We now continue our discussion of Ian Hacking’s wide-ranging essay on evolution and ID. We left off with Hacking having just completed several paragraphs on the uses of tree metaphors in human history. So far my main criticisms have been with the style, not the substance, of Hacking’s essay. His points are good, but his writing style is confusing and offputting.
Alas, now we come to more substantive criticisms.
After praising Kitcher for his explanation of the aptness of the tree metaphor in evolution, Hacking writes:
Nevertheless, it is useful to reflect on difficulties in the present, rather than successes in the past. They arise precisely because the evolutionary program is “progressive” in Lakatos’s sense. Anti-Darwinists love to repeat news of difficulties. They say, “We told you so; it is just a bunch of guesswork.” Hence defenders of the faith, like Kitcher, do not like to dwell on present problems, for fear of giving succor to the foe.
The Discovery Institute bloggers will have fun pointing out Hacking’s “admission” that evolution is a faith. Perhaps I’m being humorless, but that is not a phrase that should ever be used in an essay criticizing ID. Much worse, however, is Hacking’s concession that evolution suffers from “difficulties” in the sense used by Anti-Darwinists.
That is completely and utterly wrong. Modern evolutionary theory does not have difficulties. It has open questions. That’s a very different thing. The Discovery Institute claims that there are specific facts of nature that are fundamentally incompatible with modern evolutionary theory. That claim is not correct, and every essay on this subject must make that point clearly. Hacking prefers a different rhetorical approach. He seems to think, probably because he has never given serious consideration to most of the Discovery Institute’s talking points, that the best approach is to concede their specious claims, and then go on to explain how such difficulties are in some way indicative of good science.
Lest you think I am being unfair to Hacking, consider what comes next:
I wonder if they should not instead celebrate the difficulties, making plain that evolutionary theory is a living, growing, vital organism, while anti-Darwinism is lifeless, if not, in Kitcher’s word, dead. In my opinion the arrogant religion-baiters–yes, Richard Dawkins comes to mind, but others are worse–do a disservice to their cause by making evolutionary theory seem so cut and dried (viz. dead), when it is a blooming, buzzing, confusing delight, finding out more about the world every day. With anti-Darwinians fabricating a “controversy,” it helps to see what a real scientific controversy is like, with each competing conjecture piling on new research methods, new explanations, new questions, new failures and new successes.
Once again, there is a decent point swimming around in that ocean of verbiage. But the point is made so poorly that it is easy to focus in on the wrong thing.
First, he is misusing the word “difficulties.” There are no difficulties in the Discovery Institute sense of the term, which appears to be the sense Hacking intends. There are open questions, by which we mean issues that are currently unresolved but for which we can look forward to a resolution through familiar research methods. They are not things that challenge the soundness of the theory. I have no doubt that Hacking intends the word “difficulties” in the way I am using “open problems.” The fact remains that his poor phrasing gives the wrong impression.
Second, Hacking advises scientists to embrace the “difficulties” thrown up by evolution, thereby revealing it as the vital, growing science it is as opposed to the lifeless corpse of ID. He seems blissfully unaware that virtually every scholar to weigh in on the evolution side of the issue, including Kitcher, has made that point repeatedly. They didn’t need a johnny-cum-lately like Hacking to point out its importance.
Third, we get a gratuitous aside about “religion-baiters,” totally out of place in this paragraph, and an admonition that Richard Dawkins and other popularizers are guilty of making evolution seem cut and dried. But Dawkins, along with just about everyone else, does not hesitate to discuss the genuine sorts of controversies that drive science forward. It is beyond me how anyone could read Dawkins and come away thinking that evolution is a dead and finished subject. The only things Dawkins presents as cut and dried are the correctness of common descent and the importance of natural selection as a mechanism. Those are useful things to point out in response to the contrary claims of Anti-Darwinists. The idea that people like Dawkins simply gloss over legitimate controversies in evolution simply is not borne out by their writing.
Fourth, Hacking gets it right at the end by contrasting real scientific controversies from the kind manufactured by the DI. But this clear and worthy statement comes only after all the other problems I have just described. Instead of making this point forthrightly, he buried it under a wealth of confusing and irrelevant verbiage.
There now follows quite a few paragraphs describing genuine issues in evolutionary biology. This is fine, except that once again Hacking includes so many caveats, irrelevant asides, and just plain unnecessary words that this all gets ponderous in a hurry.
