Saturday, June 30, 2007

Dawkins and Miller Review Behe's Book

The latest reviews of Michael Behe's new book, The Edge of Evolution, are by Kenneth Miller, in Nature (June 28), and Richard Dawkins, in The New York Times Book Review (July 1). Although both Miller and Dawkins make some good points, neither one is intellectually rigorous, because their animosity towards Behe leads them to make evasive or even dishonest claims.

Like many critics of "intelligent design theory" (myself included), Dawkins criticizes ID for relying on negative rather than positive arguments. ID proponents challenge Darwinian scientists to present step-by-step evolutionary explanations for complex living mechanisms. Then, whenever there is some difficulty in laying out such precise explanations, the ID proponents declare that this confirms the truth of intelligent design, even though they have not themselves offered any positive explanation of the step-by-step process by which the Intelligent Designer created these living mechanisms.

But then the rest of Dawkins' review is weak. For example, he quotes the statement from Behe's biology department at Lehigh University declaring that "it is our collective position that intelligent design has no basis in science, has not been tested experimentally and should not be regarded as scientific." It's an interesting point that Behe has failed to persuade anyone in his own department to accept his claims. But I don't see how this allows us to dismiss his position without looking at his arguments and evidence for ourselves.

Dawkins goes on to ridicule Behe's argument that random mutation puts severe limits on Darwinian evolution, and Dawkins does this by using the example of how powerful artificial selection has been in breeding hundreds of different breeds of dogs, working upon the random mutational variety present in wolves. But Dawkins fails to acknowledge that Behe concedes that the evolution of species and varieties can be explained by Darwinian means--selection working on random mutation.

Miller, a biologist at Brown University, has been Behe's most persistent opponent. They have debated one another on many occasions. Miller's new review repeats his most common argument against Behe's claim that "irreducible complexity" cannot be explained by Darwinian means. Behe argues that in principle any irreducibly complex mechanism cannot by explained as a result of gradual Darwinian evolution, because any gradual process of assembly would fail since the absence of any one part would prevent the mechanism from functioning, and thus it would not be favored by natural selection. Miller--like most Darwinian biologists--responds to this by insisting that complex biological mechanisms can be assembled by natural selection working indirectly by combining simpler mechanisms that originally served some other function. This might apply, for example, to bacterial flagella--the little rotating tails that propel bacteria--because if we find certain structures within bacteria that have parts resembling the parts of the flagellar system, then we might consider the possibility that natural selection used parts originally adapted for one function to serve a new function within the flagellar system. But Miller and others fail to acknowledge that Behe explicitly recognizes this possibility of an indirect route of evolution through cooptation, so that older mechanisms serving one function might be put to use in newer mechanisms serving a different function. The problem, however, as Behe says, is that the Darwinians must explain step-by-step how such an indirect route could be likely. Behe's complaint is that Darwinians are good at spinning out speculative stories about how this might have occurred without exactly proving that this is really how it did occur. The research that Miller cites in his review suffers from this weakness--we have imaginative scenarios about how complex mechanisms might have evolved through a long, indirect route from simpler mechanisms, but there is no clear evidence that it really did happen this way.

Now, again, the problem is that as long as the Darwinians are put on the defensive and have to provide full step-by-step evolutionary pathways to complex structures, their explanations will often appear highly speculative and thus subject to doubt. But if the proponents of ID are put on the defensive and have to provide full step-by-step explanations of exactly when, where, and how the Intelligent Designer created these complex structures, then the ID position is exposed as resting on negative arguments with almost no positive content.

Miller is dishonest about one point in his review. He writes: "Apparently he has not followed recent studies exploring the evolution of hormone-receptor complexes by sequential mutations (Science 312, 97-101; 2006)." The article to which he refers offers an explanation of how the interaction between a hormone and its receptor could have evolved. When it was published last year, it was widely discussed as a possible refutation of Behe's argument about "irreducible complexity." Miller implies ("apparently he has not followed . . .") that Behe has not read this paper or has not responded to it. But as Miller must know, Behe and others responded to the paper last year on the Discovery Institute website. Behe's response can be found here. First of all, Behe suggests that this simple hormone-receptor interaction is not an example of an "irreducibly complex" system, and so he would see this as probably explainable in Darwinian terms. But he also raises some questions about the plausibility of the evolutionary scenario offered in the article. In any case, Miller leaves his reader with the assumption that Behe is completely ignorant of a widely discussed and publicized article refuting his theory.

