Guest post: Wokeness in the latest issue of Science

January 5, 2022 • 10:00 am

The title of this post is mine (Jerry’s), and since there’s no word that has replaced “wokeness”—a word I construe as “performative social justice, often going to ludicrous extremes, that has little effect on society”—I’ll use that one. The articles below were called to my attention by reader Smith Powell, and his commentary was substantial enough that I asked him if I could post it (along with some additions that I’ll identify, like adding the screenshots). He gave permission, and so I’ll put it between the lines. My own additions and comments are in brackets with a “JAC:” beginning the note.

Smith Powell briefly discusses a book review and a letter to the editor that appeared in a recent issue of Science, giving his reaction to both. I’ve left in the “deadnaming” for the book review simply because many of you may have read the author, Riley Black, who was well known for science writing before transitioning to the female gender and taking the name “Riley Black”. Her piece turns out to be far more of a manifesto for inclusiveness than a book review, committing the cardinal sin of book reviewing: assessing a book that the author should have written instead of the one he did.

Commentary by Smith Powell

A recent issue (24 December 2021) of Science had two woke items of interest.  The first was a review of Dinopedia by Darren Naish. The review is called “Revisiting paleontology’s greatest hits”.  The second is a letter “Transgender rights rely on inclusive language” with multiple authors.

[JAC: Click on the screenshots, which may take you to the article. pdfs are available via judicious inquiry]:

The reviewer, Riley Black, is herself an author of books and many articles and blog posts on dinosaurs and she has written about a number of other science topics.  Until recently, Ms. Black was associated with Scientific American where she wrote for a blog entitled Laelaps.  She used to write as Brian Switek but came out as transgender and non-binary in 2019.

Ms. Black makes her point in the very first paragraph of her review [emphases mine]:

Dinosaurs garner esteem that is often reflected onto the people who search for, excavate and study them, and therein lies a fundamental problem with the ever-increasing number of popular tomes about the “terrible lizards” hitting bookshelves.  Even as the field of vertebrate paleontology pushes to become more inclusive, personages from decades past remain the only experts many members of the public encounter.  Although there is a trove of dinosaurian information to recommend paleontologist Darren Naish’s short encyclopedia Dinopedia, it does little to correct this antiquated view of who is, or can be, a paleontologist.

Ms. Black notes that Naish has written a “friendly and breezy tour of dinosaurs and what paleontologists have come to know about them.”  She further notes that the book is illustrated with Naish’s own drawings and that “the result is a solid primer on dinosaur science…”  Again, she makes her point when she writes, “Nevertheless, the book offers a view of modern dinosaur scientists that is practically petrified.

Ms. Black continues:

Naish includes profiles of a handful of paleontologists: Robert Bakker, Jack Horner, Halszka Osmólska, John Ostrom, Richard Owen, Greg Paul, and Paul Sereno. These figures were indeed pivotal in the dinosaur debates and discussions of the late 20th century, but Naish’s decision to focus on them, rather than on contemporary paleontologists, makes the book feel decades out of date rather than representative of modern dinosaur studies.  Aside from the gender imbalance, nonwhite scientists and researchers from the Global South are given short shrift.

[JAC: I’ve added the next indented section]

Naish’s book joins a number of recent titles that have failed to effectively convey the increasingly diverse practice of paleontology. I, too, have fallen far short in achieving equality and inclusivity in my writing.

There is no doubt that the Dinosaur Renaissance was huge for paleontology. Many of the children who were inspired by the museum exhibits, books, and films that debuted during that time are paleontologists or fossil fans still. But the height of that era’s dinomania was nearly three decades ago, when discussions about diversity and representation in the field often occurred in the background, if they happened at all. Paleontologists today openly consider such issues, as well as adjacent topics such as the ethics of collecting specimens and samples in other countries and the repatriation of illegally exported fossils.

Still, there is much work to be done. In a field in which even gender equity between white cisgender researchers has been difficult to achieve, now is not the time to reaffirm the male-dominated days as representative of where the field stands today.

Ms. Black gives no hints as to what debates and discussions have been prominent in the last couple of decades that should have been addressed by Naish, nor does she offer any examples of researchers who should have been recognized by him. Indeed, she notes:

Change is likely to come slowly.  Diversity in paleontology is currently highest among volunteers, students, and early-career researchers, all of whom are less likely to be conducting research that is covered by the press, and less likely to write books themselves.

But she does offer a mea culpa when she wrote above, “I, too, have fallen far short in achieving equality and inclusivity in my writing”.

In summary, it appears to me that Ms. Black thinks that Darren Naish has written a nice book on dinosaurs that is marred because it is not sufficiently woke.

[JAC:  I’ve added the excerpt below. I was appalled when I read the review, for it’s far more about the author failing to socially engineer paleontology than it is about paleontology itself. In other words, Black criticizes the book for failing to be the kind of book she wanted. But the kind of book she wanted would be far more about making paleontology more “inclusive” than about dinosaurs themselves. And Black doesn’t even name the advances or the BIPOC paleontologists that she wants to see represented, even after admitting that there are few of them. I suggest that Black herself write that book! The excerpt:]

Again and again, op-eds and sociological studies have pointed out that a lack of visible representation affects who goes into science and who is supported through its process, which, in turn, affects scientific theory and thought. It is time to start embodying the change we wish to see. Ensuring that popular accounts of paleontology reflect the field’s 21st-century practitioners would be a strong step toward this goal.

But “embodying the change we wish to see,” as Black has done, is not the same as imbuing every aspect of the world with a single change you wish to see.


The second item in this issue is a letter [above] that notes in the first sentence, “Inclusive language around sex diversity has never been more important”.  Do the authors mean “gender diversity”?  Apparently not, as they write:

It is important to recognize the context-dependent and multidimensional nature of sex.  Rather than privilege any characteristic as the sole determinant of sex, “male” and “female” should be treated as context-dependent categories with flexible associations to multiple variables (such as, but not limited to, genitalia, gametes, or karyotype). The usage of “male” and “female” should be explicitly defined in any given study.  Failing to do so promotes harmful language (such as “male chromosomes” rather than “Y chromosomes”) that attributes an essential “maleness” or “femaleness” to traits, obscuring the true biological mechanisms at work (e.g., the Tdf gene leads to testicular development, not to “being male”).  No one trait determines whether a person is male or female, and no person’s sex can be meaningfully prescribed by any single variable.

I am not a biologist.  I thought sex was very much bimodal with a very small percentage of indeterminant cases.  I guess I need a little help in understanding this issue. [JAC: Smith Powell is actually correct in his criticism. Sex is for all intents and purposes binary and bimodal, for it depends on whether the individual is capable, or would be capable, of producing eggs or sperm. There is only a tiny, tiny minority of people who, at birth, elude this dichotomy.]

I’m further confused as the authors continue:

Awareness of the distinction between sex and gender is another vital element to inclusive, quality research.  Conflating the two harms and invalidates gender minorities by implying that these distinct attributes are inextricably linked.

[JAC: It is the authors who are conflating sex and gender here. There is an accepted biological meaning of “male and female” in organisms that have two sexes. Yet in the first paragraph they mistake sex for “gender” when they say that sex is “context-dependent and multidimensional.” It is not.]

In conclusion, the authors write:

As scientists, we must push back against the misappropriation of biological terms by promoting precise language that focuses on the variables themselves (e.g., “menstruating people”) and acknowledging that people express these variables in ways that may not conform with a binary system of sex or gender.  This both creates a more inclusive environment for gender-diverse scientists and reinforces that sex is a context-dependent summary of a multidimensional variable space.

“Menstruating people”?  Isn’t that an example of conflating sex and gender?  I think I understand some of the words individually, but when they are put together as these authors did, I see a word salad with some words apparently not meaning what I thought.

JAC: Apparently it’s not sufficient to recognize that “gender”—the sex role or aspects of sex roles that people assume or behave according to—is indeed a spectrum. No, they want to distort biology itself by claiming that sex itself is equally continuous and a “spectrum.” This is a Lysenko-ist tactic to try to make nature conform to an ideology.

But I swear, I spent my whole career sorting fruit flies—thousands a day—and maybe once every six months I’d find one “gynandromorph”: a fly that was part male and part female (this happens rarely when an X chromosome gets lost during female development). These XO individuals, which must constitute less than 0.00001% of flies, are not a third “sex,” but a developmental accident. And they are invariably sterile.  For all the other flies, when I dissected one that looked like a male, it had testes and sperm. When I dissected one that looked like a female, it invariably had ovaries and nascent eggs.

Humans are no different.

