Saturday, January 17, 2009

Darwin for Idiots

Todd Smith, plainly an intellect to be reckoned with, emails me: 'Jesus, you're a dumb motherfucker.'  And here's Mark Hollingsworth, who would be a Nobel contender but for his spelling: 'Oh my god... that's got to be the most ignorant and dumfounded (sic) article on Evolution that I've read in a while. Aren't you embarrassed to display such ignorance?' Er, afraid not, Mark, I guess it's my unquenchable sense of fun. All these people keep treating my article as if it were an argument, it wasn't it was a survey. But, if Todd and Mark are anything to go by, literacy is in short supply in these parts. 
But that's boring. This is more interesting. Say I had written an article quoting people who disbelieved in plate tectonics or perhaps another headlined 'Quantum Theory: Yeah, Right'. Would either have aroused such anger? I doubt it. There's something about Darwinism. What?
The ruling ideas in any civilisation are always treated as conclusive. Perhaps this is necessary. Once a ruling idea is overthrown - like, for example, the divine right of kings - then so is the civilisation. Science, as the only genuinely cumulative form of knowledge, changes this but not as much as some people think. For, precisely because it is cumulative, science is constantly changing. Ruling scientific ideas may not be overthrown but they are certain to be modified over time, often radically. This is why it is dangerous to attempt to derive an ethical 'ought' from a scientific 'is'.  There is an ethic of science, but not one from science. Darwinism, uniquely, seems to attract and encourage such derivations. As a result, it is no longer simply a ruling scientific idea, it is also a ruling moral, social, religious and even political idea. This is a problem - not, Todd, Mark and the rest of you, because I think Darwinism is false, that the world was made with all species intact 6,000 years ago or that the evolution of the eye is inconceivable, but simply because it cannot sustain this load of extra-scientific implication. Darwinism, I am sure is right as far as it goes, but it could easily be seen in a different context, by, for example, higher levels of explanation like the mathematics of complex systems. In addition, its application to human society is dubious. Since we pass on ideas to successive generations, if there is an evolutionary force in society, then it would appear to follow Lamarckian rather than Darwinian principles.
Darwinism is one of the ruling ideas of our civilisation. This is why the slightest challenge to its ascendancy, even quotations from people who don't believe it, arouses such anger, such fear. It is a threat to a world view some people find consoling. It could probably only happen, as John Gray points out, in a monotheistic culture, even when the monotheists have convinced themselves they are atheists.
But that's enough of that. Aim higher by reading this, a wonderful essay Nige the ineffable has just drawn to my attention.


  1. "Dumfounded" - adj. Of an argument, to be founded on dumbness.

    Well done, Mark Hollingsworth, you've coined it. I can see that one coming in handy.

  2. "There's something about Darwinism. What?"

    Unlike quantum mechanics it has been targeted by a minority of Christians as a direct, personal challenge to their faith. As a consequence they have provoked an equally passionate backlash. I can see this has got under your skin, Bryan, and I don't want to be offensive but in that context your article was extraordinarily unbalanced. Giving space to critics of Darwinism is entirely legitimate but nowhere in that survey do you give any space to those who disagree. I really don't understand how you can be baffled at provoking such a response when your only positive comment about Darwin was to say how accessible Origin of Species is to lay readers. If you accept that Darwinism is correct "as far as it goes" what is your justification for saying it has made no impact on our lives? Has the whole of modern biology contributed nothing to society you think we should value ? Is Darwin not as important to his field as Einstein was to physics ?

  3. From the Garret Keizer article:

    Had I an atheist friend who asked, "Can you tell me please what this religion business is all about, not as some metaphysical hypothesis or historical phenomenon, but what it really means to be religious?" I might hand him or her a copy of Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead. "Read this," I'd say, "and it will give you a pretty good idea."

    Spot on - that, in itself, is a perfectly sufficient review of Gilead, which is the best book about being Christian I've read, and possibly the best defence of it since Handel's Messiah.

    It didn't convert me but it did make me feel ashamed of some of the naive and shallow things I used to think about religion.

    Jeez it was a tough read though - I could only manage it in chunks of about 6 pages at a time. Exhausting. Haven't made it to Home yet (but then who ever really has, eh?)

  4. Appleyard sets up the straw man of Darwinism extra-scientific implications in order to criticise the idea itself with junk science which clearly has religious motives.

    Of course scientific ideas change over time. This is the strength of the scientific method which relies on new and better evidence. The creationists have no evidence which is why most find their ideas laughable.

    Whether the article was a survey or an argument, its deliberate failure to explain where Behe et al were coming from made it a very poor article.

    If you want a "wonderful essay" relating to Appleyard's article on Darwin go to PZ Myers' Pharyngula blog.

