Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Darwin's views of the American Civil War

Charles Darwin relied upon four close friends as he developed his theory of natural selection. Charles Lyell, Joseph Hooker, and Thomas Huxley in England, and Asa Gray in America were his four stalwarts.

When the Civil War erupted in 1861, Darwin's fervent anti-slavery position brought him to disappointment in Lincoln, and conflict with his American friend Gray. A Lincoln man, Gray drew Darwin's ire for supporting the Union over immediate abolition. He lost all enthusiasm for the North when Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves in those rebelling states, but not the loyal border states of Maryland, Kentucky, Delaware, and Missouri.

Writing to Gray in 1863, he declared:

Some few, and I am one, even wish to God, though at the loss of millions of lives, that the North would proclaim a crusade against slavery. In the long run, a million horrid deaths would be amply repaid in the cause of humanity...Great God how I should like to see that greatest curse on Earth, slavery, abolished.

Darwin's willingness to sacrifice millions of American lives comes across as quite shocking a century and a half later. The statement reenforces the thought that great scientists may be great in science, but no more qualified to comment on other matters -- theology, or public policy-- than the average Joe.

There are hints here of the kind of totalitarian "greater good" that sacrificed individual rights for some noble concept of the welfare of all. Those kinds of experiments end in the horrific excesses of communism and fascism that we know so well.

And it also brings to mind Sam Harris' recent comments complimenting the fascists in Europe for their approach to dealing with the rise of Islam in Europe.

February 12, 1809

Most people know that Abraham Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809. Lincoln shares that birthday with none other than Charles Darwin ! More on Darwin's views on Lincoln and the American Civil War in my next post.

The picture at the top left is of Lincoln, aged 54 in 1863. The picture at the top right is of Darwin, aged 51 in 1860, a year after the publication of Origin of Species.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Asa Gray -- Darwin's "Dove"

Asa Gray (1810-1888) was one of the three scientists Charles Darwin trusted enough to provide pre-publication comments on his famous 1859 work Origin of Species. Gray, born in Oneida County, New York, was by 1857 a professor of Botany at Harvard and an internationally recognized scientist.

Gray and Darwin had been friends from the late 1830's. A fascinating exchange of letters beginning in 1857 between the two presage the entire debate over the implications of Darwin's theory for belief in God.

Gray, a believing Christian and strong Presbyterian his whole life, though critical of Darwin's insistence on the random nature of mutations (not a surprise that Gray would lean more towards design, now is it ?) became Darwin's strongest support in America. Called Darwin's "dove" to contrast him from the aggressively atheistic Thomas Huxley (Darwin's "bulldog"), Gray debated with his Harvard colleague, Louis Agassiz, on the topic for several years subsequent to the publication of the theory.

Beginning with Gray in America and Temple in England, a long line of Christian scientists were strong proponents of Darwin, including Fisher in the 1930's, and of course Francis S. Collins today.

Thanks to David Dobbs, author of Reef Madness, for emphasizing to me the important role Asa Gray played in the acceptance of Darwin's theory.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Claiming my blog on Technorati

Technorati Profile

With this post, I am claiming my blog on Technorati.

The good news is that traffic for this blog places this blog in the top 2% of all blogs in the world.

The bad news is there are 48 million blogs, and this blog is ranked about 1 millionth !

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Another reason to admire Christopher Hitchens

This from the conclusion of Christopher Hitchens' recent article in the City Journal on the threat to Western Civilization from Islam:

When I read Sam Harris’s irresponsible remark that only fascists seemed to have the right line, I murmured to myself: “Not while I’m alive, they won’t.” Nor do I wish to concede that Serbo-fascist ethnic cleansing can appear more rational in retrospect than it did at the time. The Islamist threat itself may be crude, but this is an intricate cultural and political challenge that will absorb all of our energies for the rest of our lives: we are all responsible for doing our utmost as citizens as well as for demanding more imagination from our leaders.

I couldn't have said it better myself.

Christopher, have you read Chapter 6 of Letter to an Atheist already ?

