Saturday, April 21, 2007

A New Dark Age

by Len Hart, The Existentialist Cowboy

The Enlightenment dims and sober writers bemoan a new, incipient dark age. Who will "rage against the dying of the light"? Fallacious attacks on Darwinism, indeed, science itself, threaten to spread beyond the confines of radical, fundamentalist America to strike deep in the heart of the enlightenment itself: Europe, France, and even Turkey.

At issue: a theological concept masked as "science". It is most often called "Intelligent design". By any name it is a trojan horse, theology dressed up like science, the intellectual equivalent of bird flu, contagious, virulent, just as deadly to rational thought. Intelligent design must be exposed for what it is: psuedo-science: 15 Answers to Creationist Nonsense.
Embarrassingly, in the 21st century, in the most scientifically advanced nation the world has ever known, creationists can still persuade politicians, judges and ordinary citizens that evolution is a flawed, poorly supported fantasy. They lobby for creationist ideas such as "intelligent design" to be taught as alternatives to evolution in science classrooms. As this article goes to press, the Ohio Board of Education is debating whether to mandate such a change. Some anti-evolutionists, such as Philip E. Johnson, a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley and author of Darwin on Trial, admit that they intend for intelligent-design theory to serve as a "wedge" for reopening science classrooms to discussions of God.

Scientific American
The exhibition on evolution at the magnificent new science department at the Museum of Natural History in New York is countered by a proliferation of Creationist Museums around the country (US). A new production of Inherit the Wind may not reach an audience large enough to any good i.e., to educate Americans about a domestic, ideological danger.

Columbia University professor Philip Kitcher strikes back with Living with Darwin. Kitcher's position is not that ID ("Intelligent Design") isn't science but that it is "dead science", consisting of propositions long ago discredited, some by Darwin himself. Darwin is, of course, ignored and attacked by demagogic politicians, the religious right and various sycophantic politicians. Darwin's arguments against ID are still valid, merely ignored by the religious right.

Kitcher would strike an uncomfortable truce astride an increasingly fanatic right wing on the one hand and genuine science on the other. Kitcher would hope this possible, even necessary, if science is to survive at all. Is such an unholy truce possible? Can real science live in a world in which experiment is replaced by referendum, where propaganda impersonates evidence?

The scientific community resolved the issue long ago; Darwin himself refuted ID with a mountain of verifiable evidence. That those issues are raised now among religious demagogues and politicians raises disturbing questions about the quality of scientific education. Has it failed entirely? Have zealots succeeded in isolating science? Is it the aim of "religion" to destroy the spirit of free enquiry? Will science itself be subject to laws by which an 'orthodoxy' is decreed under the rubric of 'democracy'? Will a latter-day 'Galileo' be forced to recant?

Among the concepts most difficult for the theologically inclined is the idea that the random bonding of nucleotides in a primordial soup might have triggered the evolution of life on earth, indeed, in the universe. Fundamentalists find it inconceivable that complex molecules might spring up by chance. As Scientific American points out, evolution does not depend on chance alone to create organisms.
As an analogy, consider the 13-letter sequence "TOBEORNOTTOBE." Those hypothetical million monkeys, each pecking out one phrase a second, could take as long as 78,800 years to find it among the 2613 sequences of that length. But in the 1980s Richard Hardison of Glendale College wrote a computer program that generated phrases randomly while preserving the positions of individual letters that happened to be correctly placed (in effect, selecting for phrases more like Hamlet's). On average, the program re-created the phrase in just 336 iterations, less than 90 seconds. Even more amazing, it could reconstruct Shakespeare's entire play in just four and a half days.
Scientific American
Evidence for evolution is with us everyday, in the stars at night, wheat, fruit flies, giraffes in the wild, and, most colorfully according to Carl Sagan, the Heikegani Crab.

However, if it is the fact of evolution that fundamentalists seek, they have only to look up at the stars at night. The vast distances to many of those stars have been established beyond all reasonable doubt. The farthest quasars are nearly fourteen billion light years away. It has taken, therefore, nearly fourteen billion years for that light to reach earth.

Many creationists discount evolution because the age of their universe is predicated on Bishop Usher's estimate that the universe is only some 6,000 years old, a number computed by adding up the age of the prophets and other time events described in the Bible and adding those years since that time. However, 6,000 years is not nearly long enough for the light from even closer stars to have reached this earth. Yet those stars exist, we see them, and their distances can be demonstrated. Their existence is evidence of both the size and the almost unfathomable age of the universe.

