Saturday, March 31, 2007

Science & God: Richard Dawkins and Francis Collins on "Fresh Air"

Last week National Public Radio's Terry Gross had back-to-back interviews with Richard Dawkins and Francis Collins on the issue of science and religion. In specific, her question was: can one be a scientist and a believer? Here is the link to Dawkins interview:

Richard Dawkins explains "The God Delusion"
In his most recent book, British scientist Richard Dawkins writes about the irrationality of a belief in God, examines God in all his forms and sets down his arguments for atheism. The book is The God Delusion.

Dawkins is a professor of "the public understanding of science" at Oxford University.

The New York Times Book Review has hailed him as a writer who "understands the issues so clearly that he forces his reader to understand them too."

An interesting part of the interview is when Dawkins is talking about the meaning of life (about 16 minutes into the interview)

And here is the link to Francis Collins interview:

Francis Collins on "The Language of God"

Geneticist Francis Collins is director of the National Human Genome Research Project. He is also an evangelical Christian, and author of the book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief.

He is quite clear about religious belief and evolution (about 16 minutes into the interview) and about the debate regarding stem cells research (32 minutes in). Unfortunately, he also brings in the old "fine tuning" argument (that the laws of universe are so finely tuned for the existence of humans, that it must have been done by a higher power) and issues of morals as evidence for God, while at the same time claiming that there cannot be any evidence that can show the existence of God (9 minutes into the interview).

Dawkins and Collins provide an interesting contrast. If you want to see a more head-to-head debate between the two, check out this Time magazine article from last year, that let them address each other more directly:
God vs Science

At many places Francis Collins appears reasonable, but on some issues his views are quite incompatible with science. Here is his response to a question about miracles:

TIME: Dr. Collins, the Resurrection is an essential argument of Christian faith, but doesn't it, along with the virgin birth and lesser miracles, fatally undermine the scientific method, which depends on the constancy of natural laws?

COLLINS: If you're willing to answer yes to a God outside of nature, then there's nothing inconsistent with God on rare occasions choosing to invade the natural world in a way that appears miraculous. If God made the natural laws, why could he not violate them when it was a particularly significant moment for him to do so? And if you accept the idea that Christ was also divine, which I do, then his Resurrection is not in itself a great logical leap.

TIME: Doesn't the very notion of miracles throw off science?

COLLINS: Not at all. If you are in the camp I am, one place where science and faith could touch each other is in the investigation of supposedly miraculous events.

DAWKINS: If ever there was a slamming of the door in the face of constructive investigation, it is the word miracle. To a medieval peasant, a radio would have seemed like a miracle. All kinds of things may happen which we by the lights of today's science would classify as a miracle just as medieval science might a Boeing 747. Francis keeps saying things like "From the perspective of a believer." Once you buy into the position of faith, then suddenly you find yourself losing all of your natural skepticism and your scientific--really scientific--credibility. I'm sorry to be so blunt.

COLLINS: Richard, I actually agree with the first part of what you said. But I would challenge the statement that my scientific instincts are any less rigorous than yours. The difference is that my presumption of the possibility of God and therefore the supernatural is not zero, and yours is.

So how do you decide: Is there something that we don't understand just as yet, or is it a result of true supernatural intervention? May be this is a good place to recall Hippocrates from fourth century B.C., "Men think epilepsy divine, merely because they do not understand it. But if they called everything divine which they do not understand, why, there would be no end of divine things."

And to conclude, here is an appropriate cartoon:

Friday, March 30, 2007

Why did Darwin wait 20 years to publish "On the Origin of Species"?

From Nature (March 29, 2007):
Did Darwin delay publishing his theory of evolution by natural selection because he feared an outcry from the establishment? This has been a popular belief, and has been stoked by the fact that although Darwin began formulating the theory in 1837, he did not publish On the Origin of Species until 1859.

Now John van Wyhe, a science historian at the University of Cambridge, UK, says that after a painstaking trawl through the letters, notes and books written by, to or about Darwin, he can rule out the idea once and for all. But van Wyhe's work has irritated several prominent historians, who argue that he has gone too far in downplaying ideas about Darwin's reluctance to publish. "Portraying Darwin as having no feelings or reactions to the outside world warps the biographical picture," says David Kohn, editor of the Darwin Digital Library of Evolution.

