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Why Darwin Matters: The Case Against Intelligent Design Hardcover – August 8, 2006
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From Publishers Weekly
Shermer (The Science of Good and Evil), founding editor of the Skeptic and Scientific American columnist, thoughtfully explains why intelligent design is both bad science and poor religion, how a wealth of scientific data from varied fields support evolution, and why religion and science need not be in conflict. Science and religion are two distinct realms, he argues: the natural and supernatural, respectively, and he cites Pope John Paul II in support of their possible coexistence. Shermer takes the "ten most cogent" arguments for intelligent design and refutes each in turn. While on the mark, the arguments' brevity may hamper their usefulness to all but those well versed in the debate. Looking for converts, Shermer offers a short chapter entitled "Why Christians and Conservatives Should Accept Evolution" (i.e., it "provides a scientific foundation" for their core values). His overall message is best summarized when he writes, "Darwin matters because evolution matters. Evolution matters because science matters. Science matters because it is the preeminent story of our age, an epic saga about who we are, where we came from and where we are going." Although there's not much new here, Shermer's wit and passion will appeal to many but won't convince believers. (Aug.)
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The publisher of Skeptic magazine was once an enthusiastic Evangelical Christian, but his ardent pursuit of a scientific education induced reconsideration. Now he staunchly advocates discriminating religion from science and in this book concisely defends evolutionary theory from the almost exclusively -Evangelical--Christian-backed concept of intelligent design (ID), aka creationism, aka creation science--the name changes whenever a suit over having public schools teach the idea as science gets shot down by a high U.S. court (the ID movement always appeals mere state-court decisions). Shermer debates ID often, and he expertly marshals point-by-point explanations of why evolution is worthwhile science, why ID isn't science at all, why ID criticisms of evolution are irrelevant, why science cannot invalidate religion, and why Christians and conservatives ought to accept evolution. His orderly presentation makes the book something of a reference manual on evolution, and only the historically minded will smile at his citation of congruence between evolution and Adam Smith as reason for conservatives to embrace evolution, for Smith's capitalism is a branch of classical liberalism. Ray Olson
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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Historian of Science Michael Shermer in his book Why Darwin Matters: The Case Against Intelligent Design masterfully and amusingly takes the Intelligent Design theorists to task and shows how, in large measure, the Intelligent Designers do not have a case and how religious people can both believe in God and also accept scientific evidence.
The book begins with Shermer and a colleague exploring the Galapagos Isles; the same Isle's that Charles Darwin explored before authoring On the Origin of Species. He notes that the Isle's are difficult to get around, and are very threatening to certain kinds of life, and that over time he saw how animals that were on the Isle's during Darwin's journey there had changed and adapted to be better suited to survive. As he puts it "There can be no doubt: evolution happened."
Shermer then goes on the defensive, showing that evolution is a historical science; you don't see it while it is occurring as much as you do after it has occurred. He also points out that not only biology gives us evidence of evolution, but paleontology, geology, anthropology, and so forth. So, we can have a strong conviction of evolution and it is because various sciences and studies converge to the exact same conclusion. If evolution did not happen, it would be very odd for people of many disciplines to all converge to the same general framework.
Next, Shermer gives the various reasons people don't believe in the theory, and shows they are ill founded or have been countered. In large measure, part of the problem is about words, which as an analytic philosopher I would say most problems come from. When people hear the word theory, generally they take that to mean that this is someones idea that their acceptance or non-acceptance of will be of little difference. In science, a theory is based on empirical evidence, and is used to interpret the evidence. So, evolution is a theory based on evidence, and is able to explain life and complexity more than satisfactorily. For this reason, it is universally accepted in the scientific community, but people outside of it do not understand the meaning of the term, so they feel that Darwin's theories are of no more importance than those of Mary Baker Eddy. Newsflash: Darwin was right and Eddy was... well I don't want to go there but you get my point.
