Archive for January, 2013

Radical Revisions

January 31, 2013

I pointed out in Genesis and Genes that occasionally, there are discoveries that upset the standard teaching. Standard teaching refers to scientific matters that are considered to be settled. One example of a standard teaching being revised was the discovery by Drs. Robin Warren and Barry Marshal that bacteria can survive the acidity of the stomach and that most peptic ulcers are in fact caused by bacteria, not lifestyle factors as was previously thought. Standard teachings are conveyed to the public as fact, and challenging the standard teaching often incurs ridicule.

Another example of this phenomenon that I discussed briefly had to do with snake reproduction. I referred to a report published in Biology Letters, a Royal Society journal. A summary of the journal article was provided by Science Daily (4th November 2010). It begins:

In a finding that upends decades of scientific theory on reptile reproduction, researchers at North Carolina State University have discovered that female boa constrictors can squeeze out babies without mating. More strikingly, the finding shows that the babies produced from this asexual reproduction have attributes previously believed to be impossible.

Notice that this research upends decades of scientific theory. Before this research was published, anyone who suggested that certain snakes can reproduce asexually would quite likely be ridiculed. The report continues,

This is the first time asexual reproduction, known in the scientific world as parthenogenesis, has been attributed to boa constrictors, says Dr. Warren Booth, an NC State postdoctoral researcher in entomology and the lead author of a paper describing the study. He adds that the results may force scientists to re-examine reptile reproduction, especially among more primitive snake species like boa constrictors.

Here is a more recent example of this phenomenon, in which the standard teaching turns out to be subject to radical revision.

According to standard evolutionary teaching, it was tetrapods – four-limbed creatures – that made the transition from living in the sea to terrestrial life less than 400 million years ago. For the past 150 years, it was believed that the construction of the tetrapod backbone was understood. A new report in Nature[1] radically revises the picture. The researchers used X-ray scans of fossils of tetrapods to study the structure of tetrapod backbones. The synopsis of the study notes that,

This study fundamentally revises our current understanding of vertebral column evolution in the earliest tetrapods and raises questions about the presumed vertebral architecture of tetrapodomorph fish.

The fundamental revision concerns the fact that parts of the tetrapod backbone oriented back-to-front turn out to have been front-to-back and vice versa.

A BBC report, entitled Tetrapod anatomy: Backbone back-to-front in early animals, included an interview with one of the researchers, Professor John Hutchinson of the Royal Veterinary College, and reported that[2]:

Textbooks might have to be re-written when it comes to some of the earliest land creatures, a study suggests. Researchers have found that our understanding of the anatomy of the first four-legged animals is wrong. New 3D models of fossil remains show that previous renderings of the position of the beasts’ backbones were actually back-to-front… The scientists looked at a group of animals called the tetrapods, examining three creatures called Ichthyostega, Acanthostega and Pederpes…

RVC’s Professor John Hutchinson said: “Their vertebrae are actually structurally completely different from what everyone for the last 150 or so years has pictured. The textbook examples turn out to be wrong.”

The scientists found that parts of the spine thought to face the front of the animal, in fact faced the back – and vice versa.

Informed consumers of science understand that even when scientists claim that something is known, we must differentiate between various realms of science. As we move further away from repeatable, observable and limited phenomena, the claim of scientific knowledge becomes weaker and weaker.

References:

[1] http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/nature11825.html
Retrieved 31st January 2013.
[2] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-20987289
Retrieved 31st January 2013.

Rambam, Hominids and Dr. Schroeder

January 28, 2013

In Genesis and the Big Bluff (available on this website), I criticised Dr. Gerald Schroeder for claiming, in his book Genesis and the Big Bang, that Rambam/Maimonides wrote of hominids who were at some point given a divine soul and made fully human. As I wrote:

Dr. Schroeder claims that In the time of Adam, there coexisted animals that appeared as humans in shape and also in intelligence but lacked the ‘image’ that makes man uniquely different from other animals, being as the ‘image’ of God. (Genesis and the Big Bang, page 151). This is supposedly based on a statement from Guide for the Perplexed by Maimonides.

The passage in The Guide cited by Dr. Schroeder has nothing whatsoever to do with hominids. Rambam does not discuss any biological phenomenon in that passage. Rather, he speaks of a process of educating and training one’s children. As I wrote,

This passage has nothing to do with literal birth. Maimonides argues that the [Hebrew] root [y.l.d.] is to be understood here in the sense of training one’s children or raising and educating one’s children. That is why he invokes the example of the prophets’ sons. There, too, sons of prophets does not connote a biological relationship. It connotes a process of training one’s protégé. Maimonides argues that the root [y.l.d.] is used here by the Torah in the sense of producing a perfected human being through proper education. His point is that until the birth of Seth, Adam had failed to train his existing children properly and to bring them up as perfected human beings. Thus, Adam begot all of his children – before and after Seth – in the same biological manner. They were all equally members of the human species. It was their moral character that set them apart.

