Wednesday, March 26, 2008


PZ Myers has just written this post about Suzan Mazur, whom I have actually seen before but wasn't aware if it until now. Myers's post is about her article on the Theory of Form, but there is also a link to her article: Richard Dawkins Renounces Darwinism As Religion. It is hard for me to believe that someone would ever write this, especially since I was at both of the events she mentions. Right at the beginning of the article she says:
Atheist evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins spoke to a packed auditorium at Manhattan's Ethical Culture Society Saturday night about his best-selling book, The God Delusion , admitting in a Q&A that followed being "guilty" of viewing Darwinism as a kind of religion and vowing to "reform"
I can only assume she is referring to one of the questioners, who mentioned that referring to someone as a "Darwinist" is strange since we don't refer to people who believe in relativity as "Einsteinists," etc. This wasn't actually how he phrased the question, but I think I've captured the general idea. Regardless, there was no mention of Darwinism as a religion, and Dawkins certainly did NOT renounce it as one. He merely conceded that the questioner made a good point and "raised his consciousness" to this oddity, and that he will try to avoid using the term Darwinism in the future.

Next, she recounts her own question to Dawkins at Barnes and Noble in Tribeca, the night before. She asked him about the Altenburg Evolution Summit. She recounts the conversation rather faithfully, as far as I can remember, except for this:

Suzan Mazur: You might have a look at the story I put up.

Richard Dawkins: No. I'm sorry I've got to answer the question now.

Dawkins wasn't saying no to her request that he read the article. The moderator of the event tried to move on from the Mazur's question, because it was turning into more of a dialogue, and Dawkins was actually saying he must answer Mazur's question. It's not really that important and I don't know if Mazur left that out purposely, but I just figured I'd point it out. Anyway, the key point is this what Dawkins says about the Theory of Form:

I see a lot of value in that kind of approach. It is something we can't as biologists afford to neglect. However, it absolutely neglects the question where does the illusion of design come from? Where do animals and plants get this powerful impression that they have been brilliantly designed for a purpose? Where does that come from?

That does not come from the laws of physics on their own. That cannot come from anything that has so far been suggested by anybody other than natural selection. So I don't see any conflict at all between the theory of natural selection -- the gene-centered theory of natural selection, I should say -- and the theory of form. We need both. We need both. And it is disingenuous to present the one as antagonistic to the other.

I find it amusing the Mazur chose to interpret the combination of these two responses from Dawkins as him renouncing Darwinism and embracing the theory of form, because there is no way a vaguely intelligent human being who actually heard what Dawkins said at both these events would come to this conclusion. I have no clue what her objective is, but she just comes off as completely nuts.

In the comments section of Myers's original post, H.H. recalled the "Darwinism" question and Dawkins's response much better than I did:
During the Q&A session one young man stood up and asked Dawkins why he used the term Darwinism when referring to the theory of evolution. While noting that it is still common to do so in England, most American scientists eschew the term because of the manner in which it plays into the hands of creationists. We don't speak of Newtonism or Einsteinism, the young man pointed out, and referring to the theory of evolution as "Darwinism" might give some the mistaken view that evolution is nothing more than a religion or cult of personality.

Now here's the really amazing thing: despite being about 30 years the young man's senior, Dawkins thoughtfully assented. He agreed that the young questioner had a point, one which he hadn't fully considered before. Perhaps "Darwinian" has it's place, but maybe "Darwinism" should be retired as too likely to be misconstrued. We in the audience saw a respected writer and science advocate who was willing to reevaluate himself and his choice of expression, and we all loudly applauded Dawkins' open-mindedness and willingness to change. It was a great moment.


Blake Stacey said...

Bending over backwards to be fair, I'd say it's probably not too hard to find a developmental biologist who would say something like, "Individual genes don't code for phenotypic features, let alone behavior traits. Instead, collections of genes, switched on and off by regulatory regions, instigate patterns of development which, through delightfully weird antics of morphogenesis, create structures of cells. So, if you want to talk about evolution being 'gene-centered', we should clear up what kind of 'gene' you're talking about: do you mean a stretch of DNA which represents a single protein, or something more elaborate, like a collection of exons and regulatory regions whose products act in concert?"

That said, Mazur is being a goofball.

Jackie said...

I don't know enough about biology to comment on that aspect of the article. I just know that she drew conclusions from Dawkins's response to her question and to the one about Darwinism that no honest, rational person could have.

Blake Stacey said...

I'm only an amateur in biology (I'm a physics person, with all that implies), so don't take anything I say for granted. ;-)

There's probably a worthwhile debate to be had about what developmental biology means to the whole "levels/units of selection" business, but Mazur isn't even on the same planet. I'm having a hard time wrapping my mind around just how wrong she is, which is probably a sign I should get off the blogosphere and back to work.