ID Champion William Dembski Declares War on Christians, Children

June 13, 2008

Ok, so I’m not exactly the Onion when it comes to headlines. But what else to make of this post on Uncommon Descent, where Dembski basically demands that all Christians swear loyalty to his partisan movement, or else be labeled as traitors and atheist collaborators? What else to make of his following strategy for “defeating” his enemies:

What’s our strategy. The strategy is multipronged. Let me just give you one prong: WIN THE YOUTH. The release date for Miller’s book is June 12th. I’ve got a book titled Understanding Intelligent Design: Everything You Need to Know (co-authored with youth speaker and high-school teacher Sean McDowell) whose release date is July 1st. It is geared specifically at mobilizing Christian young people, homeschoolers, and church youth groups with the ID alternative to Darwinian evolution. (emphasis added)

Given the highlighted text, it seems like Dembski and crew have pretty much given up on trying to convince the bulk of scientists (both religious and non-religious) of their ideology by, say, penning and publishing some positive evidence for their claims. A simple mathematical proof of Dembski’s various information theory claims would be a nice start. But, as filthy Simpsonian beatniks used to say: they’ve tried nothing, and they’re fresh out of ideas! And now they’re going to take it out on the children instead.

As referenced in the quote above, what’s got Dembski so outraged in particular is Ken Miller’s new book, entitled Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul (out now!). After all the kvetching over people judging Expelled before seeing it, Dembski now seems to agree that advance copy is good enough to gab about, and he’s royally pissed about the book jacket’s implication that ID is crippling science education as well as impoverishing the theological imagination.

Fair enough, though Dembski doesn’t seem to actually be inclined to respond to those accusations at present. Instead, he’s prepared to simply dismiss their concerns and arguments based solely on to what degree Richard Dawkins might agree with them.

And as James McGrath points out, there’s something deeply… well, silly about trying to one-up someone else’s book endorsement from Human Genome Project-leader Francis Collins with his own endorsement from… Ann Coulter, a woman whose own readership was apparently so troubled by her use of complete sentences and paragraphs that she had to publish a book of random quotes to mollify them.

In any case, we’ll have to wait and see what Dembski’s Pied Piper act is all about when his book comes out in July.

Myself, I’m highly looking forward to sitting down with a copy of Miller’s new book this weekend. And I suspect that the dustjacket is about as far as Dembski will ever want to venture, given Miller’s track record for solid, evidential smackdowns of Intelligent Design claims.

Human Dignity: An Ethically Useless Concept

May 12, 2008

Last year Steven Pinker wrote a fantastic article on bioethics that somehow had escaped my notice until a commenter recently brought it to my attention: The Stupidity of Dignity.

The point of his essay is not, as one might fear, that human beings lack an inherent dignity or moral importance. It’s that the term “dignity” has been so constantly abused that it has become almost worthless in moral debates. It’s incoherently defined, capable of having nearly any property, even contradictory ones. And it’s all too often used simply as a proxy for the philosopher’s or theologian’s subjective dislike of some behavior or idea.

Here’s the key point of the article:

The problem is that “dignity” is a squishy, subjective notion, hardly up to the heavyweight moral demands assigned to it. The bioethicist Ruth Macklin, who had been fed up with loose talk about dignity intended to squelch research and therapy, threw down the gauntlet in a 2003 editorial, “Dignity Is a Useless Concept.” Macklin argued that bioethics has done just fine with the principle of personal autonomy–the idea that, because all humans have the same minimum capacity to suffer, prosper, reason, and choose, no human has the right to impinge on the life, body, or freedom of another. This is why informed consent serves as the bedrock of ethical research and practice, and it clearly rules out the kinds of abuses that led to the birth of bioethics in the first place, such as Mengele’s sadistic pseudoexperiments in Nazi Germany and the withholding of treatment to indigent black patients in the infamous Tuskegee syphilis study. Once you recognize the principle of autonomy, Macklin argued, “dignity” adds nothing.

The rest of Pinker’s article basically argues that despite an entire volume full of responses to Macklin’s challenge, the mostly conservative and religious Presidential Council on Bioethics have failed to answer it. In some cases, as with the notorious Leon Kass, they did worse than fail, exposing bizarre theocratic preoccupations that celebrate death and bemoan liberty in life.

A tour de force. Anyone know of any good responses to, or critiques of, this piece from conservative critics?

Best of Pharyngula: Praise for the Platypus

May 10, 2008

Whatever you think of PZ Myers, his writing on biological topics is indispensable when it comes to correcting common misunderstandings and misrepresentations about evolution. His latest article, dissecting the newest draft of the platypus genome and its implications for evolutionary taxonomy, is a must read.

