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Does religion blur understanding of evolution? Ken Perrott Feb 14

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Victor Stenger has a short, but important, blog post in the Huffington Post. Appropriately (because it’s about evolutionary science) dated February 12 – Darwin Day, 204th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth.

Stenger’s article, No Belief Gap, considers Gallup Poll data on the numbers of American who accept evolutionary science and who believe in a god. But in contrast to some commentators, he differentiates between those who see evolution as guided by their god or as a so-called “naturalistic” process – defined in the polls as: “Man has developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life [and] God had no part in the process.”

This is, of course, what we mean by evolutionary science. Guidance by gods, goblins, elves or whatever is not part of that science. (Nor is it currently part of any other science). The distinction is important and it is no accident that some religious apologists like Alvin Plantinga  misrepresent the issue and are trying to create the impression that “divine” guidance is an essential part of evolutionary science (see Naturalism and science are incompatible).

Stenger finds of those accepting a proper definition of evolutionary science:

“This is exactly the same percentage of Americans who declare themselves unaffiliated with any religion.

“It may be that the only Americans who accept naturalist evolution are those who do not participate in any organized religion.”

His last comment:

“Virtually all Christians who accept that species evolve, contrary to the Bible that they believe is the word of God, think evolution is God-guided. This is not Darwinian evolution. God-guided evolution is intelligent design creationism. How many American Christians believe in evolution, as it is understood by science? The data indicate none.”

Could we draw the same conclusion about New Zealand Christians? I would be interested to see similar poll data for our country.

See also: A specious argument for the comity of evolution and faith

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Time for philosophical honesty about Darwin Ken Perrott Nov 27

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Credit: The Teaching Company

John S. Wilkins, at the Evolving Thoughts blog, has a nice short article, Why is Darwin’s theory so controversial?, on the so-called “controversies” around Darwin’s theories. I think he nails it. He shows that the usual tired old objections to Darwin’s ideas are just excuses.

The excuses

“Darwin thought species are mutable.” But:

“This was a widely held view by preachers, moralists, Aristotelians, naturalists, breeders, formalists, folk biology, and even biblical translators.”

“Darwin had racist ideas about humans.”

“He never did and the racism that is sometimes associated with his ideas preceded him by centuries (and were good Christian virtues) and were mediated by those who disagreed with him.”

“Darwin thought the age of the earth was large:”

“This preceded him also, and was settled in the late eighteenth century, although the present value wasn’t finalised until the 1960s.”

“Darwin’s claim humans are animals contradicted the Bible.” But:

“Linnaeus knew humans were animals a century earlier, and indeed the only issue was whether humans were animals with souls (or if all animals had souls), which Darwin never implied anything to the contrary.

Moreover, it was Christians who rejected the literal interpretation of the Bible, long before Darwin (beginning with the Alexandrian school in the second century), and those who realised that the global Flood was a myth (or an allegory) were Christian geologists a half century at least in advance of Darwin.”

The real controversy

John explains:

“No, the reason why Darwin was controversial is very, very simple. Darwin argued that complex designs could arise without a mind to guide it. In short, his controversial idea was natural selection (and sexual selection, but even that preceded Darwin). Almost from the day it was published, critics attacked the implication that the living world was not all that special, and that it lacked a Plan or Meaning. Theologians, moralists and even scientists objected to this, and while even most of the Catholic Church accepted common descent and modification of species, it was natural selection they hated.”

But instead of honestly confronting and debating the real issue they lie and slander:

“All the supposed “controversies” of Darwinism (or that phantom, “neo-Darwinism”) are post hoc attacks based on the prior objection to the lack of a guiding hand in biology. Don’t like natural selection? Attack Darwin by calling him a racist or blaming him for the Holocaust. Say he is antiessentialist. Say he is anti-religion. No matter how much evidence one puts forward that these are deliberate lies manufactured by those who hate Darwin for natural selection, it won’t stop the prevarication industry.”

A basic philosophical conflict

Wilkins says:

“Sensible philosophical critics of Darwin focus on selection for that reason. It undercuts our prior belief that We Are Special. Human mentation, cognition, language, morality, religion or economics is somehow privileged in the universe. Bullshit. We are an animal and we arose without the universe seeking us.”

But some philosophers will devote their energies to attacking this position while refusing to justify their alternative:

“The human exceptionalism which critics like Fodor, Fuller, Plantinga and the rest presume but do not argue for unfairly places the onus on Darwinians. It is time to stop taking them seriously.”

Amen to that.

But I want to add something to John’s analysis – and I do hope he doesn’t feel I misrepresent him.