This is all well and good. The problem is how van Wyhe established that there was no delay:

To carry out his study, Van Wyhe searched for the word "delay" in primary and secondary sources covering the period in which Darwin was working on Origin of Species. He says Darwin and those who knew him never unambiguously referred to a delay in publishing, or gave any explanation for the 20-year 'gap'. Indeed, in all the texts on Darwin, he says, the earliest reference to a delay appears in the 1940s. Only in a 1948 popular book, Darwin: Before and After, in which Robert Clark describes how Darwin was made ill by "an uncertainty that he allowed to haunt him for twenty years", do you see all the elements of the modern story, says van Wyhe.

According to van Whye, Darwin just didn't get to writing Origin of Species (hmm...the problem of not being under any tenure clock)

By documenting exactly what he was doing during the 'gap years', van Wyhe makes the case that Darwin just didn't get down to writing Origin of Species until he had completed other work in hand, including an eight-year study of barnacles. He was determined to build a formidable mass of documentation supporting his theory and to solve major stumbling blocks, such as that posed by non-reproductive castes of social insects. This, together with a busy personal life but poor health, filled the years. In other words, Darwin did not postpone publication; he just didn't publish until he was ready. "In my view, this settles the question once and for all," says van Wyhe.

The last statement notwithstanding, the "delay" analysis is not going to solve this issue easily:

But several Darwin scholars are not convinced. Kohn and others agree that the way in which cultural and social pressures influenced Darwin's decisions may have been overplayed, particularly in the public arena, with less attention being paid to the involved process of scientific discovery. But the consensus in the field is likely to remain that a multitude of factors underpinned Darwin's delay.

Kohn points out that searching for explicit references to a "delay" is a simplistic approach to the problem, and that other factors should be considered. For example, Darwin often criticized religion in his notebooks, which suggests that he would have been aware of the probable implications of his theory for religion.

This work of John van Wyhe is published in Notes and Records of the Royal Society (doi:10.1098/rsnr.2006.0171;2007)

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Biological origins of morality

From New York Times (3/20):
Scientist finds the beginnings of morality in primate behavior

The scientist here is Frans de Waal. He is a fantastic writer and here the article is talking about his new book Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved in which he argues that morality in humans has evolved through natural selection and we can learn about its origins through the behavior of non-human primates.

Dr. de Waal, who is director of the Living Links Center at Emory University, argues that all social animals have had to constrain or alter their behavior in various ways for group living to be worthwhile. These constraints, evident in monkeys and even more so in chimpanzees, are part of human inheritance, too, and in his view form the set of behaviors from which human morality has been shaped.

Many philosophers find it hard to think of animals as moral beings, and indeed Dr. de Waal does not contend that even chimpanzees possess morality. But he argues that human morality would be impossible without certain emotional building blocks that are clearly at work in chimp and monkey societies.

Dr. de Waal’s views are based on years of observing nonhuman primates, starting with work on aggression in the 1960s. He noticed then that after fights between two combatants, other chimpanzees would console the loser. But he was waylaid in battles with psychologists over imputing emotional states to animals, and it took him 20 years to come back to the subject.

He found that consolation was universal among the great apes but generally absent from monkeys — among macaques, mothers will not even reassure an injured infant. To console another, Dr. de Waal argues, requires empathy and a level of self-awareness that only apes and humans seem to possess. And consideration of empathy quickly led him to explore the conditions for morality.

Though human morality may end in notions of rights and justice and fine ethical distinctions, it begins, Dr. de Waal says, in concern for others and the understanding of social rules as to how they should be treated. At this lower level, primatologists have shown, there is what they consider to be a sizable overlap between the behavior of people and other social primates.

Social living requires empathy, which is especially evident in chimpanzees, as well as ways of bringing internal hostilities to an end. Every species of ape and monkey has its own protocol for reconciliation after fights, Dr. de Waal has found. If two males fail to make up, female chimpanzees will often bring the rivals together, as if sensing that discord makes their community worse off and more vulnerable to attack by neighbors. Or they will head off a fight by taking stones out of the males’ hands.

Dr. de Waal believes that these actions are undertaken for the greater good of the community, as distinct from person-to-person relationships, and are a significant precursor of morality in human societies.

Of course, this automatically leads to the question of origin(s) of religion:

Dr. de Waal sees human morality as having grown out of primate sociality, but with two extra levels of sophistication. People enforce their society’s moral codes much more rigorously with rewards, punishments and reputation building. They also apply a degree of judgment and reason, for which there are no parallels in animals.

Religion can be seen as another special ingredient of human societies, though one that emerged thousands of years after morality, in Dr. de Waal’s view. There are clear precursors of morality in nonhuman primates, but no precursors of religion. So it seems reasonable to assume that as humans evolved away from chimps, morality emerged first, followed by religion. “I look at religions as recent additions,” he said. “Their function may have to do with social life, and enforcement of rules and giving a narrative to them, which is what religions really do.

