Consistent theistic epistemology

The Third Way is the project of a group of scientists dissatisfied with Neo-Darwinism as a theory of evolution, yet also committed to naturalism. I’ve commented on it a couple of times before, firstly last August, when I praised its openness to exploring new ideas, including those involving teleological mechanisms; and subsequently in discussion to demonstrate that, despite frequent claims of total solidarity, there are indeed those within science wanting to replace, rather than merely extend, Neodarwinism.

My first piece quoted their “mission statement”:

The vast majority of people believe that there are only two alternative ways to explain the origins of biological diversity. One way is Creationism that depends upon supernatural intervention by a divine Creator. The other way is Neo-Darwinism, which has elevated Natural Selection into a unique creative force that solves all the difficult evolutionary problems. Both views are inconsistent with significant bodies of empirical evidence and have evolved into hard-line ideologies. There is a need for a more open “third way” of discussing evolutionary change based on empirical observations.

But I now see that they’ve expanded and nuanced this, perhaps through reflection and perhaps because their numbers have increased – there are now forty-two researchers named, rather than the initial twenty-nine. For a start, they’ve added detail to their critique of Neodarwinism, whilst backing off from their blanket condemnation of all Neodarwinists as absolutists:

The commonly accepted alternative is Neo-Darwinism, which is clearly naturalistic science but ignores much contemporary molecular evidence and invokes a set of unsupported assumptions about the accidental nature of hereditary variation. Neo-Darwinism ignores important rapid evolutionary processes such as symbiogenesis, horizontal DNA transfer, action of mobile DNA and epigenetic modifications. Moreover, some Neo-Darwinists have elevated Natural Selection into a unique creative force that solves all the difficult evolutionary problems without a real empirical basis.

That does seem an improvement, if less polemically punchy. The other change is an additional sentence regarding their category of “Creationism”:

One way is Creationism that depends upon intervention by a divine Creator. That is clearly unscientific because it brings an arbitrary supernatural force into the evolution process.

It wasn’t clear in the original statement whether “Creationism” was intended to mean just “special creationism” of the Young or Old Earth types, or to include Intelligent Design and the various types of Theistic Evolution, by dint of a rather loose (or perhaps naive) use of the phrase “supernatural intervention.” Their modification clarifies that their problem is with divine action of all sorts, not just the biblical literalist sort – An “arbitrary supernatural force in the evolution process”.

Third Way has every right to conduct its project any way it prefers, but I want to examine to what extent theistic evolutionists, especially Christians, can consistently go along with such thinking, which is really a challenge for them to ask what they would change, and how it might fit within current science.

I’ll pass quite quickly over the part that says “[intervention by a Divine Creator] is clearly unscientific.” One has to ask if “unscientific” means “not susceptible to the limited scope of science” or “wrong”. That’s the old problem of the protean demarcation criteria of science, methodological naturalism and epistemology, which we’ve discussed in depth recently. The issue of “the limited scope of science” is, potentially, analogous to the study of books through typesetting, excluding as irrelevant the ability to read. Assuming it’s not quite that self-abnegating it’s likely Third Way means, by unscientific, “wrong”. Which is mere unevidenced assertion.

What catches my attention more is that phrase, “arbitrary supernatural force in the evolution process.” The thought is obviously the usual accusation, “Gap in knowledge here, so ‘Goddunnit'”. Maybe Christians in science would like to agree with that prohibition on “God of the Gaps”, but they must ask themselves whether God can ever be seen as an “arbitrary” force. Is it not a core Christian belief that God is the Necessary Being? In classical Thomism, this is the argument from contingency, the original “Third Way” (and still the best?). But it is equally foundational for those expressing the nature of God as “the Ground of all Being.” If evolution is part of being, then God is the necessary ground of it, necessarily involved and not by any means an arbitrary force.

Let me expand this line of thought via Aquinas’s Five Ways, worded loosely and briefly and not supported by arguments, because as expressions of faith rather than proofs of God for outsiders they are largely unexceptionable and cover several significant areas.

The First Way says that “Whatever changes is changed by something else, and the ‘Prime Mover’ we call God.” Can any theist object to that? It is the basic doctrine of creation in a nutshell. In terms of biology, evolution must be traced back ultimately to God.

The Second Way says “Whatever comes into being has a cause, and the First Cause is called God.” Again, if evolution and the creatures it produces are considered, God is their ultimate cause. What Christian could disagree?

The Third Way, as I’ve mentioned, is the argument from contingency: “Contingent things, ie things that might be different, must ultimately come from a Necessary Being, God.” Again, that cannot be denied without denying that God is the ground of all being.

The Fourth Way (to modern ears) is the most obscure, stating that “The source of lower degrees of perfection must be the highest possible degree of perfection”. Once more, I’m not concerned to discuss whether this is, nowadays, a good proof of God, but the perfection of God compared to the creation is fundamental Christian teaching. Interpreted in evolutionary terms, God cannot in orthodox faith be seen as the lowest being, from which evolution begins to grope higher, nor as one being amongst others, but he stands in some way over creation, more perfect than even its highest products. Or to put it another way, whatever progress there is in theistic evolution was made possible by a still more perfect Creator. Will any believer argue?

The Fifth Way is the teleological argument, the argument from finality. “Teleology must have its source in an ultimate Final Cause, God.” Thomists will insist that “teleology” means not just movement towards complex goals (such as an organism or its genes striving to survive), but any end-directed activity, such as the tendency of radioactive isotopes to decay, of proteins to fold, or of a stone to fall. Teleology, as I’ve frequently noted, is the hardest subject on which to pin down theistic evolutionists. But the output of a site like BioLogos in recent months seems to suggest that, though they are uneasy about discussing teleology within the process of evolution (not, apparently, recognising the Thomistic usage), they at least agree that “God intended” evolution itself, and in all likelihood at least mankind as its product.

All five of these ways, then, confirm that to a Christian, a “supernatural force” behind evolution is in no way arbirary, but in every way necessary, if God be its Creator at all.

But, one might argue, the fact that God is ultimately the author of evolution does not negate the sufficiency of natural efficient causes within it to account fully for it, without positing “divine intervention”. After all, Aquinas in all his arguments traces God as the ultimate source, not as a tinkerer along the way. The problem with this is that it makes an assumption that is taught neither by nature itself, nor by the Christian faith, nor even by Thomas, but is a mere diktat of current human science: that the world can be understood sufficiently as a closed system of natural efficient causes.

