Skip to comments.Darwinism at AEI
Posted on 06/27/2007 11:55:52 AM PDT by GodGunsGuts
Darwinism at AEI
By: Tom Bethell American Spectator July 1, 2007
Early in May, the American Enterprise Institute held a debate about Darwinism, a faith embedded in many debates, whether scientific, religious or political. The recent irruption of atheism can be traced to the Darwinian creed, for the well publicized testimonials of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens all have recourse to Darwinism at various points.
It purports to explain how we got here without any need for God or gods. Darwinism is best seen as 19th century philosophymaterialismdressed up as science, and directed against a theological argument for the existence of God. (The only one of St. Thomas Aquinass proofs that resonates with us today is the argument from design.) Richard Dawkins famously said that Darwins theory of evolution by natural selection made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.
Political theory was uppermost at AEIit is, after all, a public-policy think tank. The question before the house: Darwinism and Conservatism: Friends or Foes? The main combatants were Larry Arnhart, a professor of political science at Northern Illinois University, and John West, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute in Seattle. Also on the podium were John Derbyshire who writes books about mathematics and is the designated point man against intelligent design at National Review; and George Gilder, the well known writer who is also with the Discovery Institute.
Arnhart, the author of Darwinian Conservatism (2005), has carved out a nice niche for himself by arguing that conservatives need Darwin. He makes his case by presenting conservative political ideas and arguing that Darwins theory of natural selection supports them. Darwinian mechanisms give rise to a spontaneous order, he said at one point, contrasting it favorably with the utopian vision of liberals.
West argued that the issue is not really amenable to a left-right analysis. He quoted the late novelist Kurt Vonnegut, a self-described secular humanist, who said last year that our bodies are miracles of design, and faulted scientists for pretending that they have the answer as to how we got this way.
In Darwins Conservatives: The Misguided Quest (2006), and in his talk, West rejected the claim that Darwinism supports traditional moral teachings. Darwins Descent of Man, published 12 years after The Origin of Species, overflows with arguments embarrassing to conservatives and liberals alike. Maternal instinct is natural, but so is infanticide, West writes, describing Darwins explicit position. Care toward family members is natural, but so is euthanasia of the feeble, even if they happen to be ones parents.
The truth is that Darwinism is so shapeless that it can be enlisted in support of any cause whatsoever. Steven Hayward, a resident scholar at AEI, made this clear in his admirable introduction. Darwinism has over the years been championed by eugenicists, social Darwinists, racialists, free-market economists, liberals galore, Wilsonian progressives and National Socialists, to give only a partial list. Karl Marx and Herbert Spencer, Communists and libertarians, and almost anyone in between, have at times found Darwinism to their liking. Spencer himself first used the phrase survival of the fittest, and Darwin thought it an admirable summation of his thesis.
Both selfishness and (with a little mathematical ingenuity) altruism can be given a Darwinian gloss. Any existing psychological trait, from aggression to pacifism, can be deemed adaptive by inventing a just-so story explaining how genes for that trait might have arisen. The genes themselves do not have to be identified, nor does the imagined historical scenario have to leave any trace behind.
The underlying problem is that a key Darwinian term is not defined. Darwinism supposedly explains how organisms become more fit, or better adapted to their environment. But fitness is not and cannot be defined except in terms of existence. If an animal exists, it is fit (otherwise it wouldnt exist). It is not possible to specify all the useful parts of that animal in order to give an exhaustive causal account of fitness. If an organism possesses features that appear on the surface to be inconvenientsuch as the peacocks tail or the top-heavy antlers of a stagthe existence of stags and peacocks proves that these animals are in fact fit.
So the Darwinian theory is not falsifiable by any observation. It explains everything, and therefore nothing. It barely qualifies as a scientific theory for that reason. The impact of Darwinism on any and all political groups can be argued any way you want and its not very illuminating for that reason. So the AEI discussion frequently veered off into related areas.
Inevitably, the subject of intelligent design came up. The National Reviews John Derbyshire right away sought to conflate it with creationism. Someone in the front row reminded him that there were no creationists present. Derbyshire replied that a judge had equated intelligent design with creationism and that was good enough for him.
There is considerable confusion about the relationship between the two so let me try to elucidate. Creationists for the most part say: When it comes to origins, we take our guidance from the Bible. What others say about natural selection, shared ancestry and so on is of little importance to us. We already have our faith and our Book and we are sticking to it. It is separatist in spirit. You scientists can do your thing, just let us do ours, which is study Genesis and pray.
