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Conor Lenihan, junior minister for Education and Science in the Irish government, must be reeling from the storm he found himself in yesterday. After accepting an invitation to launch a book debunking Evolutionary Theory, he was lampooned and ridiculed with a ferocity I have rarely seen on the Internet. Here are a selection of the comments on Twitter.

“Maybe the author told Conor that it was a book about Job Creationism.”

GSheehy

“Ye Minifter for ye Sciencef of ye Kingdom of Prefter John sendf salutationf&wishef of good health to ye Minifter for Alchemy, Mr Lennyhan.”

– janeruffino

“Conor Lenihan may be late for Wednesday’s book launch as he’ll be trying to rake the moon out of the pond with a hoe.”

Charlieconnelly

And these are just the nice ones.

Lenihan says that he is a friend of the author, that he was attending the book launch in a personal capacity and that doing this for constituents is something public representatives often do. (The author’s website advertised his presence as Junior Minister of Education – this was later changed).

Late last night, the author withdrew his invitation, but you would wonder how the minister is feeling today. If he is feeling wronged, that he was subjected to an attack by the media and the intelligensia, he is missing the point. The reason he got such a strong reaction is because of his cluenessness on this issue. He can no more claim “personal capacity” than if he was attending a UKIP friend’s campaign launch at the launch of the Lisbon referendum. On one hand, we have a government that supports the advancement of science, but on the other hand we have a minister tacitly supporting a book which, no matter which way you cut it, is vehemently anti-science right from page 1. The optics here are terrible. Evolution is one of the strongest theories in science, backed up by over a century of solid evidence, and fundamental to diverse studies such as biology, medicine, genetics and geology. Even someone with a rudimentary understanding of science would understand this. Giving a platform to a man whose only argument is “I am too ignorant to understand it, therefore it cannot be true” is just mind-blowing. Whether he realises it or not, it is very embarrassing for our country’s image abroad, not to mention to him personally.

Maybe, Minister, it’s time you stepped down from your position, took some time to read a few books and not just those with big coloured pictures on them.

The Greatest Show on Earth

I’m currently reading Richard Dawkins’ latest book “The Greatest Show on Earth“. The premise of the book is simple. Dawkins presents the case for evolution in the face of those who fervently believe that is it isn’t so. His thesis uses the metaphor of a crime scene to tie together all the clues, and Dawkins comprehensively shows that there is only one suspect in town – evolution.

The evidence for evolution is overwhelming, with numerous sources such as comparative anatomy, molecular biology, fossil evidence and continental drift, all pointing to evolution through natural selection as the only reasonable explanation for the complexity and diversity of life on Earth. Evolution has even been witnessed in numerous laboratory experiments. Dawkins leaves no stone unturned in presenting the case for evolution. It’s delivered with the enthusiasm of a child, the simplicity of a teacher and the forcefulness of a barrister who knows he has an open-and-shut case on his hands.

I can’t praise Dawkins’ book highly enough. It’s full of fascinating digressions and factoids and it takes the reader on a rollercoaster trip through space and time as it presents the evidence, often in considerable detail. I don’t personally believe it will matter a jot to the beliefs of ardent creationists, but to the interested layman it will help to explain how intellectually bankrupt their beliefs are.

It was with this frame of mind that I read the transcripts of the Richard Dawkins interview on the Late Late Show (a top chat show on Irish television). I was astounded. As most people know, Dawkins authored a best-selling book on religion in 2006 called The God Delusion. It was a full frontal attack on religion, calling out the nonsense within and attempting to put religion under the microscope and into the sphere of public debate. Ryan Tubridy, the Late Late Show host, interviewed Dawkins a few times about it on radio and it always lead to some lively back-and-forth battles between Dawkins and his detractors. That was in 2006 and 2007. Now in 2009, Dawkins has published a new book on an altogether different subject, yet Tubridy could not resist the temptation to bring the discourse back to his atheism, and to inject sensationalism wherever possible – (“So what is the Vatican then? Toy Town?”, “Do you see God as believable as the Easter Bunny?”, etc.). None of these issues are discussed in Dawkins’ latest book, leading me to the conclusion that Ryan Tubridy didn’t even bother to read it.

Personally, I loved Dawkins’ clear, no nonsense answers but I couldn’t help feeling that, on Tubridy’s part, it was an opportunity missed. Is Richard Dawkins so one-dimensional that the only issue worth talking to him about is his atheism? Dawkins has much to say on the subject of evolution and why it is so important that we understand it. He is deeply passionate about science education, about the philosophy of science, about the promotion of science, about legal challenges to science, about critical thinking. In brief, we could have learned something but instead we were treated to a charade, deliberately intended to scandalise the Irish churchgoing public. This is a huge pity. By conflating Dawkins’ views on evolution with his atheism in this way, Ryan Tubridy may have muddied the waters concerning evolution, a topic that is critical to understand as we rehabilitate science and technology within the Irish education system.

“The Greatest Show on Earth” is only controversial if you are a creationist who has been vaccinated from reality. For the rest of us, it’s a rollicking good read on a vitally relevant subject.

Today marks the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin, the co-discoverer of one of the greatest scientific explanations in history: why life is so complex, so wondrous and so diverse. Why life can survive against all manner of odds, and why some forms of life die off, never to be heard of again.

Darwin’s theory, properly called the theory of Evolution through Natural Selection, has not remained constant since it’s publication 150 years ago. Advances in our understanding of heredity, of genetics and of sexual selection have acted to improve our understanding of the ways in which living organisms adjust to the vagaries of nature and each other. The theory is being constantly refined and improved, but one thing is absolutely certain: The supporting evidence continues to flow in. For biologists, geologists, biochemists and a whole class of scientists, it acts like a map, allowing them to better understand what is going on, providing great clues as to the underlying reasons for particular phenomena, and governing the course of research worldwide.

To some, the theory may seem harsh, hopeless and random. It is too far an intellectual leap, directly challenging the core of their beliefs. This is a huge pity, because it’s explanatory power reveals so much about our origins and the diversity in nature that we see every day. It is no more a moral codebook than the theory of gravity. It provides us with an understanding of the world as it is, not how we would like it to be. When we strive to make the world a better place for all of us, surely we are enrichened by this knowledge rather than denying it outright?

So today I celebrate Darwin Day, remembering not just Darwin, but also Wallace and all the scientists who came after him. Thank you for all the efforts you have made.

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