Changing My Mind on Darwin

ImageSo I’ve changed my mind about Darwinism.  I guess I have to tell you where my mind was to tell you where it now is.

I’ve never invested much study in evolution because I was neither threatened by it theologically nor enchanted by it philosophically.  The biology teachers taught it to me.  I can explain it.  As a follower of Jesus, I can see a viable explanation for how God could do it that way.  I’m also not overly confident that science is fueled by objective curiosity rather than passionate self-interest and ideology, money and power.  Science is motivated reasoning on its best days.

When I listen to militant Christians talk about Darwinism, it’s pretty clear they aren’t scientists, don’t know what they’re talking about, and aren’t even open-minded enough to think about the subject.  When I listen to militant Darwinists, it’s pretty clear that they aren’t scientists, don’t know what they’re talking about, and aren’t even open-minded enough to think about the subject.  I guess there are just so many fundamentalists in this debate on both sides, I’ve stayed away from it entirely.  I read a few books about it years ago and felt like there were a few intelligent people arguing for and against, surrounded by a cacophony of lunatics.

I’ve just read Stephen Meyer’s Darwin’s Doubt.  Meyer is a Cambridge PhD in philosophy of science.  He hangs out with the Intelligent Design people.  His writing is fluid, detailed, and reasonable.  He seems to know what he’s talking about.

The book makes the case for the fact that the fossil record doesn’t support Darwinism.  The sudden appearance of new phyla without sufficient time for the mutation and selection process to work is simply unaccounted for by the rocks.

The problem is that when Meyer says things like, “the Precambrian fossil record simply does not document the gradual emergence of the crucial distinguishing characteristics of the Cambrian animals,” how on earth should I know if he’s right?  I don’t have time to immerse myself in paleontology.  I’ll never be an expert.  I just have four hundred pages of articulate, self-assured, well-documented evidence for Meyer’s case.

So here’s how I find my way into a conversation on subjects that are not my primary field of study.  I read the reviews that are antagonistic to the source and just look at the logic that’s employed.  I find that this often gives me the best read on a work.  If the critics are sincere, the reviews are usually precise.

The New Yorker’s review began with a genetic fallacy, presented arguments that Meyer had refuted without mentioning that Meyer had addressed them, and then deferred to another blogger for the scientific content of the review.  It then called Meyer “absurd,” which, given how shoddy the review actually is, was an absurd thing to do.

Then I read the review from which the New Yorker piece got its “science,” which was actually written by a grad student at Berkeley.  Now I have to say that Berkeley is, in fact, one of my fields of expertise, and I know exactly how Berkeley grad students go about their “work.”  Somehow Berkeley selects the crazies and the militants who show the most promise and then teaches them that knowledge is a completely subjective power tool which should be manipulated by those on an ideological crusade to undermine authority.  I’m not kidding.  I went to Berkeley.  That’s what we did.

What’s interesting about the grad student’s review is that it was posted 24 hours after the release of Meyer’s book, and it’s filled with snark.  He’s not having an intelligent conversation, he’s insulting Meyer in order to defend something religiously.  In a later, defensive review, the grad student says that he read the book “during lunch.” He read over 400 pages of scientific material during lunch, and then posted an insulting review.  He says his detractors are just “slow readers.” People who win speed reading competitions tend to cover 1,000 words per minute (maybe 4 pages) with 50% comprehension.  That level of comprehension is almost useless, and it becomes less useful the more information-rich the content.  A book of Meyer’s size would have taken an hour and forty minutes at that pace, with minimal retention, and that’s if you’re not, oh, say, eating lunch.  On top of that, the review is almost 10,000 words long, which would take some time to write, making it highly suspicious that the review was written after the book was read and not before, in anticipation of the book’s release.

See, this is how I know who to trust in academic communities.  The charlatans have no character.  You read the grad student’s defenses of his review (and they sound a little panicked), and you realize that he has been following Christians around and arguing with them for years with an inquisitor’s zeal.  There’s a personal agenda here, and his approach to new information on the subject is anything but scientific.

Now I start to smell a rat, and I change tactics.  Now I really want Meyer to be wrong.  I want one, good, solid review by an objective thinker, maybe even a Christian, who can debunk Meyer.

