Root and Branch | The Nation


Root and Branch

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First the bright side. The anti-Darwin movement has racked up one astounding achievement. It has made a significant proportion of American parents care about what their children are taught in school. And this is not a question of sex or salacious novels; the parents want their children to be taught the truth. None of your fancy literary high jinks here, with truth being "relative." No, this is about the real McCoy.

About the Author

Ian Hacking
Ian Hacking, the author of The Taming of Chance and other books, is an honorary professor at the Collège de...

According to a USA Today/Gallup poll conducted this year, more than half of Americans believe God created the first human beings less than 10,000 years ago. Why should they pay for schools that teach the opposite? These people have a definite and distinct idea in mind. Most of the other half of the population would be hard-pressed to say anything clear or coherent about the idea of evolution that they support, but they do want children to learn what biologists have found out about life on earth. Both sides want children to learn the truth, as best as it is known today.

The debate about who decides what gets taught is fascinating, albeit excruciating for those who have to defend the schools against bunkum. Democracy, as Plato keenly observed, is a pain for those who know better. The public debate about evolution itself, as opposed to whether to teach it, is something else. It is boring, demeaning and insufferably dull.

The arguments that Darwin painstakingly presented in On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (1859) were revolutionary in their day. They continue to astonish and perplex; never take them for granted. Unfortunately, anti-Darwinism keeps playing minor variations on the same negative themes and adds nothing to our understanding of life. Many scientists who are upset by the ongoing lobbying insist that it is bad science or pseudo-science. Living With Darwin, Philip Kitcher's brief and cogent manifesto, very rightly disagrees. Anti-Darwinism is, he says, dead science, recapitulating old stuff long abandoned. I prefer to call it degenerating.

I take the word from Imre Lakatos, a philosopher of science who liked to flaunt the aphorisms "Every theory is born refuted" and "Every theory wallows in a sea of anomalies." Both exaggerations have been true of evolutionary theories from the word go, but evolution has gone from strength to strength. Lakatos was a great rationalist, but following his hero Karl Popper, he did not think that theories are good when they are established as true. His unit of evaluation was the research program rather than the theory. A rational program is, he said, "progressive" in that it constantly reacts to counterexamples and difficulties by producing new theories that overcome old hurdles. When challenged it does not withdraw into some safe corner but explains new difficulties with an even riskier, richer and bolder story about nature. Degenerate programs paint themselves into smaller and smaller corners, skirting problems they'd prefer not to face. They seldom or never have a new, positive explanation of anything. In short, they teach us nothing.

There is no one philosophy of science that fully accounts for the evolving body of practices we call the sciences. I would not want to apply Lakatos's model indiscriminately. It is a colorful way to point to the difference between the history of evolutionary biology since Darwin and anti-Darwin posturing that explains nothing. Anti-Darwinism is not pseudo-science or even dead science so much as degenerate science--and that, in pretty much the explicit sense, I owe to Lakatos.

The Discovery Institute, a conservative think tank, states that "neo-Darwinism" posits "the existence of a single Tree of Life with its roots in a Last Universal Common Ancestor." That tree of life is enemy number one, for it puts human beings in the same tree of descent as every other kind of organism, "making a monkey out of man," as the rhetoric goes. Enemy number two is "the sufficiency of small-scale random variation and natural selection to explain major changes in organismal form and function." This is the doctrine that all forms of life, including ours, arise by chance. Never underestimate the extraordinary implausibility of both these theses. They are, quite literally, awesome.

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