Daily Archives: September 30, 2005

The Darwin debate, 1872

The debate over evolution and ID invariably brings to my mind a charming Russian poem by Alexei Tolstoy (novelist Leo’s less talented but much saner and smarter, and unjustly forgotten, relative), “Epistle to M.N. Longinov on Darwinism” (1872). Tolstoy, a poet, writer and dramatist, was widely regarded as a retrograde in his day; in fact, while his political satire often skewered the left — the socialists, the nihilists, the populists and other radicals — he was far from being a reactionary and envisioned Russia evolving toward a more Western-style liberal society. Mikhail Longinov, a personal friend of Tolstoy’s, was the chairman of Russia’s Committee on Publishing (i.e. the official censorship board). Tolstoy wrote the poem after hearing about a proposed ban on Darwin’s The Origin of Species, which apparently turned out to be a false rumor.

The poem is quite relevant to today’s debate, and I’ve often wished there were a translation. Well, today, in a burst of inspiration, I translated it myself, in abbreviated form (the original has 22 stanzas, I kept only 10 [update: make that 11] — omiting a parallel between Darwinian and Copernican theory, and the conclusion which points out that Russia is not isolated from the world and science will find its way in). Here goes. “Misha” is, of course, the nickname for Mikhail — the Russian equivalent of “Mikey.”

Is it true, what people tell me?
Everywhere, the news I’m getting:
Misha, it is said, considers
Darwin’s system quite upsetting.

Come now, Misha, why get fretful?
You’ve no tail on your own arse,
So the origin of species
Shouldn’t cause much of a fuss.

What’s, in any case, your problem
With a gradual creation?
Do you think that in his methods
God from you should take dictation?

Why restrict how He can do things,
By what means and to what end?
I would say that such a viewpoint
Smells of heresy, my friend!

Truly, that’s a poor example
You have set from your high place,
And I fear you might be labeled
As a man of little faith.

In the distant past, moreover,
Not much glory’s there for man:
For a lump of clay’s no better
Than some old orangutan.

Do you think, perhaps, that Darwin
Is for nihilists a banner?
What, good Lord, have they in common
In their message or their manner?

From the beasts to human level
Darwin does us elevate,
While the nihilists would have us
Sink into a beastly state.

Far from being Darwin’s vanguard,
They confirm his basic facts,
And their brutish, wild behavior
Of regression often smacks.

Crude and ignorant and shameless,
Spiteful, puffed-up, condescending,
They themselves, I’d say, are backwards
Toward their ancestors descending.

For the acts of bratty rebels
Darwin needs no absolution.
Therefore, Misha, calm your anger,
Cease your foolish persecution!

By the way, nice description of the nihilists — the far left of their day. Nothing new under the sun, is there.

Those who read Russian can find the original (and the rest of Tolstoy’s brilliant satirical poetry) here.


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With Enlightenment champions like these…

From the website of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, an announcement of an upcoming event:

Saturday, October 8:”Rethinking Secularism in an Age of Belief”

A Symposium featuring Dwight McBride (African American Studies, Northwestern), Saba Mahmood (Anthropology, UC Berkeley), Gauri Viswanathan (English, Columbia University), and Michael Warner (English, Rutgers). Co-organized with the IPRH.

This event will address some of the most pressing issues of the current political landscape: the apparent global rise of fundamentalisms, the religious underpinnings of empire, and the neoconservative discourse of “moral values.” These phenomena have been interpreted by some as a sign of the “end of Enlightenment.” How should progressive intellectuals respond to this assessment? Should we celebrate the demise of Enlightenment and its normalizing narrative of secularization? Or should we be frightened by the prospect of a post-secular world? In the face of George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden, do we need more or less secularism?

I myself (see previous post) am concerned about the assault on reason and Enlightenment values (values that are as much a part of America’s foundation as is its religious heritage). But “the religious underpinnings of empire”? (Translation: the war against terrorism and Islamofascism, and the attempt — wise or not — to make democratic development possible in the Middle East, is in reality an “onward, Christian soldiers” crusade in disguise.) George W. Bush and Osama Bin Laden, in a macabre parody of moral equivalency? I despair.


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The evolution wars are here again

The controversy over evolution and intelligent design is back in the news because of the Pennsylvania trial over a school board’s decision to add critiques of evolution and the “alternative” theory of Intelligent Design to the curriculum.

Good posts on the subject by Roger Simon and Richard Bennett. See also this piece by William Saletan in Slate.com. And, for those who think that only secularist liberals and lefties want to keep ID out of science classrooms, read John Derbyshire, whom no one would dream of calling a secularist liberal. (Derbyshire’s debate on ID with some of his own National Review colleagues can be be found here and here.)

I’ve had my share of the evolution/ID debate since writing about it back in August, and I find it rather depressing, because there are so many people — many of them, broadly speaking, on my side of the political divide — spouting so many inanities. Here’s an example: a blogpost that excerpts my column, under the title, “If you can’t compete you demand a monopoly.” That’s the main pro-ID meme in respectable conservative circles: those who don’t want ID to be a part of the science curriculum or of mainstream scientific discussion are intolerant of debate — or even “fascist,” according to Bill O’Reilly. Funny how not long ago, the same Bill O’Reilly rightly slammed C-Span for wanting to “balance” an interview with Deborah Lipstadt, the historian who prevailed against Holocaust “revisionist” David Irving in a libel suit, by interviewing Irving as well, and commended Lipstadt for refusing to participate so as not to create the appearance of a legitimate debate on the issue. If we’re going to teach the “debate” on evolution vs ID (which President Bush’s own science adviser, John H. Marburger, has pointedly said is “not a scientific topic), then why not bring the “debate” over whether the Holocaust really happened to history classrooms? Why not teach astrology on a par with astronomy? Heck, nearly one-third of Americans, including 43% of those aged 25 to 29, believe in astrology, and we live in a democracy where we can’t just let those arrogant scientific elites decide what our children will learn, right?

