Darwin, Darwinism, and Uncertainty: book review

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If you want to publish a book with a vanity press and no editorial assistance, you had better know what you are doing. Charles M. Woolf, an emeritus professor of zoology at Arizona State University, unfortunately does not know what he is doing. His book, Darwin, Darwinism, and Uncertainty, is a series of three more or less unrelated essays. The first is a biography of Darwin and attempts to show that Darwin was a believing member of the Church of England until the ascent of Darwin to agnosticism later in his life; hence, “Darwinism” and theism are not necessarily incompatible. The second and least important essay is called “Theories for the creation of the universe,” but it concerns mostly the origin of complex, self-replicating molecules, and I found much of it very difficult to understand.

The last essay, “A probabilistic model for the origin of life forms on earth,” uses a crude probability model to suggest that intelligent, upright beings are common in the universe. The author seems to think that his

probabilistic model accounts for the thesis that Homo sapiens is a chance species on earth. It also builds a bridge over the seemingly deep chasm separating theism on one side and Darwinism on the other side, and therefore allows Darwinism to be made compatible [author’s italics] with various different religions throughout the world whose doctrines and practices are not driven by creationists and primitive science of ancient times.

I have read the appropriate section three times and still cannot fathom this argument. It seems to me that the science of evolution (please, not Darwinism) is already compatible with religions that “are not driven by creationists and primitive science of ancient times,” and the author is merely saying that evolution can be made compatible with those religions with which it is already compatible.

The longest and most important part of the book is the essay on Darwin, but it is marred by poor writing, poor editing, poor organization, and poor layout. Most particularly, long footnotes appear frequently in the middle of a page. One footnote is three pages long. Two of the important influences on Darwin’s theology were the existence of suffering in the world and the death of Darwin’s beloved daughter Annie. Darwin was particularly bewildered by a parasitic wasp (the ichneumon wasp) whose larvae eat a caterpillar alive over an extended period. Yet these two influences are mentioned only in a footnote. This footnote, in particular, should have been incorporated into the text. Likewise the three-page footnote beginning on page 27 should have been an appendix if it was not important enough to be included in the text. In that footnote, I think the author uses gene when he means allele, and he never defines Darwinian fitness. All in all, the footnote is hard to follow.

The book contains a good description of Darwin’s theory of gemmules to support his belief in the inheritance of acquired characteristics. The description of Darwin’s drift away from the Anglican church to deism and later agnosticism is good. Darwin was very conservative and opposed strident atheism, saying change must come in an orderly fashion.

As far as I know, Hooker and Lyell’s treatment of Alfred Russel Wallace is described fairly. Hooker and Lyell were concerned, however, that Darwin was too “principled” to act. What does it mean that Darwin was too principled? Were they pressuring Darwin to do something unethical? Or was it unethical only by today’s standards? The incident should have been discussed more.

The book looks as if it was printed straight from a Microsoft Word file, with no additional typesetting whatsoever, so it resembles a typescript rather than a printed book. Paragraphs are long and sometimes run to 2-1/2 pages. Even widow/orphan is not turned on. The book has no index, and very few references are called out in the text. The book is full of mistakes: Dr. Butler’s great school (for grade school?). Discrete for discreet. Shivery for shivers. Confidante for confidant. Oviposter for ovipositor. Mitochondrian for mitochondrion. Fundamental Christian for fundamentalist Christian. Chagrin for chagrined. Titles are often both set in italics and enclosed in quotation marks. Quotations are often enclosed, so to speak, in a single quotation mark (… Darwin was besieged with correspondence concerning this “delightful” and most interesting” book). I will not bore you with the myriad instances where the author uses he and his with an unclear antecedent, usually but not always Darwin. Nor will I dwell on the awkward, passive-voice sentences that often pop up in the middle of an otherwise perfectly good paragraph written in the active voice.

If this author has something to say, and I think the first chapter may have merit, he has unfortunately not said it in a clear, useful, or compelling way.

