Mark Vernon praises antievolution book as “the most despised science book of 2012″

Good Lord, is Mark Vernon, of “holy rabbit” fame, still writing for the Guardian? And why? In their columns he regularly takes up the cudgels against science: as an ex-Anglican priest, he simply can’t help but cheer when someone disses science, no matter how bad a job they do.  And so each year Vernon gives an award to a woo-ish science book that he snarkily calls “the most despised science book of the year”.

Ergo his latest Comment is Free column: “The most despised science book of 2012 is. . . worth reading.” What’s the book? Guess!

Every year, I give an award to the Most Despised Science Book of the Year. The 2010 award went to Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini for What Darwin Got Wrong. In 2011, Ray Tallis won with Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity.

Well, as I concluded in my review of What Darwin Got Wrong in The Nation (and I wasn’t the only one), Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini’s book was absolutely dreadful: a hamhanded and spelentic attack on the concept of and evidence for natural selection. It has sunk without a trace, testimony to the scientific ignorance of two ambitious men bent on overthrowing a paradigm of biology.

I haven’t read Tallis’s book (perhaps a reader can weigh in here), but it appears to be an attack on both scientism and evolutionary psychology.

Vernon then tells us his 2012 also-ran:

My runner-up this time is Rupert Sheldrake’s The Science Delusion, though in fact it had a strikingly decent reception for a book also critiquing scientistic dogmatism.

Not a decent reception from the people I know (see my take on it here).  That book was a critique of scientific materialism, a materialism that goddycoddlers like Vernon can’t abide. There’s simply got to be more to the universe than material and the laws of physics! And so Vernon’s winner this year is an obvious choice—another attack on natural selection and materialism:

So the winner for 2012 must be Thomas Nagel, for his book Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False.

Steven Pinker dammed it with faint praise when he described it in a tweet as “the shoddy reasoning of a once-great thinker”. Jerry Coyne blogged: “Nagel goes the way of Alvin Plantinga”, which is like being compared to Nick Clegg. All in all, Nagel’s gadfly stung and whipped them into a fury.

A fury? I don’t think so. And isn’t it funny that Vernon mentions a tweet by Pinker and a website post of mine, while ignoring three non-furious and scholarly reviews in major venues, each of which politely tore Nagel’s book to shreds. I refer to the reviews by Allen Orr (New York Review of Books) Brian Leiter and Michael Weisberg (The Nation), and Elliott Sober (The Boston Review).  So here we have three philosophers of science and one evolutionary biologist with philosophical training, all writing very long, scholarly, and devastatingly critical analyses of Vernon’s favorite book, and Vernon ignores them all.

Why? Because he likes what Nagel suggests: that evolution is not driven by a purposeless and materialistic process, but by some teleological force (Nagel never says what it is). Vernon likes the idea that the universe has purpose, evincing his usual sneaking sympathy for theism:

There it is. The t-word [teleology]– a major taboo among evolutionary biologists. Goal-directed explanations automatically question your loyalty to Darwin. As Friedrich Engels celebrated, when reading On The Origin of Species in 1859: “There was one aspect of teleology that had yet to be demolished, and that has now been done.” But has it? This is the moot point.

The scientifically respectable become edgy when approaching this domain. Read Malcolm Thorndike Nicholson’s measured piece on the reaction Nagel’s book sparked, published in Prospect. The possibility that the universe wants, in some way, to become conscious will “appear absurd” or “strange”, he warns. But bear the anxiety, he doesn’t quite continue, and consider the arguments.

We don’t get “edgy” when we hear about teleology in evolution; we get bored. For there’s simply no evidence for it, and Nagel doesn’t provide any. Have a look, for instance at Orr’s review. Nagel, it seems, simply doesn’t like materialism either, but he doesn’t have any good arguments against it. Like Laplace, we simply have no need of the Divine Hypothesis when we consider evolution.

