Mark Vernon on Richard Dawkins, evolution, and scientific “myth”

August 4, 2012 • 8:40 am

Late summer is apparently open season on Richard Dawkins, and the inimitable Mark Vernon has procured his Dawkins Hunting License. (There’s another ludicrous attack on Dawkins’s atheism that I’ll discuss tomorrow). Vernon is a former Anglican priest who now embarrasses himself by writing accommodationist articles for the Guardian; his hallmark is using a lot of words to either say nothing or to go badly wrong (see here and here). He just did it again. In his latest piece, “Richard Dawkins: an end to mythmaking?“, Vernon contends that Dawkins’s notion of the “selfish gene” (a metaphor for the fact that natural selection operates by genes acting as if they were selfish) is not only a “myth” in the sense of being “a powerful story”, but is also becoming a myth in the sense of “a fictional story”, for, according to Vernon, it’s scientifically discredited.

Vernon has no idea what he’s talking about, at least with respect to the science.  His main point seems to be that a recent paper in Nature by Martin Nowak, Corina Tarnita, and E. O. Wilson, completely dispels the idea of the selfish gene:

Richard Dawkins is a master mythmaker. His best fiction is that of the selfish gene. His great book of that title, published 35 years ago, described human beings as lumbering robots driven by immortal genes. It even had a brilliant, final twist. Sometimes, the myth promised, we can overcome the tyranny of the biological imperative inside us. Inevitably – though perhaps more quickly than many anticipated – his myth is going the way of the world. It spoke powerfully of what was taken to be truth for a time. But subject to the inexorable shifts of human knowledge, the myth is now starting to look outdated.

A crucial moment came in August 2010, when Martin Nowak, Corina Tarnita and Edward O Wilson published an article in Nature. They argued that the mathematics behind the idea that Dawkins had so successfully popularised doesn’t stack up. It was wrong, Wilson insists – and he should know as one of the few people who originally did the maths. He now prefers evolutionary theories that speak about altruism, based upon group selection. The next generation awaits a mythmaker of Dawkins’s stature to tell us this new story about life.

Does Vernon even understand what Nowak et al. said? Their idea was that the evolution of “eusociality” in social insects (that is, the sterility of workers who form castes and also help their mother, the queen, produce her own offspring) was based not on “kin selection” (natural selection involving individuals helping relatives), but on “group selection” (the evolution of a trait that is maladaptive within groups but spread by the differential extinction and reprodution of groups themselves).

Note that the paper was an explanation of a single behavior: the altruism of eusocial insects and a few other nonhuman animals. It did not address the idea of “altruism” in humans or other species. What it says about human altruism is only this:

We have not addressed the evolution of human social behaviour here, but parallels with the scenarios of animal eusocial evolutionexist, and they are, we believe, well worth examining.

However, Wilson’s new book, The Social Conquest of Earth, does impute human altruism, and much other human behavior, to group selection. (I believe that altruism in humans and other species is, in fact, explained more parsimoniously by individual selection involving reciprocity and relatedness than by group selection.)

Further, the paper of Nowak et al. says nothing about the mathematics of natural selection in general—that is, the maths behind the selfish gene.  Those mathematics, embodied in population genetics theory, are still good.  Neither Nowak, Wilson, nor Tarnita said anything about the idea of “the selfish gene” (i.e., garden-variety natural selection) being wrong in general. They merely claimed that one set of traits in one group of species was better described by group selection than by conventional natural selection.

And Nowak et al. were wrong even in this claim.  After their paper was published, 156 authors signed five letters to Nature, pointing out that Nowak et al. gave no evidence that natural selection (in the form of kin selection) could not explain altruism in social insects. That group of authors included virtually every prominent person working on the evolution of social behavior (I, a tyro, was also a signatory).  Now the weight of numbers itself doesn’t show that Nowak et al. were wrong, but the arguments made by the critics were correct. (I’ve posted about this controversy extensively on this site, e.g., here and here, here and here).  Vernon has apparently conflated the view of eusociality advanced by Nowak et al. with the rejection of “selfish genes” (natural selection). That’s apparent when Vernon argues that Wilson has replaced Dawkins’s idea of selfish genes with “evolutionary theories that speak about altruism, based on group selection.”  These are are not mutually exclusive alternatives anyway, and the latter theory is simply wrong, or at least undemonstrated. Altruism is only a very small subset of evolutionary biology.

