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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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Michael Shermer Sizzle Reel

See clips from Dr. Michael Shermer’s most noted media appearances including: twice on the Colbert Report, Larry King Live with UFOlogists, CNN, and other news shows debating creationists and Intelligent Design advocates, and other highlights from his 25 year career as a public intellectual.

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When Facts Backfire

Why worldview threats undermine evidence
magazine cover

Have you ever noticed that when you present people with facts that are contrary to their deepest held beliefs they always change their minds? Me neither. In fact, people seem to double down on their beliefs in the teeth of overwhelming evidence against them. The reason is related to the worldview perceived to be under threat by the conflicting data.

Creationists, for example, dispute the evidence for evolution in fossils and DNA because they are concerned about secular forces encroaching on religious faith. Anti-vaxxers distrust big pharma and think that money corrupts medicine, which leads them to believe that vaccines cause autism despite the inconvenient truth that the one and only study claiming such a link was retracted and its lead author accused of fraud. The 9/11 truthers focus on minutiae like the melting point of steel in the World Trade Center buildings that caused their collapse because they think the government lies and conducts “false flag” operations to create a New World Order. Climate deniers study tree rings, ice cores and the PPM of greenhouse gases because they are passionate about freedom, especially that of markets and industries to operate unencumbered by restrictive government regulations. Obama birthers desperately dissected the president’s long-form birth certificate in search of fraud because they believe that the nation’s first African- American president is a socialist bent on destroying the country.

In these examples, proponents’ deepest held worldviews were perceived to be threatened by skeptics, making facts the enemy to be slayed. This power of belief over evidence is the result of two factors: cognitive dissonance and the backfire effect. In the classic 1956 book When Prophecy Fails, psychologist Leon Festinger and his co-authors described what happened to a UFO cult when the mother ship failed to arrive at the appointed time. Instead of admitting error, “members of the group sought frantically to convince the world of their beliefs,” and they made “a series of desperate attempts to erase their rankling dissonance by making prediction after prediction in the hope that one would come true.” Festinger called this cognitive dissonance, or the uncomfortable tension that comes from holding two conflicting thoughts simultaneously. Two social psychologists, Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson (a former student of Festinger), in their 2007 book Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) document thousands of experiments demonstrating how people spin-doctor facts to fit preconceived beliefs to reduce dissonance. Their metaphor of the “pyramid of choice” places two individuals side by side at the apex of the pyramid and shows how quickly they diverge and end up at the bottom opposite corners of the base as they each stake out a position to defend. (continue reading…)

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Alfred Russel Wallace was a Hyper-Evolutionist, not an Intelligent Design Creationist

A couple weeks ago, I participated in an online debate at Evolution News & Views with Center for Science & Culture fellow Michael Flannery on the question: “If he were alive today, would evolutionary theory’s co-discoverer, Alfred Russel Wallace, be an intelligent design advocate?” The following is my opening statement in the debate. A link to Flannery’s reply can be found near the end of this page.

The double dangerous game of Whiggish What-if? history is on the table in this debate that inexorably invokes hindsight bias, along the lines of “Was Thomas Jefferson a racist because he had slaves?” Adjudicating historical belief and behavior with modern judicial scales is a fool’s errand that carries but one virtue—enlightenment of the past for correcting current misunderstandings. Thus I shall endeavor to enlighten modern thinkers on the perils of misjudging Alfred Russel Wallace as an Intelligent Design creationist, and at the same time reveal the fundamental flaw in both his evolutionary theory and that of this latest incarnation of creationism.

Wallace’s scientific heresy was first delivered in the April, 1869 issue of The Quarterly Review, in which he outlined what he saw as the failure of natural selection to explain the enlarged human brain (compared to apes), as well as the organs of speech, the hand, and the external form of the body:

In the brain of the lowest savages and, as far as we know, of the prehistoric races, we have an organ…little inferior in size and complexity to that of the highest types…. But the mental requirements of the lowest savages, such as the Australians or the Andaman Islanders, are very little above those of many animals. How then was an organ developed far beyond the needs of its possessor? Natural Selection could only have endowed the savage with a brain a little superior to that of an ape, whereas he actually possesses one but very little inferior to that of the average members of our learned societies.

(Please note the language that, were we to judge the man solely by his descriptors for indigenous peoples, would lead us to label Wallace a racist even though he was in his own time what we would today call a progressive liberal.) (continue reading…)

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The Baloney Detection Kit (on RDF TV)

With a sea of information coming at us from all directions, how do we sift out the misinformation and bogus claims, and get to the truth? Michael Shermer, Publisher of Skeptic magazine, lays out a “Baloney Detection Kit” — ten questions we should ask when encountering a claim. (continue reading…)

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