Category ►►► Evolutionary Elucidations
July 28, 2011
Right-Wing Folly, Another Reason Why I Am Not a Conservative
Two epigrams bubble up in my cerebrum at the moment. The first is just a statement of principle that seems to encapsulate the essence of Americanism; too bad so few on the side of goodness affirm it:
- For society's sake, it's best the consensus of the people sticks to the traditional values of monogamy, loyalty, decency, and faithfulness; but for liberty's sake, it's best that the people's government sticks to encouraging, not enforcing, such tradition.
And the other is more flip but equally true in my opinion:
- Extremism in defense of conservatism is -- still extremism.
A momentous civil-liberties lawsuit in Utah pits two opposing forces against each other, forever locked in battle unto the end of time (like that old Star Trek episode). Both sides spin their arguments around the Supreme Court case Lawrence v. Texas, like planets orbiting the same sun. On its face, the Court simply struck down all federal and state laws against "sodomy," however defined; it did not make any findings anent marriage.
But each side accepts the same central folly, spinning the consequences of of that supposition in opposite but equally extreme directions. Side A, which we generally call the Dark Side, abuses and twists that case pretzel-like in order to argue that laws banning polygamy are unconstitutional (as the same partisans also argue that laws banning same-sex marriage are unconstitutional); by extension, Side A argues that every state in the United States of America must immediately allow "plural" marriages.
The flip side -- which conservatives ironically call Righteousness -- uses the same argument used by polygamists: Some radical marital "reformers" make paralogical arguments, twisting the principle of simple liberty and "the right to be let alone" into a paeon to perversity; therefore, conservatives argue that liberty itself is suspect and must be curtailed. Side B ripostes that citizens must be legally prevented from doing icky things that might nauseate decent folk and frighten the horses.
But let's get less airy-fairy and more specific:
The suer is Kody Brown, who stars in a TLC "reality" show called Sister Wives, which I've never seen; the dissenter is Power Line's own Scott Johnson. And yes, on this subject, both are equally extreme and impervious to reason.
Brown argues from Lawrence that if a man has the right to cohabitate -- to live with -- more than one woman, then clearly he has the right to marry them all. That is a complete non-sequitur, of course; the principle of liberty means we can do as we please, so long as we're not harming others. In Lawrence, the Supreme Court found (albeit via flawed reasoning from the noisome Griswold v. Connectucut) a principle of liberty that it nevertheless true; it ought to be considered "self evident"... that there is a fundamental right to a zone of independence around each individual, inside of which government cannot intervene save to protect another and non-consenting individual.
That us, under liberty, if two adult men want to have intimate relations with each other, privately and without coercion, then government cannot arrest them for it. Likewise if one man and three women want to have intimate relations, or two men and one woman, so long as all are consenting adults. Prior to Lawrence, trysts of this sort were lumped under the label "sodomy" and were criminal acts under the laws of a number of states. For that matter, the same statutes often criminalized certain types of sex between husband and wife -- fellatio and cunnilingus, for example. It was an extraordinary, pre-modern burst of authoritarianism, now defended only by some movement-conservatives.
I assert that a government with the legal power to dictate what sexual positions a husband and wife, or any other group of consenting adults, can legally perform is a tyranny of the most grotesque and unAmerican sort, where citizens are owned by the State.
Yes, I know full well that the Founding Fathers, to a man, supported such laws against sodomy; they were wrong. They were misled by the emotional and religious baggage of their society and upbringing, which prevented them from seeing that the logic of their own arguments for liberty belied their emotional inconsistency, just as it belied acceptance of slavery and of state-established churches. Either one believes in freedom of conscience; or one believes that ultimately, the State can condemn you for dissent, thoughtcrime, or nonconformity. There really is no middle ground.
But granting the fundamental right to do something perverse does not obligate society to applaud the perversity: The same freedom of conscience that says I cannot stop Brown from living with three "sister wives" in addition to his legal spouse likewise prevents him from forcing me to sanctify such a relationship by calling it "marriage." But that is exactly what Kody Brown demands:
Reality-TV star Kody Brown and his “sister wives” may not intend to be an example of the “slippery slope” in the gay-marriage debate, but their new lawsuit against Utah’s anti-polygamy laws bolsters the argument that legalizing marriage for same-sex couples could open the door to recognition of other kinds of marriages.
Mr. Brown; his legal wife, Meri Brown; and “sister wives” Janelle Brown, Christine Brown and Robyn Sullivan, who appear with their 16 children on “Sister Wives” on TLC, want Utah’s anti-polygamy laws declared unconstitutional and unenforceable on their “plural family.” [Emphasis added -- DaH]
I readily admit there is a serious problem with the Utah statute, if it's being accurately and honestly reported by the Washington Times (and I have no reason to believe otherwise): The law evidently bans not only polygamy itself, the marrying of more than one wife, but something more sinister:
In the Brown lawsuit, Mr. Turley and Mr. Alba said the Brown family, members of the Apostolic United Brethren faith, has committed no crime except to live together, “motivated by their sincere religious beliefs and love for one another.”
States cannot “criminalize consensual intimate relationships, including homosexual relationships, between unmarried adults,” the lawyers wrote, citing the 2003 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Lawrence v. Texas.
And yet Utah has a law that forbids a legally married person from “purport[ing] to marry another person or cohabit[ing] with another person,” the lawyers wrote. [Emphasis added -- DaH.]
With this and other anti-polygamy laws, Utah “criminalizes not just polygamous marriages, but also an array of plural intimate relationships and associations of consenting adults,” Mr. Turley and Mr. Alba wrote.
In other words, the Utah law bans not only plural marriage, it appears also to ban plural living arrangements, even those not legally blessed as "marriage." Only one of the women with whom Brown lives is his legal wife; to the eyes of the law, the rest are just honeys.
The Brown family’s “basic liberties and equal protection” are being violated, they added, asking the court to “preliminarily and permanently” block enforcement of Utah’s laws that ban and criminalize polygamy.
I absolutely agree that the "basic liberties" of Brown and the individual women are violated by the Utah anti-polygamy statute, but only to the extent that it criminalizes living together. But I reject the "equal protection" argument, the ground used in most cases that seek to overturn the traditional definition of marriage; and in any event, the solution to the unconstitutionality of one part of a law is not to toss the entire law out, but to make the smallest possible change consonant with the demands of liberty, as enunciated by the Court.
In this case, toss out the part that bans "cohabit[ation] with another person," but keep the part that bans declaring such relationships legal "marriage." That is, ban polygamy but not shacking up.
This is where the logic of the Left flies to flinders: Under liberty, you can do a great many bizarre, outre, unconventional, kooky, or perverse things; but one thing you cannot demand is that society embrace and ratify your perversities and eccentricities, a democratic State's imprimatur and nihil obstat. You have the right to give yourself a high colonic with Liquid Draino, but it's a stupid idea; and don't expect me to shout "mazel tov" when you finish.
I would have thought it obvious: I am allowed to write what I please; but the State isn't required to support my writing or even give me a prize. In the immortal words of Thomas Jefferson, "duh!" But it appears that Brown believes that anything he has a right to do, he also has a right to demand official praise for doing.
In a freakish twist of fate, contemporary conservatives appear to have locked themselves into supporting the same paralogia, albeit to prove the opposite conclusion.
It seems monstrous to me to argue that any government, even at the state or local level, can put you in prison for using an unapproved sexual position in the privacy of your own home. But when movement conservatives argue that Lawrence v. Texas should be overturned -- as nearly all of them do -- that is precisely the position they stake out: They're all in favor of "individual liberty" -- but not when that means engaging in sex that conservatives don't like. Casual day has gone too far; there oughta be a law!
If it was simple prejudice, t'would a simple task to point out the hypocrisy; more than likely, a fair-minded person would admit being led astray by thinking with his heart, when the proper organ for such cogitation is further north. But our movement-conservatives (with whom I typically ally) buttress their glandular rejection of homosexuality and polyamory with specious, backwards reasoning: They argue that Lawrence must be wrong because it leads to overturning traditional marriage. Or as a pal of mine says, "It can't be true, because it would be so dreadful if it were true!"
In other words, conservatives typically argue that the liberal argument is right: If you have a right to cohabitate with anybody, that necessarily implies a right to marry anybody.
Therefore, you have no right to cohabitate. (Supposed "reductio ad absurdum.")
But the absurdity is not Lawrence v. Texas; the absurdity is inventing a nonexistent and inconsistent rule of inference, that allowing an action means approval of that action... the invalidity of which we surely have proven by now (ad nauseum).
But here is Scott Johnson making that exact argument in the Power Line post:
Now comes Professor Jonathan Turley to the defense of polygamy. Professot Turley represents one Kody Brown, a man, and his four wives and 16 children -- who, he notes in a New York Times op-ed column, are the focus of a reality program on the cable channel TLC called “Sister Wives.” One of the marriages is legal and the others are what the family calls “spiritual.” Professor Turley is lead counsel in the recently filed lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the Utah law criminalizing polygamy....
Professor Turley relies for his argument on the logic of the Supreme Court’s 2003 decision overturning state sodomy laws in Lawrence v. Texas. Professor Turley has a point -- indeed, some of us criticized the Lawrence decision on precisely that ground -- though Justice Kennedy’s opinion waltzed away from the question of polygamy. And it didn’t even mention laws against bestiality and incest. Perhaps Professor Turley will undertake the glorious cause of extending Lawrence to them in another case.
The link, supplied by Scott himself, points to a Power Line post of his from 2003, just after the Court decided Lawrence. Here is the smoking gun:
In one sense the Supreme Court’s opinion today in Lawrence v. Texas, asserting the existence of a constitutional right to homosexual sodomy, was utterly predictable. Thirty years ago the liberal constitutional scholar John Hart Ely wrote a classic law review article (“The Wages of Crying Wolf”) condemning the jurisprudence of Roe v. Wade, and Lawrence is in a sense only a few steps further down the jurisprudential arc that will end, as Justice Scalia notes in dissent, in the constitutional right to homosexual marriage, prostitution, bigamy, and adult incest.
There is a trivial sense in which Scalia could be right; lawless judges can seize upon and twist the language of Lawrence to argue something radically different from the actual findings. However, the true source of Scott's position would seem not to be reason and logic but something more atavistic: a visceral loathing of certain icky kinds of sex (as opposed to other, more privileged positions and partners). He continues in lurid prose:
Among the founders, sodomy was universally condemned as a crime against nature. It was illegal in each of the thirteen states existing at the time the Constitution was ratified and the Bill of Rights was adopted. In Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia, it was a crime punishable by death. When Jefferson wrote an amendment to the criminal code lessening the penalty for sodomy, he nevertheless classed it as a crime with rape, polygamy, and incest.
Today the Supreme Court declares that homosexual sodomy constitutes “a form of liberty of the person in both its spatial and more transcendent dimensions.” Justice Kennedy, the author of this nauseating palaver, is obviously so in love with what he thinks is his own eloquent rhetoric that he fails to notice his laughable double entendre. What is not funny, however, is the destruction of the recognition of the laws of nature and nature’s God on which our true rights depend. The Supreme Court’s opinion today is an act of political destruction that should be recognized as such.
All that -- for holding that private sex between consenting adults is none of the State's damn business! It's a marvel Scott didn't toss in heresy, treason, crimes against humanity and the future, and the ritualistic summoning of the Elder Gods as further indictments. (I can only infer he was so hopping mad, he didn't think of them.)
So what do we have? The same conservatives who are outraged that the government dares tell them what to wear, how much to eat, where to recreate, who to choose as their doctors, how to finance and invest, and whether companies can fly corporate jets, now welcome (with gusto!) government control of sexual relations.
What's wrong with this picture?
The only distinction between the activities above is that the last is the most personal, the most intimate, and lies most thoroughly within the "zone of independence" of them all. Is the conservative argument that the more private and emotionally intimate the activity, the greater the authority of the State to control and regulate it?
Where else does that priority hold? What parents teach their children about right and wrong is surely more intimate and private than what they teach them about fashion and hairstyle; should the former therefore be subject to rigid governmental review and control, with only the latter trivia left to the discretion of individual parents? The argument is risible.
