Monday, January 15, 2007

Darwin's Mouthpiece

Michael Ruse, Professor Michael Ruse of the Florida State University, has been in the business of trying to understand Science and its place in our minds for over 40 years. He is the director of the History & Philosophy of Science program, whatever that implies, and has published a long list of books, perhaps three dozen scholarly books accessible to public consumption. Click on his C.V. to see them. I found some of the titles familiar, and certainly interesting. His degrees are in Philosophy, and his focus is Science, more narrowly Biology, and more narrowly still – Darwinism, a word which appears in the title of several of his books. In addition to his original degrees, he has a long list of honors, and I am going to undertake in this blog, having read just one of his books, to criticize him at length. Let me assure you that I myself have not spent my life being showered with praise, apart from that of my wife of course. I take up this task for two reasons. Number one, I want to show everyone how tough I am, and number two, I appreciate what he has written and wish to explore it by challenging it.

The book in question is Darwinism and Its Discontents. I found something in the Acknowledgments that impressed me more than all his honors. He is apparently on close terms with Edward O. Wilson, the founding father of Sociobiology. He also has an indirect connection to the discovery and analysis of Homo floresiensis, the contemplation of which I have been much enamored.

Here is a brief interview, contrasting Ruse’s views with those of a creationist who is pushing Intelligent Design. The question: Why do they call ID a science?

Ruse: I think there are two questions here. One is … to say it couldn't be science, because it appeals to miracles, and miracles in this day and age are not part of science. But I think you need to dig a little bit more deeply. Why is a miracle excluded from science in this day and age? And the answer is because science has been very successful by assuming what's often called methodological atheism; namely, don't allow any miracles whatsoever and see how far you go.

Starting just here, I have two problems. First, Intelligent Design can be a scientific theory simply by avoiding the temptation to attribute the hypothesized intelligence to God. The same idea can be found in a police story. Let’s say a man is killed by a rock as he drives in his car. The possibilities are that, 1) it is a freak accident, 2) someone induced the rock to kill the driver, or 3) Joe Smith killed the driver. Distinguishing between numbers one and two is science. Including item three is an accusation that is far ahead of the question at hand, and thus not yet and maybe never a matter of scientific discourse. The legitimacy of intelligent design comes from pursuing the legitimate question, is there any evidence that the course of Evolution is marked by events that cannot be explained by Darwinian analysis?

Unfortunately for the ID proponents, this question has already been studied. Many proposals have been made over the last century and a half about phenomena that cannot be easily explained. Altruism, for instance. Subsequently, most, but not all, have been explained, and there is every reason to believe that more explanations, and more convincing explanations are forthcoming. I know of at least four different, plausible explanations for how upright stature in humans can be adaptive*. None are definitive, but the plausibility of any is sufficient to refute the assertion of intelligent interference with regard to that attribute. Show me the meddling!

Nevertheless, ID could be a science, but it is presently a very unconvincing science, and as Judge Jones pointed out in the Dover case, the proponents do themselves no favor when they are so easily exposed as creationists who don’t even know their own theory. Since the people backing the theory are so transparently motivated by religious considerations, the current incarnation of ID, but only the current incarnation, has been rejected by the judiciary. That’s fine by me, but it’s also fine if they continue to develop their thoughts from choices one and two, avoiding three. In fact, ID is not a new theory. Some, including Fred Hoyle, the famous astrophysicist (and Science Fiction writer), touted the panspermia hypothesis for the origin of life, with the mechanism of dispersion in serious question. Was there an intelligent Johnny Appleseed in our early history? I have argued previously that auto-catalysis makes such a mechanism unnecessary, but not necessarily impossible. Once again, show me the meddling!

The second objection I have to Ruse’s answer is that the juxtaposition of miracles against naturalism is a false dichotomy. Many things we see in the streets today would be considered miracles in olden days. Perception is complex. If you see something you don’t understand, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a miracle. Alternatively, there is no way to certify that any given event has not been instigated by a miraculous cause, even if the event "seems" perfectly normal. Gravity may be a miracle. There is, furthermore, a continuum between miracle and process. Like the miracle of the loaves and fishes, repetitive normal activities blend seamlessly, undiscernably, into something that seems impossible. The miraculous is philosophically inseparable from normalcy because the world is all the same stuff to us.

My point is that even if there were miracles dancing like elves between every quantum of time and space, even if we knew there were miracles or that there was nothing else, we would still want to treat the world with law-based science as a way to predict, approximate and model this world in the breach of miracles, or as the tamer of miracles. Even miracles have structure.

One thing I disliked about this interview was Ruse’s gratuitous swipe at the intelligence of the American people, but I did like the associated hypothesis that apocalyptic religion thrived because of the Nuclear Jitters of the Cold War. Being close to the phenomenon, I’m not sure I agree, but it does make me think.

OW: The American public – a large plurality believes in the Genesis story. Why isn't evolution more popular?

Ruse: Well, you tell me. The American public also believed that Saddam Hussein was linked with al-Qaida, didn't they? So I think you've got to be very careful when you make appeals like that to the American public. More seriously, I mean, the answer is America is a very religious country and certainly, Protestant religion has been very, very influential in America. Particularly after the Civil War, in the South this fundamentalist religion provided a security blanket for people who would read the Bible and read all about how God would afflict his most beloved more than anybody else and things like that.

I think that what we're living with is very much is a function of American history, rather than something which is new today. Certainly the 20th century with the wars and the Cold War and the bomb … led a great many Americans into apocalyptic sort of thinking. We're now living in a time where people are really tense, really tense indeed, about the threat from outside and issues like this.

*Plausible Adaptive Advantages of Upright Bipedal Locomotion

  1. Water-wading for retrieving desirable plants and/or gathering shellfish at the oceanside.
  2. Squatting for harvesting multitudinous, but small, items at ground level or below, changes the shape of the hips, pre-evolving the capacity for long term standing.
  3. Prairie-dogging to see threats and treats over the long grass.
  4. Improved efficiency of long-distance bipedal locomotion when feeding ranges had to be extended on the dry side of Africa, where climate change had eliminated the forests.
  5. Shielding infants from the sun required that they be slung below the mother's torso rather than carrying them on the back. Arm support would be helpful.
  6. Dragging or carrying meat for long distances would require free use of the hands.

1/14/2007 11:05 PM


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