Madeleine Bunting, fifth-rate accommodationist

July 2, 2009 • 7:05 pm

Really, just when you think the hopper of stupidity has emptied itself for the day, something happens to fill it back up. This time it’s the ever-reliable Madeleine Bunting and her minions. Over at the Guardian, Bunting reports on an accommodationist conference at Lambeth Palace, residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Her column is, as the Brits say, a dog’s breakfast.

She first laments that so much time is being wasted by discussing accommodationism:

So what happens when there is an attempt at a very different kind of conversation which is not around the extremes of belief and non belief but largely amongst thoughtful believers, many of whom might be scientists? That was the proposition behind Lambeth Palace’s gathering of scientists, philosophers and theologians yesterday morning.

The discussion can be framed around two very basic, crucial questions put forward by the audience. Firstly, what’s all the fuss about? It reflected a strand of anxiety in the multifaith audience that, frankly, there were bigger questions to worry about. Surely believers should be discussing individualism, consumerism and other social problems rather than indulge in this kind of philosophical reasoning.

Why, then, has Bunting devoted so many of her columns to this very issue? But she regroups and quickly begins reciting the traditional mantras of the fifth-rate accommodationist:

But the Archbishop of Canterbury was brisk, and he warned, “beware of the power of nonsense”. Science’s triumphalist claim as a competitor to failed religion was dangerous. In contrast, he offered an accommodation in which science and religion were “different ways of knowing” and “what you come to know depends on the questions you start with”. Different questions lead to “different practices of learning” – for example different academic disciplines. Rather than competitors, science and religion were both needed to pursue different questions.

I am still waiting patiently for someone to tell me one thing that religious people know is true, and that the knowledge whereof came uniquely from faith. Do we know if Jesus was the son of God? If so, what about Muslims who know something different? Frankly, I am losing patience with people who make this ludicrous argument, because they never specify what religion can help us know.

Oh well. Simon Conway Morris then rears his head:

Simon Conway Morris, professor of evolutionary palaeobiology, argued that the polemical hostile debate which dominates public debate – “the fuss” – is really about a failure of nerve of both science and religion. The response of both is to retreat into their own forms of dangerous literalism – religion into creationism and science into a fundamentalism. Challenging the current deference to Darwin in this anniversary year, he warned that aspects of Darwin’s thought can be taken into very dangerous territory; he cited a diary entry of Josef Goebbels’ in 1942 on the “parasitical Jews” in the struggle for survival. Science needed ethical thinking.

I used to respect Conway Morris for his achievements in paleontology, but it’s hard to maintain that respect in the view of this nonsense. Since when is the idea of “parasitical Jews” an “aspect of Darwin’s thought”? Conway Morris, it seems, has planted himself firmly in creationist la-la land along with Henry Morris, Phillip Johnson, and Ann Coulter. Can’t we just declare a moratorium on the assertion that the road from Darwin to Hitler is straight and unerring? But if we must pursue this line of argument, let us not forget that it was the Jews who were the unique objects of Nazi opprobrium. Why is that? Because they were the despised killers of Christ.
Not content with that, Conway Morris offers this:

The second question from the audience – from the philosopher Mary Midgley – was what comes next? What both science and religion needed, argued Conway Morris was a more fruitful conversation. He raised the possibility that religion might be needed to help develop understanding into questions which have baffled scientists such as the nature of consciousness.

To which one can reply only “not bloody likely!” If religion has ever given rise to any fruitful scientific methodology, I don’t know of it. This suggestion smacks of desperation.

Finally, out of desperationville rides John Houghton:

John Houghton, the climate scientist, took the question in an entirely different direction. It was science which had established the nature of global warming and science would play a role in inventing the innovations which could mitigate its impact, but religion also had a role as an agent of change of personal behaviour. It had a crucial role because religion essentially concerned itself with relationships to other people, to the rest of humanity and to the natural environment.

Perhaps Bunting, and Houghton, have forgotten that much of the opposition to the idea of global warming comes from religion, especially from those evangelical Christians who see humans as having been given dominion over nature. No secularist makes, or can make, such a claim. Has Bunting not observed the remarkable confluence of creationists and global-warming deniers?

I guess I read Bunting for the same reason that I sniff the milk when the carton is two weeks past its sell-by date: you know it’s bad, but there’s a perverse pleasure in making sure.