I wish I could call it a straw-man construction, but I can think of no other reason why conservatives argue that the State can tell us who to make love to -- but for God's sake, don't monkey with our Happy Meals!
But lose not sight of the point: Scott Johnson embraces the cri de coeur from fellow movement-conservative, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, that the freedom to be intimate with whom you want (rather than with whom the government allows) is logically equivalent to license to legally marry persons of the same sex, close relatives, and persons already married, and license to commit the inhumane crime of bestiality and even the horrific, violent crime of forcible rape! Yes, I can certainly see that those acts are all of a feather.
And where is Scott's argument why this should be so? It doesn't seem facially obvious to me. Would he likewise argue that if government allows nude beaches, we'll be constitutionally required to legalize public orgies in middle school? The route between point A and point B on the "slippery slope" seems no less preposterous than the connection between decriminalizing "sodomy" (in private, among consenting adults) and legalizing bigamy, same-sex marriage, consanguineous marriage, bestiality, and rape.
I don't know about Scott himself, but I speculate that for most conservatives, they have no real syllogism; their "thoughts" on this issue are actually feelings, emotional responses that have no, and need no rational explanation.
Where does this leave us? It's not the only issue on which conservatives can be as mulish and irrational as liberals. Immigration and drug policy are two others, but the worst is modern biological evolutionary theory. The last is the most similar example to conservative allergy to sexual liberty:
- Many dyed in the wool atheists -- including Richard Dawkins, Chris Hitchens, Philip Pullman (of the wretched His Dark Materials books) -- insist that accepting the idea of evolution by natural selection requires one to reject God and faith and embrace atheism.
- A large number of conservatives with inadequate scientific schooling -- including Ann Coulter, Glenn Beck, Michael Medved, Ben Stein -- completely swallow the liberal argument.
- Therefore, being unwilling to reject God, they instead reject modern evolutionary biology, casting overboard more than a century of brilliant and apolitical science.
In fact, there is no logical or rational connection between allowing sexual freedom and requiring the definition of marriage to include any old relationship somebody might want; just as there is no reasoned conflict at all between biological evolution and faith in a theistic God, as Francis S. Collins conclusively proves in the Language of God; but there you are: Conservatives reject both as unthinkingly and reflexively as liberals denounce the Koch brothers, and for eerily similar reasons.
So I say again: Extremism in defense of conservatism is certainly less annoying than the liberal strain... but it's no less extremist -- and no more rational.
Cross-posted on Hot Air's rogues' gallery...
July 1, 2009
The Membrane Connecting Science, Morality, and Aesthetics - More Thoughts
In the comments of a previous post, frequent commenter Geoman wrote the following:
Which brings me to this: the involvement of god or supernatural forces, in any way shape or form, automatically negates your argument as science.
This is true, as far as it goes: Of course discussion of the nature of God is not "science." But not being science is not synonymous with not being worth discussing or not rational or not serious... or even not real. That error -- made by virtually all those particular scientists (or science writers) who also happen to be atheists, is just as egregious as Michael Behe claiming that evolution requires the specific finger of God to arrange various systems of a bacterium into a flagellum.
All that science can say about non-scientific questions is -- science can't say anything about non-scientific questions.
That does not translate to, "Non-scientific questions are nonsense that need never be considered." It also doesn't translate to, "Things outside science are fantasies that don't really exist." But we do need to recognize that they can be neither proven nor disproven by the scientific method; they may well be urgent, vital questions -- but they must be discussed and debated without the imprimatur of "science."
The danger of mistaking any systematized mode of thinking for the only such available is twofold:
- That we try to drape the mantle of science over questions of politics, religion, morality, aesthetics, or sociology.
This results in, e.g., "social Darwinism," where the undeniable reality of evolutionary biology (henceforth "evo-bio") is abused to declare one race or class of people to be superior to another. (Oddly enough, those making such declarations invariably find themselves in the superior, never the inferior group.)
As noted earlier in the comments of the linked post, such ideological abuse-of-theory does not invalidate the original science that was perverted; but it can taint it politically, causing people wrongly to reject it, in the mistaken belief that the abuse is a "natural consequence" of the real science... and under the well-known fallacy that if the natural consequence of something is bad, its supposed source must be false. ("It can't be true, because it would be so dreadful if it were!")
The corollary danger, though, is just as grim:
- That we reject anything not provable by science as fiction, fantasy, or meaningless sentimentality.
What an ugly world that would be! And a dangerous one; as above, you cannot "prove" traditional morality (justice, decency, loyalty, courage, and such) by science... so such hyper-rationalists must reject morality as a guide to behavior. They must also reject aesthetic considerations such as beauty, taste, and love; as well as frivolities such as play and recreation. One becomes an automaton.
To be a whole person, we need both scientific rationalism and other varieties of rationalism. To be a whole society, we need all of the above, but also religious rationalism -- a certain kind of religion, that which Dennis Prager identifies as "ethical monotheism." Individuals may not need religion to be moral, but Prager has convinced me that societies do.
Each kind of reasoning must stay in its proper sphere, but each sphere must have some limited volume of overlap with all of the others. As organic minds, we cannot compartmentalize, say, our scientific from our religious reasoning: Each must take account of the other, or we fall prey to Multiple Epistemology Syndrome -- one mode of thinking tells us something is true, while another tells us equally strongly that it is false; and there is no way to mediate between the severed pieces of mind.
The proper answer to the question of evo-bio and Mankind is to accept that evo-bio is how our bodies biologically evolved... and also, that if a theistic God exists, He clearly chose evo-bio as the means to create us (and also as the means to create porpoises, penguins, pike eels, petunias, and paramecia).
By definition of omniscience, a theistic God would know that setting the various laws of the universe and physical constants the way they are, along with a particular initial state of matter and energy, would result eventually in us. But that also requires us to accept that the same space-time and mass-energy "initial condition" might also have created (and continue to create) similar evo-bio elsewhere. In other words, if God works miracles by science, we might not be unique. There may be others out there going through similar intellectual angst, confronting equivalent crises of faith or science; we cannot rule it out by glib vanity and Biblical narcissism.
That same God would necessarily transcend the physical universe (or else He couldn't have created it!) -- so if He exists, he can also be the source of kinds of reasoning that transcend scientific reasoning. That doesn't make them better; they just answer different questions than does scientific reasoning.
In other words, the religious have no reason to reject science a priori; nor do the scientific have any reason to reject religion a priori. They exist quite comfortably side by side; and neither pursuit is inherently useless, meaningless, sterile, or Orwellian.
This seems very obvious to me (and to such prominent religious scientists as Francis Collins), and I've never understood why it seems such a stumbling block to a majority in both camps, the scientific and the religious.
June 29, 2009
The Nuclear Winter of Conservative Discontent
I have finally identified the greatest bane of conservatives, their bugaboo, their bête noire -- the great barrier that retards them from winning many of the most vital political arguments of today. But let me sneak up on it a bit: What do all these contemporary issues hold in common?
- Cap and Trade -- rather, Cripple and Tax
- The expansion of nuclear power generation
The EPA's attempt to outlaw CO2 (and now NO2 as well; hat tip to Hugh Hewitt)
- Missile defense, both theater and strategic
- Nationalization of major industries
- Nationalization of health care to a single-payer, government-controlled system
- The promiscuous proliferation of "endangered species" that are, in fact, not endangered
First, each of these controversies is a wedge issue by which Republicans and conservatives can oust Democrats and liberals from Congress -- and potentially from la Casa Blanca, as well.
Second, each is fundamentally a scientific question, from climate science, to nuclear physics, to aeronautics and cybernetics, to the optimal pursuit of medical research, to economic science, to the biological sciences.
And most important, for each of these wedge issues, the Right can only win if it is more credible when speaking about scientific matters.
It's not good enough merely to be no less credible than, on a par with the Left -- in this case, a "tie" in rationalism goes to whoever is best at slinging emotional arguments; and in that arena, the Left always has the home-field advantage.
All of which leads me, by a commodious vicus of recirculation, back to the hubris-flaw of conservatives; and that is, of course, the squirrely refusal of so many prominent conservatives to accept the findings of a century and a half of evolutionary biology.
That intellectual blind spot torpedoes conservative credibilty on a host of other scientific issues:
- Sure, the Right argues that so-called anthropogenic climate change is a myth; but they don't even believe in evolution! How can we trust anything they say about global warming?
- Conservatives believe in missile defense for America; but they also believe that no species has ever naturally evolved into another, that humans were here for the entire existence of life on this planet, that the Earth is only a few thousand years old, and that each and every species had to be individually designed and assembled by God -- that natural selection had nothing to do with it. Do they also believe in the Tooth Fairy?
- Republicans say that if we're worried about burning too much fossil fuels, we should switch to using more nuclear power; they say that new reactors, such as Pebble Bed Modular Technology and Integral Fast reactors, are safe. But can we really trust the judgment of people who think that dinosaurs and humans co-existed -- like in the Flintstones?
This one bizarre religious belief -- based ulimately upon the foolish misunderstanding that accepting evolution means you must reject God -- is the single greatest cause of conservative's loss of credibility in scientific debates... a fact driven home to me every other week, when I'm accused of the same mental myopia (and also accused of being a conservative).
Worse, I'm convinced that the only reason so many conservatives think only atheists can support evolution -- is that they believe certain well-known atheists who say so! Good heavens, why would so many conservatives believe that socialist atheists like Richard (the God Delusion) Dawkins, Christopher (God Is Not Great) Hitchens, and Phillip (the His Dark Materials (Golden Compass) trilogy) Pullman have conservatives' best interests at heart?
Here's a newsflash: Those atheists are radical leftists -- and consummate propagandists. They will tell you that all evolutionary scientists are atheists; but that is a patent falsehood, as Professor Francis Collins -- an evangelical Christian who headed the Human Genome Project -- ably argues in his magnificant book, the Language of God.
The scientific evidence for evolution by variation/mutation and natural selection is overwhelming; and no respected, peer-review-published scientist in the field of biology disputes the fundamentals of the discipline. (Everyone disputes the details; that's the very nature of science.) The unanimity is so stark that the nutters at the creationist Discovery Institute are reduced to babbling about conspiracy theories to "silence dissent," a facile and convenient claim most recently pushed by noted actor, conservative columnist, and evolutionary biologist (I made up that last one) Ben Stein.
But for purely religious reasons, conservatives who are also believing Christians -- which is a huge subset -- plus some politically conservative Jews, have an irreducible simplicity as a core axiom: That evolutionary theory, which they call "Darwinism," is false. They reason backwards from this axiom to declare invalid any experiment, observation, or conclusion that supports it. And in the process, they fatally damage their own credibility to argue any case that depends upon the ability to reason logically or to understand basic scientific principles. Or even the scientific method itself.
How can they maintain that a conspiracy of silence exists to silence dissenters to the fatally discredited Globaloney thesis (which is true) if they become objects of ridicule by arguing that the same sort of conspiracy silences mythical armies of scientists who would otherwise reject evolution? They make themselves sound like Agent Fox Mulder; they make themselves laughingstocks.
Worse, they even damage my credibility, due to guilt by association; and I'm bloody sick of it. Every time I argue science with a liberal, I must spend the first 500 words defending myself from the false charge of rejecting evolution -- and the next 2,000 words mitigating the damage from the same charge -- but more true this time -- leveled against the Right in general.
Such anti-evolutionarians have become the anchor holding us back from overturning the nonsensical, bogus psdueoscience of the Left, from the banning of silicone breast implants, to the criminal idiocy of parents who refuse to allow their children to be vaccinated, to the phobic fear of nuclear power plants by liberals who had already worn out their videotapes of the China Syndrome before it even came out on DVD.
Evolution is the great counterexample cited to prove that the Right is no more rational than the Left. Thanks; the rest of us really appreciate being lumped together with Ben Stein and Michael Medved.
