Laelaps

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Not long after I wrote about how creationists got paleontologists Simon Conway Morris and James Valentine to appear in the anti-evolution film Darwin’s Dilemma I received a message from someone at the Faraday Institute. Conway Morris had done an interview with them about science and religion for a miniseries called Test of Faith, they said; would I be interested in receiving a copy of the DVD? I said “Sure” and the film came in the mail last week. I cannot say I was very impressed.

For those who have not heard of it before, the Faraday Institute is a John Templeton Foundation-funded group concerned with reconciling science and religion. The think tank has produced such papers “Creation and Evolution not Creation or Evolution” by R. J. Berry and “Human genomics and the Image of God” by Graeme Finlay. I did not find this surprising given the objectives of the John Templeton Foundation and the fact that I was already familiar with Conway Morris’ favored brand of teleological evolution, but I was hoping that the video would refrain from attempting to jam Christian theology into science. Unfortunately, that is precisely what it tried to do.

After watching the three-part series I became convinced that the Faraday Institute is not so much concerned with reconciling science and religion as finding a refuge for God in the moments before the Big Bang, the machinations of evolution, and inside our own brains. Even though the film explicitly criticizes advocates of intelligent design for using “God of the Gaps” thinking, or trying to make room for a deity in natural phenomena that are not yet well-understood, the series frequently employs the same technique to give hope to believers that God truly is out there somewhere. If there is something we do know, God is behind it, and if there is something we don’t know then that might be a sign of direct action by Providence.

The creators of this series recapitulate this argument three times; once using physics and cosmology, once in terms of evolution, and finally by looking at neuroscience. The same basic flaws run through each, but given that I am not an expert in physics or neuroscience I will focus my comments on part 2 of the series, called “An Accident in the Making?” It is perhaps the most schizophrenic of the installments.

“Are we made with any purpose? Or is life random, utterly ruled by chance?” asks the narrator at the beginning of the episode. These questions frame the 30 minutes that follows, and they are designed to invoke strong emotions in the viewers of the program. You see, I am not the target audience for this series. The Test of Faith website makes it clear that the film and accompanying resources are designed for church small groups. This is not insignificant.

The intended audience of the film is already predisposed to answer “Yes, I am was made for the purpose for which God called me into being.” Anything uncertain, random, or “ruled by chance” is therefore anathema. “Purpose” and “chance” are words that carry baggage, especially in modern Christianity, and are generally assumed to be already understood by the viewers. Another example comes in another episode when physicist Katherine Blundell says that there are “truths” in the universe that science does not detect. For the viewers this is to be understood as the “Word of God”, but if you are not already on-board you are left hanging as to what these other truths may be and how we may detect them.

It is important to keep this in mind as the documentary presents itself as being “open minded” (something many people seem to value for its own sake) while it trades in codewords that reveal its preconceived notions. “God did create us and did so for a purpose,” is the message as best I could understand it, “now let’s see where we can ferret out some kind of scientific evidence to support this idea.”

Those who are not paying close attention might miss this. The show starts with an interview with Paul Taylor, a top Answers in Genesis employee from the UK. Our old friend William Dembski also makes an appearance. Both are used as examples of Christians “doing it wrong” when it comes to faith and science. Francis Collins and Simon Conway Morris are juxtaposed with these more creationist stalwarts to extol the way in which they find God in nature.

The problem is that some of the talking heads on the show are doing just what Taylor and Dembski are, just not as directly. They bend science to fit in with what they already believe. Early in the evolution episode Simon Conway Morris states that evolution must be embedded in some kind of personal “metaphysics”, which he presents as a choice between Christianity and atheism. He then states that we should choose between these alternatives by asking “which is the one that is the most exciting, which is the one that has got the most promise, which is the one that makes your fingers tingle.” As Stephen Colbert might say, we must think with our guts and choose whatever feels best. “Nihilism?” Conway Morris then asks incredulously. “Uh, well, no thank you,” he curtly answers. I have heard the same argument made by hardcore young earth creationists as to why their view of nature is superior.

Conway Morris is allowed to get away with this because the viewers are already on board with the message. Atheism is equated with nihilism, or total anarchy to the point of self-destruction (i.e. disobeying the Supreme Authority). Who would choose such a hopeless outlook? Instead we must select at least some form of theism, an “exciting” religion filled with “promise” and that makes your “fingers tingle.” Our understanding of evolution is then shaped by whether we choose hope or ultimate destruction.

