Flock of Dodos, by Barrett Brown and Jon P. Alston

Flock of Dodos

Often creationists—or proponents of “intelligent design” or whatever they’re calling themselves these days—accuse anyone who argues against them of being anti-religion, abusive, desirous of censoring them, etc. The bulk of the time this is utter nonsense, as most critics bend over backwards to be respectful in their disagreement. Sometimes they get passionate and forceful in their criticisms—see Richard Dawkins—but that’s different from being disrespectful.

The authors of Flock of Dodos, though, make no bones about what they think of creationists, or at least the creationist leaders who ought to know better. They openly call them liars and ridicule them.

Then again, how disrespectful is even that? If someone behaves in an utterly dishonest and reprehensible manner, are you not allowed to tell the truth about that? If you are allowed to call them on it, must it be with a lot of euphemisms, or can you just flat out say what they are? When their behavior is especially egregious, is it ever acceptable, ever not disrespectful, to laugh at them, and encourage others to laugh at them?

Anyway, whatever you think of that, this passage from the opening chapter conveys quite well the style of this book:

This will not be a polite book. Politeness is wasted on the dishonest, who will always take advantage of any well-intended concession, and the leaders of the so-called “Intelligent Design” movement, as we shall see, are so incredibly dishonest that they could cause a veteran heroin addict to blush—not out of any moral objection on the part of the addict, but rather out of embarrassment that anyone could be so darned bad at lying. And, as we shall see, the Intelligent Design folks are bad liars indeed.

Often when a book tries to use humor to spice up a serious subject it falls flat. But for me this book is mostly an exception. The humor here almost always works. (Needless to say, if you’re on the other side of the issue it’s unlikely you’ll see it that way. Or for that matter if you’re just really sensitive about writing that has the potential to offend.)

The authors deal with various flavors of creationism, from the most simplistic accounts of a literal worldwide flood a few thousand years ago, to the pseudo-intellectual versions that make use of such ideas as the doctrine of “irreducible complexity.” In each case they dismiss them with little difficulty.

As indicated by the passage quoted above, the authors put a great deal of emphasis on the intellectual dishonesty of creationists.

Just as one of many, many examples, they cite the case of the footprints that the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) put on their website, claiming them to be human footprints from the same time that dinosaurs existed. Under a great deal of pressure and criticism, the ICR eventually acknowledged that the claim was untrue:

Now, one might reasonably suppose that, having released a statement to the effect that the tracks in question cannot be regarded as “unquestionably human,” and in fact have been shown to be “obviously dinosaurian,” the ICR would consequently refrain from stating otherwise in the future. One would be wrong. And one could be forgiven for being wrong on this point, because one might be unaware that the ICR was founded and operated by disingenuous dumbass Henry Morris, who, as you may recall from above, is a disingenuous dumbass.

20 years later the ICR was still citing these tracks on its website as showing that humans and dinosaurs lived contemporaneously.

Mostly as I think about this book, though, I keep coming back to the style—the use of ridicule and the willingness to bluntly call liars liars.

I would say I like it more than not, but with plenty of caveats.

I certainly wouldn’t want all pro-evolution books to be like this. There’s a place for being honest about how dishonest one’s opponents are, and openly making fun of them. But it is also appropriate to have some pro-evolution books that are dry, inoffensive recitations of facts, books that explain the science, either in technical terms for other scientists, or in a way that’s accessible to non-scientists in more popular works.

One reason I’m not totally comfortable with this approach is that even if the creationist leaders, the opinionmakers, are as slimy as portrayed and deserve everything this book gives them, there are still millions of quite sincere rank and file creationists who do not. Though the latter can be criticized on other grounds, they’re mostly not liars, not “disingenuous dumbasses.”

Not that the authors claim they are, of course. The barbs are clearly and explicitly directed at the most prominent creationist leaders and institutions, not the masses. But I’m sure it wouldn’t seem that way to most ordinary creationists, who would feel laughed at and ridiculed.

Indeed, this isn’t a book I would recommend to a sincere creationist, someone who perhaps is biased by wanting to validate his religious convictions, but is trying to be at least somewhat openminded.

So for a “preaching to the converted” book meant to entertain those who already regard creationism as ridiculous, Flock of Dodos is fine. But its appeal will be quite limited.

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