Darwinism and its Discontents (Part 1)

Looking back over some of these posts I see that I’ve mentioned the theory of evolution in passing a few times, usually during discussions of human nature or the meaning of life. I do not think you can talk about human nature without bringing it up.

Some people wonder how we can still be having discussions about evolutionary theory today at the dawn of the 21st century but I am not surprised by it; not all science is created equal. Some branches of science, like physics, have a high degree of certainty. The theories are based on mathematical formulas and they can produce measurable results. That is not to say that the theories of physics are absolutely certain; they are overturned every few decades and replaced with something with greater explanatory power. But while physicists might get up in arms about changes in theory, there are no cultural debates about the conclusions of physics. Gallup does not do polls on who believes in the Theory of Relativity. There are no bitter clingers holding out for the re-vindication of Issac Newton, even though the transfer from Newtonian to modern physics had a huge impact on how we see the world, probably more than any scientific revolution since Copernicus.

Other branches of science do not possess a high degree of certainty, because they are in their infancy, or because the material they have at hand to study is scarce, or because the things they study are contingent (i.e. can go one way or another). I am thinking of sciences like economics, sociology, political science, or environmental science. Environmental science, for example, is still young, its field of study enormous, and its methods unsettled. (Last year I read an article about grad students hiking in the Andes, cavorting in mountain streams, enjoying the vistas… oh, and sometimes measuring the hair length of  chinchillas to understand the effects of global warming. In other words, they had no idea what they were doing, but I guess that is OK so long as mommy and daddy are willing to pay for it.) The other sciences I mentioned here are established, but since they deal with contingencies they will always contain a broad element of uncertainty. With physics (ballistics) you can predict the flight of a rocket 99% of the time. With economics, sociology or poly-sci, you are lucky to  predict the outcomes of elections 51% of the time.

Guess what: those sciences with lower degrees of certainty are exactly the ones that cause widespread cultural furor. We argue endlessly about economic schools, the significance of social trends and the right political system because there is something to argue about. No one, (not even the PhDs if they are honest) can say he has all the answers. They never will.

Some aspects of evolutionary theory fall into the first tier of science. We can dig up the bones of extinct animals and have a rough idea of when they died; we can observe animal husbandry developing new breeds of cattle, and we conclude that species change over time. Then we can look at wolves, dogs, coyotes, and yellow hyenas and notice they call all interbreed with each other, making them members of the same species, but none of them can breed with foxes. But foxes and wolves sure look related! It is not much of a stretch to think that foxes and wolves had a common ancestor.

But when we try to create a consistent theory it seems that we enter the second tier of science. What exactly drives this process? “Mutation and constant competition for survival?” You mean the same principle that drives Adam Smith’s theory of capitalism that we all, everyone of us, agrees on? Yes, good old self-evident 18th century raw capitalism that no intelligent human can possibly have an issue with! Darwin borrowed heavily from Smith, pretty much transposing capitalism into the animal kingdom (which is why schools in Communist Russia avoided teaching Darwin’s theory) so Darwin must be right!

But of course, lots of smart people disagree with Adam Smith because Adam Smith was an economist, and economics is a second-tier science. For the same reason, I do not think it is a sign of stupidity to have reservations about specific evolutionary theories. Even contemporary evolutionary theory, which incorporates our knowledge of genetics and does away with some of Darwin’s more embarrassing 19th century notions, is stuck having to prove that all life is descended from a single-cell organism by a process of random mutations to the genetic code. Good luck. However plausible the narrative,  just telling the story does not make it so. We shouldn’t be surprised if large numbers of people shrug off the notion.

Next time I’ll spout off what I think of biblical liberalism and intelligent design (hint: not much)

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2 comments

  1. Darwin borrowed heavily from Smith, pretty much transposing capitalism into the animal kingdom (which is why schools in Communist Russia avoided teaching Darwin’s theory) so Darwin must be right!

    I recognized the similarities but was unaware he actually borrowed them from Adam Smith. Also, the fact that communists avoided teaching Darwin is a surprise as well. That doesn’t quite add up because those communists were atheists and it seems like they would or should have been willing to exploit Darwin’s theories for propaganda purposes just like the Nazis did.

    However plausible the narrative, just telling the story does not make it so.

    The way its taught in schools by uninspiring science teachers is not narrative. Scientists may be brilliant when it comes to logic and mathematics but for the most part they are terrible storytellers. Make no mistake about it that there is a narrative that can be woven into the whole evolutionary realm that could rival the stories of Biblical patriarchs.

    We tell beautiful narratives about Gallileo and Newton about the former fighting against the ecclesiastical powers and eventually having to recant and the latter discovering gravity because of an apple. We tell these stories to school children as early as 1st and 2nd grade.

    Some of these stories have no doubt taken on mythic aspects and are therefore not entirely true, however, they are effective in getting the scientific truth into the heads of students. This leads me to believe that maybe some wish to keep evolutionary science as dry and hum drum as possible in an effort to thwart it from eclipsing creationism. Just my 2 cents.

    1. Darwin and Marx are often lumped together because they are both materialists and they focus on historical progress. What the Russians could see however was the capitalist foundation of Darwin. I do not mean to demean Darwin by pointing out the borrowing, (all scientists borrow ideas) just to put the branch of science he invented into its proper place: as a scientific theory it is more akin to an economic theory than, say, to Newton’s theory of gravity.
      As for narrative: there is a vast popular mythology of the progress of science which probably does some good and some harm. But that was not quite what I was referring to. What I meant was that in a way a scientific theory is itself a narrative: it takes a jumble of observations and strings them together into a meaningful whole. In some branches of science the narrative can be easily tested or falsified. In others all you are trying to do is come up with something that can give a plausible explanation to events, but the fact that it is plausible does not make it true.
      I enjoyed your first blog post, by the way, and am looking forward to more.

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