Saturday, November 27, 2004

A Small Contribution to the Eventual Resolution of the Evolution Dispute

The aspect of philosophy of science that most interests me is that of scientific education in a very broad sense; in other words, the diffusing of scientific information through society over time. There really has been very little done about this sort of thing, though; it's not a nonexistent amount, but it is very little explored. So, given that I had been asked to clarify my comment on the role of biologists in causing the 'evolution debate' to go on and on, this is a good occasion to look a bit at this point. People have been complaining about the dispute for a very long time; but surprisingly little work has been done to try to clarify what's really going on in the problem. Burke's letter {link} at Cliopatria suggested some lines of investigation. Since Burke is a sociologist, his suggestions have to do with the social mechanisms involved. This is, as it were, the material approach. Being more philosophically than theologically inclined, I prefer to look at the patterns of argumentation. This can be called the formal approach. A useful way to go about the formal approach is to treat the problem as a sort of very complicated socially distributed cognition problem, and in particular, to examine what is going on at the 'exploratory frontier' that has made the issue so attrition-like. In this post I won't be looking at this whole question (there needs to be far more work done to be able to answer the whole question) but I will be looking at one aspect of it about which I am fairly certain.

Introduction. The material involved consists of quotations of, or allusions to, scientists. We need to distinguish between (1) quotes/allusions expressing qualifications that in context cannot be understood as problematic but that out of context and (2) quotes/allusions in which blurrings of scientific/theological/philosophical issues occur. The former are common, and need to be sharply rebuked more often than they are (and especially when biologists and philosophers of biologists do this, e.g., the quote by Darwin I mentioned earlier, which is, it seems, inaccurately interpreted by practically everyone in creation). Now, thinking more fully on the matter, it seems to me that I was a little hard on the biologists; it is, I think, philosophers of science who have been some of the worse offenders, and at some point in the future I'll probably have to look at how philosophers of science have aggravated the situation. But for now I'm looking at the biologist contribution to the tangle. The quotations used by 'creation-scientists', naturally, tend to be from popular or widely-diffused works - these form the primary frontier along which the popular understanding of science develops. The out-of-school lay public does not, as a rule, read journals of molecular biology; they get their information from (1) newspapers; (2) magazines; (3) popular introductions, lectures, television specials, etc. Because of this some exaggeration tends to develop; I think this might be true, for instance, with regard to Julian Huxley's tendencies to eugenics - he did support eugenic programs, but with qualifications that are not usually acknowledged. Qualifications tend to drop out. This is a problem with the soundbite nature of quotations, which tend to circulate among the public as basic points on which to hang information. This is, I'm afraid, unavoidable; and it often is the case (scientific popularizations by scientists are a good example) that some statement that is considered by the scientist himself to be mere rhetorical fluff or a side opinion will be taken as the basic point by people who really don't have the expertise to be able to sort out accurately what is salient and what is not, and sometimes don't have the time if they did.

Now, the real place to look for this on this issue is in 'creation-science' materials, to see the quotations and allusions in action; but I don't really have much in the way of access to them at the moment, and I certainly don't keep them just lying around for research purposes. I did, however, look into this issue a bit a few years ago, so here are some basic examples I have seen thrown about by them as paradigm cases, i.e., as examples of times when evolutionists 'took the mask off' and showed their real agenda, from some brief notes I compiled when I was looking at it. While there is likely to be some shifting in the quotes and allusions used over time, you should be able to find these or similar quotes and allusions still in play in the discussion.


I will set aside metacomments on evolutionary theory itself, although a number of these talking points are derived from biologists themselves, too; e.g., the claim that evolutionary arguments don't play a large role in biological research derives at least in part from some comments made by Crick in What Mad Pursuit. These make an interesting study, too, but as I need to clarify my comment about 'absurd' and 'ridiculous' positions, I'll focus on a few of the most obvious examples. There are, of course, lots of positions where the question of whether they are ridiculous would be more controversial; these also play a role in the problem. But I want to indicate what I think the clearer and more basic issues are.

Consider the following quotations:

"Before Darwin, we thought that a benevolent God had created us." (Gould S.J., "So Cleverly Kind an Animal," in "Ever Since Darwin: Reflections in Natural History," [1978], Penguin: London UK, 1991, reprint, p.267).

"...although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist." (Dawkins R., "The Blind Watchmaker," [1986], Penguin: London, 1991, reprint, p.6)

One of the things quotations like these have in common is that they are repeated over and over again with considerable relish by those Gould and Dawkins oppose. Another person often quoted in this connection is Will Provine who is regularly quoted as claiming that science has proven that God, free will, etc. do not exist. This is one of the absurd and ridiculous positions that I mentioned previously. What makes it absurd and ridiculous is not the atheism, but the view that somehow one can just read atheism directly off the data and structure of evolutionary theory. It is possible, of course, to argue for atheism or whatever on the basis of some scientific fact or theory; but only by way of an entire string of non-scientific suppositions about what is being rejected, what it takes to reject it, &c. Failing to see this just shows, at best, considerable naivete about the nature of the question. What quotations like the above seem to do is confirm the association of evolutionary theses, in the minds of evolutionary scientists themselves, with the pop-philosophy of Provine's claim.

