Sunday, November 18, 2007

PBS taking on Creationists

A little late but several programs on PBS have shot down (un)Intelligent Design in the last few years. The latest I happened to miss and supposedly was one of the best. (PBS's shift to the right has caused me to check what they are showing less often.)

Some see a link in the tactics and methods of the conservative movement generally with the misleading ID campaign. "The debate over the teaching of evolution in the schools will continue for generations to come, despite the one-sidedness of the factual evidence against “intelligent design.” So, too, the debate over the other lame-brained agenda items of the well-financed, relentless conservative movement."

Intelligent Design on Trial

If like me you missed the airtime you can watch it all online in digestible tasty chunks.

Count me as one of those in favor of science, of teaching myth as myth, and of shooting down lies.

On PBS tonight (Sunday) I will catch the last of The Amazing Mrs Pritchard, about a woman who capture the prime minister's office with a new populist party based on truth.

I have moved my giving from Houston PBS to Pacifica KPFT, although it looks like they may have misplaced my monthly pledge form.


Anonymous said...

This looks interesting:

Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin's Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives

Check out David Sloan Wilson's first book for a general audience, which was published by Bantam Press on March 27 and can already be viewed and ordered on

Publisher's Weekly calls it "by far the most accessible account of evolution for a general audience, as well as the farthest ranging," and E.O. Wilson calls it "truly a book for our time."

"It is truly a book for our time..."

"Evolution for Everyone is a remarkable contribution. No other author has managed to combine mastery of the subject with such a clear and interesting explanation of what it all means for human self-understanding. Aimed at the general reader, yet peppered with ideas original enough to engage scholars, it is truly a book for our time."
--Edward O. Wilson, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of On Human Nature

"Evolution for Everyone fills a gap in understanding evolution..."

"In this age of mounting mistrust between science and religion in American society—especially in America's classrooms—David Sloan Wilson's Evolution for Everyone comes as a breath of fresh air. Without stooping to condemn those whose religious beliefs lead them to reject evolution, Wilson clearly but gently shows how evolution is essential to understanding all aspects of our daily lives. Wilson knows the power of a good story—and most of his 36 chapters are short, riveting accounts of evolution and the scientists who have puzzled out the intricacies, and importance, of understanding evolution in human life. Evolution for Everyone fills a gap in understanding evolution, and will help in the much-needed bridge building across the divide that has threatened educational values in recent years."
--Niles Eldredge, Division of Paleontology The American Museum of Natural History New York, New York.

"Evolutionary biology at its very best..."

"A mind-stretching and unforgettable synthesis of biology, psychology, religion, and politics, this engrossing story is evolutionary biology at its very best." -- Martin Seligman, author of Learned Optimism and Authentic Happiness.

"A narrative that can be enjoyed by anyone..."

"There tend to be two types of science books, those for professional scientists and those for the general public. Every once in awhile a book comes along that bridges this gap, and David Sloan Wilson's Evolution for Everyone is just such a book—a well written, page-turning narrative that can be enjoyed by anyone, that also contains original ideas that simply must be read by professional scientists because they push the science forward. I was amazed by how much new ground Wilson covers, how many new ideas he presents, so in this case "everyone" means just that: general readers and professional scientists alike." -- Michael Shermer, Publisher of Skeptic magazine, columnist for Scientific American, and the author of Why Darwin Matters.

"Evolution for Everyone is tremendous fun..."

“But don't be deceived. David Sloan Wilson is a master biologist, who just happens to be a wonderful story teller." -- Sarah B. Hrdy, author of Mother Nature.

