Biology Culture Wars

From Wonderist:

First I want to say that the closest I’ve heard to a serious shift in thinking is with epigenetics, for which there is *actually* evidence that it occurs in life.
With that out of the way, I’ll boil down my point. Let’s say you have a well-known metaphor A, and a lesser-known metaphor B. A has gaps, sure, but B does not actually fill those gaps. The things which A cannot explain *would* be explained by B *if* B had evidence to support its claims. But, as tested by the scientific process, not just speculated by a few scientists, no clear evidence has been found to support B’s claims.
Now, someone comes along, saying “You know, A isn’t all that great. It’s got all these enormous gaps and really is pretty useless and wrong. But so-and-so has proposed B which explains all these gaps.”
Can you see why I objected? Selfish gene does not have all the gaps you initially claimed (you claimed it fails to account for non-sexual species), and those legitimate gaps that it *does* have (fail to account for origin of genes themselves, for example) are *not* successfully explained by competing ideas, because they have not been tested properly and do not have enough evidence to support them above-and-beyond selfish gene/neo darwinism.
I object strongly precisely because your videos undermine a legitimate scientific perspective in very much the same way the ID proponents try to undermine science. For example, HaleyMary after watching your video commented “I think the environment itself also influences evolution.” Presumably, she thinks that selfish gene does not consider the influence of the environment, which is flat out wrong.
It is such campaigns of misinformation (whether intended or not) that contribute to the public’s distrust of evolution and cause people to say things like, “There’s a darwinist conspiracy. How can they think that we just randomly popped into existence?”
When we have to deal with things like climate change and pollution, we need to improve the public’s ability to detect valid science from speculation and/or pseudoscience. Muddying the waters by casting unwarranted doubt on a well-supported theory, especially modern evolutionary theory which is under attack by ID, is just irresponsible, in my opinion. I have no problem with speculation about alternatives to the selfish gene interpretation, but you went further than that, first of all misrepresenting it, and second implying (probably unintentionally) that there’s some kind of dogmatic conspiracy rejecting superior explanations out-of-hand.
This is a serious issue, which is why I’m taking it so seriously. Check out this link:
http://blogs.orlandosentinel.com/entertainment_movies_blog/2008/02/is-ben-stein-th.html
Creationists are directly assaulting neo darwinism, equating it with Hitler and Stalin. Your framing of neo darwinism doesn’t help the situation. With some kinds of people, you add credibility to the claims of people like Ben Stein.

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My response:

The ID vs. Darwin debate is a culture war, I don’t think it has much to do with real science. It has to do with the emotional attitudes that people take toward life. for short we can call these attitudes “faith” and “doubt.” A certain mature relationship between each is required to do science, but in the culture at large you must either be one or the other, theist or atheist. to have scientific knowledge, we need to have gone through a process of doubt in search of the truth. But if doubt never becomes faith, if the truth is never clearly perceived, then no knowledge is ever attained.

I am not a Bible believer and I think Creationism and ID are a serious risk to the health of our culture. But I also think Darwinism does it’s fair share of harm. By saying Darwinism does harm, I mean specifically the popular interpretation of Darwin which has it that evolution is completely explained in terms of gene replication and natural selection, that absolutely nothing else plays a significant role in the process of life. Darwin never said anything like this, but he has been made the figurehead of something entirely new, something cooked up to serve entirely political/cultural aims rather than science. Now like I’ve said many times, natural selection is indeed a source of some of the variation we see in biosphere. But I think there is every reason to doubt that only this kind of selection is responsible for the majority of variation.

So to review, Darwin had a lot of very important things to say. He didn’t say everything, though. I think (neo)Darwinism has about as much to do with Darwin as modern Christianity has to do with Jesus.

HaleyMary’s comment is unfortunate, I agree. But I would rather try to make sure the public knows that science isn’t always synonymous with reductionism or materialism (of the metaphysical kind). Science can also acknowledge wholes and qualities. Reality isn’t just a collection of objective facts, it is also a relationship between subjective perspectives. Science (which is to say “scientists”) are learning to understand this, and as they do the kinds of descriptions of nature that they take seriously begin to change. Any evidence I offer you which contradicts or supplants the metaphors used by selfish gene theory will probably not seem relevant unless you are willing to understand what science does in a slightly more expanded way.

What do you think would change about society if the majority of the public, theist and atheist alike, were exposed to and influenced by the Gaia hypothesis instead of Dawkins ideas?

Oh, and all that talk about you not accepting evidence and predictions from systems biology was just an assumption on my part. If you want to talk strictly science (at least the kind of science I take seriously), then we can certainly go there.

Happy Friday,
Matt

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