Vancouver Sun: Madame Blavatsky = Charles Darwin

I used to think that the Vancouver Sun was a reputable newspaper.  It has the largest staff of any paper in that city, and is the province’s second most widely-read paper (after The Province).  And, indeed, this column by Douglas Todd starts off by properly decrying the low acceptance of evolution in Canada:

An Angus Reid poll recently showed only 58 per cent of Canadians (compared to 42 per cent of Americans) accept the fundamental teaching of evolution; that “human beings evolved from less advanced life forms over millions of years.”

It’s disturbing that 24 per cent of Canadians (39 per cent of Americans) told Angus Reid pollsters they embrace Biblical Creationism , or the belief that “God created human beings in their present form within the last 10,000 years.” Another 20 per cent of Canadians said they weren’t sure.

Todd’s diagnosis of the problem? Canadian schools don’t give the kids a proper education in evolution.

Most Canadian public school students are also not taught evolutionary theory in mandatory science classes. Retired B.C. high-school teacher Scott Goodman and others justifiably worry only a small sliver of Canadian students – typically those who choose elective biology classes in Grades 11 or 12 – ever focus on it.

The education systems’ inadequate handling of evolutionary theory is partly based on political correctness. Many governments and teachers are afraid of offending conservative Christians, Mormons and Jehova’s Witnesseses (often not recognizing mainstream Protestants and Catholics, as well as Buddhists and Hindus, generally accept evolution).

In addition to the piecemeal teaching of evolution in Canadian public schools. which are a provincial jurisdiction, most university science classes offer students virtually no sense of the wide array of evolutionary theories in existence.

So far so good, I think, though what does he mean by “the wide array of evolutionary theories”?  Then it becomes clear: Todd thinks that the modern theory of evolution, often described as “neo-Darwinism,” is really only one of a dozen competing theories of evolution, some of which he says are “more complete” than neo-Darwinism:

Most media outlets also fall short on enlightening the public on this wide-ranging theory about the origins of life. These media contribute to a false-choice debate about evolution; acting as if there only two polarized camps – neo-Darwinism and Biblical Creationism.

There is actually a much richer discussion about evolution occurring behind the scenes. It involves 12 current theories.

Only one of these evolutionary theories is neo-Darwinism, the school based on genetic mutation and random selection that is dominant in most universities.

Neo-Darwinism is advanced by high-profile, anti-religious biologists such as Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion.

But to my mind, some of the other 11 theories of evolution are more complete than neo-Darwinism.

Uh oh.  Eleven other theories?  What are they? Todd describes some of them, taken from an article by Carter Phipps in Enlightenment Magazine, which seems to be a New Age-y rag.

1.  “Cooperation,” which Todd imputes to Lynn Margulis.  And of course students should be taught Margulis’s confirmed ideas that mitochondria and chloroplasts had their origins as bacterial endosymbionts.  But Margulis’s view that symbiosis and its attendant cooperation are responsible for nearly every aspect of evolution, including speciation (my own field) is bizarre and certainly not part of mainstream evolutionary theory.

2.  Complexity theory. Whatever this is, it’s certainly not an alternative to neo-Darwinism, but a tool for studying the behavior of complex systems. It may help us understand evolution, but it’s not a theory of evolution itself.

3.  Directionality, which he ascribes to Robert Wright and others:

A group of evolutionary psychologists also strongly oppose Dawkin’s view that selfish genes can explain everything. These social scientists, such as Robert Wright, ar e known as “directionalists” because they see elements of purpose in life.

I’m pretty sure that even Wright, who does descry some signs of purpose in both evolution and the development of human society, wouldn’t describe his views as an alternative to neo-Darwinism.  And, at any rate, absent any good evidence for such purpose in biological evolution, it’s not a theory with any credibility—certainly not one that should be taught to biology students.

