A more evolved faith?

New York Times Magazine has a brief on Michael Dowd, a UCC pastor who has decided that Christians should not just accept the fact of evolution – they should embrace it. Based on the article, and a quick perusal of the website for Dowd’s upcoming book Thank God for Evolution, Dowd’s gospel seems center on the idea that we can better come to terms with our sinful nature if we understand its evolutionary origins. It also has more than a hint of Teillardian influences:

When I speak of evolutionary emergence I’m referring to the fact that ‘the Universe’ (Nature/Time/Reality/God) has consistently, though not without setbacks, produced larger and wider scales of cooperation and complexity over time. [emphasis Dowd’s]

It’s inaccurate, at best, to say that biological evolution has some sort of grand purpose behind it – there may be trends that are visible in retrospect, but these are the emergent result of undirected processes, not evidence of a divine plan. It feels a bit churlish to make that kind of objection, though. Even liberal Christians don’t usually know what to do with evolution, beyond accepting it as fact. No other modern thinker, as far as I know, is actively grappling with the ways in which evolutionary thought might actually inform Christian theology. (The closest I know of is Michael Ruse’s Can a Darwinian be a Christian?, which is excellent, but resolutely agnostic.) If Dowd’s ideas are less than perfect, they do make a good starting point. And Christianity could use a good starting point for thinking about evolution. I might have to track down a copy of Dowd’s book.


In which I finally get myself excommunicated

Last night I opened my copy of The Mennonite (the denominational magazine of Mennonite Church USA), to find a review of that paragon of investigative reporting, Ben Stein’s anti-science movie Expelled. Just so the reader can’t possibly mistake it for an informed evaluation of Expelled‘s perfidy, the review is titled Clearly the product of intelligent design. The author basically swallows the Expelled talking points hook, line, and sinker:

By interviewing professor after professor who lost their jobs for merely suggesting, in peer- reviewed publications, that intelligent design (ID) might be a plausible explanation for the origin of life on Earth, [Expelled front man Ben] Stein makes a strong case that a conspiracy exists to eliminate anyone who would challenge the accepted evolutionary theory.

And, better yet:

Stein’s calm demeanor and dry sense of humor are disarming. The result: those he interviews open up to him in surprising ways. … After one scientist tells his de-conversion story, I realized that those depicted in the film who vilify proponents of ID are themselves ardent atheists.

So I spent my evening putting together a letter to The Mennonite, with a little help from NCSE’s handy reference Expelled Exposed:

Steve Carpenter’s review of the pro-Intelligent Design (ID) movie Expelled (in the issue of 20 May) was deeply disappointing, because the author obviously has very little background knowledge of the film or the subjects it addresses. Expelled is full of factual inaccuracies — for instance, both Richard Sternberg and Caroline Crocker, who, according to the film, were fired from academic positions for supporting ID, actually continued in their positions after the incidents described. The anti-ID scientists seen in Expelled were hand-picked for their known antipathy to religion, and were given a false understanding of the film’s subject matter when they were interviewed. While many scientists are nonbelievers, many others (including myself) are confessing Christians, and the vast majority see no incompatibility between belief in God and acceptance of scientific fact.

Furthermore, Expelled‘s attempt to link Charles Darwin’s work to the Holocaust is tantamount to blaming Saint Augustine for the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition. While Darwin anticipated the misapplication of evolutionary thought to human social planning, he explicitly decried such ideas. (Expelled selectively quotes his writing to give the opposite impression.) Darwin was deeply opposed to slavery and gave generously to charity. In The Voyage of the Beagle, he wrote, “If the misery of our poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin.”

For a much more accurate, thoughtful, and highly readable alternative to Expelled, I recommend Michael Ruse’s excellent book Can a Darwinian be a Christian? (Cambridge University Press: 2001). I hope it won’t spoil the ending if I say that the answer, contrary to what Expelled would have you think, is a resounding “yes.”

Jeremy Yoder
Moscow, Idaho

We’ll see if it makes it into the magazine. If it does, it’ll be the first time I’ve really stood up for science in a public, church-wide forum – and I anticipate that it’ll get a mixed reception at best. (No, I don’t think I’ll actually get excommunicated for being a scientist. With no Mennonite congregation in Moscow to expel me, it’s kind of an academic question anyway. Back in Lancaster County, Mom and Dad may have some awkward conversations during the Sunday morning coffee break, though.)


Oh, the irony

When University of Minnesota biologist (and science blogger) P. Z. Myers came to a recent screening of Ben Stein’s new wannabe-expose Expelled at the Mall of America, he was – wait for it – kicked out. Funny thing is, the management admitted Myers’s guest, none other than (and here I’m quoting Myers’s comment on his own account) Richard Freaking Dawkins. I could go on, but I think the NYT coverage and Myers’s own blogging do a fine job of articulating how petty and stupid the ID contingent ends up looking in light of this. That’s on top of the whole denial-of-fact thing, of course.

