Oklahoma’s OK, but not necessarily with evolution

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This week I was invited out to Oklahoma to speak in the University of Oklahoma’s Darwin 2009 speaker series. It was quite a trip – I got to meet the Oklahomans for Excellence in Science Education, and breakfast with Richard Dawkins himself. The evolution issue is still hot in Oklahoma, and my visit coincided with a general cultural fracas in the state over evolution, creationism/ID, and what attention these issues should receive in public schools and in universities. I’ll attempt to give a brief snapshot of how things currently look in one of the reddest of the red states.

Ever since 1923, when Oklahoma became the first state to ban the teaching of evolution (even before Tennessee, where the Scopes Trial took place in 1925), evolution has been a hot topic in the state, and 2009 is no exception.

As seems to happen every year in Oklahoma, in 2009 there was a battle in the State Legislature over a Discovery Institute-authored crypto-creationism bill. This time the DI’s trick was to use the guise of “academic freedom” to sneak bogus creationist/ID talking points into the biology classrooms of 14-year olds. As in previous years, the bill was defeated due to hard work by dedicated citizens, particularly OESE, and by good decisions by key legislators on both sides of the isle. But like every year it was a near thing. (This year, for the first time in recent memory or perhaps ever, Oklahoma had a Republican majority in both houses. The current governor is a Democrat, however, and vetoed an anti-evolution bill last year. Before the evolution issue gets characterized as an issue that is determined by whether Democrats or Republicans are in charge, though, I should give a little context for readers from the bluer states. It is important to remember that Oklahoma Democrats are not exactly what you could call flaming liberals. In a recent U.S. Senate election, the right-wing, pro-life, pro-gun, socially conservative candidate was the Democrat. The post-WW2 re-alignment of the two parties, where Democrats came to be the party more favored by minorities, secularists, and liberals, and Republicans the opposite, took place very slowly in Southern states. Remember, back in the olden days, the Dems had a strong pro-slavery/pro-segregationist element, the Republicans were the abolitionist party and got 100% of the black vote, etc. Which party is “liberal” or “conservative” on many issues has switched over time. This is why we still have conservative Southern Democrats and liberal New England Republicans, although both groups have become critically endangered species after being targetted by the opposing party. The Republican takeover of the State Legislature probably means that the new alignment is finally dominant in Oklahoma also, but individual politicians can surprise you.

In addition to the usual legislative battle, the 2009 Darwin bicentennial events have added fuel to the fire in Oklahoma. The University of Oklahoma has one of the most impressive lineups of speakers anywhere, and has taken advantage of the events to highlight some of the amazing collections held on campus – including a one-of-a-kind history of science collection which includes the first editions of most Darwin works, and actual books owned by Isaac Newton, complete with marginal notes written by him – and a Natural History museum full of dinosaurs and other fossils “native” to Oklahoma, which you cannot see anywhere else. While visiting campus, I was given a tour of the museum, and was impressed to see that the Natural History displays integrate evolution and a modern understanding of phylogeny from start to finish. Amongst many cool things, the museum contains a massive ceratopsian (Triceratops relative), native to Oklahoma and only on display in this one museum in the whole world. The skull of the critter is thought to be the biggest skull of any known land vertebrate ever.

With all of the great evolution stuff going on, there was bound to be a backlash. Just about the only active campus IDEA club (or maybe it is a community IDEA club, it is somewhat unclear) in the country is at the University of Oklahoma. (It is worth remembering that the UOk IDEA club was formerly known as the Creation Science club. Yep, ID really is different than creationism!) As it happens, the student leader of the club is also an editor of the student newspaper, and has published a number of articles and debates about “intelligent design.” The club has brought in several Discovery Institute speakers (reported on elsewhere in the blogosphere), and according to reports the speakers are sometimes innaccurately portrayed as having been invited by the University or various departments, rather than by a student group. They even brought in Dembski to “debate” Michael Ruse, piggybacking on the fact that Ruse was already visiting campus for a different event sponsored by the history of science department. According to reports, Ruse was true to form in the “debate”, basically saying Dembski was a great friend who was wrong about ID, but not giving the kind of hard-hitting, tightly documented analysis which is required for rebutting the superficially-science-y talking points of the ID guys. Ruse is an amazing scholar and speaker in many areas, but many have observed that he basically phones it in at these ID events, and precisely because of this, the ID movement keeps giving paid invites to him (and virtually no one else) for their “debates”, so that they can appear serious by appearing on the same platform as him. This is somewhat annoying, but I guess I can think of worse things for the ID movement to do with their money than put it in Ruse’s vacation account.

In the midst of all of this, I was scheduled to speak on Wednesday to the Zoology Department, and, somewhat more prominently, Dawkins was scheduled for a huge campus event on Friday (although, according to one IDist’s complaint, I am apparently in the same echelon of nasty eviolutionists as Dawkins, an insult which really made my day). My talk on how the history of creationism/ID is intimately tied to the court rulings against these views went quite well. It was well-attended despite the fact that my brain inexplicably malfunctioned on Wednesday morning, causing me to drive to the wrong airport at 4 am, causing me to miss my flight and making the incredibly nice and forgiving hosts at UOk reschedule my talk for Thursday. I wondered if any IDEA club folks would make the talk despite by unintelligently designed evasion manuever, and they did and asked a few useful questions. (Basically: 1. What would it take for ID to become science? My answer: basically, a testable, constrained model of the designer and design events, and then successful tests. 2. Doesn’t ID go back thousands of years? Answer: well, the classical Argument From Design for the existence of God goes back thousands of years, but the use of the conjunction “intelligent design” as a term and a phrase basically dates to Of Pandas and People in 1989, as do other notable features of “ID” not found in the older Design Arguments, notably the explicit denial that the Designer was necessarily God, the denial that this was a supernatural/creationist viewpoint, etc.)

