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).