Response to Knowledge-Ecology about Dawkins, Evolution, and Creationism

Knowledge-Ecology recently posted his lament about the scientific ignorance of GOP presidential candidate Gov. Perry, who denies both evolution and climate change. Adam also mentioned his support for Richard Dawkins’ rebuttal.

I might also count Dawkins as a political ally, but not as a cosmological ally. And since I, like Adam, struggle to avoid separating cosmos and polis, in the end I have to critique Dawkins as quickly as I do Perry. Jung said he was glad he was not a Jungian; I think Darwin would say something similar were he alive today. Dawkins represents a minority position in the ecology of ideas circulating in the rather large academic aquarium of the contemporary life sciences. His assertion that “natural selection” explains life, the universe, and everything seems no less fundamentalist to me than creationism. Darwin assumed much about the nature of reality in order to offer an account of the origin the variety of species. His assumptions were empirically justified, I’d agree, but not theoretically explained. His conception of life-itself is quite Romantic (yes, in the capital “R” sense; see Robert Richards’ work on the influence of Schelling and Goethe on Darwin). Darwin’s theory of the origin of species by natural selection assumes self-producing/autopoietic organisms capable of reproduction (E. Thompson makes this case convincingly in “Mind in Life”). Natural selection, in the neo-Darwinist genocentric context that Dawkins employs it, offers no explanation whatsoever even for how genes can produce individual living cells, much less animals or a potentially freely creative, self-reflective species like us. Creationists may not know how to rationally articulate their intuition that scientific materialism is inadequate, nor even how to rationally construct an alternative account of cosmogenesis; but nonetheless, their intuition is correct. Civilization cannot survive without a more adequate answer to the Biggest Question.

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. Peter Kinnon says:

    While your point is well made, I really think you expect too much of science, which does not (or at least should not) purport to attempt a full understanding of nature. Rather, it represents the “best guess” using the currently available data.

    The flavour of this is given rather nicely in some of Richard Feyman’s talks, for example:

    Massimo Pigluucci, in his excellent book “Nonsense on Stilts” also points out that “Every scientific theory proposed in the past has eventually been proven wrong and has given way to new theories”.

    Furthermore, we should not be too harsh on Dawkins. Certainly his model is in the light of horizontal gene transfer, epigenetic processes and the like, is a little simplistic, but this does not reduce its value any more than that of the planetary model of the atom or of Newtonian physics.

    Such simplifications, even when their inadequacies become apparent, are still useful, particularly for those new to such ways of thought..

    Evolution can be (and, in my view, should be) considered in the much wider context advanced in
    “The Goldilocks Effect: What Has Serendipity Ever Done For Us?” (free download in e-book formats from the “Unusual Perspectives” website)

    1. Hey Peter,

      I don’t expect natural science to provide the kind of complete cosmological picture normally reserved for philosophy. My gripe with Dawkins is precisely on this point, that he uses a rather dated scientific idea as a “universal acid” (Dennett’s phrase) in an attempt to reductively explain the entire universe. Dawkins is an accute thinker and made a great contribution to his field in the 70s. The trouble is he hasn’t kept up with the paradigm-shifting developments in biology in the last 40 years away from reductionism and toward self-organization and genomic networking (or if he has, it doesn’t show in his public pronouncements). For this reason, I am uncomfortable with the role he plays as a public purveyor of contemporary science.

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