After the talk I got to have dinner with the Klebbas, biochemists who work on the flagellum and related systems. Phil Klebba famously took on Dembski on the flagellum when Dembski visited in 2006. You haven’t lived until you’ve had a long discussion of biochemistry, bioinformatics, and phylogenetics over wine and sushi in Norman, Oklahoma. By the end of it I was drawing phylogenies and protein names on napkins and depicting evolutionary trees with chopsticks.

The next morning, guess who was staying at the very same bed and breakfast that I was at? Richard Dawkins himself, plus his film crew. The previous night, state representative Thomsen had filed a resolution in the State Legislature condemning the appearance of Dawkins and condemning the Zoology Department for having sponsored the event and for the general sin of teaching evolution unapologetically (inexplicably, various other departments who collectively played a larger role than Zoology in bringing Dawkins, such as Geology and History of Science, were left out.) Vic Hutchison, head of OESE, had called me that morning to tell me the news. A few minutes later I left my bedroom to go to breakfast, and across from me was the Dawk himself. We had corresponded on email, but I had never met him in person, so I introduced myself and then instantly the conversation turned to the legislature’s proposed resolution. Dawkins, for his part, couldn’t be more pleased – he has a list of places where he has been condemned or banned, including especially Turkey. What was more unfortunate was the undeserved linking of the Zoology Department to the whole issue – this was really just backlash from members of the legislature who were annoyed that members of Zoology had successfully argued against the “academic freedom” bill in months past.

Breakfast was occupied with discussion of the resolution and what to say about it. Vic Hutchison joined us at breakfast and explained what OESE was and the roll it played in defending science education in Oklahoma. Dawkins, out of the blue, decided to put in a plug for the group in his public lecture that night, and arranged for his Foundation for Reason and Science (which has the mission of science education and not atheist activism, we were told) to donate $5000 to the group. I doubt Vic had been so pleased since the time he figured out how to catch the world’s largest frog in West Africa (answer: get a big net, figure out which way the frog will jump when startled – important since they can jump over your head – and then catch them in mid-air).

In what was possibly the most complete change of pace in one day of my life ever, after breakfast Vic drove me to the airport to pick up a rental car so that I could drive up to northern Oklahoma to see my grandparents. My grandfather is a moderate old-fashioned Baptist, but my dear grandmother is a very conservative Lutheran and sent me creation-science materials when I was little; I am pretty much sure this is how I found out about the topic and became interested in the evolution/creationism debate – an interesting case of unintended consequences if you think about it. Anyway, the two have been married for 60 years and still go to different churches on Sunday, never having agreed to choose one or the other, so the family also provides an interesting example of the virtues of religious tolerance. We got caught up for a few hours and as I was leaving, I actually heard my grandmother make the first conciliatory statements towards evolution that I had ever heard. Evidently there was a new pastor at her church, and the pastor had given a sermon which, while not really endorsing evolution and the old earth, stating that it perhaps wasn’t the most important issue for God or man to have a theological dispute about. The statement that, for God, we are all still living in the seventh day of creation (which is obviously not a literal day) seems to have made an impact on her. I don’t really like to provoke inter-family debates about evolution, I get plenty of that in everyday life anyway, so I left it there. Like everyone else, she will have to reach her own position on these issues. But this anecdote is one small piece of additional evidence in favor of the idea that there is perhaps a trend occuring where conservative Protestant leadership (e.g. seminaries and pastors) are de-emphasizing and perhaps de-polarizing the evolution issue. If this trend is real, which is difficult to judge, it could have huge implications for the future of the societal conflict over evolution.

When I got back to Norman at 5 pm, there was already a huge crown in line to get seats for the 7 pm Dawkins lecture. The venue held 4,000 and was almost full. I was lucky enough to have a reserved seat up front with various Darwin bicentennial organizers. Dawkins opened his lecture with slides of the Oklahoma legislature’s proposed resolution and some remarks about the self-contradictory nature of politicans both invoking academic freedom and condemning a speaker with unpopular views at the same time. He put in a plug for OESE and its website, www.oklascience.org, and then went to the main body of his talk, which was devoted to the meaning of the word “purpose.” Dawkins advanced the idea that we can distinguish two versions of purpose – first, “archaeo-purpose”, which is basically the function which some adaptation serves, and then “neo-purpose”, which is the purpose in the brain of some organism. In some ways this is just the standard ethological distinction between ultimate and proximate causes of behavior (we eat because we feel hungry, but we have feelings of hunger because natural selection favored creatures that could tell when they were running low on food), but Dawkins applied the distinction to a variety of phenomena in human society, and repeatedly noted that neo-purposes can subvert archaeo-purposes for bad (e.g., Nazi use of familial language to encourage blind loyalty) or good (e.g., humans adopting geneticaly unrelated offspring, coopting parental care and love feelings which would normally be applied to genetic descendents).

