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Scientists Confront Intelligent Design and Creationism – Andrew J. Petto & Laurie R. Godfrey (Eds.) ***
When I get a book to review that is a collection of essays by academic authors, I have to confess it tends to sink to the bottom of the review pile. Often this is the mark of a cheaply assembled book in the sense that there is no attempt to avoid overlaps, so there’s lots of repetition, and frankly the writing standard (even from well established authors) can be a trifle dull. So it was a very pleasant surprise to discover that this book, which is in that worrying format, is in fact well edited to avoid overlaps, and is almost entirely very readable.
I have really agonized over the rating to give this book. Considering the topic, it is relatively easy going, and I think everyone should be interested in understanding just what is going on when creationists and their intelligent design offspring take on evolution. So from those two points the book was really deserving of 5 stars. Yet in the end, it is an academic assault on creationism and intelligent design – which isn’t a bad thing, but doesn’t make for true popular science. I am really interested in the subject, and so found in fascinating, but I don’t think it’s ever going to appeal to the kind of person who will buy, say, Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything – and it’s for that reason alone that it gets the three stars.
The book is divided into three sections. The essays in the first section look at what intelligent design and creationism are, in the second the different scientific tacks taken by these two movements in attacking evolution and “Darwinism” are covered, and in the third, aspects of the theory of science itself that are relevant to the argument are covered. What we see time and time again is the false logic that is used in trying to attack evolution. It’s quite frustrating when the arguments veer off into something that’s more a matter of philosophy than science. Somehow, the advocates of creationism feel they can blame everything from socialism and communism (both arguably influenced by early Christian ideas like owning goods in common) to the breakdown of society on evolution. Part of the book is dedicated to explaining why this apparently bizarre connection is made.
A lot more is concerned with how the idea that the Bible is inerrant leads to various strange scientific beliefs, which are put above the observed reality – plus the remarkably solid peer-reviewed support for the various mechanisms of evolution (as the book points out, the creationists and ID supporters tend to attack “Darwinism”, an approximation to the 100+ year old idea of evolution, rather than modern scientific detail), compared with the almost non-existent academic science in “creation science” and intelligent design.
Anyone with a real interest in the subject who has heard a little about intelligent design, which sounds quite rational when described by one of its supporters, will find this is a valuable tool for understanding what is really happening, and the difference between science and the attempts to attack science. I ought to stress this isn’t an anti-religious book like Dawkins’ The God Delusion, which we haven’t reviewed as it’s technically theology rather than science. Most Christians would find nothing in here to be uncomfortable with. Instead they would have a better understanding of why some of their fellow Christians mistakenly attack one of the most elegant and effective theories in science.
The great 20th century physicist Enrico Fermi didn’t say a lot about extraterrestrial life, but his one utterance on the subject has gone down in legend. He said ‘Where is everybody?’ Given the enormous size and age of the universe, and the basic Copernican principle that there’s nothing special about planet Earth, space should be teeming with aliens. Yet we see no evidence of them. That, in a nutshell, is Fermi’s paradox.
Not everyone agrees that Fermi’s paradox is a paradox. To some people, it’s far from obvious that ‘space should be teeming with aliens’, while UFO believers would scoff at the suggestion that ‘we see no evidence of them’. Even people who accept that both statements are true – including a lot of professional scientists – don’t always lose sleep over Fermi’s paradox. That’s something that makes Milan Cirkovic see red, because he takes it very seriously indeed. In his own words, ‘it is the most complex multidisciplinary problem in contemporary science’.
There's good news and bad news. The good news is that The Order of Time does what A Brief History of Timeseemed to promise but didn't cover: it attempts to explore what time itself is. The bad news is that Carlo Rovelli does this in such a flowery and hand-waving fashion that, though the reader may get a brief feeling that they understand what he's writing about, any understanding rapidly disappears like the scent of a passing flower (the style is catching).
It doesn't help either that the book is in translation so some scientific terms are mangled, or that Rovelli has a habit of self-contradiction. Time and again (pun intended) he tells us time doesn't exist, then makes use of it. For example, at one point within a page of telling us of time's absence Rovelli writes of events that have duration and a 'when' - both meaningless terms without time. At one point he speaks of a world without time, elsewhere he says 'Time and space are real phenomena.'…
This book was sitting on my desk for some time, and every time I saw it, I read the title as 'The Happy Brian'. The pleasure this gave me was one aspect of the science of happiness that Dean Burnett does not cover in this engaging book.
Burnett's writing style is breezy and sometimes (particularly in footnotes) verging on the whimsical. His approach works best in the parts of the narrative where he is interviewing everyone from Charlotte Church to a stand-up comedian and various professors on aspects of happiness. We get to see the relevance of home and familiarity, other people, love (and sex), humour and more, always tying the observations back to the brain.
In a way, Burnett sets himself up to fail, pointing out fairly early on that everything is far too complex in the brain to really pin down the causes of something as diffuse as happiness. He starts off with the idea of cheekily trying to get time on an MRI scanner to study what his own brain does when he's happy, b…