The only way the Christian can accept that as a truth, rather than as a mere convention to circumscribe the purview of scientists to a narrow focus, is by the assumption that it approximates practically to reality, because God’s causative action is effectively limited to the time before that under study. This seems to be where BioLogos stands in affirming cosmic fine-tuning (as an act of the original creation) but distancing itself from divine action in evolution. But where is the sufficient warrant for that assumption, which arose with Deism but constinues to run apparently under its own steam in Christian scientific circles?

To return to Aquinas, he is no more committed to the inevitability of long chains of causation that William Paley was in writing about a sequence of self-reproducing watches. All five arguments simply talk about effects and their origin, at whatever remove, in God. But Scripture affirms many instances in which the chain from God’s act to the observed effect is short, and occurs within (recent) time.

The obvious and prime example is the Resurrection, in which the direct action of God brought the dead Christ to life. But though Christ is the firstfruits of the New Creation, he was not the first to return from death – it was the direct power of God that resuscitated both Lazarus and Jairus’s daughter.

Human life was not the only act of new creation in Jesus’s ministry: water did not become wine by natural causes, and neither did five loaves and two fishes grow biologically to feed five thousand, but God acted creatively. But such direct divine action was not restricted to that time: we read that each new believer in Christ is a new creation, and if that is mere metaphor then so must be the eternal life it engenders.

Indeed, according to Catholic doctrine each new member of Adam’s old race is in part a new creation, the eternal soul being directly created by God, rather than by natural generation. But leaving aside specifically Roman teaching, a proper understanding of the relationship between mankind’s creation “in the image of God” and the second Person of the Trinity, “the Image of God”, shows that there is a discontinuity between mankind and the rest of creation that was brought about by divine action in real time.

I will leave to one side, as more open to quibbling, God’s self-proclaimed action in natural phenomena, animal lives, human lives and world history. The upshot is that the very difference between Christian Theism and Deism is measured by the shortness of some of the causal chains in creation, in which God claims to be intimately involved rather than distant and aloof.

So divine action is always necessary, and never arbitrary. But to claim to know when divine action is unnecessary (and so would be an arbitrary intervention) is to claim to know already the very thing you’re investigating – the way God’s world works. One is saying, “Lord, I know through faith that you are absolutely necessary to the mysterious process I’m investigating. But I also believe by the conventions of my philosophy that your hand won’t be seen in it because that would be an arbitrary interference in what my philosophy chooses to assume to be autonomous.”

And if God should reply, “What’s your warrant for that belief?” you can always reply, “Jim Shapiro and The Third Way.” After all, they may be the next Big Thing.


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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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31 Responses to Consistent theistic epistemology

  1. Lou Jost 2 says:

    I am surprised by the Third Way’s addition of ” That is clearly unscientific because it brings an arbitrary supernatural force into the evolution process.” As we’ve been discussing lately, many scientists (including myself and most atheist scientists I know) would not demarcate science with such an a priori limitation. It is unscientific to its core.

    If I try extra hard to be charitable to them, I can imagine one interpretation of their statement that makes some sense. Maybe they meant to emphasize “arbitrary”. It would perhaps be unscientific to hold a theory that includes supernatural intervention but that does not say anything at all about what kinds of interventions are likely. Such a theory would make no predictions at all and would be untestable by fiat. That is objectionable (and some people, mistakenly thinking that the multiverse hypothesis makes no predictions, complain that it is unscientific for this very reason).

    Of course any theistic theory held by real people does make predictions. Most theistic theories invented by humans imply that humans are at least one of the purposes of theistic creation, and this has many consequences. I am sure other species will have their own versions when their intelligence evolves a bit. It would be fun to hear the theological discussion some day in the distant future between intelligent dolphins and humans over who was really the target of creation…

    Anyway, the rest of the Third Way claims continue to be somewhat misleading. For example,

    invokes a set of unsupported assumptions about the accidental nature of hereditary variation

    may be true of some people who go too far in claiming that this is proven, but there is some evidence supporting the “assumption” (actually more like a rough empirical conclusion) in some of its more modern forms. The view that mutations are directed is probably impossible to disprove if there are no limits put on the weakness of the directing force. If a theory claims that one mutation per century per lineage is directed, that would be very difficult to disprove. If such a theory is untestable in principle, then it raises the same problems as the theory of completely unspecified supernatural interventions. Also, if the directed mutations were claimed to be so rare as to be undetectable, that theory might be empirically indistinguishable from the theory that mutations are completely undirected.

    The nest line is mostly false

    Neo-Darwinism ignores important rapid evolutionary processes such as symbiogenesis, horizontal DNA transfer, action of mobile DNA and epigenetic modifications.

    These things are not ignored or disputed in the consensus core of evolutionary theory today. It is only true if one simply defines Neo-Darwinism as a time-stamped theory dated prior to the discoveries of these things, with the express purpose of excluding them. Not a very interesting claim in that case.

    The next sentence

    Moreover, some Neo-Darwinists have elevated Natural Selection into a unique creative force that solves all the difficult evolutionary problems without a real empirical basis.

    describes very few if any evolutionary scientists; we almost all know about drift and developmental constraints, for example, though we do dispute the relative importance of these vs selection.

    So I am still unimpressed by their mission statement, and agree with Jon’s objections to their a priori exclusion of theistic explanations.

    • Hanan says:

      >These things are not ignored or disputed in the consensus core of evolutionary theory today.

      Don’t they know that? I’m not contesting what you are saying, but how did they let such a thing slip by?

    • Lou Jost 2 says:

      Larry Moran’s blog Sandwalk often scathingly deconstructs their claims. Jerry Coyne does the same at Why Evolution is True. Look up “Shapiro” on either of those blogs to see dozens of posts about this. As far as I can tell, Moran and Coyne are right.

      At least with respect to Shapiro, Jon’s sarcastic comment about publications is misleading. Shapiro hardly writes anything recently, and what little he does write is hardly cited by anyone. His papers of the last ten years have been cited less than those of even a minor player like myself.

      • Lou Jost 2 says:

        I should qualify that a bit. Larry and Jerry are mostly right, but not always 100%.