What complete and utter rot. Conway Morris presents a false choice in which the wrong answer is clearly delineated. Even if we are shallow enough to believe or not believe in something on the basis of how it makes us feel, though, the more important question is whether the evolutionary science has a solid basis. It absolutely does, but the way some evidence for evolution is interpreted can be influenced by the beliefs folks like Conway Morris subscribe to.

This choice is restated halfway through the episode. The narrator warns that atheists are continuing their “assault” on theistic evolution. Were we created by God through evolution, or was the evolution of our species a the result of “a random throw of the dice”? To answer this they return to Simon Conway Morris who states that the “received wisdom” among evolutionary biologists is that evolution is “completely open-ended. You can go in any direction you like.”

I was shocked by this. I had first heard of Conway Morris through his public disagreement with Stephen Jay Gould over the idea of inevitability in evolution. Conway Morris has long argued that evolution is moving in some sort of definite direction, thus making something at least human-like inevitable, while Gould stressed contingency and chance involved in the way life on earth has evolved. (Personally, I think Gould was correct.) Gould certainly did not argue that evolution can go “in any direction.” In fact he spent a lot of time thinking about biological constraints based upon contingent events in the history of evolution. For Conway Morris to say that most scientists see evolution as having infinite possibilities without constraint is a flat-out falsehood.

Conway Morris erects this straw man to quickly knock it down with his own view that evolution can only go in a few, well-traveled directions. Again, this is not about scientific evidence, but a false personal choice between the hope of faith or the despair of unbelief. Conway Morris tries to handle this delicately, saying the evolutionary convergence is a sign that the universe is structured by something. In the light of this pattern we must consider a deity, he suggests, but this qualification is not convincing, especially since he states that what we see in nature should be “congruent” with “traditional religions.” (If we are to go down this road, why couldn’t nature be the work of a god who is more concerned with fashioning beetles than smiting unbelievers? See Terry Pratchett’s The Last Continent for more on this.) Neither is it considered that the pre-existing beliefs of Conway Morris and other scientists presented in the series shape the way in which they view the natural world.

I would not have been so aggravated with the program if it presented scientists who said something akin to “I am a Christian/Muslim/Buddhist/Pastafarian/&c. I believe [insert belief system here] on the basis of faith, and I feel what I have come to understand about the nature of the universe is consistent with the faith I practice. Rather than make nature conform to my beliefs, however, I would rather understand the world as it is. If it turns out to be inconsistent with my faith then I will have to question what I believe.” I could at least respect that. Instead the Test of Faith series trots out scientist after scientist who believe that they have some special glimmer or proof of God in nature; it is going at the whole thing backwards. The impression the series gives is that the natural world justifies and supports a particular religion, Christianity, rather than stating that some liberal forms of that religion could accept the science of evolution. (Whether evolution is reconcilable with religion depends on what brand religion we’re talking about.)

Test of Faith is a beautifully-produced series that uses gobs of imagery to drive home the theme of each episode, but I am not so much concerned with its cinematography as the arguments it presents. On the one hand I am glad that there is a series aimed for the use of church small groups that does not peddle young earth creationism or intelligent design. On the other I was disturbed by the way in which the series attempted to establish that a Christian vision of nature and science is superior; God and the Devil are truly in the details. This is not freely admitted, but the message that non-Christian scientists are trying to dehumanize us by pushing God out of science is impossible to miss. The series plays lip service to science and even deals in the language of science, but in the end the message is that science is revealing the true nature of God despite the protestations of atheists.

I wish, just for once, that people who attempt to “reconcile science and religion” would be honest about their faith. The impression given in programs such as Test of Faith and books like Islands in the Cosmos is that science has provided many reasons to believe when, in truth, these scientists are interpreting nature according to the view that most makes their “fingers tingle.” I might disagree with them about their conclusions, but I would at least respect that they were being honest about how their cherished beliefs shape how they see the world. As it stands now, however, programs like Test of Faith borrow the playbook of intelligent design. They attempt to find some refuge in which a god can be safe from science while still having their effect on the world felt by those tuned in to the right spiritual frequency.

