Since it was just Nobel week, here’s a noble cat. This was sent by half of Gus’s staff, reader Tasker, who said of the photo:

It reminds me of the portraits that wealthy people had made of their hunting d*gs, same pose!


Fearless and earless!

I’m off to Bulgaria—don’t forget Professor Ceiling Cat! ~

The ultimate cowardice: British student union refuses to condemn ISIS

When even Muslim organizations are condemning ISIS left and right, one organization refuses to do so. That’s right—it’s the National Union of Students, the British students’ organization.  And below is the motion up for approval at their convention, according to The Tab, an Oxford student news site:

Proposed: Daniel Cooper
Seconded: Shreya Paudel, Clifford Fleming

NUS National Executive Committee notes:

1. The ongoing humanitarian crisis and sectarian polarisation in Iraq – which has resulted in thousands of Yazidi Kurds being massacred.

NUS NEC believes

1. That the people of Iraq have suffered for years under the sectarian and brutally repressive dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, the US/UK invasion and occupation, the current sectarian regime linked to both the US and Iran, and now the barbaric repression of the “Islamic State” organisation.

2. That rape and other forms of sexual violence are being used as weapons against women in IS-occupied areas, while minorities are being ethnically cleansed.

NUS NEC resolves

1. To work with the International Students’ Campaign to support Iraqi, Syrian and other international students in the UK affected by this situation.

2. To campaign in solidarity with the Iraqi people and in particular support the hard-pressed student, workers’ and women’s organisations against all the competing nationalist and religious-right forces.

3. To support Iraqis trying to bridge the Sunni-Shia divide to fight for equality and democracy, including defence of the rights of the Christian and Yazidi-Kurd minorities.

4. To condemn the IS and support the Kurdish forces fighting against it, while expressing no confidence or trust in the US military intervention.

5. Encourage students to boycott anyone found to be funding the IS or supplying them with goods, training, travel or soldiers.

6. To make contact with Iraqi and Kurdish organisations, in Iraq and in the UK, in order to build solidarity and to support refugees.

7. To issue a statement on the above basis.

Pretty straightforward and leftie: it even condemns the US and UK intervention in Iraq.  What’s not to like if you’re on the left?  Well, there’s that annoying little matter of Islamophobia. Apparently to some minds twisted by this brand of “liberalism,” condemning ISIS can’t be done because it constitutes a blanket condemnation of all Muslims.

So the NUS didn’t bring it to a vote.  As the Tab reports:

Hand-wringing delegates at the NUS blocked a vote to show solidarity with Iraqi Kurds and condemn Islamic State militants because they say it’s “Islamophobic”.

The bill called for the Union – which claims to represent UK students – to support unity between Muslims, condemn the bloody terror of ISIS (also known as the Islamic State), and support a boycott on people who fund the militants.

But the motion offended Black Students Officer Malia Bouattia, who said: “We recognise that condemnation of ISIS appears to have become a justification for war and blatant Islamaphobia.

“This rhetoric exacerbates the issue at hand and in essence is a further attack on those we aim to defend.”

Bouttia also said that the resolution contributed to “the demonization of Muslim peoples.”

It’s truly bizarre that while many Muslims themselves are able to make the distinction between “ISIS” and “Islam,” and to disassociate themselves from the barbarity of the former, the British students are unable to do so.  It is like saying one cannot condemn neo-Nazis because that is a blanket condemnation of Germans.

Such students are reprehensible: their thinking is muddled and their cowardice shameful.


Readers’ wildlife photographs

We have a feast for birders today: several photos of both owls and terns (one good tern deserves another). First, the owls from reader Stephen Barnard, who tells me he considers these some of his best photos (and indeed, they’re terrific):

This Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) can often be found perched in the morning if you know exactly where to look. He’s keeping an eye on my dog but seems a little drowsy.

He added in a later email:

I just wanted to point out that in this photo it looks awfully much like a cat.

Whaddya think?




And now the terns from reader and biologist Jacques Hauser. The pictures below were taken in Svalbard (Spitzbergen). His captions are indented:

The arctic tern, Sterna paradisea, is famous for its incredible migration from Arctic to Antarctic and back: 38’000 km per year.

A portrait. Note the beak is almost entirely red and the legs are very short compared to those of the common tern, Sterna hirundo.