Dawkins and Miller acknowledge only in passing what to me is the big story coming out of Behe's book--the extent to which he accepts Darwinian science and rejects Biblical creationism. Dawkins asks, "Do his creationist fans know that Behe accepts as 'trivial' the fact that we are African apes, cousins of monkeys, descended from fish?" Miller comments: "No doubt creationists who long for a scientific champion will overlook the parts of this deeply flawed book that might trouble them, including Behe's admission that 'common descent is true,' and that our species shares a common ancestor with the chimpanzee."

It's not so surprising, then, that one of the customer reviews of Behe's book on the website is entitled "Michael Behe Sells Out to Darwinism!"

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Evolution of the Soul in the Brain

This week's "Science Times" section of the New York Times (June 26) is devoted entirely to the subject of evolution. The various articles survey some of the major areas of controversy and research in evolutionary theory today. I found two articles to be particularly good. Carol Kaesuk Yoon's article on evolutionary developmental biology can be found here. Cornelia Dean's article on the "science of the soul" can be found here.

Yoon's article covers the remarkable discoveries supporting "evo-devo," which is based on the idea that major turns in evolutionary history might have arisen from changes in developmental processes governed by a few regulatory genes. Rather than assuming that evolution of new forms requires the gradual accumulation of many small genetic mutations, evo-devo works on the thought that slight changes in the expression of a few regulatory genes could produce dramatic changes in form and even the emergence of new species. It has seemed to me for a long time that evo-devo is likely to answer many puzzles in evolutionary theory. In any case, this illustrates the remarkably rich research being done in evolutionary science today. By contrast, I am unaware of any comparable research being done by proponents of "intelligent design theory" or "scientific creationism." The mere fact that neither ID nor Biblical creationism leads to any novel research to test alternatives to evolutionary science indicates the intellectual poverty of such positions.

Dean's article surveys the implications of research in neuroscience that seems to be uncovering the neural basis of the human soul. In Darwinian Conservatism, I have a section on "The Emergent Evolution of the Soul in the Brain." My position there is very similar to that of Nancey Murphy, who is quoted in the article. Like Murphy, I think Descartes' radical dualism of body and mind makes no sense, because it contradicts our common experience of psychosomatic unity, and because it also contradicts the discoveries of modern neuroscience in showing how mind/consciousness/soul arise from the neural activity of the brain. Moreover, I also believe that this Cartesian dualism contradicts the Bible, which teaches that our minds and bodies are inextricably intertwined. Rather than looking to the immortality of the soul separated from the body, the Bible looks to the resurrection of the enspirited body. Neuroscience explores this psychosomatic unity of mind and body.

This also suggests that the emergence of the human soul arose in primate evolution once the size and complexity of the primate neocortex passed over a critical threshold, which gave human beings a freedom of thought and action that other animals do not have. God could have created human beings in His image by creating the patterns of natural evolution in the primate brain to bring about the emergence of the human soul.

This supports a Darwinian conservatism that recognizes the unique freedom and dignity of the human soul as compatible with modern natural science.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Paper at APSA Convention, Sept. 1

The American Political Science Association will be meeting in Chicago for its 2007 convention from August 30 to September 2. On Saturday, September 1, at 2:00 pm, I will be presenting a panel paper on "Three Levels of History in Darwinian Political Science." In this paper, I will be sketching a theoretical framework for Darwinian political science; and as a practical illustration, I will be applying this Darwinian framework to explaining Abraham Lincoln's decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. A Darwinian political science would be a historical science that would have to move through three levels of history--natural history, cultural history, and biographical history. I will be elaborating some points that are briefly stated in my commentary on Herb Gintis's article in the February, 2007, issue of Behavioral and Brain Sciences.

Friday, June 22, 2007


David Sloan Wilson's new book is a gem. Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin's Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives is based on Wilson's general course on the idea of evolution at Binghamton University, which is the one required course for an interdisciplinary program on "Evolutionary Studies." The course and the book survey Wilson's many interests and research topics in evolutionary reasoning. The book organizes all of this into a broad evolutionary view of how human life fits into the order of nature. He aims to show how evolutionary reasoning can provide a common language through which the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities could be unified into a shared vision of liberal education. Previously, I have written about my similar conception of Darwinian liberal education in posts that can be found here and here.

This fall I and Neil Blackstone will be using Wilson's book as one of the readings for our course on evolution, which we hope will eventually lead to an evolutionary studies program at Northern Illinois University. At NIU, we have already moved in this direction in the Department of Political Science through our undergraduate and graduate courses in "Politics and the Life Sciences."

