Two good pieces on evolution in Newsweek

March 29, 2009 • 9:09 am

I’m not used to seeing good critical science reporting in popular magazines, but this week’s Newsweek is a welcome exception. It contains two pieces of note.
The first is Jeremy McCarter’s analysis of Dennis Dutton’s new evolutionary-psychology book, The Art Instinct, a book that has been getting a good deal of press in the US (not so much in the UK, where it was published; I think the US is more susceptible to the wiles of evolutionary psychology). At any rate, Dutton pushes the argument that the instinct for making art is a direct adaptation selected in our ancestors because helped them acquire mates. In other words, the sonnet is just a 14-line penis. That’s a somewhat harsh caricature, but the book is in that genre of evolutionary psychology that provides intriguing stories and speculations backed up by almost no hard evidence. When I read such things, I keep telling myself “All this is as plausible as anything else.” McCarter was a student of Stephen J. Gould, and it shows in his analysis, which is remarkably critical (and on the mark) for a science-book review:

Dutton is not the first person to extend the tools of evolutionary psychology (which is what this field of inquiry is called) to humanity’s obsession with making and enjoying art. But in “The Art Instinct,” he uses a synthesis of existing approaches to propose a new “Darwinian esthetics” —a way of thinking about culture that’s informed by natural history. As a professor of the philosophy of art (at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand) and the editor of Arts & Letters Daily, the go-to site for the world’s procrastinating intellectuals, he represents an important conduit between the frequently combative fields of science and the humanities. Quite apart from its timeliness for Darwin’s bicentennial, the book deserves a look because it’s the latest in a long, long line of attempts to bring art and science together in a way that doesn’t leave one—or both—with a black eye . . .

All in all, it’s a lovely vision. I just wish somebody could convince me that it’s true.

Because, really, who knows? In his lucid and authoritative new book, “Why Evolution Is True,” Jerry A. Coyne, a biologist from the University of Chicago, decries the “scientific parlor game” of trying to find Darwinian explanations for every form of behavior. Human life in the Pleistocene is so remote that even when researchers add the knowledge gained from observing hunter-gatherer tribes active today to the fossil record, the resulting picture of our ancestors’ ways is hopelessly blurry. “The fact is,” said Coyne when I called to talk to him about the arts, “you cannot give me a human behavior for which I can’t make up a story about why it’s adaptive.”

When the book departs from theory to consider actual art and actual human beings, the strain of yoking evolution to creativity grows even more visible. According to Dutton, moderns and postmoderns are wrong to think that people can be taught to enjoy any kind of art, no matter how ugly or obscure it might be. Our human nature ensures “not only that some things in the arts will be difficult to appreciate but that appreciation of them may be impossible.” . . .

After all, evolutionary psychology has received its sharpest criticism from no less a Darwinian than Stephen Jay Gould. Until his death in 2002, he stood as one of the great champions and evangelists of science, as well as one of the most exacting critics of its tendency to overreach. He was also my teacher. When I tried to pinpoint why Dutton’s book left me unsatisfied, his lessons kept coming to mind.

According to Gould, life’s history needs to be understood not just as the result of natural forces explicable by science, but also of contingency: strange, unplanned events that change the course of everything that follows. (If not for a freak asteroid impact 65 million years ago, Gould used to say, mammals might still be small, furry creatures scurrying around a dinosaur-centric world.) No outcome of life’s history struck him as more contingent—or, consequently, more wonderful—than the human mind, a tangle of “mental machinery jury-rigged in the immensity of evolution.” He called higher mental functions like the arts “spandrels,” an architectural term for the triangular space formed when two arches meet at right angles. Though their rich decoration can make them appear to be the point of a particular design (in the domes of some medieval churches, for instance), they’re really an inadvertent byproduct of how arches work. The arts, likewise, may be one of the many adaptively useless byproducts of a complex brain that evolved to perform other tasks.

Okay, I may not be unbiased here (and thanks, Jeremy, for the book shout-out), but I am critical of books that tell the public seductive adaptive stories about why we behave as we do, but fail to back them up with evidence. It’s misleading. Maybe I should write The Science Instinct, contending that the brainiest geeks in our savannah-dwelling ancestors were particularly attractive to females.

