Thursday, December 23, 2010

Dembski and McDowell misrepresent Dennett - is this a shock?

A while back a colleague of my father's sent me a book on Intelligent Design - the title in question is Understanding intelligent design : everything you need to know in plain language by William A. Dembski and Sean McDowell.

Now, I'm not too concerned with the "debate" about evolutionary theory (it's not a real debate) - that something like modern evolutionary theory is right is pretty much a working certainty for me. I've read a few books on it, and it seems to me to be right - if it turned out that it was wrong, that is, if the scientific consensus was somehow shifted by new evidence or whatever, I'd probably have to rethink a lot of things, but that's about it.

So although I've had the book a while, I've had other things to read and haven't really had the time (or inclination) to skim it.

This morning I was looking through my books and I saw Dembski and McDowell's book lying on my shelf, so I thought I'd flip through the intro.
It's pretty standard creationist stuff, there were a few passages that were logically confused, but perhaps I could forgive that ... there were also some pretty provocative things insinuated about the morality of people who believe in evolution, this is par for the course with creationists too.

But then I came across a blatant lie. A shameless lie that, if it makes it's way into the popular mythology of the creationist crowd, paints atheists, agnostics, naturalists, humanists etc. as being as bad as the Satanists of their imagination (you know, the supposed hordes of evil doers who slay cats in nightclubs and sacrifice babies in the name of their Dark Lord? Those guys)

Here is the li(n)e -

"[I]n Darwin's Dangerous Idea, Daniel Dennett suggests that religious believers who talk their children out of believing Darwinian evolution should be caged in zoos or quarantined because they pose a serious threat to the social order"
- Dembski & McDowell 2008 : 23
The only reason that they can get away with this is because their readers are almost certainly never going to read Dennett himself, and most of Dennett's readers will never (thankfully) come across this line because they'll never stoop so low (as I did) to read anything from these creationist nutjobs.

Dennett's Darwin book happens to be one of my all time favourite books - and so when I came across this line I was so angry I almost spat (if you can believe that). Anyone who knows/reads Dennett will know that he would never honestly say something like that. He is genuinely sensitive to human rights (as well as being a genuinely good human being). Secondly, the passage in which he mentions "zoos" he was explicitly speaking of preserving the cultural heritage of religion.

Let me quote from the passage in question -

"What, then, of all the glories of our religious traditions? They should certainly be preserved, as should the languages, the art, the costumes, the rituals, the monuments. Zoos are now more and more being seen as second-class havens for endangered species, but at least they are havens, and what they preserve is irreplaceable."
- Dennett 1995 : 519

The next mention of "zoos" comes on the following page

"What will happen, one may well wonder, if religion is preserved in cultural zoos, in libraries, in concerts and demonstrations? It is happening; the tourists flock to watch the Native American tribal dances, and for the onlookers it is folklore, a religious ceremony, certainly, to be treated with respect, but also an example of a meme complex on the verge of extinction"
- Dennett 1995 : 520

Having read those two passages, how is it possible to draw the conclusion the Dennett is talking about taking religious people and putting them in zoos?
It's not, without stretching the truth - and in this case the truth is stretched beyond the point of breaking - what we have here is the much spotted bald faced creationist lie.

Dennett does sound one warning to believers - and I think it's one worth repeating -

"If you want to teach your children that they are the tools of God, you had better not teach them that they are God's rifles, or we will have to stand firmly opposed to you: your doctrine has no glory, no special rights, no intrinsic and inalienable merit. If you insist on teaching your children falsehoods - that the Earth is flat, that "Man" is not a product of evolution by natural selection - then you must expect, at the very least, that those of us who have freedom of speech will feel free to describe your teachings as the spreading of falsehoods, and will attempt to demonstrate this to your children at our earliest opportunity. Our future well-being - the well-being of all of us on the planet - depends on the education of our descendants."
-Dennett 1995 : 519


Dembski, William A. and McDowell, Sean, 2008. Understanding Intelligent Design : everything you need to know in plain language. Harvest House Publishers

Dennett, Daniel C., 1995. Darwin's Dangerous Idea. Penguin Books


  1. FFS...

    Sent it to Dennett; thought he might not have seen it.

  2. Well spotted, and so interesting that you are brave enough to put your mind at risk by stooping to the low of engaging the creationist offering. To engage with both the scientific literature and the creationist attack puts you in the wonderful position to be able to share these little slights to the truth, by the latter upon the former.

    The final passage you quote is beautiful, and definitely well worth repeating. The more I read of Dennett, and work about him, the more he engenders nothing but respect, and admiration - truly a gifted orator of sound argument.



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