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Darwinism and Its Discontents – Book Review Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Posted by Henry in anti-creationism, anti-fundamentalism, anti-ID, Behe, biology, book review, Charles Darwin, Christianity, consilience, creationism, Darwin, Darwinism, Dawkins, evolution, genetics, geology, God, Gould, Haeckel, human evolution, philosophy, Piltdown Man, punctuated equilibrium, rationality, reason, religion, science, scientific theory.

I have been thinking about the ideas in this book for about four decades and have decided that the time has come to put them all together.

This is the opening sentence of Professor Michael Ruse’s latest book Darwinism and Its Discontents. Ruse is a well-known evolutionary philosopher and has been a great defender on Darwinism for a number of years. And with an opening statement like that, naturally I was thrilled to read what the discontents are all about, and if they matter at all.

The book is a defender of Darwinism and the fact of evolution from all sides of attacks, and is understandably light on refuting creationism of various flavours, so read this book to cement your understanding of Darwinism and evolution – I certainly learned a good deal from it.

Darwinism is defined as a particular theory in which evolution works. Its heart lies in the concept of natural selection, the chief causal process behind all organisms, and is the widely accepted evolutionary mechanism by the scientific community. However, it has always been under attack from various disciplines in social science, philosophy, religion, and even within science itself, and Ruse writes how these attacks are categorically mistaken.

Darwinism and Its Discontents Cover

The first chapter goes through the historical background of Darwinism. Ruse includes a number of notable historical figures ranging from people who did not have direct contribution to Darwinism such as Lyells and Malthus, to modern day scientists such as Fisher, Haldine and Wright. The conclusion of the chapter is right on spot – why was Darwin important? Because it was after him that a revolution happened – that life is a naturalistic, not a supernatural or God-inspired one.

The next few chapters are, I think, the highlights of the book as they outline what the fact of evolution is, its path, its cause and its limitations. Ruse presented the concept of consilience argument – that is, direct evidence supporting evolution from a myriad of fields of studies: palaeontology, biogeographical distribution, classification, morphology, embryology and so on. These chapters are essential in understanding the science of Darwinian theory of evolution – population genetics, adaptation, physical constraints on the phenotype, drift, and of course, natural selection, as well as a dash of Gould’s famous punctuated equilibrium theory.

The second half of the book then takes a different turn. It examines humans, the mistakes and dishonesty made in the history of evolutionary science (such as the Piltdown Man and Haeckel’s drawings) – and finally, Ruse looks at Darwinism from philosophical and religious point of views.

Overall I thought this book is very well balanced and not too technical for the layman; however it is definitely not an introductory level kind of book. If you are looking for the whole creationism vs. evolution debate then this is not an ideal book; conversely if you are looking for a book that covers a wide areas of Darwinian evolution – from past to present and across various disciplines, then this book is it.

Natural Atheism Saturday, June 23, 2007

Posted by Henry in agnosticism, anthropology, atheism, book review, David Eller, Eller, faith, fundamentalism, God, logic, Natural Atheism, rationality, religion, science, secularism, spirituality, theism.

“I was born an Atheist. All humans are born Atheists.”

This is the powerful opening of a superbly written book, Natural Atheism, which I feel deserves as much attention, if not more, as the current best-selling atheism books such as The God Delusion and A Letter To Christian Nation. The author of the book is Dr. David Eller, an American anthropologist.

This atheism book is a fresh break from the usual passionate and vocal (or, aggressive and strident, to many people) tones of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens – it is of a modest and thoughtful tone. Reading the book is rather like a typical scholarly textbook – impersonal, very well structured and presented, important words are critically defined and crucial points are argued in logical steps.


Why Darwin Matters – The Case Against Intelligent Design Saturday, June 16, 2007

Posted by Henry in anti-creationism, anti-evolution, anti-fundamentalism, anti-ID, biology, book review, Charles Darwin, Christianity, creationism, Darwin, Evangelical, evolution, fundamentalism, Jerry Coyne, Michael Shermer, rationality, religion, science, United States, Why Darwin Matters.
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This is the title of a highly enjoyable book written by Michael Shermer, which I have just finished reading now (how can one ignore a book with such a title?). Prior to this I have never read of Shermer.

Why Darwin Matters - The Case Against Intelligent Design

It is important that we read what Shermer has to write on this topic. A former creationist and Evangelical Christian, and even more interestingly a friend to some of the Intelligent Design proponents such as Dembski, Shermer presents a highly readable and well-researched book to the general public.

The first few chapters are on the defensive. They tell what evolution is, and why it is under attack. Then the book begins its attack on Intelligent Design – its fallacies and the real agenda behind it. Shermer then concludes the book with a couple of chapters on why evolution cannot contradict religion – and why fundamentalist Christians should accept evolution.

One thing I like about Why Darwin Matters is that the author fills the book with many real life examples, not just dry and scholarly arguments. One of my favourite example looks at dogs. Dogs evolved from wolves very recently, yet there is hardly any “transitional fossils” available – however,

the convergence of evidence from archaeological, morphological, genetic, and behavioural “fossils” reveals the ancestor of all dogs to be the East Asian wolf.

