“…Life [the book] is not the right target [for boycott], or perhaps is just an easy one. It demands much more courage, and by the entire scientific community, to individually and collectively go after the unquestionable adversaries of reason. Those who see facts and fiction indistinguishable, the ideologues and financiers of both the religion-in-science and the anti science movements…”
By Guillermo Paz-y-Miño-C
If scientists wish to boycott a book, religious scriptures could be their priority. The holy books are the foundation of the anti-evolution movement worldwide; the anti climate change rhetoric over the belief that a Protector will shield his disciples from human-induced global pollution; the source of pray healing and its conjoined meme that vaccines are heinous; the primeval justification to bigotry, homophobia and misogyny; the validation of both intolerance to any action that is perceived as offensive –above all, freedom of speech– and the crusade to secure society’s protection of the intolerant him/herself.
In such broad anti science and anti intellectualism contexts, John Brockman has edited yet another volume about science and technology for popular consumption, Life: The Leading Edge of Evolutionary Biology, Genetics, Anthropology, and Environmental Science (2016). I have read this multi-author compilation with special attention, since, upon its release, biologists active in the social media became disappointed with Brockman (and, by default, with the co-writers) for not featuring women authors. And this was legitimate criticism. If Brockman and associates wanted to educate the public about current trends in the biological sciences, they must stop ignoring the diversities of peoples contributing to this global enterprise.
But, of course, I did not agree with the subsequent call to boycott Life, without even reading it, and the deploy of bee-workers and drones to sabotage the purchasing of the work. Boycotting books can be dangerous. It always reminds me of the “burnings of knowledge” by the Nazis, prior to and during World War II, and comparable atrocities led by the Latin American dictators in Argentina and Chile, in the 1970s-80s. I learned of the former by precisely reading about it in my father’s book collection on international affairs (which included Churchill’s The Second World War, and even Hitler’s sickening My Struggle), and of the latter while in high school by following the news of La Guerra Sucia (The Dirty War, term coined a posteriori in the United States) that targeted the creativity of university professors, novelists, musicians and poets. Their books and records flamed, their voices and bodies vanished.
“…Researchers ought to be aware of the popular science-, pseudo-science-, and anti-science books that distress or seem insulting to the public. And, for modern biologists, the list includes the deceptive writings of the intelligent design movement…”
Researchers ought to be aware of the popular science-, pseudo-science-, and anti-science books that distress or seem insulting to the public. And, for modern biologists, the list includes the deceptive writings of the intelligent design (ID) movement and its Undeniable: How Biology Confirms Our Intuition That Life Is Designed (2016), Evolution: Still a Theory in Crisis (2016), Debating Darwin’s Doubt: A Scientific Controversy That Can No Longer Be Denied (2015), Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design (2013), Science and Human Origins (2012), The Nature of Nature: Examining the Role of Naturalism in Science (2011), God and Evolution (2010), Intelligent Design Uncensored: An Easy-to-Understand Guide to the Controversy (2010), Signature in the Cell (2009), Intelligent Design 101 (2008), Dissent Over Descent: Intelligent Design Challenge to Darwinism (2008), Understanding Intelligent Design (2008), The Cell’s Design (2008), The Design of Life (2008), Explore Evolution: The Arguments for and Against Neo-Darwinism (2007), The Edge of Evolution (2007), Intelligent Design: The Bridge between Science and Theology (1999), Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution (1996), and the villainous Of Pandas And People (1989), the foremost impostor exposed –and debunked– at the Kitzmiller versus Dover Area School District trial of 2005.
Yes, I have these narratives of pseudo truths and quasi creeds, acquired over the years via used-books sellers –precisely to minimize supporting publishers of noxious fables (a micro sabotage of my own, one that does not discourage anyone to learn about ID). But I also possess the Holy Bible, the Qur’an, the Tanakh and The History of Western Philosophy of Religion (an academic series by Oxford UP, 2009), which I consider my duty to read as a secular scientist, and become aware of the idealistic beauty, historicity, obvious rooting in unreality, and evil, injurious teachings of religion.
