Posted tagged ‘Darwin’

Andrew Sullivan Fouls (Another) One Off — and Then Grotesquely Strikes Out: God, Evil, and Auschwitz edition, part two

October 14, 2009

Way, way back in blog years (aka, about two weeks ago), I posted the first of a three parter on Andrew Sullivan’s follies as he attempted to waffle his way around the theodicy problem.  That’s how to harmonize belief in an omnipotent and omniscient loving God with the existence of evil in the world, preferably with a sophistication (if not the blunt practicality) exceeding that of the old aphorism, “Malt does more than Milton can/To reconcile God’s ways to man.”

In that first post, I did not engage the argument head on, though, just to be open about my own dog in this hunt, I think that at this point in human history it is abundantly clear that if you wish to retain a God with personality and direct agency in the world, that deity would have to take the responsibility for deeds so grotesque that Einstein’s line — “only his nonexistence excuses him” — seems to me the only plausible response.*

For me, better to reign in hell — or rather, better, to act with firmness in the right as we may see the right** on this perhaps-not-fallen earth — than bow to any doctrine that pays homage to the author of so much misery.

But dogma, or leaps of faith, may lead others to a different conclusion.  I spent much of the prior post describing what I understood to be Sullivan’s position to argue that his error wasn’t that he thinks suffering is a tool for harrowing faith to the point of redemption– for him. Rather, he ran into trouble when he asserted that his personal experience of his God’s love in response to his pain offered anything more than an individual, subjective kind of knowing.

Such solopsism is a venial sin.***  It’s hardly unprecedented in human affairs that one Andrew Sullivan might mistake deeply felt personal experience for a truth universally to be acknowledged.

But  where he truly stumbled was when he tried to demonstrate that his theodicy possesses a naturalistic justification:  that the difference between human beings and animals lies in our  awareness of suffering.  He claimed that our conscious emotions in the anticipation of our own deaths and other losses enables God to turn our suffering for a spiritual purpose.

This is, I argued, just another God-of-the-gaps wheeze, and betrays deep ignorance of what people who actually study animal behavior and culture have been talking about for a quarter of a century or more.

That’s no surprise.  I’ve noted elsewhere that Sullivan is an innumerate thinker with a purely instrumental — and quite disdainful — view of what science actually does.

Here, as a warm up to my final, science-free rant on Sullivan’s biggest failure in this round of theodicy cage matches, I just want to add one thought.  Sullivan’s fear of science — not of any particular fact to be uncovered, but the terror that the enterprise as a whole really does have something to say at odds with his most deeply held beliefs — can be seen in the tricks he plays with language, as much as in any explicit argument.

To put it another way:  you can see how much this stuff matters to him by the way he commits the very sin he condemns so swiftly when performed by those attempting to justify more obvious wrongs.  When someone calls torture “enhanced interrogation” — Sullivan knows what is being done, and contemns it.

But when he says “Darwinist” in the title of this post, “What is Evil to a Darwinist?”  he attempts the same sleight of hand.  By mislabeling the object of scrutiny he attempts to weight the scales towards a false conclusion.  (And yes, I know that the title is taken from the text of the email he quotes below; I’ll get to that in a moment.)

Sullivan’s readers know precisely what the construction “Darwinist” implies; it parallels his term “Christianist” — which denotes an ostensibly religious person committed to a particularist and overly literal interpretation of Christianity that blinds him or  her to the variety of messages and meanings one might find in more modest faith.

A Darwinist in this context is an evolutionary literalalist and a fanatical materialist, blind to the reality of spiritual experience.  Worse, he or she is a member of a cult, slavisly serving the author of a revealed text, presented to humanity by none other than the devil’s chaplain himself.

Of course, the proper term, in reference to Jerry Coyne, Sullivan’s principal antagonist in this latest round of the theodicy chronicles, and to the relevant group as a whole,  is “evolutionary biologist.”

But if you then used that term, then the offending headline asks this question:  “What is evil to an evolutionary biologist?”  — and the fraud becomes obvious.

