Hitchens on blaming the victim

January 8, 2010 • 11:26 pm

by Greg Mayer

Michael J. Totten has an interview with Christopher Hitchens concerning the piece in the Guardian by Nancy Graham Holm, in which she blames Danes for the attempted murder of the cartoonist Kurt Westergaard and his granddaughter.

Money quote:

These people [Holm and her ilk] are saying the grandfather and granddaughter were the authors of their own attempted assassinations. These are some of the same people who say that if I don’t believe in God I can’t know what morality is. They’ve just dissolved morality completely into relativism by saying actually, occasionally, carving up grandfathers and granddaughters with an axe on New Year’s Eve can be okay if it’s done to protect the reputation of a seventh century Arabian man who heard voices.

The piece by Holm is a truly execrable piece of nonsense, much worse than I had thought it would be. She believes (among other things) that: (a) the Danish Prime Minister should have apologized for the cartoons; and that (b) this would have prevented adverse reaction. Anyone who believes (a) doesn’t seem to have even a nodding acquaintance with the relationship between the government and the press in a liberal democracy; and anyone who thinks zealous arsonists and attempted murderers would be deterred by an apology has a more sanguine view of their appeasability than seems wise. Do read Russell Blackford’s analysis, linked to earlier by Jerry.

[The Guardian’s editors note two errors in Holm’s column, which they have corrected. One they missed is that she incorrectly describes Westergaard’s cartoon (did she not look at it carefully?); it depicts a fused hollow shell bomb, not a stick of dynamite. Hitchens, in his interview, states the cartoons were published in a “small town press”, which might be true on an international comparative basis, but Jyllands Post is Denmark’s largest circulation newspaper.]

h/t:  Andrew Sullivan

Mooney and Kirshenbaum: Atheists turn Americans from science, strangle puppies

July 1, 2009 • 2:05 pm

Over at Butterflies and Wheels, Ophelia Benson has begun reading and posting on Mooney and Kirshenbaum’s new book, Unscientific America, an analysis of why the American public is so scientifically illiterate (I’m going by the blurbs; I haven’t read it yet). According to Mooney and Kirshenbaum, one of the main reasons for this illiteracy is — can you guess? — the ATHEISTS. Yes folks, our stridency and militancy have alienated flocks of Americans, turning them away from science. Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Dan Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens all get their licks, with special opprobrium reserved for P. Z. Myers. See link above for Ophelia’s first take, and the second is here.

I will reserve making my own comments until I read the book.

One other note: three liberal English theologians, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, have joined forces to prevent British citizens suffering from terminal illnesses to seek euthanasia in countries like Switzerland. Liberal religion harmless? Not in this case. See the link for Anthony Grayling’s take and the original news item.

Join the Reason Project

May 21, 2009 • 7:11 am

Under the inspiration of Sam Harris, a nonprofit organization called The Reason Project has been formed under the trusteeship of Sam, his wife Annaka, and Jai Lakshman.  The website can be accessed here, and the aims are these:

The Reason Project is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit foundation devoted to spreading scientific knowledge and secular values in society. Drawing on the talents of the most prominent and creative thinkers across a wide range of disciplines, The Reason Project seeks to encourage critical thinking and wise public policy through a variety of interrelated projects. The foundation will convene conferences, produce films, sponsor scientific studies and opinion polls, publish original research, award grants to other charitable organizations, and offer material support to religious dissidents and public intellectuals — all with the purpose of eroding the influence of dogmatism, superstition, and bigotry in our world.

While the foundation is devoted to fostering critical thinking generally, we believe that religious ideas require a special focus. Both science and the arts are built upon cultures of vigorous self-criticism; religious discourse is not. As a result, unwarranted religious beliefs still reign unchallenged in almost every society on earth—dividing humanity from itself, inflaming conflict, preventing wise public policy, and diverting scarce resources. One of the primary goals of The Reason Project is to change this increasingly unhealthy status quo.

We are always looking for creative ways to involve the community in our efforts. If you would like to contribute to the work of The Reason Project, please fill out a volunteer application. We encourage you to consider the work of The Reason Project your own.

