[Paleopsych] The Times: Richard Dawkins: Creationism: God's gift to the ignorant
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Sat May 28 19:33:34 UTC 2005
Richard Dawkins: Creationism: God's gift to the ignorant
[Dawkins is a devout atheist.]
As the Religious Right tries to ban the teaching of evolution in Kansas,
Richard Dawkins speaks up for scientific logic
Science feeds on mystery. As my colleague Matt Ridley has put it: "Most
scientists are bored by what they have already discovered. It is ignorance that
drives them on." Science mines ignorance. Mystery - that which we don't yet
know; that which we don't yet understand - is the mother lode that scientists
seek out. Mystics exult in mystery and want it to stay mysterious. Scientists
exult in mystery for a very different reason: it gives them something to do.
Admissions of ignorance and mystification are vital to good science. It is
therefore galling, to say the least, when enemies of science turn those
constructive admissions around and abuse them for political advantage. Worse,
it threatens the enterprise of science itself. This is exactly the effect that
creationism or "intelligent design theory" (ID) is having, especially because
its propagandists are slick, superficially plausible and, above all, well
financed. ID, by the way, is not a new form of creationism. It simply is
creationism disguised, for political reasons, under a new name.
It isn't even safe for a scientist to express temporary doubt as a rhetorical
device before going on to dispel it.
"To suppose that the eye with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the
focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for
the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by
natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree." You
will find this sentence of Charles Darwin quoted again and again by
creationists. They never quote what follows. Darwin immediately went on to
confound his initial incredulity. Others have built on his foundation, and the
eye is today a showpiece of the gradual, cumulative evolution of an almost
perfect illusion of design. The relevant chapter of my Climbing Mount
Improbable is called "The fortyfold Path to Enlightenment" in honour of the
fact that, far from being difficult to evolve, the eye has evolved at least 40
times independently around the animal kingdom.
The distinguished Harvard geneticist Richard Lewontin is widely quoted as
saying that organisms "appear to have been carefully and artfully designed".
Again, this was a rhetorical preliminary to explaining how the powerful
illusion of design actually comes about by natural selection. The isolated
quotation strips out the implied emphasis on "appear to", leaving exactly what
a simple-mindedly pious audience - in Kansas, for instance - wants to hear.
The deceitful misquoting of scientists to suit an anti-scientific agenda ranks
among the many unchristian habits of fundamentalist authors. But such Telling
Lies for God (the book title of the splendidly pugnacious Australian geologist
Ian Plimer) is not the most serious problem. There is a more important point to
be made, and it goes right to the philosophical heart of creationism.
The standard methodology of creationists is to find some phenomenon in nature
which Darwinism cannot readily explain. Darwin said: "If it could be
demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been
formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would
absolutely break down." Creationists mine ignorance and uncertainty in order to
abuse his challenge. "Bet you can't tell me how the elbow joint of the lesser
spotted weasel frog evolved by slow gradual degrees?" If the scientist fails to
give an immediate and comprehensive answer, a default conclusion is drawn:
"Right, then, the alternative theory; 'intelligent design' wins by default."
Notice the biased logic: if theory A fails in some particular, theory B must be
right! Notice, too, how the creationist ploy undermines the scientist's
rejoicing in uncertainty. Today's scientist in America dare not say: "Hm,
interesting point. I wonder how the weasel frog's ancestors did evolve their
elbow joint. I'll have to go to the university library and take a look." No,
the moment a scientist said something like that the default conclusion would
become a headline in a creationist pamphlet: "Weasel frog could only have been
designed by God."
I once introduced a chapter on the so-called Cambrian Explosion with the words:
"It is as though the fossils were planted there without any evolutionary
history." Again, this was a rhetorical overture, intended to whet the reader's
appetite for the explanation. Inevitably, my remark was gleefully quoted out of
context. Creationists adore "gaps" in the fossil record.
Many evolutionary transitions are elegantly documented by more or less
continuous series of changing intermediate fossils. Some are not, and these are
the famous "gaps". Michael Shermer has wittily pointed out that if a new fossil
discovery neatly bisects a "gap", the creationist will declare that there are
now two gaps! Note yet again the use of a default. If there are no fossils to
document a postulated evolutionary transition, the assumption is that there was
no evolutionary transition: God must have intervened.
The creationists' fondness for "gaps" in the fossil record is a metaphor for
their love of gaps in knowledge generally. Gaps, by default, are filled by God.
You don't know how the nerve impulse works? Good! You don't understand how
memories are laid down in the brain? Excellent! Is photosynthesis a bafflingly
complex process? Wonderful! Please don't go to work on the problem, just give
up, and appeal to God. Dear scientist, don't work on your mysteries. Bring us
your mysteries for we can use them. Don't squander precious ignorance by
researching it away. Ignorance is God's gift to Kansas.
Richard Dawkins, FRS, is the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public
Understanding of Science, at Oxford University. His latest book is The
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