That was a deal as far as the Darwinians were concerned. The creationists could be ignored.
Intelligent Design is not like that. It is aggressive and therefore potentially dangerous. It says to the Darwinians: You dont have the evidence to support your claims. Your lab results and fossils dont support your theory. Organisms are way too complex to have arisen by chance. Take all the time you want, it wont be enough. Even though we dont know how it happened, these critters must have been designed somehow.
It takes the war to the enemy, in other words. So it cant easily be ignored. It is informed by science, not religion. That is why it has made Darwinians angry, and why they try to identify it with creationism. They have also imposed a rigid orthodoxy upon all whose hiring, credentialing and promotion they can control. They are not interested in any debate. Discovery Institute people told me that last year a group of graduate students from prestigious universities wanted to learn more about intelligent design. A conference was arranged in which these young people showed up and wore name tags with pseudonyms and all papers were collected up at the end. The students were afraid that their identities would be leaked to their professors. Thats the intellectual climate surrounding this issue today. There are parallels with the Soviet dissidents in the 1970s, who had to communicate by samizdat.
In the question period, I asked Derbyshire if he could think of any observation that would count as falsifying Darwinism. He said: I think miraculous creation would do it. The miraculous appearance of an entirely new species.
That answer at least points us in a useful direction. Pursue it, and we might be able to clarify the Darwinian conundrum. The point is that in Darwinism a philosophical assumption, rarely explicit, circumscribes the scientific conclusions that are permitted. The assumption is this: Only naturalistic explanations can be allowed within biology. Naturalism implies the exclusion of mind, intelligence, or absolutely anything except atoms and molecules in motion. Nothing else exists. Everything must be explained in terms of physics and chemistry and anything beyond that will be derided as creationism. Good Darwinians are not allowed by their own rules even to entertain the possibility that intelligence was involved in the origin or development of life. No research is needed to come to that conclusion. It is axiomatic within the theory.
Derbyshire responded: Scientists embrace naturalism because science is a naturalistic pursuit. A working scientist is by definition naturalistic.
That is incorrect. From scraps of unearthed rubble, archeologists infer design when no trace of the designer remains. A scientist investigating how automobiles are made goes to a factory and learns that the assembly-line originated in plans and blueprints, which in turn originated in the minds of men.
Ah yes, the mind! But that, too, consists of nothing but atoms and molecules in motion, no? Which brings us to the Inner Sanctum of the materialist dogma: Mind itself is nothing but matter. Free will is an illusion, and so on. (Darwin accepted these propositions, noting the general delusion about free will.)
There is no reason in the world to accept the materialist faith, but once you do, then something very much like Darwinism has to be true. Life existswe got here somehow, along with billions of other organisms. So how did it happen? Must have been that animals self assembled a little bit at a time, in a long chain of accidental survivals.
The scientists Derbyshire talks to at Cold Spring Harbor Lab say there is no controversy about Darwinism and so he counseled that we can only defer to that consensus. Because every observation they ever make seems to corroborate the Darwinian tautology, most scientists probably do believe that the theory is universally true. But as the philosopher of science Karl Popper saw, the same was true of Freudianism. For good Freudians, everything seems to confirm the theory because it is protected against falsification by its own logic. Likewise Darwinism. To say that a species now living is adapted to its environment is, in fact, almost tautological, Popper wrote. There is hardly any possibility of testing a theory as feeble as this.
Derbyshire displayed a distressing willingness to slander those he disagrees with. He said of the Intelligent Designers: You dont do any science. You go around the country on your expense accounts, which is one of the things I kick them about. You dont do any research. (Discovery Institute president Bruce Chapman says this is just plain false and lists several ID researchers.)
Derbyshire even accused Michael Behe of Lehigh University of recommending to a hypothetical student with a research proposal that he not carry it out.
Derbyshire recalled that he said to Behe: "If a graduate student came to you and said: 'You know, I've got this great idea for a possible evolutionary pathway for the bacterial flagellum. I think I could figure it out and I've got an idea for some experiments that would test this. Would you recommend me to go along with that?' And Michael said no. Which left me stunned. This is obscurantist."
George Gilder interrupted. Where was this encounter?
Derbyshire: "At National Review. At that meeting we had."
Gilder, who was there, questioned whether Derbyshire had given us a correct account.
Derbyshire: "No, it was a plain no. I'm sorry."
(The curious can listen to the audio of the whole conference on the AEI website.)
I sent Behe an email. Could he verify this account? No, he could not. John Derbyshire is imagining things, he wrote back. I would never have said such a thing. I welcome experiments into evolutionary pathways. It has been my experience that the more we know, and the more experimental work is done, the less and less plausible Darwinian mechanisms become.