I was pleased to discover recently that I was not the first writer to point out that Dr. Schroeder was wrong on this point. Genesis and the Big Bluff was published on this website in October 2009. But a very similar critique of Dr. Schroeder appears in Jewish Tradition and the Challenge of Darwinism, published in 2006 by the University of Chicago Press. The book is edited by Geoffrey Cantor, a professor of the history of science at the University of Leeds, and Dr. Marc Swetlitz, who has taught history of science at MIT and the University of Oklahoma. The chapter which is of interest to us was written by Dr. Shai Cherry, an Assistant Professor of Jewish Thought at Vanderbilt University. Cherry writes (pages 174-175):

Moving to day 6, Schroeder posits that there were hominids, which lacked the image of God, present at the time of Adam’s birth. The existence of these prehistoric men, Schroeder claims, is attested by Maimonides in his Guide of the Perplexed. Yet Schroeder’s literal hermeneutic has led him astray. Maimonides does indeed refer to men without human form and calls them animals. However, Maimonides was not discussing zoology. For Maimonides, form was an Aristotelian, not a physical, concept. The form of human beings is intellectual perfection. Thus Maimonides maintained that among humans, very few have attained human form, i.e., intellectual perfection. Instead, many people were to be compared to animals.

Precisely. My treatment of this subject in Genesis and the Big Bluff is far longer and more comprehensive than Cherry’s, and includes quotations from all the major commentators to The Guide. Nonetheless, Cherry is quite right to reject Dr. Schroeder’s claim about human precursors.

Bottom line: There is not a single classical Torah source that discusses the transformation of hominids into full-fledged human beings.

Training and Indoctrination – Part 2

January 26, 2013

Conditioning is a fact-of-life for scientists just as it is for non-scientists. Scientists are conditioned, through decades of education and training, to see things in a certain way. And when you see things in a certain way, it’s hard to see things differently.

One example of this phenomenon is the discovery of Uranus, which I discussed in detail in Genesis and Genes. Briefly, after Uranus was discovered and identified as a planet – the first new planet since antiquity – it was realised that it had actually been seen twenty times before but always misidentified as a star. Astronomers were conditioned to believe that there are five planets, so they couldn’t see a sixth planet. It took an outsider – the amateur William Herschel – to see something radically different.

This is an example of what the physicist John Polkinghorne calls “wearing theoretical spectacles behind the eyes”. When you expect to see five planets, five planets is what you will see, most likely. As two distinguished philosophers of science put it, “In a sense, the old saying ‘seeing is believing’ should be supplemented by another, ‘believing is seeing.’” [Physics, the Human Adventure, Gerald Holton and Stephen G. Brush, Rutgers University Press, 2005, page 282]. Scientists analyse data through lenses called paradigms, and these lenses can sometimes distort scientists’ vision.

A related concept is that of groupthink. When everyone in your group maintains a certain opinion, it is difficult to entertain a radically different position. As I wrote in Genesis and Genes:

The Canadian astronomer Donald Fernie would acerbically emphasise this psychological weak spot: “The definitive study of the herd instincts of astronomers has yet to be written, but there are times when we resemble nothing so much as a herd of antelope, heads down in tight formation, thundering with firm determination in a particular direction across the plain. At a given signal from the leader we whirl about, and, with equally firm determination, thunder off in a quite different direction, still in tight parallel formation.”

In this post, I would like to address another example of the failure to see what is there for everyone to see. A reader sent me a link to a Radiolab episode on Leonard Hayflick.[1] Hayflick is a very distinguished scientist, having won numerous awards and prizes. He is best known for the Hayflick Limit, which is the number of times that a cell can divide before it loses the ability to divide and dies. This limit varies between different organisms. For humans, the Hayflick Limit is close to 50. In other words, human cells are able to divide about 50 times in vitro before they lose the ability to divide and die. Before Hayflick’s breakthrough, it was universally believed that cells can divide ad infinitum. That paradigm was established by Alexis Carrel (1873-1944), a Nobel Prize-winning biologist, and held sway for about sixty years.

Hayflick made his breakthrough as a young man. In the Radiolab interview, he reminisces about how he noticed that in his Petri dishes, human cells would divide for about 9 months, after which they would die. Two thoughts occurred to him. Firstly, this could not be an accident, because accidents are random, whereas in his laboratory, it was always the oldest cells that were dying – after roughly nine months in the Petri dish. His second thought was that this had to be an accident because “I had been taught, by experts, that cells are immortal. They will grow forever.” [In the Preface to Genesis and Genes, Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb quotes Yale Finance Professor Robert J. Shiller. In his book Irrational Exuberance, Shiller writes that “[People] have learned that when experts tell them something is all right, it probably is, even if it does not seem so.”]

Hayflick wanted to find out whether cells were dying in other laboratories, so he went to a lecture by one of the greatest biologists of the age, Theodore Puck (1916-2005). At the end of the lecture, he plucked up enough courage to ask the senior scientist, “Have you ever found that the cells you cultured stopped dividing?” The answer was, “Of course cells stop dividing occasionally, but when it happens I go back to the freezer and get another sample.” Cell death was happening in every biology laboratory, but was always put down to mistakes by technicians. After all, everyone knew that individual cells can divide indefinitely. As Hayflick says, “Even the brilliant Ted Puck had seen it but, like everyone else, he just hadn’t recognised it.”

Interviewer: I imagine that in a lot of labs all over the country, there must have been moments when cells stopped dividing, and at every such moment the thought that popped into the technician’s mind was, “I messed up”.
Hayflick: Absolutely!
Interviewer: That seems like a crazy kind of mass delusion!
Hayflick: It’s called dogma.

