I take it that the scientific community was so rattled yesterday, what with the news of Dr. Pianka sounding like he ought to be packed off to some special group home for wannabe Jimmy Neutrons, that our evolutionary friends are scampering to put a nicer face on their business.
Not wanting to risk another rhetorical train wreck, they trotted out a visitor from the psychological community (“He ought to talk nice, oughtn’t he?”). So in comes Dr. David Barash, psych prof from the University of Washington, into the fray, wearing velvet. The man has his credentials lined up like so many ducks in a row: therapist, so he can sound non-threatening; author, so he can write without selling the store (or revealing the red arm bands under the counter); and, best of all, a smooth darwinian, who recently wrote even, oh my, titillating evolutionary fare like Madame Bovary's Ovaries: A Darwinian Look at Literature.
I guess the ability to rhyme a title makes one a literateur in the white-coated world.
Barash is decent in today’s offering of The Chronicle Review. He rebuts a bulleted list of the standard critiques of evolution in his essay, “The Case for Evolution, in Real Life.” Of course he starts off by re-casting the charges against evolution as “misconceptions,” but we’ll that go. That kind of verbiage is so frequent in the industry’s “hoi polloi” language that it’s about as meaningful as “Have a nice day.”
Barash lists the standard ten item list of these “misconceptions.” He reserves his greatest, most substantial rebutting materiel for the statement, “Natural selection is just a negative process; it cannot create anything new.” Here, he sets out to tackle the old conundrum of an infinite number of monkeys with typewriters, given time enough, to end up with the whole text of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. He says that this isn’t such a hard nut to crack, after all. He was helped in this by Richard Dawkins’ tome, The Blind Watchmaker. The psychologist/darwinist/author turns now to computer programming, by setting up a machine routine to mimic the processes of mutation and sexual recombination: in other words, he takes a series of nonsensical words and runs them through a program, which edits out the letter combinations that do not “fit,” and retains and develops the ones that do.
Barash (along with Dawkins) is simply amazed, then, that the monkeys (simulated in this little maneuver) actually come up with “to be ok or not to bo” (sic, I know, but what can you expect from a group of cyber-simians?) “Eureka!” one can almost hear the exaltation of the Greek whitecoated chorus, “We proved that God is not an intelligent designer!” It sounds, almost, like the truculent danse macabre of H. L. Mencken, who jigged in his office over the news of the death of William Jennings Bryan: “We killed the SOB!,” he crowed, echoing the script of anti-creationists for the ages.
Uhhhh, I don’t know what Barash and Dawkins proved, except the simple efficacy of an editing program that was probably written, elementarily, in Basic. They did prove one thing in the argument, however. They proved unwittingly the necessity of a program, if not a programmer. They proved the unavoidable realization of the sequence of an organizing principal starting with randomness and chaos, and moving toward organization and higher levels of complexity.
That’s what an editing, or “selection,” program does by definition.
Barash pleads, here, I guess, for the word “program” or “natural selection,” instead of other offensive terms like “creation.” What he manages, in this debate, is to suggest that the neo-Darwinist squadrons are marching, lock-stepped, for the sake of semantics. They are arguing for a natural force that cannot, as yet, be properly defined. They are persuaded (by what?) that this cannot, must not, be the Christian God of their Sunday School youth. But this force is still mysterious, and it is still – in their own words – a dynamic that organizes randomness into systems.
“God” by any other name. Not a god about which much is know. Certainly nothing about its character. But a “god” nonetheless.
It is a surprise to find such a weak apology for low-grade theism in an essay that waved Darwin’s flag. At least, one wouldn’t be so disappointed by the likes of Dawkins, Dennett or (now) Pianka. But perhaps that is to be expected from one who admits to being an “old-fashioned pre-postmodern.” I guess we should be happy about this nod toward our common humanity.
The unintelligent design people should take a good look at Barash before they sign him for the season, because he gets his two fists stuck in the tar-baby. At the outset, he recommends that we shouldn’t put too much stock in the fact that evolution is still called a “theory.” There is “number theory,” he reminds us, but yet we still count. And there is “atomic theory,” but we are quite sure that electrons fizz around the nuclei of protons and neutrons plastered together at the core.