Now, that this is all put in terms of atheism might suggest that the primary issue is religious; and one finds this in all the silly cant about 'science' (in some vague, mumbo-jumboistic, undefined sense) and 'religion' (in an equally vague, mumbo-jumboistic, undefined sense). But I think that religious issues are, in fact, simply aggravating factors, and that the core of the issue is a set of unalleviated ethical worries. I will just take a particular issue that often gets quoted or alluded to, namely, eugenics. Sometimes it's Dobzhansky's "Natural selection must be replaced by eugenical artificial selection. This idea constitutes the sound core of eugenics, the applied science of human betterment" in Heredity and the Nature of Man in 1964, or Julian Huxley's association with the eugenics movement, or even the following quotation from T. H. Huxley in Lectures and Lay Sermons in 1875 or so:

It may be quite true that some negroes are better than some white men; but no rational man, cognisant of the facts, believes that the average negro is the equal, still less the superior, of the average white man. And, if this be true, it is simply incredible that, when all his disabilities are removed, and our prognathous relative has a fair field and no favour, as well as no oppressor, he will be able to compete successfully with his bigger-brained and smallerjawed rival, in a contest which is to be carried on by thoughts and not by bites. The highest places in the hierarchy of civilisation will assuredly not be within the reach of our dusky cousins, though it is by no means necessary that they should be restricted to the lowest.

Sometimes it's more recent, with quotations from or allusions to sociobiologists. Whatever may be the particular quotation or allusion in play, it doesn't take much work to find that there is a rather considerable set of things floating about that are there to imply that evolutionists are ethically suspect, that, whatever they may say, they are, in fact, just eugenicists of one sort or another in disguise, or some other equally suspect type of person, who are just interested in furthering their own agenda even when they justify it (as the eugenics movement did) with promises of wiping out vast tracts of disease. We can call this the poisoned carrot line of thought. And whether one likes it a lot, it's a common view; and whenever biologists, not really watching their step on these ethical and ethics-related issues, say things that can be interpreted in keeping with this, it gets repeated. (Quotes and allusions about atheism serve primarily to confirm this; the stronger they are, the more often they are quoted. And, indeed, some people don't seem to recognize that the stronger the terms in which they talk about opponents of evolution, they more likely they are to be quoted by them as confirmations of some ethical failure deep at the heart of the approach. A study of the Dawkins quote, "It is absolutely safe to say that if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I'd rather not consider that)" would be interesting in its own right for examining this phenomenon.) In other words, the way quotations and allusions are used suggests that arguments associating evolutionists with ethically suspect positions are successful; and in this light it is rather disturbing at how little biologists actually do to put people's minds at rest on this issue. I've already pointed out some problems with the way they handle the stem cell research issue (it seems extremely difficult to find clear information on the relevant scientific issues from authoritative sources, there seems very little awareness in the biological community about what the lay public actually does and does not know about the research, almost the whole ethical case put forward by advocates is based on one type of utilitarian argument - which, if I am right about the ethical nature of the problem is potentially damaging, because the eugenics movement made very similar arguments, etc.). I see no evidence that the issue is being handled properly; and this will only magnify the problems for evolutionists.

I don't claim that this is the whole issue, although I think it runs deep (how deep I am not sure); for one thing, as I noted, there are others (philosophers and the like) who are guilty along the same lines. Further, there are lines of research like those suggested by Burke, into the more social and policy aspects of the problem. But the first step to moving forward to a solution is actually taking the time to figure out the character of the problem you are trying to solve. And, whatever the rational status of the ethical concern, it appears to be a genuine and very common concern. Surprisingly, everyone seems to think this problem, despite its being pervasive and apparently systemic and social in nature, can be resolved entirely by ad hoc means. Whenever I teach history of philosophy I try to get my students to stop looking at individual arguments in isolation and begin looking at them strategically, i.e., within the context of the entire 'exploratory frontier' (or at least a good portion of it). I would recommend that everyone do the same here; merely assuming things about the problem will accomplish nothing. The problem - its material aspects as a social phenomenon and its formal aspects as an argumentative phenomenon - need to be studied if it is to be ever resolved. Hit-and-miss will not suffice; and I suspect the one thing everyone is agreed upon in this dispute is that resolving the problem entirely by chance is just not the right way to go about handling an issue of this importance. Yet everyone's actions seem to be tailored to the problem in a haphazard way, so chance is what we are getting. Know the problem, tailor your response in light of the problem in order to achieve the optimum solution.

And we (by which I mean 'we philosophers') should be ashamed that we have managed to do so little to shed light on the actual character of the problem.

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