Next to the ID bestsellers stand the pro-religion-in-science counterparts. Also sponsored by writers with doctoral degrees and in positions of power, committed to force-marriage evolution with the belief in supernatural causation, to see the fingerprints of God in DNA and molecular processes, to satisfy the populous’ hope to find the Maker, Designer, or Creator in the gaps of knowledge. Francis Collins‘ The Language of God (2006), Belief: Readings on the Reason for Faith (2010), and The Language of Science and Faith (2011, coauthored with fellow evangelical Christian Karl Giberson) are iconic examples. Yet, none of these books deserves boycott despite their collective effect on disrupting, distorting, delaying or stopping the proper understanding and acceptance of evidence. But they do justify vigorous disapproval by scholars, who should uncover the capricious science emptiness of “evolutionary creation.”
“…Brockman’s edition of Life, despite its disgraceful exclusion of gender and cultural varieties among co-writers, is scientifically above –and by far– the ID’s pamphlets or the languages-[of God]-sequels’ by theistic evolutionists…”
John Brockman’s edition of Life, despite its disgraceful exclusion of gender and cultural varieties among co-writers, is scientifically above –and by far– the ID’s pamphlets or the “language-sequels” by theistic evolutionists. Life could be listed among the 100 required reads for graduate students in biology, and perhaps recommended to science majors in college, of course, with the warning that the contributors –busy reflecting about themselves– discounted Homo diversity as a crucial input in “the leading edge of evolutionary biology, genetics, anthropology, and environmental science.”
Life is “…the fifth volume in The Best of Edge series [edge.org], following Mind, Culture, Thinking, and The Universe…” As a collection of essays, interviews, transcripts of panel discussions, and biographical sketches of scientists and pop-science celebrities, the book is exciting, rich in brainy remarks and first-hand information. Eighteen pieces (from 2000 to 2015) summarize the major trends in science debates, applied DNA technologies, and bioengineering of the twentieth and twenty first centuries –the latter, superficially.
Richard Dawkins opens with Evolvability (2015), in part a recount of gene-centric evolution in the scenario in which The Selfish Gene (1976) was crafted, and the resulting discussions over replicators (genes), as units of selection, versus “vehicles” (the carriers of genes, our bodies). His classical analysis expands to “universal Darwinism” and the high probability that Darwinian selection of replicator-like molecules shall be a ubiquitous cosmic phenomenon if life exists beyond Earth.
The Dawkinsian argument, in elegant text, is followed by David Haig’s Genomic Imprinting (2002), Robert Trivers’ A Full-Force Storm with Gale Winds Blowing (2004), Ernst Mayr’s What Evolution Is (2001), Steve Jones’ Genetics Plus Time (2000), Edward O. Wilson’s A United Biology (2003), and Freeman Dyson’s Is Life Analog or Digital? (2001). Thus, Life relies on attractive topics, as well as familiar names in the pop-science arena, to lure readers.
“…Pages and reading hours elapse quickly… Soon, I find myself immersed in the book, joyful for learning material that I have missed… furious by the… broadcasting of long-ago-dismissed science concepts; but overall satisfied to have liked a book which I approached with so much skepticism…”
Pages and reading hours elapse quickly and Brockman succeeds at grabbing one’s attention. Soon, I find myself immersed in the book, joyful at times for learning material that I have missed over the years; disturbed occasionally when sensing plain egomania in the XY-only writers, who turn their texts into self-grooming bouts and testosterone excretion (an exception, not the only one, is Trivers’ auto-deprecating recollections, which are humorous and brilliant); furious by the redundant broadcasting of long-ago-dismissed science concepts; but overall satisfied to have liked a book which I approached with so much skepticism.
Chapter 8 (Life: What a Concept!) is the longest, with one hundred pages, and most captivating. It transcribes a panel discussion (2007) among Dyson, J. Craig Venter, George Church, Dimitar Sasselov, Seth Lloyd, Robert Shapiro, Ting Wu (not included in the list of authors), and moderator Brockman.
