has anything to with raising a healthy, moral family. Being an archaeologist, somewhat familiar with roughly two and a half million years of human history, I also have serious trouble with the notion that "morality" was born 2000 years ago.

Yes, I know some good religious folks...and a couple atheist jerks. But my experience is that the numbers aren't stacked one way or the other. I certainly don't accept that religion is a prerequisite to raising a healthy, even spriritual, family. And it does my spirits well to know others are out there who feel the same I'll be visiting Agnostic Mom on a regular basis. You should too!

Tuesday, March 14, 2006


Here's one the ID advocates are going to hate, but I find the argument intriguing. Apparently, from an evolutionary perspective, pregnancy isn't always the best thing in the world. More to the point, with all the potential health problems associated with pregnancy (for both the fetus and the mother) one has to question the credibility of a Designer, particularly when the views of intelligent design activists tend to coincide with anti-choice advocates who insist fetal tissue is divinely inspired. Certainly one has to question why pregnancy bears all the hallmarks of an "evolutionary tug-of-war" between mother and fetus and not perfect harmony as might be expected from a Designer.

A paragraph from the article:

In a 1993 paper, Dr. Haig first predicted that many complications of pregnancy would turn out to be produced by this conflict. One of the most common complications is pre-eclampsia, in which women experience dangerously high blood pressure late in pregnancy. For decades scientists have puzzled over pre-eclampsia, which occurs in about 6 percent of pregnancies.

Dr. Haig proposed that pre-eclampsia was just an extreme form of a strategy used by all fetuses. The fetuses somehow raised the blood pressure of their mothers so as to drive more blood into the relatively low-pressure placenta. Dr. Haig suggested that pre-eclampsia would be associated with some substance that fetuses injected into their mothers' bloodstreams. Pre-eclampsia happened when fetuses injected too much of the stuff, perhaps if they were having trouble getting enough nourishment.

Note the word "predicted"; prediction is something you can do with evolutionary theory. You can't do it with Intelligent Design.

And speaking of predictable:

Dr. Haig has enjoyed watching his theory mature and inspire other scientists. But he has also had to cope with a fair amount of hate mail. It comes from across the political spectrum, from abortion opponents to feminists who accuse him of trying to force patriarchy into biology.

"People seem to think, 'He must have a political agenda,' " Dr. Haig said. "But I'm not talking at all about conscious behaviors. I'm just interested in these mechanisms and why they evolved."

Forest Service Outsourcing

This is an ongoing issue with federal employees in land managment agencies, and I think it goes hand-in-hand with the GOP efforts to privatize public land B&B reported on some time ago.

Needless to say, these efforts are taking a drastic toll on federal employees' morale. I think the ultimate purpose is to do just this and purposefully limit the efficiency of the federal workforce so that private interests will be poised to take over.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

What Do Teachers Make?

My wife, who is an elementary school teacher, brought this home from work the other day and I felt the need to share it....

Back Off Man, I'm A Scientist!!

Both Pharyngula and Aetiology already linked to this, but it's so's a sample with some of my personal favorites highlighted):

So who am I? I'm tenacious. I can be ground down but never stopped. Repeated setbacks fuel my desire to overcome an obstacle and solve the problem. I am calculating; after dusting myself off, I plan a new approach before trying again. I show up to work every day because ultimately my job gives me a chance to improve lives. It isn't about money but the excitement of discovering something completely new and the prospect of alleviating human suffering. Sure I can withdraw into my work, oblivious to the world around me. But isn't that a good thing? Lives are improved by informed experts who fully immerse themselves in a problem. Does that make me arrogant? Maybe. Any headstrong person who speaks with well-earned authority can labeled "arrogant". Force-of-will is what it takes to succeed in this racket and to foster progress. And that is a good trait to have. Problems only get solved when tackled head-on.

I'm not satisfied with quick non-answers to hard questions. I possess both righteous indignation and humility in the face of ignorance. I reject the idea that religiosity automatically makes someone an expert on anything, especially matters of science. And I just might know what the hell I'm talking about. Who the hell do I think I am, spouting such arrogant, highbrow bullshit?

Back off man. I'm a scientist.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

On Par With The Designer

Ok, I haven't returned to Dan Brown's Deception Point yet...still waiting for students to email with final questions before the exam tomorrow...