      • Hanan says:

        So let me ask you a question. What would you say the average joe shmo street that isn’t going to read scientific papers. On one side we have Shapiro and friends and on the other end you have Coyne and his friends. How does the average guy decide? Ya, sure, Coyne and Moran bring up all of Shapiro’s mistakes, but given the chance Shapiro would write back where they misunderstood him and where the former gentlemen are wrong too.

        • Lou Jost 2 says:

          That’s a good question. As it happens, today Jerry posted a brief synopsis of his arguments, with links to previous posts:

          Note that Shapiro et al are welcome to comment on Jerry’s blog, and Shapiro also allowed comments on his own blog. Sometimes seeing a direct give-and-take can be very informative.

          I’d suggest reading at least a few of these, along with Shapiro’s blog posts, to get a flavor for the debates. But in the end, if a reader doesn’t have enough background in the field to judge the arguments, he or she will have to watch the field and compare the research generated by each side.

          Sometimes this is pretty easy to do. Some Third Wayers argue that genes are not important. All you have to do to dismiss that claim is to look at the vast literature which successfully uses gene-centered approaches to solve real problems. The GMOs that we have discussed here before are great examples of how well we understand genetics and how gene-centric heredity is.

          • Lou Jost 2 says:

            Hanan, one other thing you can do is evaluate the logic of their arguments. One common claim by Third Wayers is that natural selection plus drift is inadequate to explain the adaptations we see. They claim that new mechanisms replace natural selection or augment it in significant ways. But in order to make that argument, logically they should have to show that these recemtly-discovered mechanisms are not themselves products of natural selection acting on random variation. This part of the argument is usually missing.

            One person who doesn’t leave this part “blank” is Denton. He explicitly argues for new laws of physics that take the place of natural selection. If the things he said were true, then yes, natural selection would be supplemented with a genuinely new mechanism. But epigenetics, symbiogenesis, horizontal gene transfer, etc, insofar as they are adaptive, are all mechanisms that can come about by natural selection. I don’t recall any rebuttal to this in Shapiro.

            • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

              But Lou, though you’re right that the explanations for proposed/observed alternative mechanisms are often left open, it’s a form of argument that, stripped down says:

              * Natural selection is the only plausible naturalistic fundamental “design” mechanism we’ve got.
              * But Third Way people suggest it’s inadequate.
              * Yet it must be adequate because otherwise we’d have to consider non-naturalistic mechanisms.
              * Ergo they are wrong.

              But it’s not a law of science that one cannot discard an inadequate theory before fully formulating a replacement. In Shapiro’s case, for example, he is gathering empirical evidence for purposeful end-mechanisms of “arrival”, which is a legitimate stage before accounting for their existence.

              Granted their existence, then it follows that natural selection isn’t the sole design mechanism, however many problems that causes, including cutting off the possibility of explaining the new mechanisms themselves by NS. Suddenly evolution isn’t intuitive, simple and obvious any more.

              As you say, in fact, proposing hitherto unknown laws of nature is an alternative, which is what the emergentists/complexity theorists like Noble claim – more, I think, than Denton (not a Third Wayer, of course). His idea is more that there is already sufficient front loading to be found in the physical world available to us to load the dice of evolution as a lawlike process rather than a stochastic one.

              You have, though, identified the main ideological justification for insisting that NS reigns supreme (and necessarily downplaying not only Third Way solutions, but too much allowance for neutral theory) – and that is that anything supplementing it vastly increases the teleological load to be explained, thus undermining materialistic naturalism… and that can’t be allowed to happen.

              • Lou Jost 2 says:

                Jon, that’s a terrible summary of my argument, which ignores everything I’ve been saying in my comments.

                Yet it [NS] must be adequate because otherwise we’d have to consider non-naturalistic mechanisms.

                How many more times do I have to say it? I don’t demand naturalistic explanations a priori. In this context, if someone says NS (plus drift) is inadequate, I only ask that he or she bother to demonstrate it. NS + drift has to happen in the background regardless; it’s a mathematical consequence of variation and differential reproduction. It is therefore the default and one needs to explicitly rule it out in any particular case of alleged evidence for some other effect. We regularly do this when asking whether drift or selection are more important in a given character; we look at population size and selection coefficients, and then we can make real statements about their relative importance.

                In Shapiro’s case, for example, he is gathering empirical evidence for purposeful end-mechanisms of “arrival”, which is a legitimate stage before accounting for their existence.

                Again, if he says that X is evidence for an alternative mechanism, he must show that it cannot be explained by NS+ drift. He has generally not done this.

                ….anything supplementing it vastly increases the teleological load to be explained, thus undermining materialistic naturalism… and that can’t be allowed to happen.

                Again, here you are showing your own prejudices about me rather than reading what I said. If the evidence is clear for irreducible teleology, I’ll have to accept that. I am open to that, if the evidence really shows it. But the evidence so far does not show it.

                And by the way, teleology can be naturalistic.

            • Hanan says:

              >This part of the argument is usually missing.

              So then going back to my original question, don’t they know this? How are many people part of this new endeavor? Surely they read everything others read. They aren’t religious from anything I see. So why their hangup?

              • Lou Jost 2 says:

                I don’t know. They apparently don’t even read (or take seriously) each other’s work, as there is quite a bit of contradictory writing between them, and no attempt to reconcile these differences.

      • Avatar photo Edward Robinson says:


        Since you mention that “Shapiro hardly writes anything anymore,” will you confirm that either Moran or Coyne is still active in publishing peer-reviewed literature in the field of evolutionary biology?

        Last I checked — on Moran’s own university web site, where he would be most likely to toot his own horn — Moran had not published anything on evolutionary biology other than (1) blogs (2) other popular pieces on religion/science and (3) a databank of genomic data, published not in a peer-reviewed journal but directly on the University of Toronto web site, where Moran teaches. This is very odd. I would expect someone with so many loud and certain-sounding opinions on evolutionary mechanisms to have have several articles per year published in venues with titles like: “Journal of Evolution and Ecology”; “Evolutionary Genetics”; “Molecular Biology and Evolution” and so on. (You will recall that leading extrasolar planet discoverer Guillermo Gonzalez was denied tenure for publishing “only” 68 articles in 8 years — more by a factor of many than tenured Larry Moran seems to have published in the past 10 years.) But last I checked, I saw no such journal titles listed — not for the past 10 years or more. So one wonders why Moran is suddenly more of an expert on evolutionary theory than Shapiro. Have you yourself ever come across a recent article by Moran in any journal related to evolutionary theory? Have you ever met him at a conference of evolutionary biologists? Honestly, would you ever even have *heard* of him if it were not for the *Sandwalk* blog and his role in the culture wars?