The talk was reasonably good although pretty standard if you are familiar with Dawkins. The thing which was really surprisng was the crowd reaction – Dawkins got an opening and closing standing ovations and several long applauses. The amount of emotion, which I personally didn’t really feel – perhaps because I am way too into these issues already and have a pretty detailed idea about where I agree and disagree with Dawkins – was pretty impressive. There wasn’t chanting or cheering or anything like that, but you could tell that Dawkins was more than just a scientist and writer to many in the audience – he was a symbol of something much bigger. Although he didn’t emphasize anti-religion in this particular talk, my sense of it is that Dawkins represents that segment of the population which is just fed up with what they see as the pervasive influence of right-wing politics, conservative religion, and anti-intellectualism. I think people who live in a college town in a very conservative state may feel this more viscerally than those of us on the coasts.

The question and answer period was also mostly occupied with pretty familiar issues, most of the questions being about evolution, science, and Dawkins views on religion. It was during the religion questions that Dawkins brought out his sharper barbs against religion – saying it was “evil” to label children as being one religion or another, comparing God to Zeus and Thor and fairies, saying theology was not really even a subject, etc. At one point, one unstable person in he upper decks of the hall couldn’t take it any more and started shouting about how he wasn’t going to let Dawkins insult his God, and started advancing towards the podium, at which point security showed up and chased the man out. Dawkins didn’t seem flustered, I expect he has gotten this kind of thing before, and probably the film crew got it too.

My opinion on Dawkins’ critiques of religion is that they are just not hugely convincing. It is not at all clear to me that monotheistic religion is really on exactly the same low level of credibility as Zeus and Thor. I agree that the Bible isn’t good evidence for the truth of one religion over another, any more than any other holy book; but the bare notion that Mind is behind the Universe doesn’t seem that much more implausible than the idea that everything just exists or that reality has always existed, or that there are multiple Universes or whatever. These are all pretty much incomprehensible and incredible ideas, and probably however far human science advances, there will always be the question of why or how the starting stuff – quantum vacuum foam or whatever – exists. What I think is really lacking in Dawkins’s view is humility on this point. It’s fine if he thinks that “stuff just exists” is better than “God just exists”, but at best this is a parsimony argument, and parsimony is just a rule of thumb in science, not some absolute logical principle allowing deduction with certainty. If that is accepted, I think that even those who disagree strongly with theism should allow that it is not simply a stupid and crazy thing to believe. And, once you concede that, once you’ve got God as an option, the idea that God might find it interesting to interact with humans is not such a stretch.* Please note that I am not arguing for these positions, I am just trying to explain to the Dawkinses of the world how it might be possible that people could disagree with them on the religion issue and yet still be sane. Pretty much any conclusion about these ultimate cosmic philosophical issues is pretty darn crazy when considered in everyday terms, and I think a little allowance for that, instead of just insulting everyone who disagrees, would be beneficial in several ways.

Apart from the ultimate religious questions, where Dawkins himself sometimes seemed to show some awareness that the issues get squidgy when you get to ultimate origins (he even explicitly appealed to “intuition” at one key point, which is fine but not a basis for concluding that everyone religious is “deluded”), the one other question where Dawkins showed some weakness was when he was asked about the source of morality. For some reason, Dawkins did not go with what I think is the right answer – morality is based in innate human universal physical and emotional needs, tied to the capacity for reflection on short-term versus long-term consequences of actions and especially the need to maintain social ties in our species (see Bishop Butler’s “Sermon on Human Nature” and Darwin’s Descent of Man, chapter 4) – but instead had a long, rambling, and not very convincing answer about cultural change and how morality clearly comes from somewhere because cultures seem to be converging on liberal democratic values if you compare the present to a few hundred years ago. I think Dawkins has this position because he, like Huxley, is actually afraid of tying morality too close to genetics and natural selection, because Dawkins, like Huxley, is well aware of the danger of basing human society on the “rules” of natural selection. The other reason might be that the most cogent explainer of the human-nature/morality connection is Mary Midgley, who has long been an arch-enemy of Dawkins on various philosophical issues, sometimes probably based on a misunderstanding of Dawkins, despite her also being nonreligious, liberal, and a huge Darwin fan.

After the Dawkins talk we decided to forego getting in the 3-hour book signing line and instead went to beer with ERV and various OESE people. After an intense couple of days it was the perfect thing. ERV actually doesn’t swear every other sentence in person, which is kind of disappointing because ERVspeak-for-real would be quite a sight. But, like Dawkins, ERV is much snarkier in text than in person.

I’ve got to run. I’d like to thank everyone in Oklahoma for a great trip and a great experience. I may or may not get a chance to update this with links and corrections where I misremembered something, so I welcome edits/additions in the comments. Let me leave you with the website for OESE: they do good work.

http://www.oklascience.org

* From here we can see easily why taking the further step of creationism/ID seems plausible to so many people. The reason these views are considered very unlikely is not some a priori metaphysical judgment, but long historical experience with coming up with better natural explanations.

66 Comments

Seemed like a pretty balanced treatment of the event, Nick. (And this from a guy/me who is sympathetic to the ID view)

Seemed like a pretty balanced treatment of the event, Nick. (And this from a guy (me) who is sympathetic to ID.

but the bare notion that Mind is behind the Universe doesn’t seem that much more implausible than the idea that everything just exists or that reality has always existed, or that there are multiple Universes or whatever.

