Day By Day

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Evolution Debate -- Jerry Fodor and the Left

In the current culture wars "progressives" like to pose as the defenders of scientific truth against irrational, uninformed religious moralists. However, the situation is by no means as clear-cut as secularist controversialists and the media would have it.

First of all, scientific "truth" is not nearly as straightforward as the MSM assumes.

Jerry Fodor, writing in the London Review of Books [here] and drawing upon the writings of evolutionary biologists, Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin, notes that there are a lot of logical problems associated with the strict Darwinian adaptationist perspective that has been put forth by many anti-religious controversialists and the MSM. At the least Fodor's article shows that the "science" of evolution is by no means as settled as is often assumed. [For critical responses from equally distinguished authorities go here.]

More important is the point, first raised by Professor Gould, that enthusiasm for Darwinian mechanisms has led many scientists to concoct explanations for observable phenomena that are based not in fact, but in sheer speculation. Gould (recalling Kipling's children's tales) refers to these explanations, which have wide currency in the press, as "just so stories". In other words, much of what is presented in the MSM as scientific "fact" is actually just supposition or at least highly controversial within the scientific community itself.

Accounts in the MSM give the impression that opposition to evolutionary science is exclusively the purview of Christian conservatives, but that is hardly the case. The strongest and most persistent opposition to strict Darwinism has come from the political left, not the right.

For more than a century leftists have railed against many of the popular applications of Darwinian theory (which has been invoked to support capitalist individualism, war, racism, male dominance, social hierarchies, class privileges and any number of other things lefties claim to find repulsive). This left-wing anti-Darwinism, like that expressed by religious conservatives, is ultimately based in repulsion against the moral implications of Darwinian theory.

Today left-wing anti-Darwinism focuses on the pretensions of those subsets of evolutionary theory that attempt to explain human behavior as adaptations to evolutionary pressures. The popular terms for these explanations are "sociobiology" (which holds that human social interactions have been shaped by our evolutionary history) and "evolutionary psychology" (which holds that all of human nature is a product of evolutionary pressures).

At Slate, for instance, lefty feminists denounce the "utter phoniness" of evolutionary psychology because it asserts that cognitive and behavioral differences between the sexes are hard wired into our natures by evolutionary pressures. [read it here] They call for "stamping out" this line of inquiry, at least in its popular manifestations.

The repulsion that many lefties feel toward Darwinism's moral implications poses a real problem for them because the Left has always claimed to base its opinions on "science". This has led many of them to assert that, while the science itself might be right, the popular understanding of this science is in error, a "misinterpretation" of Darwin. This position allows them to assert the validity of the science when it supports their moral bias and to reject its implications when they find them inconvenient.

For a good example of this kind of argument see Tom Riggins' response [here] to Fodor's article in Countercurrents, where he argues that Fodor is right to brand much popular evolutionary psychology "nonsense" but that the Darwinian principles underlying this silliness are correct -- they have simply been "misinterpreted" and must be read instead in a "dialectical" manner.

These absurd contortions as well as the silly stories that instigated them testify to the fact that "science", unmediated by political, social, moral and even religious considerations, is an important, but ultimately inadequate and even dangerous basis upon which to forge public policy. We can never allow the technocrats free rein to organize our affairs, public and private.


John Hawks has a long post on this very subject. His points will not be welcomed by any of the factions in this debate. He argues that the whole problem is due to the fact that neither the adaptationists nor their critics are numerate enough to understand the mathematical principles underlying natural selection nor are they sophisticated enough to understand the philosophical issues involved. Perhaps all sides need to go back to school, learn calculus and statistics and a lot of economics and demography, read some logic and get some experience with econometric modeling. Then they will be in a position to judge the difference between "just so stories" and real, falsifiable explanations. Such distinctions, Hawks argues, can be made if we use the right tools.

Been there, done that.

Having some experience with econometrics I appreciate his argument -- indeed some progress can be made through demographic modeling -- but the models themselves are often deeply flawed, a problem made more difficult when there are huge gaps in the data and when they are filled in with proxies. There is just no way to get around the GIGO problem.

Read Hawks' commentary here.