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Saturday, August 22, 2009

Darwinism and academic culture: Trashing both the Earth Mother and the Evolving God

Here are some essays I had meant to get around to linking for ages: Michael Ruse's "Gaia in the Light of Modern Science" (Chronicle of Higher Education, August 11, 2009) where he - in a genteel way - attacks the Gaia hypothesis (that Earth can be seen as One Big Organism).

It just isn't materialist enough, and the machine metaphor works better.

That's an interesting example of a thoroughly confused point of view because the machine metaphor for nature only "works" better if you don't mind the massive environment damage that results when people treat nature that way. But every "progressive" person is supposed to mind that a lot, and Ruse gives himself out as a progressive person.

Also, given the amount of co-operation that occurs in nature, the "one big organism" idea is in principle, reasonable. Gardeners use it all the time, especially when assessing the impact of a proposed change to land use. Or, as some of us say, "When you throw something away, where exactly is 'away'?"

One of the worst offences of Darwinism - of which Ruse is an impassioned defender - was to create the impression that nature is mostly about competition ("nature red in tooth and claw"). Competition is a minor part of the story. It often doesn't even happen in a way that supports Darwinism.

For example, I remember a cat expert explaining to me years ago: Tom cats don't necessarily care if other tom cats mate with their females. They'll sit passively and watch (as long as they have already got their turn). What they don't want is other toms roaming their territory.

That explains the cat behaviour I have observed over my lifetime much more accurately than any "selfish gene" hypothesis ever did. But people who have been trained to see the world through Darwinism see competition either where it doesn't exist or where - when it does - it doesn't really support Darwinism.

I've written about Ruse here.

While we are here, evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne has an essay in The New Republic ("Creationism for Liberals", August 12, 2009), attacking Robert Wright's The Evolution of God. I expect that Wright's book is pretty silly, as the title implies. Coyne's essay goes on and on, and tends to get worse, especially when he tries his hand at New Testament scholarship and history of religion. Read it for fun and games.

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