They hunt small fishes by flying at about 5 – 10 meters above the water, looking down and then diving directly on them…


 …and they do the same to any animal, including a human, that wanders too close to their eggs—in this case a female reindeer. It’s advisable to cover your head in the colonies! (it’s not a very good picture – but it’s a document…)


An adult sitting on its eggs:


A newly hatched chick – look at the egg-tooth on its beak. Mind you, this tiny (about 12-15 g) fluffy thing, if lucky enough to survive, shall spend New Year on the shores of the Weddell Sea!


Is atheism irrational? A philosopher says “yes”

Over at The Atlantic, you can read one of the more bizarre takes on atheism I’ve seen in a while. It’s not a nasty critique of New Atheism in the John Gray style, but a very strange piece about how New Atheism, LIKE RELIGION (these articles always draw that parallel), is based on wish-thinking.

“What?”, you say. “How can that be?” Well, read “Irrational Atheism,” a short piece by Crispin Sartwell, a philosophy professor at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and, according to Wikipedia, “a self-described individualist anarchist.” If you don’t know what that is, Wikipedia can also inform you about individualist anarchism.

At any rate, I find it bizarre that so many of these misguided pieces—articles that nearly all of us could refute standing on our heads, come from philosophy professors. What does that say about philosophy?

Sartwell’s piece starts off on a bad note:

Religious beliefs are remarkably various. But sometimes it can seem that there is only one way to be an atheist: asserting, on the basis of reasoned argument, that belief in God is irrational. The aging “new atheists”—Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett, for example—pit reason against faith, science against superstition, and declare for reason and science.

“Aging”?  Well, we’re all aging.  If he means “old,” implying “superannuated,” why doesn’t Sartwell just say so, or is he using some sly denigration here. And, of course, Sam Harris is hardly old: he’s 47. As for the rest of the sentence—the contrast between science and superstition—that’s fine. Except for one thing: Sartwell doesn’t buy it.

Sartwell’s thesis is in fact the tired old mill-horse that atheism, like religion, is based on faith: in his case, a faith in naturalism:

[New Atheism] pictures the universe as a natural system, a system not guided by intelligent design and not traversed by spirits; a universe that can be explained by science, because it consists of material objects operating according to physical laws. In this sense, atheism embodies a whole picture of the world, offering explanations about its most general organization to the character of individual events.

Ironically, this is similar to the totalizing worldview of religion—neither can be shown to be true or false by science, or indeed by any rational technique. Whether theistic or atheistic, they are all matters of faith, stances taken up by tiny creatures in an infinitely rich environment.

. . . I have taken a leap of atheist faith.

There we have it: naturalism, like supernaturalism, is a matter of faith.  That’s wrong on several levels.

First of all, while atheism is intimately connected to naturalism, the two are not identical. Most atheists do indeed believe that there is nothing supernatural (i.e., nothing defying the laws of physics) in the universe, but not all atheists agree. The philosopher Tom Nagel, for instance, believes in some kind of teleology that is not at bottom naturalistic, but he’s also an atheist.  The justification for naturalism is that it works: we have never understood anything about the universe by assuming the supernatural, while assuming naturalism as a working hypothesis has moved our understanding ever forward.

The justification for atheism is related but not identical: we haven’t seen any evidence for any gods. One could in principle be an atheist but not a naturalist: if, for example, you haven’t yet understood how nature works but you also haven’t seen evidence for any gods or divine intervention. Not understanding something doesn’t by default mean that a god is involved. (This is the mistaken “god-of-the-gaps” gambit.)

But at any rate, the kind of “faith” we have in science is not the same kind of “faith” we have in gods or the divine. I could explain this in detail, but fortunately I already have: in my piece at Slate called “No faith in science.” Suffice it to say that in religion faith is basically belief in something that lacks sufficient evidence to convince most rational people, or, in most cases, no evidence at all save revelation, dogma, authority, and wish-thinking. (These things aren’t evidence, of course.) In science we don’t really use the word “faith”; rather, we have confidence in the existence of phenomena based on evidence in principle available to anyone.  As I said in my piece:

You have faith (i.e., confidence) that the sun will rise tomorrow because it always has, and there’s no evidence that the Earth has stopped rotating or the sun has burnt out. You have faith in your doctor because, presumably, she has treated you and others successfully, and you know that what she prescribes is tested scientifically. You wouldn’t go to a shaman or a spiritual healer for strep throat—unless you want to waste your money.