Time for philosophical honesty

Darwin’s approach of looking to nature, and not to scripture, for the explanation of nature was simply being scientific. It extended the progress made by modern science in physics, astronomy, etc., into the understanding of life – including human life. Galileo in the early 17th Century argued our understanding of the world should be based on evidence from the world – not on fallible interpretation of scripture. Scientific knowledge, or natural philosophy in those day, should be based on evidence from reality and resulting ideas and theories tested and validated against that reality.

Today, sensible philosophers (even sensible philosophers of religion) accept this approach in the physical sciences. We no longer hear them talking about, or justifying, divine guidance in the movement of stars and planets, or the reaction of chemicals. Why should Fodor, Fuller and Plantinga so adamantly wish to sneak divine guidance into the biological world?

As they are so keen on divine guidance why not try to find and deliver some evidence for it instead of relying on logical possibility alone? That would be the scientific approach. And if they were really consistent they would also be arguing for, and producing evidence for, divine guidance in the physical world.

Now, that would put them in context.

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Christmas gift ideas: One for the kids Ken Perrott Dec 11

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Books are ideal Christmas presents. And as I am spending some time dealing with family business I thought reposting some of my past book reviews over the next few days could be useful am repeating some of my past book reviews.

I should have reviewed more books for children. But here’s a good one – about an important scientific topic.


Book Review: Evolution: How We and All Living Things Came to Be by Daniel Loxton

Reading level: Young Adult
Price: US$12.89, NZ$40.99
Hardcover: 56 pages
Publisher: Kids Can Press, Ltd. (February 1, 2010)
ISBN-10: 1554534305
ISBN-13: 978-1554534302

Today, February 12, is Darwin Day. The anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth 201 years ago. So I have decided to review a new book on evolution.

It’s a short book, but an important one. Important because it’s for kids – it’s aimed at children of ages 8 — 13. It’s about an important area of science, evolutionary science. I think kids will learn from this book, and they will enjoy the experience.

’Evolution’ is beautifully illustrated and clearly written. Important evolutionary ideas are well explained in brief sections, often illustrated with examples and metaphors as well as pictures. Daniel Loxton is the editor of Junior Skeptic and regularly writes and illustrates for children so he is the ideal author for such a book.

I like the way that many of these sections use questions as chapter headings. ’What about us?’, ’Survival of the fittest?’, ’If evolution really happens, where are the transitional fossil?’, ’How could evolution produce something as complicated as my eyes?’ are a few examples. The sorts of questions kids will commonly hear. Loxton devotes the second part of his book to such questions, ones commonly raised by creationist critics of evolution. This is good technique for capturing the reader’s attention and encouraging them to read further.

Loxton uses many examples and metaphors, as well as pictures, to illustrate ideas. His illustration of mutations acting over time with the metaphor of the children’s’ game ’telephone’ is done in both words and pictures.

My main criticism is that he didn’t use a metaphor to illustrate the important idea of ’deep time.’ A simple description of rock layers and differentiation of fossils is inadequate — even for an adult. One needs to compare the immensity of time with something pictorial, like the distance between people, houses, cities, countries, planets, and so on. An illustration of the process of fossilisation could also have helped.

However, kids of this age are continuously learning. They are always confronting ideas and words needing further explanation. So I think it is great that this book includes a short glossary (which does include a description of fossilisation) and index. This helps encourage the young reader to explore further — especially when they come across unfamiliar words.

The religion question

Several reviewers have expressed reservations about Loxton’s short answer to the question ’What about religion?’ Perhaps it would have been better to leave this out — but on the other hand it is a common question which kids will have to confront. Loxton’s inadequate reply was unavoidable, given the unwritten social rule that religion has a special role in our society. That we are not allowed to criticise religion. Any properly adequate reply would have lead to people being ’offended’ and campaigns to exclude the book for schools.

So perhaps the best advice is that he gave — kids should discuss this with family and friends. I think there are many things in this book which will raise further questions in the reader’s minds. Maybe it’s religion, the way fossils are formed, how life began, the age of the earth or universe. If this leads to discussions with family, friends and teachers — great. It’s all part of education.

So, I can highly recommend this book. It will be a great gift for the target age group — but even some of us older ’kids’ could probably learn from this short clearly written and beautifully illustrated book.

That’s my opinion. Now I must pass it on to my 9 year-old granddaughter and get her reaction.

See also:
Evolution: How we and al living things came to be – available from Fishpond.co.nz.
forgoodreason Interview with Loxton about the book
Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe Interviews Daniel loxton
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Moral strawmannery Ken Perrott Nov 22

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If you have ever searched the internet for a section of text from Darwin’s writings you will have noticed that most of the links that come up are to creationist websites and blogs. What we are seeing is simple dishonest quote mining. Somebody makes a claim about evolution, Darwin or Darwinism, attaches a mined quote – and the quote then has a life of its own. It gets repeated ad nauseum by the creationist echo chamber – with hardly any of the users bothering to check the quote against the original for accuracy – let alone context.

