The Great Debate UK
As this Darwin Year 2009 draws to a close, I have to say a lot of the public debate it prompted came down to the sterile old clash between evolution and creationism. The issue of religion always hung in the air, with the loudest arguments coming from the creationist side defending it or the neo-atheists like the Darwinian biologist Richard Dawkins denouncing it. In the end, the squabbling seemed to be more about ideology than science and told us little we didn't already know.
So I was intrigued by a conference held at UNESCO here in Paris recently about scientists who believe in evolution but want to go "beyond Darwin." Organised by French philosopher of science Jean Staune, its speakers argued that Darwin could not explain underlying order and patterns found in nature. "We have to differentiate between evolution and Darwinism," said Jean Staune, author of the new book "Au-dela de Darwin" (Beyond Darwin). "Of course there is adaptation. But like physics and chemistry, biology is also subject to its own laws."
Michael Denton, a geneticist with New Zealand's University of Otago, said Darwinian "functionalists" believed life forms simply adapted to the outside world while his "structuralist" view also saw an internal logic driving this evolution down certain paths. His view, which he called "extraordinarily foreign to modern biology," explained why many animals developed "camera eyes" like human ones and why proteins, one of the building blocks of life, fold into structures unchanged for three billion years.
The speakers here -- all academics from fields such as genetics, neurobiology, psychology and paleontology -- are of course neither the first nor the only scientists to argue that life must have evolved by more than just natural selection. Several mentioned the British paleontologist Simon Conway Morris, who argues that the evolutionary convergence of life forms "throws severe doubt on a number of fashionable presuppositions in evolution." But it was interesting to see how many different arguments the scientists brought to supplement the basic evolution thesis they supported.
Debate continues to swirl around the theory of evolution Charles Darwin proposed 150 years ago in his groundbreaking book, “On the Origin of Species,” despite its universal acceptance among scientists.
Before Darwin’s discovery, the world was generally thought to have remained more or less the same since its creation. This belief, based on Biblical interpretations, was contested through fossil studies showing that species change over time.
Muslim creationism is back in the news. There's been a spate of articles in the U.S. and British press recently about the spread of this scripture-based challenge to Darwinian evolution among Muslims, mostly in the Middle East but also in Europe. The fact that some Muslims have embraced creationism, a trademark belief of some conservative American Protestants, is not new. Reuters first wrote about it in 2006 -- "Creation vs. Darwin takes Muslim twist in Turkey" -- and this blog has run several posts on the issue, including an interview with Islam's most prominent creationist, Harun Yahya. What's new is that these ideas seem to be spreading and academics who defend evolution are holding conferences to discuss the phenomenon. (Photo: Portrait of Charles Darwin, 12 Feb 2009/Gordon Jack)
There are too many recent articles about Islamic creationism out there now to discuss each one separately, so I'll have to just link to them in the ... New York Times ... Washington Post ... Boston Globe ... Slate ... Guardian ... National ... Beliefnet ... ... Many of these articles highlight the role of Harun Yahya, the once secretive Istanbul preacher and publisher who has gone on a PR offensive in recent years and turned very media-friendly (as Steve Paulson describes in that Slate article). But as Michael Reiss, a London education professor and Anglican priest told the Guardian, "what the Turks believe today is what the Germans and British believe tomorrow. It is because of the mass movement of people between countries. These things can no longer be thought of as occurring in other countries."
British biologist Richard Dawkins, one of the leading voices of the "neo-atheist" movement, has taken the latest book-sized shot at the "intelligent design" movement. You can read my interview with Dawkins' here about his new book: "The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution."
For a scientist of Dawkins' caliber, intelligent design is a barn-door sized target. In a nutshell, it maintains that life is so complex that it must be the work of a creator. Its boosters claim their view is based in science and not influenced by religion, but it is widely seen as a thinly-veiled attempt to give a scientific gloss to creationism. That claim to science is the key here -- most religions believe that God created the world, of course, but they state this as an article of faith and not a scientific fact.
Until not too long ago, most people believed human morality was based on scripture, culture or reason. Some stressed only one of those sources, others mixed all three. None would have thought to include biology. With the progress of neuroscientific research in recent years, though, a growing number of psychologists, biologists and philosophers have begun to see the brain as the base of our moral views. Noble ideas such as compassion, altruism, empathy and trust, they say, are really evolutionary adaptations that are now fixed in our brains. Our moral rules are actually instinctive responses that we express in rational terms when we have to justify them. (Photo: Religious activist at a California protest, 10 June 2005/Gene Blevins)
Thanks to a flurry of popular articles, scientists have joined the ranks of those seen to be qualified to speak about morality, according to anthropologist Mark Robinson, a Princeton Ph.D student who discussed this trend at the University of Pennsylvania's Neuroscience Boot Camp. "In our current scientific society, where do people go to for the truth about human reality?" he asked. "It used to be you might read a philosophy paper or consult a theologian. But now there seems to be a common public sense that the authority over what morality is can be found by neuroscientists or scientists."