  5. There's something about Darwinism. What?

    Perhaps you should try google, Bryan. The problem is that half of the US is trying to keep Darwin out of the classrooms because it offends their religious sensibilities. So when a dumb fuck writes an article that treats their opinion as anything other than the ravings of anti-science Luddites we tend to get a little defensive. But go ahead and write an article against Quantum Physics if you haven't already. We could all use a good laugh.

  6. If anyone ever attempted to exhilarate my breakfast table I would beat them around the head with a rolled up newspaper.

  7. Darwinism makes me horny.

  8. I was introduced to Bryan Appleyard's writing through the 2000 New Scientist essay, You asked for it. In a way, that essay can be seen as prescient: People have continued inappropriately to apply Darwinian reasoning to wider spheres, and criticism of evolutionary theory has continued to attract support. However, I remain unconvinced that there is any cause-and-effect relationship. Anti-Darwinian critics are motivated not by concerns about inappropriate application, but by discomfort with appropriate application. I seriously doubt that William Dembski is going to shut up if we would just cool it with the evolutionary psychology.

    From that perspective, I find the author's reaction to reaction to the current essay disingenuous. Bar Room Brawl is right: There is nothing in the essay to provide readers an appreciation for the counter-Enlightenment impact of efforts such as the Center for Science and Culture's campaign for "academic freedom."

  9. The comments on your article were interesting. Sometimes I believe UFO's are real and its the human race doesn't exist.

  10. As a result, it is no longer simple a ruling scientific idea, it is also a ruling moral, social, religious and even political idea. This is a problem - not, Todd, Mark and the rest of you, because I think Darwinism is false, that the world was made with all species intact 6,000 years ago or that the evolution of the eye is inconceivable, but simply because it cannot sustain this load of extra-scientific implication.

    As I completely accept this thesis I could - just this once - be very boring.

    Let me instead express appreciation of a different kind - though it might be a useful exercise for the reader to decide whether Darwin alone would account for how interesting the following is, even for just one quirky self-conscious product of aeons of natural selection.

    Earlier I was making a few notes about the survival of all 155 passengers on that New York jet that used the river Hudson as a rudimentary runway on Thursday.

    Survival, huh. You Darwinians must be paying attention now, right?

    As usual I was using a tailored TiddlyWiki to capture some of the highlights. One quote jumped out at me, talking about the pilot:

    "There should be monuments," W.H. Auden wrote, to those who, by "forgetting themselves in a function," elevate their vocations.

    Forgetting themselves ... cool thought in the context of the evolution and nature of consciousness, don'tcha'll think.

    In my wiki I at once linked from one of the pages on the incident to WHAuden (as one does indeed make the link), wondering if I had anything on the great man (and very early Tolkien fan - but that's a digression on a digression). Yep, the page existed, because I'd also made a note of Bryan's citation of Auden on the credit crunch

    But in the importance and noise of to-morrow
    When the brokers are roaring like beasts on the floor of the Bourse,
    And the poor have the sufferings to which they are fairly accustomed,
    And each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his freedom,
    A few thousand will think of this day
    As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual.

    Two very different world news events, the same dead poet having something strangely relevant to say. I found that 'happy accident' interesting. (As some committed Darwinians may feel that I myself am a happy accident at this moment, and I wouldn't wish to deny anyone that pleasure.)

    So I came over to the blog, read again the cool response from Rus on an earlier Darwinianist thread, replied, then tried to tell my little story here.

    Any "extra-scientific implications" here that Darwinians might "struggle to sustain"? That could make it all worthwhile.

  11. But go ahead and write an article against Quantum Physics if you haven't already.

    I hope Bryan will do just that when quantum physicists respond to the public respect for them by proclaiming ten commandments to inspire and guide the lives of the rest of us.

  12. "'Quantum Theory: Yeah, Right'. Would either have aroused such anger? I doubt it. There's something about Darwinism. What?"

    There is nothing 'about' Darwinism. Stepping aside the theoretical implications of what is Darwinism and what is the New Synthesis and assuming you mean evolution, the simple fact is that your piece referred to ideas that are in conflict with the theory of evolution but have no proof to back them up.

    If you wrote an article on disputes in plate tectonics science and then went on to discuss the scientific merits of the Flat Earth Theory, you would get a similar response by equally outraged geologists. Your article was a thinly veiled puff piece for Creationism and Intelligent Design. It contained many factually incorrect statements and quotes of flat out ignorance from 'experts' that would have caused many scientists to roll their eyes in disgust.

    You claim that your article was a survey (a survey of who exactly), but how are people meant to interpret statements like

    " It is, in the terms used by the biochemist Michael Behe, author of Darwin’s Black Box, “irreducibly complex”, beyond the reach of blind, random mutation." - Why would any serious journalist use the continually refuted and never proven ideas of Michael Behe as a basis for fact? Why? Your survey may as well have polled evangelical christians in the US.

