Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Hart on Dawkins: good stuff on evolution; yahoo on philosophy

From David B. Hart's review in First Things-- of Richard Dawkins' most recent book, The Greatest Show on Earth...


The first lesson to be learned from Richard Dawkins’ new book is a purely practical maxim: One should always do what one does best, while scrupulously avoiding those tasks for which neither nature nor tuition has equipped one. This is not, obviously, what one could call a moral counsel; it is merely a counsel of prudence. Another way of saying it would be, try not to make a fool of yourself....

The Selfish Gene, despite occasional propositions of an almost metaphysical variety, is, for the most part, an excellent introduction to one of the more fascinating areas of modern biological science and speculation. And, generally, whenever Dawkins has confined himself to topics within his field of expertise, he has produced well-organized, lucidly written guidebooks to the current scene in the life sciences.

With The Greatest Show on Earth, Dawkins has returned to what he does best. He makes occasional mention of subjects he ought not to touch on—Plato, for instance, or the “great chain of being,” or God—with predictable imprecision; but these are only momentary deviations....

It recently occurred to him, he says, that over the years he has written about evolutionary theory but never taken the time to provide his reasons for believing in it for those who have not had the benefit of his training. And this is what he does here...an ideal précis of the evolutionary sciences and the current state of evolutionary theory that can be recommended for the convinced and the unconvinced alike....

Although the book is, for the most part, wholly “positive” in its argument, it is nonetheless explicitly directed toward two targets: young-earth creationists and the intelligent design movement. In regard to the former, of course, he does not really need to expend much energy....In regard to the latter, however, he does feel the need to exert himself; and, while some of his arguments are solvent enough, others are no more sophisticated than the positions they are meant to refute....He merely inverts the [popular vs. academic] ID equation and confesses his own personal incredulity at the idea that nature—containing so much that is inefficient, ungainly, brutal, wasteful, abortive, and ill-formed—could be the product of a designing intelligence....

I should confess, although quite gratuitously, that I derive a certain malicious delight from Dawkins’ consternation at the persistence of young-earth fundamentalism in even the most educated of societies. At one point in The Greatest Show on Earth, he records—at somewhat tedious length—the transcript of an interview he gave to a not very well-informed antievolutionist by the name of Wendy Wright....The reason this amuses me, to be honest, is that, whenever he himself turns to philosophical issues, Richard Dawkins is Wendy Wright—or, at least, her temperamental twin.

After all, what makes The God Delusion so frustrating to any reader who has a shred of decent philosophical training and who knows the history of ideas is its special combination of encyclopedic ignorance and thuggish bluster....

All of these failings would be pardonable if Dawkins were capable of correction. But his habitual response to any concept whose meaning he has not taken the time to learn is to dismiss it as meaningless, with the sort of truculent affectation of contempt that suggests he really knows, at some level, that he is out of his depth.

Anecdotally, I know for a fact that numerous attempts have been made, not to convince him that there is a God, but merely to apprise him of the elementary errors that throng his arguments. Like poor Wendy, he simply does not grasp what he is being told, so engaged is he in repeating over and over the little “mantras” he has devised for himself....


Sounds like a good book to read on the topic-- at least for those who can see through his philosophical musings. Anybody read this one?

6 Comments:

At February 3, 2010 at 8:26 AM , Blogger William Lang said...

I haven't read any Dawkins, but this review agrees with other reviews I have read, both of his new book and of God Delusion.

One book I would recommend is the recent Why Evolution is True by Jerry A. Coyne. He's a University of Chicago professor. I gather he is not a fan of religion, but he sticks to the biology in this book. He expands and updates the arguments advanced by Darwin in Origin of Species. Some of this was particularly interesting because some of the issues he considers are not much discussed by ID people or other anti-evolutionists. For example, he discusses why the geographical distribution of species (particularly on islands) is strong evidence for evolution.

 
At February 3, 2010 at 9:01 AM , Blogger Don Sherfick said...

One of the things I think continues to permeate the debate in this area is the blurring of the line between "science" and "religion". I'm not really sure that there is consensus over whether or not there is, or even should be, a firm demarkation between the two.

That aside, it does seem to me that those who tend to downplay the existance of the more controversial aspects of evolution (mostly the evolution of one species into another) do so more because they think that accepting such theories diminishes the idea of God's existance. I don't know why that is......the thought that an omnipotent God would be somehow diminished by creating/permitting such a process continues to escape me.

One aspect of this is that we humans not only have zewro concept of the length of eternity (assuming that concepts of "length of time" is even relevant, but really can't appreciate the concept of billions of years. Even very tiny changes occur in any process, over time some pretty amazing alterations occur. Look at micro-inches per year for tectonic plates moving past each other turning into the dizzying heights of Mt. Everest and the point can be grasped more readily.

I saw something yesterday that after about half a centry the average heighth of a North Korean is a full six inches shorter than that of a South Korean. Granted, that hardly approaches the concept that occupants of that peninsula might have at one time come out of the surrounding seas (probably somewhere else on the planet anyway). But to paraphrase the late Senator Dirkson from Illinois: A million here, a billion there....after a while you're talking about some REAL time.

(Not nearly as long as it will take for the Indiana General Assembly to realize that trying to put definitions in the Constitution is an unproductive exercise........I'm trying to locate the author of that thought)

 
At February 3, 2010 at 9:22 AM , Blogger Eric Schansberg said...

Thanks for the recommendation, William. I enjoyed Miller and will probably check out Coyne.

Don, I agree that there's a tendency on both sides to ignore difficulties in one's position. That's neither laudatory nor unexpected.

 
At February 3, 2010 at 9:25 AM , Blogger William Lang said...

Don,

You've probably heard the story about when the Indiana legislature narrowly avoided passing a resolution setting the value of pi to be 3.2. This was in the 1890's. Some nutbag named Goodwin thought he'd solved the famous geometry problem from antiquity of squaring the circle. He didn't know that about a decade before, a mathematician named Lindemann proved this to be impossible to do. So he asked the legislature to pass a resolution acknowledging his discovery, saying he would let Indiana use it in textbooks without royalties. A Purdue University math prof was in town, and managed to set the legislature straight. The resolution was tabled.

 
At February 3, 2010 at 2:55 PM , Blogger Don Sherfick said...

William: As a Purdue grad [we won't say how long ago, but if you remember vacuum tubes that may provide a clue) I'm well aware of that somewhat embarassing move by oneof its less renowned faculty members.

My dad just simplified the whole thing by saying it was "twenty-two sevenths".

Do you suppose there is a niche on the New York Times bestseller list for something entitled: "Why Defining The Line Between Science and Religion/Philosophy Is Like Squaring the Circle": Subtitle: "Eating Humble Pi"?

 
At February 4, 2010 at 8:29 AM , Blogger Janet P said...

On the flip side, it should be recognized that the idea that small changes over time equal
BIG changes is just that - an Idea. It can't be proved or tested.

 

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