The Jurisdiction of Science

by Mark A. Signorelli on October 11, 2010 · 38 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Philosophers & Saints

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Somerset, NJ. In the second half of their book What Darwin Got Wrong, authors Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piatelli-Palmerini critique the theory of natural selection from a conceptual standpoint, arguing that the theory fails to satisfy the criteria of a scientific law, especially, in its failure to support counterfactual statements, and that therefore “there isn’t any theory of evolution.”  I am not interested here in weighing the merits of their argument; I think it has much to say for it, and some things to say against it.  But the response from the evolutionary crowd has been unambiguous; these people hated it, and have seized every opportunity available to them to express their disgust in print.  Nearly everyone of their reviews included the assertion, somewhere among the vitriol, that Fodor (in particular) should not be writing on the topic of evolutionary theory because he is, after all, a mere philosopher, and evolutionary theory is a matter for evolutionary biologists to consider.

This assertion should seem remarkable to any sensible person, since, as I indicated, what Fodor was doing was examining the conceptual coherence of a theory which purports to have a very broad application to human and non-human nature.  It may come as news to those in the Darwinian camp, but that is actually what philosophers do for a living.  Pursuing conceptual rigor, and exposing its absence, is one way of defining the philosopher’s craft.  So simply as a matter of academic credentials, no one could be more suited for the work that Fodor was doing than someone who possessed, like him, a philosophical training.  Whether one ultimately agreed with his conclusions, no reasonable person could doubt his professional right to examine the coherence of the theory of natural selection.  And yet every Darwinian did object to his doing so.

Of course, Fodor is not the first author to be on the receiving end of this “argument from professional jurisdiction.”  This is the first rhetorical tick of any Darwinian when their theories are challenged; instantly, they complain that the critic has not properly understood evolutionary theory, and loudly lament the intrusion of the unscientific mind upon such topics.  They warn us of the complexity and depth of scientific research, and remind us of the dark eras of superstition when scientists were subject to the censure of the unknowing.  Almost everyone of their polemical endeavors resorts to such arguments at some point.  They have been remarkably successful too, since Darwinian theory comes in for far less criticism than such a paltry and popular system deserves, and this can only be explained by an undue deference on the part of the general public.

What is so nakedly hypocritical about this tactic is that, in fact, the Darwinians have no general objections to non-scientists writing about their theories.  To the contrary, among the leading figures in the movement to extend evolutionary explanations to a variety of academic disciplines – literature and the arts and ethical philosophy, among others – are journalists, English professors, and other similarly unscientifically credentialed individuals.  Their books are received by the Darwinians ranks with varying levels of acclaim.  Their qualifications to publicly pronounce on the significance of evolutionary theory are never called into question, though some of them display an ignorance of the topic as thorough as could be imagined.  For instance, in his quite popular account of “Darwinian aesthetics,” Denis Dutton declares that “paradoxically, it is evolution – most significantly, the evolution of imagination and intellect – that enables us to transcend even our animal selves,” though any intelligent person who has read and understood evolutionary theory knows perfectly well that there is absolutely no warrant for claiming that theory as the grounds for any conception of transcendence; rather, the whole point of the theory is to demonstrate how the ultimate directedness of all man’s faculties reduce to the same level of survival and reproduction.  Yet such a gross misapprehension of evolutionary theory prompted no outrage from the minatory Darwinists.  Their only criteria for whether or not an author understands their ideas is whether or not an author agrees with their ideas.  They have no objections to non-scientists writing on evolutionary topics, so long as they do so in the proper spirit of submissiveness and adulation.

Yet if evolutionary theory does have broad consequences for the study of ethics or the study of the arts – as we have been told with greater and greater frequency of late – then it is a theory which may be fairly considered, and fairly criticized, by scholars in the fields of ethical philosophy or literary criticism.  This should be a perfectly uncontroversial matter.  To maintain that evolutionary theory needs to be taken seriously by humanist scholars, while simultaneously forbidding those same scholars, under penalty of the severest invective, to weigh the rational substance of evolutionary theory, is a piece of impudence so raw and ridiculous that it could only be performed in this most outlandish of ages.  Whatever absurdities were perpetrated in the past by Freudian and Marxist theorists, they never retorted to objections towards their ideological reading of texts by saying, “you are no psychologist,” or “you are no economist.”  If the Darwinians wish their theory to be taken seriously outside the laboratories of the biology departments, then they simply must accept the fact that it has become a fair subject of refutation to the entirety of the educated community.

And to say that the Darwinians wish their theory to be taken seriously outside of the scientific community is an understatement of the most dramatic proportions.  The most cursory examination of their literature reveals their conviction that evolutionary theory is the theory of ultimate explanation, the final reference for all claims of human origins and human purposefulness.  As Michael Ruse has proudly proclaimed, “evolution has always been more than just a scientific theory – it has ever been a philosophy, a metaphysics, a Weltanschauung, a secular religion (not so secular at times), even indeed an eschatology.”  Well, eschatologies are not scientific theories.  When Richard Dawkins begins his most famous book by asserting that Darwin was the first man to uncover “the reason for (man’s) own existence,” he is not making a biological claim.  When Daniel Dennett concludes his apologia for Darwinism by asserting that the theory of natural selection “transforms” all values, he is not offering a hypothesis that can be confirmed by experimental data.  When author after author in the Darwinian camp purports to explain away all theological knowledge from evolutionary premises, they are not doing anything that bears to least resemblance to scientific methodology.