In the meantime, I caught this on Dembski's site. Two things immediately struck me. First is that Dembski seems to think the ability of the researchers to accomplish "intelligently designed molecular evolution" was the result of a theoretical perspective in Intelligent Design. Uh...sorry, but if you read the article it appears that the researchers were coming from much different theoretical underpinnings: "It was our contention that the application of the theory of divergent molecular evolution to promiscuous enzymes would enable us to design enzymes with greater specificity and higher activity" (emphasis mine).

Secondly, if this is a case of intelligent design a la Dembski, Behe and others, then once again humans prove themselves to be on a par with the Designer. They are successfully manipulating the genetic code to "intelligently design" specific characteristics we want. How long before we just start designing whole new species? The Designer appears to be increasingly superfluous as humans advance their knowledge. As I said before...why are we worrying about giving glory to the "Designer" of Intelligent Design? We'll be able to match him/her/it in a few decades...

(Is this really the conclusion the pro-ID folks want??)

Irony Revisited

Gee…I was wondering what to write about tonight and I come home to find Mark Shea jumping all over PZ for something I wrote! I won’t even begin to defend PZ – he is clearly capable of handling Shea, and my defense of PZ would be a bit like Paraguay helping Britain out with the Blitz. I am curious about what Shea was trying to get at in his response, however. Not the first couple of paragraphs about Dilbert, Adams and PZ – I wasn’t really paying attention to that particular blog conversation. But then Shea gets into some issues more germane to my original post:

Anyway, Myers somehow picked up on the recent release of the Da Vinci Deception and his readers have gone to work combing my blog for evidence in the next Inquisition.

No, Mark, they weren’t combing the blog for evidence in the next Inquisition. If Shea had read a little more closely, I think he would have found the initial reaction to my post was that I had come down too hard on the Catholic approach to science; more to the point, I think many were preparing to argue that I had unfairly lumped Shea with creationists. Myers and his readers (because they think critically and don’t accept statements or implications at face value) immediately started to look through Shea’s blog to see if I had erred by implicating him as a proponent of Intelligent Design. In the Catholicism I was brought up with I would commend them for this, not deride them as looking “for evidence in the next Inquisition”.

By the way, “Charlie” was pretty much on target: my initial intention was not to hold Shea up personally as the purveyor of irony (he was simply the interviewee in a larger article). I intended his comments as an example of the broader irony (“meta-irony” as Charlie indicated) for Da Vinci Code detractors. I had, however, read many of Shea’s comments myself and more importantly, so did Myers’ readers. It wasn't difficult to put Shea within that fold.

Shea’s next comment follows:

It turns out that I have a woeful lack of fidelity to the philosophical materialist claims which they, at any rate, seem to think are inextricably bound up with True Science.

Sorry, but this is typical apologetics obfuscation. How many times must we raise the distinction between methodological and philosophical materialism only to have the defenders of ID (and I have to count Shea among them) continue to lump them? Ultimately, I don’t think they’re interested in the distinction because it diffuses too much rhetorical capitol. I’d like to know Shea’s definition of True Science. I’m sure it doesn’t demand science insist on a concluding a purposeless universe, but I don’t know anyone who teaches that as science! Ultimately, I think apologists favor ID because they’re afraid of individuals drawing their own philosophical conclusions on the nature of the universe. The neutrality of science in such matters is not sufficient for them. ID needs to be entrenched as an equal, if not the only, conclusion drawn. Too bad, because they’re ignoring their own advice in this regard: science cannot deliver what they seek.

Shea continues:

The funny thing about all this, of course, is that the complaint is that I allegedly don't think experts should be heeded when they speak from their expertise (except when it's about the Da Vinci Code). But as I've made clear repeatedly, my beef is not with experts speaking from the expertise. It's with experts in science acting as amateur philosophers and theologians.

I’m sorry, but I just don’t buy this. Ok, I haven’t read everything Mark Shea ever wrote, but I find it difficult to believe he has defended evolutionary scientists. If he has, I would sure like someone to point it out to me. And where have experts in science acted as amateur philosophers and theologians? He certainly thinks Myers has done this, but instead of citing a specific example, he goes on an ad hominem rampage:

And the Myers blog is an hilarious example of exactly that. Instead of sticking to science, Myers spend vast quantities ASCII on his sophomoric agitprop for atheism and philosophical materialism.

Ok, I also haven’t read everything PZ Myers has ever written either and I’m aware of his views on the supernatural (or lack thereof). But where has he not done “science” and yet argued that it was?

