Monthly Archives: September 2005

The Darwin debate, 1872

The debate over evolution and ID invariably brings to my mind a charming Russian poem by Alexei Tolstoy (novelist Leo’s less talented but much saner and smarter, and unjustly forgotten, relative), “Epistle to M.N. Longinov on Darwinism” (1872). Tolstoy, a poet, writer and dramatist, was widely regarded as a retrograde in his day; in fact, while his political satire often skewered the left — the socialists, the nihilists, the populists and other radicals — he was far from being a reactionary and envisioned Russia evolving toward a more Western-style liberal society. Mikhail Longinov, a personal friend of Tolstoy’s, was the chairman of Russia’s Committee on Publishing (i.e. the official censorship board). Tolstoy wrote the poem after hearing about a proposed ban on Darwin’s The Origin of Species, which apparently turned out to be a false rumor.

The poem is quite relevant to today’s debate, and I’ve often wished there were a translation. Well, today, in a burst of inspiration, I translated it myself, in abbreviated form (the original has 22 stanzas, I kept only 10 [update: make that 11] — omiting a parallel between Darwinian and Copernican theory, and the conclusion which points out that Russia is not isolated from the world and science will find its way in). Here goes. “Misha” is, of course, the nickname for Mikhail — the Russian equivalent of “Mikey.”

Is it true, what people tell me?
Everywhere, the news I’m getting:
Misha, it is said, considers
Darwin’s system quite upsetting.

Come now, Misha, why get fretful?
You’ve no tail on your own arse,
So the origin of species
Shouldn’t cause much of a fuss.

What’s, in any case, your problem
With a gradual creation?
Do you think that in his methods
God from you should take dictation?

Why restrict how He can do things,
By what means and to what end?
I would say that such a viewpoint
Smells of heresy, my friend!

Truly, that’s a poor example
You have set from your high place,
And I fear you might be labeled
As a man of little faith.

In the distant past, moreover,
Not much glory’s there for man:
For a lump of clay’s no better
Than some old orangutan.

Do you think, perhaps, that Darwin
Is for nihilists a banner?
What, good Lord, have they in common
In their message or their manner?

From the beasts to human level
Darwin does us elevate,
While the nihilists would have us
Sink into a beastly state.

Far from being Darwin’s vanguard,
They confirm his basic facts,
And their brutish, wild behavior
Of regression often smacks.

Crude and ignorant and shameless,
Spiteful, puffed-up, condescending,
They themselves, I’d say, are backwards
Toward their ancestors descending.

For the acts of bratty rebels
Darwin needs no absolution.
Therefore, Misha, calm your anger,
Cease your foolish persecution!

By the way, nice description of the nihilists — the far left of their day. Nothing new under the sun, is there.

Those who read Russian can find the original (and the rest of Tolstoy’s brilliant satirical poetry) here.

7 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

With Enlightenment champions like these…

From the website of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, an announcement of an upcoming event:

Saturday, October 8:”Rethinking Secularism in an Age of Belief”

A Symposium featuring Dwight McBride (African American Studies, Northwestern), Saba Mahmood (Anthropology, UC Berkeley), Gauri Viswanathan (English, Columbia University), and Michael Warner (English, Rutgers). Co-organized with the IPRH.

This event will address some of the most pressing issues of the current political landscape: the apparent global rise of fundamentalisms, the religious underpinnings of empire, and the neoconservative discourse of “moral values.” These phenomena have been interpreted by some as a sign of the “end of Enlightenment.” How should progressive intellectuals respond to this assessment? Should we celebrate the demise of Enlightenment and its normalizing narrative of secularization? Or should we be frightened by the prospect of a post-secular world? In the face of George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden, do we need more or less secularism?

I myself (see previous post) am concerned about the assault on reason and Enlightenment values (values that are as much a part of America’s foundation as is its religious heritage). But “the religious underpinnings of empire”? (Translation: the war against terrorism and Islamofascism, and the attempt — wise or not — to make democratic development possible in the Middle East, is in reality an “onward, Christian soldiers” crusade in disguise.) George W. Bush and Osama Bin Laden, in a macabre parody of moral equivalency? I despair.