What was Hayflick’s breakthrough? He simply saw something that everyone else had been seeing for sixty years but kept on misinterpreting, because of “dogma”.

Informed consumers of science must realise that scientists do not work in a vacuum. They view the results of their experiments through “theoretical spectacles behind the eyes”. There can be periods lasting decades or centuries in which the evidence that contradicts the reigning paradigm is there for everyone to see, but is ignored because of adherence to that paradigm.

References:
[1] http://www.radiolab.org/2007/jun/14/lifes-limit/#commentlist.
Retrieved 26th January 2013.

The Wager

January 22, 2013

In chapter 1 of Genesis and Genes, I wrote about a famous wager between Paul Ehrlich and Julian Simon. Ehrlich is a world-famous ecologist and environmentalist, and Simon is a distinguished economist. I discussed their wager in the context of becoming an informed consumer of science. One element in becoming informed in matters of science is the ability to distinguish between scientific claims about limited phenomena and claims about issues that are diffuse. As I explain in the book,

[limited] refers to the fact that the phenomenon under study is to some extent isolated; it is more-or-less modular, and so can be studied independently, without having to take account of numerous interactions. Studying the process of crystallisation is an example. In contrast, studying the climate would not fit into this category because the climate is influenced by a huge number of factors ranging from the local density of trees to the cyclic appearance of sunspots.

This does not mean that there is something wrong with studying climatology; it just means that as an informed consumer of science, you should apply greater scepticism to results about climate studies than you would to studies about crystallisation, say.

A kind reader has sent me links to two fascinating articles. The first article was written in late 1990, when the wager between Ehrlich and Simon was settled, and was published in The New York Times.[1] The second article appeared in The Spectator in December 2012.[2] I recommend both articles. They cover lots of terrain which, although fascinating, is beyond the scope of Genesis and Genes. In this post I will summarise the articles, and we will focus on the point mentioned above – how informed consumers of science must differentiate between limited scientific claims and claims about wide-ranging phenomena.

***

Doomsday predictions about humanity’s profligate ways have been made many times in the past few centuries (and they have been responsible for a healthy number of best-sellers). In Genesis and Genes, for example, I quoted the distinguished physicist Sir William Crookes (1832-1919), the inventor of the Crookes Tube, a forerunner of the cathode ray tube that would later become ubiquitous in televisions sets and computer monitors. In the autumn of 1898, in Bristol, he spoke to the cream of British science. As the incoming president of the British Academy of Sciences, he was delivering his inaugural address. “England and all civilized nations stand in deadly peril,” he said. If nothing dramatic was accomplished, he explained, great numbers of people would starve. “As mouths multiply, food sources dwindle.” Here is a digest of similar claims from a broad spectrum of sources and historical periods:

• Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio. Subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio. Thomas Robert Malthus, 1798.
• “Population Outgrows Food, Scientists Warn the World.” Front-page headline in The New York Times, Sept. 15, 1948, over an article about the “dark outlook for the human race” due to “overpopulation and the dwindling of natural resources.”
• “No Room in the Lifeboats.” Headline in The New York Times Magazine, April 16, 1978, over an article warning that “the cost of natural resources is going up” as increasing population ushers in the “Age of Scarcity”.
• In 1926 the Federal Oil Conservation Board announced that the United States had a seven-year supply of petroleum left.

Ehrlich and Simon lead two intellectual schools, sometimes known as the doomsters and the boomsters. They use the latest in computer-generated graphs and foundation-generated funds to debate whether the world is getting better or going to the dogs. In 1980 Ehrlich and Simon chose a refreshingly unacademic way to resolve their differences. Simon offered to let anyone pick any natural resource – grain, oil, coal, timber, metals – and any future date. If the resource really were to become scarcer as the world’s population grew, then its price should rise. Simon wanted to bet that the price would instead decline by the appointed date. Ehrlich derisively announced that he would “accept Simon’s astonishing offer before other greedy people jump in.” They bet $1,000. They promised to abide by the results exactly 10 years later – in October 1990 – and to pay up out of their own pockets.

In October 1980 Ehrlich bet $1,000 on five metals – chrome, copper, nickel, tin and tungsten – in quantities that each cost $200 in the current market. A futures contract was drawn up obligating Simon to sell Ehrlich these same quantities of the metals 10 years later, but at 1980 prices. If the 1990 combined prices turned out to be higher than $1,000, Simon would pay the difference in cash to Ehrlich. If prices fell, Ehrlich would pay Simon. In the 1980s the world’s population grew by more than 800 million, the greatest increase in history, and the store of metals buried in the earth’s crust did not get any larger. Who would win the bet?

Over the years, Ehrlich has made dramatic predictions, many of them together with John Holdren. His best-seller, The Population Bomb, began: “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s the world will undergo famines – hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death.” Here are two more of his predictions:

• “65 million Americans” will die of starvation between 1980 and 1989, and by 1999 the U.S. population would have declined to “22.6 million”. [1968]
• “I would take even money that England will not exist in the year 2000.” [1969]

In a book he wrote with his wife, The End of Affluence, Ehrlich raised the death toll. He claimed that through a combination of ignorance, greed and callousness, a situation has been created that could lead to a billion or more people starving to death.