(This post was, of course, driven by my annoyance at Medved presenting yet another knucklehead railing against "Darwinism," citing the Discovery Institute's all-purpose catechism of "irreducible complexity"... that mutable charge that shifts from biological system to biological system, always one step ahead of the very reduction of complexity it claims cannot occur.)
February 24, 2009
Michael Medved: Still Liberal After All These Years
(But of course, I think most of us already knew that.)
I was listening to Mr. M. today; in his first segment, he examined the phenomenon of blacks as monkeys... well, to be fair, the phenomenon of blacks claiming that any reference to monkeys or apes -- no matter how far removed from racial considerations -- is actually a racist reference to blacks as monkeys, and therefore requires an abject, belly-crawling apology, contrition, and a healthy financial donation to Al Sharpton.
All right; fair topic. But in the middle of his intro, he noted that Charles Darwin, "who we honored the same day as Lincoln's birthday" -- possibly because they were, in fact, born on exactly the same day: February 12th, 1809 -- was a racist who believed that blacks were closer to monkeys and apes than were whites.
Again, fair point: But the proper conclusion to draw is that, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many great men and women were flaming racists... not that Darwin in particular was a more egregious racist than his peers (he wasn't).
The second time Medved noted that point, I was a bit puzzled; why harp on poor Charles Darwin? Literature from this period is replete with such casually racist observations and portrayals, from Harriet Beecher Stowe to Rudyard Kipling to Booth Tarkington... and they're even found in such notably anti-racist works as Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn: The character of "Nigger Jim," while depicted as the most kind and decent person in the work, is nevertheless painted as a shuffling Stepin Fetchit, not a visionary like Frederick Douglass or Booker T. Washington (throughout the book, until the very end, Jim thoroughly accepts his inferiority compared to whites, for example).
So why Darwin specifically?
I didn't realize Medved's real purpose, however, until the third time in the same hour that Medved brought out that "startling" fact (in case anyone had missed all but he final ten minutes of the segment) -- this time in response to a black caller who said the New York Post cartoon of the bullet-riddled corpse of Travis the Chimp, with the caption "They’ll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill," clearly played to the latent racism of American society: Medved believes the nineteenth-century racism of Darwin completely discredits evolutionary theory.
How could he think that? What would Darwin's racism have to do with the validity of modern evolutionary theory? We all agree that William Shockley supported eugenics (he doesn't appear to have been a racist, but eugenics is bad enough); does that mean transistors don't really work?
I believe the problem is that Medved either doesn't understand the scientific method, or more dastardly, understands it but hopes to confuse his listeners for purely tendentious reasons. He never discusses "evolutionary theory," "biological evolution," or even just evolution; he invariably refers to that entire subject as "Darwinism," and he conflates biological evolution with "social Darwinism," generally, though somewhat inaccurately, identified with eugenics. Medved doesn't see "Darwinism" as a scientific theory but rather a cult of personality, like Scientology, the Branch Davidians, or Jim Jones' People's Temple in Guyana. Thus to Medved, the best way to "discredit" evolutionary theory is to smear Charles Darwin. There, that'll put paid to all this nonsense!
This tactic is a dangerous tendency alike of conservatives like Ben Stein and pseudoconservative former leftist radicals such as Michael Medved; we've discussed it a number of times before, going all the way back to the dim mists of antiquity (2005):
- Evolution, ID, and Science
- I appear to have become a Nazi...
- Expelled: No Intelligence Offered - part 1 (Win Ben Stein's Monkey Trial!)
- Expelled: No Intelligence Offered - part 2 (Ben in the Dock)
- Semi-Intelligent Design
(The last is a rare post by Big Lizards co-founder Brad Linaweaver.)
This particular rhetorical trick is quintessentially liberal, though sadly, it's used by all sides: It's "Fruit of the Forbidden Tree" Reductionism (FFTR). The Left uses it almost to the exclusion of all other arguments. It consists in first reducing an entire argument, school of thought, philosophy, or movement to a single "founding" individual... then personally smearing that individual, thus "discrediting" the entire movement. Thus:
- American Democracy was invented by Thomas Jefferson in his Declaration of Independence; but Jefferson the hypocrite clearly did not believe that "all men are created equal" or were "endowed" with "liberty," because he himself kept slaves; therefore, Jeffersonianism is irretrievably racist, regressive, and belongs in the dustbin of history.
- Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who started the anti-Communist hysteria, was a bigot, a racist, and a drunkard; it's no wonder that many decades of McCarthyism have failed to uncover any Commies hiding under our beds.
- Ronald Reagan was one of those rich and privileged Hollywood elites who betrayed their own fellow union members by denouncing them to McCarthyite witch-hunts; this explains Reaganism's later betrayal of the whole country by slashing taxes on the rich and crushing the poor.
And here's another one from the other side, besides "Darwinism":
- In 1938, the cowardly, pacifist appeaser Neville Chamberlain gave Adolf Hitler everything he wanted as part of the European "peace process," imagining this would satisfy Hitler and prevent war; now, seventy years later, we're supposed to give Mahmoud Ahmadijejad everything he wants in the new Iranian "peace process"... which will have the same effect as last time.
Let's dissect that last. First, note that it's not necessary actually to use an eponym like "Chamberlainism;" the sin is in the identification itself, however expressed. Second, I agree with the underlying conclusion... but finally, FFTR is not about the conclusion, it's about the rhetorical road by which one arrives there. Its essence is:
- Identify the enemy philosophy with a single individual;
- Villify that individual, especially if one does so unfairly;
- Conclude, by the mother of all non-sequiturs, that the enemy philosophy is thereby refuted.
In the last example above, (a) the philosophy of appeasement is identified with Neville Chamberlain, as if he had invented it; (b) Chamberlain is ludicrously caricatured as a coward, a pacifist, and a blind fool who believed that the Munich Agreement would permanently prevent war with Nazi Germany, none of which is accurate; and (c) the arguer uses the identification and denunciation to shortcut the heavy lifting of really analyzing appeasement to see where it works and where it doesn't.
In fact, appeasement does sometimes work. For one example, in 1978, Israel returned the Sinai back to Egypt in exchange for the promise that Egypt -- which had taken the lead in all three previous major wars against Israel, in 1948, 1967, and the Yom Kippur War of 1973, just five years before the Accords -- would normalize relations with Israel. This is classic appeasement... land for the promise of peace. But in fact, it has worked. Since 1978, and the Egypt-Israel peace treaty of the next year, Egypt has kept the peace with Israel and even fought against Hamas in Gaza (to some extent). Hey, appeasement worked for more than half of Israel's existence; we can't deny that stubborn fact.
Thus, those of us who oppose appeasement anent Iran (which is a horse for another day) must analyze and explain why it wouldn't work and would be a catastrophe, despite the positive example of Egypt. That complicates the argument, though not unduly; it is, however, an argument of some subtlety and the polar opposite of FFTR.
FFTR flattens all distinction, subtlety, and nuance into one big smear of fire-engine red. A good analogy increases understanding of an issue by removing the structure of an argument from the emotion-laden specifics; but a rhetorical trick like FFTR reduces understanding of the issue by conflating unlike things as if they were one and the same.
And that surely is true with Medved's and Stein's full-throated employment of FFTR to "refute" modern evolutionary theory (ET): They flatten all distinctions between ET and religion, between ET and "social Darwinism," between logic and sincerity, and between legitimate and ideological personnel decisions; they leave behind only a raw, "four legs good, two legs bad" bleat designed to prevent rational discussion, trying to silence science.
And in yet another rhetorical trick filtched from liberals, Medved and Stein then project their own thuggishness onto their victims -- Expelled is the poster-child of such role reversal!
It's disgusting when a former left-liberal radical war protester, like Michael Medved or David Horowitz, reverts to form, seizing upon the rhetorical tricks familiar to his misspent youth; but it's utterly vile when a lifelong conservative like Ben Stein appropriates alien, leftist tactics to his own cause. Buckley never did this, nor did Goldwater; in fact, not even liberal-turned-conservative-icon Ronald Reagan did it.
When those identified as conservative use Carville-like tricks to bamboozle the audience, they discredit not only themselves but the rest of us as well, handing open leftists the perfect ammunition to use for their own adventures in "Fruit of the Forbidden Tree" Reductionism.
Thanks again, guys. I truly enjoy being forced to swim upstream through your rhetorical sewers, undoing the damage you cause, before I can even get to my actual point.
May 5, 2008
Ben Stein's witty agit-prop documentary is not primarily about science. It is about the politics of science. As such, it documents how some of the ideas of Charles Darwin have been misused, creating stumbling blocks to unfettered research in disciplines unrelated to evolutionary science.
During an interview with Geraldo Rivera, Stein insisted on a clear distinction between "intelligent design" and "creationism." Stein does not view himself as a creationist but rather as an opponent of what he considers to be the State Religion of "Darwinism." The trouble is that the film itself lacks intelligent design at crucial moments.
When scientists are interviewed who happen to be atheists there is no doubt that they employ science as a means of bolstering their belief system. Metaphysics aint the same as physics! Richard Dawkins is always honest and even complains about mainstream Christians (Catholic and Protestant) who reconcile God and evolution. Pope John Paul was a famous example of this.
Here is where we get into trouble. Every time a propagandist is about to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth he simply cannot resist cheap shots and omissions. Sure, Stein is better than Michael Moore or Ann Coulter. So what? He doesn't heed his better angels in this film. The result is a good film that doesn't tell the whole truth. This could have been a great film.
When Stein interviews the heretics against Darwinism it is rarely clear who is a creationist as opposed to someone who has no problem with the obvious fact that species originate from other species over the vast gulfs of time required for this genuine miracle. There is at least one creationist in the woodpile who pooh-poohs changes in anything but an already established species.
Close attention to this movie inspires our own dangerous thoughts. For example, this writer never forgets the science fiction of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Quatermass and the Pit, both advancing ideas that would fall under the heading of tinkering with the evolutionary process (i.e., intelligent design at interesting moments). Never mind that these works of SF are not in the business of providing proof for their wild speculations. According to the State Religion of "Darwinism" -- that Stein proves exists to some extent -- these movies are not science fiction. They have a tinge of intelligent design. Intelligent design of any kind is indistinguishable from creationism. Therefore quite a lot of science fiction (if you add it all up) is dastardly creationist fiction. This burning issue is not going to be discussed in scientific journals but it is at the core of why Stein has a point.
What came first, the chicken or the egg? Creationists say "Chicken" and evolutionists say "Egg" -- and your humble reviewer likes his science sunny side up. Of course the evolutionary process is real. We don't need no stinkin' fossils to prove that. All we need is to take a good look at the duckbill platypus or the angler fish.
But Expelled shows molecular biologists punished for questioning any part of the old Natural Selection notions of what was an amazing theory in the Nineteenth Century but maybe could use an upgrade. Darwin's ideas of the cell were primitive compared to what we now understand. One commentator says that if Darwin saw the cell as an automobile it is now a galaxy. The most visually stunning part of the film shows the cell as sort of a surreal Disney nano-factory. Hey, that's not the Garden of Eden! How can any science person get in trouble with another science person over nifty stuff like that?
Michael Shermer tells Stein early in the film that no one loses a job for the heresy of intelligent design in various fields. Stein shows case after case of people not having contracts renewed for exactly that. A professor with tenure couldn't be fired but his grants mysteriously went extinct. Coincidence? It just happened naturally. No prime movers need apply.
Stein wins this part of the argument. There is a Science Orthodoxy that has nothing to do with scientific method. Grant money is the math that matters.
Ben Stein should have quit while he was ahead. There are two things he gets spectacularly wrong. The first is the casino cartoon where he attempts to show how highly improbable it is for a specific genome code to emerge by random chance. At this point we turn the review over to J. Kent Hastings (co-author with the reviewer of the novel Anarquia) who knows a little something about science. Take it away, Kent:
"There are many viable non-lethal mutations that can survive and reproduce. Perhaps getting a particular exact genome code is as improbable as Stein suggests. But some organism that fits an ecological niche will very likely emerge with an equally improbable code. The scientific consensus is that the vast amount of time since life began on Earth is sufficient to account for the species we observe today and the fossil remains of any extinct species."