Shea finishes:

Oh, and by the way, I am *all* for "teaching the controversy" between Dan Brown and Christian orthodoxy, because I'm perfectly confident of how badly Dan Brown would be crushed in a fair and lucid look at the evidence. Curious that Myers readers are so certain that their philosophical materialism should not be allowed to be questioned in any way.

Well, I’m not sure Dan Brown would be crushed as easily as Shea thinks, at least in a “fair” look at the evidence. No, I’m not convinced by a lot of specifics in Brown’s book (it is, after all, a novel – as many emailers have pointed out to me), but I wonder about some of the broader implications of Brown’s novels. I don’t think apologists by and large are interested in a fair consideration of historical evidence concerning Christianity. I also think that current efforts to politically enshrine Christianity in this nation are partially aimed at limiting open discussion of its more embarrassing inconsistencies. But that's another topic for another time….

As for Myers’ readers being “so certain that their philosophical materialism should not be allowed to be questioned in any way”…Shea needs to come up with some specifics on that one – otherwise it’s just hollow rhetoric.

This all seemed to start with my original post about irony. As I said, my intent was that it be considered in the broader context of arguments for ID, and Shea wasn’t a specific target. I’m not even sure Shea followed Myers’ link through to my own post, but I would certainly pose the question to him now: does he think Icons of Evolution readers are as scientifically illiterate as Da Vinci Code readers are historically illiterate?

(As I go to post this I see that PZ and Shea are going at it in the comments area over at Mark's blog; yeah, PZ doesn't need any help (certainly not mine!)...I do think, however, that the irony argument got lost...thanks to Unapologetic Catholic for some great comments over there too! Think I'll go sit in my chair and continue with Brown's Deception Point...)

Monday, March 06, 2006

Hippie Chimps

More on endangered bonobos....never heard of them described as "hippie" chimps, although I have to admit the moniker fits!

Congratulations Walter Alvarez!

Here's another example of what a scientist can accomplish with hard work, data gathering and hypothesis testing. I certainly don't recall Alvarez whining to local school boards on the need to "teach the controversy" about the dinosaurs' demise.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

How Ironic - Da Vinci Code Readers are Considered "Historically Illiterate"

While searching the blogosphere yesterday for comments on biblical archaeology, I ran across Chris Heard’s site Higgaion and its link to a Catholic Online article regarding the Da Vinci Code. The article (dated 24 February) interviews apologist Mark Shea who, with theology professor Ted Sri, have co-authored The Da Vinci Deception, supposedly “a guide that reveals the fact and fiction behind “The Da Vinci Code””. I will try to write more on the issue of The Da Vinci Code itself later. However, what immediately struck me in the article was the notion of Christians asserting arguments against The Da Vinci Code because it creates a cultural phenomenon out of inaccurate historical information, juxtaposed with scientists’ assertions that Intelligent Design is creating a cultural phenomenon out of inaccurate biological information.

The irony here is just too good to pass up.

The article begins by asking Shea what compelled he and Sri to write the book:

The short answer is that tens of millions of people have read "The Da Vinci Code" and many have had their faith in Christ and the Catholic Church shaken. This blasphemous book has become a major cultural phenomenon, largely by attacking the very person and mission of Jesus Christ. It must be addressed.

Just out of curiosity, how many millions have read Philip Johnson’s books such as Darwin on Trial, or William Dembski’s No Free Lunch? How many millions cite Jonathan Wells’ Icons of Evolution as containing factual information about evolution? Shea is concerned that millions of Christians have read The Da Vinci Code without critically thinking about it – but would he stop to consider how many Christians bother to critically think about Icons of Evolution? Further, Shea thinks the historical inaccuracies need to be addressed – good for him; he’s found areas of disagreement and should offer a response. When evolutionary biologists confront the biological inaccuracies of Wells, Dembski or Johnson, what happens? They’re accused of being “dogmatic Darwinists”. Is Shea, therefore, to be considered a “dogmatic Christian”?

Shea then discusses the concept that popular works like The Da Vinci Code really become a source of “pseudo-knowledge” that, in essence, replaces critical thought and the hard work of historical investigation:

The longer answer is that "The Da Vinci Code" has become the source for what I call "pseudo-knowledge" about the Christian faith. Pseudo-knowledge is that stuff "everybody knows," such as the "fact" that Humphrey Bogart said "Play it again, Sam" -- except he didn't. Pseudo-knowledge doesn't matter much when the issue is the script of "Casablanca."

