20 July 2008

Why one should wash thoroughly after visiting Uncommon Descent

My foray into the land of Intelligent Design partisans last month was both interesting and frustrating. I was able to explain a little of why I will never embrace the sad, sick movement, and I learned a little more about what's under the hood of that wrecked vehicle. My conversation with Thomas Cudworth and a few others went fine, I thought, despite the fact that many of my comments met nearly invincible incredulity regarding my flat axiomatic rejection of the claim that "random" or "natural" means "unguided" or "out of God's hands."

Some of the participants asked some of the usual questions, with some of the usual attitude, and I think I'll use the questions as the basis of a few posts in the next month or so. In the meantime, I've visited Uncommon Descent a few times in the past couple of weeks, which is a big change from my prior refusal to go anywhere near the place. (It's like visiting Pharyngula, but with far less wit and even less science.) (It's also like those gory movies they showed us in Drivers' Ed -- weirdly fascinating for a few minutes, then tediously nauseating after that.)

Well, today, I was reminded of why I can't stand the place, or most of the movement it represents.

Last week, Olivia Judson (writer of the evolution-themed blog The Wild Side at the New York Times) wrote a superb piece on the term "Darwinism," in a series on Charles Darwin and his influence/legacy. The series has been excellent, and the piece on "Darwinism" was superb. (Recommendation: If you can't stomach Bill Dembski, just go read Judson's post and don't bother reading the rest of mine.)

Here is Judson't simple point:

I’d like to abolish the insidious terms Darwinism, Darwinist and Darwinian. They suggest a false narrowness to the field of modern evolutionary biology, as though it was the brainchild of a single person 150 years ago, rather than a vast, complex and evolving subject to which many other great figures have contributed. (The science would be in a sorry state if one man 150 years ago had, in fact, discovered everything there was to say.) Obsessively focusing on Darwin, perpetually asking whether he was right about this or that, implies that the discovery of something he didn’t think of or know about somehow undermines or threatens the whole enterprise of evolutionary biology today.
Now, even if we didn't have anti-evolution propagandists employing the term "Darwinism" for the purpose of sowing confusion and fomenting religious opposition to science, the term would be "insidious" for the reasons Judson cites. Ditto for "Darwinist." In the case of "Darwinian," though, there is ample scientific precedent for using the term to indicate evolutionary changes (or mechanisms) specifically associated with selection, as opposed to other known forces (such as random genetic drift) that lead to evolutionary change, and "darwinian fitness," synonymous with reproductive fitness of a genotype, is a fairly standard term in genetics.

But Olivia Judson is right. After all, we don't call genetics "Mendelism," we don't call neuroscience "Cajalism," we don't call molecular biologists "WatsonCrickists," and no one accuses astronomers of being "Copernicans." The term is silly, and to a certain extent so is the overemphasis on Darwin and his birthday.

So, how is Olivia Judson's piece discussed at Uncommon Descent? With a barbaric comparison of Darwin, the "cornerstone" of evolutionary biology, with Christ, the cornerstone of Christian faith. Here's my response to Dembski's weird little rant:
Judson is right on in every way in her piece. We don't call genetics "Mendelism" or molecular biology "WatsonCrickism," and the abuse of the term "Darwinism," a specialty of this rancid blog, is just one reason to dispense with the term.

The sickest part of your post, Mr. Dembski, was where you mangled Judson's use of term "cornerstone" and then associated it with our Christian references to Christ himself. Judson's reference, of course, was not to Mr. Darwin but to "several of his ideas," which she and others note don't even originate exclusively or completely with him. Christ, on the other hand, IS the cornerstone of our faith. To link Darwin's place in evolutionary theory with Christ's place in the kingdom of God is really sick.

The quote from Jerry Coyne is pretty good, and funny thing: it doesn't mention Darwin at all. Coyne may be an a--, but if you think he worships Darwin, then you'll have to do some better quotemining than that.

Come on, guys. There's just no way this blog can be taken seriously as a place to defend and discuss design as long as it is characterized by twaddle like this.
The comment went up this evening, and lasted something less than an hour, probably closer to 30 minutes. It resulted in my immediate banning and much mirth on my deck (where I was relaxing with the laptop, enjoying the fireflies and feeding the mosquitoes). And there's already an obituary, which hilariously opines that I was "going out of my way to be negative." If that's negative, then what on earth does he call Dembski's swill? I call it sick. I think I already mentioned that.

Uncommon Descent is a cesspool. I'm eager to discuss design and evolution with Christians of diverse persuasions, and I know it can be done without the kind of desperate intellectual vandalism that characterizes Bill Dembski's writing at UD. But this much is clear: it can't be done at Uncommon Descent, as I repeatedly noted when I was there. It's hard to imagine a less apt forum for the serious consideration of Christian views of biological origins.

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