Humes on the talk-radio version of evolution

Edward Humes, the author of Monkey Girl, has an excellent op-ed in the Lawrence Journal-World.

The talk-radio version had a packed town hall up in arms at the “Why Evolution Is Stupid” lecture. In this version of the theory, scientists supposedly believe that all life is accidental, a random crash of molecules that magically produced flowers, horses and humans — a scenario as unlikely as a tornado in a junkyard assembling a 747. Humans come from monkeys in this theory, just popping into existence one day. The evidence against Darwin is overwhelming, the purveyors of talk-radio evolution rail, yet scientists embrace his ideas because they want to promote atheism.

These are just a few highlights of the awful and pervasive straw-man image of evolution that pundits harp about in books and editorials and, yes, on talk radio, and this cartoon version really is stupid. No wonder most Americans reject evolution in poll after poll.

This is really why scientists either get angry or dismiss creationism as a joke: the proponents are annoyingly ignorant of the ideas they are arguing against, so there is no reason to take them seriously. My first clue that someone is a babbling fool is when they start calling it “Darwinism”—then I know that I’m going to be wasting my time, because the first thing I have to do is clear the army of straw men out of the room, and even then, the joker probably isn’t going to pay any attention to what I have to say about evolution, because he still has that cartoon version of biology taught to him by his preacher whirling around in his head, complete with calliope music.

This is also the second time in a week I’ve heard talk radio brought up in this argument. I wonder if that’s an angle we haven’t been pushing hard enough—I know in those few instances where I’ve accidentally tuned in to some ranter on the AM side of the dial, I just go “Gaaaaa!” and turn it off. Maybe I shouldn’t do that; maybe some of us should be calling up the talk radio stations and offering to go on and discuss the non-cartoon version of evolution.


  1. says

    I’m not sure talk-radio is the best format for clarifying evolution. Talk-radio is all about straw men and cartoon versions (of whatever it is they are discussing, from evolution to the war in Iraq). I think anyone with the intestinal fortitude to go onto a talk radio show and try to clarify science is more than likely to spend most of their time being shouted down by angry hosts and angry callers.

  2. Peter Backus says

    I agree with Factician. The people who listen to AM talk radio don’t want to learn; they want to heard their beliefs confirmed. There might be a host who would give you a chance to speak, but it’s most likely that the host would be stirring things up. Been there …

  3. says

    I quite agree that talk radio is a cesspool (see “Gaaaaa!” comment above), but it’s a widespread cesspool that many people seem to find persuasive. I’m saying that maybe we should dive in and try to clean it up. If 10,000 people are listening on their morning commute and you convince just one that maybe his kneejerk rejection of evolution is ill-founded, that’s a step forward.

  4. says

    Twist that *might* be worthwhile: Point out that what they’re describing and slamming is more like Creationism, rather than evolution: A bunch of nothing just randomly slammed together and magically turned into an omnipotent, omniscient, intelligent being who whipped together a universe for no discernible reason, using unknowable mechanisms.

    Evolution, on the other hand, uses only known mechanisms and principles.

  5. YuppiTuna says

    My father has a tendency to listen to right wing creationist talk radio (no, he doesn’t believe in the sort of things a right wing creationist radio program might be saying, he just get some sort of perverse joy out of getting angry at willful ignorance.) Once in awhile, they will let somebody with some a bit of knowledge about evolution through, but they never get a word in, and then they are cut off and ridiculed for the rest of the show. Talk radio probably wouldn’t be a good format for teaching.

    (I also have a feeling you’d be screened out entirely if you appear that you might have any skill at making an argument.)

  6. Mark says

    I agree as well, AM radio is not the place for this discussion. I believe we need a grass-roots approach similar to the technique that has created the straw-man version of evolution which is so prevalent now. The people who attend these lectures have gained all their “knowledge” of evolution from pastors and lecturers who are trying to convince them that evolution is attacking God and their most fundamental religious beliefs. These people are not too stupid or lazy to understand other views, but they do place very high importance on their religious faith, and they’ve been taught that evolution is contradictory to religion.

    As brilliant as Richard Dawkins is, I believe that in some ways he is doing a disservice to the public understanding of evolution, because he is creating a very strong link between evolution and atheism- which is exactly what the Discovery Institute wants. In my view, the religious aspect needs to be taken out of it and people need to understand that (in most cases) their religious views can accomodate evolution.

    I would suggest that the Evolution Sunday approach be expanded. The fact that over 10,000 Christian clergy members signed a letter supporting evolution should be made as public as possible. Churches which participate in Evolution Sunday should make a special effort to publicize that service in the community and encourage others to attend just that day.