Chapman, also present, recalls no such exchange with Behe.
Incidentally, Behes new book, The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits of Darwinism is now out, it reports on new intelligent design research, but I have only started to read it.
I have left Gilder to the end. As always, it was intriguing to hear him grope his way through ideas that he was discovering even as he spoke. The word comes first, he said at one point. The information precedes the proteins. He has been studying information theory for years, and one of his conclusions is that the information carried by a channel must be distinct and separate from the channel itself. DNAa string of nucleotidesdoes not explain how the information (needed to construct proteins) got into that DNA in the first place. That, we know nothing about.
He flailed at the materialist superstition. He castigated the idea that thought and speech, originating in human minds, can be reduced to various secretions of the brain. Emphasizing the hopeless fluidity of Darwinism, Gilder joked that Arnhart has found himself a beautiful Darwinism, a James Dobson Darwinism, a supply-side Darwinism. If its true, its also trivial. It fits neatly inside any and every box. Like Freudianism, its a philosophya worldview disguised as a science.
This writer is obviously qualified to set educational standards. I look forward to his recommendations for the spelling curriculum.
I feel sorry for Derbyshire. Perhaps he craves attention. Whatever the reason, he’s chosen a road that will lead to more of the same.
“Irruption” is a perfectly lovely word, meaning something that rushes in forcefully or violently....
Actually, I looked it up. Irruption is, in fact, a word.
irruption (n): 1. a breaking or rushing in. 2. A violent incursion.
His understanding of Darwin is a tad superficial (not surprisingly), but he did use a cool word that I had to look up.
That seems to belie the oft made assertion that Darwinism caused all of these things.
you beat me by 11 seconds. You are right, it is a lovely word, but I’d have to question its usage in this context. Or did I miss a violent rush on Christians by angry Darwinists?
Considering that the argument has been going on for, what?, 150 years, there has been no rush, nor violence. Plenty of hyperbole, though.
For example, he wrote an article for TAS a few years ago that if not quite defending Peter Duesberg's wacky AIDS theories tried to lend them some legitimacy that wasn't deserved.
Pathetic. Just pathetic.
I disagree with Bethal on this point. A new movement such as ID tends to view many or all of their arguments as novel, but the creationists have been using many of the same arguments for years, debating evolutionists on university campuses, and otherwise taking the fight to the enemy...and they will continue to do so until the issue is decided once and FOREVER.
==For example, he wrote an article for TAS a few years ago that if not quite defending Peter Duesberg’s wacky AIDS theories...
Bethal is right about that too IMHO.
I suppose that depends on the context. *flees*
Wacky theories—collect the whole set!
Given that it's pretty well accepted that absolute proof of either proposition is unlikely to be forthcoming, what is your assesment of the likely means of resolution?
actually, we are in agreement (i think) so no need to flee on my account.
I find its usage in this context hyperbolic.
The creationists never want to have an actual debate on the evidence for evolutionary change-which is great-or the merits of their philosophy since it boils down to a metaphysical argument, not a scientific one.
It's fine to point out the shortcomings in a scientific theory, but when you actually have to posit a hypothesis that doesn't rest upon any tangible empirical evidence you find yourself in a bit of sticky wicket, don't you?
Well, there's the first lie.
The Discovery Institute must have gotten a few more million bucks in donations. They've pumped out a lot of cr@p recently.
Wonderfully informative article, GodGunsGuts. Thank you so much for posting it!
The Watchmaker appeared in 1800. Several other mechanics also appeared in the early 1800s. Is that the beginning of the 'movement'?
I still don't know why Bethell would want to lend any intellectual ballast to something like the Discovery Institute though.
==Given that it’s pretty well accepted that absolute proof of either proposition is unlikely to be forthcoming, what is your assesment of the likely means of resolution?
Get the government out of the science business and let both sides duke it out in the free market.
I stand corrected.
I look forward to working with my new overlords.
Ping to my #26.
They use ad hoc arguments that have nothing to do with the actual subject under discussion.
How does the fact that some loathsome cultural and political movements have enlisted Darwinian terminology in their pet causes discredit any of the scientific conclusions reached by Darwin himself or his successors in the scientific world?
This is qualitatively untrue. Whether one agrees or disagrees with them, any reasonable person has to admit that Creationists such as Morris, Whitcomb, Parker, etc. have certainly been very strong on dealing with empirical evidences that call evolution into question. In fact, they propose and conduct original research to test their hypotheses, just like other scientists. And they are even starting to get cited by mainstream scientific journals (though not often).
