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The Michael Shermer Show

A series of conversations between Dr. Michael Shermer and leading scientists, philosophers, historians, scholars, writers and thinkers about the most important issues of our time.

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EPISODE # 269

Richard Dawkins — Flights of Fancy: Defying Gravity by Design and Evolution

Flights of Fancy (book cover)

Do you sometimes dream you can fly like a bird? Gliding effortlessly above the treetops, soaring and swooping, playing and dodging through the third dimension. Computer games, virtual reality headsets, and some drugs can lift our imagination and fly us through fabled, magical spaces. But it’s not the real thing. No wonder some of the past’s greatest minds, including Leonardo da Vinci’s, have yearned for flying machines and struggled to design them.

Shermer and Dawkins discuss: nationalism • Russian revanchism • recent rise of authoritarianism and autocracies: worrying trend or temporary stumble in the arc of the moral universe? • U.S. acceptance of the theory of evolution finally breaks the 50% barrier • woke attacks on E. O. Wilson: why? • why Dawkins dedicated his book to Elon • What good is half a wing? • What is flight good for? • Why do some animals lose their wings? • Why flying is easier if you are small • physics of flying • unpowered flight: parachuting and gliding • powered flight and how it works • weightlessness • aerial plankton • winged plants • the difference between evolved and designed flying machines.

Flights of Fancy is a book about flying—all the different ways of defying gravity that have been discovered by humans over the centuries and by other animals over the millions of years, from the mythical Icarus, to the sadly extinct but magnificent bird Argentavis magnificens, to the Wright Flyer and the 747. But it also means flights of digression into more general ideas and principles that take off from a discussion about actual flight. Fascinating and elegantly written, this is a unique collaboration between one of the world’s leading zoologists and a talented artist, and perfect for enquiring teenage minds.

Richard Dawkins is one of the world’s most eminent writers and thinkers, and a major contributor to the public understanding of the science of evolution. The award-winning author of The Selfish Gene, The Blind Watchmaker, The God Delusion and a string of other bestselling science books, he is a Fellow of the Royal Society and of the Royal Society of Literature.

Jana Lenzova born and raised in Bratislava, Slovakia, is an illustrator, translator and interpreter. Her two great passions are languages and drawing. The former led to the latter. After she had been commissioned to translate The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins into Slovak, she began contributing to his books as an illustrator.

Study on new poll on beliefs in creationism and evolution in the United States

A new study on “Public Acceptance and Rejection of Evolution in the United States, 1985–2020” by Jon Miller, Eugenie Scott, Mark Ackerman, and Belén Laspra, published in the journal Public Understanding of Science. “Using data from a series of national surveys collected over the last 35 years, we find that the level of public acceptance of evolution has increased in the last decade after at least two decades in which the public was nearly evenly divided on the issue,” the authors write. That sounds encouraging, and the uptick of the blue line of acceptance and downward slope of the orange line of rejection in this graph appears encouraging, until one glances over at the vertical axis showing that progress here is defined as breaking the 50 percent barrier! That’s not especially encouraging for a robust science that began 162 years ago with the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and accepted by 97 percent of all scientists.

What is the cause in the recent increase (however modest) in the acceptance of the theory? According to the study’s authors:

A structural equation model indicates that increasing enrollment in baccalaureate-level programs, exposure to college-level science courses, a declining level of religious fundamentalism, and a rising level of civic scientific literacy are responsible for the increased level of public acceptance.

Those of us in academia, and especially in the science education business, should find this especially encouraging, but I want to drill down into that variable of “religious fundamentalism,” which the authors defined and quantified as belief in a personal God who hears prayers, reading the Bible as literal truth, frequency of church attendance, frequency of prayer, and agreement with the statement “We depend too much on science and not enough on faith.” There was an inverse correlation between religious fundamentalism and acceptance of evolution: 32 percent acceptance on the high end of the scale compared 91 percent on the lowest end of the scale (and 54 percent of the entire sample). That 30 percent of Americans self-identify as religious fundamentalists goes a long way to explaining their doubt. As does their political affiliation. While 83 percent of liberal Democrats accept the theory of evolution, the researchers found that only 34 percent of conservative Republicans do so.

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This episode was released on May 7, 2022.

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