But Ehrlich has always ignored the historical lessons that indicate that human beings are resourceful and intelligent and adapt quickly to adversity. Temporary scarcity often leads to a much better substitute. The Greeks’ great transition from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age 3,000 years ago, according to some scientists, was inspired by a disruption of trade due to wars in the eastern Mediterranean. The disruption produced a shortage of the tin needed to make bronze, and the Greeks responded to the bronze crisis by starting to use iron. Similarly, timber shortages in 16th-century Britain ushered in the age of coal; the scarcity of whale oil around 1850 led to the first oil well in 1859.

Let’s cut to the chase. The bet between Ehrlich and Simon was settled without ceremony. Ehrlich did not even bother to write a letter. He simply mailed Simon a sheet of calculations about metal prices – along with a check for $576.07. Each of the five metals chosen by Ehrlich, when adjusted for inflation since 1980, had declined in price. The drop was so sharp, in fact, that Simon would have come out slightly ahead overall even without the inflation adjustment called for in the bet. Prices fell for the same reasons they had fallen in previous decades – entrepreneurship and continuing technological improvements. Prospectors found new lodes, such as the nickel mines around the world that ended a Canadian company’s near monopoly of the market. Thanks to computers, new machines and new chemical processes, there were more efficient ways to extract and refine the ores for chrome and the other metals. Often, the metals were replaced by cheaper materials. Telephone calls went through satellites and fibre-optic lines instead of copper wires. Ceramics replaced tungsten in cutting tools. Cans were made of aluminium instead of tin.

Is there a lesson here for the future?

“Absolutely not,” said Ehrlich in an interview. Nevertheless, he has no plans to take up Simon’s new offer: “The bet doesn’t mean anything.” Simon was not surprised to hear about Ehrlich’s reaction. “Paul Ehrlich has never been able to learn from past experience,” he said.

This is where the article in The Spectator comes in. It argues that the world has never been as well off as it is now. Here are a few indicators. In 1990, the UN announced Millennium Development Goals, the first of which was to halve the number of people living in extreme poverty by 2015; the target was met in 2008. The rich world’s economies grew by 6 per cent over the last seven years, but fossil fuel consumption in those countries fell by 4 per cent. The average life expectancy in Africa reached 55 in 2012; ten years ago, it was 50. The number of people dying from AIDS has been in decline for the last eight years. Deaths from malaria have fallen by a fifth in half a decade. Hundreds of millions of people in China and India have been pulled from the ranks of the wretched into something approaching middle class.

What are the lessons for us? The predictions made by Ehrlich and colleagues like John Holdren have been about as accurate as the Mayan Apocalypse nonsense. And these are top-notch scientists, not fringe characters. Ehrlich is one of the world’s most-celebrated scientists. He has won a MacArthur “genius” fellowship and the Crafoord Prize, ecology’s equivalent of the Nobel. He has been awarded the Volvo Environmental Prize and the Eminent Ecologist Award of the Ecological Society of America. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society and a Professor at Stanford. Holdren was appointed by President Barack Obama in 2009 as Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, Assistant to the President for Science and Technology, and Co-Chair of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. And yet, they and many of their colleagues were dead wrong.

Being an informed consumer of science means knowing how to assign appropriate levels of credibility to various scientific claims. At any given time, we do not know the future, so we cannot tell with certainty whether a given scientific viewpoint will be vindicated. But we do know, from abundant historical experience, that certain types of scientific explanation tend to be reliable, while other types tend to end up on the ash-heap of history, even when they are initially backed up by impressive charts and statistical analyses.

References:

[1] http://www.nytimes.com/1990/12/02/magazine/betting-on-the-planet.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm
[2] http://www.spectator.co.uk/the-week/leading-article/8789981/glad-tidings/

Hot Air and Cold Experiments

January 19, 2013

Chapter 1 of Genesis and Genes deals largely with becoming an informed consumer of science. Such a person is able to sift through various scientific claims and to assign such claims appropriate degrees of credibility. At the end of the chapter I wrote:

The evolution debate is often heated; not surprisingly, it frequently produces lots of hot air. One of the silliest arguments one encounters is this: If you’re prepared to benefit from modern science – through X-rays taken by your dentist or a nutritional-value assessment on food packaging, say – then you must accept all the conclusions of modern science, including those relating to evolution.

Anyone whose IQ exceeds his shoe-size should be able to see straight through this blooper. One essential ingredient of critical thinking is the ability to discriminate. Discrimination – an unfortunately much-maligned word – is the application of different standards, as and when appropriate. As we have seen in this chapter, scientific results slot into a continuous spectrum of credibility. We accept the nutritional-value advice on a packet of pasta because the science behind it is repeatable, observable and limited. The chemical analysis that identifies the carbohydrates, proteins and sugars in foods conforms to all the requirements of credible science and therefore justifies our trust. But this does not justify unlimited withdrawals from our credibility account when scientists speak about the origins of life, or the behaviour of physical laws a moment after the creation of the universe. It is appropriate to apply greater scepticism at this end of the spectrum of scientific claims.