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

The Dawkins Delusion

The spate of recent and upcoming atheist attacks on religion could provide me with a little cottage industry of Christian apologetics book ideas.

Letter to an Atheist, my response to Sam Harris' Letter to a Christian Nation should be coming out from Harpeth River Press next month, "God willing and if the creek don't rise."

The current book The God Delusion by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, dubbed recently by the BBC as Britain's #1 intellectual, provides the opportunity for an alliterative response -- The Dawkins Delusion. What's his delusion ? That RNA arose from inanimate matter.

And of course, my all time favorite atheist, Christopher Hitchens, is soon to come out with God is not Great: The Case Against Religion.

I look forward to reading Hitchens' book. He has, over the past 20 years, provided me with hours of clever, interesting, and merciless entertainment as he lampoons the foibles of the well known and the weasely. He's one of the smartest guys on the planet, and has a wickedly devastating sense of humor.

Unlike Mr. Harris, whose work is filled with all sorts of misrepresentations (my book documents 22 factual errors in his slim little 91 page volume), my expectation is that Hitchens' book will be factually tied down. Which is why I look forward to reading it.

Watch Hitchens on any of his many C-SPAN appearances and you can't help but be fascinated by the man's erudition, biting satire, and personal self indulgence. I mention his self indulgence as an observation, not a condemnation, however, as he himself is quite unrepentant for his own love of drink.

"He's a mess !" as my grandmother used to say about some people. But he is a mess who keeps your mind challenged and entertained every step of the way.

There he sits on camera, bloodshot eyes scouring the room for the drink he so desperately needs, smoke curling up from his ever present cigarette, as he destroys yet another self important and intellectually challenged example of blow harded puffery.

Hitchens is an enormously interesting and sympathetic character. Sympathetic from a safe distance, most likely. A Brit, he lost his mother early in life, and grew up pretty much on his own with his younger brother Peter. Christopher became a Trotskyite, moved to the States, saw the light and became an interesting blend of left wing theories and neo conservative policies. Along the way, he became estranged from his brother, a believing Christian as well as a political conservative, and eventually reconciled, at least in part.

We'll see how many copies of Letter to an Atheist we can sell from the legendary trunk of the car. If it works, I'll have a decision to make on writing.

In addition to a title for the Dawkins' response, I have a terrific title for the Hitchens' response as well. Of course, there's this little matter of actually writing the response that might make the whole undertaking a little difficult.

Back to Fort Desperate, the final draft awaiting, or on to the Christian apologetics cottage industry, so kindly prepared for me by Harris, Dawkins, and Hitchens ? Perhaps Darwin is right. It will be a matter of natural selection to determine which genre, for the moment, survives.

And the connection between Fort Desperate and the potential series of Christian apologetics ? There actually is a compelling theme emerging there, but I'll leave that for another day and another post.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Pasteur, Darwin, the Origin of Life, and God

Chapter 3 of Letter to an Atheist , which deals with Science and Faith, continues to both fascinate and frustrate me. The objective of the chapter is to demonstrate that the advance of science is not inconsistent with a belief in a Biblical God.

Along the way, though, the scientific method becomes almost completely intertwined with religious beliefs, personal agendas, and politics.

Is it enough, for instance, to simply demonstrate that Darwin himself, though by this time an agnostic, considered it completely possible for a committed Christian to legitimately believe and support his Theory of Evolution ? Indeed, when seven prominent Anglican theologians, including future Archbishop of Canterbury Frederick Temple, wrote Essays and Reviews in 1860, a year after the publication of Origin of the Species, Darwin was quick to embrace their support.

But soon, the most aggressive defenders of the scientific theories of Darwin also became the most aggressive promoters of agnosticism and Atheism. In Darwin's lifetime it was Thomas Huxley, known then as "Darwin's Bulldog." Today, it's Richard Dawkins, whom Discovery Magazine has dubbed "Darwin's Rottweiler".

Dawkins' best selling God Delusion makes the case for atheism using the science of Darwinian evolution.

To my lay person's mind, though, Dawkins loses his argument completely when he makes a completely unscientific assumption.

