Michael Shermer, one of the most important figures in intellectual American life, visited HotNews.ro on Wednesday to discuss with online readers about Darwin, evolution, and arguments against "intelligent design". Read here his answers to HotNews.ro readers.
Michael Shermer is the the editor of Skeptic Magazine. He's licensed in experimental psychology and doctor in Science History. He publishes weekly for Scientific American and is secondary professors at Claremont University.
Question no. 1
If the Darwin theory is true, why doesn't the evolution take place anymore? Why don't we see any undoubted proof that the evolution takes place in nature? Species are disappearing instead of evolving.
Evolution still occurs today as it always did, by small changes accumulating over millions of years. The fact that it's not fast enough for us to see dramatic changes doesn't mean it doesn't happen. We don't "see" mountains rising or continents moving, but we know they do. If evolution didn't happen, HIV would be dead by now, along with most viruses.
I agree! Well put.
Evolution is still operating. Humans are still evolving. Genetic research now reveals that blue eyes and blond hair arose only around 6,000 years ago, in Northern Europe, as a result of a single point mutation that then spread because blue eyes and blond hair are genetically linked to lighter skin, which is an adaptation for absorbing Vitamin D from the sun. So, those with lighter skin were better adapted to northern climes, and they also happen to have blue eyes and blond hair. However, it should be noted that in Southern California, where I live, most of the people with blond hair did not evolve it!!!
Question no. 2 gogu
Are sens notiunea de evolutie intr-un univers deterministic? Exista dovezi ca universul nostru nu este deterministic? Exista in biologie vreun fenomen spontan, despre care se stie sigur ca nu are nicio cauza?
Evolution is deterministic, although "chance" events, such as meteor impacts on earth that caused the extinction of the dinosaurs, are next to impossible to predict and build into our models of evolution, and so this is what we call "contingent" events.
Question no. 3 zdragomir
Watching the religious phenomenon, you could say that it's like a virus (STD), because it's easily transmited from parents to defenseless children.
Do you think this cycle can every be broken, by liberal / non-violent means?
Education is the answer, especially science education. The government should not be in the religion business and religions should not receive any public monies or assistance of any kind. Children are too young to understand big philosophical and theological issues, such as the existence of god, free will v. determinism, etc., and in any case they just want to be kids and have fun growing up. So the state should not impose religion on people, and parents should not bother children with such issues until they are in their late teens.
Question no. 4 zdragomir
In Romania, evolutionary theory is becoming less and less visible in the educational system, and as far as I can remember, the evolutionary biology classes never made (or help make) the point that this science would void the creationist religious myth. Most of my former class-mates didn't notice the inherent incompatibility.
Could this degradation in public education lead to a new wave of private or public religious schools (especially in Romania), like there were in the Dark Ages?
The Romanian government, and especially the public school system, should not be in the religion business, should not teach any religion in any schools to any students, especially in science classes. Think about it this way: if Islam were the dominant religion in Romania, which some day it could be (as it is rapidly becoming in many European countries such as France and the U.K.), do you Christian parents still want the government to fund religious instruction in public schools if that religious instruction was Muslim based?
Question no. 5 Cornel
You say you’re an agnostic. There are also genuinely religious.
Can a man be Christian and still believe in the evolution theory? Is the Christian religion today in opposition with science?
Agnostic is a term coined in 1869 by Thomas Huxley, to mean "unknowable." It is not possible to prove or disprove God, therefore it is a matter of faith, not reason or science. However, there are no behavioral agnostics--one behaves in a way that presumes one either believes or does not believe in God, and in this sense I am an atheist.
A Christian can accept evolutionary theory as God's way of creating life. The theory of evolution is no more of a problem for Christianity than is the theory of gravity. Presumably Christians assume that God used gravity to create solar systems and planets on which life can exist. So evolution may be the way that God created life. This is not what I believe, because I don't believe in God, but if you do believe in God it is the way you can also accept evolution.
Question no. 6 zdragomir
What do you think is the next step in evolution for humans?
Assuming we don't nuke ourselves into oblivion, or cause our own extinction through germ warfare, the next step in human evolution will be genetic engineering and technology. We will modify ourselves genetically, first to eliminate diseases such as diabetes and cancer and dementia, etc., then we will modify our brains with chemicals and computers, and eventually, in the far future, we will probably become robots that can live an indefinite period of time, slowly and gradually replacing our biological systems with more durable and long-lasting technologies. Our lives will initially be extended by years, then dozens of years, then hundreds of years. Eventually, we may be able to live forever, but now we're in the realm of science fiction, not science, but it's a dream well worth having.
Question no. 7 Mihai-G
Welcome to Romania Dr Shermer
What do you think about this country in which Darwin's theory was taken out of public schools but where kids study religion for 12 years?
What should Romanian skeptics, agnostics, atheists etc.. do in a country where priests are paid by the state (i.e. from our money too) and all politicians show off how religious they are and vote to give more money to the church on a constant basis?
How do you make people value science more than religion?