With the exception that our present science indicates that mind depends on a physical body to produce it. And another exception is that our whole concept of thought implies the existence of time. Overall, the idea of a disembodied mind outside of our universe is seems rather meaningless and probably indicates a desire to map a familiar process onto an unfamiliar one. While it’s possible this hypothesis is true (even Dawkins would acknowledge this), the evidence so far is against it, which pushes it into the irrational category. People believe it because they want to.

At least the people proposing the multiple universes have some reason to single that particular solution to origins out of the infinite possible ones, and acknowledge that it’s not a serious proposal until some means to test it is conceived.

“For some reason, Dawkins did not go with what I think is the right answer – morality is based in innate human universal physical and emotional needs, tied to the capacity for reflection on short-term versus long-term consequences of actions and especially the need to maintain social ties in our species.”

Do you mean that these things are the cause of moral behavior or the justification of moral truths?

Which question was Dawkins responding to?

but the bare notion that Mind is behind the Universe doesn’t seem that much more implausible than the idea that everything just exists or that reality has always existed, or that there are multiple Universes or whatever. These are all pretty much incomprehensible and incredible ideas, and probably however far human science advances, there will always be the question of why or how the starting stuff – quantum vacuum foam or whatever – exists. What I think is really lacking in Dawkins’s view is humility on this point. It’s fine if he thinks that “stuff just exists” is better than “God just exists”, but at best this is a parsimony argument, and parsimony is just a rule of thumb in science, not some absolute logical principle allowing deduction with certainty. If that is accepted, I think that even those who disagree strongly with theism should allow that it is not simply a stupid and crazy thing to believe. And, once you concede that, once you’ve got God as an option, the idea that God might find it interesting to interact with humans is not such a stretch

How do you get from “Mind” (whatever that is - see previous comment) to “God”? All I see here is attributing intent, and anthropomorphizing, to that which we can’t understand. Is that “stupid and crazy”? Well, it’s wholly unsupported, by anything other than wishful thinking, and those who profess theism are never (ever!) content to limit their deity to the role of cosmic creator. Humility about our inability to nail down the origin of the universe is one thing (and it’s a thing that most scientists possess in spades); humility about Middle Eastern tribal deities from the last couple of thousand years is quite another. Taking the intentional stance towards natural phenomena may have been adaptive 100,000 years ago, but these days we find it more productive to attribute schizoid behaviour to neurochemical imbalance than to demonic possession.

As for the notion that “God might find it interesting to interact with humans”, that seems parochial in the extreme. Haldane’s quip about “an inordinate fondness for beetles” seems apposite, as does Sir Martin Rees’s sobering observation that “It will not be humans who witness the demise of the Sun six billion years hence: it will be entities as different from us as we are from bacteria.” It’s a big universe, and a long one.

How do you get from “Mind” (whatever that is - see previous comment) to “God”?

If someone created the Universe we’re pretty much talking about God, aren’t we?

All I see here is attributing intent, and anthropomorphizing, to that which we can’t understand. Is that “stupid and crazy”? Well, it’s wholly unsupported, by anything other than wishful thinking,

Well, so are all other explanations of existence.

and those who profess theism are never (ever!) content to limit their deity to the role of cosmic creator.

Well, Deists are.

Humility about our inability to nail down the origin of the universe is one thing (and it’s a thing that most scientists possess in spades); humility about Middle Eastern tribal deities from the last couple of thousand years is quite another. Taking the intentional stance towards natural phenomena may have been adaptive 100,000 years ago, but these days we find it more productive to attribute schizoid behaviour to neurochemical imbalance than to demonic possession.

Sure, demonic possession is sillyness, but the origin of existence is another matter entirely.

As for the notion that “God might find it interesting to interact with humans”, that seems parochial in the extreme. Haldane’s quip about “an inordinate fondness for beetles” seems apposite, as does Sir Martin Rees’s sobering observation that “It will not be humans who witness the demise of the Sun six billion years hence: it will be entities as different from us as we are from bacteria.” It’s a big universe, and a long one.

Presumably the size and age of the Universe aren’t really a very big deal for an infinite universe-creating God.

The thing that always surprised me is why conservative Christians (and their opponents) traditionally try to find evidence for/against humans being some special pinnacle of life form in the Universe, when their very own theology suggests that God cares about the tiniest, most pitiful excuses for beings, i.e. sinning humans. The tinier and more insignificant humans are, really, the more likely it is that the (liberal!) Christian God would care about them.

(Like I said before, I’m not endorsing all this, I’m just trying to give some idea of how a reasonable person might stay a theist even after having heard the standard atheist arguments. As for me, I have no idea on these issues. I think the parsimony argument is about the only thing distinguishing the created vs. it-just-happened explanations of the Universe, but it’s kind of a 60-40 thing. Darwin’s pretty thorough agnosticism was, I think, I superior position to Dawkins’s 6.5/7 atheist position)

Do you mean that these things are the cause of moral behavior or the justification of moral truths?

Both at the same time. Read Butler & Darwin.

Nick Matzke Wrote:

It is important to remember that Oklahoma Democrats are not exactly what you could call flaming liberals. In a recent U.S. Senate election, the right-wing, pro-life, pro-gun, socially conservative candidate was the Democrat. The post-WW2 re-alignment of the two parties, where Democrats came to be the party more favored by minorities, secularists, and liberals, and Republicans the opposite, took place very slowly in Southern states. Remember, back in the olden days, the Dems had a strong pro-slavery/pro-segregationist element, the Republicans were the abolitionist party and got 100% of the black vote, etc. Which party is “liberal” or “conservative” on many issues has switched over time.