"In the beginning there was a Replicator Gene, from which all life flowed." Call it a Replicator Gene or Primordial Soup, Dawkin's invention is more alchemy and wishful thinking than it is science.

Dawkins argues for a one time only creation of animate life from an inanimate object.

Earlier in history, this was called "spontaneous generation" (see illustration of Pasteur experiment above) and was thoroughly disproved by the great scientist Louis Pasteur in 1864, the man behind The Germ Theory, rabies vaccines, and the pasteurization of wine and milk.

Somehow, because Dawkins is a genius, we are apparently supposed to allow him a pass on this fatal error.

Darwin himself offered no explanation for how that original element of life began. He felt the idea that it could have been generated by some divine being was a possibility, but he concluded he just couldn't know either way.

Into the fray on this topic jump the "Young Earth Creationists", who are thoroughly discredited in their concepts of the age of the earth by the quantum physics discoveries of Ernest Rutherford, which make radioactive dating possible. But the "Young Earth Creationists" seem so completely unhinged that they make it difficult for other alternatives to Evolution to be taken quite so seriously.

Enter concepts of Intelligent Design, which account for the strong Biblical religious beliefs as such scientific greats as Newton, Faraday, Maxwell, and Pasteur.

The universe is so complex, so marvelous, it must have been created by some higher power as part of some grand design.

Personally, I'm with Dr. Ralph Seelke, professor of Biology at the University of Wisconsin-Superior. This area of inquiry offers great promise, the hint perhaps, of some new theory that may combine elements of Darwin with ID.

But, like any scientific theory, Intelligent Design needs to be subjected to the scientific method. And that means:

1. A clear, well defined description of the theory.
2. Empirical testing of the theory

Sunday, February 18, 2007

More Wilberforces in history

(Clockwise from top: Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Robins, Olivia Wilberforce)

Every time I turn around these days, I find another story about a William Wilberforce descendant. This time it's the story of Octavia Wilberforce, granddaughter of his son Bishop Samuel Wilberforce, the nemesis of Thomas Huxley.

The seventh child of seven children, Octavia refused a proper marriage, and chose instead to self-finance a medical education. Along the way she became the lesbian lover of the American playwright and novelist Elizabeth Robins. Olivia purchased a practice in Brighton, where she lived near the famous writer Virginia Woolf and her husband Leonard.

Olivia became the Woolf family doctor, and on March 26, 1941, Leonard asked Dr. Wilberforce to visit Virginia, concerned about her mental health. Wilberforce advised that no action be taken. The next day, Virginia committed suicide by walking into a nearby river and drowning.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Another Wilberforce

It seems I can't escape the legacy of the Wilberforce family. Bishop Samuel Wilberforce (pictured at the left) figures prominently in Chapter 3 ( Science and Faith) of Letter to an Atheist, just as his father, William Wilberforce, figured prominently in Chapter 2 (On the Bible, Christianity and slavery). Samuel faced biologist Thomas Huxley (pictured at the right) in a famous 1860 debate over Darwin's theories.
Huxley, an agnostic, championed Darwin's theories outlined in the publication of The Origin of Species in the previous year, while Wilberforce defended Biblical orthodoxy and "creationist" view of man's development. Many accounts of the debate that survive claim Huxley bested Wilberforce that evening, though I so far can only discover a clever retort made by Huxley to Wilberforce, as opposed to the scientific topics discussed.
I am searching for more information on this particular interchange, because it seems to me to be a turning point in the overall "faith orientation" of the scientific community. If anyone has any sources they can point me to on this topic, I would be very interested in hearing from you !

Monday, February 12, 2007

Sam Harris and Oscar Wilde

What do my nemesis Sam Harris and Oscar Wilde have in common ? (Oscar Wilde at right)
To find out the answer to this pressing question, you'll have to scour through Chapter 3 of Letter to an Atheist on Science and Faith.
Here's a hint:

Oscar Wilde had one of his silliest characters say something in The Importance of Being Earnest that Sam, a century later, echoes in Letter to a Christian Nation.(Sam Harris--no, that's not Ben Stiller--at right)

Landmark Booksellers Event Now April 15

The Landmark Booksellers joint signing with Christine Schaub and me has been rescheduled for Sunday, April 15 from 3 pm to 5 pm. I talked with my publication team (kudos to the man in publishing, Kevin Gwinn, Terry Myers, Nancy Reese, and Sara Hamil) and the conclusion is -- let's make Letter to an Atheist a great book, not an ok book.

