Dr Eugenie Scott on ‘What would Darwin say to today’s creationists?’

On “the glorious 12th” of February Robert Ashby BHA Chair of Trustees introduced the 12th annual Darwin Day Lecture hosted by the BHA. Richard Dawkins then introduced anthropologist Dr Eugenie Scott of the US NCSE.org as the guest speaker on ‘What would Darwin say to today’s creationists?’ (Note that NCSE has a wider educational mandate, and currently AGW-denial was another hot topic.)

Dawkins introduction highlighted two important points. Firstly that “evolution” is not a theory (a hypothesis) in the sense Darwin originally intended it, nor is it even a scientific law, but is an explanatory principle of how things came (and continue to come) to be (*1). Secondly that he is not as diplomatic or effective as Dr Scott when it comes to arguing the case for evolution against creationism. Both topics to which Dr Scott returned.

The event is celebratory and targetted at a large public audience, so naturally Dr Scott kept the content more entertaining and anecdotal than technical, and succeeded in that. Many of the well known creationist arguments aimed at undermining either evolution (by natural selection), or Darwin’s own originality or conviction to his own theory, were aired and shown to be missing the point whether or not they were scientific or even contained an element of truth.

For me, the one new item was the (laugahbly crude) creationist literature under the name Harun Yahya which had strong links with Turkish state support. Apart from the punchline Darwin might give to modern creationists (young earth, IDist or otherwise) “Haven’t you been paying attention for the last 155 years?” the telling points were in two of the questions.

Nicky Campbell (Host of BBC’s “The Big Question”) asked if Scott (or Dawkins) had ever had a creationist come up to them after a debate or argument and indicate that they now accepted Darwinian evolution? No, said Scott. Dawkins cited one who after a full undergraduate course had come to him and to say “Darwin makes sense”. Scott elaborated that she never wasted her time and lack of credibility arguing with those who professed faith-based creationist beliefs, life’s too short and there are plenty of people in an educational context who benefit more from having Darwin explained. After that Darwinian evolution takes over from the seeds of mutation sown. (Lesson there for Dawkins?)

Sue Blackmore (Evolutionary Psychology Lecturer and author of The Meme Machine) expressed the view that even in her own graduate lectures she had trouble getting many intelligent students to “get” Darwinian evolution by natural selection, did Scott have any tips? Scott had two. One, as Dawkins already indicated, it’s not simply “a theory” and success was easier if the open audience was targetted in an educational context, so yes, even there it was often difficult hence her own priority of educating open minds where success was more likely. Secondly however, Scott reminded us that since it was not “a theory” or a subject-matter scientific topic in its own right, it was important to teach the principles of Darwinian natural selection in every subject from the start, not just in biology as a particular science lesson. (Interestingly however, neither Scott nor Dawkins mentioned any non-biological evolution during the course of the evening; geographical and geological – tectonics, sedimentation and erosion – mechanisms affecting and explaining biological evolution, but no non-biological evolution by Darwinian natural selection. (*)

[(*) Note recent Unger & Smolin publication extolling the view of taking all causal explanations within the cosmos as evolutionary with a history of how things came to be; nothing, not even natural laws and mathematics are outside the history of the cosmos.]

[Post Note : in that reference to Unger & Smolin above (I’ve not yet completed the Smolin parts) I picked-up on their “conundrum of the meta-laws” – with a barely intelligible “riff” on Doug Hofstadter’s “Tabletop” – for me there is no conundrum, just something that’s hard to put into “Newtonian” forms of causal explanation – there is a “creative emergence”. It occurs to me this is the same issue as saying “Darwinian evolution as natural selection” is not a so much a law or a theory, as some kind of explanatory principle about how evolutionary causation works. The same explanatory principle of how everything came to be through history, that Unger & Smolin are talking about I say. Scientists should talk to each other more, rather than arguing with the perceived irrational.]

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