        Same could be said of Coyne. Though he is formally an evolutionary biologist by training and hiring (unlike Moran who seems to be a biochemist by training who has unilaterally declared himself to be an evolutionary biologist), he spends so much time blogging and working for the NCSE, one wonders how he has any time to do high-level evolutionary theory research. Has he published anything at all in the past 5 years — I mean technical scientific articles on evolutionary mechanisms, not popular addresses or books on religion and science etc.?

        My impression is that Coyne is very much an old-school neo-Darwinian, so it’s not surprising he bad-mouths Shapiro who trained with people of a different stripe. Moran may be harder to classify, but I gather from his generally condescending tone to everyone that the main point in his thought is that no one really understands evolutionary theory except for Larry Moran.

        I always find it amusing how people like Moran go on and on about how ID is not science, yet spend inordinate amounts of time responding to ID’s claims. Moran doesn’t spend that much time refuting astrology, phrenology, aliens at Roswell, etc. If he thinks ID is such silly science, the best way of preventing it from gaining any public credibility is not to mention it at all, but get on with what he considers to be real science — and get on with it in peer-reviewed journals, not on a blog site. Or, if ID is so close to real science as to merit real scientific refutation, the place to do that is in a proper peer-reviewed journal, not a blog site.

        One wonders about the motivations of a professor who spends so much time refuting something which in his view is not worthy of a science professor’s time. Historians don’t run blog sites attacking the views of Erich Von Daniken on ancient astronauts who built the Pyramids. I know that if I had a tenure-track job, courtesy of the Canadian taxpayer who on average makes about half the salary of a University of Toronto science professor, I would not be using my salary and office to write popular columns against stuff that isn’t even science, but would be trying to earn the trust the average Canadian citizen has reposed in me, by putting out paper after paper and book after book, explaining in precise detail the evolutionary mechanisms by which wings, gills, lungs, cardiovascular systems, brains, flagella, etc. developed. I wouldn’t self-indulgently amuse myself by taking daily shots at “IDiots.”

        It seems that many professors of today have a great deal less professional pride than the professors of yore. Back then, most professors shunned contact with the popular media, whom they thought would commercialize, vulgarize, or otherwise distort scientific truth; now, many of them court media attention, and when they don’t get enough of it, start their own blog sites. It seems they are much more interested in being media stars, in gathering blog followings, in being gurus of science, etc. I’m not very impressed.

        • Lou Jost 2 says:

          Eddie, yes, you are mostly right about Moran. He is quite curmudgeonly and his arguments about things outside biochemistry are often wrong. I often argue against his claims regarding the importance of drift vs natural selection. Coyne and Moran sit at opposite ends of that debate and often argue with each other, as well.

          Coyne was a prolific writer of important scientific papers on speciation and was honored by his peers in many ways. Yes, maybe a bit “Old School”, but usually solid. He has not written much new science lately, but does still publish and speak and write about evolution.

          I disagree with you if you think these people are wasting their time trying to straighten out popular and professional misconceptions in their fields and surrounding fields. Many of the best scientists have taken the trouble to write for lay audiences. Einstein, Schrodinger, Darwin, and many lesser stars wrote books and articles for laymen about their theories.

          You say Moran thinks that ID is not science. If I recall correctly, he does not take that position. He, like Coyne and like me, defines science broadly and does not invoke self-limitations like naturalism. He instead argues that ID is bad science and that most of its proponents are intellectually dishonest or very ignorant. By the way, maybe 1/3 of his content consists of criticisms of regular biologists regarding scientific questions in his own field. He is especially harsh on the ENCODE project. And I think he is right about that.

          My comment about Shapiro not writing much (except in venues like the Huffington Post) was aimed at Jon’s comment. I don’t think this is, by itself, a mark against him. It becomes a problem, though, when he claims to be revolutionizing a whole science. The Huffington Post is not the right venue for that.

          I (and you too) also spend an inordinate amount of time on the internet trying to clarify arguments that are of great importance to many people. My coauthors do not like this as it slows down our own scientific publications. But it is important for scientists to try to explain their fields to the public. The public decides what to fund, what to teach in schools, etc. The public also must distinguish real science from crap in their day-to-day decisions (see 9/11 truthers, or anti-vaccine propaganda, or cancer quackery). The public needs to be informed about the basics of science, and I think it is a duty to try to do our part in this.

          ” It seems they are much more interested in being media stars, in gathering blog followings, in being gurus of science, etc. ”

          I think Moran has no desire to be a media star, but Shapiro and many other Third-Wayers clearly do want to be revolutionaries, and exaggerate the importance of their claims (perhaps not purposely) to appear as such.

          • Avatar photo Edward Robinson says:


            Thanks for your measured reply. It seems you are tacitly agreeing with me that Larry Moran has not published anything in peer-reviewed literature in evolutionary biology in the past 10 years. But does that not strike you as odd, that a professor in a biochemistry department who fancies himself a cutting-edge thinker on evolutionary theory, does not seek to validate his ideas in the peer-reviewed literature, yet still wants the world to see his opinions on evolutionary theory daily, and to be influenced by his views?

            Moran strikes me as someone who wishes he had become an evolutionary biologist, but is now too late in life to really take it up, and so has become a sort of make-pretend evolutionary biologist, and imagines in his delusion that his blog-refereeing of disputes in the field actually matter to the 2,000 scientists who annually attend the world-class Evolution conference that he himself never attends, and who publish articles in the journals that he himself never publishes in. He has become a “legend in his own mind.” But he’s not a legend in my mind; he’s just a Canadian biochemist speaking out of his field, and trying to make up for his total lack of accomplishment in that field sounding very firm in his judgments and sounding as if he knows what he is talking about. But he hasn’t fooled me. I think he’s a fake. Anyone can criticize and bluster. The real McCoy can actually produce new theoretical works in evolutionary biology. Where are Larry’s?

            You say it is good for scientists to straighten out popular misconceptions. Yes, it is. Where public health is at stake, for example, it is important for scientists to let us know whether you can in fact get AIDS off a toilet seat, or a toothbrush, or from French kissing, etc. I also don’t mind a professor of astronomy telling me what kind of tinted glass to look at a solar eclipse with. I have nothing against scientists getting involved on that level. Indeed, I have nothing against science popularization as such. But there is a difference between socially useful science popularization and science clarification, and using one’s prestige as a scientist or as a Ph.D. to push for agendas, philosophies, and speculations which have not yet been demonstrated by science or which are at least as much political or religious in their contents as scientific.