Competing and divergent reviews by The Washington Post and the NYT of the 1619 Project book

November 22, 2021 • 9:30 am

As you probably know, the 1619 Project has produced a book (below), which is an expansion and supplementation of the original essays in the New York Times magazine. It’s selling like hotcakes, too: #4 on Amazon.  Click on the image below to go to the Amazon site:

I haven’t read it yet, and am not sure that I will given the queue of books by my bed, but I did read two reviews of it. The first, in the Washington Post below, is quite critical. The reviewer is Carlos Lazada, identified as “the Post’s nonfiction book critic and the author of “What Were We Thinking: A Brief Intellectual History of the Trump Era.”

The second review appears in the NYT itself, and the paper has a long history of reviewing books by its own writers favorably. That review is at the second screenshot below (you can access the reviews by clicking on the screenshots), and the reviewer is Adam Hochschild, author, journalist, and historian, who wrote a book I read not long ago and liked very much: King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial AfricaI would have bet a lot of money in advance that the NYT review would be highly positive, given their history of printing only positive reviews by their bigwig writers and the fact that Nikole Hannah-Jones, the main force behind the book, won a Pulitzer Prize for her first 1619 essay.

The contrasting titles of the reviews show their differential assessments. While both authors like parts of the book, Lazada is unwilling to excuse major claims in the book that are erroneous, misleading, or distorted, while Hochschild largely ignores or minimizes them. More important, Lazada emphasizes that the book pushes an ideological program, especially in a new essay contributed by Ibram X. Kendi.

I’ve always objected to the 1619 Project’s aim to inculcate schoolchildren with distorted and “progressive” Leftist views. It is propaganda and is not counteracted in schools by requiring other books giving other views. It’s the first time I know of that a newspaper has deliberately inserted itself into the school curriculum to push a set of ideological values and dubious “truth” statements.

Hochschild, on the other hand, gives a very laudatory review, picks out a few perfunctory problems, barely mentions Kendi’s essay, which he agrees with, and says it’s the book is a valuable and necessary corrective for racism. It might well be in bits, but if the assertions of Lazada be correct, there’s a considerable amount of distortion and cherrypicking going on. It’s amazing how the two reviews have such different takes on the same contentions of the 1619 Project.


First, Lazado’s review. I’ll concentrate on a few issues historians had with the book, and also on its propagandistic aims. Both reviewers’ words are indented:

Together these elements form a powerful and memorable work, one that launched a seismic national debate over the legacy of slavery and enduring racial injustice in American life. It is also a work with a variety of competing impulses, ones that can at times confuse and conflict. This is evident in “The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story,” a book that softens some of the edges of the prior magazine collection but also transcends its original mission as a historical corrective, informing readers what they now must do or else risk personal complicity in the painful story they have just been told.

This is Kendi’s view, but more later. I doubt readers will appreciate being deemed racist if they’re not doing something, which includes paying reparations to the black community. (I favor a form of reparations, but in terms of social benefits, better schools, and affirmative action, not direct payments to individuals who can prove some black heritage.)

One of the contentious assertions of the first 1619 Project was Hannah Nikole-Jones’s claim that 1619, the date that the first slaves arrived in the colonies, was the true founding date of America, for slavery conditioned, she said, every aspect of American life, even being a major cause of the American Revolution. The paper has walked that claim back a bit in the face of historians’ corrections, but the book still waffles on the issue.  From Lozada:

The elusiveness begins where the project begins — in 1619, with the first ship carrying enslaved Africans to reach the English American colonies, and that moment’s proper status in the history of the United States. In his note introducing the special issue, New York Times Magazine Editor Jake Silverstein first depicts the project as something of a thought experiment, counterfactual to the common notion of 1776 as the year of the nation’s birth. “What if, however, we were to tell you that this fact, which is taught in our schools and unanimously celebrated every Fourth of July, is wrong, and that the country’s true birth date, the moment that its defining contradictions first came into the world, was in late August of 1619?” Three sentences later, the question mark is gone, the tone more declarative. The barbaric system of slavery introduced that month is not just the United States’ “original sin,” Silverstein asserts; it is “the country’s very origin.” The project’s broadsheet supplement widens that perspective, declaring that “the goal of the 1619 Project is to reframe American history, making explicit that slavery is the foundation on which this country is built.” From what-if to no-matter-what, all on the same day.

This hardly settles matters. More than a year later, in an article titled “On Recent Criticism of The 1619 Project,” Silverstein indicated that the notion of 1619 as the country’s birth year should be regarded as a “metaphor” and not read literally. This is why, he explained, the Times had deleted a description of 1619 as our “true founding” that previously appeared in the project’s online presentation. But then, in an essay this month titled “The 1619 Project and the Long Battle Over U.S. History,” Silverstein wrote that the date indeed “could be considered” the moment of the United States’ “inception.”

In the new book version, Nikole Hannah-Jones, the Times journalist who conceived of the overall effort and wrote its lead magazine essay, offers a few interpretations. In the preface, she cautions that the project is “not the only origin story of this country — there must be many.” Then, in the opening chapter, Hannah-Jones repeats the text of her original magazine essay and refers to Black Americans as the country’s “true ‘founding fathers,’” as deserving of that designation “as those men cast in alabaster in the nation’s capital.” Some 400-plus pages later, in a concluding chapter, she writes that the origin story in the 1619 Project is “truer” than the one we’ve known.

What might an assiduous reader conclude from all this? That 1619 is a thought experiment, or a metaphor, or the nation’s true origin, but definitely not its founding, yet possibly its inception, or just one origin story among many — but still the truer one? For all the controversy the project has elicited, this muddle over the starting point is an argument that the 1619 Project is also having with itself.

Lozada finds the 18 essays “both constructive and uneven”. An example of the latter is the chapter on “Capitalism”, which seems to distort matters (note that Hochschild’s review below accepts the chapter’s contentions whole hog):


Consider sociologist Matthew Desmond’s chapter, “Capitalism.” In his original magazine essay, Desmond argued that many labor-management and record-keeping practices of modern American capitalism originated on plantations, with lasting consequences for the nation’s growth and industry. He indicated, for instance, that the vast increases in the productivity of America’s cotton fields — an average enslaved field worker in 1862 picked 400 percent more cotton than one had in 1801, he noted — flowed from the meticulous efforts to manage every detail and moment of those workers’ lives. “Bodies and tasks were aligned with rigorous exactitude,” Desmond wrote in the essay, describing the “uncompromising pursuit of measurement and scientific accounting displayed in slave plantations.”

Critics of this essay pointed out that some financial and management practices Desmond mentions, such as double-entry bookkeeping, predated the slave-plantation era. More consequentially, they argued that Desmond’s discussion of cotton productivity bypassed the real explanation for the increase. In the new book, Desmond addresses this, but only to a point. Following a detailed discussion of the management of enslaved labor, he again cites the boost in productivity. Then he adds this caveat: “Historians and economists have attributed this surge in productivity to several factors — for example, Alan Olmstead and Paul Rhode found that improved cotton varieties enabled hands to pick more cotton per day — but advanced techniques that improved upon ways to manage land and labor surely played their part as well.”

Note what is happening: A different explanation is introduced for an important point of fact, but the overall narrative remains — because “surely” it still holds. Readers should always be open to new historical interpretations, but when revising history, “surely” does not reassure. When facts complicate a story, they shouldn’t be tucked in an aside but taken up as part of that dynamic and contested process of discovery that Silverstein so praised.

Finally, Lozada criticizes the narrative of Hannah-Jones that the maintenance of slavery was a major cause of the American Revolution, which is based almost solely on an offer from the British in Virginia that any slave who joined them fighting the colonists would be freed:

In the opening chapter of the book, titled “Democracy,” Hannah-Jones adds two explanations supporting her interpretation of colonial motives. One involves the Dunmore Proclamation of November 1775, in which the royal governor of Virginia offered freedom to enslaved people if they joined the British side of the fight. (The declaration went unmentioned in Hannah-Jones’s original essay and did not appear in the magazine’s timeline of important events in African American life; now, it is featured in the book’s expanded timeline.) She writes that the proclamation “would alter the course of the Revolution,” appropriate phrasing given that the revolution was well underway by the time of the proclamation.

How influential was this episode in the fight for independence? Here Hannah-Jones narrows the story. She stresses that the proclamation “infuriated white Virginians” and that when you think about it, the revolution was mainly a Virginia thing, anyway. “Schoolchildren learn that the Boston Tea Party sparked the Revolution and that Philadelphia was home to the Continental Congress, the place where intrepid men penned the Declaration and Constitution,” she writes. “But while our nation’s founding documents were written in Philadelphia, they were mainly written by Virginians. . . . No place shaped the Revolution and the country it birthed more than Virginia.” It is a subtle but effective shift: Rather than expand history to encompass the range of the colonists’ rationales, Hannah-Jones limits the universe of colonists who matter. Now, Virginia is real colonial America.

