This morning an alert reader called my attention to a Bloggingheads discussion between Ronald Numbers, a historian of science at the University of Wisconsin/Madison and self-described agnostic, and Paul Nelson, Discovery Institute young-earth creationist. I watched the debate with an increasing sense of unease in my lower mesentery. Nelson and Numbers engaged in an oh-so-civil discourse, with Numbers standing idly by as Nelson attacked both Dawkins and myself. I come in for some disapprobation for criticizing Francis Collins’s appointment as head of the NIH and for making unwarranted “theological arguments” in my book.
I was going to dissect this debate here but, damn him, P. Z. Myers went and did it first. I swear, the man is all over the blogosphere, no doubt aided by his horde of informants. I have little to add to what P.Z. said except to note that the argument from imperfection — i.e., organisms show imperfections of “design” that constitute evidence for evolution — is not a theological argument, but a scientific one. The reason why the recurrent laryngeal nerve, for example, makes a big detour around the aorta before attaching to the larynx is perfectly understandable by evolution (the nerve and artery used to line up, but the artery evolved backwards, constraining the nerve to move with it), but makes no sense under the idea of special creation — unless, that is, you believe that the creator designed things to make them look as if they evolved. No form of creationism/intelligent design can explain these imperfections, but they all, as Dobzhansky said, “make sense in the light of evolution.”
Numbers was pusillanimous and failed to engage Nelson as strongly as he should have. I was ashamed of his performance, especially because I considered him one of us. And shame on Bloggingheads t.v. for putting on a young-earth creationist on Science Saturday. (Bloggingheads t.v. is sponsored by The Templeton Foundation; could this have something to do with it?)
Numbers’ performance was a fine example of faitheism, and of the kind of non-threatening discourse that faitheists think we should all have with religion. Watch it if you can, and then tell me if Numbers’ “civility” is certain to win more friends for evolution than, say, Richard Dawkins would have done in the same position. I doubt it.