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May 17, 2018

The Evolution-Creationism Controversy as a Test Case in Equal Time and Free Speech

A book chapter for the The Palgrave Handbook of Philosophy and Public Policy (December 26, 2018), edited by David Boonin.

During the second week of March, 1837, barely a year and a half after circumnavigating the globe in the H.M.S. Beagle, Charles Darwin met with the eminent ornithologist John Gould, who had been studying Darwin’s Galápagos bird specimens. With access to museum ornithological collections from areas of South America that Darwin had not visited, Gould corrected a number of taxonomic errors Darwin had made, such as labeling two finch species a “Wren” and “Icterus”, and pointed out to him that although the land birds in the Galápagos were endemic to the islands, they were notably South American in character.

According to the historian of science Frank J. Sulloway, who carefully reconstructed Darwin’s intellectual voyage to the discovery of the theory of evolution by means of natural selection, Darwin left the meeting with Gould convinced “beyond a doubt that transmutation must be responsible for the presence of similar but distinct species on the different islands of the Galápagos group. The supposedly immutable ‘species barrier’ had finally been broken, at least in Darwin’s own mind.”1 That July Darwin opened his first notebook on Transmutation of Species. By 1844 he was confident enough to write in a letter to his botanist friend and colleague Joseph Hooker: “I was so struck with distribution of Galapagos organisms &c &c, & with the character of the American fossil mammifers &c &c, that I determined to collect blindly every sort of fact which cd bear any way on what are species.” Five years at sea and nine years at home pouring through “heaps” of books led Darwin to admit: “At last gleams of light have come, & I am almost convinced, (quite contrary to opinion I started with) that species are not (it is like confessing a murder) immutable.”2

Like confessing a murder. How could a solution to a technical problem in biology, namely the immutability of species, generate such angst in its discoverer? The answer is obvious: if new species are created naturally instead of supernaturally, there’s no place for a creator God. No wonder Darwin waited twenty years before publishing his theory, and he would have waited even longer had he not rushed into print for priority sake because the naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace had sent Darwin his own theory of evolution in 1858, the year before Darwin published On the Origin of Species.3 And no wonder it took some time for Darwin to convince others of the theory’s veracity. The geologist Charles Lyell, a close friend and colleague of Darwin who groomed him into the world of British science and whose geological works Darwin read on the Beagle, withheld his support for a full nine years, and even then pulled back from fully embracing naturalism, leaving room for providential design underlying the entire natural system. The astronomer John Herschel sniffed at natural selection, calling it the “law of higgledy-piggledy.” In a review in the popular Macmillan’s Magazine, the statesman and economist Henry Fawcett spoke of a great divide created by Darwin’s book: “No scientific work that has been published within this century has excited so much general curiosity as the treatise of Mr. Darwin. It has for a time divided the scientific world with two great contending sections. A Darwinite and an anti-Darwinite are now the badges of opposed scientific parties.”4 (continue reading…)

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Frequent Infrequencies

May 12, 2018

Do anomalies prove the existence of God?

This op-ed was originally published on as part of a Big Ideas series on the question “What is the Future of Religion” in 2015.

For a quarter century I have investigated and attempted to explain anomalous events that people report experiencing, and I have written about a few of my own, such as being abducted by aliens (caused by extreme fatigue and sleep deprivation), hallucinating inside a sensory deprivation tank, and having an out-of-body experience while my temporal lobes were stimulated with electro-magnetic fields. Most people interpret such experiences as evidence for the supernatural, the afterlife, or even God, but since mine all had clear and obvious natural explanations few readers took them to be evidentiary.