Are the popular works of Wells, Behe, Johnson, Dembski anything other than the “pseudo-knowledge” of which Shea speaks? Dembski himself has stated that he sees Intelligent Design as a popular movement and prefers to "disseminate his views in non-peer-reviewed media". None of the intelligent design proponents have offered testable hypotheses or original scientific work on their ideas but instead continue to prop up vague "controversies" in evolution that lack supporting evidence. The effort is clearly aimed less at doing the hard and dirty work of science than at popularizing "psuedo-knowledge"for broad acceptance. Principle among this genre of explanation for the diversity of life on earth has been Behe’s concept of “irreducible complexity”, which now functions as a concept “everybody knows” (particularly Christian apologists looking for shortcuts to God); this despite continued biological work “reducing” irreducible complexity to observations easily explained through natural selection. Archbishop Naumann of Kansas City (see yesterday’s post) speaks with authority to his followers that ‘the empirical data supports the principle of “irreducible complexity”’, when the empirical data actually show the contrary. He has clearly not bothered to read the works of established scientists in evolutionary biology, preferring instead to peddle “pseudo-knowledge” because it fits better with a pre-conceived worldview.

The response will no doubt be that Dan Brown is not a historian or theologian, and therefore does not possess the scholarly credentials necessary to speak with authority on the subject. Therefore, good Christians should not take his views seriously. Perhaps not. But that begs a question: how seriously should Christians consider the views of “scientists” on the Dissent From Darwin list? A recent New York Times article established something evolutionary biologists have been saying for some time: the list is irrelevant. Only a quarter of the scientist signatories are from biology and few of those conduct any research at all on the question of life’s origins and diversity. The remaining scientists are largely chemists, engineers and physicists. Dan Brown is certainly no less qualified to speak with authority on history and theology than are engineers and chemists qualified to speak on matters of evolutionary biology. What goes around, comes around boys and girls!

Shea is very concerned about the impact the The Da Vinci Code novel (and upcoming movie) will have on the general audience. More to the point, he is concerned that Brown’s audience lacks the necessary intellect to critically evaluate the book’s historical claims:

In May, it will appear as a major film and will acquire even more unquestioned authority among millions of historically and theologically illiterate viewers -- unless Christians state the facts and help viewers recognize just how badly they've been had.

Historically and theologically illiterate viewers...How ultimately ironic. What about the scientific literacy required to critically evaluate proposals such as Intelligent Design? Just how scientifically literate are the 90% of the American population who supposedly buy into Intelligent Design? How scientifically literate are the kids Ken Ham preys upon with his historically incorrect bible propaganda? Can the majority of Carl Baugh’s viewers think critically about his claims? Mark Shea is absolutely correct to be concerned about the historical and theological illiteracy of the audience – just as evolutionary biologists are justified in being concerned about the same audience's scientific literacy. The fact is that most Americans have lost the ability to think critically, preferring instead to take the FOX thirty second sound bite as gospel because it’s easier. But my bet is that Shea and other apologists will not accept the distinction. Critical thinking is necessary only when the sacred cows of Christian theology are being slain; it’s not necessary if evolution is the target.

Finally, there’s this gem:

The problem is the average reader does not know "The Da Vinci Code" actually makes you more stupid about art, history, theology and comparative religion.

Yep, just like reading Icons of Evolution makes the average reader more stupid about biology, paleontology and the history of biological thought. Wouldn’t Mark Shea and Catholic Online agree?

Saturday, March 04, 2006

What God Really Thinks...

Got this from Positive Blasphemy (which I've now linked)...pretty much sums up what I think about the Christian leaders who seem to think the only path to God is through Intelligent Design (especially in light of my previous post about Archbishop Naumann of Kansas City)...

More Catholic Ignorance in Science

The Catholic Archbishop of Kansas City, Joseph Naumann has come out in defense of Intelligent Design, and again demonstrated the ignorance prevalent among conservative Catholic theologians in matters of science. It also further confirms my decision to leave the Catholic church was the correct one. The Archbishop states:

“some proponents of evolution have been upset by what they perceive as injecting philosophy and theology into the science classroom, while they have appeared oblivious to the entwining of the philosophy of materialism with evolutionary theory for the past 150 years.”

