25 March 2012
The air was thick with flying chaff yesterday at the Reason Rally in Washington, DC, as one speaker after another thrashed and stomped every straw man in sight.
The star turn was provided by Richard Dawkins. After an initial paean to the evolutionary process—understood, needless to say, along strictly orthodox neo-Darwinian lines—Dawkins went on the attack.
Who was the object of his attack? The scientists who are currently threatening to upend his comfortable, if incredible, worldview which holds that organisms are nothing but the mechanical byproducts of the struggle for survival among the selfish genes?
Not a bit of it. The names of Walter Freeman, John Gerhart, Mae-Wan Ho, Eva Jablonka, Stuart Kauffman, Marc Kirschner, Alexei Kurakin, Stuart Newman, Gerald Pollack, James Shapiro, Jack Tuszynski, Giuseppe Vitiello, Mary Jane West-Eberhard, and F.E. Yates—to mention a few—were nowhere to be heard.
Instead, we were treated to a litany of platitudes, like this one:
The electromagnetic spectrum runs all the way from the extremely long-wave radio-wave end of the spectrum to gamma rays at the very short-wave end of the spectrum, and visible light—that which we can see—is a tiny little sliver in the middle of that electromagnetic spectrum. Science has broadened out our perception of that spectrum, to long-wave radio waves on the one hand, and gamma rays on the other. I take that to be symbolic of what science does generally. It takes our little vision—our little, parochial, small vision—and broadens it out. And that is a magnificent vision for what science can do. Science makes us see what we couldn’t see before. Religion does its best to snuff out even that light which we can see.
The crowd cheers.
So, we’re here to stand up for reason, to stand up for science, to stand up for logic, to stand up for the beauty of reality and the beauty of the fact that we can understand reality.
Dawkins then spends the rest of his time exhorting the atheists in the crowd to “come out”—to openly embrace their identity as atheists. Why? Here is what he says:
Religion is an important phenomenon. Forty percent at least of the American population, according to opinion polls, think that the universe is less than ten thousand years old. That’s not just an error, that’s a preposterous error. I’ve done the calculation before, and it’s equivalent to believing that the width of North America from Washington to San Francisco is equal to about eight yards.
The crowd eats it up.
Dawkins winds up by suggesting that most self-identified Christians are not really Christians at all:
So, when I meet somebody who claims to be religious, my first impulse is: I don’t believe you. I don’t believe you, until you tell me, do you really believe—for example, if they say they’re Catholic—do you really believe that when a priest blesses a wafer, it turns into the body of Christ? Are you seriously telling me you believe that? Are you seriously saying that wine turns into blood? Mock them. Ridicule them . . . [laughter and applause] . . . in public. Don’t fall for the convention that we’re all too polite to talk about religion. Religion is not off the table. Religion is not off limits. Religion makes specific claims about the universe which need to be substantiated, and need to challenged, and if necessary need to be ridiculed with contempt.
The crowd goes wild.
In other words, Professor Dawkins and the Reason Rally are claiming that there are only two possible positions here:
Either you believe in the doctrine of the transubstantiation of unleavened bread into the body of Christ, or you believe in the doctrine of the transubstantiation of inorganic chemicals into anthropomorphic machinery by the blind, mechanical process of natural selection. No intermediate positions are even worth considering.
This conception of our dialectical situation was seconded by a recent exchange printed online by The New York Times, between well-known molecular geneticist Michael Lynch and physicist Alan Sokal (of Sokal hoax fame).
This is how Lynch launches this dialogue of the deaf:
Here’s something that often gets lost in the acrimony of the culture wars: the public debate over evolution isn’t just about evolution. It is also about which sources or methods we should trust—science or scripture—when it comes to the history of life on this planet.
This sally sets the pace, and the rest of the dialogue between these two interesting thinkers dissipates in a cloud of amateur epistemological musing about the cognitive authority of the Bible—a real opportunity squandered.
No, Professor Lynch, the public debate over evolution is not primarily about the cognitive status of scripture. It’s about many things, but that is not one of them.
Let’s review what the public debate over evolution really is about—as opposed to what the Reason Rally and Messrs. Dawkins, Lynch, and Sokal would like it to be about, because straw men make such tempting targets.
Here’s a list of some of the main questions that ought to be the central topics in the evolution debate, but which Richard Dawkins and the others studiously avoid raising:
- Are organisms really best described as machines?
- Machines are designed by an external intelligence to serve the interests of the external intelligence. Is this really a useful metaphor for thinking about organisms, whose functional organization arises spontaneously from within to serve the interests of the organism itself?
- Machines are brittle; organisms are robust. If you modify a part in a machine, the other parts do not adapt themselves accordingly. If you modify a part in an organism, the other parts do adapt themselves accordingly. How can we best understand the robustness of organisms?
- All the vocabulary of normative agency—well-being, need, purpose, value, meaning, having reason for acting—applies throughout biology, and only in biology. Why is biology so different from physics and chemistry in this respect?
- Is the theory of natural selection really a useful scientific theory?
- Before a new biological form can be selected—before it can proliferate throughout a population—it must first exist. Yet the theory of natural selection takes the appearance of novel viable forms for granted. That is, it assumes the thing most in need of explanation.
- Genetic mutations may be mostly random with respect to organismic needs, though this is now much less certain than it used to be. But, in any case, changes at the genomic level must be transformed into changes at the phenotypic level before selection can occur, and this transformation takes place by the process of embryonic development. Embryonic development is decidedly not random with respect to organismic needs. So, this is a second way in which the theory of natural selection begs the most important questions.
- Natural selection is perhaps unobjectionable as a phenomenological description of the evolutionary process, but it is far from being an adequate explanation of what most requires explaining—the teleological and normative characteristics of organisms. Therefore, as an explanation it is superficial and as a scientific theory it is extremely weak.
- What is the physical basis of the adaptive capacity of organisms?
- Darwinists speak as though all we needed to worry about was the origin of a particular biological form. But the origin of biological forms is the least of our worries. The much deeper worry is how organisms can exist at all, from moment to moment. Why don’t they just fall apart at once? To say “If they did, they wouldn’t be here” is not a scientific answer to this question.
- The crux of the problem is how organisms can respond to challenges in adaptive (intelligent) ways, either by returning to the old way of doing things (robustness) or by finding a new way to do things compatible with life (plasticity). All living things possess the capacities of robustness and plasticity. What is the physical basis of these capacities?
- Being both robust and plastic, organisms are highly stable systems (that is, dynamically stable). Their stability consists in the coordination of millions of individual physical and chemical interactions in space and time. Call this “functional stability.” Functional stability is a general property of all living matter, and so must have a physical basis. But it is clearly not the direct result of ordinary free-energy minimzation. Therefore, nonequilibrium thermodynamics, self-ordering, and similar principles that sometimes go under the name of “self-organization” cannot be the whole story. What, then, is the physical principle underyling the functional stability of living matter?
These are only a few of the questions that lie at the heart of the real evolution debate. They are topics that Dawkins and his friends would be discussing if they were really interested in employing reason to advance human knowledge.
Alas, their only interest appears to be in mounting a political crusade to replace Christianity with their own faith in materialist reductionism and normative nihilism.