Why the evolution of humans was NOT inevitable; BioLogos peddles more dubious science

May 13, 2009 • 7:21 am

Over at that hilarious goldmine of accommodationism, Francis Collins’s BioLogos website (generously supported by The Templeton Foundation, they have posted an answer to the question, “Did evolution have to result in human beings?” Now if you know anything about this history of faith/science accommodationism, you know that the answer has to be “yes”, at least if you construe the question to mean “Did evolution have to result in a rational, highly intelligent being that was capable of apprehending and worshiping its creator?”  If God is running the evolutionary process, as the accommodationists maintain, then the evolution of humans (who are, after all, the goal of this process — the one species made in God’s image) could not have been left to chance.

And so, religious biologists like Kenneth Miller and Francis Collins, and “science-friendly” theologians like John Haught, have maintained in their writings that evolution would inevitably have coughed up an intelligent rational creature like Homo sapiens.  In other words, contrary to the assertions of Stephen Jay Gould, if we re-ran the tape of life, something humanlike would always appear.  Religious apologists always contend that the evolution of what we will call “humanoids” was not a continent process: it was built by God into the very fabric of evolution.

Of course, this is not a scientific belief.  For one thing, it makes humans different from other creatures.  The faithful don’t go around maintaining that the evolution of squirrels or cockroaches was an inevitable outcome of the evolutionary process, because according to Scripture God didn’t make rodents of insects in His image.  So God stuck his hand in, somewhere, to make humanoids appear.  That is creationism, pure and simple.  Or, he designed the process with the foreknowledge that humans would appear, which is also creationism, since no evolutionist really thinks that the process was jerry-rigged from the outset to produce certain life forms.

Second, if you do believe in a naturalistic and materialistic process of evolution in which God didn’t interfere, then the appearance of humans doesn’t seem likely at all — and certainly not inevitable.  Higher intelligence and rationality evolved only once, so it certainly isn’t something like eyes (whose morphology evolved independently dozens of time).  The idea that “convergent evolution” shows that humans were inevitable is deeply fallacious.

Yet BioLogos uses this argument — a favorite of the religious paleontologist Simon Conway Morris –to show that (surprise!) something like humans WAS inevitable in evolution.  After disposing of Gould’s contingency argument, they then approvingly reiterate Conway Morris’s “convergence” argument:

Humans: Inevitable, Intentional

Simon Conway Morris presents a different perspective, arguing humans, or a human-like species, are actually an inevitable part of evolution.  Morris is not proposing a different mechanism for human evolution, merely a different observation of its possible outcomes.  Morris would agree that any slight difference in the history of human DNA would result in a different evolutionary path.  Unlike Gould, however, Morris argues each of those possible pathways would inevitably lead to something like the human species.  Morris writes:

“The prevailing view of evolution is that life has no direction — no goals, no predictable outcomes. Hedged in by circumstances and coincidence, the course of life lurches from one point to another. It is pure chance that 3 billion years of evolution on Earth have produced a peculiarly clever ape. We may find distant echoes of our aptitude for tool making and language and our relentless curiosity in other animals, but intelligence like ours is very special. Right?”

“Wrong! The history of life on Earth appears impossibly complex and unpredictable, but take a closer look and you’ll find a deep structure. Physics and chemistry dictate that many things simply are not possible, and these constraints extend to biology. The solution to a particular biological problem can often only be handled in one of a few ways, which is why when you examine the tapestry of evolution you see the same patterns emerging over and over again.”

The patterns Morris mentions are also referred to as convergences in the evolutionary process.  In his most recent book, Life’s Solution, Morris gives many examples of physical traits or abilities found repeatedly among different species.5 Normally, such similarities are understood asthe result of common ancestry.  However, the species in Morris’s examples are known to be distantly related.  In many cases, not even these species’ common ancestor shared the same trait.  The implication is that several different species have independently developed similar traits.

The examples of convergence range across many levels of biology.  One popular and straightforward example is the human eye.  It turns out that several other species share a nearly identical visual system to that of the human eye, including the octopus.6 However, humans and octopuses have separate predecessors, neither of which shared this characteristic.  Two very different evolutionary paths arrived at the same visual system.  If Gould’s supposition is correct, and there was an infinity of other possible outcomes, then this example of convergence is all the more improbable.  Morris’s argument, conversely, is that the laws of nature allow for only a few solutions to any particular problem.  It appears the eye has developed independently at least seven times over the course of evolutionary time.