What is evil to a physicist?  To a diesel mechanic?  To a cook?  To me, to you, to Andrew Sullivan, to my nine year old?****

There are evils specific to, say, an evolutionary researcher.  Lying is evil — and not lying in general, but specifically committing fraud or deliberately obscuring what is known or not in a given field.  The Creation Museum is thus evil — but it is so within the specific confines of its claim of scientific authority.  If it were simply a religious exhibit, conceived and presented as such, it might be silly, but it would not be sinful, at least not within the context of the professional concerns of an evolutionary biologist.

Evil to a cook? According to Ruth Reichl, contempt for the cuisine you present.

Evil to a kid:  breaking small “f” faith, arriving earlier than discussed to end a play-date or failing to launch into as promised the next goddamn iteration of the Lego game you’ve only repeated 73 times that day (not that I mind, mind you)…

That is:  If you are a scientist, or a banker, or any person working in the world, then (while I agree with Hilary Putnam and many others who dispute the fact-value dichotomy) the evil to be understood in the theodicy issue is not one of a bounded professional ethics, but moral reasoning.  And pace apologists, one does not need a single divinity, a single text…and/or one does not need all of a text as an indispensible aid to such judgment.  (To see what I mean, look no further than the contrast between the moral worlds of Samuel, chapter 15, and that of Micah, chapter 6.)

But if you are a Darwinist, then, like the Christian, or the Christianist, you are on the spot.  You aren’t a human being with expertise in a certain area and intellectual method.  You are a believer, a member of a cult, a person of the (a) book.  Your failure to advance a theory of evil to contest with that of the revealed-religious believer is dispostive; the laurels must go to those who enter the lists.

Hence the usefulness of the such rhetorical posturing, and the deceit.

And what is most galling about this is that Sullivan truly does know better.  He has no time, none at all, for the enablers of torture.  He has justified contempt for every attempt to weasel some language of essential difference to justify distinctions in law between gay and straight.  He has no patience for coded racism.  He knows langauge, and he knows how it can be used for harm…or dare I say it, for evil ends.

No excuses then, for this.

One last note:  he may defend his headline as merely a quote from a post that is in its entirety a reader’s email.  That doesn’t wash, at least not for me.  First — he chose to run the email himself, and he bears responsibility for its rhetorical sins as well as whatever else it may contain.  Second, he wrote the headline.  He had alternatives.  He chose this one; he owns the word, and its sins.

*from a letter written in response to learning that his friend Nernst’s two sons had been killed in action in World War I.

**and yes, I am aware of the crucial edit there.

***though it certainly can lead pretty directly to literally mortal ones.

****I’m deliberately not delving into the folly of the post itself here — but as this headline was in fact taken from the linchpin passage in this reader’s email, you may get a sense of the poverty of the argument there.

Images:  “The Ruins of Lisbon,” after the Nov. 1, 1755 earthquake and tsunami that destroyed that city. German copperplate engraving.

Darwin cartoon from the London Sketchbook, 1874

Heads Up! — Pigeons on the Loose at So Simple A Beginning

March 23, 2009

It’s not just this blog that has suffered a bad case of the slows lately; so has So Simple A Beginning a group-ish effort to blog against The Origin of Species in anticipation of that books 150th anniversary coming up this November.

But now I’m pleased to report that we’re finally getting on to Chapter one, starting off with a wonderful post by science writer Courtney Humphries.  Humphries, a graduate of America’s Finest™ Graduate Program in Science Writing — that at mine own institution,  MIT — is the author the acclaimed book on pigeons in all their glory, Superdove, published last year.  Check out what she has to say about Darwin’s use of the descendents of the humble and ubiquitous rock pigeon, Columba livia.

Image:  Anonymous, “Young Woman in Oriental Dress with Pigeon Post.” 19th century.

Getting Ready for 200/150: “How Many Removes From Charles?” Edition

December 16, 2008

As everyone with a pulse and an interest in science knows, 2009 is the big Darwin year — the 200th anniversary of his birth (February 12) and the 150th of the publication of The Origin.  I will in a week or so have some news about what Inverse Square — or a derivative thereof — is doing to join the chorus on that one; I think I’ve got something shaping up that the community will enjoy.