As introduction to the dialogue, Dyson, a theoretical physicist, discusses the garbage-bag-model of life. The origin of life, he explains, probably started with metabolism only. “…We know modern life has both metabolism and replication, but they’re carried out by separate groups of molecules. Metabolism… by proteins and all kinds of small molecules, and replication… by DNA and RNA. That may be a clue to the fact that [these processes] started out separate, rather than together… The early cells were just little bags of some kind of cell membrane, which might have been oily or… a metal oxide. And, inside, you had a more-or-less random collection of organic molecules, with the characteristic that small molecules could diffuse in through the membrane, but big molecules could not diffuse out. By converting small molecules into big molecules, you could concentrate the organic contents on the inside, thus the cells would become more concentrated and the chemistry would gradually become more efficient. So, these things could evolve without any kind of replication. It’s a simple statistical inheritance. When a cell became so big that it got cut in half, or shaken in half by some rainstorm or environmental disturbance, it would then produce two cells, which would be its daughters and would inherit, more or less, but only statistically, the chemical machinery inside. Evolution could work under those conditions.”
Freeman Dyson: “…We know modern life has both metabolism and replication, but they’re carried out by separate groups of molecules. Metabolism… by proteins and all kinds of small molecules, and replication… by DNA and RNA. That may be a clue to the fact that [these processes] started out separate, rather than together…” – Earth, a planet with life, Columbia Glacier Landsat Satellite NASA 2014
“…Dyson’s garbage-bag hypothesis may be garbageous, but despite its teleological nature it is intellectually intriguing…”
If these statements provoke in you, as bookworm, any of the emotions described earlier (i.e. joy, disturbed, furious, satisfied), your reactions are comparable to those of the panel. Dyson’s garbage-bag hypothesis may be garbageous (i.e. the divide metabolism versus replication is artificial, and relying on heavy statistical randomness diminishes how natural selection operates, or did in the past, in primordial soups), but despite its teleological nature it is intellectually intriguing. Irrespective of the transcript’s dryness, it happens that the sharp cuts, irony, disagreements and rescuing of the discussion by the panelists themselves grow evident while reading the fascinating exchange. And Brockman moderates it with minimal input, except for the sporadic injection of extra fuel to ignite healthy controversy.
The second half of the book proceeds with a one-on-one chat between Dawkins and Venter, refereed by Brockman, in The Gene-Centric View: A Conversation (2008), followed by Armand Marie Leroi’s The Nature of Normal Human Variety (2005), Daniel Lieberman’s Brains Plus Brawn (2012), Svante Pääbo’s Mapping the Neanderthal Genome (2009), and a transcript of On Biocomputation (2005), a TED event (Technology, Entertainment, Design) featuring Venter, Ray Kurzweil and Rodney Brooks.
Life closes with pieces by Drew Endy, on Engineering Biology (2008), Kary Mullis’ Eat Me Before I Eat You: A New Foe for Bad Bugs (2010), Richard Prum’s Duck Sex and Aesthetic Evolution (2014), Robert Sapolsky’s Toxo (2009), and Stuart Kauffman’s The Adjacent Possible (2003). All mix personal experiences with the authors’ making and living the developments of their own fields.
“…The lay reader might simply take pleasure in the journalistic ride and claim proficiency in pop-science culture at the end of the journey…”
Titles like Life sell fine. The scientist reader can locate in the book historical relevance and depth if he/she looks for and wants to see them. The lay reader might simply take pleasure in the journalistic ride and claim proficiency in pop-science culture at the end of the journey. The spot-the-error copy editor will never forget, nor forgive, that the cover of Life lists “Matt Ridley” as contributor, a science personality nowhere else to be found (at least in the copy I have –see image above), a regrettable carelessness in book production. Plus, there is no leading edge in the compilation of articles, the average publication date (2006) is ten years too old.