4.  Intelligent design. WTF???

5. The evolutionary views of Madame Blavatsky.  Well-known mystic and founder of the Theosophical Society, Helena Blavatsky promulgated a number of bizarre “evolutionary” views, including that of a multi-racial origin of humans, with Aryans of course being superior.  It’s the usual mystical pap that has excited people from time to time. Here’s some Theosophical garbage about evolution, which Todd apparently wants Canadian children to learn:

Evolution is the emergence of the possibilities inherent in Nature from latency into active expression. The word means, literally, unfolding, and it implies the prior process of involution by which the potentialities of spirit are communicated to matter.

Esoteric Science affirms the universality of the evolutionary process:

The whole order of nature evinces a progressive march towards a higher life. There is design in the action of the seemingly blindest forces. The whole process of evolution with its endless adaptations is a proof of this. (10)

Here we must return to the Hierarchies of Sections 4 and 5, for the evolutionary process is not a mechanical one but “is guided, controlled, and animated by almost endless series of Hierarchies of sentient Beings.”

6.  Conscious evolution, as described by the priest-mystic Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.  I can do nothing better here than refer you to Sir Peter Medawar’s review of Teilhard’s The Phenomenon of Man, one of the funniest (and most scathing) book reviews ever written.

Todd then degenerates into complete madness:

7.  Process philosophy.  I’m not an expert here, but this is philosophy, not evolution—unless you subscribe to Todd’s characterization of it as a philosophy that “blend[s] science and spirituality. Biologists such as Charles Birch and progressive Christian theologians such as John Cobb maintain the divine is ‘the creative advance into novelty,’ the source of the universe’s process of change.”

There are others, but I can’t go on. I have a stomach ache.  The sick part is that Todd apparently wants all of these “theories” taught to young Canadians, and bemoans the fact that they’re not:

It’s my hope this fascinating array of evolutionary theories will soon receive more media attention. But when will they be widely taught in Canadian or American public schools and universities? Not likely soon.

I don’t need to fulminate about the educational outcome if this panoply of gobbledygook is funneled into the heads of Canadian children.  You’d get a group of kids who wouldn’t have the slightest idea what evolution was about; they’d put Darwin on a par with that old charlatan Teilhard de Chardin—or Madame Blavatsky.  Of course Canada won’t, I trust, take Todd’s advice. But by writing this column, he’s undoubtedly confused a lot of people about what the theory of evolution really is, and how well it’s stood up.

By now you might be asking: who is this guy Douglas Todd, and why did the Vancouver Sun give him a forum to spout this kind of garbage (and probably pay him for it)? Is there anyone at that paper who knows anything about evolution, and could have deep-sixed this piece before it went into print?  How could Todd have any credibility as a journalist if he writes stuff like this?

Well, it turns out that Todd is not only credible, but has a good reputation among some folks; and he has won prizes for his writings on faith.  Maybe he writes good stuff on religion, but how on earth did he get into biology, which he seems to be conflating with spirituality?

Ah, there’s  a clue.  Look at what Todd has won (emphasis mine):

Although he was raised in a family of staunch atheists, Douglas Todd has gone on to become one of the most decorated spirituality and ethics writers in North America. He has received more than 50 journalism honours for his features, analyses, news stories and commentaries. Vancouver Magazine recently referred to him as “arguably Vancouver’s most thoughtful journalist.” He is the author of two successful books and has been awarded with several major fellowships.

Internationally, Todd has won numerous writing prizes. He has twice taken first place in the Templeton Religion Reporter of the Year Award, which goes to the top religion reporter in the secular media in North America. Todd is the only Canadian to have received the Templeton.

The John Templeton Foundation is so good at recognizing this kind of talent.

Fig. 1. I can haz theory of evolushun.  Madame Blavatsky.

h/t: Frank Sellout


55 Comments

  1. Posted March 2, 2010 at 11:08 am | Permalink

    Yes, but what about David Icke’s theory of reptilian, shape-shifting, alien humanoids?

    • Jer
      Posted March 2, 2010 at 11:35 am | Permalink

      TEACH THE CONTROVERSY!