There is a nice advisory board, including luminaries like Sam, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, Steve Pinker, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and one non-luminary, moi.   Our goal is not to constanty attack or wipe out religion, but to spread rationality (granted, the spread of one is inimical to the existence of the other).  But have a look at the website and do volunteer or join up if you’re interested.  There are some cool projects listed, and more in the offing.


NYT shows that atheists are not agents of Satan

April 27, 2009 • 7:58 am

Surprisingly, today’s New York Times has a good article on the growth of atheism in America.  As I’ve said, I think that this is the best way to rid the country of creationism, though it will take time.  And the best way to effect this change is to be vociferous –or at least not reticent– about your lack of belief.  I used to be very timorous about professing atheism (which, remember is not an explicit disbelief in God, but a refusal to believe until you have a good reason).  It was the writings of Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, and Harris that persuaded me that I could stand up for what I thought, and I can’t help but think that the more one speaks out, the more one effects change.  There are a lot of like-minded non-believers out there who, as the article notes, won’t say what they think for fear of ostracism.

The one scary  part of the article was this:

Until recent years, the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry were local pariahs. Mr. Silverman — whose specialty license plate, one of many offered by the state, says “In Reason We Trust” — was invited to give the invocation at the Charleston City Council once, but half the council members walked out. The local chapter of Habitat for Humanity would not let the Secular Humanists volunteer to build houses wearing T-shirts that said “Non Prophet Organization,” he said.

Geez, those tee shirts are sort of funny.  But I didn’t realize that Habitat for Humanity, an organization for which I had a lot of respect, is actually an “ecunmenical Christian housing ministry.” Anyway, it’s heartening to see so many unbelievers (a term I prefer to “atheists”; I also like “naturalists”) coming out of the woodwork.

Truckling to the Faithful: A Spoonful of Jesus Helps Darwin Go Down

April 22, 2009 • 7:10 am

For if we ever begin to suppress our search to understand nature, to quench our own intellectual excitement in a misguided effort to present a united front where it does not and should not exist, then we are truly lost.
–Stephen Jay Gould

If you’re a regular at this website, you’ve heard me complain about scientific organizations that sell evolution by insisting that it’s perfectly consistent with religion.   Evolution, they say, threatens many peoples’ religious views — not just the literalism of Genesis, but also the morality that supposedly emanates from scripture.   Professional societies like the National Academy of Sciences — the most elite organization of American scientists — have concluded that to make evolution palatable to Americans, you must show that it is not only consistent with religion, but also no threat to it.  (And so much the better if, as theologians like John Haught assert, evolution actually deepens our faith.)  Given that many members of such organizations are atheists, their stance of accommodationism appears to be a pragmatic one.

Here I argue that the accommodationist position of the National Academy of Sciences, and especially that of the National Center for Science Education, is a self-defeating tactic, compromising the very science they aspire to defend.  By seeking union with religious people, and emphasizing that there is no genuine conflict between faith and science, they are making accommodationism not just a tactical position, but a philosophical one.  By ignoring the significant dissent in the scientific community about whether religion and science can be reconciled, they imply a unanimity that does not exist.  Finally, by consorting with scientists and philosophers who incorporate supernaturalism into their view of evolution, they erode the naturalism that underpins modern evolutionary theory.

Let’s begin with  a typical accommodationist statement—this one from the National Academy of Sciences:

Acceptance of the evidence for evolution can be compatible with religious faith. Today, many religious denominations accept that biological evolution has produced the diversity of living things over billions of years of Earth’s history. Many have issued statements observing that evolution and the tenets of their faiths are compatible. Scientists and theologians have written eloquently about their awe and wonder at the history of the universe and of life on this planet, explaining that they see no conflict between their faith in God and the evidence for evolution. Religious denominations that do not accept the occurrence of evolution tend to be those that believe in strictly literal interpretations of religious texts.

This at least recognizes some conflict between evolution and fundamentalist faiths, but downplays it.  The National Academy website also includes three statements by religious scientists, Kenneth Miller, Father George Coyne of the Vatican, and Francis Collins, averring no conflict between the Gouldian magisteria.