This sounds a bit sleazy to me, but none of this is mentioned in the NYT’s own review. Lozada also criticizes the claim that the civil rights movement was fought almost completely without white allies, but I don’t have time to address that.

Finally—and I know I’m quoting too much, but readers may not have access to the story—Ibram Kendi writes the penultimate chapter with with his denial that American is making progress in racial relations (a claim I’ve always found totally ludicrous), so that the readers need to take antiracist action. Note the one fact Kendi adduces to deny the arc of progress (I’ve put it in bold):

In a chapter titled “Progress,” historian Ibram X. Kendi writes that the popular notion of America making steady, if slow, headway toward greater racial justice is “ahistorical, mythical, and incomplete.” The “mantra” of incremental improvement can undermine efforts to promote real equality. Kendi cites Chief Justice John Roberts’s majority opinion in Shelby County v. Holder (2013), which held that the country’s progress against discrimination meant that certain states and counties no longer needed federal approval before amending their voting laws, as the Voting Rights Act required. (The decision unleashed a series of state-level initiatives creating obstacles to voting.) “Saying that the nation has progressed racially is usually a statement of ideology,” Kendi writes, “one that has been used all too often to obscure the opposite reality of racist progress.” The failures of the Reconstruction era led to the “Second Reconstruction” of the 20th-century civil rights movement, a cause and effect that Kendi says is too often “left out of the story.”

That is one action (there are some others, of course), but what we no longer have is blatant segregation (dual water fountains and restrooms, back-of-the-bus policies, segregated hotels), lynchinga, and mistreatment of and bigotry against blacks in every situation. What we do have are the Civil Right Act, the Voting Act, and a strident effort to hire blacks and provide affirmative action in college admissions and hiring. It appears, though, that the aim of both Kendi and Hannah-Jones is to deem all Americans as racists if they’re not antiracist by paying reparations. I favor reparations, but as a moral issue and not a duty (my ancestors, after all, came from eastern Europe around 1890), and not by dispensation of cash to individuals.


Kendi then introduces something else he says is left out of the story — that America requires a “Third Reconstruction” to address the unfulfilled promise of the second. Here the 1619 Project’s project becomes explicitly political. Hannah-Jones fills in the details in the book’s final chapter, “Justice,” where she identifies the racial wealth gap as the most serious challenge for Black Americans. “White Americans’ centuries-long economic head start,” she writes, is what “most effectively maintains racial caste today.” To narrow that gap, the country must embark on “a vast social transformation produced by the adoption of bold national policies.”

Among these are a slate of priorities such as “a livable wage; universal healthcare, childcare, and college; and student loan debt relief,” Hannah-Jones indicates. They also include cash reparations for Black Americans — specifically, for those who can document having identified as Black for at least 10 years prior to any reparations process and who can “trace at least one ancestor back to American slavery.” Also suggested is a commitment to enforce civil rights laws regarding housing, education and employment, as well as “targeted investments” in Black communities across the country.

And so the New York Times’s 1619 Project is now enlisted in the service of a policy agenda and political worldview. The book’s concluding chapter underscores that link. “It is one thing to say you do not support reparations because you did not know the history, that you did not understand how things done long ago helped create the conditions in which millions of Black Americans live today,” Hannah-Jones writes. “But you now have reached the end of this book, and nationalized amnesia can no longer provide the excuse. None of us can be held responsible for the wrongs of our ancestors. But if today we choose not to do the right and necessary thing, that burden we own.”

Is this the message that we want to convey to children—that if they aren’t antiracist, they are racist? That is Kendi-an to the bone.   I’ll leave you to decide whether that’s proper.

The NYT’s review:

Hochschild takes a diametrically opposed view, saying that his worries about historians’ concerns “largely melted away” when he read the book. He then lauds the book for showing connections between past racism and present-day acts.  Here’s one example:

Part of the book’s depth lies in the way it offers unexpected links between past and present. New Yorkers, for instance, have long protested that the city Police Department’s “stop and frisk” searches for contraband or guns disproportionally snag people of color. But how many had connected it, as Leslie Alexander and Michelle Alexander do here, to the slave patrols of the old South, in which groups of armed white men routinely barged into the cabins of enslaved men and women to hunt for stolen goods or “anything they judged could be used as a weapon”?

Is there a direct connection here, or merely an analogy? Connecting two things because they’re similar doesn’t show an ancestor-descendant relationship. And Hochschild accepts Desmond’s chapter without quibbles:

Another contributor, Matthew Desmond, points out that the cotton plantation “was America’s first big business.” On the eve of the Civil War the monetary value “of enslaved people exceeded that of all the railroads and factories in the nation.” That fact alone should silence anyone who claims that slavery is not central to American history.

No, that’s best shown in other ways, not by comparative value.

Hochschild continues:

Moreover, controlling those workers “helped mold modern management techniques.” The plantations’ size allowed for economies of scale. And “like today’s titans of industry, planters understood that their profits climbed when they extracted maximum effort out of each worker. So they paid close attention to inputs and outputs” — easy to do when you compared harvesters according to how far each had progressed down parallel rows of cotton plants. Every fieldworker’s yield was carefully recorded, and rewards or whippings administered accordingly. Spreadsheets tabulated the depreciating value of human property over time. Trade magazines for planters carried management tips on getting the most out of enslaved workers: the best diet, clothing and even the proper tone of voice to use when giving orders.

Does Hochschild, a historian, not realize that many modern management techniques were afoot independently in the North, not copied from slaveholders? And, of course, modern managers don’t dictate the diets of their employees nor whip them. He also buys Kendi’s assertion that Justice Roberts’s comment shows that racism has not waned a bit since the antebellum era.

To be fair, Hochschild does have some beefs about the book. He calls the claim that the Founding Fathers created the American system, and fomented revolution, all to preserve the institution of slavery “going out on a shaky limb.” He bemoans the lack of discussion of slavery in countries outside the U.S., and wishes that there were more about white allies of slavery. (Here he’s really admitting that the main criticisms of historians are correct.) But in the end, he sees the book as a necessary corrective—part of “The Reckoning.”

Despite what demagogues claim, honoring the story told in “The 1619 Project” and rectifying the great wrongs in it need not threaten or diminish anyone else’s experience, for they are all strands of a larger American story. Whether that fragile cloth holds together today, in the face of blatant defiance of election results and the rule of law, depends on our respect for every strand in the weave.

Yes, we do need a corrective to counteract the glossing-over of slavery and racism taught in many American history courses. But I’m not down with distortions of that history, and I’m opposed to calls for action and reparations in a book that will be used widely in schools.  They should have left Kendi out, and also had the book reviewed not by self-picked reviewers but, like science papers, by anonymous but qualified reviewers picked by someone other than the authors.

h/t: Paul

My review in the Washington Post of a new book on genetics and social justice

November 19, 2021 • 9:45 am

Today the Washington Post put up online a review I wrote a while back on Kathryn Paige Harden‘s new book, The Genetic Lottery: Why DNA Matters for Social Equality. Click on screenshot to read my take, or make a judicious inquiry if you can’t access it.

Harden is a behavioral geneticist and Professor of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. You may remember that The New Yorker had a long profile of her a short while ago, and in it was this statement by her grad school mentor Eric Turkheimer:

In Bozeman, Harden seemed anxious that she had not heard from Turkheimer about her book. It took him a long time to get around to reading it, he told me, in part because of the ways their ideas have diverged in recent years, but when he finally did he wrote her an e-mail that said, “I really do think the book is great—in fact I think it will be instantly recognized as the most important book about behavior genetics that has ever been written. You should get ready to be very famous.”

Turkheimer has beefs with some of Harden’s ideas, but I simply had to read a new book about genetics that was likely to make its author very famous. And so I got the book and read it, and the Washington Post asked me to review it. Click below or go for that judicious inquiry.

As you see, my review is mixed. Her explanation of genetics and the use of “genome wide association studies” (GWAS)—a way of determining the expected value of a phenotypic trait from sequencing an individual’s genome—is excellent. She’s a good writer. The problem with the book is that she tries very hard, despite being somewhat of a genetic determinist who sees most human variation as having a sizable component of genetic underpinning, to appeal to the Progressive Left. For Harden is “woke”, as they say, and she’s aware that the other side, conservatives, would love to hear the sizable contribution to the variation of IQ of attributable to variation in people’s genes (it’s about 40-60%). There are large contributions of genetic variation to many other human traits as well.  But Harden carefully explains, correctly, that genetics is not destiny and that even a high genetic component to variation of a trait doesn’t mean that this variation can’t be flattened or equalized (I use myopia and glasses as an example).

