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Monday, September 03, 2007

Former atheist Antony Flew to author book on God as designer

Antony Flew, who became a deist on account of intelligent design, will apparently be authoring a book with HarperCollins (There Is a God: How the World's Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind, October 23, 2007), his co-author being Roy Varghese
. This from the publisher:
For the first time, this book will present a detailed and fascinating account of Flew's riveting decision to revoke his previous beliefs and argue for the existence of God. Ever since Flew's announcement, there has been great debate among atheists and believers alike about what exactly this "conversion" means. There Is a God will finally put this debate to rest.
This is a story of a brilliant mind and reasoned thinker, and where his lifelong intellectual pursuit eventually led him: belief in God as designer.

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Giving Darwin a decent burial?

A friend draws my attention to this abstract from the Darwinism after Darwin conference (September 3-5, 2007 in Leeds, UK):
Giving Darwin a decent burial

Steve Fuller, University of Warwick, UK

I propose to use counterfactual historiography to argue that the branches of biology that we today consider to be most advanced – molecular biology, especially in relation to genetics – would have progressed more swiftly had Darwin NOT persevered and published Origin of Species in 1859. The predominance of other scientifically respectable theories of evolution available at the time, which typically did not treat design as an illusion in nature (e.g. Lamarck’s, Wallace’s), would have provided – and indeed did provide -- a more hospitable intellectual environment for the development of lab-based branches of biology responsible for bringing us to where we are now. Moreover, I will argue that had Darwin been out of the world-historic picture, biology would not have acquired its distinctly 'historicist' character, to which philosophers have become reconciled only in recent years. Rather, genetics and molecular biology would be more closely aligned with engineering-based disciplines like bionics, precedents for which could be found in the first half of the 20th century, via systems theory perspectives and what became known as 'biophysics'. I conclude that rather than continuing to venerate Darwin, even though he would find relatively little of contemporary biological research relevant to his own studies, we would do better – in time for his 200th anniversary – to retire Darwin as The Last Great Historicist, who has earned a place alongside Marx and Freud more for reasons of cultural iconicity than scientific relevance.

Of course that's all true, but I hope Fuller remembered to bring his own body bag.

Still, last year, he got away with telling the Guardian that Darwinism had had its own way for far too long:
He says the addition of ID would improve science education, something four out of 10 respondents supported in a BBC poll last week. "There needs to be some incentive to develop historically sensitive textbooks in science education and ID could be very much part of that," Fuller says. "Most students who take science at a high school level will not go on to become scientists. The point is, you want a science education for an informed citizenry - people who can appreciate science, can recognise science when they see it, and can think critically about science."
I guess if he just keeps moving - it's hard to hit a moving target.

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Dog breeding - proof that Darwin was right? Hardly, says prof

In his review of ID biochemist Mike Behe's Edge of Evolution, which caused many to wonder whether he had actually read the book he was reviewing, Richard Dawkins indulged in a long and seemingly irrelevant riff on dog breeding. He hoped to convince his readers that complex and fantastical intracellular machines come about by chance (and mind comes from mud) on account of the vast variety that humans can produce by selective breeding of dogs.

Correspondents have pointed out that Dawkins is counting on his readers' ignorance of a fundamental fact about dog breeding- that is depends on existing traits and does not introduce new ones. One writes, for example,
The problem is that the variety of dogs obtained through breeding programs is an example of the variation possible within the dog genome, but (and this is a very big 'but') there are natural limits to variation.

Darwinism predicts that there are no taxonomic limits to variation. However, every breeding experiment of the last 100 years that attempts to see how far variation can go (E. coli, drosophila, etc.) always encounters limits beyond which further change is not possible. Thus, the fundamental prediction of Darwinian theory has been consistently falsified in a century's worth of experimental testing. Dog breeding, itself, encounters these limits.
The bottom line is that dog breeding, and the observed limits to variation within dogs, falsifies the most important prediction of Darwinian theory.

What is he talking about?
Another correspondent, David A. DeWitt, author of Unraveling the Origins Controversy, enlightened me further,
Many of the traits for different dog breeds are examples of neoteny.

