Monday, November 8, 2010

Life Lines 22


I was honored to be the key speaker at Rutgers’s University during their Darwin Day celebration. I spoke on the topic “Darwin: Used, Abused, and Necessary.” That was in February 2007. In early May a NY Times front page story carried a debate among Republican conservatives on the significance of Darwinism in their outlook. Some wanted to align with those who deny evolution has occurred and who favor a biblical outlook whether they call it Creation Science or Intelligent Design. Others see in Darwinism a justification of conservative principles based on a human nature that has an alleged Darwinian history (male dominance, female nurturing, territoriality, aggressiveness, keeping an alert guard). A smaller number see Darwinism as providing a basis for human moral values including “compassionate conservatism.”

The difficulty for a scientist who is also a “political animal” as Aristotle defined us, is that all of this is an abuse of Darwinism. A scientist is not interested in proving or supporting left wing or right wing ideology. An evolutionary biologist wants to find out how organisms evolved over time. Life is very old (more than 3 billion years of fossil history) and evolutionists, like historians, try their best to be objective about how the past worked and what its components were. They try to find evidence for their ideas and if the evidence contradicts their hunches the hunches are dumped. This is the opposite of political ideology. If you are left-wing you dump any right wing supporting ideas and findings. If you are right-wing you dump any left wing ideas or findings. That is not science but it is close to what political discourse is like, not an effort to find truths or reality, but an attempt to persuade others to think like you.

Most evolutionary biologists try to separate their scientific findings from social applications of their knowledge. They know that the history of applied science is filled with monstrous abuses. Think of scientific racism (Jews, Slavs, Irish, Russians, Greeks as inferior immigrants and thus not worthy of being allowed into our country in the 1926 laws passed by Congress). Think of the American eugenics movement (compulsory sterilization laws that sterilized some 60,000 people in the United States against their will). Think of Nazi race hygiene (if you are a Jew, Slav, Serb, or Gypsy you deserve to die or should be turned into a sterile slave). Think of Lysenkoism (if you are a farmer and can’t use Lysenkoism to produce better yields on your land, you are a saboteur). Think of social Darwinism (if you are fired because your boss wants to make more money, it’s your fault for not wanting less pay to do more work and have less benefits or for not being smart enough to be the boss). It doesn’t matter if science is abused for the good of capitalism, communism, fascism, or any other ideology. It’s an abuse of science and cannot be justified as legitimate science. Whatever the conservatives choose as an application of Darwinism to conservative ideology is an abuse as wrong as that of political liberals trying to use Darwinism to justify their political ideology. I don’t know what evolutionary science, when it becomes as molecular as cellular biology, will find about the evolutionary history of human behavior. It may favor conservatives, liberals, both, or neither. At a political level humans will remain diverse, argumentative, and convinced that their particular outlook is a superior one.

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