Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Still Evolving

with 5 comments

So, let me start here–in general, I agree with Cathy.  What went on in Dover was not about making a religion out of science, in spite of the fact that some people claiming to be supporting the science side acted in their usual idiotic way.

I’ve got nearly twenty books about the incident and trial, and I’ve read the decision, and I think the judge was absolutely right.  It’s not that “just mentioning” intelligent design constituted teaching it, it’s that doing what they did the way they did it implied that a) evolution was not proven in a scientifically valid way and b) intelligent design had scientific validity.

Both those claims are false–they’re worse than false.  Think of what would happen if school boards insisted on doing something similar with, say, gravity.  Gravity is a theory with which some people disagree–

They can disagree or not, but gravity is science. 

I agree, too, that evolution doesn’t “proselytize.”  From the beginning, biologists and science journalists have been reacting to challenges from religious groups.  Evolution is the only theory that needs defending to the general public, because it’s the only one likely to be challenged on the local level by the general public.  If school boards were sticking disclaimers about geology into earth science textbooks, then there would be popular science books about geology.

(I find it interesting that there isn’t much resistance to geology in public schools, since the findings of geologist do just as much damage to a literal reading of Genesis as evolution does.)

I don’t know if science is compatible with a belief in God.  I’ve never believed in God, so I can’t tell.  I do know that science is not incompatible with most forms of Christianity and Judaism.  It was Aquinas who said that all truth is one and therefore there can be no contradication between one form of truth or another.  If you think you’ve found such a contradiction, and the scientific finding can be proved, the chances are good that you’re misinterpreting scripture.

But then, neither the Western Church nor the Eastern Churches have ever based their Christianity solely on the  Bible.  It’s various forms of Protestantism that have trouble with evolution, and even then only those forms of Protestantism that choose to take that particular account in Genesis literally.

The convoluted way I put that was necessary becasuse virtually nobody even in the most literalist Protestant denominations takes the entire Bible literally.  Ask them what Jesus meant when he said “Take, eat, this is my body…” and they’re quick to point out that that is jsut a metaphor.

All that said, however, the fact is that a number of the most prominent “New Atheists” are belligerent, dismissive and woefully ignorant of the traditions they’re supposed to be critiquing.  I’ve developed a morbid fascination with the columns of a woman named Shadia Drury, who writes monthly for Free Inquiry, probably the best of the atheist magazines on offer.

It’s not just that she parrots every silly misunderstanding on the Middle Ages on offer anywhere–that’s bad enough, but I’ve gotten used to it–but a couple of months ago she managed to misinterpret both Thomas Aquinas and Edmund Burke.   I’d be willing to bet that she’s having trouble with Aquinas because she’s reading him in translation, but Burke?  The English isn’t even all that archaic.

Oh, she almost managed to nearly completely misunderstand the ideas of John Stuart Mill, and therefore botched the intellectual history resulting from them.

And she’s got a book out about Aquinas.  I haven’t been able to look.

But although I’m going on and on about this woman because she’s been on my mind lately, the fact is that the kind of thing she does is not unusual.

Richard Dawkins does indeed say that if evolution is true, then religion isn’t–and he’s a biologist, not just a random popularizer, and the most famous face of atheism now writing.

Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, and virtually every writer for Free Inquiry and The Humanist seems to think that “theocracy” means “any religious imput in government at all, including elected representatives who consult their conscience before voting on bills, if that conscience is religious.”

In the case of evolution, stuff like this is largely counterproductive.  Not only does it fan the flames of the real Creationists, it makes a lot of perfectly sensible people wonder if the science really exists to support evolution.

And evolution so defined–as having to do with “something coming from nothing”–does not have the science to support it.

Actual evolution does, but that’s not the same thing.

Written by janeh

September 1st, 2009 at 11:08 am

Posted in Uncategorized

5 Responses to 'Still Evolving'

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  1. I had a bad night and am in a nasty temper. I hope this doesn’t sound too much like a lecture.

    I no longer consider myself a physicist. But I do try to follow physics at a “news” level as in Physicsworld.com which is useful for telling physicists in field X what is happening in field Y without math or lots of details.

    “Think of what would happen if school boards insisted on doing something similar with, say, gravity. Gravity is a theory with which some people disagree”

    Gravity is a force not a theory. Newton gave us a equation which could be used to calculate the force. He did not explain why the equation worked, he simply said this equation can be used to predict the motion of planets.

    Einstein derived Newton’s equation from very general principles in his theory of General Relativity (GR). He predicted that Newton’s equation would break down “close to” very “large” masses. That has been experimentally verified.

    GR also predicted black holes and there is much experimental evidence for their existence.

    First problem, some years ago it was found that stars at the rim of galaxies were moving too fast to be in stable orbits given the estimated mass of the galaxies. That led to the idea of “dark matter.” But a number of well known and respected theoretical physicists pointed out that GR had never been tested over a distance of 50,000 light years. They are trying to develop a version of GR which would give the force necessary to explain the stellar motion without dark matter.

    Second problem. Quantum mechanics (QM) was developed about 1925. It was soon realized that QM and GR were mathematically inconsistent. There are four known forces. Three of them can be handled with QM. No one has succeeded in applying QM to gravity.

    That did not matter as long as QM was applied to very small masses at very small distances and GR was applied to large masses.

    But theorists are now trying to understand what happens at the center of black holes and what happens very early (10^-35 sec) after the big bang. Those require both QM and GR and the math doesn’t work. There are strong suspicions that GR breaks down at very small distances.

    Third (and very recent) problem. QM says that light consists of photons. GR says all photons move with the same velocity C. There is some preliminary experimental evidence that very high energy photons move slower that C. That is consistent with some attempts to make a quantum theory of gravity and inconsistent with other attempts.

    Do we have a theory of gravity? I don’t know. We do have equations which can be used to predict the motion of comets, planets and space satellites.


    1 Sep 09 at 4:37 pm

  2. for high energy photons moving slower than C, see a plain English no math report at



    1 Sep 09 at 7:53 pm

  3. I agree with John on the difficulty of knowing what a scientific theory is.

    I was curious about Shadia Drury, and looked her up. I found she’s a graduate of two Canadian universities.

    John suggested I post this link to a description of some of her work. (

    http://peek.snipurl.com/rjhse [www_amazon_ca]

    It’s extremely expensive, and from the description I don’t really see why it wasn’t positioned as one of the popular market New Atheist books at a lower price.

    From the snippet online in which she describes the Christians she’s critiquing, I don’t think she’s dealing with my religion.


    2 Sep 09 at 6:51 am

  4. OK, jd, so Jane’s not a scientist. So substitute something else into the story: We’re about to learn Newton’s laws of motion, but let me point out that some people don’t believe in them, and there’s a book available in the library that will explain about the theory that angels push things around….


    2 Sep 09 at 10:15 pm

  5. What’s wrong with the book in the library saying angels push things around? There’s lots of books in the library, and they don’t have to cater to any point of view. In any case, I don’t think Newton’s Laws say anything about what pushes things around. They provide a way to describe (or figure out, if you prefer) what kind of motion – speed, direction etc – you get under certain circumstances. And they’re not always right in real life, as any high school student who’s had to ‘prove’ them will tell you, because he can’t allow properly for all the forces – eg friction.

    But there’s a bigger problem here. Misunderstanding what science is and how it works is fairly commonplace, otherwise there wouldn’t be philosophers of science arguing over it; the answers would be obvious. Using misunderstandings about science as evidence in a battle against a particular world view is pretty much what the flat earth crowd and the more extreme creationists are doing, just with another target.


    3 Sep 09 at 6:09 am

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