            ID is a speculative endeavor regarding the role of formal and final causation in nature. As such, it is doing no harm to the public on any matter of public health or public interest. Larry isn’t attacking ID because he thinks ID will lead to more cases of AIDS or to blindness due to staring unprotected at solar eclipses. He’s attacking ID because he personally believes (but cannot prove) that life and all its forms could have arisen and did indeed arise by blind contingencies and mechanical laws which acted without purpose, and because ID people do not believe that, and he wants his view to prevail.

            I don’t know the motives of the Third Way people and make no comment about them. It is not unusual for someone who has discovered something new to exaggerate its importance. Maybe Shapiro and others are sometimes too dramatic about the novelty of their insights. But it doesn’t follow that their insights should be brushed aside or that their critique of neo-Darwinism is of no value. Anyhow, my goal here is not to defend their project or their statements.

            My issue here is that just about everybody who blogs on these issues makes out that he knows everything about them, that his judgments are infallible, that others are all frauds and poseurs and that only he should be listened to. Whether it is Fruitfly on BioLogos, or Moran, or Coyne, or Matzke, or the people at the Skeptical Zone, they all seem to me to be insufferable know-it-alls incapable of true academic collegiality, true intellectual give-and-take, true Socratic humility regarding their own limitations of knowledge in a vast field.

            This swaggering is all macho stuff, and as a Socratic and Platonist I despise it. I believe, as both an intellectual and a moral principle, that you don’t shout down or bully opposition; you refute it rationally; and you should never pretend you know more than you know. But somehow the origins debate has become infected with a silly American macho posturing, whereby the Darwinians fancy themselves as tough marines or cowboys who mustn’t lose face and hence public authority by backing down even an inch on a minor point to any critic of neo-Darwinism.

            This goes back to the psyche of Americans, of course, in which pioneering, individualistic autonomy is considered the ideal human type. Decisiveness and forcefulness are much more admired in American culture than thoughtfulness and balance. But up until recently, these deep spiritual defects in the American psyche were kept out of American universities and American science. But now the professors and the scientists are entering the public sphere, swaggering like cowboys, challenging their critics to draw. This is puerile, and represents the corruption of American academia. Not just on ID and Darwinism, but on anthropogenic global warming and a whole host of issues.

            The university used to be a place which moderated the excesses of mass populist societies; now the universities are contributing to those very excesses. Moran’s a symptom of this excess. So is Coyne. So is Myers. So was Dawkins, in his last years as a prof.

            • Lou Jost 2 says:

              I agree with you that Moran is not a cutting-edge researcher at all. He is an old-school university professor who makes teaching his top priority. He wrote a textbook and goes to education conferences. I think that is honorable. His blog often discusses how best to teach some fundamental concepts in biology.

              His blog is one of the few that discusses details of technical issues. For this reason it attracts top-notch commenters (who often disagree with him). It is a great place to learn about the real controversies in current biology, like the ENCODE claims about junk DNA. Moran’s criticisms were, in my opinion, quite good. The comments attracted many other researchers including some ENCODE authors. Jon would benefit by looking at those posts and discussions.

              Moran does not pull any punches when the ID people like Gauger and Barry Arrington say something ignorant, which they do with alarming frequency. But he also seems quite fair to people who are more serious, like Behe. He often defended Behe against knee-jerk attacks by atheists who had not read his arguments carefully. He always said that refuting Behe’s argument was not trivial.

              One frequent commenter is Joe Felsenstein, a very active and famous population geneticist. He often presents very insightful commentary. Joe is also extremely respectful of ID people and takes their arguments seriously, and dismantles them without bluster.

              As it happens, Joe just put up a post on Panda’s Thumb about the Third Way website update:
              So far it is low on substance, but maybe the comments will enrich it.

              • Avatar photo Edward Robinson says:


                I want to end this discussion. My point is that *Moran has no business sounding so sure of himself about evolutionary theory unless he is actively doing evolutionary theory himself.* He poses as judge and jury of other people’s views on evolutionary mechanisms, when he himself is *incompetent in the field*. He is like someone who has never seen the inside of an engine deciding who is the best auto mechanic. When he does some evolutionary theory himself, then he can be the grand referee of evolutionary theory. Until then, he should show more humility.

                I don’t mind him offering an opinion or observations, but he doesn’t offer them in an appropriate tone. He offers them as a *knower*, not a speculator. He says “evolution doesn’t work that way; it works this way” when he should be saying: “I’m not a professional in this field, so I hesitate to say firmly, but it seems to me that it is more likely that evolution works by …” But he can’t seem to manage that sort of humility. He always has to be the teacher. That’s a moral defect — and a serious one, for a scientist or scholar, who should know his limitations and publically acknowledge them.

                And this is what I can’t get you to see, that my main objection to these guys — Matzke, Moran, etc. — is not that they are against ID or that they are atheists or this or that — but that they are incredibly arrogant and cannot ever admit the possibility that they could be wrong about anything (or that ID could be right about anything). I have never seen a single one of them retract a point in argument with an ID person — not anything but a trivial point, anyway. I strongly personally dislike scientists and scholars like that, and think they should be replaced as university teachers by scientists and scholars who are not like that. A world without prima donnas would be a much better world.

                I like your style much better. You write less assertively, in a more conversational manner. You write as if you are interested in other views, not as if you are laying down the law how others should think about evolution, etc. But your anti-ID buddies can’t manage that — their egos are way too big.

                You say Moran concentrates on teaching? I once came across his teaching evaluations on a major site that rates teachers. Wow! Take a look at what his students have to say about him! I’ve never seen such abysmal evaluations in my life. But it doesn’t surprise me.

                Barry Arrington is not a scientist and his views on scientific matters are irrelevant. Moran should not be concerned about refuting Arrington. Gauger is another matter; she is an active scientist — more active, it seems, than Moran these days. Of course, neither Gauger nor Moran is an evolutionary biologist by training. But at least Gauger isn’t coasting and playing the all-seeing oracle, like Moran. At least she is trying to produce some research, which is much harder work than sitting back in your armchair and shooting down other people’s research — which is all Larry Moran has been good for, for years now.

