Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Creation/Evolution Debate: A Tale of Two Sides

Ambassador Kosh once said: "There are three sides to every argument: your side, their side and the truth." A Tad over two weeks ago, while I was hip-deep in finishing up classes and planning final exams, a debate over Intelligent Design and evolution took place between Stephen Meyer and Richard von Sternberg on one side and Michael Shermer and Donald Prothero on the other. As they say, it is all a matter of perspective. Prothero writes an account for Panda's Thumb:
My subjective summary of it is that our side did very well: I caught them off-guard with new arguments they had no answer for; Shermer pushed them hard repeatedly to state who the “Designer” was (and Meyer finally conceded it was God), while we both pushed them hard on the fact that neither of them ever addressed the topic of the debate, “Origins of Life.” I could tell that they were rattled a number of times, and I definitely shook up Meyer and got under his skin with my answers. Several times Meyer and Sternberg were arguing with each other, leaving the moderator, our side, and the audience wondering who runs their show. The best sign of my effect on them was Meyer trying to challenge MY credentials, or dodging a tough question by playing the sympathy card and calling me “condescending” — and the virulent post on the Discovery Institute site this morning, full of lies and spin. Of course, the event is staged so that no one will really “win”. Their supporters turned out and dominated the audience, but I had a LOT of people come up to me during the book signing (we sold a LOT of books) and congratulate me, or discuss points further with me. And we got just as much applause and sympathetic laughter at our well-turned phrases as they did.
As far as the actual points of the debate were concerned, it was territory recently trod by both sides. Prothero writes:
Meyer had debated Shermer many times before, but apparently he did little to prepare for me. Just minutes before the debate, he ran out and bought a copy of my 2007 “Evolution” book (since he had never read it), after he tried to cadge the copy for free from my wife who was guarding the Skeptics Society booth. (She insisted that he pay for it). I know I caught him off-guard, since I have degrees in both biology and geology, and know most of their arguments better than they do. The only time I did not get a solid reply in was during the statements where there was no opportunity for rebuttal, or when we had run out of time.

Our “affirmative side” went first, and Shermer did a quick run-through about why ID is a religious and not a scientific doctrine, methodological naturalism and the scientific method, and “god of the gaps.” I took the remaining 15 minutes with my Powerpoint presentation where I slammed them hard and fast with long list of things: why ID is not testable (including bad designs like the left recurrent laryngeal nerve, the inverted retina, and the whale’s pelvis and femora); then a five slide run-through of the molecular research into origin of life, from Miller-Urey to the stuff published in the past few years, emphasizing over and over how many successes the molecular biologists have had at simulating every step of the process; then a quick run through the Pre-Cambrian fossil record, focusing on why it is not the “Cambrian explosion” but the Cambrian “slow fuse” (and pointing out that I’m a paleontologist, I’ve actually seen and collected these outcrops, and neither of my opponents had).
That the two sides seem to be light years apart on these arguments is clear from the article by Rob Crowther that the Discovery Institute ran about the debate. This is how they saw things:
It was all shaping up to be a serious heavyweight bout. And then Meyer and Sternberg simply KO'd the competition in the opening round. If I were being generous I might say that Prothero tripped over his own arrogance and impaled himself on his condescension, but let's be honest; he was completely knocked out by Sternberg. I think Sternberg earned a third degree tonight, one in evolutionary bulldozing.

The debate video will be made available at some point by American Freedom Alliance, the sponsors of the debate, along with Center for Inquiry, The Skeptics Society and Discovery Institute.
That there is no love lost between Prothero and the Discovery Institute was relayed in the closing of the article:
To call the debate a massacre would be a discredit to Sitting Bull. The only thing I can say is that Shermer needs to add a point to his booklet on how to debate "creationists" — namely, leave Donald Prothero at home in his van by the river.

This guy is to be taken seriously? I had to remind myself not to laugh every so often during his presentation — it was so pathetic and ill-informed. Basically, Shermer and Prothero blathered on about supernaturalism, and Meyer ceded his time to Sternberg, who made an interesting presentation about whale evolution. Then he proceeded to point out the topic of the debate to Shermer and Prothero: Has Evolutionary Theory Adequately Explained the Origins of Life?, something which they never addressed because they were so busy falling all over themselves to denounce intelligent design.
One wonders what was debated since both Prothero and Crowther claim that the other side did not know the topic of the debate. It certainly doesn't help either cause when the principals are so vitriolic and obviously show such disdain for each other. I have not read Meyer's book yet and should before commenting on it. Prothero wrote a review of the book for Amazon that is scathing. It did not help that many of the people that commented on his review accused him of never having read it. We must have civil discourse in this debate if we are to accurately make our views heard.

Now playing: Keith Emerson featuring Simon Phillips - Rio
via FoxyTunes

1 comment:

  1. Prothero's Amazon review does not address the major points of "Signature in the Cell," so might not have read it.

    we have waited nine years for Meyer's book. If repeating the same unsupported claim 583 times establishes its truth, then the book is a success. Otherwise, it deserves Prothero's scath.