Although personally I think the attack on Intelligent Design somewhat lacks some punch – see Jerry Coyne’s brilliant paper on this attack – however, I think Shermer writes with the general laymen in mind, hence the book is not as technical nor as in-depth.

In summary, I very much enjoyed reading this well-structured and well-researched book. It is a great book for the people who are curious about the whole evolution-vs.-creationism debate, and a fantastic introductory book for anyone interested in knowing evolution better.

Spot the Errors Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Posted by Henry in anti-evolution, anti-fundamentalism, book review, Darwin, David Sloan Wilson, evolution, fundamentalism, game, logic, rationality, science, straw-man.
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Let’s play a game.

Here is a paragraph taken from a book review article (more on this later):

We can put this point in a syllogistic form for the sake of convenience and handy usage. If evolution is true about everything, then we are doomed to live in a world without truth, beauty, and goodness. If we are not doomed, then evolution is not true about everything. And if evolution is not true about everything, then there is good reason to think that it is not true about anything.

How many errors, confusions and/or logical fallacies can you find in this single paragraph?

Warning! Simple Logical Errors Encountered!

In the spirit of not quoting it out of context, here is the background. The article is written by a professor named Stephen Webb as a book review. The book is “Evolution for Everyone“, written by David Sloan Wilson.

The “point” mentioned in the paragraph refers to one of the main theme of the book, that Darwinian thinking can be applied to “all things human”, such as the way languages and cultures change and adapt over time, how we perceive beauty, and so on.

So the first error, I would say, is the straw-man argument that the book claims evolutionary truth in everything. That is not the point of the book, and the rest of the paragraph can be ignored.


The End of Faith – West of Eden Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Posted by Henry in Africa, book review, Christianity, evolution, faith, fundamentalism, George Bush, God, politics, rationality, religion, Sam Harris, sin, stem cell, United States.
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After writing a chapter critising Islam, Harris proceeds to deliver assaults on the religious influence in the West, in particular in the USA political scene.

Harris goes on his attack with a plethora of disturbing examples, which includes a list of influential members in the government such as Dr. W. David Hager of FDA, General William G. Boykin of Special Forces, Tom DeLay of The House majority leader, Antonin Scalia of Supreme Court Justice – and “facts of this sort can be cataloged without apparent end…”.

All this is rather terrifying. Why? Because one would expect that in a civilised society – US being the only superpower in the world – reason and common sense should be the norm. But no, powerful men in the politics are making decisions more or less based on blind personal religious beliefs.

Harris goes on to attack the idea of “victimless crime” in the US – behaviours that cause no harm to anyone yet are punishable. Examples include prostitution and viewing obscene materials. He asks:


The End of Faith – The Problem with Islam Thursday, March 29, 2007

Posted by Henry in atheism, book review, faith, God, Islam, jihad, Koran, Middle East, Noam Chomsky, rationality, religion, Sam Harris.

This is a highly anticipated chapter of the book. While Sam Harris focuses on faith as the main theme of the book, an entire chapter is devoted to Islam. Why so? Harris says that because at this particular point in history, we are at war with Islam:

“It is not merely that we are at war with an otherwise peaceful religion that has been ‘hijacked’ by extremists. We are at war with precisely the vision of life that is prescribed to all Muslims in the Koran, and further elaborated in the literature of hadith, which recounts the says and actions of the Prophet.”

Harris mentions jihad. Jihad is translated literally as “struggles”, and there are two types of it – an “inner” struggle on one’s self, and an “outer” struggle which involves with struggles against infidels and apostates. Essentially,

“… the duty of jihad is an unambiguous call to world conquest.”

Harris devotes quite a number of pages of the chapter quoting from the Koran and hadith to support his argument – just take a look from page 117 to 123 – because he wants to emphasize on the root of the problem with Islam:

“On almost every page, the Koran instructs observant Muslims to despise non-believers. On almost every page, it prepares the ground for religious conflict.”

Suicide bombing, as Harris argues, is no aberration of Islam, given the tenets of jihad, martyrdom, infidels and paradise. The Muslim world today is comparable to the 14th century Christian Europe on the intellectual and economical fronts. A shocking statistics is that Spain translates as many books into Spanish each year as the entire Arab world has translated into Arabic since the 9th century (reported by UN in 2002)! I think this fact along has convinced me of just how stagnant the Arab world has become in terms of human knowledge – and this is a really grim picture, because lack of knowledge implies the reliance on the Koran and hadith, which are firmly rooted in a world that was thousands of years ago. Harris puts it:

“… I think it is clear that Islam must find some way to revise itself, peacefully or otherwise. What this will mean is not at all obvious. What is obvious, however, is that the West must either win the argument or win the war. All else is bondage.”


The End of Faith – Reason In Exile Sunday, March 4, 2007

Posted by Henry in atheism, book review, Daniel Dennett, faith, fundamentalism, God, Islam, Koran, rationality, religion, Sam Harris.
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This post is a commentary on the first chapter Reason In Exile of the widely popular book The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, which I have just started reading with immense interest and expectation. It is written by Sam Harris, who along with Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, is seen as one of the most “self-styled” populariser of the so-called “academic atheism”.