Human Significance

To see evidence for human significance, one need only consider Morris’s examples of convergence for many of the traits that are particularly relevant for human-like beings.  These examples include basic senses like balance, hearing and vision, as well as highly advanced features like the human brain.  Morris argues that evolution does not pose any threat to human significance.  Characteristics such as a large brain capable of consciousness, language and complex thought would inevitably have to emerge from the evolutionary process. Morris writes:

“Contrary to popular belief, the science of evolution does not belittle us.  As I argue, something like ourselves is an evolutionary inevitability, and our existence also reaffirms our one-ness with the rest of Creation.” 7

The exact anatomical features of this ultimate sentient being might not be precisely specified by the evolutionary process, however.  This thought can be unsettling to anyone who imagines our particular body plan is part of the imago Dei, or image of God. Despite the marvelous paintings in the Sistine Chapel, there is no reason to think that God the Father has a physical body that looks like ours.

God’s Sovereignty in the Evolution of Humans

Belief in a supernatural creator always leaves open the possibility that human beings are a fully-intended part of creation.  If the Creator chooses to interact with creation, he could very well influence the evolutionary process to ensure the arrival of his intended result.  (See Question 14 about Evolution and Divine Action.)  Furthermore, an omniscient creator could easily create the universe in such a way that physical and natural laws would result in human evolution.  (See Question 19 about Fine-Tuning of our Universe.)

Although the unpredictable mutations of DNA can make any species appear entirely accidental, Simon Conway Morris also puts forward strong arguments in favor of the inevitability of creatures that have the attributes of humans.  From this perspective, it seems the evolutionary process itself might be geared toward human life.

So it goes. (By the way, have a look at the last paragraph of this page where BioLogos suggests that the evolution of humanoids ON OTHER PLANETS was  improbable. (As expected, they take this stand because theologists can’t see God sending Jesus careening from planet to planet to save every species of alien).

The Argument for the Inevitability of Humanoids is perhaps the most popular argument (ranking with The Fine Tuning of Physical Constants) used by accommodists to show that evolution and God are not in conflict.  But the argument is simply wrong.  Nobody can say with assurance that the evolution of humanoids was inevitable.  The only honest response is “We don’t know” (and I would add “what we know about evolution tells us that it was probably not inevitable.”)

I attacked this argument in my New Republic essay “Seeing and Believing,” and for those who haven’t read it, or who don’t wish to plow through the link to find it, I’ll reproduce it here. This was a review of two books, Kenneth Miller’s Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul, and Karl Giberson’s Saving Darwin: How to be a Christian and Believe in Evolution.


In Finding Darwin’s God, his earlier book, Miller proclaimed a universal theism: “Remember, once again, that people of faith believe their God is active in the present world, where He works in concert with the naturalism of physics and chemistry.” Giberson clearly agrees. And where do they find the hand of God in nature? Unsurprisingly, in the appearance of humans.

Giberson and Miller assert that the evolution of humans, or something very like them, was inevitable. Given the way that evolution works, they claim, it was certain that the animal kingdom would eventually work its way up to a species that was conscious, highly intelligent, and above all, capable of apprehending and worshipping its creator. This species did not have to look perfectly human, but it did have to have our refined mentality (call it “humanoid”). One of Miller’s chapters is even titled “The World That Knew We Were Coming.” Giberson notes that “capabilities like vision and intelligence are so valuable to organisms that many, if not most biologists believe they would probably arise under any normal evolutionary process…. So how can evolution be entirely random, if certain sophisticated end points are predictable?”

Reading this, many biologists will wonder how he can be so sure. After all, evolution is a contingent process. The way natural selection molds a species depends on unpredictable changes in climate, on random physical events such as meteor strikes or volcanic eruptions, on the occurrence of rare and random mutations, and on which species happen to be lucky enough to survive a mass extinction. If, for example, a large meteor had not struck Earth sixty-five million years ago, contributing to the extinction of the dinosaurs–and to the rise of the mammals they previously dominated–all mammals would probably still be small nocturnal insectivores, munching on crickets in the twilight.

