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.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Lewontin: Attacking Family Control Over the Ideological Formation of Their Children

In my last post, I made reference to a quotation from Richard Lewontin from a review entitled "Billions and Billions of Demons" concerning a book written by Carl Sagan, entitled The Demon-Haunted World. It is a shame that that book review is no longer available for free on the web. A link to where you can buy it from the The New York Review of Books web site is here. It is worth a read for a variety of reasons. Whether it is worth $3.00, you must decide.

I read parts of it again, and this passage jumped out at me, given the misguided preoccupation with theocracy conspiracy theories by the Darwin Only lobby. Lewontin (who is clearly part of the self-described materialist elite culture) rolls the tape back further and suggests that the Creation Science movement itself was actually a response to a concerted political and public relations campaign to promote material explanations of the world over religious ones, and to extend the domination of a cultural elite by "attacking the control that families had maintained over the ideological formation of their children":

The struggle for possession of public consciousness between material and mystical explanations of the world is one aspect of the history of the confrontation between elite culture and popular culture. Without that history we cannot understand what was going on in the Little Rock Auditorium in 1964. [Ed. note- reference to a debate on evolution discussed earlier in the review.] The debate in Arkansas between a teacher from a Texas fundamentalist college and a Harvard astronomer and University of Chicago biologist was a stage play recapitulating the history of American rural populism. . . .

In the next paragraph, he discusses what happened in the 1950's:
A group of biologists from elite universities together with science teachers from urban schools produced a new uniform set of biology textbooks, whose publication and dissemination were underwritten by the National Science Foundation. An extensive and successful public relations campaign was undertaken to have these books adopted, and suddenly Darwinian evolution was being taught to children everywhere. The elite culture was now extending its domination by attacking the control that families had maintained over the ideological formation of their children.

The result was a fundamentalist revolt, the invention of "Creation Science," and successful popular pressure on local school boards and state textbook purchasing agencies to revise subversive curricula and boycott blasphemous textbooks. In their parochial hubris, intellectuals call the struggle between cultural relativists and traditionalists in the universities and small circulation journals "The Culture Wars." The real war is between the traditional culture of those who think of themselves as powerless and the rationalizing materialism of the modern Leviathan. There are indeed Two Cultures at Cambridge. One is in the Senior Common Room, and the other is in the Porter's Lodge.

Yes, he really said that. Of course, we know that that is what good science education is all about: extending the "modern Leviathan" of scientific materialism by attacking the control that parents have over the ideological formation of their children. Can anyone say Brave New World?