But she’s still left with the problem of reconciling genetic inequality with societal equity—in particular how to treat children in school whose variation in academic achievement has a sizable genetic component. And here, in the prescriptive part of the book, she comes a cropper. She offers no plausible solutions about how one can actually use GWAS scores (I explain them in my review) to level the playing field for low achieving students, including minorities like blacks and Hispanics. (She doesn’t favor “tracking” students as she thinks that only perpetuates inequality.) My own conclusion is that, at present, we have no way of connecting GWAS scores to ways of improving education. It’s even worse because we know the genetic contributors of academic achievement only in European populations, and they could differ, as Harden emphasizes, in other populations. My conclusion:

I happen to share much of Harden’s ideology, and I wish her well. As I noted earlier, both the right and the left will find much to object to in this book. The resulting fracas might have been useful had she achieved what she set out to do — establish the fact of genetic unfairness and develop prescriptions to overcome it — yet she does not deliver on her second goal. Harden’s book is a thought-provoking read but in the end demonstrates only the incredible difficulty of using empirical data, both genetic and environmental, to level the educational playing field.

I want to add one thing here that was left out of my review for lack of space. Harden feels that we must rely on genetics to create equality/equity because one’s genetic endowment is a matter of “luck”:—the combination of genes you happen to inherit from your parents.  And Harden claims that she, and many others, feel it’s especially unfair for people to gain advantages simply because they’ve been genetically “lucky”. The implication is that there are things beyond “luck”, like an individual’s dedication and labor, that are a matter of “choice.”

This I find bogus, because, as a determinist, the “luck of your genes” is just as determined as “the luck of your environment” that also helps you achieve. Having the right for high IQ is “luck” in one sense, in that it’s not predictable, but so is the environment you’re born in and experience, which you also don’t choose. Harden actually recognizes this problem (p. 200):

Whether the universe is deterministic, whether such a thing as free will actually exists—these questions are beyond the scope of this book, to put it mildly. We need to put some philosophical guardrails up. If you think that the universe is deterministic, and the existence of free will is incompatible with a deterministic universe, and free will is an illusion, then genetics doesn’t have anything to add to the conversation. Genetics is just a tiny corner of the universe where we have worked out a little bit of the longer deterministic chain.

And, in fact, that’s the way it is. Harden has punted here. It doesn’t matter if you believe in “compatibilist” free will, because the philosophers who do are still determinists (or naturalists). And if you’re a determinist, then genetics is no more important than environment in its reliance on “luck” (i.e., unpredictability). It is just as unfair for someone to succeed because they had a good environment (and not necessarily good genes) than if they had good genes alone. Everything is determined—save the results of fundamental quantum unpredictability—which means that everybody’s fate is always matter of “luck” (unpredictable results of the laws of physics). Therefore, genetic and environmental influences are equally “unfair.” It is a major flaw of the book that Harden fails to take this seriously, but rather avoids it.

That’s all I want to add. The book is worth reading for its lucid genetic explanations, but I don’t think many hard-thinking readers will be convinced of her program to use genetic “inequality” to achieve social justice, though I agree that we need to do way better with schooling. Before you quibble about what I’ve said, though, read my review.

John McWhorter verbally reviews DiAngelo’s and Kendi’s most well-known books

November 3, 2021 • 12:15 pm

Over time, John McWhorter’s assessment of Ibram Kendi’s book How to be an Antiracist has gotten worse and worse. I suspected—as he admits in this 6-minute video—that McWhorter was loath to go after Kendi early on, but when Kendi started going after him, he took off the gloves. So now we get to hear what McWhorter really thinks of Kendi’s book. And it isn’t pretty.

He also takes on Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility, which, says McWhorter, is the “second worst book he’s ever read.” (He does tell us the worst one, too.) When he’s finished with both, they’re in tatters.

Nevertheless, I recommend that you read both of them, for two reasons. First, you need to know the thoughts that are influencing so many people these days. These books are the manifestos for a lot of woke racism, including the assertion (from Kendi) that inequity of representation in organizations or groups is prima facie evidence for ongoing racism.

Further, a few readers have actually praised these books, and before you think there’s any credibility to such opinions, you need to read the books themselves. If you like them, so be it, but then go back to reason #1.

I have indeed read both books, and share McWhorter’s opinion, except that one book that’s possibly worse than White Fragility is The Bridges of Madison County by Robert James Waller. (The movie was quite good but the book is so shabby, so full of hyperventilating and purplish prose, that it takes the prize for Worst Book I’ve Ever Read. But it was still a bestseller!)

h/t: Paul

Reviews of John McWhorter’s and Steve Pinker’s new books

October 27, 2021 • 9:30 am

Two books that you’ll probably want to read are just appearing, and readers sent me links to one review of each.  The books are John McWhorter’s Woke Racism (see below for subtitle), which came out yesterday and is already #78 on Amazon, and Rationality (subtitle below) by Steve Pinker, which comes out tomorrow and is #653 on Amazon (it will go higher).

McWhorter’s book is 226 pages long with a hardback price of $19.06 on Amazon, and Pinker’s is a mere pamphlet for him at a scant 432 pages—and a bargain at $19.69 in hardcover.

The longish review of Woke Racism is at Quillette, so you can probably expect that it’s laudatory. I haven’t read it as I write this, but will before I continue this post. Click on the screenshot below to read it for free (but you can also subscribe to Quillette).

Pollen’s review, though it is laudatory, really summarizes the thesis of the book rather than evaluates it (there’s not a critical word in his piece though the NYT review I just found, also laudatory, detects some flaws). Pollen does give a good summary of what McWhorter says, though if you read McWhorter’s excerpts on his old Substack site, you’ll already know much of what he has to say. Regardless, I’ll read his book.

There are four parts of McWhorter’s argument as outlined by Pollen, and I’ll separate them. Quotes are indented:

a. McWhorter’s thesis. We are in the “third wave” of anti-racism, the first two being the “fight against slavery and legalized segregation. Number two was “the struggle against racist attitudes, which sought to instill the idea that racial prejudice was a moral defect.” This is presumably the era of Martin Luther King, Jr: from the Fifties to the late Sixties.  This third is the current brand of anti-racism, apparently construed by McWhorter as “woke racism,” although of course there are temperate and rational anti-racists. Those aren’t McWhorter’s targets.

b. The third wave is not only nuts, but harmful. 

In his new book, Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America, John McWhorter demonstrates that there is far more Martin Luther than Martin Luther King in today’s anti-racist movement. McWhorter, a linguist and a professor at Columbia University, is a critic of luminous intelligence, and his book’s apparently oxymoronic title plays on Robin DiAngelo’s (equally oxymoronic) Nice Racism: How Progressive White People Perpetuate Racial Harm. DiAngelo’s dubious contention is that white progressives are often more injurious to the cause of racial equity than skinheads or bedsheet bigots, because their racist transgressions are the result of well-meaning ignorance. McWhorter asks the corollary: can even those supposedly enlightened and self-appointed champions of anti-racism (whom he calls “the Elect”) think and act in ways that harm black America?

McWhorter seems to concentrate on Ibram Kendi and Robin DiAngelo as avatars of “third wave antiracism”, though, according to the NYT review, he gives short shrift to their arguments themselves (he has analyzed those arguments elsewhere). It will behoove you to read Kendi’s How to be an Antiracist and DiAngelo’s White Fragility, though they may cause you “harm” by creating “offense”. You can’t really fathom the irrationality of the current movement without reading at least those two books.

c. The third wave is not just like a religion; it is a religion:

The central tenets of the third wave are provided by what McWhorter pointedly calls a “Catechism of Contradictions.” These include such prescriptions as: embrace multiculturalism, but don’t culturally appropriate; silence is violence, but remember to defer and elevate oppressed voices above your own; more black students should be admitted to top schools (via adjusted test scores and grade standards) in order to foster diversity, but it is racist to acknowledge that students are admitted for these reasons, and it is racist to expect them to represent a “diverse” view.

The catechism, in this case, is not a metaphor: McWhorter earns his subtitle, and he is not being rhetorical. He does not argue that third wave anti-racism is “like” a religion—it is a religion in all but name. It is religious in the infinite elasticity of its arguments and in its claim to be an all-solving theory, which banishes irony and contradiction and treats all opposition as blasphemy. We see also the prayer sessions and genuflections, the insistence on sin, the creation of saints (see the George Floyd murals), and the same extraordinary moral arrogance masquerading as humility and meekness. Church leaders, in sympathy with white protestors at a rally in Cary North Carolina, actually washed black protestors’ feet. This is not a distortion of religious thinking, as critics like Andrew Sullivan (a Catholic) have claimed. It is religious thinking to a T. It is Christianity in drag

. . These ostentatious outbursts of self-flagellation are quasi-Christian displays of self-incriminating and self-mortifying masochism. Perversely, people want to feel bad about themselves and to be told that they are sinners, so that they can throw themselves on the mercy of their clerics.