And, God help us, Vernon is now teaming up with another minion from the dark side to show that science proves God:

I’m considering some of them with Rupert Sheldrake in a series of podcasts, if you’ll forgive the plug. But it is striking that they can be aired in relatively kosher scientific circles too. A recent example is Paul Davies’s bestseller, The Goldilocks Enigma. Davies argues that the refusal of natural teleology rests on an assumption that nature obeys laws that are written into the fabric of the cosmos. However, quantum physics offers every reason to doubt that this is so. The upshot is that Davies himself favours a universe that contains a “life principle”.

So how come teleology is acceptable among cosmologists? It may be that they are used to the basic assumptions of their science being regularly overturned.

Sheldrake and Vernon! Now there’s some podcasts to miss!

But Vernon is wrong about cosmology and teleology. Teleology is acceptable only among cosmologists who are religious or who are angling for the Templeton Prize. I suspect Sean Carroll would have something to say about this. After all, he’s the one who wrote a very good essay called “Why (almost all) cosmologists are atheists,” showing why materialism was a far better explanation for the universe than theism.

All scientists are used to revisions of their paradigms, yet that doesn’t make us sympathetic to teleology. What would is the finding of scientific phenomena that show the hand of God, i.e., the suspension of the “laws of nature”. But we don’t see that, either in evolution or cosmology.

And for quantum mechanics refuting the idea “that nature obeys laws that are written into the cosmos,” I don’t know what the hell Vernon is talking about, and I suspect he doesn’t, either. After all, quantum mechanics obeys its own laws, sometimes probabilistic ones, and has actually provided reductionist explanations for some of the macroscopic laws of nature. Davies, of course, is a deist who won the Templeton Prize in 1995, so he’s not quite your typical cosmologist.

What bothers me is that the Guardian, a paper I once respected, regularly publishes this kind of pap by people like Vernon and Andrew Brown. In the end, it’s every bit as anti-science as straight “scientific” creationism, for it implies that the facts of science themselves point to an Ineffable Deity.  And that’s not true. There is no more evidence for teleology in physics as there is for the hand of God in evolution. By publishing junk like this, the Guardian is simply warping the public understanding of science.

If Vernon were a creationist loon like Ray Comfort, he’d never be published in the Guardian. He has just enough respectability to get away with unfounded criticisms of materialism that he coats with the patina of science.  Vernon is mendacious and he’s wrong. Give me an honest creationist over that man’s mush-brained lucubrations any day!

28 Comments

  1. Diane G.
    Posted February 24, 2013 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

    sub

  2. Bonzodog
    Posted February 24, 2013 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

    A lot of people aren’t going to like ( :-) ) this but the Telegraph seems to have some of the best pro-science writers around especially Tom Chivers who is trenchant in his criticisms of creationism. A good, recent, example of his writing is this: http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/tomchiversscience/100202558/charles-darwin-the-man-who-had-historys-best-idea/

    Must admit, I cannot say the same about some of the loonier comment writers!

  3. DiscoveredJoys
    Posted February 24, 2013 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

    The Guardian is a left wing progressive newspaper in the UK, which is almost certainly far more left wing than Democrats would be happy with in the USA.

    That said, the majority of people who read the paper (other than contrarians, like me) are people who really, really, wish that their view nice things should be true to the point that they dismiss reality and that ol’ nasty science. As a consequence the Roman Catholic Church gets a good pasting, mostly I expect because it is ‘right wing’ and authoritarian. On the other hand accommodationists and soppy philosophers are welcomed for a group hug.

    • Veroxitatis
      Posted February 24, 2013 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

      If the Guardian were to come with Polly Tonybee articles pre cut out. I might just consider taking it.

      • Bonzodog
        Posted February 24, 2013 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

        Ah yes … Polly …. a political activist masquerading as a journalist!

        • Veroxitatis
          Posted February 24, 2013 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

          Her only true rival in holding fast to the belief that the failed nostrums of the past can become the successful policies of the future is Tony Benn.

