Darwin hijacked?

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The latest issue of the  London Review of Books has a rambling piece by Steven Shapin about the ‘global festivities’ around Darwin Year.

Though much of the article is blandly unobjectionable, there’s a good deal of nitpicking, axe grinding and misrepresentation. Even where his targets are deserving, Shapin lets them off the hook with breezy, half-hearted argumentation.

Sample: if, as evolutionary psychology claims, our cognitive architecture is made up of special-purpose modules locally adapted for hunting and gathering in the Pleistocene, why are there postmodernists? If you’re neither witty nor Jerry Fodor, you can’t get away with this stuff.

But, for reasons I’ll outline below, the article deserves attention.

Shapin asks why past anniversaries of Galileo, Descartes, Newton and Einstein didn’t attract similar hoopla. None of them was afforded so many reverential publications and events, not to mention a feature film starring Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly (though, to be fair, Gauss got a banknote).

The reason, he surmises, is that ‘science is discovery and not invention’: while nobody would have written King Lear if Shakespeare hadn’t, someone besides Darwin would surely have uncovered natural selection.

If, then, ‘the individual doesn’t matter in the course of science’, why the special fuss over Darwin?

Well, says Shapin, it’s not the true, historical figure being celebrated, but a heroic image deployed for a personality cult. And behind official Darwin-ism lies a narrow interpretation of evolutionary biology, trying to pass itself off as the one true gospel.

So-called adaptationism (popularly associated with Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Steven Pinker) attributes changes in allele frequencies largely to positive selection of adaptive traits (rather than emphasizing random drift or spandrels). It also provides the foundation for  evolutionary psychology and sociobiology, disciplines which have been controversial, to say the least.

Now this politicized, tendentious stream of thought has hijacked Darwin Year, staging a coup for control of the academy by ‘laying claim’ to the ‘founding father.’

It’s a nice story, and has its convincing aspects.

But it’s a bit overblown, unless I’ve entirely misunderstood the prior theoretical positions of both Jennifer Connelly and the Cultural Studies department at Melbourne Uni. In short, it’s a just-so story, the kind ‘adaptationists’ are often accused of peddling: a neat explanation of the facts that leaves no room for accident or contingency.

For example, though it may suit a contemporary historian of science (Shapin is a professor at Harvard) to emphasize intra-disciplinary battles for power (‘a struggle among scientists for Darwin’s soul’), the truth is that this year’s Darwin fuss has occurred largely outside academia, in popular media and publishing.

How to account for this broad public appeal?

Shapin doesn’t mention it, but surely one contributing factor is that  unlike, say, classical mechanics, calculus, special relativity or almost every epochal scientific discovery – Darwin’s theory was initially given non-mathematical expression, and is still intuitively accessible to a broad audience through a simple, natural-language triplet: reproduction-mutation-selection.

It also seems clear that Darwin Year was lent contemporary relevance by religious hostility to evolution, and a corresponding desire to ‘promote public education about science’ as ‘our most reliable knowledge system’.  Yet this, Shapin argues, is ‘not quite what it seems’, for ‘ignorance of evolution is not an indication of hostility to science’ tout court.

Unfortunately his claim is left unsupported by any evidence. It scarcely seems credible: among people who believe that Darwin led to Hitler (or that anthropogenic climate change is a priori impossible, and the IPCC is in the pay of communists), you suspect that Occam’s razor is more-or-less an occult concept.

At any rate, Shapin suggests, Darwin’s conscription as an atheist figurehead is flawed, because science and religion are distinct issues.

Look:  ‘A survey published in Nature in 1997 found that 40 per cent of American scientists professed belief in an immortal soul and a prayer-answering God, a figure basically unchanged since 1916.’

This is misleading: in 1998 the same researchers, using improved sampling techniques, found that, among members of the National Academy of Sciences, belief in a personal god had fallen from 28 per cent in 1916 to 7 per cent in 1998; disbelief had risen from 53 per cent to 73 per cent. The same survey found belief in human immortality had fallen from 35 per cent to 8 per cent over the same period; disbelief climbed from 25 per cent to 77 per cent.

Ultimately, the only way Shapin can admit that the ‘centre of gravity of Darwin Year has been a celebration of secularism’ is to see atheism itself as a plot by the Dawkins/Dennett/Pinker/Wilson cabal, ‘an occasion for extending versions of scientific materialism and rationalism to ever new cultural domains’.

By now the reader is inclined to think ‘so what?’, and to judge Shapin more than a little paranoid.

His one extended description of the ‘adaptationist’ position could only charitably be described as a strawman. In the same passage he appears profoundly ignorant (of course he is not) of theoretical innovations in the behavioural sciences since the 1980s, areas likes niche construction and gene-culture coevolution.

So why did his publisher allow him to indulge at such length?

In soliciting his essay (and since it was also the venue for Fodor’s 2007 claim that ‘natural selection can no longer be taken for granted’), it appears that the LRB is trying to revive the famous Dawkins-Gould debate.

Then, leftist scientists such as Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin suggested that certain theorists’ emphasis on adaptive optima and positively selected traits appeared to justify social inequality as somehow natural or ‘genetically determined’. In polemics with Dawkins and others, both sides mostly contended over arcana like phyletic gradualism and the target of selection.

The LRB seems nonetheless to have marked Dawkins as some kind of reactionary, and latterly deemed progressive (and worthy of publication) any old hatchet job on him or his acolytes. To claim that Darwin believed in natural selection itself is now, apparently, grounds for attack.

Unfortunately, decades later, Gould is no longer around, and the political valences of the contending parties are not quite so clear.

In seeing everywhere the malign influence of so-called adaptationists  their manipulations explaining every aspect of the Darwin Year festivities  their opponents seem to have forgotten Gould’s great lesson.

History is contingent: sometimes it just turns out that way.

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