Brief reactions to my recent reading:
1) Philip Kitcher, Living with Darwin: Evolution, Design, and the Future of Faith. The first two-thirds of the book are outstanding, as Kitcher explains why it is more helpful to think of Intelligent Design theories as “dead science” — a body of ideas that had its day but is now rightly discarded — than as “unscientific.” He is patient with his opponents but in the end unwavering in his critiques. It is when Kitcher turns to Biblical studies and theology that the book falls apart, largely because of gross ignorance. The confidence of his pronouncements is far out of proportion to the amount of his reading, and on some points — especially regarding the evangelical subculture — he operates on wholly uninvestigated assumptions. Example: “Evangelical Christians prefer the King James translation to the more scholarly (and more prosaic) recent versions.” Well, even the New King James version is only favored by fundamentalists; for many years the leading translation among all evangelicals has been the New International Version. I’ve complained about this particular form of ignorance before, so I won't belabor it again. But man, it gets tiresome. But in any case, the main thrust of the book — its critique of the ID movement — is very well done indeed.
2) David Berlinski, The Devil's Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions. Wow, this is a really bad book. I had some serious doubts to start with because of Berlinski’s cranky anti-Darwinian rants and his involvement with the Discovery Institute, but his A Tour of the Calculus is such a terrific read that I decided to give The Devil’s Delusion a shot. I’m really sorry I did. The idea that a commitment to science simply entails atheism is one that deserves refutation, but Berlinski mocks rather than refutes. He approaches Dawkins et al. in pretty much the same spirit that Tom Wolfe approached modern art in The Painted Word and modern architecture in From Bauhaus to Our House, but Berlinski, though he can write winningly at times, is no Tom Wolfe; and in any case these issues require and deserve a more careful and thorough approach.
3) Tom Vanderbilt, Traffic. This one was fun. It’s a little too much in the Gladwell Mode — a breezy survey of tons of social-scientific research on a range of related subjects — but reading the book has made me more thoughtful about how I drive, and a closer observer of the driving patterns of others. That has been helpful as well as interesting. Here’s hoping that some of the really good recent research into traffic management makes its way to Chicagoland before too much longer.