Evolution and the acquisition of knowledge

March 29, 2009

This is sort of a piggyback on the last post in the sense that I’m posting again on evolution; it is actually a mere coincidence that I would write some musings on evolution and cognitive shortcuts (especially after a long break), only to be confronted by the idea of evolution yet again the following day in the last place I would generally hope to hear about it: my church.

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On cognitive shortcuts

March 28, 2009

Okay, the hiatus is over – sort of. This won’t indicate any sort of regular posting, but I have a subject that I think fits best under this banner rather that my Docere Est Discere blog (even though it deals in a very broad sense with education).

In my interim as a student teacher – which is coming to a close in the next few weeks – I have tried to stay apprised of what is happening with the blogs that I have been following for quite some time (many of which are on this site’s blogroll). One of those which I have come to enjoy greatly is Ed Brayton’s Dispatches from the Culture Wars, which I find interesting and enlightening on a number of topics (despite disagreeing personally with Brayton on a number of matters).

Recently, Brayton wrote about Chris Mooney ripping George Will apart for his uninformed and flawed piece on global warming in the Washington Post (both pieces were printed in the Post, actually), and in discussing the issue, he brought up the idea of cognitive shortcuts:

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Putting ignorance in its place

June 25, 2008

You won’t see me link to Pharyngula often, but this response posted on P.Z. Myers’ blog is too good not to refer to, even given my often unfavorable opinion of his statements on religion: Lenski gives Conservapædia a lesson. Lenski here is Richard Lenski, one of the authors of a recent study showing a very interesting novel evolution in a population of E. coli, and he’s responding to the Wiki site Conservapedia, which is fairly well known for being a refuge for – how should I put this? – very right-wing, authoritarian sorts of individuals. (The fact that, in a thread there, Michael Behe – the posterchild for the Intelligent Design movement – was denigrated for adhering to common descent, evolution, and an old earth – as well as for not being a “Creation Scientist”! – should speak volumes.)

Most of it requires no comment – Lenski is clearly being very level-headed, given the sorts of criticism (if you can even call it that) that he is getting from the Cons. people – but the last two postscripts to the letter are worth noting:

P.P.P.S. You may be unable to understand, or unwilling to accept, that evolution occurs. And yet, life evolves! [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/E_pur_si_muove] From the content on your website, it is clear that you, like many others, view God as the Creator of the Universe. I respect that view. I find it baffling, however, that someone can worship God as the all-mighty Creator while, at the same time, denying even the possibility (not to mention the overwhelming evidence) that God’s Creation involved evolution. It is as though a person thinks that God must have the same limitations when it comes to creation as a person who is unable to understand, or even attempt to understand, the world in which we live. Isn’t that view insulting to God?

P.P.P.P.S. I noticed that you say that one of your favorite articles on your website is the one on “Deceit.” That article begins as follows: “Deceit is the deliberate distortion or denial of the truth with an intent to trick or fool another. Christianity and Judaism teach that deceit is wrong. For example, the Old Testament says, ‘Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.'” You really should think more carefully about what that commandment means before you go around bearing false witness against others.

Lessons that all well-meaning Christians should consider when bashing others’ points of view.

Pynchon on the three laws of thermodynamics

March 19, 2008

One of my favorite literary moments, from Thomas Pynchon’s short story “Entropy”:

Callisto had learned a mnemonic device for remembering the Laws of Thermodynamics: you can’t win, things are going to get worse before they get better, who says they’re going to get better.

The story is a fascinating literary representation of entropy; I highly recommend seeking out Pynchon’s anthology Slow Learner for the story. (And for the initiated into Pynchon’s corpus, it is much easier to ingest than his amazingly dense Gravity’s Rainbow.)

Are prima facie beliefs reasonable?

February 2, 2008

We live in a world that is not what it seems.

Before you think that I’ve gone off the deep end and started espousing wacky theories like Manichean-style dualism or the 9/11 Truth movement, let me be clearer about what I’m proposing: I think that we live in a world where purely prima facie beliefs – things we believe because they appear to be so “at face value” – are not inherently reasonable to hold.

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On evolution: An open question

January 31, 2008

Every so often, I hear something that makes me go, “Huh?” As a fairly non-traditional college student in a traditional program at a small liberal arts university, this happens more frequently than I would like to admit.

Such was the case in one of my education courses earlier today. A biology ed major was talking about the idea of sending out a newsletter at the beginning of the school year (as a future teacher, of course), and (I can only presume he expects to teach high school biology rather than a middle school course like life science) he said that he would explicitly tell parents in the newsletter that he plans to teach evolution and exactly why he feels such.* This isn’t bad in itself, but the way he delivered it was fiery in his fervor – as if he had something to prove. Moreover, he said that the reason he felt compelled to do so is because evolution is necessary to understanding anything in biology.

Now, I’ve not been secretive about my views on evolution, particularly that I do not doubt that macro/microevolution has happened, nor do I doubt common descent. But I am curious – why is the understanding of evolution so vital to understanding literally anything in biology? I took biology as a freshman in high school, and I’d like to think that my understanding of the subject wasn’t hindered by the fact that we didn’t cover any evolutionary theory in the course. (It should be noted that the teacher wouldn’t have shied away from the topic on her own principles – she was/is a staunch atheist and also affirms the truth of modern evolutionary theory.)

So here’s my open question: If, as [edit: Dobzhansky’s] infamous dictum goes, “nothing makes sense in biology except in light of evolution,” what makes this claim true? Note here that I’m not asking for a rationale of why evolution should be studied in the biology classroom – clearly, if it’s good science, it belongs there – but rather why evolution is indispensable in the study of biology. If it’s not vital to the study, that doesn’t mean it should be discarded, but it seems to me that the claim might just be hyperbolically made out of a knee-jerk reaction to those who openly reject it (i.e. creationists), as I suspect is the case with this future biology teacher. If so, then that is worth reflecting on for those who are so sorely tempted to react similarly.

*What occurred to me immediately is that this teaching candidate might have a shock coming depending on the district he gets hired in – evolution might not be a standard part of the curriculum for the courses he gets as a first year teacher.

Edit (2/1): I also found the way he expressed his fervor at telling parents that they could not allow their children to opt out to be a little counter-intuitive – teachers shouldn’t be so openly antagonistic at some unknown set of parents who might be not be totally on board with evolution because it only sets them up for problems. It makes me wonder what would happen if I taught freshman English and sent a note home, “We’re reading To Kill a Mockingbird, and if you don’t like it, tough.” Granted, there is a difference between science and English in this regard, but the attitude is equally detrimental to good parent-teacher relations, possibly even among parents who wouldn’t have a problem with their child being taught evolution.

Christians and science: The continuing struggle

August 11, 2007

I have wanted to blog on this topic for quite some time, but a recent post by Tim Challies gave me a foil to work from. Here goes, and I’ll hope for the best.

One of the areas of dispute among Christians (and a criticism thereof by atheists as well) that gives me the most grief is the perceived conflict between science and religion. This is most prominently seen between creationism, the most prevalent theistic view, and modern evolutionary theory (henceforth MET), the mainstream atheistic view, in my opinion (but of course not exclusively atheistic). To a degree, I understand the struggle because theists see evolution as encroaching on their territory using a widely accepted medium: science. As such, there is bound to be some defensiveness.

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