    "“I wouldn’t get out of bed for 25,000 genes,” says Le Fanu, “and we don’t find form in the genome. We share most of our DNA with chimpanzees, but nowhere in the genome have we found what it is that makes us so different from chimps.”" - A horrendously stupid statement for any scientist to make that ignores context, current and future research, and the technical challenges of 'reading' genomes of billions of base pairs that were only recently sequenced.

    "This reached its deathly climax, via the work of the German biologist Ernst Haeckel, in Hitler’s statement of intent, Mein Kampf. " - Highly emotive and simplistic to the extreme.

    And you wonder why people might get annoyed at such flippant statements.

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  14. Well I'm sure a cogent as well reasoned rebuttal could and has been written to your original article but after reading this smug and intellectually vacant response I have to admit that Todd Smiths pithy summary is probably all that is necessary.

  15. Methinks thou doth protest too much Bryan.

    I'm interested however, in the statement that "Darwinism, I am sure is right as far as it goes, but it could easily be seen in a different context, by, for example, higher levels of explanation like the mathematics of complex systems."

    Problematically, however, the notion that evolution necessarily leads to ever-greater complexity is also a myth. As Michel Le Page pointed out in New Scientist:

    "Evolution often takes away rather than adding. For instance, cave fish lose their eyes, while parasites like tapeworms lose their guts.

    "Such simplification might be much more widespread than realised. Some apparently primitive creatures are turning out to be the descendants of more complex creatures rather than their ancestors. For instance, it appears the ancestor of brainless starfish and sea urchins had a brain."

  16. I think Bryan is trying to make 2 points?

    1, its not what you believe its the way you believe it.

    2, Art is what makes us human, not science. And if you extend that argument and see religion (in its none fundamentalist form, which is a rare form) you can see religion as an extension of Art, or a transcendental experience that is a mirror for the patterns in our minds.

    As Kant said "structures of the mind bring forth the world (reality)"

    If the fundamentalist Atheists pick a fight with religion then it will be they and Darwin's brilliant insight that will be lost.

    It seems to me from the limited knowledge we have with Cat Scanners that the human brain is pre-programed for Art, (as an extension of language) therefore pre-programed for religion and the belief in God. We are not the Blank state (hat tip Pinker) that the scientists, especially so called social ones wish us to be.
    (I am sure Bryan as well does not except this last bit)

    Hallelujah for the imperfect human life, and that is the real meaning of Evolution.

  17. 'it is no longer simple a ruling scientific idea'. Bryan, check your typos before chortling derisively at the apparent (though clearly not actual) illiteracy of others.

    passer by - do you not see that your own comment's implication that humans are pre-programmed to favour art (doubtless a rather poorly founded piece of pseudo-research having been used used to conclude as such) seems to overlook that any programmed disposition would be the result of a scientific (ie biological) occurance.

    As for your point 1), remember: WHAT one believes will have a considerable effect on HOW one believes something else.

    As for 2): I'm an arts graduate and would still take issue with this bland assertion. Our appreciation of art and the arts is not actually abstract from science. My appreciation of music, for example, is based partly on sound wavelengths and frequencies (which affect whether sounds are harmonious or discordant). I'm gonna stick that out there as a pre-GCSE science fact.

  18. Pete, Try the herring gull test.

    I am in no way saying science is not important or is not the centre of our civilisation, what I am saying is as living breathing individuals Art is more important.

    When I walked to the shops this morning it did not matter that the world was round and is proved such, it appeared flattish to me, and for thousands of years it did not matter, as too evolution, it matters not one jot that bi-polar runs in my family, what matters is how it is dealt with when it occurs. And you dont deal with it by reading textbooks on genetics, you deal with it through family bonds and trust, understanding and love.

    My cousin deals with it by being a part of the church, readings on Saturday night, mass at the nursing home, and taking Sunday school, having a focus, I dont point out to her to justify her half hearted belief in a theist God is making her a hypocrite.

    I does not harm, it gives comfort and a another way of seeing the world, IMO she is living her life in a art form.

    science only answers the question HOW not WHY? if indeed like me you thing their is no WHY, just is.

  19. BTW "Our appreciation of art and the arts is not actually abstract from science"

    I think you are making Mr As, point about monoistic culture for him, you are viewing Music and Science as ONE substance, as opposed to my dualism seeing them as separate.

    Imagine this, imagine that you had so much space and time (infinities)that it became quantifiable something else? now I am not saying it is, but it is imaginable is it not? So is it without justification that the religious can say, God as they see it is part of this new "non space"

    the surprising thing about the universe is that anything exists at all.