It’s useless to quibble about whether it really is a religion because it lacks a supernatural being; the point is that it is a largely irrational and delusion belief system that shares many characteristics with Abrahamic faiths.

d. The new anti-racism is pretentious and condescending to black people. Further, it will do little to bring about equality as it is mostly performative. 

It is hard to see how any of this will redress real “structural” inequalities. “People supposedly committed to political transformation,” McWhorter writes, “breezily ignore the yawningly abstract relationship between testifying to ‘privilege’ and forging change in the real world.” How, for example, will DiAngelo’s micro-behavioral prescriptions make poor black communities less poor? How will dropping to one’s knees and admitting one’s privilege end the mass incarceration of black Americans caused by the disastrous failure of the War on Drugs? How will separate graduation ceremonies and separate national anthems raise standards in public schools, boost literacy, or make vocational training more accessible? None of these concrete problems receive a fraction of the attention given to the regulation of conduct and demands for intellectual rewiring.

As I’ve said before, Grania used to dwell on this issue when confronting woke words or actions. “What will it change?” she asked, and she lived in South Africa during the apartheid era. When people demonstrate against Americans trying on kimonos at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, how does that reduce racism against Asians? When people cancel bird names and change the name of Audubon societies because of accused racism, does it help the situation of black Americans? Well, I suppose you can make the case, but those acts are clearly exculpatory and performative. Surely there are meaningful acts that can do a better job, and those are the actions that McWhorter and Lowry have been prescribing. We’ll see if they’re discussed in McWhorter’s book.


You can’t read the full review of Rationality since nearly all of it is paywalled on Arc Digital, but I got four whole paragraphs in an email from the site. (If readers have access, please send me a copy of the full review; I don’t think McWhorter would mind as it’s for publicity purposes.) If you are a subscriber, click on the screenshot below.

Here’s the excerpt I got:

I wasn’t the biggest fan of Steven Pinker’s earlier blockbuster Enlightenment NowWhile it was crisply written and argued, it seemed incurious and even blasé about the many sources of dissatisfaction which had led to the re-emergence of radicalism in many developed states. Pinker also had a bad habit of gish-galloping past strawmanned iterations of doctrines he disdained as irrational, from postmodern leftism to Nietzschean reaction, offering zingers rather than analysis. While his optimism resonated with me, as someone who has grown weary of the cliché of left-wing melancholia, Pinker’s “stay the course” diagnosis also struck me as inadequate to the challenges humanity faces in the 21st century.

Now that is bad writing, loaded with jargon and ponderous. But press on, for the review is positive:

So I was surprised by how much I enjoyed his latest book, Rationality: What it is, Why it Seems Scarce, Why it MattersA far less ambitious book than Enlightenment Now, it may disappoint those looking for another “state of the world” liberal manifesto. That said, it plays heavily to his strengths as a renowned cognitive psychologist.

Many of its summaries of logical reasoning, critical thinking, and fallacious argumentation are top notch introductions which anyone could benefit from. Pinker still occasionally reaches too far when trying to engage in moral and political philosophies where his grip remains superficial, and as cultural analysis no one will get much from Rationality. But these are relatively minor complaints about what is a useful and always readable book.

We live in an era that simultaneously worships intellect and resents it. Even in the most relentlessly rad left circles I’m most familiar with, where discrimination of all kinds is avoided with incomparable zeal, the one form of social ranking that remains not only permissible but accepted is intellectual: who is the smartest, knows the most, has published the most books, etc. Much of this is the long term product of our Enlightenment heritage’s focus on reason as the Archimedean lever which can move the world for the better.

And there is more to read, but I can’t get to it . . .

h/t Steve (not Pinker!)

Short take: “Books Do Furnish a Life” by Richard Dawkins

October 19, 2021 • 12:30 pm

If you look at the Amazon website for Richard Dawkins’s new book (click on screenshot below), you immediately discover two things. First, the Kindle edition has a subtitle different from the paper copies: the Kindle one is called Books do Furnish a Life: An Electrifying Celebration of Science Writing. Often publishers change book titles or subtitles when the volume crosses the pond, but I’ve never heard of changes among Kindle versus paper editions. (Could the “electrifying” refer to the Kindle’s batteries?)

Second, the book is pretty pricey, even for Amazon: the hardcover is $29.56 and the paperback $28.95. If you’re going to buy it, it makes sense to spring the extra 61 cents and buy the hardcover.  Granted, it’s a big book (464 or 480 pages depending on which one you get), but it’s still expensive.

The question then becomes, is it worth it?  I didn’t buy mine, as I have no more room for books on my shelves, and so had the U of C library order it—a nice feature of our library if the book is one they think is of general interest. And if you don’t have to pay, I can say without reservation that you should read this book.  It’s different from all but one of Richard’s previous books in that it’s mostly a collection of short pieces that are forewords or introductions to other people’s books, along with his notes on what he wrote.

You might think that you don’t want to read a bunch of forewords, but there’s more than that (I’ll describe it in a second), and even if it were only forewords, you’d still want to read it. That’s because Richard doesn’t just introduce other people’s books, but transforms his introductions into standalone thought pieces that are little works of art and thought in themselves. And, of course, Dawkins’s prose is as graceful as always. No other popular science writer has such a literary style, and it’s a style I find immensely appeaing.  Steve Pinker’s own style of writing is just as engaging, but in a different way.

So yes, do read this book. Whether you want to pay thirty bucks for it, or wait for a cheaper used copy, must be your decision. But read it. More below.

The book comprises six parts, each beginning with a transcribed conversation between Richard and a scientist or writer, and each conversation is followed by about a dozen introductions, forewords, or, in some cases, standalone essays that were published elsewhere. The format:

I. Tools of two trades: Writing science (Opening conversation with Neil deGrasse Tyson

II. Worlds beyond science: Celebrating nature (Conversation with Adam Hart-Davis)

III. Inside the survival machine: Exploring humanity (Conversation with Steven Pinker)

IV. The miner’s canary: Supporting scepticism (Conversation with Christopher Hitchens)

V. Counsel for the prosecution: Interrogating faith (Conversation with Lawrence Krauss)

VI. Tending the flame: Evangelizing evolution (Conversation with Matt Ridley).   I was pleased to see that the last essay in this section, and the final one in the book, is “The only kind of truth that works” Richard’s generous and gracious review of Why Evolution is True published in the London Review of Books

He finishes with an epilogue: “To be read at my funeral”. It’s not grim, but rather the famous opening to Unweaving the Rainbow that starts with “We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones.” Surely you’ve read it, but if you haven’t you must do so immediately.  I know of no piece like it, and it may make you tear up.

Now, the forewords and their explications will introduce you to many people now gone but were friends of Richard’s: people like John Maynard-Smith, Peter Medawar, Lewis Wolpert, and Bill Hamilton, and there are plenty of anecdotes to liven the narrative. It’s definitely worth reading Richard’s selections from these people, whose book or papers are forgotten by many students today. Some of the books are old ones that are now obscure, and thus you get a lot of suggestions for future reading.

As I don’t have the book before me, I won’t go over specific pieces except to say that they’re all worth reading because they all are food for thought. All but two are laudatory, the two being a critique of Ed Wilson’s views on group selection (“The descent of Edward Wilson”) and a book by Lynn Margulis and Dorian Sagan that Dawkins absolutely rips to shreds—all with British grace, of course. But even the critique of Wilson’s ideas is a standalone disquisition on the levels of selection, and why the gene, as a “replicator” makes genic selection—Dawkins’s big contribution to evolutionary thinking—more efficient than selection on any other level. I’ll add that his piece on speciation, “Branching out”, is one of the best things written on a topic that few have tackled in popular writing.

Note that the book encompasses science in general, evolution in particular, and also deals extensively with skepticism and atheism. The last bits are strongly anti-theistic, which I find refreshing in these accommodationist days.

I’lll warrant that if you’re reading this website, you’ve almost surely read and loved at least one of Richard’s books (my favorite is The Blind Watchmaker, as I place The Selfish Gene in a different category; Richard’s favorite is The Extended Phenotype. Add this new one to your list.

This is not even a real review because I don’t evaluate the contents with examples and quotations, but my purpose in writing this is to tell you not to neglect this book: it contains some of Richard’s finest writing, much of which you probably missed, and you can read it in pieces. It’s the perfect bedside book—unless, like me, reading it makes you feel so inferior that it’s hard to sleep!

