Friday, February 06, 2009

Debating Darwin at

The bicentennial of Darwin's birth has brought lots of media attention to the continuing debate over the scientific, moral, political, and religious implications of Darwin's theory of evolution.

For example, the March issue of Discover magazine has a good section on evolutionary topics, including an article by Karen Wright where I make a cameo appearance.

An interesting collection of short essays is at, the online edition of Forbes magazine. Hana Alberts has edited a package of essays by twenty authors--ranging from proponents of Darwinism like Lionel Tiger and Denis Dutton to creationist/intelligent design opponents like Ken Ham and John West. Unfortunately, the brevity of each essay--averaging about 700 words--means than none of the authors can achieve much depth. But still the diverse range in the essays captures much of the current debate over Darwinism.

My essay for this collection is entitled "We Are The Moral Animals."

I will comment briefly on a few of the essays, beginning with the advocates for Darwin and then turning to the critics.

Denis Dutton makes an interesting point about how Darwin's idea of sexual selection--as opposed to natural selection--implies teleology, because in choosing mates, human beings have exercised purpose and intention in shaping evolution by sexual selection. He concludes that "prehistoric decisions honed the human virtues as we now know them: the admiration of altruism, skill, strength, intelligence, industriousness, courage, imagination, eloquence, diligence, kindness and so forth."

Of course, this still does not support any kind of cosmic teleology. And as Michael Flannery indicates, Alfred Russel Wallace broke with Darwin and sought to provide for such cosmic teleology by arguing that the human mind or spirit manifested the workings of some cosmic intelligence. I would say that Darwinian science does allow for an immanent teleology, as I have argued in an
earlier post.

Helen Fisher claims that recent scientific evidence confirms Darwin's belief that some nonhuman animals feel romantic love. She goes on to distinguish four personality types rooted in four distinctive brain systems. There is probably something to this, but it is grossly oversimplified. We simply don't know how to correlate personality to brain structure. She seems to rely on brain scanning research. But she fails to acknowledge the speculative character of this research.

Owen Jones is one of the leading law professors applying evolutionary reasoning to the study of law. His essay here, however, is too vague to convey much about his reasoning. At the end of the essay, he implies that he takes the idea of the "naturalistic fallacy" for granted: science cannot tell us "what we should want to accomplish," but it can help us to get to where we want. As I have said in some previous posts, I don't find this persuasive, because I don't see why the "ought" should be put in some transcendent realm beyond science.

Leo Tilman tries to summarize his account of "financial Darwinism," which he has laid out in a new book. Applying evolutionary reasoning to economic history is intriguing. It has a long history going back at least to Joseph Schumpeter. I have some posts on this--particularly on Niall Ferguson's recent book on "the ascent of money." But Tilman is so vague in his writing that I can't figure out what he is saying.

Joseph Carroll's essay is a good, brief statement of "literary Darwinism," which has also come up in a few of my posts.

But what about the critics? Kathryn Tabb says that "intelligent design has maintained a purely negative agenda seeking to disprove science's ability to answer questions instead of offering new approaches within the naturalist framework." This observation is confirmed by the fact that all of the critics here--Ken Ham, John West, Michael Egnor, and Jonathan Wells--employ a purely negative rhetoric in that they attack Darwinian science without offering any positive alternative of their own. As I have often noted, this is the preferred rhetorical strategy for creationists and intelligent-design proponents.

Ham and West accuse Darwinian science of promoting racism. But this is an odd charge considering how dedicated Darwin was in his opposition to slavery, as indicated by Adrian Desmond's essay. Moreover, neither Ham nor West acknowledge that much of the support for slavery was rooted in biblical religion, a topic that I have explored in various posts.

As I indicate in my essay, the real motivation for opposing Darwinian science is the fear that it subverts morality, although this ignores the ways in which a Darwinian account of the natural moral sense supports morality. West shows this fear of the moral consequences of Darwinism. I have written many responses to West, one of which can be found here.

Wells offers his standard arguments for his claim that Darwin's theory is not supported by evidence. Some of my responses to him can be found here, here, and here.

That Discover magazine article by Karen Wright ("We All Live in Darwin's World") is now available online.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You point out here, as you have many times before, that the intelligent design promoters restrict themselves to criticism, and offer little if anything in the way of positive science.

One aspect of this is that they fail to develop the vague, general idea of intelligent design into a specific scientific theory (who the intelligent designer was, how and why it created living creatures and humans, and so on). I think part of the reason for this is that most of them follow Biblical religion, and any specific theory they came up with would contradict this.

Behe says the intelligent designer could be a natural being or a supernatural one. If it was a natural being -- say a resident of Sirius -- then this would be completely contrary to the Biblical story.

Now suppose instead we assume the intelligent designer is a supernatural being, such as the God of the Bible. A scientific intelligent design theory would have to be based on understandable, determinate laws that would explain how and why God created living creatures and human beings. But Biblical religion holds that God is beyond rational scientific understanding and free from determinate law, and hence such a theory would be heretical.

Thus any possible specific intelligent design theory would contradict Biblical religion, and I assume this is one important reason the intelligent design advocates have avoided any efforts to develop such a theory.

--- Les Brunswick