Thursday, February 22, 2007

Richard Lewontin: What worries me is that they may believe what Dawkins and Wilson tell them about evolution

Perhaps this will be the last quote from Richard Lewontin's article "Billions and Billions of Demons" from the New York Review of Books, which was a review of the Carl Sagan book The Demon-Haunted World. Perhaps not.

The bold in the text was added by me:
The standard form of a scientific paper begins with a theoretical question, which is then followed by the description of an experimental technique designed to gather observations pertinent to the question. Only then are the observations themselves described. Finally there is a discussion section in which a great deal of energy is often expended rationalizing the failure of the observations to accord entirely with a theory we really like, and in which proposals are made for other experiments that might give more satisfactory results. Sagan's suggestion that only demonologists engage in "special pleading, often to rescue a proposition in deep rhetorical trouble," is certainly not one that accords with my reading of the scientific literature. . . .

As to assertions without adequate evidence, the literature of science is filled with them, especially the literature of popular science writing. Carl Sagan's list of the "best contemporary science-popularizers" includes E.O. Wilson, Lewis Thomas, and Richard Dawkins, each of whom has put unsubstantiated assertions or counterfactual claims at the very center of the stories they have retailed in the market. Wilson's Sociobiology and On Human Nature rest on the surface of a quaking marsh of unsupported claims about the genetic determination of everything from altruism to xenophobia. Dawkins's vulgarizations of Darwinism speak of nothing in evolution but an inexorable ascendancy of genes that are selectively superior, while the entire body of technical advance in experimental and theoretical evolutionary genetics of the last fifty years has moved in the direction of emphasizing non-selective forces in evolution. . . . Even The Demon-Haunted World itself sometimes takes suspect claims as true when they serve a rhetorical purpose as, for example, statistics on child abuse, or a story about the evolution of a child's fear of the dark.

Third, it is said that there is no place for an argument from authority in science. The community of science is constantly self-critical, as evidenced by the experience of university colloquia "in which the speaker has hardly gotten 30 seconds into the talk before there are devastating questions and comments from the audience." . . . It is certainly true that within each narrowly defined scientific field there is a constant challenge to new technical claims and to old wisdom. In what my wife calls the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral Syndrome, young scientists on the make will challenge a graybeard, and this adversarial atmosphere for the most part serves the truth. But when scientists transgress the bounds of their own specialty they have no choice but to accept the claims of authority, even though they do not know how solid the grounds of those claims may be. Who am I to believe about quantum physics if not Steven Weinberg, or about the solar system if not Carl Sagan? What worries me is that they may believe what Dawkins and Wilson tell them about evolution.

Of course, a huge number of people believe what Dawkins and Wilson tell them about evolution. And why should we believe Weinberg or Sagan, if Lewontin assures us that the other two are unreliable? In the previous paragraph, he even notes that Sagan "sometimes takes suspect claims as true when they serve a rhetorical purpose." The reality is that much that is asserted by scientists is open to evaluation by non-specialists, and critical analysis by thoughtful individuals is in order for every assertion.


At September 12, 2010 4:55 AM, Anonymous Translation quotes said...

"You know you're succeeding when the people telling you it can't be done start changing their reasons." Ha ha--so true! Our challenge is to make sure we are not the ones coming up with the reasons why other people (namely our children, eh?)shouldn't succeed. "It is not that love is blind. It is that love sees with a painter's eye, finding the essence that renders all else background." One of the most beautiful quotes on love that I have ever read.


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