Tuesday, May 09, 2006


Old Cons for Neocons

There is an interesting article entitled "Misplaced Sympathies" by Kevin Shapiro, a researcher in neuroscience at Harvard, in the Wall Street Journal (hurry, it may only be available without a subscription until Wednesday). Subtitled "Darwin isn't the enemy. Conservatives do no service to their cause by treating him as one," it addresses the phenomena of conservatives outside of the Religious Right, including mainline Christians, supporting anti-evolutionism.

After noting the unease that a number of neoconservatives, epitomized by Gertrude Himmelfarb and Irving Kristol, have with natural selection, Shapiro opines that:

. . . part of the neoconservative position has to do less with particular intellectual claims than with the special sensitivities of a broadly conservative coalition. The writer David Frum has said that, though he himself believes in evolution, he doesn't "believe that public schools should embark on teaching anything that offends Christian principle."

Why would these non-religious and frequently Jewish thinkers worry about offending "Christian Principle"? Because they support the traditionalist side in the culture wars, of course.

The two groups share a profound distaste for materialism, a philosophy of knowledge that leaves no room for phenomena -- like God, the human soul and transcendent morality -- that can't be explained by an appeal to physical principles.

There may be more to it than that, however. As Ronald Bailey reported in his article, "Origin of the Specious," Kristol has said:

There are different kinds of truths for different kinds of people. There are truths appropriate for children; truths that are appropriate for students; truths that are appropriate for educated adults; and truths that are appropriate for highly educated adults, and the notion that there should be one set of truths available to everyone is a modern democratic fallacy. It doesn't work.

Those children and others not within Kristol’s highly educated elite need the opiate of religion . . . presumably to keep them from rolling out tumbrels to accommodate these new philosopher kings.

The problem is that it won’t work:

Richard Owen, a 19th-century English anatomist, privately conceded that "The Origin of Species" was the best explanation "ever published of the manner of formation of species"--but because he thought that natural selection denied the possibility of human uniqueness, he savaged the book in public. ...

At a time when the life sciences are advancing at an astonishing pace, it is simply too late to be taking up Owen's mantle. There is no longer any serious dispute about the evidence for natural selection ...

There is a better way, as Shapiro sees it:

The late paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould proposed that science and religion be considered "non-overlapping magisteria," each profiting from dialogue with the other. ... If Gould's idea were to be taken more seriously, the fear of Darwin and natural selection might go the way of [the extinct transitional species] Tiktaalik, without harming society thereby.

The Discovery Institute is already moaning about Shapiro’s article because he makes the observation that:

Proponents of intelligent design, like the mathematician William Dembski, argue that we don't understand the origins of various biological systems and never will, because they can't be broken down into smaller parts that could be explained by natural selection. Therefore, we should give up on Darwin and accept the existence of a designer. Alas, this kind of argumentum ad ignorantium flies in the face of an ever-increasing amount of evidence from molecular biology, and hardly measures up to the neoconseratives' rigorous intellectual standards.

Jonathan Witt again trots out Stephen Meyer’s article "Not by chance" which, even if it provided positive evidence for a designer, does not change the fact that the above-quoted argument is an argument from ignorance. Of course, Meyer’s article does no such thing. In point of fact, its argument is classic ignorance layered over what Judge Jones rightly called a "contrived dualism" :

1) "Either life arose as the result of purely undirected material processes or a guiding intelligence played a role."
2) There is an "appearance of design."
3) This appearance is "unexplained by the mechanism -- natural selection -- that Darwin specifically proposed to replace the design hypothesis."

The only "positive evidence" the article advances can be summed up in this analogy from Meyer:

DNA functions like a software program. We know from experience that software comes from programmers.

Smoke and mirrors is what counts as "evidence" in ID circles.

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