There are no statements by anyone who sees faith and science as in conflict.  This is not because those people don’t exist: after all, there are plenty of scientists and philosophers, including myself, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Steven Pinker, P. Z. Myers, Dan Dennett, A. C. Grayling, and Peter Atkins, who feel strongly that science and religion are incompatible ways of viewing the world.  Several of these people have written books to that effect.  Apparently the NAS prefers to ignore this dissent.

When a professional organization makes such strong statements about the compatibility of science and faith, and ignores or gives but a polite nod to the opposing view, that organization is endorsing a philosophy.  This goes beyond saying that evolution is true.  The NAS is saying that most religious people and scientists have no problem with evolution and faith.  Given that 40% of Americans reject evolution outright (almost entirely on religious grounds), while 92% of NAS scientists reject the idea a personal god, the National Academy is clearly pushing its agenda in defiance of evidence.

Among professional organizations that defend the teaching of evolution, perhaps the biggest offender in endorsing the harmony of science and faith is The National Center for Science Education.  Although one of their officers told me that their official position on faith was only that “we will not criticize religions,” a perusal of their website shows that this is untrue.  Not only does the NCSE not criticize religion, but it cuddles up to it, kisses it, and tells it that everything will be all right.

In the rest of this post I’d like to explore the ways that, I think, the NCSE has made accommodationism not only its philosophy, but its official philosophy. This, along with their endorsement and affiliation with supernaturalist scientists, philosophers, and theologians, inevitably corrupts their mission.

Let me first affirm that I enormously admire the work of the NCSE and of its director, Eugenie Scott and its president, Kevin Padian.  They have worked tirelessly to keep evolution in the schools and creationism out, most visibly in the Dover trial.  But they’re also active at school-board hearings and other venues throughout the country, as well as providing extensive resources for the rest of us in the battle for Darwin.   They are the good guys.

So why am I using this space to criticize the organization?  I suppose it’s because I feel that in its battle against creationism, the NCSE should represent all evolutionary biologists.  But they are not representing a lot of us when they nuzzle up to theologians and vigorously push the harmony of science and religion. In effect, they’re pretending that the many people who disagree with their philosophical message don’t exist. Yet they can afford to ignore us because, in the end, where else can we atheists go for support against creationists?

The pro-religion stance of the NCSE is offensive and unnecessary — a form of misguided pragmatism.  First, it dilutes their mission of spreading Darwinism, by giving credibility to the views of scientists and theologians who are de facto creationists, whether they admit it or not.  Second, it departs from their avowed mission to be philosophically neutral.  Third, it disingenuously pretends that evolution poses absolutely no threat to faith, or conflicts with faith in any way.

None of this would be a problem if the NCSE would just stick to its avowed mission and “neutral” stance toward religion.

What is this mission?   As stated on one of its webpages:

What does NCSE do?

The National Center for Science Education, founded in 1981, engages in a number of activities advancing two primary goals: improving and supporting education in evolution and the nature of science, and increasing public understanding of these subjects.

If they just did this, there would be no problem.  So do they have to engage with faith to advance the teaching of evolution?  Apparently not, at least if you look at their religious position on the same page:

What is NCSE’s religious position?

None. The National Center for Science Education is not affiliated with any religious organization or belief. We and our members enthusiastically support the right of every individual to hold, practice, and advocate their beliefs, religious or non-religious. Our members range from devout practitioners of several religions to atheists, with many shades of belief in between. What unites them is a conviction that science and the scientific method, and not any particular religious belief, should determine science curriculum.

This stance of religious—and philosophical!–neutrality is underscored by a speech given by Eugenie Scott:

I think we make a grave error when we confuse philosophical views derived from science — even those we support — with science itself. . . .

I must say, though, that over the last several months I have presented lectures at several universities and two meetings of professional scientists in which I have argued that a clear distinction must be drawn between science as a way of knowing about the natural world and science as a foundation for philosophical views. One should be taught to our children in school, and the other can optionally be taught to our children at home.