    • Ian
      Posted March 2, 2010 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

      Why bring Tony Blair into this?

  2. Posted March 2, 2010 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    It seems that 3, 5, and 6 are basically just “creative” twists on theistic evolution, i.e. you still have descent with modification as well as some sort of selection, but the process is guided by whatever crazy BS the person in question believes in.

    Of course, this guy is probably smart enough to realize that if he says, “Theistic evolution should be taught in schools”, that he’ll be laughed out of the room, because nobody agrees with that position… even those proponents of theistic evolution recognize that it is, uh, a theological interpretation of the meaning behind the science of evolution, and therefore has nothing to do with science itself.

    What a putz.

  3. Posted March 2, 2010 at 11:46 am | Permalink

    The evolutionary views of Madame Blavatsky??!

    That made me almost fall down laughing. (I was standing up while I read, by way of a break from sitting.) Madame Blavatsky!! God that’s hilarious.

    • Matthew Cobb
      Posted March 2, 2010 at 11:49 am | Permalink

      What a hoot! Although, of course, he is SERIOUS!

      OMG RAOFLMAO etc etc.

      Oh and “progressive Christian theologians such as John Cobb” (no relation)

      • Posted March 2, 2010 at 11:51 am | Permalink

        Madame Blavatsky…Can Marie Bashkirtseff be far behind?

        [mops streaming eyes]

  4. Posted March 2, 2010 at 11:50 am | Permalink

    There are leventy-seven evolutionary theories in existence. One with bells. One with pepper. One with buttons up the front. One with antlers. One that sparkles. One that goes ‘beep.’ One that levitates. One named Chuck. One you have to bake at 350 degrees for an hour. One that requires batteries. One that’s in Houston. One that Deepak Chopra thought of all by himself. One that my teacher said. One that Sally’s teacher said. One on the Cheerios box. And some more.

  5. Jason
    Posted March 2, 2010 at 11:54 am | Permalink

    Oh Snap! Was that last line a back-handed Mooney dig?

    • Tulse
      Posted March 2, 2010 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

      It certainly should be. This is the kind of work Templeton rewards (twice). I hope Mooney is happy with the company he is keeping.

  6. Paul
    Posted March 2, 2010 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

    As a Vancouver resident and a scientist, I’ve spent many a Saturday morning reading the Sun and grinding my teeth at Todd’s limp accomodationism (that’s what “thoughtful” means).

    His articles always start out with “scientists study reality” and then ends up “but there’s more to life than reality, isn’t there?”.

  7. Posted March 2, 2010 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

    I’m really impressed by the author’s continual bolding of words at a frequency that does not at all remind me of reading a crank’s website.

    • Josh Slocum
      Posted March 2, 2010 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

      The article puts Madame Blavatsky on a par with the neo-Darwinian synthesis, but Jerry Coyne’s mechanical formatting makes him a crank? That’s rich.

      • Posted March 2, 2010 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

        Josh–

        You missed debaser’s point. It was the Vancouver Sun columnist that engaged in random bolding, not Jerry.

    • Josh Slocum
      Posted March 2, 2010 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

      Whoops! Mea culpa, debaser. Thanks for correcting me, Greg.

  8. Reinard
    Posted March 2, 2010 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

    You would think that a journalist would realize that “random selection” is a contradiction of terms. Selection implies a non-random selection filter.

    • Posted March 2, 2010 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

      Oh sure, “random selection” is possible. It just won’t get you anywhere.

      Just write the WEASEL program, but leave out the fitness function. Random selection.

  9. Posted March 2, 2010 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

    TODD FAIL!

    Also, I can never read Lynn Margulis’s name without being reminded of the fact that she AND HER SON wrote a really, really shitty post-modern-y book on sex. HER SON!

  10. Posted March 2, 2010 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

    You elitist. How dare you restrict your views of evolution to the ones that competent scientists hold. 🙂

    (I note that I didn’t see Lamarkian evolution mentioned as a possibility)

    🙂

    /sarcasm

    • Michael K Gray
      Posted March 2, 2010 at 6:21 pm | Permalink

      Lamarckian evolution would be a superior choice to many of the risible items that were listed.