By any account, such speculations amount to ethical, metaphysical, even cosmological claims, and such claims need to be subjected to the same dialectical review as any other such claims.  One cannot earn exemption from such critical strictures merely by waving one’s hands around, and repeatedly hollering, “I am a scientist!  I am a scientist!”  The question is simply, what sort of intellect is best qualified to weigh the competing merits of discrepant moral or religious claims?  And a preliminary response to that question must acknowledge that a mind becomes qualified to weigh such claims by thinking often about such claims – by reading deeply in the relevant philosophical literature, and reflecting incessantly on the mass of complexities implicated in every such argument.  There are no academic credentials that qualify a person for this labor, and the fact is that a very distinct majority of our contemporary professoriate, in all disciplines, do lack the proper training to competently perform this work.  As tautological as it may sound, they are best qualified to deliberate the truth or falsity of large philosophical claims who can best speak on the truth or falsity of large philosophical claims.  It is an intrinsic qualification that is relevant.  It is a certain kind of intellectual formation that constitutes the authentic title to admittance into the arena of metaphysical and cosmological debate.  And as soon as we realize this, we realize too that the program of study which least endows a man with the requisite mental attributes for these inquiries is the scientific program of study.  As scandalous as it will sound to so many of our contemporaries, the type of thinker least qualified to handle the sorts of broad speculative issues that the Darwinians are constantly agitating is the scientist.

It was Jose Ortega y Gasset, in his invaluable work The Revolt of the Masses, who best described the shortcomings of the scientific mind, and the effects on thought and politics which were likely to follow by ceding a cultural primacy to such a mentality.  For Ortega y Gasset, what characterizes the modern world most distinctively is the rise of the “mass man,” the unqualified person, to a leading role in the affairs of the time: “the characteristic of the hour is that the commonplace mind, knowing itself to be commonplace, has the assurance to proclaim the rights of the commonplace and to impose them wherever it will.”  The man of science, in his mediocrity, is a “prototype of the mass-man,” because the nature of his work requires no special talents: “a fair amount of the things that have to be done in physics or in biology is mechanical work of the mind which can be done by anyone, or almost anyone;” as a consequence, “experimental science has progressed thanks in great part to the work of men astoundingly mediocre, and even less than mediocre.”

The scientist is essentially a specialist, a man who has acquired deep learning in one particular line, without so much as casting his eyes on any other discipline; he “’knows’ very well his own tiny corner of the universe; he is radically ignorant of all the rest.” Despite his mediocrity, then, the scientist regards himself as one in the know, because of his mastery of one field of inquiry, and behaves with all the self-assurance of one in the know:

Previously, men could be divided simply into the learned and the ignorant, those more or less the one, and those more or less the other.  But your specialist cannot be brought in under either of these two categories.  He is not learned, for his is formally ignorant of all that does not enter into his specialty, but neither is he ignorant, because he is “a scientist,” and “knows” very well his own tiny portion of the universe.  We shall have to say that he is a learned ignoramus, which is a very serious matter, as it implies that he is a person who is ignorant, not in the fashion of the ignorant man, but with all the petulance of one who is learned in his own special line.

As a result of his own intellectual self-satisfaction, the scientist asserts his opinions over the whole range of human endeavor, with absolutely catastrophic consequences:

Such in fact is the behavior of the specialist,  In politics, in art, in social usages, in the other sciences, he will adopt the attitude of primitive, ignorant man, but he will adopt them forcefully and with self-sufficiency, and will not admit of – this is the paradox – specialists in those matters.  By specializing him, civilization has made him hermetic and self-satisfied within his limitations, but this very inner feeling of dominance and worth will induce him to wish to predominate outside his specialty…Anyone who wishes can observe the stupidity of thought, judgment, and action shown today in politics, art, religion, and the general problems of life and the world by the “men of science,” and of course, behind them, the doctors, engineers, financiers, teachers, and so on.  The state of “not listening,” of not submitting to higher courts of appeal which I have repeatedly put forward as characteristic of the mass man, reaches its height precisely in these partially qualified men.  They symbolize, and to a great extent constitute, the actual domination of the masses, and their barbarism is the most immediate cause of European demoralization.

Reading these passages, it is impossible to chase from one’s mind the image of a Dawkins or an E.O. Wilson.  When Wilson, after a lifetime spent collecting bugs, begins churning out book after book filled with the most superficial and uninformed observations on religion and ethics, what else is he betraying except that “very inner feeling of dominance and worth (which) will induce him to wish to predominate outside his specialty?”  When Dawkins responds to the critics of his infantile theological reflections by denying that theology is a real subject, what else is he doing except refusing to admit of specialists in any matters but science?

And as for “stupidity of thought, judgment, and action shown today in politics, art, religion, and the general problems of life and the world by the “men of science,” anywhere we look in a Darwinian book, we will find evidence of this.  Like memes.  Or reciprocal altruism.  Or non-teleological purposes.  Or the notion that my second cousin has a one in sixteen chance of sacrificing his life for me.  Or the belief that preferences in landscape painting are a consequence of early hominid migration patterns.  And so on, and on and on.  Is it for the men who have recklessly and ignorantly offered up such conjectures to inform the rest of us about the proper limits of our theorizing?  Are we now to defer to the porcine minds which are content to wallow in the muck of these nonsensical dogmas?  In the end, it is only our final theories about ourselves and our universe that matter; are we supposed to extend the privilege of propounding those theories to persons whose profoundest speculations resolve at last into such insipid crap?

The fact that our intellectual climate is such that so many merely scientific thinkers so consistently and so brazenly offer up their lame insights on the most momentous of topics does indeed constitute an essential aspect of our present barbarism.  The attempt to understand the entirety of human existence in biological terms has less of philosophical seriousness about it, and more of professional pride. We would find ourselves in a very nearly analogous situation if a conclave of plumbers began writing books, asserting that water was the essential element in all nature, that our thoughts could best be understood as so many conduits to our actions, and that society itself is nothing other than a complex structure of pipes, aqueducts, and irrigatory canals, sending and receiving every life-giving benefit.  Such a mode of philosophizing might be enjoyable for a while, but it could never be persuasive, and it could never be right.  In both cases, we would recognize that the hard labor of authentic thought was being replaced by the facile application of a vocational jargon.  In both cases, we would conclude that a form of knowledge, immensely valuable in its own sphere, had been distorted and falsified, by being rashly extended far beyond that sphere.

