Tuesday, January 19, 2010

"My hero!"

Ken came home ill from Finland so the musings on the state of human genetics that he promised us will have to wait. Meanwhile, I've been catching up with publications in various piles around the house, and have only just read The Darwin Show in the Jan 7 London Review of Books. Shapin is a historian of science at Harvard, and the piece is about "history's biggest birthday party," the yearlong celebration of Darwin that has just concluded. He makes many points, but generally, in a welcome antidote to the year that just was, Shapin reminds us that Darwin was but a man. A man who wrote enough generations and enough scientific discoveries ago that it's damn peculiar that he's beatified to this day, as if he had no faults or errors in his ideas, which is manifestly wrong.
Even conceding the more expansive claims for Darwin’s genius and influence, we’re still some way from understanding what the festivities have been about.
Paradoxically, this year’s events have been a celebration of a historical figure and his historical work in which specifically historical interests have been notably marginal. The party is one in which the present, with its pressing present concerns, processes fragments of the past in roughly the same way that assorted blocks of white fish, bulked out with filler, are processed into fish fingers. Myths have a market; myth-busting has a small one; setting the historical Darwin in his Victorian intellectual and social context has practically none at all.
Darwin and his work are still too often treated as infallible (Shapin writes that Richard Dawkins "concedes that Darwin 'made some mistakes' -- concedes? -- but quotes EO Wilson as saying that "The man was always right" -- could he really have said this?). Shapin easily demythologizes Dobzhansky's so often-quoted line, that "nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution", a point we make in Mermaid's Tale, so I'm happy to see it here.
To say that nothing in biology makes sense except in light of Darwinism cannot be the same thing as saying that to be a competent biologist is to have command of, or to agree with, any specific version of evolutionary theory, such as those favoured by Dawkins and Dennett. I have taught many talented biology students, both in the US and the UK, who could not give a coherent account of evolution by natural selection – teleology remains strikingly popular – and while it may or may not be the case that evolution provides the conceptual ‘foundation’ of life science, it is certainly not the case that biologists need to have command of any such theory to do competent work, for example, on the sex life of marine worms, on algal photosynthesis, or on the nucleotide sequence of breast cancer genes. Lots of practitioners of lots of modern expert practices turn out not to be very good at articulating their practices’ supposed foundations.
Shapin suggests that the hoopla over Darwin had less to do with him than with what our age wants him to have been. This decade's current crop of atheists uses him to prove they are right, but he hasn't always been read that way. At his funeral in Westminster Abbey, the archdeacon praised him for, according to Shapin, having read 'many hitherto undeciphered lines in God's great epic of the universe'.
The historical Darwin is only a spectral presence at his own commemoration. The Origin as a complex literary and scientific performance was not a focus of the global festivities, nor was Darwin’s own understanding of what he had and had not done, still less the full range of his scientific concerns. What has just been celebrated is not the historical specificity of a mid-19th-century text, or the Victorian author of works on earthworms, orchids and insectivorous plants, but the founding of a particular intellectual lineage, a lineage that led from 1859 to some version of the gene-theory-augmented ‘modern evolutionary synthesis’ that is valued today. Darwin did not discover or invent modern evolutionary biology and its intellectual fellow travellers; at most, he was at one end of a genealogy whose latest members he would scarcely have recognised.
There’s no need to be pedantic about this. If what has happened has only something to do with the historical Darwin, it has a lot to do with us, and what some of us choose to construe and to celebrate as present-day ‘Darwinism’. Those are considerable facts in their own right. A phenomenon as widely dispersed as the Darwin commemorations is bound to have had many causes, serving many purposes. ‘Every age moulds Charles Darwin to its own preoccupations, but the temptation is hard to resist,’ Philip Ball noted in the Observer. ‘In the early 20th century, he became a prophet of social engineering and the free market. With sociobiology in the 1970s, Darwinism became a behavioural theory, while neo-Darwinist genetics prompted a bleak view of humanity as gene machines driven by the selfish imperatives of our DNA.’
Shapin writes of the struggle for Darwin's soul between adaptationists and their critics -- determinists and non-determinists, neutralists and selectionists, pointing out that Darwin himself didn't believe that natural selection explained everything. He writes of the adoption of evolutionary theory by literary theorists. Called 'literary Darwinism", every piece of fiction can be interpreted through Darwinian eyes. Shapin doesn't point out, but might have, that Darwinism has been applied to every aspect of modern life; business, politics, families. And so on. Darwin wouldn't recognize himself.

