“In Praise of Darwin”

January 11, 2010 • 12:05 am

by Greg Mayer

Jerry previously commented on Steven Shapin’s summary in the London Review of Books of the 2009 Darwin commemorations, finding Shapin’s piece “long and pretty lame“, and especially criticizing his swipe at adaptation. New York Times blogger Ross Douthat, however, finds Shapin’s piece “wonderful“, and evidently sympathizes with Shapin’s unease over Darwin and evolutionary biology:

But Shapin’s essay is more than just an attempt to explain last year’s Darwin-mania. It’s a clear-eyed and wide-ranging tour of what “Darwinism” means today — at once an unchallenged scientific paradigm and a wildly contentious theory of everything; a Church militant warring against creationists and fundamentalists and a debating society of squabbling professors; a touchstone for the literary intelligentsia and a source of secularist kitsch.

Fellow conservative blogger Andrew Sullivan is disappointed by Douthat’s “sneering tone” and “smears”, and praises Darwin as

one of the most revolutionary and influential thinkers of the past two hundred years

Commenter Ajay at the Times replies a bit more concretely, and poses an apt question for Douthat:

If by “an unchallenged scientific paradigm” you mean that Darwinism has been widely challenged historically, continually falsified and continually triumphant – then yes, you’re absolutely right. What planet do you live on?

[It’s clear that Ajay meant “tested”, rather than “falsified”.]

If you want to know what sort of Darwin commemorations were held around the world during the past year, sans Shapin’s commentary, the most extensive list, which includes talks, symposia, books, articles, exhibitions, films, etc., is that compiled by John van Wyhe of Christ’s College, Cambridge, and posted at the marvelous Darwin Online, which I’ve had occasion to note before. Some Darwin commemorations, included in the list, are continuing into 2010. John also includes a summary of some of the 1909 centennial events and publications.

The science/religion compatibility debate continues. . . .

February 6, 2009 • 11:51 am

Over on Edge, scientists continue to weigh in on my New Republic piece on the compatibility of science and faith. Steve Pinker and Sam Harris have just contributed, both taking the “non-accommodationist” stance.  Sam’s article,  a brilliant piece of sarcasm, has been widely misunderstood on the web, with many thinking he has seen the light and become a man of faith!  Yet how is it possible to mistake the following for anything other than sarcasm?

And yet, there is more to be said against the likes of Coyne and Dennett and Dawkins (he is the worst!). Patrick Bateson tells us that it is “staggeringly insensitive” to undermine the religious beliefs of people who find these beliefs consoling. I agree completely. For instance: it is now becoming a common practice in Afghanistan and Pakistan to blind and disfigure little girls with acid for the crime of going to school. When I was a neo-fundamentalist rational neo-atheist I used to criticize such behavior as an especially shameful sign of religious stupidity. I now realize—belatedly and to my great chagrin—that I knew nothing of the pain that a pious Muslim man might feel at the sight of young women learning to read. Who am I to criticize the public expression of his faith? Bateson is right. Clearly a belief in the inerrancy of the holy Qur’an is indispensable for these beleaguered people.

A second-order debate on the Edge debate has sprung up on Richard Dawkins’s website as well–there are nearly 800 comments!  Clearly this issue continues to attract a lot of attention, and generates a lot of heat as well as light.

Whoops!  Just informed that The Atlantic has taken up the debate in a column by Ross Doubthat.  Also, two pieces on The American Scene, one by Jim Manzi, and the other by Alan Jacobs.