In my library at home, I have three books that catch the eye because of their unusual heft. One is my old copy of the Handbook of Chemistry and Physics, and another is Stephen J. Gould’s massive treatise on evolution. Now, a third tome has made it a trio of thick, heavy books: Divine Action and Natural Selection, edited by Joseph Seckbach and Richard Gordon (World Scientific Publishing, 2009). If I had to pick one of the three to take to the beach on holiday, this would be the one.
Why? Well, it’s interesting reading for a scientist, and perhaps even for a thoughtful creationist. Seckbach is at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and Gordon is a faculty member at the University of Manitoba, Canada. They invited scientists, creationists, Jewish, Catholic and Muslim scholars, and software programmers interested in artificial life, to contribute short essays about Darwin, evolution, intelligent design and creationism. The editorial expectation, expressed in a preface and final chapter, is that providing a forum for such a diverse group to meet and converse could be a useful step toward what E. O. Wilson calls consilience.
I won’t try to list all 45 authors, but can say that the scientists include Nobelist Christian DeDuve, astronomers Seth Shostak (SETI Institute) and George Coyne (Vatican Observatory), and physicist Julian Chela-Flores (Abdus Salam International Center for Theoretical Physics). On the creationist side are John Baumgardner, of the Institute for Creation Research in Santee California, and three Turkish authors: Oktar Babuna, Cihat Gundogdu and Adnan Oktar, writing under his pen name Harun Yahya. Michael Behe, Lehigh University, contributed an essay supporting his concept of intelligent design. Other disciplines are represented by authors from the fields of mathematics, physics, chemistry, geology, embryology, paleobiology, engineering, computer science, philosophy, sociology, political science, linguistics and theology.
Most of the essays attempt to address the main issue, which is the problematic clash of evolutionary science and creationism. In an email exchange, Richard Gordon noted another feature that emerges from the essays, which is the “...remarkable range of beliefs revealed by the authors. It becomes clear that some of the scientists would consider themselves to be deeply religious, for instance astrophysicist George Coyne. Another is physicist Jack Tuszynski, who writes about the Kabbalah. Representing the other end of the spectrum are scientists who firmly believe that the universe is godless, a faith system in itself.”
There are also intriguing essays by authors interested in computational approaches to artificial life. For example, Bruce Damer describes a rational approach for testing the God hypothesis. He argues that if an all-powerful deity can alter the laws of physics by an act of will, it should be possible to design an experiment that is able to detect such alterations. He notes that a fundamental property of life is the copying of genetic information with occasional errors. If a supreme intelligence is in some way affecting the copying process, as proponents of intelligent design believe, it might be possible for a sufficiently powerful computational approach to discover the deviation from expected randomness. In a personal note, Damer wrote: “I concluded that copying was not only the best but possibly the *only* place a God could operate to effect change in the living world. As a result, God would be just as limited as nature is by the unpredictable (even for God) random errors in copying in genetics as well as in other copying such as writing. The big conclusion here is that perhaps God is only able to adapt to the outcomes of random changes in copying, such that He would not be an "Intelligent Designer" but would instead have to be an ‘Adept Adapter’, equivalent to the process of adaptation through natural selection. So God and the ‘miracles’ of adaptation through evolution are in fact the same thing.”
An unusual feature of the book are the dialogues at the end of each essay. The editors invited authors to read one another’s chapters and then make challenging or supportive comments as they see fit. The authors are given a chance to respond and the resulting dialogues resemble the thread of comments that appear at the end of blogs and columns on the internet these days. When this works, it works well and produces a useful exchange of ideas. But it doesn’t work very well when science confronts the creationist mind set. Scientists base their argument on the weight of evidence supporting evolution, while creationists accuse scientists of ignoring the evidence, obvious to them, that evolution is impossible because the world was designed by a supreme being. To give a flavor of the creationist style of argument, I will quote from the essay by Cihat Gundogdu, who is a faculty member at Marmara University School of Medicine, Istanbul:
“Not surprisingly, no useful mutation has ever been observed. All genetic mutations have proved to be harmful.”
“Since Darwin’s time, not a single shred of evidence has been put forward to show that natural selection causes living things to evolve.”
“Evolution is a theory that collapses at the very first step, because evolutionists are unable to explain even the formation of a single protein.”
“...the fossil record indicates that living things did not evolve from primitive to the advanced forms, but instead emerged individually, suddenly and in a perfect state. This shows that they did not come into existence by evolution, they were created by God, the Omnipotent and Omniscient.”