And this is why the Darwinians so constantly complain about hostile foreigners intruding into their sovereign territory of biology: in order to distract us from the reality of their own imperial ambitions.  There is one enormous fact about the contemporary intellectual scene, and it is not the fact that non-scientists are relentlessly asserting their opinions on scientific questions; it is the fact that many scientists are now in the incurable habit of relentlessly asserting their opinions – their very dopey opinions – on a range of philosophical and cultural issues.  And this is a situation that is infinitely more perilous and revolting than if the opposite were the case, because it means that those persons who, by trade and by training, are least competent to judge mankind’s most momentous questions are precisely the ones who are more and more commonly doing just that.  We should not be distracted from this terrible reality by the Darwinians incessant howling about the rest of us critiquing their opinions; rather, we should recognize their noise for the rhetorical feint that it is, but one more tawdry polemical maneuver utilized by the proponents of an ideology that is false, ignorant, and dishonest to its core.

Mark Anthony Signorelli is a poet, playwright, and essayist.  He currently serves as Contributing Editor for The New English Review.

{ 37 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Artie October 11, 2010 at 10:33 am

“…Darwinian theory comes in for far less criticism than such a paltry and popular system deserves, and this can only be explained by an undue deference on the part of the general public.”

Oh really? I think we could come up with another explanation – or two- if we try. A huge segment of that unduly deferential public was just as critical of Darwin as Signorelli, if not as clever with their bile. Drop by any protestant church on any Sunday morning and ask the Darwinians out for lunch. See how many takers you get.

avatar Empedocles October 11, 2010 at 12:02 pm

Boy, this is the most troubling article I have read here at FPR. Are we Darwianians no longer welcome? Especially those of us who believe that Darwinian teleology and Thomistic teleology amount to the same thing and can do the same work? That Darwin teleology offers conservatives the best and only hope against mechanistic accounts of human nature and its resulting nihilism?

avatar jmgregory October 11, 2010 at 12:18 pm

Empedocles,

Perhaps I am ignorant of the terminology. Is it not Darwinian teleology precisely a “mechanistic account of human nature” which ultimately results in nihilism?

avatar James Matthew Wilson October 11, 2010 at 2:11 pm

In light of my own previous essay for FPR, I appreciate the degree to which this one dilates to a level of abstraction appropriate to its subject. This phenomenon of “atheism for geeks,” the tendency of moderns to subordinate the intellect to procedures and methods and then to presume this or that procedure or method can actually substitute for and dominate the wide domain of intellectual life is something that requires this kind of critique. Thanks for it.

avatar Uland October 11, 2010 at 9:14 pm

Yes, excellent article. On the subject of refuting claims based on specialization, doesn’t it hold true that if you deny the ability to determine fallacy based on lack of expertise, you must also deny notional truths based on lack of expertise? For example, if we can’t deny the existence of anthropocentric global warming unless we’re climatologists, couldn’t we not affirm it unless we’re climatologists?

avatar PDGM October 11, 2010 at 9:17 pm

Empedocles,
There’s a huge difference between seeing evolution as a mechanism in the quiver of either Nature or of Nature’s God, and seeing evolution as the entirety of explanations for the rise of life, human on down.

To see evolution as a sufficient explanation makes holding any form of classical or Christian or religious teleology impossible, Thomist or otherwise. To see it as a possible or even a likely mechanism of some larger and more intelligent guiding principle is to hold a point of view that scientists such as Dawkins (and other true believers in the religion of scientism) would radically disagree with: it’s all or nothing.

In this sense, the Christian who believes in evolution as a possible or likely mechanism of a teleological universe is not believing in evolution as taught by most scientists; rather, such a human is holding a hybrid view that accepts classical and Christian teleology, and secondarily accepts possible mechanisms for this teleology–intelligent, guided, and ultimately based upon the Good, the True, the Beautiful–to work its mysterious way.

PDGM

avatar ricketson October 11, 2010 at 9:19 pm

Being a professional scientist (an evolutionary biologist at that!), I’ll have to resist my temptation to respond to the vitriol that this essay delivers.

The author points out an important problem in our society, but overlooks two important points.

First, this does not have anything to do with Dawinism, or even science. The problem is that certain people are given credence when they spout off about topics that they know nothing about.

This isn’t just scientists talking about non-science. It is also athletes and artists and entertainers being given a stage to spout their political ideas. Same with rich people (though they get the double benefit of media coverage and the ability to buy advertisements). Politicians talk about morals. The list can go on.

The problem is that once a person has distinguished themselves in any endeavor, anything that they do or say is considered to be worth taking seriously. Some people don’t even have the accomplish anything in particular — they just squirm their way into the spotlight (and I suspect that every society has this problem in one form or another).

The second oversight is that the essay ignores the widespread phenomenon of the humanities being completely ignorant of modern science. Of course science should not replace or remake the humanities, but when the humanities proceed without acknowledging modern science they are fatally detached from modern humanity.

avatar Corey October 11, 2010 at 11:27 pm

Your point about taking an observation from one discipline and applying it thoughtlessly across other disciplines is well taken. I love your plumber analogy. But I think your rhetoric got the best of you when you declared that Darwinism is an ideology “that is false, ignorant, and dishonest to its core.” This claim seems incredible when so many thoughtful people (including many that would be sympathetic to your broader point) have come to the conclusion that this theory makes the most sense of what we know about the history of life on earth. Perhaps I missed something – are you saying that evolution has not taken place?

avatar Jon Cook October 12, 2010 at 8:16 am

Corey et al., the Theory of Evolution is not about small-e evolution, that existing features in species change and that over time changes can accumulate, it is about the completely material explanation of the creation of life as we see it. PDGM is right, scientismists (yes I purposely wrote that) are happy to see a religionist embrace Evolution but they’ll treat with scorn any attempt to appeal to Divine impetus for any part. For those who are ready to believe that scientists do really have it all figured out, I’d encourage you to study the philosophy of science: how science knows things and what is really scientifically knowable. Science is not, as it seems to claim, a universal mechanism to all knowledge. “Historical” science that tries to figure out what happened in the past is fraught with difficulty due to the lack of being able to run a controlled experiment; the scientific mantra “correlation does not equal causality” seems to have been lost in this arena. I believe we know a lot less about the past (especially the long-ago past) than we think we do. And the article is right, scientismists do not accept criticism of any part of Evolution; I watched one of their own get roundly criticized at her talk that called into question some of the existing fundamental ideas, even though she had no interest in abandoning Evolution (in the face of mounting evidence her ideas are gaining ground, see her book and other resources on phenotypic plasticity).

