Dover Day

December 20, 2010 • 2:12 pm

Exactly five years ago today, Judge Jones announced his ID-killing ruling in the case of Tammy Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover Area School District et al. What a nice Christmas present that was!  And it’s hard to believe that so much time has passed.  Over at Butterflies and Wheels you can see a collection of contemporary reactions to the verdict by a number of luminaries, including among others Barbara Forrest, Richard Dawkins, Paul Kurtz, and Matt Ridley.   I’ll highlight just one, by Dan Dennett:

Judge John E. Jones’s opinion in the Dover Area School District case is an excellently clear and trenchant analysis of the issues, exposing the fatuity and disingenuousness of the ID movement both in this particular case and in general. However I found one point in it that left me uneasy. In the Conclusion, on page 136, Jones says “Repeatedly in this trial, Plaintiffs’ scientific experts testified that the theory of evolution represents good science, is overwhelmingly accepted by the scientific community, and that it in no way conflicts with, nor does it deny, the existence of a divine creator [emphasis added].” I have not read the scientific experts’ testimony, and I wonder if Judge Jones has slightly distorted what they said. If they said that the theory of evolution in no way conflicts with the existence of a divine creator, then I must say that I find that claim to be disingenuous. The theory of evolution demolishes the best reason anyone has ever suggested for believing in a divine creator. This does not demonstrate that there is no divine creator, of course, but only shows that if there is one, it (He?) needn’t have bothered to create anything, since natural selection would have taken care of all that. Would the good judge similarly agree that when a defense team in a murder trial shows that the victim died of natural causes, that this in no way conflicts with the state’s contention that the death in question had an author, the accused? What’s the difference?

Gods have been given many job descriptions over the centuries, and science has conflicted with many of them. Astronomy conflicts with the idea of a god, the sun, driving a fiery chariot pulled by winged horses – a divine charioteer. Geology conflicts with the idea of a god who sculpted the Earth a few thousand years ago – a divine planet-former. Biology conflicts with the idea of a god who designed and built the different living species and all their working parts – a divine creator. We don’t ban astronomy and geology from science classes because they conflict with those backward religious doctrines, and we should also acknowledge that evolutionary biology does conflict with the idea of a divine creator and nevertheless belongs in science classes because it is good science.

I think that what the expert scientists may have meant was that the theory of evolution by natural selection in no way conflicts with, nor does it deny, the existence of a divine . . . prayer-hearer, or master of ceremonies, or figurehead. That is true. For people who need them, there are still plenty of job descriptions for God that are entirely outside the scope of evolutionary biology.

25 thoughts on “Dover Day

  1. The Dover anniversary is certainly worth celebrating with a pake, a Cuban corona, and a fifth of sparkling cider.

    I loved this closing bit by Dennett:

    ” … there are still plenty of job descriptions for God that are entirely outside the scope of evolutionary biology.”

    Or so the tax-cut legislation would have us believe.

    1. Wouldn’t wine and crackers be a more suitable celebration? I dunno…just thinking aloud, here.

      And, yes. Dennett has an amazing way of cutting right to the bone — but oh so cleanly and subtly. It’s the sort of powerful insult that doesn’t even register as such until later…and delivered with a smile by none other than Santa Claus, too!



  2. Gods have been given many job descriptions over the centuries,…

    In this YouTube video titled Does God Exist? Dr. Borg & Dr. Crossan Respond, Crossan sees God as “the driving force of evolution.” Although he has apparently lost his belief in the God of the bible, it is evident that he has revised his definition of God in order to escape the dreaded fate of becoming an atheist. 🙂

    1. What a find! Oh, wow…

      – “”I still get my hate mail. I do hear about it. It’s amazing to me how much it’s still brought up,” Kitzmiller said.”

      – “Buckingham said he still carries a copy of the Constitution in his briefcase in the event anyone claims there’s a mention of the separation of church and state.”

      – “”But it doesn’t affect the science. The scientific case for intelligent design keeps getting stronger.” In the five years since, Behe said scientists are discovering how complex cells are beyond previous understanding, and he believes that helps support intelligent design as a valid scientific theory.”