The general theme of Wilson's book is conveyed by the title. It's a book "for everyone," a book that tries to make evolutionary reasoning comprehensible to any human being willing to think about it. And it presents evolution as a way of making sense of our lives as fitting within the natural order of the whole. In that way, it does indeed contribute to the ancient Aristotelian conception of liberal education.

More specifically, Wilson presents a "new way of thought" that advances the evolutionary view of human life as thoroughly part of nature (67). In arguing that we are "100 per cent a product of evolution," Wilson denies both religious creationism and secular creationism. The religious creationist believes that human beings are created in God's image so that their God-given traits set them apart from, and above, the rest of nature. The secular creationist believes that human beings use their uniquely human capacities for rational choice and cultural learning to create a human realm of artifice set apart from the natural world. The religious creationist denies Darwinian evolution completely. The secular creationist accepts Darwinian evolution as explaining the ultimate causes of the living world as including the human body, while insisting that the human mind and human culture transcend Darwinian evolution. Both forms of creationism assume the idea of human beings as "transcendent selves" set apart from the natural world.

To support his claim that Darwinian evolution can explain all of human life as part of nature, Wilson must defend a broad conception of evolution as including group selection as well as individual selection and cultural evolution as well as genetic evolution. He must then show how human evolution working at many levels provides the ultimate explanation for uniquely human traits such as family life, morality, politics, religion, science, and the arts (including dance, music, literature, and the visual arts).

The two crucial elements of this broad conception of evolution is group selection and cultural evolution. From the 1960s to the 1990s, most evolutionary biologists stressed the primacy of individual selection over group selection, because they assumed that in most circumstances the competition between individual units within groups would be stronger than the competition among groups. Wilson was one of the few biologists at this time who argued that group selection could become a powerful evolutionary mechanism, because there were many circumstances in which selection among groups would be stronger than selection within groups. Although there continues to be intense debate over this. Wilson's "multilevel selection theory" of group selection is now generally regarded as plausible.

When Ed Wilson and others argued for "sociobiology" as including the biological explanation of human nature, critics rejected this as ignoring the uniquely human power of culture as transcending genetic evolution. But Ed Wilson responded that we needed to develop a "coevolutionary" theory of human nature as arising from the interaction of genes and culture. David Wilson and others have continued this thought by arguing that culture is itself the expression of genetic propensities for cultural learning, and cultural history shows evolutionary processes in which some cultural traditions prevail over others by enhancing human survival and reproduction.

Wilson develops his arguments across a broad range of topics--too broad for me to cover in one post. But I will indicate that although I find most of his arguments persuasive, I am left with at least 5 questions about points where I would like more elaboration or clarification.

1. How does Wilson account for human dominance hierarchies? Group selection generally requires leadership in which some individuals exercise dominance. And yet Wilson tends to play down the importance of dominance. For example, he contrasts the "despotism" of chimp societies with dominant alpha males and the "egalitarianism" of human hunter-gatherer societies (163). But this ignores the fact that even human foraging societies show leadership, even if the leadership is informal and episodic. Moreover, he does not recognize Frans de Waal's contrast between the "despotic dominance style" of rhesus monkeys and the "egalitarian dominance style" of chimps, with human beings following the chimp model. Moreover, in adopting Chris Boehm's theory of human foragers as showing a "reverse-dominance hierarchy," Wilson does not acknowledge that for Boehm this means that human beings do have a propensity to dominance hierarchy, but the difference is that the desire of subordinates to resist exploitation checks the power of dominant individuals (just as it does among chimps). Wilson speaks about the "admirable qualities" of Abraham Lincoln that make his face appear beautiful to us (124). But Wilson says nothing about the character of Lincoln as an intensely ambitious man who strove for the dominant position that would give him immortal glory and fame.

2. How exactly is cultural evolution constrained or guided by genetic evolution? Wilson agrees with the "social constructivists" about the importance of culture for human life. But he insists that culture itself is a product of evolution, so that what we need is "evolutionary social constructivism" (71). But since Wilson does not believe that this "social constructivism" is completely arbitrary, because it is ultimately constrained or guided by genetic propensities and by selection for survival and reproduction (98-99), he needs to explain exactly how our genetic history shapes, but does not precisely determine, our cultural history. For example, he speaks about the Hutterite communities in which people striving to emulate the cooperativeness of the early Christians act to unify individuals into collective units. But it is noteworthy that the Hutterites have not tried to abolish family life, although attachment to one's family tends to create tensions with the larger community. Those utopian communities that have tried to abolish the family and parent-child bonding--such as the "Biblical communists" in Oneida, New York, in the 19th century and the Jewish kibbutzim in the Middle East--had to give this up when their young women protested that this was against the nature of mothers not to bond with their children. Wouldn't this be an illustration of how an innate desire for parental care constrains cultural reform? (I have argued that parental care is one of the twenty natural desires that constrain and guide cultural evolution.)