  11. Josh Slocum
    Posted March 2, 2010 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

    There is actually a much richer discussion about evolution occurring behind the scenes.

    Emphasis mine. Hope you’ll forgive the digression, but this is an example of a writing style that chafes on so many levels. Most of you have probably noticed the widespread deployment of certain code words – rich, diverse, thoughtful, inclusive, community, dialogue – in academic and popular writing over the past 10 – 15 years. This style, it seems to me, originated largely in academic writing coming out of certain schools of feminist/lit-crit/cultural-anthro thought. (I’m generalizing, and please correct me if I’m wrong).

    While everyone wouldn’t agree with all the specific prescriptions these schools of thought put out, this type of language was used in service of a generally admirable liberal goal: allowing more freedom for more people to speak, esp. those shut out from important conversations. I’ve never liked this style of writing on aesthetic grounds (it always strikes me as simpering), but I supported the sentiment behind it.

    It’s been well and truly co-opted by people who would describethemselves as liberal and open-minded, but whose projects are anything but liberal. Ophelia Benson’s written on this thoroughly time and time again (see any of her essays on the use of “community” and “community leaders” acting as cover for reactionaries). Look how Todd does it. He wants very much to appeal to “nice”, “open-minded,” “tolerant,” liberal people. So he deploys the phrase “richer discussion” as a sort of talisman signifying his Ecumenical Liberal Respect for All Worldviews.

    By these means, writers like Todd smuggle the most illiberal ideas into the mainstream and put them in front of well-meaning people who also like to think of themselves as nice, ecumenical, and tolerant.

    Trouble is, being ecumenical and tolerant does not necessarily equate to advancing liberal ideals, in the sense of classic liberalism. Obfuscating scientific facts is not liberal. Elevating religious dogma to a par with objective facts is not liberal. Creating equal discursive space for all manner of irrational and potentially dangerous or oppressive dogmas is not liberal. All of this is profoundly illiberal.

    • Posted March 2, 2010 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

      I think that Shariah has the potential to bring a much richer interpretation of the law to British jurisprudence, don’t you?

      • Josh Slocum
        Posted March 2, 2010 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

        Why yes, James, I do! It will allow Communities to preserve time-honored traditions of self-governance by recognizing that Western conceptions of “justice” are all too often a pretext for confining women to stereotyped identities as free actors with “unalienable” rights. Won’t someone please think of the burqas?

    • Michael K Gray
      Posted March 2, 2010 at 6:25 pm | Permalink

      The words of which you rightly complain serve merely as pseudo-erudite gap-fillers.
      Remove them and you are left with a sparse ugly crumbling wreck.

  12. Posted March 2, 2010 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

    Douglas Todd has been writing for the Vancouver Sun for decades. Generally he’s been a very middle-of-the-road, we’re-all-in-this-together religion and “spirituality” reporter, generally unobjectionable.

    But this article is just silly.

  13. Blair T
    Posted March 2, 2010 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

    I enjoy reading Douglas Todd – I usually find his point of view amusing. I doubt many people take his views seriously.

    In defense of the Sun, they have several good reality based columnists such as Peter McKnight and Dan Gardner who write straight up skeptical articles and David Baines who puts a critical eye to Business reporting. In fact, most of the columnists are quite good and are not so loosey goosey with facts. I suspect Todd is given an editorial pass because he is supposed to be talking religion.

    • Janet Holmes
      Posted March 2, 2010 at 11:45 pm | Permalink

      Yes of course if religion is the topic then you are allowed to spout any rubbish you like and no-one will have the nerve to tell you you’re making no sense. No religionist makes any sense.