22 Comments

I certainly don’t like “probabilities” in the absence of meaningful data. Shades of “ID mathematics.” I suppose that he thinks that he has good reason for such figures, but I can’t think that it counts as science (or anything better than idle speculation) any more than Dembski’s claims do.

Aside from that it might have been good if properly done. What seems too likely is that his book will be quotemined by IDiots who, true to their dismal grasp of logic and math, will generalize the specific.

Glen Davidson

There might be a case for arguing that Darwin was “over-principled”. Although there continue to be assertions (mainly by people wanting to downgrade “Darwinism”) that Wallace’s “priority” was trampled upon, it seems pretty clear that the historical record reflects fairly the work of both Darwin and Wallace.

What Hooker and Lyell did was to make sure that Darwin didn’t abandon his work altogether.

If you want to publish a book with a vanity press and no editorial assistance, you had better know what you are doing.

That’s exactly the opposite of the reason why vanity presses exist (even in the age when anyone can put up a blog, it would seem). In particular, as a prestigious professor emiritus, Dr. Woolf probably had access to academic press services that most of us don’t have. He must have wanted to publish the book without editorial guidance.

Having said that, the book may be somewhat badly written and edited, but the contents don’t sound that terrible. Historical Darwin stuff, “discovery” that evolution doesn’t directly contradict most religious sects, and suggestion (putting aside the misuse of the term “probability”) that there could have been parallel evolution of humanoid aliens on other planets. The last is highly conjectural and not terribly compelling, but nothing really disgraceful here that I can see.

“The book is full of mistakes: Dr. Butler’s great school (for grade school?).”

““In the summer of 1818 I went to Dr. Butler’s great school in Shrewsbury, and remained there for seven years till mid-summer 1825, when I was sixteen years old.” (Darwin’s autobiography)

…I went to Dr. Butler’s great school in Shrewsbury…

Very good, thank you. I assume it means “excellent school,” but in context I am afraid the meaning was unclear, so I wrongly assumed it was another error. My apologies for that one!

Matt Young said:

…I went to Dr. Butler’s great school in Shrewsbury…

Very good, thank you. I assume it means “excellent school,” but in context I am afraid the meaning was unclear, so I wrongly assumed it was another error. My apologies for that one!

It could also mean “large school” or “large type of school”. That was the common meaning of the word “great” until recently. I don’t know whether or not Victorians referred to “grade school”.

harold said:

Matt Young said:

…I went to Dr. Butler’s great school in Shrewsbury…

Very good, thank you. I assume it means “excellent school,” but in context I am afraid the meaning was unclear, so I wrongly assumed it was another error. My apologies for that one!

It could also mean “large school” or “large type of school”. That was the common meaning of the word “great” until recently. I don’t know whether or not Victorians referred to “grade school”.

The usage here has to be closer to “major” or “celebrated”. Shrewsbury School is a major UK “Public School” (not the same as the US usage!) being a rival to Eton, Harrow and Rugby Schools, amongst others. (It probably ranks lower that them because it’s further away from London.) Dr Samuel Butler was the Headmaster in Darwin’s time, as well as being the grandfather of Samuel Butler the novelist.

“Grade school” is not a common UK educational term. “Grades” are how a student performs in an exam, particularly when reported as A,B,C.. or similar, rather than as a precise number of marks out of the possible total.

harold said:

Matt Young said:

…I went to Dr. Butler’s great school in Shrewsbury…

Very good, thank you. I assume it means “excellent school,” but in context I am afraid the meaning was unclear, so I wrongly assumed it was another error. My apologies for that one!

It could also mean “large school” or “large type of school”. That was the common meaning of the word “great” until recently. I don’t know whether or not Victorians referred to “grade school”.

Indeed, as in Great Britain. The name refers to the geographical extent of the country, not as many Americans seem to think, its self assessment.

Dave Lovell said:

Indeed, as in Great Britain. The name refers to the geographical extent of the country, not as many Americans seem to think, its self assessment.

