13 April, 2006

Steve Jones at the Royal Society

On Tuesday evening, Steve Jones gave his talk entitled ‘Why Creationism is wrong and Evolution is right’ at the Royal Society. When I first mentioned this I was quite tempted to go along; as it turned out, my housemate was having his PhD viva that day and I was committed to haunting the pubs of Southampton in celebration (the
success of other bloggers suggests that I may not have made it in anyway). Fortunately, the Royal Society has now put a recording online (although annoyingly, the camera rarely shows the slides). Sometimes the Internet is more than a Tool of Procrastination…

Jones has won several awards for his science communication and it’s not hard to see why: he’s an engaging speaker, capable of explaining important points without lapsing into jargon, and adding humour without it seeming too forced. What was interesting was that despite the provocative title, he barely discussed creationism at all, and he certainly didn’t waste time debunking irreducible complexity or any other ID ‘science’. Instead, he allocated most of his time to making a positive argument for ‘descent with modification’ in action, using the examples of human languages and the evolution of the HIV virus. These were well chosen: in both cases changes are happening over decades and centuries rather than millions of years, which are much more comprehensible timescales for the average person; in both cases there is a wealth of available data which allows lines of descent to be reconstructed more easily and robustly; and HIV is also a highly relevant illustration of how understanding evolution is vital for fighting diseases. I especially liked the phrase he used to link his two examples:

you can’t learn to speak any language properly without understanding the grammar, and you can’t be a biologist without understanding evolution.

Jones returned to language at the end of his talk, where he suggested that we as a species have ‘stepped outside the universe of Darwin’ by developing a means of information transfer outside of DNA, which is an interesting line to take. he seems to feel that a weak point exploited by creationists is the idea that accepting evolution, particularly our primate ancestry, demeans us as human beings in some way, and he is trying to take the sting out of that implication - ‘don’t worry folks, science says we’re special too!’

So, it wasn’t what I was expecting, but I was impressed; I think Steve Jones has thought quite hard about the creationism issue and how to confront it. He said that until recently he was in agreement with Richard Dawkins’ assertion that debating with creationists was a non-starter. In some ways, he has not changed that view, but has instead decided that he can still contribute, by giving the kind of talk that a creationist/IDer cannot give, because their arguments are pretty exclusively negative denunciations of evolutionary science. The contrast was certainly striking, at least to me.


Dave Cross said...

If you watch the video on the Royal Society web site, then the slides are displayed in synch on the left of the web page.

CJR said...

Well so it claims.... but that doesn't seem to be working for me either in Opera or Firefox. Probably some weird Javascript issues I suppose.