Well, OK – one additional comment from me. The oversize dollop of whipped cream on this sundae of irony is that both Myers and Dawkins are interviewed in Expelled (though the producers misled them about the nature of the documentary). Myers posted an excerpt that’s available on YouTube:

Sounds pretty measured and reasonable to me. Not necessarily everything I agree with, but not foaming-at-the-mouth, likely-to-disturb-the-peace crazy, either.


Cutting-edge creation “research”

Via Wired Science: the good folks at Answers in Genesis, who brought you the Creation Museum, are now launching the Answers Research Journal, an attempt to coat six-day Creationist dogma with a thin veneer of peer-review and slick web design. The premier volume contains a whopping three papers, one of which is the proceedings of a forum from June 2007. Topics include

  • Granite can form really fast! Therefore, Earth is six thousand years old.
  • Microbes are cool! What day they were created on? and
  • Mutation can’t possibly create new adaptations (given the author’s definition of “new,” “adaptation,” and “can’t”), so evolution is impossible!

The “peer-review” at ARJ is as laughable as the content: two contributers to the “forum” do so under pseudonyms, because, says a footnote,

The writers, who hold PhDs in fields related to the topics of their abstracts, are scientists at prominent research facilities in the eastern part of North America. They prefer to keep their creationist credentials hidden for the moment until they achieve more seniority.

In other words, ARJ‘s editor(s) are asserting that it is more important to help their contributors lie to tenure committees than to provide the journal’s readers with information necessary to evaluate the content (authorship, that is). That’s just scummy.

The most positive thing I have to say about ARJ is that they don’t ask you to pay to read their nonsense. It’s all free for download in PDF form, just like a real journal! But, in a move that probably says a lot about the journal’s producers and their intended audience, there’s no citation manager import.


Christian schools: win Ben Stein’s money

In the wake of the victory for common sense that was the Dover Trial and Michael Lynch’s trouncing of their only paper to be published in a peer-reviewed journal, the Intelligent Design movement has refocused its efforts on propaganda. Specifically, the documentary Expelled, in which none other than Ben Stein will apparently argue that evil atheist scientists have “expelled” ID “theory” from its rightful place in the science curriculum. I first heard about Expelled when the New York Times reported that Richard Dawkins and NCSE’s Eugenie Scott were interviewed for the film under false pretenses.

Now, ERV (SA Smith) points out a scheme to bribe Christian schools to take their students to Expelled. How pathetic is that? The producers aren’t even sure that their assumed core demographic (Christian teens) will show up to this movie if they don’t institute “mandatory field trips.” It’s also maddening to me: I went to a Mennonite high school, where I actually got a pretty good grounding in biology, and where I took the class that inspired me to pursue graduate study of evolution and ecology (Thanks, Mr. Good!). Which is to say that, even though many do, there’s no reason that Christian schools have to teach pseudoscience. This Expelled initiative tries to provide exactly such a reason.

An aside: Who exactly is making Expelled, anyway? According to the Times article, the production company that arranged the interviews with Dawkins and Scott called itself Rampant Films – but it turned into Premise Media when the real nature of the project was revealed. Premise Media has a website [mind the creaky flash intro on your way in], the contents of which are concerned only with Expelled. Anyone want to bet it’s a front for the Discovery Insitute?


Open-source journal on evolution education

Via Wired Science: the new journal Evolution: Education and Outreach aims to connect working biologists with elementary and secondary science teachers to provide a resource for teaching about evolution. And all its articles will be freely available online.

The inaugural issue includes an essay by John N. Thompson, one of the leading names in my own sub-field of coevolutionary ecology, which points out that the popular press frequently fails to use the word “evolution” when it covers such concrete examples as antibiotic-resistant bacteria and host shifts by disease organisms. I’ve noticed this myself, and I think it’s a very relevant issue: without calling evolution by its name, idiotic disconnects like the one between President Bush’s “teach the controversy” position and his spending for bird-flu preparedness aren’t as obvious.


Robo-Adam and Eve-Machine

The Underground Press at Eastern Kentucky University has a photo-tour of a new Creation Science Museum that’s opening in their neighborhood. As previously reported by the New York Times, the museum is $27 million worth of flashy animatronics, special-effects heavy video displays, and pseudoscience all aimed at “proving” that the Earth and all its inhabitants were created ex nihilo in six days’ time about six thousand years ago. The Underground Press’s side-by-side comparisons of the museum’s accounts of “human reason” (science) versus “God’s Word” (Christian fundamentalism) is highly informative.

Now, I’m not going to tell anyone that they don’t have the right to believe what they want to, and even teach it to their children – but I do think it’s wrong to wrap yourself so deeply in your worldview that you can’t even hear the alternatives. As with most of anti-evolution propaganda, this museum isn’t going to convert anyone. It’s a sermon aimed at the choir, the intellectual equivalent of putting your fingers in your ears and singing “I am the very model of a modern Major General” at the top of your lungs when you’re losing an argument. It’s sad.