avatar Uland October 12, 2010 at 10:33 am

Ricketson—

“Modern Humanities” to me, seem to be racing to embrace every possible ramification of every new theory “modern science” offers up. Even those in religious studies seem to feel the need to constantly make their claims “work” with whatever the latest guy has to say about our magical DNA. Listen to the NPR program SPEAKING OF FAITH for a few minutes, and you’re bound to hear it. Check out a TED talk or two, and you won’t need to look further.

It seems like the true believers of Scientism can’t imagine their work not affecting every aspect of humanity, when, more often than not, there is no clear effect of their work on many fields of study, especially those that are not bound by materialism.

avatar John Médaille October 12, 2010 at 11:38 am

An excellent article, and some fine responses as well. I will write a follow-up article on this, when I find a moment, but for the moment, science is not just about knowledge; there are other and equally useful forms of knowledge. Science is not just about knowing things, but about knowing things in relationship to all the other known things; there is a scientific hierarchy, and to step out of this hierarchy is to step out of science.

At least two sciences today are guilty of this: Darwinian evolution and neoclassical economics. I will attempt something on this latter, but perhaps some of the problems are cleared up if we recognize an older name for what we now call science: natural philosophy.

avatar Empedocles October 12, 2010 at 11:39 am

jmgregory, after I posted that I realized that no one could possibly know what I meant :) Basically, by “mechanistic account” I meant the causal accounts of mental content espoused by, ironically, Fodor. Fodor is no Christian. And his book is really an attack, not specifically on Darwin, but on Ruth Millikan. You see, Millikan, Dretske, Fodor, and a few others have spent the last few decades debating what it is for a mental representation to have the meaning, or “content”, it does. Fodor offered a theory which tried to explain the content of mental representations in a purely causal or what I called “mechanistic” approach. But his efforts have been deemed unsatisfactory. Millikan came up with a revolutionary theory that used Darwinism to explain mental content and Fodor has been misinterpreting her ever since. You see, if the mind is the result of natural selection, its representational capacities must be as well. And thus a Millikan or Millikan-like theory must be the correct way. It finally must have gotten so under his skin that he figured the only way to tackle Millikan was to go after Darwin. Fodor suddenly seemed like yesterday’s news; in Millikan’s wake “philosophy of biology” is all the rage. Now, Millikan is naturalistic for sure, and I guess that could mean “mechanistic,” but she used Darwin to revive teleology in philosophy, and my great hope is that this will lead to the end of a host of problems that have come since teleology was exiled from philosophy starting with Newton’s mechanistic account of physics, and a return to a more Aristotelian understanding. See my post “Teleology and the Death of Liberalism” http://apoxonbothyourhouses.blogspot.com/2009/07/teleology-and-death-of-liberalism.html

avatar j blum October 12, 2010 at 3:14 pm

I look forward to Mr. Medaille’s follow up and wish to add another pair of academic disciplines that tend to presume their special purview gives them general authority: physics and classics.

avatar MSignorelli October 12, 2010 at 4:00 pm

Let me jump in to the discussion at this point, because I see that a number of misconceptions, endemic to this topic, have popped up, which it might be wise to address. I’ll try to be brief, but the subject is extensive.

First, I do not deny the reality of biological evolution, the important role of selective mechanisms in that evolution, nor the enormous causal power of our genes. In short, I do not deny anything which science can legitimately verify. But, as I noted in the article, contemporary evolutionary theory consists of authentic scientific data, bundled up with a host of sloppily drawn inferences, often of the most momentous variety. That package is what I refer to as Darwinism, and the fact that Darwinists persist in smuggling their unwarranted philosophical inferences into the science is a primary (but certainly not exclusive) reason I believe the movement is not merely misguided, but incorrigibly fraudulent as well. One can see the same thing going on today with neurology; this part of the brain lights up when a man is shown a picture of his wife, so love is merely a chemical reaction, free will is an illusion, the soul does not exist, etc., etc. And I think one explanation for this phenomenon is that many scientific writers want their work to have large consequences, but they don’t want to be bothered constructing the arguments that would justify their claims (which might have something to do with the fact that, in the end, their claims cannot be justified).

So to assume, on the basis of what I have written in my article, that I do not accept the legitimate science of evolution is wildly off the mark. Imagine the following hypothetical conversation. A says, “Physics informs us that all things gravitate towards one another, so I conclude that love is nothing more than the pull of gravitational force; moreover, I maintain that our Constitution, as it is an attempt to draw people together, may be understood as a manifestation of gravity, and I will produce the equations one day to verify this claim.” B says, “Your theory of constitutional law appears somewhat dubious.” A replies, “So you don’t believe in gravity?” That is more or less the trick that Darwinians use when you object to the speculative content of their work. “Oh, you don’t think that all virtue is a manifestation of a more fundamental selfishness, and you doubt whether the compilation of neurological data amounts to an adequate explanation of human mentality? Why, you must be one of those young earth creationists!” I’m not making this up; Fodor, who is a life-long, publicly-avowed atheist, was accused of harboring latent religious sympathies by several of his reviewers.