This reviewer claims to know a little about scientists and that's where Stein really screws up. He digs up the old fossil canard and tries to link poor Charles Darwin to the Nazis. Stein sort of says he isn't doing what he then proceeds to do, thus qualifying him to be the kind of person who fires other persons without admitting the reasons. Charles Darwin was not a Social Darwinist. He had nothing to do with eugenics. Stein plays a trick worthy of Michael Moore. He quotes a typical Nineteenth Century attitude from Darwin about the breeding of better sorts of animals so isn't a shame that better people don't do all the breeding. That is very different from equating Darwin with the mystical racism of Hitler. It also isn't the same as Darwin advocating any kind of government program to do the impossible by Darwin's standards. The author of The Origin of Species didn't think that human beings could guide the course of evolution.
Ben Stein makes sure that we in the audience know that he's Jewish during this section. He doesn't bother informing us that the vast majority of educated Nineteenth Century Jews could and did make the same kind of remarks that he berates Darwin for making. If the film had ended here it would have left a very bad taste.
For the good of the film, it ends on a much higher note. Stein deserves an Oscar for this bit. Panspermia rears its Hydra heads at just the right moment. Dawkins and Stein meet in a battle worthy of King Kong vs. Godzilla! The contemporary world's most famous atheist insists he doesn't believe that any concept of a god or goddess could have any merit. Stein plays his victim, the passionate disbeliever, like a musical instrument. Somehow he gets the great man to admit the possibility of life being seeded on Earth from space. And then comes the kicker. There could be super intelligent aliens involved somewhere along the line.
Yes, Ben Stein gets that admission from Richard Dawkins. Game over! What, something to study? Intelligent whatsit? Life engineered somehow? Richard Dawkins is married to Lala Ward, the second Lady Romana on the greatest science fiction TV series, Doctor Who. You'd think he would have remembered some of the god-like super aliens that Lala Ward had over for dinner and avoided Stein's trap.
Earlier in the film, and in the trailer for the film, the seed was planted. Evolution is not about the origin of life. It's about the origin of species. There is no convincing science about the origin of life because we still don't know. Evolution is not a theory. It's an established fact. But the origin of life is still theory!!! Take your amino acid mud bath and invite Dr. Frankenstein over with his electrical equipment. Or imagine some incomprehensible something speaking a Word. Or imagine eternal life and the eternal return if you prefer. So far, science doesn't have the answer. The atheists insist on what the answer must be but science is silent on the subject. We could find life forms on a thousand worlds and still not know how it all began.
If Dr. Frankenstein discovers the ultimate question we can hope he shares the answer before the villagers get to him with fire and pitchfork. And we can be sure of one thing. After seeing Expelled, we know that the lynch mob is as likely to storm out of the university classrooms as the village tavern or church.
Brad Linaweaver is an award winning science fiction author and libertarian activist. This article is available to anyone who wants it so long as there is no editing and the author's name is spelled correctly. It can also appear on copyrighted sites: just run copyright 2008 by the author with permission to reprint granted to everyone.
April 25, 2008
Expelled: No Intelligence Offered - part 2 (Ben in the Dock)
(For Brad Linaweaver's review, see here now!)
Here lieth the second and final part of the analysis and meditation upon Ben Stein's movie Expelled, wherein is to be found absolutely everything that is wrong with Intelligent Design write large across the silver screen. Cushlamochree!
(The first part contained fits 1-5; this part contains the final four fits.)
Fit the sixth: Hear ye, hear ye!
Critical to the core thesis of Expelled is the claim that the high priests of "normal science" have never really looked at ID; they just fire "dissenters"to silence them and shut out the new paradigm. ("Paradigm" in this case means "a set of assumptions, concepts, values, and practices that constitutes a way of viewing reality for the community that shares them, especially in an intellectual discipline.")
But this simply is not true; many scientists have responded to the claims of ID -- very effectively; Francis Collins is only one among many. The problem is that ID proponents have no persuasive scientific answer to the points raised against it.
The primary argument against ID is that it does not fit the normal definition of science: In order for any hypothesis or system of thought to be considered "scientific," it must pass all of the following five tests:
- It must be predictable: It must tell us what we will find if we make certain measurements in the future, measurements we have not yet made.
- It must be tentative: It must say, "This is how things appear at the moment, according to current evidence." Since theory flows from evidence, then as evidence changes, the theory must also change. If the system is eternal -- if contradictory evidence "proves" (to proponents) that the evidence must therefore be mistaken -- then it is not science.
- It must be falsifiable: Proponents must enunciate some humanly possible experiment that has the potential to totally discredit their hypothesis. In other words, "if measurement X isn't within this range, then my theory is shot down.
- It must be based upon previous scientific inquiry, not pulled out of left field; it must arise from the literature and be compatible with all previous observations, allowing for occasional experimental error.
- It must invoke only natural causes that still exist in the world today and can be measured by other means, not supernatural causes that either no longer exist or never could have been observed in the first place.
So does ID meet these requirements? Remember, it must pass all five tests... but in fact, Intelligent Design passes none of them.
It predicts nothing; ID proponents never say, "make the following brand-new observation, and this is what you will find."
It is not tentative; for example, no matter how many examples of "irreducible complexity" are shown to be thoroughly reducible, Behe, the Discovery Institute, and all of Intelligent Designdom stubbornly embrace the conclusion that life is irreducibly complex, hence could not have evolved via traditional evolutionary theory. Faith in Intelligent Design is primary; evidence that does not conform is rejected.
ID invokes a cause -- the "Designer" -- that not only cannot be measured today, He, She, It, or They would actually exist outside the physical universe itself, if exist the Designer did. Therefore, it is definitely not falsifiable, either; how could any experiment imaginable disprove the existence of a designer who is, by definition, outside the entire spacetime continuum and operates according to laws far beyond all physical laws that humans can detect?
And ID arises from no previous scientific theory; it arises from the ashes of Creation Science, which itself is not a science (and arose from Biblical Creationism). The idea of a "Designer" bubbled up as a way to restore Genesis literalism in the wake of the publication of the Origin of Species; and it came from religious leaders who were critical of evolutionary theory back when Charles Darwin was still alive. Their main complaint, like Phillip Johnson's, was that natural selection appeared to dethrone God and raise up blind chance in His place.
All right, perhaps Intelligent Design is not itself a scientific theory. But isn't it at least a valid critique of traditional evolutionary theory? Shouldn't it be taken seriously as a worthwhile activity and given some latitude to be developed? After all, science (including evolutionary theory) has a long and honorable tradition of responding to strong, scientific criticism by reworking its theories and models to fix any contradictions or disagreements with the evidence. That's part of the "tentativity" requirement above.
If ID were scientific criticism, this would be a valid point. But the same problems that prevent it being a scientific theory also plague its ability to be proper scientific criticism.
Simply put, when ID "scientists" raise criticisms, and established scientists respond -- either with further research or by demonstrating the points are not actually problematical -- IDers do not respond in kind. In fact, it's ID proponents who ignore the establishment response and grimly stand by their critique. Here is a perfect example...
I noted above that Michael Behe of the Discovery Institute argues that complex biological structures composed of many components are "irreducible," thus cannot evolve by random mutation. Every mutated component of a complex structure, argues Behe, would have to appear via mutation simultaneously for the structure to provide any survival advantage; and such simultaneous mutation is so unlikely, it could not have occurred within the lifetime of the universe.
But this argument has been answered many times, both by argument (Darwin himself in Origins on the evolution of the mammalian eye) and by scientific advances, e.g., in genetics. The claim of "irreducible complexity" is thoroughly exploded in Collins' the Language of God, pp. 189-193. Collins first notes "the well-established phenomenon of gene duplication": A rung-by-rung examination of DNA discloses that many genes appear multiple times on the strand. This is important, because if one of the duplicates of a vital gene mutates away from its original function, the organism would not die... because there are still other copies that can provide that essential functionality.
Thus, the mutated version can mutate further and futher, until by random chance, it hits upon a new function that advantages the organism... and natural selection is off and running. Taking Michael Behe's favorite example, Collins explains how gene comparisons conducted since Behe's original writings on "irreducible complexity" are in fact reducing the complexity of bacterial flagella to more primitive parts that could have evolved separately while still advantaging the organism:
A particularly damaging crack in the foundation of Intelligent Design theory arises from recent revelations about the poster child of ID, the bacterial flagellum. The argument that it is irreducibly complex rests upon the presumption that the individual subunits of the flagellum could have had no prior useful function of some other sort, and therefore the motor could not have been assembled by recruiting such components in a stepwise fashion, driven by the forces of natural selection.
Recent research has fundamentally undercut this position. Specifically, comparison of protein sequences from multiple bacteria has demonstrated that several components of the flagellum are related to an entirely different apparatus used by certain bacteria to inject toxins into other bacteria that they are attacking.
This bacterial offensive weapon, referred to by microbiologists as the "type III secretory apparatus," provides a clear "survival of the fittest" advantage to organisms that possess it. Presumably, the elements of this structure were duplicated hundreds of millions of years ago [gene duplication], and then recruited for a new use; by combining this with other proteins that had previously been carrying out simpler functions, the entire motor was ultimately generated.
To date, Behe has neither acknowledged this counterargument or come up with a counter-counterargument of his own. Even today, right where you are sitting now, you can download a "briefing packet for educators" on "the Theory of Intelligent Design" from the Discovery Institute which states, on p. 8:
What Are Some Scientific Problems with Darwinian Evolution and Chemical Evolution?...
Biochemistry: Unguided and Random Processes Cannot Produce Cellular Complexity. Cells contain incredible complexity, similar to machine technology but dwarfing anything produced by humans. Cells use circuits, miniature motors, feedback loops, encoded language, and even error-checking machinery which decodes and repairs our DNA. Many scientists have claimed that Darwinian evolution does not appear capable of building this type of integrated complexity.
This is nothing but Behe's "irreducible complexity" redux, just as if no one had ever answered him, as if there had been no advance in genetics in the fifteen years since he first raised the issue.
Thus the answer is No, ID is not a scientific theory; and it is not even a good scientific critique of the traditional theory of evolution by random mutation filtered through natural selection. It is barely more scientific than astrology.
Would any reader find it odd or conspiratorial that a refereed astronomy journal would refuse to publish a paper on astrology? Or that a researcher, having received a grant to study some question of astrophysics, who was found to have frittered the money away studying the zodiac and the writings of Nostradamus, would have his grant revoked and his contract not renewed?
Wouldn't any respected university or accountable government body want to protect its good name by not allowing university donations or taxpayer money to be used to investigate how the stars at our birth control our destinies?
Contrary to Expelled -- that's what we're reviewing here, in case you forgot in all the excitement -- "Big Science" has indeed deigned to notice and respond to the claims of ID; but there has been no counter-response, no new research, no answer to the points that scientists raise against ID. The lights on, but nobody appears to be home.
Fit the seventh: God of the gaps
All of the arguments ID offers against mainstream evolutionary theory fall into the same argumenative category, what Wall Street Journal science writer Sharon Begley calls the "argument by personal incredulity" (she attributes the term to "one wag"):
For years, intelligent-design theory had been bogged down in what one wag calls "the argument from personal incredulity" ("I can't see how natural forces could produce this, so it must be the work of God"). Darwin's new foes, however, are smart enough to realize that just because most of us can't imagine how the sun can burn so hot for so long, it doesn't follow that God, not nuclear fusion, keeps the fires stoked.
In 1996, biochemist Michael Behe of Lehigh University, Bethlehem, Pa., therefore offered a stronger argument against evolution. Complex living structures, he argued in his book "Darwin's Black Box," possess "irreducible complexity." That is, they can't function until all their components are assembled, much as a mousetrap isn't much good until the base, spring, bar and all the rest are connected.
I have already dealt with this argument on its own terms; but now let's understand the terrible danger such an argument poses to religious faith. It is not evolutionary theory that leads to atheism. It is the premise that God is to be found wherever there is a temporary lack of understanding on some scientific point, no matter how small. As Collins notes:
ID proponents have made the mistake of confusing the unknown with the unknowable, or the unsolved with the unsolvable.