Here is a perfect illustration of the hot air phenomenon. Nature Nanotechnology recently published research about a nano-gadget that can spin clockwise or counter-clockwise.[1] To do this, the researchers had to cool the gadget to -268 degrees Celsius. A news release from Ohio University says that creating this gadget is

… an essential step in creating nanoscale devices—quantum machines that operate on different laws of physics than classical machines—that scientists envision could be used for everything from powering quantum computers to sweeping away blood clots in arteries.[2]

As impressive as this achievement is, it is utterly primitive in comparison to biological molecular machines that are ubiquitous in nature, like ATP-synthase or the ribosome, and which operate at room temperature.

The website PhysOrg covered this research.[3] As is common with websites, readers are given the opportunity to comment on the article (as happens on this website). One reader wrote:

OK, now that people are beginning to realize just how difficult it is to build and control things at such a small scale, it is time for evolutionists to meet reality. ATP synthase is an essential component for most life-bearing organisms. Without it the organism would have no energy to perform ANY other process. ATP synthase also just happens to be the most efficient motor known. PLUS, it is driven not by electrons but by protons. There is just no way for this astonishing nanoscale machine to have been assembled by purely random physical processes. The vibrational, torsional and chemical problems at that scale are just too great – exactly as the current designers have found out to their chagrin. Ask them why it is that they have to experiment at such low temperatures, then compare that to ATP synthase.

In response, a reader calling himself “RealScience” launched a personal attack on the first writer. And here’s the gem:

… And I see that you are still using a computer, a device based on discoveries made by the same science methods that support evolution. That’s hypocritical!

No, that’s silly.

References:

[1] The abstract can be read here: http://www.nature.com/nnano/journal/v8/n1/full/nnano.2012.218.html
[2] See http://www.ohio.edu/research/communications/motor.cfm.
[3] See http://phys.org/news/2013-01-scientists-movements-molecular-motor.html.

All sources retrieved on 18th January 2013.

Genesis and Genes in South Africa

January 17, 2013

The first shipment of Genesis and Genes has just arrived in South Africa, and is available at Kollel Bookshop in Glenhazel, Johannesburg. The telephone number there  is (011) 440 6679

Tactics and Deceit

January 17, 2013

In Chapter 1 of Genesis and Genes, I touched on the phenomenon of proponents of evolution who are themselves atheists, but are prepared to temporarily accommodate religion for purely pragmatic purposes. 

The discussion happened in the context of Non-Overlapping Magisteria (NOMA), a concept proposed by Stephen Jay Gould. Gould argued that science and religion should be kept strictly apart, with science given absolute authority over objective, natural phenomena and religion left to deal with subjective areas like ethics. 

NOMA is wrong (I explain why in detail in Genesis and Genes). And many people on both sides of the evolution debate agree on this point. I quote, for example, the arch-atheist philosopher Daniel Dennett: 

Although Gould’s desire for peace between these often warring perspectives was laudable, his proposal found little favor on either side, since in the minds of the religious it proposed abandoning all religious claims to factual truth and understanding of the natural world… whereas in the minds of the secularists it granted too much authority to religion in matters of ethics and meaning. [Daniel C. Dennett, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, Penguin, 2006, page 30.]

  But some evolutionists – knowing full-well that NOMA is wrong – are nonetheless comfortable using it for tactical reasons. They would use NOMA to gain the trust of their students, before disabusing them of their religious convictions. Far-fetched? Here is Bora Zivkovic, a biology professor at Wesleyan College, who admits that 

You cannot bludgeon kids with truth (or insult their religion, i.e., their parents and friends) and hope they will smile and believe you. Yes, NOMA is wrong, but is a good first tool for gaining trust. You have to bring them over to your side, gain their trust, and then hold their hands and help them step by step. And on that slow journey, which will be painful for many of them, it is OK to use some inaccuracies temporarily if they help you reach the students. [Emphasis added].

 Here is another example of this curious phenomenon of defending positions merely as tactics, without really believing them.

Francisco J. Ayala is a former Roman Catholic priest and a leading biologist who disavows any challenge to religion from Darwinism. Ayala is a past president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and was the founding chair of the AAAS Dialogues on Science, Ethics, and Religion. He is an outspoken defender of the compatibility between religion and biological evolution. He is also a recipient of the Templeton Prize. Since 1999, Ayala has argued that evolution is fully consistent with belief in a personal God. Ayala’s 2007 book Darwin’s Gift to Science and Religion likewise declares that “Christians need not see evolution as a threat to their beliefs.” 

But is Ayala even a believer anymore? In 2006, Ayala spoke at the “Beyond Belief” atheism conference (note the title of the conference). Ayala, speaking to a largely atheist audience, said that “I know how Richard [Dawkins] feels on matters of religion. I could agree with you on many things which I will not make explicit here.” 

In 2007, Ayala was called as an expert witness in a lawsuit over the use of certain textbooks in private schools. He affirmed that it is “fairly accurate” to say he “spent five years in the priesthood until he said his intellectual side could no longer rationalize evil and human tragedy under the auspices of a supposedly loving God. As a result he not only left the priesthood, he left the Roman Catholic Church never to return.” When questioned further, Ayala refused to answer specific questions about his personal religious views. In a 2008 New York Times interview we learn that Ayala “will not say whether he remains a religious believer.”[1] 

Is it not curious that an atheist should argue for the compatibility of evolution with religious belief? Is this being done out of conviction, or is it just part of a stealth strategy? 