In my October, 2014 column in Scientific American entitled “Infrequencies” however, I wrote about an anomalous experience for which I have no explanation. In brief, my fiancé, Jennifer Graf, moved to Southern California from Köln, Germany, bringing with her a 1978 Phillips 070 transistor radio that belonged to her late grandfather Walter, a surrogate father figure as she was raised by a single mom. She had fond memories of listening to music with him through that radio so I did my best to resurrect it, without success. With new batteries and the power switch left in the “on” position, we gave up and tossed it in a desk drawer where it lay dormant for months. During a quiet moment after our vows at a small wedding ceremony at our home, Jennifer was feeling sad being so far from home and wishing she had some connection to loved ones—most notably her mother and her grandfather—with whom to share this special occasion. We left my family to find a quiet moment alone elsewhere in the house when we heard music emanating from the bedroom, which turned out to be a love song playing on that radio in the desk drawer. It was a spine-tingling experience. The radio played for the rest of the evening but went quiescent the next day. It’s been silent ever since, despite repeated attempts to revive it. (continue reading…)

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Moral Philosophy and its Discontents

April 29, 2018

A response to Massimo Pigliucci’s critique of my Scientific American column on utilitarianism, deontology, and rights. (Illustration above by Izhar Cohen.)

My May 2018 column in Scientific American was titled “You Kant be Serious: Utilitarianism and its Discontents”, a cheeky nod to the German philosopher that I gleaned from the creators of the Oxford Utilitarianism Scale, whose official description for those of us who score low on the scale read: “You’re not very utilitarian at all. You Kant be convinced that maximizing happiness is all that matters.” The online version of my column carries the title (which I have no control over): “Does the Philosophy of ‘the Greatest Good for the Greatest Number’ Have Any Merit?” The answer by any reasonable person would be “of course it does!” And I’m a reasonable person, so what’s all the fuss about? Why was I jumped on by professional philosophers on social media, such as Justin Weinberg of the University of South Carolina on Twitter @DailyNousEditor, who fired a fusillade of tweets, starting with this broadside:

I sent a private email to Justin inviting him to write a letter to the editor of Scientific American that I could then respond to—given that Twitter may not be the best medium for a discussion of important philosophical issues—but I never received a reply. (continue reading…)

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Realizing Rawls’ Just Society

February 28, 2018

A review of It’s Better Than it Looks: Reasons for Optimism in an Age of Fear by Gregg Easterbrook (Public Affairs. February 2018. ISBN 9781610397414.) A shorter version of this review was published in the Wall Street Journal on February 28, 2018 under the title “Why Things Are Looking Up”.

Though declinists in both parties may bemoan our miserable lives, Americans are healthier, wealthier, safer and living longer than ever.

Better Than it Looks: Reasons for Optimism in an Age of Fear (book cover)

In his 1971 book A Theory of Justice, the Harvard philosopher John Rawls argued that in the “original position” of a society we are all shrouded in a “veil of ignorance” of how we will be born—male or female, black or white, rich or poor, healthy or sick, slave or free—so society should be structured in such a way that laws do not privilege any one group because we do not know which category we will ultimately find ourselves in.

Writing during a time when civil unrest over centuries of injustice was spilling out into the streets in marches and riots, Rawls’ work was as much prescriptive as it was descriptive. But 45 years later, at a 2016 speech in Athens, Greece, President Barack Obama affirmed that a Rawlsian society was becoming a reality: “If you had to choose a moment in history to be born, and you did not know ahead of time who you would be—you didn’t know whether you were going to be born into a wealthy family or a poor family, what country you’d be born in, whether you were going to be a man or a woman—if you had to choose blindly what moment you’d want to be born you’d choose now.” As Obama explained to a German audience earlier that year: “We’re fortunate to be living in the most peaceful, most prosperous, most progressive era in human history,” adding “that it’s been decades since the last war between major powers. More people live in democracies. We’re wealthier and healthier and better educated, with a global economy that has lifted up more than a billion people from extreme poverty.” (continue reading…)

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Reason (and Science) for Hope

February 23, 2018

A review of Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (Viking, 2018, ISBN 978-0525427575). This review appeared in Science in February 2018.

Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How it Drives Civilization (book cover)

How much better can you imagine the world being than it is right now? How much worse can you imagine the world being than it is right now?

For most of us, it is easier to imagine the world going to hell in a handbasket than it is to picture some rosy future, which explains why there are far more dystopian and apocalyptic books and films than there are utopian. We can readily conjure up such incremental improvements as increased Internet bandwidth, improved automobile navigation systems, or another year added to our average lifespan. But what really gets imaginations roiling are the images of nuclear Armageddon, AI robots run amok, or terrorists mowing down pedestrians in trucks. (continue reading…)

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