3 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

The evolution wars are here again

The controversy over evolution and intelligent design is back in the news because of the Pennsylvania trial over a school board’s decision to add critiques of evolution and the “alternative” theory of Intelligent Design to the curriculum.

Good posts on the subject by Roger Simon and Richard Bennett. See also this piece by William Saletan in Slate.com. And, for those who think that only secularist liberals and lefties want to keep ID out of science classrooms, read John Derbyshire, whom no one would dream of calling a secularist liberal. (Derbyshire’s debate on ID with some of his own National Review colleagues can be be found here and here.)

I’ve had my share of the evolution/ID debate since writing about it back in August, and I find it rather depressing, because there are so many people — many of them, broadly speaking, on my side of the political divide — spouting so many inanities. Here’s an example: a blogpost that excerpts my column, under the title, “If you can’t compete you demand a monopoly.” That’s the main pro-ID meme in respectable conservative circles: those who don’t want ID to be a part of the science curriculum or of mainstream scientific discussion are intolerant of debate — or even “fascist,” according to Bill O’Reilly. Funny how not long ago, the same Bill O’Reilly rightly slammed C-Span for wanting to “balance” an interview with Deborah Lipstadt, the historian who prevailed against Holocaust “revisionist” David Irving in a libel suit, by interviewing Irving as well, and commended Lipstadt for refusing to participate so as not to create the appearance of a legitimate debate on the issue. If we’re going to teach the “debate” on evolution vs ID (which President Bush’s own science adviser, John H. Marburger, has pointedly said is “not a scientific topic), then why not bring the “debate” over whether the Holocaust really happened to history classrooms? Why not teach astrology on a par with astronomy? Heck, nearly one-third of Americans, including 43% of those aged 25 to 29, believe in astrology, and we live in a democracy where we can’t just let those arrogant scientific elites decide what our children will learn, right?

Then there’s this intellectual gem from my former Detroit News colleague Tony Snow:

That said, ID does not qualify as science because it gives us nothing to test or measure. Science requires replicable tests involving measurable variables. …
Evolutionary theory, like ID, isn’t verifiable or testable. It’s pure hypothesis — like ID — although very popular in the scientific community.

That’s another common pro-ID argument, often encountered in Internet forums and in my email (“has anyone actually seen one species evolve into another?”). Sadly, it demonstrates little but the scientific illiteracy of the people who make it. “Testable” and “verifiable” does not mean “proven beyond a reasonable doubt” or “backed by irrefutable evidence.” It means that you set up an experiment in which evolutionary theory predicts a particular outcome. If the experiment fails, then evolutionary theory has failed the test. There is no “final proof” of evolution, but there is abundant evidence supporting evolutionary theory (indicating, for instance, that both humans and modern apes are related to primates who lived millions of years ago, or that modern-day birds are related to the dinosaurs), and none disproving it. ID is not a “scientific challenge”; it postulates simply that because science doesn’t fully explain how various organisms evolved, there must have been a higher intelligence beyond material science at work.

Tony Snow again:

ID is useful largely because it punctures the myth of scientific invincibility, while providing a basis for promoting the cause of “hard” science. Sure, science involves trial and error. Scientists refine theories each day. But as they do, they help us grasp more clearly the wonders of the world and the universe.

Scientific inquiry and ID provide useful angles of approach to ultimate questions. Here’s how to make both sides happy: Let science teachers tell kids that science is a matter of inspired guesswork, not of invincible decree. Eventually, new theories will arise to wipe away weaknesses and inconsistencies in today’s scientific orthodoxy.

Sorry, but does the guy have any idea what he’s talking about? Yes, of course science is not “invincible.” No scientist worth his or her salt teaches that it is. While ID proponents imagine that the scientific establishment is locked into a rigid orthodoxy that brooks no challenge, the truth is that scientific hypotheses are constantly challenged, revised, and even disproved. For every scientist who is invested in the “orthodoxy,” there’s probably at least a dozen who would love nothing more than to revolutionize their field. But the status quo must be challenged through scientific inquiry, not through “inspired guesswork” or “I don’t understand how it happened, therefore God must have done it” fuzzy logic.

(By the way, Snow’s proposal that students ought to be taught to view science as “inspired guesswork” provides one good answer to the sneering question, “What are you monkey people so afraid of?” That’s what. That way, folks, lies scientific illiteracy and abandonment of reason.)

