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Friday, September 30, 2005

Response to NAS member's critique of the usefulness of Darwinism: Pigeons demand ban on cats

Recently, Phil Skell, a National Academy of Sciences member, published a critique of the usefulness of Darwinism in present-day biology, under the title "Why Do We Invoke Darwin?" in The Scientist.

In Skell's view, "evolution" is invoked in many science papers in much the same way as a bureaucracy hounded by political correctness might invoke Aztec cosmology -relevant to the politics, certainly, but not to the findings.

In the peer-reviewed literature, the word "evolution" often occurs as a sort of coda to academic papers in experimental biology. Is the term integral or superfluous to the substance of these papers? To find out, I substituted for "evolution" some other word - "Buddhism," "Aztec cosmology," or even "creationism." I found that the substitution never touched the paper's core. This did not surprise me. From my conversations with leading researchers it had became clear that modern experimental biology gains its strength from the availability of new instruments and methodologies, not from an immersion in historical biology.

The huge response prompted a comment, "Let's Talk About This," from the editor of that publication:
Inadvertently, while I was still looking for evidence on the subject, The Scientist tested the quality of scientific discourse. The opinion of Philip Skell which ran in the Aug. 29, 2005, issue generated a staggering volume of comment. We have given over most of the Letters and Opinion pages in this issue to it, and even then we're not doing the reaction justice. The vast majority of the correspondence was negative, but it was also rational, reasonable, and detailed, with only a couple of letter writers resorting to abuse ...

Abuse? Oh my stars. The fact that so much negative opinion would follow Skell's completely obvious point tells us pretty much what we need to know about the cult of Darwinian evolution in biology today.

In both popular and semi-professional literature today, as well as professional literature, all kinds of silly ideas seep into public discourse because they claim to be natural consequences of Darwinian evolution. Just think of all the people who would be stuck for a pat answer to human dilemmas otherwise.

It is one thing to establish a religion when most people believe it, quite another to establish a religion when most people don't.

Catholic blogger on the Darwinoids: Shut up, he explained

Blogger Mark Shea, who gets way more mail than I do, and responds to it more faithfully, answers the Darwinoids who camp on his list. He says, among other things.

We *never* look at the text of Hamlet, or Michaelangelo's David, or the code for Windows XP and try to give an explanation for these things as products of non-reason. The only time we do it is when we look at the staggeringly specified complexity of living systems. And we do so in obedience to a dogmatic philosophy of materialism. Here alone, in obedience to the priesthood of the Atheism of the Gaps, acolytes must crush their normal tendency to intuit the obvious by repeating the Spiritual Exercises of St. Francis Crick and reciting the creed: "Biologists must constantly keep in mind that what they see was not designed, but rather evolved."

Note that word, "rather". It speaks volumes about the metaphysic being promulgated.

As to examples of specified complexity in biology, there are not ten but ten billion. There is no living system that is *not* highly complex and highly specified.

Then I get a mysterious question: "Isn't a rattlesnake fang/venom system complexly specified? Yes or no? Do you know? Does the DI? Do they care?"

I'm not sure what that means. Is my interlocutor suggesting that this system is *not* enormously complex and extremely specified? Is he saying that a good God would never make venomous snakes? Beats me. Then, in crowning incoherence, DI [Discovery Institute, an ID think tank] is compared to Jimmy Swaggart. But that's not an ad hominem argument or anything.

Mark provides some useful responses from the Catholic philosophical tradition.

(Note: "Shut up, he explained" is from a Ring Lardner short story. It is often used as a sort of Zen koan to teach writing skills. A person who doesn't "get it" should not try to make a living as a writer. Their connection to the rest of humanity, while it may be both broad and deep, is not mediated through language.)

Darwin as pure cultural commodity:Recent review of Darnton thriller

When a person has become a pure cultural commodity, you can say what you want about them. The thriller by Pulitzer Prize-winner John Darnton is perceptively reviewed by Books editor Marjorie Kehe of Christian Science Monitor. She remarks that

Darwin never really goes out of fashion. Just when you think that maybe he's slipping from public view a bit, there's some kind of a trial, public hearing, or cultural disruption that shifts him and his everlastingly disputed findings back into the spotlight.

So John Darnton probably made a wise choice when he tapped the ever-controversial naturalist to serve as one of the protagonists of his new novel The Darwin Conspiracy.

[ ... ]

Clearly Darnton did his homework and the biographical information woven in about Darwin is interesting, but here he more nearly resembles a character in an Indiana Jones film than a man still rocking intellectual and theological boats.

Fair enough, but my sense is that Darnton’s salable idea only works when the worldview itself has come under fire. It wasn't so long ago that Richard Dawkins wrote:

Living organisms had existed on earth without ever knowing why for 3000 million years before the truth finally dawned on one of them. His name was Charles Darwin.

(Ben Wattenberg quoted Dawkins to himself as saying this, on PBS’s Think Tank (November 8, 1996), apparently reading from Dawkins's The Selfish Gene.

Wittenberg comments,

That sounds to me like a religious statement. That is a - that is near messianic language. And you are making the case that these other people have this virus of the mind. That tonality says, I found my God.

Dawkins's response is interesting.)

Even back then, Wattenberg felt compelled to protest. Today, a lot more people are asking questions about the Darwin cult in biology.

Intelligent design and popular culture: The roots of design thinking

Fellow Canadian blogger Kathy Shaidle, the "Relapsed Catholic", wrote recently on Whittaker Chambers, the uncool 1950s guy who blew the whistle on a bunch of American country club Cools who were traitors to the country that had afforded them a fine lifestyle.

Kathy unerringly singles out a stunning passage in Chambers's journey of understanding:

...I date my break from a very casual happening. I was sitting in our apartment on St. Paul Street in Baltimore. It was shortly before we moved to Alger Hiss's apartment in Washington. My daughter was in her high chair. I was watching her eat. She was the most miraculous thing that had ever happened in my life. I like to watch her even when she smeared porridge on her face or dropped it meditatively on the floor. My eye came to rest on the delicate convolutions of her ear -- those intricate, perfect ears. The thought passed through my mind: 'No, those ears were not created by any chance coming together of atoms in nature (the Communist view). They could have been created only by immense design.' The thought was involuntary and unwanted. I crowded it out of my mind. If I had completed it, I should have had to say: Design presupposes God. I did not know that, at that moment, the finger of God was first laid upon my forehead.

Shaidle goes on to say:
Today, some of us battle the same enemy Chambers did, just with a different name. Others among us insist, as they did then, that docility and appeasement are the answer -- on our part, naturally, since the real enemy is "us". Despite the book's apocalyptic tone, Witness does not depress, because we have Chambers at an advantage: we know how the story ended, decades after the author's death -- with the fall of a wall "experts" believed, right up to the moment the first sledgehammer struck, would never crumble. A civilization that could produce a book like Witness is one worth fighting for. Chambers' masterpiece teaches us not just why we should fight, but how one man fought: as a lonely, despised herald to the painful truth that eventually set millions free.

What I find interesting about this is the way people are beginning to connect the dots. What might design mean? What might no design mean? Whether you believe in God or not, evidence of design underwrites moral responsibility because it implies that there really could be truth, as opposed to competitive lies.
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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