But despite their avowed commitment to not mixing philosophy with science, an important part of the NCSE’s activities is its “Faith Project,” whose director is the theologically trained Peter M. J. Hess.  This project appears to be devoted entirely to the philosophical position that evolution need not conflict with “proper” faith.   Among the pages of this project is Hess’s statement, in “Science and Religion”:

In public discussions of evolution and creationism, we are sometimes told that we must choose between belief in creation and acceptance of the theory of evolution, between religion and science. But is this a fair demand? Must I choose only one or the other, or can I both believe in God and accept evolution? Can I both accept what science teaches and engage in religious belief and practice? This is a complex issue, but theologians, clergy, and members of many religious traditions have concluded that the answer is, unequivocally, yes.

You can’t get much more explicit than this.  To those of us who hold contrary views, including the idea that religion is dangerous, this logic sounds like this:

We are sometimes told that we must choose between smoking two packs a day and pursuing a healthy lifestyle.  Many cigarette companies, however, hold unequivocally that no such choice is necessary.

More accommodationism rears its head in the section called “How Do I read the Bible? Let Me Count the Ways”:

Contrary to what biblical literalists argue, the Bible was not intended by its authors to teach us about science — which did not exist at the time the Hebrew oral traditions were set in writing as the Book of Genesis. The Bible does not teach us the literal truths that the earth is flat, or that a global flood once covered Mt. Everest, or that we inhabit a geocentric cosmos, or that the world was created as we now observe it in six solar days, or that species were specially created in their present form and have not changed since the days of creation.

Rather, the Bible can be read as a record of one particular people’s developing moral relationship with the God in whom they placed their trust. As such, it enshrines timeless ideals about the integrity of creation and human responsibility within that creation. For biblical believers, part of that responsibility is using the gift of human rationality to discover the exciting story of how life ― including human life ― has developed on the earth.

Well, the Bible wasn’t intended to teach us about science, but it was intended to be an account of where life came from, and it is still read that way by a huge number of Americans.   What gives the NCSE the right, or the authority, to suggest how people interpret the Bible?

The “recommended books” page of the NCSE’s religion section gives the same one-sided view.  The section on “Theology, Evolution, and Creation” lists 36 books.  Every one of them appears to offer an accommodationist viewpoint.  Another 38 books appear (on the same page) in a “related themes in science and religion” section on the same page.  In both section we find all the familiar names: Francis Collins, John Haught, Kenneth Miller, Michael Ruse, Simon Conway Morris, John Polkinghorne, Joan Roughgarden, and so on — accommodationists all.  There are no books by Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, A.C. Grayling, and all those who have criticized the science-faith concordat.

As is usual in accommodationist literature, when the neo-atheist evolutionists are mentioned, they are done so dismissively, and held partially responsible for arousing anti-evolution sentiment:

When scientists such as William Provine and Richard Dawkins present philosophical materialism as the inevitable outgrowth of science or evolution (Dawkins 1987; Provine 1989) they reinforce the view encouraged by Morris and other antievolutionists that “one cannot be an evolutionist and a Christian.”

Perhaps most telling, the NCSE markets, as “staff publications,” some books that apparently show how religion and science can live happily together.   Take a look at the page on which you’re supposed to sign up as an NCSE member. There you’ll find the “staff publication” Catholicism and Science, by  Peter M. J. Hess (director of the “Faith Project”). By advertising the book in this way the NCSE is saying, “here’s our point of view.”  What is the point of view of Catholicism and Science? The book is so new that I haven’t seen it, but here’s the description on Amazon:

When most people think about Catholicism and science, they will automatically think of one of the famous events in the history of science — the condemnation of Galileo by the Roman Catholic Church. But the interaction of Catholics with science has been — and is — far more complex and positive than that depicted in the legend of the Galileo affair. Understanding the natural world has always been a strength of Catholic thought and research — from the great theologians of the Middle Ages to the present day — and science has been a hallmark of Catholic education for centuries.

Of course this doesn’t mention that the Catholic church itself has gone back and forth on the veracity of evolution.  Pope John Paul II, for example, declared that God inserted a soul somewhere in the lineage between Australopithecus and Homo. (Scott mentions this view, albeit only in passing, in an essay “Creationists and the Pope’s Statement.” But Dr. Scott’s long discussion of the position of the Catholic Church is celebratory, completely ignoring how the views of many Catholic contravene everything we know about human evolution.

