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August 19, 2006

I May Be with Ann Coulter on This One

In his wise and clever dismemberment of Ann Coulter's Godless, biologist Jerry Coyne falls back at one point on the usual nice-nice argument that there's no conflict between evolution and religion:

The real reason Coulter goes after evolution is not because it's wrong, but because she doesn't like it -- it doesn't accord with how she thinks the world should be. That's because she feels, along with many Americans, that "Darwin's theory overturned every aspect of Biblical morality." What's so sad -- not so much for Coulter as for Americans as a whole -- is that this idea is simply wrong. Darwinism, after all, is just a body of thought about the origin and change of biological diversity, not a handbook of ethics. (I just consulted my copy of The Origin of Species, and I swear that there's nothing in there about abortion or eugenics, much less about shtupping one's secretary.)

Technically, of course, he's right: Darwin isn't challenging Biblical morality. But he is challenging many of the claims made in the Bible, as Darwin, himself, anxiously recognized -- even wondering, in his notebooks, how he might present his theory and still "avoid stating how far I believe in Materialism." And if the Bible ain't all true wouldn't the ethical system that rests (albeit precariously) upon it be expected to totter a bit?

(Sorry, I realize Jay Saul was kindly trying to pull me out of the Coulter quicksand, but this question continues to intrigue.)

Posted by Mitchell Stephens at August 19, 2006 12:32 PM


So much is made about how science and religion are supposedly compatible, however, they are only comparible through either total compartmentalization or by significantly distorting one. The fundamental problem is that religion is not compatible with reality.

Posted by: vjack at August 19, 2006 12:51 PM

To be quite honest Mitch, I would say that the Bible is chockfull of examples of all kinds of immoralities done by those who believed in the God of the Bible.

There's a woman who was raped all night long and left for dead on her daddy's doorstep. What did he do, believin' man that he was, housing prophets under his roof? Well he had her chopped into 12 pieces and sent a bit of her to each of the twelve tribes of Israel!

That's just one such example of what one believing man did...

I don't think that all the Thou Shalts and Thou Shalt Nots of the Bible promote a people with moral standards.


So if the Bible's first account being the origin of the universe is corrupted by scientific fact, it does not follow that humanity will have no moral compass.

The Bible is an example that it was the believers that were given to debauchery, perversity, greed, pride, intolerance, and hatred.

Morality? It is widely acclaimed as great faith that an Old Testament Patriarch tied his son to an altar to sacrifice him to God. And why the kudos? Cos that is what God the Father did to His Son!

Hmmm, God is love. With love like that, I hope there is a Child Protective Services in heaven!

Posted by: Bonnie Kim at August 19, 2006 1:19 PM

It might be expected to, but only by those who believe that people are so evil that only a fear of everlasting hellfire keeps them behaving nicely.

Not to mention, those who actually believe that no one ever had a moral code before the Bible.

Of course, those two groups do tend to overlap a lot.

And Bonnie Kim is right: if you knew a person who acted like God, he wouldn't be someone you'd want to hang out with. There's no book or movie I can think of where the guy who says "I love you; now do what I say or I'll kill your whole family" is the good guy.

Posted by: The Ridger at August 19, 2006 2:26 PM

Sorry, but someone has to say this: regardless of the fact that Coyne is right to dismantle and hold up for public ridicule Coulter's shoddy research/argument in his review of her latest effort at right-wing celebrity, he loses much credibility with me, at least, because of the misogynistic, ad-hominem attacks he engages in to accomplish it. That she invites such responses through her own performance of the blond bitch routine is beside the point. No review of a book written by a man would invoke pubic hair to call someone a money-hungry liar; you're right to call it a 'dismemberment,' Mitch, but I have a bad feeling you were not criticizing his approach...

BonnieK's gruesome quote from the OT reveals, I think, that we haven't come very far in the struggle against patriarchal forms of violence, however metaphorical or discursive they may be. (And that doesn't begin to cover the real, tangible violence that continues in every neighborhood on the planet)

Posted by: JM at August 19, 2006 2:59 PM

I think we need to distinguish between instances of faith that are compatible with modern science and those that are incompatible. Suppose someone were to say that some God caused the Big Bang, set the universe in motion and then promptly withdrew totally from his creation. Such a token of faith would be compatible with science and consistent with a belief in evolution. Notice however how scanty such a "faith" would be. The proponents of some such thing would not be able to say anything about whether this God is a conscious and intelligent creature, whether he is a moral or an immoral being. After postulating such a metaphysical entity, there is pretty much nothing you can about its properties. And I would even argue in virtue of Occam's Razor, you are better without it.