Oh, and Wilson didn’t “do the maths.” The mathematical model was made by Tarnita and Nowak; Wilson’s contribution was apparently the idea of group selection, the biological description of eusocial species, and the verbal scenario that prompted the maths.

After getting the science dead wrong, and completely neglecting the extensive criticism leveled at the Nowak et al. paper, Vernon then tries to equate religious myths with scientific ones, to the detriment of the latter:

[Dawkins’s] latest book, which prompted the Paxman interview, trades on the genre in its very title: The Magic of Reality. The book describes many myths, religious ones as well as scientific. Myths are powerful because they fire the imagination, encourage play and make great poetic stories. They can only do so when there is something true in them.

There are, of course, differences between scientific and religious myths. For one thing, scientific myths are far less long-lived than religious ones. The great faiths of the world daily turn to myths that are thousands of years old and find truth leaping off the page as they read them. Scientific myths, on the other hand, do well if they last more than a century. Who today reads Newton? Both kinds of myth seek evidence in their support. The difference here is that scientific stories seek empirical evidence – and when the empirical evidence fails, the myth fails too, which is what appears to be happening to the selfish gene. Conversely, religious myths seek proof of a more personal kind. These myths work when they speak in their details about the truths of life. . .

. . . Religious people should be masters of myth, like Dawkins, for the greatest myths convey the truth of things to us, be that spiritual or scientific.

Note the sly dismissal of scientific “myths “as transitory.  Maybe people don’t read Newton today, but that doesn’t mean that many of his ideas weren’t right: a lot of them were, and have become part of mainstream science. Accommodationists act as if every scientific “truth” is ultimately found false.  Such truths are provisional, of course, but many have held up perfectly well. Matter is still made of atoms, the earth circles the Sun and the Moon the Earth, a water molecule has two hydrogen and one oxygen atom, and the gravitational attraction is proportional to the product of the masses of the attracting bodies and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them.  And the metaphor of genes acting as if they were “selfish” is not only alive and well, but has helped a lot of people, including evolutionary biologists, see natural selection in a clearer light.

And about that “truth leaping off the page” when we read religious myths: what truth, exactly, is that? What truths leap off the page when we read about Noah’s Ark, or the Book of Job (a horrible book I’ve just read that describes an abusive relationship, with God playing the role of battering husband), or Revelation? Certainly we can make up “truths” from reading these fictions, but, unlike science, there’s no way to test them. A Muslim will read the Bible and claim that it’s wrong: that Jesus was neither crucified nor the son of God.  Is the Muslim right? Who knows? We don’t even know if Jesus existed, even as an itinerant preacher.

The seeking of empirical evidence for scientific “myths” is an advantage, not a disadvantage. Science approaches the truth asymptotically, and has to reject some ideas along the way. But we still approach the truth about nature, for if we didn’t, we couldn’t cure diseases or send roving vehicles to Mars.  Religious “evidence” (“proof of a more personal kind,” as Vernon euphemistically calls “making stuff up”), consists of either revelation, dogma, or the confection of post facto rationalizations. We are no closer to understanding a god, if there is one, than we were in 1200 A.D. So no, religious truth doesn’t leap off the page. It’s read into the page by the believer.

And Vernon should read up on evolutionary genetics, because he’s got it all backwards. Where is Terry Eagleton now, asking whether Vernon has done his homework by reading Ronald Fisher, J. B. S. Haldane, or even the letters to the editors about the Nowak et al. paper?

70 thoughts on “Mark Vernon on Richard Dawkins, evolution, and scientific “myth”

  1. Who today reads Newton?

    This sentence alone reveals both the author’s ignorance and his arrogance.

    1. Verily. Beyond that, who today reads?

      In a state east of the Mississippi River and south of the Mason-Dixon Line (and I’m probably being unfair in making that delineation – nowdays it could happen in many locales across the fruited plain), I once observed a high school male walk into a Barnes & Noble and approach an employee for help finding a book.

      I distinctly heard him say, “I’ve never bought a book before, ” effectively meaning he’d never darkened the door of a bookstore.