A brief review of Andrew Sullivan’s new essay collection

October 12, 2021 • 10:15 am

I don’t want to write a full review of Andrew Sullivan’s new book, as I just finished a different review for a media outlet, but I want to urge you to read Out on a Limb: Selected Writing: 1989-2021, even if you don’t like Sullivan’s conservatism or religiosity (both are muted in this book). It contains dozens of essays over the 32-year period, arranged in chronological order.  Some are very long, others just a page or two, and I found myself reading all of them over the past several weeks.

Click on the screenshot to go to the Amazon site:

Sullivan is a lovely and thoughtful writer, and, although he puts himself on the rightish end of the political spectrum, many of the essays comport well with liberal thinking. He was, for instance, instrumental in helping gay marriage become accepted in America, and his early essays (e.g., “Here comes the groom” from The New Republic) are powerful arguments for that institution. He touted Obama as a possible and potentially good president long before others were doing so, and shows additional prescience in recognizing Trump not only as a possible winner of the Presidency, but later as a probable winner of the Presidency. (He despises Trump.) He also predicted that Joe Biden would be the best Democratic candidate to beat Trump. (Perhaps he’s picking his essays to look prescient, but I doubt it.)

What I like about Sullivan’s writing is that, unlike many other writers, he’s willing to admit when he’s wrong and remains open to correcting his opinions. Ergo his self-flagellating essay, “How did I get Iraq wrong?” (he was an early booster of the war). His case against torture is ironclad (“The abolition of torture”), and many essays will appeal to readers on the grounds of simple humanity (e.g., his memoriam on the death of one of his beagles, “Surprised by Grief”, a title cribbed and modified from C. S. Lewis; or “Still here, so sorry”, his musings on still being alive years after an AIDS diagnosis).

There is a lot, of course, on AIDS and homosexuality, and it’s good to read this stuff from the viewpoint of a gay writer. The bulk of the essays are on politics, which he knows a lot about. I usually find such essays dry but Sullivan is such a good writer that you get the sense of discussing politics with a friend, not being preached to. Like a good scientist, he’s always considering counterarguments to his positions, another thing that makes him likable.

As I said, he’s surprisingly light on religion—it comes up rarely, except for one long and tedious essay on “What is the meaning of Pope Francis?” But after reading that and his other stuff on faith, I’m no closer than ever to understanding why a smart guy like Sullivan believes in things like the literal resurrection of Christ. So it goes.

Here are a few of my favorite essays, which give an idea of his range:

“Here comes the groom”, an epochal essay that really did help move American opinion.

“Quilt”, a touching piece on the AIDS Quilt.

“When plagues end: Notes on the twilight of an epidemic”. About the tapering off of the AIDS epidemic and Sullivan’s remembrance of its worst days.

“What’s so bad about hate?”  A long and absorbing essay on the uses, abuses, and varieties of hatred.

“Gay cowboys embraced by redneck country”: Sullivan’s thoughts on the movie Brokeback Mountain.

“The abolition of torture”: an eloquent argument that any torture is the sign of a totalitarianism and is to be totally rejected as a tool of Americans.

“Why I blog”: a very thoughtful piece that especially resonated with me, as it draws a distinction that those of us understand who write both for publication in the media as well as on a website. They’re very different forms of writing, and each has its advantages and disadvantages.

“I used to be a human being”: A tale of Sullivan’s week at a meditation center completely disconnected from the Internet, combined with an acute and scathing analysis of what absorption in our “devices” has done to us.

“We all live on campus now”. A favorite of mine, which dispels the idea that insane leftist extremism found on colleges campus will not spread to the greater culture because the kids will grow up. (It already has spread, as you know, and is not going away.)

And the two final pieces:

“The unbearable whiteness of the classics”: An anti-Woke critique of the anti-classics classicists, defending the classics and showing that they can be taught alongside the history of racism.

“Two sexes, infinite genders”: A distinction between gender and sex (one that seems to be disappearing) and a touching remembrance of Sullivan’s father.

It’s good to have a book of essays on hand, like Sullivan’s or Orwell’s, to fill in the gaps when you don’t have time to absorb a chunk of a novel. And of course there’s a long-standing literary niche for short non-fictional pieces. Sullivan is a master of them, and although none of us are fans of all his ideas (the religion still bothers me), you come away from this book feeling as if you really know the guy—and like him.

Photograph of Sullivan by Joshua Cogan.

William Lane Craig’s new book on Adam and Eve given semi-laudatory review—in Science!

October 8, 2021 • 10:30 am

This is one of the most bizarre book reviews I’ve read in Science (or Nature). It’s a long (a full page) review of theologian William Lane Craig’s new book on Adam and Eve, supposedly a “Biblical and scientific exploration,” according to the book’s title (see picture of book below). The reviewer, Stephen Shaffner, is a computational biologist at the Broad Institute of MIT. While he does gripe about some of the book, he winds up saying that it’s very good as an example of how to tackle “philosophical” questions with science, hoping that other theologians will emulate Craig’s efforts. Oy! What I’m wondering is why, given the book’s palpable flaws, including the idea that there was a “first human” whose parents were “pre human”, this book was reviewed at all.

Click on the screenshot to read; if you can’t see it, a judicious inquiry will yield a pdf:

Schaffner outlines Craig’s aims in the book in a somewhat misleading way:

In Quest of the Historical Adam, Craig sets out to bring academic and scientific rigor to bear on the famous first couple of Genesis. He seeks to answer two questions: whether his theological commitments as a Christian necessitate believing in a historical Adam and Eve and, if so, what science can tell us about that couple.

Apparently Craig believes that the story of the First Couple in Genesis is mythology, written as a parable, so he doesn’t buy a literal Adam and Eve. (As Schaffner notes, that’s “a view that will not endear him to creationists”.)  However, he believes in a literal Adam: a first human; and that is based on “some statements about Adam in the New Testament, specifically ones in Paul’s letter to the Romans.”  From this Craig concludes that Adam is real, failing to apply the same exegetical rigor to Paul as he does to Genesis (Schaffner calls Craig out for this).

And then Craig embarks on his search for Adam, the “first human”, apparently meaning “the first human with a soul”. Since souls don’t fossilize, Craig has to look for their correlates, and this is where things get bizarre. Here’s Schaffner’s description of what the sweating theologian is trying to say:

Having established that he should believe in Adam’s existence, Craig sets out to locate him. He does so in the form of a question amenable to scientific analysis: When did hominins acquire the cognitive capacity for abstract thought, symbolic behavior, and the like, such that they should be considered human? The relevant subject matter is large and touches on evolutionary biology, paleontology, paleoneurology, archaeology, and genetics; the data are often scanty and contentious. Nevertheless, he does a more than creditable job of synthesizing both the conclusions and the uncertainties offered by these various fields, often drawing on primary scientific literature to do so.

Craig argues, for example, on the basis of brain size, that the first humans could not have lived before the time of Homo heidelbergensis and late Homo erectus. A number of facts about Neanderthals—symbolic behavior, ability to cooperate and plan, probable linguistic capacity, possession of human-specific genetic modifiers of brain development—convince him that they qualify as human. He therefore concludes that humanness was a trait inherited by Neanderthals, Denisovans, and Homo sapiens from their common ancestral populations and that Adam must have lived circa 700,000 years ago.

This is ridiculous for several reasons, the most obvious being the criteria for “humanness”, which, even if you accept them, must have evolved gradually, not appearing in one instant when Adam was born from a not-yet-human mother less cognitive than he. (Schaffer does mention the dubiousness of seeing human-ness as a binary: it’s not here and then—poof!—it is!) Finally if there is an Adam who is the ancestor of us all, his mate must also have been the ancestor of us all. That is, there must have been an Eve. And if she was from the same population as Adam, she would be “human” too.

In the last two paragraphs of the review, Shaffner criticizes the book but winds up praising it—the latter on very strange grounds.

Craig’s goal in writing this book, of course, is not a scientific one, and it cannot be judged on scientific grounds. I suspect that for many scientists, including religious ones, the exercise will be seen as misguided or simply incomprehensible. Even leaving aside the religious motivations, biologists are likely to be highly skeptical of the idea that humanness is a binary condition that can be induced by a change in a single pair of ancestors—declaring the change to be miraculous and to incorporate an immaterial soul, as Craig proposes, will not make it more appealing.

While my own reaction is along similar lines, I very much welcome the book. I think that it is entirely a good thing that an individual with Craig’s theological commitments and credentials turns to science to answer questions about the physical world, takes evolution as a given, and puts in the hard work to understand scientific findings. I can only hope that others who work at the intersection of science with philosophy or religion emulate his efforts.