                The place to discuss ENCODE claims is not Larry Moran’s blog. The place to discuss them is in the scientific journals. If Larry is sure ENCODE is wrong he should write an article-length technical critique in a peer-reviewed journal. And that’s what Joe Felsenstein should be doing, not blogging on Panda’s Thumb. Panda’s Thumb is an inappropriate venue for serious scientific debate. That is not where science should take place.

                I will not budge on my view that professor blogs have been very deleterious to scientific and scholarly life overall. There are no quality controls, the vast majority of people involved are writing way out of their fields, and there is no way of screening out the stupidest and vilest partisans as they egg on the blogging professors in their worst excesses. Even if good opinions surface on blog sites, the environment is not conducive to sorting wheat from chaff.

                The proper environment for professorial debates over evolution or anything else is a university setting, on a stage or in the pages of a journal, with the people running the debates and participating in them all well-recognized as academics, not as culture warriors. The fact that you find some of Moran’s blog opinions helpful doesn’t alter the overall evil of blogging academics.

                If I were dictator of universities, I would forbid any tenured professor from blogging on any matters even semi-closely related to his academic field. If Moran wanted to blog on the quality of Canadian beers, that would be OK, but anything biological or biochemical would be verboten — if he wanted to keep his U of Toronto position. That would force him, if he wanted to express an opinion on evolutionary mechanisms, to get off his rear end and produce some research and get it published in a peer-reviewed journal. That would be good for Larry, and good for everyone, because it would force him to be less self-indulgent, less condescending, and more moderate and guarded in his expressions. It would make his science better, and his contribution greater. Blogging is the lazy scientist’s manner of self-expression. University administrations should strongly discourage it.

                Of course, the institution of tenure is the biggest part of the problem. If Larry had to produce N peer-reviewed articles every 10 years to keep his job, he wouldn’t have time to blog so much. But once you have tenure, you can do whatever you want, and no one can effectively discipline you. Hence we have so many undisciplined blogging professors.

              • Lou Jost 2 says:

                Eddie, I’d like to end this too, by pointing out that journal fora or other formal venues are slow and rarely open to discussion with the rest of the world. Open blogs, even when written by people who are overly sure of themselves, provide the opportunity for people (including IDers) to discuss and probe and criticize and ask questions about fast-breaking stories in science. When larry says something wrong, everybody jumps on him–there is no deference to authority here! I like that and I learn a lot from many of these exchanges, even though there is a lot of “noise” from blowhards of various ideological camps. I am glad Larry and Jerry (and Torley) post their opinions and open themselves up to the world for criticism. Depending on the quality of the commenting community, this can be a better way to approach the truth than peer-reviewed articles, which may depend on the prejudices of just two reviewers and an editor (who often chooses the reviewers himself).

  2. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    So, maybe we can reach a synthesis here. The conclusion seems to be that Larry is a bigot, but he’s a rational bigot.

    Take a look at what his students have to say about him!

    Is this what you had in mind, Eddie?

    • Lou Jost 2 says:

      That is pretty bad!

      • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

        The student feedback or the Hump assessment? As to the latter, here is a quote from Moran’s blog:

        James A. Shapiro, author of Evolution: a View from the 21st Century has been criticized for being an Intelligent Design Creationist, or at least a sympathizer. He denies it but his denials sound very much like someone who protests too much.
        Do you know any respectable evolution supporter who would post on a creationist blog?

        That I call pretty bad.

    • Avatar photo Edward Robinson says:

      Yes, Jon, that was it — though it was even worse than I remembered! But it doesn’t surprise me that a man who is chronically sure that he is right on every subject, including subjects out of his own field, would turn off undergraduate students. I think the man needs to look into a mirror. Apparently he cannot hear or see how he sounds and looks to others. Or perhaps he does not care.

      Of course, such things bother me more than they bother others, perhaps because I know so many people, including some close to home, who were excellent university teachers and moral, caring human beings, but were denied the chance of a university career, for ideological reasons, i.e., for not kowtowing to the dominant theory or ideology of the departments to which they were applying — which, in all of the academic fields I have acquaintance with, means left-wing, feminist, deconstructionist secular humanism. Attack those views, and it doesn’t matter how good a researcher or teacher you are; the moment your intellectual rejection of them becomes known, you can kiss your humanities or social science career goodbye. (Just as the moment a talented young biological researcher and teacher’s sympathy for ID becomes known, his academic career is terminated.) But embrace those fashionable views, flatter the current faculty who hold them, and your academic career is assured.

      This sort of situation turns academia into a culture of flatterers, grovellers, timeservers, and dissemblers. The old Oxbridge system, where professors were expected to be individualistic kooks who didn’t fit in with any “consensus” whatsoever and would never dream of pressuring their colleagues into accepting any such consensus (beyond a consensus that one needed to support the cricket and rowing teams against the school’s rivals), was a far better academic system, with genuine academic freedom that is almost unknown in current North America.

      Lou doesn’t desire to be a professor, but only a researcher, and he spends much of his time working alone in the forest rather than with colleagues or students, so perhaps such reflections on university hiring don’t occur as naturally to him as they do to me. But I weary of seeing the wrong people earning a fat salary, with long summers off (allegedly for research, more usually for fishing at the cottage), showing contempt for undergraduate teaching duties and speaking derisively of colleagues with non-standard views. Often enough the part-time faculty are the best at the university, because they are desperately trying to get on tenure-track and thus are researching like mad while trying to be the best part-time teachers possible, trying to get good student reviews for their c.v.s. The senior, tenured faculty don’t need to care what anyone thinks of either their teaching or research.

      And in the natural sciences especially, despite the presence at some schools of of good teaching awards etc., the fact remains that profs are hired far more for their perceived ability to bring research money into the school (big science is big money) than for their pedagogical brilliance. I always found my undergrad science teachers much poorer than my undergraduate arts teachers, for that reason. They weren’t expected to be good teachers when they were hired; and indeed, sometimes came straight out of a Ph.D. without ever having done so much as a teaching assistanceship.

