Monday, May 16, 2011

Some Evo Books...

A friend of a friend, who was not as I was raised in what I might called the Evolutionary Tradition (but most emphatically in the religious one), wrote something disbelieving of evo orthodoxy. Often such things raise my hackles. But this seemed a golden moment to sway minds rather than be snarky, so I responded carefully. This is a modified version.

I was raised in the Catholic church and with evolution, which church contrary to pop think has never had a problem with it as it treats the bible allegorically. (And I am not speaking about po- mo liberalism-- my first evo bio was taught in a Catholic school pre- Vatican 2, ca 1960!) I went on to study populations and evolutionary biology with a side of genetics at U Mass Boston starting in 68. Eventually my literary side took over and after six years of doing both I left but I came within an organic chem course or two of getting my degree so I am not exactly a “layman”.

So: here is a short course of books I have found illuminating or even entertaining but with substance, about the evidence for evolution, the truth of its existence, and the non- existence of any conflict between it and religions not based on literal readings of ancient books. I do not have too much energy to argue these days-- health pretty good but typing will never be good again-- but perhaps perusal of these will preclude argument?

First the great pain in the arse’s first NON pain in the arse book, though far from his first good one-- for that you have to go back to The Selfish Gene and the knottier but probably better Extended Phenotype: Richard Dawkins’The Greatest Show on Earth. Dawkins’ books have infuriated me for years because of his unnecessary attacks on religion, since he is the most lucid “explainer” around. In this book he makes explicit and (almost) un- grudging peace with the religious in order to-- why I am recommending it-- give the best account of macroevolution for the layman available, explicitly including transition fossils. It is The Best Example of its kind.

Sean B Carroll is a former Catholic school boy (like me he learned his evolution there first) with a much sunnier view of religion than Dawkins, who is both an evo- bio guy and a good writer about some of the mechanisms that drive it and the history of its discoverers. Endless Forms Most Beautiful, on "Evo- Devo", is one of his best.

Francis Collins is a Christian biologist who has spent a lot of time reconciling science and religion. He is a good friend of the (dying?) atheist firebrand and excellent writer Christopher Hitchens, who has stated in print that he both respects his science and-- no Dawkins he-- is grateful for his prayers if skeptical of their efficacy. The Language of God is probably the best one to start with.

I can think of many other books but frankly if these don’t demonstrate both a strong case for (macro) evolution and transition fossils AND the compatibility of sane science and sane religion I doubt anything will.

Against some po- mo arguments that science is just another "belief system" akin to or in rivalry with others, let me add: science is the west or Europe's great step forward because it is more than a POV; because it is FALSIFIABLE; because it can at least approach truth and reality by reasoned thought.

(Two Patrick Hemingway dinner quotes:
“I don’t get these post- modern deconstructionists who say science is a belief system. Do they jump out the window and expect to fall UP?”

“Did the Moslem hijackers use flying carpets or hijacked planes?”)

And re short- time Creationism: the only possible explanation for that would be that God is an ingenious hoaxer who made fossils appear old in order to lure people into Hell, a la Gosse’s 19th century Vestiges of Creation. First, a crude and frightening concept of a gleefully cruel, childish God; second, if true it would be morally necessary to support a rebel angel like Milton’s Satan or even Pullman’s wimpier PC version.

I will add as an afterthought that Theodosius Dobszhansky, one of the co- authors of the so- called “Modern Evolutionary Synthesis” ie the one we use, was a practicing Eastern Orthodox Christian.

(Suspense novelist Michael Gruber: “I’m a practicing Catholic- practicing and trying to get good at it..”)

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