  14. Posted March 2, 2010 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

    Title and caption under picture v amusing but alas now no one gets to be surprised by the sudden appearance of Mme B the way I was. Oh dear that was funny…

  15. stvs
    Posted March 2, 2010 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

    Remember that Simpson’s episode on Australia? The one with the Australian stamp commemorating “30 Years of Electricity”?

    There ought to be a Canadian stamp: “Zero Years of Wikipedia.”

    Here’s a quote from Helena Blavatsky on the history of Aryan superiority from her Wiki entry:

    “The Aryan races … spring from one single progenitor, … who is said to have lived over 18,000,000 years ago, and also 850,000 years ago — at the time of the sinking of the last remnants of the great continent of Atlantis.”

    That’s the trouble with modern discourse: not enough said about Aryan superiority and our Atlantisian ancestors. Good on the Vancouver Sun for correcting this.

  16. BJ Allan
    Posted March 2, 2010 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

    The Sun has not a good or “reputable” paper for many a year. And the Province is just the same paper in a lower brow wrapper. This is a perfect example of why I finally quit the daily paper habit.

    Fortunately, in the year since this “article” was written it seems to have had zero effect on public education in BC. Anytime a school board tries to remove evolution from the curriculum they get slapped down.

    • Posted March 2, 2010 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

      I largely agree. The Sun is not a very good paper but I would take it over the Province any day. I find it is far worse.

      • BJ Allan
        Posted March 3, 2010 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

        When an overzealous telemarketer asked why I didn’t want to subscribe to the Sun I replied that I found it to be badly researched, badly written, badly edited, badly proofread, badly produced and badly distributed. However, I did have one good thing to say about it, at least it wasn’t the Province.

  17. NewEnglandBob
    Posted March 2, 2010 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

    Douglas Todd has a conscience. In his case it means con-science. His article is sickening as well as laughable.

  18. Margaret
    Posted March 2, 2010 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

    I think I’d give Todd a fail right from that first paragraph.

    First, he hints at his belief that science is “just another worldview” by referring to “the fundamental teaching of evolution” with the same wording he would use for “the fundamental teaching of the Bible” or “the fundamental teaching of Christianity” or “the fundamental teaching of Buddhism.” Evolution isn’t something that “teaches” us, evolution is something we have learned about the real world.

    Second, the human-centeredness of Todd’s description of evolution in that first paragraph also misses the true grandeur of scope of evolution and misses the way that the TOE removes humans from the center of life the same way that the heliocentric theory removed the Earth from the center of the universe.

  19. G. Tingey
    Posted March 2, 2010 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

    Brain: engage!

    Oops, mistake – I think I hurt it reading this …..

    I suggest going back to serious drinking, as a means of seeing and thinking useful things: or at least compared to the original, erm, article, erm, fiction, erm, fantasy, erm …..

  20. Neil
    Posted March 2, 2010 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

    I guess one could say that there is a fitness landscape for theories of evolution and that Todd is simply describing it. The problem is that there are no points in the landscape that have any fitness except natural selection.

  21. TreeRooster
    Posted March 2, 2010 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

    The linked review of Teilhard’s ‘The Phenomenon of Man’ by Sir Peter Medawar does have some really good lines. After a quote of Teilhard’s description of consciousness: “The analogy, it should be explained, is with the vaporization of water when it is brought to boiling-point, and the image of hot vapor remains when all else is forgotten.”

    But I’m curious about Medawar’s own evaluation of evoltutionary theory.

    “Unhappily Teilhard has no grasp of the real weakness of modern evolutionary theory, namely its lack of a complete theory of variation, of the origin of candidature for evolution. It is not enough to say that ‘mutation’ is ultimately the source of all genetical diversity, for that is merely to give the phenomenon a name: mutation is so defined. What we want, and what we are slowly beginning to get, is a comprehensive theory of the forms in which new genetical information comes into being. It may, as I have hinted elsewhere, turn out to be of the nature of nucleic acids and the chromosomal apparatus that they tend spontaneously to proffer genetical variants — genetical solutions to the problem of remaining alive — which are more complex and more elaborate than the immediate occasion calls for..”