The conflation of faith as “unevidenced belief” with faith as “justified confidence” is simply a word trick used to buttress religion. In fact, you’ll never hear a scientist saying, “I have faith in evolution” or “I have faith in electrons.” Not only is such language alien to us, but we know full well how those words can be misused in the name of religion.

Somehow Sartwell seems to have missed this crucial difference.

Further, he seems to think that most atheists have arrived at their nonbelief in a manner similar to the way believers embraced their faith. He argues that we have an a priori emotional commitment to atheism, or were brought up as atheists, and then embrace the “arguments” for atheism only later, in a manner similar to how Jesus and Mo supported their religion. Proceeding with this flawed line of argument, Sartwell says this:

Religious people sometimes try to give proofs of the truth of their faith—Saint Thomas Aquinas famously gave five in his Summa Theologica. But for many people, belief comes before arguments, originating in family, social and institutional context, in desire and need. The arguments are post-hoc rationalizations. This can be true of atheism as well. For me, it’s what I grew up with. It gets by in my social world, where professions of religious faith would be considered out of place. My non-faith is fundamentally part of how I connect with others and the world.

Does Sartwell not know that for many—perhaps most—atheists, the adoption of unbelief came not from indoctrination by family or peers, but through thinking through the supposed evidence for faith? After all, many atheists (and many readers here) were brought up religious, and only later realized that it was a man-made system of thought that simply confected its “truths.” As for atheism helping us get by in our social world, religion would in fact be a much better way of doing that, at least in the U.S.

Sartwell continues his threadbare argument:

The idea that the atheist comes to her view of the world through rationality and argumentation, while the believer relies on arbitrary emotional commitments, is false. This accounts for the sense that atheists such as Christopher Hitchens or Dawkins are arrogant: Their line of thinking often takes the form of disqualifying others on the grounds that they are irrational. But the atheist too, is deciding to believe in conditions of irremediable uncertainty, not merely following out a proof.

That’s just bogus.  The atheist is not irrational to refuse to believe in gods without evidence. To say that this is “believing in conditions of irremediable uncertainty” is just obscurantist philosopherspeak for “the atheist doesn’t believe in things for which there is not good evidence.” I am still stunned that a card-carrying philosopher can make an argument like this. He goes on:

Religious people have often offloaded the burden of their choices on institutions and relied on the Church’s authorities and dogmas. But some atheists are equally willing to offload their beliefs on “reason” or “science” without acknowledging that they are making a bold intellectual commitment about the nature of the universe, and making it with utterly insufficient data. Religion at its best treats belief as a resolution in the face of doubt. I want an atheism that does the same, that displays epistemological courage.

Really? Is naturalism—a way of regarding the world that came about not through fabrication or revelation, but from time-tested experience—the same thing as “a resolution in the face of doubt”? I don’t think so.  It is the “insufficient data” for god that leads us to atheism, in precisely the same way that the insufficent data for the Loch Ness Monster, Bigfoot, or alien abduction leads us to doubt their existence. It’s simply bizarre that Sartwell seems to want an atheism arrived at without rational argument, an atheism that he simply likes, and makes him feel “episemologically couragenous.” (Even writing those words makes me chuckle.)  But an absence of evidence, where there should be evidence (as with God), is a rational reason for doubting the existence of gods.  What is irrational is to accept gods on the basis of no evidence at all.

And so, almost inevitably, Sartwell brings up Kierkegaard, the man who said that one should believe without evidence—indeed, one should believe in gods because the idea is silly and insupportable:

Kierkegaard defined faith as “an objective uncertainty held fast in passionate inwardness.” He recommended Christianity not because it was well justified, and not in spite of the fact that it was insufficiently justified, but because it constituted a paradox: “The eternal God had appeared in time and died.” That’s not just difficult to explain, he said; it is entirely contradictory. By any reasonable measure it simply cannot be true. But that’s why believing it called for total passion over the course of a lifetime. Christianity was the best thing to believe in part because it was the hardest thing to believe.

If a believer rejects rationality in this manner, you aren’t likely to persuade him by showing him that his reasons are bad; he admits as much, or more. There’s no use having an argument with a person who rejects argumentation.