Mining quotes from Darwin

Here’s one taken from Darwin’s The Descent of Man.  It’s from Chapter IV: Comparison of the mental powers of man and the lower animals. In this Darwin discusses the evolution of a moral sense, sociability, social instincts and virtues, rules of conduct and religious beliefs. After arguing against the idea that a different social animal “if its intellectual faculties were to become as active and as highly developed as in man, would acquire exactly the same moral sense as ours” Darwin wrote:

“If, for instance, to take an extreme case, men were reared under precisely the same conditions as hive-bees, there can hardly be a doubt that our unmarried females would, like the worker-bees, think it a sacred duty to kill their brothers, and mothers would strive to kill their fertile daughters; and no one would think of interfering.” (Bold added)

Recently I have seen the quote reproduced by numerous religious apologists and creationists arguing against “secular morality.” (Almost always the section in bold is omitted – usually evidence that users are just copying and pasting from other apologist posts or articles). And they interpret this to mean that a moral and social code held by a human species that has evolved must be the same as the most basic of animals or insects.

See, for example Flannagan’s When Scientists Make Bad Ethicists and Weikhart’s Can Darwinists Condemn Hitler and Remain Consistent with Their Darwinism?  Flannagan asserts:

“it is unlikely that a loving and just person could command actions such as infanticide or rape whereas, evolution, guided only by the impersonal forces of nature, is not subject to such constraints.”

Weikart has made a reputation of ascribing the morality of Nazism to Darwin (he is the author of From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany and Hitler’s Ethic: The Nazi Pursuit of Evolutionary Progress). He says:

“if morality is the product of these mindless evolutionary processes, as Darwin and many other prominent Darwinists maintain, then “I don’t think [they] have any grounds to criticize Hitler.””

And

“To natural selection killing your siblings and offspring is all the same as loving them. Selection only favors what works to enhance survival and reproduction, and it does not matter if it is nice and moral, or harsh and brutal.”

Bait and switch

The dishonest bait and switch should be obvious to someone who is not ideologically confused.  Evolutionary science indicates that human social and moral senses have arisen from evolution of our species and our brain. This means we have been able to develop social arrangements and moral codes. Those will be strongly influenced by our evolved instincts, emotions and social interactions. The process of natural selection is “mindless’, “unguided”, etc. but that does not mean that our human moral and social arrangements are heartless, mindless, emotionless and brutal in the way that Flannagan and Weikart, and their creationist friends, claim.

And these religious apologists would have known that if they had honestly looked at the context of their quote rather than blindly (mindlessly) copying and pasting from other creationist sources.  For example, in the next chapter of The Descent of Man Darwin wrote:

“the enforcement of public opinion depends on our appreciation of the approbation and disapprobation of others; and this appreciation is founded on our sympathy which it can hardly be doubted was originally developed through natural selection as one of the most important elements of the social instincts.”

Natural selection may be mindless but the results certainly aren’t – although the quote mining by these apologists seems pretty mindless to me. As does their attribution of brutal, thoughtless and immoral interactions to a species which has evolved to possess advanced social and moral intuitions.

This crude misrepresentation of an evolutionary understanding of how human moral and social instincts arose is a blatant form of strawmannery – one actively promoted by conservative religious apologists and creationists.

Command ethics inhuman

An evolutionary explanation for the origin of our species, as well as the origin of our moral and social sentiments, does not conflict in any way with the fact that humans can, and most do, adhere to the most humane moral codes.

This makes Flannagan’s support for religious command ethics (“divine commands”) over a scientific understanding of human ethics ridiculous. The “loving and just person” he refers to in the above quote is his god. Now, he claims that god is “unlikely” to “command actions such as infanticide or rape.”  Yet he supports and defends William Lane Craig‘s theological justification for biblical genocide/ethnic cleansing (see Concern over William Lane Craig’s justification of biblical genocide). And, yes, Craig’s justification did include infanticide:

 ’I would say that God has the right to give and take life as he sees fit. Children die all the time! If you believe in the salvation, as I do, of children, who die, what that meant is that the death of these children meant their salvation. People look at this [genocide] and think life ends at the grave but in fact this was the salvation of these children, who were far better dead…than being raised in this Canaanite culture. ’

What right do these religious apologists and creationists have to defame the humane moral codes held by most of our species just because the facts show we, and our instincts, are a result of natural selection?

