Hey, hack journalists, have I got a great concept for you! As I’m sure you’re aware, editors and the public are constantly hassling you to write about this discovery or that, and it gets tiresome: you don’t really know the first thing about the subject, you certainly don’t know anything about the context, it requires the hard work of doing some research, and doing research in science involves talking to people who are so much smarter than you that you’re left feeling miserable and uncomfortable. You need a template. You want a simple outline that you can use interchangeably with any story, and that demands that you do nothing more than take a couple of swigs of cheap gin before you bang out a story that substitutes opinion for facts.
Here it is, and just the title alone will inspire you. “Has _X_ made any difference in our lives?” It’s universal! It doesn’t matter what the editor tells you to write about, just plug it in in place of the X, and you’re ready to scamper through the story like a cockroach with its cerci on fire. Just picture it: you have to write two thousand words on Tiktaalik, James Clerk Maxwell, estrogen analogs, Mars, Niko Tinbergen, Fourier transforms, or Joseph Priestley, and you know squat-all about any of it, and you’re disinclined to bother with it now. So what do you do? Ask yourself, “Has Joseph Priestley made any difference in your life?”, and since you’ve obviously managed to ooze your way into a cushy job wiggling your fingers and pretending to be an authority while understanding diddly about him or what he did, the answer is no. Dredge up vaguely remembered references from your memory of those middle school science classes that you hated, and type up a few querulous objections. “If oxygen is an invisible, odorless gas, how can those smarty pants be so sure it is actually there, anyway?” and “Priestley’s principles were used to stoke the ovens in Auschwitz. If Hitler had known nothing of oxygen, the crematoria of the Holocaust would have stood silent and useless.”
See? Easy! And as a bonus, your audience of know-nothings, all those people resentful of that “C” they got in grade school chemistry, or who are suspicious of anything new those damned show-offy boffins trot out, or who have mistaken the confident certainty of their ill-founded beliefs for genuine knowledge, will be deeply appreciative, and they will tell your newspaper to keep paying you to pump out those articles that are so wonderfully affirming of their biases. And best of all, you get to write about the one subject in which you are the world’s foremost expert: your own ignorance.
No one has mastered the art form of turning abysmal ignorance into a stream of money-earning words on a newspaper page better than Bryan Appleyard, who writes for the London Times. I’ve stumbled across Appleyard’s excretions a few times before, and I’ve learned what to expect. He fulfills those expectations beautifully in an impressively corrupt and reeking bit of mass-market offal, For God’s sake, have Charles Darwin’s theories made any difference to our lives?
As an example of bad journalism, it’s paradigmatic. He’s not quite lazy enough to rely solely on his own ignorance, though, and he does some “research” — unfortunately, it all involves looking up some crank or crackpot from organizations like Answers in Genesis to bolster his own inanity with their jaundiced anti-science. It makes for an impressive mish-mash of blithering rigamarole. I’m not even going to try and dissect the entire article — every paragraph will leave you gape-mouthed and gasping in incredulity — but here are a few lovely instances of promoting ignorance over evidence.
There were gaping holes in his [Darwin's] argument. He knew nothing of genes and he had not shown how perfection emerges. It’s all very well to talk of small mutations changing an organism, but how do such changes make, for example, an eye? Without all its bits and pieces, an eye does not work. It is, in the terms used by the biochemist Michael Behe, author of Darwin’s Black Box, “irreducibly complex”, beyond the reach of blind, random mutation.
1) Every theory is incomplete, 2) Darwin didn’t have genes at his disposal, but he did have comparative morphology, and did a very good job of describing exactly how an eye would have evolved, 3) we now do have tools in molecular biology and have even more detailed descriptions of how the eye evolved, and 4) “irreducible complexity” is a dead tired objection that has been refuted many times over. People have been making this objection ever since Paley. Paley had an excuse, since he was writing over 200 years ago, but anyone writing for the London Times in 2009 ought to have slightly more up-to-date sources. You know, like something only 150 years old.
When Appleyard does reach for something a little more recent, though, he reliably picks a crackpot, like someone out of the field who is nevertheless absolutely certain that Darwin has been refuted, rather than reinforced, my modern science.
In his new book, Why Us? How Science Rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves, James Le Fanu, a medical doctor and journalist, insists that new biological discoveries have overthrown Darwin. The old man is “screwed”, he says gruffly.
Perhaps most startling is the discovery from the deciphering of the human genome that we have only between 20,000 and 25,000 genes. We were previously thought to have 100,000. A mere 25,000 doesn’t seem to be enough to sustain our vast complexity and yet genes are supposed to be the heavy lifters of the Darwinian enterprise.
