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Wednesday, October 03, 2007

 
Great Resource On Intelligent Design Creationism

by tristero

Through a series of posts by PZ Myers and the good people at The Panda's Thumb I was led to this excellent, and brief, pdf by Paul R. Gross on "intelligent design" creationism. For those of you new to the subject, this is a great place to start, and it is chock-a-block with links if you want to follow-up.

If you want a more detailed treatment of the subject, both scientific and historical, pick up the book Dr. Gross wrote with Barbara Forrest called Creationism's Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design. The paperback edition of the book updates the story to post-Kitzmiller, the big trial that, imho, is far more important than the Scopes Monkey Trial of "Inherit the Wind" fame.

A word of advice to newbies to the subject: trust no one. First of all, you cannot trust the creationists because they lie, distort, and cherrypick quotations to an extent that is simply breathtaking. Both PZ's site and Panda's Thumb have numerous examples and, in fact, the lying of the creationists became an important issue in the decision handed down against them by Judge Jones in the Kitzmiller case. Therefore, anytime a creationist quotes a reference - anytime - don't you believe it unless you've looked it up yourself. Yes, they really are that bad.

Nor should you trust the scientists on the science because of their reputation, as, I assume (or hope), they would be the first to tell you. Their authority as figures to respect is as worthless as their data are essential. It's not that "The Great Charles Darwin says it, so it must be so," but rather, "What does Darwin say, what's his evidence, do his conclusions follow, are there valid alternatives to the interpretation of the data?"

Follow the arguments and be critical: ask questions, pose objections, think. I suspect you will discover that evolution by natural selection is as easy a major scientific theory to grasp as they come (but its implications are extraordinary subtle and far-reaching). There are, I'm sure, many good intros to evolution, but, imo, the first edition of Darwin's Origin of Species will do quite nicely.* You may need to skip around a bit - there's a lot more information about pigeons in the beginning than most sane people need to know - but you will find succinct definitions of natural selection, a carefully marshalled argument, and a frank discussion of the objections to the theory.

And if you do take the time to read this book, or others by Darwin, you may come to the same conclusion that I did. It's not only that the evidence is simply overwhelming for evolution by natural selection. Nor that it is simply outrageous that such a beautiful theory should be witheld, as it is,** from schoolchildren. It's also that the more you learn about Darwin and his exemplary life, the more you realize what a terrible cultural loss it is that young people are denied the opportunity to meet this extraordinary person and learn who he was.

Darwin's not a stuff-shirted Nigel Bruce pip-pipping his way across the Empire. He is a young kid on a ship who once had the gall to grab a sailor's dinner from his plate because he (the sailor) was about to eat a very rare ostrich Darwin had been searching for in vain for months. He's a fellow who, when learning to use the bolas from Argentinian gauchos, managed to lasso his own horse, and he's willing to write about it. Later, as he worked through his theory, which took him over 20 years to announce, he was tormented by the implications if it was misconstrued (as it was, right from the beginning). He developed a cautious style that is a model of arguing and inferring from the evidence. And, by all accounts, Darwin was a man devoted to his family and friends, deeply considerate and generous.

Yes, Darwin had his faults. But anyone with ten times his faults and one tenth of his talent would easily win a Nobel or Macarthur. That kids don't have a chance to learn who this guy was - that's a real crime.

----

[Slightly updated after the original posting.]

*The 1st edition is considered by scholars better than the revisions, where Darwin, in response to critics who were themselves mistaken, added material that muddled the argument. The edition I've linked to has the text of the first, with some additional material, such as a glossary, that was introduced in the sixth edition.

**One of the lesser noticed upshots of Scopes was that references to evolution all but disappeared from high school biology texts for some thirty years. At the beginning of the Space Age, with the US anxious to encourage kids to pursue science careers, evolution made a comeback of sorts. Today, as I understand it, many high school teachers once again try to avoid or minimize the subject of evolution. How it is possible to teach biology without putting evolution at the center of it genuinely escapes me, even if I'm a layperson.