Surely it’s their “divine command” ethics which are being used to justify the most brutal inhuman, in fact anti-human, actions.

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Some things for the kids Ken Perrott Aug 15

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Well actually for their parents and grandparents. Especially with Christmas on the horizon.

Right where you are now

Right Here You Are Now is a bedtime story for kids. It’s also scientifically accurate, so it’s more than just a bedtime story–it’s an educational adventure. This book will help kids understand geologic time. Seems pretty important to me.

This is how Tracy Reva describes the book in her review:

“While this book contains a lot of information it’s presented in a very appealing manner that will make children want to read it. The pages are bright and colorful, and the illustrations make children wonder what comes next. The facts are presented in a manner that encourages the curiosity of young readers and the passages of reading material are short ones. The book itself is 26 pages and it packs a lot of interesting facts into each and every page. I am so impressed with it I plan to buy a couple of copies to use as presents for my grandson, niece and nephews.”

See also: review by review by Lavanya Karthik

The book will be launched in the UK on 25 September.

Register here to be informed when the book is released and can be purchased.

Thanks to The Dispersal of Darwin

Charlie and the kiwi

Charlie and Kiwi: An Evolutionary Adventure is another book aimed at young children (4 – 8 yrs). And it has a local theme which will appeal.

It was supported by a grant from the US National Science Foundation, so again it will be scientifically accurate. It uses Charles Darwin to take the reader on a journal through time and through the important scientific principle of evolution.

Published last June it is available now.

Again thanks to The Dispersal of Darwin

Skeptics dictionary for kids

The Skeptic’s Dictionary for Kids is a web site – and obviously for the older kids. great for research, school projects and just searching.

This was set up in July and is being continually added to. The web page also has some interesting links which will be useful for kids interested in science.

And links to some kid’s sciency books:

Thanks to Phil Plait, The Bad Astronomer.

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Not about Einstein Ken Perrott Sep 29

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Book Review: Einstein’s God: Conversations About Science and the Human Spirit by Krista Tippett

Price: US$10.88; NZ$12.97
Paperback:
304 pages
Publisher:
Penguin (Non-Classics) (February 23, 2010)
Language:
English
ISBN-10:
0143116770
ISBN-13:
978-0143116776

The media reports of Stephen Hawking’s new book with co-author Leonard Mlodinow (The Grand Design) attracted hostile reaction from some theological quarters (see The Grand Design – neither God nor 42). This reminds me of similar treatment meted out to Albert Einstein in his time.

Einstein had many religious critics for an article of his on the philosophy of religion in 1940. An Episcopalian responded ’to give up the doctrine of a personal God . . . .  shows the good Doctor, when it comes to the practicalities of life, is full of jellybeans’. He was accused of providing fuel for the fanatical antisemitism of religious bigots and told that he should ’stick to his science’ and stop delving into philosophy (sound familiar). And this from the founder of the Calvary tabernacle Association in Oklahoma City ’Professor Einstein, every Christian in America will immediately reply to you, ‘Take your crazy, fallacious theory of evolution and go back to Germany where you came from.’

Perhaps some of today’s scientists who hesitate to respond to their theological critics could learn from Einstein’s reaction. While criticising atheist reaction he described his theological critics as ’numerous dogs who are earning their food guarding ignorance and superstition for the benefit of those who profit from it.’

However, the religious usually in the past interpreted some of Hawking’s previous comments as favourable to religion and god beliefs. Similarly many of Einstein’s comments on religion have been interpreted favourably. In fact, nowadays, the favourable (to religion) interpretations prevail. How often do we hear of Einstein’s negative comments about religion today? More commonly believers claim Einstein, wrongly, as ’on their side.’

Spiritual conversations

Tippet’s book ’Einstein’s God’ is promoting this line. Even when accepting Einstein’s rejection of a personal god it still manages to encompass him in a loose, fluffy, embrace of ’spiritualism.’

However, Tippett doesn’t attempt a factual account of Einstein’s attitudes towards religion and god beliefs. For that Max Jammer’s Einstein and Religion: Physics and Theology is much more reliable. In fact ’Einstein’s God’ is not about Einstein at all. The subtitle ’Conversations about Science and the Human Spirit’ is far more accurate.

Krista Tippett is the host of the public radio programme Speaking of Faith, distributed and produced by American Public Media. (This programme was recently renamed Being.) And this book is a collection of conversations between Tippett and scientific personalities from the radio programme.

