A radio show and three book reviews

I don’t expect that most people will have 45 minutes on a Saturday afternoon to listen to yours truly drone on about evolution, rationality, free will, and Robert Wright, but in case you want a break from football, Samantha Clemens has posted my radio interview with her that aired a week ago.

Also, just up on the National Center for Science Education website: three reviews of evidence-for-evolution books:  Andrea Bottaro reviews Kenneth Miller’s Only a Theory, Peter Dodson reviews Donald Prothero’s Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters, and, coincidentally, Donald Prothero reviews Why Evolution is True.

Dodson is a bit critical of Prothero’s book (which I’ve praised highly here), and I want to say a few words about this.  Dodson calls out Prothero for being too harsh about creationism:

I do have a complaint, however. The book preaches to the converted. Its polemical tone can become wearying and may produce the unintended effect of nudging undecided readers in the wrong direction. Poorly disguising his contempt, Prothero’s rhetoric is sometimes over the top, as when he refers to “hard working, dedicated, self-sacrificing biologists who spend years enduring harsh conditions in the field” in contrast to “creationists who sit in their comfortable homes and write drivel” (p 113). Please! The facts of paleontology stand on their own. They do not need to be undermined by rhetorical shenanigans.

Richard Dawkins’s new book, The Greatest Show on Earth, was also criticized by several reviewers for being too hard on creationists — for labeling them “history deniers” and comparing them to those who would deny, for instance, that the Roman Empire ever existed.

I have to defend Dawkins and Prothero here (I haven’t suffered such accusations about my book) on two counts.  First, the whole need to write books like mine, Donald’s, and Richard’s comes from resurgent creationism.  You don’t write a book about the evidence for evolution in a vacuum: you have to have a reason, and the most pressing reason is that religiously-motivated creationists keep denying that evolution is true.  They offer the alternative hypothesis of creationism, whether it be Biblical literalism or intelligent design.  It therefore seems perfectly fair to discuss evolution as one of the two main going hypotheses for the origin and diversity of life, and to show — vigorously — that only the evolutionary alternative has empirical support.  You simply cannot do this without discussing creationists and their claims.

Second, most of us who teach evolution simply get frustrated with the witless nattering of creationists who refuse to honestly address the mountain of evidence for evolution.  Some of that frustration seeps into our writings. And that humanizes our writings. We are not emotionless drones; we have feelings and we show them. As Philip Pullman has pointed out,  one reason why Dawkins’s books are so popular is because the reader not only senses a human being behind the prose, but discerns what that person is like.

Now the degree of seepage varies: Richard, for example, talks more about creationism than I do.  But I don’t think that he, or Prothero, crosses the line into pure invective.

This, of course, is a matter of taste.  Some people like their evolution with a bit of bite, others like it completely unsullied by criticism of creationism. To each their own.  Certainly Dawkins’s and Prothero’s books have found legions of appreciative readers.  But more important is Dodson’s claim that Prothero’s rhetoric “may produce the unintended effect of nudging undecided readers in the wrong direction.”  This is the familiar claim that if we are too vociferous in criticizing creationism, its religious roots, or religion in general, we’ll actually turn people away from evolution.  Well, at least Dodson hedges by saying “may,” instead of asserting, like Mooney and Kirshenbaum, that it will nudge the undecided toward creationism. In the end, we simply have no data.  Maybe such rhetoric actually helps sell evolution.

Bjørn Østman discusses the matter (he thinks Prothero doesn’t go far enough!) on his website Pleiotropy (note the comment by Prothero).


  1. mk
    Posted September 26, 2009 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

    Stating the obvious, that Creationists actually don’t do science and do indeed write drivel, is hardly outrageous or controversial. Is it rude? Well, considering they elsewhere have been called “wackadoodles”, “idiots” and “fucking morons” I’d say this barely rises to the level of a pearl clutching gasp.

    Clearly, Dodson needs to lighten up.

  2. Posted September 26, 2009 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

    The trouble with creationism is that it’s so widespread that people think it must have some sort of legitimacy. But by the evidence, it really must be categorized with truthers, birthers, and moon landing conspiracy theories. Blatantly false, and worthy of no respect at all.

    And yes, we need books by those who persuade and cajole creationists. Yet we also need people to call a spade a spade, and to just call creationism (of course including ID) a flagrant lie. Doing so gives people on our side who have had doubts instilled in them a shot of confidence to point out creationist flim-flam, and it makes the undecided desire to steer clear from something that would make them look bad.

    Of course Dawkins’ attacks make creationists turn away. So what? Creationists hate Talkorigins, too, and it is really low-key on attacking creationism. They just hate Talkorigins because it gives the lie to their tired falsehoods.

    Creationists should thus never be the intended audience for any book promoting biological science. Fence-sitters may often also prefer the more low-key approach, so I’m glad that books are written with that in mind. Books should also be written that treat creationism like the disreputable scum that it really is, to fire up evolution’s supporters, and to truly drive home how dishonest it is, from the DI to Hovind.

