Friday, July 17, 2009

A roller coaster conference

I must say - this conference has been a bit strange. I have heard some amazing talks here. For example, Ron Numbers on creationism in the global context, John Evans in bringing sociological research to science & religion, Marwa El Shakry on the early reception of Darwinism in the Arab world, and today' talk by Jon Roberts on the religious reception of Darwinism in America 1859-1920 (summaries in an upcoming post). I'm familiar with Ron and Marwa's work, but it was fascinating to hear John Evans bringing in quantitative analysis to understanding anti-evolution reaction of conservative Protestants in the US and then Jon Roberts tracing the reaction of Protestants after the publication of Origin of Species and their split into Protestant Evolutionist and Conservative Protestants.

Apart from a select few short papers, the quality has not been very good. Plus, this conference is making me a raging Dawkins defender. I think his name was mentioned in 70% of the papers (mostly in short papers) - with only one positive reference (in Evans talk). Yes, Dawkins also makes a caricature of religious positions - and yes, sometimes he can be offensive. But this is being returned in kind at this conference - often with a chuckle from the audience.

However, the craziest talk happened to be in the session of my talk. First of all, it was on an overhead projector - with transparencies! But this was the least of the problems. The talk was titled The response to Darwinism among Orthodox Jews: conflicts regarding Biblical interpretations. Actually, it sounded quite interesting and reasonable. However, after going through a very straight forward literal and metaphorical interpretation bit about the first chapter of Book of Genesis, the speaker turned his attention to finding evidence of God - from...wait wait...the K/T impact - the impact that killed off the dinosaurs 65 million years ago! No, seriously, that was his point. He quoted several authors, such as Gould, Alvarez, etc. all saying that if the dinos had not been killed, we (humans) would not have been here. But here is the central part of his argument: If the asteroid had been smaller, it would not have killed all the dinos - and mammals would have remained the size of a shrew. If the impact was too big, it would have killed off all the species. Hence this was a special event - from God. And he pointed out that God sent the asteroid from space. Aaah!! I wanted to pull my hair out during his talk. By the way, he is a physicist (I'm sure, retired).

I did ask him why not pick any other event? Even if we stick with asteroid impacts (although we can trace events in human evolution from the first cell - and can claim any number of events that drove evolution as miracles), why not pick the impact that killed off 90% of the species 250 million years ago. I'm sure Earth's history changed dramatically after that event. Plus, asteroid impacts is that last thing to use as a miraculous event. We can calculate probabilities and predict the number of impacts as a function of size (big asteroids crash less frequently). So a 10 km asteroid that killed off the dinos - actually happens to hit the Earth once every 100 million years. No magic. It is simply form the size distribution and quantity. Hence, we've had numerous large scale impacts since the beginning of life - about 4 billion years ago. Indeed, the fossil record shows several mass-extinctions. The K/T event is no more miraculous that any other impact (or any event in evolution).

Next time, a summary of a good talk from the conference.


Atif Khan said...

Interesting. Seems like you will loose some weight there with all that valid points (specially K/T event and some more may come up). Good to burn some carbs. :)

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