Friday, March 6, 2015

Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation- Bill Nye

Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of CreationUndeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation by Bill Nye
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Having recently finished The Origin of Species I figured a book on a similar theme for my science book would be a good choice. My wife and I watched the Bill Nye & Ken Ham debate live when it happened- streaming on a laptop on the couch. I think that I come from a unique perspective in that I was a self-taught Creationist who went to a conservative, private Christian college that taught Creationism and Intelligent Design as literal science and who claimed to teach evolution so that you would be well prepared to argue against the enemy. At one point I was a member of the Creation Research Society and I have visited the Creation Museum. I then went on to teach at a public high school in a rural community and was questioned on my Creationist beliefs during one of my two interviews. As I have taught science I have always encouraged my students to question and to learn and I myself have done the same. As I did so my own understanding of the overwhelming evidence began to convince me that I needed to strongly reconsider my position. This eventually became a major existential crisis in my life as I sought information from both sides. All the while, at church I professed and even taught a literal 6-day, young-Earth creation. However, as time went on I became convinced that I must find some other way to make the scientific evidence that I see and the faith that I hold come to agreement or to abandon my faith. I kept the crisis from my wife for a while, but eventually this debate led me to the opportunity to be confidence enough to talk with her about my doubts. She had already started moving towards the conclusion herself that the two systems must find a way to work together because the science is pretty staggering. I don't agree 100% with my wife's position, I'll write about it another time, but she was instrumental in helping guide me to an understanding of faith and science. I don't know that I have been as critical about my beliefs as I need to be, but it will come.
Honestly, until recently all the evidence for old Earth and Universe made sense to me, except for evolution. Part of that was willful blindness and part of that is honestly just a lack of understanding due to incomplete education. My high school biology teacher barely taught the subject as was so afraid of the can of worms of discussing criticisms that he simply didn't take any questions that week, taught the material, and told us that we had to know if for the test, but that was it. My university taught some archaic, twisted version of it as essentially a cheery-picked and straw-man argument. The debate itself was a bit of a debacle. Both sides have claimed victory. However, and this might be bias, I think Ken Ham was smoked. In the end that is what led to his book.
To summarize the book quickly Bill Nye wanted a chance to elaborate on some of the points he made during the debate, as well as a chance to refute some of the other crazy ideas that Ken Ham tossed out. The audiobook version of this book was read by Nye himself and although books read the the authors are frequently bad, Nye with his performance background, pulled this book off wonderfully. There were plenty of enjoyable puns throughout the book, although at times they got irritating because they became distracting [although the recurring joke of his former boss being unevolved was hilarious- it just lacked the rimshot after each telling]. The book didn't teach me a lot, but it was enjoyable and easy to understand. It would be a great book to give a non-scientist who is sitting on the fence about the issues, or to a student who is learning the science and wants to dive deeper. There are a lot of examples that I had previously been unaware of and could see being useful for a teacher.
I have two criticisms of the book: first, I'm not sure that it will convince a Creationist/Intelligent Designer because although it does do a good job of presenting the science, Nye frequently oversimplifies the creationist perspective and that in the end will not win him any battles. Honestly, that is part of why the two sides disagree is because they talk past each other and because they focus on the weak spots of each other's theories, rather than on foundation positions. The other criticism is that Nye seemed to at times (especially at the end of the book) promote scientific hypothesizes that are not well tested, supported, or that he agreed with, just to make the point that science is testable and that there are other arguments, that if proven true, would argue against Creationism.
The one other point I want to address before concluding, is that I was surprised about Nye's position on GMOs. He is against them because as he points out there are untested, potential environmental consequences. I'm not sure how these could be tested without doing what we are doing already, but I do understand the concern.
Overall, I really liked the book. Bill Nye was more than able to explain the scientific view in an easy to approach and understand way. It would can serve as a great springboard to anyway wanting to learn more.

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Monday, March 2, 2015

On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (or On the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life) 6th edition- Charles Darwin, FRS

The Origin of SpeciesThe Origin of Species by Charles Darwin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

First off, full disclaimer, as usual I didn't read the book, I listened to it.
I listened to the LibriVox version of this book, which was a reading of the public domain version of the book. Also, even though some poor schmuck read Chapter 16: Glossary, I did not listen to it.
This book is a classic work in science that I have intended to read for some time. I originally became very interested in creationism versus evolution the summer after my freshman year of high school. I have always felt that it is better to "know your enemy" and so back then when I still believed in a hard-line, literal, young-Earth, 6-day creation I felt that I should read it. Of course that was almost two decades ago, and it took me this long to pick it up. There of course, have been opportunities to read it, but I have always preferred to listen to it. The former biology teacher I worked with, now my principal, had told me that she had never read it, and that Darwin was very poetic when he wrote. I determined none-the-less a few summers ago when I read The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins finally that I would read The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (or On the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life) . I stumbled across the LibriVox version about that time, and have simply been waiting to get around to it. I'll admit that I let other classics [like The Great Gatsby and Pride & Prejudice ] get in the way, but finally it was On the Origin's time.
First, I am no longer a staunch Creationist. I think however, I'll save that discussion for another time. Also, I don't think Darwin was very poetic- wordy and repetitive yes, but poetic not really. There were a few times when he did wax poetic, but overall he was fairly straightforward with his prose. As I read, I kept trying to put myself back into the past when Darwin wrote this and to think about how groundbreaking of an idea it was. Furthermore, I was surprised that most arguments I've heard against Darwinism and evolution were preemptively addressed by Darwin, or discussed in later editions [specifically the added Chapter VII to the 6th edition to address criticisms. It is frustrating to me that I had the wool pulled over my eyes, like there were valid arguments against evolution and for the Creationist perspective that the scientific community had not addressed, when in reality they were addressed by the founder of this idea. Darwin was very methodical in laying out his case, in pointing out its shortcomings, in citing the experiments he or others had conducted to support his theory, and in showing what was left to be figured out [or even what experiments could prove him wrong].
In fact, I was surprised at how differently science was done in the past. As a naturalist Darwin and his peers did not seem to specialize as much as happens today. Darwin kept up regular correspondences to collect and share data. He was even a member of a birding society in London so that he would have a way to get a lot of breeding and inheritance data without having to go through the hassle of raising so many birds. I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of floating and eaten seeds and how successful they were at growing after being subjected to harsh conditions. This kind of work showed that Darwin didn't just propose a theory, he thought long and hard about its implications and what must occur for it to be correct.
However, I laughed several times when the development of other scientific theories paled in comparison to where they stand today. He, and others at the time, seemed so close to proposing the idea of continental drift, and yet he drew short. He, of course, relied on Lord Kelvin's [or someone following a similar line of reasoning] for the age of the Earth. These shortcomings are not his fault, but still they amused me.
Several times as I was reading the book, I thought about how I'd use it if I was a biology teacher and although the text is probably a little advanced for most high schoolers, it could easily be used in upper-level classes or have snippets given to lower grades. In fact, the summaries at the end of most Chapters [some chapters follow such a common theme that two are summarized together] could be read and appreciated without too much confusion or additional guidance being needed. I also thought that it would make a great class project to create an illustrated edition. This has been done of course, but since the work is in the public domain it would be great to make a public illustrated version using public domain images.
The only real complaint I have it how repetitive Darwin was at times. The book probably could have lost and 1/8th to a 1/6th if he had been more brief. Also, as ground breaking as it was at the time, it doesn't carry the same weight as now when the concept is so accepted and prevalent.

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