3. Is Wilson's "ideal religion" a realistic possibility? Wilson devotes much space to restating his evolutionary account of religion, which he elaborated in his book Darwin's Cathedral. He defends religion as a valuable way by which people can be bound together into groups as collective units. But he is himself an atheist, because he cannot believe in the existence of supernatural agents. The practical success of religion in binding people together for cooperation shows a "practical truth" that Wilson admires. But the theological doctrines of religion contradict the "factual truth" available to natural science. To overcome this problem, Wilson looks for an "ideal religion" that would combine the "practical truth" of religious morality and the "factual truth" of natural science. But the only religious traditions that come close to this for him are Buddhism and Confucianism (261-62), because they do not seem to depend upon any belief in supernatural agents. And yet some people have wondered whether Buddhism and Confucianism are really religions at all, because in some ways, they seem almost atheistic. Similarly, Wilson's "ideal religion" looks like an atheistic religion.

4. How does Wilson propose to deal with conflicts of interests? Wilson indicates that every major religious tradition--and even "stealth religions" like Ayn Rand's Objectivist philosophy--depart from factual realism by assuming that there are no conflicts of interest between self-interest and the interests of others, because they assume that properly serving the interests of others will ultimately serve one's own interests. This implies that the "ideal belief system" would have to recognize and somehow manage inescapable conflicts of interest. "The real world is full of complicated trade-offs, conflicts of interest, and win-lose situations. In principle, a belief system could score high on factual realism by representing all of these complexities and also score high on practical realism by showing how to deal with them" (274-75). But then Wilson never really explains how his "ideal belief system" would deal with such conflicts of interests. Does this hide the ugly fact that sometimes conflicts of interests are so deep that they cannot be resolved by honest negotiation and mutual trust, and consequently, the final resolution comes by force or fraud? Consider, for example, the problem of slavery in American history. As Abraham Lincoln indicated there was a conflict between the moral sense that recognized slavery as evil and the self-interest of the Southerners whose way of life depended on slavery and the self-interest of those in the North who wanted to preserve the Union. Lincoln tried to overcome this conflict of interest by proposing voluntary compensated emancipation with voluntary colonization of the freed blacks somewhere outside the United States. When this proposal was rejected, and the country was thrown into Civil War, the final resolution of the issue came by force of arms. Is there any way of avoiding such tragic conflicts of interest? Or would evolutionary theory teach us that this is part of the tragic character of the human condition?

5. What is the "shared value system" that would make the "global village" a "moral community"? Wilson argues that his evolutionary theory of group selection can be applied to international relations. After all, "nations are nothing more than very large groups that are trying to function as collective units" (283-84). He lays out 14 points for promoting international cooperation. One of his points is that "morality is required for morale," and therefore, "a shared value system is . . . required at the international scale for the global village to become a moral community" (292). But what would this "shared value system" be? International human rights? Universal brotherhood? How exactly would this work? Wilson doesn't say. If he were to say more, he would have to again confront the problem of conflicts of interests. Isn't it utopian to expect that there will be no deep conflicts of interests among nations? Won't such conflicts of interests make war inevitable? Wouldn't Darwinian science support a realistic acceptance of the tragic dimensions of human life as facing deep conflicts of interests at all levels of social life--from the family to the village to the tribe to the nation to the international community?

In raising such profound questions about the nature of human social life as a product of natural evolution, Wilson's book shows the kind of deep thinking that would be promoted by a Darwinian liberal education.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Gnosticism and Existentialist Conservatism

Opposition to Darwinian explanations of human nature is rooted primarily in the idea of the "transcendental self"--the idea that human beings have some psychic or spiritual capacity that sets them apart from and above the rest of nature. Against this idea, Darwinian science explains human beings as fully within the order of nature and thus at home in the universe.

