Pharyngula

Another day, another ignorant pundit

Today, it’s Peter Hitchens’ turn to make a mealy-mouthed appeal for an unearned respect for Intelligent Design creationism. This one is another generic whine, begging that people be fair and give some version of equal time to an underdog heterodoxy…creationism. After all, the only possible reason scientists could accept the idea of evolution is because they’ve mysteriously and unfairly acquired a dominant position, and this brand of pundit doesn’t stop to consider why it’s so popular. I think it’s a kind of projection: they’ve acquired this unearned position of authority, so they can’t imagine that any other idea could have gotten to where it is on merit.

My first complaint: an argument that is sprinkled with “Darwinism” and “Darwinist” used so generically is clearly derived from the creationist literature — it is an amazingly useful clue, a kind of written tic that tips us off every time, rather as if someone used the term “Newtonists” in a discussion of modern physics. Hitchens flings the term about ten times in his short essay.

The proper terms to use are “biology” and “evolutionary biologists”.

Since Darwinism is orthodoxy, on which many careers have been built and continue to prosper, is it likely that an attack which threatens that orthodoxy is going to be sympathetically treated by other scientists?

Oh, where to begin—again, Hitchens is using an inappropriate term to bias the argument. “Darwinism” (that stupid term again) is not an orthodoxy. It’s a well-supported theory that is constantly being tested and revised. Scientists do no build prosperous careers on reinforcing the status quo—they do so on challenging ideas and coming up with new explanations and evidence. If you want an outline for a generic introduction to a science paper, here it is: “Dr X says this process happens in such-and-such a way; here is my unique twist on this phenomenon, that explains it in a superior way.” Papers that don’t offer anything at all new tend to get published in lower tier journals, if at all.

Now, why should we expect attacks on ideas to be treated sympathetically? There’s this kind of pre-school plaint to the creationists: that science is just so darned mean, and why don’t they treat my proposal gently? That’s simply not the way it works. Good science involves a lot of vociferous argument and academic in-fighting, and no new idea should expect to enter the field without question and without some fierce assaults…the weak ideas will wither and die, the good ones will survive. Asking for special, gentle treatment is an invitation for a particularly brutal savaging.

But Darwinism is all about events that happened when there was nobody there to witness them. And it is also about events which – if happening now – are happening too slowly for anyone to live long enough to see them. It is amazing how many supporters of this theory cannot see the difference between the micro-evolution of adaptation or alteration within species, and the far more ambitious developments of macro-evolution, in my view qualitatively different, which Darwinists believe in.

Oh, bleh…the usual “historical science” canard. That something happens slowly (or too quickly) or distantly (or on too small or too large a scale) so that one person can’t sit there and watch it happen directly before his favorite program comes up on the TV is one of the dumbest arguments in the creationist arsenal. It rules out all of astronomy and astrophysics and geology and cosmology and chemistry and anything that involves something more than a naive sense of naked eye measurement. How can you say glaciers covered much of the northern hemisphere? Were you there? No, but I can see the effects of their movement on the modern landscape. How can you say a star is carrying out nuclear reactions and producing new elements? Have you visited one? No, but an astronomer can interpret the spectra he measures. How can you claim that a reaction occurred in that tiny volume? All you see is one drop of clear fluid, and later it’s still a drop of clear fluid. Hey, chemists have sensitive devices like chromatographs and NMR gadgets that let them see what your eyes can’t.

We can see the effects of history on modern individuals. We can sequence genes, measure protein polymorphisms, follow patterns in morphology and see the record of macroevolutionary changes as clearly in life on earth as an astronomer can track stellar history in a Hertzsprung-Russell diagram. That the ignorant are unwilling to read the data is not an argument, but it’s one they drag out with annoying frequency.

The fossil record is full of gaps and highly ambiguous. Species appear and disappear suddenly, which I should have thought would upset the Darwinist position quite badly, but somehow doesn’t.

The fossil record is not at all ambiguous: it reveals a history of radical turnover and change, exactly what evolutionary biology expects, and the body of evidence on which evolution was based. The appearance and disappearance of species is something that ought to perturb creationists far more—the fixity of species is historically part of creationist religious dogma, an absolute that has only recently begun to be loosened as they grasp incomprehendingly at the micro-/macro-evolutionary distinction in the forlorn hope that recognizing a small part of the evidence for change will spare them from complete irrelevance.

It’s a rule that creationists have to indulge us with hysterically ironic remarks. Hitchens does not disappoint.

All I ask is that people keep thinking about this, don’t get frightened of doing so, and don’t try to frighten others into orthodoxy, or to misrepresent opponents’ positions.

The only orthodoxy here is Christian and Islamic fundamentalism, which demands obedience to a religious interpretation of the evidence, and which tries to frighten people into accepting it with threats of hell and various punishments for even considering competing scientific interpretations. The biggest irony, though, is that this clueless dingleberry has babbled his ignorance of science aloud, and ends by piously begging others not to misrepresent the creationists.

OK, I won’t misrepresent Peter Hitchens. I’ll just point out that he’s a dishonest, sanctimonious fraud.