      – “Officials at the Discovery Institute, which helped support the defendants’ cause, […] were not available.”

      That must be the first time DI isn’t available to discuss ID, surely? Behe is officially backpedalling on his official backpedalling as described in a recent post here.

      And fundies are as crazy as ever, especially Buckingham with his no separation:

      “The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” [United States Constitution, Article VI, paragraph 3.]

      Not to mention the amended constitution of US: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”.

  3. Don’t you think Dennett overreaches a bit? Evolution gives a good explanation of the diversity of life and the functional adaptedness of current life forms. It therefore puts Paley-style teleological arguments out of business. It also puts some extra pressure on theodical reasoning, and worsens the Problem of Evil. It demolishes the doctrine of the special creation of each living thing, and it renders certain literalist theologies untenable. It is in tension with many religious views of the world, because it provides a strong argument against human exceptionalism. Overall, it’s naive to deny any conflict between evolution and traditional kinds of Christianity. Viewed as a whole, the pictures look very different and do tend to conflict.

    But it’s not a theory of creation, if that is taken to mean creation of the universe. It’s not even a theory about how life first originated. We don’t yet have a robust theory about that.

    1. First, I think Dennett was using “creator” in the biological sense, not the cosmological sense.

      Even if not…well, as he states, the best reasons for believing in a creator have always been the biological ones, and Darwin demolished all those reasons.

      The remaining almost-as-good reasons would all have to be variations on the same theme, simply pushing farther and farther back the gaps the gods are supposed to fill.

      If we now know that no gods are needed to explain the diversity of life, and if we now know that all that diverse life is descended from a single very simple organism, how good an argument is it to claim that some god or other was needed to create just that one single organism? Surely any such argument must, of necessity, be far weaker than any argument based on the diversity of life.

      Similarly, if we know that life itself — what some in certain circles would proclaim to be the crowning glory of the universe — if life itself needs no gods to explain, why should the inanimate stuff that life is made from need gods?

      As Dawkins so well explains, what Darwin did was knock out the need for a skyhook and instead demonstrate how complexity arises from a solid foundation of simplicity. Since pretty much all theism is a skyhook model where simple things can only be explained as the creation of even more complex things, once Darwin kicked out that last (huge) pillar, the rest of the edifice quickly came a-tumblin’ down.



    2. … how life first originated. We don’t yet have a robust theory about that.

      If by robust you mean testable, it is easy to see that abiogenesis can be a stochastic process of attempts.

      Since we now have fairly good evidence for life @ ~ 3.5 Ga (stromatolites) and Earth is ~ 4.5 Gy, the ~ 1 Gy period over ~ 5 Gy history encapsulates 99 % of Poisson processes with min normalized rate 0.2. (Because the corresponding exponential distribution stacks up its probability mass so early.)

      In other words, unless I’m mistaken, despite having measly data of 1 sample and awful resolution of early life history of ~ 20 % of scale we can’t falsify at 3 sigma (one-sided distribution) that:

      a) abiogenesis looks like a simple stochastic process of attempts b) said abiogenesis attempts was a really easy and eager process.

      [I note that this goes fully against Monod, say, which AFAIU portrays what I can only interpret as a dynamic process that samples a vast phase space with a very small volume of “success”, but not as a stochastic process at all. Anywho…]

      Not much detail 🙂 🙂 :-), but at least “gods-did-it” and “it was deterministically difficult (corresponding to low stochastic rate) and/or took long time” isn’t competitors.

      I would agree with Dennett and Goren then, evolution demolishes the idea of needing a creator of hereditary populations, and modern data on geological periods demolishes the idea of needing a creator of the first hereditary population; we don’t need evolution to see the later, but evolution did the hard lifting to see the former.

      1. Oops, I should also add that the testability is just a matter of coincidence. _If_ abiogenesis had been “deterministically difficult (corresponding to low stochastic rate) and/or took long time” the result would have been less accurate.

        But critiquing _that_ theory will not be applicable as criticism to _this_ (the data driven) theory.