Digging deeper into the NCSE site, one finds it riddled with strange lucubrations about religion.  For example, in an essay by Phila Borgeson called “Is There Two-Way Traffic on the Bridge? Why ‘Intelligent Design’ is not Fruitful Theologically,” one finds this:

The little we know about God from “intelligent design” is not congruent with an understanding of God that takes Hebrew and Christian scriptures seriously.  . . In Christian scripture, the central way in which God is related to his creation is, of course, through Christ’s redemption of the suffering of the world. Out of this emerges a theodicy that embraces as the price of the freedom God has bestowed on creation what we often read as the cruelty and caprice of nature. A designer God, though, must also be the designer of pain and death. In theological terms, “intelligent design” offers no articulation of how salvation is accomplished and constructs a God that is hard to square with the God who is steadfast love and suffering servant. George Murphy, working within his Lutheran tradition, has placed much emphasis on a theology of the cross as central to an understanding of God’s interaction with creation (Murphy 2002, 2003). Jürgen Moltmann stresses God’s suffering with God’s people, drawing on the Hebrew concept of shekinah and the kabbalistic concept of zimzum along with the Christian understanding of the kenosis (self-emptying) of God (Moltmann 2001). WH Vanstone pointed out in prose and hymn that the image of God as a creator, omnipotently, serenely, and detachedly presiding, then occasionally condescending to manipulate things to his will, is totally incongruent with what Christians know in the divine self-emptying of Christ (Vanstone 1977).

Zimzum?  Can somebody please tell me what on earth this tedious exegesis has to do with science education?

But my main beef is this: the NCSE touts, shelters, or gives its imprimatur to intellectuals and scientists who are either “supernaturalists” (the word that A. C. Grayling uses for those who see supernatural incursions into the universe) or who have what Dan Dennett calls “belief in belief”—the idea that while religion may be based on false beliefs, those beliefs are themselves good for society. (Among the former are Kenneth Miller and John Haught, the latter Michael Ruse and Francisco Ayala).  Both of these attitudes draw the NCSE away from its primary mission of promoting evolutionary biology, and push it into the hinterlands of philosophy and theology.

I have discussed Kenneth Miller’s views on evolution before, in particular his explicit Catholic theism  (i.e., God interacts directly with the world), and his speculation that these interactions may occur through perturbations in subatomic particles. He has also floated the idea that God set up the laws of physics so that they were particularly propitious for the appearance of life on Earth, and so made inevitable the appearance of highly intelligent beings who could apprehend and worship their creator.  Miller’s theism is also reflected in his published statements such as the following:

In reality, the potential for human existence is woven into every fiber of that universe, from the starry furnaces that forged the carbon upon which life is based, to the chemical bonds that fashioned our DNA from the muck and dust of this rocky planet. Seems like a plan to me.

And this:

. . . . .the God that we know through Christianity is not someone who acts like an ordinary human being, who simply happens to be endowed with supernatural powers. We are talking about a being whose intelligence is transcendent; we’re talking about a being who brought the universe into existence, who set up the rules of existence, and uses those rules and that universe and the natural world in which we live to bring about his will.

As both Massimo Pigliucci (a biologist and philosopher at Stony Book) and I have noted, this kind of talk comes perilously close to intelligent design; indeed, it may well be a form of intelligent design.  If God “uses rules” to bring about his will, then evolution cannot be undirected.

John Haught, another person who appears frequently on the NCSE website (and was also a religious witness in the Dover trial), has an equally teleological view of evolution.   In his accommodationist books God After Darwin and the more recent Deeper than Darwin, he espouses a teleology in which evolution is ineluctably drawn by God to some future point of perfection.  In God after Darwin, he approvingly cites (p. 83) the Jesuit philosopher Teilhard de Chardin’s suggestion:

. . . . that a metaphysically adequate explanation of any universe in which evolution occurs requires — at some point beyond the limits that science has set for itself — a transcendent force of attraction to explain the overarching tendency of matter to evolve toward life, mind, and spirit.