Evolutionists long ago abandoned the notion that there is an inevitable evolutionary march toward greater complexity, a march that culminated in humans. Yes, the average complexity of all species has increased over the three-and-a-half billion years of evolution, but that is because life started out as a simple replicating molecule, and the only way to go from there is to become more complex. But now complexity is not always favored by natural selection. If you are a parasite, for instance, natural selection may make you less complex, because you can live off the exertions of another species. Tapeworms evolved from free-living worms, and during their evolution have lost their digestive system, their nervous system, and much of their reproductive apparatus. As I tell my students, they have become just absorptive bags of gonads, much like the students themselves. Yet tapeworms are superbly adapted for a parasitic way of life. It does not always pay to be smarter, either. For some years I had a pet skunk, who was lovable but dim. I mentioned this to my vet, who put me in my place: “Stupid? Hell, he’s perfectly adapted for being a skunk!” Intelligence comes with a cost: you need to produce and to carry that extra brain matter, and to crank up your metabolism to support it. And sometimes this cost exceeds the genetic payoff. A smarter skunk might not be a fitter skunk.

To support the inevitability of humans, Giberson and Miller invoke the notion of evolutionary convergence. This idea is simple: species often adapt to similar environments by independently evolving similar features. Ichthyosaurs (ancient marine reptiles), porpoises, and fish all evolved independently in the water, and through natural selection all three acquired fins and a similar streamlined shape. Complex “camera eyes” evolved in both vertebrates and squid. Arctic animals such as polar bears, arctic hares, and snowy owls either are white or turn white in the winter, hiding them from predators or prey. Perhaps the most astonishing example of convergence is the similarity between some species of marsupial mammals in Australia and unrelated placental mammals that live elsewhere. The marsupial flying phalanger looks and acts just like the flying squirrel of the New World. Marsupial moles, with their reduced eyes and big burrowing claws, are dead ringers for our placental moles. Until its extinction in 1936, the remarkable thylacine, or Tasmanian wolf, looked and hunted like a placental wolf.

Convergence tells us something deep about evolution. There must be preexisting “niches,” or ways of life, that call up similar evolutionary changes in unrelated species that adapt to them. That is, starting with different ancestors and fuelled by different mutations, natural selection can nonetheless mold bodies in very similar ways–so long as those changes improve survival and reproduction. There were niches in the sea for fish-eating mammals and reptiles, so porpoises and ichthyosaurs became streamlined. Animals in the Arctic improve their survival if they are white in the winter. And there must obviously be a niche for a small omnivorous mammal that glides from tree to tree. Convergence is one of the most impressive features of evolution, and it is common: there are hundreds of cases.

All it takes to argue for the inevitability of humanoids, then, is to claim that there was a “humanoid niche”–a way of life that required high intelligence and sophisticated self-consciousness–and that this niche remained unfilled until inevitably invaded by human ancestors. But was its occupation really inevitable? Miller is confident that it was:

“But as life re-explored adaptive space, could we be certain that our niche would not be occupied? I would argue that we could be almost certain that it would be–that eventually evolution would produce an intelligent, self-aware, reflective creature endowed with a nervous system large enough to solve the very same questions we have, and capable of discovering the very process that produced it, the process of evolution…. Everything we know about evolution suggests that it could, sooner or later, get to that niche.”

Miller and Giberson are forced to this view for a simple reason. If we cannot prove that humanoid evolution was inevitable, then the reconciliation of evolution and Christianity collapses. For if we really were the special object of God’s creation, our evolution could not have been left to chance. (It may not be irrelevant that although the Catholic Church accepts most of Darwinism, it makes an official exception for the evolution of Homo sapiens, whose soul is said to have been created by God and inserted at some point into the human lineage.)

The difficulty is that most scientists do not share Miller’s certainty. This is because evolution is not a repeatable experiment. We cannot replay the tape of life over and over to see if higher consciousness always crops up. In fact, there are good reasons for thinking that the evolution of humanoids was not only not inevitable, but was a priori improbable. Although convergences are striking features of evolution, there are at least as many failures of convergence. These failures are less striking because they involve species that are missing. Consider Australia again. Many types of mammals that evolved elsewhere have no equivalents among marsupials. There is no marsupial counterpart to a bat (that is, a flying mammal), or to giraffes and elephants (large mammals with long necks or noses that can browse on the leaves of trees). Most tellingly, Australia evolved no counterpart to primates, or any creature with primate-like intelligence. In fact, Australia has many unfilled niches–and hence many unfulfilled convergences, including that prized “humanoid” niche. If high intelligence was such a predictable result of evolution, why did it not evolve in Australia? Why did it arise only once, in Africa?

