Thursday 18 September 2008

Motivating the pursuit of science in neo-Darwinian times

A response to Robin Walsh’s review of Dissent over Descent, by the author

A large part of Dissent over Descent is devoted to driving a wedge between genetics and Darwinism. While modern genetics and molecular biology can be used to support the general theoretical framework of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, they need not be. There are many disciplines in the social sciences, but scientists themselves don’t feel under any intellectual obligation to align themselves with any one over-arching theory that brings them all together, like Marxism, Freudianism, behaviourism or rational choice theory.

Some do, some don’t. This is why the historically chequered project of ‘eugenics’ can be seen as an attempt to subsume the emergent science of genetics under the social rather than natural sciences. A strict Darwinist cannot support eugenics, since it presupposes an impossible degree of control over the conditions of organic reproduction. However, a social scientist might support eugenics as a technology for managing human populations that extends a tradition of social planning.

The book mentions ‘fascism’ and ‘Nazism’ several times, not as all-purpose pejoratives for things I don’t like about the scientific establishment, but to pick out specific aspects of these ideologies that provide precedents for understanding contemporary science. Elsewhere, I have argued we will be unable to evaluate fairly the intellectual and cultural contributions of fascism and Nazism - not least in the biomedical sciences - unless we move towards re-integrating them into the woof and warp of the collective human experience (1). I support Nietzsche’s ethic of inoculation: what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger. Fascist and Nazi precedents could have a potential descriptive and perhaps even explanatory force.

If we think our beliefs are constitutive of reality, then what does it mean to act responsibly as the designer of your own world? Whatever its other faults, intelligent design theory takes this problem seriously. If you possess the power to construct reality, then you are morally liable for it. The metaphysical force of talking in terms of ‘creation’ rather than ‘evolution’ is that a specific agent, God, takes responsibility for the natural world and its people, a great many of whom are imperfect, if not downright bad.

To his credit, Walsh picked up this crucial theme in my book, which theologians and philosophers have pursued under the rubric of ‘theodicy’ or the study of divine ‘justice’, in the broadest sense of trying to justify the considerable suffering and misery, death and destruction, and overall imperfection that characterise the natural world. Theodicy is about determining the frame of reference from which this empirically and normatively complex situation appears rational. Its main secular descendant is what economists and engineers call ‘optimization’, which addresses how we can most efficiently secure some desired set of outcomes under a set of material constraints. While we deride Young Earth Creationists for thinking the universe came into existence in only six days, the fact that it took any time at all has traditionally been the bigger metaphysical problem.

Proposed solutions have invariably involved trade-offs, which sense from a suitably wide spatio-temporal horizon, in which one can calculate the costs and benefits of various actions taken in consort. In short, everything in nature serves a function, but functions are determined by their overarching systems. So, an organ that was useless when it first appeared may turn out over time to be crucial to the animal’s survival, in light of changes in its natural habitat.

To think of God as the intelligent designer of the natural world is to imagine an indefinite extension of the sort of reasoning human engineers engage in when they design specific natural environments. This helps to explain why ID finds its strongest science-based constituency amongst engineers, and this mechanistic way of looking at life is by no means alien to the development of biological science. Indeed, the other naturalist credited with having proposed a theory of evolution by natural selection at roughly the same time as Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace, explicitly compared the operation of natural selection to a steam engine’s governor. Whereas, Darwin discouraged any reading of natural selection as ‘divine artifice’ as if it were a magnified version of human artifice.

Nevertheless, as I argue in Dissent of Descent, the idea of life as artifice has come to dominate biology in the 20th century. In the history of biology, the strand that extends from experimental genetics through molecular biology to contemporary biotechnology, has gone against the grain of Darwin’s own thinking. Several distinguished contributors to this trajectory have been Christians of various stripes, including Gregor Mendel, Ronald Fisher, Sewall Wright and Theodosius Dobzhansky.

If we ask why following this trajectory might have made sense, even before its positive results were seen as outweighing the negative, the answer lies in a residual belief that humans possess, at least to some degree, God’s power to create life from primitive and largely recalcitrant material conditions. Put bluntly, the lab-based tradition that has dominated 20th century biology, and which often took inspiration from physics and chemistry, has aspired to God-like powers to create and manage living systems. To be sure, this interpretation of humanity’s biblical entitlement is theologically heretical – more precisely Faustian – but that isn’t to deny its underlying theism. A true atheist would have no reason to think in terms of a deity whose creative powers she might imitate, if not surpass, and hence wouldn’t think that a laboratory or computer could reliably model features of the natural world.

Of course, today there are atheist scientists. But they are not the ones who took the original risk of acting as if the natural world were sufficiently intelligible to merit long-term systematic study. The point is important when it comes to science education, which is both about teaching science and recruiting the next generation of scientists. To inspire students to pursue science in a more radical and ‘purer’ sense, one must appeal to the prospect that there is a larger reality that is both understandable and worth understanding. Darwin’s own take on evolution by natural selection cannot sustain that pedagogical burden, but the intelligent design orientation of 20th century biology can, regardless of its own distinctive scientific and theological risks.

Read Robin Walsh’s original review: Evolving Consensus

(1) The New Sociological Imagination, Sage, 2006; European Molecular Biology Journal, October 2008

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