I was appalled to see a Romanian biology textbook for high school. I have a 17 year old daughter who is taking biology this year, and her textbook is light years more advanced than Romanian high school textbooks. Romania needs to upgrade its science education dramatically and immediately, and most importantly it needs to get out of the religion business. If you want religion, GO TO CHURCH. If you want an eduction GO TO SCHOOL. Do not mix church and school. Do not mix religion and education. Romania will forever be mired in a medieval existence as a pseudo-theocracy with religious indoctrination similar to what students received centuries ago before the rise of science.
Question no. 8 getu
Many people prefer to ignore the rational in spite of numerous proofs and continue to believe (among others) in creationism.
Some science people claim that the human brain is "programmed" to believe in a superior existence. What do you think about this? Should it be true, could education and public information "treat" this flaw?
The evidence for evolution is overwhelming, as strong as it is for the big bang theory of the universe, the plate tectonics theory of geology, the heliocentric theory that the earth goes around the sun, and the germ theory of disease. Evolution happened. Deal with it! It's a fact, and no student should be allowed to graduate from a Romanian high school without learning the fundamentals of evolutionary theory. Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.
Our brains evolved to find patterns in nature and to often impose "agency" into those patterns.
Patternicity: the tendency to find meaningful patterns in random noise.
Agenticity: the tendency to believe that the world is inhabited by invisible powerful beings.
God is a pattern of agency as an explanation for why things happen. And not just God. God is just another form of agency, which includes ghosts, spirits, and other preternatural beings.
Question no. 9 m3th0dman
Since there isn't an intelligent design there isn't a creator, so the first cell must have been made trough abiogenesis.
Now there are two possible cases:
1.There are very, very many of coincidences that the conditions on Earth are the exact that are required for living (distance to Sun, gravity, climate & others). Slightest changes and life wouldn’t be possible.
2.If life adapted itself at the conditions on Earth, why didn't it adapted to the conditions on Mars or Venus?
II. You have to admit that all modern science is based on empiricism, and all theories respect the scientific method (observation, explanation and testing). But evolutionism doesn't respect the last step (I know it's impossible to test it, it takes milions of years). So for evolutionism you must have faith, like for an religion since it ain't proven.
III.And the last question: Where did the Universe, and the matter we are all made of and surounds us came from? If există a creator, things are known (not explained), hypotising the fact that there is an infinite amount of time before he apeared.
I’m sorry for my English, but it isn’t my mother tongue.
If there was an Intelligent Designer of life on earth, he wasn't very intelligent! Life is messy and poorly design, cobbled together from parts left over from previous generations and modified over long periods of time.
It now appears that all stars have planets. There are about 200 billion stars in our galaxy alone. If only 1% of those stars had planets like our own, that would stilll be 2 billion habitable plantes. If only 1% of those evolved simple life forms, that would still be 2 million planets with life. if only 1% of those planets had intelligent life, that would be 20,000 planets with intelligent life, so Earth and its life is really not all that unlikely. In fact, it is a virtual certainty, given this many stars. And don't forget, there are 100-400 billion galaxies in the cosmos, so surely there are ETs all over the universe.
Question no. 10 Vlad G
What do you say about the Flagellum Bacteria that “evolved” a propulsion system formed from a motor and a propeller? Even Darwin said that if there will be found a complex system that couldn’t be evolved then his theory is wrong. That motor is like a mouse trap, it’s formed by more components, and if you take only one component away then, like the mouse trap, it won’t work. The Darwin’s evolution specifies that only the genes that have a purpose and a function are transmitted further to the new generation of living beings. (note: Darwin didn’t specified genes, because they waren’t discovered yet, but in modern theory genes are asscociated with his theory)
I believe that there is Intelligent Design in the Universe, but we are not aware of it yet. Just look around and open your eyes. Everything that surrounds us is made by intelligent design.
Another proof of intelligent design can be found in physics. Let’s take for example the Planck’s constant, if it would be off by only one unit, then the entire Univers that we know would not exist.
For more info on Flagellum Bacteria visit the link below:
Signed by a sceptic of Darwin’s Theory and also of God and religion.
There is no such thing as "the" bacteria flagellum. There are, in fact, many varieties of flagella, some simple and some complex. The three-part flagellum described by creationists as "irreducibly complex" (and therefore "designed") is, in fact, no such thing. It is cobbled together from a much simpler flagellum system in which the parts served multiple functions: secretion of fluids from inside the cell, propulsion through water, securing itself to a substrate. The flagellum evolved for one purpose initially, then co-opted the structure to serve other functions later. This is called exaptation (an "ex adaptation"), which modifies natural selection.
Question no. 11 CIprian
Do you know dr. John Lennox and his apology against Ricard Dawings and His book? What is your opinion about his arguments?
Do you know Henry Morris and his work: The Biblical Basis for modern science? Or Ravi Zacharias, a Christian indian, who explains in his book, Jesus among other gods, why the Christian God is the One and only God? What are your opinion about their arguments?
I know John Lennox and debated him in Australia last year. I found him to be a charming man, but his theology left much to be desired. It was no more sophisticated than that of C.S. Lewis, and his arguments are easily answered, as I did in my own books, How We Believe and The Science of Good and Evil
I have debated Duane T. Gish, who was Henry Morris' numero uno student. Their arguments are easily debunked, which I have done in my book, Why People Believe Weird Things, which was translated into Romanian and now available here in this country.