This goes to the point about many Protestants (by which, I assume, is meant evangelicals) rejecting Darwinism. From what I can tell, many evangelicals really do reject the science, and not merely the false inferences woven into the science, and reject it because of its apparent inconsistency with certain theological premises. But that is symptomatic of the confusion that reigns on this issue. Leave theology aside. Does it make sense to say that a man has a one in sixteen chance of sacrificing his life for his second cousin? Does it make sense to say a man has a one in sixteen chance of doing anything? Does it make sense to believe that poetry evolved because women are sexually attracted to men with large vocabularies (if only!)? Does it make sense to say, like Pinker, that the mind has a purpose, but not in any teleological sense? The problem with Darwinism is the gross distortion of man and nature which it produces; all the humbug about “science vs. religion” is so much distraction from this fact. Darwinism is a philosophical system, and should be rejected on philosophical – read: entirely rational – grounds.

One of the most important philosophical issues surrounding evolutionary theory is the question of teleology, and this is obviously far too large a topic to treat adequately here. If I may engage in a little shameless self-promotion, may I refer you to an article in which I have tackled this, and other related topics (http://www.newenglishreview.org/custpage.cfm/frm/62013/sec_id/62013) The upshot is that “Darwinian” teleology is always an explanation of the appearance of teleology, and not the reality of end-directedness. Millikan’s work (and I admit, I only have a passing familiarity with it) appears entirely typical in that respect, and she has been taken to task by more stringent “naturalists” for conceding too much to the supposedly antiquated cosmology of the Christian past; they believe a consistent Darwinism entails the rejection of all teleology (see Paul Sheldon Davies “Subjects of the World”). None of this is the least bit consistent with the realist metaphysics of Aquinas. After all, why are all the leading Darwinians constantly mouthing off about their atheism? Because they think that evolutionary theory provides a new grounding for Thomism?

As for the alleged harshness of my tone (my “bile” and “vitriol”) – I’m sorry, I’m just not buying it. Anyone with the least acquaintance with the major Darwinian authors knows how pompously and aggressively they peddle their own dogmas, and this fact, when considered along with the unprecedented slightness of their cosmological vision, fully warrants the sort of language I have held out to them – and more, to be frank.

Many thanks to those who have expressed appreciation of the article. I was particularly gratified to receive those kind words from Prof. Wilson, whose work on the place of poetry and the arts in modern society I have read with great admiration.

avatar ricketson October 12, 2010 at 7:45 pm

MSignorelli, apparently I misinterpreted your essay. If you are wondering why, consider these two impressions:

1) The term “Darwinian” is never defined. It is introduced in the second paragraph, and only in the fourth paragraph is there any hint of what is actually meant by this term…but it’s only a hint.

To someone unfamiliar with your idiosyncratic terminology, the term simply refers to the core of Darwin’s theory — that multiple species share a common ancestor and that many of the different adaptations of these species are the result of natural selection.

2) Several paragraphs are dedicated to describing how scientists are intellectually mediocre, and do not deserve to be considered “learned”. Apparently, even the most accomplished scientists (such as Dawkins) do not deserve any particular respect for their intellectual achievements. This broad declaration of mediocrity seems to be targeted at all scientists, not just those who venture their opinion on topics that they know nothing about.

Professional science is not a very rewarding career financially. At least we can get a little recognition for doing something that’s both difficult and important.

FWIW, that assertion that scientists are just specialists is fantastically incorrect. The core of the scientific training is learning how to spot weaknesses in theories and figure out what sort of data will either strengthen the theory, or demonstrate that the theory needs to be substantially reworked. Full-time researches are practicing this skill just as much as they are learning their specialist knowledge, and researchers do this at a level that that is far above what most jobs allow.

avatar Joshua Lore October 12, 2010 at 11:20 pm

MSignorelli: I’m appreciative of your follow-up response to the criticisms of your readers. It was illuminating and concise. It is amazing what an atmosphere of distrust can be formed by trends in public discourse, and the polarization of the topics therein. It seems that in my own wariness from having to hear so many redundant, irrational, and simply uninformed platitudes by members of certain Christian sects against any affirmation of evolutionary biology, I too read your article with a certain sour reticence (it seems I should be warier still of the Darwinian advocates, though in general I simply find myself wary of both). This is part of it. Ricketson may be partly correct as well, in that the style and wording of the argument of your original essay does not make your position exceedingly clear in certain regards (namely regarding what exactly you are waging your assault against, though I feel your comments on scientists are more or less spot on), and this may have more to do with my own experience than with you, or perhaps simply my own too-illiterate mind. Your follow-up however, provides much clarity. And in that light, I am very grateful for your insight into this topic. The fraudulent twisting of limited scientific insights into broad philosophies is a tragic mark of this age. Thank you.

I too eagerly await J. Médaille’s follow-up. Cheers.

avatar jm October 14, 2010 at 1:04 am

Mr. Signorelli,

As a biologist who cringes at the over-reaching of the Dawkins’ and Wilsons of the world, I applaud the observations made in the first half of your essay. However, in the latter half you fall victim to the same sort of specious reasoning you so deplore: in your case, the construction of meaningless conceptual straw men like “the scientist” or “the scientific mind”. The “scientist” does not exist, only individual scientists as varied in background and cultural intelligence as any group of non-scientists you might care to assemble. You deplore the supposed narrowness of the scientific specialist, but specialization in science is built on a foundation of broad general knowledge, especially in the European tradition. In my experience, the typical French scientist can discuss the novels of Faulkner, for instance, with far greater insight than the typical American professor of English. Your criticism of individual scientists is well-taken, but your critique of the “scientific mind” is simplistic nonsense.

avatar Noel October 14, 2010 at 9:25 am

ricketson is correct. Now I don’t need to post my longer reply…

avatar James Matthew Wilson October 14, 2010 at 10:21 am

I would demur from the last two objections on two counts:

i) The appeal to Ortega y Gassett denotes also an appeal to the “social type.” Our age is suspicious of the notion of social types, even though the last century has shown human life as self-stereotyped in a fashion that would be hard to surpass. Most persons are institutional thinkers; their thoughts conform to and get reduced to the practices and theories of the institutions to which they belong. For this very reason, it is important to exercise our reason to judge the institutions that we laud or give authority to in society. There is a social type of “the manager” and a social type of “the scientist” to which persons conform with disheartening ease; in critiquing “the scientist” one critiques the larger institutional formation rather than the particular scientist, and yet the particular scientist will generally conform to that type despite his very modern appeals to his “individuality.”