No wonder then most religions have stronger claims about the universe and God in general, for the scanty faith I have described would not suffice anyone. And it is these stronger claims (about the beginning of the universe or the human species) that are incompatible with science.

One might argue that there are other religious components that are beyond science. (Such as ethics.) However, Bible or Quran or whatever you have in mind doesn't really argue for the ethics it prescribes. Most of it is just "do this, do that, God wants you to do this". So once you take the sting out of religion by showing its other claims are wrong (such as the creation myth), it also loses its force as moral authority.

So, yes, science may not be a source of ethical knowledge, but still I believe it undermines religion as a moral authority as well.

Posted by: Cihan Baran at August 19, 2006 8:34 PM

Ah Cihan, I would say that Science IS a source of ethical knowledge...from the roots of evolution can we travel scientifically through the ages, and see the acquisition of scientific knowledge in the scope and sequence of human development?
What of the sciences of sociology, psychology, anthropology, and political sciences?
These too are all valid sciences, yes?

Posted by: Bonnie Kim at August 19, 2006 8:57 PM

Believe it or not, I was just having this conversation with a friend. I claimed that psychology, sociology and so called "political science" don't really count as science. He claimed they did.

I don't want to get into too many details but let's just take falsifiability as the mark of scientific inquiry. There is of course much more work to be done after this statement but I think the basic idea is correct. (For instance see this.)

I'll give the example from our debate. (I am sorry if our example is a bit sexist. However, I hope you'll excuse me for using it, since I can not think of anything better at the moment.) Let's say that you find a thousand beautiful women who are married to ugly men. Your data show that %90 of these men are millionaires.

Based on this, you can not say "if a beautiful woman is married to an ugly man, the reason must be the wealth of the man." At best, you could make a probabilistic statement, something like "if a beautiful woman is married to an ugly man, the reason most probably is the wealth of the man."

Think about the limitations of such knowledge though. First and foremost, it depends on your sample. And most people who do such researches use college students as their sample. More importantly, there is nothing that could falsify such a statement. Suppose I come across a couple that is an exception to the study. The most common reaction would be, "Well that's an exception to the general rule and doesn't mean much."

Suppose you find some other sample in which %10 of men are millionaires. Then it can be said, "Well your particular sample is idiosyncratic". Where is the objectivity in that? Universality?

This is why it pains me to see philosophy alongside humanities and social sciences. Philosophy has far better claims to objectivity and universality. When I say "the mind can be reduced to the physical", I mean it for every person and as the truth. Or when I say "freedom that's required for moral responsibility is incompatible with determinism", again it's true for everyone.

Maybe, there are scientific ways of doing "social" science that I am not aware of. However, even admitting that so called "social sciences" are scientific, how would they resolve ethical inquiries? For instance, what scientific evidence or experiment would prove or disprove the proposition that "stealing is wrong"?

Science may be helpful to some of our ethical inquiries but in and of itself, doesn't seem to me as a source of ethical knowledge. Suppose we grant the premise "killing people is wrong" and now are inquiring the truthfulness of "embryos are people". Now science may offer some guidance about the personhood of "embryos" and thereby help us gain ethical knowledge.

I guess another way of putting it is that science can help us about the truth of "is" (i.e. "embroys are people") statements but not "ought" (i.e. "you ought not to kill") statements.

Posted by: Cihan Baran at August 20, 2006 4:20 AM

From The Blind Watchmaker to The Blind Matchmaker!!! LOL
I am cogitating on what all you shared Cihan!

Posted by: Bonnie Kim at August 20, 2006 1:22 PM

As both a Computer Science Engineer and a Sociologist my observation would be that regular scientists quickly ignore the assumpitons their reality-rules are build on and social scientists think they don't.

Religion is punting on 1st down.

Mitch, I couldn't keep you away from the zombie-bitch but if you bring Jon Bennett into this I'll have to stage an intervention.

Posted by: Jay Saul at August 20, 2006 1:24 PM

And this was the state of science at the time that the theory of evolution was formed: Ah, what keen powers of observation and conclusion those scientific minds possessed back then, viz., able to track complexity over the millions of years via fossil remains, etc., yet, somehow unable to figure out that the reason women were dying shortly after childbirth was because the doctors were (year upon year) going from autopsy to birth assist without WASHING THEIR HANDS. KEEN, KEEN POWERS OF OBSERVATION THEY HAD BACK THEN.