So then I read Donald Prothero’s review.  He’s a paleontologist and a scholar.  It begins with a caricature and a smear, saying that anyone who questions evolution suffers from confirmation bias (explain Thomas Nagel?).  He then says they have PhD’s in the wrong fields and thus aren’t qualified to discuss evolution (Meyer, again, studied philosophy of science).  Then he launches into unsubstantiated accusations, saying there are errors on every page.  He says Meyer claims the Cambrian explosion happened “all at once.” Now look, I just read Meyer, and he doesn’t say that at all.  This isn’t a mistake.  This is a lie.  The truth comes out as he goes on to refer to Meyer’s religion as a “fairy tale.” Again, I haven’t found a scientific mind.  I’ve found another fundamentalist.

Now I start to sweat.  A host of scientists have endorsed the book (http://www.darwinsdoubt.com/blurbs/).  I want one to reject it on perfectly level-headed grounds, with no patronizing rhetoric.

Another definitive work on the Cambrian Explosion came out in January of this year.  Called The Cambrian Explosion, it attempts to give a scientific explanation for how so much variety erupted in such a short time.  The authors say “the Cambrian explosion can be considered an adaptive radiation only by stretching the term beyond all recognition.” That means the evolutionists are saying the fossil evidence doesn’t bolster evolution in this particular era.

The New York Times ran a science article last month that said that scientists will spend the coming years trying to figure out what combination of environmental triggers caused the Cambrian explosion.  It doesn’t mention Meyer.  It also seems to leave a big, open question mark about why we need to defend Darwinism at points where the evidence leans away from it.

So now I’ve changed my mind.  I don’t think the fossil evidence does support the current representation of Darwinism.  I think there are some otherwise well-trained scientists who are freaking out, and doing it in widely public and observable ways.  Their lack of command of reason is a tell-tale sign that their motives for defending their orthodoxy are not scientific.  And I believe the failure of the scientific communities to engage in this conversation in a rational way is a manifestation of power brokering rather than honest intellectual engagement.

Could humanity have evolved?  Sure.  But the case isn’t as strong as they told me in biology class.

Interviewed for Truth Matters

Image

Recently I was able to interview James Miller, author of the new apologetics book Hardwired.

Me: What moved you to write Hardwired?

James Miller: I have a real passion for students who grow up in the Church but who aren’t prepared to answer the tough questions that will come their way in college.  My prayer is that Hardwired will help engage some of their deepest quandaries.  I already have two agnostic friends who are reading it.

Me: You wrote, “No one has to convince you that you’re home”. I believe that this sums up Hardwired. Could you briefly explain this statement?

JM: There’s a feeling of resonance…

Read the rest here.

The Bestselling Jesus

A review of Killing Jesus, by Bill O’ReillyImage

By James W. Miller

The Last Temptation of Christ witnessed lines of moviegoers and waves of bookbuyers when it was released, largely because Christians threatened to boycott it.  The Passion of the Christ made over $611 million dollars from the hands of the passionately faithful and the militantly opposed.  Zealot, a book that depicted the historical Jesus as something less than the Messiah of God, raced to the bestsellers lists this year, though critics say it offered no new twist on the historical retelling of the life of Jesus.  Bill O’Reilly’s new book, Killing Jesus, is not bound for that kind of glory, for one simple reason: it doesn’t say anything controversial.

Released on September 24th, Killing Jesus, by O’Reilly and cohort Martin Dugard, hovered around #4 on the Amazon bestseller list in the days leading up to it.  By the end of the first day, it was still at #3, standing behind the latest Stephen King and the fourth installment in a young adults science fiction series.  Then on his evening Fox TV show he proclaimed that his book is creating controversy, and that some people think he’s “going to hell for writing it.” Who are these critics?  A few unnamed letter writers.  O’Reilly had a priest and a pastor on the show.  He told them he was getting a lot of heat from evangelicals.  The pastor told O’Reilly that evangelicals “ought to love this book.” O’Reilly replied that “the anti-Christian people” don’t want anyone to read this book.  The priest told O’Reilly that people won’t like the book because it defends the Bible’s accuracy.  O’Reilly assured the audience that the book is footnoted with the facts.  The ordained yes-men assured him he was right.   “I learned a lot,” said the priest.

Finally made it to #2.