What Shaffner misses here is an even more obvious antiscientific aspect of the book. Craig convinced himself that Adam was real from reading Paul’s letter to the Romans, and then collects and massages the evidence to support that conclusion “scientifically”.  Part of Craig’s “creditable synthesis” is to obviate the “bottleneck data”—population-genetic analysis showing that the smallest bottleneck in our species in the last several hundred thousand years must have been at least twelve thousand individuals.  That is, the human population was never even close to one or two persons, much less Noah’s band of eight.

But—and I’ve just discovered that I analyzed and dispelled Craig’s arguments when he proposed them in his newsletter in 2018—Craig then is forced to posit that the extra genetic diversity we have that disproves a one-man or a one-couple bottleneck came later—from “admixture from other hominin lineages” into “Adam’s” descendants. In other words, to save his thesis, Craig simply makes up stuff for which there is no evidence (indeed, there’s evidence against this admixture). So what we have is a preordained conclusion involving data that are either massaged or confected to buttress that conclusion. This is not science, but it’s the way theology works when it tries to use science.

In his last paragraph, “welcoming the book,” Shaffner ignores the fundamentally nonscientific nature of such an endeavor. And that renders a review of Craig’s book in Science as really weird. I, for one, don’t hope that theologians twist the scientific (and Biblical) findings to make them comport with one another in the interests of Jesus-promotion. (Science-minded philosophers like Dan Dennett are okay.) For a theologian, a little science is a dangerous thing.

Five books, all trying to show that science and religion are BFFs, get my kishkes in a knot

September 1, 2021 • 12:00 pm

UPDATE: Philosopher Maarten Boudry has issued a series of tweets also criticizing Harrison’s take on the relationship of science and religion. Here’s the first one, but there are about two dozen in the thread:



Matthew sent me a tweet about this Five Books article telling me it would irritate me. Well, it really didn’t, as the books aren’t really about the compatibility of science and religion, but more about whether there’s been a perpetual war between science and religion. These are two different issues. The second is completely empirical: have there been recurrent clashes between religion and science over history?  The first is a combination of philosophical and empirical study: do the natures of science and religion give them different ways to find out what is true about the cosmos? And, if so, have those different methodologies led to conflicting and incompatible claims?

In my book Faith versus Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible, I maintain that there have been sporadic clashes between science and religion (the most notable being the Galileo story and the persistence of creationism), but in general most modern science doesn’t step on religion’s toes.  In this interview, Professor Peter Harrison of the University of Queensland, whose field is the relationship of science and religion, picks out five books that he’d recommend for the layperson to study the intersection of these fields. Click to read it:

Here are photos of the five books chosen by Harrison. I’ve read only one of them: the Hardin et al. essay collection.

Harrison is pretty much an accommodationist, and although he admits that, say, Darwinism conflicts with religion, this is a relatively new phenomenon because, he avers, before the 17th century nobody took the Bible as a handbook of science. What he means—and I think he’s dead wrong here—is that before the 17th century nobody thought that the Bible’s empirical claims were true. If you read the Church fathers, or the Nicene Creed (a fourth century confection) you’ll see that the account of the Bible was seen as purveying the literal truth about our origins, the existence of deities, the existence of Heaven and Hell, and many other empirical matters. Most important is the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, for which we have no extrabiblical evidence, and yet is the fulcrum on which all Christianity rests.

So the idea that Biblical literalism is a new phenomenon seems badly wrong to me. Yes, “science” as a practice and profession didn’t come along until a few centuries ago, so there couldn’t be a conflict between science and religion per se, but even the ancient Greeks engaged in empirical studies that didn’t involve the hand of Zeus.

As with all accommodationist historians, Harrison argues that the Galileo affair has been exaggerated as a clash between empiricism and religion; these people always say it’s about religious power, or is more nuanced than we think.  Harrison even emphasizes a “science versus science” element: that Galileo neglected some of his contemporaries’ claims, like Tycho Brahe’s “parallax” arguments against a heliocentric solar system. But you’d have to be deluded to think that the controversy wasn’t mainly about Galileo’s empirical claims contradicting the Earth-centricity divined from Scripture.

On to creationism. Harrison’s discussion of it is weird, and I reproduce it below:

It is slightly different with Darwin. With evolution, there are religious issues at stake. This is part of what motivates young earth creationism: fundamental questions about the nature of human beings, the origins of morality, and the literal truth of the Bible. Darwin’s theory puts question marks against these in a way that the Galileo case doesn’t. It wasn’t evolution that generated difficulties but the method of natural selection, because it made evolution look like a random directionless process. Again, that appears to be inconsistent with Christian notions of a providential direction to history and the special place given to human beings.

But, as we say, history is complicated. Darwin has very powerful highly religious supporters and he has some scientific critics as well. And until we arrived at “the modern synthesis”, with its better understandings of genetics, there wasn’t a plausible mechanism for natural selection.

At least he admits that creationism does exemplify a war between science and faith. But his claim that it was natural selection and not evolution itself that generated creationism seems wrong. Regardless of the mechanism of evolutionary change, the idea of evolution itself flatly contradicts the Bible, and much of the opposition to Darwin’s views rested on his claim that evolution happened (contradicting Genesis), that it was slow (contradicting a young Earth), and that the distribution of plants and animals on the surface of the earth, according to Darwin, could not be explained by a Flood and dispersal scenario.

Second, if you understand natural selection, you know that it is NOT a “random directionless process”. It is the presence of variation (randomly generated by mutation, but Darwin didn’t know that) interacting with a non-random process: the differential proliferation of variation that confers a reproductive advantage. Does Harrison think this? It seems so, because he implies that Darwin’s theory made evolution look like that “random directionless process.” Even if you’re a creationist, you don’t understand what you’re criticizing if you go after natural selection on that basis.

Finally, once we had genetics at the beginning of the 20th century, we knew about mutations and thus had a theory of how natural selection worked on newly arising (or standing) variation. (The “modern synthesis” didn’t begin until the mid-Thirties). But so long as there is heritable variation, which even Darwin knew about, you have a “plausible mechanism for natural selection,” which is simply the differential sorting of variants via their effect on reproductive success. If the variants are heritable, that causes evolution.

One gets the idea from these two paragraphs that Harrison doesn’t really understand Darwin’s theories, is unable to explain them, or doesn’t know their place in history.

A few more items lest I go on forever.

First, Harrison takes the common stance of believers and some philosophers (I don’t know if he’s religious) that you have to philosophically justify the methods of science a priori before you can have any confidence in what you find by doing science. I quote (here he’s talking about Merton’s book):

What’s particularly interesting is that he treats science itself as a kind of ‘black box’ and focuses on external factors and, crucially, values. He argues that Puritan values were important to setting up science and justifying scientific practice. That’s the key thing about this book. He understands that more generally, social values are crucial to the legitimation of science. That means it’s not just to do with the inherent internal logic of science as something that is somehow self-evidently true. That’s not how you make science successful—it’s something external to the sciences that leads us to value them, that makes scientific advance possible, and that makes science an important and central feature of society.

Why this question is so vital to this very day is that science is undergoing challenges to its legitimacy. It’s simply not enough for a scientist to rehearse the chorus ‘well, we’re scientists and this is what the science tells us’; they have to understand the role played by values in giving legitimacy to what they’re doing.

I’m not sure what “challenges to legitimacy” science is undergoing, but I deny that there are any “social values” or a priori philosophical rationales necessary to give us confidence in science or make it “legitimate.” While there’s no one fixed “scientific method”—and here I agree with Feyerabend that “anything goes”—there are general agreed-on principles of what counts as evidence, including empirical observation, doubt, criticism, replication, and so on, that are used by all scientists trying to discern “truth”. If there is a social value at play here, it’s merely “we value what is true.” (That’s not what Harrison means, of course.) There is nothing external to the sciences that leads us to value them, but simply the toolkit that is science that, importantly, IS A TOOLKIT THAT WORKS.  Why people value science is simply that it tells us the things we want to know, and tells them truly. You don’t turn to religion if you want to make a vaccine against Covid-19. (Now why we want to make one rests on social principles, but the method itself is what gets us what we want.)

Second, Harrison claims that it is religious values that gave rise to science. That is, the legitimation of science that he deems necessary comes from faith—Christian faith. In this case, it is the faith that gives us impetus to understand God’s laws. Harrison also claims that religion is “necessary but not sufficient” to give rise to science. In other words, in an atheistic West, we would have no science. Two quotes here:

To overgeneralise somewhat, with the new views of Descartes and Newton, the powers of things are stripped away—they become inert—and God has to do the work of moving things around. He does according to his own laws. The notion of divine omnipotence—that God can make any kind of world he wants and is not constrained by any other considerations—then leads to the necessity of empirically investigating the world. That’s one example: the idea of laws of nature and mathematical laws of nature which are foundational to modern science come out of the idea of divine omnipotence. Descartes is explicit about this, and so too are English thinkers like Robert Boyle, Isaac Newton, and Samuel Clark. They are very explicit that laws of nature are divine edicts.

