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"Play the Man, Master Ridley"

Just before they were burned at the stake at Oxford in 1555, Hugh Latimer famously said to Nicholas Ridley, "Play the man, Master Ridley; we shall this day light such a candle, by God's grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out."

It would be nice to imagine that the auto de fe no longer occurs in university towns, but it does when someone dares challenge Darwinian evolution. And it does so on that topic more than any other -- including global warming. Two writers in the Wall Street Journal, Raymond Tallis and Matt Ridley, show how hard it is for even fair-minded intellectuals to own up to the reality.

Evolution News & Views enjoyed the same insightful article by Raymond Tallis that I read in the weekend Journal -- a review of books on the subject of brain vs. mind. ENV also came to the same conclusion: Raymond Tallis endorses Darwinian evolution only because he has to in today's PC climate before he can proceed to assail its works. (Dr. Tallis is himself the author of Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity.)

In similar fashion, Christian heretics (such as the "Jesus Seminar") who want to demolish acceptance of key religious doctrines, such as the Virgin Birth or the resurrection, often begin their treatises by proclaiming their orthodox faith. Affirm what is required, then go your merry way.

The same issue of the Journal carries a fine piece by science writer Matt Ridley: "Is That Scientific Heretic a Genius -- or a Loon?" Ridley probably does accept Darwin's theory and even cites Darwin as a supposed victim of the "scientific establishment" of his day. Actually, if Darwin was a "victim" of the scientific establishment (or Einstein for that matter), then the term lacks any force. Both men were celebrated in their time.

But after using them as examples of persecution, Ridley proceeds to list a number of scientists who were not as fortunate as Darwin and really did endure ostracism or worse. His accounts are bracing. For example, Ridley cites Ignaz Semmelweiss, who discovered (before germ theory) that doctors who operated on dying patients or cadavers were spreading disease to pregnant women whom they subsequently assisted (without hand washing) to deliver their babies. For his efforts, Semmelweiss was driven out of his medical position in Vienna and into insanity by the persecution of the scientific establishment.

Ridley also cites the case of Alfred Wegener, whose theory of continental drift was not embraced in his lifetime and suffered "an especially vehement attack by the eminent evolutionary biologist George Gaylord Simpson in 1943....Only in the 1960s, with the discovery of plate tectonics, was Wegener rehabilitated."

These and other examples show that today's scientific outcast may be tomorrow's Nobel Prize winner (not that the Nobel is perfect, either). Ridley's subtle message (and Tallis', to some extent) is, don't trust the scientific establishment to determine hard clad truths. Let rigorous testing and competition do so.

Yet, the establishment before whose statue of Darwin both Ridley and Tallis genuflect is exactly the source of persecution of Darwin doubters in the science community. At some point, future Tallis' and Ridley's will find the courage to point to their examples. It's just not safe now.