Comments

  1. #1 Dom Nardi
    October 1, 2009

    Brian, my advice is to not go too far down this road. Too many good scientists have already wasted enough time trying to disabuse people of their creationist beliefs. Such attempts seem rather to push creationists away science. Unfortunately, I worry folks like Richard Dawkins have become polarizing figures and preach only to the “converted” (excuse the pun). Frankly, I think rebutting creationism is largely a waste of time (with the obvious exception of doing so in a lawsuit to prevent creationism from entering schools, as per the Dover case). People who believe they’re on a mission from God to propagate creationism will not give way to reason. You’ve got better things to do…

  2. #2 Laelaps
    October 1, 2009

    Dom; If I do respond to creationist nonsense I typically try to fashion my response to other people who might be listening, not the creationist I am responding to. I know I won’t change the mind of the creationist, but someone else might benefit from what I have to say.

    As for this post, though, I was frustrated by the way a group that casts itself as “pro-science” was kicking science in the tonkers all the way through the series. If programs like this are meant to reconcile science and religion I do not think they work because they still stress that science must be bent into the service of a particular theological viewpoint.

  3. #3 llewelly
    October 1, 2009

    Thank you for reviewing this.

  4. #4 Michael Johnson
    October 1, 2009

    @Dom

    Did you read this post? And you honestly think it’s an attempt to disabuse creationists of their beliefs? All those creationists you imagine who read Laelaps every day? Hm…

    And will you and everyone else stop telling people willy nilly to shut up b/c of that silly Mooney argument that Dawkins scares the poor little creationists? I mean, if you’re right and they “won’t give way to reason”, oughtn’t we to scare them away from science, so they can’t produce superficially “scientific” tripe like the video Brian reviewed?

    Brian,

    Great review, keep up the good work.

  5. #5 Pierce R. Butler
    October 1, 2009

    I have a plan!

    I’m going to remove the politically-correct compact fluorescent bulb from my reading light and, with the lamp plugged in and turned on, stroke the interior of the socket with my fingers.

    Then I’m going to fly to Stockholm to collect my Nobel Prize!

  6. #6 Guillermo Pineda
    October 1, 2009

    Hopefully there will never be a video, or a person that gets to “to jam Christian theology into science.”

    Those things would never mix or balance. Science is based on objective rational ideas and Theology/religion/mysticism is based on irrational ideas that deny the very existance of reason and reality.

    Foundations as the Templeton are one of Reason’s/human’s most avid enemies.

  7. #7 Lyn C
    October 1, 2009

    Gah. I really, really hate when religious people trying to talk about science get it wrong. As you said:

    “The impression the series gives is that the natural world justifies and supports a particular religion, Christianity, rather than stating that some liberal forms of that religion could accept the science of evolution. (Whether evolution is reconcilable with religion depends on what brand religion we’re talking about.)”

    I may have to post the Christian/Muslim/Buddhist/Pastafarian quote above my desk.

    Thanks for the analysis.

  8. #8 ~L.K.
    October 1, 2009

    I get the feeling that people don’t realize that we just don’t understand some parts of science. In astronomy, for instance, astrophysicists have barely scratched the surface. They don’t know what dark matter is, for instance, and that’s what makes up most of the universe. But that doesn’t mean that dark matter isn’t scientific, just that we don’t know it yet. We can hypothesize, but we haven no way of detecting what it is yet.

  9. #9 Dom Nardi
    October 1, 2009

    Michael Johnson:

    Perhaps I should clarify. I realize Brian is trying to persuade people who are not creationists, not the odd creationist who reads Laelaps. However, I think even this often proves to be a futile effort. I just suspect the types of people who are going to watch movies “Test of Faith” are not going to be persuaded by reason. Sometimes, with these issues, personal conversation with close associates works better than reason (I know that’s not possible most of the time, but I’m not sure anything else works).

    I guess my point more generally is that I think a lot of “science” blogs dedicate far too much time trying to counter religious propaganda. I don’t see that as a valuable use of time. I’m not criticizing Dawkins for what he says, I just don’t think he’s effective because he’s not reaching the people he needs to reach. There’s a difference between writing a good book (which Dawkins does) and using your time valuably to change people’s minds (which I don’t think Dawkins does as well). I’m not arguing the Mooney line (Dawkins should shut up because he scares religious people), but rather saying Dawkins’ time would be better spent elsewhere if his goal is in fact to promote an understanding of evolution.