Now you can argue about the extent to which scientists were motivated by religion to find out stuff, but I don’t think that, say, the ancient Greeks, or many scientists in the early days, were simply trying to work out “God’s laws”. I think you’d have a hard time arguing that William Harvey’s discovery of the circulation of blood, for instance, was motivated by his efforts to work out how God designed the body. It was motivated, as far as I know, by sheer cussedness: the desire to find out for himself whether Galen was right (Galen wasn’t). And certainly now, when most working scientists and a big majority of good ones are atheists, there is NO motivation to do science as a way to understand God or God’s plan. Even Francis Collins, an evangelical Christian, leaves God at the door of the NIH.

There’s also this:

Interviewer: One of the claims that Funkenstein makes towards the end of the book is that while one “can draw many meaningful connections between medieval theology and early modern science”, the stronger claim that “without the former, the latter would never have emerged” is “neither demonstrable nor plausible.” Do you disagree?

Harrison: I think I would. I’d be inclined to say that the medieval theological background is necessary but not sufficient. That would be my view, which is a bit stronger than Funkenstein’s claim.

Ergo, had we not had medieval theology, we’d never have had science. Well, of course this is an untestable claim, but I’d argue that pure curiosity, and the realization that the empirical, naturalistic toolkit of science produces results, that all that would have emerged without medieval theology. You have to do some fast dancing to lay the entire enterprise of modern science at the doorstep of Thomas Aquinas.

Third, I’ve long argued that while science can make contributions to religion—by determining whether their truth statements are really true—religion has, like Laplace apocryphally asserted, nothing to contribute to science.  Harrison disagrees, arguing (without giving examples) that naturalism is not necessarily a sufficient assumption for science: that maybe injecting an element of the divine or numinous could advance science:

Clearly, the advocacy of something like intelligent design or scientific creationism in present circumstances is absolute heresy. And I want to be clear that I am not advocating that. But I do think it’s very interesting to consider whether religious conceptions might lead to unconceived possibilities in terms of contexts of discovery. This is precisely Funkenstein’s point—that thinking about divine omnipotence and what God could possibly instantiate led to new ways of thinking about the world. This was also argued even more strongly by the French historian and philosopher of science Pierre Duhem.

. . . I wonder whether the very strong naturalism which either explicitly or implicitly shapes virtually all modern thought is in some way restrictive. Your point is that specific religious dogmas are potentially restrictive, and I think that’s absolutely right. But there’s a difference between specific religious dogmas and thinking in more elaborate theological terms about something like divine omnipotence (which is the historical case I’m thinking of). To put it this way, I don’t buy the idea that scientific naturalism is some neutral position and that the religious position is the one invested in a set of restrictive assumptions. I think naturalism is potentially just as dogmatic and restrictive.

I’d love for Harrison to give us an example of how naturalism has limited scientific thought, for surely there must be one example in the history of science in which thinking about God would not just motivate scientific exploration, but produce specific hypothesis that naturalism wouldn’t. He doesn’t give us those examples, and that’s because they don’t exist.

Finally, and least important, Harrison claims that the existence of religious scientists constitutes an embarrassment for those of us who claim that science and religion are incompatible. A quote:

As you say, the existence of Christian scientists who are not obviously subject to cognitive dissonance is an embarrassment for some who would claim the incompatibility of science and religion (as, for example, the New Atheists did). The fact is that there are now eminent scientists who have religious commitments, as there have always been throughout history. This is an awkward fact for advocates of the incompatibility of science and religion.

It’s not awkward to me, not if you understand human psychology.  People are religious for a variety of reasons (including childhood brainwashing), and to say that people can’t be superstitious in one part of their life and rational in others is to misunderstand human nature.  I think religious scientists are philosophically muddled, but don’t necessarily experience cognitive dissonance because they’ve built a mental wall between delusion and rationality.

h/t: Matthew

What we’re reading now

August 30, 2021 • 11:00 am

After polishing off Cormac McCarthy’s The Road—a post-apocalyptic novel permeated with McCarthy’s inimitable prose (and I recommend the book very highly)—I need to keep reading, as there’s still no place interesting outside the U.S. that’s safe or accessible for travel.  I thus took three books out of the library to keep me busy for a while.

Occasionally I get a hankering to read every Booker Prize winner since they started awarding the prize in 1969.  So far I’ve read only seven (Midnight’s Children was my favorite), so there’s a long way to go. The reason I want to do this is that there are too many fiction books to read, and few reliable guides; but I’ve enjoyed every Booker Prize novel I’ve ever read. So I picked out two more.

The first one, below, is by an author with whom I have a love-hate relationship. Naipaul can write like a dream—A House for Mr. Biswas is an all-time classic—but he can be splenetic and downright patronizing, as when he writes about his visits to India (he was actually from Trinidad of Indian ancestry). I hoped that this one, his only Booker winner, would be as good as Biswas. It’s a good book, but doesn’t come up to that standard. It is in fact a very weird novel, consisting of three disconnected tales, about Indians who move to the U.S., about Trinidadians who move to London, and about Brits who move to Africa.  I suppose the connection between the stories is revealed by the title. I’m only 2/3 of the way through, but so far it looks as if the “theme” is that people who move to find freedom only find more enslavement. The third tale is by far the best, a classic, “on the road” story about a gay white Brit and a woman bent on adultery with a different man, who take a long drive in an African country experiencing revolution. I’d recommend the book, but if you haven’t read Naipaul, go to Biswas first. Truly, I’m not yet sure why this one won the Booker, but I’m not yet through.

I haven’t started the book below yet, published in 1973 and a Booker winner that year, but I’m a sucker for novels about India, as I love the country. Ergo, Midnight’s Children as my favorite Booker Winner, and I also love The Raj Quartet and A Passage to India. I also love novels by Indian expats like Jhumpa Lahiri or inpats like Arundhati Roy.  The book below attracted me because of the plot summary and blurbs on Wikipedia:

Inspired by events such as the sieges of Cawnapore (Kanpur) and Lucknow, the book details the siege of a fictional Indian town, Krishnapur, during the Indian Rebellion of 1857 from the perspective of the British residents. The main characters find themselves subject to the increasing strictures and deprivation of the siege, which reverses the “normal” structure of life where Europeans govern Asian subjects. The book portrays an India under the control of the East India Company, as was the case in 1857. The absurdity of the class system in a town no one can leave becomes a source of comic invention, though the text is serious in intent and tone.

. . .Walter Clemons in Newsweek on 21 October 1974 said it was “a work of wit, lively historical reconstruction and imaginative intensity.”

John Spurling said in the New Statesman on 21 September 1973 that it was “a masterpiece”

On 2 September 1973 Julian Symons wrote in The Sunday Times that Farrell is “one of the half-dozen British writers under forty whose work should be read by anybody inclined to think that no interesting novels are being written today.”

That sounds like it’s worth a try.

I came to this book by an unusual route. (It’s not a Booker winner.) I was listening to a song on YouTube suggested by a reader: Karen Carpenter’s version of “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina“, and then got hooked into the YouTube suggestion of Madonna singing the same song” from the movie version of “Evita“.  Since I heard that, and several other versions, I realized that I know very little about Eva Peron despite the huge role she played (and still plays) in the history of Argentina. So I needed to fill that lacuna, and this book appeared to be the biography that was recommended most often. (It also appears to be the one that inspired the musical.)

The Evita legend freaks me out, as it’s played on a foreign stage, and involves a poor woman who hits the big time, using her fame as an actress, a beauty, and Juan Peron’s wife to do good for the poor. But her motivations may be more than altruistic, or so suggest the lyrics of Lloyd-Webber/Rice song—a pastiche of trite emotions and self-aggrandizement set to a beautiful tune. I need to find out how much of Evita was empathy and how much was self promotion. Regardless, her story, her death at 33 from uterine cancer, and the preservation of her body (Juan Peron used to put it on the dinner table as he ate), is just plain weird, and I want to know about it. And I want to know what she did to make her more beloved of her people than was her husband.

A brief but informative biography:

Here’s Eva Peron’s state funeral in 1952—an unusual ceremony for the wife of a President. But she was adored by the “common people’ of Argentina. The video has no sound, but doesn’t need any.

A rare video of Eva Peron being interviewed:

And to see a popular post on my favorite 20 books of the last 200 years (along with those chosen by my friend Tim), go here.

This, of course, is my call for you to recommend books you’re reading or have read recently, as I often find my own material from readers’ suggestions. Please comment below.