Publishers Weekly

"Readers who've grown weary of the usual treatment of evolution as a deadly foe to religion will find Wilson's book a cheerful antidote, breaking new ground in its sweeping breadth and offering much to think about. "

Chicago Sun Times

“Wilson does for evolution what Steve Levitt does for economics in his book Freakonomics....Evolution for Everyone is full of gripping stories about the natural world, related with humor and a rare flair for language.” --Raymond T. Pierrehumbert

The New York Times

"Wilson invites readers inside and shows them how Darwinism is done, and at lesson's end urges us to go ahead, try it at home. The result is a sprightly, absorbing, and charmingly earnest book that manages a minor miracle, the near complete emulsifying of science and the real world."--Natalie Angier


"Wilson... tends to approach evolution from slightly offbeat angles...the book is nevertheless ambitious, thoughtful, and intellectually stimulating. Readers will agree or disagree with Wilson to varying degrees, but they will all agree on one thing: he makes you think hard about how we got the way we are."--David Pitt

Kirkus Reviews

... the author's enthusiasm is infectious... (He) outlines basic Darwinian principles, then proceeds through a series of chapters that illustrate how they apply to such matters as homicide, human personality, physical attractiveness, morality, human societies, laughter, literature and the arts, symbolic thinking, religion and international relations. A clear, concise description of how evolutionary theory works, ardently argued by a True Believer.

New Scientist Print Edition

David's aim is to show that evolution can transform our basic understanding of everyday life. With a clear passion for the subject, Wilson shows that understanding evolution is easy, even intuitive - it really is for everyone. If only everyone would read his book.-- Rowan Hooper


First Chapter is downloadable...I will post a portion here:

Chapter 1

The Future Can Differ From The Past

This is a book of tall claims about evolution: That it can become uncontroversial; that the basic principles are easy to learn; that everyone should want to learn them, once their implications are understood; that evolution and religion, those old enemies who currently occupy opposite corners of human thought, can be brought harmoniously together.

Can these claims possibly be true? Isn’t evolution the most controversial theory the world has ever seen? Since it’s a scientific subject, isn’t it hard to learn? If the implications are benign, then why all the fear and trembling? And how on earth can the old enemies of evolution and religion do anything other than come out of their opposite corners fighting?

I might be an optimist, but I am not naive. Allow me to introduce myself: I am an evolutionist, which means that I use the principles of evolution to understand the world around me. I would be an evolutionary biologist if I restricted myself to the topics typically associated with biology, but I include all things human along with the rest of life. That makes me an evolutionist without any qualifiers. I and my fellow evolutionists study the length and breadth of creation, from the origin of life to religion. I therefore have a pretty good idea of what people think about evolution, and I can report that the situation is much worse than you probably think. Let me show you how bad it is before explaining why I remain confident about accomplishing the objectives of this book.

Most people are familiar with the reluctance of the general public to accept the theory of evolution, especially in the United States of America. According to the most recent Harris Poll, 54% of U.S. adults believe that humans did not develop from earlier species. That is up from 46% in 1994. Rejection of evolution extends to beliefs about the origin of other species, the fossil record as evidence for evolution, and the constant refrain that evolution is “just a theory.”.To make matters worse, most people who do accept evolutionary theory don’t use it to understand the world around them. For them it’s about dinosaurs, fossils, and humans evolving from apes, not the current environment or human condition. The polls don’t measure the fraction of people who relate evolution to their daily lives, but it would be miniscule.

It’s easy for scientists and intellectuals to smile at the ignorance of religious believers and the general public, but the fact is that they’re not much better. The Ivory Tower is more aptly named the Ivory Archipelago. It consists of hundreds of isolated subjects, each divided into smaller subjects in an almost infinite progression. People are examined less with a microscope than with a kaleidoscope—psychology, anthropology, economics, political science, sociology, history, art, literature, philosophy, gender studies, ethnic studies. Each perspective has its own history and special assumptions. One person’s heresy is another’s commonplace. With respect to evolution, most scientists and intellectuals would say that they accept Darwin’s theory, but many would deny its relevance to human affairs or would blandly acknowledge its relevance without using it themselves in their professional or daily lives. In effect, there is a wall within academia that restricts the study of evolution to biology and a few human-related subjects such as human genetics, physical anthropology, and specialized branches of psychology. Outside this wall, it is possible for a person to get their PhD without a single course in evolution or more than a casual reference to evolution in their other courses. That is why the term “evolutionary biologist” sounds familiar while the more general term “evolutionist” has a
strange ring.

