Wrong-headed on evolution

Among the articles delivered by OWL (omnipresent Wisconsin librarian) Dave Lull this weekend, and posted on Librarian’s Place, is a piece about "intelligent design". See here for the Librarian’s Place posting.

If I have understood it correctly, the self-described "tomeboy the ‘right’-minded liberrian" has analysed the collections of various US libraries and finds that books favourable to "intelligent design" are outnumbered by books not favourable to the concept. He also notes that fewer "pro" books are reviewed than "anti". He concludes that the American library service is failing in its mission to protect the diversity of ideas, while at the same time unconvincingly claiming not to be an apologist for intelligent design.

I completely disagree with tomeboy’s arguments.

First, what is factually correct is not decided by voting, but by the quality of the argument. You could fill a library with books stating that water flows uphill, but that would not mean that water does flow uphill.

Second (a corollary of the first point, which says it all really), the books listed as "not favourable" to intelligent design omit a number of authors (Ridley, Steve Jones, Conway Morris et al.) who have written excellent books on evolution and Darwinism. Richard Dawkins’ considerable output is represented by only one title. Because lots of books "unfavourable" to intelligent design do not figure in tomeboy’s analyses, his case that the library system is "biased" seems more to do with stock issues than anything else.

Finally, tomeboy makes the interesting point that "Continental Drift, Cloning, Osteopathy, String Theory, Cold Fusion, Cosmology, Electromagnetism, Meteors, Big Bang Theory, Black Holes" were all once considered pseudoscience and, tomeboy extrapolates, "presumably" not worth collecting in a "balanced fashion" as he calls it. (An aside: of tomeboy’s list, cold fusion remains pseudoscience until there is some credible evidence for it, and I’m unsure of the status of osteopathy but I believe there is not any objective evidence for it to date — I hastily add that this doesn’t mean I don’t think it can be useful.)

Intelligent design, or any other form of creationism, is not a credible theory because there is better, indeed overwhelming, evidence for evolution. So why libraries should provide "balanced" representation of them, as tomeboy concludes, beats me.

Of course, it can certainly be hard for theories to gain general acceptance. Like every other profession or walk of life, science is conservative. From the selection on tomeboy’s list, Clare Dudman has written an excellent scientific novel called Wegener’s Jigsaw about the considerable difficulties Wegener had in gaining general acceptance for his continental drift theory by the scientific establishment. Nobel prizewinners frequently had enormous difficulty in getting their ideas published or taken seriously. Examples include Marshall and Warren’s discovery that peptic ulcers are caused by a bacterium, and Lauterbur and Mansfield’s discovery of magnetic resonance imaging. Our favourite example at Nature is how the journal rejected Hans Krebs’ paper outlining the TCA (citric acid, or Krebs) cycle, by which sugars are metabolised, which won the Nobel in 1953. Nature did offer to reconsider the article when it had more space available, though 😉

End in Tears — free copy

Ruth Rendell’s Chief Inspector Wexford series is now about 20 books long. I first started reading these books as a teenager and enjoy them as much now as I did then. Over the series, we have followed the development of Wexford and Burden’s own family lives: their marriages, their children and (in the case of Wexford), grandchildren. Sometimes these have involved drama, but most often, and most successfully, they simply involve the daily interactions between people, with all their small frustrations and pleasures.  Wexford and Burden themselves, longstanding partners professionally, have become almost like an old married couple themselves, understanding each other well enough to know when to exercise tolerance or patience.

As well as the family developments, Rendell covers the change in police procedures over the years (the series begain in 1964): technological, political, social. New, young staff are hired who have the attitudes of their own generation, bringing challenges for Wexford and the old hands.

Finally, Rendell is interested in addressing changes in society’s values. In this well-established series, and particularly through Wexford, who is both old (experienced) and open-minded (this is what makes him a good, intuitive policeman), attitudes to race, gender, religion, the developing world, consumerism, morals and so on are bought into focus. Rendell has a strong liberal social conscience: Wexford, being both aware of his increasing age and the possibility of becoming more "out of touch", as well as having a sensitive and emotional personality, seems to represent the authorial persona.

I hope I haven’t made this book sound heavy-going. It isn’t. All this context is interwound into a readable, digestible plot. Rendell likes to explore one particular situation in each of these novels; in this case, "End in Tears" focuses on young children, parenthood, surrogacy, and the powerful feelings thus engendered — using new and established characters to explore different angles. (This book, published in 2005, is certainly topical, bearing in mind the current media-induced hysteria over Madonna’s adoption of a Somalian baby earlier this year, 2006.)

Of course, the book is a detective novel, and works well as such. The plotting is tight and many balls are kept in the air without one falling down that I noticed, even though the presence of twins is usually a bad sign in crime fiction. But in the end, the denouement is almost irrelevant (just as well, as I thought it stretched believability a bit too much). But as a whole, the book simply works — the author is comfortable with the world she has created, the characters live outside the page, reading is effortless.

I will send a free, unread copy of this book to the first person who asks for it in the comments — owing to advancing senility I inadvertently bought two copies. If you haven’t read a Wexford novel before, I’d recommend starting the series from the beginning (they are all in print). If you have read a Wexford before and like them, you will enjoy this one too.

Here is a bibliography for Ruth Rendell, which includes the Wexford series in reading order.

This review is archived in my book review collection on Vox.