The platypus used to be a favorite of creationists: it was a supposed chimera of different animal kingdoms and supposedly a startling mystery for evolution’s picture of common descent. These days, however, creationists have mainly given it up as a lost cause: getting exposed as so wrong, so many times, gets humiliating. Instead, it’s the modern news media, always awash in its rarely updated panoply of stereotypes and clichés, that still gives us breathlessly confused descriptions of the platypus as a “part bird, part reptile and part lactating mammal.”

Understanding what the various “strange” features of the platypus really are and how they fit into the larger history of mammals is essential for anyone who wants to understand how evolutionary biology really works.

Transplanted Lizards Evolve New Traits in Just 36 Years?

April 21, 2008

Science Daily reports on a new study in which a species of lizards, transplanted to a new island, evolved a number of new traits in just 36 years. As is often the case with Science Daily, I’m a little skeptical of the reporting. If the transplanted lizards experienced morphological changes, how could they be genetically “identical” to the source population? And no matter how rare these “cecal valve” structures are in lizards, the fact that they are known in other lizards should at least suggest the alternative hypothesis that they are an environmental reaction rather than a genetic change (though it could also be a very simple and common mutation that only takes hold in certain environments).

In any case, rapid evolutionary change in response to a new environment is actually nothing new. Many previous studies have transplanted species into a new environment, and then observed morphological changes (the unit of measure here is charmingly called a “Darwin“) happening that are orders of magnitude faster than the fastest changes observed in the fossil record.

Findings like these are part of why the incredulity of most creationists about the power of evolutionary change is hard to square with the known realities of biology. If anything, one of the big mysteries in evolution is not how large changes can possibly happen quickly (or happen at all), but rather just the opposite: why change seems to have happened so slowly in the past compared to the potential for speedy change that we observe in the present.

Intelligent Design Film Expelled! to Face Legal Action for Copying Cell CGI Video?

April 9, 2008

I’m still not clear on the details: we’ve long known that the producers of Expelled! show some version of a video called “The Inner Life of a Cell” in their movie. You can view the version apparently used in the film at the end of this short clip (and I discuss some of the ways in which their usage of it is misleading here, regardless of the copyright issues). This video is no stranger to controversy or creationists: no less than ID’s crown prince, William Dembski, was accused of stealing it and stripping it of its narration and credits without permission for one of his lectures.

Whether the producers of Expelled! once used the original version or not and now have replaced it with a near copy, and whether that near copy is a truly new production or just a cheap reprocessing of the images, we still don’t really know (though we suspect…). But as a copyrighted production (making such videos, let alone doing the research to make them useful, ain’t cheap), the owners of the original video (Harvard and XVIVO) have always had some grounds to at least complain either way. There’s so far no evidence that the producers ever asked for permission, let alone paid to use the clip in their for-profit film.

And now it seems that Peter Irons, an attorney who has been a longtime foe of Intelligent Design efforts, has been busy drafting a complaint which seeks to excise the material from the film (which might prove to be a substantial burden for the producers at this point) based on these copyright claims.

This could get quite interesting. If this does turn into a legal battle, it would be another perfect excuse for the producers to lamely claim that “Darwinists” just don’t want people to see their “dangerous” film, or that they want the video itself hushed up (on the contrary: it’s a great vid… as long as it has its original narration and credits intact, as well as people understanding what it does and does not show). Regardless, it’s something to keep an eye on.

And in any case, messageboard-star Quidam, who had such a great single image review of Expelled! way back when, has the perfect photoshop response to this controversy too:

Update: Well, that didn’t take long. As I noted, Ben Stein has lept from one wacky conspiracy theory to another in his career as a right-wing ideologue, and conspiracy theorists seem to abound
amongst his fans as well. Here’s William Wallace, claiming, as I suggested the film’s fans might, that the legal injunction is some sort of attempt to silence the “truth.” And if that weren’t nutty enough, Mr. Wallace also suspects that the Harvard/XVIVO video was actually produced by “closest creationists,” who are only suing to protect their copyright claims because they’ve been cowed into submission by a tiny think tank on the West Coast with threats of a “Sternberging.” Which itself is bizarre. Exactly what does it mean to “Sternberg” someone? To criticize them for misconduct and unethical behavior… but not do anything to them at all?

Update Twain: I’ve altered the post title to “copying” since stealing is too definitive: as perhaps wasn’t clear in my discussion, the version in the film is almost certainly a reproduction of the original film: the question is whether they really did one from scratch, with original research (as Jonathan Wells seems to imply), or basically had a CGI studio simply whip up a near copy of it. One of the video’s original creators, David Blonsky, makes the case that only the latter makes sense: the Expelled! version isn’t just showing the same structure, but the very same shots and proteins out of thousands and thousands of possible ones to choose from, and hundreds of different ways to represent them. He also notes, yet again, that these videos are very misleading guides to “cells as artfully engineered factories” if you forget that they are leaving out what is a rather key element: the chaotic Brownian churnings that actually take place in a cell, rather than the depicted smooth mechanical that make it far easier for viewers to understand the overall progression.