Even many Britons would be surprised to realise that “Great Britain” is the main island of the British Isles. This is why the UK is “the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland”. This is also why British domain names end .uk rather than .gb, which is the “correct” ISO abbreviation (as is used on the country stickers found on cars.) When the original UK academic network was set up, the Northern Irish universities insisted on UK rather than GB, and it has stuck. There have been various noises made that it ought to be switched, but these have been rather muted since a UK professor stated at a meeting that he could guarantee that the UK would be able to switch within days of the USA enforcing the .us suffix on all their network names.

I would have guessed that “great school” meant an advanced school, which would have been primarily for older students; that’s what the equivalent Latin names seem to have meant (“magna schola”, “schola maior”).

Kevin B said:

Dave Lovell said:

Indeed, as in Great Britain. The name refers to the geographical extent of the country, not as many Americans seem to think, its self assessment.

Even many Britons would be surprised to realise that “Great Britain” is the main island of the British Isles. This is why the UK is “the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland”. This is also why British domain names end .uk rather than .gb, which is the “correct” ISO abbreviation (as is used on the country stickers found on cars.) When the original UK academic network was set up, the Northern Irish universities insisted on UK rather than GB, and it has stuck. There have been various noises made that it ought to be switched, but these have been rather muted since a UK professor stated at a meeting that he could guarantee that the UK would be able to switch within days of the USA enforcing the .us suffix on all their network names.

Really? I thought “United Kingdom” meant the union of England and Scotland, after Elizabeth 1’s illegitimate reign, kidnapping, and brainwashing of Queen Mary’s son, James (6th).

No. “United Kingdom” in full is “The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland”, which is why Ulster Protestants insist on “United Kingdom”: because it acknowledges their preferred polity as an integral component. “Great Britain” is England, Wales and Scotland, or more exactly the territory that they occupy, plus certain other entities such as the Isle of Man.

As for Queen Elizabeth I, the question of her legitimacy is moot. She was a right bastard in a number of other ways; it seems superfluous to quibble over certain irregularities in her father’s marriage to her mother. That marriage was lawful by the laws of England at the time; it was as lawful as my own, in fact, and I would resent my son being called a bastard, except, of course, in the Australian sense, which is harmless if the adjective “old” precedes it.

Dave Luckett said:

No. “United Kingdom” in full is “The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland”, which is why Ulster Protestants insist on “United Kingdom”: because it acknowledges their preferred polity as an integral component. “Great Britain” is England, Wales and Scotland, or more exactly the territory that they occupy, plus certain other entities such as the Isle of Man.

… and to be totally obsessive, “Britain” is not “Great Britain” but just England and Wales. 30 years ago when I was living in Great Britain (but not in Britain) a book was published about “The Castles of Britain”. A reviewer complained that it left out Scotland. This led to a great kerfluffle in the letters section, and the final conclusion was that Britain was not just a quicker way of saying Great Britain. Even though many people over there use it that way, and they too were surprised to hear what it actually meant. Just so you know.

Kevin B said:

Even many Britons would be surprised to realise that “Great Britain” is the main island of the British Isles.

Great Britain is a political entity rather than a geographical region. Many of the islands around the mainland such as the Scottish Isles are also part of Great Britian so to say it is only the main island is not true.

KlausH said:

Kevin B said:

Dave Lovell said:

Indeed, as in Great Britain. The name refers to the geographical extent of the country, not as many Americans seem to think, its self assessment.

Even many Britons would be surprised to realise that “Great Britain” is the main island of the British Isles. This is why the UK is “the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland”. This is also why British domain names end .uk rather than .gb, which is the “correct” ISO abbreviation (as is used on the country stickers found on cars.) When the original UK academic network was set up, the Northern Irish universities insisted on UK rather than GB, and it has stuck. There have been various noises made that it ought to be switched, but these have been rather muted since a UK professor stated at a meeting that he could guarantee that the UK would be able to switch within days of the USA enforcing the .us suffix on all their network names.

