August 7, 2005

"The Left Doesn't Like Darwin Either"

"The Left Doesn't Like Darwin Either" is my new column.

"Selection" remains the most underexploited concept in American intellectual life. It has applications far beyond biology.

Conservatives intellectually disarm themselves when they let distaste for Darwinism cause them to ignore the explanatory power of selection.

Of course, what most people are interested in is the religious controversy over Darwinism. I'm not going to end that dispute, but please allow me to explain why it's not as dire an issue as most of the participants on either side assume. Neither stance logically rules out thinking in selectionist terms.

Consider this: When your doctor prescribes a ten-day course of antibiotics to you, he insists you take all ten days worth of pills, even if you feel fine after two days.

This logic is derived directly from Darwin's theory of natural selection. If you only take two days of antibiotics, you are likely to kill just the bacteria most vulnerable to the medicine and leave alive the most antibiotic-resistant germs. If you keep doing that, you may accidentally create a new version of the bacteria that can't be killed by the antibiotic.

The good news is that there are no Creationists so dogmatic that they preach taking only two days worth of penicillin on the grounds that Darwin must have been wrong. Indeed, the logic of natural selection is widely recognized to be virtually tautological.

Darwin seems to lose out with the public primarily when his supporters force him into a mano-a-mano Thunderdome death match against the Almighty. Most people seem willing to accept Darwinism as long as they don't have to believe in nothing but Darwinism. Thus, the strident tub-thumping for absolute atheism by evolutionary biologists like Richard Dawkins, whom the new issue of Discover Magazine rightly criticizes as "Darwin's Rottweiler," is self-defeating.

Instead, what excites vast controversy is the issue of whether Darwinian selection explains everything. Nobody doubts that selection explains the emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and much else. But many doubt it can explain every single feature we see about us. Biologists, in contrast, typically assert that Darwinism can explain all of life, with no need for any miraculous interventions.

So is the natural selection glass 100 percent full or just 99 percent full—with the occasional miracle necessary to fully account for the wonder of life as we know it?

Strikingly, that question appears to be fundamentally unanswerable by scientific methods. Although the theory of natural selection has been vastly useful in understanding the biological world, nobody has a time machine to go back and check every possible moment in the history of life on Earth.

The biologists' assumption that no miracles are needed to explain the universe is itself a form of faith.

Interestingly, the concept of a miracle is far less inimical to science than many biologists assume. As science fiction novelist Jerry Pournelle pointed out to me, a miracle is, by definition, an exception that proves the rule. So, a belief in miracles, unlike a belief in magic, presupposes a belief in natural laws, which is a necessary condition for science.

Thus, Christendom could develop modern science, while China could not. Historian S.A.M. Adshead of New Zealand wrote a fascinating little book full of aphorisms called China in World History. He noted that the medieval Chinese focused on magic and technology while the Europeans concentrated on theology and science. Early on, the Chinese profited more from their seemingly more practical approach, but in the long run, the Western approach proved best.

Yet what critics of Darwinism fail to understand is that this a priori dislike of miracles is the appropriate professional prejudice of biologists. The Sidney Harris cartoon summed it up. A lab-coated researcher is filling the left and right sides of a black board with equations, but the only thing connecting the two clouds of symbols are the words, "Then a miracle occurs." Another scientist suggests, "I think you should be more explicit here in step two." Relying on miracles in science is like relying on the lottery in retirement planning.

Different professions require different professional prejudices. If you should ever need a defense attorney, you would want him to follow his trade's ethic of battling to have you acquitted even if he assumed you were guilty. Judging you is not his job. Yet we wouldn't want judges to think that way.

Similarly, biologists will be more productive if they don't just throw their hands up and declare a miracle when faced with something they can't yet explain.

But the problem comes when biologists try to inflate this useful professional prejudice into the primary principle of the cosmos. Indeed, evolutionary biologists’ views on religion tend to be positively sophomoric compared to those of physicists and astronomers.

This is because cosmologists have learned humility the hard way. They were twice burned badly in the 20th Century, when their smug atheistic assumptions about the nature of the universe—that what we can see is all there is and all there ever was—turned out to be radically wrong.

Consider two of the most scientifically fruitful theories in 20th Century cosmology—the Big Bang and the Anthropic Principle of Intelligent Design. [More]

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer

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