The (mostly) good news: Darwin Day

January 30, 2014 • 7:04 am

The good news is that Darwin Day (February 12) is approaching, marking the day that Our Saviour (that’s for the Discovery Institute to distort) was born in 1809—the exact same day that Abe Lincoln emerged from the womb.  As you know, universities and science organizations throughout the U.S. have programs on evolution to mark the day, which is a good thing.  There are gazillions of them this year, and if you go to the International Darwin Day webpage you can link to everything.

All the Darwin Day events are collected on one separate page, and you can click on the location to find out what and where things are happening.

On the main webpage you’ll find a news item about how U.S. congressman Rush Holt (a Democrat, of course), has introduced a resolution in Congress designating Feb. 12 as an official “Darwin Day” in the U.S. We already have a Day of Prayer (contested by the Freedom from Religion Foundation, and still in the courts), so wouldn’t Darwin Day be even more appropriate?

In anticipation of the 205th birthday of Charles Darwin, celebrated around the world on February 12th as Darwin Day, U.S. Rep. Rush Holt (NJ) re-introduced a resolution today “expressing support for the designation of February 12 as Darwin Day.” The American Humanist Association worked with Rep. Holt and his staff on H. Res. 467, also known as the Darwin Day resolution, and will be sending copies of Darwin Day Celebration, a booklet on celebrating Darwin Day and highlighting Darwin’s contributions to science and humanity, to all 535 members of Congress to encourage support of the resolution.

“Charles Darwin is even more than the author of the theory of evolution, as great as that is,” Rep. Holt said.  “He represents a way of thinking, a philosophy, a methodology.  It was his thirst for knowledge and his scientific approach to discovering new truths that enabled him to develop the theory of evolution.  This lesson, about the value of scientific thinking, is almost as valuable as the theory he uncovered.”

The headline notes that the resolution is “re-introduced,” and we know what that means:

The Darwin Day resolution was first introduced in the House of Representatives in 2011 by former Rep. Pete Stark of California, the first and only open atheist to serve in Congress. It was reintroduced by Rep. Holt in 2013.

This resolution has a snowball’s chance in hell of passing, even though it is far worthier than a useless Day of Prayer. The Congress will pass a law mandating socialized healthcare for all Americans before it would ever honor Darwin.

Meanwhile, I looked up the Darwin Day events hosted by the College of Charleston in South Carolina. I participated in these last year, giving a lecture at the College on the evidence for evolution, and then debating a Lutheran theologian at the historic Circular Congregational Church on the topic “Are science and religion compatible?” As I wrote at the time, my host for both events, Dr. Rob Dillon of the College, attended that church and took the opportunity after the debate to try to humiliate me in public for questioning accommodationism—even though he’d invited me to engage in that very debate.  When I looked up what Dillon was arranging in Charleston this year, I found these events for the College’s Darwin Day (to be sure, there are a handful of straight science talks and one talk questioning intelligent design). But note that these are three of only seven events:

Picture 1How does one live “religiously as a naturalist” given that religion abjures naturalism? Yes, you can be a “naturalist” by studying nature, but this is a Deepity that ignores the palpable truth that an immaterial god for which there’s no evidence is not part of “naturalism.”

Note that this next “conversation” (i.e., kumbaya lovefest between faith and religion) is held at a church, and of course there will be not the slightest questioning of the harmony between faith and Darwinism (4 of the 5 participants are ministers or theologians):

Picture 2

This next one is absoutely execrable, for it is clearly aimed to enable religion. Do you suppose the answer would be “no”? Even if it’s not, how could genetic studies or brain imaging possibly give any information about whether God exists? All they could show is whether humans are hard-wired for belief in God or have some parts of the brain that light up only when the divine is mentioned (two possibilities that I doubt, and which in any case gives no information on the reality of God).Picture 3

In Charleston, Darwin Day has been transmogrified into Darwin and Jesus Day, and I would never again participate in events there—not as long as God in on the menu. Darwin would roll over in his grave were he to see celebrations like this in his honor.

h/t: Diane G.

41 thoughts on “The (mostly) good news: Darwin Day

  1. The last one is sponsored by the local Sigma Xi chapter. Guh. They’re supposed to be a scientific research organization but I suppose if the chapter is run by accomodationists then this is what you get. Of course, they may be interpreting the charter a bit too broadly.
    From Sigma Xi’s page:

    “Sigma Xi was founded in 1886 to honor excellence in scientific investigation and encourage a sense of companionship and cooperation among researchers in all fields of science and engineering. The Greek letters “sigma” and “xi” form the acronym of the Society’s motto, “Spoudon Xynones,” which translates as “Companions in Zealous Research.”