Hacking gets back to ID with this:
Contrast that with pseudo-controversy and take, for example, Michael Behe, a professor at Lehigh University who must be the most ingenious and prolific anti-Darwinian biologist at work today.
In his capacity as a biologist he does not officially argue for special acts of creation. So you cannot call him antievolution or creationist.
Once again, a basically sound point phrased very badly. First, look forward to the DI fundraising letter announcing that a prominent philosopher of science has declared that Michael Behe is ingenious. Second, Behe isn’t even close to the most prolific ID proponent, having published two books in ten years, with just a smattering of droppings in between. William Dembski is certainly more prolific. And third, bluntly describing Behe as not a creationist does not do justice to the reality of the situation. The fact is that Behe is a leader in a movement designed to water down the teaching of evolution in public schools and to replace it with a God-centered alternative. If that doesn’t make you a creationist, I don’t know what does.
There now follows several very poor paragraphs explaining Michael Behe’s arguments. They are poor because they simultaneously fail to give an accurate impression of what Behe claims and also seem to concede that Behe has a point. Hacking seems to think the point of Darwin’s Black Box was to revive Paley’s old argument about the eye. Actually, DBB was designed to present an abstract argument about irreducible complexity, only using the eye was one small example of a general problem. Hacking also seems to think that The Edge of Evolution is devoted primarily to an argument about the amount of time available for evolution. Really it’s a far more detailed (though still highly dubious) argument about probabilities and beneficial mutations.
But even as he is giving an erroneous impression of Behe’s arguments he only criticizes Behe for not suggesting any novel research methods or approaches. He suggests that Behe has somehow increased the number of open questions scientists must address, as if somehow Behe were pointing out things real scientists had overlooked (which would severely undercut Hacking’s assertions that ID is just dead science). He never gets around to stating clearly that the issue in resolving, say, the evolution of the flagellum, is merely a lack of data and not a lack of theoretical robustness.
After wading through a bridge paragraph, in which, in the space of a few sentences, Hacking makes some gratuitous references to Lamarck, moves onto a brief history of evolutionary thought from the nineteenth century to today, and ends with some talk about modern bioengineering, we get some final thoughts about the persistence of religion. There is quite a bit to criticize here, but I will focus in on just one brief excerpt:
Or read any of the self-indulgent, virulent atheists in circulation today–Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens being just two. Contrary to their professed intentions, such writers buttress the faithful; their loathsome arrogance shields evangelical churches from doubt. That part of the American population that believes God made man in His own image has a heartfelt contempt for know-it-alls. I am inclined to say, God bless the people, even when they get it wrong.
Ahem. Those evangelical churches shielded from doubt by the loathsome arrogance of Harris and Hitchens preach doctrines that state that anyone who disagrees with them will spend eternity in hell. They claim absolute certainty on matters of Biblical interpretation and our fate in the afterlife. They publish books about evolution that go pages at a time without saying anything that is true. In their sermons they hurl the most vicious slanders you can imagine against scientists, atheists and anyone else they fancy to be their enemy.
And in light of this, Hacking can say with a straight face that it is Harris and Hitchens who are being arrogant? That it is the folks in the pews who are fit to pass judgment on who is acting like a know-it-all? This is obvious nonsense. Hacking is just repeating a mindless, knee-jerk criticism here.
The essay meanders on from here in its standard stream of consciousness way, slipping in references to Paley, Aquinas, Kant, Hegel and Leibniz (this from the man criticizing others for being know-it-alls, remember). He points out that a design argument only gets you a designer and not the Christian God, apparently oblivious to the fact that this is a point the ID folks themselves are keen to make. He closes with some bizarre ramblings about how, for some reason, the most intelligent designer would use Darwinian mechanisms to fulfill his purposes. Whatever.
All in all, not a very impressive effort. It is incredibly frustrating that so many academics, when discoursing on this subject, find it next to impossible to make an argument clearly and bluntly. Most (though certainly not all) of Hacking’s points are sensible and accurate. But he has evidently spent little time really studying ID arguments, has frequently played right into the hands of the ID proponents, and has written in a terribly unfocused and pretentious way. Opportunities to write at length on this subject in prominent magazines are rare. We need to take better advantage of them when they arise.