In the meantime, and as I get stuck into my prep for that project, just a quick thought as I peered at the Darwin/Wedgewood family tree Janet Browne helpfully included at the front of the Voyaging volume of her Darwin magnum opus.  There I found that Darwin’s latest-surviving child, Leonard.  Leonard Darwin was born in 1850, before the Crimean War, the Sepoy MutinyAme–the Indian Rebellion of 1857 — and the American Civil War; and he saw the end of World War II, India’s independence and the effective end of the British Empire, all before his death  in 1948.*  And, not to overlook the most important factoid, young Leonard would have been a curious eight year old just as his father was in the midst of his most intense labors distilling the work of decades into the book that became The Origin of Species.

That skein of history would be remarkable enough just for one man’s memory, but what struck me was the thought that my f Uncle David, born and raised in England, with an army background (and subsequent career of his own) that could have led him to Major Darwin (Royal Engineers), might indeed have exchanged a conversational commonplace or two with the son of the man whose birth and work we celebrate soon.

All of which is to point out the obvious — and perhaps one tangential thought not quite so banal. The distance between anyone reading this and Charles Darwin is not that great.  It is entirely imaginable to have had a conversation with someone you know or knew who could have heard the stories of life at Down House from someone who watched and listened as Charles Darwin assembled his argument.  The middle of Queen Victoria’s reign, and the very center of a revolution in ideas seem very far away when we toss around anniversary numbers like a bicentennial, or one hundred and fifty years since this or that.  They are not, at least by the measure of human memory.  She danced with a man who danced with woman who danced with the Prince of Wales; we are that close to Charles and his pigeons and all the rest.

Nothing new there — just a reminder of the numbers.  But the thought that crossed my  mind as I wondered if my uncle did in fact ever meet Leonard (as above–I had not known to ask, of course, until the chance-met glance at the bottom of the family tree) was that Richard Dawkins may have missed the point of his own reflection that he too would have been a believer before Darwin.

If you follow my sense of the slenderness of the gap that separates us in the passage of generations, of the transfer of ideas and culture that pass from grandparent to grandchild at so near a remove from Charles Darwin’s in his study in 1859, then the broken chain of belief that separates Dawkins from Victoria’s (or Emma Darwin’s) Anglican God is very short indeed.

And that thought made me wonder  if the heat and urgency I read in Dawkins’ atheism seems a little misplaced.  Without wandering too far into this thicket, it does seem to me worth remembering that it has been a very short time in the history of human society, and a still shorter time if the person-person touch of memory matters, since Darwin’s thought  struck its blow to conventional faith.

It takes some time for big ideas to sink in.  (For a biblical example, as long as we are on the subject, God through Moses affirmed the equality of women, at least as far as inheritance and rights of property go, in the Book of Numbers, which dates back 3,400 years ago or so.  That thought took a while to penetrate, did it not?)

There is no doubt in my mind that Darwin’s rigorous materialism takes some getting used to; that part of the point of 2009 is to confront not just Darwin’s thinking, but the success of the research program that his work (and that of many others, of course) set in motion.  I’m confident, that is, not angry — and I remember that we have not been inside this world view for any length of time at all.  One hundred and fifty years?  The lives my uncle’s life has touched — mine and those before me — stretch back before then.  Easily.

*Here from the Wikipedia entry on Leonard Darwin linked above, is John Maynard Keynes take on Charles’s son, who proves to have just a hint of the wasp about him in his turn:

Keynes explained the decision to publish the niece’s “very personal account”: “Leonard Darwin’s life covered so vast an epoch of change in men’s ideas, his own attitudes towards the problems of his age were so characteristic of the best and noblest intelligences of his time, and he grew up in the environment of a family of so immortal a renown …” (p. 439) Darwin expressed his feelings about Keynes in a letter to Fisher (Correspondence p. 141), “I neither like him nor trust him … But he’s very clever …”

Image: Auguste Renoir:  “La danse à la campagne,” 1883.

Further to “Darwinism” as Rhetoric: Up From Comments Edition

December 14, 2008

I should learn from commenter (and blogger) JRE on the virtues of concision, as he expresses in a couple of hundred words here what I labored to put in more than a thousand in (a) my critique of Archbishop John Habgood’s misuse of the term “Darwinism” and (b) the boom I lowered on the good cleric’s defender, Mid Anglican blogger Leslie Darrow.

