Evolution

John Updike on Intelligent Design

John Updike is one of my literary heroes, so I’m looking forward to reading Adam Begley’s new biography, Updike. After catching an NPR piece with Begley a few days ago, I was prompted to go and look up a Book TV interview I had once seen where Updike is asked to comment on theology and intelligent design. Anyone familiar with Updike knows religion played a role in many of his works – particularly the masterful Roger’s Version – and that he was a consistent if somewhat non-doctrinal and denomination-hopping Christian his entire life. I’ve posted the full interview below, but the section in question starts at 56:36 and lasts about five minutes.

Overall, I was a bit disappointed – as I was the first time I listened to this – to hear Updike cite arguments like the fine-tuning of the universe and the complexity of the organic cell as having convinced him there was a God. He even stoops so low as to cite Michael Behe’s book, Darwin’s Black Box, as showing there are some gaps in Darwin’s theory, and mentions that a whale’s production of baleen seems to come out of nowhere and is “not observed anywhere else in nature”.

For such an astute guy – I’m fine using the term genius in his case – it’s a bit jarring to hear him displaying such ignorance on issues that he seemed to be genuinely interested in, like evolution and Darwinism (he subscribed to Scientific American, for instance). Behe’s arguments, as you probably know, have been demolished by the scientific community. His own university even put up a statement on its biology page distancing itself from his views.  And while the fine-tuning argument gets a lot of play as the best theists have to offer, it’s still not a very good argument at all and has been deftly handled by countless philosophers and scientists. My favorite is Sean Carroll, who covers fine tuning in this debate with William Lane Craig.

The saddest part of the interview to me was when Updike admits he essentially retains his faith (through many bouts of doubt) because he’s afraid to confront a world without God or (such is implied) external purpose.

So why am I so tenacious? In part a fear…I’ve had chronic crises which I’ve made mention of in Self-Consciousness…that the choice seemed to come down to believe or be frightened and depressed all the time.

Which confirms one of my recent theories about belief vs. non-belief – most of it (like most everything) is out of our hands. We are born with and/or develop a particular disposition or ability to countenance a world without God, and it seems to crystallize at some point – very few can break out of it one way or another. Some people just don’t have the constitution to accept a God-less world, and hold onto faith by – in the words of Updike himself – “an act of will”.

But no matter – if it made Updike happy to believe, good for him. I don’t think he was in the slightest dogmatic or concerned with proselytizing. Ian McEwan, in this remembrance, describes Updike as a pretty easy-going Presbyterian that was in some ways quite close to an atheist. I do just wish he had spent more time with scientists, who could have corrected some of his wayward views on the credibility of people like Behe. I can only imagine the treat the world would have been in for had Updike turned his pen more frequently to the majesty of science.

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Kevin Padian discusses common misconceptions about evolution

Jerry Coyne shares Kevin Padian’s new paper (available for free) on some of the most common misrepresentations of evolution and how to avoid them…

Why Evolution Is True

If you teach evolution, or like to read about it, there’s a new paper you should read by Kevin Padian in the journal Evolution: Education and Outreach(free download; reference below). It’s a discussion of misrepresentations about evolution that occur not only in popular science writing, but also in textbooks. As president of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), and a respected paleontologist at Berkeley who works on the evolution of birds and flight, Padian carries considerable authority in this area. And indeed, his points are generally good. In fact, I was embarrassed to see that I’ve been guilty of some of these misrepresentations, for which I’m sometimes called to account by readers here.

I do have a couple of disagreements with Padian’s points (more below), but on the whole they’re solid and worth absorbing.  Here are some that I agree with, or at least don’t strongly disagree with:

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Debating Evolution Skeptics on YouTube (with a little help from Stephen Jay Gould)

Evolution untenable?

Evolution untenable?

I get a bit worked up about evolution deniers. So much so that I spend much more time than I should engaging individuals in online discussions and forums, who, for whatever reason (okay, the reason is always religions) deny evolution. Without a doubt, they get most upset when I use the word “fact” to describe evolution by natural selection.

“Isn’t that very unscientific of you, to say evolution is a fact? It is just a theory after all.”