The transcendentalist rejection of Darwinism can be either religious or secular. Religious transcendentalism affirms the uniqueness of human beings as created in God's image and thus set above the rest of creation. Secular transcendentalism affirms the uniqueness of human beings as having the capacity through reason or culture to create themselves as belonging to a realm of freedom beyond the realm of natural causality. Religious conservatives often adopt the first form of transcendentalism. Secular liberals often adopt the second.

The transcendentalism that denies Darwinian naturalism assumes a radical dualism of mind and matter that follows not from orthodox Christianity but from the Christian heresy of Gnosticism. The Gnostics believed that the natural world was a prison into which the human soul had been thrown by the evil god of the Old Testament. The escape from this worldly prison required Gnostic enlightenment by which the redeemed could leave the natural world for their true home beyond the cosmos. Matter is evil. Only spirit is good. Therefore, the Gnostics believed, Jesus as divine was pure spirit without body (contrary to the orthodox Christian doctrine of incarnation). (On this and other points, the depiction of Gnosticism in Dan Brown's novel THE DA VINCI CODE is erroneous.)

Hans Jonas wrote one of the classic books on Gnosticism--The Gnostic Religion. His studies of Gnosticism allowed him to recognize that the modern existentialist tradition--from Pascal to Nietzsche to Heidegger--rested on the Gnostic idea of human beings as aliens in the universe, transcendent selves seeking to escape their imprisonment in nature. He saw this modern existentialist version of Gnosticism as a reaction against the modern Cartesian conception of the universe as a material mechanism without mind or spirit. The existentialist attack on modern natural science as a materialistic reductionism that denies human dignity and freedom was a modern restatement of the Gnostic image of human beings as aliens in a world of dead matter.

This Gnostic attack on modern science and appeal to the transcendent self is evident in the writing of Walker Percy--particularly, his book Lost in the Cosmos. Percy rightly argues that symbolic thought and conceptual speech are uniquely human. But to suggest that natural science cannot explain this, because it is some kind of mysterious miracle that shows a transcendent self beyond nature, ignores the possibility that the human capacity for symbolic thought evolved from the non-symbolic thought of apes.

Percy's existentialist Gnosticism has been the basis for Peter Augustine Lawler's existentialist conservatism. According to Lawler, all human beings are "aliens" in the universe, because their true selves transcend the natural order of the universe, and thus natural science can never truly account for the alienated spirit of humanity. Darwinian science, in particular, denies this reality of the transcendent self. Lawler has been an influential voice among conservatives who reject Darwinian science as a reductive materialism. Some of my posts on Lawler can be found here, here, and here.

These existentialist conservatives fail to see how Darwinian science actually refutes any Cartesian reductionism that separates matter and mind. Although it initially looked like the final triumph of materialism, Darwinian evolution actually rejected the terms of modern materialism by denying the absolute separation of objective matter and subjective mind. Jonas developed this point well in his essay on "Philosophical Aspects of Darwinism" in his Phenomenon of Life. By showing how the human mind could emerge out of nature and by affirming the continuity of human beings and other animals as conscious beings, Jonas indicated, Darwinian science denied the radical transcendence of human beings as set apart from nature. But it also thereby elevated the whole living world by presenting it as the meeting place of matter and mind, and thus it overcame the Cartesian conception of human beings as isolated and alienated thinking beings in an unthinking world. Darwinian science exposed the absurdity of Cartesian dualism as denying organic reality and our psychophysical experience as bodies in which mind emerges naturally.

Darwinian conservatism rejects the existentialist conservatism of Lawler and others who follow the Gnostic tradition of radical dualism in which human beings as transcendent selves feel themselves to be aliens thrown into a cosmic prison.

The secular transcendentalism of the Left shows the same Gnostic dualism in which matter and mind must be forever separated, and any Darwinian explanation of human nature arouses abhorrence as a degrading denial of human freedom and dignity.

Against this Gnostic, transcendentalist assumption that human worth requires that we set human beings apart from nature as if they were aliens from another world, the Darwinian conservative would say that we have not been thrown into nature from some place far away. We come from nature. It is our home.

As a footnote, I should say that there is a lot of scholarly debate these days over the accuracy of Jonas's account of Gnosticism. Some scholars of early Christianity now argue that labeling the Gnostics as "heretics" obscures the similarities between Gnosticism and "orthodox" Christianity. Some of this debate was surveyed last year in an article by Richard Byrne ("The End of Gnosticism?") in The Chronicle of Higher Education (May 5, 2006).