So what? If someone is irrational, there’s no point indeed in arguing with them. But that doesn’t mean that all believers accept their faith precisely because it’s unreasonable. Many rely on arguments—things they (but not we) consider as “evidence”. That, after all, is what apologetics is all about, and it’s what Natural Theology is about as well. Believers crave evidence for their faith, because in their hearts they know that there isn’t any. That’s why they scour the slopes of Mount Ararat for remains of the Ark, and dig up Jerusalem looking for Jesus’s tomb. That’s why Indian Christians flocked to a statue of Jesus in Mumbai that was dripping water: it confirmed their faith.  When the skeptic Sanal Edamaruku discovered that the water came from blocked plumbing, so that Jesus was actually weeping toilet water, he was run out of the country on threat of arrest.  If believers believed simply because it was unreasonable, they wouldn’t care about miracles.

And imagine if, in our daily life, we believed things because they simply “couldn’t be true.” We’d believe that horses could fly, that DNA was a triple helix, and that Republicans cared about the poor.  Why exempt religion—supposedly one of the most important things one can commit to in one’s life—from the same evidentiary standards we use to accept other things?

At the end Sartwell simply jumps the shark in an incoherent burst of purple prose, much like the final group of explosions that end a fourth-of-July fireworks display:

By not believing in God, I keep faith with the world’s indifference. I love its beauty. I hate its suffering. I think both are perfectly real, because I experience them both, all the time. I do not see any reason to suspend judgment: I’m here, and I commit. I’m perfectly sincere and definite in my belief that there is no God. I can see that there could be comfort in believing otherwise, believing that all the suffering and death makes sense, that everyone gets what they deserve, and that existence works out in the end.

But to believe that would be to betray my actual experiences, and even without the aid of reasoned arguments, that’s reason enough not to believe.

Commitment for commitment’s sake is simply dumb and irrational. And Sartwell’s last sentence is ambiguous: a sign of poor thinking, poor writing, or, in this case, probably both. If by “actual experiences,” he means “I haven’t seen evidence for God,” then he is making an evidence-based argument, which of course undercuts his whole “leap of faith to atheism” trope.  But if by “actual experiences” he means “I have found that atheism helps me get by in the world,” as he says above, then that’s not a “reason” for being an unbeliever.

Religion is irrational, for it asks us to believe without evidence. It’s even dumber to believe things that can’t possibly be true based on what we know about the world, which is what Tertullian and Kierkegaard asked us to do.

Atheism, despite whatever Sartwell says, is eminently rational.  We see no evidence for any gods, much less the Abrahamic gods. There are thousands of different religions, each with adherents believing different tenets that are incompatible with those of other faiths. What is the justification for belief in such a case? If you’re a Pentecostal Christian, you think you’ll go to hell unless you accept Jesus as your personal savior. If, on the other hand, you’re a Muslim, you’ll go to hell if you believe that! That, my friends, is faith.

In contrast, there is only one brand of science, although we do have disputes about some issues not yet settled by hard evidence (and at least we have the guts to admit that “we don’t know” about things like dark matter). Neither scientists nor good atheists will accept something for which there is no evidence. It is in fact the paragon of rationality to refuse to sign onto such propositions.

How is it possible that a lowly biologist can see such things, and a credentialed philosopher can’t? Could Massimo Pigliucci possibly be wrong in saying that biologists aren’t credible when they try to do philosophy?


Crispin Sartwell

h/t: Keith

The evidence for evolution: a short video and a slightly longer take

This video came out only five days ago and already has garnered 127,000+ views, so the production outfit, Stated Clearly, must be doing something right. And indeed, it’s very good. If you can’t get somebody to read WEIT, at least have them watch this video, and ask them, if they’re creationists, how their own theory could explain the evidence shown. First watch the video, which I like, and then I’ll tender a few comments:

By concentrating on cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and their relatives), the film is able to go into depth about one evolutionary transition, and it does it well, especially because several whale experts (Thewissen and Gingerich in particular) generously gave their advice.  I liked the pictures of the vestigial whale “pelvis” with the ball-and-socket still there, and the intermediate form showing a skull with the nostrils moved halfway up toward the crown of the head.