Such reasoning reduces the role of the "Designer," God, to hiding in any tiny evolutionary mousehole that is unexplained today. Collins calls this the "God of the gaps" fallacy.
The danger is that science never stands still; it perpetually moves forward. Given time, it will inevitably explain all of the unexplained gaps in our understanding of evolution. And what of God then, when His gaps disappear? Collins -- a very religious Christian for whom the existence of God is not a proposition but simple truth -- makes his fears explicit on pp. 194-5:
The perceived gaps in evolution that ID intended to fill with God are instead being filled by advances in science. By forcing this limited, narrow view of God's role, Intelligent Design is ironically on a path toward doing considerable damage to faith.
The sincerity of the proponents of Intelligent Design can hardly be questioned. The warm embrace of ID by believers, particularly by evangelical Christians, is completely understandable, given the way in which Darwin's theory has been portrayed by some outspoken evolutionists as demanding atheism. But this ship is not headed to the promised land; it is headed instead to the bottom of the ocean. If believers have attached their last vestiges of hope that God could find a place in human existence through ID theory, and that theory collapses, what then happens to faith?
A long time ago, people believed the thunder and lightning were God's wrath; then we discovered it was a completely natural electrical discharge -- and God lost the thunder.
Ages ago, people believed the stars were the lights of heaven; then we deduced that stars were natural fusion engines burning unfathomable distances away -- and the lights of heaven dimmed.
Once we thought that God pushed the sun, the planets, and the stars around the Earth; we now understand the motive force is simple gravity, the same gravity that pulls us all towards the center of this planet -- and that the focus of the solar system orbits is the sun, not the Earth. God abruptly lost his digs in the gated community of the Celestial Spheres. (Technically, each planet's orbit has two foci, since it's an elipse; but the other foci are all points in empty space near the sun.)
Each of these discoveries caused a crisis of faith -- but only because men had foolishly assumed that yesterday's unknown was unknowable. These were early examples of the fragile "God of the gaps," trying to substitute the supernatural for every hole in our knowledge of what was then called natural philosophy. Each was resisted by the religious ancestors of today's Intelligent Design movement.
And if ID believers continue that sad legacy by declaring that their inability in 1996 to explain the "irreducibly complex" bacterial flagella proves the existence of an intelligent Designer, then what happens to our Designer when even Michael Behe is forced to admit that flagella are quite reducible after all?
Will he find some new system, not yet perfectly explained, and argue that that's the real-deal irreducible complexity that proves intelligent design? Or will Behe lose his faith entirely, taking the opposite route that Francis Collins took some decades ago?
I don't know the man, but I presume he's not an utter fool. At some point, even Behe will come to realize that hunting for the "irreducible complexity" in nature is a mug's game, like trying to find a left-handed monkey wrench (or a right-winged monkey trial). Millions who now clutch at ID as their lifeline to living faith will be left empty handed. And the blame will fall on those like Michael Behe and Ben Stein, who lured conservatives into believing that God can be hidden in every lacuna in human knowledge -- even while they knew, somewhere deep down, that every mousehole would eventually be plugged.
So what is the way out of this labyrinth? Must science on the left and faith on the right be forever divided by the intellectual Berlin Wall posited by Stein? Must you abandon your belief in God in order to accept the findings of evolution?
That vile implication is what makes this movie so dangerous... and lowers Ben Stein far below those he attacks.
Why pinch the human intellect into an unbridgeable dichotomy? Both the left and right hemispheres of our brains are connected by the corpus callosum, which mediates between logic and dream, math and myth. Our right brain craves the connectedness of our mythos... but our left brain helps us select between myths that are true and healthy and those which are false and poisonous.
Fortunately, then, the answer to our question above is No; science and faith, properly considered, are not in any conflict... but you would never know it from watching Expelled.
Fit the eighth: The Great Divide
So what about Stein's secondary thesis, that the study of traditional evolutionary theory must by itself lead to atheism, with all the attendant evils and ills it portends? That a "Berlin Wall" rises between faith and science, and one must choose the former, lest one be dragged, willy nilly, into the latter?
In Expelled, Stein shows us an intact wall. We see some folks hammering on it; but by the end of the movie, the fanciful divide remains unbridgeable, as if we perpetually lived in the days of the 1961 tank confrontation.
But there is no more Berlin Wall in Germany; it was torn down shortly after Reagan's famous speech. Officials of the reunited Germany left a marker and a museum where "Checkpoint Charlie" once stood, just to remind themselves what used to divide the two cultures. I think this a more fitting image of the future than Stein's glowering gun towers and scientific no-man's land.
Stein has fallen for the same exclusionary fiction that animates Dawkins, thereby proving himself Dawkins' ideological twin brother. Why would a movie by an evolution dissenter feature an evolution absolutist in such a starring role? Because Dawkins is a militant atheist who hopes, as Stein fears, that studying science will lead to atheism.
This plays into Stein's idea of the recruiting power of evolutionary theory. He sees "Darwinism" as a charismatic, evangelical version of atheism -- "Dawkins-ism." It's true that Richard Dawkins shares Stein's belief in the miraculous (diabolical, in Stein's eye) power of evolution to convert; even so, he's nowhere near the monster that Stein paints him.
To be fair to Dawkins -- which Expelled is not -- he does not believe that losing one's faith in God means losing the idea of right and wrong; nor does he believe that his radical materialism negates the idea of free will. Dawkins finds himself falling back on his childhood belief in moral law -- even while he makes unconvincing protests that such morality can arise naturally. Even more astonishing, he believes that religion may arise naturally in human societies as a result of evolutionary processes... that it "may very well have a conventional Darwinian survival value." (Does that include celebate monks and nuns?)
In responding to an interviewer who asked Dawkins about his idea that human beings are "gene machines" and how that might relate to free will, Dawkins said:
I am very comfortable with the idea that we can override biology with free will. Indeed, I encourage people all the time to do it. Much of the message of my first book, "The Selfish Gene," was that we must understand what it means to be a gene machine, what it means to be programmed by genes, so that we are better equipped to escape, so that we are better equipped to use our big brains, use our conscious intelligence, to depart from the dictates of the selfish genes and to build for ourselves a new kind of life which as far as I am concerned the more un-Darwinian it is the better, because the Darwinian world in which our ancestors were selected is a very unpleasant world. Nature really is red in tooth and claw. And when we sit down together to argue out and discuss and decide upon how we want to run our societies, I think we should hold up Darwinism as an awful warning for how we should not organize our societies.
On the question of moral law:
QUESTION: If, as you have said, there is a tendency from our genes for us to be selfish, would that perhaps suggest that we need institutions like religion to encourage us to override this innate selfishness?
MR. DAWKINS: The phrase "the selfish gene" only means that genes are selfish. It doesn't mean that individual organisms are. On the contrary, one of the main messages of the selfish gene is that selfish genes can program altruistic behavior in organisms. Organisms can behave altruistically towards other organisms -- the better to forward the propagation of their own selfish genes. What you cannot have is a gene that sacrifices itself for the benefit of other genes. What you can have is a gene that makes organisms sacrifice themselves for other organisms under the influence of selfish genes.
I think we certainly benefit from social institutions which encourage us towards moral behavior. It's very important to have law. It's very important to have a moral education. It's very important to try to inculcate into children moral rules, such as "do as you would be done by." It's very important to do moral philosophy, to try work out the principles we want to live. But when you say religious principles, there I think I would part company. I see no reason why they should be religious. But I certainly think that they should be developed by society and not necessarily following biological dictates.
Despite these Dawkinsian positions -- easily found by a bit of Googling -- Stein devotes an entire section in Expelled to some professor of biology who goes on and on about how free will is just a delusion and how personally liberating he finds that queer state of affairs. I wish I could remember his name. In any event, when Stein attributes by implication this position to Darwin-induced atheism in general and Richard Dawkins in particular, he engages in "deception by omission."
[The professor -- of history, not biology -- has been tentatively identified as Will Provine of Cornell. Hat tip to commenter JoshuaZ.]
Stein could have allowed Dawkins to state his real views; the science writer is hardly shy about expressing himself. But instead, he segues directly from mainstream evolutionary theory, to Richard Dawkins' atheist dreams, to [Professor Provine] fulminating against free will. Stein thus leaves moviegoers with a dreadfully false impression.
Expelled clearly implies that those who reject Intelligent Design form an undifferentiated mass of anti-morality radicals... when instead, they form a continuum of divergent beliefs, running the gamut from the lunatic who believes humans are entirely gene-driven -- to a sincere, mainstream Christian like Francis Collins.
Stein's is the tactic of demagoguery, not debate. It is another example of which side is actually seeking to stifle dissent and mislead the public. Millions of people who see Expelled will now imagine that evolutionists believe we have no free will and that the only morality is nature "red in tooth and claw," when in fact they (and Dawkins) believe precisely the opposite.
Fit the ninth: The labyrinth and the Minotaur
Phillip Johnson and the others at the forefront of the ID movement today object to evolutionary theory primarily on grounds that it "defaiths" America (my term) by making the miraculous mundane. Under the relentless erosion of faith by science, God loses his thunder, his heavenly lights, and his celestial heavens.
But this makes no sense theologically: If it's miraculous that a "Designer" would pre-load bacterial DNA with instructions to create a flagellum, as Behe has suggested, then how much more miraculous is it that some intelligent "Designer" might have created the entire universe and its physical laws -- including those that allowed bacteria and their blessed flagella to evolve in the first place? Why accept only microscopic miracles as the acts of God, but not the creation of, well, all Creation?
ID simultaneously gives God too much jurisdiction and not enough credit. There is no need to invoke divine intervention to explain how bacteria move themselves; if we can move ourselves, there is no reason crabs, flatworms, seastars, and even microbes cannot do the same.
So if God's role is not to personally push all the buttons and pull all the levers of material processes, to perform micromiracles, like Maxwell's Demon, inside the gaps of our scientific understanding, then what is it? Why not return to Him the realm He has always historically occupied, and to which science lays no serious claim?
You may believe -- I certainly do, Dawkins or no Dawkins -- that civilized morality cannot be supported among mass numbers of people without a societal belief in what Dennis Prager calls "ethical monotheism"... a single, unitary God, omniscient and omnipotent, whose overriding concern anent human beings is that they treat each other with decency and justice. Prager believes it's more important for individuals to be decent and for institutions to be just. (I make no claim whether this societal belief is true, only that it's necessary.)
Unlike Francis Collins since his conversion, I am not certain of the existence of God. Unlike self-professed "Darwinist" and science writer Richard Dawkins since his disillusionment, I'm equally unconvinced of the contrary proposition. But let's consider the thesis that Prager's "ethically monotheist" God exists, the God of the Jewish and Christian Bibles, and that He created the universe... and that ever since that moment of "fiat lux," the physical universe has ticked along fully according to the physical laws that are inherent in Cosmos.
How then could faith in God be diminshed by scientific advancement, no matter how many amazing discoveries we make in the next hundred years? Rather, wouldn't every such discovery simply make the faithful even more awed by the glory of their God? That is certainly Collins' reaction.
Does this leave us with a Deistic God, rather than a Theistic one? Do we live in a clockwork universe with a God who is so remote that He cares nothing about human beings? Once He set the cogs in motion, has He turned His back and walked away?
There is no theological necessity for such an assumption: A Theistic God is perfectly consistent with all the creation occuring the moment before the Big Bang -- because the aspect we're interested in is not whether God personally spurts lava out of the volcano, but whether He personally responds to prayer, judges souls, and in the case of Christians, grants forgiveness to those who accept the sacrifice of Jesus.
A Pragerian God is not concerned with specifics of human biology but with our souls, which are forged by the decisions we make (driving actions or beliefs) from our own free will.
The most important article of Judeo-Christian faith, then -- as an agnostic, I may be treading on sensitive ground here -- is not that God personally created the bacterial flagella, but that He has a personal relationship with each human being and will lead humans away from sin and towards righteousness. (I am deliberately vague as to how, since different religions offer quite different mechanisms, from the Law to conscience to Christ.)
