15.12.10

SWINGING BOTH WAYS

Antony Latham, The Naked Emperor: Darwinism Exposed, Janus Publishing, London, 2005.

Stephen Horne and Richard Robertson, Faith is Not Enough: A Rationalist Perspective on Religion and Other Irrational Beliefs, Janus Publishing, London, 2010.


The Janus Publishing Company of Gloucester Place, near Baker Street (not to be confused with Janus of Old Compton Street, Soho, who specialise in magazines full of photographs of young women being caned) is named after the Roman God who has two faces looking in opposite directions. This is appropriate, given the antipathetic nature of these two books that they have sent to Magonia for review. If you learn that Prometheus are issuing a book about Roswell, then you will know even before you open it that it is not going to say that an extraterrestrial spacecraft crashed there in 1947.

No such expectations can be made of Janus Publishing. As you will have gathered from the subtitles, the one is an attack on Darwinism from a Christian point of view, the other an attack on every kind of religion. There are, though certain similarities between the two: both books contain a number of misprints ('Dali Lama’), and layout errors. The Naked Emperor has a short bibliography but no index; Faith is Not Enough has an (inadequate) index but no bibliography.

Latham is a doctor, who says that he became a Christian whilst working in a hospital in a remote part of Kenya. He currently practises in the Outer Hebrides. To criticise Darwinism, in the twenty-first century, is easier than it might seem at first sight because the Darwinists do not agree among themselves (indeed, there have been whole books about their disputes, with titles like The Darwin Wars), as Latham shows by quotation. Stephen Jay Gould held that the pathway leading to humans was filled with unlikely chances, beginning with the arising of the first notochord, and that if humans were to die out they would never occur again.

This contrasts with the view of Simon Conway Morris: “Gould maintained that if you re-run the tape of life again from Cambrian times you would see a totally different set of organisms and certainly not man. Man, to Gould, is a fluke. Man, to Conway Morris, is virtually an inevitability. Conway Morris imagines meeting his first group of aliens and finding them remarkably similar to ourselves.” This disagreement is convenient for both sides in the “Is intelligent alien life common or rare?” debate: whichever view you take, you can quote one or the other of these experts as being representative of the current scientific consensus on the subject.

There have, in any case, been several attacks on the theory of evolution in recent decades, such as Michael Denton, Darwinism: A Theory in Crisis, and Michael Behe, Darwin’s Black Box. Latham not only quotes these works, but has even borrowed some of their illustrations. In fact, he does not have much new to say.

Stephen Horne and Richard Robertson are science teachers, and we are told that Horne is “now teaching in southern Europe”, with Robertson “somewhere in the Middle East” – it seems that their exact whereabouts are confidential. Their work is a clarion call for a crusade against religion, which they repeatedly compare to Nazism. At the outset, they give it as their contention that: “…to acknowledge death as the complete ending of life enables us to value life much more highly and to consider quality of life as being of the utmost importance. If we reject concepts of heaven and hell then life now, on earth, is our one chance to be and to leave a legacy of some sort.”

Unfortunately, though this is a logical expectation, the history of the twentieth century does not support it. Countries that have been officially atheist, such as Stalin’s Russia, and Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, have been those that have had the least respect for the sanctity of human life, huge numbers of people having been executed without trial, and often on the most trivial of pretexts. At one point the authors do admit this, but say that the fault was that these states were communist, rather than that they were atheist.

Their targets include the Taliban, faith schools, the Pope, theology, the Qur’an, Tony Blair (for converting to Catholicism), astrology (which in fact is also attacked by most religions), American presidential candidates who express religious beliefs, political correctness, TV evangelists, religious groups who oppose condoms and cloning, Saudi Arabia, and the Archbishop of Canterbury. They include a chapter on what they call ‘Unintelligent Design’, based upon the now familiar argument that the human body is badly designed. I would be more convinced of this if those who say so were to demonstrate it by producing an improved model.

Though this is all about the superiority of rationalism, they do admit that it is difficult to act rationally all of the time (“Falling in love is hardly a rational response to the opposite sex”), and their own book exemplifies this, so that it is also hard to resist nit-picking over some of the details. Firstly, there is a lack of continuity and consistency. They give a list of techniques used by propagandists such as Goebbels and Billy Graham “to reduce critical thinking”, of which the first is: “Repeat your ‘message’ many times, in as many ways as possible”; and the ninth “Repetition is essential”: they have evidently caught this habit themselves.

Speaking of abortion, of which they are of course in favour, they cite an American author named Chris Floyd as saying that “whether abortion is legal or not appears to make no difference to the number of abortions performed”. Yet elsewhere they mention the sudden unexpected drop in the America crime rate in the 1990s, which an economist, Stephen D. Levitt, explained as being a consequence of the legalisation of abortion on demand in 1973, as it is unwanted children who are most likely to become delinquent. This may well be true, but it cannot be reconciled with the previous assertion.

They quote a critic of evolution, Harun (or Arun – one or the other name must be a misprint) Yahya, as saying that the chances of a protein of 500 left-handed amino acids being formed, if the amino acids were merely arranged at random, is one in 10950 (I make it 10800, but this hardly matters as either way it is more than astronomical). Horne and Robertson point out that this is still not so improbable as a particular human coming into existence. At your conception, they say, there were 1011 possible outcomes, of which only one actually occurred. But that is not the end, because both of your parents only came into being by a similar lottery of the eggs and sperm of your grandparents. These two also each had a one in 1011 probability, so that multiplying out gives a one in 1033 chance. The same with your great-grandparents, and so on, so that through six generations the odds are one in 101397, far less than the probability of a protein.

The trouble is that the analogy is false. Nearly all of the possible outcomes of the genetic lotteries that gave rise to yourself would have in any case produced a viable human. But it is agreed that the vast majority of amino acid chains would not be functional proteins. I would hesitate to attend the science classes of men incapable of spotting this fallacy. A further imbecility is the way that they calculate the odds of a person’s existence. A woman has about 2000 eggs, and a man 50million sperm, so that multiplication gives one hundred billion, that is 1011, possible outcomes. But since each egg and each sperm contains exactly the same genetic information, their number is irrelevant. The real lottery is the combination of the chromosomes, which could occur in 246 (about 1014) different ways, which is actually more improbable than their own figure.

To sum up, the arguments of both books strike me as worn, or perhaps I should say futile. People have been arguing for the same points of view for more than a century, yet others continue to believe in evolution or religion, or both (it would be interesting to meet someone who believed in neither). In any case, what you choose to believe will not affect the truth of the matter. -- Gareth J. Medway


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