Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Lewontin in the NYRB

The latest issue of The New York Review of Books has this lengthy article from Harvard genetecist Richard Lewontin. His subject is recent books by Michael Ruse, Peter Richerson and Robert Boyd. He writes:

The development of evolutionary biology has induced two opposite reactions, both of which threaten its legitimacy as a natural scientific explana-tion. One, based on religious convictions, rejects the science of evolution in a fit of hostility, attempting to destroy it by challenging its sufficiency as the mechanism that explains the history of life in general and of the material nature of human beings in particular. One demand of those who hold such views is that their competing theories be taught in the schools.

The other reaction, from academics in search of a universal theory of human society and history, embraces Darwinism in a fit of enthusiasm, threatening its status as a natural science by forcing its explanatory scheme to account not simply for the shape of brains but for the shape of ideas. The Evolution–Creation Struggle is concerned with the first challenge, Not By Genes Alone with the second.

Yes, but. One of those is a considerably more important threat than the other. A handful of overzealous academics does not worry me as much as a vast ocean of religious zealots who have control of much of the government.

The whole essay is worth reading, but Lewontin gets some important things wrong:

What, then, is the source of the repeated episodes of active political and social agitation against the assertions of evolutionary science? One apparent answer is that it is the expected product of fundamentalist belief, which rejects the easy compromises of liberal exegesis and insists that every word in Genesis means exactly what it says. Days are days, not eons. But there's the rub. A literal reading of Genesis tells us that it took God only three days to make the physical universe as it now exists, yet nuclear physics and astrophysics claim a very old stellar system and provide the instruments for the dating of bits and pieces of the earth and of fossils spanning hundreds of millions of years. So why aren't Kansas schools under extreme pressure to change the curriculum in physical science courses? Why should physicists be allowed to propagate, unopposed, their godless accounts of the evolution of the physical universe? Something more is at stake than a disagreement over the literal truth of biblical metaphors.

Kansas HAS made changes to its physical science curriculum because of creationist pressure. Last time around the School Board did not just eliminate evolution, but also the Big Bang, from its standards. Furthermore, publishers of geology textbooks used in the state were editing out references to the Earth's great age. I was living in Kansas while this was going on.

The only reason you don't see more agitation in this direction is that biology figures more prominently in the high school curriculum than astronomy and geology.

So Lewontin is wrong to suggest that anti-evolutionism in the heartland is any more complicated than a lot of religious zealots following their beliefs to their logical conclusion.

The following passage is worth considering:

Flowing from his view that scientific evolutionary biology can be turned into a kind of religion, Ruse is worried that the commitment to using only natural phenomena in the attempt to explain the history and variety of organisms is a "slippery slope" down which evolutionists may glide from the firm surface of hard-minded methodology, of which Ruse approves, into the slough of unreflective metaphysical naturalism. We demand that our scientific work be framed with reference only to material mechanisms that can, at least in principle, be observed in nature because any other method would lead us into a hopeless morass of uncheckable speculation that would be the end of science. But we should not, in Ruse's view, confuse that rule of conduct with a revelation of how the world really works. Maybe God is lurking out there somewhere but He doesn't leave any residue in our test tube, so we will be tempted to assume He doesn't exist.

The worry that God exists but leaves no detectable trace is reminiscent of Carl Sagan's dragon analogy. A person comes to you and says there is a dragon in his garage. You say, great, let's go see it. He says you can't see it because the dragon is invisible. You say, let's sprinkle some powder on the floor so that we will detect the dragon's footprints when it steps on the ground. He says that it's a floating dragon that never makes contact with the ground. You say, let's set up heat sensors to detct the dragon's warmth. He says it's an incorporeal dragon that gives off no heat.

At some point, surely, you're allowed to ask how an invisible, floating, incorporeal dragon is different from no dragon at all.

Likewise with God. The basic idea of trying to find in nature some divine signature is not inherently ridiculous. The fact that we do not find one is highly significant. I am, indeed, tempted to conclude that God does not exist because we have failed to discover any empricial trace of Him.

Anyway, go read the whole essay. I'll leave you with Lewontin's wise words about the intellectual vacuity of ID:

But the theory of ID is a transparent subterfuge. The problem is that if the living world is too complex to have arisen without an intelligent designer, then where did the intelligent designer come from? After all, she must have been as complex as the things she designed. If not, then we have evolution! Otherwise we must postulate an intelligent designer who designed the intelligent designer who..., back to the original one who must have been around forever. And who might that be? Like the ancient Hebrews the ID designers fear to pronounce Her name lest they be destroyed, but Her initials are clearly YWH.


At 7:54 AM, Anonymous J. J. Ramsey said...

Nitpick alert!

Lewontin: "And who might that be? Like the ancient Hebrews the ID designers fear to pronounce Her name lest they be destroyed, but Her initials are clearly YWH."

Actually, the "initials" (or their transliteration, anyway) are YHWH.

At 9:05 AM, Anonymous Steven Thomas Smith said...

> Lewontin: "And who might that be?
> Like the ancient Hebrews the ID
> designers fear to pronounce Her
> name lest they be destroyed, but
> Her initials are clearly YWH."
> Actually, the "initials" (or their
> transliteration, anyway) are YHWH.

Yeah, I wondered how anyone could get the number of letters in the tetragrammaton wrong!

At 12:44 PM, Blogger Drek said...

Really excellent blog- I've been reading for a few weeks, and enjoying it immensely.

I just wanted to invite you to get in on a little debate taking place over on a creationist blog. He's asked for pro-evolution folks to answer some questions and, personally, I think an earnest quest for knowledge deserves a response.

Anyway, I thought you might be interested in a piece of the action.

At 1:52 PM, Blogger Jason said...


Thanks for the kind words about the blog.

Also thanks for the link. I'm preparing to go out of town tomorrow, so I don't have time to answer the fellow's questions right now. I'll try to have a go at it when I get back.

I suspect, however, that he is not serious. Here's something he wrote in a previous post:

“This article introduces a whole host of issues on a highly controversial topic. On the whole, I am heartened to see this being debated. It shows that evolutionists are not the monolithic entity that they have long been feared to be. They are finally being forced to actually defend their theories. It also shows that they are closed minded bigots who do not really care about the scientific process.
If they did, they would not work so hard to stifle debate on the theories of origins. I have long maintained that, if their position is really as strong as they claim, they would have no difficulty defending it in a public forum.”

Standard creationist tripe.

Furthermore, the questions he asked are very amateurish. Nonetheless, it might be worth having a go at them.

At 3:09 PM, Anonymous Kevin said...

Turtles all the way down!

At 5:29 PM, Blogger Drek said...


You're right about the "standard creationist tripe" part. He's recently pulled out the old thermodynamic arguments.

In any case, I answered his questions, which provoked him into a new post where he attempts to show that evolutionary theory is non-scientific. I responded, as I am wont to do, but the discussion has been getting both interesting, and totally absurd.

Drop by if you have the time and/or stomach for it.

At 12:41 PM, Anonymous zenegra said...

Generic Viagra




mp3 players
buy mp3 players
cheap mp3 players
wholesale mp3 players
portable mp3 players


purchase viagra
buy Cialis
buy Cialis


Post a Comment

<< Home