JRE writes:

It is clear that Leslie Dellow has discovered a tree, and missed the forest, with

I think your problem is that having the syllable -ism tagged onto a word, or somebody’s name, automatically has pejorative overtones in your ears, and perhaps that is the result of hearing creationists use the word “Darwinism” in a pejorative sense …

Yes, “Darwinism” is pejorative, and no, it is not pejorative simply because “ism” is tacked onto someone’s name. A great scientist is frequently honored by having his or her name attached to a species, a physical unit, a constant, an observed relationship (or “law”), even an interpretation of the natural world (as in “neo-Darwinian synthesis”) — but never to an entire field of study. The reason is that the universe of knowledge does not belong to any researcher, however brilliant. Once a community of natural scientists had confirmed and expanded Darwin’s findings to the point that no reasonable person doubted their validity, the field was “evolutionary biology.” Darwin was, and is, rightly honored as the greatest pioneer in that field, but he doesn’t own it any more.

We see the same tactic employed wherever some group wants to oppose an established body of science for political or philosophical reasons. It’s been a long time since the germ theory of disease was controversial, so we don’t hear microbiology referred to as “Pasteurism.” But there are still those uncomfortable with vaccination or antibiotics, and for whom it is always “Western medicine” or “allopathic medicine” rather than plain old medicine. Similarly, we often hear those who resist the political or economic consequences of discoveries in climatology speak of the “church of Al Gore” because — in this context — a religious reference is a pejorative. I find that fact perversely comforting: dramatic confirmation that science has so earned the respect of the public mind that it is a far more effective debating trick to call your opponent’s position religious than to describe it as scientific.

Exactly so…and I’ll have more to say soon about the unfortunate trope a-building on environmentalism as religion — something that needs to be pushed back against hard and fast.

Image:  See here for details.  I’m being deliberately obscure, so that those that are interested can guess the relevance to this post.  Hint:  once you get past the first order connection, consider this, then this.

On Darwinism as a Term of Abuse

December 11, 2008

A while back, I posted a short piece criticizing the Rt. Rev. and the Rt. Hon. Lord Habgood, P. C., former Archibishop of York (number 2 in the Anglican hierarchy) and Ph.D physiologist, for his use of the terms “Darwinism” and “scientific orthodoxy” in a review of a history of creationism.  In that post I wrote,

Just to reduce this to the absurdity it is: does anyone out there think “Newtonianism” is a good term to describe the branch of knowledge that enables us, inter alia to calculate the trajectory of a comet?

Well, someone does.  Leslie Darrow, proprietor of the Mid-Anglican blog had this to say about what seemed to me to be about as banal an observation as I could imagine:

I don’t know why not. Calculating the trajectory of a comet doesn’t need anything more sophisticated than Newtonian mechanics.

I replied that I was afraid Darrow was being either silly or obtuse, for reasons that I think are obvious.  No one refers to the ideas in The Principia as the corpus of Newtonism.  Mechanics, maybe, or in the case of problems involving Newtonian gravity, celestial mechanics, but not Newtonism, or Isaackery or anything of the sort.  No one.

Similarly, no one refers to this or this or this as successful applications of the methods of Darwinism.  They are all, of course, results achieved under the umbrella category of evolutionary biology, using methods from specialized biological disciplines ranging from field ecology to molecular genetics — the latter a practice for which Darwin lacked even the vocabulary to imagine

That all seems pretty standard issue stuff  — and even if you don’t want to go all philosophical on me, it comes back to the practice, the use of terms in science.  Do we refer to the study of molecular genetics as Watson-and-Crickism?

We do not.

Unfortunately, Darrow proceeded to dig herself in deeper.


Charles Darwin Talks Like A Pirate

September 19, 2008

It is, as I am sure everyone knows, International Talk Like A Pirate Day. Now I know y’all will be honoring this important day in all the appropriate ways. But when I discovered this handy Pirate translator, I realized that those of us in and around science have, perhaps, lagged in the intensity of our festival rites.

