Sunday, January 18, 2015

Sensational Headlines: "Darwin Was Wrong"

Creationists are reveling at the news, absolutely giddy about sensational publications in recent years that feed their confirmation bias.  One of these is What Darwin Got Wrong, by Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini.  Here are two secular scientists saying all the things the creationist wants to hear, stroking their contempt for Charles Darwin, the man who laid the foundations of evolution science and did so much to cast doubt on their precious religious beliefs.

The authors of this book are both cognitive scientists and philosophers, but in this work, they are well outside their areas of expertise.  They present warmed-over arguments that have been thoroughly debunked before the book was ever published.  Ned Block and Philip Kitcher had this to say in a review that is well worth reading in its entirety:

What Darwin Got Wrong shows no detailed engagement with the practice of evolutionary biology, nor does it respond to the many criticisms that have been leveled against earlier versions of its central ideas. In this latter respect, the authors resemble the creationist debaters who assert that evolution is incompatible with the second law of thermodynamics, hear detailed refutations of their charge, and repeat their patter in the next forum.
In an effort to bolster sales of the book, Piattelli-Palmarini wrote an article for Spiked Online that is aimed at a religious audience, and strikes directly at the sensibilities of creationists, in which he speaks of the "religious fervor" of the evolution science community, and how it has become "blasphemy" to speak against "Darwinian doctrine".  He describes this exchange:
Some months ago an American philosopher explained to a highly sophisticated audience in Britain what, in his opinion, was wrong, indeed fatally wrong, with the standard neo-Darwinian theory of biological evolution. He made it crystal clear that his criticism was not inspired by creationism, intelligent design or any remotely religious motivation. A senior gentleman in the audience erupted, in indignation: ‘You should not say such things, you should not write such things! The creationists will treasure them and use them against science.’ The lecturer politely asked: ‘Even if they are true?’ To which the instant and vibrant retort was: ‘Especially if they are true!’ with emphasis on the ‘especially’.
Piattelli-Palmarini gives us absolutely no reason to believe that this exchange actually took place.  The speaker is unnamed, the audience is unidentified, as is the forum, the time, the place, etc.  If you search the internet for references to this conversation, the only thing you will find is this article.  That's significant, since a revelation like this would surely generate quite a buzz if it had actually happened.  There are many references to Piattelli-Palmarini's article, but none to the original event.  Could it be that this event never happened?  Could it be that Piattelli-Palmarini is pandering to creationists and others who reject evolution theory, in order to sell his book?

That's what I posited in Victor Reppert's blog, much to the consternation of the creationists and religious apologists there, who think that Darwinian evolution has been all but disproved, but that the science community hangs on to it with all the religious devotion of a Southern Baptist fundamentalist.  It makes me wonder: If they think all this religious fervor is so bad, why don't they give up their own?  Nevermind.  Logical consistency is the last thing I expect to hear from these people.

So the chief creationism defender and anti-atheist crusader among them brings out his best evidence for the bankruptcy of Darwinist theory:  the buzz generated by the cover of New Scientist that boldly declares "Darwin Was Wrong".  I'm sure that cover gave orgasms to the anti-Darwin crowd, but they obviously didn't read the editorial inside, which I repeat here (with emphasis added, h/t PZ Myers):
    “THERE is nothing new to be discovered in physics.” So said Lord Kelvin in 1900, shortly before the intellectual firestorm ignited by relativity and quantum mechanics proved him comprehensively wrong.

    If anyone now thinks that biology is sorted, they are going to be proved wrong too. The more that genomics, bioinformatics and many other newer disciplines reveal about life, the more obvious it becomes that our present understanding is not up to the job. We now gaze on a biological world of mind-boggling complexity that exposes the shortcomings of familiar, tidy concepts such as species, gene and organism.

    A particularly pertinent example is provided in this week’s cover story – the uprooting of the tree of life which Darwin used as an organising principle and which has been a central tenet of biology ever since (see “Axing Darwin’s tree”). Most biologists now accept that the tree is not a fact of nature – it is something we impose on nature in an attempt to make the task of understanding it more tractable. Other important bits of biology – notably development, ageing and sex – are similarly turning out to be much more involved than we ever imagined. As evolutionary biologist Michael Rose at the University of California, Irvine, told us: “The complexity of biology is comparable to quantum mechanics.”

    Biology has been here before. Although Darwin himself, with the help of Alfred Russel Wallace, triggered a revolution in the mid-1800s, there was a second revolution in the 1930s and 1940s when Ronald Fisher, J. B. S. Haldane, Sewall Wright and others incorporated Mendelian genetics and placed evolution on a firm mathematical foundation.

    As we celebrate the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth, we await a third revolution that will see biology changed and strengthened. None of this should give succour to creationists, whose blinkered universe is doubtless already buzzing with the news that “New Scientist has announced Darwin was wrong”. Expect to find excerpts ripped out of context and presented as evidence that biologists are deserting the theory of evolution en masse. They are not.

    Nor will the new work do anything to diminish the standing of Darwin himself. When it came to gravitation and the laws of motion, Isaac Newton didn’t see the whole picture either, but he remains one of science’s giants. In the same way, Darwin’s ideas will prove influential for decades to come.

    So here’s to the impending revolution in biology. Come Darwin’s 300th anniversary there will be even more to celebrate.
There was some discussion about whether that headline would give encouragement to creationists, but there was never any suggestion that the science should be covered up.

I want to make one point absolutely clear.  Science is not a religion, despite the best efforts of some to drag it down to that level.  Darwin is not a god.  Nevertheless, his work in creating the foundations of evolution science stands firm.  That's not to say that he had all the details right.  Every real scientist understands that science doesn't have all the answers (as religion claims to), and that it is always subject to change as new information comes to light (unlike religion).  If it should come to pass that Darwin is eventually shown to be completely and absolutely wrong, the scientists involved won't hide that news away.  It will create a major sensation in the scientific community.  They will probably face resistance, and rightfully so, until their work gains widespread acceptance.  After all, science is skeptical.  It demands evidence.  It needs corroboration.  It doesn't reject all that has been established because of a book by someone who doesn't even understand what has been established.

But change it will.

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