      I remember asking one Biochemistry Ph.D. student at a big-time US grad school why he didn’t try to do some teaching assistant work while in grad school, both to earn money to offset student debt, and to get teaching experience so that he wouldn’t be walking into class “cold” after graduation. He superciliously replied that the importance of his graduate research was such that he didn’t have time to spare to do T.A. work. Maybe the program he was in paid him so much he didn’t have to work, or maybe his parents were filthy rich so paying out $20,000 or more a year for tuition and lodging wasn’t a problem for him; but one would think a sense of responsibility to future students would make him want the T.A. experience for reasons other than money. No Arts Ph.D. student I ever met had an attitude regarding teaching so poor as that. “My research career is the center of the universe” — that was the attitude that came across.

      In high school it was different; the science teachers there were just as good as the arts teachers. But in university, the science teachers were definitely poorer on average. They often saw teaching (especially first-year teaching) as something that got in the way of research, and therefore as something to be done only because everyone in the department had to do his share of the boring dirty work, whereas to an Arts professor the chance to do undergraduate teaching is likely to be at least 50% of the reason and is often 75% of the reason why he/she wants to be a professor in the first place.

      Sorry for the digression, but bad teachers in universities — of whom there are far too many — are a serious issue for me. I know so many people out there who are unemployed who would be far better than the profs who are there currently. Dedication to truth, plus dedication to students, makes for a good teacher; dedication to career advancement in the academic industry makes for a bad teacher, and a bad human being.

      • Lou Jost 2 says:

        Eddie, I have a similar experience. My undergrad university was a a small liberal arts college where research was done more to provide teaching opportunities than for career advancement. The profs all cared deeply about teaching, and did a good job at it. One of my math teachers spent a couple of hours a week for a semester personally teaching me and my room-mate Shannon’s information theory, at our request. A physics prof lectured on advanced electricity and magnetism for a semester to a classroom that was empty but for me. And they were great lectures! Another physics prof created a course for me and two other students, at my request, on the interpretation of QM. We spent a semester sitting under an oak tree on campus trying to figure out the implications of Bell’s theorem, etc. These profs really cared about their students.

        When I went to grad school at a big, famous research university, the professors mostly hated teaching (though John Wheeler, one of our most famous faculty, loved to teach undergrads). They got TAs like me to do much of their teaching for them. In their graduate classes they generally did not even know our names.

        However, don’t you think your complaints above about Larry Moran not doing cutting edge research (i.e. pursuing career advancement) should be softened, in light of your complaints just now about professors who do prioritize their research and their career advancement?

        • Avatar photo Edward Robinson says:


          Thanks for this personal testimony. Had I gone to a school like yours, I might have stayed in science. It sounds like an ideal undergrad science education.

          No, my comments needn’t be softened, for the following reasons.

          Professors should do both research and teaching. They should regard both tasks as important. I would not fault Larry Moran or anyone else for dividing time between research and teaching. So if Larry’s problem was that he could only publish, say, 2 articles a year on evolutionary mechanisms in peer-reviewed journals, as opposed to 6 articles by most of his colleagues, because he was a more conscientious teacher than some of his colleagues and wanted to spend more time with his students, I would not fault him. I would praise him for his self-sacrifice for the benefit of his students.

          But my complaint is that he publishes *zero* articles per year on evolutionary mechanisms, yet poses as an expert on evolutionary theory, to the point where he issues dogmatic “corrections” of theorists who actually publish in the field. My complaint is that he does *nothing* in a field in which he claims to be a peer of the best thinkers in the world. My complaint is that he talks the talk of the major researcher, but has no record of achievement to back up that claim.

          If he wants to say, “I wish I knew more about evolutionary theory, but I just don’t have time to learn it because I love my students so much I spend 40 hours per week on my courses,” that would be one thing; but that is not his stance. His stance is: “I know as much about evolutionary mechanisms as anyone living, and I can tell you who knows the field and who doesn’t.” It is this claim that is pompous and arrogant, given his incompetence — or at least his absence of productivity — as a researcher in the field.

          Suppose I train to be a concert pianist, but then cease to practice because I have too many piano students, and year after year my playing ability deteriorates. Does the fact that I am an excellent teacher mean that I am still capable of standing up tomorrow night on the concert stage? No it does not. So no matter what Larry’s excuse is for not producing peer-reviewed articles — whether it’s a good or bad excuse, whether it’s love of teaching or whether it’s research laziness, my argument remains valid. He is talking out of his depth in a field in which he has neither formal training nor proved research mastery. His confidence in this theoretical knowledge is unwarranted by his achievement. Teaching vs. research may explain *why* he has no achievement, but I don’t care why he has no achievement. I just want him to stop bragging and bluffing and preening his feathers about non-existent accomplishments. He isn’t an expert on evolutionary theory now, he never was, and he never will be. He’s just a biochemist with a side-interest in evolutionary theory.

          (You should know, by the way, that Canadian professors generally have lower teaching loads than American professors — generally only two or three courses per semester, as opposed to the more typical 4 courses per semester in the USA — and the school year is generally several weeks shorter in Canadian universities as well — so there is no “teaching excuse” for Canadian profs not to do plenty of research. But on average they publish the same or fewer papers per year than American profs, not more; clearly, onerous teaching loads are not the cause of the shortfall. Rather, it’s the “government employee” attitude prevailing in Canada — a more socialist country than the USA: all Canadian profs, except at McGill, are indirectly servants of the state and have the typical attitude of state employees about how overworked they are, even when they are actually underworked in comparison with those in private enterprise or with government workers in the same field in the USA. They have won reductions from their universities in teaching loads, on the grounds that this reduction of immense teaching and grading time will make them more productive researchers in a more competitive world. But it hasn’t worked out that way. In a few cases it has, where the prof is diligent, but most of the time the freed-up time goes to leisure activities — including blogging about evolution — rather than to more peer-reviewed articles. But that’s another subject.)

          OK, I answered your question. I was going to quit, but you asked me, so I answered. Now I’m done talking about Moran.

          One final lighthearted comment, if I may: someone with a last name “Moran” might be wise not to refer to his ID opponents as “IDiots”; he’s only one slightly altered vowel sound away from a snappy comeback.

      • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

        Ed – a “credit where it’s due” reply at this point.

        The best lecturer I had at Cambridge, bar none, was Colin Blakemore, who is now (obviously much later in his career) a doctrinaire member of the British Secular Society.

        Unlike some lesser lecturers I could name (especially one senior psychiatrist at Westminster who never lost the chance to diss religion, even if it meant using completely spurious Biblical quotes), I never remember him belittling the views of any of his students.

