Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Not all Free Books are Free Thinking

By Gary Berg-Cross

The other day

I got a free copy of Darwin’s On The Origins of Species from my daughter-in-law.

She had picked it up at a State Fair along with some religious material on “What Really Happened to the Dinosaurs. As a Physical Anthropologist, studying our Australopithecus ancestors, she was outraged with what she saw as an anti-science effort to rebut Darwin. The book was one of those infamous new, antievolution versions first printed in 2009 by Minister and TV host Ray Comfort. The problem with the book is that it starts with a 54-page "special" introduction. This Intro is a crafty construction beginning with a brief, factual Bio of Darwin. But it quickly heads South into an irrelevant discussion of Darwin’s musing on atheism. This is followed by a shallow section on DNA. Comfort merely describes DNA complexity and then calls on Francis Collins, of human genome mapping fame, to find the mind of God glimpsed therein. Succeeding sections (Missing Links, Mutations, Disdain for Women etc.) are critical without showing respect for critical thinking and smear Darwin with a mix of faint praise and louder dissing arguments. For example, on DNA similarity between species to gauge species evolution he somehow confuses functional similarity (bats and birds) to genetic ones. He argues that the DNA complexity seen in humans couldn’t arrive by chance, seemingly forgetting that the selection process is at the heart of Origins. Hardly something that we would expect from a critical analysis (such as I discussed on my recent blog). And indeed Comfort shows his confusion on simple things like Atheist positions:

"An atheist is someone who believes that nothing made everything. He will deny that through gritted teeth, because it is an intellectual embarrassment. But if he says of his Toyota that he has no belief that there was a maker, then he thinks that nothing made it (it just happened), which is a scientific impossibility. So, to remain credible, he falls back on something made everything, but he just doesn’t know what that something was. So he’s not an atheist--he believes in an initial cause." from

But luckily there are many good, critical analyses and fact checking of Comforts Intro. One example, that real Scientists note, is that Comfort sneers at the fossil evidence for transitional forms such as seen in the terrestrial ancestry of whales and the dinosaur ancestry of birds. These turn out to bad examples since are good and growing fossils of dinosaurs that have feathers and of whales that have legs, sometimes with proto feet. Just recently Exceptionally well preserved dinosaur fossils uncovered in north-eastern China display the earliest known feathers. These creatures are all more than 150 million years old

Darwin biographer and science writer David Quammen characterized the Intro this way:

Comfort's confused polemic, disguised as an informational Introduction but full of mistakes, half truths, untruths, muddled logic, old creationist arguments, misleadingly excerpted quotations, and ill-framed analogies — plus a good dose of fire and brimstone at the end — will do a severe disservice to anyone who takes it for an entryway to Darwin's great book.

Back in November of 2009 LA-based creationist Ray Comfort launched an effort to distribute thousands of free copies of Darwin's On the Origin of Species to students at the "100 top U.S. universities." The effort was thwarted by my responses including a wonderfully coordinated campaign by the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) that reached to colleges across the U.S. in an effort to “put the record straight”. You can see great material and NCSE alert on their site including resources, that provide a:

“ blow-by-blow analysis of the Comfort introduction, a one page flier ("Why Ray Comfort is Wrong"), the NCSE Safety Bookmark (for use with Comfort's edition of Origin), details on the best web sites and books devoted to evolutionary science, and a Public Service film about the dangers of certain book introductions.”

Thanks to such efforts the attempt to give out a planned 100,000 out on college campuses was not a total success. He probably didn't help himself in later debates where he argued that the banana was designed for humans. They did apparently give away the first print run of 30,000. But now they seem to be at it again at State and County Summer Fairs. Comfort recently reported they had placed an order for 175,000 more books. As Ray explains:

“ My name will be on the cover (for those who think that we are somehow being deceptive). In one day, 170,000 future doctors, lawyers and politicians will freely get information about Intelligent Design (and the gospel) placed directly into their hands!”

So we may need another campaign to knock down Comfort's silly attempts again. They are especially dangerous in these times that mix conservative politics and conservative religion.

And it is deeply troubling to see an ideological group hijack quality works, such as Darwin’s for their own purposes. Ray Comfort, of course, describes his mission benignly as providing "world-weary Christians the refreshing opportunity to dive deeper into God's Word". But you can see his anti-freethinking strategy in books such as "You Can Lead an Atheist to Evidence But You Can't Make Him Think," . Indeed this book and the free Origins seems to be part of a roll-out of a campaign. It is also preparation for the Deeper Conference, scheduled for Oct. 14-15 at Calvary Community Church in Westlake Village, Calif. The conference has the same tone as Rick Perry’s Texas event calling on God to get us out the mess we’ve created:

"While much of this world gets itself deeper into debt," says Comfort, "we want to see you set aside such concerns and, for two days, dive deeper into God and His Word."

It perhaps prefigures a witches brew of Religion and Politics we'll see in 2011-12.

As extra motivation Comfort notes an alarming trend – a survey showed 61 percent of U.S. professors in biology or psychology said they were atheists or agnostics. Moreover,

"Atheism has doubled in the last 20 years among 19 to 25 year olds. So young people are being brainwashed by this stuff," he said. "All we want to do is give an alternative."

"So many young people are being convinced that atheism is right, that evolution is right, there's no god, there are no moral absolutes," he said. "Who cares if you marry a dog? What's the big deal? And that's what atheism believes, too. It's very sad, and we're going to do our best to fight back."

Yes, and I imagine many atheists, agnostics, secular humanists and biology teachers will too. It is just that we’ll use different tools, such as real Science, Empiricism, Skepticism and Critical Thinking.

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