12 June 2008

Weekly sampler 20

Wow, lots going on lately.

1. So, what is a species? The concept is much abused by creationists, so that an already-challenging topic is turned into an abyss of confusion and obfuscation. John Wilkins is a philosopher of science who runs a superb blog over at ScienceBlogs, Evolving Thoughts. He's an expert on this whole species thing, and he recently provided a fascinating commentary on the issue and on a Scientific American essay on the topic by the dashing Carl Zimmer. Warning: spoiler ahead!

So my answer to the question Carl proposes: what is a species? is that a species is something one sees when one realises that two organisms are in the same one. They are natural objects, not mere conveniences, but they are not derived from explanations, but rather they call for them...
2. Oh, speaking of Carl Zimmer, check out this deliciously disturbing story of manipulation in nature, starring some of the creatures that drove Charles Darwin to agnostic distraction: parasitic wasps. Don't read this one at night.

3. Okay, so I've been a little hard on Jim Watson around here. He was "forced out" of his position at Cold Spring Harbor after he was reported to have made some plainly racist statements. Richard Dawkins was indignant, probably because Watson is a fellow atheist who Dawkins fawns over in The God Delusion. I had mixed feelings. On one hand, I was outraged by Watson's nakedly disgusting racist remarks; on the other, I was concerned about the likelihood that his comments on evolution and cognition would be ignored (or worse, rejected) in the uproar.

Well, Watson was recently interviewed by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., at an interesting site called The Root. Watson says that he is "mortified" by "those three sentences in the Sunday Times article." I'm pretty sure all three sentences appear in this paragraph:
He says that he is “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa” because “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours – whereas all the testing says not really”, and I know that this “hot potato” is going to be difficult to address. His hope is that everyone is equal, but he counters that “people who have to deal with black employees find this not true”. He says that you should not discriminate on the basis of colour, because “there are many people of colour who are very talented, but don’t promote them when they haven’t succeeded at the lower level”. He writes that “there is no firm reason to anticipate that the intellectual capacities of peoples geographically separated in their evolution should prove to have evolved identically. Our wanting to reserve equal powers of reason as some universal heritage of humanity will not be enough to make it so”.
It seems to me that a discussion of the last two sentences could be quite fruitful; Watson is right about evolution, but wrong about what that must mean about the "equality" of "them."

4. Here's an interesting place to hang out: The Galilean Library. When I first followed a link there, I assumed it was a repository along the lines of Darwin Online. But no: here's how the community is described:
The aim of TGL is to provide a venue for people interested in the sciences and humanities and the possibility of learning more about them in community with others. Its rules are strict, relative to other discussion forums, and standards of expected behaviour are high, but all users need to do is demonstrate a genuine commitment to friendly and respectful dialogue with others in good faith. It consists in a Library of essays, at both introductory and more advanced levels, alongside a Discussion Forum where members of our community meet to converse and debate.
Cool. And yes, they do have stuff by Galileo, including that masterpiece of science-faith dialogue, Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina.

5. Kevin Corcoran unearths ancient secrets of scientific explanation. Now I get it.

6. A slick new Tangled Bank is up at Syaffolee.

7. A recent post in Steve Martin's ongoing series on "Evangelicals, Evolution, and Academics," by Karl Giberson, led to a lengthy and robust discussion there and on the ASA listserv. And a new post in the series, by Gordon Glover, just went up. It has this in-your-face title: "Why Evolution should be taught in Christian schools." Required reading.

8. Hey! My wife and I are looking for scholars (or just friends) in Scotland and/or London who would be willing to help us with our January trip to London and Edinburgh to study Christianity and the Scottish Enlightenment. Doesn't that sound like a great time? Please get in touch if you agree.

9. Reasons To Believe is a morass of misinformation about biology and evolution, but this is a new low: some "guest scholars" have contributed a series on "Evolution as Mythology" which is a rancid concoction of dishonest quote mining and fallacious reasoning that should make any informed Christian seethe. So much for RTB's claim to respect science and scientists; that series is a tour de force of the kind of arrogance-fed ignorance that forms the backbone of the young-earth creationism that RTB claims to eschew. Here's a typically nauseating morsel:
Even though macroevolution seems improbable via the traditional pathway (and regulatory genes are a strong argument for creationism) the myth-like character of neo-Darwinism continues to keep it as the dominant theory. As Behe says, “Most biologists work within a Darwinian framework and simply assume what cannot be demonstrated.”23 Evolutionists even claim regulatory genes make neo-Darwinism more plausible because punctuated equilibrium is more easily explained by regulatory genes, but this only emphasizes how the myth of macroevolution must be protected with religious zeal.
Note to RTB: your intellectual integrity is mediocre at best, and your failures are magnified, not hidden, by your attempts to claim moral high ground in "debates" involving science and faith. Your organization desperately needs reform.

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