        He was just a damned good teacher, and of course an extremely competent and busy researcher, even under death threats from the animal rights brigade.

        Though he did make some fairly strongly xenophobic comments about America – but that was de rigeur for the Left during the Vietnam War.

        • Avatar photo Edward Robinson says:


          Sure, there are people who are both excellent researchers and excellent teachers. I would never pit research as such against teaching as such. In fact, I was criticizing a certain kind of scientist who resents teaching as a waste of his valuable time, as if he is so brilliant he should be given no teaching duties, whereas the less brilliant (in his mind) should have to do the dreary work of teaching. This is just vanity speaking. All professors should be capable of research in some area or other, and it’s not the job of “lesser” faculty to do all the teaching so some can be brilliant research superstars and never have to grade a first-year calculus or second-year organic chemistry exam.

          Exemptions for research are all right for short periods — a prof might be granted a year or two for “just research” under special circumstances, e.g., military projects in wartime, or a special project for NASA or the like. But if that becomes a regular thing, the researcher starts to become a law unto himself, and the bonds of collegiality of the university as research/teaching community are broken. The teacher/scholar or teacher/scientist should be the default model, with exceptions where warranted, but understood as just that, exceptions, not elevation of one faculty member to a permanent exalted rank above the others.

          If someone wants to be *only* a researcher, not a teacher at all, that person should work for a lab in a private corporation, or for a technological think tank, or for the government, or for non-university research institutes such as Wistar. A university person, on the other hand, should be part of the community of scientist-scholar-teachers, and should see teaching as not merely a duty but as an activity intellectually worthwhile and satisfying in itself, and as a major component of his/her calling in life.

  3. Avatar photo Edward Robinson says:


    Regarding your last comment on Moran and blog sites:

    It would be one thing if Moran engaged in informal discussion of evolutionary theory on a blog site *in addition to* doing original research on evolutionary mechanisms and publishing that research in peer-reviewed journals; I am objecting that he engages in blog discussion *instead of* doing the latter. It is that which marks his thought on evolutionary theory as fraudulent, amateur fakery; or, if there is substance to his ideas, at the very least it indicates that he is guilty of academic laziness — unwillingness to take the hundreds of hours needed to turn his assertions into tightly written and thoroughly researched arguments. One can dash off a blog with the superficial appearance of research in an hour or two, and argue about it for a few hours a week for the next few weeks, again with only a few superficial literature skims when people raise objections; but real academic work is something else entirely.

    I could BS about Plato on a blog site for hours a week with very little new research; paraphrasing him from memory, and dropping lots of Greek phrases which I’d just quickly looked up, and give the impression to 99.9% of readers that I was a high-powered specialist in Greek philosophy. (Which I’m not; I just happen to know the field of Greek philosophy and the works of Plato well enough to know exactly the sort of impression a high-powered specialist on Plato would give. I understand the theatrical aspects of academic life very well.) But if I had to make the same argument in a scholarly journal on Greek philosophy or Classical studies or political theory, I would spend three or four months, full-time, translating relevant passages of Plato from Greek, reading secondary literature, corresponding with experts, etc., because I would be held to the highest possible standard, and not the slightest bit of fakery or bluffing would do. And during that time I’d have not a moment to spare for blogging or bickering with Darwinists etc.

    That’s how Larry should be acting regarding evolutionary mechanisms. If, after producing seven or eight articles of the sort I’m demanding on the molecular-genetic basis of the evolution of wings, or lungs, or brains, or the like, he then wanted to take a month off, have some fun and blog, interact on a more popular level, then fine; but as of now, he hasn’t earned the right to pontificate popularly about evolution. He isn’t Stephen Jay Gould and he isn’t Dawkins. You don’t get to jump from routine biochemistry teacher to world expert on evolutionary theory without paying your dues. If Moran doesn’t know that, he doesn’t know anything about how real science — real university work of any kind — works.

    And you know perfectly well that I’m right, Lou. Despite your ideas about the value of blog sites, you know they are *not* regarded by your colleagues as the appropriate venue for the presentation of *the main body of one’s work* — in evolutionary theory or any other scientific field. And as far as publications on evolutionary theory go, his blogs are all that Larry Moran has to show. You can now have the last word — I’m dropping the subject.

    • Lou Jost 2 says:

      Yes, you are right that blogs aren’t the place to present new science. But Moran never claims that he is contributing new theories. He is just weighing in on current controversies. I think those posts are healthy and useful starting points for public scientific debate. Eventually peer-reviewed consensus resolutions may appear in the literature. They will probably be enriched, directly or indirectly, by the diverse perspectives represented in online debates.

      • Lou Jost 2 says:

        A good example of this process was the online debate on the Science article about alleged arsenic-based life forms. That was a bad study. Larry was on it at once, following Rosie Redfield’s online criticisms of the original study. It was widely discussed and very thoroughly analyzed in blogs. Eventually a peer-reviewed consensus formed that the original study was fatally flawed.

        • Avatar photo Edward Robinson says:

          Good for Larry. Now if only he could manage the dialogical stance of “I’m not an expert in this area, but something strikes me as wrong with this study, and I hope the experts will forgive me for the incidental blunders I will undoubtedly make here, as long my main objection is sound …” I would like that much better than: “Evolution doesn’t work that way; it works this way …” which is his more usual way of expressing disagreement with both his intellectual peers and his intellectual superiors. The man has never learned proper academic manners.

          He should be corrected in public by his peers; but because the anti-ID movement consists largely of pure thugs who will let any *attitude* pass as long as the person is anti-ID, no one corrects his manners. The problem is that the anti-ID leaders are themselves almost all either personally or academically arrogant (e.g., Matzke, Rosenhouse, Shallit, Coyne, Myers, Ken Miller, Rob Pennock, Kevin Padian, Abbie Smith, Fruitfly/John — a pleasant exception is H. Allen Orr who has some class in the way he disagrees with ID), so for any of them to correct the others for swaggering and biased argumentative style would be tacitly to admit that they are guilty of the same thing.

          I’m not naive enough to think this will be corrected. We are dealing with a permanent character flaw, long hardened by habit, in these individuals. In classical Christian terms, the main element of the flaw is the greatest of the deadly sins, i.e., Pride. In my protest, I’m merely expressing the repugnance that I feel toward this prideful manner of dialogue, which is a betrayal of the best dialogical spirit of Western civilization.

          End of sermon. Cut.

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