It may take a village to boycott a pop science book, but Life is not the right target, or perhaps is just an easy one. It demands much more courage, and by the entire scientific community, to individually and collectively go after the unquestionable adversaries of reason. Those who see facts and fiction indistinguishable, the ideologues and financiers of both the religion-in-science and the anti science movements. — EvoLiteracy © 2016.
Book-burning Club, cartoon by Rina Piccolo (click on image to enlarge)
You can contact Guillermo Paz-y-Miño-C via email at firstname.lastname@example.org — Follow us on Twitter @gpazymino and Facebook.
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Paz-y-Miño-C, G & Espinosa, A. 2016. Measuring the Evolution Controversy: A Numerical Analysis of Acceptance of Evolution at America’s Colleges and Universities. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Newcastle, United Kingdom. ISBN (10): 1-4438-9042-1, ISBN (13): 978-1-4438-9042-7.
Measuring the Evolution Controversy can be ordered directly from Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Amazon US, or Amazon CA . The publisher has made available a “VIEW EXTRACT” (in PDF), which includes the first 30-pages of the book: Cover, Table of Contents, Acknowledgments, Preface, Chapter ONE and the beginning of Chapter TWO. For PDF of color illustrations go to Image Resources of Didactic Relevance.
“The great contribution of ‘Measuring the Evolution Controversy’ is the rich content of data and analysis that asks detailed questions about the social, economic and political backgrounds of those who tend to reject evolution vs. those who accept evolution as science. Paz-y-Miño-C and Espinosa deftly analyze their data drawn from institutions of higher learning in the United States and particularly New England —which stands as a microcosm of the rest of the country, and indeed elsewhere in the world. It is their scientific approach to these issues which makes this book stand out as a uniquely original contribution.” — Niles Eldredge, PhD, Curator Emeritus of Paleontology at The American Museum of Natural History, New York.
“Pro-science activists and educators constantly bemoan the resistance to the teaching of evolution in the United States. All of us have anecdotes about encounters with the public, parents and students who are misinformed by their churches, Religious-Right groups, and creationist organizations. Paz-y-Miño-C and Espinosa present hard data that support the anecdotal evidence. They also show that although anti-evolutionism typically begins with religion, it is a multi-faceted problem that intersects with political and cultural ideologies. Gathered through careful research over a period of years, their data will enable scientists and defenders of science education to comprehend the roots of the evolution controversy and counteract resistance to evolution more strategically and effectively.” — Barbara Forrest, PhD, co-author with Paul R. Gross of Creationism’s Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design (2007), and expert witness for plaintiffs, Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover Area School District (2005).
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Paz-y-Miño-C., G. 2013. Evolution Stands Faith Up: Reflections on Evolution’s Wars. NOVA Publishers, New York. By NOVA Publishers, New York Soft Cover. Find it at Barnes & Noble, Amazon.com, Amazon UK
“The sweet spot of this collection of essays is the interface of science, history and literacy. Paz-y-Miño-C is, in essence, a champion of rationalism and a passionate defender of literacy standards. His essays deftly weave hard survey data and memorable turns of phrase with evocative imagery… While the essays in this collection are vast in coverage —from climate change to energy policy, stem cell research, vaccinations and, especially, evolution— a clear underlying theme emerges: [the author’s] goal is no less than to counter, through the lens of history and the majesty of rationalism, social forces that sanction ignorance, celebrate denial and… continue to diminish our global status in the fields of science and technology.” Jeff Podos, PhD, Professor of Biology, University of Massachusetts Amherst, USA.
“Paz-y-Miño-C is a firm believer in evolutionary processes. He would like to see decisions made on the basis of facts, not unsupported opinion. He abhors and fears irrational thinking, especially ‘the views of those who see evil in truth and menace in the realities discovered by science.’ He marvels at the intricacy and diversity of life, and how it came about through natural selection… and is clearly frustrated by the unwillingness of so many to see the beauty and majesty in this view of the world and all that it explains.” – Jan A. Pechenik, PhD, Professor of Biology, Tufts University, USA, author of The Readable Darwin: The Origin of Species, as Edited for Modern Readers.