    Special programs could be held in these churches before or after Evolution Sunday to present the evidence for evolution in a simple form (I hate to use the phrase “cartoon version”, but it really is what’s needed). These should not be debates or dry lectures, but simplified, straightforward, and entertaining presentations, by knowledgable and dynamic speakers, of some of the key evidence that overwhelmingly supports evolution.

    In short, I think the message needs to be 1) that belief in God and acceptance of evolution are not incompatible, and 2) many widely perceived views of evolution are not correct.

    Just a thought,

  7. says

    Humes points out in his book that there was a basic confusion of terms between the Dover school board and the teachers. The Bonsells and Buckinghams used “origin of life” to include the origin of species (particularly one species), while the teachers naturally though of abiogenesis.

    I wonder if there isn’t a similar confusion over “random.” I suspect most people on the creation side mean “not intentional,” instead of “highly contingent” or “without evident cause.” If so, it little wonder they are confused when we point to natural selection as evidence that evolution isn’t random.

  8. says

    With all due respect to the Next Senator From the Great State of Minnesota, talk radio is in itself a wasteland. I used to be addicted to it but got frustrated with Joe Soucheray one day and haven’t listened to it since. The topic was regarding a bill that Wellstone had introduced; I had special knowledge because it involved the industry I was working on at the time. The bill supported the small guy against the big corporation.

    At first Soucheray agreed that the bill made sense, and it did because it allowed independent auto shops to compete with franchise dealers. The auto manufactures were not making their trouble codes available to us, and it meant that we had to send car owners to the dealers (costing us business and causing inconvenience to the customer.)

    The main issue is that the trouble codes belong to the customer and are not proprietary; but then a bunch of software engineers grabbed the call-in line and tried to say that the mfrs. have the right to withhold the trouble codes because it is part of the software that controls the car. So, yes it all got confusing. Engineer after engineer argued from authority that Wellstone was sticking his nose where it didn’t belong. I am sure that these nitwits would have been praising the bill if Coleman had been smart enough to introduce it.

    I called in, trying to get through and explained to the screener that I had inside information to explain the real deal, but had to hold for 30 minutes and still didn’t get in. So, after all that, I decided it was the last straw. Soucheray also decided a week before that he wasn’t going to discuss evolution on his show because in his mind the issue is settled. There are, apparently, still monkeys, (!) and so evolution can’t be true.

    So, I gave up on talk radio after that. Like Peter Backus observed, the truth doesn’t get much for ratings.

  9. Scott Hatfield says

    Is talk radio a good format for defending evolution and science education?

    Probably not.

    Should well-informed, prepared and personable defenders of evolution and science education eschew talk radio entirely?

    No way.

    The creationists must be exposed, they must be opposed. In every possible forum. In every possible way. Including in venues that tend to favor them. If we (the scientific community) don’t engage them in every possible way, we are essentially conceding the battle to an ever-growing segment of the population.


  10. says

    But then there is the real theory of evolution, the one that was on display in that Harrisburg courtroom, for which there is overwhelming evidence in labs, fossils, computer simulations and DNA studies. Most Americans have not heard of it.

    They don’t want to hear it, anymore than they want to hear that Bush really didn’t deceive the American people about Iraq–the American people deceived themselves. (Bush didn’t deceive me–why was that? Do I have some secret “in” at the CIA? Don’t think so.)

    This is really about what people want and do not want to be, who they identify with, and who they don’t. Why, for example, did I end up being the only kid I knew (hell, the only girl I knew!) who read Gould and Sagan? I don’t know the specific answer, but I have never been a follower, whereas other people seem perfectly willing to turn their minds over to those whom I consider to be little more than carny barkers. But I identified with Gould and Sagan. I identified with the “eggheads” and the pointy-headed intellectuals, and I think this is a key point. It seems that most Americans don’t–they seem to be willing to play yard-sale hush-puppie average American (when there’s no such thing) toddling after people who play to these sentiments (like Dembski & Co.) but consider themselves superior to their followers (like Dembski & Co.) no matter all their blather about the “unwashed masses” (which is so elitist).

    And because I recognize a ticket to nowhere when I see one. :-) And I don’t know how one teaches that. But the thing is, a belief in something is always a disbelief in something else–and I think this current wave of anti-science sentiment disguises a deep-seated lack of faith in oneself, despite all the trumpeted “I’m so special/my life has a glorious purpose!” testimonials.