“I wouldn’t get out of bed for 25,000 genes,” says Le Fanu, “and we don’t find form in the genome. We share most of our DNA with chimpanzees, but nowhere in the genome have we found what it is that makes us so different from chimps.”
I always want to ask these people who are outraged at the number of genes discovered a couple of questions. How many genes do you need to soothe your inflamed inferiority complex? And can you name 100,000 (if that is your number) discrete, significant gene functions that you need filled? Can you name 20,000? Where are the mathematical functions that you used to precisely quantify exactly how complex a human being is, and how you determined that 20,000 genes is inadequate?
Twenty thousand is the approximate number. It’s reality. Live with it.
We have also sequenced the human and chimpanzee genomes. We have found millions of nucleotide differences. We certainly have found changes that make us different, the problem is that we don’t know which of the many changes are significant, or how precisely they contribute to differences in form. While Le Fanu is lolling about in his bed, afflicted with ennui by the inadequacy of his genetics, real scientists are working on actually figuring out how those differences matter.
But of course the ultimate last resort of the dishonest hack is the argument from consequences. Who needs evidence and understanding when you can just announce that X leads to Y, and everyone knows Y is bad, and therefore X is bad. And if you are a really unimaginative hack (and lack of imagination is no barrier to success in this field; neither is competence in logic, reason, or literacy), the ultimate Y is Adolf Hitler. Appleyard does not disappoint.
At many levels we have failed this challenge. Almost from its first appearance, the Darwinian idea has been used to justify appalling behaviour. Herbert Spencer, the Victorian philosopher, seized on “survival of the fittest” as scientific evidence that there was a moral injunction for the fit to defeat the unfit. From this, many thinkers drew the idea that we could help evolution along by eliminating or allowing the death of “inferior” races or individuals.
This reached its deathly climax, via the work of the German biologist Ernst Haeckel, in Hitler’s statement of intent, Mein Kampf. From there it was but a short step to the Holocaust, which, among other things, was an attempt to aid evolution. Any hopes that we have escaped that dreadful phase are vain. How many times did the masters of turbo-capitalism of the past 20 years plead evolution and survival of the fittest as the justification for their cult of greed and cultural destruction? THE question nobody can really answer is: outside science, what difference did Darwin make? It is reasonable to answer: none whatsoever. Religion is as powerful a force in the world as it ever was, perhaps more powerful. Our rape of nature, our one true home, has accelerated. In the 20th century, technology extended our capacity for slaughter beyond imagination. Man still thinks he can be the master of nature, yet the one thing Darwinism shows more clearly than anything else is that we are its servants.
Here’s a challenge for you. Search the text of Mein Kampf for any occurrence of the name “Haeckel”. You won’t find it. Try “Darwin” — oops, no luck. Now try “God”. Bingo! Now try searching the works of Darwin or Haeckel for anything like an endorsement of genocide — not there. Oh, you will find the casual racism of the comfortable 19th century west European intelligentsia, but you’ll also find that they tried to break out of ingrained prejudices and support the virtues of other races, perhaps with a slightly patronizing air, but they were among the more enlightened people of their time. Darwin was an egalitarian who opposed slavery and wrote quite a bit about the humanity of the ‘primitive’ peoples he encountered. Haeckel was rather more convinced of relative racial differences, but even there, he thought that Jews were good people (again, it’s a bit patronizing). Haeckel was a lifelong and vocal pacifist! It strains credibility to argue that either of these men were the foundation of the German holocaust…but then, credibility is something Appleyard never has to worry about.
Consistency is something that he can throw overboard, too. One moment he’s blaming science for 20th century atrocities, and in the next he’s claiming that religion has become even more powerful in the 20th century than it ever was. One moment he’s saying that Darwin’s ideas climaxed in the most appalling horrors in recent history, the next that it made no difference whatsoever.
Now, really, you have to admire Appleyard for something. Read through his article, if you dare, and you will find many more instances of such idiotic tripe throughout. In my experience, read anything in the Appleyard ouvre and that’s what you can expect to find: the smug blatherings of a truly stupid person. Yet he has managed to turn his schtick into a successful grind working for fairly prestigious outlets like the Times and the BBC. It’s impressive.
What I find most curious, the kind of horror I contemplate with a thrill of incredulous anticipation, is this: if Appleyard is this patently asinine, how stupid are the editors and managers who keep paying for his badly written lumps of self-contradictory fatuousness?