ii) But granting for a moment a wide-spread divergence of the individual scientist from the social type, this essay justly proposes that the social type is an errant form and, whatever the divergence of the individual, the individual scientist’s tendency will be to conform to the conventions of the institution to which he belongs (now Dow Chemical, or Michigan State, but the regime of modern science writ large). Hence the immense importance of Dr. Leon Kass’s work; he has a more recent book on the scope of science that I haven’t read, but the first chapter of the following is illuminating in critiquing the conventional starting points of modern science: http://www.amazon.com/Life-Liberty-Defense-Dignity-Challenge/dp/1594030472/ref=sr_1_5?ie=UTF8&qid=1287068966&sr=8-5

Let me say in closing that I can understand why one would want to object to the appearance of particularity-annihilating-sweepingness found in this essay. But I contend that the differences between individual human beings on the level of psychology or thought are pretty minimal and that the critique of social types is a valid and necessary philosophical exercise. What gives us dignity and value as individuals is not our ingenious particular differences but that each one of us has been created in love by the Father — an origin that leaves a trace in everything about us. If one denies that trace, I’m not sure what would be left distinguish us from rather clever apes.

avatar JimWilton October 14, 2010 at 11:12 am

This is a very funny article. It begins by criticizing scientists for objecting to a philospher opining on scientific matters, then defines Darwinian theory essentially as a philosophy, and concludes by saying that scientists, with their narrow viewpoint, are not qualified to have a view on darwinian “philosophy”.

I think we can agree with the author’s clarifications in his reply to comments — stating that he has no quarrel with the leaving Darwin to the realm of science. It seems to me that a man evolving from a common ancestor with apes is as much a miracle as man arising from a clod of clay. The trouble is that certain Christian fundamentalists (and Muslims and others) will not leave it there and insist on disputing the science based on non-scientific argument. And this is not an abstract issue. From global warming to stem cell research to Darwinian theory, theological, political and business (read non-scientific) objections to scientific conclusions are a threat to lives and our future.

I can’t blame the scientists for frustration in having to respond to these objections.

avatar Guglielmo October 14, 2010 at 2:23 pm

One could imagine an amusing Venn diagram with closely related, intersecting areas labeled Mark Signorelli and Insane Clown Posse who also have a problem with imperialistic scientists.

avatar dave October 14, 2010 at 8:48 pm

What’s needed here is a scalpel, not a hammer. My two cents.

avatar MSignorelli October 15, 2010 at 10:03 am

Well, if a clandestine neocon can chime back in here, I have to say that I deny the assertion that a scientific training is founded on “a broad general knowledge” or endows a person with any ability to reason generally, on a range of topics (that was very much the thesis of my article). To do science is to apply a certain methodology (the performance of experiments which yield quantitative data) towards a certain end (to make man “the master and possessor of nature”). I do not admit that training in this methodology prepares one to reason adequately on the topic of aesthetics, for instance, or religion. Just as one example – the scientist’s desire to find the “sort of data will…strengthen the theory” is obviously behind those painfully stupid and recurrent demands from the Dawkins crowd for “evidence” of God’s existence.

Of course, one who works as a scientist may be able to reason very competently on these matters; I’m sure many French scientists have wonderful things to say about Faulkner (though the startling thing about that is not that a scientist would have interesting things to say about a book, but that a Frenchman would have interesting things to say about a book). But in that case, they are not speaking as a scientist; nothing in their scientific training has endowed them with that ability. They are speaking from the remnants of whatever humanistic education they received.

Now, you may say it is “simple-minded” to suppose that there is a sort of monolithic scientific approach to life. If so, then it is a simple-mindedness that has prevailed in Western thought for the better part of four centuries. Since at least the days of Hobbes and Sprat, the scientific men have been assuring us that their method was the one sure path to truth, and that there is no limit to the questions it could adequately resolve. And now, the chorus of such claims is deafening, and the tendency to treat every single aspect of our lives – ethics, and the arts, and religion – in a scientific fashion has reached epidemic proportions. And this is one of the primary causes of the intellectual stagnation of the West.

As to my lack of clarity on the definition of Darwinism, I’m afraid I must say that the confusion on this issue does not belong to me. Scientifically verifiable data about living organisms is called biology. But as for Darwinism – please show me where I can find this non-ideological Darwinism you speak of? Its not in Dawkins; its not in E.O. Wilson; its not in Pinker. Its not in the work of any major contemporary Darwinian. Most importantly, its not in Darwin himself; his Descent of Man, for instance, consists of all sorts of liberal, utilitarian assumptions, and not presented in any sort of isolable manner, but bound up with the general argument. So your conviction in an empirical “core” of Darwinism that is extractable from the ideological “superstructure” is a belief in a chimera; it has never been.

On that score, let me offer a challenge to the editor of the “Conservative Heritage Times,” who, I suppose, imagines himself a great defender of conservative ideas. Richard Dawkins expressed the typical Darwinian vision when he wrote: “the universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.” Perhaps you would like to explain how one rationally deduces a “conservative” ethical and political theory (or anything like it) starting from such a cosmology.

avatar Roger S. October 15, 2010 at 12:32 pm

Well done MSignorelli. Thankyou for this last response. I like it almost as much as your article.

avatar Artie October 15, 2010 at 1:37 pm

‘how one rationally deduces a “conservative” ethical and political theory (or anything like it) starting from such a cosmology.”