  11. Jud says

    I tend to generally agree with the “Why preach to those already converted to the Other Side, and heck, you won’t be given half a chance to preach anyhow” view re AM talk radio. But AM talk radio isn’t the only mass medium out there.

    An awful lot of people I know who don’t bother with PBS like to watch the Discovery Channel with their kids. (Discovery HD has the added attraction of some of the best visuals now available on TV.) Once your book has been published, PZ, I think it would be a wonderful idea for you and some of the other evo-devo authors to propose a Discovery Channel series on recent evo-devo developments. (It seems to me that would be preferable to a series on fundamentals of evolution – why stay stuck in the rudiments when that can be covered as an overview and we can then share the excitement of the cutting edge? Nothing stimulated my curiosity more when watching science programs as a child than learning about those areas that were just beginning to be explored. And as you know, PBS has already done a “fundamentals” series, with companion book by Carl Zimmer.)

  12. Steve LaBonne says

    I think this current wave of anti-science sentiment disguises a deep-seated lack of faith in oneself, despite all the trumpeted “I’m so special/my life has a glorious purpose!” testimonials.

    And then I fix my eyes on those lights
    that seem pin-pricks,
    yet are so vast in form
    that earth and sea are really a pin-prick
    to them: to whom man,
    and this globe where man is nothing,
    are completely unknown: and gazing
    at those still more infinitely remote,
    knots, almost, of stars,
    that seem like mist to us, to which
    not only man and earth but all
    our stars, infinite in number and mass,
    with the golden sun,
    are unknown, or seem like points
    of misted light, as they appear
    from earth: what do you seem like,
    then, in my thoughts, O children
    of mankind? And mindful of
    your state here below, of which
    the ground I stand on bears witness,
    and that, on the other hand, you believe
    that you’ve been appointed the master
    and end of all things: and how often
    you like to talk about the creators
    of all things universal, who descended
    to this obscure grain of sand called earth,
    for you, and happily spoke to you, often:
    and that, renewing these ridiculous dreams,
    you still insult the wise, in an age
    that appears to surpass the rest
    in knowledge and social customs: what feeling is it,
    then, wretched human race, what thought
    of you finally pierces my heart?
    I don’t know if laughter or pity prevails.

    -Giacomo Leopardi, excerpt from “Wild Broom, or the Flower of the Desert”

  13. says

    I am tired of stupid stuff like this. How can I keep my patience with people like this when all I see is the same stupid argument against something they call “evolution” which when they define it, it is nothing like the evolution I know of.

  14. says

    John Pieret:

    Evolution isn’t random? It is, somewhat, isn’t it?

    I think it would be better to say “Evolution isn’t purely random”.

    And with large populations and long periods of time, one could argue that evolution isn’t random at all, I suppose.

    But that doesn’t mean that it’s deterministic, either.

  15. H. Humbert says

    I think talk radio could be an excellent medium, I just think most people here are saying biologists shouldn’t settle for going on right-wing or creationist talk shows. We shouldn’t let them set the rules or frame the debate.

    Go on a show which is already pro-science and just give the facts. Penn Jillette of Penn and Teller had Dawkins on his radio program a few months ago. NPR sometimes tackles the evolution/creation controversy and generally presents the issue accurately. The idea is to go on a program which is friendly to proper science.

  16. Erasmus says

    PZ you are doing a grave disservice to both calliope music and ‘the facts’.

    How about substituting that Yakkety Sax music from Benny Hill? I think it fits the mood a bit mo’ bettah.

  17. Rugosa says

    Mark, I disagree about Dawkins. He may be a polarizing figure to some, but he is bringing the arguements into the open. Learning about science does move people away from believing froo-fraw; that is why most mainstream religions have no trouble in accepting evolution. It’s actually a relative few who believe in the Bible literally, and they’ve had the stage to themselves too much. That majority that doesn’t accept evolution believes that way because they haven’t really been educated in science. As several commenters have pointed out, we need to get the science message out. I see the flap around Dawkins as giving the mainstream religions an opening in which to offer people the middle ground of “you can have the comfort of your religion without being an ignorant fundie.” Sorry this is a ramble, but the point is that the extremists on the other side have been getting all the attention, and Dawkins is helping open things up.