      • Posted February 24, 2013 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

        poi: It’s Toynbee, not Tonybee.

        /@

    • Tulse
      Posted February 25, 2013 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

      The Guardian is a left wing progressive newspaper […] the majority of people who read the paper […] are people who really, really, wish that their view nice things should be true to the point that they dismiss reality and that ol’ nasty science.

      So it’s the Huffington Post of Britain…

  4. Posted February 24, 2013 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

    What bothers me is that the Guardian, a paper I once respected, regularly publishes this kind of pap …

    Just a slight defence of The Guardian, they haven’t published this in their main paper, their “comment is free” web forum is (as the name suggests) deliberately set up as a fairly open forum for a wide range of views. This sort of thing quite often gets a kicking in the subsequent comments.

  5. Posted February 24, 2013 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

    ‘What bothers me is that the Guardian, a paper I once respected…’

    Hear hear to that sentiment. It’s sad to see, but that paper does seem to be getting worse and worse at letting this kind of nonsense get published.

    And by the way, thanks for the word “splenetic”. I had to look it up, but I like it. :-)

    • Posted February 24, 2013 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

      Switch to The Independent.

      • Posted February 25, 2013 at 5:49 am | Permalink

        Yep, I agree with that. The Independent is the one that I tend to reach for these days.

  6. madscientist
    Posted February 24, 2013 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    Well, the man is a veritable idiot for mentioning that crackpot Sheldrake favorably. Perhaps Vernon’s simply hell-bent on proving to the world that he’s the biggest numbskull in town? I hope Sheldrake drops by to read comments; I love to rile him. For anyone unfamiliar with Sheldrake, he’s got a website with a lot of his kooky ideas on it – but of course if you want to know anything about his delusions (and no, you don’t want to waste your time) you have to buy one of his many self-published books.

    • Posted February 25, 2013 at 10:39 am | Permalink

      Sheldrake the “morphogenetic fields” guy?

  7. Posted February 24, 2013 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

    Calling it “the shoddy reasoning of a once-great thinker” is not damning it with faint praise it’s just damning it. How can someone so completely inept with English write for a living? What a hack.

  8. Posted February 24, 2013 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

    “However, quantum physics offers every reason to doubt that this is so.”

    “every reason”?

    Such blatant hyperbole is a strong indicator of the intellectual poverty of his arguments.

    /@

    • Kevin Alexander
      Posted February 24, 2013 at 7:25 pm | Permalink

      Every reason means the sum of all the reasons.

      Which is none.

    • truthspeaker
      Posted February 25, 2013 at 8:56 am | Permalink

      It’s amazing how much mileage they’ve gotten out of misunderstanding the observer effect.

  9. Leon Cejas
    Posted February 24, 2013 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

    Well said!

  10. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted February 24, 2013 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

    Sheldrake

    And there goes any respect anyone could ever have held for Vernon.

    The t-word [teleology]– a major taboo among evolutionary biologists. Goal-directed explanations automatically question your loyalty to Darwin. As Friedrich Engels celebrated, when reading On The Origin of Species in 1859: “There was one aspect of teleology that had yet to be demolished, and that has now been done.”

    So what is it, taboo or openly demolished and not worth bothering about ever again? Vernon wants to have it both ways, as the religious always do.

    So how come teleology is acceptable among cosmologists?

    It isn’t. I don’t think Vernon could come up with one peer reviewed paper, let alone an accepted line of investigation.

  11. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted February 24, 2013 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

    I forgot:

    Russel Blackford’s review of The Goldilocks Enigma makes it clear that the teleology espoused is not enough for Vernon’s teleological gods:

    “Davies considers a raft of answers to the book’s central question, but concludes that none is truly satisfying. He states that he is resigned to criticism from religious thinkers for his unwillingness to interpret the data as evidence of intelligent design. Though such interpretations have psychological appeal, he believes that they offer no explanatory advance. At the same time, he expects hard-headed physicists to deplore his sympathy for such mystical-sounding theories as that the Universe’s development is shaped by a fundamental life-creating principle, or that it somehow causes itself in a closed, self-consistent loop from future to past and back again (see ‘Life, the Universe and Everything’, Cosmos Issue 14, p46).”