A conservative is one who starts by acknowledging that the planet we inhabit does indeed exhibit “nothing but blind, pitiless indifference” to those who refuse to observe and investigate the eternal cycles of nature. A true conservative uses the sciences to feed, clothe and shelter, and understanding the indifference of the cosmos, the conservative saves his surplus for hard times.

avatar Roger S. October 15, 2010 at 4:38 pm

Interesting Artie. I ve always seen the planet as a very hospitable place, sort of like it was designed for us. I think a conservative is one who starts by acknowledging his own flaws and limitations as well as the flaws and limitations of mankind and then seeks to conserve those things that matter, his ability to worship God, his family and his community. If the cosmos is completely indifferent, then it hardly seems worth while to conserve anything.

avatar Artie October 15, 2010 at 6:26 pm

Roger,

The planet certainly can be hospitable and utterly delightful to inhabit, but it is still indifferent to human wants and desire. The most dedicated, hard-working farmers still lose crops to weather, disease and pestilence. Innocents are slaughtered daily and the hospitals are full of sick people. Beggars beg and thieves steal and the whole affair is nasty, brutish and short for many of us.

If the cosmos were not indifferent, could there be “chosen” people who are sustained by supernatural force even as they ignore the laws of nature? It takes no act of conservation to worship one’s god, even if worshiping God is thought of by some as an instance of conservatism.

If the cosmos were as benevolent as we would like it to be, we would not suffer and die if we squander our opportunities to use nature to our advantage.

avatar Kevin October 16, 2010 at 1:11 pm

Very good article and very keen responses to objections (which were themselves quite good).

I do have one concern, somewhat in line with what has been said, but I think different. On reading your article, it seemed to me that you made an almost causal connection between scientific thinking and narrowness of mind (all that about the scientist as “The Mass Man”).

To some degree you cleared this up with your comments, but it’s still someone concerning. I don’t think its science but scientism that’s the problem. It’s a culture that venerates science and its claims to the level practically of divine revelation.

But this kind of scientism is very real and very scary, and your article serves as a very pointed critique of it. I recall, for example, listening to a podcast in which they were discussing how some scientists had been bought out by a corporation to give information beneficial to that corporation. The response, on the part of the podcast hosts, was to say in shock, “I just can’t believe a scientist would do something like that.”

avatar ricketson October 16, 2010 at 7:58 pm

re: Kevin and MSignorelli

I agree with Kevin regarding “scientism”. Everyone needs to remember that scientists are human, and that scientific theories are not The Truth.

As for the theological/ideological implications of scientific theories such as evolution, Darwin and biologists don’t deserve nearly as much blame as they have been given here.

First, many scientists (including non-theists like myself) disagree with Dawkins. Most generally, we disagree with how he uses our theories to serve his theological/ideological agenda; for one reason or another, we want to keep those two issues separate. Plenty of scientists disagree with him outright, and believe in a supernatural creator even as they “believe” in evolution (I put “believe” in quotes because some people over-interpret this word, and I don’t mean it in that all-encompassing way).

Finally, it is not the fault of scientists if theologians and philosophers (including the vulgar varieties) believe that our biological nature provides insight into our spiritual nature, or that the meaning of the universe is reflected in its history. If Darwin commented on these implications of his theory, it is only because he lived in a society where such theories were widely believed to have theological implications.

Regarding terminology, among scientists “Darwinian” normally refers to a particular theory of evolution where variation arises from mutations and populations are subsequently shaped by selection. This is contrasted against alternatives such as “Lamarkian” evolution, where variation is generated by the needs of the organisms.

avatar Dan Nutley October 16, 2010 at 10:45 pm

A great article and incisive responses. Thank you.

But, I must partly agree with ricketson on a couple of points.

Before I do, let me say that, as an Engineer and the son of a Physics professor, I find your depiction of the Darwinists and the limited scope of their thought to be accurate. Especially Dawkins, that verbose simpleton. However, Ortega y Gassett goes a bit too far.

I think ricketson, about the depiction of scientists, is broadly right. It is not accurate to depict the archetypal Man of Science as one who performs “mechanical work of the mind which can be done by anyone, or almost anyone.” The creation of the experiments themselves, and the creative and inductive work of interpreting the findings, is not often accomplished by the mediocre. Still, the extreme narrowing of each field of expertise can indeed result in blindness outside one’s immediate field. For an insightful treatment of some current real problems, see The Trouble with Physics, by theoretical physicist Lee Smolin.

Coupled to this is ricketon’s point about the humanities being largely ignorant of modern science. This is sometimes true, and can provide cover for the Darwinist’s tendentious dismissal of all criticisms.

However, though I am defending the Man of Science against caricature (for Dawkins is a caricature of the Man of Science), I am more troubled by the Scientist As High Priest Of Knowledge depiction so ubiquitous today.

Finally, if the Darwinists still refuse to pay attention to those who lack the credentials they pretend to honor, let them compare their own credentials to these: http://www.dissentfromdarwin.org/

avatar Dan Nutley October 16, 2010 at 11:02 pm

And here I disagree with ricketson.

Regarding terminology, among scientists “Darwinian” normally refers to a particular theory of evolution where variation arises from mutations and populations are subsequently shaped by selection.

To be accurate, you have to say “arises from random mutations….”

That is the problem. Science knows a very great deal about random processes. The whole field of statistical thermodynamics is based on it, and all of Thermodynamics and much of Quantum Mechanics is fundamentally understood through our deep and broad understanding of the random. And what does not happen in this universe, is that information is added by random processes.