So, without further nattering, I offer to all, an evolutionary Pirate offering: this translation, which I’m sure you will all recognize.

Aye, thar is grandeur in this ‘iew o’ life, with its se’eral powers, ha’in’ been originally breathed int’ a few forms or int’ one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cyclin’ on accordin’ t’ the fixed law o’ gra’ity, from so simple a beginnin’ endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and be bein’, e’ol’ed.

Do have at it yourselves. If you get anything good, feel free to post it to the comments.

Image: N. C. Wyeth, “Captain Bill Bones,” (Illustration for R. L. Stevenson’s Treasure Island), 1911. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Quicky addendum to Bishops and Biology…

July 26, 2008

This is why the kind of rhetorical shenanigans discussed below matter.   PZ Myers links to the latest follies from the Texas State Board of Education. For a report from the front lines about the damage done by asserting false equivalences between challenges to religious and scientific claims, read this.

Image:  Charles Darwin as an ape in Hornet Magazine, 1871.  Source:  Wikimedia Commons.

Words Matter: Bishops and Biology Edition

July 26, 2008

It’s about time this blog actually turned to an subject square in the middle of its stated theme, to look at science in public life.

In today’s episode: What John Habgood, retired Anglican Archbishop of York had to say in this review of Ronald Numbers’ history of creationism and the “intelligent design” movement. (h/t Patrick Appel)

I’m sure that there are plenty of folks around the science blogosphere who would take issue of the former second-ranking cleric in the Church of England’s claim that “all assertions about the objectivity and truth of science must themselves depend on belief in some form of reality which is simply “given”.

But that point in Habgood’s lede is something of a throwaway; he’s concerned with creationism, which he contrasts to a more general belief in creation, and which he says “is much more specific and much less plausible.” Again, I’m sure this will also piss some people off — including many of his own flock, for whom his quite abstract vision of God will be just as unsatisfying as his assertion of the necessity of the concept of God will be to the non-believing reader.

Most of the review is in fact quite good — a clear and useful review of the competing strands of creationism at the birth of the movement. He calls out ID for the nonsense it is — as theology as well as science — and if he annoys me (as he does) for urging a fairly typical “both sides need reform” argument –asking “some scientists to be more conscious and critical of their own materialistic assumptions” — it is important to remember who is writing here. Habgood is/was a bishop, after all, and writes from certain assumptions into a particular structure of thought.

Rather — I want to take issue with just two words as Habgood misuses them. The first is “Darwinism” and the second is “orthodoxy” used in combination with the modifier “scientific.”

On Darwinism: Last week, Olivia Judson dissected the mixture of foolishness and bad-faith polemic contained in the use of the word as a synonym for evolutionary biology. Habgood uses the term once more or less appropriately, as the thing opposed in the early days of creationist attacks on Darwin’s idea. It’s still misleading to assert that all that was known and being done in the second half of the nineteenth century could be contained under the umbrella of the devil’s chaplain’s name — but there is a clear historical context to opposition to Darwin and his ideas by name, and in discussing that history, “Darwinism” is not the worst shorthand to use.

But now? It’s a nonsense. Just to reduce this to the absurdity it is: does anyone out there think “Newtonianism” is a good term to describe the branch of knowledge that enables us, inter alia to calculate the trajectory of a comet? How about Daltonism to describe that discipline that studies the different combinations into which different species of matter can form? That’s actually a historically appropriate analogy — for Daltonism could be used to describe nineteenth chemists’ commitment to the reality of atoms and molecules, despite some physicists resistance to the atomic idea for many decades more. But in 2008? Come on.

The problem for Habgood specifically in using the word “Darwinism” in such a fundamentally wrong-headed way is that it betrays a perhaps unconscious affinity for the ideas he overtly criticizes here.

The word as employed in this piece is purely polemical, and, as Judson pointed out, its use represents an attempt to redefine the playing field. If Darwin could be shown wrong, then Darwinism falls — except of course, Darwin was wrong about lots of individual bits and pieces, and yet created a body of ideas and an approach that has fostered a branch of science that is very well indeed, thank you very much. Habgood plays on the wrong side of the pitch when he uses this word.