    I think the other issue is that, frankly, anybody who reads Laelaps probably understands the basics of evolution to rebut “Test of Faith.” (OK, maybe not everybody, but this certainly isn’t a blog for the general public). That’s another reason why I don’t think it’s efficacious to go too far down the road of rebutting this type of nonsense. Brian has developed a niche of publishing high-quality posts that focus on science at a very high level, often based upon the latest papers. I can’t stand reading most other blogs because they lose sight of the latest research and instead start countering religious propaganda full-time. I just think Brian & Laelaps are better than that.

    Brian: I meant no offense in the prior post or here. As a rebuttal to “Test of Faith” and other such nonsense, this post as usual was well-written and effective. I just would warn you not to be tempted to rebut every piece of garbage you see. Having read judicial opinions on “creationism” going back to the 1920s (although back then they didn’t both calling it creationism), I doubt this nonsense will ever really go away.

  10. #10 Blake Stacey
    October 2, 2009

    The creators of this series recapitulate this argument three times; once using physics and cosmology, once in terms of evolution, and finally by looking at neuroscience.

    I’m a physics person who has studied a bit of neuroscience; in my experience, the attempts to marshal these sciences in favour of Templeton arguments have about the same intellectual content as those “Head On! Apply directly to forehead!” commercials. I haven’t seen the Test of Faith DVD, so it may be the brilliant exception, but from what you’ve said here, I rather doubt it.

  11. #11 Aardvark
    October 2, 2009

    Brian, thanks for reviewing the DVD, I have not seen the series, and think it very unlikely I would choose to waste my time, but your comments make a lot of sense.

    Dom – Dawkins writes a good book!!! WTF?

    Steven Jay Gould wrote good books, Mayr wrote good books, dozens of evolutionary biologists have written good books – Dawkins is not one of them. He has written a succession of crap, but because he is a half decent wordsmith, people are taken in by it. Its hard to say which is the worse, his getting lost in metaphors (the ‘selfish gene’ – doh), his begging the question, his assuming the things he claims to be proving (try Climbing Mt Improbable) or maybe his amateur naive philosophy (since he chooses to indulge in philosophy and even some theology in his books you’d think he’d take the trouble to understand a bit of it – but no, he seems to write in complete ignorance of most philosophical developments of the last century, and his ignorance of theology seems to be almost complete). I find little of merit in any of the crap he has written.

    If you want to read about evolutionary biology, don’t waste your time on Dawkins – indeed I find that the ‘New Atheists’ as a bunch tend to let their ideology get in the way of the science. Contrast the reasoned arguments and good science you can find on this Blog or Tetrapod Zoology, with the ravings on Pharyngula. Indeed I would suggest that creationists and New Atheists are in the same boat – largely incapable of any good science because their so blinded by their preconceptions.

    Rant Over (its just that I keep seeing this Dawkins adulation and it really winds me up).

  12. #12 heleen
    October 2, 2009

    As an example of what Aardvark says, the latest book by Dawkins, The Greatest Show on Earth, is not a good book. It left me wondering whether Dawkins has ever thought through what the evidence for evolution is. Moreover, the biology in it is haphazard, to say the least.

  13. #13 Raymond Minton
    October 2, 2009

    Although it’s refreshing that these people are neither Creationists or I.D.ers, their spurious arguments should still be pointed out, such as the fact that Natural Selection is the very opposite of “blind chance” (even though outside forces beyong an organism’s control can shape it) and that if there are truths that “science can not detect” the supernatural or “God” doesn’t win by default.

  14. #15 darek
    October 3, 2009

    Richard Dawkins may not be the most tactful representative for biology but to say the man is crap is, well.. a bunch a crap.

    Whether you like him or not, he has a pretty impressive resume not only as an author, but as an academic. By reading some of the comments here, one could get the impression that Dawkins is some kind of clown – that he his not. How many honorary doctorates do you have?

    I agree that I’ve gotten more from other biologists on the science, but thats because I’ve taken the time. I’m interested and have a genuine enthusiasm about it – as I assume others here share this sentiment. To call Dawkins’ work crap is like an art snob poo-pooing on what he sees in a gallery because they themselves, of course, know whats best. Give me a break.

