Following my posting about my encounter with Mayor (and new talk-radio host) Alan Autry, I've had a flurry of visitors, comments and (mostly) constructive criticism. It's been most appreciated!
However, here's an example of criticism that didn't appear publicly on my blog, but it's too delicious not to share, with some feedback. This is another example of the sort of email PZ Myers regularly gets, which is to say (to put it mildly) misdirected anxiety, formatted in the increasingly-notorious Comic Sans font. I hope that my attempts at setting the letter-writer straight are not as Comical, in appearance or otherwise!
Actually, I believe I pointed out that human beings have a special responsibility to the rest of life, inasmuch as we are conscious, aware of the consequences of our actions, etc. E.O. Wilson has made this argument explicit in his book The Creation. In doing so, I didn't reference biology alone. I mentioned the fact that scripture indicates a special role for mankind as the steward of creation. Perhaps you missed that?
I do not deny that it is dangerous to misinterpret the natural world. Did you miss the part where I said that Margaret Sanger was a poor biologist? History shows that the eugenics movement had a lot more to do with prejudice and social control than science. It also shows that the economic thought of Adam Smith and other 'laissez-faire' thinkers of the early 19th century influenced Darwin's thought and that the caricature of evolution known as 'social Darwinism' was pushed by capitalists (mostly Americans) eager to justify their 'robber baron' economic policies. These examples support the general point I made on the program, which is that evolution has been coopted for ideological purposes by both the right and the left!
Is it too much to ask that evolution be evaluated on the evidence from nature, as opposed to the way the human beings might use (or, in the case of Margaret Sanger, misuse) the concept? Surely you are aware that all manner of people have exploited Christianity for ideological purposes, among them Hitler? I could have turned that fact back against the caller and asked him to repudiate Christianity as a means of showing the absurdity of his argument, but that would've been unnecessarily divisive. I'm trying to get my fellow believers to give evolution a fair shake as science, and that means uncoupling it from ideological commitments in the political or religious sphere.
Your counter-argument suggests you may still be puzzled about the nature of evolution. Look: my definition of evolution is the conventional genetic one, in which the frequency of alleles change within a population. One possible consequence of such genetic change is the emergence of a novel population able to breed only with itself and not other populations with which it shares common descent, which then by definition is considered a new species. However, contrary to what you imply there is no requirement that the species must necessarily be more complex, or more ultimately fit in some cosmic sense. In many cases, populations 'lose' previously-acquired 'adaptations', as in the case of blind cave fish.
As for the rest of this comment, it depends on what you mean by 'evidence'. There is evidence for speciation events at the present time, a well-demonstrated genetic mechanism for change and evidence for the geological time scale. We use inference based on this and other evidence in building our models, and then use those models to direct our investigations, effectively treating them as 'evidence' which we then attempt to falsify.
Oh, sure I will. Why wouldn't I? Scientists are human beings, and they often let their own biases show both within and without the classroom. Pretty much all teachers will occasionally 'slip up' from time to time without meaning to, including yours truly, and a smaller percentage will actively use their classroom as a 'bully pulpit' for their views. I consider the latter unfortunate and bad pedagogy, whether the teacher is promoting evolution or creation. The real question, though, is not whether a minority will act unwisely, but what are all teachers supposed to teach? Clearly, that should be what the scientific community has negotiated with the local educational establishment through the state. If you don't like it, you should get involved with some part of that equation to effect change. By the way, in my experience instructor bias usually involves creationists departing from their own state's standards.
It's not that I'm unable or unwilling, it's just that my views on that are actually rather nuanced and I had only a limited amount of time on the program to make my case for science education. My take is that the 'Adam and Eve' described in Genesis could've represented real people or a composite of the experiences of many people. I did mention that Genesis has multiple sources, and I could've added that as far back as the 4th cent. St. Augustine urged people not to make the mistake of interpreting every passage in Genesis literally.
As far as Mitochondrial Eve and Y-Chromosomal Adam, you are out of your depth there. No one who understands the data actually thinks that Mitochondrial Eve was the first human female or that Y-Chromosomal Adam was the first human male. As such, they do not actually map onto the literal account found in Genesis 2. For one thing, Eve would've lived about 80,000 years before Adam! Please check out the wikipedia article on 'Mitochondrial Eve' and read under 'Misconceptions.'
Actually, if you listened to the interview I make the point that the scientific community never claims that any particular fossil find is ancestral to contemporary populations. That observation is consistent with a narrow reading of your comment above, which refers to the technical meaning of 'transitional form', a term which is routinely misread or misrepresented by creationists. Strictly speaking, it is true that the fossil record doesn't 'prove' common descent even in the exceptional cases you reference above. However, the overall pattern of change in the fossil record does support the inference of common descent, and is consistent with the phylogenetic patterns predicted from comparative anatomy and molecular biology.
It's not a failure: it's intellectual honesty to point out that abiogenesis can be uncoupled from evolution by natural selection.
The former is a hypothesis and a scientific research program, largely in chemistry, heavily speculative in character, whose purpose is to explain the origin of life in natural terms. The latter is a well-supported and powerful scientific theory within biology to explain the diversity and distribution of life over time and space in natural terms. I neither accept or reject abiogenesis, but I strongly affirm the utility and power of evolution by natural selection. If (as you claim) evolution works because the system was intelligently-designed, then eventually we should discover compelling evidence of ID within biology itself. Obviously, the evidence presented so far has failed to persuade the vast majority of biologists, and until it does it won't make it into the scientific curriculum. Again, if you listen to the whole interview, you will hear that I acknowledge that is a possibility---but ID devotees obviously have their work cut out for them on that point.
'Darwinism' as you choose to define can be understood to be an ideology, but few scientists use the term as you do, and those who do (usually British) use it as shorthand for 'evolution via natural selection' to distinguish it from other evolutionary scenarios. It is precisely these misunderstandings that lead me to avoid the term. I do not consider myself a 'Darwinist' or even an 'evolutionist' as these imply an ideological commitment that, frankly, I do not have. I have no ax to grind for 'naturalism' or 'materialism' either. I am an evolutionary biologist by training, a high school science teacher by vocation and a Christian (Methodist) by conviction. I admit to not having a Ph.D in math or physics, but I would appreciate it if you would actually learn a little biology (such as with Mitochondrial Eve, above) before you start hurling brickbats of alleged ignorance against me and my colleagues.
You just don't appear to be paying that much attention. In the interview, both the Mayor and I pointed to our common faith. Our point of disagreement was not over whether or not God exists, but how much we think evolutionary theory can actually explain. Neither one of us was trying to force listeners to choose one over the other, so why would you assume that I am attempting to set science against religion? I'm afraid your labels say little about what I actually do for a living, and more about the things that you fear and clearly misunderstand. Again, if you'll recall the interview, I went out of my way to reject the introduction of ideological labels where evolution was concerned. I acknowledged that there were people on both sides of the political landscape who accept evolution, and people on both sides who were skeptical, like my host. And my host, for his part, acknowledged that there were a variety of views within Christianity where evolution is concerned, and we managed to have a civil discussion. At no point did Mayor Autry, who is pro-ID and a conservative Christian, find it necessary to call me names or suggest that I was not sincere. He went out of his way to suggest otherwise up front at the top of the interview. What a pity that you aren't willing to take the high road the Mayor traveled!