31 August 2014

The Edge of Evolution

Science is both a philosophical and rhetorical activity. This must be understood first. In order to do science one must first be a philosopher, and in order to successfully participate in scientific discourse, one must be a rhetor. That many scientists today would deny this does not mean that they are free from philosophical assumptions or that they their discourse is free from rhetoric; it simply means that they are unconscious of their uses of philosophy and rhetoric. The sooner that we can strip the residual Victorian veneer of pristine objectivity from the natural sciences, the sooner we can come to better understand why we as a society find scientific arguments to be persuasive and the better we can evaluate the philosophical underpinnings of our science and make it more useful as a tool for discovering truth. In this area at least, the despised and maligned creationists are ahead of the curve compared to most institutional scientists in that they recognize the huge role that personal worldview and philosophy play in the interpretation of scientific data.

To see this in action, we only need to look at the advancement of science from the Middle Ages to today. The story we often tell is one of steady uphill progress from one new objective fact to another, as humanity pulls itself from the dark ages and into the splendor of the intellectual light of our modern times. However, when we look at the history we get a different picture. Most of what we call the advancement of science came not because of irrefutable, objective arguments compelling men to climb from their darkened caves, but because certain theories arose at the precise moments that philosophical paradigms in society were changing and eager audiences were creating the perfect rhetorical situations for persuasion.

For example, Galileo’s arguments about cosmology weren't irrefutably airtight. However, his science of mechanics was attractive to the rising mercantile interests of his day and he pitched his ideas in the direction of the rising class of merchants and entrepreneurs who were more open to the new science because it boosted their ability to turn a profit. Likewise rulers were often resistant to the new science for the very same reason; they wanted to maintain the hierarchy of society. Later when the Puritans with their postmillennial hopes were looking for the means of taking dominion and remaking the world, Newtonian physics came along and gave them a mechanical world and the means of pulling all the right levers to control it. As society became more secular in the Enlightenment, man became very lonely sitting at the steering wheel of nature and with the advent of the Romantic period began to want to locate himself as part of nature rather than as lord over nature. This is an essential background to understanding why Charles Darwin’s theories were so readily accepted in their time. It wasn’t because everyone saw in them objective and irrefutable truth. Erasmus Darwin wrote erotic poetry about plants, and his grandson Charles formulated a theory that placed man firmly in place as a part of nature and cousin to the other creatures. Both were products of their time and the spirit of Romanticism inspired them both. Later Darwin’s theory gained strength because the idea of optimistic onward and upward evolution lent strength to British imperialism. Still later Darwin’s theory was used to support ideas of eugenics and racial purity. Today Darwin’s theories are a symbol of cultural optimism, and, in the absence of a belief in a biblical Adam and Eve, a basis for the brotherhood of all mankind.

Now, why have I spent so much time on this background for what could have been a very simple book review? It’s because I believe it is important to see how science is made persuasive and how scientific thought is even shaped by prevailing cultural commonplaces and philosophies. The natural sciences, especially the scientific method with its combination of abduction, induction and deduction, have proved extremely useful heuristic devices. However, we live in an era of scientific imperialism in which the claims of science are seen to be objective, absolute and totally separate from the type of discourse that goes on in the realm of the humanities, ordinary rhetorical persuasion. Science is seen to be authoritative without the need to persuade and this lack of self-awareness among scientists often creates a dangerous calcification of scientific dogma as scientists lock ranks against any dissenters from the orthodox position and use coercion rather than persuasion to police the bounds of the discipline.

Nobody expects the Dawkins Inquisition!

A great case in point is the reaction to Michael Behe’s book The Edge of Evolution. In this book Behe uses case studies of malaria to attempt to find the limits of Darwinian evolution in the real world. This book has been mercilessly pounded by many in the scientific community, and a number of those responses show a strange level of emotional vitriol. To be clear, Behe is not a Young Earth Creationist. He is also not an Old Earth Creationist. He is a theistic evolutionist and a proponent of intelligent design. He lays out his position at the very beginning of the book. He states that Darwinian evolution consists of three interlocking theories:

1) Common Descent: the idea that all living things are descended from a common ancestor.

2) Natural Selection: the idea that evolution proceeds because those organisms with traits more conducive to survival thrive and pass on their genetic information while those organisms with traits less conducive to survival die out and fail to pass on their genetic information.

3) Random Mutation: the idea that new genetic traits that make an organism more fit for survival arise from random genetic mutations which are then selected because of their survival value.

So what does Behe believe? Well he uncritically accepts 1) Common Descent and 2) Natural Selection. He also accepts random mutation as a mechanism of evolution but also wants to say that many mutations in the history of species have not been wholly random but have been directed for a purpose by a higher power or designer.

What does this mean for Behe as a scientist? Well, practically speaking, nothing. Wholly accepting everything evolutionary theory teaches while making the caveat that one believes some mutations to happen by design rather than chance would not practically affect the way one does science at all. Reading some of the reviews for this book ahead of time though, and noting the level of anger many in the scientific community had towards the book, I fully expected to see pictures of Michael Behe and Ken Ham (of Creation Museum fame) wearing friendship bracelets and illustrations of Noah and his sons riding on dinosaurs on the deck of the ark.

Although that would have
been pretty cool...
Not that I'm personally ragging on Ken Ham here. I'm just pointing out that one would not expect secular scientists to treat Behe, who agrees with 99.9% of their program, exactly the same as they treat Ken Ham, who agrees with maybe 10% of their program, but they do. Apparently nothing less than 100% agreement will suffice.What this seems to mean is that the scientific method as a heuristic device is not enough for many scientists today. In order to be a “true scientist” you must also sign on to the philosophical assumptions of materialism and naturalism. The sad thing is that many in the field of science can’t see this hidden assumption and simply believe that they are being realistic and commonsensical. Which brings be back to my original point that we need to see how the personal worldview philosophies of individual scientists affect their use of the scientific method and how rhetorical language and cultural climate affect the acceptance of scientific theories.

All right, I’m stepping off of my soap box now to actually review this book. In The Edge of Evolution, Michael Behe accepts all three tenets of evolution as outlined above, but wishes to see how far random mutation can actually go in the process of evolution. For most of the book, he is focused on malaria: how humans have evolved over the years to combat malaria but more importantly how malaria has evolved rapidly over recent years to resist the drugs used against it. He points out that organisms like the parasite that causes malaria are excellent ways to study evolution because they reproduce so rapidly and thus the possibility for mutations, both harmful and helpful, are much greater than in the human gene pool. In fact at any given moment, there are more malaria parasites in the world than the total number of humans who have ever lived. He goes on to show exactly what types of mutations do and do not occur in malaria and what limits this might tentatively put on pure, unguided Darwinian evolution. Along the way he also discusses the HIV virus and bacterial flagella to illustrate the limits and possibilities for random mutation.

I found the book to be fascinating and enjoyed reading it very much. I found the last two chapters in which he fleshes out his Intelligent Design views and talks about the nature of the designer to be pretty weak, but this could be because I’m not a huge fan of ID to begin with. I believe in a God “in whom we live and move and have our being” rather than in a quasi-deistic tinkerer who pops in every now and then to make adjustments to the machine. As a reader your mileage on these last two chapters may vary, but overall the book was an educational and fascinating look into a world I don’t normally explore in my reading.

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