In Britain, Free Schools are alternative state-funded schools set up in response to local demands. The first Free Schools opened in 2011. In January 2012, Britain’s Department for Education revised its funding agreement for Free Schools. After pressure by the Royal Society as well as secular and humanist groups, the Department for Education took the step of requiring Free Schools to “make provision for the teaching of evolution as a comprehensive, coherent and extensively evidenced theory.”[2] 

Which secular and humanist groups lobbied for this requirement? Well, one is the British Centre for Science Education (BCSE). Officially, the BCSE is neutral on religion. But the spokesmen for the group on the BCSE blog are atheists. In a 30th November 2012 post at the BCSE’s blog[3], Paul Braterman and Mark Edon write, 

We write here as individual non-believers in support of the “accommodationist” position taken by the British Centre for Science Education (BCSE), on whose committee both of us serve.  We consider that there are over-riding tactical and strategic reasons for this position…

 Braterman and Edon are “non-believers”. Is it not curious that they lobby on behalf of the compatibility of religion with evolution? 

 Finally, let’s discuss Chris Mooney. In his 2009 book Unscientific America, Mooney plays the accommodationist fiddle. He argues that “atheism is not the logically inevitable outcome” of Darwinism. But Mooney had changed his tune. In a 2001 article in Slate entitled Darwin’s Sanitized Idea, Mooney laments that the PBS Evolution miniseries “attempt to divorce Darwinian science from atheism, though well intentioned, is finally naive.” Mooney ver. 1 believes that “Darwinism presents an explanation for life’s origins that lacks any supernatural element and… is tough to square with the notion of a benevolent God.”[4]  

Has Mooney ver. 2 changed his spots, or does he simply think that being accommodating is a more pragmatic route to the ultimate defeat of religion?  

References:  

[1] God and Evolution, edited by J. Richards, Discovery Institute Press, 2010, pages 73-74.

 [2] http://religionclause.blogspot.com/2012/11/british-free-schools-must-teach.html.

 Retrieved 15th January 2013.

 [3] http://bcseweb.blogspot.com/#!/2012/11/anti-creationists-need-to-think-about.html.

 Retrieved 15th January 2013.

 [4] God and Evolution, edited by J. Richards, Discovery Institute Press, 2010, pages 74-75.

Certitude and Bluff

January 15, 2013

In chapter 8 of Genesis and Genes I discussed the fact that occasionally, scientists present to the general public a picture of certainty that is entirely unwarranted. As an example, I referred to an op-ed in The Tennessean, published 25th March 2012, in which three academics implied that the origin of life on Earth is something that is well-understood. I responded by quoting the following authorities: 

  1. Massimo Pigliucci: “[I]t has to be true that we really don’t have a clue how life originated on Earth by natural means.”[1] Pigliucci was formerly a professor of evolutionary biology and philosophy at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, and holds doctorates in genetics, botany, and the philosophy of science. He is currently the chairman of the department of philosophy at City University of New York. He is a prominent international proponent of evolution and the author of several books.
  2. Science writer Gregg Easterbrook writing in Wired: “What creates life out of the inanimate compounds that make up living things? No one knows. How were the first organisms assembled? Nature hasn’t given us the slightest hint. If anything, the mystery has deepened over time.”[2]
  3. Harvard chemist George M. Whitesides, in accepting the highest award of the American Chemical Society: “The Origin of Life. This problem is one of the big ones in science. It begins to place life, and us, in the universe. Most chemists believe, as do I, that life emerged spontaneously from mixtures of molecules in the prebiotic Earth. How? I have no idea… On the basis of all the chemistry that I know, it seems to me astonishingly improbable.”[3]
  4. Stuart Kauffman: “Anyone who tells you that he or she knows how life started on the earth some 3.45 billion years ago is a fool or a knave. Nobody knows.”[4] Kauffman is one of the most famous origin-of-life researchers in the world and a leading expert on self-organisational systems.
  5. Klaus Dose: “More than thirty years of experimentation on the origin of life in the fields of chemical and molecular evolution have led to a better perception of the immensity of the problem of the origin of life on earth rather than to its solution. At present, all discussions on principal theories and experiments in the field either end in stalemate or in a confession of ignorance.”[5] Dose is also a world-famous researcher in the origin-of-life field.
  6. Francis Crick: “The origin of life seems almost to be a miracle, so many are the conditions which would have had to have been satisfied to get it going.”[6] Yes, that Francis Crick. 

I have now come across an interesting paper by Professor Paul Davies that is relevant to the discussion. Davies is a world-famous physicist and author. He recently co-authored a short paper suggesting that life be viewed as a software package. In the introductory paragraph, Davies writes,

Darwin pointedly left out an account of how life first emerged, “One might as well speculate about the origin of matter,” he quipped. A century and a half later, scientists still remain largely in the dark about life’s origins. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the origin of life is one of the greatest unanswered questions in science. [Emphasis added].

 The entire paper can be read here.

Readers of The Tennessean, of course, would be unaware of the fact that they had been duped. Those who are not informed consumers of science – the vast majority of the public – tend to take the statements of scientists at face value. They have not been trained to distinguish between different realms of science, some of which are (much) less credible than others. 

