Friday, August 26, 2011

Dawkins on the most powerful idea

British atheist-evolutionist Richard Dawkins writes in the Wash. Post:
Except that a politician’s attitude to evolution, however peripheral it might seem, is a surprisingly apposite litmus test of more general inadequacy. This is because unlike, say, string theory where scientific opinion is genuinely divided, there is about the fact of evolution no doubt at all. Evolution is a fact, as securely established as any in science, and he who denies it betrays woeful ignorance and lack of education, which likely extends to other fields as well. Evolution is not some recondite backwater of science, ignorance of which would be pardonable. It is the stunningly simple but elegant explanation of our very existence and the existence of every living creature on the planet. Thanks to Darwin, we now understand why we are here and why we are the way we are. You cannot be ignorant of evolution and be a cultivated and adequate citizen of today.

Darwin’s idea is arguably the most powerful ever to occur to a human mind. ... Darwin explained all of this with one brilliantly simple idea - natural selection, driving gradual evolution over immensities of geological time. His is a good theory because of the huge ratio of what it explains (all the complexity of life) divided by what it needs to assume (simply the nonrandom survival of hereditary information through many generations).
I don't agree that scientific opinion is genuinely divided about string theory. The field has enthusiasts and detractors, but there is remarkably little disagreement about what the theory says, and what would be necessary to test it. The critics make specific statements about why the theory is a failure, and nearly everyone agrees that those statements are correct.

I also don't agree that Darwin's idea of natural selection was so powerful. Darwin knew nothing about genes. That idea was just survival of the fittest, with "fittest" defined in terms of what survives, and "survival" defined in terms of passing traits to the next generation. It mainly meant that wild plants and animals live and die without being part of an artificial breeding experiment that you might find on a farm or a science lab. He also thought that acquired characteristics are not inherited, and that differed from some of the scientists before him, but the difference is not a big deal. Dawkins would be citing those superlatives whether acquired characteristics were inherited or not.

The essence of Darwin's idea, as Dawkins describes it, is that God had nothing to do with the development of life on Earth. Dawkins says:
The rival theory to explain the functional complexity of life - creationism - is about as bad a theory as has ever been proposed. What it postulates (an intelligent designer) is even more complex, even more statistically improbable than what it explains. In fact it is such a bad theory it doesn’t deserve to be called a theory at all, ...
A great scientific idea is one that is demonstrably superior to scientific alternatives. Dawkins is not making that argument at all. He is merely saying how wonderful naturalistic atheism is and why it should be "taught in the early years of school."

Dawkins is one of the world's most famous scientists, and he uses much of his energy to lecture us on the nature of science and the evils of religion. He acts as if the essence of science is to recite some lofty principle with no measurable empirical consequences, and then force it on others for some philosophical reasons. That is what string theory is, and that is what Darwinian natural selection is.

I am not disputing that evolutionary biology and high-energy physics have many testable hypotheses, and many striking scientific successes. I am challenging Dawkins for emphasizing what is not testable, and pretending that is the best of science.

I also criticized a similar Wash. Post article that uses a strained definition of evolution theory in order to try to destroy Christianity.

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