Sunday, August 23, 2009

The religion-evolution 'debate': such an egocentric waste of time!

We have tried not to get immersed in the so-called debate or controversy over evolution vs religion. But one can only bite one's tongue so much before being pushed over the edge. An op/ed piece by Robert Wright in today's New York Times did the trick.

This piece suggests that advocates of religion and atheism, in the context of evolution should back down and realize that they can both be right. The usual cast of 'experts' is cited: those in prominent academic institutions or who have written outspoken books or treatments of the subject, which the media seem to accept as evidence of their expert knowledge. But that's all bunk!

The debate or controversy (we'll save keystrokes by not continuing to use quote marks around the terms) is hot air, opinion masquerading as knowledge. The problem is simple, and except for details of new technical knowledge it has hardly changed an iota since it erupted right after Darwin's Origin of Species.

One can explain almost anything one wants, after the fact, by attributing it to evolution. This is especially true if you equate evolution to natural selection, which is a dogmatic, almost biblical kind of freezing of Darwin's 19th century thought into stone. Whatever is here today and appears organized (often equated to mean purposeful) is assumed to have been molded by selection, and since it's here and its current function is or can be guessed at, we can go further and equate that function to what was favored by selection over eons of time. Within this framework, you can then say that organisms have a purpose, a rationalized bastardization of the word that makes you seem sensitive to your (rational) religious audience. It's also a fake escape from what people really, in the eerie dark of night, mean by 'God', which has to do with solace, usually personified and able to interact in the world, such as by helping cure your ailing child.

The common alternative is to try to rescue real religion asserting that there is a God (no quotes here, because this is the real McCoy), a thinking personal being that (who?) started the world in motion using natural selection to produce His ultimate object, 'intelligent' beings (us humans, naturally, but why not also countless other species, why not even intelligent plants?).

Various views called deism, monism, and the like have God starting it all and then letting natural selection take its course. But it's trying to have your cake and eat it, too. For example, the rationalizer's 'natural selection' is nothing of the kind at all! Selection is, by nature, a sieving of randomly arisen variation via competition for reproductive success. But if God knew what would happen, then this is as much a sham as a movie or a rigged carnival game, since nothing is really random or competitive, it only looks that way after the fact.

Evolutionary psychology, the 'solution' to the religion/evolution debate, as argued in the NYT op/ed piece today, is basically bunkum squared (something we wrote about here, and David Brooks here), since it can argue just about anything you could imagine and if you can find it today you can make up a selective reason. Want the world to be cruel, to justify inequality like capitalism or the brutality of conflict? Easy! Survival of the fittest! Want to explain compassion, goodness, and even ideas about beneficent God? No sweat! Getting along is just a way of competing successfully! Want to explain even religion itself? Piece of cake! Make up a God gene, that produces neural illusions, and say that led its bearers to screw more successfully or be given resources (euphemistically called 'alms')!

Hey, these scenarios, couched in appropriately pious academic terms will make you seem deeply insightful, whether you want to appeal to the the religious, the uncertain, the militantly atheistic, or just sell books and be quoted in the Times. This is the bomb that Darwinism dropped on society. Its destructiveness persists after 150 years--and it's a 'dangerous idea' but not necessarily because it's true, but because after the fact evolutionary Just-So stories can always be constructed to have the appearance of being true--whether or not it is in fact true, which it may well be.

All sides in this debate are soaked with arrogance and hubris, often laced with intentional insult and cruelty, and they have been since identically vituperative, self-assured arguments first took place starting right after Darwin. The hubris comes from knowing you're right. It's instructive that no amount of data--and there's been a huge amount--can change either side's belief in its beliefs.

The blunt facts are that if you want to take a pure materialist's view, science is manifestly a powerful way to account for the world--at least for those aspects of the world that it can account for. Scientific knowledge eats away systematically at material problems, generating transformations of society (and huge fortunes) along the way. It makes many believe that the material world is obviously all there is.

On the other side, fear, hope, esthetics, and subjective experience lead many to believe there must be more. Call it God if you want, but you then have to fish around for His/Her/Its/Their properties, settling on what gives you the most comfort, more or less in the same way we choose the style of music we like best. As with natural selection, you can always post-construct rationales and reasons for your choice. But you're playing games with yourself (even if you're right, and there really is some sort of God(s), because you have no way to know if you are).

The experts are no such thing. They're like everyone else: they have opinions. They're working angles that they see in their interests to work. They enjoy their feeling of superiority (evolutionary psychologists can, we're sure, tell you why natural selection led us to be that way). Psychologically, God and Evolution play similar roles in the human mind.

This is not the time or place to try to go into the subtle aspects of the illusion of driving, Darwin-style, force-like natural selection (we do that in our book). But selection, which certainly seems to exist, is part of a spectrum with chance at one end and strong causation at the other end of that spectrum. Afterwards, what happened can always be defined as the result of selection, and seem organized in a way that even to evolutionists is described in designer-like terms that are perilously close to those of religion.

We humans like to be wise, we like to understand our world, we like self-comfort, we like media attention, and we like to be right! But in this case, it's all sound and fury signifying nothing. If you want to believe, go ahead and assert whatever makes you feel good about 'God'. If you want to disbelieve, go ahead and assert whatever makes you feel good about 'evolution'. If you want to have it both ways, you can do that too -- but only by suspending disbelief.

**Update** Jerry Coyne over at Why Evolution is True has much the same argument, with a very patient discussion of Wright's specific points.


Anne Buchanan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
jimvj said...

Great article!

But Brooks?!? Why not S J Gould, who lambasted EP long before that chameleon?

Anne Buchanan said...

Thanks! And, you're right -- lazy blogging!

Ken Weiss said...

We try to use current events, in journals or in the media, to more general points. It's lazy and just a way to try to keep timely.

Actually, many (even biologists) who have views on EP, including Gould, don't know much genetics, yet their views are expressed as if they do. Given the difficulty of demonstrating the genetic basis for traits one can get one's hands on, like disease, which is at the tail of the trait distribution, it's remarkable how little humility many have in invoking specific evolutionary hypotheses as if they have actual support.

Evolution and how it works are hard enough if you approach them with humility in fact of the challenge!

Anonymous said...

It is odd that you say that Jerry Coyne "has much the same argument". It is hard to understand what argument, if any, you are making other than you didn't like the NYT piece. Perhaps you wanted to make the same argument as you read him making, but it doesn't come across at all the same.

Anne Buchanan said...

Ok, here are our points in a nutshell. Both sides of the 'debate' are based on belief, meaning that there are no 'experts' in this particular contest. No amount of evidence from either side will help convince the other, which means, as Coyne and others have said, and that we say, that Wright's idea that there's a happy middle ground is specious and naive. Yes, Coyne spent a lot more time in his post critiquing Wright's specific points, but we think, in the end, at least his final paragraph would have fit right in here.