Sunday, September 14, 2008

An Open Letter To Richard Dawkins and Company

This particular rant takes the form of an open letter to those biologists fighting the good fight to see evolution remain the foundation of modern life science: most particularly, Richard Dawkins.

It's my strong opinion that evolution has been sorely misrepresented in popular culture, both by creationist demagogues and - more regrettably - by scientists themselves. It is generally spoken of as Evolution, with a capital E, as though it were a force (like gravity) that exerted a discernable influence upon an individual organism. This has led lay advocates of evolution to speak about it almost mystically, and creationists to argue that it has never been observed; it has never been measured. The actor in evolution cannot be seen to act.

Now, the physical sciences are one field where I feel experts and academics have done a considerable amount of due diligence in attempting to make their more esoteric discoveries mainstream. Historians, theologians, and philosophers have not bothered to do so, preferring to complain that they labor in obscurity instead of bothering to produce the kind of intelligent but digestible works the world so desperately needs (I speak as one with designs on a graduate degree in History). This is certainly laudable, and I think all of academia could take a lesson from Stephen Hawking and Richard Dawkins: the best way to make sure people get good information is to make sure they get it from the right people, instead of whining that they get it from the wrong ones.

The evolution debate, however, has not ended, despite the opinion of every credible biologist (every single one; no exceptions) that natural selection is virtually unchallengeable. Indeed, that opinion itself has come under fire in popular creationist circles; Darwinists, they say, subscribe to a religion of their own. They're unwilling to accept a challenge to this evolution voodoo; they're unwilling to permit discourse of the sort upon which Science claims to be founded.

Biologists: I know you are good scientists who advocate discourse and frown upon the unfair dominance of tyrannical theories. Why are you letting buffoons like Phillip Johnson portray you in this ridiculous light when the first step towards stopping them is so easy?

Please. Tell people what evolution actually is.

I have only heard a single succinct definition in any public forum, from the late Stephen Jay Gould. He was lecturing on common misconceptions about Darwin and Darwinism, and he began by wondering aloud why people find natural selection so difficult to grasp. It's very easy, he argued (and now I am paraphrasing): it is the only possible result of the following three facts:

1. All members of a species are not the same.
2. Some degree of this variation is inherited.
3. Not all members of a species reproduce.

Natural selection is quite simply the name for those three facts. If you agree with all three, you agree with natural selection; and what reasonable person cannot? Who believes that all human beings are identical? Who believes that blonde parents are no more likely to have blonde children than dark-haired parents? Who believes that every human being has children? The simplest and most fundamental human experiences inform natural selection; why make it sound academic?

The beautiful, elegant thing about this concept is that you need agree on none of the mechanics of natural selection to agree with the idea itself. We know, for example, that human variation and its heritability result from genes and their interplay; one need not know this - indeed, one can categorically deny it - and still not have undermined natural selection at all. You can believe that God ordains the degree of human variation, the degree of its heritability, and the power of an individual to reproduce, and all you have argued is that God controls natural selection. It's a logical syllogism, not a force; no evidence exists that could disprove it.

But, you may ask, will there not still exist those who accept all three of our premises and still challenge evolution as we present it? Actually, you (my target audience, who will likely not be reading this) will ask no such thing; you know perfectly well the technical jargon of the "scientific advocate" of "intelligent design." They will tell you, of course, that all those things are perfectly true, and that you are caricaturing them unfairly; everyone can recognize microevolution going on around them every day. What you suggest, Richard Dawkins (they will say), is macroevolution - one species becoming a different species over time. Two different phenomena; one possible, one impossible.

They will say this because there is a fourth premise, one so fundamental a scientist would not think to include it:

4. Life on Earth is quite old.

Because we know, of course, that the difference between micro- and macroevolution (for God's sake, it's right there in the name) is one of degree, not quality. Small change versus big change. And we know, of course, that a big change is simply many hundreds (or thousands, or millions) of small changes accruing over time. And we know, of course, that life on Earth has had billions of years in which to accrue small changes. It follows, then, that millions of big changes could easily have occured; it follows that one organism could easily have come another.

It doesn't follow to them. They're religious zealots.

You know this, and I know this, but the long and dedicated struggle of the Intelligent Design movement has been to convince the world that they are not motivated by religion; that they are simply scientists, educated at the best of universities, trained to challenge faulty theories and prevent intellectual hegemony. Their public persona is smart, thoughtful, academic - and outraged, that the scientific press is being censored in this way. We are real scientists, they scoff, and we're being treated like a religious cult.

They are a religious cult, and we know it; but the failure of their movement depends on the rest of the world knowing it. Presenting evolutionary theory the way I've outlined above will do just that; it will force them to either lie outright, or admit that they're not just creationists, but Young Earth creationists. The former is a depressingly well-represented group in America; the latter, I like to hope, remains a fringe movement. In any case, the least we can do is make this debate honest; it's about religion, not the clash of two scientific methods.

Obviously nothing I've just said will be new to you (you, my entirely fictitious audience of busy important people), but I hope you'll take it under consideration. The publication of The Selfish Gene was a landmark of modern science, and popular scientific literature remains intelligent, extensive, and relatively simple; it could, however, be simpler still. I regretfully think that it must be.

1 comment:

ashanan said...

Have you ever considered going onto ID blogs/forums and tried to draw them out with this? That seems like it would be both hysterically funny and potentially interesting. Also, this was a way better way to spend your time than whatever work you had planned.