Some intellectuals rival young earth creationists in their rejection of evolution when it comes to human affairs. A 1997 article in The Nation titled “The New Creationism: Biology Under Attack” put it this way:

The result is an ideological outlook eerily similar to that of religious creationism. Like their fundamentalist Christian counterparts, the most extreme anti-biologists suggest that humans occupy a status utterly different from and clearly “above” that of all other living beings. And, like the religious fundamentalists, the new academic creationists defend their stance as if all of human dignity—and all hope for the future—were at stake.

The famous metaphor of the mind as a blank slate captures the idea that we can understand the human condition without any reference to basic evolutionary principles or our own evolutionary past. The most extreme academic creationists reject not just evolution but science in general as just another social construction, but they are only one particularly fierce tribe that inhabits the Ivory Archipelago. Other tribes are fully scientific but still manage to exclude evolutionary theory. In a 1979 survey of 24 introductory sociology textbooks, every one assumed that biological factors were irrelevant for the study of human behavior and society. Fast-forwarding to the present, political scientist Ian Lustick could say this about the human social sciences in a 2005 article:

Of course social scientists have no objection to applying evolutionary
theory in the life sciences—biology, zoology, botany, etc. Nevertheless, the idea of applying evolutionary thinking to social science problems commonly evokes strong negative reactions. In effect, social scientists treat the life sciences as enclosed within a kind of impermeable wall.

Inside the wall, evolutionary thinking is deemed capable of producing powerful and astonishing truths. Outside the wall, in the realm of human behavior, applications of evolutionary thinking are typically treated as irrelevant at best; usually as pernicious, wrong, and downright dangerous.

It might seem that the situation can’t get more bleak, but it does. Evolutionary biologists are themselves conflicted about the study of our own species. When Harvard evolutionary biologist Edward O. Wilson published his encyclopedic book Sociobiology in 1975, his fiercest critics were fellow Harvard evolutionary biologists Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin. Fast forwarding to the present, the National Science Foundation’s most recent and ambitious effort to fund evolutionary research is called the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NESCent), whose basic mission is to “help.foster a grand synthesis of the biological disciplines through the unifying principle of descent with modification.” This language is not as grandiose as it might seem.

Biologists expect evolution to serve as a unifying theory, delivering “powerful and astonishing truths” as Ian Lustick put it. Yet, as a curious complement to his diagnosis of the social sciences, there is not a single member of NESCent’s scientific advisory board representing a human-related subject, apart from human genetics. It seems that the barrier separating the study of humans from the study of the rest of life is largely respected on both sides, even by evolutionary biologists who are trying to foster a grand synthesis.

Knowing all of this, I remain confident that there is a path around both walls of resistance, the first denying evolution altogether and the second denying its relevance to human affairs. Darwin provides an example for us to emulate: On any given day of his life he might be found dissecting barnacles, minutely observing the behavior of his children, or germinating seeds that had first been fed to mice, which in turn had been fed to hawks at the London zoo. The same person who studied earthworms and orchids also studied human morality. Darwin’s interests were so far flung that his mail came by the wagonload from all corners of the globe. One letter about plant distributions in India might be followed by another on the emotional expressions of African natives. Darwin’s empire of thought was larger than the British Empire.

How was Darwin able to unite so many subjects and blend humans seamlessly with the rest of life? Perhaps he was a genius. Perhaps there was less to know back then.

Perhaps, but the main reason is more interesting and relevant to our own situation. It was primarily Darwin’s theory, not his personal attributes or time and place, that enabled him to build his empire of thought. Moreover, his theory was powerful even in a rudimentary form because Darwin knew so much less about the details of evolution than we do now.

The same theory enables modern evolutionists to build empires of their own. I’m no Darwin but my own career shows what a good theory can do. I have studied creatures as diverse as bacteria, beetles, and birds. I have studied topics as diverse as altruism, mating, and the origin of species. I can understand and enjoy the work of my colleagues who study an even greater range of creatures and topics. Please don’t think that I am boasting about myself—that would be boring. I am boasting about the theory, and the.whole point of this book is to show how anyone can profit from it. It takes a great theory, not great intelligence, to acquire this kind of synthetic knowledge.