A few quibbles: first, the video characterizes the theory of evolution as having two main tenets:  1. The common ancestry of all life, and 2. The fact that evolution was a product of purely natural processes.  These are correct, but they should have said more. For instance, all science rests on the assumption (amply verified) of naturalism, so that is not unique to evolution, though important for the many (31% of Americans) who think evolution is God-guided.

More important, they should have added that there is EVOLUTION WITHIN LINEAGES: that is, lineages not only ramify, but each lineage can itself evolve. That’s implied but not stated explicitly. They missed evolution itself! In fact, if the group of whales they show do have an ancestor-descendant relationship, then they’re actually showing this within-lineage change.

At any rate, my own characterization of evolution would, as I say in WEIT, involve these tenets: 1. Evolutionary changes occur within lineages and these changes are populational rather than transformational: that is, evolution occurs by gradual generation-by-generation turnover of the genetic constitution of a population, not by changes of the individuals themselves; 2. Lineages splitting, or speciate. This produces the branching “tree of life.”. 3. This splitting of lineages, taken together with the evidence that all modern species stem from a single common ancestor that lived billions of years ago, means that every pair of species has a common ancestor somewhere in the tree of life. (The film says this, but should have added that the splitting itself is what gives rise to common ancestry.) 4. Gradualism: evolution usually takes a long time.  It can be quick, happening in only a few generations, but major changes, such as the transformation of ancestral reptiles into birds, take hundreds of thousands to millions of years. Complex features like eyes and new groups like birds do not evolve overnight. 5. Much of the evolutionary process, and virtually all of the change that adapts animals and plants to their environments, occurs by natural selection, although there are other processes, like genetic drift, that can cause evolution. And yes, all evolutionary change occurs by natural, unguided processes: genes differentially proliferating due to either random chance (drift) or differential, repeatable ability to leave more copies than other forms of genes (natural selection).

In other words, my own characterization of evolution would have more than two features, and naturalism is assumed in all of them.

In terms of the evidence, I wouldn’t concentrate so much on homology of either genes or features as evidence for evolution. It is consistent with evolution, but it’s also consistent with God having given animals a similar Bauplan, with similar species having similar Baupläne. While the fact that bats have fingers in their wings is consistent with evolution, you could, at a stretch, say that’s consistent with God’s economical way of designing mammals.  This is why I don’t use homology in my book as strong evidence for evolution. Creationists have an alternative explanation that sounds credible, at least to an uninformed layperson.

What does constitute strong evidence for evolution is the similarity, among organisms deemed related from functional gene similarity, morphology, and fossils, of nonfunctional DNA. If homology merely reflected God’s design, it would be hard to understand why God also made the nonfunctional bits of DNA more similar among species appearing more similar in both morphology and the functional bits of DNA. Related to that is the observation that presumed insertions of viruses that are now inactive occur at similar positions in “related” species, like chimps and humans. Again, those are the remnants of ancient infections in common ancestors, and it would be odd indeed if God had a hand in putting useless, inactivated viral DNA in exactly the same genomic position in close relatives.  Since we now have good evidence that nonfunctional DNA changes in proportion to the time elapsed (via genetic drift), the similarity of such DNA among species gives an index of their evolutionary relatedness. And that relatedness happens to match the relatedness discerned on other grounds: vestigial organs, fossils, functional DNA, morphological homology, and so on. This coincidence of different indices of relatedness constitutes strong evidence for evolution.

The filmmakers’ use of embryology, vestigial organs, and the fossil record (a good record for cetaceans) was very convincing; these things do constitute strong evidence for evolution in that there is no quasi-credible creationist alternative—as there is for homology. I would have added two things, though these probably aren’t easy to find for whales. First, biogeoraphy—the distribution of plants and animals on Earth—is also strong evidence for evolution.  The proliferation of life on oceanic islands (with some forms absent or nearly so, like mammals, amphibians, and reptiles) is one example. Biogeographic evidence for evolution is probably hard to find for cetaceans. I appreciate that you can’t cover all creatures in a short video, and it was clever to use only cetaceans, which have such a great fossil record, but by so doing the filmmakers missed out on biogeography, some of the most powerful evidence for evolution.