I would be a Darwinist…if when I stirred my alphabet soup, it wrote poetry for me. Then I would know, observationally, that information is created by the laws of the physics of our universe.

avatar Kyle Rogers October 17, 2010 at 3:50 pm

**<>**

From Human Biological Diversity forum: Seven Examples of Darwinian Conservatism

Darwinism and the Right by John O. McGinnis
http://old.nationalreview.com/22dec97/mcginnis122297.html

Darwinian Conservatism by Dr. Larry Arnhart
http://darwinianconservatism.blogspot.com

Darwinism is Right Wing by Richard Spencer
http://takimag.com/article/happy_darwin_day

Kin Selection, Ethnic Nepotism and Darwinian Conservatism by Steve Sailer
http://www.vdare.com/sailer/nepotism.htm

Charles Darwin Research Institute by Dr. Philip Rushton
http://www.charlesdarwinresearch.org/

What is scary about evolution? By John Derbyshire
http://takimag.com/article/whats_so_scary_about_evolutionfor_both_left_and_right_a_lot/print

ISteve by Steve Sailer
http://isteve.blogspot.com/

???????????????>>>>>>>>>>>
???????????????>>>>>>>>>>>

avatar Siarlys Jenkins October 17, 2010 at 11:12 pm

As Simon Conway Morris observed, in his famous Wittenburg Door interview, disproving evolution is about as likely as disproving the existence of zinc. I’m not sure what is meant when people characterize evolutionary theory as deserving a string of adjectives either glorifying or denigrating it. It also doesn’t make a lot of sense to refer to it as Darwinism. Darwin was the best publicized of several natural scientists who were beginning to notice some significant facts, pointing to new concepts of how life developed on earth. By modern standards, his work was pretty shaky, but it wasn’t a bad start.

What is critically important about this article, far more so than the book it reviews, is that our culture has fetishized specialists. This can also be seen, for example, in the field of law. If I have a complex court case, a specialist, an expert, one training in the law, has a definite and critical place. They know the ins and outs of the courts, the rules, the applicable precedents. I know some of that too, but not enough. Their advice would be very valuable. On the other hand, ultimately, my life, liberty, property, cash flow, reputation, whatever, are on the line, in either a civil or criminal controversy, and the final decisions, armed with the specialist’s best advice, are mine to make. Too many judges expect lawyers to exercise “client control” as if it were the other way around.

When it comes to science, no, I am not competent to evaluate the results of spectroscopic analysis, I am not even competent to operate a Geiger counter, although I could probably learn, I don’t understand how a proton attaches itself to a valence bonded ammonia atom to form an ammonium ion, I am not trained in carbon-14 or thorium isotope analysis, and I don’t know how to read a DNA sample. So, for my knowledge of the deep natural laws of our universe, I depend upon people who have specialized in these fields. But they should be able to explain themselves in plain language, so I can think about their findings for myself. Caveat: I said think about their findings, not react emotionally when I find their findings inconvenient to my prejudices.

As a lay person, I am perfectly competent to say that Richard Dawkins is not a scientist. He is the author of some extremely speculative and ill-founded science fiction. There is no evidence that genes came first, then cells formed around them. None. There is a good deal of reasonable hypothesis directly to the contrary.

I suspect that there is a good deal the authors of this book got wrong about what Darwin got wrong. They are fetishizing Darwin in the negative, as if talking about Darwin is getting us any closer to the truth. The truth is what it is, whether Darwin recognized it, or not, whether other evolutionary biologists have identified it from the limited evidence, or not, whether any of us like it, or not.

There is a cultural paradigm in many scientific fields which assumes, axiomatically, that science explains all there is, therefore, a creative deity is highly improbably. As several commenters have already pointed out, if there is anything true and real beyond the scope of science, then it may well be a creative deity. Evolution may simply be a reasonably good reading of the physical results of the command “Let there by light.” That, not acceptance of the facts of evolutionary biology per se, is the error committed in the name of science. And that, not any hypothetical “wrongness” to evolutionary theory, is the philosopher’s cue to bring up more lights.

avatar ARicketson October 20, 2010 at 1:56 am

Re: Dan Nutley

The “dissent from Darwin” petition is not meaningful. There’s an extensive discussion of it at Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Scientific_Dissent_From_Darwinism#Statement), but I’ll emphasize what I think are the most important points.

First, there is no problem with it being an appeal to authority, because it is actually a response to an appeal to authority (and as Siarlys Jenkins pointed out, appeals to authority are sometimes warranted).

Second, the main problem with the “dissent from Darwin” petition is that the statement is incredibly vague. I could endorse that statement. I’d bet that Dawkins could endorse that statement, at least to the extent that natural selection was originally conceived as acting on organisms, not genes. You could also replace “Darwinian” with any other modern scientific theory (e.g. general relativity, quantum dynamics) and scientists would still agree with the statement.

The specification that mutations must be “random” is a big problem with the statement, since modern genetics and evolutionary theory does not indicate that mutations are simply random. They may be random with respect to fitness effects (even that statement is a simplification), but they are definitely not random in a molecular sense. Some base substitutions are more likely than others (same with insertions/duplications, deletions, and rearrangements). Some locations are more likely to mutate than others. There is even a group of prominent researchers who argue that mutations can happen “when they are needed” — which explicitly rejects the Darwinian meaning of “random mutations”. These researchers are not ostracized — they receive tenure at major research universities, they publish in prominent journals, they attend exclusive conferences, and they are invited to speak at other universities. For example, consider Susan (not the political radical) Rosenberg (http://www.bcm.edu/cmb/?pmid=2391)

These are not the only researchers who claim to have discovered “non-Dawinian” aspects of evolution. There are also some who dismiss the idea of a “tree of life”, because of “horizontal gene transfer”. Despite their criticism of one of the central ideas in the Origin of Species (the only diagram in the book), they are welcome in the mainstream of evolutionary biology. Some are even admitted into the most powerful and exclusive organization within American science — the National Academy of Sciences.

So to sum it up, the sentiment that “Darwin didn’t explain everything” is completely mundane in modern science. That’s why there is still interesting work to do.

avatar ARicketson October 23, 2010 at 3:33 pm

One more problem with the statement: Modern evolutionary theory includes symbiosis as a mechanism for creating organismal novelty (responsible for mitochondria and chloroplast); symbiosis is fundamentally different from mutation, and was not envisioned by Darwin.

avatar John Dunn November 14, 2010 at 10:40 pm

Exhibit A – Richard Dawkins’ comments on theology, a subject about which he clearly knows very little. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, you are entitled to your opinions, but you are not entitled to your facts. And the facts of theology are nothing like what Dawkins thinks they are.

avatar Shaggy 2 Dope July 24, 2011 at 11:44 pm

Re: Guglielmo

You sir are the winner.

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