Wednesday, April 23, 2008

In honor of the release of Ben Stein's "Expelled"

Not yet having seen Ben Stein's documentary dealing with the blacklisting of academics who want to explore the scientific aspects of Intelligent Design vs. Darwinism, no comments can be offered on the quality of that film, but as entertaining and provocative as Stein always is, it should be enjoyable.

In honor of that, here is a classic passage from the famous "Education of Henry Adams," a book that has been on the re-reading list lately around Montana Headlines. For those who haven't had the pleasure of reading this monumental autobiography, the "young man" is Henry Adams himself (who refers to himself throughout the book in the third person.) He had just spend the Civil War years abroad assisting his father, who was head of the North's diplomatic delegation to England, thus his comment about helping waste billions of dollars and a million lives:

Natural Selection led back to Natural Evolution, and at last to Natural Uniformity. This was a vast stride. Unbroken Evolution under uniform conditions pleased everyone—except curates and bishops; it was the very best substitute for religion; a safe, conservative practical, thoroughly Common-Law deity.

Such a working system for the universe suited a young man who had just helped to waste five or ten thousand million dollars and a million lives, more or less, to enforce unity and uniformity on people who objected to it; the idea was only too seductive in its perfection; it had the charm of art.

No real point to this quotation, other than to note that the cold-eyed Adams recognized that the appeal of Darwinism (and it did appeal to Adams very much) was at the time as much philosophical as scientific -- and that he connects Natural Selection with uniformity, an ever-present temptation to high-minded politicians. In fact, he has some entertaining things to say about Darwin's approach to the science of his theories. But why ruin the book for everyone else by going on with more?


Ed Kemmick said...

I'm a little surprised by this. The "scientific" aspects of Intelligent Design? Are you suggesting that there are some?

And then you speak of the "appeal" of Darwinism, as if it were really just a philosophy or a whimsical means of explaining the world.

The real meaning of Adams' quote can be found in his other great work, "Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres," about the grandest attempts in history to develop a unified vision of the world---a purely religious vision exemplified by the great French cathedrals. He wrote the "Education" because as a modern man he couldn't except the medieval world view, as attractive as it was, and he wanted to know if there was anything in the modern world that could substitute for it. I don't think he found it, unless it was the "dynamo" on display at the World's Fair.

However that may be, I would love to read the scorn Adams would heap on the willfully ignorant who try to peddle I.D. as "science."

Montana Headlines said...

There is the kind of science on which you would be willing to stake your life -- say, trusting that the surgeon who is going to operate on you has a scientific understanding of human anatomy and physiology, that the equipment used will actually work, and that you will wake up again at the end.

Or the kind of reproducible science that makes you willing to get into a hunk of aluminum and trust that it will fly you through the air to your destination unharmed.

And then there is the soft stuff. Softest of all are sciences of theoretical conjecture, such as evolutionary studies or their mirror reflection -- intelligent design studies. I find trust and scorn alike to be misplaced with regard to either unprovable contention, at least as "science."

Put differently, evolutionary biologists (including those who theorize about intelligent design -- for they are engaged in the same business) who write about the ultimate origins of biological life are engaged in a fundamentally different type of biological science from what, say, microbiologists do.

And yet both want to have the same kind of mantle of scientific certainty as do the physicists whose understanding of aerodynamics keeps your plane in the air. I don't think it is justified -- just my opinion, but perhaps I'm not as deeply studied in the biological sciences as you are.

So there are some people interested in the origins of life who want to explore and even "test" hypotheses of intelligent design using the same type of theorizing that scientists who claim their work proves life on earth is a product of chance. So what?

It is, in my opinion, at least as harmless an activity for the academy to tolerate as, say, being a professor of the science of economics who wants to believe and teach that Marxist theories are valid, historical evidence to the contrary.

As to what Adams would say, I will have to take your word for it.

Montana Headlines said...


Let me try again, this time with some sleep under my belt and a little less snark.

I would have done better had I left out the word "scientific" in my original post.

Insofar as I have an opinion on I.D., it is not based on a positive view of the "science" behind I.D. (I actually know very little about it.) It is rather arrived at negatively -- i.e. my opinion of the "science" of evolutionary biology is extremely low.

I really don't see how it could ever be possible to prove scientifically in the way that I think most people think about science (i.e. reproducible experiments) either that life arose by sheer chance or that the development of life was guided by God in a way that left the "footprint" that we observe in the universe and here on earth.

The best that either the proponents or opponents of I.D. can do is to shoot holes in the arguments of the other side and to point out biological facts that make the other's arguments implausible.

Proving that the other side's arguments are flawed does not, however, prove that your own argument is correct -- this is a problem with both sides, in my view.

I used the Henry Adams quotation because I thought it was odd that I was reading it at the same time that I was hearing about Stein's movie.

David said...

The mistake that ID supporters often make is to conflate evolution with origins of life. That evolution is a fact seems irrefutable to me: I didn't sit through a graduate course in physical anthropology, tracking bone sizes, teeth and fossilized excrement over thousands of years, for nothing. But when it comes to figuring out where we all came from and how everything fits together, we aren't much closer to the truth than the ancient Greeks were. But that uncertainty in no way refutes evolution.

Montana Headlines said...

David, I agree in principle with what you say. I might word it a little differently, but the bottom line is that the fossil records, etc. have to be accounted for honestly in any theory of the origins and development of life.