Scientists, of course, will not agree with such proclamations, and in the dialogue that follows his essay Gundogdu was taken to task by Taner Edis, who is Turkish by birth but now is on the faculty of the Physics Department at Truman State University in Missouri.
“Gundogdu heavily relies on quotations to make his case. Creationists are notorious for quote-mining and pulling statements out of context.”
“This kind of substitution of authority for substantive argument might be legitimate in certain religious contexts, but it is far from how science operates.”
“Gundogdu’s sources are also curiously outdated. Proper scholarship demands that critics should address the best, most current views of his opponents. But with few exceptions, his references date from the 1970’s and 1980’s.”
“And then there are examples of the simply ridiculous. Gundogdu cannot resist standard creationist themes such as the immense improbability of complex biological and biochemical structures. ... Indeed, Gundogdu seems to understand very little of what he is ostensibly criticizing.”
Gundogdu replies heatedly, and it is fascinating to see the mindset of an avowed creationist revealed, illustrating why it is so difficult to reason with someone who is absolutely bound by faith and has a perfect capacity to ignore evidence.
“Edis and other Darwinists in fact are members of an ancient religion which they do not verbalize, but serve it under the name of Darwinism.”
“Darwinism, however, is not a science, but a primitive shamanistic religion.”
“Darwinism is also a religion of idols and false deities. Darwinism’s foremost idol is the ‘idol of chance.’ ”
Why might a scientist, or a creationist for that matter, want to dip into such a book? We can turn to neurobiology for one possible answer. Barbara Strauch, writing in the online version of the New York Times (1/1/10), describes recent research into how the adult brain can continue to learn if given a chance. She quotes Kathleen Taylor, a professor at St. Mary’s College of California: “The brain is plastic and continues to change, not in getting bigger but allowing for greater complexity and deeper understanding.” “As adults we have these well-trodden paths in our synapses. We have to crack the cognitive egg and scramble it up. And if you learn something this way, when you think of it again you’ll have an overlay of complexity you didn’t have before — and help your brain keep developing as well.”
In other words, reading the confrontational exchanges in this book will be good for your brain, whether you are a scientist or creationist!
There is no doubt that my 70 year old brain was stimulated. For instance, I have been puzzled by the utter confidence of the fundamentalists in their assertion that they know the truth. In his essay in the book, biochemist Frits Bienfait writes about the psychology of evangelists, and suggests that their seeming confidence, gladness and missionary zeal is tantamount to an act indulged in to conceal insecurity and doubt from others and from themselves. The reason they so resist the idea of evolution is that it creates doubt, rather than confirming their belief in the bible or Koran. My sadness, also expressed by Bienfait, is that children growing up in fundamentalist environments become infected by the same underlying insecurity, which then lasts well into adult life.
Is there a way for science and creationism to find common ground? I doubt it, at least for the senior citizens on both sides of the debate. Even though the confrontation might be good for elderly brains, it will remain true that science has no place for statements of faith, while faith is central in the minds of creationists. But for the young, perhaps education can help them see how to avoid the belief that evolution is a dangerous idea. To this end, we need to be clear that education must be more than just memorizing information. A central feature of education should be a celebration of curiosity, with an emphasis on the pleasures of asking questions and thinking about possible answers. We need to give full rein to a child’s natural enjoyment of exploration, and teach that uncertainty and doubt are useful spurs to creative thinking.
Can this thought process be taught? The fact is that in developed countries like Europe and the US, only 1 in 1000 citizens makes a living doing scientific research, which means that most people never need to critically test their ideas by an exercise of judgement. However, there is at least one exception to this rule, and if we use it as a parable in higher education perhaps our students can learn to recognize the value of weighing the evidence, rather than relying on faith. The exception is trial by jury. Sooner or later, most American and some British and European citizens serve as jurors, and they are asked to use the weight of evidence to choose between alternative outcomes that are in dispute. This process can be fascinating, demonstrated by the fact that court room scenes are commonly portrayed in television. It can also be a painful, yet educational experience for individual jurors who have never been asked to exercise their judgement in this way. I think the common experience of being a juror can be promoted in education to encourage rationality as students wrestle with questions about evolution and creationism.
Similarly, if thoughtful readers think of themselves as jurors, then Divine Action and Natural Selection can be viewed metaphorically as a courtroom. The lawyers on both sides have stated their cases. Now it is time for readers to weigh the evidence presented in the book and reach a verdict.