References:

[1] Massimo Pigliucci, “Where Do We Come From? A Humbling Look at the Biology of Life’s Origin,” in Darwin Design and Public Education, eds. John Angus Campbell and Stephen C. Meyer (East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 2003), page 196.

[2] Gregg Easterbrook, “Where did life come from?” Wired, page 108 (February, 2007).

[3] George M. Whitesides, “Revolutions in Chemistry: Priestly Medalist George M. Whitesides’ address”, Chemical and Engineering News, 85 (March 26, 2007): p. 12-17. The address can be read here:

http://ismagilovlab.uchicago.edu/GMW_address_priestley_medal.pdf.

Retrieved 22nd April 2012.

[4] At Home in the Universe, London, Viking, 1995, page 31.

[5] “The Origin of Life: More Questions than Answers”, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, 1988, 13, page 348.

[6] Life Itself, New York, Simon and Schuster, 1981, page 88.

Response to Maurice Skikne

January 13, 2013

In response to the post Training and Indoctrination, a local reader sent in a thoughtful email. Here is his email (lightly edited to remove typographical errors) and my comments.

***

Maurice Skikne:

Reb Yoram, It is also true that Religionists are also subject to conditioning, training and indoctrination, by their teachers.

My Response:

Quite right. I wrote in Genesis and Genes:

Of course, I am not saying that conditioning is a problem only for scientists. We are all products of our lives and experiences, and these experiences make us all vulnerable to bias. When Polkinghorne says that scientists wear theoretical spectacles behind the eyes, his point is that conditioning is a problem for scientists also. They are not immune to having preconceptions.

The key point is that when it comes to disciplines other than science (especially religion), the average person is aware of the issue of bias. But contemporary scientific research is so remote and removed from the domain of the everyday that ordinary citizens labour under a massively-distorted picture of how science works. As Sir John Polkinghorne, physicist and theologian, explains:

Many people have in their minds a picture of how science proceeds which is altogether too simple. This misleading caricature portrays scientific discovery as resulting from the confrontation of clear and inescapable theoretical predictions by the results of unambiguous and decisive experiments… In actual fact… the reality is more complex and more interesting than that. [Science and Theology, John Polkinghorne, Fortress Press, 1998, page 9.]

 Maurice Skikne:

It is also a fact that not all researchers have to be “young” to make their ground-breaking discoveries!

My Response:

I am a Talmudic scholar; as such, I choose my words carefully. I never wrote that only young researchers make ground-breaking discoveries. In my post, I wrote that “Philosophers of science have long pointed out that great breakthroughs in science tend to be made by young men.” I also quoted Professors Holton and Brush in saying that “It is a curious fact that radical conceptual changes in a science are often initiated by people who did not receive their initial professional training in that science.”

I think that competent users of the English language can easily detect, in the words marked in bold above, that no categorical point is being made about younger researchers or outsiders. The overall point remains valid: young outsiders are disproportionately successful in formulating radical theories that revolutionise their fields.

Maurice Skikne:

As a trained biologist and a late convert to religionism, I cannot understand why religionists keep thumping Darwin. He after all propounded his “Origin of Species” nearly 200 years ago! Many of his so-called discoveries have been shown not to hold anymore. Besides which, what you are pounding in some aspects of Science has been proven over and over again to hold.

 My Response: 

Without question, Darwin has been one of the most influential thinkers of all time, and his ideas continue to wield immense influence on numerous fields. From a Jewish perspective, he has done immeasurable harm in initiating and promoting an ideology which the biologist William Provine has called the most efficient engine for atheism ever invented. Darwinism has affected just about every area of human thought and endeavour, including criminology, economics, education, ethics, law, agriculture and medicine. I recommend John West’s superb Darwin Day in America (ISI Books, 2007) as an introduction to this topic. We do not have the luxury of ignoring the fruits of Darwin’s ideas just because they were written 200 years ago. 

Maurice Skikne: 

To me Bereishis and the Physical realm of the Universe require a lot of debate. I opine that the Torah comments are very valid and need to be more deeply studied and interpreted in the light of modern Physics, Chemistry and Biological interpretation. But then the Sages of today require- in my very humble opinion- a deeper understanding of what has been recorded in Bereishis, as well as what we know about the Universe and Life today. To condemn out of hand on either side is not entirely fair.
At this time I do not have the time, nor am I freshly read up enough to make comments, but you as a Teacher ought to take a stance of open-mindedness on the issues of both sides of the history and existence of the Universe as it is today and how we must needs, to understand it. 

My Response: 

I believe that I have done my due diligence in producing Genesis and Genes (which, I suspect, Mr. Skikne has not read). So the argument that Bereishis and physics require debate doesn’t hold water in my case. I have spent the last twenty-odd years debating and discussing these issues. 

Open-mindedness does not mean that one can never reach a conclusion about controversial subjects. Open-mindedness requires that one be exposed to a range of opinions. Once that hurdle has been cleared, one is at liberty to formulate opinions – even strong opinions – on the matter. As I pointed out in the post A Further Response to Dan, I find it curious that when it comes to other contentious issues (gun control, legalization of cannabis, affirmative action) lots of people manage, despite the vociferous debate, to sift through the arguments and reach a conclusion that they deem to be rational and fact-based (while still acknowledging that others disagree). Yet, when it comes to contentious issues that impinge on fundamental theological points, the same people are content to perpetually abstain from taking a position. 