      1. Also, if gravitation is a “myth,” then surely the gentleman will have no qualms about jumping off a cliff.

      1. NASA´s computers use Newton’s law of gravitation to calculate the trajectories of spacecraft with high precision. Ditto for the large computer models of the universe (such as the Millenium project) using supercomputers.

        1. Just to be completely accurate, relativistic effects, which for most problems in celestial mechanics are very small, are calculated using perturbation theory.

    2. Verily, the Newton sentence is a fatal self wound in the piece. Vernon is an unwitting ally in the atheist cause. It is precisely this form of abject ignorance of even the most simple and basic bits of science that made it clear to me that the religious authority figures of my youth were charlatans and that they had nothing at all to tell me.

  2. Those last three paragraphs should be enough to cause any person w/ a healthy and functioning brain to immediately comprehend the depths of their own stupidity and begin to heal themselves.

    That one wouldn’t is surely an indication of how far the virus has infected the host.

  3. “Maybe people don’t read Newton today”

    The bulk of the physics that engineers study in college is Newtonian, since relativistic effects are miniscule at the velocities we deal with in most applications.

    1. If I remember rightly, it isn’t even necessary to apply Einsteinian corrections to the trajectories of interplanetary vehicles – such as Curiosity. Newton is close enough.

      In other words, it is still rocket science.

      1. Depends on how accurate the calculations have to be. For instance, the Mars probe scheduled to touch down on Monday certainly required taking account of relativistic corrections via perturbation theory.

  4. Many scientific myths have their origins in religion. I.E. creation myth, earth as the center of the universe, flood myths, pantheistic explanations of the causes of natural disastors, etc… All considered science, or believed by most scientists, at one time.

    We see lots of religous myths overturned by science. How many scientific myths have been overturned by religion, or by “proof of a more personal kind?”

    1. “All considered science, or believed by most scientists, at one time.”

      Two very different things, IMO.

  5. As others already noted, anyone reading a basic physics text today is reading Newton. Just because his name isn’t on the cover of their intro text book doesn’t mean they aren’t learning Newtonian mechanics. For macroscopic objects in flat spacetime moving with slow velocities compared to that of light Newton is as good as you need for most problems. Anyone that considers Newton “wrong” is just showing how woefully ignorant they are of basic science and math.

    1. I think it is not so simple. Newton’s basic concepts really were wrong; it is not ignorant to say so. Time and space are not absolute, and gravity is not a force in the ordinary sense, and today we can easily show where almost all of Newton’s laws fail. But they led to predictions that were so nearly right that it was hard to detect their error; Newton’s laws do express a lasting truth about the universe, or more precisely, about how things behave in the limit of low velocities and vanishingly small mass, and excluding quantum effects.

      1. It is ignorant to imply that scientists and engineers do not study Newtonian mechanics, as ignorant as saying the moon is made of cheese.

        1. I was addressing this claim in the comment: “Anyone that considers Newton “wrong” is just showing how woefully ignorant they are of basic science and math.”

          Of course it is ignorant to say that we do not study Newton’s laws. But it is not ignorant to say that those laws are wrong.

          1. Newton´s laws are wrong? You mean Modified Newtonian Dynamics (MOND) brought in as an alternative to dark matter?

            1. Note the “modified” in the name. MOND modifies Newton’s most basic law, F=ma, so even if it is the right explanation for galaxy rotational velocities (contrary to the opinion of most physicists), it only adds another nail in the coffin for Newton’s framework.

            2. I’m sure he’s referring to Relativity, which is much more well established than MOND, which is fairly speculative at this point. Relativity shows that some of the ideas behind Newtonian mechanics are not correct, though the math works out in common situations (middling mass, low velocities). That is, under many circumstances, relativity reduces to Newtonian mechanics. But strictly speaking, relativity is the current best theory and it’s deviations from Newton have been validated enough that a physicist is justified in saying to physics students that Newton was “wrong”.

              This is not the sense of “wrong” that Vernon meant, though. Vernon obviously thinks that it’s false in a way that renders it not useful and as a merely transitory phase of human knowledge. He seems to think Newton’s laws are a mere relic. They are not. A thousand years from now, physics students will probably still start their studies with Newton’s Laws. In some other galaxy some alien intelligence will almost certainly know about conservation of momentum, say. Even when “wrong”, as Newton’s laws are in the absolute sense, they are more universal and solid than any thing that religion has or ever will produce.