    Is there any substance to this?

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted March 2, 2010 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

      Nope.

      • TreeRooster
        Posted March 2, 2010 at 8:30 pm | Permalink

        Right. Tell me if I am wrong, but I would say that the broadest answer to “what causes mutation” is just entropy. That is, copy errors–and if an individual error occurs due to stray radiation or chemical fluctuations or just statistical error in the copying mechanism, that is immaterial.

        So is there any evidence for any sort of evolved capacity for “intentionally” higher rates of mutation during reproduction? I’d guess in HIV or some other virus, as in the ‘Andromeda strain.’

  22. Posted March 2, 2010 at 7:15 pm | Permalink

    You know, when Dr. Dino gets out of jail I can see a “journalism” career in his future…

  23. BaldApe
    Posted March 2, 2010 at 7:32 pm | Permalink

    He lost me a lot earlier than that:

    the fundamental teaching of evolution; that “human beings evolved from less advanced life forms over millions of years.”

    That’s certainly a consequence of evolution, but I don’t see it as “fundamental.” In fact the idea that evolution is the theory that “we came from monkeys” is one of my pet peeves.

  24. PeterKarim
    Posted March 3, 2010 at 5:20 am | Permalink

    “I can haz theory of evolushun. Madame Blavatsky.”

    That made my day, thanks Jerry.

    It is like a levitating David Copperfield saying “New theori of gravitashun ? I haz it!”

  25. Posted March 3, 2010 at 7:09 am | Permalink

    Todd was regarded by one of my professors at UBC (to remain nameless) as sort of earnest, but not really very clueful (or so I understood)…

  26. Posted March 3, 2010 at 11:30 am | Permalink

    There is a fella I admire, named Jerry Coyne, who should either write a letter to the editor who approved this (or perhaps jut edit this posting a bit and send it along).

    Excellent piece.

  27. ivan
    Posted March 4, 2010 at 9:53 am | Permalink

    Blavatsky was right, the time will tell us, the Darwin theories are simply riddiculous. Man descending from ape? give me a break!
    You should read about Theosophy before you start to critized it, you sound very ignorant.

  28. Gliewmeden
    Posted April 16, 2010 at 12:01 am | Permalink

    Ivan: YOU need to read more.

  29. Steve Vanden-Eykel
    Posted May 28, 2010 at 9:47 pm | Permalink

    It’s no secret that Todd’s an idiot and a flake. My theory is that he never outgrew whatever dippy gurus were fashionable when he was in college, and he continues to namedrop them whenever possible to prove his credentials as an ‘intullekchul’.

    I mean, the guy can’t go five columns without mentioning Teilhard de Chardin or Whitehead.

  30. Posted December 2, 2012 at 5:47 am | Permalink

    It is completely wrong to assume that the idea that there are multiple theories of evolution must be creationist/intelligent design. It is a fact that there are several different theories of evolution. No, “microevolution” and “macroevolution” cannot be universally accepted as distinct theories. There are evolution theories that considers them to be scales of the same thing, although other theories of evolution (such as Ian Tattersall’s inbreeding punctuated equilibrium) actually distinguishes between microevolution and macroevolution WITHOUT endorsing creation or intelligent design. Classical complexity-constructive neo-Darwinism is actually not the same theory as the limiting factor neo-neo-Darwinism that contains admixture of neutralism. The latter, which appears to be the mainstream opinion, has clearly given up trying to explain the information content of organisms by referring to limits to how many mutations per generation that can be purged by natural selection. The mainstream version runs into serious trouble considering that only one hereditary disease out of 20 can be explained by officially acknowledged functional DNA, meaning that evolution must work on a scale massively greater than thought possible to be viable. As shown on Pure science Wiki (the pages “Self-organization” and “Inheritance of acquired characteristics”) a modernized version of Lamarckism (quite distinct from the classical version) based on working biological contexts sending complaints about proteins that do not do their job properly to the responsible genes can solve the paradox.


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