Another entry for the groaning shelf

Oh, no. I’ve got to add another book to my growing stack: Frederick Crews’ Follies of the Wise: Dissenting Essays(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). If you knew how many books are piling up on that shelf…

Here’s a piece of Jerry Coyne’s review:

The quality of Crews’s prose is particularly evident in his two chapters on evolution versus creationism. In the first, he takes on creationists in their new guise as intelligent-design advocates, chastising them for pushing not only bad science, but contorted faith:

“Intelligent design awkwardly embraces two clashing deities – one a glutton for praise and a dispenser of wrath, absolution, and grace, the other a curiously inept cobbler of species that need to be periodically revised and that keep getting snuffed out by the very conditions he provided for them. Why, we must wonder, would the shaper of the universe have frittered away some fourteen billion years, turning out quadrillions of useless stars, before getting around to the one thing he really cared about, seeing to it that a minuscule minority of earthling vertebrates are washed clean of sin and guaranteed an eternal place in his company?”

But after demolishing creationists, Crews gives peacemaking scientists their own hiding, reproving them for trying to show that there is no contradiction between science and theology. Regardless of what they say to placate the faithful, most scientists probably know in their hearts that science and religion are incompatible ways of viewing the world. Supernatural forces and events, essential aspects of most religions, play no role in science, not because we exclude them deliberately, but because they have never been a useful way to understand nature. Scientific “truths” are empirically supported observations agreed on by different observers. Religious “truths,” on the other hand, are personal, unverifiable and contested by those of different faiths. Science is nonsectarian: those who disagree on scientific issues do not blow each other up. Science encourages doubt; most religions quash it.

How can I possibly resist it?

Curses, memed again

At least book memes are easy for me.

A book that changed my life: John Tyler Bonner, On Development: The Biology of Form(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). This just happened to be the first book on developmental biology I read.

A book I’ve read more than once: Herbert Mason’s translation of the Gilgamesh(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). I still bring this one out now and then, for the resonance of it’s sorrow over human mortality.

A book I would take with me if I were stuck on a desert island: An impossible decision. First choice: Mary Jane West-Eberhard, Developmental Plasticity and Evolution(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Second choice: Stephen Jay Gould, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll), because editing it would pass the time.

A book that made me laugh: Joseph Heller, Catch 22(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Funniest book ever.

A book that I wish had been written: My own. <sigh> Classes have started, it’s a struggle to find the time.

A book that I wish had never been written: Various frauds and swindlers and sanctimonious pissants, The Holy Bible. I’m so predictable.

A book I’ve been meaning to read: Natalie Angier, Woman: An Intimate Geography(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). It’s on the table right now.

I’m currently reading: Wallace Arthur, Creatures of Accident: The Rise of the Animal Kingdom(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). There will be a review here sometime. I love it from the title on.

I’m supposed to pass this one on, but infections aren’t made by the virus’s choice, so if you leave a comment here, consider yourself contaminated.

And really, Buffy’s biology is wonderful!

Physicists get all the fun. Jennifer Ouellette has announced a book I’ll definitely be buying: The Physics of the Buffyverse(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). How could I not? It will go on the shelf next to my copy of The Physics of Superheroes(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll).

So, where’s The Biology of Superheroes? The creators of superheroes trample all over the principles of physiology and genetics as thoroughly as they do those of physics, so there’s got to be a story in there somewhere.


For more metaphorical execution of the ghastly Mr Wells and his dumb little book, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Darwinism and Intelligent Design, my article on chapter 3 is now available at the Panda’s Thumb, and if you want something fresh, Burt Humburg tackles the internal contradictions and fuzzy thinking of Wells’ theology. Not that I would ever imply that there is a theology that isn’t fuzzy and contradictory, but Wells seems to have bunged up the job particularly well.

The Politically Incorrect Guide to Darwinism and Intelligent Design: Chapter 3: Simply incorrect embryology

This article is part of a series of critiques of Jonathan Wells’ The Politically Incorrect Guide to Darwinism and Intelligent Design that will be appearing at the Panda’s Thumb over the course of the next week or so. Previously, I’d dissected the summary of chapter 3. This is a longer criticism of the whole of the chapter, which is purportedly a critique of evo-devo.

Jonathan Wells is a titular developmental biologist, so you’d expect he’d at least get something right in his chapter on development and evolution in The Politically Incorrect Guide to Darwinism and Intelligent Design, but no: he instead uses his nominal knowledge of a complex field to muddle up the issues and misuse the data to generate a spurious impression of a science that is unaware of basic issues. He ping-pongs back and forth in a remarkably incoherent fashion, but that incoherence is central to his argument: he wants to leave the reader so baffled about the facts of embryology that they’ll throw up their hands and decide development is all wrong.

Do not be misled. The state of Jonathan Wells’ brain is in no way the state of the modern fields of molecular genetics, developmental biology, and evo-devo.

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The Republican War on Science


Chris Mooney is trying to kill me.

It’s true. He sent me this book, The Republican War on Science(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll) (now available in a new paperback edition!), that he knew would send my blood pressure skyrocketing, give me apoplexy, and cause me to stroke out and die, gasping, clawing in futile spasms at the floor. Fortunately, I’ve been inoculating myself for the past few years by reading his weblog (now also in a new edition!), so I managed to survive, although there were a few chest-clutching moments and one or two life-flashing-past-my-eyes experiences, which will be handy if I ever write a memoir.

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Coming to Life

Books from Nobel laureates in molecular biology have a tradition of being surprising. James Watson(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll) was catty, gossipy, and amusingly egotistical; Francis Crick(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll) went haring off in all kinds of interesting directions, like a true polymath; and Kary Mullis(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll) was just plain nuts. When I heard that Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard was coming out with a book, my interest and curiousity were definitely piqued. The work by Nüsslein-Volhard and Wieschaus has shaped my entire discipline, so I was eagerly anticipating what her new book, Coming to Life: How Genes Drive Development(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll) would have to say.

It wasn’t what I expected at all, but I think readers here will be appreciative: it’s a primer in developmental biology, written for the layperson! Especially given a few of the responses to my last article, where the jargon seems to have lost some people, this is going to be an invaluable resource.

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