  15. #16 Aardvark
    October 4, 2009

    Darek, by all means have a break :)

    I didn’t say Dawkins was crap, I said his books are, and I stand by it. I also didn’t say he was clown – he’s not. My criticisms were directed at his books, though he clearly doesn’t know much about philosophy or theology (which would not be a problem if he stuck to biology, but he chooses not to) and he doesn’t seem averse to using the odd cheap literary trick.

    You ask how many ‘honorary doctorates’ I have, the answer is none, not ‘honorary’ – I earned all my qualifications (graduate and post-graduate), and continue to work as a scientist.

    I have to say I’m also not sure about the impressive academic resume you refer to Dawkins as having – have you checked up on how many papers he has pulished in serious journals? Go ahead and check, you may be surprised.

  16. #17 darek
    October 4, 2009

    Aardvark,

    You are not among the many who have purchased and liked his books. That’s nice.

    I’m aware that Dawkins hasn’t published many papers, he hasn’t spent most of his life as a research scientist, he’s dedicated more of his time popularizing. It’s a bit of a strawman to point to being published in serious journals when considering an academic record though, is it not? I didn’t ask about his record strictly as a scientist.

    Understand that I am not out to defend Dawkins at all costs here – I would advise anyone interested in things like science or evolution to look at some others who have written on these subjects before I’d think of him – but I do respect the work he’s done over his lifetime, even if it doesn’t, apparently, meet your standard.

    Again, like him or not, he fulfills a very useful niche against some of the nonsense like that mentioned in this post.

  17. #18 Anida Adler
    October 5, 2009

    Brian, thanks for a thoughtful, well-motivated review.

  18. #19 James
    October 6, 2009

    Re: Joshua

    Honorary doctorates, that’s your measure of who is academically respectable? Really?

    I don’t have any, but Jeremy Clarkson has two.

  19. #20 Antiquated Tory
    October 12, 2009

    I quite liked An Ancestor’s Tale, except for a couple sentences of egregious political statement he threw in. It’s the one book of his that I have that I frequently reread.
    Gould struck me as a better writer and a nicer man, but he also struck me as frivolous at times.
    Richard Fortey is my favorite, though I’m quite fond of Steve Jones and Carl Zimmer. Going through Mark Ridley’s Evolution anthology right now, though it’s a 12 year old edition…

  20. #21 Joe Childers
    October 17, 2009

    I really appreciated your review. I like to think of myself as one of those in your third-to-last paragraph who are religious and accept the universe as it is, revisiting my theology as necessary. What good is a faith that requires you to live in a fantasy world? It was challenging to re-examine myself and see whether I was really avoiding God-of-the-gaps fallacies. I live about an hour from the Creation Museum and am pretty much the only person I know of in my church that accepts evolution. In the course of trying to rehabilitate science’s perception with fellow Christians, I can relate to the desire to “[find] a refuge for God”—and if truth be told, these are tempting for my own peace of mind, too. The issue comes I believe in trying to put into practice the distinctions between the two kinds of “gaps”: those that involve subjects the scientific method is not equipped to investigate and those for which testable hypotheses can be described but the necessary observations are lacking. I think theology should be permitted to investigate the former and should stay out of the latter. This review was helpful to me in recognizing some ways in which my recent patterns of thinking were blurring or crossing these lines.

  21. #22 Brian
    June 16, 2010

    Solid Review. Sad to say full disclosure is rare anymore. But then again, so is bias. I almost think its near impossible to be as objective as possible. We all have stock in our worldviews. Wouldn’t you say its not the science that’s compromised but the interpretation of it? Regardless, much like you, I fully appreciate honesty. I find that I’m more likely to trust an argument from an honest person than an intelligent person. Hard to say who’s who anymore. Anyway, I appreciated your even-handed review.

    P.S. nicely put Mr. Childers.

  22. #23 Practically Uninformed
    June 17, 2010

    ‘The intended audience of the film is already predisposed to answer “Yes, I am was made for the purpose for which God called me into being.” ‘
    Interestingly enough, we ARE made for a “purpose”. It’s our respective niche (whatever it was; the science on that seems kinda shaky). :D

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