“Liberal” and “conservative” are especially losing - or reversing - their meaning on this issue, and not just in the south. What can be more liberal than allowing the “academic freedom” (“academic anarchy” is far more accurate) for students to learn a pseudoscience that, as one of its chief proponents (Michael Behe) admitted, is no more scientific than astrology? Because there is no promising alternate theory (as Phillip Johnson and Paul Nelson have admitted), anti-evolutionists have been reduced to complaining that it is too “conservative” (though avoiding the C-word of course) to limit the lesson to grade-appropriate material that has earned the right to be taught.

Nick Matzke Wrote:

Dawkins opened his lecture with slides of the Oklahoma legislature’s proposed resolution and some remarks about the self-contradictory nature of politicans both invoking academic freedom and condemning a speaker with unpopular views at the same time.

There goes another irony meter.

Frank J said:

Nick Matzke Wrote:

Dawkins opened his lecture with slides of the Oklahoma legislature’s proposed resolution and some remarks about the self-contradictory nature of politicans both invoking academic freedom and condemning a speaker with unpopular views at the same time.

There goes another irony meter.

That resolution may be the funniest thing I have ever read.

Nick, excellent summary. Thanks. Fed up. Yes, thats a perfect charicterization. The resolution mentioned the thinking of Oklahomans but it felt like most thinking Oklahomans were in the fieldhouse. Well, perhaps, with one exception. Sorry to have missed the beer, but is was great to meet you. Guy that took the day off.

Although he didn’t emphasize anti-religion in this particular talk, my sense of it is that Dawkins represents that segment of the population which is just fed up with what they see as the pervasive influence of right-wing politics, conservative religion, and anti-intellectualism.

That fed up segment is now the majority of the population. See the poll below and think about who won the last election and why.

The economy, US and world is sliding towards a depression. Unemployment is 8.1% and 12% of US mortgages are in trouble. We left a pile of bodies in Iraq, two of whom were friends of mine. Fed up doesn’t come close to how much of the US population feels about the groups who ran the country for the last 8 years.

They forgot a verse in their Book. “As you sow, so shall you reap.”

I doubt that things will get as bad as the Great Depression but who knows really. Mobs of hungry, homeless people are going to be more than “fed up”.

The Voters are also blaming the Death Cult fundies for destroying the USA and its economy.

50% - More Conservatives Now Say Churches Should Stay Out of Politics Wed Sep 24, 12:00 AM ET Half of self-described conservatives now express the view that churches and other houses of worship should stay out of politics; four years ago, only 30% of conservatives expressed this view. Overall, a new national survey by the Pew Research Center finds a narrow majority of the public (52%) now says that churches and other houses of worship should keep out of political matters and not express their views on day-to-day social and political matters. For a decade, majorities of Americans had voiced support for religious institutions speaking out on such issues. The survey also finds that most of the reconsideration of the desirability of religious involvement in politics has occurred among conservatives. As a result, conservatives’ views on this issue are much more in line with the views of moderates and liberals than was previously the case. Similarly, the sharp divisions between Republicans and Democrats that previously existed on this issue have disappeared. There are other signs in the new poll about a potential change in the climate of opinion about mixing religion and politics. First, the survey finds a small but significant increase since 2004 in the percentage of respondents saying that they are uncomfortable when they hear politicians talk about how religious they are – from 40% to 46%. Again, the increase in negative sentiment about religion and politics is much more apparent among Republicans than among Democrats.

Looks like there is a backlash against the Death Cults. These are nihilists who have only brought death and destruction during their time in power. Their latest victim is the US economy, the largest in the world at one time. Palin is one, a hardcore religious kook.

Thanks Nick for a first-rate summary. As for Dawkins’s stance on morality, he might profit by reading Austin Dacey’s recently published “The Secular Conscience: Why Belief Belongs in Public Life”

Nick: A great post that describes your visit and Dawkins’ talk quite accurately. One correction, I am no longer head of OESE. I am the founder of the group and Past President. Although I am still on the Board of Governors, the current President is Dr. Richard Broughton, Associate Professor of Zoology; you met with his class. We all greatly enjoyed your highly informative talk and spending time with you.

And, yes, the local IDiots did place you with Dawkins as leading ‘evilutionists’ in letters to the editor and comments on the student newspaper website. A place of honor you richly deserve!

But this anecdote is one small piece of additional evidence in favor of the idea that there is perhaps a trend occuring where conservative Protestant leadership (e.g. seminaries and pastors) are de-emphasizing and perhaps de-polarizing the evolution issue.

This might be true. For people who are serious about religion as opposed to using religion to destroy our country and bring back the Dark Ages, it makes sense.

1. There is nothing in the bible about evolution. Salvation is by either faith, faith and good works, or good works according to the NT. Nothing whatsoever about believing in the flat earth, geocentrism, or YECism.

2. YECism is just obviously wrong. 40,000 years ago Australia was colonized, 14,000 years ago the Indians showed up in NA, 9,000 years ago agriculture was invented, 8,000 years ago the Sumerians invented beer and glue, and 6,000 years ago the earth was created. To buy YECism, you have to throw out biology, geology, astronomy, physics, paleontology, archeology, history, and anthropology. If everyone did that, our society would stop functioning.