              Many engineers operate with Newton’s laws without ever thinking about relativity. Unless you are a EE or design GPS systems or cyclotrons, most engineers can work with Newton’s laws as if they were absolutely true and never be bothered that in some cases they are not. I expect that many practicing engineers use Newton’s laws without even realizing that they are “wrong”. So while on a certain deep level, sure, Newton’s laws are simply and truly wrong. On a practical level, they are the most right thing humans have ever thought of outside of arithmetic.

              1. I agree with Gluonspring that you cannot say that Newton’s laws are “wrong”, they work OK for non-relativistic velocities (velocities not close to that of light). The discussion of MOND versus dark matter is not really a relativity problem, but rather just classical (Newtonian) mechanics. According to classical mechanics some galaxies would fly apart (if we assume their mass corresponds to their luminosity), but they might not need the invisible dark matter to keep them together if we assume that gravitational forces don’t follow the inverse square distance rule for very large distances (as in galaxies), and that in fact gravititational forces are stronger over these lerge distances. This is what the proponents of MOND argue. At this stage, the jury is still out, although MOND is generally less favoured by astrophysicists.

              2. “John, when people thought the Earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the Earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the Earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the Earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together.” – Issac Asimov, The Relativity of Wrong

              3. Gluonspring, I was just speaking to Stabbinfresh’s comment that it was ignorant to say Newton’s laws are wrong. I think you (and every other modern physicist) agree with me that Newton’s laws are wrong (hence it is not ignorant to say that they are wrong) but that they express a deep truth about the behavior of measuring devices in the limit of low velocity, etc.

                Alex, you did not read Gluonspring carefully. He says “a physicist is justified in saying to physics students that Newton was “wrong””. And MOND further modifies Newton’s laws, so that if MOND were true, Newton’s original laws are even more limited in their range of applicability than we had thought.

              4. @First approximation:
                “when people thought the Earth was flat, they were wrong.”
                In fact even that is not correct to a certain extent. If you calculate how much time it will take to travel from home to work tomorrow one of your assumptions is that the Earth is flat indeed. Your calculation is thus simplified and hardly deviates from more precise ones, those who assume a spherical Earth, let alone Relativity.

      2. Newton was wrong in the same sense that every pake ever baked has been wrong regarding the exact bake time and measure of ingredients, however, every one of those pakes potentially served their purpose as Newton’s physics serves its purpose. Newton was wrong to the same degree that every human construction has been done wrong.

        In the way Vernon intended to be understood, Vernon is wrong not Newton. It is ignorant to say Newton was wrong in the way Vernon intended. Which is punctuated by his intended claim that no one reads Newton.

        1. Again, I was responding to Stabbinfresh’s comment, not Vernon’s. It is NOT ignorant to say that Newton was wrong. Newton’s “laws” are true only in a special limit. Of course they are still useful and for that reason we still study them. FirstApproximation’s Asimov quote nicely defuses Vernon’s version. Yes, all our physical theories so far have flaws, but some are truer than others. Newton’s laws are truer than most. They are still obviously and demonstrably wrong.

      3. I will have to take strong exception to the notion that Newton’s laws of motion and gravity are “wrong”. It would be much better to say that they are approximations which are valid in the regimes where relativistic and quantum mechanical effects are too small to be observable.

        However, there is a difference between quantum effects and relativistic effects. Relativistic effects can be treated as perturbations to Newtonian mechanics at the macro level. The same is not true of quantum effects in which classical mechanics totally breaks down.

        1. If you just say they are approximations, that would be fine, and you would be confirming my point that they are wrong as universal laws. Compare with quantum electrodynamics or relativity, which seem to make exactly correct predictions, to the degree that we can test them.

          Newton made fundamentally wrong assumptions about the universe. Space and time are not in fact independent of each other, and are not absolute. Space and time are not mere stage-settings for the movement of “particles” but rather are active participants in the laws of motion. I could go on and on. Newton’s laws tell us interesting and true things about some important limiting situations. But they are wrong as universal laws.

          1. If you just say they are approximations, that would be fine, and you would be confirming my point that they are wrong as universal laws. Compare with quantum electrodynamics or relativity, which seem to make exactly correct predictions, to the degree that we can test them.

