|The Early Days of a Better Nation|
Saturday, August 22, 2009
That would have been an interesting discussion.
The actual discussion, while certainly interesting, was about something else entirely. Evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne said he thought he'd been cast as the brash American, and that was what he was going to be. Evolution and religion are incompatible. 'Belief' in evolution is quite different from a religious belief. The first is based on having seen overwhelming empirical evidence, which it would be irrational not to accept. The other is based on no evidence at all, and if necessary in the teeth of the evidence. The difference is that between science and superstition.
John Dupré (philosopher) and John Brooke (theologian and science historian) disagreed, in detail and at length, while insisting that they were on the same side as Coyne on the reality of evolution (and paying handsome tribute to the cogency and clarity of his book). Dupré argued that the provisionality of science is its strength, and that most of what we now understand about evolution will be obsolete in fifty years. The facts in Coyne's book, and their irresistible implications, will remain as solid as they are now, but not all Coyne's own views on speciation, etc, will likewise stand the test of time. Brooke pointed out that leading Presbyterians and Anglicans (such as Asa Gray and William Temple) were won over to Darwin's ideas within months of the publication of The Origin, and remained Christians (in Temple's case, becoming Archbishop of Canterbury). Even the creationists can't be defeated by denouncing them as irrational: within their system of priorities, they are rational (though mistaken, mainly through inadequate theology rather than inadequate education or intelligence or even (in some deeply sad cases) acquaintance with the evidence).
I have to say that, though I disagreed with some of their points, the philosopher and the theologian had the best of the argument. Jerry Coyne, as I've found from reading his marvellous book and following his combative blog, and indeed from hearing him and Nick Lane talk the following day about the evidence for evolution, is a fine scientist and brilliant populariser of science. In philosophy of science, and in history of ideas, he's as likely as you and me and your average working scientist to get walked over by professionals in these fields. That's no disgrace. Division of labour - it's all in Ricardo.
What I'd still like to see, some day, is the discussion that Steve Yearley adumbrated and that didn't happen. I am thoroughly jaded with the argument with creationism, and indeed the whole science-and-religion thing. Been there, done that, got the bloody shirt. I loathe and despise creationism, and my main interest in it is in avenging the scars it has left on me. But its recent salience deserves explanation. My impression is that creationism and evolution have both changed since I first became acquainted with them in the 1960s and early 1970s. Back then, evolution was popularly understood as containing moral messages. Part of the reason for that was mistaken scientific theories - notably, group selection (as a major explanation) which was heavily relied on by Robert Ardrey, whose semi-racist speculations were widely read back in the day, as were the (variably more sound) works of Desmond Morris, Konrad Lorentz, Ashley Montagu, Lionel Tiger and Robin Fox, all of whom moralised in their different ways. Another part of the reason was fuzzy feel-good vulgarizations, which found their ecological niche and competitive advantage in the progressive temper of the time. Thomas Huxley's classic address, 'Evolution and Ethics', should have long ago nailed all such, but it didn't stop his grandson, Julian Huxley, from promulgating an 'Evolutionary Humanism' and from writing an enthusiastic introduction to Teilhard de Chardin's religiose sprinkling of saccharine pixie-dust on the same pathetic fallacy.
Christian anti-evolutionism, at that time, wasn't like modern creationism. It wasn't joined at the hip to insanities about a six-thousand-year-old Earth. It was a protest - valid enough in its own terms - against quite specious conclusions about the inevitability of human progress drawn from evolutionary thinking. (In the hands of, say, C. S. Lewis, this protest was quite compatible with public acceptance of - and private reservations about - evolution as a fact.) Even young-earthism started out (to stretch the principle of charity a little too far) at least presenting itself as as an alternate hypothesis, which could in principle be accepted even by atheists. (One can idly imagine a planet populated by all the organisms in the fossil record, devastated by a catastrophe in the recent past, leaving a spurious record of succession in the rocks, and with the actual evolution having occurred on another planet or in the deep pre-Cambrian.) But the evidence just didn't stack up, and the creation/catastrophe argument has moved from claims of hard facts on the table to waffle about 'presuppositions' and 'world-views', in an involuntary admission of evidential bankruptcy. The creationist style of thought, preeningly self-blinkered and paranoid, has become a watering-can for the tree of crazy. Of course the outright denialist strand of thinking was there all along, but why did it become dominant, and widespread, after the 1960s?
One reason, I'd suggest, is that popular understanding of evolution changed radically in the 1970s, with the works of first Jaques Monod and then Richard Dawkins. Chance and Necessity and The Selfish Gene both based their arguments firmly on the molecular, materialist account of life, and both insisted that no moral lessons or eschatological comfort could be drawn from the process - very much the reverse, in fact. The even more widely-read work of Stephen Jay Gould, though pitched in a different register, was likewise stark in its implications:
The radicalism of natural selection lies in its power to dethrone some of the deepest and most traditional comforts of Western thought, particularly the notion that nature's benevolence, order, and good design, with humans at a sensible summit of power and excellence, proves the existence of an omnipotent and benevolent creator who loves us most of all (the old-style theological version), or at least that nature has meaningful directions, and that humans fit into a sensible and predictable pattern regulating the totality (the modern and more secular version).That Gould made these points in a polemic against the 'Darwinian fundamentalists' (Dawkins, Dennett and Maynard Smith) makes the essential congruence of their views on exactly this point all the more significant. Monod and Dawkins would have agreed with every word, and wrote similar passages themselves.
It's this 'thrilling godlessness', as Martin Amis called it, that drives the fury of modern evolution denialism. Julian Huxley's 'Religion Without Revelation' of Evolutionary Humanism was no doubt troubling enough to believers, but at least it wasn't a vision of blind, pitiless indifference at the heart of things.
But what, as I said, I'd still like to see more discussion of are the implications of this changed view of evolution for secular ideologies. Does junking the woozy teleological version of evolution affect socialism, liberalism, conservatism? Monod thought so, but who else has done serious thinking about the question?