This raises another question. We recognize convergences because unrelated species evolve similar traits. In other words, the traits appear in more than one species. But sophisticated, self-aware intelligence is a singleton: it evolved just once, in a human ancestor. (Octopi and dolphins are also smart, but they do not have the stuff to reflect on their origins.) In contrast, eyes have evolved independently forty times, and white color in Arctic animals appeared several times. It is hard to make a convincing case for the evolutionary inevitability of a feature that arose only once. The elephant’s trunk, a complex and sophisticated adaptation (it has over forty thousand muscles!), is also an evolutionary singleton. Yet you do not hear scientists arguing that evolution would inevitably fill the “elephant niche.” Giberson and Miller proclaim the inevitability of humanoids for one reason only: Christianity demands it.

Finally, it is abundantly clear that the evolution of human intelligence was a contingent event: contingent on the drying out of the African forest and the development of grasslands, which enabled apes to leave the trees and walk on two legs. Indeed, to maintain that the evolution of humans was inevitable, you must also maintain that the evolution of apes was inevitable, that the evolution of primates was inevitable, that the rise of mammals was inevitable, and so on back through dozens of ancestors, all of whose appearances must be seen as inevitable. This produces a regress of increasing unlikelihood. In the end, the question of whether human-like creatures were inevitable can be answered only by admitting that we do not know–and adding that most scientific evidence suggests that they were not. Any other answer involves either wishful thinking or theology.

Miller opts for theology. Although his new book does not say how God ensured the arrival of Homo sapiens, Miller was more explicit in Finding Darwin’s God. There he suggested that the indeterminacy of quantum mechanics allows God to intervene at the level of atoms, influencing events on a larger scale:

“The indeterminate nature of quantum events would allow a clever and subtle God to influence events in ways that are profound, but scientifically undetectable to us. Those events could include the appearance of mutations, the activation of individual neurons in the brain, and even the survival of individual cells and organisms affected by the chance processes of radioactive decay.”

In other words, God is a Mover of Electrons, deliberately keeping his incursions into nature so subtle that they’re invisible. It is baffling that Miller, who comes up with the most technically astute arguments against irreducible complexity, can in the end wind up touting God’s micro-editing of DNA. This argument is in fact identical to that of Michael Behe, the ID advocate against whom Miller testified in the Harrisburg trial. It is another God-of-the-gaps argument, except that this time the gaps are tiny.

Obviously, given that higher intelligence and rationality of the human type has evolved only once, the existence of convergence says nothing about whether these features would always appear.  In fact, the one-offness seems to imply otherwise.

What bothers me about this is, of course, that BioLogos is using the imprimatur of science (and the wonky ideas of Simon Conway Morris) to try to convince people that of course our evolution was inevitable.  This tactic is a favorite of BioLogos (and Templeton), for it tries to blur the boundaries between science and faith.  As scientists we can say nothing about the inevitability of humans except that it seems unlikely given its unique appearance.  Certainly one can say that the idea of evolutionary convergence is irrelevant here.

Please, BioLogos, stop making scientific arguments for God!

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.

Steven Pinker’s take on the material mind

February 15, 2009 • 9:37 am

I sent Simon Conway Morris’s attack on the Darwinian evolution of human mind and consciousness to my colleague Steven Pinker at Harvard (for those of you who have been in Ulan Bator for the last two decades, he’s an eminent psychologist and linguist who has written extensively on the mind, language, and evolution).  Steve had a thoughtful response, which he kindly gave me permission to post here:

My own take:

1. Though there’s much we don’t understand about the evolution of human intelligence, nothing about it is especially mysterious. A specific ability to do physics, abstract philosophy, higher math, and the other problems that vexed Wallace never evolved in the first place – they require millennia of accumulated knowledge in a culture, and decades of education and honing in an individual. A more generic ability entertain concepts of number, objects, living things, causality, and so on, and to combine them into lawful generalizations, is patently adaptive, as we see in the ways that all human cultures depend on acquired technological know-how for their survival, outsmarting the fixed defenses of local flora and fauna. While human-level intelligence is species-specific (as are many zoological traits, such as the elephant’s trunk), impressive levels of numerical cognition and cause-and-effect reasoning have evolved several times, including in corvids, cetaceans, cephalopods, and primates.