Well, here’s the rub to all that. I can count, to be sure, but I count because of my own relationship with the phenomenon of multiplicities, not because of my indoctrination in number theory. I really do not need to know about the succession of one’s and primes in order to go from one to a hundred. It helps in the upper levels, I’m sure, and my haphazard awareness of theory makes for good press when I’m trying to float my boat in the sophisticated harbors of the cognoscenti. Nevertheless, number theory was never what made it possible to count. It is simply, and only, a theory about what exists. There may be, as has happened before, another better theory to come around.
And secondly (speaking of sequences), atomic theory is hardly a photograph of the way things really are. Atoms have been known since Democritus and Lucretius. Admittedly, these classicists were primitive in their understanding. But so was the physics of my high school education, which stopped at electrons, protons and neutrons, and had very little – if anything – to say about quarks.
Theories develop. They are not static. And they certainly are not, despite Barash’s false claim to be traditionally pre-post-modern, at the level of truth. Truth is a necessarily metaphysical term, and for someone who writes lyrically of the ovaries of bovaries, truth can only be a construct of those dratted theists. A theory is a pragmatic meditation on phenomena. It cannot, in Darwin’s world (let’s be fair), be called “truth.”
That word requires – hold your breath now – dogma. If you don’t like dogma, you can’t have truth. You can have “theory,” which is exactly what this world wants, since it can’t stand dogma.
But Barash doesn’t care about these subtleties. He says, at the outset, that evolutionary theory comes close to truth:
Indeed, my dictionary also gives this definition of ‘theory’: ‘a more or less verified established explanation accounting for known facts or phenomena,’ with examples that include number theory, the theory of relativity, atomic theory, and so forth. In this sense, and this only, evolution is a theory. It is, in fact, as close to truth as any science is ever likely to get.
Well, I’m glad that Barash can appeal to some authority: in this case, it’s a dictionary. He assures himself that evolutionary theory should take the position of metaphysics now, because it is “as close to truth as any science is ever likely to get.”
But evolutionary theory is all about replacing the doctrine of Creation. It’s one or the other, despite the muddle-headed attempts of the National Council of Churches. Let’s not quibble here. If Christians want to be evolutionists, then they should buck up and not muck up the pond by saying that they can have it both ways. They should embrace materialism and Darwinism, and say that somehow they hope for salvation in a foggy way, but certainly not with a mind that bends to doctrinal authority. Evolution in its clean, honest form says that God did not create distinct species. It says that there is no divine deliberation in establishing discrete, concrete forms and matter. It says that one thing became other things, and that God – as we know Him – was not involved as He said He was.
Barash and his mentor, Richard Dawkins, say as much, and I thank them for their honest antipathy toward traditional Christianity. At least they know the stakes and are committed to the difference, even though they are not nearly as thrilling as their grandpap Mencken (who probably would have dismissed them, as he did Scopes, with the epithet homo boobiens). They do not bother trying to impress their Christian friends with their sophisticated intellectual accommodations, as their Christian fans do.
So Barash says that evolution as theory is truth, and it accomplishes all the necessary hope of explanation (at some point in the future) of describing just “how one thing turned into other things.”
But then, at the end, that honesty thing rears its ugly head, and some spirit, or daemon, flies in and makes Barash say this Blair/Regan-like thing: “Admittedly we have yet to observe one species evolving into another, but that is simply because evolutionary change is slow compared with human life spans.”
That is like saying that one cannot believe that God created the world because he wasn’t there to observe God creating the world ...
... wait a sec, I got that wrong. It is rather like saying that it is okay to believe that God created the world, even though I wasn’t there to observe God creating the world.
Isn’t that what Barash said? Despite the fact that we haven’t observed one species evolving into another, Barash recommends that we subscribe to evolution as a doctrine because – get this – “evolutionary change is slow compared with human life spans.”
We say the same thing about God being eternal and immortal and a lot wiser. But it’s not okay to say this in Darwin’s world, because the Creator God is definitely not okay.
At least in God's world, Darwin is permitted to exist and even say what he wants.