The same kind of bad faith appears in his odd choice to use the word “orthodoxy.” Habgood twice refers to “scientific orthodoxy” — once in the context of a discussion of clever people “riven to reject current scientific orthodoxy” and again in warning of creationism/ID’s “a serious threat to scientific orthodoxy, particularly in the field of biology.”

I suspect that the reason the use of the word orthodoxy is malicious (in result even if not intent) is pretty obvious to those reading this.

But just to show blogger due-diligence: orthodoxy is a term of art with specific meanings in the religious discussion. Those meanings do not describe the practice of science, which turns on various methods to guage the reliability of its claims.

The use of the word in conjunction with science is at best a sociological claim — that as a human activity, scientists can form shared assumptions that seem analogous to a credo. Even here, it makes a highly imperfect comparison to the use of the same terms — both orthodoxy and affirmations of belief — in the religious context.

At worst, the word is clearly designed to play a very nasty set of mental chimes. Orthodoxy is readily turned into a term of abuse, to mean unthinking commitment to unsupportable ideas: women, derived from Adam’s rib, are intended by God to serve men; human beings are descended from ancestors common to their primate kin.

There — that should make the sleight of hand obvious. Habgood’s rhetoric is designed to create a false equivalence between science and religion, and a false sharing of blame for the spread of nonsensical notions to the fundamentalists who cannot read their bible as Habgood reads his, and to those blinkered orthodox scientists, who cannot appreciate Habgood’s vision of the mysterious.

Habgood surely knows the weight of language; his life has been spent parsing the Word in great detail, and with great distinction within his community. He is responsible for this abuse of meaning.

Update: minor edits to produce something resembling grammar in a few sentences.

Image: Yorkminster spire. This file is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License.

Best Twit the French/Science Joke on the Web recently…

May 5, 2008

…Comes from that trenchant blogger, Charles Darwin.

He writes:

Elsewhere the Telegraph’s Mr Highfield reports that starlings know when humans are watching them. A trait that first developed in France, is my guess.

Stumus Vulgaris Bardotis, no doubt.*

Image: Brigitte Bardot. Photograph taken at a cocktail party in 1968. Licensed under a GNU Free Documentation License version 1.2 or later. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

*Betraying my age here, I think.

Don’t Play Poker With…

March 16, 2008

JP Morgan.

This not so much science as natural history. Observe the behavior of the fauna in the wild.

Or perhaps this is science, or at least an illustration of the kind of observation on which scientific ideas rest. Consider this quote:

I should premise that I use the term Struggle for Existence in a large
and metaphorical sense, including dependence of one being on another,
and including (which is more important) not only the life of the
individual, but success in leaving progeny. Two canine animals in a
time of dearth, may be truly said to struggle with each other which
shall get food and live.

That Charles Darwin fella kinda had a thought or two in his head.

One Bear goes extinct, and a more lupine creature feasts on its carcase.

File this one variously: The Struggle for Existence (the title of the chapter of The Origin from which the quote above was taken); Homo hominis lupus est, (with a nod to my man Tommy Hobbes); or perhaps in the Gordon Gecko file, under the subhead, “The Rich Get Richer (even the ones that fail).”

And yes, this all pretty much an excuse to link to the ur-Darwin text one more time. It’s never a bad moment to read a little of what the Devil’s chaplain had to say.

Update: I’d temper my snark about wealth immune to risk because while it is certainly true that people like Bear Stearns chairman “Ace” Greenberg have done OK over the years, but there are a lot of folks out there less well cushioned to the blow. They’re grownups, risk is risk, and Wall Street is not for the faint of heart…but still, it’s a very bad day for a lot of folks, and I do not want too dance to hard to other folks’ dirges. (h/t Atrios)

Update 2 (March 24, 2008):  Maybe you can play poker w. JP after all.  Perhaps there was a reason Bear Stearns managed to maintain the third highest average compensation average of the big players on Wall Street as recently as 2006.  (h/t Atrios)

Image: Alfred Wierusz-Kowalski, “Wilki podczas zamieci” [AKA — your guess is as good as mine, unless you have some Polish competence handy], 1910. Source: Wikimedia Commons