Do you mind telling me what philosophy of materialism has entwined evolutionary theory? The bishop has taken this issue right out of Philip Johnson’s playbook for making intelligent design appealing to the masses and conflated distinct materialist philosophies for the sake of painting all evolutionists as anti-Christian. Does the bishop actually bother to read the work of scientists or is he just satisfied with parroting intelligent design advocates? Science has its own “rules of engagement” as I pointed out in a previous post, and basic to these rules is the acknowledgement that science cannot address the supernatural. That position is called methodological materialism. But the bishop is not interested in the finer distinctions necessary to arrive at “an authentic pursuit of the truth”. The bishop, like most Christian leaders of the day, are far more wrapped up in politicizing issues for the sake of maintaining allegiance (and of course, financial backing) among their followers. Much easier to paint every scientist since Darwin as a philosophical materialist who believes that natural explanations are all there is and religion is barking up the wrong tree – it keeps more of the flock in line and takes advantage of their pre-conceived notions of scientists as elitist.

The bishop is further quoted:

“In the place of natural selection for the answer to these bigger realities, the Intelligent Design theorists hold that the empirical data supports the principle of ‘irreducible complexity.”

I’m sorry, Bishop Naumann, but are you really that lazy? Have you, in fact, bothered to read how scientists doing actual research have destroyed the concept of irreducible complexity (or how intelligent design proponents constantly shift the definition of “complexity” to dodge all the holes being blasted in it of late)? Here’s an easy one: read Miller’s Finding Darwin’s God – most of my students who read it come away with the realization that you don’t need intelligent design to believe in God. Although apparently it’s a prerequisite for the bishop’s faith.

The article goes further:

The Archbishop pointed out that “opponents of Intelligent Design argue to keep all philosophical assumptions or theories out of science class discussions,” saying that he “would support such an approach, if this meant that in science classes the limited areas, where there is hard scientific evidence for natural selection, would no longer be used as a springboard to teach the grand assumptions and theories of materialism.”

The parroting continues. Can the bishop personally identify how the “theories of materialism” are being taught? By whom? And more importantly, which materialism is he talking about? I’ve got news for the good bishop: the hard scientific evidence for natural selection is far too vast to be adequately studied in whole scientific careers, let alone by public high school students in a couple of lectures.

The final ignorance:

Archbishop Naumann concluded by saying that he would be “comfortable if our public schools taught both the philosophical theories of materialism with its view of a world that evolved by chance and Intelligent Design with its vision of a world whose order and beauty reveal an intelligent architect.”

The bishop prefers a world revealed by an “intelligent architect”. Bishop Naumann, are you really sure you want to base your vision of God on intelligent design. Have you really thought this through?

Here is what we know about intelligent design:
  • Animals go extinct on a regular basis – 99% of these intelligent “designs” couldn’t adapt and are no longer around;
  • Many adaptations are clearly the result of Rube Goldberg type modifications that make no sense from design (or at least from intelligent design!) but make great sense in the context of natural selection tinkering with existing structures;
  • Apparently, the Designer needs to tinker constantly to get what he wants (humans for example), so clearly the Designer doesn’t have total control over the designs and the Designer can’ just “breath” particular species into existence;
  • Mutation rates (failures) among the designs seem to be pretty high – diseases, deformities, spontaneously aborted fetuses, things like that. Clearly not a an intelligently designed system;
  • Humans, however, are gaining the power to manipulate the designs – we have identified and mapped the Designer’s blueprints (DNA) and are beginning to learn how to manipulate it to our own ends; we better understand extinction and can take steps to prevent it; we can manipulate the forests to achieve different species composition and we are beginning to understand how to clone and even make new species…

So why, Bishop Naumann, are humans even bothering to lay prostrate before this Designer of yours? If you follow intelligent design to its logical conclusion, humans are quickly approaching par with the Designer, and in the next century will probably surpass his abilities (at least as they’re argued by intelligent design).

Is this what you need to bolster your faith Archbishop? If this is what your God is all about, then don’t expect intelligent folks to follow you - you have chosen the intellectually and spritiually lazy path. We can find our own spiritual fulfillment in the richness of Darwinian evolution if we choose - it demands more of our faith than intelligent design.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Why Letters to the Editor can be a Bad Thing

In our area of northern California, the Sacramento Zoo courageously defied popular opinion and last week offered the first of three public lectures on evolution. In the Letters to the Editor section of the Sacramento Bee this morning, Elk Grove resident Wade Schauer questioned speaker Maureen Stanton's statement that "There is no real debate in legitimate scientific circles" regarding evolutionary theory. Mr. Schauer suggested that such a statement is either misleading or that Dr. Stanton is unaware of the facts. He justifies his position with the following:

In the Jan. 30 edition of the New Anatomist Journal, University of Pittsburgh professor of anthropology Jeffrey H. Schwartz presents evidence in support of his "Sudden Origins" theory, which counters the Darwinian version of "small gradual changes." He came up with this theory because the fossil record doesn't support Darwinian gradualism (few transitional fossils exist) and because recent discoveries in cell biology have shown that, "Cells don't like to change and don't do so easily".