But any injection of teleology into evolutionary biology violates precisely the great advance of Darwin’s theory: to explain the appearance of design by a purely materialistic process — no deity required.   In a letter to his mentor Charles Lyell, Darwin explicitly decried the idea of divine intervention in evolution:

I entirely reject, as in my judgment quite unnecessary, any subsequent addition ‘of new powers and attributes and forces,’ or of any ‘principle of improvement’, except in so far as every character which is naturally selected or preserved is in some way an advantage or improvement, otherwise it would not have been selected. If I were convinced that I required such additions to the theory of natural selection, I would reject it as rubbish. . . I would give absolutely nothing for the theory of Natural Selection, if it requires miraculous additions at any one stage of descent.

If we’re to defend evolutionary biology, we must defend it as a science: a nonteleological theory in which the panoply of life results from the action of natural selection and genetic drift acting on random mutations.

The directors of the NCSE are smart people.  They know perfectly well — as did Darwin himself — that evolutionary biology is and always has been a serious threat to faith.  But try to find one acknowledgment of this incompatibility on their website.  No, all you’ll find there is sweetness and light. Indeed, far from being a threat to faith, evolution seems to reinforce it!  Is it disingenuous to be a personal atheist, as some NCSE officials are, and yet tell others that their faith is compatible with science? I don’t know.  But the NCSE’s pragmatism has taken it far outside its mandate. Their guiding strategy seems to be keep Darwin in the schools by all means necessary.

Am I grousing because, as an atheist and a non-accommodationist, my views are simply ignored by the NAS and NCSE?  Not at all.  I don’t want these organizations to espouse or include my viewpoint.  I want religion and atheism left completely out of all the official discourse of scientific societies and organizations that promote evolution.  If natural selection and evolution are as powerful as we all believe, then we should devote our time to making sure that they are more widely and accurately understood, and that their teaching is defended.  Those should be the sole missions of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Center for Science Education.  Leave theology to the theologians.

Two good pieces on evolution in Newsweek

March 29, 2009 • 9:09 am

I’m not used to seeing good critical science reporting in popular magazines, but this week’s Newsweek is a welcome exception. It contains two pieces of note.
The first is Jeremy McCarter’s analysis of Dennis Dutton’s new evolutionary-psychology book, The Art Instinct, a book that has been getting a good deal of press in the US (not so much in the UK, where it was published; I think the US is more susceptible to the wiles of evolutionary psychology). At any rate, Dutton pushes the argument that the instinct for making art is a direct adaptation selected in our ancestors because helped them acquire mates. In other words, the sonnet is just a 14-line penis. That’s a somewhat harsh caricature, but the book is in that genre of evolutionary psychology that provides intriguing stories and speculations backed up by almost no hard evidence. When I read such things, I keep telling myself “All this is as plausible as anything else.” McCarter was a student of Stephen J. Gould, and it shows in his analysis, which is remarkably critical (and on the mark) for a science-book review:

Dutton is not the first person to extend the tools of evolutionary psychology (which is what this field of inquiry is called) to humanity’s obsession with making and enjoying art. But in “The Art Instinct,” he uses a synthesis of existing approaches to propose a new “Darwinian esthetics” —a way of thinking about culture that’s informed by natural history. As a professor of the philosophy of art (at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand) and the editor of Arts & Letters Daily, the go-to site for the world’s procrastinating intellectuals, he represents an important conduit between the frequently combative fields of science and the humanities. Quite apart from its timeliness for Darwin’s bicentennial, the book deserves a look because it’s the latest in a long, long line of attempts to bring art and science together in a way that doesn’t leave one—or both—with a black eye . . .

All in all, it’s a lovely vision. I just wish somebody could convince me that it’s true.

Because, really, who knows? In his lucid and authoritative new book, “Why Evolution Is True,” Jerry A. Coyne, a biologist from the University of Chicago, decries the “scientific parlor game” of trying to find Darwinian explanations for every form of behavior. Human life in the Pleistocene is so remote that even when researchers add the knowledge gained from observing hunter-gatherer tribes active today to the fossil record, the resulting picture of our ancestors’ ways is hopelessly blurry. “The fact is,” said Coyne when I called to talk to him about the arts, “you cannot give me a human behavior for which I can’t make up a story about why it’s adaptive.”