The personalities are: Freeman Dyson (theoretical physicist); Paul Davies (astrophysicist); Sherwin Nuland (surgeon); Mehmet Oz (cardiovascular surgeon); James Moor (biographer of Charles Darwin); V. V. Raman (theoretical physicist), Janna Levin physicist); Michael McCullough (psychologist); Esther Sternberg (immunologist); Andrew Solomon (novelist); Parker Palmer (Quaker and educator); Anita Barrows (psychologist); and John Polkinghorne (Anglican priest and former physicist).

The science-religion conflict denied

Of course Tippett’s agenda in this book is to promote the idea that religion and science are compatible, almost two sides of the same coin. Even when recognising the epistemological conflict she still believes they are complementary.

Tippett argues that in ’the plain light of day . . . . the suggestion that science and religion are incompatible makes no sense at all.’ And in a manoeuvre often used by those who wish to justify the ridiculous she resorts to quantum mechanics. ’Images from the world of science enliven my understanding of God, and of religion.’ She uses wave/particle duality as ’a template for understanding how contradictory explanations of reality can simultaneously be true.’

And, of course, there are the tired old arguments. While accepting the power of science she claims: ’But science cannot mobilise human consciousness and human passion. We need the simultaneous resources of story, ritual, relationships and service that spiritual traditions have the capacity to nurture at their core.’ The old argument by default.

Or: ’But here again I’d insist that religion at its best is clear-eyed and reality based.’ Yeah, right!

And she refers to Einstein’s wish to understand the order ’deeply hidden behind everything’ as ’his longing to understand what God was thinking.’

So Einstein’s use of metaphor get’s tied in with the apologist ’proof’ of their god in scientific laws.

Agenda driven conversations

Of course many of the participants in these discussions are happy to engage in vague talk on spiritual issues, but I couldn’t help feeling that at times Tippett was working hard to put words in mouths. She specifically asked Davies to comment on the suggestion ’that there might be room for an involved God within the laws of physics themselves.’ (Davies response is that ’you could insert the hand of God’ into the ’interstices having to do with quantum uncertainty,’ ’if you want.’)

Commenting on James Moore’s ideas she claims: ’There is much in Darwin’s thought that would ennoble as well as ground a religious view of life and of God.’ And then she finishes that chapter quoting from the famous  last paragraph of Darwin’s ’The Origin of Species:’

’There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the creator into a few forms or into one;’

No mention that a ’creator’ was absent from the first edition, which reads:

’There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one;’

Insertion of a ’creator’ into later editions seems to have been an attempt to soothe religious opinion which Darwin later regretted (suggested by comments he made in a letter to his friend Joseph Hooker in 1863).

Conclusions

So this is not a book about Einstein or his understanding of religion. It’s a collection of conversations guided by Tippett to elucidate thoughts on spirituality and religion. While scientists can reach an amazing amount of agreement about reality they are as diverse as any other social group on the issues discussed.

Their differing views may interest some readers. However, this is a limited sample and no one should see the views expressed as in any way representative of scientists as a whole.

Even with these limits the different experiences, specialities and lives could have produced some interesting insights.

Personally, I would have preferred discussions driven more by the scientist involved rather than the programme host with her own agenda. But I guess this inevitably results from the format of this radio programme.

However, the science-religion conflict is as active today as it has ever been. In fact it is a prominent feature of the current ’culture wars.’ Thus attempts to deny this or explain it away are fashionable in theological circles. ’Einstein’s God’ will appeal to those in denial. But the book doesn’t provide a suitable outline of the diverse attitudes of scientists towards religions and god beliefs. And the agenda of the ’Speaking of Faith’ radio programme doesn’t enable elucidation of their different approaches to human spiritually in any depth.

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One for the kids Ken Perrott Feb 12

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Book Review: Evolution: How We and All Living Things Came to Be by Daniel Loxton

Reading level: Young Adult
Price: US$12.89, NZ$40.99
Hardcover: 56 pages
Publisher: Kids Can Press, Ltd. (February 1, 2010)
ISBN-10: 1554534305
ISBN-13: 978-1554534302

Today, February 12, is Darwin Day. The anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth 201 years ago. So I have decided to review a new book on evolution.

It’s a short book, but an important one. Important because it’s for kids – it’s aimed at children of ages 8 — 13. It’s about an important area of science, evolutionary science. I think kids will learn from this book, and they will enjoy the experience.

’Evolution’ is beautifully illustrated and clearly written. Important evolutionary ideas are well explained in brief sections, often illustrated with examples and metaphors as well as pictures. Daniel Loxton is the editor of Junior Skeptic and regularly writes and illustrates for children so he is the ideal author for such a book.