Neoteny refers to the maintaining of juvenile characteristics into adulthood. Mutations can prevent proper development and maturation. Even though particular traits might seem like they are novel, in such cases it is really a loss of information since the animal has stunted development in one trait.

This is why some breeds of dogs are so cute and look like puppies even though they are full grown (Jack Russel, Shitzu etc).

Well, that makes sense. The disgusting little freaky-poos that infest my neighbourhood are really just immature? Makes sense, all right.*

I wrote back to ask,
David, is there not also some distortion involved, maintained by selective breeding? I am thinking in particular of the Basset hound, the bulldog , and the dachsund. Do these distortions not shorten life in many cases?

Also, the single most important trait in domestic dogs is that the animal not be aggressive around humans. (That would be the fastest way for a dog to get himself a one-way trip to the vet's office.) But that means selecting for a trait that would NOT aid survival in nature.

The breeds that are commonly trained to BE aggressive toward humans (intentionally) are wolfhounds like German Shepherds. But they have the most characteristics in common with wild animals like wolves.

In other words, domestic breeding not only does not employ natural selection, but it selects for traits that would not be chosen in any process that favoured survivability. Is that correct?

He replied, with a long, careful answer:
Pure breed dogs often do have shorter lives than "mutts". Presumably, this is because of severe inbreeding. The result is that mutations for particular diseases/defects become concentrated.

So when people have selected for those traits that comprise the poodle breed, they have also inadvertently selected several serious genetic defects. Certain breeds are prone to the same diseases and early causes of death.

Regarding the lack of aggression in dogs...this is also considered an example of a neotenous trait (juvenile traits that persist into adulthood).

When wolves are very very young, they are not so aggressive. Many of the behaviors of our dog breeds are also neotenous. There is plenty of information about this on the internet. The less a dog is physically like a wolf, the less aggressive the dog.

The most important thing to understand about dog breeding is that there is not new genetic information (from mutation) that is being supplied. Through breeding, humans are either shuffling genes that pre-exist in the population (like different poker hands from the same deck) or preserving mutations that amount to developmental defects.

While developmental defects can look like new traits (short stubby legs or a short snout for example or a Chihuahua that looks like an embryonic dog) they are not new at all since it is simply preservation of a previous stage.

Another example of a neotenous trait would be a mutation that leads to webbing between fingers in a human. During development, the cells between the fingers are supposed to go through a process of programmed cell death (apoptosis). If the cells do not die (because of a mutation), then the remaining tissue would be webbed fingers.

Since all human babies go through such a stage, it would not be a new trait even though it looks like it. It is preservation of a previous developmental stage because of a mutation in the normal developmental pathway. This highlights another aspect to the limits of Darwinian evolution.

Often, dogs are considered an exception because they are so "plastic". In reality, it is just that we have been able to preserve a wider array of developmental defects. Dawkins pulled a real bait and switch trick when he criticized Behe's Edge of Evolution using dog breeding. Dog breeds highlight the limits of evolutionary change, but Dawkins used the diversity of dogs (from developmental defects) to rebut this fact.

However, since most people do not understand the preservation of juvenile characteristics, they can be fooled into thinking that evolution really can produce new traits.

Hmmm. We hear plenty about Darwin's natural selection, but almost nothing about neoteny. And, to the extent that Dawkins was counting on our ignorance of neoteny, why SHOULD he bother to read Edge of Evolution before discouraging others from reading it?

(*Thanks, Dr. DeWitt! I've been looking for years for a way to insult the local infestation of little canine swine without being cruel. Like, neighbours, please, if you're going to have a dog, have a dog. Otherwise, be a cat person like me.)

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Teaching the controversy - or modelling civilized disagreement?

I don't know if I ever got around to posting American theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson's recent comments on intelligent design and schools:
My opinion is that most people believe in intelligent design as a reasonable explanation of the universe, and this belief is entirely compatible with science. So it is unwise for scientists to make a big fight against the idea of intelligent design. The fight should be only for the freedom of teachers to teach science as they see fit, independent of political or religious control. It should be a fight for intellectual freedom, not a fight for science against religion.

Well, I have now.