  2. The Charleston thing is a double-edged sword for them. If you claim god is within the realm of science, then the null hypothesis must be that god(s) do not exist. They will then have to accept that hypothesis until they have some concrete evidence. Are they really willing to do this?

  3. The Congress will pass a law mandating socialized healthcare for all Americans before it would ever honor Darwin.

    About the same likelihood as the Congress passing a resolution designating Dec. 25 at Newton day in honor if Isaac Newton.

  4. No accomodationism can ever avoid that evolution and neuroscience certainly raise reasonable doubts about the existence of God, that it is possible to have the superficial appearance of design in a godless cosmos.

    Accomodationism can simply suggest inconclusive hints of a hidden deity through various thin threads like the anthropic principle and so forth. If the nonbeliever asks the burden of proof to be on the theist, the latter can not produce convincing evidence.

    Now if the accomodationist does !*not*! exaggerate the !*strength*! of their case for God (not to mention making unwarranted quantum leaps from generic deism to the Biblical God) and simply declines to give up God as a working hypothesis while working with an attenuated religion partly shaped by science, then OK. But please keep in mind we don’t have reason to believe in what Bertrand Russell called a “cosmic purpose” to the universe.

  5. On the plus side, Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, whose full name is Duquesne University of the Holy Ghost, also has an annual Darwin Day (in contrast to my old department which has no religious affiliation, on the other side of town). I was able to shake Judge Jones’ (of Dover fame, if that needs to be said) hand after he spoke there not long after the trial.

    This year, their speaker is Richard Lenski, who has passaged E coli for a quarter-century and studies the genomes of the dozen populations that have apparently resulted.

    Their webpage for this event includes this boilerplate: Evolutionary theory is the single unifying concept in modern biology. Unfortunately, there are groups working against the teaching of evolutionary biology in our schools, even as the United States continues to lag behind most other developed countries in math and science education.

    Good on them!

  6. And re. Rush Holt, I understand from one of our former grad students, now a postdoc @ Princeton, that you’re likely to see bumper stickers in town that read “My congressman IS a rocket scientist”

  7. I’ll echo the point brought up by Matt G. #4 and JonLynnHarvey #6 and argue that the third speech — “Neuroscience and the Spirit: Has Science Proven the Existence of God?” — is NOT an example of accomodationism. The NCSE would throw a fit over someone suggesting that topic for their Evolution Sunday or whatever they call it.

    Accomodationists, to their credit, hate the “science finds God” arguments every bit as much (if not more) than they hate the “science eliminates God” arguments. No, no, no. They’re supposed to be compatible — not connected.

    Well, not connected in any way that’s too specific, that is. Avoid science-y language and you’re probably okay.

    Which of course is the rub. Given that both science and religion are supposed to give explanations for what we observe and experience, there is no way anyone can explain that they work together in harmony without explaining how that can be so. So you eventually end up with “why love of nature leads me to believe in God” apologetics.

    Many years ago a local Unitarian Universalist meeting asked me to give a talk about evolution on Darwin Day as part of their participation in some pro-evolution clergy project. I chose to speak on the Dover case and it was well received — but the Q & A and the sit-in-a-circle discussion afterwards was revealing.

    Although the UUs are humanist in ethics, there’s a lot of “spirituality” in the congregation and many of the members wanted to speak about how the theory of evolution and science in general either reinforced, enhanced, or in some cases created their belief in God (“Spirit.”)

    My response perplexed them: I either tried to correct their misapprehension of what the Theory of Evolution actually was (I would personally like to strangle or at least pinch Teilhard de Chardin very hard) or I politely challenged their reasoning. I could tell they expected universal approval: evolution AND God! Goody goody for you.

    But they hired a gnu atheist and hey, I wasn’t going to feed them accomodationism. It was the “we-respect-ALL-paths” UU. They get enough of that on a regular basis; time to open them up to an alternative. I didn’t know or use that second term back then, but I knew what it meant.

    1. Well, I’m not so sure. The NCSE not only enable but touts theistic evolution as kosher (see their “Faith” page with Peter Hess), which of course is a prime example of God working hand in hand with science. Theistic evolution is an explicit anti-naturalist theory in which God either directs evolution to certain ends or poofs out the needed mutations. Even accommodatoinists like Ken MIller, Simon Conway Morris, and Francis Collins suggest that there are phenomena of nature that can be explained only by God (fine-tuning for Miller, evolutionary convergence for Conway Morris, and the “moral law” for Collins). In those cases, the implicit message is that science has provided evidence for God.