Making believing lies as truth a litmus test is a double edged sword. Rumors have it that the best and brightest fundie kids are abandoning the cults in droves for other sects or nothing in particular.

Not all fundies, evangelicals, or pentecostals are creationists anymore. The Christian Reformed gave it up. The Nazarenes appear split. The Orthodox Presbytarians, a small splinter group that includes Phillip Johnson, had a purge and kicked out the evolutionists. My impression from scraps of info is that many of the conservative xian groups are splitting internally on whether to keep pushing antiscience over science.

Given the well known habit of xianity splitting into 32,000 different sects, this could lead to a few dozen more down the line.

… for God, we are all still living in the seventh day of creation …

So ol’ Jahweh is The Ultimate Slacker, turning one day off into a permanent vacation? That new pastor’s theology is a great advance in the field, providing a loosey-goosey teleological loophole big enough to drive a convoy of theodicy-hauling semis through.

Nick (Matzke) said:

Do you mean that these things are the cause of moral behavior or the justification of moral truths?

Both at the same time. Read Butler & Darwin.

But from the fact that you have explained the cause of something, it does not follow that you have justified that thing. There is a clear, billiard ball to billiard ball style causal story for why people flew airplanes into NYC. But because we think we understand why these organisms behave the way they did, who would say that this entails the 9/11 attacks were justified? This is just textbook genetic fallacy.

I’m not familiar with Butler, but I recall that Darwin used bees in ch.3 of DoM to argue for a kind of species-relative moral antirealism. I know that Dawkins (you didn’t specify which question he was addressing) thinks our altruism is a “mistake” and a “blessed misfiring” of certain primate social heuristics, but when it comes to metaethics he seems to be sort of an emotivist. It sounds like he was trying to answer the question of justification, not causation.

The bees thing is in chapter 4. And yes, Darwin says that what is moral is relative to the nature of the species. Fortunately, we are all the same species, so morality actually does have an objective basis at least for humans, which practically speaking is the only thing we are ever talking about anyway.

If we were genetically hardwired to act like bees, bee behavior would be moral for us and slavery would be fine. But, as it turns out, we are *not* genetically hardwired like that, so human nature sooner or later rebels against slavery, even in the face of attempts to maintain it through force. All moral progress happens this way.

The difference between us and bees is self-awareness. One could also argue that for thousands of years much of mankind was a slave-holding society, and it was conscious choice, not wiring, that rebelled against it.

We’re not a pair-bonding species,either, but we have for the most part chosen to be a monogamous culture. It’s difficult and it fails quite a lot, but that is the choice our culture has chosen over our biology. If we are genetically hard-wired for promiscuity, how did monogamy arise if not through self-aware choice?

Very good summary, Nick.

Unfortunately, I never got a chance to shake your hand while you were in Norman. I was at your talk (which was very good), and at the reception for Dawkins before his talk, but missed my chance to see you each time.

Anyways, I’m glad you had a good time here in the Sooner State.

Oh, and I can’t resist making one objection. We’ve got quite a bit of evidence that “minds” are things which come about as a result of evolutionary processes. Putting one “outside” the universe and making it the ultimate beginning of all things just doesn’t fit the evidence, at least as far as I can tell. I generally see belief in gods (and religion in general) as having more to do with people’s values, moral sentiments and cultural identity than it does with any rational explanation of nature. This really becomes apparent in the ID/evolution “debate”. The ID crowd tries to appear like they’re offering a rational scientific explanation, but for them it’s really all about social values, political policy and cultural identity.

Anyways, that’s the way I see it.

They’re “objective relative to what people just so happen to prefer”? That doesn’t make any sense at the level of basic syntax. Intersubjectivity is not objectivity.

If something is morally justified if and only if someone is “hardwired”, then by definition moral progress is impossible – every organism is at its own moral peak. But why should the subjective urges causally derived from being generally useful in a Pleistocene landscape be privileged over the subjective urges causally derived from culture, or the subjective urges causally derived from conscious reasoning and debate?

I’m not denying here that there are very good practical reasons for not trying to effect radical violence to whatever our innate dispositions happen to be. But this just isn’t the concern that agnostics about evolutionary biology are usuallt raising when they ask about the “source” or “basis” or morality. If a defender of science believes that morality is relative and historically contingent and without ultimate foundation, she should just say so, and not beat around the bush – apologists will pounce on this equivocation between cause and justification every time.

I just had this same morality cause/justification debate over here with an evangelical, I’m not particularly inspired to do it again. http://www.thinkingchristian.net/20[…]hitler-link/

Short version: what is the “justification” for saying sugar is sweet? We know the evolutionary and biochemical cause of our preference for sugar, but it is still the case that, if you ask someone, the reason they like sugar is that they feel like it tastes good. It is a deep, abiding, permanent, feeling that is universal except in pathological cases. It is self-justifying to like sugar. It is basically the one case of facts, facts about human nature, where “is” gives substantial guidance about the “ought.”

Now, before you give me the usual objection about how just because we like sugar doesn’t mean eating sugar is always good – well, of course not. Humans have a long list of such needs and desires: food, shelter, social interaction, love, etc. We need some amount of all of them, and getting one often conflicts with getting another one, so we need some capacity to weigh the relative importance of each, think about the short-term and long-term consequences of each, etc. Sugar tastes good but too much over the long run leads to disease etc. Making judgments requires self-reflection, and this balancing ability is basically conscience.