The ID scientists are largely rehashing the same arguments that Young Earth Creationists have been making for decades.
Not so. Darwin himself proposed the grounds for which his theory could be rejected. He predicted that as we gathered more fossils we would start to see more and more hybrid species at various stages between the previously know ones.
Thus his theory does indeed meet Popper's test for the demarcation into the realm of science.
But this didn't last long, because the test failed. As we gathered more fossils, they continued to fall into discreet species. While it is not surprising modernized variants such as "punctuated equilibrium" fit the fossil evidence better, it is does not seem clear to me how it should be continued to be called science, since it seems to simply explain away anomalies rather then expose itself to any falsifiable test.
So you’re comparing the Church of Darwin to other religions? Now we’re getting somewhere!
What I find annoying is that Einstein borrowed ‘relativity’ from the social sciences for his new and still unproven theory.
I do too, cornelis. Recently he announced that he had lost his Christian faith and is now a card-carrying atheist....
==The Watchmaker appeared in 1800. Several other mechanics also appeared in the early 1800s. Is that the beginning of the ‘movement’?
I meant the neo-ID movement that was born out of Phil Johnson’s book, Darwin on Trial.
That is correct. Evolution is not stochastic.
==Wonderfully informative article, GodGunsGuts. Thank you so much for posting it!
My pleasure. Just doing my part :o)
Untrue. YE Creationists used to routinely debate with evolutionist professors on university campuses, in fact they had one several years ago at the university where I got my graduate degree. This went on until the evolutionists realised that the creationists were thrashing them. Then, the evolutionists suddenly decided that they didn't want to debate creationists because "we don't want to give them any credibility".
The Intelligent Designer didn't have to design every
thing. But set the groundwork for the basics: Gravity,
Atoms, and so forth. The concept of evolution became
a starting point. But the ultimate design tool, like
the compilers above, was THE MIND.
Straightforward for me.
ID is dangerous because it is a fraud. No, I'm not talking it's argument against evolution, I'm talking about the fraud wherein it pretends to be non-religious, when in fact it is all about religious faith.
The fact that GodGunsGuts supports it is one of but many pieces of evidence that demonstrates that point.
GGG claims that evolution is "religion" (how that gives his religion a leg up on the "religion" of evolution I don't know). But there is no doubt that religious creationism begat ID, which porports to be a-religious, and is thus a fraud.
Oh. I assume the author is still living? If he is, then I would not be interested. If he has died, then we may discuss whatever he came up with of an organized nature, if anything.
“made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist...”
it seems that creationists are ignorant dolts who don’t believe in scientific inquiry while evolutionists never fail to insert the word “intellectual” to describe themselves. it must be that they’re the only inquiring minds which are filled with limitless brilliance who are “intellectually” superior to the rest of human kind. (sounds like they’re the future ruling class who are setting themselves up for “leadership” roles in the new order about to unfold with the superior democrat party at the helm.)
Anyone can appropriate certain scientific facts, e.g. differential IQ scores, and use them for malign purposes, e.g. trying to impute racial inferiority to one class of people.
That doesn't mean that the scientific material they rely upon is not valid, or that the scientific research underlying those studies shouldn't be undertaken.
Thomas Sowell touched upon this issue in one of his more recent books.
The same thing can be said of certain religious beliefs that-of themselves-are not necessarily evil in nature.
I think the usage is fine, and hyperbole is common in political writing. I simply expected a different, more commonly used word.
That said, the question of whether science would benefit from the irruption of supernaturalism seems to have been settled in the 18th century, by Newton, among others.
I agree for the most part. Where they differ is that ID limits itself to detecting design, whereas YECers assume and try to prove Genesis. But you are right to point out that most of their arguments against Darwinian evolution are the same. Although, IDers are taking things a step further in terms of astronomy, molecular biology, genetics, etc.
Indeed. Thank you for the pings!
Is that the Creative Principle?
(And we know that because the Bible tells us so but we can't say that anymore because the U.S. Supreme Court tossed creation "science" so we are flogging ID now and if that fails we'll come up with something else.)
Id have to question its usage in this context.
The context is social change within the timeframe you suggest (150 years). I don't think the usage is at all hyperbolic. People bragging about their atheism seems to be a rather striking development. Dawkins' and Dennett's "brights" campaign is a good illustration of an "irruption of atheism" that is quite aggressive in its tactics.
At least it looks that way to me, FWIW.
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