            I feel compelled to note that Newton’s laws made exactly correct predictions for centuries until we were able not only to measure Mercury’s orbit with sufficient precision but rule out the possibility of an undiscovered planet perturbing its orbit.

            We are also know that quantum mechanics and relativity cannot (presumably) be reconciled, especially with respect to gravity, and that there’s a very good chance that both are “worng” in the same sense that Newton is “worng.”

            Further, the LHC is starting to hint that even the Standard Model is “worng” in interesting ways that may actually point us to a “deeper” understanding of gravity.

            So, I think it unhelpful to mischaracterize Newton as “worng” and modern physics as “right.” Newton was absolutely spot-on perfect; all one need do is specify the domain over which his model is applicable. And, indeed, said model is not only applicable over most of the range of human activity, it’s significantly more useful over most of the range of human activity. Would you really want to have to break out relativistic or quantum equations every time you wanted to figure out when your flight will arrive? Especially considering that, possibly within the coming decade, you’ll have to throw away both because of the “worngness” in quantum relativity?



            1. Ben, I never said we should use relativity or QM for everyday work; I said (over and over again) that Newtonian laws are good approximations in a certain limit. I also never said modern physics is “right”. Modern physics is almost certainly wrong, but I named some areas where our predictions are not yet refuted, to show that indeed our “laws” are not mere approximations. If we could find deviations from QM or relativistic predictions, we would stop treating QM and general relativity as true laws and start treating them as interesting approximations. (And as you suggest, that day will surely come, because of the apparent incompatibility between the two.)

              No one breaks out their spherical trigonometry tables to calculate how far it is to the neighborhood grocery store. For everyday purposes it is fine to make the assumption that the earth is flat, as MNb said above. Does that mean you will argue that it is not wrong to say the earth is flat?

              The kinds of objects presupposed by Newtonian theory do not (indeed cannot) exist. The theory is deeply and profoundly wrong, even more wrong than the theory that the earth is flat. (The latter is a mere geometric quibble compared to the enormous shift in worldview as one goes from Newtonian theory to relativistic quantum dynamics.)

              1. The kinds of objects presupposed by Newtonian theory do not (indeed cannot) exist. The theory is deeply and profoundly wrong, even more wrong than the theory that the earth is flat.

                Again, no.

                The limit of a spherical geometry when the sphere is large enough in relation to the geometer is indistinguishable from a traditional Euclidean geometry. The spherical geometry reduces to the Euclidean one.

                The exact same thing happens with relativistic and quantum mechanics at human scales. They both reduce down to Newtonian mechanics, in the exact same way that spherical (and, indeed, all non-Euclidean geometries that I can think of) reduce to Euclidean geometries at the proper scale.

                Take any quantum or relativistic equation you like, apply it to human-scale phenomena, and all those extra terms that confuse people reduce down to near-zero or near-unity figures that you can simply cross off, and what you’re left with is garden-variety Newtonian mechanics.

                How what is really and truly a rounding error can somehow be considered “deeply and profoundly wrong” is utterly beyond me. I’d even go so far as to suggest that such a statement itself is “deeply and profoundly worng.”



              2. No, the difference between a more or less spherical earth and a flat one is not a “rounding error” (pardon the pun). It is false to say the earth is flat. It is fine to say the earth is locally so nearly flat that I cannot distinguish the true state of affairs from the false one.

                Relativity and QM make qualitatively different predictions about the universe compared to Newtonian mechanics. To call these difference a “rounding error” is a serious oversimplification. The precesion of Mercury and the bending of starlight grazing the sun have quite different values from those predicted by Newtonian theory. The Newtonian values are wrong, so the theory that produced them is wrong.

                Your comment about human-scale phenomena being Newtonian is also an oversimplification. Tell the people of Hiroshima and Nakasaki that their parents and grandparents were killed by a rounding error.

              3. Another example of a human-scale consequence of relativity is the equivalence of inertial mass to gravitational mass. This is easy to demonstrate and observe–no big masses or fast velocities are needed. This is a huge unexplained coincidence in Newtonian theory, but is elegantly explained by general relativity.

