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Book Review - God- or Gorilla?, Chapter 7

This entry is part of a series. For a bit of an introduction and an index of all entries in the series, go here.

God or Gorilla PicThis installment covers Chapter 7, "Theologians" Versus "Scientists".

First, we get a taste of some vitalism.

The writer has seen "scientific" milk made of the soja bean. The writer has also seen artificial honey made on a "scientific" formula. The former kills babies: the latter kills bees. Henry Ford, the biologist, or Henry Ford, the bio-chemist, or Henry Ford, the metabolist, perhaps has not yet learned that science misses the essence of life's formula which the scriptures nowhere attempt to reveal and that this essence has ever eluded the scientist who dabbles with synthetics. (McCann 98)

I wonder what McCann would have to say about Ventner's current artificial life project. The truth is - the more we learn about how life works, the more we learn that it's really all just chemical reactions. Sure, they're pretty complicated chemical reactions, but there's nothing fundamentally different between the reactions in a cell and the reactions in a test tube.

Just a bit later, McCann shows his contempt not just for biology, but for modern medicine, as well.

But-synthetic wintergreen when prescribed by the physician does not conduct itself, for some mysterious reason, in the human body, as does natural winter-green, although the chemical symbols of both, as far as science is concerned, are identical. (McCann 99)

Knowing how alternative medicine proponents operate in the present day, I have to wonder if McCann really did have a source of data for this claim. After all, chemicals don't 'care' if they came from biological or synthetic sources. They'll still behave the same way to given conditions.

To his credit, McCann actually gave a very good description of natural selection.

They did not know that the term "Darwinism" as popularly misrepresented by Haeckel is not the theory of evolution, but rather the theory of natural selection. Darwinism does not mean that man descended from an ape. It means that animals, under certain conditions, accommodate themselves better than others to the circumstances of their life, by reason of which they triumph in the struggle for existence while the others are wiped out, so that the victors eventually transmit their special qualities to their descendants, and by such transmission these qualities become more and more prominent until a new variety, a new race, a new species has been developed. (McCann 100)

Unfortunately, he had to follow it up with this paragraph.

These critics did not know that under the theory of natural selection the blood-red robber-ant ought not to make the mistake of selecting its worst enemy, the lomechusa, as a guest to live with, because in doing so it follows an instinct that leads to the destruction, not to the perpetuation of its own species. If the blood-red robber-ant selected a guest that would prove harmful from the moment when it deposited its larvae to be brought up in its own nest for the purpose of wiping out its own offspring, its idea of the theory of natural selection must have been the idea of suicide. (McCann 100-101)

This idea of intent behind evolution on the part of the organisms doing the evolving has to be one of the most common misconceptions I encounter. Look at it this way - did you pick which genetic mutations you wanted, or pick the mutations in your gametes that would go on to your children? Of course not. Genetic mutation is basically a random process.

McCann's example, though, misses the obvious. While the blood-red robber-ant may not be benefiting from the lomechusa, the lomechusa certainly benefits from the robber-ant. Like many parasites, it's 'discovered' how to evade its host's defenses. In this case, along with tactile cues, it uses the same pheromones that the ants use to fool the ants into thinking it's one of them. Lomechusa that are more convincing con artists will be more successful than their less convincing brethren. (more info).

Quote mining seems to be irresistible to creationists. Here's another example of how McCann quoted Darwin.

In "The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin," edited by his son, Francis Darwin, volume 1, p. 210, is the famous letter written to Bentham, which most people never read but in which Darwin emphatically declares: "When we descend to details WE CAN PROVE THAT NOT ONE SPECIES HAS CHANGED."

On the following page he says: "I, for one, can conscientiously declare that I never feel surprised at any one sticking to the belief in immutability." (McCann 102)

First, as a minor note, according to the edition of the book I found, the quote is from Volume III, p. 25 of the book. Here's Darwin's actual quote from the first letter McCann quoted. The part in bold is the part McCann used.

P.S. -- In fact, the belief in Natural Selection must at present be grounded entirely on general considerations. (1) On its being a vera causa, from the struggle for existence; and the certain geological fact that species do somehow change. (2) From the analogy of change under domestication by man's selection. (3) And chiefly from this view connecting under an intelligible point of view a host of facts. When we descend to details, we can prove that no one species has changed [i.e. we cannot prove that a single species has changed]; nor can we prove that the supposed changes are beneficial, which is the groundwork of the theory. Nor can we explain why some species have changed and others have not. The latter case seems to me hardly more difficult to understand precisely and in detail than the former case of supposed change. Bronn may ask in vain, the old creationist school and the new school, why one mouse has longer ears than another mouse, and one plant more pointed leaves than another plant..

The second letter was one long paragraph, but it wasn't too long, so I'll just quote that entire letter. Once again, I bolded the part that McCann used.

MY DEAR BENTHAM,--I have been extremely much pleased and interested by your address, which you kindly sent me. It seems to be excellently done, with as much judicial calmness and impartiality as the Lord Chancellor could have shown. But whether the "immutable" gentlemen would agree with the impartiality may be doubted, there is too much kindness shown towards me, Hooker, and others, they might say. Moreover I verily believe that your address, written as it is, will do more to shake the unshaken and bring on those leaning to our side, than anything written directly in favour of transmutation. I can hardly tell why it is, but your address has pleased me as much as Lyell's book disappointed me, that is, the part on species, though so cleverly written. I agree with all your remarks on the reviewers. By the way, Lecoq* is a believer in the change of species. I, for one, can conscientiously declare that I never feel surprised at any one sticking to the belief of immutability; though I am often not a little surprised at the arguments advanced on this side. I remember too well my endless oscillations of doubt and difficulty. It is to me really laughable, when I think of the years which elapsed before I saw what I believe to be the explanation of some parts of the case; I believe it was fifteen years after I began before I saw the meaning and cause of the divergence of the descendants of any one pair. You pay me some most elegant and pleasing compliments. There is much in your address which has pleased me much, especially your remarks on various naturalists. I am so glad that you have alluded so honourably to Pasteur. I have just read over this note; it does not express strongly enough the interest which I have felt in reading your address. You have done, I believe, a real good turn to the right side. Believe me, dear Bentham,

Yours very sincerely,


So, the full meaning of what Darwin wrote, when seen in context, differs from what McCann would want you to believe. And of course, the veracity of evolution doesn't depend on what Darwin thought. He was merely one of the first people to recognize how it worked.

Proceed to Chapters 8 & 9


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