Friday, June 15, 2007

The Failure of Utopian Idealism in the Gaza Strip

The triumph of Hamas in the Gaza Strip is a reminder of the dangerous consequences of the Wilsonian idealism in the Bush Administration's foreign policy.

When Hamas won the parliamentary elections last year, I wrote a post on how this showed the weakness in the utopian idealism of the Bush neoconservatives. To assume that merely holding popular elections will promote liberty and good government shows a utopian view of human nature. The same mistake explains the debacle in Iraq, which has been the subject of some posts that can be found here and here.

At least now more and more people are questioning the utopian assumption of an "end of history" in which democracy and capitalism triumph inevitably through some teleological historical process. Patricia Cohen has a good article on this in The New York Times.

Darwinian conservatism would teach us that achieving ordered liberty is a complex evolutionary process that cannot be rationally designed or assumed to be historically inevitable. The evolution of liberty emerges through a hierarchy of three kinds of order--natural desires, customary traditions, and prudential judgments--that cannot be produced merely by rational design.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Coyne's Review of Behe

Jerry Coyne, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago, has written a review of Michael Behe's new book for The New Republic (June 18). I generally agree with his assessment.

Like me, Coyne is impressed by how far Behe goes in accepting Darwinian evolution: "Basically, he now admits that almost the entire edifice of evolutionary theory is true: evolution, natural selection, common ancestry." "He even accepts the one fact that most other IDers would rather die than admit: that humans shared a common ancestor with chimpanzees and other apes." As I have indicated in a previous post, I believe this general acceptance of Darwinian science is going to break up the broad coalition that the Discovery Institute has tried to create. Surely, the Biblical creationists are not going to agree that the Intelligent Designer created human beings from apes!

And yet, of course, Behe does argue that Darwinian evolution is severely limited because random mutations cannot create the complex mechanisms of life. But on this point, Coyne shows, Behe's argumentation is weak and even sophistical. For example, he argues that the evolution of precise protein-protein interactions cannot be explained as a product of natural selection working on random mutations, because the simultaneous emergence of three or more mutations to create one protein-protein interaction is too improbable. Coyne rejects this reasoning by indicating that Behe gives no evidence to support his assumption that this could not happen through one mutation after another, involving more and more amino acids, so that a weak interaction favored by natural selection could be followed by ever stronger interactions.

I also agree with Coyne that Behe's rhetoric--and the rhetoric of ID in general--depends on a strategy of negative argumentation, so that one demands that the Darwinian scientists prove the step-by-step pathway of Darwinian evolution for complex biochemical phenomena, but without explaining the step-by-step pathway by which the intelligent designer did this. If one asks the proponents of ID to explain exactly when, where, and how the intelligent designer created irreducibly complex mechanisms, they refuse to answer. If they appear to win the debate, it's only because they have applied standards of proof for Darwinian theory that they could never satisfy themselves.

As Coyne indicates, Behe was made to look foolish when he was cross-examined in 2005 at the Pennsylvania trial for the Dover public school case on teaching ID. Behe was forced to admit, for example, that his definition of science was so loose that it would include astrology. It is remarkable that Behe says nothing about the Dover case in this new book, which confirms the impression of many people that the decision against ID in that case was devastating for the entire ID movement.

Coyne's review can be found here.

A strong critique of Coyne's review by a proponent of evolution and critic of ID--Jason Rosenhouse--can be found here. Although Rosenhouse's criticisms are a little too harsh, he is right to point out that Coyne and other critics of ID are often not as rigorous in their argumentation as they should be.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Slavery, Southern Conservatism, and Darwinian Natural Right

"Slavery is a conservative institution."

"Human slavery is bad ground for conservatives to make a stand upon."

The first quotation is from Thomas R. R. Cobb's Inquiry into the Law of Negro Slavery in the United States (1858). The second is from Russell Kirk's Conservative Mind (1953). A Darwinian conception of natural right supports Kirk against Cobb.

Kirk's remark comes in his section on the "Southern conservatism" of John Randolph and John C. Calhoun. Kirk argues that their Southern tradition of conservatism has never recovered from their imprudence in defending slavery. Elsewhere, Kirk praises Abraham Lincoln for his prudent statesmanship in his handling of slavery and the Civil War. But Kirk never explains exactly why the proslavery position was imprudent. I would say that Lincoln was a prudent statesman because he never lost slight of the evil of slavery as violating natural right, while Calhoun defended slavery as a "positive good." This moral blindness on Calhoun's part crippled him in a way that prevented him from being a truly prudent statesman.