The drive behind ID is not science; it’s religion, and the perceived threat of science to religion. In his excellent New Republic article, “The Faith That Dares Not Speak Its Name” (subscriber only, but a PDF version is available here), evolutionary scientist Jerry Coyne quotes mathematician Wiliam Dembski, one of the much-vaunted “real scientists” who champion ID:

But there are deeper motivations. I think at a fundamental level, in terms of what drives me in this is that I think God’s glory is being robbed by these naturalistic approaches to biological evolution, creation, the origin of the world, the origin of biological complexity and diversity. When you are attributing the wonders of nature to these mindless material mechanisms, God’s glory is getting robbed.

Many people worry that an acceptance of naturalistic evolution erodes religious values and promotes a nihilistic world-view in which all morality is relative and life has no higher purpose or meaning: we’re all animals, after all. I don’t see why it has to work this way. Humans, whether by dint of evolution or creation, are capable of reason and have a sense of right and wrong; we should live accordingly. I myself don’t care for militant atheism, and I don’t think it’s right to use science in its service. I myself am an agnostic who would like to believe that there are some transcendent things in our existence, and who does not regard the concept of the human soul as hopelessly outmoded. If I were religious, I don’t think I would want to tie my faith to so shaky a foundation as ID. There are, in fact, many scientists who accept evolution and believe in God, and many religious people (and organizations) who believe that evolution is not incompatible with a belief in God or in any particular religion.

Last year, the National Center for Science Education unveiled a website for teachers called “Understanding Evolution.” It features a section explaining that many religious groups, theologians, and scientists who hold religious beliefs endorse evolutionary theory — obviously in an attempt to placate concerns that the teaching of evolution undercuts faith. ID proponents cried foul, complaining that the insidious evolutionists were “trying to unconstitutionally mix church and state,” using taxpayer dollars to promote the correct (pro-evolution) religious viewpoint. That takes some chutzpah.

There was a time, not too long ago, when conservatives stood in defense of science and reason against politically correct attacks on science from radical feminists, Afrocentrists, environmental extremists, and post-modernists who rejected the concept of objective reality. I miss those days.

Update: Another good rebuttal to some standard anti-evolution arguments about the fossil record. Hat tip: Rand Simberg.

Update: And one more good post by Tom Smith at The Right Coast, another conservative and Christian who explains why Darwinian biology belongs in science classroom and “Intelligent Design” does not.

17 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Partying with the Reasonoids

The Reason staff in Washington, DC gathered at Mackey’s Pub tonight to celebrate the Reason blog, Hit & Run, being named one of the five winning political blogs in Playboy. I went down to DC for the event, held at Mackey’s Pub. My only quibble: Why are so many events where you go for the purpose of talking to interesting people held at places where you have to yell to hold a conversation? Even so, a great time was had by all, with conversation topics ranging from the Roberts confirmation to the disillusionment of conservatives and libertarians who supported Bush (Bruce Bartlett of the National Center for Policy Analysis has an upcoming book about Bush’s betrayal of the Reagan legacy) to the recent anti-war demonstration in Washington (the Cato Institute’s Evan Pierre told me that he goes to demonstrations of all stripes — pro-life, pro-choice, anti-war, and would gladly go to pro-war ones if they drew more than a handful of people — just because he enjoys seeing Americans exercise their rights) to same-sex marriage to Ivy League mommy-trackers and more.

Some photos:

With Reason editor Julian Sanchez

With WNET talk show host Luke Thomas (EndofPolitcs.com)

With Volokh Conspirator Randy Barnett

With Megan McArdle, aka Jane Galt of Asymmetrical Information, and Reason‘s Nick Gillespie

(You can click on the photos to see the full-size version.)

14 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Religious intolerance: the real thing

Lately, a lot of people on the right have been awfully quick to cry religious bigotry for no good reason. I’m at the point where I reach for the remote every time Bill O’Reilly fulminates against “secularists.” So tonight when I heard him announce an upcoming segment about “religion under attack,” I was prepared to roll my eyes. Until I saw the segment.

