Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Darwin's Malcontents

Darwin's Malcontents

This is the second part of my review of Michael Ruse’s Darwinism and Its Discontents. The first part is here.

The lead paragraph of Ruse’s Introduction is a quote by Daniel Dennett, whom Ruse characterizes as a philosopher. This in itself is very revealing, because Dennett is possibly the most extreme believer in the power of natural selection in print today. Dennett explains natural selection in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea so forcefully and extravagantly that one thinks of Poe as much as Darwin. Ruse likes the way that Dennett shows his respect for Darwin, and so do I. Ruse, though more restrained in his writing, is probably on board with Dennett’s radical interpretations, as am I.

Poe may well be the correct model for what Darwin has to say by implication. Ruse and Dennett are firm in asserting the deep truth of Darwin’s ideas, but they are both negligent in describing the unrelenting suffering, the world of evil implied. Since they don’t say it, let me. Evolution by Natural Selection is a beautiful truth of great explanatory power, but it is not our friend. It has produced the breathtaking scope of life today, left ages of astonishing forms in its wake, but it has been the author of incalculable cruelty. And it has not come to a halt for our benefit. In fact, the best and worst of our nature were extorted from Evolution by blessed Chance and by the power of memes, which is the next of Darwin’s children. And Evolution shows great potential for balancing our success with even more suffering. The unintended consequences of our intelligence represent a grim threat to our future. This, to my mind, is the most important reason for understanding Darwin. If we are to have any hope in this world, we must work together to resist the wretched excesses of Evolution’s iron hand, and we can’t do it if we continue to indulge in self-deception.

In this vein, Ruse describes four types of resisters in the Introduction. They are, in my terminology, 1) creationists, 2) relativists, 3) physicists, and 4) utopianists. I will elaborate extravagantly below, expanding Ruse’s terse descriptions into individual rants. Enjoy:

Creationists are those who cannot give up the idea of the centrality of Humankind. We have a contract with God. The nature of the contract varies. There are Creationists in Islam, for instance. But the feeling ofdivine connection to the engine of the Universe, the power of it, satisfies so many insecurities, inspires such strong esthetic responses, that many cannot relinquish it. It is a divine narcotic. The addiction cannot be treated by methods of access to the Truth, because the attachment occurs, deliberately, at levels below the conscious.

Intelligent Design, while plausible as a theoretical approach, is in actuality not really supported by the intellectual drive of anyone alive today. It is an unnecessary complication, a dead issue, a stalking horse for religious ideology. I say with some regret that it is merely an aspect of Creationism.

Relativists reject Darwinism for another emotional reason. These are scholarly people, philosophers, social scientists, literary thinkers, who eschew the theoretical study of the subject, but observe its functioning in society, its misuse in discredited schools of thought, and its negative imagery. Red in tooth and claw. The eugenics of fascist elites. Racism, sexism and laissez faire capitalism. All speak to them of Darwinian rationalization for wretched behavior.

Inadequate inculcation of a gut understanding of Science is responsible for this group. They hear the poetry but not the prose. Logic is used, but strangely. The missing distinction is between representation of objective reality versus the advocacy of public policy. Since the social result is "wrong", the describers must be to blame.

Some relativists hold the opinion that Science itself is primarily a social activity, that one theory is as good as the next. The study of Science is just an operation in group dynamics. Everything you need to know is embodied by who is shouting at whom, not by what they are shouting about. Objective reality is beyond us. If Plato were alive, they would tell him that there is no way for the shadow watchers to be unchained, and it doesn’t matter anyway. Each level of so-called enlightenment leads merely to another type of ignorance. So watch the shadows and enjoy the show.

Physicists, as I shall call them, are usually scientists, hard scientists with a command of mathematics. They are so in love with the universe of possibility expressed in the mathematical world that they imagine Life to be part of an equation. The cell wall, for instance, is said to have spontaneously generated because of the particular tendencies of certain chemical combinations. Presumably, the protoplasm then simply moved in like a Hermit Crab moves into a handy snail shell. These people have heard of Heisenberg, of Chaos Theory and Kurt Godel’s incompleteness theorem, but in their hearts they cannot accept the view that randomness can be harvested. Perhaps Einstein’s rejection of God’s dicing provides the paradigm of their search for order.

Utopianists, the final group, are basically Marxists. These are people who live and breathe such highly structured, intricately detailed prescriptions for social correction, that they have no room to incorporate a mere scientific concept. It reminds me of the famous map of the US as viewed from a New Yorker’s perspective. On this small island we have forty varieties of Trotskyite revanchism, modulated anarchism and Leninist political correctness. Over there we have New Jersey and then all that Science stuff. It’s not that they would disagree with Darwin, but rather that his stereotyped elitist motivations and his privileged extortionistic position in life would be so riddled with obvious counter-revolutionary treachery, that the actual words would be irrelevant.

1/17/2007 10:52 PM

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At Friday, January 19, 2007 11:01:00 AM, Blogger Steve said...

You're a bit over my head, JJ, but I enjoyed reading that review. Maybe I should check out Ruse (after I'm done with Mote, that is).

At Saturday, January 20, 2007 1:49:00 AM, Blogger jj mollo said...

Well, it's really pretty straightforward, but my writing can get a bit ornamental. I'm always tempted by the desire to dandyize my language. Forgive me.

I'm really happy to hear you're reading Mote. It's a great book and gives you a visceral understanding of Evolution as applied to intelligent creatures. Remember that we should see understanding as a step forward. So don't let it feed your pessimism too much.


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