When the book departs from theory to consider actual art and actual human beings, the strain of yoking evolution to creativity grows even more visible. According to Dutton, moderns and postmoderns are wrong to think that people can be taught to enjoy any kind of art, no matter how ugly or obscure it might be. Our human nature ensures “not only that some things in the arts will be difficult to appreciate but that appreciation of them may be impossible.” . . .

After all, evolutionary psychology has received its sharpest criticism from no less a Darwinian than Stephen Jay Gould. Until his death in 2002, he stood as one of the great champions and evangelists of science, as well as one of the most exacting critics of its tendency to overreach. He was also my teacher. When I tried to pinpoint why Dutton’s book left me unsatisfied, his lessons kept coming to mind.

According to Gould, life’s history needs to be understood not just as the result of natural forces explicable by science, but also of contingency: strange, unplanned events that change the course of everything that follows. (If not for a freak asteroid impact 65 million years ago, Gould used to say, mammals might still be small, furry creatures scurrying around a dinosaur-centric world.) No outcome of life’s history struck him as more contingent—or, consequently, more wonderful—than the human mind, a tangle of “mental machinery jury-rigged in the immensity of evolution.” He called higher mental functions like the arts “spandrels,” an architectural term for the triangular space formed when two arches meet at right angles. Though their rich decoration can make them appear to be the point of a particular design (in the domes of some medieval churches, for instance), they’re really an inadvertent byproduct of how arches work. The arts, likewise, may be one of the many adaptively useless byproducts of a complex brain that evolved to perform other tasks.

Okay, I may not be unbiased here (and thanks, Jeremy, for the book shout-out), but I am critical of books that tell the public seductive adaptive stories about why we behave as we do, but fail to back them up with evidence. It’s misleading. Maybe I should write The Science Instinct, contending that the brainiest geeks in our savannah-dwelling ancestors were particularly attractive to females.

The second piece is by the ever-intriguing Christopher Hitchens, who writes on this week’s shenanigans by the Texas Board of Education. He argues that a version of “equal time for creationism” may apply, but not in the science class:

So by all means let’s “be honest with the kids,” as Dr. Don McLeroy, the chairman of the Texas education board, wants us to be. The problem is that he is urging that the argument be taught, not in a history or in a civics class, but in a biology class. And one of his supporters on the board, Ken Mercer, has said that evolution is disproved by the absence of any transitional forms between dogs and cats. If any state in the American union gave equal time in science class to such claims, it would certainly make itself unique in the world (perhaps no shame in that). But it would also set a precedent for the sharing of the astronomy period with the teaching of astrology, or indeed of equal time as between chemistry and alchemy. Less boring perhaps, but also much less scientific and less educational . . .

Perhaps dimly aware that they don’t want a total victory, either, McLeroy and his allies now say that they ask for evolution to be taught only with all its “strengths and weaknesses.” But in this, they are surely being somewhat disingenuous. When their faction was strong enough to demand an outright ban on the teaching of what they call “Darwinism,” they had such a ban written into law in several states. Since the defeat and discredit of that policy, they have passed through several stages of what I am going to have to call evolution. First, they tried to get “secular humanism” classified as a “religion,” so that it would meet the First Amendment’s disqualification for being taught with taxpayers’ money. (That bright idea was Pat Robertson’s.) Then they came up with the formulation of “creation science,” picking up on anomalies and gaps in evolution and on differences between scientific Darwinists like Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould. Next came the ingratiating plea for “equal time”—what could be more American than that?and now we have the rebranded new coinage of “intelligent design” and the fresh complaint that its brave advocates are, so goes the title of a recent self-pitying documentary, simply “expelled” from the discourse.

It’s not just that the overwhelming majority of scientists are now convinced that evolution is inscribed in the fossil record and in the lineaments of molecular biology. It is more that evolutionists will say in advance which evidence, if found, would refute them and force them to reconsider. (“Rabbit fossils in the pre-Cambrian layer” was, I seem to remember, the response of Prof. J.B.S. Haldane.) Try asking an “intelligent design” advocate to stipulate upfront what would constitute refutation of his world view and you will easily see the difference between the scientific method and the pseudoscientific one.

Anyway, don’t just read these quotations: read both articles in their entirety. Good job, Newsweek!