There are those who will tell you that the fact of evolution is so obvious that it is a tautology: what survives, survives. Evolution may be summed up thus: those members of specie who survive long enough to procreate will pass its genes on to a succeeding generation; those members who do not, won't. Hence the tautology. One of the most lucid explanations of the evolutionary process was written by Julian Huxley, Evolution in Action. It is still available.

Similarly, scientists studying the causes of aging have observed the fact of evolution in Fruit Flies whose life cycle is about one day. They are borne; they mate; they die. There isn't much time to do anything else. New variations are observed in Fruit Flies in very short periods of time.

Even folk wisdom recognizes the validity of evolution. Cowboys and farmers alike often said: never kill a slow roach. You just improve the breed. That is a good description of the process of "selection".

How many "creationists" have bothered to talk to a farmer. Any farmer who has ever bred for specific characteristics can bear witness to the fact of evolution as it is understood today. Naturally, when I think of Kansas, I think of both The Wizard of Oz and wheat. Wheat does not grow in the wild, yet its origins are most certainly ancient wild grasses. One suspects that wheat benefited largely by what evolutionists would call artificial selection, a process in which natural selection is helped out, possibly by a farmer who knows how to breed or, in evolutionary terms, select, for specific characteristics.

I fear for future generations that may be victimized by a fanatic Christian "right".
We keep trying to explain away American fundamentalism. Those of us not engaged personally or emotionally in the biggest political and cultural movement of our times—those on the sidelines of history—keep trying to come up with theories with which to discredit the evident allure of this punishing yet oddly comforting idea of a deity, this strange god. His invisible hand is everywhere, say His citizen-theologians, caressing and fixing every outcome: Little League games, job searches, test scores, the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, the success or failure of terrorist attacks (also known as “signs”), victory or defeat in battle, at the ballot box, in bed. Those unable to feel His soothing touch at moments such as these snort at the notion of a god with the patience or the prurience to monitor every tick and twitch of desire, a supreme being able to make a lion and a lamb cuddle but unable to abide two men kissing. A divine love that speaks through hurricanes. Who would worship such a god? His followers must be dupes, or saps, or fools, their faith illiterate, insane, or misinformed, their strength fleeting, hollow, an aberration. A burp in American history. An unpleasant odor that will pass.

Harpers, Through a glass, darkly: How the Christian right is reimagining U.S. history
It is important that science be taught in school. Evolution was made clear to me in my junior high school science class. The topic was Giraffes which eat the leaves of trees in their habitat. Lamarck, we were taught, believed in acquired characteristics. In Lamarckian terms, the Giraffe had a long neck so that he could reach the leaves. The Darwinian view turns that on its head i.e, those Giraffes able to reach the higher leaves would pass their genes on to another generation of longer necked Giraffes. The short neck Giraffe would most certainly die before he could mate. Put yet another way, the long necked Giraffe survived and procreated because it had a long neck; it is inaccurate to say that it had a long neck so that it would survive.

I have long considered the words "so that" to be red flags, signaling a question to be begged, a perversion of logic. The words so that almost invariably signal a thought process that works backward from end results. Human beings, having evolved brains, are capable of doing precisely that.

Interestingly, Earnst Haeckel did not share Darwin's enthusiasm for natural selection as I have stated it in simple terms here. Haeckel, in his own version of Lamarckism, believed that biological diversity could be attributed to an environment acting directly on organisms to produce new species, new races.

There are crabs in Japanese waters that bear a "human face". They are the Heikegani crab, native to Japan. The carapace resembles a human face, or - with some imagination - a Samurai warrior. Legend has it that they are the re-incarnation of ancient Samarais, Heike warriors who died at the Battle of Dan-no-ura. (See: "The Tale of the Heike") Indeed, patterns on the carapace bear a striking resemblance to a human face. It is technically inaccurate, however to say that the ridges "...serve a very functional purpose as sites of muscle attachment". This is akin to saying that Giraffes have long necks so that they can eat the leaves off the taller trees. More accurately, similar patterns are found on species in many parts of the world, including fossilized remains. The patterns survive as the crabs themselves survive to pass on their genes.

Carl Sagan had a more colorful tale to tell. In his popular science television show Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, he linked the patterns to the local legend of the Heiki warriors. Sagan cited the crab as an example --not of natural but of unintentional artificial selection. Sagan told the story of local fishermen throwing back those crabs whose shells resemble the ancient Samurai. Those not resembling Samurai were eaten. Those thrown back survived to pass on their genes.