Question no. 12 Daniel
Why do you think that pseudo-scientific theories, like the (so-called) Intelligent Design, manage to easily attract followers, despite their flawed and biased logic and their lack of empirical evidence?
I've read some of your previous opinions on this issue, but I'm intrested in knowing if you think that there's a main cause to this phenomenon (i.e. like rather than search rationally for information that either confirms or disconfirms a particular belief, people actually seek out information that confirms what they already believe).
I have thoroughly debunked Intelligent Design in my book Why Darwin Matters, which is now being translated into Romanian. It attracts religious followers because it claims that there is an "intelligent designer" who is always presumed to be God. As a marketing label it works because life does seemed designed: wings were designed to fly, eyes were designed to see. The question is who or what was the designer. Before Darwin it was God. After Darwin, it was natural selection.
The way belief systems work is this: most of us most of the time adopt our beliefs for psychological, social, and emotional reasons. We then rationalize our beliefs with reasons we can find to support them. The belief comes first, the justification after. This is not how science works.
Question no. 13 gigi
If the Intelligent Design is correct and the Universe had a Creator ... who do you think created the Creator? :)
I don't think ID is correct. The universe may not have had a creator. It might have created itself, or it may have erupted from another universe. We just don't know. But in any case, if a creator created the universe, then who created the creator? If the creator is that which does not need to be created, then why can't the universe be that which does not need to be created. God. Universe. These are just words.
Question no. 14 radu
1. Anyone who knows anything about the scientific community should know that the simple fact that creationists don't publish anything in any respected journal makes their theories baloney. Could you do the job in their place and imagine a scenario in which creationism could be proven? What kind of information should we expect?
2. Surprinsingly, many evolutionists still use the word "darwinist". Shouldn't we get rid of it? Evolution today is pretty different than 150 years ago, but the thing that bothers me most about it is the way creationists use it as if Darwin is atheist's cult leader and "Origin of the species" is our Bible.
Thanks a lot and enjoy your stay!
What would it take to prove the existence of a creator? A large cash deposit (say $100 million dollars) in a Swiss bank account in my name! (with apologies to Woody Allen!)
Seriously, it would be difficult to prove the existence of a supernatural creator, because what would that look like in a natural worldview like science? That is, if we discovered that, say, DNA was intelligently designed, wouldn't you want to know how God created DNA? Did she use RNA? If so, how is that different from the evolution of life without a creator?
The theory of evolution stands on its own regardless of the "Darwin" name. I agree, let's not make this a cult of personaltiy. Had Darwin not discovered evolution by natural selection it would have been someone else. In fact, that someone was Alfred Russel Wallace, who published his theory at the same time as Darwin. The theory does not stand or fall based on one man named Darwin.
Question no. 15 Gheorghe V.
Do you happen to know any explanation for the origins of life? How from something lacking life and unable to reproduce "appeared" something alive, able to reproduce?
Since the Evolution theory has not been definitively and demonstrated without raising any question, don’t you think that its adepts, and atheists in general, are also believers? Some choose to believe in God, some chose to believe that God does not exist. It’s just an option.
P.S. It would be interesting to interview Darwin, so he can tell us from the other side how things are and if he did not revise his theory in the meantime :)
There are half a dozen viable theories for the origins of life: on the surface of the oceans, deep in the oceans, in thermal vents, on ice, in subterranean blocks of rock under high pressure, etc. This is a lively and viable science and we'll see where the evidence leads us as the experiments are run.
But in any case, the answer "God did it" is no answer at all. It doesn't explain "how" god did it, or where and when she did it. "God" is just a linguistic place holder for "unknown." It explains nothing.
Question no. 16 Adrian
Dr Shermer, congratulations for being a skeptic, more so for questioning the pseudo-scientific arguments of ‘intelligent design’ perpetrators. Personally, I accept the scientists’ evidence and rationale as to the evolution of the species, the age of the universe and so on. (Although I dare presume something mysterious happened at the last step of the evolution, when the modern human being emerged.) The reluctance to accept such argumentation is, as you say, psychologically interpretable.
Arguably, political and financial interests support all this “religious” misunderstanding of the issue. I think it’s wrong that official Christian dogma does not embrace reasonable interpretations regarding world creation and it seems like pure politics and manipulation.
In such perspective, do you see yourself as part of a political clash? As a reactionary to the mainstream ideologists struggling to keep a grip on their followers? Don’t you ever feel that you are in slippery sands questioning individual belief rather than ideologies? Do you think the sociological and political implications of the creationist theory are also to be considered and to what extent?
Thank you and God bless!
I'm not a reactionary! Evolutionary theory is as mainstream and noncontroversial as you can get--within science. My views on evolution are not in the least bit reactionary, compared to scientists. Where I'm a challenging people is on their ideological interference with science. Keep religion out of the science business. Keep religion out of the politics business. If you want relgion, GO TO CHURCH. If you want science, GO TO SCHOOL. It's that simple!