Also check out Frans de Waal's Chimapanzee Politics: Power and Sex among Apes and The Ape and the Sushi Master: Cultural reflections of a Primatologist

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Saturday, March 10, 2007

"Monkey Girl": A new book about the Dover Intelligent Design Trial

Here is Washington Post review of a new book about the 2005 Dover trial over the teaching of Intelligent Design in public schools:
Monkey Girl: Evolution, Education, Religion, and The Battle for America's Soul
In 2004, when the Dover, Penn., school board voted to require biology classes to use a supplemental textbook that promoted the theory of intelligent design rather than evolution, the conflict that erupted was about far more than semantics. As Edward Humes describes in this lively and thoughtful book, Dover -- like Dayton, Tenn., during the 1925 Scopes "Monkey Trial" -- became a proving ground for clashing beliefs about the origins of life and constitutional questions about the separation of church and state.

"The scientific community sees the creationist critics of evolution as yahoos, religious zealots, and scientifically suspect charlatans," writes Humes. "The creationists see the evolutionists as immoral and dishonest purveyors of a pseudoreligion called Darwinism that makes God superfluous." Each side is guilty of misrepresenting the other. In Dover, the people on each side believed those on the other were attempting to indoctrinate their children. And everyone soon realized that this local controversy had national implications.

Humes takes the title of his book, Monkey Girl, from the taunt leveled at a child whose mother objected to the new policy. Some parents, including teachers in the school district, viewed intelligent design as a stealth form of creation science. Although many of these parents were Christians (two even taught Sunday school), they felt that teaching ID in a public school classroom improperly injected religion into education. They brought their case, Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover Area School District, with the aid of the ACLU, the National Center for Science Education and lawyers from the Philadelphia firm Pepper Hamilton.

You can download the official judgement at the ACLU site (its 14o pages - but its fantastically written and nicely demonstrates why ID should not be taught in science classrooms):

Judge John E. Jones III, a Republican, emerges as the hero in Humes's tale. In his eloquent ruling for the plaintiffs, which should be read by every student of law, he noted, "This case came to us as the result of the activism of an ill-informed faction on a school board, aided by a national public interest law firm eager to find a constitutional test case on ID, who in combination drove the Board to adopt an imprudent and ultimately unconstitutional policy." Even before Jones issued his ruling, the citizens of Dover reached their own verdict: In the next school board election, "every one of the eight incumbents who favored intelligent design was ousted," Humes writes.
Read the full review here

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Intelligent Design Conference in Turkey

It seems that Turkey will be the conduit for anti-evolutionary ideas to the Islamic world. On the one hand there is Harun Yahya (see SRN: Feb 3, 2007), who aligns his organization with Creationist scientists in the US (promoting the idea that all species were created as is), and on the other hand there is Mustafa Akyol, who wants to promote the idea of Intelligent Design (ID) of the variety supported by the Discovery Institute also in the US (promoting the idea that evolutionary theory cannot explain certain biological features and that the best explanation is that these have been designed by some intelligence). So on February 24th, there was an ID conference in Istanbul that was apparently attended by 500 people.

The conference was titled "The Origin of Life On Earth" (you can find talk abstracts at
First, Mustafa Akyol made an opening speech in which he criticized the mindset of Turkish intellectuals who equate science with materialism without question. In the speeches given by David Berlinski and Paul Nelson, a brief but comprehensive criticism of Darwinism and naturalism was introduced along with a summary of basic Intelligent Design arguments. John Lennox made a broader criticism of scientific materialism and reductionism. The last speaker, Alpaslan Açıkgenç, explained how Islam looks at science, nature and life. The presentations were followed by questions and answers. the basic goal was to attack naturalism. It doesn't appear that these talks were really addressing the issue of the origin of life on Earth - unless we include the last talk that was relying directly on the Quran for evidence. After all evolutionary theory explains the diversity of life on Earth but doesn't really address the issue of origin of life nor does ID. (Check here for What is the theory of evolution?)

It will be interesting to see how ID does in Muslim countries. It sounds vaguely scientific and it talks about 'design' which resonates well with several passages in the Quran. The ID proponents in the US go to extreme lengths to not specify the "Designer" as God. This way they can make an attempt to sneak ID in the school system without violating the Church & State separation. However, this issue doesn't exist in most Muslim countries and there is a real danger of such a theory being brought into schools (and colleges). Ironically, Turkey may be one of the few Muslim countries where ID with explicit religious connections will have a hard time getting into the education system.
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