      1. Yes and no — because the area is fuzzy their response is ultimately self- contradictory.

        I DO think the NCSE would be against anything as explicit as a “Science finds God” apologetic aimed at converting the unconverted. They would reject that third topic as too much like creationism.

        But if the same point is somehow reframed not as a scientific style of argument concerning ‘proof’ of God for skeptics — but as a more genial, personal “here is how I accept BOTH science and God” story aimed at the already-religious — then they’ll give a pass. It’s a subtle distinction without, as you say, much distinction.

        Is the theme of the talk “Here is why people ought to use science to become religious?” Then bad.

        Is the theme of the talk “Here is how people ought to use religion to accept science?” Then good.

        The point can be more or less the same, but if the approach isn’t directly confrontational to atheists then the NCSE and other organizations seem to think the “implicit message” ought to just fly over our heads as easily as it apparently flies over theirs.

        1. It seems there is really a variety of subspecies of “accomodationism” out there. I trust we are not using the term as loosely as the Discovery Institute uses “scientism”, but it might we worth trying to sift out the varieties. I worry about any rhetoric which suggests religious folk just can’t be scientists.

          1. Agree — not everybody defines “accomodationism” the same way. Same with “new (gnu) atheism.”

            I don’t know of any prominent new atheist who argues that religious people just can’t be scientists — so being against that isn’t “accomodationism” (nor is “working with the religious on common causes,” which new atheists endorse regularly.)

            A new atheist might say that a religious scientist is being inconsistent in not applying their scientific habit of thought and understanding to their religion. But that sort of special pleading wouldn’t mean that the science they have done isn’t real science, or that they’re not scientists. That only makes it more perplexing or frustrating.

            1. I prefer to say that scientists that decides to be inconsistent on some area where skepticism can be applied (Jerry’s science writ large), whether religion, cold fusion or vaccine, have shown good technical proficiency in the areas where they have applied science.

              But they have not grokked the full meaning of science (writ small or large) and of being an enlightened scientist.

              [Disclaimer: I used to be such a technician. I hope I have learned better since then.]

              Is that rhetoric? I hope it is a call for keeping science sane rather than a litmus test for ‘true’ scientists. Language is what you make of it, and if there are nuances of accommodationists certainly language can bear nuances of scientists.

              1. I hope it is a call for keeping science sane

                I just realized that this is stronger than an appeal against eroding forces, there is a directly useful method here.

                When we don’t accept religion or accommodationism encroaching on science it isn’t all about errors. It is also about obfuscation, the famous attempt to close down further investigation and criticism by claiming that areas are shut out. E.g. NOMA.

                But science (writ small or large) needs to keep criticism alive. And that is why accommodationism is less useful than unhindered skepticism.

  8. I once tried to live religiously as a naturalist. Turns out you pretty much have to lie. I say pretty much because you can legitimately claim that it isn’t lying, it’s obfuscation. Morgan Meis may recommend it. I don’t.

  9. “The headline notes that the resolution is “re-introduced,” and we know what that means . . . .”

    I wonder if they’re roll call votes. Even if not, YEC’s and their ilk would find out how a congressperson voted, and make that known to the Philistines in the congressperson’s district.

    I contemplate the profound fatuity of certain congressional resolutions passed over the years, vis-à-vis the proposed Darwin resolution.

  10. Interesting that Paul Simmons appears to be a medical ethicist at the University of Louisville and all of his degrees are in theology….

  11. The only way I think you can live “religiously as a naturalist” is go to some naked church.

    Rim shot! I’m here all week, folks!

    1. So “men of the cloth” would then truly be like an emperor after he has been swindled.

      But: “Rim shot!” =D

      Are you sure it is a wise choice of words here?

  12. The Congress will pass a law mandating socialized healthcare for all Americans before it would ever honor Darwin.

    I fully support the compromise implicit in that proposition.


  13. It is interesting how many intelligent people spend their lives trying to reconcile science and religion. I recently ran across this online book by Ian Barbour – the godfather of science and religion studies. Barbour who has a PhD in physics and a D Div degree puts much effort into trying to make the study of theology akin to science. The problem is that he is stuck with dubious data – personal feelings of awe, peace and the like and “holy” books. It boils down to 1) I have feelings that I interpret as transcendent – connects to the “divine” and 2) the writers of the Bible – it really is mostly about Christianity – experienced the same feelings and we should believe the divine “spoke” to them like it is speaking to me. That’s it and it’s not much to build on.