Here we have the primitives of morality – innate desires plus the capacity for memory and self-reflection. Add thousands of years of increased knowledge, rule-making, reflection & revision, etc., and you get moral progress.

Read Butler, Darwin, and, for a modern synthesis of these, Mary Midgley’s The Ethical Primate or Beast and Man.

I don’t know why this view is so unpopular. If human nature had completely no influence on morality, there would be no basis to prefer any situation over anything else. If culture was dominant, people would never rebel against whatever their culture said.

For more:

Mary Midgley and Stephen R. L. Clark (1980). “The Absence of a Gap between Facts and Values.” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Volumes, Vol. 54, (1980), pp. 207-223+225-240. URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4106784

A summary:

“It follows that the ‘naturalistic fallacy’, as G. E. Moore described it, is a stuffed dragon, and that philosophers must finally stop marching around with its head balanced on their spears.”

Nick (Matzke) said: What I think is really lacking in Dawkins’s view is humility on this point. It’s fine if he thinks that “stuff just exists” is better than “God just exists”, but at best this is a parsimony argument, and parsimony is just a rule of thumb in science, not some absolute logical principle allowing deduction with certainty.

I think it’s a little better than a parsimony argument. We can see “stuff” all over the place. It’s every freakin where! (That seems like kind of an obvious point, so I’m probably missing something. Oh well.)

Yeah, we know stuff exists obviously. We don’t know ultimately why it started to exist, or why it continues to exist from second to second. It could just be that it just does and that’s it. It could be that does because someone/something else makes it do so. Either way the answer is deeply unsatisfactory, really. The only suggestion I’ve heard which is slightly better is the idea that if you added up all of matter/energy in the Universe, including e.g. potential energy from cosmic expansion, you end up with a total of approximately zero; that is, the Universe is just an elaborate take on nothingness. This may remove the necessity of supposing that anything really fundmantally came to exist, which is interesting. But really this is basically as puzzling and incredible as any other suggestion.

Nick (Matzke) said:

Yeah, we know stuff exists obviously. We don’t know ultimately why it started to exist, or why it continues to exist from second to second. It could just be that it just does and that’s it. It could be that does because someone/something else makes it do so.

Either the turtles go all the way down or they stop someplace. If they stop someplace, the origin is either due to a transcendent sentience or some sheer accident. Which of the two seems crazier is a matter of taste.

In conclusion, as once noted by the great philosopher W.C. Fields: “Every man has to believe in something. I believe I’ll have another drink.”

Cheers – MrG / http://www.vectorsite.net/gblog.html

Nick (Matzke) said:

Yeah, we know stuff exists obviously. We don’t know ultimately why it started to exist, or why it continues to exist from second to second. It could just be that it just does and that’s it. It could be that does because someone/something else makes it do so. Either way the answer is deeply unsatisfactory, really. The only suggestion I’ve heard which is slightly better is the idea that if you added up all of matter/energy in the Universe, including e.g. potential energy from cosmic expansion, you end up with a total of approximately zero; that is, the Universe is just an elaborate take on nothingness. This may remove the necessity of supposing that anything really fundmantally came to exist, which is interesting. But really this is basically as puzzling and incredible as any other suggestion.

There are actually a lot of ideas being tossed around in physics and cosmology; and they are all extremely interesting. Many of them involve other dimensions.

The biggest problem at the moment is finding experiments within technological reach that can distinguish among them. Some are in the works now at CERN and at other facilities. Others are looking for indirect types of evidence that can be extracted from experiments that are already within technological reach. It may be a while before we hear anything.

The ultimate questions of why there is something instead of nothing all seem to be dead-ended kinds of questions and thinking. Chewing on some of the multidimensional theories and their potential experimental implications seems like a lot more fun (at least to a physicist or a cosmologist) and has the potential of actually going somewhere.

Dark matter and dark energy have simply piqued the interest of the physicists and cosmologists, and they have generated a number of new approaches to some of these questions.

visit

http://www.rinf.com/forum/showthrea[…]52#post18652

to see the OPEN LETTER TO RICHARD DAWKINS

I can’t work out whether the last is particularly cunning comment spam or, from the site, the product of one of the furthest-out-there fruitloops I have ever come across. Any other suggestions? Votes?

It has nothing whatsoever to do with Dawkins, evolution, Oklahoma, or any topic relevant to them, and appears to be solely designed to generate traffic on a Youtube video.

good summary; sounds like a grand adventure into fundy land. Always good to know there are islands in the sea, battling to keep the waves from drowning out 200 years of accumulated knowledge.

poor argument here though, IMO:

in response to:

How do you get from “Mind” (whatever that is - see previous comment) to “God”?

Nick wrote:

If someone created the Universe we’re pretty much talking about God, aren’t we?

what was it you said about monotheist religions being more credible than the greek pantheon again?

I don’t think you have thought this out very well. Based on the kinds of questions you are getting, I’d say you might want to sit down and reason this out a bit better in your own mind, because I simply do not see the jump from one to the other being based on anything but your own personal religious experiences growing up. There are many other answers equally (or even more) as valid as the God from the Abrahamic religions.

Hope grad school goes well for you these days.

cheers

First, why on earth, by Nick’s own logic, should polytheism be any more or less credible than monotheism?