    Glen Davidson

    • Posted September 26, 2009 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

      Exactly. Present something as a political issue and people think they have a choice whether to accept it or not. This has been a problem with climate change and evolution–it is packaged by the news media as an optional opinion.

  3. Posted September 26, 2009 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

    I like my evolution with a “bit of bite” too. Darwinian habaneros. YUM!

    Time to check out the radio spot.

    • Sili
      Posted September 26, 2009 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

      Exactly. What’s wrong with preaching to the choir, occasionally? We like to read, too, thank you very much.

  4. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted September 26, 2009 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

    I understood Prothero’s book to be an anti-Creationism book, rather than simply a book about evolution (despite the title). The topics were chosen to refute all of the geology and paleontology-related claims of creationists. A reader might notice, for example, the complete lack of coverage of plants.

    Given that it is an anti-Creationist book, who can blame him for stating his message clearly?

    • Curtis Croulet
      Posted September 27, 2009 at 1:34 am | Permalink

      Prothero’s title implies a direct assault on Gish’s “The Fossils Say No!” I saw Dodson’s review in the NCSE’s newsletter, and I thought he had rather missed the point of Prothero’s book. I certainly have a couple of my own criticisms, and at least one statement is flat wrong (inexplicably, considering the author), but to criticize it for being too hard on creationism is really missing the boat.

  5. NewEnglandBob
    Posted September 26, 2009 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

    Creationists deserve what they are getting and a lot more. Since they are liars and obfuscate and deceive the ignorant, they should be hit again and again with all ammunition.

    I agree with the other commentators here but I want my evolution with more than a bite. I want it smokin’ and extra spicy. Keep it up until the creationists curl up into a ball and blow away.

  6. articulett
    Posted September 26, 2009 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

    Invectives directed at creationists are a RESPONSE to their straw men, denigrations, and lies. I’m sure Galileo would have offered the same to his critics if he were allowed.

    Creationists are liars who have done nothing to earn trust while they build up distrust against those who have worked hard to uncover and explain the facts; Moreover, they play the “I’m offended” card when any scientific scrutiny is done of the claims that the creationists purport to be factual!

    To be silent is to let false accusations of liars stand. Evolution can’t help but illustrate some big conundrums for creationism even if the person explaining it goes out of their way to “accommodate” superstitious beliefs.

  7. KP
    Posted September 26, 2009 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

    Those of us who spend time in the classroom having to undo 18+ years of creationism instilled in our students are less put off by Dawkins’ more aggessive language…

    And when actors like Kirk Cameron use their influence to peddle creationism despite having no biological training to speak of… Well, bluntly, creationists are asking for it.

  8. Flea
    Posted September 26, 2009 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    Sly ot: Any kind soul can tell me where to find that Phillip Pullman quote on Dawkins?

  9. Sili
    Posted September 26, 2009 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

    Pity, I think the file stopped halfway through the interview. The host was a bit grating, but by the sound of it quite smart. Her summary of evolution in the intro sounded bang on as I recall it. Dunno what kinda radio this is, but it’s good to hear that there are in fact non-crazy journos over there.

  10. Posted September 26, 2009 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

    Besides – I think it’s entirely fair to point out that people who dig up fossils in deserts or glaciers or who let botflies eat their heads are doing hard work in often difficult conditions and that what creationists do takes no such effort. This is a big difference! It’s easy to just make up stuff! Going out and finding evidence is hard work. That is a point worth making – especially since the creationists, who have the easy gig, are making things difficult for the people doing the hard slog.

    • NewEnglandBob
      Posted September 26, 2009 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

      My Dog, I think you hit the nail on the head, Ophelia.

  11. Posted September 26, 2009 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

    I don’t see any point in being polite to those who continually lie to the public about important scientific issues.

    (I’m preaching to the choir here, I know)

  12. Screechy Monkey
    Posted September 26, 2009 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

    I’m curious — are there “tone monitors” among the creationists? Stuff like “I’m a creationist, but I think we’re turning away moderate evolution-believers when we call them ‘evilutionists’ and liars and compare them to Hitler”?

    • Posted September 26, 2009 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

      Good question. It wouldn’t surprise me if there were, but I can’t remember ever seeing one.

    • Posted September 26, 2009 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

      By the way, if they do exist, I’m quite sure they are every bit as unpopular among “hard-line” creationists as the accommodationists are among the “New Atheists”, if not more so.

    • Michael K Gray
      Posted September 26, 2009 at 6:20 pm | Permalink

      I doubt it.
      The religious in general, and creationists in particular, are raised on a constant diet of lies and fraud.
      And they are rewarded for perpetuating the deception by whatever means required.

    • Reginald Selkirk
      Posted September 27, 2009 at 9:02 am | Permalink

      I’m curious — are there “tone monitors” among the creationists?