Book Cover of “The End of Faith”

In this chapter Harris establishes one of the central themes of the book, which is best summed up with this quote:

We will see that the greatest problem confronting civilization is not merely religious extremism: rather, it is the larger set of cultural and intellectual accommodations we have made to faith itself. Religious moderates are, in large part, responsible for the religious conflict in our world, because their beliefs provide the context in which scriptural literalism and religious violence can never be adequately opposed.

Simply put, Harris argues that religious moderates are no better than extremists – the reason being that moderates provide the framework and tolerance to which fosters extremism. I have my reservations on this claim; however I have not given this claim much thought before, so I will continue to read the book with great interest.

Harris continues with his argument:

Two myths now keep faith beyond the fray of rational criticism, and they seem to foster religious extremism and religious moderation equally: (1) most of believe that there are good things that people get from religious faith (e.g. strong communities, ethical behaviour, spiritual experience) that cannot be had elsewhere; (2) many of us also believe that the terrible things that are sometimes done in the name of religion are the products not of faith per se but of our baser natures – forces like greed, hatred, and fear…

I completely agree with the second point. Religion, like no other forces in human history, has the unique ability to unite the many ugly traits of human nature. Yes, ethnic conflicts, power greed and territorial expansions have caused wars and human atrocities throughout history, but religion is often intertwined heavily – and worse, religion is seen as the acceptable and rightfulness justification – even today, at twenty first century! This is what makes religion unique in this regard.

Religious moderation arises not from religions within – not from the scriptures – but from the many cultural, scientific, political… etc advances we accumulated in the past few thousands of years. Stoning people to death is a good point in case, Harris argues, and well stated:

The doors leading out of scriptural literalism do not open from the inside. The moderation we see among non-fundamentalists is not some sign that faith itself has evolved; it is, rather, the product of the many hammer blows of modernity that have exposed certain tenets of faith to doubt.

Fundamentalists merely practice their religion to the words of the scripture, and their religious knowledge is often unrivalled, says Harris. The so-called moderates, are so because they balance their personal religious beliefs with advances in human knowledge, which has nothing within to do with God:

Religious moderation is the product of secular knowledge and scripture ignorance – and it has no bona fides, in religious terms, to put it on par with fundamentalism.

In other words, in religious terms, moderates are hypocrites (I am actually surprised that the word “hypocrites” has not been used at all in this chapter).

Harris throws some worrying statistics in the book, and I really mean, worrying:

According to Gallup, 35 percent of Americans believe that the Bible is the literal and inerrant word of the Creator of the universe. Another 48 percent believe that it is the “inspired” word of the same…

Some 46 percent of Americans take a literalist view of creation…

Admittedly this survey was conducted in 1996, which is very outdated – however, it does give a good indication of the scale “encyclopedic ignorance” [page 14] of the general American society. I would love to find out what the statistics is now…

Harris then writes about Muslim extremism. He argues that they are extreme in that they believe modernity and secular culture are incompatible with moral and spiritual health, that Muslims extremists appear to suffer a fear of being polluted by the non-Islamic cultures, as well as a feeling of humiliation. Harris goes to briefly argues that the literal believing of the Koran and the Islam religion itself are the simple reasons that can explain the extremism that we see today.

… the problem is that most Muslims believe that the Koran is the literal word of God.

I was slightly disappointed with the passage regarding Muslim extremism, as there are no substantial arguments and deep insights (unlike the rest of the chapter); most of it are more of a generalisation and even simplistic. For example, how and why do Muslims extremists feel humiliated? What is the basis for saying that “Muslims hate the West in the very terms of their faith and that the Koran mandates such hatred.” [page 31]. However, the good news is that there is a chapter completely devoted to this topic, so I am looking forward to that

Harris goes on to argue that a person’s view on afterlife largely guides how he/she lives, and ranted about how remarkable it is that even a hairstylist requires a certificate, yet the candidates of United State president cannot openly doubt the existence of heaven and hell – in fact, they do not have to be experts or knowledgeable in areas that matter, such as law and economics; they just need to be expert fund-raisers. This is a great satirical passage, true and sad at the same time.

Sam Harris concludes the chapter by stating that it is time we recognise the dangers of beliefs. Belief is no longer a private or personal thing; it is at a public matter at global scale. Action of a man utterly depends on the beliefs of a person.

I will conclude this post with a nice quote on reason and belief:

We cannot live by reason alone. This is why no quantity of reason, applied as antiseptic, can compete with the balm of faith, once the terrors of this world begin to intrude upon our lives… and reason, no matter how broad its compass, will begin to smell distinctly of formaldehyde. This had lead many of us to conclude, wrongly, that human begins have needs that only faith in certain fantastical ideas can fulfill. It is nowhere written, however, tat human beings must be irrational, or live in a perpetual state of siege, to enjoy an abiding sense of the sacred.