Calhoun's "positive good" defense of slavery is elaborated in Cobb's book, which is the only legal treatise on slavery written by a Southerner. Cobb was a prominent lawyer and law professor in Georgia who helped to write the Confederate Constitution. As a summary of the proslavery position, Cobb argues that slavery conforms to both natural law and divine law. Slavery is natural because negroes are natural slaves who are physically, intellectually, and morally inferior to whites, and thus the enslavement of negroes improves them and makes them happy. He finds a counterpart to negro slavery in the slavery of ants. "It is a fact, well known to entomologists, and too well established to admit of contradiction, that the red ant will issue in regular battle array, to conquer and subjugate the black or negro ant, as he is called by entomologists. And, that these negro slaves perform all the labor of the communities into which they are thus brought, with a patience and an aptitude almost incredible." Cobb does recognize the humanity of the negro as "a man, endowed with reason, will, and accountability." And yet he accepts the arguments of the scientific racists who claimed that the black race was naturally inferior in its physical, intellectual, and moral traits.

By contrast, Charles Darwin was a fervent opponent of slavery who rejected the attempts of the scientific racists to justify slavery as natural. Pierre Huber was the first naturalist to observe and write about slavery among ants in 1810. In The Origin of Species (1859), Darwin reported his own studies of ant slavery and offered a theory of how it could have evolved by natural selection. But he did not see this as a natural counterpart to human slavery.

In my chapter on slavery in Darwinian Natural Right, I have suggested that considering the similarities and differences between ant slavery and human slavery illuminates the biological nature of slavery. The similarities indicate that slavery among ants and humans is rooted in a natural inclination to social parasitism in which slavemakers exploit their slaves through coercion and manipulation. The differences indicate that the uniquely human opposition to slavery is rooted in a natural moral sense that resists exploitation, because human beings are naturally inclined to detect and punish exploitation. In The Descent of Man, Darwin gives his account of how that natural moral sense evolved as part of human nature.

Some of the opponents of Darwinian moral naturalism insist that morality requires a transcendent source in religious belief. But in this debate over slavery, we see that such religious belief--at least as coming from Biblical revelation--does not provide us reliable moral guidance. Cobb was able to show that the Bible--both the Old Testament and the New Testament--sanctioned slavery. (Recent books by Mark Noll and Eugene Genovese have surveyed the history of Southern proslavery arguments based on the Bible.) If the Bible cannot resolve such a moral debate, then we have to appeal to our natural moral experience that does not depend on religious belief. Darwinian science indicates how such moral experience might be founded in our evolved human nature.

The prudent statesmanship desired by conservatives requires some standard of natural right as providing the moral compass for political judgment about great questions such as slavery. Darwinian natural right sustains such statesmanship.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Behe's New Book--The Discovery Institute's Big Mistake?

The early responses to Michael Behe's new book are predictable--the proponents of intelligent design praising it, the opponents denouncing it. But, as I have indicated in my previous post, I think there's a big story here that people are missing. They're missing it, because most people have not yet read the book carefully.

A careful reading of the book suggests that in sponsoring and promoting this book, the Discovery Institute is making a big mistake. As I have indicated, Behe concedes so much to Darwinian science--the limited power of natural selection working on random mutation, common descent, the evolution of human beings from primate ancestors shared with chimpanzees, rejection of Biblical creationism as "silly", support for theistic evolution--that Behe actually subverts much of the moral and religious agenda of the Discovery Institute. After all, he even questions the goodness and omnipotence of the intelligent designer in deliberately creating malaria!

My prediction is that as people have time to read this book more carefully, it's going to produce a backlash from those who would normally agree with the Discovery Institute/intelligent design program. At the very least, Biblical creationists are going to see Behe as their enemy.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Michael Behe's Attack on Biblical Creationism

Michael Behe's new book--The Edge of Evolution--has just been published, and the most remarkable feature of the book is his attack on Biblical creationism.

Much of the influence of the "intelligent design" movement has depended on Behe's earlier book, Darwin's Black Box, first published in 1996. This new book elaborates some of the reasoning that was only implicit in his earlier idea of "irreducible complexity" as a sign of intelligent design.

Behe distinguishes three elements of Darwinism--random mutation, natural selection, and common descent. He accepts common descent, including the descent of humans and chimpanzees from common ancestors (72). He also accepts the Darwinian mechanism by which natural selection works on random mutation. But he insists that that mechanism is severely limited in what it can do. The "edge of evolution" is determined by two criteria. The criterion of "steps" says that "the more intermediate evolutionary steps that must be climbed to achieve some biological goal without reaching a net benefit, the more unlikely a Darwinian explanation" (104). The criterion of "coherence" says that random mutation cannot show "a coherent ordering of steps to a goal," which would be a sign of intelligent planning.