Then there’s this intellectual gem from my former Detroit News colleague Tony Snow:

That said, ID does not qualify as science because it gives us nothing to test or measure. Science requires replicable tests involving measurable variables. …
Evolutionary theory, like ID, isn’t verifiable or testable. It’s pure hypothesis — like ID — although very popular in the scientific community.

That’s another common pro-ID argument, often encountered in Internet forums and in my email (“has anyone actually seen one species evolve into another?”). Sadly, it demonstrates little but the scientific illiteracy of the people who make it. “Testable” and “verifiable” does not mean “proven beyond a reasonable doubt” or “backed by irrefutable evidence.” It means that you set up an experiment in which evolutionary theory predicts a particular outcome. If the experiment fails, then evolutionary theory has failed the test. There is no “final proof” of evolution, but there is abundant evidence supporting evolutionary theory (indicating, for instance, that both humans and modern apes are related to primates who lived millions of years ago, or that modern-day birds are related to the dinosaurs), and none disproving it. ID is not a “scientific challenge”; it postulates simply that because science doesn’t fully explain how various organisms evolved, there must have been a higher intelligence beyond material science at work.

Tony Snow again:

ID is useful largely because it punctures the myth of scientific invincibility, while providing a basis for promoting the cause of “hard” science. Sure, science involves trial and error. Scientists refine theories each day. But as they do, they help us grasp more clearly the wonders of the world and the universe.

Scientific inquiry and ID provide useful angles of approach to ultimate questions. Here’s how to make both sides happy: Let science teachers tell kids that science is a matter of inspired guesswork, not of invincible decree. Eventually, new theories will arise to wipe away weaknesses and inconsistencies in today’s scientific orthodoxy.

Sorry, but does the guy have any idea what he’s talking about? Yes, of course science is not “invincible.” No scientist worth his or her salt teaches that it is. While ID proponents imagine that the scientific establishment is locked into a rigid orthodoxy that brooks no challenge, the truth is that scientific hypotheses are constantly challenged, revised, and even disproved. For every scientist who is invested in the “orthodoxy,” there’s probably at least a dozen who would love nothing more than to revolutionize their field. But the status quo must be challenged through scientific inquiry, not through “inspired guesswork” or “I don’t understand how it happened, therefore God must have done it” fuzzy logic.

(By the way, Snow’s proposal that students ought to be taught to view science as “inspired guesswork” provides one good answer to the sneering question, “What are you monkey people so afraid of?” That’s what. That way, folks, lies scientific illiteracy and abandonment of reason.)

The drive behind ID is not science; it’s religion, and the perceived threat of science to religion. In his excellent New Republic article, “The Faith That Dares Not Speak Its Name” (subscriber only, but a PDF version is available here), evolutionary scientist Jerry Coyne quotes mathematician Wiliam Dembski, one of the much-vaunted “real scientists” who champion ID:

But there are deeper motivations. I think at a fundamental level, in terms of what drives me in this is that I think God’s glory is being robbed by these naturalistic approaches to biological evolution, creation, the origin of the world, the origin of biological complexity and diversity. When you are attributing the wonders of nature to these mindless material mechanisms, God’s glory is getting robbed.

Many people worry that an acceptance of naturalistic evolution erodes religious values and promotes a nihilistic world-view in which all morality is relative and life has no higher purpose or meaning: we’re all animals, after all. I don’t see why it has to work this way. Humans, whether by dint of evolution or creation, are capable of reason and have a sense of right and wrong; we should live accordingly. I myself don’t care for militant atheism, and I don’t think it’s right to use science in its service. I myself am an agnostic who would like to believe that there are some transcendent things in our existence, and who does not regard the concept of the human soul as hopelessly outmoded. If I were religious, I don’t think I would want to tie my faith to so shaky a foundation as ID. There are, in fact, many scientists who accept evolution and believe in God, and many religious people (and organizations) who believe that evolution is not incompatible with a belief in God or in any particular religion.

Last year, the National Center for Science Education unveiled a website for teachers called “Understanding Evolution.” It features a section explaining that many religious groups, theologians, and scientists who hold religious beliefs endorse evolutionary theory — obviously in an attempt to placate concerns that the teaching of evolution undercuts faith. ID proponents cried foul, complaining that the insidious evolutionists were “trying to unconstitutionally mix church and state,” using taxpayer dollars to promote the correct (pro-evolution) religious viewpoint. That takes some chutzpah.

There was a time, not too long ago, when conservatives stood in defense of science and reason against politically correct attacks on science from radical feminists, Afrocentrists, environmental extremists, and post-modernists who rejected the concept of objective reality. I miss those days.

Update: Another good rebuttal to some standard anti-evolution arguments about the fossil record. Hat tip: Rand Simberg.

Update: And one more good post by Tom Smith at The Right Coast, another conservative and Christian who explains why Darwinian biology belongs in science classroom and “Intelligent Design” does not.


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