2. Nor is morality any mystery. Abstract, universal morality (e.g., a Kantian categorical imperative) never evolved in the first place, but took millennia of debate and cultural experience, and doesn’t characterize the vast majority of humanity. More rudimentary moral sentiments that may have evolved – sympathy, trust, retribution, gratitude, guilt – are stable strategies in cooperation games, and emerge in computer simulations.

3. No feature of consciousness has ever been discovered that does not depend 100% on neurophysiology. Stimulate the brain with chemicals or an electrical current, and the person’s experience changes; let a person’s experience vary, and you can measure the changes in chemistry or electrophysiology. When a brain is damaged, the person’s mental life is diminished accordingly, and when the brain’s activity ceases, the mind goes out of existence – Wallace’s séances notwithstanding, no one has found a way to communicate with the dead. The very existence of a subjective correlate of brain activity may not be understood (if it’s an intellectually coherent problem at all, which some would deny), but positing a “soul” simply renames the problem with no insight, and leaves the perfect correlation between consciousness and neurophysiology unexplained.

Simon Conway Morris becomes a creationist

February 14, 2009 • 7:00 am

In yesterday’s Guardian the famous paleontologist Simon Conway Morris (describer of many of the Burgess Shale fossils and author of Life’s Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe) uses Darwin Day not as a reason to celebrate what the old man did, but to point out what he did not do, and to engage in some atheism bashing on the way:

Darwinian [sic] has reached near saturation and among the customary pieties there is little doubt that it will conveniently serve as a love-in, with much mutual self-congratulation, for atheism. But perhaps now is the time to rejoice not in what Darwin got right, and in demonstrating the reality of evolution in the context of entirely unexceptional natural processes there is no dispute, but what his inheritance is in terms of unfinished business. Isn’t it curious how evolution is regarded by some as a total, universe-embracing explanation, although those who treat it as a religion might protest and sometimes not gently. Don’t worry, the science of evolution is certainly incomplete.

He then beats the drum for evolutionary convergence (the arrival of independent lineages as similar evolutionary solutions, like the camera eyes of vertebrates and squid). His ultimate example of “convergence” (though it really isn’t one), is the high intelligence and mentality of humans. He claims that convergence shows the incompleteness of Darwinism.

What! Darwinism not a total explanation? Why should it be? It is after all only a mechanism, but if evolution is predictive, indeed possesses a logic, then evidently it is being governed by deeper principles. Come to think about it so are all sciences; why should Darwinism be any exception?

This is palpable nonsense. The “deeper principle” at work here is simply natural selection: organisms adapt to their environments. We can expect, in some cases, that different organisms facing similar adaptive problems will hit on similar solutions. Sharks, ichthyosaurs, and dolphins all adapted independently to life as fast-swimming predators in the ocean, and all developed similar shapes, for such a way of life requires fast, torpedo-shaped beasts with fins. And of course sometimes similar evolutionary problems are met by different solutions, and in those cases evolution is not predictable. Some fish, like seahorses, escape predators by being permanently camouflaged and hiding in a matching habitat, while others, like the flounder, can change their colors and thus be camouflaged while moving between different habitats.

Conway Morris then takes up Alfred Russel Wallace’s nineteenth-century position that the evoution of the human mind is inexplicable by evolution:

But there is more. How to explain mind? Darwin fumbled it. Could he trust his thoughts any more than those of a dog? Or worse, perhaps here was one point (along, as it happens, with the origin of life) that his apparently all-embracing theory ran into the buffers?

His solution? God of course. This is no surprise to anyone who has followed Conway Morris’s biological arguments in favor of the Christian God.

If, however, the universe is actually the product of a rational Mind and evolution is simply the search engine that in leading to sentience and consciousness allows us to discover the fundamental architecture of the universe – a point many mathematicians intuitively sense when they speak of the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics – then things not only start to make much better sense, but they are also much more interesting. Farewell bleak nihilism; the cold assurances that all is meaningless. Of course, Darwin told us how to get there and by what mechanism, but neither why it is in the first place, nor how on earth we actually understand it.

In his peroration, Conway Morris, triumphant, asserts that the fact of human rationality and consciousness puts paid to atheism:

To reiterate: when physicists speak of not only a strange universe, but one even stranger than we can possibly imagine, they articulate a sense of unfinished business that most neo-Darwinians don’t even want to think about. Of course our brains are a product of evolution, but does anybody seriously believe consciousness itself is material? Well, yes, some argue just as much, but their explanations seem to have made no headway. We are indeed dealing with unfinished business. God’s funeral? I don’t think so. Please join me beside the coffin marked Atheism. I fear, however, there will be very few mourners.