Really? I thought “United Kingdom” meant the union of England and Scotland, after Elizabeth 1’s illegitimate reign, kidnapping, and brainwashing of Queen Mary’s son, James (6th).

To add to Dave Luckett’s elaboration, James VI of Scotland succeeded Elizabeth as James I of England, i.e. one King wearing two crowns. The political union that created Great Britain took several attempts over the next hundred years, finally sweetened by an English bail out after Scotland gambled almost a quarter of its national wealth on the disastrous Darien scheme to set up New Caledonia in Central America

Roger said:

Kevin B said:

Even many Britons would be surprised to realise that “Great Britain” is the main island of the British Isles.

Great Britain is a political entity rather than a geographical region. Many of the islands around the mainland such as the Scottish Isles are also part of Great Britian so to say it is only the main island is not true.

No. The political entity that occupies the island of Great Britain is also known as “Great Britain”. To be even more precise, the entity known as “Great Britain” prior to 1801 has been subsumed into the entity now known (since most of Ireland seceded) as the “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland”. Given that the administrative structures have evolved considerably since 1801, it is of little relevance to cling to “Great Britain” rather than consider England, Scotland and Wales as being as (more-or-less) equal constituent parts with Northern Ireland.

Nor is it meaningful to try to deny that geographically Great Britain is the main island on the grounds that politically the name is commonly applied to the archipelago.

I leave the geography and the politics to the experts. Whether a nation is called by the name of (some of) the territory it occupies or whether it is called by a name referring to its system of government, sovereign institution, ruling body, or some other attribute is productive of endless debate - none more so than that over the acceptable shortened name of the United States of America or the citizens thereof. My own nation has the resounding title of the Commonwealth of Australia, but few have ever called it that outside official documents.

I must however confess to be somewhat curious about the claim of KlausH:

…after Elizabeth 1’s illegitimate reign, kidnapping, and brainwashing of Queen Mary’s son, James (6th).

Leaving aside the illegitimacy of Queen Elizabeth or her reign, I don’t think she ever kidnapped James, and can’t imagine how she might be said to have brainwashed him. He certainly did receive a very sixteenth century Calvinist education, complete with summary thrashings, but it was at the hands of tutors chosen for him by the Scots council of regency, not Elizabeth, and whether it amounted to brainwashing is a matter of definition.

Dave Luckett said:

No. “United Kingdom” in full is “The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland”, which is why Ulster Protestants insist on “United Kingdom”: because it acknowledges their preferred polity as an integral component. “Great Britain” is England, Wales and Scotland, or more exactly the territory that they occupy, plus certain other entities such as the Isle of Man.

As for Queen Elizabeth I, the question of her legitimacy is moot. She was a right bastard in a number of other ways; it seems superfluous to quibble over certain irregularities in her father’s marriage to her mother. That marriage was lawful by the laws of England at the time; it was as lawful as my own, in fact, and I would resent my son being called a bastard, except, of course, in the Australian sense, which is harmless if the adjective “old” precedes it.

Actually, I was referring to the fact that Mary was the heir to the throne of England, not her cousin Elizabeth. I did not mean to imply irregularities in her parentage.

KlausH said:

Dave Luckett said:

No. “United Kingdom” in full is “The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland”, which is why Ulster Protestants insist on “United Kingdom”: because it acknowledges their preferred polity as an integral component. “Great Britain” is England, Wales and Scotland, or more exactly the territory that they occupy, plus certain other entities such as the Isle of Man.

As for Queen Elizabeth I, the question of her legitimacy is moot. She was a right bastard in a number of other ways; it seems superfluous to quibble over certain irregularities in her father’s marriage to her mother. That marriage was lawful by the laws of England at the time; it was as lawful as my own, in fact, and I would resent my son being called a bastard, except, of course, in the Australian sense, which is harmless if the adjective “old” precedes it.

