How I spent my weekend

I gave two talks this weekend to the Critical Thinking Clubs of St Paul and Stillwater. Herewith a brief account of the events therein.

The Sunday morning session was the most conventional. The title was “Progress and Opportunities in Evolution”, and the focus was on the utility of evolutionary theory — not my usual bailiwick. Hey, it helps us understand the pattern of life, isn’t that good enough for you? Fortunately, I’d recently read David Mindell’s The Evolving World, so I cribbed shamelessly from it (and freely admitted it, and waved the book around at the meeting). This was a traditional Keynote/PowerPoint talk, the audience was a collection of skeptics and informed science fans, so it went smoothly (if a bit long), and got lots of intelligent questions and discussion. It was all great fun.

The Monday evening meeting in Stillwater was a little different. The audience was large and mixed, with a substantial number of creationists and ID sympathizers present. I knew this ahead of time and tried to plan for it. This talk was shorter to leave more time for Q&A, and much narrower in scope — I read a short chapter from my book in progress. The subject was on the fact that complexity is trivial to generate and that the genome exhibits overwhelming evidence for a dominant contribution from chance, while order and integration of parts is the more interesting issue … and that too can be generated by undirected, natural processes. The hypothesis of design is unnecessary and unsupported by any evidence. And then I opened the floor to questions.

Here’s something you have to keep in mind when creationists are in the audience: they know nothing about the basics of science. There were almost no questions at all about the subject of what I’d said, but instead went all over the place. That’s fine, of course, and I commend them for trying to get to the basics, but my talk did not lay the foundations for answering questions about the meaning of the word “theory”, recent discoveries in human evolution, addressing quote-mines of the Origin, Piltdown and Nebraska Man, abiogenesis, etc. — you get the idea. Questions went on for over an hour. It reminded me of the wrangles on in a lot of ways!

I think I’m going to have to put together a very broad and general summary of the basics of evolutionary theory and how it applies to human evolution next time I give a talk to this kind of diverse audience — I think that’s what they wanted to hear and what they were concerned about. So note to self: narrowing the topic doesn’t help, it’s the very broadest, most fundamental material you have to cover in these kinds of talks.

One interesting question was raised that actually helped to sharpen some of my ideas on strategy a bit. I got asked about origins of life scenarios, so I briefly mentioned a few, like the idea of clays as a catalyst or metabolic activity in deep sea vents. One fellow raised his hand to mention that he liked one idea: the mention of clay had him thinking it corresponded to the creation of people from clay in the book of Genesis, and therefore it reinforced his belief in the accuracy of the Bible and the compatibility of science and religion. Right there was the dilemma of the fight with creationists. Some would say simply that that’s good, here’s someone who has resolved the battle in his mind, and perhaps this is a perhaps who won’t be opposing science at school board meetings.

The guy wasn’t stupid. He was thinking, at least, and I complimented him for trying to work towards a good answer. But, you know, what he was talking about wasn’t science at all. It completely misses the lesson of thinking scientifically — he’s picking and choosing with little comprehension the explanations that best fit his preconceptions, and that is the antithesis of good scientific thought. What happens if Graham Cairns-Smith is shown to be wrong? Does he give up on science because it is no longer aligned with one translation of one version of the Bible? So of course I told him that I personally thought all religion was crap, and while he might find that idea consoling, it didn’t mean a thing.

And of course some people took umbrage at my rude dismissal of religion. Then it started getting more fun. People actually told me I should be gentler with people’s illusions as a way to win them towards my “side” … which I have to disagree with on principle. I don’t think I gain anything by lying to people about what I think, my “side” isn’t the one that is mired in delusions, and it’s not as if there’s a shortage of scientists who will happily and without qualification encourage people who try to use religious fol-de-rol to justify evolution, and vice versa.

It was all still a good rumble, even the creationists were trying to make arguments (not very good ones, of course), and it was definitely a lively group. If you’re out there on the east side of the state, you might want to think about attending a meeting or two of the critical thinking club — everyone’s welcome, it’s not at all one sided, and it’s a great place for an argument.


  1. #1 Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    August 15, 2007

    Abiogenesis is a different theory than evolution. Evolution is about life changing through time, how and why.

    This seems surprisingly difficult to grasp for some, even when it isn’t obfuscation.

    Most theories of systems can describe them in general. Nature is symmetric, the same laws apply anywhere. Such general theories must be supplemented with the observed setting.

    And since nature *really* likes symmetries laws apply in a great number of conditions. Most of these theories can then be built around a local description that can be applied anywhere. And the observed setting reduces to boundary conditions.

    I.e. you don’t have to observe a full “snapshot” of the process to see how it develops. Find out the local description and the conditions on the boundary, and you are set to go. (Maybe that is confusing too for those who thinks in terms of all-knowing gods directing everything.)

    For example a model of a river. The same model of a streaming liquid can be applied anywhere. So you choose initial and final area cuts through the river where it suits your study of its water flow.

    It is quite another problem to describe the precipitation and movement in the drainage area that created the river. It may be difficult to distinguish from mud at times, but it is still water. From mud to Mississippi, as creationists like to say.

    if you start the discussion from this standpoint, then you’ve already lost the parts of your audience who you want to persuade.

    The general idea is that since this isn’t about sides in a debate club but about verifiable facts, the side who is truthful to the facts will win over the individuals who sooner or later have to face those facts. It isn’t like evolution doesn’t visibly happen today, say in infections gaining resistance to medicine.

    So piling on incontrovertible facts on creationists and seeing that their in-group is considered nuts by knowledgeable people their cognitive dissonance should increase to the breaking point. I don’t think there is any persuasion involved.

    The probably larger group of undecided fence sitters should appreciate clarity as well, waffling and insecurity doesn’t sit well with most people.

  2. #2 Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    August 15, 2007

    For a general audience of nonscientists it makes sense to separate the two.

    Hmm. Maybe I was clear as mud, since that view was what I was trying to set in perspective. By pointing out that we doesn’t necessarily start a specific evolutionary study all the way back to the first population of replicators.

    But then I forgot KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid; as I was taught). :-P

    I still like my river analogy, though. A river source description studies the origin of river water from non-river sources. A fluid model is how and why river water changes through time.