As a polytheist myself, I would, of course, argue that polytheism is more credible than monotheism. If nothing else, it solves the question of evil – if God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent, then whey is there evil? But if there are a multitude of gods, each limited –

In reality, the current preference for polytheism is simply the reigning trend in powerful religions. Assuming humanity survives long enough and continues anthropomorphic speculations about the natural world, polytheism may well come back into vogue

And it is in that process, I believe.

In the final chapter of his “Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters”, vertebrate paleobiologist Don Prothero quotes from a Los Angeles Times article recounting Ken Ham’s indoctrination of school children, urging them onward, like little Nazis, to tell their teachers why they are wrong in teaching evolution. It reads too much like a Hitler Youth rally, and is quite creepy:

KP said:

Larry Boy said:

I think the behavior of atheists and religious people with regards to metaphysical debate is truly fascinating.

A bit OT, but I just watched “Religulous” last night and the sociological aspect you refer to seems accurate. Furthermore, I’m watching someone close to me walk the line between the religious world and the atheist world and it’s very fascinating…

Anyway, about the film, I have never seen or heard Ken Ham in person and YIKES. He scares me as much as the mullahs who preach a violent interpretation of Islam.

Great report on Oklahoma, thankyou, fascinating to hear how the Great Prophet of Atheism is received in such deeply conservative territory. (When I called my cousin in Ponca City to discuss the election of Obama, she had to close her office door to speak her mind because her co-workers were still in deep shock - God knows what they think of Dawk in their midst). I love his ability to communicate science, but find his views on religion unimpressive and delivered with too much hostility to persuade. Indeed, after reading the GD I started taking more interest in theology, so bit of an own-goal in my case. It seems to me he has used his well-earned prominence as a scientist to confuse too many people into an easy equation of science with atheism. I attended a Darwin lecture in Shrewsbury recently by an eminent scientist who was asked about the Dawk Effect in polarising debates on science issues, when others such as say EO Wilson were trying to build bridges. Publicly he defended Dawkins right to his views (of course). In the bar afterwards he said that he and many colleagues found his evangelical atheism unhelpful in promoting public understanding of science.

A couple of days ago I read a comment by Mike Elzinga where the subject was condensed-matter physics but I am unable to find it again. Can anybody point me to it?

Now all I can find is one beginning with

There are actually a lot of ideas being tossed around in physics and cosmology; and they are all extremely interesting…

but that is not the one I am seeking.

I just sent this e-mail to Mr. Thomsen, ccing it to a few others, including Abbie Smith (He’s the one sponsoring the OK house resolutions critical of both the University of Oklahoma and Richard Dawkins. If you can write something that is as politely worded as my letter, then, by all means, e-mail him at [Enable javascript to see this email address.].):

Dear Mr. Thomsen:

As both a fellow Republican and a former evolutionary biologist, I find these remarks of yours most objectionable:

“I strongly oppose the Department of Zoology for their unwillingness to lead our state in this discussion and not have opposing views in this matter.”

I strongly object to your blatant effort at academic censorship by criticizing the University of Oklahoma’s Department of Zoology and eminent evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins for holding valid scientific and religious views which are contrary to yours. While I do not subscribe to Professor Dawkins’s religious views - and strongly differ with them since I consider myself a Deist - I nonetheless defend his right - and those of his fellow Atheists - to hold such views. As an elected official who is sworn to uphold both the constitutions of your state and the United States, you have no business period in attacking those whose religious views you find quite distasteful.

I also strongly object to your inane assertion that there are indeed “opposing views” with regards to whether or not evolution is indeed valid science. As I have noted in my Amazon.com review of eminent University of Chicago evolutionary geneticist Jerry Coyne’s “Why Evolution is True”:

“Thousands of scientists around the globe are using the principles of evolution towards understanding phenomena as simple as bacterial population growth to those as complex as the origin and spread of such virulent diseases as malaria and HIV/AIDS, and the conservation of many endangered plant and animal species. There is no other scientific theory I know of that has withstood such rigorous, and repeated, testing as the modern synthetic theory of evolution. The overwhelming proof of biological evolution is so robust, that entire books have been written describing pertinent evidence from sciences that, at first glance, seem as dissimilar from each other as paleobiology, molecular biology and ecology. But alas this hasn’t convinced many in the court of public opinion, especially here, in the United States, who remain skeptical of evolution as both a scientific fact and a scientific theory, and who are too often persuaded by those who insist that there are such compelling ‘weaknesses’ in evolution, that instead of it, better, still ‘scientific’, alternatives exist, most notably, Intelligent Design creationism.”

Incidentally, it was due in part, to the overall quality of similar reviews I have been writing for years at Amazon.com, that I was contacted by a University of Oklahoma writing instructor who objected vehemently to a campus visit made by noted Intelligent Design advocate William Dembski in September 2007. The slight, but important, assistance that I rendered helped ensure that Mr. Dembski received an appropriate “reception” from a predominantly unsympathetic campus audience when he spoke there on the evening of September 17th.

I strongly encourage you to cease wasting yours and your fellow legislators’ time in criticizing both the University of Oklahoma’s Department of Zoology and Professor Dawkins. Instead, you should read Federal Judge John Jones’s still relevant decision at the close of the 2005 Kitzmiller vs. Dover Area School District trial, which recognized Intelligent Design creationism as unscientific and thus, a subject not worthy of study in a science classroom.

Sincerely yours,

John Kwok

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This page contains a single entry by Nick Matzke published on March 8, 2009 12:20 AM.

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