The extra time will allow me to finish the book properly, round up the back jacket blurbs, and crank up the PR campaign in time for the April 15 book signing.

Many thanks to Joel Tomlin for allowing us to move the date.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Did Voltaire Kidnap Newton's Faith ?

Working on the chapter of Letter to an Atheist that addresses Sam Harris' assertion that religion always seeks to subvert scientific inquiry, I've run across a wonderful new book.

Rodney Stark, now a professor at Baylor, argues in The Glory of God that Isaac Newton (1643-1727) , along with Galileo probably the most influential originator of the Scientific Revolution, was an empiricist who believed that his scientific experiments confirmed the existence of a Biblical God.

Voltaire (1694-1778), living in exile in England from 1726 to 1729, never met Newton, but befriended his heir and niece, Catherine Conduitt. From her he learned of, and later popularized, the apocryphal story of Newton developing the theory of gravity while sitting under an apple tree. An apple falling from the tree, it was said, prompted his thinking on the matter.

Voltaire popularized and championed Newton's empirical scientific approach, but supplanted Newton's Christian faith with his own Anti-Christian Deism. And it is that intellectual legacy that began the perceived split between faith and scientific reason.

Voltaire's own committment to the discovery of truth through the application of reason, of course, is highly suspect, given his virulent anti-Semitism and clear racism towards the black race. A wealthy man through speculations on the French state lottery, Voltaire increased his wealth by investing in the infamous Compagnie des Indes, the government approved slave trading monopoly that transported over 1 million Africans to the French colonies during the 18th century.

Another example of how Sam Harris' vaunted "secular rationality" easily transforms itself into the deification of the rationalist's personal concepts.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Random musings of a writer facing his deadline

It is an odd sort of masochism, this writing hobby. Note that I use the word "hobby" rather than "business." Though I generally don't agree with all of Dave Ramsey's pronouncements, I do agree with the definitional distinctions he makes between a hobby and a business. A business makes money. A hobby takes money. So far, writing is a hobby that is about to become even "hobbier".

My friend Keith Raffel, for whom writing has progressed from a hobby to a part time business, provided a gentle nudge for another posting. It is good to see that someone is actually reading this blog, though by my page views it would appear that there are far more readers than commenters.

(picture of David Hume at right) As to the writing, I have been struggling to find the intellectual underpinnings of John Calhoun's "slavery as a a positive good" speech in 1837, and am pleased to report that I have indeed found it, and in exactly the camp I thought it would be. Remember, I am countering Sam Harris' contention that "the most committed" Christians were responsible for creating and sustaining slavery. As to the origin of the African slave trade, it is clearly to be found in the pure greed of Portuguese, Spanish, and English traders. As to its defense once established, I have found the "smoking gun", if you will. Calhoun's position was a logical extension of the "rational" and "moral objectivist" philosophy articulated by the icon of the Enlightenment in Scotland, the philosopher David Hume. For the full argument, you'll have to read Letter to an Atheist, but suffice it to say that Mr. Hume's racism was exposed in his 1740 work Treatise on Human Nature.

So the intellectual torch on this issue passes from David Hume to James Tobin to Thomas Dew to John C. Calhoun, each writer becoming progressively more exultant on the superiority of the white race to the black, with Calhoun firmly pronouncing by 1837 that social organization would best be served indefinitely into the future with white masters and black slaves.

Set two tables for dinner. At one place Hume, Tobin, Dew, and Calhoun. At the other place the politically engaged Christians who worked on both sides of the Atlantic to end slavery -- Thomas Clarkson, William Wilberforce, John Fee, Thomas Jefferson Randolph. With whom would my nemesis Mr. Harris find commonality ?

That's right ! The defenders of slavery.

Isn't research wonderful ?