An empty review of an empty book

Blogger Kathy Shaidle has a review here of a new creationism book, By Design Or By Chance: The Growing Controversy On The Origins Of Life In The Universe by Denyse O’Leary.

But the review is so full of mischaracterizations and misleading statements that it’s hard to know where to begin.

She starts by criticizing–or rather, quoting the author criticizing–the famous play Inherit The Wind for being historically inaccurate. “One Calvin College professor has been in the habit of giving out a prize–a coconut–to the student who spots the most historical errors in the movie. . .. Over 70 errors have been identified so far.” Clever, but Lawrence and Lee never claimed that their play was historically accurate–indeed, they quite openly acknowledged that it was not. Perhaps that’s why they changed the names of the characters (Brady, Drummond and Hornbeck instead of Bryan, Darrow, and Mencken)? It’s true, as Shaidle writes, that Bryan was not a young-earther as Brady is in the play. . .. Among other “inaccuracies”: H.L. Mencken did not speak in free-verse, the way Hornbeck does in the play; the real cross-examination of Bryan was actually held outdoors; the real Scopes did not have a relationship with the local preacher’s daughter; and the real trial wasn’t in black and white.

Shaidle continues: “Like millions of Christians, they came to regret their enthusiasm as Darwin’s theories were used to promote the sterilization, or even murder, of society’s ‘unfit.’” It is unclear whom Shaidle means by “they” in this sentence; but in any case, this smear is awfully tired by now, isn’t it? First of all, nothing in the proposition that species arise by natural selection among randomly mutating replicators has anything to say about government eugenics projects. Eugenics was much more a product of racial bigotry and other irrational superstitions than of anything properly describable as science. And “[w]hat is wrong with eugenics is not the science, but the coercion. Eugenics is like any other programme that puts the social benefit before the individual’s rights. It is a humanitarian, not a scientific crime.” Matt Ridley, Genome 297 (2000). To rattle the bones of eugenics whenever the name of Darwin comes up is a cheap and baseless slander–at least as wrong as if one were to mention the Crusades whenever the Pope comes up.

Following up on this ad hominem, Shaidle quotes from some religious scientists, including Arno Penzias, a physicist who won the Nobel Prize for work on the Big Bang: “The best data we have (about the Big Bang),” Penzias is quoted as saying, “are exactly what I would have predicted, had I nothing to go on but the five books of Moses, the Psalms, the Bible as a whole.” This is treated not just as evidence weighing in favor of a religious explanation of the Big Bang, but against evolution by natural selection. She also quotes Francis Collins of the Human Genome Project, as an example of a famous religious scientist. Then she quotes James Watson saying “every time you understand something, religion becomes less likely,” and quotes O’Leary’s statement that Francis Crick bears a “deep hostility to religion.” With these examples, Shaidle concludes, “So much for scientific, unbiased rationality.” Pardon? Penzias and Collins, when they openly embrace the perspective of a particular religious group, are honest scientists fighting against the conspiracy of atheists who haunt the laboratories to purge suspected Christians–but non-religious scientists are biased and irrational?

It just gets worse. <blockquote>“What makes the conflict between the creationists and the Darwinists so intense,” O’Leary writes, “was the fact that, starting in Darwin’s day, Darwinism functioned as something of a religion, competing for attention with the traditional religions.” And as a religion, “Darwinism is intolerant,” she continues. “The Darwinist assumes that what he believes is true,” even though Darwin lived in the 19th century and naturally had no knowledge of genetics and biochemistry.</blockquote>If Darwin’s doctrines “compet[ed]. . .with the traditional religions,” why was there no church structure, no creed, no hierarchy of believers, no cosmology, no savior? Why did Darwin “gingerly avoid[ ] writing much of anything about what his theory meant for humanity”? Carl Zimmer, Evolution: The Triumph of An Idea 50 (2001). This is not the usual behavior of a man proposing an alternative to the prevailing religious views. Of course, if Shaidle means that evolution is a meme competing against religious memes, fine enough–but what’s wrong with that?