Darwin had a brilliant insight, for which he's rightly celebrated, but his insight was shared by at least Alfred Russel Wallace at the time, and in various forms by many others even decades befor Origin, and it has been expanded upon, first by the Modern Synthesis, that married natural selection and Mendelian genetics, and later by modern molecular evidence that has allowed biology to understand how traits are made, not just how they evolve. The field has hardly stood still. Darwin was a seminal figure in the intellectual lineage of evolutionary theory, and it's enough to celebrate him for that. But that lineage is still evolving, and Darwin's influence should diminish in significance the more we know.

But, like damsels in distress we need perfect heroes who will rescue us, in this case from benighted religion, the Evil of Evils to the strident Darwinians of our time. They are as polarized and as ideological as, say Sarah Palin or Pat Robertson, imputing evil to heretics, saying--and what is worse, probably actually believing that everything can be accounted for by Darwinism (their Bible, in fact since they consult it often, a great no-no in science, which should be about the best ideas and evidence available today, not in yesteryear). Somehow they must feel that errors mean a tainted vision, and Heroes can't be that way. In no way do we wish to diminish Darwin's astounding insights and achievements, in his own time and, as logical reasoning, even in our own. Darwin's books, especially the Origin, are masterpieces of thought and organized argument. But inspiration in science is not the same as inspiration in religion. We regularly teach Darwin's works, and of course we use his concepts of common origin of life, and of natural selection, among others, as extremely useful. But there's no need for hagiography.

If you are as far behind in your reading as I am, and haven't gotten to this essay yet, it's well worth your time. It tries to put the Darwin Party of last year in its current cultural context.


Steve Bates said...

Here's a tiny item of that cultural context that always amuses me. My copy of Origin is perhaps 15 years old. I purchased it in one of the big-box bookstores; it may have been a Barnes and Noble edition. The dust jacket contains... I am not making this up... an old-style "chain of being" drawing. Darwin as great thinker? scientist? imposing figure in history? None of those...

Anne Buchanan said...

Yep, Steve, Darwin as Rohrschach test!

Mike Magee said...

A pretty vapid and mealy mouthed post. No one I know regards Darwin as perfect. He was indeed a man, but he was a brilliant man, and he is celebrated for the important insights he has given us. He is not worshiped for being right about everything, and the fact that he was not the sole discoverer of natural selection means nothing. He was the one who gathered the evidence that demonstrated it most conclusively. If people with different axes to grind try to claim him, then it is further proof of his influence. Shapin and the author of this piece just sound supercilious and small minded. He was a greater human being than any of us in that he left us with something valuable. If you don't like it, go celebrate someone you do like.

Anne Buchanan said...

Well, I think this comment rather proves the point. People are fervid in their ideology. One aspect of ideology is that no criticism is tolerated, and heretics are burned at the stake. That's a view of evolution that we try to go beyond here at The Mermaid's Tale. Hero worship and ideology are blinders.

We never said that Darwin was anything but a great person and a great scientist, and one of the most influential thinkers in history. Shapin says the same. But, because of the ideology that surrounds him, he's accepted uncritically by thousands of biologists, and this does no service to science.

Steve Bates said...

Lighten up, Mike. Starting out by calling someone's post "vapid" is not exactly a socially acceptable beginning for a valuable dialogue. Relax. Darwin is a fascinating (and yes, flawed) individual; there's plenty of room for different viewpoints of his contributions.

Mong H Tan, PhD said...

RE: My hero! -- But, Richard Dawkins, et al have made him God!?

We never said that Darwin was anything but a great person and a great scientist, and one of the most influential thinkers in history. Shapin says the same. But, because of the ideology that surrounds him, he's accepted uncritically by thousands of biologists, and this does no service to science.

I would fully concur with your assessment above; in fact, I just finished analyzing Shapin’s nice article “The Darwin Show” recently, and post my comment here: “Let's begin the Dialogue and Reconciliation of Science and Religion Now! -- RE: Darwin Year in review: The folly of neo-Darwinism & Dawkinsism (or Darwinism as atheism fallacy) -- May the real McCoys (both the scientific and critical thinkings in biology) prevail in the 21st century and beyond!?” (PhysForumEU; February 1).

Best wishes, Mong 2/2/10usct4:33p; practical science-philosophy critic; author "Decoding Scientism" and "Consciousness & the Subconscious" (works in progress since July 2007), Gods, Genes, Conscience (iUniverse; 2006) and Gods, Genes, Conscience: Global Dialogues Now (blogging avidly since 2006).