Saturday, May 31, 2008

Clear Eyes?

Scientific American is going rather ballistic over this idiotic Ben Stein movie Expelled, a Michael Moore-esque anti-science, pro-intelligent design "documentary." Columnist (and Skeptic magazine editor) Michael Shermer relates in an editorial in the print edition of SciAm (behind the paywall online) how he was interviewed by Stein for the movie (which had been misrepresented to him as a more or less objective look at the crossroads of science and religion) and how Stein pitched a nutty when Shermer wouldn't give him the responses he wanted.

The film is apparently virulently anti-Darwin and purports to show how intelligent design is being deliberately excluded from schools and universities, and that those who deign to teach it are being summarily persecuted. It's all bullshit, of course; all of the cases presented in the movie have more to them than is presented, and those who were fired were often let go for reasons having little or nothing to do with espousing "intelligent design." Even more bizarrely, Darwin is blamed for fascism and the Holocaust (funny, I thought Hitler had been behind that) as well as communism, which is ironic since Darwin was actually heavily influenced by Adam Smith, and "social Darwinism" and "survival of the fittest" (a phase not coined by Darwin but by sociologist Herbert Spencer) have been oft-used to justify unfettered capitalism. And actually, the Stalinists rejected evolution because they deemed it to be a capitalistic explanation of biology! So someone didn't get the memo, it seems.

I have not seen the movie, but it sounds pretty ridiculous. I am occasionally spammed by acquaintances who send me Internet links condemning evolution and Darwin, apparently in the assumption that the magic power of e-mail is enough to make me repent and reject a subject I have been interested in and reading about for more than 20 years. The focus on Darwin is curious; I mean, evolutionary biology has progressed a little bit since, you know, the 1850s. Specifically, genetics was unknown until the 20th century and after Darwin's death, so the mechanism by which evolutionary change happens was unknown to Darwin. In fact, I dare say that no contemporary biologist would consider him- or herself a "Darwinist." It's kind of like considering Copernicus to be the exemplar of modern astronomy. Sure, he laid a great foundation, but the field has, um, evolved since. And all the people who claim that "evolution is just a theory" obviously haven't the slightest idea what they're talking about and I would strongly recommend, oh, I don't know, maybe reading a book or two about modern evolutionary biology. (I highly recommend Jonathan Weiner's Pulitzer-winning The Beak of the Finch.) It's rather like me, who knows next to nothing about religion and who has never read the bible, challenging the Pope about Christianity. I would be quite rightly laughed out of the Vatican--assuming I wouldn't be anyway.

It's odd how this seeming war between religion and science has escalated, since it always seemed to me that science and religion are two completely different things that (ideally) should have two different purviews. Science is about objectively finding explanations for natural phenomena through empirically gathering evidence and reproducible experimentation. New evidence can and often does supersede older explanations, which is exactly what is supposed to happen in science. Religion, on the other hand, relies on faith and belief to give the believer's life meaning and provide a moral framework for proper behavior (which doesn't always seem to work out too well). I don't see that there is anything that precludes someone from being both scientific and religious; in fact, an excellent and inspiring recent book by the Dalai Lama (The Universe in a Single Atom) is the result of said Lama reading science books, visiting research institutions, talking with scientists, and ultimately finding no conflict between scientific thinking and the tenets of Buddhist spirituality--and in fact, he explicitly states that where scientific fact comes into conflict with long-held religious-based explanations of reality, it's religious belief that must change in the face of new evidence to the contrary. It doesn't take anything away from the spiritual and moral underpinnings of faith, it seems to me.

One of my early intellectual heroes was the late Stephen Jay Gould, a vocal proponent of evolutionary biology and someone who was also religious. (And, he having been Jewish, he probably would have objected to this whole "Darwinism caused the Holocaust" nonsense.) Gould never saw that there needed to be any conflict between the two camps. The trouble starts when one side starts insisting that the other needs to incorporate the beliefs of the other. And since we never hear of scientists insisting that particle physics be incorporated into religious sermons, guess which way this goes. It really comes down to whether religion should be taught in science class and maybe I'm a sinner, but I think science should be taught in science classes and religion should be taught in religion classes. A shocking idea, I know. This applies to any other topic; I would never expect Charles Dickens to be taught in high school biology class (but how cool would that be?), but I would also never expect to dissect a frog in English class (but, again, how cool would that be?).

Oh, as for so-called "intelligent design," I don't grant the premise. As someone who has a human body (it could be argued), I find little about it to be intelligently designed--and less so the older I get. And ask any woman who has ever given birth how intelligently designed the whole thing is; if you don't get a stream of lurid profanity as a response, I would be very surprised.


Elizabeth K. Best, PhD said...

On the surface with only a modicum of research, it must certainly seem foolish to equate Darwin with issues in the Holocaust, but it is well known and eminent among those who study the ideologies and 'mythologies' of the Third Reich. Darwin began his speculations and musings concurrent with others who at the same time were rejecting a God-man continuum, and during which Nietzche and other 'lesser-knowns' were trying for a viable 'master race' or 'super-man' paradigm, in which one could consider the human being spiritually and physically as open to 'breeding'---certainly the Eugenics movement which grew from the late 1800s to the Shoah and beyond had this as an ultimate agenda.
Darwin approached his data and musings as exactly that: while some have tried to make his death bed recantation into myth, he did indeed in a British indian newspaper interview remark that he felt others had run with his hypotheses and theories in an unhealthy way, as is so often the case in the science-popular culture dialogue. [the same was done later with'self-esteem'].
Hitler and his ideologues often touted both 'darwinism' and social darwinism as the basis of a new morality: it fit well with the agenda of an emerging master race which must subdue others and was the formidable argument underlying much: "racial science" having strong roots at the U of Jena was based totally on early Darwinian concepts and his followers. Darwin was academically related to Galton, Spearman and Pearson of Statistics fame, Bradshaw, Davies and Sanger in the US, Terman of Stanford Binet fame (son), Cyril Burt, ultimately such as Lorenz who espoused support for Nazism, denying it only later, and with a fascinating bent, the influence also traveled into environmentalism with Nazi agriculture czar Darre, psychology with such as Cattell and Eysenck, and into theology, with many involved in the modern Bible translation movement in those circles as well. Even a quick reading of Wikipedia biographies gives a brief introduction to some folks who belonged to the same circles and societies which bled into Nazism, through it, and out of it and still affect the world today. Superficially it may sound ridiculous ["I thought Hitler had something to do with it"], but these men profoundly influenced him and the movers and shakers of National Socialism, as well American and US scientists as well.

Malcolm said...

"Hitler and his ideologues often touted both 'darwinism' and social darwinism as the basis of a new morality: it fit well with the agenda of an emerging master race which must subdue others"

Actually Hitler did not mention Darwin or "darwinism" in Mein Kampf or as far as I know, his other writings.

Rather he claimed frequently to be doing Gods work. For example, here is a typical quotation, from the end of Chapter 2 of Mein Kampf.
"Hence today I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord."
Hitler's obscene anti-Semitism was able to hold sway in Germany because there was a deeply embedded history of Christian anti-Semitism in Germany, and in Europe generally. He obtained much of his "philosophy" from Martin Luther's polemic "On the Jews and their Lies."

Further - even if it were true that the Nazi's had used/abused some of the ideas and terminology of Evolutionary theory that would not invalidate the theory or the observations it is based upon any more than someone's misuse of scripture would invalidate religion (consider the Crusades or the Inquisition).