The second piece is by the ever-intriguing Christopher Hitchens, who writes on this week’s shenanigans by the Texas Board of Education. He argues that a version of “equal time for creationism” may apply, but not in the science class:

So by all means let’s “be honest with the kids,” as Dr. Don McLeroy, the chairman of the Texas education board, wants us to be. The problem is that he is urging that the argument be taught, not in a history or in a civics class, but in a biology class. And one of his supporters on the board, Ken Mercer, has said that evolution is disproved by the absence of any transitional forms between dogs and cats. If any state in the American union gave equal time in science class to such claims, it would certainly make itself unique in the world (perhaps no shame in that). But it would also set a precedent for the sharing of the astronomy period with the teaching of astrology, or indeed of equal time as between chemistry and alchemy. Less boring perhaps, but also much less scientific and less educational . . .

Perhaps dimly aware that they don’t want a total victory, either, McLeroy and his allies now say that they ask for evolution to be taught only with all its “strengths and weaknesses.” But in this, they are surely being somewhat disingenuous. When their faction was strong enough to demand an outright ban on the teaching of what they call “Darwinism,” they had such a ban written into law in several states. Since the defeat and discredit of that policy, they have passed through several stages of what I am going to have to call evolution. First, they tried to get “secular humanism” classified as a “religion,” so that it would meet the First Amendment’s disqualification for being taught with taxpayers’ money. (That bright idea was Pat Robertson’s.) Then they came up with the formulation of “creation science,” picking up on anomalies and gaps in evolution and on differences between scientific Darwinists like Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould. Next came the ingratiating plea for “equal time”—what could be more American than that?and now we have the rebranded new coinage of “intelligent design” and the fresh complaint that its brave advocates are, so goes the title of a recent self-pitying documentary, simply “expelled” from the discourse.

It’s not just that the overwhelming majority of scientists are now convinced that evolution is inscribed in the fossil record and in the lineaments of molecular biology. It is more that evolutionists will say in advance which evidence, if found, would refute them and force them to reconsider. (“Rabbit fossils in the pre-Cambrian layer” was, I seem to remember, the response of Prof. J.B.S. Haldane.) Try asking an “intelligent design” advocate to stipulate upfront what would constitute refutation of his world view and you will easily see the difference between the scientific method and the pseudoscientific one.

Anyway, don’t just read these quotations: read both articles in their entirety. Good job, Newsweek!

7 thoughts on “Two good pieces on evolution in Newsweek

  1. I agree with Mr. Hitchens. Let us hear the evolutionist genesis story, starting from the beginning and moving forwards, not backwards. In the beginning there was nothing, then there was something, then there was something living. How (for each step)? (Or correct me if I have got the story wrong.)

    As an aside, when Mr. Hitchens determines the justness of war, does he use the scientific or the pseudo-scientific method?

  2. Kevin: “As an aside, when Mr. Hitchens determines the justness of war, does he use the scientific or the pseudo-scientific method?”

    I assume you are referring to his stance on the Iraq War. I don’t think “scientific method” applies here. There is no process of hypothesis-testing there. Mr. Hitchens applies rational argument to support that position. He regards Islam to be extremely dangerous to western civilization. He bases that premise on the behavior and actions of Muslims around the world and his personal encounters and persecution by them. While I don’t subscribe to all his views here, he at least attempts an intelligent argument for his case and doesn’t resort to the “Sadam was a Meanie” or “They needed Freedom” BS. A good summary of his reasoning is found in the intro to his book, “God is Not Great”. Love him or hate him, at least he can form an argument.


  3. Pdiff,

    That was my point. In the article, Christopher attempts to dismiss intelligent design thinking by presenting a false dichotomy between “scientific and pseudo-scientific method”, instead of allowing for the possibility that, even if an argument is in fact non-scientific, it may still be rational. You have provided one example of this.

    One of the models intelligent design thinkers use for their argument is the process of forensic pathology. Whereas the strictly scientific argument concerning, for example, the cause of Abraham Lincoln’s death might be that a bullet entered behind his left ear and tore a path through the left side of his brain, mortally wounding him, the moral argument that one would seek to make in court is that someone shot him.

    Both would be valid statements, the latter taking the perspective that the scientific evidence points to the fact that the death came about as a result of intelligent design.

  4. Kevin: “As an aside, when Mr. Hitchens determines the justness of war, does he use the scientific or the pseudo-scientific method?”

    Kevin – issues of justness or questions of ethics has to do with the value system that society adopts. Value systems are not a scientific question. You cannot arrive at values through facts, and vice versa. Although science can help in adopting a coherent and intelligent value system – ultimately the empiricological method has nothing to say about values.

    So to frame the justness of the Iraqi war as a science vs. psueudo science argument, is irrelevent to the question.

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