Living beings themselves may be thought of as "living fossils". We carry in our genes a code that isthe result of billions of years of "code writing". Our own fetal development seems to mirror that process. According to Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919): "The ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny."

It is interesting that Intelligent Design is often espoused by the same political mindset that embraces "Social Darwinism". Both are equally bogus. Both are embraced by the right wing though they are incompatible theories. It is odd to find even fallacious perversions of Darwin espoused by a group that is defined by its hatred of all things Darwin. It is equally odd to find Intelligent Design, however fallacious, espoused by Social Darwinists. The obvious conclusion is that these people just haven't given even their own ideologies, let alone Darwin, enough thought.

Social Darwinism does not follow from "Darwinism". Worse, it attributes to Darwin positions he never took. The term "survival of the fittest" was never used by Darwin but has been variously attributed. Hofstadter seems to attribute that phrase to rail road men:
Railroad executive Chauncy Depew asserted that the guests of the great dinners and public banquets of New York City represented the survival of the fittest of all who came in search of fortune. They were the ones with superior abilities. Likewise railroad magnate James J. Hill defended the railroad companies by saying their fortunes were determined according to the law of survival of the fittest.

—Hofstadter, Richard; 1959; Social Darwinism in American Thought, Braziller; New York.
Elsewhere, the term is attributed to Herbert Spencer who clearly inspired a generation of radicalized, latter-day robber barons and, bluntly, few of them evince the "...quality of mercy" so immortalized with but a few words by Shakespeare:
[Herbert] Spencer said that diseases "are among the penalties Nature has attached to ignorance and imbecility, and should not, therefore, be tampered with." He even faulted private organizations like the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children because they encouraged legislation.

Social Darwinism and American Laissez-faire Capitalism
An equally fallacious corollary to "Social Darwinism" is often phrased this way: the rich are rich because they are better, work harder and are more intelligent. George W. Bush put it more crudely: “The poor are poor because they are lazy!” In the same vein, the conservative economist Joseph A. Schumpeter likened recessions to a "douche" leaving us to wonder just who is "douched" and how? More importantly: who gets to make those life and death decisions? It is difficult not to conclude that New Orleans after Katrina is but the disastrous consequence of this kind of "blame the victim" thinking.

It is not surprising, then, that Spencer's influence continues, not in the field of biology, but in economics, specifically those theories most often associated with the right wing: the American apologists, William Graham Sumner and Simon Nelson Patten.

Spencer, believed that because society was evolving, government intervention ought to be minimized. Nevermind that government is but a function of society and responsible to it. It is because of the lasting Influenc of Spencer that the idea of the “rational man” making rational decisions in a free market is still in use. In practice, however, economic decisions may or may not be rational.

servative work mightily to force reality into a conservative, theoretical mold but that's bad science. Models must describe reality —not the other way round. John Nash, recently the subject of the motion picture, A Beautiful Mind, argued persuasively that not only games but societies and economies benefit more from cooperation and community than from competition.

While Bertrand Russell's work in the Principia Mathematica sought to ground mathematics upon a foundation of pure logic, it was optimistically thought that it would then be possible to construct a "Universal Truth Machine" - a "computer", if you will, that would produce all true theorems from any given set of axioms. A "formal system". Some twenty years later, Gödel's famous Incompleteness Theorems "proved" that no such machine is possible. There is always at least one true theorem that such a machine is incapable of writing - no matter how well it is programmed, no matter how well phrased the axioms.

The significance of Gödel's theorems is this: even as we near a phase in quantum physics when it appears that we may be able to write an equation which will amount to TOE, a Theory of Everything, we will come up short. No such theory is possible. Sir James Jeans once wrote that we may never be able to open the back of the watch and describe its workings; likewise, as human beings striving to understand a universe of which we are a part, we may never be able to see the face of God and describe it. We become ourselves a part of an infinite regress.

But - we must be free to believe that the face exists and free to believe that it doesn't. We must be free to find the truth for ourselves. As Socrates put it: the unexamined life is not worth living. Our choices define who we are as individuals, and collectively, as a species. Religious ideology denies us the freedom to make that defining choice freely. Bertolt Brecht said "A man who does not know the truth is just an idiot but a man who knows the truth and calls it a lie is a crook." Religious ideology parading as science is a crook.

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