[Paleopsych] The Times: Richard Dawkins: Creationism: God's gift to the ignorant

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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 
Ancestor's Tale

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