              4. Indeed even biological evolution depends on non-Newtonian physics. Physicists like Lord Kelvin told Darwin that the earth was not old enough for evolution to take place; if the earth were really as old as evolution required, the planet would be ice-cold by now. Darwin ignored the Newtonian physicists, and was soon vindicated by new physical discoveries. I think the sun’s lifetime might also be wrongly calculated using strictly Newtonian principles.

              5. Lou, nobody is coming close to suggesting that Newtonian mechanics is anywhere close to the complete picture of the universe, or even hinting that there’s no utility to quantum and relativistic mechanics, or that Newtonian mechanics gives correct answers on every possible question you might put to it.

                All we’re noting is that Newtonian mechanics is a model, just like quantum mechanics is a model, just like relativistic mechanics is a model — hell, just like epicycles and the solar system model of the atom are models.

                And each and every one of those models is more or less useful / precise to varying degrees.

                And not a single one of them is perfect, not a single one of them is right, and not a single one of them is “worng.”

                They’re all useful to one extent or another within a certain, specified domain. All of them can explain all sorts of phenomena to useful degrees of accuracy within the limits of the domain.

                Even more to the point, Newtonian mechanics has a breathtakingly large domain, one that is perfectly suited up to and including everything that everybody dealt with up to about a century ago, and still encompassing most of everything that most everybody still deals with today.

                Yes, your GPS is useless without relativity, and semiconductor chip designers have to consider quantum effects. We know that. We’re not arguing otherwise.

                But you most emphatically want your car mechanic to be of the Newtonian variety.

                And to suggest that Newtonian mechanics is somehow “worng” for your car mechanic is, itself, both insulting and worng.



              6. Ben, if you are arguing that it is not wrong to say the earth is flat, then I give up. In my view, the earth may look flat on small scales, but this is an illusion.

                So I have to ask, do you now accept the biblical description of the universe as “not wrong”?

              7. I think it would be most accurate to say that Newtonian physics is wrong, and that the jury is still out on general relativity and quantum theory. If I were to bet, I’d bet those are wrong too. But I think there is such a thing as truth, and there is no inherent impediment to our discovering it. I don’t know if we ever will discover it, but we might.

  6. The proof of myth.
    God is the question.
    Ask a silly question, get a silly answer.
    Accept the myth.
    Narcissus became aloof. Lost. Alone. Died.
    When the evidence fails, the myth fails.
    Romeo and Juliet never existed.
    The greatest myths convey the truth of things to us, be that spiritual or scientific.
    The truth of things.
    The truth of things.
    The truth of things.

    Mark. Vernon. The. Ultimate. Hogwash. Generator.

    1. Re Lou Jost

      The precesion of Mercury and the bending of starlight grazing the sun have quite different values from those predicted by Newtonian theory

      The precession rate of Mercury’s orbit is quite different then that predicted by Newtonian mechanics? Mr. Jost has some rather exotic ideas about what constitutes very different. The relativistic contribution to the precession rate of Mercury’s orbit is 43 seconds of arc per century. That sounds pretty small to me.

  7. It sounds like someone needs to read Asimov’s “The Relativity of Wrong”:

    I’m actually surprised by how many biologists seem to dump on The Selfish Gene and I cannot really work out why. The main criticism seems to be on the basis that not all evolution is the result of selection. I don’t remember Dawkins ever saying that it was and I haven’t seen any argument that leads me to believe that The Selfish Gene isn’t the explanation of how (and when) selection DOES operate, i.e. it is not for the good of the species or individual, it is the fitness of the “gene” that matters. (Of course, many people also attack Dawkins because they don’t understand the meaning of “gene” in this context.)

    Have I missed something? I cannot see anything wrong with Gene-centric evolutionary theory.

  8. This article by Mark Vernon is truly appalling – his lack of understanding so profound that the only reason I can see that the Guardian published it – and this is pointed out by many of the commenters on the website – is that it is merely ‘click fodder’: ‘designed’, almost, to ensure a heavy and angry/bemused traffic. The Grauniad is beginning to piss me off.

    1. There are editors moving away from this “click fodder,” looking for serious pieces and quality journalism. If things work out, Matter Magazine, a kickstarter project, may be an example.

  9. Easiest part of this drivel to dispel: “who reads Newton today”. Answer:every physics graduate and mechanical engineer in the world.

