Here at ScienceBlogs we often debate the best way of promoting science literacy generally, and an understanding of evolution in particular. Is a calm recital of the evidence a good approach, or does that merely come off as an uninspiring “data dump” to non-scientists? Does the vocal atheist wing of the party scare off moderates, or are they an essential part of any long-term solution? And what role does proper framing play in the public’s acceptance of evolution? All worthy questions, and while I certainly have my opinions on the subject, I don’t pretend to know the answers.
But there is one thing I am sure of. Any scientist or philosopher who is going to rush into print on the subject of evolution and ID ought to be very careful to make his points clearly and crisply. Get in, make your arguments, get out. What you must not do is litter your essay with worthless, pretentious, philosophical asides that serve no purpose beyond showing off all the esoterica you know. When defending evolution from creationist attack you must not give the impression the whole subject is beneath you. You must not phrase your points so sloppily that even as you intend to defend evolution, you nonetheless provide ample fodder for creationist quote-miners.
In other words, you must not write like Ian Hacking.
The Nation has just posted this lengthy essay by Hacking, a philosopher of science of some prominence. Of course, The Nation was the outfit that asked a Lehigh University English professor to review Stephen Jay Gould’s big book. So they don’t exactly have a good track record on this subject. This essay won’t help.
As so often happens, what I originally intended as a single post got so long that I have decided to break it up into two. So here we go! We pick up the action in paragraph three:
The debate about who decides what gets taught is fascinating, albeit excruciating for those who have to defend the schools against bunkum. Democracy, as Plato keenly observed, is a pain for those who know better. The public debate about evolution itself, as opposed to whether to teach it, is something else. It is boring, demeaning and insufferably dull.
So far so good. Hacking has made it perfectly clear both here and in the previous two paragraphs that he has little sympathy for ID or creationism. The gratuitous Plato reference is a red flag, too pretentious for my taste, but the really annoying stuff is still to come. That final sentence is likewise a red flag. If Hacking finds the subject so dull, why is he about to unload 4000+ words on the subject?
Now, with that opening you might expect a clear explanation of what is wrong with ID and what is right with evolution. And we sort of do! It’s just that since Hacking can’t resist introducing a lot of irrelevant esoterica into his argumentation, it’s rather difficult to ferret out the main thread of his argument. For example:
Many scientists who are upset by the ongoing lobbying insist that it is bad science or pseudo-science. Living With Darwin, Philip Kitcher’s brief and cogent manifesto, very rightly disagrees. Anti-Darwinism is, he says, dead science, recapitulating old stuff long abandoned. I prefer to call it degenerating.
The ice gets thinner. Whether anti-Darwinism is bad science, pseduoscience or dead science depends on which aspect of it you are considering. To the extent that it makes specific scientific claims that can be assessed against evidence, it is bad science. To the extent that it is a propaganda movement that apes the language of science to promote a religious and political agenda it is pseudoscience. And to the extent that, regardless of the merits of its specific claims, ID does not lead to any worthwhile research program and is merely a regurgitation long discarded ideas, it is dead science.
But phrase it the way Hacking did and you get the impression that scientists are wrong to say that ID is pseudoscience. I’m sure the folks at the Discovery Institute will have a good time pouncing on that little inadvertent concession. If they take notice of this piece at all they will argue that while Hacking is wrong to be so dismissive of the strength of ID claims, he at least recognizes that it is not pseudoscience. They will sarcastically praise him for his open-mindedness, while saying that at least he does not try to win the argument by definitional fiat, unilke his more dogmatic fellow travellers.
At least his heart is in the right place. Surely we will now get some explanation of why ID should be regarded as dead science:
I take the word from Imre Lakatos, a philosopher of science who liked to flaunt the aphorisms “Every theory is born refuted” and “Every theory wallows in a sea of anomalies.” Both exaggerations have been true of evolutionary theories from the word go, but evolution has gone from strength to strength. Lakatos was a great rationalist, but following his hero Karl Popper, he did not think that theories are good when they are established as true. His unit of evaluation was the research program rather than the theory. A rational program is, he said, “progressive” in that it constantly reacts to counterexamples and difficulties by producing new theories that overcome old hurdles. When challenged it does not withdraw into some safe corner but explains new difficulties with an even riskier, richer and bolder story about nature. Degenerate programs paint themselves into smaller and smaller corners, skirting problems they’d prefer not to face. They seldom or never have a new, positive explanation of anything. In short, they teach us nothing.
There is no one philosophy of science that fully accounts for the evolving body of practices we call the sciences. I would not want to apply Lakatos’s model indiscriminately. It is a colorful way to point to the difference between the history of evolutionary biology since Darwin and anti-Darwin posturing that explains nothing. Anti-Darwinism is not pseudo-science or even dead science so much as degenerate science–and that, in pretty much the explicit sense, I owe to Lakatos.
Don’t misunderstand me. Hacking’s point here is a good and important one. Evolutionary theory has led researchers to one success after another. No form of creationism has ever done that. But goodness! So many words to make so simple a point! And why all the gratuitous references to Popper and Lakatos? Why, after writing such a lengthy paragraph about the views of two particular philosophers and the origin of the term “degenerate science”, does he then begin the next paragraph by adding caveats and restrictions to what he just said? It’s a weak and tedious way of writing, and one that sorely tries the patience of all but the most dedicated readers.
Still, I was doing okay up to this point. Hacking’s points are good, and while I don’t care for his writing style he is still on track to turn in a decent essay. Sadly, that now comes to an end:
The Discovery Institute, a conservative think tank, states that “neo-Darwinism” posits “the existence of a single Tree of Life with its roots in a Last Universal Common Ancestor.” That tree of life is enemy number one, for it puts human beings in the same tree of descent as every other kind of organism, “making a monkey out of man,” as the rhetoric goes. Enemy number two is “the sufficiency of small-scale random variation and natural selection to explain major changes in organismal form and function.” This is the doctrine that all forms of life, including ours, arise by chance. Never underestimate the extraordinary implausibility of both these theses. They are, quite literally, awesome.
The tree of life is one of our most ancient metaphors, recurring and profound. There it is in Eden, firmly planted in Genesis 2:9. It was initially free for all, unlike the infamous tree of knowledge, which grew beside it. Much earlier it was carved in stone on Assyrian monuments. The menorah is a tree with seven branches. The cross itself is a tree of life: Made from the wood of dead trees, it became the symbol of eternal life.
It would seem that Hacking believes the appropriate response to the Discovery Institute’s dubious scientific claims is to discourse on the history of tree metaphors. After this excerpt we are treated to three more paragraphs on that delightful but totally irrelevant subject. Paragraphs that include gems like this, incidentally:
Those who think that Genesis is just another old book should marvel that its authors got it right, in the very beginning, planting the tree of life in the human mind.
Oh bruh-ther. But fine, let us humor Hacking. Now that we are all sufficiently impressed with his erudition on the subject of tree metaphors, perhaps we can get back to the business of explaining why the Discovery Institute is wrong. Then again, perhaps not. We will take up that question in Part Two.