Well, yes and no. That last sentence betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the what a scientific theory is, relative to other types of “theories”. A scientific theory is a very specific thing, it’s not the same thing as a theory about who killed Kennedy or a theory about who will win the Superbowl or even a theory about market behavior in economics. A scientific theory is an idea that has broad explanatory power, has been tested and verified by different objective observers, is consistent with other bodies of scientific knowledge, and explains particular facts. Facts, in turn, are just things that happen: e.g., apples fall when you drop them, humans evolved from apelike ancestors, the earth is an oblate spheroid. Scientific theories explain these facts – the theory of gravitation in the first (and last) instance, and Darwin’s theory of evolution in the second. It is possible these theories will be modified in the future, as Newton’s was by Einstein, but apples will still fall and humans will still have evolved from apelike ancestors – the facts don’t change.

A few individuals seem to be under the impression nothing can be proved or rightly called a “fact”. These people are playing a game with semantics. In any real sense, evolution is a fact, and descent with modification (Darwin’s preferred term) is the profoundly powerful theory that explains it.

If I could ask the American public to sit down and read one essay, it would be the late and inimitable Stephen Jay Gould’sEvolution as Fact and Theory” – he says everything I just have with much more eloquence. Go read it, and consider offering it up the next time you’re spending too much time in a debate on YouTube.

Today at 4 EST: 20-year-old Zack Kopplin to Debate Discovery Institute ID Advocates

Evolution Defender, Zack Kopplin

You can catch 20-year-old champion of evolution Zack Kopplin debate two Discovery Institute ID-advocates, Michael Medved and Casey Luskin, today on Medved’s radio show beginning at 4pm EST by clicking here.

If you haven’t been following the story, Kopplin, a current undergraduate at Rice University in Houston, became something of a sensation in helping to lead a campaign against the Louisiana Science Education Act (LSEA), which would allow public school teachers to use “supplementary materials” to criticize “evolution, the origins of life, global warming, and human cloning.”

The bill recently died in committee for the third year in a row, but these brush fires continue to sprout up, and I’m glad we have individuals like Kopplin standing up for scientific integrity and separation of church and state. Should be a fun interview – I’m not sure exactly of the context, but Medved and Luskin would need to start debating 10-year-old’s to have any shot at winning a debate on ID in public schools.

Sophisticated Ignorance – An Evangelical Preacher’s Denial of Evolution

Matt Chandler is a likable guy. He really is. I don’t have any trouble understanding how he’s been able to turn what was originally a dying congregation at Highland Village Baptist Church in Flower Mound, Texas into a 10,000 member, four campus mega-community of worshipers now collectively known as The Village Church. I get why he was recently named President of the Acts 29 Network, a church-planting initiative founded by Seattle-based preacher Mark Driscoll. I get why he’s got the #3 podcast in the “Religion and Spirituality” section of iTunes and a best-selling book, The Explicit Gospel. I get it. He comes across as real and genuine and somebody you want to be friends with. I’ve felt this way about him myself while sitting in on several of his sermons in Dallas.

But Matt Chandler is dangerous. He has that rare combination of charisma, ignorance, and influence that endears him to many and makes him seem trustworthy (…George W. anyone?). His book, The Explicit Gospel, has what must be the most frustrating section on science I have ever read (you can read my review of it on Amazon here, but just to give you a preview, he calls himself an “agnostic” on science…despite having just survived brain cancer). He of course denies evolution, but as you’ll see in the video below, he does so in a moderately sophisticated way, appealing to straw man arguments and misinformed rhetoric. When I first found this video, it had zero “dislikes” – I’ve tried casually to bump that up through initiating discussions in the comment section, but don’t think I can rest until that figure overwhelms the number of “likes”.

It isn’t just that Chandler is dangerous for people like me, who care about scientific integrity and truth, but he’s also, I think, dangerous for Christianity. He asserts a dichotomy between evolution and belief  (ie. you must pick one or the other) that I don’t think can survive the modern age of science and reason. Evolution is not going anywhere and Christians who insist on denying it will isolate themselves even further along the fringes. So, in a strange paradox, I think as many believers should be just as upset with Chandler as nonbelievers (I should point out that Chandler simply doesn’t seem to understand evolution…it’s possible, but not likely, that if he did he would come around).

Of course, I actually agree with Chandler that it is a dichotomy – that evolution is incompatible with evangelical Christianity – but I’d rather see moderate Christians embracing evolution (no matter how logically inconsistent the idea of “moderate” Christianity may be) than creationists continuing to insist that it’s “just a theory”.