I like the way that many of these sections use questions as chapter headings.  ’What about us?’, ’Survival of the fittest?’, ’If evolution really happens, where are the transitional fossil?’, ’How could evolution produce something as complicated as my eyes?’ are a few examples. The sorts of questions kids will commonly hear. Loxton devotes the second part of his book to such questions, ones commonly raised by creationist critics of evolution. This is good technique for capturing the reader’s attention and encouraging them to read further.

Loxton uses many examples and metaphors, as well as pictures, to illustrate ideas. His illustration of mutations acting over time with the metaphor of the children’s’ game ’telephone’ is done in both words and pictures.

My main criticism is that he didn’t use a metaphor to illustrate the important idea of ’deep time.’  A simple description of rock layers and differentiation of fossils is inadequate — even for an adult. One needs to compare the immensity of time with something pictorial, like the distance between people, houses, cities, countries, planets, and so on. An illustration of the process of fossilisation could also have helped.

However, kids of this age are continuously learning. They are always confronting ideas and words needing further explanation. So I think it is great that this book includes a short glossary (which does include a description of fossilisation) and index. This helps encourage the young reader to explore further — especially when they come across unfamiliar words.

The religion question

Several reviewers have expressed reservations about Loxton’s short answer to the question ’What about religion?’ Perhaps it would have been better to leave this out — but on the other hand it is a common question which kids will have to confront. Loxton’s inadequate reply was unavoidable, given the unwritten social rule that religion has a special role in our society. That we are not allowed to criticise religion. Any properly adequate reply would have lead to people being ’offended’ and campaigns to exclude the book for schools.

So perhaps the best advice is that he gave — kids should discuss this with family and friends. I think there are many things in this book which will raise further questions in the reader’s minds. Maybe it’s religion, the way fossils are formed, how life began, the age of the earth or universe. If this leads to discussions with family, friends and teachers — great. It’s all part of education.

So, I can highly recommend this book. It will be a great gift for the target age group — but even some of us older ’kids’ could probably learn from this short clearly written and beautifully illustrated book.

That’s my opinion. Now I must pass it on to my 9 year-old granddaughter and get her reaction.

See also:
Evolution: How we and al living things came to be – available from Fishpond.co.nz.
forgoodreason Interview with Loxton about the book
Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe Interviews Daniel loxton
Buy Now banner 240x52

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An Introduction to Evolution Ken Perrott Nov 23

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Book Review: The Tangled Bank: An Introduction to Evolution by Carl Zimmer

Price: US$43:16
Hardcover: 394 pages
Publisher: Roberts and Company Publishers; 1 edition (October 15, 2009)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0981519474
ISBN-13: 978-0981519470

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This Tuesday is the 150th anniversary of the first publication of Charles Darwin’s bookOn the Origin of Species“. And earlier this year we celebrated the 200th anniversary of his birth.

These anniversaries have been marked by publication of books about Darwin’s life, his ideas and various aspects of evolutionary science. Most of these are aimed at the adult reader. But here is one which will appeal to school children and young adults — an important section of readers.

The Tangled Bank is an introductory text book. It will be ideal for introductory classes on evolution and biology. But it is also going to appeal to many adults, and especially to families.

More than a text book

This is no dry old text book. Carl Zimmer is a science journalist who has already published several popular science books. His communication skills are evidence here. Zimmer’s writing is lively and readable, but still very informative. This makes the book a joy to read and it will appeal especially to young adults and newcomers to this subject.

The book is richly and appropriately illustrated throughout. I liked the useful timeline on the inside front and back cover sheets. This portrays evolution of the planet and of life from 4.6 billion years ago. Many diagrams were prepared especially for the book to explain recent findings and they show attentive work by the team of artists, editors, science advisers as well as the author. This helps to make it a helpful family resource as well as a text for undergraduate introductory courses. It is a book which growing children and students will read at home for pleasure as well as for project help.

I liked the way each chapter began with depictions and descriptions of the work of named scientists. Thepersonal link does a lot to show the excitement and adventure in the scientific process. It also helps explain the rapid expansion and empirical basis of knowledge in this dynamic science. I believe involvement of personalities and their work in the narrative will help motivate young people towards a career in scientific research.

Transitional fossils

For example, Zimmer describes the work of Neil Shubin, author of “Your Inner Fish,” and his team in the discovery of transitional fossils showing evolution of tetrapods from their marine ancestors. They found fossils of the Tiktaalik which lived 375 million years ago. Transitional forms in evolution of the whale are illustrated by Hans Thewissen’s discovery of fossils of the Ambulocetus from 47 million years ago (see figure below from book). Zimmer describes these evolutionary transitions in more depth in his book At the Water’s Edge.