I don’t want to fulminate at length about this terrible and misleading “logic,” but do want to make four points.

1. The conscious and rational human mind does not demonstrate convergence, because it is a singleton: it evolved only once–in the lineage leading to modern Homo sapiens. By definition, evolutionary convergence involves at least two species. I am puzzled why Conway Morris continues to use this example (well, not really puzzled–he wants to show that the evolution of the human mind is inevitable). I have criticized this viewpoint in a recent article.

2. Contra Conway Morris, there are many people who feel that consciousness is “material” in the sense that it arises from purely material causes in a material object: the brain. Understanding how and why consciousness evolved are hard problems, but to throw one’s hands up in despair and say, “God made it” is a ludicrous solution. Give biologists another century of work on the brain, for goodness sake!

3. This brings us to my conclusion that Conway Morris advocates a form of intelligent design. He seems to believe that things might have evolved as Darwin proposes–except for one thing. That, of course, is the human mind. Here a Creator must have intervened! In this piece he seems to go beyond his previously-published view that the evolution of our higher intelligence was simply inevitable; here he comes close to saying that it was impossible. It’s a bit confusing since he also makes the statement that mind was the result of an evolutionary search engine, but even if he is advocating only that God directed evolution to produce rational minds that could discover God (a rather circuitious way to create us!), that is still a form of intelligent design. Conway Morris has thus joined the ranks of what Dan Dennett calls “mind creationists,” a view that Dennett dismantled in his book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea.

4. Conway Morris is way, way peeved at atheists. He mentions them several times in his piece. He thinks he has vanquished them with his “unanswerable” evolutionary arguments. But he has not. He is simply proposing a “God of the gaps” argument, and here the gap is our mind. It’s Alfred Russel Wallace recycled. He is wrong: neither will atheism die, or even flinch a bit, and we will, I predict some day understand, as Darwin believed, that the human mind is simply a product of the blind and materialistic product of natural selection.

Conway Morris is straying from the scientific path here, but he simply can’t help himself. He is a committed Christian, and has to find some way to show that the evolution of humans was inevitable.

Postscript:  Over at Pharyngula, P.Z. Myers has done a far better critique and deconstruction of Conway Morris’s lucubrations.  This paragraph analyzing C-M’s prose is sheer genius:

“I cannot bear it any more. I have to make a secondary complaint about Conway Morris’s piece. He seems to regard the English language as an axe murderer would a corpse: as an awkward obect that must be hacked into fragments, and the ragged chunks tossed into a rusty oil drum he calls an article. Continuity and flow are something that can be added after the fact, by pouring in a bag of quicklime. Unfortunately, one difference between the two is that Conway Morris will subsequently proudly display his handiwork in a newspaper, while the axe murderer at least has the decency to cart the grisly carnage off to the local landfill for anonymous and clandestine disposal. One can only hope that someday the paleontologist will perfect his emulation and take his work to the same conclusion”

On re-reading The Origin

February 13, 2009 • 6:44 am

The journal Current Biology asked a group of us to re-read Darwin’s great book and write a few paragraphs of response; the collection, which is quite intriguing, is here. Besides my take (which is, as I’ve already mentioned, a defense of the term “Darwinism”), there are pieces by Bob May, Matt Ridley, Peter Lawrence, Matthew Cobb, Christine Nüsslein-Volhard, Mark Ptashne, Simon Conway Morris, Marlene Zuk, Andrew Berry, and Hopi Hoekstra.

It’s particularly interesting to contrast the ending of Matthew Cobb’s piece (he is an evolutionary biologist at Manchester) with that of Conway Morris’s (he is a paleontologist at Cambridge). Conway Morris, who is of course religious, contends that the human mind is not explainable by evolution, while Cobb thinks that our minds are on an evolutionary continnum with those of animals. (This of course parallels a famous disagreement between Darwin and Wallace, who had the views of Cobb and Conway Morris respectively).

Conway Morris of course wrote Life’s Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe, a very large book which, by presenting hundreds of pages of examples of evolutionary convergence (a worthwhile task, with lots of good stuff), argued that the evolution of humans was inevitable. I have argued against this view, asserting that our complex intelligence arose only once, and so is neither an example of evolutionary convergence nor inevitable.