I could be wrong, but I'm willing to bet that Mr. Schauer is attempting to hoodwink a large readership with a few well placed (and out of context) sentences and references to respected researchers that look like they might be countering "Darwinism". I also doubt that Mr. Schauer has read Schwartz's paper or he would not be so quick to offer it as a scientific antidote to Darwin. Schwartz offers an alternative to the "gradual change" scenario most frequently argued by evolutionary scientists; and his 2000 book, Sudden Origins: Fossils, Genes and the Emergence of Species argues for relatively rapid change in animal form, thus "explaining" perceived transitional gaps in the fossil record. But make no mistake: the mechanism he offers still relies on random genetic changes (in homeobox genes controlling development, not accumulated small mutations over time) that result in "macroevolutionary" changes. And despite that fact that Schwartz described cells as not liking to change, he's not even remotely talking about irreducible complexity. Moreover, it is not clear that Schwartz's idea has survived further scrutiny among the science community anyway. He has certainly exaggerated the case for few transitional fossils. John Hawks provides some quotes from Ernst Mayr's review of the Schwartz book. Mayr deftly shows why "phenotypic discontinuity" (what intelligent design advocates would call a lack of transitional fossils) is not a problem for Darwinian theory:

Phenotypic discontinuity does not conflict with Darwinian theory. If, for instance, a phyletic line evolves from the possession of two to the possession of three molars, the change does not occur by mutations giving one tenth, later one fifth, and one half of a new molar, but by one tenth, later one fifth, and then one half of the population having one new molar.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Charter Schools Teaching Evolution

This morning, Red State Rabble reported a story on Dave Khaliqi, a biology teacher at the Colorado Springs Classical Academy, who "teaches the controversy" regarding evolution:

But some scientists, he also tells his students at The Classical Academy, believe organisms are too complex to have evolved without help from an intelligent designer.
For example, he says, 40 chemicals must work together as a system for blood to clot. If even one chemical is out of balance, blood may not clot - or it could clot at the wrong time and cause a stroke.

Of course, RSR points out that what Khaliqi really does is fail tell students the truth: that the blood in several species clots just fine, thank you, without the full compliment of blood clotting components their teacher thinks is "irreducibly complex". I'm sure he also doesn't mention that these same components of the clotting cascade share striking homologies, strongly suggesting they are modified duplicates of each other. Or that similar systems to the blood clotting cascade exist, but serve other functions and have nothing to do with blood clotting. Or that evolutionary biologists hypothesized over a decade ago that if blood clotting fibrogen evolved from a duplicated gene that had nothing to do with blood clotting, then we ought to find fibrogen-like genes in less complex animals that do not possess the clotting cascade of mammals. Or that just such non-clotting fibrogen genes have been found in invertebrates.

The article about Khaliqi's class lecture is timely - I just finished a similar lecture on "irreducible complexity" in my Anthropology class. Unlike Khaliqi, however, I walked the class through several examples of supposedly irreducibly complex systems that we now know can operate with fragments of the system in place, or whose components function differently in different contexts, or whose components share similarities with those in other species that do not function in the same way. It became clear to the majority of them that "irreducible complexity" is a concept that just can't be maintained with a closer look at the evidence. In fact, I referred to current efforts in evolutionary biology as demonstrating the continued reducibility of irreducible complexity.

Unfortunately Khaliqi's students are not being told the whole story. But that may not matter. According to the article, many of the students probably don't want to hear anything contradicting their biblical worldview anyway. Their attitude appears to be the academic equivalent of holding their hands over their ears and repeating "la, la, la" over and over again when addressed by someone not sharing their views:

Most students at the school are religious, said Katie Stephens, 15, who is in Khaliqi's class.
"The Classical Academy is kind of a circle of believers," Stephens said. "We have mostly people who believe in the same religion. We're all pretty much tight with each other, I guess."
She's skeptical of evolution.
Wendy Lade, 15, who sits next to Stephens in class, said, "I take everything the Bible says as truth."
The Bible says man was created in the image of God, Lade said. That rules out descent from apes.

Well, I'm awestruck by these 15 year-olds demonstrating such courage to question and learn. Frankly, most kindegarteners I know possess a greater sense of wonder than these two.