People sometimes try to score debating points by saying, Evolution is only a theory. That is correct, but it's important to understand what that means. It is also only a theory that the world goes round the Sun - it's just a theory for which there is an immense amount of evidence. There are many scientific theories that are in doubt. Even within evolution, there is some room for controversy. But that we are cousins of apes and jackals and starfish, let's say, that is a fact in the ordinary sense of the word.
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I think nobody would claim that random genetic drift is capable of producing adaptation, that is to say the illusion of design. Random genetic drift can't produce wings that are good at flying, or eyes that are good at seeing, or legs that are good at running. But random genetic drift probably is very important in driving evolution at the molecular genetic level.
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Nowadays theologians aren't quite so straightforward as Paley. They don't point to complex living mechanisms and say that they are self-evidently designed by a creator, just like a watch. But there is a tendency to point to them and say 'It is impossible to believe' that such complexity, or such perfection, could have evolved by natural selection. Whenever I read such a remark, I always feel like writing 'Speak for yourself' in the margin.
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It could be that at some earlier time, somewhere in the universe, a civilization evolved by probably some kind of Darwinian means to a very, very high level of technology- and designed a form of life that they seeded onto perhaps this planet. And I suppose it's possible that you might find evidence for that if you look at the details of biochemistry, molecular biology, you might find a signature of some sort of designer.
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As my colleague, the physical chemist Peter Atkins, puts it, we must be equally agnostic about the theory that there is a teapot in orbrit around the planet Pluto. We can't disprove it. But that doesn't mean the theory that there is a teapot is on level terms with the theory that there isn't.
It is raining DNA outside. On the bank of the Oxford canal at the bottom of my garden is a large willow tree, and it is pumping downy seeds into the air. ... spreading DNA whose coded characters spell out specific instructions for building willow trees that will shed a new generation of downy seeds. ... It is raining instructions out there; it's raining programs; it's raining tree-growing, fluff-spreading, algorithms. That is not a metaphor, it is the plain truth. It couldn't be any plainer if it were raining floppy discs.
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The alternative which I favor is to renounce all euphemisms and grasp the nettle of the word atheism itself, precisely because it is a taboo word carrying frissons of hysterical phobia. Critical mass may be harder to achieve than with some non-confrontational euphemism, but if we did achieve it with the dread word atheist, the political impact would be all the greater.
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Suffering is a byproduct of evolution by natural selection, an inevitable consequence that may worry us in our more sympathetic moments but cannot be expected to worry a tiger - even if a tiger can be said to worry about anything at all - and certainly cannot be expected to worry its genes.
The trouble with conspiracies, even those that are to everybody's advantage in the long run, is that they are open to abuse. If manipulators really had the powers claimed, they could win the lottery every week. I prefer to point out that they could also win a Nobel Prize for discovering fundamental physical forces hitherto unknown to science
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The word 'mundane' has come to mean 'boring' and 'dull', and it really shouldn't - it should mean the opposite. Because it comes from the latin mundus, meaning 'the world'. And the world is anything but dull: The world is wonderful. There's real poetry in the real world. Science is the poetry of reality.
If you don't understand how something works, never mind: just give up and say God did it. You don't know how the nerve impulse works? Good! You don't understand how memories are laid down in the brain? Excellent! Is photosynthesis a bafflingly complex process? Wonderful! Please don't go to work on the problem, just give up, and appeal to God.
Religion has been a powerful weapon in the hands of governments, in the hands of priests, in the hands of kings who have used it as a weapon to keep down the populace. It is a wonderful way of disciplining people and making them do what you want, to tell them that if they don't do what you want they will, for example, go to Hell.
There's a natural tendency for children to, in some sense, inherit the cultural values of their parents. I'm not against that, that's fine, that's wonderful. What I am against is labelling. Nobody ever labels a child a cricketer because his father is a cricketer, but they do label a child a Catholic because his parents are Catholic. I think it's more or less unique. Nobody ever labels a child a socialist or a conservative or a liberal because that's what their parents are.
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Religion and science have nothing to do with each other, they're about different things, science is about the way the world works and religion is about miracles, I mean, if you ask most ordinary people in church or in a mosque why they believe, it's almost certainly got something to do with the belief that God does wonderful things, that God intervenes, that God heals the sick, that God answers prayers, God forgives sins.
Bush and bin Laden are really on the same side: the side of faith and violence against the side of reason and discussion. Both have implacable faith that they are right and the other is evil. Each believes that when he dies he is going to heaven. Each believes that if he could kill the other, his path to paradise in the next world would be even swifter. The delusional "next world" is welcome to both of them. This world would be a much better place without either of them.
Most thoughtful people would agree that morality in the absence of policing is somehow more truly moral than the kind of false morality that vanishes as soon as the police go on strike or the spy camera is switched off, whether the spy camera is a real one monitored in the police station or an imaginary one in heaven.
Science may be weird and incomprehensible--more weird and less comprehensible than any theology--but science works. It gets results. It can fly you to Saturn, slingshotting you around Venus and Jupiter on the way. We may not understand quantum theory (heaven knows, I don't), but a theory that predicts the real world to ten decimal places cannot in any straightforward sense be wrong.
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