The Tangled Bank also explains observation of evolutionary transitions as they occur in modern-day laboratory experiments. Zimmer describes the 20-year experiment in which Richard Lenski showed microbial evolution in Eshericia coli. This illustrates how individual mutations favoured by natural selection can be identified and verified.

Carl Zimmer provides an extensive overview of evolutionary science in 370 pages. Starting with a description of what we mean by evolution, through a brief history of evolutionary ideas, geological evidence, phylogeny, molecular biology, the nature of mutation, genetic drift and selection. The role of genes, speciation extinctions and radiations, interspecies adaptions and the benefits of sex and families. He also covers evolution of behaviour in humans and other animals, emotions and society.

Attacks on evolutionary science

Maybe Zimmer could have said more about current attacks on evolutionary science. After all, few students will be unaware of what is happening at the political and social level. He does have a 2-page spread ’How Not to Study Evolution’ which summarises the essential problem of the creationist approach. And there are also other one or two page boxes on subjects like ’What is Science?’, ’The Present and the Past in Science’ and ’How do Scientists Study Evolution.’

This book is full of information without being intimidating to the non-biologist.  It has a useful glossary and, for those wanting to go further, 14 pages of references — all related to the individual chapter and section headings.

So a readable, informative and up-to-date introduction to evolutionary science. With the added benefit of being an attractive family reference book. One that children will happily read as they grow.

I reckon it would be a great Christmas present for the science-friendly family.

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Distorting Darwin Ken Perrott Nov 17

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Poor old Charles Darwin. In this year of celebration, when we mark the 200th year since his birth and the 150th year since the publication of his great work The Origin of Species, he is being subjected to a real deluge of misrepresentation. The ideological opponents of science, particularly evolutionary science, have been working overtime to quote him out of context, to cherry pick quotes, to “prove” he was a horrible person and that the “materialist” heart of science must be ripped out.

Here’s a recent local example. Those deluded souls over at Thinking Matters Talk have produced a post, Darwinism, Morality and Violence, as part of their creationist preaching. They “quote” Darwin to “prove” he had a ’toxic doctrine of racial superiority and eugenics.” And this is an inevitable result of “materialist evolution.” Oh, I should add, alongside “high-school killings by teenagers in the US and Europe.” They seem to be answering their question: “Is mass murder the corollary of belief in materialistic evolution?” with an emphatic yes!  Because it leads to “loss of objective meaning” and “eradication of an objective moral order.”

Their “evidence” is this quote from The Descent of Man:

if we ’do not prevent the reckless, the vicious and otherwise inferior members of society from increasing at a quicker rate than the better class of men, the nation will retrograde, as has too often occurred in the history of the world.’

Of course, the “if we” at the beginning is their own addition. The actual sentence reads:

“If the various checks specified in the two last paragraphs, and perhaps others as yet unknown, do not prevent the reckless, the vicious and otherwise inferior members of society from increasing at a quicker rate than the better class of men, the nation will retrograde, as has too often occurred in the history of the world.”

So, it’s not “we” but “the various checks specified in the two last paragraphs, and perhaps others as yet unknown.”

Sure it’s all a bit quaint. It’s the language of the times. But those two paragraphs refer to published work on the effect of poverty and marriage on the death rate amongst children and adults. What a difference a dishonest “we” makes! Actually, that quote is quote common at creationist sites, but very few actually use the word “we.”

If the Thinking Matters people actually read the book they quote from they would find it destroys their argument. In the same chapter, after describing some pro-eugenics arguments in the writings of Gregg, Wallace and Galton, Darwin makes clear that he does not endorse them. While we use artificial selection for breeding domestic animals, we don’t do that “in the case of man.”

“The aid which we feel impelled to give to the helpless is mainly an incidental result of the instinct of sympathy, which was originally acquired as part of the social instincts, but subsequently rendered, in the manner previously indicated, more tender and more widely diffused. Nor could we check our sympathy, even at the urging of hard reason, without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature. The surgeon may harden himself whilst performing an operation, for he knows that he is acting for the good of his patient; but if we were intentionally to neglect the weak and helpless, it could only be for a contingent benefit, with an overwhelming present evil.”

Actually, if they read this book they may also get some idea of early evolutionary speculation about the development of sympathy, empathy and morality in humans and animals.

But something else these scribblers should have taken note of from their own experience.  What is their usual source of “wisdom” when the want to “prove” something or “justify” a moral action?

Think about it. If humans want to promote evil policies, justify racial superiority, war, and inhuman morality – why should they bother with a relatively unknown book like the “Descent of Man.” Why not do what humans have done for century – use the Bible! This has been used to justify about everything humans have got into – in the name of “objective moral order.” That, and the dishonest method of cherry-picking and quote mining.