  14. I heard that Simmons dude interviewed on our local NPR (MPR news channel in Minneapolis). It was dire. He just says, oh yeah, these people experience these things, they must mean there’s something real “out there”. I had to shut it off.

  15. How are the protestant, the catholic, and the Jew going to explain that science supports each of their divergent views of god and religion? The catholic will explain that evolution shows evidence of a god that only provides his after-life goodies to those who partake of the church sacraments. That leaves out the protestants and the jews. The protestant will explain that evolution provides evidence of a god who only provides salvation to those who believe in his son and co-god Jesus. That leaves out the Jews. The jew will explain that evolution provides evidence of a god who chose the jews to receive his highest benefits. That leaves out the christians.

    All these gods are incompatible, so how can evolution provide evidence for all three? And if all three gods can’t be true, what is the evidence for any one of them?

    1. When push comes to shove, the details aren’t as important as establishing the category itself. After we agree that God exists, then we can get down to arguing about what God is like.

      The enemy of my enemy is my friend. Anyone who thinks evolution somehow “provides evidence” for their God would accept that it provides more evidence for any god whatsoever (especially a generic form) before they’d accept that it’s only consistent with atheism.

      Nothing promotes religious harmony and ends sectarian strife like sending an atheist into the room.

      1. True – they are not only trying to reconcile science with religion, but religions with each other. It is all very superficial and PC to boot.

        1. The atheist in the room should demand that each religionist explain how science supports their god, as opposed to others, and as opposed to some generic god that none of them believe in. Atheists should not allow the argument to simply be atheist vs. theist, but insist on atheism vs. the particular view of god subscribed to by the theist.

          1. I think that’s actually a weaker position.

            Instead of being able to use our real arguments — the general ones on method and science and naturalism which apply to all the versions of god and ultimately the supernatural itself — demanding support for THEIR religion takes the issue into their own turf. We are forced to get bogged down in the minutia of this particular miracle and that particular experience and arguments over one interpretation of a holy book over another one. Biblical exegesis. They love this stuff; they can keep at it forever because this is the Calvinball they play with each other. We have no advantage.

            It’s a little like conceding that psychic powers exist but demanding how we know which ones are real. Why should I trust your psychic?

            1. I see your point Sastra. I hate to let religionists obscure all their other foolishness, and let them feel they have won if they can open a tiny crack for the POSSIBLE existence of some supernatural being. But I can see that challenging them on the specifics of their beliefs is like throwing brer rabbit into the briar patch. Thanks.

  16. “The Congress will pass a law mandating socialized healthcare for all Americans before it would ever honor Darwin.” Much as I’d like to see Darwin honored, I’d settle for socicalized healthcare for a start!

  17. I live in Charleston, I’m an atheist, and a biologist (PhD Harvard 1992) and I believe the all the attention lavished on Charles Darwin, an excellent scientist to be sure, is only damaging to science and to the secular cause.

    The use of Darwin or “Darwinism” as a synonym for evolution suggests to many people that it is an idea of one man which has remained unquestioned and untested since the 19th century. Harkening back to Darwin makes it easier to ignore the millions of person-years of work (by no means an exaggeration) by tens of thousands of scientists who have painstakingly collected and published geologic, fossil, mathematical, and molecular evidence supporting, expanding, and explaining how life forms evolve on this planet. Referring to evolutionary biology as “Darwinism” is a common tactic used by creationists for this very reason. In addition, the word Darwinism is linked in many people’s minds with so-called Social Darwinism, eugenics and Hitler. While this is unfair, the unfairness is beside the point. We can’t untaint the word by continuing to use it any more than the General Assembly of South Carolina can make the Confederate flag an innocent symbol of southern gallantry and states rights by continuing to fly it. The word “Darwinism” is tainted, and we shouldn’t play into creationists’ hands by using it or suggesting that people who understand and accept the evidence for evolution do so as part of a cult of personality surrounding Charles Darwin. Religious groups would like “Darwinism” to be defined as a religion so they can demand equal time for their religion in science class. “Praise Darwin” as the FFRF posted on billboards very much plays into this idea. Instead, it is important to emphasize that the stage was set for “The Origin of Species” by other scientists and thinkers, and the ideas it proposed have since been tested and expanded with further work by many, many others, just as with all scientific discoveries. Questioning the existence evolution should seem like questioning the existence of gravity, because, in fact, it is.

