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Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Dissing St. Stephen Jay in his own church?

The trouble with being a secular evolution saint is that, a couple years down the road, you don't get no respect at all. Have a look at "Scientific Dissent from Darwinism," a site (herafter called the J site) that uses Gould's name to market an anti-Darwinian self-organization theory of the development of life that I don't know if Gould ever endorsed. Gould died in 2002.

(The basic idea behind self-organization is the claim that order can take hold at the boundaries of chaos. Some argue that this accounts for the origin and development of life. The best-known exponent of the idea is Stuart Kaufmann , associated with the Santa Fe Institute but lately in Banff, Western Canada, according to his CV.)

The message at the J site is addressed to the 400 scientists who signed Discovery Institute's dissent from Darwinism. To them, J prophesies in a loud voice,

You are in accord with most evolutionary biologists who have long since relegated natural selection to micro-evolution at best. Leading among these was Stephen Jay Gould, although he was careful not to pronounce publicly for fear of its misuse by the Intelligent Design movement which is based on the claim that the only alternative to natural selection, or Darwinism, is God.

If anyone out there knows for sure why this is/is not an accurate summary of Gould's thinking, I hope they'll blog on it, so I can link to them. I have not read Gould's doorstop, Structure of Evolutionary Theory , in which he would have made such a point, if he ever did anywhere. It's no secret that Gould fell out with Darwinian fundamentalists (he may well have coined the term himself) like Richard Dawkins. But I've just never heard that he embraced self-organization theory as a consequence.

An urgent note is struck at the J site, regarding the crisis of Darwinism:
This may be the most important issue ever to face science. On its outcome depends nothing less than academic freedom in America. Some overzealous Darwinians have been using extreme means to suppress dissent. Some individuals who have published opposing views have been hounded and their careers threatened or smashed. This issue is soon to be tested in a number of legal cases which may rival the Scopes trial in impact. Most notably I call your attention to the case of Richard Sternberg vs. the Smithsonian Institute.

Okay, you got my attention, J. But then, following the prophecy is a warning:
While the list of 400 is impressive, its possible usefulness to scientific debate is compromised because it is published by the neo-creationist Discovery Institute, and includes individuals who believe that the vacuum caused by the failure of Darwinism should be filled by God, with no third possibility. It is impossible to determine who’s who. Your name on this list may compromise your scientific credibility. If, in fact you believe in creationism, this letter does not pertain to you. Otherwise, you suffer guilt by association.

Funny, isn't it, that J claims to be concerned about intellectual freedom but then, in the very next paragraph markets the infamous notion of guilt by association, but let's move on.

We are told that intelligent design is winning the culture wars, with a theocracy shortly to follow.

You know, J, that theme's been, like, done, eh? Canadian literata Margaret Atwood beat the whole idea to death in The Handmaid's Tale thirty years ago, and she can write you into a corner any time. They even made her novel into a movie and I saw the Handmaid's neat red costume at a sci-fi exhibit in Ottawa a few years ago. And that's all that ever came of the theocracy.

We are then told that neo-Darwinism is a bust, because "Evolutionary biologists no longer believe that natural selection is the prime mechanism of evolution." They don't? That's not what most of them have been saying, but I better check my inbox.

Now J may be right, of course. They could know it's a bust and fail to admit it, the way directors of a failing company do. J goes on to mention something I had been meaning to draw attention to myself, and he almost beat me to it. But he says it in a kind of confused way, so I am going to say it in a clear way:

If you look at Michael Shermer's and Ricki Lewis's accounts of the "Woodstock of Evolution," the World Evolution Summit on the Galapágos last June, it is evident that Darwinian theory is indeed falling apart.

Now don't bother telling me that it is normal for scientists to have disagreements. Sure it is. But the reported disagreements were about such fundamental matters as the level at which natural selection occurs (yes, see Lewis's report), whether sexual selection even occurs, whether there really is a universal common ancestor, et cetera. Well, if after a century and a half, they are not even sure at what level natural selection occurs or whether sexual selection occurs or whether universal comon ancestry is true, I am not sure that what we are looking at is even a discipline, as opposed to a series of naturalistic speculations about the origin and development of life.

Apparently, at the gathering, evo-devo earth mother Lynn Margulis proclaimed the neo-Darwinian synthesis (= standard evolutionary theory, currently being rammed into kids' heads in schools, by law) to be dead — nonetheless proclaiming triumphantly, "I am a Darwinist". In the context, I guess she meant "I am a philosophical naturalist."

Which is precisely my point. If that's all that holds them together, it is not a science discipline; it is a band of believers.

Anyway, back to the J site: We are offered "The origin of species without Darwin or God." and a booklet called "Biological Self-Organization" which you can read online. There is also a book available, called Lifecode by art collector Stuart Pivar, who seems to have been a friend of Andy Warhol and is no slouch in biology. Lifecode is listed among self-organization books.

One problem with knowing what to make of all this is that an official Stephen Jay Gould site doesn't currently seem to be online, so I don't know that there is any public record of what the keepers of his official legacy would say in response. If I learn anything more of interest, I will post it.
If you like this blog, check out my book on the intelligent design controversy, By Design or by Chance?. You can read excerpts as well.
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