It's more important to believe that God wants us to be decent and just than to believe that God specifically designed the blood-clotting cascade... rather than "merely" designing the whole universe and its physical laws, which He (being omniscient) knew would ultimately evolve it.
Science flows from our reason, which is an essentially human (hence, to a believer, soul-bound) endeavor; faith flows from our mythic unconscious. To any believer, both ultimately derive from God. How can they conflict?
Science seeks only to explain the natural world; nothing discoverable by science could jeopardize faith, so long as the believer does not inappropriately hitch his faith to today's lack of knowledge. Faith civilizes society, and a civil society is necessary for free and open scientific inquiry. They compliment each other like the right and left hemispheres of the brain.
And I think culture is the analog of the corpus callosum: Culture is what mediates between science/rationality and faith/mythos. A sick culture allows one or the other to seize control and run everything, as in "jihadist" religious movements, or allows both to run rampant and enslave the masses, as with Communism, Naziism, fascism, and every other totalitarian socialism.
But a healthy culture trims the flight of each to keep them in formation: Faith does not try to squelch legitimate scientific inquiry -- into, say, embryonic stem-cell research -- while science is willing to accept ethical boundaries over its behavior, such as restricting such research to using only techniques that do not kill the embryo.
That is how to bridge the divide, by assigning each endeavor, science and faith, its own sphere. Science tells us what, faith (religious or otherwise) tells us why. And while the twain should frequently meet, there is no reason they should collide.
Science, even evolution, does not force us into atheism, because the Western God is no "Wizard of Oz," pulling levers behind a curtain. He is not the God of the gaps... He would be the God of the mythos; the deity of reason; the guardian of good and evil; the maker of morality; and the source of science. He did not specifically design the universe to trick us into materialism; but He left sufficient evidentiary clues to lead us through the labyrinth to a scientific understanding of the physical world. Reason and faith, connected by a thick bundle of cultural nerves.
But there is a monster lurking in that maze: A bullheaded man who will not think it possible he could be wrong, who will not accept that scientific reason is just as godly as religious faith, who imagines that the two can never be reconciled -- but that one must conquer the other. He has created a brutish movie that may ensnare many sincere people who should not be told they cannot pursue both hemispheres of knowledge.
At the end of this analysis, I find an unexpected burst of pity for Ben Stein. The dismal science he studied at Columbia appears to have led him into the Slough of Despond, and I don't know that he can find his way out.
I hope so; even a Minotaur should be allowed to evolve.
April 24, 2008
Expelled: No Intelligence Offered - part 1 (Win Ben Stein's Monkey Trial!)
(For Brad Linaweaver's review, see here now!)
Conservative anti-evolution activist Ben Stein has a monkey on his back; perhaps I should say a monkey is haunting Stein, the monkey of "Darwinism." It climbs through his window at night and, pace Poe, attacks him in his dreams.
I have just suffered through 90 minutes of being informed that not only was I a Nazi, but a Communist and a eugenicist. I have been told I don't believe in free will, and that I actively suppress brilliant scientists whose only "crime" is to "raise the question" of Intelligent Design (ID). And I have been thus attacked by a man who I still support and defend on many other issues, and who I have long respected as an otherwise rational person. But on this subject, Ben Stein has truly gone off the rails.
He has released a documentary called Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed; it's getting a lot of favorable buzz in conservative circles -- for all the wrong reasons: Not because it persuades (it doesn't); not because it bridges the divide between science and faith (rather, it deepens it); and certainly not because it is fair or just or truth-seeking, as it claims... because on those civic virtues, Expelled is more akin to Fahrenheit 9/11 than to the Path to 9/11.
The reason for its near ecstatic reception on the right is mostly (I believe) that it reaffirms the anti-evolution bias of a great many conservatives. Many (but not all) conservatives passionately believe that the theory of evolution by random mutation and natural selection is a boondoggle that "Big Science" -- yes, Stein uses the term in the advertising -- has somehow foised upon the world for nearly 150 years.
(This piece is long, so I will post it in two halves; the second should appear sometime late tonight.)
Intelligent Design dates to about 1993; it stems from a group of religious Christians and some Jews who reject modern evolutionary theory -- which they insist upon calling "Darwinism," or sometimes neo-Darwinism, as if it hadn't, well, evolved in the 149 years since Charles Darwin published the Origin of Species. The driving force behind it was Phillip Johnson, a lawyer and a very religious Christian at UC Berkeley; Johnson published Darwin on Trial in that year (and a number of other similar books since). Darwin on Trial spends some time arguing that there is no good evidence for evolution; but the conclusion of the book argues a very different point: That "Darwinism" is actually a materialist religion; and that the study of evolutionary theory leads directly to atheism. Thus Johnson posited a great divide between science (materialist religion) and faith (Creator-based religion)... and you must pick one or the other.
Ben Stein has clearly bought into the same fallacy; he believes that religious faith and science, or at least evolutionary theory, form a dichotomy -- which the movie symbolizes by the Berlin wall. Everybody is either on one side or the other. No Mugwumps allowed! He is a very partisan supporter of Intelligent Design (often abbreviated ID by its supporters); so partisan that virtually everything he says sounds suspect... even those points that are true!
I will not mince words: The movie is a monstrous and deadly lie. This piece, part review, part response, will show why Expelled is a lie -- and why it is so dangerous not only to society but even to mainstream religion...
Fit the first: Strategy and tactics
The first disappointment is that Ben Stein squanders the greatest asset that conservatives generally hold over liberals: fundamental fairness. The shorthand is that liberals use the appeal to emotion, while conservatives argue from the mind.
But in Expelled, Stein builds his thesis in the sensationalist and tendentious fashion of Michael Moore: He carefully controls the argument so that those he agrees with are allowed to endlessly explain their positions while tugging at our heartstrings, while those in the enemy camp have their words creatively clipped to provide maximal confusion. It's easy to win a debate when you get to script both sides; likewise, it's just as easy to win when you run the edit bay.
The core of Expelled is the "parade of horribles": He shows us number of (we are told) eminent scientists who have been "fired" (or "expelled," as Stein puts it) merely because they "questioned" the "dominant paradigm" and showed that the emperor has no clothes. Easy to understand; equally easy to misunderstand.
Each of these putative scientists is allowed to tell his or her tale of woe uninterrupted and clearly planned and rehearsed, while their counterparts get only a minute or so of raw, scary-lit footage at the very end to rebut.
Too, each interviewee who supports the "firing" of one of the ID-supporting "scientists" is hit with explicit questions about the situation with no warning, no chance to refresh his memory about the case, and no opportunity to gather his notes... a perfect conservative analog to the "60 Minutes" style. And Stein doesn't note for the audience another very important point: The squirming "neo-Darwinist" is legally restrained from defending his actions due to employee-privacy laws.
If he said what he really believed, the supposed victims could sue him and his university or governmental employer. That certainly dampens any enthusiasm the evolutionists might have to defend their decisions.
Those on the side of "Big Science" must fight with their tongues tied behind their backs, a perfect microcosm of the fundamental unfairness of the rest of the documentary. But wait... aren't the scientists, as clearly depicted in the movie, bad guys who "unfairly exclude" ID from the discussion? If so, then it's only right, some anti-evolution viewers argue, that ID gets a chance to do the same.
Is that the argument? If so, then Stein is really saying, Sure, we're being totally unfair to mainstream scientists; but if you believe the scurrilous charges we hurl at them, they deserve to be treated unfairly!
This is not an inspiring message. Worse, it's not a conservative message; it's "liberal logic," the same kind that gives us affirmative action: Blacks were wrongfully discriminated against for so long, isn't it about time we started wrongfully discriminating against whites, to even things out?
Truth would have been better served if Stein had allowed both sides a fair chance at making their points. If he complains that "Big Science" has discriminated against ID, the solution is not to discriminate in favor of ID instead. Alas, this is the paradigm of the entire movie Expelled. One reason this review expanded into a response is just that: no intelligent response allowed in the movie itself.
Fit the second: Absence of evidence is evidence of conspiracy
The reader has probably noticed that I've used terms like "putative" and "so called," along with scare-quotes, when I describe the supporers of Intelligent Design depicted in the movie as scientists. That is because many are medical doctors, rather than academics or working scientists; one is a philosopher; and another is actually a journalist, not a scientist. And even among those with some level of scientific credentials, none is shown even to be an adequate researcher, let alone eminent in his field. I can't say they're not, but Stein gives us no reason to believe they are, beyond his personal say-so.
A word about Ben Stein himself. He has no science background, unless one counts economics; he wasn't even a high-school science teacher, though he played one on TV. Even so, he should realize that merely calling someone top notch or brilliant is meaningless without some more substantial evidence.
Stein took his first university degree in economics, from Columbia College, then attended Yale Law School; like Phillip Johnson, founder of ID, Stein is a lawyer. But in both those two very respected fields, economics and the law, "truth" is an elusive concept.
At law, for every argument, there is a counterargument; neither can be said to be absolutely wrong. While a judge may decide against one side, the next year, the same judge may decide against the other. Nothing is fully resolved except by power-play: When a big enough court decides an issue, it can enforce its decision -- whether "right" or "wrong" in some cosmic sense (think of Dred Scott v. John Sanford or Roe v. Wade).
Similarly, in ecnomics -- especially back in the 60s, when Stein was learning the field at Columbia -- everybody has his own theory; nobody can prove, within the field of economics, that one economic theory is better than any other. Great economists have included free-market economists (Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman) and absolute statists (John Maynard Keynes, John Kenneth Galbraith), or "neoliberals" like the contemporary Robert Reich, Bill Clinton's Secretary of Labor; all five still have followers in academe.
But no working, respected, frequently cited physicist today rejects special relativity or quantum mechanics in favor of pure Newtonian mechanics. Newton's theories still hold true in limited cases; outside those limits, newer theories prevail; and nobody in the field stubbornly clings to the old ideas.
In science, there are no absolute proofs of hypotheses, but there are absolute refutations. Once you show that, i.e., Newtonian mechanics cannot explain the planet Mercury's orbital precession or the bending of starlight as it passes close to the sun, it's finished as a universal theory of everything (even though parts of Newtonian mechanics are still useful in special cases). Scientists are constantly refining our understanding of, for example, how best to model an atom; but no chemist or physicist disbelieves that molecules are composed of atoms and harkens back to the four "elements" of antiquity -- earth, water, air, and fire.
Ben Stein is unequipped by his education to deal in the realm of absolutes in nature. I'm sure he accepts what he calls "absolutes" in morality -- but there, he means absolute in the sense of divine revelation, the word of God. He does not understand that science is filled with a different kind of absolute, the natural absolute of mathematical and experimental evidence.
Judging from this movie, he thinks that it's "only fair" that ID gets to win some of the arguments, some of the time. After all, those "eminent" scientists who were "expelled" from Big Science are so passionate and sincere!
But they're passionately wrong.
This point is vital to Stein's thesis. If the academic employees whose contracts were not renewed were less than fully competent by the objective standards of science, then isn't that a perfectly valid reason to let them go? We need not look for some deeper conspiracy -- suppression of dissenting opinion and neo-Darwinist corruption, as Stein suggests. And here he means literal corruption; he explicitly charges that Big Science dangles grant money to bribe scientists into supporting evolutionary theory. Presumably, absent the big bucks, scientists would reject evolution as charlatanry, just as many conservative lawyers and economists do.
But if that were the case, then what caused scientists to accept evolutionary theory in the first place? All the establishments of the nineteenth century opposed it for decades. And why haven't we seen a flood of new, young researchers, who don't yet have established grant empires, overturning evolutionary theory in order to make their bones? Again, no need to posit a vast, Darwinian conspiracy: Evolutionary theory as explicated by Charles Darwin prevailed in the nineteenth century, and continues to hold sway today, because the evidence of scientific observation thoroughly supports it; and two hundred years of evidence (the earliest predating Darwin's solution by more than 50 years) could not be explained by any competing scientific theory.