I entirely agree with Dyson that teachers should be free to teach science as they see fit, providing that they are teaching a relevant curriculum and meet standards of classroom competence. In my view, the primary criterion for evaluating any school should be whether students who want to go on in a given discipline get into schools of their choice, where the selection process is free of obvious ideological or other bias. These days that may be asking for a lot. But, as the taxpayer, I am the primary funding source of the system, so I DO feel free to ask for it.

Looking back on my own education 45 years ago, I am amazed by the freedom our teachers had, compared to what they would have today. My teachers at Tweedsmuir public school in London, Ontario, argued over creation vs. evolution with each other in front of the class! They quoted the Bible and they quoted atheist philosophers. The police never came. Not once. Fortunately, there is no Canadian equivalent of the ACLU, so no professional busybodies showed up either.

The most valuable thing those teachers did, in my view, was this: They enabled their students to see how educated adults conducted a conversation about ideas. Many of their students came from homes where their parents, who had not had the benefit of much education, might have conducted a discussion on entirely different - and less culturally satisfactory - lines.

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Materialist myths: "Copernican revolution" strikes again

A recent riff on the Copernicus demoted humans theme:

Prominent anti-ID physicist Lawrence M Krauss announced to Richard Panek earlier this year in the New York Times Magazine,
“We’re just a bit of pollution,” Lawrence M. Krauss, a theorist at Case Western Reserve, said not long ago at a public panel on cosmology in Chicago. “If you got rid of us, and all the stars and all the galaxies and all the planets and all the aliens and everybody, then the universe would be largely the same. We’re completely irrelevant.”

Panek thinks "the ultimate Copernican Revolution" may be that we will never understand the universe, explaining,
Science is full of homo sapiens-humbling insights. But the trade-off for these lessons in insignificance has always been that at least now we would have a deeper — simpler — understanding of the universe. That the more we could observe, the more we would know. But what about the less we could observe? What happens to new knowledge then? It’s a question cosmologists have been asking themselves lately, and it might well be a question we’ll all be asking ourselves soon, because if they’re right, then the time has come to rethink a fundamental assumption: When we look up at the night sky, we’re seeing the universe.
Not so. Not even close.

By now, the pattern is pretty obvious. It wasn't Copernicus who demoted humans. It is these folks, ripping off Copernicus' brand. By some irony or other, the talk I gave recently at the Fairview Library in Toronto was part of a series called the Copernican Lectures. And I think that materialism is THE impediment to understanding the universe. It makes things that were merely difficult before ... impossible.

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Undead materialist myths: Copernicus “demoted” humans from the center of the universe

Following on the Christians’ flat earth myth, another friend notes that it is likewise untrue that Copernicus somehow “demoted” humans from the center of the universe. University of British Columbia professor Dennis Danielson notes in a 2001 article in the American Journal of Physics, “The Great Copernican Cliche” (69 (2001), p. 1029):
ABSTRACT: For more than three centuries scientists, historians, and popularizers of science have been repeating the claim that Copernicus "dethroned" earth from its "privileged" central position in the universe. However, a survey of pre-Copernican natural philosophy
(which viewed the earth as located in a cosmic sump) and of Copernicans' own account of the axiological meaning of the new heliocentric astronomy (which exalted earth to the dance of the
stars) demonstrates that the cliche about earth's "demotion" is unwarranted and fit to be discarded. %October, no. 10

Here’s a popular piece on the same subject. And yes, Dennis Danielson did appear in The Privileged Planet film.

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Materialist myths: The flat earth myth ... another go-round

In his review of Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion last January, Nobelist Steven Weinberg opines,
In the early days of Christianity, the Church Fathers Theophilus of Antioch and Clement of Alexandria rejected the knowledge, common since the time of Plato, that the Earth is a sphere. They insisted on the literal truth of the Bible, and from Genesis to Revelation verses could be interpreted to mean that the Earth is flat. But the evidence for a spherical Earth was overwhelming to anyone who had seen a ship's hull disappear below the horizon while its masts were still visible, and in the end the flat Earth did not seem worth a fight. By the high Middle Ages, the spherical Earth was accepted by educated Christians.

Now THERE’s a wheeze that never finally croaks. A friend wrote to wonder why Weinberg had not received the Nobel Prize for Literature (fiction) rather than Physics, drawing my attention to a flyer distributed during Ohio school board hearings in 2002, which reads in part,


... the story is false. It began as fiction, and it was elevated to a historical claim by late-19th century Darwinists who used it as a weapon to ridicule Christians.

