Derb on Darwin

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John Derbyshire’s latest column rips into Intelligent Design. I’ve been pretty heartened by Derb’s uncompromising adherence to the scientific consensus. But honestly I’m a bit surprised. This is from Derb’s column Confessions of a Metrocon, written 2 years ago:

…it’ll be the legions of real, authentic conservatives out there in the provinces. God bless them all for keeping America strong, free, and true to her founding principles. If the price to be paid is a sodomy law here, a high-school Creationism class there, well, far as I am concerned, that’s a small price indeed. People who don’t like those things can always head for the metropolis, after all.


  1. I don’t know why you should be surprised. In one case he’s talking about political compromise, and his genuine affection for these people, and in the other case he’s talking about his own personal opinions. (Note his use of the word “price”.) I agree with him on both counts. 
    (As an aside, I think that teaching creationism in schools could be a positive thing: It shows liberals that the government monopoly on education cuts both ways.)

  2. Well, as long as the sodomy law doesn’t make it compulsory.

  3. Derb writes: 
    “Why stop with Intelligent Design (the theory that life on earth has developed by a series of supernatural miracles performed by the God of the Christian Bible, for which it is pointless to seek any naturalistic explanation)? Why not teach the little ones astrology? Lysenkoism? Orgonomy? Dianetics? Reflexology? Dowsing and radiesthesia? Forteanism? Velikovskianism? Lawsonomy? Secrets of the Great Pyramid? ESP and psychokinesis? Atlantis and Lemuria? The hollow-earth theory?” 
    I think he is on to something here. After all, we don’t teach these things today in school and the result is that millions of Americans believe in them. Maybe if we took the opposite tack the result would be fewer, not more, adherents to these crazy theories. As evidence, I read that very few students in college nowadays take their professor’s radical left political indoctrination seriously: they end up cynics, not true believers. 
    On a more serious note, I caught a snippet of an ID advocate on TV the other day. The guy was saying that there was plenty of evidence — scientific evidence — to support Intelligent Design. When I heard that I realized that my sometimes perverse fondness for these non-conformists might be a little misplaced. Isn’t there a middle way? Science, after all, to quote Laplace, tries to see how much it can explain without “the God hypothesis” and so, by its very nature, will not invoke supernatural agents. 
    That said, our public school teachers and the textbooks they use need to go out of there way to make one point clear: while there is, by definition, no conclusive evidence of intelligent design in science, neither is there conclusive evidence that there is no intelligent design. My favorite illustration of the point — original with me btw — is the example of dice. Which numbers come up is purely a matter of chance, yet the chance that any particular combination will come up can be precisely calculated because of the care and precision with which the dice have been designed and manufactured. Thus chance and design are not mutually inconsistent necessarily. In the case of biology, the dice are the elements and the forces of nature, and we simply don’t know whether they are a product of chance or design. That is currently an open and hotly debated topic in theoretical physics — I am thinking of string theory and the so-called anthropip principle. Teachers should mention this fact, and point out that if the smartest scientists on the planet, ie, physicists, cannot settle this issue at the moment, neither can the biologists or anybody else. Or, in the words of the sticker that was mandated to be placed on biology textbooks in the state of Georgia, students should maintain a critical attitude and an open mind on the question of whether or not there might be an intelligent designer of the universe. Dogmatic posturing about the unknown and perhaps unknowable is out of place in the public schools. Indeed, one can only wonder why it was necessary to place such a sticker on these books; that kind of information deserves to be on the very first page of the text itself.

  4. Luke: 
    Ever think you might be asking too much of public school teachers. Seriously, read “why g matters” or “the nations report card” or something similar and ask yourself how much you can expect from people with IQs of 105 (the lowest of any major) teaching people with IQs of 100 and trying to keep the people with IQs of 71 (still not mentally retarded) from being left behind. 
    Oh yeah. They have to teach 20+ of these children at a time too… Against their will…  
    After the students have been  
    mis-taught foundational material last year by a teacher with an IQ of 95 who really doesn’t know the material himself.

  5. Good point, michael vassar. Maybe that sticker is the best we can hope for.

  6. I agree with David Boxenhorn, we are dealing with two entirely different subjects. With regard to Derb’s respect of CreationISTS, we are dealing with respect for culture and the fact that we really have not dealt politically with the mechanism for handing down values. CreationISTS are part of that process of handing down culture, with warts to be sure, but with proven survival benfits. 
    CreationISM, as it exists in popular literature and culture, is mostly a scientific overreach. Though Derb does not explicitly deal with it we have a baby and bathwater problem. I think it’s fair to say that because of not laying out this dilemma explicitly he appears to contradict himself (although he does not, IMO).  
    I think PERHAPS Derb’s issue is that the coarser elements of Darwinian evolution should be taught as “settled fact”. He is not really addressing the vistas of unknowns that are concealed in the fine crevices of the theory. Granted, he is not clear at this point. 
    As an illustration consider the Bernoulli theorem/equation as taught in a standard fluid dynamics segment of a physics course. In my course the professor listed such terms as the effect of frictional heating and drew the familiar arrow thru the term with a zero at the point, signifiying that at the level we were treating such effects would not be considered. He also made it plain that if one neglected this term when operating in a regime were this term was significant, one was likely headed for disaster. 
    In a like manner, when dealing with the “origin of species by natural selection”, we have a well founded theory supported by fossils and observations at the molecular level, but when we begin to discuss the origin of life we have very little beyond “just so” stories to go on.  
    In regard to the origin of life, there are very serious scientists who question the whole “BIG BANG”, and even more who hypothesize that while a “bang” may have occurred, it does not necessesarily mean that the whole universe was “created” at that point. All of this impacts on the origin of life and the time available for its development. 
    It appears to me that life exists in the innate structure of the universe, just as quarks, atoms, and minerals do. Does this imply or require a designer? Some serious theorists have hypothesized that multilpe universes came into being at the big bang and either exist as parallel universes or ceased to exist because of instability. To them the mathematics SEEM to demand this. 
    Is the belief that one universe was designed as we see it deserving of less respect? From the standpoint of mathemetical foundation, certainly. From the standpoint of proof, not at all.

  7. I think that some people need to sort out their commitment to science, etc., and their desire to cut political deals with anti-scientific rightwingers.

  8. So long as public schools are funded and controlled, ultimately, by the people, they’re probably going to teach what the people (broadly) want taught. If that’s the literal truth of Genesis, or the belief that all evil in the world is the fault of the Dead White Males, or whatever other foolishness, that’s what will get taught.  
    This is an argument for homeschooling, private schools, and maybe vouchers, so that at least clued-in parents don’t get stuck sending our kids to places where someone’s going to teach them biology without evolution.

  9. Historically, the public schools have resisted the kind of populist pressure albatross is talking about, and the homeschool/voucher advocates are mostly from the populist Christian anti-evolutionists. In other words, in the context of actual American life, what albatross said is 180 degrees wrong, exactly the opposite of the truth. 
    Perhaps in Turkey or Egypt the homeschoolers are science-oriented and the public schools are religious, but this is the US. 
    Supporters of secularity and science education should, in the present context, support the public schools unless they feel that it is worth sacrificing secular education in order to achieve other goals.

  10. What is the legal definition of “sodomy”? If a man does a woman up the arse does this count as sodomy?