But honestly, there’s no controversy here.  The book alternates between a fairly straightforward retelling of the biblical story with only minor narrative expansion, and a fairly unsurprising retelling of the details of the Roman Empire.  As to the latter, the authors hone in on that which is most violent and most sexually depraved, without any particular exploration of the psychology of the Caesars.  The story runs from Herod’s slaughter of the innocents, through the assassination of Julius Caesar, through bloodthirsty stories of Roman military conquests to vile sexual exploits of the subsequent Caesars.  None of this contributes meaningfully to the story of the life of Jesus.  And apparently it’s not scary enough to top Stephen King.

What the book does rightly is to show insistently that Jesus’ life and teachings are inextricably interwoven with the claim to his deity.  This isn’t just a demythologized, historical Jesus narrative, despite the fact that the authors tend away from the miraculous (the disciples “claim” to have seen him walk on water).  And there is an evangelical quality to the book for that reason.  There may be some stragglers who don’t read the serious literature about Jesus but pick this one up from the airport newsstand and end up in some kind of serious exploration of faith.  The Lord works in mysterious ways.  If you just wanted some superficial historical details about the first century world, it’s a fairly painless way to get them.  But the book’s popularity won’t come from a serious literary merit.

Of course, the drawback is that the rising population of Millennials will no longer take the story of Jesus from the hands of Caucasian men in their 60s who talk more about their political agendas than their faith.

The two Catholic authors previously partnered on bestsellers Killing Lincoln, which was criticized for factual inaccuracies, and Killing Kennedy, which the New York Times called “gerund-happy” while accusing the authors of “word mangling.” Both of them stayed on the bestsellers lists for months, the first one for more than a year.  Killing Jesus will be a bestseller as well.  The O’Reilly Factor has around 3 million viewers, and if history serves, he’ll spend the coming months promoting it on a daily basis.  Plus, it’s just hard to get around the fact that Jesus is still a subject that everyone wants to hear about.  But the book won’t be remembered for contributing anything new to conversations about Jesus, either historical or theological.

hardwired cover  Check out Hardwired:Finding the God

  You Already Know (Abingdon 2013)

The Millennial Spirituality of Starbucks

ImageThey made over my favorite Starbucks recently, closed it down for a month and unveiled a new décor.  The décor is, very much like the old Starbucks, decorative.  It’s intended to be mood altering, soothing, and quietly provocative.  Architecture is a pair of glasses that the room holds up to our face to make sure we see it through its chosen lens.  Every shape and curve in the world around us, down to the intentional squiggles in this font, provoke minute reactions in our hardwiring.

What’s curious to me is where Starbucks just went.  They’ve made a geographical move.

The Tuscan colors were reminiscent of old world Europe.  They were meant to harken back to the historical, so much as it is grandfatherly, to be quaint, to whisk us away to a place with short work days and long naps.  It was meant to be a third space that is not only out of the office, it was out of the country.

The color palate has changed, though only slightly.  It took me a minute to see what they had done.  The colors are now more muted and more beige.  The burnt orange and avocado are gone.  It’s now the color of the desert.  The light covers have been replaced with woven basketry.  And the picture on the wall, formerly a partial nouveau sketch, is now a zen garden curled in sand.  We’ve moved from Italy to India.

Traditionally the Starbucks aesthetic is limited to four options: Heritage (worn and dark), Artisan (hand polished woodwork and exposed steel), Regional Modern (bright and lined with fabric), and Concept (experimental).  What may have changed is that last October the company opened their first store in India, and they are cross-pollinating.  They rapidly expanded in Mumbai and New Dehli, and this month they announced that they are targeting most major cities in India.  Market estimates suggest that they may have tapped into 100 million new customers.

What interests me is not the economics but the spirituality.  American morality and theology have gravitated from Europe to India as well.  The churches of Europe are now dusty museums, and religion that appeals to the modern American mind is accepting, assimilating, non-differentiating, and, taken as a whole, polytheistic.  We prefer the non-committal and the omni-commital to the propositional and precise.  We want living and let-living and getting along.  (The irony being that the non-discriminating can bring little rational opposition to bear on a caste system.)

I don’t know that it lay in the back of the mind of whomever our interior decorator was, and this is literary license rather than observation, but Starbucks just caught the wind of culture and are riding it on a carpet.