  12. Posted February 24, 2013 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

    Five years ago now, Nagel published in Philosophy & Public Affairs an article urging that creationism be taught in schools, on the grounds that evolutionary science is in conflict with common sense. As I have argued on line (http://wp.me/p21T1L-2i) common sense in this context is a synonym for ignorance, and the appeal to common sense beyond the domain of common experience was exploded by Bertrand Russell almost a century ago.

  13. Posted February 24, 2013 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

    And of course we have Spencerian and Lamarkian and de Chardin teleologies, strung out over the last two centuries or so.

  14. Barney
    Posted February 24, 2013 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

    I thought it worth looking up Malcolm Thorndike Nicholson, who wrote the ‘measured piece’ on the book. So, he’s written one thing for Prospect – this review. He’s written one thing for The American Reader – a short piece looking forward to the book. He has href=”http://malcolmthorndikenicholson.wordpress.com/”>a blog – with the default ‘about’ entry, the default ‘hello world’ entry, and a link to his dissertation for his BA in Philosophy, from 2010. And that’s it. A further search finds he’s a “freelance fact-checker” for New York Magazine now.

    That’s how obscure Vernon had to get to find someone to say something nice about the book – a guy just graduated, who doesn’t review other books, and was looking forward to this one. It’s like movie ads that just show members of the public saying “I had a great time” outside the cinema – of course they did, they went with their hot new boy/girlfriend.

  15. Sastra
    Posted February 24, 2013 at 9:02 pm | Permalink

    The scientifically respectable become edgy when approaching this domain… The possibility that the universe wants, in some way, to become conscious will “appear absurd” or “strange”, he warns. But bear the anxiety, he doesn’t quite continue, and consider the arguments.

    Isn’t it amazing how the self-evident truth that the entire universe was created, arranged, and controlled by a Giant Invisible Mind is easily assumed by all infantile, primitive, and unscientific people, holding a firm and dominant ground in the popular imagination — AND YET it is cutting-edge and daring! It’s absurd and strange!

    Teleology? Whoa — bet nobody ever saw THIS bold new idea coming out of nowhere! Because it’s bold! And it’s new! And it magically manages to both provoke anxiety over its boldness and newness … and yet still provide comforting reassurance that what we all always knew to be true really IS true after all. How totally unexpected. How intuitive. How both.

    Like I said … magic. That guy Mark Vernon is such a sly rebel, he is, going outside the box like this to consider ideas nobody has ever considered before. Ignore the critics and dare to be popular, Mark!

  16. flies01
    Posted February 25, 2013 at 11:06 am | Permalink

    And for quantum mechanics refuting the idea “that nature obeys laws that are written into the cosmos,” I don’t know what the hell Vernon is talking about, and I suspect he doesn’t, either. After all, quantum mechanics obeys its own laws, sometimes probabilistic ones, and has actually provided reductionist explanations for some of the macroscopic laws of nature.

    I’d guess that Vernon is referring to a hypothesis coming out of string theory that (more or less) assert that the fundamental constants we have might have been otherwise. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/String_theory_landscape

    I may be wrong. This hypothesis has been used in support of the opposite of Vernon’s conclusion in anthropic principle arguments: if all/many sets of fundamental constants are possible, then it’s no coincidence that the constants we have allow life. So it would be funny for Vernon to use this hypothesis in this way. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leonard_susskind#Smolin.E2.80.93Susskind_Debate

  17. Posted February 26, 2013 at 9:07 am | Permalink

    You really have to try harder to understand that the apologist is closer to your thinking than the outright religionary. Sometimes we feel more dislike for those near akin than far afield. We fear confusion with something odious that the uninitiated may take as ours.


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