Second, “bad design” that makes sense under evolution but not under creationism is another good line of evidence for evolution. I can’t think offhand of “bad design” characters in whales, although I suppose the vestigial pelvis and legs could qualify as that, though to me they fall under the “vestigial trait” evidence.  The authors might have added, in this category, the presence of vestigial olfactory receptor genes—”dead genes”—in cetaceans: the genes that enabled their ancestors to detect airborne odors. As I recall, dolphins have hundreds of such receptors, but every one has been rendered inactive by mutations, for cetaceans don’t use the same way of smelling as do their landlubber relatives.  Ergo, the “air-sniffing” genes have become inactive. But they still lie fallow in the cetacean genome: useless remnants that testify to the group’s terrestrial origin. The DNA of many species is surely a graveyard of dead genes that testify to the truth of evolution. There is no alternative creationist explanation.


Jesus ‘n’ Mo ‘n’ another way of knowing

Today’s Jesus and Mo strip is apparently a reprinted old one, as the authors says he/she has had “unforseen circumstances” (according to the subscriber’s email, it’s “bad family news”). Let’s wish the artist well.

This is about as good a four-panel description of theology as I’ve seen. I’d love to put this as the frontispieces of my book, but of course it would detract from the supposed gravitas and immediately alienate a bunch of readers! The truth must be meted out in small doses. . .


Wednesday: Hili dialogue

This evening I’ll be on my way to Bulgaria via Munich. Who knows what delights await in that distant land? Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Cyrus cracks a joke—perhaps unwittingly.

Hili: Are you a skeptic, too?
Cyrus: I doubt it.


In Polish:
Hili: Czy ty też jesteś sceptykiem?
Cyrus: Wątpię.

Exorcisms on Skype?

If you click the screenshot below, you’ll go to a segment of the Daily Show showing a priest who does exorcisms via Skype.  The whole bit looks like a comedy spoof, but I’m almost certain it’s for real, even though the interviewer clearly thinks the whole thing is ludicrous. (Thanks to several readers for the link.) The priests are remarkably forthcoming.

We should ponder that, in this day and age, the Catholic Church still believes in demonic possession.

Screen Shot 2014-10-14 at 10.40.05 AM

And a Skype exorcism costs a “donation” of $295. After all, render unto God what is God’s.

And if this is a spoof, somebody tell me!


A stunning blue bug from New Guinea

Yes, yes, I know that beetles aren’t “true” bugs; I was just testing you (beetles are in the order Coleoptera, while “true” bugs are Hemiptera). Here’s a tw**t from Jolie Jolies (via Matthew Cobb) showing two gorgeous blue beetles:

Screen Shot 2014-10-14 at 12.28.26 PM


I have no idea what these colors mean in an evolutionary sense. They don’t seem to be sexually dimorphic, so they probably didn’t evolve by sexual selection. One could make several other guesses, but I’ll leave that to your fertile imagination.

Here’s another photo of this species from Project Noah:


If you liked this one, go over to Living Jewels and click on the scientific names. The website’s title is accurate: photographer Poul Beckmann shows some gorgeous animals.

If the nonexistent creator had an inordinate fondness for beetles, he would also have had an inordinate fondness for beautiful beetles.


Accommodationism at the American Museum of Natural History

The American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York City is perhaps the finest museum of its type in the U.S. My old friend Betsy visited it during her trip to NYC with her husband to see the Rigged Dog Debate, and she sent me a picture from her visit to the Museum’s Hall of Human Origins. The photo came with this note:

I had not been to the Natural History Museum in about 15 years. They have restored the dioramas with the North American mammals, and they are spectacular. I also visited their exhibit on the origins of man. It was really interesting. I  noted their attempt to address the conflict between evolution and religion. I think it is interesting that they even broached the subject. I suppose it is an indication of the depth of the strength of the opposition. In my opinion, their attempt (and I  am attaching a photo of what they have posted) paradoxically gives the Creationists more legitimacy.

Well, I’m not sure whether what you’re about to read gives creationists more legitimacy, but what Betsy probably meant was that even addressing the issue calls attention to the creationist position. The “disclaimer” on view in the Museum is below:

Natural History Museum

First, the good part, which is the emphasis on the theory’s “scientific validity,” though I’d like a few more words on that—words like “virtually all scientists accept the existence of evolution and common ancestry, with the change driven largely by natural selection.”