After explaining Darwin's theory, Shermer gives the arguments from the Intelligent Design side. He points out that most of them are just asking a question rather than making an argument. For instance, Intelligent Design theorist Stephen C. Meyer points out that the Cambrian Explosion is incompatible with Darwinism because these animals just appeared rather than descending from prior known forms of life, and states that even Darwin himself was perplexed by this. Shermer then points out that the current fossil record shows that the Cambrian Explosion was not really an explosion and that it is explainable by natural selection and random mutation. I must say, for a Cambridge philosophy graduate, Meyer makes me ashamed to be a philosopher. Yikes!
Shermer concludes by talking about the conflict between science and religion (which is not a conflict at all as far as I am concerned), and invokes the late paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould's idea of non-overlapping magisteria; which is that science and religion are about two different things, the former is about the empirical world, and the other is about morals, values, and so on.
Here I must disagree with Shermer and Gould. First, there is an overlap in some religions with science because some religions believe in miracles which are by definition "A violation of the laws of nature" as Scottish philosopher David Hume stated. Also, I am not sure that religion has its own magisteria to claim if it is solely about ethics; there are many moral philosophers, psychologists, and theorists who engage in these questions everyday, and some do it better than those who are religious. It would be better to say that religion is not interested in the same questions as science, and that there really is no conflict unless we make it into one.
I will close with this quote from Shermer's book, which sums up the whole debate and problem very beautifully:
"Darwin matters because evolution matters. Evolution matters because science matters. Science matters because it is the preeminent story of our age, an epic saga about who we are, where we came from, and where we are going."
Because science matters and because many in America are uniformed about these matters, I strongly recommend that you pick up Shermer's book and educate yourself. If we are going to have a conversation that is constructive, we must be informed.
Shermer's survey of recent court cases regarding evolution in public education was also lucid and concise. Shermer pulled his punches here, as there are a lot of embarrassing details in the recent trials that could have been trotted out if Shermer really wanted to drive the point home, but what he wrote was sufficient.
The book is actually very light on evidence for evolution. For that, I'd recommend Jerry Coyne's 'Why Evolution is True'. There are a few places where Shermer talks about cutting edge physics without going into much detail, which I think would read, to the outsider, like stories even more fantastical than any religious explanation. I think if you're going to get into multi-verses and bubble universes, you really have to be prepared to spend some time on it. If those sections pique your interest, you might start with Lawrence Kraus's 'A Universe from Nothing' and then go from there.
My only big beef with the book was the two chapters dedicated to explaining why there is no conflict between religion and science and why Christians (and conservatives) should embrace evolution. Shermer seems to really confuse the issue here. He demonstrates that evolution can explain human morality, and he seems to think that this will excite the theists, because it supports their view of a moral world. What he fails to recognize is that he's actually making matters 'worse' from the theistic perspective. Those theists who reject evolution are already concerned with the idea that evolution could replace the need for a divine Creator, and now Shermer demonstrates that evolution means we don't need a divine Law Giver either! Shermer seems to think that theists are concerned with moral laws for their own sake, but theists obey the laws because of the Law Giver.
In a similar manner, the chapter on 'no conflict between science and religion' was not argued well. Shermer endorses Gould's NOMA view, where science deals with material things and religion deals with immaterial things, with a God that is outside of space and time and so beyond the reach of science. But it is unclear how just asserting that God is outside of space and time somehow makes it immune to all the criticisms that Shermer levels against the non-NOMA approaches, and he doesn't even try to walk the reader through it. Maybe, as an atheist, his heart wasn't really in it. (I wrote longer comments on the problems of NOMA in my review of the otherwise-excellent 'The Rocks Don't Lie', if you're interested.)
Despite feeling like the chapters taking a conciliatory position re:religion were weak, the book was informative and occasionally insightful. It's a breezy read, and if you want to get a philosophy-of-science view of the Intelligent Design movement, this book is a fine place to turn.
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