This is a point that conservatives especially should understand better than they do. After all, conservatives have used the very same argument to defend President George W. Bush from conspiracy charges in his decision not to renew the appointments of some United States Attorneys. On that occasion, liberals led the crusade to accuse Bush of conspiring to suppress information by "firing" USAs who investigated the "Republican culture of corruption."
The charge was ludicrous then, and its brother is ludicrous now, even if a conservative makes it.
Fit the third: The vague-abond king
One of Expelled's biggest failings is that none of its "bad boy" ID proponents actually explains why evolution could not have occurred, why Intelligent Design is a better hypothesis to explain the rise of species than variation and natural selection, why ID is scientific, or even what, exactly, ID theory actually claims.
At what point in the evolution of life is the intelligent Designer supposed to have intervened? And how exactly -- by what physical mechanism -- did He do so? Is there any evidence for this intervention beyond the "argument by personal incredulity" ("I just can't imagine how X could have occurred naturally, so it must not have.")
None of these issues is even addressed: Not only do Stein's subjects never offer evidence for ID (or even against mainstream evolutionary theory), none of the expert witnesses can even define Intelligent Design in the first place!
The irony is that one ID proponent in the flick carefully and accurately defines traditional evolutionary theory; then another ID expert at the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, the Mecca of Intelligent Design, is shown bitterly lamenting that reporters always misstate the claims of ID. He tells us what he thinks ID does not claim -- that some structures of life are "too complex" to be explained by traditional evolutionary theory; yet he never tells us what ID actually does claim.
Thus Stein leaves the audience in the dark -- what, specifically, is the argument actually about? We don't learn from Expelled; we only learn that it isn't about whether evolution can create complexity.
Which is a breathtaking assertion... because the chief scientist-architect of ID -- Dr. Michael Behe -- in fact explicitly claims that ID's best argument is the "irreducible complexity" of some biological structures, such as the mammalian eye, the bacterial flagellum (a "nanomotor" that allow bacteria to move by themselves), and the human blot-clotting cascade. Isn't "irreducible complexity" an argument from complexity?
Behe asserts that such complex structures, which comprise many separate components (simple structures or proteins), are "irreducible." By this, Behe means that complex structures could not have evolved by random mutation, because (he argues) every component would have to evolve simultaneously for the structure to work properly, thus to provide any survival advantage to the organism.
He tries to make his case by noting that if you chemically suppress, for example, any of the dozen proteins involved in blood clotting or any of the 40 or so proteins used by bacterial flagella, the entire system fails. Since, he says, the individual components themselves confer no advantage without all the others, how could they have evolved in the first place?
While Behe relies mostly upon the flagellum example, lawyers like Michael Medved prefer to use the mammalian eye -- likely because they can't understand Behe's argument about flagella or clotting cascades, having never studied biology or any other science. Medved often notes that a retina all by itself, without an optic nerve or lense or cornea, is useless. Likewise, a lens all by itself, without the other components, has no function, and so forth. The problem with this example (and why Behe rarely uses it), is that even Darwin himself presented a very persuasive, step by step way that the eye could have evolved. Since then, of course, the evolution of the eye has been extensively researched; scientists, unlike Michael Medved, know almost exactly how the modern eye came into being.
If you're incredibly interested, there are entire books published on the subject; but Francis Collins has a succinct sketch in the Language of God, pp. 191-2. Anybody interested in this debate cannot skip this book, no matter which side the reader is on; I will return to it over and over. Collins himself is a world-renowned geneticist and physician -- he headed the Human Genome Project -- but he is also a traditional, scripture-believing Christian. He had been an atheist until he was converted in 1976 by reading several works by C.S. Lewis.
I will return to Behe's primary example, bacterial flagella, later. For now, it's enough to note that his argument is that some structures are "irreducibly complex," so could not have evolved by random mutation coupled with natural selection.
This seems remarkably well described by the shorthand, "some structure in life are too complex to be explained by traditional evolutionary theory;" I don't know why the chap from the Discovery Institute is so exercised. Stein leaves theater-goers tip-toeing on eggshells, trying not to misquote IDers, but with the uneasy feeling that whatever we think we know about ID is necessarily wrong.
There is a good reason this movie, arguably the most important (and unarguably the best funded) media support for Intelligent Design ever, does not actually define Intelligent Design: ID proponents refuse to define it themsleves. Trying to get IDers to clearly state their core theses is like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall. Reading the ID literature looking for anything deeper than an intense loathing of "Darwinism" is an exercise in futility: You're groping in the dark for a black cat who isn't there.
Do they argue that organisms don't change over time? No; they believe in "microevolution." Do they say that even the slightest change in an organism is personally directed by some intelligent designer? Definitely not. Is the Designer God? They won't say publicly (but they spilled the beans in an internal Discovery Institute memo that leaked).
Do they argue that the sheer complexity of life proves the existence of ID? Apparently not -- that is the very "misunderstanding" that so exercised the director of the Discovery Institute, though it appears to be a perfectly respectable journalistic shorthand for Behe's "irreducible complexity."
Well, what specifically does ID claim? Where does it differ from mainstream evolutionary theory? They're too coy to say. In fact, supporters of ID only seem comfortable arguing one thing for certain: Whatever really occured to produce all the species now living on Planet Earth, it couldn't have been caused by random variation and natural selection, by "Darwinism."
Fit the fourth: Cult of poisonality
Stein's refusal to call evolutionary theory by its correct name is not simple truculence: By linking evolutionary science inextricably with one man (and one book, the Origin of Species), he reduces science to a religious-like sect... or even to a political cult.
What other general systems (as opposed to technical terms like Newtonian mechanics LaPlace transforms) are identified by a proper noun followed by a variant on "-ism or -ite?" Those I can think of are either religious movements -- Lutheranism, Paulite, Franciscan; political movements -- Marxism, Leninism, Stalinism, Hitlerism, Jeffersonian, Stirnerite, Reaganism; or bizarre cults of various stripes -- Nietschean, Fullerism, Chompskian, Keynesianism.
What do all of the above, forgetting Darwinism for the moment, have in common? They are systems of thought, philosophies, that follow the teachings of some leader... a guru, if you will. Each constitutes to some extent a cult of personality; in some cases benign or even beneficial, such as Lutheranism and Reaganism; in others dangerous or repellant, as with Maoism and Wahhabism. But in each case, acolytes attempt to follow to the letter the goals and principles of the founder, which are held to be eternal verities.
And then there's "Darwinism." As they sang on Sesame Street, "one of these things is not like the others, one of these things just doesn't belong."
Contrary to what Expelled would have us believe, evolutionary scientists do not seek to promote the teachings of Charles Darwin, any more than modern physicists do not practice Newtonism and contemporary chemists do not engage in Boyleism.
Fit the fifth: Science of unreason
Ben Stein believes and wants to convince moviegoers that modern evolutionary scientists act as Mediaeval thrones, powers, and cherubim, singing endless praise of Charles Darwin, god of evolution. But this is a grotesque misunderstanding of science. There is no "Newtonism," "Boyleism," or "Mendelism;" the greats of science are not worshipped, nor are they considered inerrant or their systems eternal.
By the very nature of science, nothing is eternal; by definition, all is tentative -- that is to say mutative, ever changing. The core idea of evolutionary theory remains constant -- that natural variation or mutation in an organism's genetic code, coupled with an environment that privileges a few variations while punishing most, leads to evolution over time of one species into another. Yet the differences between what Charles Darwin wrote and what contemporary evolutionary scientists believe are myriad. It has been nearly a century and a half, and science never stands still even for a minute.
Evolutionists do not continue to believe in evolutionary theory simply because they have been seduced, either by the weight of tradition or by the lure of research grants. They continue to believe evolution because every experiment, every measurement, every observation without exception confirms, over and over, that the theory is a still-valid model of physical reality... even while the details of that model are constantly readjusted.
But still it is not eternal. Biologists, geneticists, and other evolutionary scientists are always aware that Darwin's ideas could (in theory) be overturned in a moment, even after standing for centuries. After all, that's exactly what Albert Einstein and Werner Heisenberg, et al, did in physics with relativity and quantum mechanics; and that's even what Kurt Gödel did for mathematical logic with his famous Incompleteness Theorem (see Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstadter).
Evolutionary theory's continued existence depends utterly upon the evidence from experiment and observation; if that ever stops supporting it, if some new way of measuring contradicts what the theory predicts, then down it goes, in flames.
Yet proponents of Intelligent Design have made no headway whatsoever into the scientific community. Ben Stein tells us that it is they are suppressed, repressed, and oppressed by the scientific establishment. This is partially true; Big Science does tune ID out, ignore what they say, and refuse to sanction Intelligent Design as being on a par with mainstream evolutionary theory... but not because scientists reject freedom of speech. Rather, ID is dismissed because it is not a science, it was not developed scientifically, and its proponents have no positive, scientific evidence to offer. (They claim boatloads of evidence, mostly of the "how do you explain this niggling little detail?" variety; but again to paraphrase Fred Pohl on a different subject, "You and I have completely different ideas of what constitutes 'evidence.'")
What does Expelled give us to resolve this intellectual quagmire? A few scraps of suggestive firings (or contracts not renewed); an occasional angy atheist who is also an evolutionist; and the reassurances of partisans that they're right and the other side is wrong.
Of course, scientists say they're right and ID is wrong; it's he-said, she-said -- let's split it down the middle and give both sides equal weight! That is certainly the position Ben Stein takes; but would conservatives agree if the subject were not evolution but the war against global caliphism? Bin Laden and Zawahiri want to turn the entire world into one giant caliphate, destroying all democracies along the way; we say this is evil incarnate, and we'll fight them every step of the way. Is that just he-said, he-said? Do we split it down the middle and invite al-Qaeda to create a hemispherical caliphate?
Conservatives normally argue that just because two people disagree doesn't mean the truth necessarily lies somewhere between them. Sometimes (not always), one side is right and the other wrong, end of story. Yet too many folks on the right will not even entertain the possibility that "Big Science" might be right and Intelligent Design wrong, that evolutionary theory dominates the sciences because it's one of the most well-documented and persuasively evidenced theory in the history of science. Conservatives would do well to remember what Oliver Cromwell once wrote:
Scientists live by this motto; there is not a scientist alive who has not seen a beloved pet theory collapse due to some observations that he expected to go the other way. He is forced to abandon his theory and start over from scratch; it's a normal part of life in the scientific world. But in the realm of philosophy and religion, this almost never happens -- for such systems never die by disproof, but only through ennui.
This subset of conservatives also refuses to address another charge: That the only purpose of ID is to throw sand at evolution for purely religious reasons: Some Christians (and a few Jews) have talked themselves into believing that evolution denies the two creation passages in Genesis. Expelled can't even see this question and the potential it has to destroy the very idea of ID; if ID is nothing but Biblical Creationism tarted up to look scientific, then who but the most anti-American religious zealot would demand it be taught as science? Would you demand we teach as science the doctrine of the Trinity?
But this is not to say that Stein doesn't see a religious dynamic at issue here; he does. And not very surprising, given his legal background, the movie spends much of its time warning against the same deadly threat that Phillip Johnson associated with "Darwinism."
Ben Stein's primary thesis in Expelled is of course that Big Science hasn't given Intelligent Design a fair hearing, that it stifles and suppresses them for sundry unsavory reasons. But his secondary thesis, nearly as important, is the claim, made explicit throughout the movie, that merely by studying evolutionary theory -- or, one surmises, any science at all -- faith in God is chipped away until, in the end, the student is left shorn of belief in deity, in transcendence, even in free will. The young become easy pickin's for Progressivists who ache to create the "New Socialist Man," per one of Adolf Hitler's speeches that Stein helpfully shows us.
(Given all the Nazi references in the movie, my brother wondered whether Ben Stein had utterly "Godwinized" himself.")
Let's take each of these in turn, starting with whether establishment science -- the "dominant paradigm," as Stein puts it, using the language of Thomas Kuhn's the Structure of Scientific Revolutions -- has really suppressed mountains of evidence pointing to Intelligent Design, all in order to prevent a paradigm shift that would leave the establishment no longer king of the anthill.