Beyond that, I’m sure that there are readers—and plenty of scientists—who will think the rest of the statement is fine. I don’t.  Here’s what’s wrong with it:

1. It is a theological statement, and one that’s also intellectually dishonest. Note that at the end of the first paragraph it states that the concepts of evolution “SEEM incompatible with some people’s religious beliefs” SEEM? Really? How about saying the truth: “IS incompatible with MANY people’s religious beliefs” (and by “many”, I mean 42% of Americans, to which you can add another 31% if you include those who accept theistic evolution, a form of evolution rejected by scientists). In other words, 73% of Americans reject the scientific view of evolution.

2. It flaunts the discredited NOMA (non-overlapping magisteria) hypothesis. The disclaimer pushes the standard accommodationist line in the second paragraph (“Many today, including prominent religious leaders and scientists view the search for understanding as one that embraces both scientific explorations into the material world and a spiritual search for the meaning of human existence, with no inherent conflict between the two.”) This is intellectual dishonest on several planes, including its failure to mention that many today do NOT view the “search for understanding” as including both scientific and religious explorations. Most accomplished scientists, for example, are atheists, and have no truck with religion’s search for “meaning”. Indeed, many of us don’t think that human existence has any inherent meaning that can be “found” and generalized to all people. Meaning is a personal one, sought through one’s own aspirations and ruminations, not via some search for a divine Diktat. And, of course, many Americans simply reject evolutionary biology as a whole.

The “no inherent conflict” applies only to those religions—and there are few of them—that make no existence claims: claims about what is true in our universe. If a faith talks about Resurrection, Hell, Heaven, God’s will for us, or, indeed, the existence of a god itself, then it’s in conflict with science.  This was the one big problem with Steve Gould’s NOMA hypothesis, and he’s been criticized for it not only by people like me, but by many theologians as well, including John Haught. (I discuss all this in my upcoming book.) The other problem, of course, is the claim that religion tells us truths about the meaning and purpose of our lives, truths that can’t be discerned by secular philosophy alone. That is palpably bogus. Religion has no exclusive claim on “meanings,” “values,” or “morals,” and in fact its attempt to control these botches them up much worse than does secular philosophy.  Do we really need to refrain from nonmarital sex because God says so?

3. The controversy over evolution is not merely a “social controversy,” as the sign proclaims.  The roots of creationism, of course, lie in religion, but much of the opposition to evolution rests on claims about fact, as we can see from Intelligent Designoids who write books claiming that there is empirical support for Intelligent Design.  Those books, like the latest one by Stephen Meyer on the Cambrian “explosion,” make fact claims that have been refuted by scientists like Kenneth Miller, Charles Marshall, and Nick Matzke. Those fact claims are, of course, bogus ones, cooked up to support a religious viewpoint; but they miss the nuance (oh God, I used that word!) by arguing that the controversy is “social.” If you want to characterize the conflict accurately, just bite the bullet and call it a “religious” controversy, for that is exactly what it is.  Almost no creationists are motivated in their views and actions by anything other than religion. The failure of the disclaimer to say that opposition to evolution is motivated purely by religion is an insult to scientists.

But my main question is this: “Why do they need this sign in the first place?” The AMNH is no place for theological statements, particularly misleading ones. Pretending that there is no conflict between science and religion, and that any incompatibility is illusory, is blatant intellectual dishonesty. Instead of Lying for Jesus, the people who made this sign are Lying for Darwin. Their motivation is a good one: is to get people to accept evolution; but they do so by pretending that there is no conflict between religion and science. After all, look at all those scientists and religionists who see no conflict! (Pay no attention to the 43% of the public behind the curtain who definitely see a conflict! And ignore that 2009 poll showed that 55% of Americans perceive a conflict between science and religion.)

Signs like this one grate on me, and I have a feeling that they accomplish nothing, despite accommodationist claims that if we osculate the rump of faith, then Christians will flock to evolution like animals to the Ark. There’s no evidence for that.  The AMNH should just present the evidence for evolution and deep-six these unctuous osculations of religion. They are embarrassing, they are untrue, and they pretends that scientists are “spiritual” in a religious sense (they’re not).

p.s. One other distortion:  contra the last sentence, there are big differences between the modern theory of evolution and that presented by Darwin in 1859. Granted, many of Darwin’s premises were right (evolution, common ancestry, natural selection, sexual selection, and so on), but he got a lot of stuff wrong, notably genetics, not to mention the assumed stasis of continents. It’s no crime to admit that our understanding of evolution has moved a long ways since 1859.


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