It seems some “civil liberties groups” are upset because FEMA is going to use taxpayer money to reimburse churches and other religious organizations for services (shelter, food, and other assistance) provided to survivors of hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

According to The Washington Post:

FEMA officials said religious organizations would be eligible for payments only if they operated emergency shelters, food distribution centers or medical facilities at the request of state or local governments in the three states that have declared emergencies — Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. In those cases, “a wide range of costs would be available for reimbursement, including labor costs incurred in excess of normal operations, rent for the facility and delivery of essential needs like food and water,” FEMA spokesman Eugene Kinerney said in an e-mail.

Apparently, the “civil libertarians” believe that this violates the separation of church and state.

What next? Are we going to say that the police (taxpayer-funded, after all!) shouldn’t be allowed to investigate a robbery at a church?

Yes, yes, I know there are differences. On tonight’s O’Reilly Factor, Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State was talking about religious indoctrination and discrimination in church-run charitable programs. Fine. You show me a religious organization that was asked by the local government to run a shelter for Katrina survivors and either barred people of other faiths or subjected them to intrusive proselytizing — as opposed to, say, merely handing out a Bible — and I will agree that they shouldn’t get a penny in reimbursements. But unless there is such evidence, why not treat religious groups the same as secular ones? (For that matter, why is there so little concern with discrimination and indoctrination practiced by programs based on secular ideologies — for instance, taxpayer-funded domestic violence programs rooted in radical feminist viewpoints?)

There is indeed a point where secularism crosses over into hostility toward religion. For an example, see the recent brouahaha over the tiny church crosses on the Los Angeles County seal. This is another such case. On this occasion, the so-called civil libertarians are only giving the separation of chruch and state a bad name.

8 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Poverty, race, Katrina, and demagoguery

The other day, speaking to the Congressional Black Caucus, New York congressman Charles Rangel referred to George Bush as “our Bull Connor.”

Appearing on various talk shows (including Bill O’Reilly tonight), Rangel has claimed that he never meant to imply that Bush was a racist; he was simply saying that just as Bull Connor’s brutality against peaceful civil rights demonstrators in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 woke up America’s conscience to the problem of racism, Katrina and the federal government’s inadequate response to it would wake up America’s conscience to the problem of poverty. Rangel has even said that he does not regard this as a racial issue, and that Katrina’s real disgrace was the plight of the poor, black or white.

First of all, to get the obvious out of the way: Rangel’s claim that to call someone a modern-day Bull Connor is not a charge of racism is plainly and simply laughable. If Rangel’s goal was to draw attention to the problem of poverty, his demagogic race-baiting was precisely the wrong strategy.

But what about the problem itself? The disaster in New Orleans was, in fact, a stark reminder of the persistence of poverty in our midst. The standard left/liberal answer is to blame capitalism and conservatism, and to call for more social programs and more redistribution of wealth. The standard conservative and libertarian answer is to blame the “culture of poverty” with its intractable social problems, which sometimes translates all too easily into blaming the poor.

I agree that more socialism is not the answer, and that poverty in America is largely a self-perpetuating culture. There are millions of immigrants who come to the U.S. every year with nothing, and manage in a fairly short amount of time to work their way into the middle-class — because they have social support networks and a culture that values education and hard work. (Many of those immigrants are black, whether from the Caribbean or from Africa, which further undercuts the theory that poverty is due to institutional racism.) But in discussing the culture of poverty, we should be very, very careful to avoid bashing the poor themselves. Most of us, if born into the same circumstances, would have likely ended up trapped in the same patterns of self-defeating behavior. Bourgeois virtues are not acquired at birth. Yes, there are people who manage to overcome multiple social handicaps and break the cultural habits of their environment. But that takes some unusual qualities — an extrordinary level of energy, determination, and self-sufficiency.

Some excellent thoughts from Megan McArdle, aka Jane Galt, here and here.

Would it be worthwhile, perhaps, to take a closer look at the factors that determine upward mobility in individuals and families — both among the U.S.-born poor, and among immigrants?

4 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

What about the men? (2)

Amidst all these discussions of Future Desperate Housewives of the Ivy League, there’s another story that’s finally getting some notice: while some women are mommy-tracking themselves while still in college, many men aren’t in college, period.

USA Today reports:

Currently, 135 women receive bachelor’s degrees for every 100 men. That gender imbalance will widen in the coming years, according to a new report by the U.S. Department of Education.