    As for rallying around evolution as a secular cause célèbre please also consider this. The central fact of evolution, that natural selection gives rise to new species, is a fact but it is a cold one. Evolution is a very useful thing to know and understand, but in practice, the reality is that nature is very cruel. The vast majority of organisms born, hatched, or sprouted on this planet have died very young. That’s how evolution happens. I’m sure you would agree that a billboard saying “Hurray for Natural Selection” has many unpleasant implications that we wouldn’t want to have associated with atheism or secular humanism. If we want to “praise” or celebrate something, let’s celebrate the scientific method. It’s harder because we can’t attach one face to it, but that’s reality.

    1. Isaac Newton “stood on the shoulders of giants” and his work has been significantly modified, yet we sill honor him. So with Darwin. He was a great scientist and a great man. And to blame Darwin for social Darwinism etc is like laming Jesus for the inquisition.

      As for natural selection, well we need to face the facts of the world. We cannot start to understand ourselves unless we understand natural selection. We are not made in the image of god, we are made in the image of our ancestors. Our basic selfishness is not a rebellion against god, it is how we got here. Our sex obsession is not a sign of natural depravity caused by the sin of Adam and Eve, it is the sine qua non of our existence. Doesn’t mean we should just accept selfishness and sexual aggression. Much of the work of culture is about controlling our natural instincts. But But if we don’t understand these things how can we control them. We resort to concepts such as sin, guilt, and shame which are often counterproductive.

      So yes, let’s celebrate Darwin, and help people understand just how fundamental his vision was to understanding ourselves.

      1. I’m with you on this one, paxton. Religionists, especially of the creationist ilk, will continue to use the name “Darwinists” in their ignorant way regardless of what we do.

        To stop recognizing the profound contribution made by Darwin (and Wallace!!) to humanity’s understanding of our place in the universe would serve no purpose. We should celebrate great scientists for their contributions, and Darwin’s contribution was among the greatest.

    2. I agree with many of your points. I detest the word “Darwinists” because it’s often, if not exclusively, used as a pejorative by the type of people who support the Discovery Institute. These people see those who accept evolution as members of a Darwin cult, probably for two reasons: 1) because they can’t imagine how anyone wouldn’t be like them and be part of a cult/religion 2) because they like to imagine some lobby group fighting against them.

      I’m torn when it comes to this and I think we should really reclaim Darwin as one of the thinkers (there should be others as well in and out of the sciences) that we should celebrate and make it clear why we celebrate Darwin.

    3. Your line of reasoning about “Darwinism” is well-enough reasonably taken.

      Re: your “I’m sure you would agree that a billboard saying “Hurray for Natural Selection” has many unpleasant implications that we wouldn’t want to have associated with atheism or secular humanism”:

      As with “Darwinism,” so with “Atheism” – likely even (much) more so – would you agree? A lot of time, energy and thought has been put into finding a substitute word/phrase for “Atheism,” which has been around a lot longer than “Darwinism.” There doesn’t seem to be a consensus; it may be that most are tired of talking about it. (It has become “dull” to mention “Bright.”)

      And we know how much the phrase “secular humanism” gets the drawers of the faithful in a knot – re: their Pavlovian “godless humanism” response – and as a result becomes likewise a major distraction. In your view, with what ought one replace it?

      It seems that there will always be some number of the willfully non-curious, “Non-Reality-Based Community” whose delicate sensibilities will be offended regardless of what subtle, dulcet, accommodating word/phrase substitutes are employed.

      Re: your ‘If we want to “praise” or celebrate something, let’s celebrate the scientific method. It’s harder because we can’t attach one face to it, but that’s reality’:

      Instead of “scientific method,” why not simply say “science”? “Hurrah for Science.” Of course, that won’t stop detractors for claiming that some “science” is actually “scientism.” “Hurrah for Rationalism” sounds pretty good. An opponent who doesn’t mind being against science would mind being viewed as an “Irrationalist.”

      If a prospective public lecture or debate (or book, for that matter 😉 ) title employs the word or phrase “Evolution” or “Natural Selection,” is one to substitute it with some alternative like “Science,” so as to not be – as you put it – “damaging to science and to the secular cause”? Prospective attendees/readers want some meaningful description of what they will be attending/reading, no?

      1. Instead of “scientific method,” why not simply say “science”? “Hurrah for Science.” Of course, that won’t stop detractors for claiming that some “science” is actually “scientism.” “Hurrah for Rationalism” sounds pretty good. An opponent who doesn’t mind being against science would mind being viewed as an “Irrationalist.”

        I say hurrah for all those things and yay to the subtle hint to the irrational!

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