        1. By “robust” I mean something like “successfully tested” not just “testable”. Evolution is a very robust theory – it has been so thoroughly tested by now that it’s likely that its main conclusions (which Jerry nicely summarises in WEIT) will ever be overturned, even though, in principle, they are held provisionally.

          And yes, you can draw some philosophical conclusions from our historical experience with evolution such as “The diversity we see is yet another example of a striking phenomenon having a naturalistic explanation; therefore, when we take this together with other such examples, it is likely that all phenomena have naturalistic explanations.” We might even suspect that some of those will turn out to be analogous to evolutionary theory itself.

          But evolutionary theory, as such, doesn’t demonstrate that all phenomena have naturalistic explanations. I think the conflicts between evolutionary theory and certain kinds of traditional religious views are more specific and also more subtle than that.

          It’s an argument among friends, but I still think Dan is overreaching a little.

  4. I regard Dover as the Christmas gift that keeps on giving. I think that I have read all the books giving the story, and I enjoyed all of them. On of these days, I’ll reread them for the pleasure they produced.

    I’m not certain that I’d agree with Ben Goren (comment #4 reply) that biological reasons are the best ones for divine creation.
    I think ignorance is.
    Ken Miller, who is a very intelligent biologist and did great service in the Dover trial, believes in a Creator because of his imperfect understanding of the Big Bang. Most cosmologists, who understand the Big Bang, are atheists.

    1. Ken Miller, who is a very intelligent biologist and did great service in the Dover trial, believes in a Creator because of his imperfect understanding of the Big Bang.

      more likely simply because he was raised Catholic, and the cognitive dissonance of remaining in that belief system, combined with training in science, lead him to resolve the dissonance via “Quantum God”.

      If it wasn’t his poor understanding of physics, it would have been something else that worked for him.

  5. I predict the fight will never be won. Evidence from neurobiology, anthropology, and cross-cultural study of the world’s myths and religions suggests that all gods and goddesses are personifications, not persons. But precisely because they are personifications (projections), most of those who hold particular notions of God as meaningful will never be persuaded by arguments that “God doesn’t exist.” They’ll simply think to themselves, “Of course God exists! Isn’t it obvious?” And the two sides will continue to talk past each other… till long after everyone reading this is dead and gone.

    1. but, projections are modifiable.

      even Carl Jung thought so, and he was the one who came up the idea of the collective unconscious.

      so, I don’t agree that there will never be a resolution to this.

      as more and more people recognize that indeed religious beliefs ARE just projections, less and less will be inclined to teach their kids about “religious truth”, and it will fade, like a bad memory.

      1. I hope you’re right, Ichthyic. And I suspect you may be. (I was feeling a little more pessimistic than usual when I wrote that yesterday.) But I think another thing that is likely to happen is that words like “religion” and “spirituality” will be redefined by millions, hopefully billions, as having to do with “right relationship to reality” – and thus, the global scientific enterprise will be seen as central to A) our understanding of reality, and B) interpretations and practices that effectively lead us, as individuals and groups, into right relationship to reality.

  6. I don’t agree with Nick Matzke on the basics of the accomodationist approach to the religion/science issue, but on THIS day, especially, one just has to give a tip of the hat to Nick.

    Nick’s tireless efforts behind the scenes at Dover really were instrumental in that case.

    In fact, they had such impact that several papers got published out of them, and Nick himself ended up being offered a position as a grad student at Berkeley.

    so, again, I give a big tip-o-the-hat to Nick Matzke for his tremendous effort at Dover.

  7. God is as real as gremlins and demons! Neither of the three is the Primary Cause whilst natural causes themselves are!
    Always the atelic argument arises to defeat directed evolution and directed sub-atomic matters as “Seeing and Believing” and the essay on the yin and yang of Ken Miller @ Talk Reason illuminates!

  8. I remember the genesis (so to speak) of that article. The news of the decision came in, and I posted links in B&W News, and was pretty much squirming with elation and wanting to do something with it – and I thought ‘I know, I’ll ask Dawkins for a quotable.’ It was about 5 p.m. my time so 1 a.m. Oxford time, but he sent his quotable immediately. Cyber champagne kind of thing.

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