Glenn Reynolds discusses the issue here. (See also an interesting thread at Ann Althouse.)

This is not really a new story: Women were already graduating from college in higher numbers than men in 1992, when the American Association of Unviersity Women (AAUW) raised a false alarm about girls being “shortchanged” by gender bias. But in recent years the imbalance has been getting worse. For more on this ongoing debate and the data, see my 2001 article in Reason, Where the Boys Are. See also University of Alaska psychologist Judith Kleinfeld’s excellent paper, The Myth That Schools Shortchange Girls: Social Science in the Service of Deception.

Why is this hapenning? And is it a problem? One common explanation is that men are off doing lucrative things that don’t require a college diploma — launching Internet start-ups, for instance, or getting jobs in the blue-collar trades. (But how many of these men really do well? Plumbers and welders may make good money, but a lot of men in the trades face chronic job insecurity and low income. As USA Today points out, “The unemployment rate for young men ages 20-24 is 10.1%, twice the national rate”.) There are also more men in the armed services. Clearly a college diploma is not the only path to a good life. But there is a lot of evidence that many of the “missing men” are in trouble. By the way, if you look at the statistics, it’s clear that the college gender gap is most pronounced among African-Americans (for some years now, black females in college have outnumbered black men about 2:1) and low-income people.

In addition to gender differences in enrollment, men seem to fare worse once they do get to college. According to federal statistics, of the men who entered college in 1996, only 28% graduated in 4 years or less, compared to 38% of the women; the six-year graduation rate was over 58% for women but only 52% for the men.

That brings us back to the “why.” Some observers, such as Kleinfeld, say that a big part of the problem is that young men today tend to be less motivated and less focused than their female peers. (Father absence may be one factor in this.) Others see gender bias in the education system. Says Reynolds:

There seems little doubt that universities have become less male-friendly in recent decades, to the point of being downright unfriendly in many cases. The kind of statements that are routinely made about males and masculinity in classrooms and hallways would get professors fired if they were made about blacks, gays, or many other groups. Sexual-harassment policies start with the presumption that men are guilty, and inherently depraved. And colleges now come at the tail-end of an educational system that is (compared to previous decades) anti-male from kindergarten on, meaning many males probably just want to get out as soon as they can.

Some of the people I interviewed for my Reason article expressed the same view. Bret Burkholder, a counselor at Pierce College in Puyallup, Washington, who also works with younger boys as a baseball coach, told me, “If you listen to 10- or 11-year-old boys, you will hear that school is not a very happy place for them. It’s a place where they’re consistently made to feel stupid, where girls can walk around in T-shirts that say ‘Girls rule, boys drool,’ but if a boy makes a negative comment about girls he’ll have the book thrown at him.”

There is some evidence to back this up. Here are some data from a 1990 survey of high school students conducted for the AAUW, and spun as evidence of girls’ precariously low self-esteem. When asked, “Who do teachers think are smarter, boys or girls?”, 69% of boys and 81% of girls said “girls.” 81% of boys and 89% of girls thought teachers complimented girls more often, while about 90% of both boys and girls said that teachers punished boys more often. On the question, “Who do teachers like to be around?,” 73% of boys and 80% of girls said, “Girls.” (See Kleinfeld’s study, Table 16, for these data.) On the other hand, it is also worth nothing that when the children are asked about their own experiences, boys are only slightly less likely than girls to say that teachers listen to them, that they often get called on and encouraged, and that discipline and grading at their school are fair. I think it’s quite an exaggeration to claim, as some do, that males have become “the second sex” in the educational system as a whole. I find male victimism to be as off-putting as the female variety.

One more point to ponder: While conservatives commonly point to political correctness and “feminization” as factors that discourage male involvement in the educational system, few pay attention to the effects of the traditionally masculine jock culture that holds learning in contempt as a “girlie” thing.

The bottom line? This is an issue that needs to be looked into. For years, academic organizations (not just feminist ones but mainstream ones such as the Association of American Colleges) have been trumpeting reports about an alleged “chilly climate” for women on campus. Maybe it’s time to pay a little attention to the guys? Glenn Reynolds suggests congressional hearings. I have my doubts about the efficacy of such ventures, but if no one else gets moving, it could be, at least, a start.

26 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized