Best known as the longtime writer of the Mathematical Games column for Scientific American—which introduced generations of readers to the joys of recreational mathematics—Martin Gardner has for decades pursued a parallel career as a devastatingly effective debunker of what he once famously dubbed “fads and fallacies in the name of science.” It is mainly in this latter role that he is onstage in this collection of choice essays. When You Were a Tadpole and I Was a Fish takes aim at a gallery of amusing targets, ranging from Ann Coulter’s qualifications as an evolutionary biologist to the logical fallacies of precognition and extrasensory perception, from Santa Claus to The Wizard of Oz, from mutilated chessboards to the little-known “one-poem poet” Langdon Smith (the original author of this volume’s title line). The writings assembled here fall naturally into seven broad categories: Science, Bogus Science, Mathematics, Logic, Literature, Religion and Philosophy, and Politics. Under each heading, Gardner displays an awesome level of erudition combined with a wicked sense of humor.
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Martin Gardner is the author of more than seventy books, as well as countless magazine articles and other shorter works. He lives in Norman, Oklahoma.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
PART I SCIENCE
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1. ANN COULTER TAKES ON DARWIN
Ann Coulter has made a fortune by writing books that viciously insult liberals, by defending her ultra-conservative views on television talk shows, and by traveling the country giving barbed lectures. A friend recently described her with one word: cobra.
I never took Ann seriously until I read her fifth book, Godless: The Church of Liberalism. I wanted to find out what she had to say about evolution and intelligent design. My review of her new role as science writer first appeared in The Skeptical Inquirer (May/June 2008).
Ann Coulter is an attractive writer with green eyes and lopsidedly cut long blond hair, whose trademark is insulting liberals with remarks so outrageous that they make Rush Limbaugh sound like a Sunday school teacher. This is one reason why all six of her books have made The New York Times bestseller list and earned her fame and fortune.
Coulter’s fifth book, Godless: The Church of Liberalism, has just been issued in paperback to provide an excuse for this review. Here are some of the book’s mean, below-the-belt punches:
Monica Lewinski is a “fat Jewish girl” (p. 4).
Julia Roberts and George Clooney are “airheads” (p. 8).
Ted Kennedy is “Senator Drunkennedy” (p. 90).
The four Jersey “weeping widows” (p. 289) of men who died in the September 11 attacks are “rabid” (p. 103), “self-obsessed” (p. 103), and “harpies” (p. 112). “I’ve never seen people enjoying their husbands’ deaths so much” (p. 103).
Diplomat Joseph Wilson, whose wife was outed from the CIA, is a “nut and liar” (p. 119) and a “pompous jerk” (p. 121). He is likened to a “crazy aunt up in the attic” (p. 295).
Cindy Sheehan, the vocal war protester, is a “poor imbecile” (p. 102) with an “itsy-bitsy, squeaky voice” (p. 103).
Katie Couric is a “shopworn sweetheart” (p. 295).
Liberals are repeatedly called pathetic nuts and crackpots. “[They] are more upset when a tree is chopped down than when a child is aborted” (p. 5). Apparently Coulter expects God to send most liberals to hell, because she writes, “I would be crestfallen to discover any liberals in heaven” (p. 22).
Coulter has nothing good to say about any Democrat. They are all crazy liberals who are socialists in disguise. Her latest book is titled If Democrats Had Any Brains They’d Be Republicans. Here are a few other folks who get pummeled in Godless:
All defenders of abortion.
All defenders of gay marriages and those who think homosexuality is genetic.
“Hysterical” and “ugly” feminists.
Scientists who deny there could be subtle differences between the mental abilities of men and women and between different races.
College professors who teach students to hate God and America.
Opponents of capital punishment.
Scientists who fear global warming.
Scientists who were once afraid that AIDS would spread to heterosexuals.
Educators who want to teach small children how to use condoms and engage in oral and anal sex.
Opponents of nuclear power.
The staff of The New York Times.
Those who favor embryonic stem-cell research.
Senator John Edwards. Coulter has never apologized for slandering him. Speaking at a political action conference she called Edwards a “faggot” (falsely, of course). (See Wikipedia’s article on Coulter for shameful details.)
And so on.
In the last four chapters of Godless, Coulter suddenly morphs into a science writer. The chapters are blistering attacks on Darwinian evolution—the notion that life evolved gradually from simple, one-celled forms to humans by a process that consisted of random mutations combined with the survival of the fittest. Darwin of course knew nothing about mutations, but Coulter is concerned with modern Darwinism, which she is convinced requires some sort of superior intelligence to guide evolution.
In brief, Coulter is a dedicated believer in intelligent design, or ID for short. Among promoters of ID, mathematician and Baptist William Dembski and Catholic Michael Behe are Coulter’s main heroes. Dembski, who has a degree in divinity from the Princeton Theological Seminary, was Coulter’s principal adviser on the last four chapters.
Like all IDers, nowhere does Coulter hint at how God, or a pantheistic sort of intelligence, guided evolution. There are two leading possibilities:
1. God manipulated mutations so that new species arose, culminating finally in humans.
2. God may have allowed mutations and survival of the fittest to produce different breeds of a species, such as dogs and cats, but new species were created out of whole cloth, just as it says in the Book of Genesis. Like Behe and other IDers, Coulter is silent on how God directed evolution and what sort of evidence would confirm or disconfirm the role of an intelligent designer.
This is not the place to defend in detail what Coulter likes to call the “Darwinocranks.” It has been admirably done in scores of books by top scientists, all of whom Coulter considers cranks. Peter Olofson, writing tongue in cheek on “The Coulter Hoax” in the Skeptical Inquirer (March/April 2007), accuses Coulter of perpetrating a brilliant satire of ID rhetoric.
Let me focus instead on the transition from apelike mammals to humans. Coulter repeatedly accuses the Darwinocranks of being embarrassed by a lack of fossils that show transitional forms from one species to another. Such paucity is easily explained by the rarity of conditions for fossilization and by the fact that transitional forms can evolve rapidly. (By “rapidly” geologists mean tens of thousands of years.) Moreover, transitional fossils keep piling up as the search for them continues.
Nowhere are transitional forms more abundant than in the fossils of early human skeletons and the skeletons of their apelike ancestors. Consider the hundreds of fossils of Neanderthals. H. G. Wells, in a forgotten little book titled Mr. Belloc Objects (see chapter 4 of this book), defends evolution against ignorant attacks by the Catholic writer Hilaire Belloc. In chapter 4 of his book, Wells has this to say about Neanderthals:
When I heard that Mr. Belloc was going to explain and answer the Outline of History, my thought went at once to this creature. What would Mr. Belloc say of it? Would he put it before or after the Fall? Would he correct its anatomy by wonderful new science out of his safe? Would he treat it like a brother and say it held by the most exalted monotheism, or treat it as a monster made to mislead wicked men?
He says nothing! He just walks away whenever it comes near him.
But I am sure it does not leave him. In the night, if not by day, it must be asking him: “Have I a soul to save, Mr. Belloc? Is that Heidelberg jawbone one of us, Mr. Belloc, or not? You’ve forgotten me, Mr. Belloc. For four-fifths of the Paleolithic age I was ‘man.’ There was no other. I shamble and I cannot walk erect and look up at heaven as you do, Mr. Belloc, but dare you cast me to the dogs?”
Coulter is as silent as Mr. Belloc about Neanderthals and about the even earlier, more apelike skeletons. I doubt if they trouble her sleep; I doubt if anything troubles Coulter’s sleep. Does she think there was a slow, incremental transition from apelike creatures to Cro-Magnons and other humans? Or does she believe there was a first pair of humans?
Let’s assume there was a first pair. Does Coulter think God created Adam out of the dust of the earth, as Genesis describes, then fabricated Eve from one of Adam’s ribs? Or does she accept the fact that the first humans were the outcome of slow, small changes over many centuries? If the transition was sudden, then Adam and Eve were raised and suckled by a mother who was a soulless beast!
This is a bothersome dilemma for all Christians who believe in the crossing of a sharp line from beast to human. It is a dilemma about which I once wrote a short story called “The Horrible Horns.” If interested, you can find it in my book The No-Sided Professor and Other Tales of Fantasy, Humor, Mystery, and Philosophy.
We know from a footnote on page 3 of Godless that Coulter considers herself a Christian. But what sort of Christian? The word has become enormously vague. Today one can call oneself a Christian and hold beliefs that range from the fundamentalism of Jerry Falwell and Billy Graham, through the liberal views of mainline Protestant ministers and Catholic liberals such as Hans Kung and Gary Wills, to the atheism of Paul Tillich. Tillich did not believe in a personal God or an afterlife, two of the central doctrines of Christ’s teachings, yet he is considered by many Protestants to be one of the world’s greatest Christian theologians!
Wikipedia’s article on Coulter quotes her as saying, “Christ died for my sins . . . Christianity fuels everything I write.” This sounds like something an evangelical Protestant would say. On the other hand, in Godless Coulter quotes a remark by G. K. Chesterton (p. 10), who is almost never quoted today except by Catholics. Is Coulter a Protestant or a Catholic? Or some other kind of Christian?
Although I am not a Catholic, allow me to cite a famous passage from Chesterton’s introduction to his book Heretics:
But there are some people, nevertheless—and I am one of them—who think that the most practical and important thing about a man is still his view of the universe. We think that for a landlady considering a lodger, it is important to know his income, but still more important to know his philosophy. We think that for a general about to fight an enemy, it is important to know the enemy’s numbers, but still more important to know the enemy’s philosophy. We think the question is not whether the theory of the cosmos affects matters, but whether, in the long run, anything else affects them.
Coulter, you are merciless in bashing liberals and atheists, so please let us know what church you attend. It would clear the air and shed light on your peculiar personality and on the background for all your insults, especially your blasts at Darwinians.
Here’s another simple question to ponder: Why do you suppose God provided men with nipples?
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