  18. says

    If you don’t mind, I’m going to quote a few paragraphs from the physicist Sean Carroll, because they summarize my own attitude rather well:

    These guys have gotten a lot of attention — especially Dawkins, who was recently voted Person of the Year by at least one reputable organization. Of course, some of the attention has been negative, especially from folks who are unsympathetic to the notion of a harsh, materialistic, godless universe. But even among self-professed atheists and agnostics (not to mention your wishy-washy liberal religionists), some discomfort has been expressed over the tone of Dawkins’s approach. People have been known to call him arrogant. Even if you don’t believe in God, so the argument goes, it can be a bad strategy to be upfront and in-your-face in public about one’s atheism. People are very committed to their religious beliefs, and telling them that science proves them wrong will lead them away from science, not way from God. And if you must be a die-hard materialist, at least be polite about it and respect others’ beliefs — to be obnoxious and insulting is simply counterproductive. Apart from any deep issues of what we actually should believe, this is a separate matter of how we could best persuade others to agree with us.

    I’m sympathetic to the argument that atheists shouldn’t be obnoxious and insulting; in fact, I think it’s a good strategy in all sorts of situations. You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, etc. But it does not follow that we should keep quiet about comforting illusions because those are the only things standing between the poor dears and overwhelming existential anxiety. If people ask whether, as scientists, we believe in God, we should respect them enough to tell the truth — whatever we think that is. That doesn’t mean we have to go door-to-door spreading the good word of the laws of nature. It just means that we should be honest about what we actually think, giving the best arguments we have for whatever that may be, and let people decide for themselves what to believe.

    Arrogant or not, as a matter of fact Dawkins and company have done a great service to the cause of atheism: they have significantly shifted the Overton Window. That’s the notion, borrowed from public-policy debates, of the spectrum of “acceptable opinion” on an issue. At any given time, on any particular question, the public discourse will implicitly deem certain positions to be respectable and worthy of civilized debate, and other positions to be crazy and laughable. The crucial part of this idea is that the window can be shifted by vigorous advocacy of positions on one extreme. And that’s just what Dawkins has done.

    It’s hard to see why we should say anything other than the truth, as best as we can figure it out — particularly when the truth is all we have to offer.

  19. Steve LaBonne says

    To follow up on Blake’s last sentence, permit me to offer one more excerpt from earlier in that same magnificent Leopardi poem, which I find much on my mind these days. Leopardi’s darkly pessimistic temperament was far removed from Dawkin’s sunny optimism, but in other respects they would have seen very much eye to eye.

    Proud, foolish century, look,
    and see yourself reflected,you who’ve abandoned
    the path, marked by advancing thought
    till now, and reversed your steps,
    boasting of this regression
    you call progress.
    All the intellectuals, whose evil fate
    gave them you for a father,
    praise your babbling, though
    they often make a mockery
    of you, among themselves. But I’ll
    not vanish into the grave in shame:
    As far as I can, I’ll demonstrate,
    the scorn for you, openly,
    that’s in my heart,
    though I know oblivion crushes
    those hated by their own time.
    I’ve already mocked enough
    at that fate I’ll share with you.
    You pursue Freedom, yet want thought
    to be slave of a single age again:
    by thought we’ve risen a little higher
    than barbarism, by thought alone civilisation
    grows, only thought guides public affairs
    towards the good.
    The truth of your harsh fate
    and the lowly place Nature gave you
    displease you so. Because of it
    you turn your backs on the light
    that illuminated you: and in flight,
    you call him who pursues it vile,
    and only him great of heart
    who foolishly or cunningly mocks himself
    or others, praising our human state above the stars.

  20. says

    “So, indifferent to man, and the ages
    he calls ancient, and the way descendants
    follow on from their ancestors,
    Nature, always green, proceeds instead
    by so long a route
    she seems to remain at rest. Meanwhile empires fall,
    peoples and tongues pass: She does not see:
    and man lays claim to eternity’s merit.

    And you, slow-growing broom,
    who adorn this bare landscape
    with fragrant thickets,
    you too will soon succumb
    to the cruel power of subterranean fire,
    that, revisiting places
    it knows, will stretch its greedy margin
    over your soft forest. And you’ll bend
    your innocent head, without a struggle,
    beneath that mortal burden:
    yet a head that’s not been bent in vain
    in cowardly supplication
    before a future oppressor: nor lifted
    in insane pride towards the stars,
    or beyond the desert, where
    your were born and lived,
    not through intent, but chance [emphasis mine]:
    and you’ll have been so much wiser
    so much less unsound than man, since you
    have never believed your frail species,
    can be made immortal by yourself, or fate.”

    Of course evolution is not all chance. Perhaps the word we need to use is “contingency.”