If our own species can be included in this grand synthesis, there is every reason to do so. It would be like a strange figure emerging from the shadows to enjoy the warmth of a campfire with good company. My own career shows that this is possible. Just like Darwin—not because I share his personal attributes but because I share his theory--I have seamlessly added humans to the bestiary of animals that I study, on topics as diverse as altruism, beauty, decision-making, gossip, personality, and religion. I publish in anthropology, economic, philosophy, and psychology journals in addition to my biological research. My books are on subjects that most people don’t associate with evolution: Unto Others: the evolution and psychology of unselfish behavior (co-written with a world-class philosopher named Elliott Sober), Darwin’s Cathedral: evolution, religion, and the nature of society, and The Literary Animal: Evolution and the Nature of Narrative (co-edited with a bold young literary scholar named Jonathan Gottschall).

These are not popular accounts watered down for a general audience. They are written for the experts, most of whom spend their lives studying a much smaller range of subjects.

Evolutionists can stride across human-related subjects at the highest level of intellectual discourse, in the same way that evolutionary biologists are already accustomed to striding across biological subjects.

Darwin should be emulated in another respect. His interactions with people from all walks of life were primarily respectful and cordial. We can learn from his humility and good humor in presenting his theory to others, in addition to the theory itself. Since writing Unto Others and Darwin’s Cathedral, I have spoken about evolution, morality and religion to diverse audiences around the world. Perhaps my most memorable experience was a televised conversation with a group of faculty and monks from St. John’s University in Minnesota, a Catholic University and oldest Benedictine Monastery in North America. My co-author Elliott Sober was invited to converse with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, making me unspeakably jealous. These encounters are the very opposite of the sterile “debates” that are staged between creationists and evolutionists. If this kind of cordial dialogue can take place for evolution and religion, then surely it can take place for evolution and any other human-related topic..Indeed, evolution is increasingly being used to study all things human in addition to the rest of life. I recently conducted an analysis of the highly respected scientific journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences (BBS). The format of BBS is for a lengthy target article to be followed by commentaries by other authors, providing a comprehensive exploration of a particular topic. The topics covered by BBS are highly diverse, from neuroscience to cultural anthropology. BBS articles are subject to a bruising review process before they are accepted, not to speak of the scrutiny they receive in the commentaries. They often have a large impact on subsequent research. According to a formula that the scientific publishing industry uses to calculate the impact of its journals, BBS is ranked first among 40 behavioral sciences journals and 7 th among 198 neuroscience journals. If anything qualifies as solid and trend-setting science, it is a BBS target article.

My analysis shows that during the period 2000-2004, 31.5% of the BBS target articles used the word “evolution” in the title or as a key word, for topics as diverse as religion, schizophrenia, infant crying, language, food transfer in hunter-gatherer societies, facial expression, empathy, vision, brain evolution, decision making, phobias, mating, cultural evolution, and dreams. In other words, using evolution to study our own species is not a future event or fringe science. It has already arrived.


Anonymous said...

And another good idea:


"In this talk, I would like to speculate a little, on the development of life in the universe, and in particular, the development of intelligent life. I shall take this to include the human race, even though much of its behaviour through out history, has been pretty stupid, and not calculated to aid the survival of the species."


So the rate of biological evolution in humans, is about a bit a year. By contrast, there are about 50,000 new books published in the English language each year, containing of the order of a hundred billion bits of information. Of course, the great majority of this information is garbage, and no use to any form of life. But, even so, the rate at which useful information can be added is millions, if not billions, higher than with DNA.