Actually, I was referring to the fact that Mary was the heir to the throne of England, not her cousin Elizabeth. I did not mean to imply irregularities in her parentage.

You can’t have it both ways. Mary, Queen of Scots, was the immediate heir to the English throne to the exclusion of Elizabeth only if Elizabeth’s parentage was regarded as irregular.

Sheesh. You’ll be saying that Dawkin’s Weasel latches next. :)

I admit that I am not familiar with the details of why Mary was the heir. Royal succession is rather complex and not taught it US primary or secondary schools. I do recall multiple sources stating that Mary was the rightful heir.

According to the Roman Catholic church of the day - and, I believe, even now - the divorce of Henry VIII from Catherine of Aragorn was invalid, and hence he was not at liberty to marry Anne Boleyn. Hence that marriage was invalid. Hence its issue, Elizabeth, was illegitimate. So says the Church of Rome.

There was and is no argument that Elizabeth was not the daughter of Henry VIII. Therefore, after his son Edward and his elder daughter Mary died, both of them without issue, Elizabeth was his heir by the laws of England if his marriage to her mother was valid. By the law of England then and now, it was valid.

The authority of the Bishop of Rome to pronounce on the validity of marriages in England was repudiated formally by the English bishops and laity in Parliament in 1533, and in May of that year Archbishop Cranmer pronounced the marriage of Henry VIII and Anne, which had been celebrated in January, to be good and valid. Elizabeth was born in September, 1533. At that time, the King in Parliament had the sovereign authority to rule on what was the law in England, whether civil or ecclesiastical. This position has only changed insofar as the monarch must act according to the advice of his or her ministers, and they in turn either accept that of the Law Lords as to the state of the law, or legislate to change it.

I married a woman who had been divorced by the laws of England, and her first marriage, although not celebrated according to the Roman rite, would have been recognised as valid by the Bishop of Rome, had he been aware of it and had anyone bothered to ask him. But her subsequent divorce and remarriage to me, although perfectly valid according to the laws of (sigh) the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and of the Commonwealth of Australia, where she had come to reside, is not valid in the eyes of the Roman Catholic church, although these days His Holiness would appear to be too well-mannered to make much of it.

Therefore I find myself in much the same position as Henry VIII, although with the shoe, or wife, on the other foot, and my son is in that of Elizabeth, so to speak. Nevertheless, and the opinion of the Roman church notwithstanding, he is my true heir, and no bastard - just as Elizabeth was the true, lawful, and legitimate heir of the throne of England, as is our current sovereign lady of the same name, and her heirs and assigns according to law. Anyone who says different is a traitor if English, and if foreign, an enemy of the Crown. GOD SAVE THE QUEEN.

(I don’t use smileys, and I wonder if the use of an asterisk or two might convey that my tongue is sticking out of my left ear.)

KlausH said:

I admit that I am not familiar with the details of why Mary was the heir. Royal succession is rather complex and not taught it US primary or secondary schools. I do recall multiple sources stating that Mary was the rightful heir.

KlausH, unless your history books were written by Catholics, especially of the Scottish or French variety, perhaps you are confusing two Marys.

Mary, Queen of Scots was the granddaughter of Henry VIII’s sister, and with Elizabeth childless the next in line to the throne of England, hence her son James became king on the death of Elizabeth.

Mary Tudor was Elizabeth’s elder sister, and the rightful heir after the death of Henry’s only son, the child king Edward VI. To prevent the accession of a Catholic to the throne, Edward declared both his sisters illegitimate, and named Lady Jane Grey as his successor. She kept her head for less than a fortnight until Mary’s supporters ensured her rightful place.

With Mary a devout Catholic and her successor Elizabeth the exact opposite, the next decade was a golden age if you wished to be horribly martyred for your religion.

P.S. What was the subject of this thread again? Well it has been a quite few days at PT.

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This page contains a single entry by Matt Young published on July 1, 2012 2:00 PM.

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