Posted tagged ‘intelligent design’

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 ID refutation yet: Ridiculing the ridiculous department.

March 3, 2008

I was digging through some old blogosphere notes today, and rediscovered Daniel Brooks’ account of his time at the false-colors conference purporting to be a commemoration of the famous — or infamous — 1967 Wistar conference “Mathematical Challenges to the Neo-Darwinian Interpretation of Evolution.”

The conference turned out to be a deep embarrassment to the political commisars of the ID regiments.  Mixing highly qualified, articulate real biologists with ID advocates whose capacity for scientific argument has been dulled by too much preaching to the choir turned out to be a bad idea. So much so, that, to the amusement of many in the science blogging community, the conference organizers then tried to gag participants, emailing them after the fact that “the ID people considered the conference a private meeting,and did not want any of us to discuss it, blog it, or publish anything about it.”

Fortunately, Brooks ignored this ex post facto nonsense — leading to a fair amount of (still accumulating) science blogospheric coverage of the topic.  Even so, to my knowledge, no one has highlighted one of the my favorite moments in Brooks account of the whole sorry affair.

So, to help brighten everyone’s Monday, let me quote one of the most pleasing rhetorical bludgeonings of ID I’ve yet read. In his dissection of Stephen Meyer’s talk, Brooks methodically went through the premises stated and the conclusions drawn. The last of Meyer’s allegedly proven claims held that “layered informational hierarchies arise only from intelligent agents.” To this, Brooks replies

…it is time for them to retire the assertion that ID wins over evolution on the basis that “There is not enough information in any given microbe right now to generate all the rest of the species on the planet.” This is silly, and does not help their cause. It is trivially true that no contemporary microbe frozen in time and space contains all the genetic diversity of all the species on this planet. But evolution is about descent with modification and neither descent nor modification play any role in the ID discussions.

Then — and here comes the object lesson: don’t mess with folks who (a) know what they are talking about and (b) know how to stick the rhetorical shiv between one’s ribs — Brooks provided the illustration to make his point unforgettable.

Using their reasoning, I have no daughter because there’s not enough information in me to generate her. That does not mean she was produced by the intervention of a supernatural designer. It is true that during the mechanical process that produced her, I may have invoked the name of the Deity at the height of ecstasy. But I know who was in the room at the time of conception, and my daughter is a wonderful combination of the material traits of both of those people, in addition to having many wonderful traits of her own, some of which appear in her children. I personally do not want ID to take away that strong sense of personal connection among the generations.

Just in case the barb failed to hook even the dullest of intellects, consider Brooks’ treatment of Michael Behe, Lehigh University’s disowned ID propagandist. Behe is, as Brooks wrote

…the primary reference for the ID concept of irreducible complexity (which is rebranding the argument from design better articulated by Enlightenment philosophers)…

However, as Brooks noted, even this stalwart defender of astrology as science may have a hidden Darwinian bias any worthwhile therapist would wish to explore…

…his introducer pointed out that Behe has 9 children (1 fewer than Darwin, but 1 more than Thomas Huxley, Darwin’s bulldog). If they were produced by the same mechanism as my daughter, it would seem that, whatever his religious beliefs, Behe has been hedging his bets by increasing his Darwinian fitness as much as possible.

The moral: don’t mess with folks both cleverer and funnier than you.

Happy Monday. Now back to book and grant. (I asked for the job, mate, as a long-ago PA reminded me when whinging at the end of some long shoot day. I was, at the time, just coming down with Hepatitis A, so, unknowing, I had some excuse for complaint. But still, she was right.)

Images: Cercopithecus Diana, Illustration from The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, New York: D. Appleton, 1872, volume 2, page 297. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Charles Wilson Peale, “The Peale Family,” 1771-1773. Source: Wikimedia Commons.