  10. Even if one were to take a slightly more generous view of the Bible than JAC, there remains the unspoken problem that Biblical stories get radically RE-interpreted from one generation to the next, while Vernon’s rhetoric implies that the Biblical “truths” are more lasting than scientific ones.

    The Bible is really a lot like a Rorshach inkblot test that what you see in it says as much about you as anything else. Everyone has (as “Tears for Fears” put it) their own “personal Jesus” tailored for them. Or as A.N.Wilson pointed out it really is not true to say (as the Epistle to the Hebrews puts it) “Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow”. Actually, each century has a different Jesus. In other words, the truths that “leap off the page” are shifting as much or more than scientific paradigms.

    But seriously. JAC/WEIT, the Book of Job is a subtle satire of God with a prologue and epilogue added by someone else clueless much like the movie studios change the endings to movies some time, to their detriment.

    1. “The Bible is really a lot like a Rorshach inkblot test that what you see in it says as much about you as anything else.”

      Now stolen!


    2. “Everyone has (as “Tears for Fears” put it) their own “personal Jesus” tailored for them.”

      Ahem. That would be Depeche Mode.

  11. Where is Terry Eagleton now, asking whether Vernon has done his homework by reading Ronald Fisher, J. B. S. Haldane, or even the letters to the editors about the Nowak et al. paper?

    Excellent call. Imagine someone holding forth on theology whose only knowledge of the subject is The Children’s Bible, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Mark Vernon on biology.

  12. Who today reads Newton?

    Every single person that studies the calculus.

    (Is this going to start a Leibniz flame war?)

    But as I’ve heard before, Newton wrote far more about religion later in his life. Why do you think he’s remembered for science and math and not that?

  13. “Scientific myths, on the other hand, do well if they last more than a century. Who today reads Newton?”
    This is about the stupidest remark on physics I have ever read by a believer. Vernon should take a random schoolbook on Mechanics and he will meet Newton’s three laws.
    For some “myths” of physics which even last longer than Jesusboy I refer to a certain Archimedes. But granted, his truths do not jump off the page, it needs some mental effort to get them.
    Something Vernon apparently is not capable of when it comes to natural sciences.

  14. Perhaps somebody can help me understand something, here.

    As I see it, if group selection is to apply, then you would have groups within the species that are reproductively isolated for sufficiently long periods for that species to gain traits beneficial to just that one group as a whole at a cost to individuals in the group. These traits would then get passed to other groups within the species through infrequent cross-fertilization.

    I can maybe see that happening in some species of social insects…except for the fact that there’s really not any significant source of variation going on within a hive. You’ve got the one queen with her lifetime supply of eggs, by the basic model.

    And I most emphatically do not see that happening with humans. Today, we are a supremely mobile society. Yet, even in the most unrealistic insular tribal societies of our past, such as those recorded in the Bible, our tribes swapped women and children through conquest and slavery, and our men “sowed their seeds” by raping the women in the villages they conquered. And, realistically, though war rape and sex with slaves has a long and ancient history, more peaceful means of interracial mingling have always been with us — traveling salesmen, prostitutes, sailors with a woman in every port, that sort of thing.

    So what, exactly, is the mechanism by which group selection is supposed to even have the theoretical chance to operate on humans?



  15. “What truths leap off the page when we read Revelation?”
    That’s kicking in an open door. The truth that leaps off the pages from Revelation is obviously that there always have been people with an overheated imagination. The author should be rewarded with the World Fantasy Award posthumously.

  16. What makes me mad about this, is not so much that some moron who doesnt understand science disagrees with Dawkins, and its not even that this man is obviously uneducated in this field. Its that a mainstream newspaper / media outlet is giving him a voice to thousands or i should say millions (billions even?) who will believe it because it sounds credible!

    what ever happened to qualified people writing about the fields they know and understand!!

  17. Ockam’s Razor is a wonderful Australian weekly radio program run by our very special science journalist, Robyn Williams. This 15min program is by a grandmother who is having email with her fundy grandchildren, trying to help them to think through the Noah story. My heart goes out to her, and she deserves an award for patience in teaching.

  18. Strictly speaking, we don’t use Newton’s exact formulation, but more the formulations developed in the 18th and 19th centuries. He did a lot of Euclid-style geometrical constructions, while we often use vectors and the like.

Leave a Reply