As for whether “Darwinism is intolerant,” as I’m fond of saying, the charge of closed-mindedness is the last resort of those who cannot prove their case. Science is certainly intolerant of empty arguments, lacking in evidence or rational extrapolation. This blog and other resources provide sufficient explanations of why the evidence so thoroughly bears out the evolutionary explanation. It is certainly not the case that “the Darwinist [i.e., the scientist] assumes that what he believes is true.” If that is the case, why did Darwin spend so many pages upon pages–and why do Dawkins and other modern biologists spend so many pages, and why do Panda’s Thumb authors spend so much time–explaining the evidence and how it proves our case? The fact is, “[b]iologists are observing year by year and sometimes even day by day or hour by hour” examples of evolution. Jonathan Weiner, The Beak of The Finch 8-9 (New York: Vintage 1995). If biologists just “assume” that evolution is true, why in the world would scientists spend year after year in uncomfortable climates like the Galapagos Islands, or raising generations of stickleback fish to test whether their spots change based on their background? See id. at 184-189.

Finally, the charge that evolution is flawed because Darwin didn’t know about particulate inheritance is ludicrous. The fact is, the rediscovery of Mendelian genetics proved a great boon to Darwin’s theories. Prescient critics had pointed out that, under the then-prevalent notion of blended inheritance, the tendency would not be toward variation or branching among species, but to a running together, and a running down, of genetic differences. If inheritance worked through a blending mechanism, variations, no matter what adaptive benefit they conferred would not transfer from parent to child. This critique “was one of Darwin’s great frustrations.” Zimmer, supra at 74. But when modern ideas of genetics and biochemistry arose with the rediscovery of Mendel’s idea of genes, it was possible “to explain how new mutations in genes spread through a whole species.” Matt Ridley, The Red Queen 33 (New York: Penguin, 1993).

Now, at some point, a scientific proposition has been supported by so much evidence, and is so respected, that the science community will regard with disdain those who do not adhere to that proposition. If a person believed that the sun revolves around the Earth, astronomers would regard him as a little bit “tetched,” as they say. It would be appropriate not to allow such a person to have a column in a scholarly journal for astronomers. Evolution is as fundamental as heliocentrism, if not moreso. But for Shaidle, it’s unfair–indeed, it’s censorship–for Scientific American to fire [*-see update] a science writer who said in an interview that he doesn’t believe in evolution. But as Arthur Caplan explained in a Scientist editorial (registration required) <blockquote>Mims. . .is a competent amateur scientist. . .[and] Scientific American. . .staff [did some] obviously inappropriate [things]. . .. However, refusing to retain someone who rejects evolutionary theory as science to write for a science magazine is not religious discrimination. It is taking a necessary stand on what is and is not science.. . . The beliefs of Mims and other creationists notwithstanding, the fact of evolution is no longer open for debate. Mims believes that theories of evolution are neither testable nor verifiable. This is simply false, as is evident to anyone who has bothered to examine the refinement and evolution of Darwinism in response to empirical evidence over the past 130 years. Science contends that the biblical account of creation is not literally true, and the evidence exists to prove it. In light of the constant pressure in American society to obscure this message, which is discomfiting to some, those who write regular features for the most influential popular scientific magazine in the country must be willing to send it loudly and clearly. . .. This means saying no to creationists. . .. This also means rejecting those who believe in ESP, who tout the glories of astrology, and those who believe they are in communication with the dead, as staff members of magazines about science.</blockquote> Creationists derive great advantage from portraying themselves as victims of an atheist cabal bent on manipulating kids and censoring upstanding defenders of righteousness. The reality is, those who have no argument have had their day in court; judgment was rendered against them, and are now they are complaining that they “can’t get their message out.”

Update: Dr. Elsberry explains in the comments below that Mims was not fired, since he was never an employee of Scientific American.