Saturday, January 12, 2008


'Round and 'Round the Mulberry Bush ...

Anyone who has followed Casey Luskin's "career" ("ministry" would be a better word) knows that nuance is either beyond him or is bludgeoned to death in furtherance of the propagation of the faith. The Discovery Institute's Gofer General is back with a triple play this time. In a screed entitled "Nature Fulfilling Its Charter to Defend Evolution at all Costs," Luskin complains about an editorial in Nature (which he does not bother to link to) praising the new National Academy of Sciences booklet, Science, Evolution, and Creationism (available for free download at the NAS site or here).

Luskin begins by quote mining Peter J. Bowler, the author of probably the definitive history of the notion of biological evolution, Evolution: The History of an Idea, Third Edition. But the quote mine is more subtle than most Luskin has perpetrated and the true story behind Bowler's discussion is not completely flattering to the players on science's side. Luskin quotes Bowler as follows:

By exploiting their position in this network, Huxley and his friends ensured that Darwinism had come to stay. (Ruse, 1979a). They controlled the scientific journals -- the journal Nature was founded in part to promote the campaign -- and manipulated academic appointments. Hull (1978) has stressed how important these rhetorical and political skills were in creating a scientific revolution. The Darwinists adopted a flexible approach which deflected opposition, minimized infighting among themselves, and made it easy for others to join their campaign. Many, like Huxley himself, were not rigidly committed to the theory of natural selection; they were simply anxious to promote the case for evolution.

(Peter J. Bowler, Evolution: The History of an Idea, pg. 185 (University of California Press, 3rd ed., 2003).)
All of which is correctly quoted, ellipses-free and, surprisingly, includes the page number. All that's missing is the history.

British society at the time Darwin published the Origin was still in the throes of the Industrial Revolution and the wrenching changes it was bringing to society. The social order, that had for so long been dominated by class, was breaking up and forming again along new lines. The landed gentry, attempting to hold out against the mercantile elite, were losing ground. The established Church of England had slipped into a bureaucratic slumber where piety was slightly discreditable. The new middle class of technocrats were struggling to carve out a place separate (and above) the proletariat, who were, in turn, beginning to pay some heed to the voices demanding the destruction of the old ways altogether.

One reason Darwin was so ready to see what he did see was that he was positioned at the nexus of these competing forces. As the son and grandson of prominent doctors, he was not unfamiliar with the nobility and could move among them on somewhat even terms. Of course, he was related both by blood and, eventually, by marriage, to the Wedgwoods, who were prominent members of the rising industrial gentry. His experience among the dons at Cambridge was so comfortable he was not adverse to a life, as envisioned by his father, in a country parsonage. Finally, he was thrown into the closest possible proximity to the working and technocratic classes aboard the Beagle for five years.

Huxley, on the other hand, had come from a poor background and would have stayed there, despite his medical degree, if Britain's old class system could have had its way. As Bowler describes it in his most recent book, Monkey Trials and Gorilla Sermons: Evolution and Christianity from Darwin to Intelligent Design (p. 76):

Like Darwin he traveled the world aboard a Royal Navy survey ship, but where Darwin was the captain's companion on the Beagle, Huxley was a lowly naval surgeon on HMS Rattlesnake. Still, he had made a reputation for himself describing and classifying the exotic marine creatures they had dredged up, and in the 1850s he was desperately struggling to establish a career as a professional scientist. This was still not easy -- there were few properly paid jobs, and Huxley was lucky to get a lectureship in paleontology at the newly established Royal School of Mines. Once secure, Huxley threw himself into the campaign to establish science as the main source of expertise that the government of an industrial country should call upon to solve its social problems.
It was this desire to "professionalize" science, which, up to then, had largely been the province of the wealthy and of churchmen with the leisure to pursue it as a hobby, that drove much of Huxley's public activities. Which brings us back to Luskin's quote mine. With the exception of two sentences about Huxley's sitting on government commissions and his leading role in the "X Club," a group of like-minded backers of a new scientific establishment, the following appears directly before the bit quoted by Luskin:

Given that the details of the theory were controversial, the outcome of the debate would be determined not only by the evidence but also by the rhetorical and organizational skills of the rival parties. As a member of the new generation of professional scientists, Huxley was determined to wrest intellectual authority away from its traditional sources. Evolution was useful because it demonstrated that science could now determine the truth in an area once claimed by theology.
So it was certainly true that Huxley had motivations beyond the strict scientific issues of biology. What separates Huxley and his supporters from the IDeologists was that they remained interested in the science and, in opening it up to all capable practitioners, they were, in fact, seeking to improve it. Unlike the drones from the Discovery Institute, the newly professionalized scientific establishment continued to do actual science.

Which leads us to the second, and unintentionally funny, of Luskin's deprecations against sense. Luskin laments

... the National Academy of Science's new version of Science, Evolution, and Creationism because it [in Nature's words] "summarize[s] the reasons why evolution is in effect as much a scientific fact as the existence of atoms or the orbiting of Earth round the Sun." Such statements are saddening because they elevate evolution to the status of an unquestionable dogma and thus threaten the prestige of science as an objective voice in society.
I was unaware that the existence of atoms or the orbiting of the Earth around the Sun were "dogma," unquestionable or otherwise. Similarly, he kvetchs:

... what are scientists who do question Neo-Darwinism supposed to do when the top scientific organization in the U.S. proclaims that evolution is as unquestionable as the existence of atoms or the heliocentric model of the solar system?
Well, the honest thing to do would be to come up with a theory which explains the evidence better than those theories, which can continue to be tested empirically and which can then be used to explain even more of the natural universe -- in the same manner the scientific community did by integrating genetics with evolution or relativity with classical mechanics. Or, on the other hand, you can skip the science part and just go straight to rhetoric, the way the DI does.

Finally, and most weasel-like, Luskin notes that the title of Nature's editorial is "Spread the word: Evolution is a scientific fact, and every organization whose research depends on it should explain why."

Again, we see politics at work: they think scientists should defend evolution because their "research depends on it."
Luskin would have the unwary think that the title is a threat of the "or else" sort but, in fact, as the editorial says:

Evolution is of profound importance to modern biology and medicine. Accordingly, anyone who has the ability to explain the evidence behind this fact to their students, their friends and relatives should be given the ammunition to do so. Between now and the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth on 12 February 2009, every science academy and society with a stake in the credibility of evolution should summarize evidence for it on their website and take every opportunity to promote it.
It is not an attempt to intimidate; it is a request for everyone who uses evolutionary theory in their daily work to do for science and truth what the DI is willing to do for a lie: to speak out forcefully, though with more clarity and honesty, in the public square.

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