The spherical shape of the earth was known to the ancient Greeks, who even made some decent estimates of its circumference. Christian theologians likewise knew that the earth was a sphere. The only two who are known to have advocated a flat earth were a 4th-century heretic, Lactantius, and an obscure 6th-century writer, Cosmas Indicopleustes.

A major promulgator of the flat earth myth was the 19th-century American writer Washington Irving. In his fictional History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus (1828), Irving wrote that flat-earth churchmen had opposed Columbus on the grounds that he would fall off the edge of the earth if he tried to sail across the Atlantic. In actuality, Columbus had been opposed by people who not only knew the earth was a sphere, but also had a pretty good idea of how big it was - but who knew nothing of the Americas and thus thought a voyage to the Far East would take too long and cost too much.

The flat earth remained clearly in the realm of fiction until after Darwin published his Origin of Species in 1859. Two of Darwin's followers then elevated it to a historical claim in books defending Darwinism and attacking Christianity: John Draper's The History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science (1874), and Andrew Dickson White's A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896).

For an objective and very readable account of the flat earth myth, see Jeffrey Burton Russell (Professor of History, University of California at Santa Barbara), Inventing the Flat Earth (New York: Praeger, 1991).

Weinberg’s review is worth reading for a number of reasons, not least for Weinberg’s enthusiastic endorsement of evolutionary psychology as devastating to religious belief,
It became plausible that our love for our mates and children, and, according to the work of modern evolutionary biologists, even more abstract moral principles, such as loyalty, charity and honesty, have an origin in evolution, rather than in a divinely created soul.

Worth keeping in mind when someone reassures you that no reputable scientist really believes in concepts like the Big Bazooms theory of human evolution. The trouble is, some can’t help it. They don’t HAVE anything better to believe in.

Here and here cosmology is more on older cosmologies.

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Service Note

If you like this blog, check out my book on the intelligent design controversy, By Design or by Chance?, or my book of essays on faith and science topics, Faith@Science: Why science needs faith in the 21st century (Winnipeg: J. Gordon Shillingford, 2001). You can read excerpts as well.

My other blog is the Mindful Hack, which keeps tabs on neuroscience and the mind.

Are you looking for one of the following stories?

NEW! Intelligent design east: Intelligent design without God

NEW! Hollywood weighs in with pro-ID film, to premiere on Darwin’s birthday.

Animations of life inside the cell, indexed, for your convenience.

Anti-God crusade ... no, really! My recent series on the spate of anti-God books, teen blasphemy challenge, et cetera, and the mounting anxiety of materialist atheists that lies behind it.

Behe, Mike My review of Mike Behe's Edge of Evolution

Catholic Church A summary of the Catholic Church's entry into the controversy, essentially on the side of ID.

Collins, Francis My review of Francis Collins’ book The Language of God

Columnists weigh in on the intelligent design controversy A summary of recent opinion columns on the ID controversy

Darwinism dissent Lists of theoretical and applied scientists who doubt Darwin

Encyclopedia of ID topics Evolution in the light of intelligent design - look up intelligent design topics here.

Gilder, George A summary of tech guru George Gilder's arguments for ID and against Darwinism

Intelligent design academic publications.

Intelligent design-friendly students should be flunked, according to bio prof Evolutionary biologist’s opinion that all students friendly to intelligent design should be flunked.

Intelligent design controversy My U of Toronto talk on why there is an intelligent design controversy, or my talk on media coverage of the controversy at the University of Minnesota.

Intelligent design controversy timeline An ID Timeline: The ID folk seem always to win when they lose.

Intelligent design and culture My review of sci-fi great Rob Sawyer’s novel, The Calculating God , which addresses the concept of intelligent design.

March of the Penguins A critical look at why March of the Penguins was thought to be an ID film.

Origin of life Why origin of life is such a difficult problem.

Peer review My backgrounder about peer review issues.

Polls relevant to the intelligent design controversy A summary of recent polls of US public opinion on the ID controversy

Stove, David O'Leary's intro to non-Darwinian agnostic philosopher David Stove’s critique of Darwinism.

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