      IIRC, Answers in Genesis and CreationWiki have web pages of of “argument we think creationists should not use,” but those are directed at content, not tone. (And if your arguments are too stupid for Answers in Genesis, you ought to think twice about sharing your ignorance with the world.)

  13. MadScientist
    Posted September 26, 2009 at 6:51 pm | Permalink

    I would be happy to read a (non specialized) book about evolution just to see what the latest ideas are and how people worked them out; I don’t believe that they are or should be written only to combat the ignorance of the creationists. However I don’t see anything wrong with pointing out that the creationists are willfully ignorant, outright stupid, and also willful liars for their god and its prophets (whoever that may be). If you’re nice to creationists and ignore them altogether, people might get the silly notion that creationism is somehow acceptable.

  14. Posted September 26, 2009 at 7:19 pm | Permalink

    Dawkins only mentions history deniers to rebut specific points- “This is evidence for evolution, and it shows history deniers to be wrong in this way”. The subtitle rather gives it away- “The evidence for evolution”. It’s not as if he uses the phrase “history deniers” every page.

  15. hempenstein
    Posted September 26, 2009 at 7:57 pm | Permalink

    Just a thought – is it safe to say that the accomodationists are generally younger than, say, 40? They haven’t put up with these relentlessly manipulative liars as long as some of us have, and therefore think that making nice to them will surely win them over. The Colgate Twins fit this scenario.

    Or, looking at it another way, if you accept evolution and know who Garner Ted Armstrong is, you’re probably not an accomodationist.

    • Posted September 26, 2009 at 11:19 pm | Permalink

      Michael Ruse is definitely older than 40. So is Michael Dowd. And Ken Miller, and Eugenie Scott.

    • MadScientist
      Posted September 27, 2009 at 6:20 am | Permalink

      Why put an age limit on? Perhaps some accommodationists feel they must placate some religious friends (or spouse) and apologize on behalf of the other godless people who would publicly laugh at religion? I do not see that it is necessary for an accommodationist to believe the lines spouted about how accommodationism is meant to accomplish some good, so I have no inclination to restrict my view of accommodationism to being some sort of philosophical position. When you don’t needlessly fixate on the (flimsy) philosophical position, it’s easy to imagine thousands of other reasons why someone might take the accommodationist position.

  16. NewEnglandBob
    Posted September 27, 2009 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

    I just listened to Jerry’s interview on Samantha Clemens’ radio show. I enjoyed Jerry’s answers (and it appears that Jerry enjoyed answering).

    Clemens, at first, appeared to be belligerent but she was being coy (pun intended) and she played the perfect foil. It didn’t take long to see that she was quite informed and like-minded.

  17. Justin
    Posted September 28, 2009 at 8:27 am | Permalink

    I read your book, Why Evolution is True, and I thought it was great. I recommend it to my friends often. There was a nice balance between simply showing the evidence for evolution and countering creationist claims. I have yet to read Prothero’s book, though it’s definitely on my wish list. Dawkins tends to be much harder on them than you were in Why Evolution is True.

    I think it’s necessary to be hard on creationists, but I think that getting too personal puts people off with the exception of those who are already on the author’s side. Which leave me to question what the point of such a book is in the first place if the only people who will actually read through the book are the ones who agree with you in the first place?

    • Your Name's Not Bruce?
      Posted September 28, 2009 at 10:31 am | Permalink

      For biologists and paleontologists writing in response to creationists I imagine it’s hard not to get “personal”. Ultimately the creationist attitudes to “mainstream” (i.e. reality-based scientists) boil down to two alternatives; either scientists are incompetent for missing the allegedly widespread evidence for the handiwork of their god or they are evil because they are all-too-well aware of the evidence and are trying their best to deny and suppress it. Call it projection, but I see this as the mirror image of standard creationist practice; they are either incompetent for missing all the evidence for evolution or evil because they are well aware of the evidence but distort deny and suppress it.

  18. Mike from Ottawa
    Posted October 2, 2009 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

    “I haven’t suffered such accusations about my book”

    Probably because your book isn’t as directly confrontational. I read Prothero’s book and yours in quick succession (and enjoyed both immensely). I felt that I could give your book to an innocently ignorant creationist or creationist-leaner (folk who lean one way but acknowledge they don’t really know anything about the issue) with a reasonable prospect that the reader would not be put off by tone (or given an excuse by it) so they might actually absorb the information and understanding you did such a good job of laying out. Prothero’s book would, I think, put any creationist or creationism-sympathetic person’s back up and probably would not end up getting through to the person. Prothero’s book is, though, excellent as a resource particularly for administering a thorough kicking to YECs and I’ve used as a resourse for that purpose in another forum.

    I think there is a value in both a book like yours that might be given to a creationist to read and Prothero’s that will serve as a resource for more vigorous dispute with creationists.

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