Via the excellent Pharyngula blog, I came across this ridiculous article by Bryan Appleyard in The Times: For God’s sake, have Charles Darwin’s theories made any difference to our lives? – published on 11th January (so I got to it a little late – I’m more of a Guardian reader!).
Yes, Bryan, they have made a difference, and not the spurious negative ones you build up to in your article. To be charitable, one must suppose the point of Appleyard’s article is to point out that many (usually from the under-educated religious wing) do not accept evolution by natural selection (and I come back to the difference between comment and reportage later).
All Darwin said was that random mutations occurred in organisms. A small percentage would be beneficial and help an individual to breed more successfully. Over the unimaginable eons of deep time, this process would modify species and create new ones. Finally, human brains were formed, one of which defined and detected grandeur in the blind workings of a simple and, to the materialist imagination, inevitable mechanism.
Finally, human brains were formed? Really? Finally? You mean that’s it, it’s all done and dusted, and there’s nothing more to follow? Blimey!
Appleyard goes on to claim gaping holes in Darwin’s theory – the usual guff:
There were gaping holes in his argument. He knew nothing of genes and he had not shown how perfection emerges. It’s all very well to talk of small mutations changing an organism, but how do such changes make, for example, an eye? Without all its bits and pieces, an eye does not work. It is, in the terms used by the biochemist Michael Behe, author of Darwin’s Black Box, "irreducibly complex", beyond the reach of blind, random mutation.
That Darwin did not know how genetics and inheritance worked is not relevent: it was clear that there was variation within a species, and that artificial selection could result in widely different morphologies – clearly some aspect of this variation is heritable. He made this observation without a knowledge of how it works (I know that my laptop screen shows an image that will change as a I type, but I’m damned if I know how it does it). Michael Behe has a creationist (for that is what "Intelligent Design" is in reality) reputation (look at the Wikipedia page about him, and read the outcome of the Dover trial. And for all that Appleyard says "it [On the Origin of Species] is perhaps the most accessible great work of science ever written", has he looked at Chapter VI (Difficulties on Theory)? Darwin was aware that the origins of complex organs would be thrown at him as argumants against his theory (don’t forget Paley’s arguments), and provides a lucid explanation there.
Here too, we see the strategy taken by creationists – to try and portray the scientific community as seriously divided over evolution, when in fact individuals such as Behe are the rare outliers in the population. Famously, even Behe’s institution makes this statement on evolution.
Further on Appleyard quotes James Le Fanu, who sounds as though he’s a bit disappointed that Homo sapiens has only got 25,000 genes, on the grounds that we are too complex for only 25,000 genes. A bizarre obeservation, presumably derived from some method le Fanu (a medic who writes a medical column for the Daily Telegraph, and so must be an expert on biology and evolution) has established for measuring complexity? Or maybe just that le Fanu has a comprehension failure? Maybe the latter, since le Fanu is quoted:
"I wouldn’t get out of bed for 25,000 genes," says Le Fanu, "and we don’t find form in the genome. We share most of our DNA with chimpanzees, but nowhere in the genome have we found what it is that makes us so different from chimps."
Those of us in the real world might look at the similarity between the chimpanzee and human genomes as support for evolutionary theory. What are le Fanu’s criteria for identifying the crucial differences between chimp and human genomes? Is he indeed competent to make a wild stab at what the crucial differences are?
And where does Appleyard’s article take us next? Perhaps more creationist posturings that the scientific community is divided over evolution? Yes, indeed that is his next step.
Even among Darwinists, this unexpected complexity has produced confusion and rancour, not least in the deep disagreements between Dawkins and the late American evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould. "Richard’s view," explains Steven Rose, a biology and neurobiology professor, "is genes are the single unit of selection and the organism is the passive vehicle within which these replicators work. Stephen’s was a more pluralist view that evolution happened at many different levels."
Of course scientists have differing views of the details of evolution by natural selection – but you will note that all three of the scientists named in the paragraph above are evolutionists.
And (oh dear!) Appleyard moves on to write about the consequences of Darwinism leading to loss of faith.
Implicit in this is the statement: we are not the children of God, the noble stewards of creation; we are deeply embedded in the blind workings of nature, cousins to the virus and the vegetable. "If that is true, then there is no right or wrong – we can do what we like," says David Rosevear, chairman of the British Creation Science Movement.
Now, I find this sort of creationist tosh seriously insulting. Yes, I’m an atheist, but no I can’t do what I like (at least not as implied by the foolish quotation abpve). Why do we have these bonkers creationists saying that a lack of religious belief means no sense of right or wrong?
And then we reach Bryan Appleyard’s foul finale: the claim that Darwin’s theories are responsible for all the malaises affecting modern society, which includes Hitler’s holocaust. Well, I find statements like the following spectacularly insulting and offinsive:
This reached its deathly climax, via the work of the German biologist Ernst Haeckel, in Hitler’s statement of intent, Mein Kampf. From there it was but a short step to the Holocaust, which, among other things, was an attempt to aid evolution.
This is a deceitful claim, and one repeatedly made by the ignorant creationist lobby. I’ve just re-read William L. Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich" and would suggest that the explanation for the evils of the Holocaust lie more in the insanity of Adolf Hitler and the predominant anti-semitism of the era (mostly derived from religious views) than any basis in evolution. As P. Z. Myers points out:
Here’s a challenge for you. Search the text of Mein Kampf for any occurrence of the name "Haeckel". You won’t find it. Try "Darwin" – oops, no luck. Now try "God". Bingo! Now try searching the works of Darwin or Haeckel for anything like an endorsement of genocide – not there.
This is a shabby article written under the guise, I suppose, of offering equal treatment to both sides of the evolution vs creation debate. But in so doing, Appleyard creates an astonishingly inaccurate
view of the scientific community’s views, repeats inaccurate and false claims of the responsibility of Darwinism for the evils that have befallen us, and above all displays a huge dearth of understanding. While Appleyard would claim (see for example his blog) "some readers get confused about the difference between comment and reportage", my reading of the article is that the whole speil towards the conclusion of his article about the evils that have resulted from Darwinism reflects Appleyard’s opinion and is most definitely comment, not reportage.
Wikipedia says of Bryan Appleyard:
Appleyard was educated at Bolton School and King’s College, Cambridge and after graduating with a degree in English, he became Financial News Editor and Deputy Arts Editor from 1976 to 1984 at The Times. Subsequently he became a freelance journalist. He is a three-time Feature Writer of the Year award winner and twice has been commended in the British Press Awards.
So I guess that does indeed qualify him to be a science commentator.