Behe's reasoning turns largely on his elaboration of a few examples of how Darwinian mechanisms work in the evolutionary history of malaria, the HIV virus, the E. coli bacterium, and the notothenioid fish in the Antarctic that have evolved to live at subfreezing temperatures.

In the last chapter of the book, Behe incorporates arguments about the "fine-tuning" of the universe and the "anthropic principle" as extending his biological arguments for intelligent design.

As the reviews of this book come out, the reviewers will be identifying some of Behe's scientific errors. (I have already seen advance copies of the reviews by Neil Blackstone for The Quarterly Review of Biology and Sean Carroll for Science.) For example, there is evidence that the cumulative selection for the sequential addition of favorable mutations is far more common than Behe is willing to admit. There is also evidence against Behe's "two-binding-sites rule"--that Darwinian evolution cannot explain protein complexes with more than two binding sites.

In future posts, I will say more about Behe's scientific errors. But what catches my attention now is how strongly he rejects Biblical creationism--particularly, the sort of creationism manifest in Ken Ham's "Creation Museum."

Behe says that to treat the Bible as a "science textbook" is "silly" (166). And in asserting the purely scientific character of intelligent design reasoning, Behe insists that there must be "no relying on holy books or prophetic dreams" (233).

In embracing Darwinian common descent, Behe accepts the idea that human beings evolved from primate ancestors shared with chimpanzees, because he believes that the genetic similarity between human beings and chimps makes this the only reasonable conclusion. So Behe agrees with Darwin's declaration that the human species was "created from animals." (Keep in mind that some public opinion surveys report that the majority of adults in the United States do not believe that human beings evolved from some earlier species.)

Behe believes that intelligent design is required to explain the emergence of the higher taxonomic levels of life--kingdoms, phyla, classes--but not the lower levels--orders, families, genera, species. So it seems that the evolution of species could be fully Darwinian (218).

Behe also doubts the power and morality of the intelligent designer. He concludes that "an intelligent agent deliberately made malaria," and thus the intelligent designer deliberately decided to kill millions of human beings, including innocent children (237). When we see how "horrific" life on earth really is, Behe suggests, we must wonder: "Maybe the designer isn't all that beneficent or omnipotent" (239). After all, the intelligent designer is responsible for creating "nature red in tooth and claw" (43).

Although Behe seems to reject "theistic evolution" in two passages (210, 229), he generally seems to accept it. Consider, for example, the following passages. "The possibility of intelligent design is quite compatible with common descent, which some religious people disdain. What's more, although some religious thinkers envision active, continuing intervention in nature, intelligent design is quite compatible with the view that the universe operates by unbroken natural law, with the design of life perhaps packed into its initial set-up" (166). "The purposeful design of life to any degree is easily compatible with the idea that, after its initiation, the universe unfolded exclusively by the intended playing out of natural laws. The purposeful design of life is also fully compatible with the idea of universal common descent, one important facet of Darwin's theory" (232).

Proponents of intelligent design theory--particularly, those sponsored by the Discovery Institute--have always tried to distinguish themselves from the Creationists. But Behe's emphatic rejection of Biblical creationism in this book makes me wonder whether we don't see here his reaction against the 2005 court case coming out of Dover, Pennsylvania. He testified in that case in favor of a public school board policy of encouraging biology students to study intelligent design theory. But at the trial, it became clear that the school board members promoting this policy were actually Biblical creationists who thought that intelligent design was virtually the same thing as Biblical creationism. This led Judge John Jones to rule that this policy violated the First Amendment prohibition on government establishment of religion, which became a big loss for the Discovery Institute and the intelligent design movement. Behe's vigorous rejection of Biblical creationism in this new book might reflect his bad experience in that case.

Although I am not fully persuaded by Behe's position, he does lay out his reasoning clearly and forcefully. And he does challenge Darwinian scientists to confront what Darwin himself called the "difficulties" in evolutionary theory.

I have written many posts on this blog related to the creationism/intelligent design arguments. You can also find a pertinent article of mine from way back in 2001 that I wrote for In 2000, my article in First Things on Darwinian conservatism was accompanied by an exchange with Behe and Bill Dembski, which can be found here.