Posted by: D. E. Howell at September 9, 2006 9:52 AM

That nearly got me to thinking D.E. But then I thought about what perhaps you are more involved in, in your own personal life...religion perhaps?

How The Church could be extolling the grace of a loving God to any who would believe in him and follow his commands, and yet in many, far too many of these "good news" preachin' institutions, the black man was disallowed from holding any of the same offices in the congregation as the white man, In fact, the black man was not even allowed to sit in the same pews at the white man, probably around the same time you are referencing in your post.

So The Church too has evolved? That which is based on the Timeless Absolute Principles of an Eternal God. Amen it has! Since in prior years, the Church had yet to observe how many "souls" were dying with feelings of being a "less than" even in the said kingdom of god where god himself is said to not be a respector of persons, not showing partiality. Well then again, that is the same god that said Jacob I have loved, Esau I have hated.

Perhaps your god is evolving too, DE? Be forewarned, DE, once one must admit that god has evolved, one will also find that god is extinct.

Posted by: Bonnie Kim at September 9, 2006 10:24 AM

Extinct would require pre-existance; imagination is what must be admitted. It is all imagination.

Posted by: Jay Saul at September 9, 2006 1:25 PM

Really it is(:|o)

Posted by: Jay Saul at September 9, 2006 1:33 PM

Yes Jay Saul, but sometimes depending on the writer, the allegorical is called in as a vehicle to explain the loss of faith is all...I am just such a writer.
I still want for DE to get the point that for a god said to be revealed as the same yesterday, today and forever ...a god who is said to be completely revealed by the canon of scripture, for their to be changes in how he is viewed or what is permissable in the practice of a religion that is organized under the presumption of service and worship to him, it would seem a strange thing that policies have changed, doctrines have been modified or even abandoned? So before the religious man would cast stones at the scientific community, a community that thrives on change, on growth, perhaps that one ought to review more carefully the variance that must be admitted to in his own worldview and the community he shares in.

Posted by: Bonnie Kim at September 9, 2006 1:47 PM

OK, but not-gona-happen: DNA sponcored self-dellusion. They will always claim original intent.

One day those who follow us may be able to actually share their thoughts, but til then we are left sharing our half-backed imaginations with only crude symbols and 2 dimensional pictures.

Music--play that rock n roll/I'll never grow up music for me--right outa my head without any electronics at all. Imagination.

Posted by: Jay Saul at September 9, 2006 4:24 PM

I think we get into sticky territory when we posit that human limitations and failures (hypocrisy on the part of the religious, ignorance about germs and the need for sterilization on the part of scientists)imply anything but that humans are limited and prone to failure regardless of the value of their ideals or the strength of their intent. Change on the part of both religion and science can be a product of human beings overcoming some limitations through the use of these tools or perhaps by making better use of these tools. That's what they are after all: tools. Whether we get crusades and eugenics or charity and life-saving techniques is all up to the human beings wielding the tools.

Posted by: Melinda Barton at September 10, 2006 11:29 AM

Absolutely correct; the hypothesis of macro evolution *is* the direct antithesis of the Genesis account. I sometimes wish evolutionists would admit to the logical consequences and conclusions of their belief system (as well as motivations).

Of course, from what I've gathered in my time reading on the subject, assigning natural selection with the unobserved ability to engineer highly complex and irreducible mechanisms (both in gross morphology and especially in microbiology) from less complex or de novo states isn't believed in because it's a quantifiable, repeatable, measurable, or observed phenomena (as Dawkins admitted to in so many words during a taped interview. )...

In accord with your statement earlier, macro evolution is believed in exactly because it's the opposite of the Biblical historical account of creation. As you observed earlier, Darwin was more than likely shrewd enough to understand this; I think it partly explains why he assigned Blythe's formulation of natural selection a creative potential that it quite simply does not have (and has never been observed to have ever since). Ecological niching, population stabilization, loss of genetic information -which accounts for bacterial immunity in instances I'm aware of- , loss of features or function in gross morphology, basic variation... in other words: natural selection and mutation, the only observable aspects of Darwin's hypothesis; these are not exactly promising prospects for bioengineering all biological complexity from an imagined common ancestor. (And which would explain why their original formulator, Blythe [a creationist], thought nothing more of them other than being the limiting and/or stabilizing mechanisms that they are.)

But that is the point: Darwinism and macro evolution are not appealing and accepted because they are scientifically rigorous. These ideas are believed in (despite the evidence I think) because it affords people the opportunity to not have to worry about God, or any communication from such a being regarding our relation to Him.

Posted by: Khylov at November 12, 2006 10:12 PM

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