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Empathy’s origins Ken Perrott Oct 21

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Book Review: The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society by Frans de Waal

Price: US$17.15
Hardcover: 304 pages
Publisher: Harmony (September 22, 2009)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0307407764
ISBN-13: 978-0307407764

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This book might ruffle the feathers of the biblical literalists. They will find themselves challenged on two grounds:

  1. We can explain human feelings of empathy, sympathy and the like naturally, without resort to divine causes;
  2. Ideas of a special or divinely ordained character for humans, of human exceptionalism, are not supported by the evidence.

Mind you, Frans de Waal points out, there are plenty of non-literalists, even active scientists, who feel threatened by the undermining of human exceptionalism.

On the other hand there will be plenty of pet owners and animal lovers who will nod knowingly while reading this book. They will recognise their own experiences of often ’human like’ behaviour displayed by non-human animals

Natural origins of human empathy

De Waal describes how empathy, sympathy and the predisposition to fairness have arisen naturally during our evolution. And these are not recent adaptions unique to humans. They have much earlier origins.

He also describes these intuitions as arising subconsciously. Not relying on any cognitive process they are an automated response over which we have little control. However, we will often resort to rationalisation to provide ’explanations’ for these intuitions.

We have a natural commitment to others and sensitivity to their feelings and predicaments. In the past this was often credited to divine causes but now we study it scientifically. Despite this, resistance to scientific investigation of human empathy still exists — and is not always religiously motivated.

Non-human empathy

This resistance is even stronger with other animals. Many people feel threatened by the idea that we share many of these ’humane’ emotions and intuitions with our close cousins.

On the other hand some animal lovers may go too far in equating these feelings in humans and other animals. This commitment to others, our sensitivity, is not just a human trait. But, maybe we do it more fully. As well as providing examples showing similarities between humans and non-humans the author also provides examples illustrating the differences.

Optimistic interpretation of biology

Evolution of empathy is obviously a positive feature of our development. As De Waal points out this realisation is a counter to the often negative, inhumane connotations placed on natural selection. The portrayal of nature as ’red in tooth and claw.’ We can see our biology and evolution as a process for good.

Of course this is not new. Charles Darwin himself discussed the evolutionary origins and influence of human sympathy in his work The Descent of Man.’ But it is only in recent years that these positive intuitions and feelings, in non-human animals as well as humans, have begun to receive proper research attention.

We can attribute this neglect partially to religious influence. To the idea of human exceptionalism, the existence of a human soul. De Waal speculates that this expceptionalism may have arisen especially in the Judean/Christian religions which separate humanity from nature. That these religions may have developed that attitude because they arose in regions where humans were isolated from animals (like other primates) which work like us.

The book is easy to read. Use of stories and anecdotes, rather than presenting heavily referenced reports of scientific findings, helps make the material accessible. Some readers may therefore feel the book lacks authority. However, there is an extensive notes section at the back of the book, and a list of references by chapter. This should satisfy readers who want to dig deeper.

I enjoyed the last chapter — ’Crooked Timber’ because it provided a positive ending. It shows how biology and evolution can provide a basis for a more positive society — and helps counter the use of ’social Darwinism’ to justify a selfish society.

Empathy as a basis for a humane society

De Waal portrays empathy in humans as multi-layered — like a Russian Doll. At the core is the ancient tendency to match the emotional state of others. Evolution has built around this core more sophisticated capacities such as feeling concern for others and adopting their viewpoint. This enables us to undertake targeted helping and to organise society more humanely.

He says:

’I derive great optimism from empathy’s evolutionary antiquity. It makes it a robust trait that will develop in virtually every human being so that society can count on it and try to foster and grow it. It is a human universal.’

We are prone to concentrating on the negative sides of humanity, our inclination to hatred and violence, deception and exploitation. So Frans de Waal’s perspective is welcome. True, many of the negative features we share with non-human animals may be developed to a greater or more devastating effect in human. But this may also be true of our positive features.

’The role of compassion is society is therefore not just one of sacrificing time and money to relieve the plight of others, but also of pushing a political agenda that recognises everyone’s dignity.’

And finally:

’But one instrument we do have available, and that greatly enriches our thinking, has been selected over the ages, meaning that it has been tested over and over with regard to its survival value. That is our capacity to connect to and understand others and make their situation our own, the way the American people did while watching Katrina victims and Lincoln did when he came eye to eye with shackled slaves

To call upon this inborn capacity can only be to any society’s advantage.’

See also:
Interview with Frans de Waal: The Science of Empathy (Download MP3)
Chimpanzees Help Each Other upon Request

Video: Dogs can be good without god!

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