Saturday, April 21, 2007


Intellectual Selection

Dr. Michael Egnor has seen the error of his ways.

Oh, not really ... but he has at least seen one of the mistakes in one of the areas of creationist bafflegab he has been promoting. As noted by Håkan Rosén at The DesignInference and Orac at Respectful Insolence, Egnor has now admitted that:

Eugenics is human breeding, and is every bit as much of a misapplication of Darwin’s theory as are Dr. Cartwright’s examples of bacterial breeding.
This admission is only for the moment (consistency may be the hobgoblin of small minds but it is virtually unknown to the smaller minds of creationists) and, as can be seen from the above, it is only in furtherance another of Egnor's blatherings (as to the unimportance of evolutionary theory to medicine), but it's at least some small indication that Egnor hasn't lost all intellectual integrity.

But you know the Discovery Institute could not sit idly by when one of its best bits of misdirection was contradicted by one of its own. It's hardly a surprise then that John West has quickly ridden his hobbyhorse into the fray, asserting that:

As I point out in Darwin’s Conservatives: The Misguided Quest, Darwin believed that human progress was ultimately based on the struggle for survival, and he further maintained that civilized societies were courting disaster by continually counteracting the law of natural selection through vaccinations, welfare programs, and the like. Eugenics was framed explicitly as an effort to remedy these violations of Darwinian natural selection.
West's book is largely a response to Larry Arnhart's book Darwinian Conservatism and Arnhart has already pointed out that, in order to support this position:

... West has to selectively quote Darwin. He quotes Darwin's remark about how allowing the weak members of society to breed must be "highly injurious to the race of man." Yet he does not quote the immediately following passage where Darwin says that supporting the helpless expresses sympathy, which is "the noblest part of our nature."
I would go farther than Arnhart, however. To Darwin, it was natural selection that likely inculcated that sympathy in us. Coupled with cautions against thinking that we know how to do better than nature and his determination not to make the mistake of confusing "what is" with "what ought to be," Darwin's formulation of natural selection becomes a potent argument against eugenics.

Here is the passage in question (with footnotes omitted) from The Descent of Man, and Selection In Relation to Sex (London: John Murray. Volume. 1. 1st edition.) in a section, beginning at p. 167, entitled "Natural Selection as affecting Civilised Nations" :

... With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health. We civilised men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poor-laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment. There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands, who from a weak constitution would formerly have succumbed to small-pox. Thus the weak members of civilised societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but excepting in the case of man himself, hardly any one is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.

The aid which we feel impelled to give to the helpless is mainly an incidental result of the instinct of sympathy, which was originally acquired as part of the social instincts, but subsequently rendered, in the manner previously indicated, more tender and more widely diffused. Nor could we check our sympathy, if so urged by hard reason, without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature. [Emphasis added]
So there is the problem as Darwin sees it: the simple, long-known and long-practiced, pitiless rules of domestic animal breeding would pull us in one direction, towards what will later become known as "eugenics," but natural selection has instilled in us an "instinct of sympathy" that has become "the noblest part of our nature." Natural selection does not impel us to the abandonment of the weak and infirm to their fate, as Darwin sees it, but is, instead, the very reason why we hesitate to do so. Furthermore, abandoning that instinct in no guarantee that we will improve ourselves:

The surgeon may harden himself whilst performing an operation, for he knows that he is acting for the good of his patient; but if we were intentionally to neglect the weak and helpless, it could only be for a contingent benefit, with a certain and great present evil. Hence we must bear without complaining the undoubtedly bad effects of the weak surviving and propagating their kind ...
Darwin goes on to expound on how uncertain that "contingent benefit" is:

It has been urged by several writers that as high intellectual powers are advantageous to a nation, the old Greeks, who stood some grades higher in intellect than any race that has ever existed, ought to have risen, if the power of natural selection were real, still higher in the scale, increased in number, and stocked the whole of Europe. Here we have the tacit assumption, so often made with respect to corporeal structures, that there is some innate tendency towards continued development in mind and body. But development of all kinds depends on many concurrent favourable circumstances. Natural selection acts only in a tentative manner. Individuals and races may have acquired certain indisputable advantages, and yet have perished from failing in other characters. (p. 177-78)
Darwin was smarter than to draw an "ought" from nature. He, unlike West, was capable of seeing the world as a complex place where not everything can ... or should ... be taken as conveying a moral lesson. Nor would Darwin bend the facts of the world to pretend such lessons were writ large upon nature, instead of whispered in the one small corner of it that is our species.

Most of all, Darwin stood for the proposition that the love of knowledge is a truer, more noble, more moral virtue than any ignorance maintained in service of a dogma.
Reed A. Cartwright, whose original criticism of Egnor and follow-up started this round of creationist foot-in-mouth disease, has responded at De Rerum Natura, in a post entitled "Barking at the Moon over Darwin's Theory," that also includes William "Sound Effects" Dembski's similar recent comments. Reed points out that Egnor and Dembski still haven't gotten it right scientifically. Artificial selection is not the same as Intelligent Design nor is it a complete break with natural selection. Artificial selection does fit within the parameters Darwin originally set out for selection. It was no accident that Darwin started his argument in Origin of Species with pigeon breeding. A farmer selecting individual cows and ears of corn to survive and reproduce and eliminating the rest is no less selection than the lion choosing the slowest zebra to chase.
Also back for a follow-up is Håkan Rosén in Eugenics revisited at The DesignInference.

'...not to make the mistake of confusing "what is" with "what ought to be,"'

I think that this is one of the larger errors that the ID creationists make when they are discussing evolution (even when not talking about eugenics). Science in general and evolution in specific does not deal with the way things should be but with what they are/were. Given that most of the ID crowd's motivation is religious and that they base their morals on that religion they seem to find it hard grasping that something that goes against a literal interpretation of their holy book will not necessarily lead to immoral behaviour - and more to the point, as you noted, there is nothing in evolution that encourages people to do so either.
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