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Friday, January 16, 2009

Darwinism and popular culture: Bill Moyers moonlights as a geneticist

Recently, at Uncommon Descent, we discussed Jesse Kilgore, who killed himself after reading Dawkins and Pekka Eric Auvinen, the young Finnish social Darwinist shooter (2007) , to say nothing of Eric Harris at Columbine. While some have pointed to these examples of the harm done by pop Darwinism, I've always been cautious. Disturbed people have taken their own or others' lives for a variety of reasons. Better evidence, it seems to me, is the bad assumptions of people assumed to be intelligent, emotionally normal, and well-meaning. Consider then the case of Bill Moyers of PBS:

Richard Landes at "Augean Stables" draws attention to this gem from Moyers's Journal, from his January 9 interview with Barack Obama:
What we are seeing in Gaza is the latest battle in the oldest family quarrel on record. Open your Bible: the sons of the patriarch Abraham become Arab and Jew. Go to the Book of Deuteronomy. When the ancient Israelites entered Canaan their leaders urged violence against its inhabitants. The very Moses who had brought down the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” now proclaimed, “You must destroy completely all the places where the nations have served their gods. You must tear down their altars, smash their pillars, cut down their sacred poles, set fire to the carved images of their gods, and wipe out their name from that place.

So God-soaked violence became genetically coded.

(Transcript here.)
Landes wasn't very impressed, and neither was the Anti-Defamation League's Abraham Foxman. Moyers told Foxman he didn't mean it:
And, to your claim that I was “declaring Jews are ‘genetically coded’ for violence,” you are mistaken. My comment – obviously not sufficiently precise – was not directed at a specific people but to the fact that the human race has violence in its DNA, as the biblical stories so strongly affirm. I also had in mind the relationship between all the descendents of Abraham who love the same biblical land and come to such grief over it.
Unfortunately for Moyers, the text will not bear the interpretation he wishes to give it. He was referring specifically to Moses and the Israelites (ancient Jews), as described in Deuteronomy, not to people in general. However, as I have no interest in contributing to political correctness, I am content to let that matter rest.

The specific contribution of pop culture Darwinism to this episode is the notion that "God-soaked violence" is "genetically coded." If so:

1. No one is responsible for their violent behaviour, so both sides are off the hook and we can all quit blaming anyone.

2. Violent conflicts are probably irresolvable. (You may as well try to teach non-violence to grizzly bears.)

3. It wouldn't make any difference what Deuteronomy says because people are genetically coded for violence. So even God is off the hook. (Dawkins, check your mail.)

4. Deuteronomy is not a legend, as some claim, but can be invoked as a source of historical information, including information about genetics.

Moyers doesn't mean any of that, because if he does, he would never have written the other things he has. So what does he mean?

Well, first, his genome isn't Francis Collins and Craig Venters's famous genome, mapped in 2000. That's a matter of chromosomes. If anyone wanted to show that there is a violence gene, they'd likely be asked its exact location and functions. As Mike Behe likes to say, science is a matter of "how, exactly?", not of handwaving.

No, Moyers's genome is rather the genome of "It's in your genes" and "It's a trait that evolution selected for in humans because ...." In other words, the pop Darwin genome.

Ironically, Darwin's actual theory is in serious trouble. Serious scientists are trying to modify it in a variety of directions. Yet the news doesn't filter down to the hordes of angry bloggers who (one must charitably assume) honestly believe that his theory is "overwhelmingly confirmed."

Why doesn't the news filter down? The Darwinism they know - in which Bill Moyers (or anybody at all) can be a geneticist - is overwhelmingly confirmed in their own hearts and minds. God-soaked violence genes are probably a habitual way of thinking for Moyers, which is why he said what he did in an interview with the President-elect (for which, one must suppose, Moyers had prepared carefully.)

That, I think is the primary way that pop Darwinism is harmful. It short circuits careful thinking in favour of easy explanations that don't explain anything. And false knowledge drives out true knowledge by displacing the time available to acquire true knowledge.

Fight between two grizzly bears (if you can stand it):



(Do you think there might be a market here for Conflict Resolution Manuals?)

Find out why there is an intelligent design controversy:

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