April 18, 2008
I appear to have become a Nazi...
...Along with everyone else who accepts the modern theory of evolution by variation and natural selection.
I was just listening to Ben Stein on the Michael Medved show. Stein has a new documentary out, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, which argues that "Big Science" has systematically suppressed all the evidence showing that God exists, that He specially created all live on the planet, and that Darwinism is the great hoax of the 19th century.
One paragraph in, and already I'm getting sidetracked! This reminds me of a story Fred Pohl tells. When he was hosting the Long John Neville show, during one of his frequent episodes debunking UFOlogy, an angry believer in alien abductions demanded of Pohl, "How much evidence do we have to present before you admit They're here?"
Pohl's response was brilliant, though I must paraphrase: "A million pieces wouldn't be enough, because you and I have completely different ideas of what constitutes 'evidence.'"
Alas, just a few minutes into Stein's stint on Medved, I discover something unsavory about myself: Stein and Medved, both of whom reject evolutionary theo-- excuse me, "Darwinism" -- spent some time reassuring each other that the entire Nazi movement was founded on Darwinism, and that Hitler saw Darwinism as an integral part of Naziism. Ergo, I appear to have become a "Nazi" as well as an "atheist" "Darwinist".
Now a purist might note that Hitler was far more interested in "social Darwinism" -- by which he meant his prepenultimate bête noire Capitalism, rather than biological "Darwinism" -- and that Hitler railed against Capitalism for its social Darwinism, among other reasons... what fascists call inefficient and unjust competition. Even today, the term "social Darwinism" generally means Capitalism to everyone but Ben Stein. (Hitler's three biggest bugbears were, in reverse order, Capitalism, Communism, and Jews.)
Think I'm exaggerating about Stein's argumentum? From Ben Stein's own blog, here is his conflation of "Darwinism" (he never calls evolution by its actual name) with imperialism (if the first link doesn't resolve, try this one):
Let’s make this short and sweet. It would be taken for granted by any serious historian that any ideology or worldview would partake of the culture in which it grew up and would also be largely influenced by the personality of the writer of the theory....
In other words, major theories do not arise out of thin air. They come from the era in which they arose and are influenced greatly by the personality and background of the writer.
The Stein thesis is already misleading and boorish. Evolutionary theory is not an "ideology or worldview;" it is a scientific theory. And science uses the word "theory" differently than do other disciplines.
As Stein understands the word, it means any supposition, no matter how airy: the theory of Progressivist economics, the theory of deconstructionism. But in science, a theory is a hypothesis that has been thoroughly vetted, for which a tremendous amount of favorable evidence has been produced, and against which there is no significant contradictory evidence... a hypothesis or model doesn't become a theory until there is a consensus of well-respected scientists in relevant fields -- including previous dissenters -- who now support it.
Of course scientific ideas are affected by the cultures in which they arise, but primarily because different cultures generate different problems to solve and produce different technologies by which to measure the real world. Science itself, however derived, works equally well in every culture, every country, every continent, and (we presume) on every planet in the universe.
It is thus truly universal in a way that faith, morals, and philosophy can only dream about. But the price paid is that science is strictly limited to explaining how the natural world works; it cannot, even in theory (there's that pesky word again), be used to prove or disprove the existence of a being outside the natural world, such as God -- Richard Dawkins notwithstanding.
Stein is already off on the wrong track, through a combination of half-grasped science and misappropriation of terms. We continue:
Darwinism, the notion that the history of organisms was the story of the survival of the fittest and most hardy, and that organisms evolve because they are stronger and more dominant than others, is a perfect example of the age from which it came: the age of Imperialism. [This is a bizarre misapprehension of the theory even when the Origin of Species was published in 1859, let alone today. How "dominant" is a shrew or a sponge? "Fittest" means best able to survive and reproduce in that environment.] When Darwin wrote, it was received wisdom that the white, northern European man was destined to rule the world. This could have been rationalized as greed -- i.e., Europeans simply taking the resources of nations and tribes less well organized than they were. It could have been worked out as a form of amusement of the upper classes and a place for them to realize their martial fantasies. (Was it Shaw who called Imperialism “…outdoor relief for the upper classes?”) [I don't know. Was it? What makes Mr. Stein believe Shaw said or wrote that? I certainly can't find it in any standard book of quotations or on the internet.]
But it fell to a true Imperialist, from a wealthy British family on both sides, married to a wealthy British woman, writing at the height of Imperialism in the UK, when a huge hunk of Africa and Asia was “owned” (literally, owned, by Great Britain) to create a scientific theory that rationalized Imperialism. [And this is nonsense on stilts; evolutionary theory has nothing whatever to do with "imperialism" or racism or Naziism; this is cotton-candy reasoning that dissolves upon contact into nothing but a bad aftertaste.] By explaining that Imperialism worked from the level of the most modest organic life up to man, and that in every organic situation, the strong dominated the weak and eventually wiped them out, Darwin offered the most compelling argument yet for Imperialism. [Wrong again; the better-reproducing weak will wipe out the less-reproducing strong.] It was neither good nor bad, neither Liberal nor Conservative, but simply a fact of nature. In dominating Africa and Asia, Britain was simply acting in accordance with the dictates of life itself. He was the ultimate pitchman for Imperialism.
This is so wrong, it's maddening. Charles Darwin never used his evolutionary theory to pitch or even justify imperialism; nor did he ever agitate for eugenics programs. His cousin, Francis Galton, invented the idea of eugenics by applying Darwinian ideas to societies... but even he never proposed the government eugenics programs that riddled fascist, Marxist, Nazi, and Progressivist societies. And Darwin himself was skeptical of the expansion.
The philosophy (not science!) of "social Darwinism" was created after Darwin's death by Progressivists, as our hypothetical purist noted; liberals appropriated the term during FDR's administration to attack Capitalism, conflating it with racism and imperialism. Darwin himself was not an imperialist, certainly not in the mold of, say, Rudyard Kipling or Winston Churchill.
But to Ben Stein and Michael Medved, evolutionary theory equals "Darwinism" (similarly, one must presume that quantum mechanics and special relativity are aspects of Newtonism, and I got my graduate degree in Euclidism); Darwinism equals social Darwinism; and social Darwinism is Naziism; ergo... Seig heil!
Evolution by natural selection is the most maligned theory in history; every political hack or philosophy monger twists the science to suit his own prejudices: The lefties twist it to indict Capitalism and individualism; Stein twists it to indict scientific "imperialism" that stands in the way of teaching Judeo-Christian religious precepts as science in the public schools. This saddens me, because I love so many other aspects of Ben Stein's conservatism.
An even purer purist than our previous purists might note -- as Jonah Goldberg did -- that socialists in general, including Progressivists and liberals but not Capitalists, were the real "social Darwinists;" they believed in abortion or sterilization of "defectives" and euthanasia for the handicapped, and suchlike examples of eugenics programs. You can hardly get more "socially Darwinist" than that.
Said purer purists would also argue that the Third Reich in general and Adolf Hitler in particular were not noted for their comprehensive understanding of basic science... you know, that whole "the earth is a hollow sphere and we live on the inside of it" thingie, and the moon being made of ice, and all that "race-science" stuff with its heirarchy of superior to inferior races, and their weird idea that any scientific theory that had a Jew anywhere among its developers was "Jew science" and must be banned. Therefore they could not possibly be exemplars of biological evolutionary theory. Nazis had no more idea of what evolutionary biology actually held than does my dog Scrimshaw... and he's been dead for twenty years.
Fascists, Communists, Progressivists, socialists, and liberals (and conservatives like Ben Stein) have utterly misunderstood Darwin's original, long supplemented if not supplanted thesis; and they are not even aware of the decades of refinement (even by the 1920s) that reshaped it. When you point it out to them, they see this constant refinement of the model as inconstancy; they contrast it negatively to the constancy of Biblical values and use that as another club to bash evolution: If the theory keeps changing, it's an admission that it was wrong; and there's no reason to believe that the current version is any better! But the Bible never changes (heh); it's very permanence proves its value and truth.
The absolute purest of the pure would point out that the entire Steinian argument on this point boils down to:
- Nazis were social Darwinists;
- Social Darwinism sounds superficially similar to Darwinism, our misleading pet name for modern evolutionary theory;
- Therefore, evolutionary theory has a disturbing link to Naziism, and those who believe in it are akin to Nazis.
Here, try this one:
- Supporters of Intelligent Design eat carbohydrates;
- Carbohydrates sound superficially similar to hydrocarbons, the principal constituents of petroleum (oil) and natural gas;
- Oil sometimes leaks, producing oil slicks;
- Oil slicks kill baby seals;
- Vicious fur hunters also kill baby seals;
- Therefore, supporters of Intelligent Design have a disturbing link to evil baby-seal clubbers.
I suppose I'll have to see the movie, but I'll tell you in advance what I predict it will show: endless sequences of "atheists" and "secular humanists" being asked rude and scientifically ignorant questions in a querulous, argumentative, and incoherent manner. And when those atheists (meaning anyone who believes in modern evolutionary theory, since Stein appears to believe that faith and mainstream science are fundamentally at odds) and secular humanists (meaning "generic badthing") can't answer the paralogical question, the IDer will proclaim victory and do a triumphant dance.
But just in case I'm wrong, I'll go see the movie. Just in case all the ID books and articles and pamphlets I've read just didn't have the proper killer argument, I'll go. I'll go just so that no one can say I didn't give ID a fair shake -- which, by the way, ID has never given evolutionary theory; I've yet to encounter an IDer who actually understands the (fairly low-level) science behind the basic concepts of modern evolutionary theory and statistical mathematics... and without that background, it's no wonder "Darwinism" sounds weird and implausible. It's like trying to explain viral infection to someone who believes disease is caused by the evil spells of witches. Here, again, is the man himself (Stein, not Darwin):
Darwinism is still very much alive, utterly dominating biology. Despite the fact that no one has ever been able to prove [to the satisfaction of those who reject evolution for religious reasons] the creation of a single distinct species by Darwinist means, Darwinism dominates the academy and the media. Darwinism also has not one meaningful word to say on the origins of organic life, a striking lacuna in a theory supposedly explaining life. [But not so striking in a theory explaining how contemporary species of life evolved from earlier species of life. Evolutionary theory makes no claim to explain the ultimate origin of life; that is left for other theories and hypotheses -- as it should be.]
Alas, Darwinism has had a far bloodier life span than Imperialism. [Imperialism killed tens of thousands during the crusades and the Inquisition, hundreds of thousands in the British, Spanish, and Belgian empires, and millions under Communist imperialism. How many people have been killed by rampaging biologists?] Darwinism, perhaps mixed with Imperialism, gave us Social Darwinism, a form of racism so vicious that it countenanced the Holocaust against the Jews and mass murder of many other groups in the name of speeding along the evolutionary process. [Either Stein argues that Darwin approved of such a use -- which would be a complete fabrication -- or Stein must admit that he is deliberately trying to make fools of us all.]
Now, a few scientists are questioning Darwinism on many fronts. I wonder how long Darwinism’s life span will be.
Considering that "Darwinism" (evolutionary biology) has already withstood 149 years of hostile questioning by real scientists, I doubt that a few months of interrogation by religiously motivated ID zealots is going to shake the theory's foundations.
The central confusion, as always, is the one so thoroughly refuted by geneticist and staunch Christian believer Francis Collins in his seminal work, the Language of God: Stein and Medved both clearly believe that faith in God is incompatible with belief in evolution... as if God could not have created human beings by the mechanism of evolution. Collins shows the nonsensical theology behind this "argument by personal incredulity," as well as debunking the numerous examples of "well, Darwinism can't explain the evolution of this specific organ or organelle," upon which ID depends for its smattering of vaguely scientific arguments.
Until both conservatives and socialist atheists drop that absurd, self-created dichotomy, which does not exist in reality, we will continue to be subjected to such offensive claptrap as both Intelligent Design -- and books like Richard Dawkins' the God Delusion.
More's the pity.
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