Root and Branch | The Nation


Root and Branch

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In his first book, Behe makes his case against evolutionary theory by taking up the eye argument. Even Aristotle was astonished by the eye, whose parts developed together so that an animal could see. After 1859 people asked how all the parts could have evolved before the survival value of seeing was in place. Behe applies the argument to a question about the complex devices that enable bacteria to get around. (Kitcher summarizes this quite well.) If you like, Behe has raised the number of open questions about evolution from a million to a million and one. We now know quite a lot about the eye, but we are only just beginning to figure out bacterial evolution. So it is a good bet that his problem will stay around for a while. But that is not scientific controversy. There is no give and take of explanation and counterexample, no new methodology, no new anything--just the same old question dressed up in slightly new clothes.

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...

The same is true of Behe's new book, which restates the "not enough time for evolution to work" objection. That arose when we were debating the age of the earth, 140 years ago. Behe looks at examples such as the retrovirus associated with AIDS, in which new generations appear every few minutes, a chance for the evolution of the retrovirus to hurtle ahead. It does not, or so he argues (not too convincingly, to my mind, but leave that aside). Maybe he has increased the number of open questions to a million and two. Once again, we get a recycled objection in slightly new packaging, and no new ideas. It reminds us of the degeneracy of anti-Darwins. Can't they do better than that? Apparently not.

Theories of evolution have been evolving ever since Jean-Baptiste Lamarck began lecturing on the subject in 1800. "Founder of the evolutionary theory," it says on his grand statue at the entry to the botanic gardens in Paris. That is a good reminder that Darwin, marvelous thinker and naturalist that he was, is only part of an ongoing story. The pedigree of evolution passes through Darwin's natural selection, through the synthesis with Mendel's genetics, through the idea of mutation--but also through the statistician's observation that you can get a lot of speciation without mutation, by sheer combinatorial chance, called genetic drift. Perhaps horizontal gene transfer will be established in a future history of evolutionary thought. It is already a commonplace of biotechnology. We used to cross strains of cattle to produce the breeds we are familiar with. Fine animals in farm fairs have pedigrees that can be as neatly drawn as a family tree. But today entire kingdoms are crossed: Fish genes are put into tobacco plants to help them resist disease. Thus the end twigs on the tree of life are being grafted to one another with consequences that cannot be foreseen. Genetically modified organisms are here to stay. A new and very untreelike chapter in evolutionary history is unrolling before our eyes.

Kitcher's long final chapter addresses a pressing question that is seldom asked. Why, when we are bathed in the innumerable implausible and often incomprehensible results of modern science, is Darwin the bogeyman? A short version of Kitcher's answer is that we need the consolations of religion, and they are untenable in the light of Darwin. And why does anti-Darwinism thrive only in America? Because life there is so cruel and competitive, says Kitcher, that Americans need extra consolation.

I simplify, but I found his discussion too simplistic. We have to summon sociologists and historians to point the way. Why has anti-Darwinism thrived in the United States for almost a century? How has it been so successful? Until 1918 the United States was much like the rest of the industrialized world. After some initial bickering and pious rethinking after 1859, an evolutionary account of life was taken for granted. The age of the earth and natural selection were accommodated by all of the churches that took notice of such topics. That's how it is with religions: They evolve to fit their contemporary worlds. Every expert and most interested lay people knew there were endless problems in the Darwinian research program, but the overall project was accepted. Science and Christianity made their peace.

Then something happened. A series of twelve pamphlets called The Fundamentals was printed in Chicago, from 1910 to 1915. After the First World War ended, the "fundamentalists"--those touting The Fundamentals--pushed anti-Darwinism and became a major intellectual and political force in America. The movement has had its ups and downs since then, but with an astounding run of ups. Fifteen years ago Ronald Numbers published an encyclopedic history of the phenomenon. He told of the initial hostility to the theory of natural selection, followed by its almost universal acceptance by the end of the nineteenth century; and then The Fundamentals, followed by vehement public denunciation of evolution. Numbers has now updated his history, The Creationists, with two chapters about intelligent design. He has thus written a great reference work but does not fully address the how and why questions. Michael Lienesch tries to do so, using contemporary methodology for studying social movements and agenda-setting.

The general message can be summed up by twisting a line from Edison. The success of anti-Darwinism has been 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration--endless committee work, backroom organizing and networking to support the preaching. The successes are not in any way accidental or inspirational. Anti-Darwinists have been well funded. Three million copies of The Fundamentals were mailed in their first five years. The heartland in the beginning was not, as is so often imagined, a rural backwater. It was very often Chicago businessmen whom Numbers and Lienesch identify, men taking time out from building the great traditional corporations that Chicago gave to the world, or from commanding the skyscrapers that continue to astonish tourists. The Moody Bible Institute, granddaddy of them all, sits at the corner of LaSalle Drive and Chicago Avenue. When I was a child in a Canadian public school, I avidly watched its extraordinary nature movies about life and growth; they gave us a break from the teachers. Snatches of them have stayed with me the rest of my life as an atheist.

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