Torah Leaders’ Knowledge. A correspondent once asked me how contemporary Torah leaders can be so emphatic in their rejection of Darwinian evolution (in the broad sense of universal common descent). My response was as follows. Imagine a physicist who is employed by the patent office to examine applications. He is approached by a chemist who submits a design for a chemistry-based perpetual motion machine. The physicist – who is completely clueless about chemistry – rejects the proposal out-of-hand. How can he be so confident about the fatal flaws of the proposal if he knows nothing about chemistry? The answer is that physics is a more fundamental science than chemistry. The second law of thermodynamics makes perpetual-motion machines impossible, and it is probably the most important law in science (I discuss this in greater detail in Genesis and Genes). And so, it is unnecessary for the physicist to know about the chemical nature of the proposal for a perpetual mobile. Such a machine is physically impossible. 

But the Torah is even more fundamental than physics. If Torah sources clearly and unambiguously indicate that Man was created de novo, and not through a lengthy evolutionary process, that would be enough to reject evolutionary biology, even without intricate arguments about the failings of the latter. In Genesis and Genes, I address readers who are not sufficiently knowledgeable in Torah, and so I provide them with intricate arguments as to the fatal weaknesses of evolutionary biology. Contemporary Torah leaders don’t need those arguments – they have access to deeper layers of reality. 

Maurice Skikne:

I once heard one of my ex-proteges, Rav Akiva Tatz, saying Man has descended from monkeys {he was quoting some or other biologist}. Well neither scientists nor Rabonim make so rash statements-AND prove it!! 

My Response: 

In the Introduction to Genesis and Genes, I wrote: 

It must be emphasised that Genesis and Genes was not written under the auspices of any organisation or individual. It is entirely my initiative, and my views should not be imputed to anyone else who may be mentioned in the book or with whom I am associated in any way whatsoever.

 Conversely, I take no responsibility for comments made by other writers. So I decline to respond to this statement. Mr. Skikne is at liberty to take the matter up with Rabbi Tatz. 

Maurice Skikne:

Leave it there! Keep up your fabulous work and research! Would love to debate this one time over a cup or three of Coffee! As they say in Yiddish: Zaai Gezunt!!

My Response:

Thank you. I look forward to meeting you and discussing things.

Maurice Skikne:

PS.My especial Parshe is obviously Bereishis- I’ve spent over 20 years trying to hold onto it’s meaning and message!!!
PPS Even Schroeder’s “Genesis and the Big Bang” requires drastic revision by him!!!!

My Response:

I recommend Genesis and the Big Bluff on this website.

Training and Indoctrination

January 12, 2013

In the first chapter of Genesis and Genes, I described the decades-long conditioning that scientists are subject to as part of their training. Contrary to popular perception, scientists do not conduct research within a vacuum. They approach any particular question with a certain worldview that was nourished and cultivated throughout their lengthy period of training. I quoted the physicist and theologian Sir John Polkinghorne:

Scientists do not look at the world with a blank gaze; they view it from a chosen perspective and bring principles of interpretation and prior expectations… to bear upon what they observe. Scientists wear (theoretical) “spectacles behind the eyes”. [Science and Theology, John Polkinghorne, Fortress Press, 1998, page 10.]

In that context, I made the following comment:

Philosophers of science have long pointed out that great breakthroughs in science tend to be made by young men. Albert Einstein was all of twenty-five years old in 1905, his annus mirabilis, when he published three seminal papers that would revolutionise physics. Werner Heisenberg and Paul Dirac were in their mid-twenties when they made their fundamental contributions to the fledgling field of quantum mechanics. Kurt Gödel was in his mid-twenties when he produced his greatest work on the logical foundations of mathematics. One factor in the disproportionate success of young scientists in demolishing the accepted wisdom is that they have had less time to be conditioned by their older colleagues. They can see things differently.

I am currently reading Physics, the Human Adventure by Gerald Holton and Stephen Brush (Rutgers University Press, 2005). Holton is Professor of Physics and History of Science at Harvard; Brush is a Professor of the History of Science at the University of Maryland. Both authors are Fellows of the American Physical Society, and each has served as President of the History of Science Society. Due in part to their authorship of this book, Holton and Brush were awarded the Joseph Hazen Education Prize of the History of Science Society.

On page 447 of the book, I came across the following related insight:

It is a curious fact that radical conceptual changes in a science are often initiated by people who did not receive their initial professional training in that science. A person who first approaches the problems of a discipline with the mature perspective of an outsider, rather than having been indoctrinated previously with the established methods and attitudes of the discipline, can sometimes point to unorthodox, although (when seen in retrospect) remarkably simple solutions to those problems… for example, the generalized law of conservation of energy was introduced into physics from engineering, physiology, and philosophy, although its value was accepted eventually by physicists.

 The authors then go on to describe the remarkable work done by Louis de Broglie (1892-1987), whose first degree was in history, but who later became a physicist and earned a Nobel Prize in physics in 1929 for his fundamental contributions regarding the wave nature of electrons.