  21. Jud says

    Kristine said: “Of course evolution is not all chance. Perhaps the word we need to use is ‘contingency.'”

    Contingency acting on systems operating in accordance with universal natural laws, so that much further removed from the purely random.

  22. Toby J says

    I listen to the “pundits” on AM radio fairly often, mostly so I don’t go around making my own straw men out of the arguments from “the other side.” While it’s often tempting to call up and bawl them out on matters of their astounding ignorance, it’s useful to keep in mind that (a) the host will always get the last word and (b) the host will ignore what you are saying until he gets that last word. I’ve heard it far too many times to hold out any hope: some caller with a rational position gets run over by the man with the mic.

  23. says

    Somewhere I’ve got a copy of a transcript from a talkshow debate on evolution–Hugh Ross against Carl Baugh on James Dobson’s radio show. Talk about the blind leading the dumb!

  24. Kagehi says

    The only problem being that most people don’t have a clue what “contingency” actually means and we will just get accused by the IDiots of switching out another word for “random” to cover our own asses.

  25. g2 says

    I have spent plenty of time listening to AM1500 including Joe Soucheray. Sourcheray is a guy who prides himself on being confused by basic arithmetic so he quickly gets in over his head. But about 2 months ago I heard a guy introduced as a member of the U of M faculty (specialty not biology) who was touting irreducible complexity. A caller called in and pointed out there was absolutely no peer reviewed biology related journal which accepted the doctrine of irreducible complexity. The U of M meerly said that he did not realize that. It was the end of the interview, as I remember it. A very effective rebutal in a medium not known for playing fair. Great stuff. Fight the good fight when ever possible!

  26. says


    We can argue endlessly about what “random” means (IIRC, I have already in But what I was referring to was what Humes described: “a random crash of molecules that magically produced flowers, horses and humans … a tornado in a junkyard assembling a 747”. Maybe we can call that “chaos”. Natural selection takes a more limited randomness — self-sustaining chemical reactions — and makes a higher level order out of it than the mere rules of chemistry can manage. Maybe call that kind of randomness “contingency.”

    My point is that I don’t think either of those is what creationists mean by the word “random” or, at least, not all of what they mean by it. To them, anything that is not intended by some intelligent agent is “random.”

  27. Ray S says

    In my town there’s an AM talk radio host who is nationally syndicated and to loyal PZ readers a right wing nutcase. He regularly cites info from Wingnut Daily to buttress his political arguments. Yet he makes fun of creationists whenever the opportunity arises. Now if only he would listen to the scientists about global warming.

    My point simply is to not pre-pigeonhole someone before they have established a position and to not give up even though the odds may be stacked against you in derailing the cartoon versions of evolution.

  28. Foster Disbelief says

    Ray, is the right-wing nut you’re talking about Michael Savage?

    I listen to his show at times on my drive home from class, and for as much of a nut job as he is, he has his head on straight concerning evolution.

    I caught a full hour of him one night absolutly destroying creationism. I honestly thought his show got pirated, but it turns out he has a strong scientific background.

    It’s too bad his core audience probably just tuned that hour out.

  29. Ray S says

    No, the guy in my town (Atlanta) is Neal Boortz. He claims to be a Christian, but he’s certainly not a fundy. The only science he seems to deny is global warming. I think that is because he sees it more as a political conspiracy. He trots out silly arguments in the same vein as the ridiculous creationist arguments (if global warming is true, how come it’s cold outside?). Of course he’s not going to let himself be shown wrong on his own show. I think someone would have to find a way to convince him off the air first.

    Michael Savage is on the same station as Boortz, in the early evening. I avoid him when I can as most of his shows seem to be little more than adolescent name calling, so it’s entirely possible I missed him having a lucid moment. Savage is on here right after Sean (direct from God’s lips) Hannity. Hannity singlehandedly has sent me to NPR for afternoon drivetime.

    The thing that bugs me most about all of these guys is their glaring lapses in logic. Boortz was recent caught on air in one where he had leaped to some conclusion about the stupidity inherent in ‘government schools’ (he derides public schools constantly and is an advocate of choice and vouchers). All he had heard was about some incident where the school administration had reacted poorly (sorry I don’t remember the specifics, but it’s like a kid being suspended for bringing a picture of a gun to school) and he assumed that it was a public school. After all, private schools never make any mistakes, right? Turns out that the incident was in a private school, thus the matter is quickly dropped.

  30. Mark B says

    Monkey Girl author Edward Humes appears on C-SPAN 2 this Saturday, March 3, 2007, at 11 PM Eastern.