    SO science (Atheist fundamentalists version off) really is just an artistic way of looking at science, no better or worse than the religions views they opposed

  20. "When I walked to the shops this morning it did not matter that the world was round and is proved such"

    Of course it did. Do you think the shop you were walking to would have had all that produce in it if the navigators who shipped it in didn't realise the world was round? You generalise too much from your own ignorance.

  21. I hope normal ThoughtExperiments service is resumed soon, as I cannot take much more frat-house theology or epistemological ramblings on the philosophy of science. The recent suggestion of making religion the theme of the blog is quite unfortunate seeing as though the opinions expressed on this topic here are banal at best and, much like the Darwin article, based almost entirely on "oooh, but we don't really know anything" tomfoolery. Debating the role of Darwinism as an explanation of (or a model for) society does not require entertaining creationist nutters.

    Since Brian has just realized that all our ideas and actions are based on partial information and varying degrees of uncertainty, I wonder if he'll never hold an opinion again, throwing his hands up in agnostic bluster whenever confronted with a topic. I strongly suspect he's reserving this approach for 'god' and biology though.

  22. Read up on evolution, there are TOMES out there. Most of your criticisms are due to the fact that you oversimplify and utilise hackneyed expressions such as the eye is irreducibly complex, this has been debunked over and over and over and evinces your complete and utter lack of knowledge on the issue. Just type it into a search engine and you'll realise how ignorant you sound. For someone who is a writer/pundit, whatever, you sure don't do your homework, which is sad, because it doesn't require much effort.

    Thomas James, Phd, Molecular Biology

  23. If this is a survey, then it is equivalent to surveying the United Kingdom and coming to the conclusion that the whole world has the Queen as its head of state. The journalism in this is quite simply shockingly poor, for example the nonsense about the eye is ripped straight from creationist arguments and completely ignores the description which can be found in OOS itself.

    Quite why people like appleyard feel that they can comment on the subject without knowing anything about it is beyond me. Perhaps they know they will get at least a crumb of support, whereas if they tried their hand at Quantum mechanics, all they would get is the exposure of their stupidity and arrogance.

  24. "Darwinism is one of the ruling ideas of our civilisation. This is why the slightest challenge to its ascendancy, even quotations from people who don't believe it, arouses such anger, such fear."

    Er, not quite: the anger and fear result from the fact that of all the major scientific theories current in the world today only evolution by descent through natural selection is under constant, determined, well-financed, utterly unscrupulous attack from a group of people whose motives have nothing to do with science, and everything to do with religious dogma. The Creationists and their marginally more plausible ID wing will go to any lengths and stop at nothing to make it appear that there are scientific doubts about evolution (there are in fact none) when in fact the controversy is between science and their own crackpot notions concerning biblical inerrancy. A theory may come along one day which supplants Darwin's. But at the moment there is none in sight, and in this regard Intelligent Design is simply the most pathetic of non-starters: not a testable theory at all but a take-it-or-leave-it philosophical position.

    The Creationists seem for the time being to have abandoned their thirty-year campaign to get their claptrap taught as an alternative to Darwinian evolution in school science classes: not even in the depths of Kentucky is there a single school board that permits it. But an acceptable fall-back for them might be to see that evolution at least gets taken off the science curriculum, which was the case in US schools from the Dayton Monkey Trial in 1925 to the end of the 1950s. So quote from their literature with care, because you are mixing with some decidedly strange company. If you quoted David Irving in an article on World War II I imagine that you'd get a very similar reaction.And for exactly the same reasons.

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  27. Chuck Darwin ?? I thought this was about science and not religion. In 150 years and everyone with half a wit and having been in any debate with the typical dogmatic cult follower of evolution will hopefully by then, realize that it was the most absurd idea ever to be considered a science at all. It is the religion to advance atheism and while Christianity has been an anvil that has wore out more hammers against it than anything else, the atheists with an axe to grind on Christianity will prove to be no match for the anvil with the TOE being a footnote in history of a philosophical worldview that actually held science back far more than anyone thougth religion ever has or ever will.

    People like Dick Dawkins who set the tone for its religious followers advising them to "ridicule" Creationist's into better behavior, is about the most asinine tactic for persuasion ever given and anyone having spent a much as an afternoon reading a Dale carnegie book would understand that much. Darwinists are not about science, they are about explaining away God and while most of them here are accusing Evolution for being under attack, that isn't what I see going on. No, what I see are DARWINIST websites OBSESSED with Christianity even more than the faitful themselves. I see Darwinist's keeping EVERYONE out of science that doesn't agree with them, not JUST creationists. Darwinist's ARE among the most dogmatic, arrogant and rude religious people I have ever met.