This has meant that we have entered a new phase of evolution. At first, evolution proceeded by natural selection, from random mutations. This Darwinian phase, lasted about three and a half billion years, and produced us, beings who developed language, to exchange information. But in the last ten thousand years or so, we have been in what might be called, an external transmission phase. In this, the internal record of information, handed down to succeeding generations in DNA, has not changed significantly. But the external record, in books, and other long lasting forms of storage, has grown enormously. Some people would use the term, evolution, only for the internally transmitted genetic material, and would object to it being applied to information handed down externally. But I think that is too narrow a view. We are more than just our genes. We may be no stronger, or inherently more intelligent, than our cave man ancestors. But what distinguishes us from them, is the knowledge that we have accumulated over the last ten thousand years, and particularly, over the last three hundred. I think it is legitimate to take a broader view, and include externally transmitted information, as well as DNA, in the evolution of the human race.

The time scale for evolution, in the external transmission period, is the time scale for accumulation of information. This used to be hundreds, or even thousands, of years. But now this time scale has shrunk to about 50 years, or less. On the other hand, the brains with which we process this information have evolved only on the Darwinian time scale, of hundreds of thousands of years. This is beginning to cause problems. In the 18th century, there was said to be a man who had read every book written. But nowadays, if you read one book a day, it would take you about 15,000 years to read through the books in a national Library. By which time, many more books would have been written.

This has meant that no one person can be the master of more than a small corner of human knowledge. People have to specialise, in narrower and narrower fields. This is likely to be a major limitation in the future. We certainly can not continue, for long, with the exponential rate of growth of knowledge that we have had in the last three hundred years. An even greater limitation and danger for future generations, is that we still have the instincts, and in particular, the aggressive impulses, that we had in cave man days. Aggression, in the form of subjugating or killing other men, and taking their women and food, has had definite survival advantage, up to the present time. But now it could destroy the entire human race, and much of the rest of life on Earth. A nuclear war, is still the most immediate danger, but there are others, such as the release of a genetically engineered virus. Or the green house effect becoming unstable.

There is no time, to wait for Darwinian evolution, to make us more intelligent, and better natured.

Anonymous said...

And about the morality of science which should be recognizable to many:

Bible class might just benefit to look at Science at a value system (truest way of knowing the knowable):


In his little book, Science and Human Values,13 Jacob Bronowski gives a masterful presentation of the moral preconditions of science. The fundamental moral premise, says Bronowski, is "the habit of truth": the collective decision by the body of science that "We ought to act in such a way that what is true can be verified to be so." This habit, this decision, gives a moral tone to the entire scientific enterprise. Bronowski continues:

By the worldly standards of public life, all scholars in their work are of course oddly virtuous. They do not make wild claims, they do not cheat, they do not try to persuade at any cost, they appeal neither to prejudice or to authority, they are often frank about their ignorance, their disputes are fairly decorous, they do not confuse what is being argued with race, politics, sex or age, they listen patiently to the young and to the old who both know everything. These are the general virtues of scholarship, and they are peculiarly the virtues of science. Individually, scientists no doubt have human weaknesses. . . But in a world in which state and dogma seem always either to threaten or to cajole, the body of scientists is trained to avoid and organized to resist every form of persuasion but the fact. A scientist who breaks this rule, as Lysenko has done, is ignored. . . 14

The values of science derive neither from the virtues of its members, nor from the finger-wagging codes of conduct by which every profession reminds itself to be good. They have grown out of the practice of science, because they are the inescapable conditions for its practice.

And this is but the beginning. For if truth claims are to be freely tested by the community of scientists, then this community must encourage and protect independence and originality, and it must tolerate dissent.

Science and scholarship are engaged in a constant struggle to replace persuasion with demonstration -- the distinction is crucial to understanding the discipline and morality of science.

Persuasion, a psychological activity, is the arena in which propagandists, advertisers, politicians and preachers perform their stunts. To the "persuader," the "conclusion" (i.e. what he is trying to get others to believe: "the message," "the gospel," "the sale") is not open to question. His task is to find the means to get the persuadee (i.e., voter, buyer, "sucker") to believe the message. Whatever psychological means accomplishes this goal (apart from "side effects") is fair game. (When the "persuader" and the "persuadee" are one and the same, this is called "rationalization").

