September 16, 2010

Girls Without Skin

There's a theatre right up Western, with seven X's. I mean, double-X, okay. Triple-X, eh... but seven X's. "GIRLS WITHOUT SKIN". That's all I could think... that I wanna see.

-Tom Waits, Big Time

Somehow, you know when something is just wrong. But that's an unscientific, and occasionally cruel, view; so let's say it differently.

There are warning signs that one can take advantage of, if you know how to look for them. In the forests of the West Coast, for instance, any berries that are blue or black are safe to eat; red ones have a chance of being toxic; green have a greater chance of making you sick instead of refreshed; and white ones are never good food.

Things are different with authors, especially ones writing on science. When they describe themselves as, for instance, being "like Abraham Lincoln, self-educated, and might be viewed as a polymath, left school young and commenced my real education", that's never a good sign. Or when the book they are writing, purporting to deconstruct the "myth" of evolution, has something that looks remarkably like one of the oldest (more than 200 years at this point) and most easily refuted arguments on its cover, that's not a good sign, either.

(It's actually cells in division, but it certainly reminded me of a pocket watch. And reading the text did nothing to dissuade me from the impression.)

And when any author uses seven - SEVEN - exclamation points on a single page when it is written in large, easy-to-read print? It doesn't matter what the subject is, does it? The writer is probably better suited in temperament for street corner chanting than access to a word processor. Yes, he provides 25 free sample pages from his book, and frankly, they don't impress. The chapter he donates to the public is all about the growth of a single cell into a human, and he doesn't understand how it happens.

That's not a criticism of the author: that's actually his argument.

He openly proclaims that he doesn't understand how it happens. It's too complicated, to intricate, and too involved for the creation of humans not to have been created. Hence the watch on the heath, AKA "Godiddit". (Oh, and atheists and agnostics are dead inside, but that doesn't come up until the last page, so no matter.) It's an old, old argument that has been occasionally prettied up, but never seriously changed and never much improved. Mutation, redundancy, and imperfection are all blithely ignored throughout the chapter, favouring instead the joys of a perfectly functioning, awesomely intricate (and delicate!) machine.

Any engineers out there want to talk beta testing? Or the horrors of "ship first, patch later" products? Well, no errors are mentioned in this book!

What John J. May, the creator of "The Origin of Specious Nonsense" (again, not an insult but the actual title of his work) and people like him all too often ignore is that by attacking Darwin - and Mr. Jay is very specific in his attack - they bypass the evidence of the everyday. Simply put, nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution. True in 1973, and even more so 37 years later.

But the evidence doesn't just come from biology.

Even in the seventeenth century when devout egomaniac Carl Linnaeus was inventing modern taxonomy, he realized that there was simply no way the Earth could be as young as current thought held (about 5600 years) when he discovered fossils. (Nothing in paleontology, geology, astrophysics, or any branch of biology has shown evidence for anything other than a very, very old Earth - somewhat closer to 13.65 billion years.) Plus this interesting little quote from the man who thought he was revealing God's Truth to the world (I mentioned he had a rather high view of himself, right?):

I ask you and the whole world for a generic differentia between man and ape which conforms to the principles of natural history. I certainly know of none [...] If I were to call man ape or vice versa, I should bring down all the theologians on my head. But perhaps I should still do it according to the rules of science.


The only reason humans are all alone in the homo genus, unlike every other animal on Earth, is that Linnaeus didn't need the headache of arguing with clergy. Starting from scratch, with the evidence we currently have, humans would be shuttled in with the chimps, but otherwise Linnaeus' system has stood up pretty well as the most useful means of classification available.

And here's the funny bit: you'll be hard pressed to find anyone who proclaims humans to be "more evolved" than other animals - or plants for that matter - who aren't also religious.

For all the complaining that people are "too complex" to have come about by chance, the fact that everything else is equally complicated is ignored. The "Seven Questions" Mr. May asks (then repeats, and repeats, and repeats...) in his sample chapter apply equally well to a human, a goose, or a cedar. The example he gives is human because that's what he so desperately wants: to be special. And he knows that the people who buy his book will want that, too. But by his own questions, he reinforces the idea that people aren't special, that we really are no different from a bird or a tree.

Which is what atheists have been saying all along. And I don't think that's the show that Mr. May expected to see.

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posted by Thursday at 10:17 pm

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