Demonstration (or "argumentation" or "proof"), a logical activity, is the objective of the scholar and scientist. Therein, hard evidence and valid methodology is sought, and the conclusion is unknown or in doubt. However discomforting the resulting conclusions might be, "demonstration" has evolved as the best "proven" means of arriving at the truth -- or more precisely, at whatever assurance of truth the evidence will allow. "Demonstration" is exemplified in scientific method (in particular, through freedom of inquiry, replicability of experimentation, publicly attainable data, etc.), in legal rules of evidence, and in the rules of inference of formal logic.

A scientist or a scholar is an individual who has determined, as much as possible, to be (psychologically) persuaded only by (logical) demonstration. Being human, every scientist falls more or less short of the mark.

The temptation to resort to persuasion to the detriment of demonstration is universal in mankind. But the ability to resist this temptation is variable. Thus science has been devised to ensure the highest humanly attainable degree of non-subjective demonstration. Much of the strength and endurance of science derives from in its social nature, and the severe sanctions that are entailed therein. Thus the scientist who claims a discovery must tell his colleagues how he arrived at his knowledge, and then offer it for independent validation, at any suitable time and place, by his peers. If this validation fails, the "discovery" is determined to be bogus. If the failure is due to carelessness, the investigator is subject to ridicule. (This was apparently the case with Fleishman and Pons' claim to have discovered "cold fusion.") If it is due to fraud (i.e., "cooking the data"), as was the case with Lysenko and Dawson (the "discoverer" of Piltdown Man), the investigator is liable to be exposed, whereupon he loses his reputation and credibility -- which is to say, his profession. Due to its social nature, the institution of scientific inquiry is more than the sum of all scientists that participate therein.

To reiterate: the activity of science fosters such moral virtues as tolerance, mutual respect, discipline, modesty, impartiality, non-manipulation, and, above all, what Bronowski calls "the habit of truth." That is to say, in the pursuit of his or her profession, the scientist forgoes "easy" gratification through a steadfast allegiance to "truth," and the implicit willingness to acknowledge a failure to find the truth -- both of these, abstract moral principles. The scientist endures such morally virtuous sacrifice and constraint, because the discipline requires it, and the cost of violation is severe: lying and cheating in the laboratory are fruitless iniquities, since, by the nature of the enterprise, they are likely to be uncovered.

Yet, to be sure, scientists are capable of morally atrocious behavior. They performed experiments at Auschwitz, and they serve today as apologists for the tobacco and pesticide industries. Scientists are human, and thus vulnerable to all the usual temptations which flesh is heir to.

Still, for the scientist and scholar who chooses to pursue a moral life, the insight and discipline acquired from scientific training and practice, offers a significant "boost" to that pursuit.

The "virtues of science" can even lead to saintly behavior. Consider the case of Andrei Sakharov. Without question, Sakharov carried his allegiance to truth, and the habit of yielding to principle, beyond his laboratory. In this passage from his great 1968 testament, "Progress, Coexistence and Intellectual Freedom," note how the extension of scientific method to politics and social activism, conveys essential moral qualities and implications:

We regard as 'scientific' a method based on deep analysis of facts, theories, and views, presupposing unprejudiced, unfearing open discussion and conclusions. The complexity and diversity of all the phenomena of modern life, the great possibilities and dangers linked with the scientific-technical revolution and with a number of social tendencies demand precisely such an approach...15

Out of his respect for the truth and the institution of scientific inquiry, Sakharov would never hide evidence, whatever the apparent personal advantage. By analogy, he would not compromise a moral truth, even to save himself. When duty called, that was reason enough. It is this step, from the laboratory to practical life, that characterizes the saintly scientist. Saintly behavior is manifest when intellectual discipline of the laboratory, the willingness to accept evidence and follow the clear logical implications of perceived and discovered truth, is applied to personal life, even at the cost of personal sacrifice, and even when one has clear opportunities to "get away" with a distortion or denial of the truth and a compromise of one's principles.