“In Praise of Darwin”

January 11, 2010 • 12:05 am

by Greg Mayer

Jerry previously commented on Steven Shapin’s summary in the London Review of Books of the 2009 Darwin commemorations, finding Shapin’s piece “long and pretty lame“, and especially criticizing his swipe at adaptation. New York Times blogger Ross Douthat, however, finds Shapin’s piece “wonderful“, and evidently sympathizes with Shapin’s unease over Darwin and evolutionary biology:

But Shapin’s essay is more than just an attempt to explain last year’s Darwin-mania. It’s a clear-eyed and wide-ranging tour of what “Darwinism” means today — at once an unchallenged scientific paradigm and a wildly contentious theory of everything; a Church militant warring against creationists and fundamentalists and a debating society of squabbling professors; a touchstone for the literary intelligentsia and a source of secularist kitsch.

Fellow conservative blogger Andrew Sullivan is disappointed by Douthat’s “sneering tone” and “smears”, and praises Darwin as

one of the most revolutionary and influential thinkers of the past two hundred years

Commenter Ajay at the Times replies a bit more concretely, and poses an apt question for Douthat:

If by “an unchallenged scientific paradigm” you mean that Darwinism has been widely challenged historically, continually falsified and continually triumphant – then yes, you’re absolutely right. What planet do you live on?

[It’s clear that Ajay meant “tested”, rather than “falsified”.]

If you want to know what sort of Darwin commemorations were held around the world during the past year, sans Shapin’s commentary, the most extensive list, which includes talks, symposia, books, articles, exhibitions, films, etc., is that compiled by John van Wyhe of Christ’s College, Cambridge, and posted at the marvelous Darwin Online, which I’ve had occasion to note before. Some Darwin commemorations, included in the list, are continuing into 2010. John also includes a summary of some of the 1909 centennial events and publications.

14 thoughts on ““In Praise of Darwin”

  1. Shapin at least had some good points, while Douthat’s take is a simplistic swipe at a strawman. Shapin clearly didn’t consider evolution to be a theory of everything (that was Ben Stein), and is properly concerned over exuberance regarding evolutionary psychology.

    I can kind of see where Shapin wonders about celebrating science’s past, however since it’s done for other sciences, as with Galileo, why not with Darwin? We have ulterior motives for doing so, of course, with IDcreationism attempting to destroy the foundations of science so that junk “science” can prevail. Yet producing the framework for answering the complex and vexing questions of life’s origins has to be one of the greatest set of events in science quite aside from the fight against pseudoscience.

    Shapin has reason to question the idea that Darwin provided the “universal acid” that dissolves pretty much all of traditional culture and belief, too. Where I think he gets that wrong is in supposing that many people take that claim very seriously.

    Glen Davidson

  2. What’s with all this “Darwinism” nonsense anyway? I’m not aware of anyone worshipping Darwin, nor is the broad field of evolutionary theory limited to what Darwin understood. The world has moved on in 150 years. Darwin’s theory of evolution remains unchallenged even though a few specific ideas of Darwin may have been discredited. No intelligent person argues whether evolution is true or not; personally I find it astounding that some people could be such fools as to deny that evolution is real. Nor does evolution attack the religious, although some religious people attack the field of evolution. As that utterly vile creature “saint” Augustine put it, education is the greatest enemy of religion.

  3. Darwin surely arouses more passions than Galileo, Newton or Einstein, because his theory touches us in our tenderest parts, as the theories of physics or chemistry really do not…

    1. Do not touch our tenderloins? Isnt biology founded in physics and chemistry? and very possibly some “own” fundamental rules? String theory makes me wriggle and drug molecular structures make me wonder. In another vein, I was wondering about the follwoing “gedanken”: what would have happened if Wallace published first, alone, and his name was synonym of theory of evolution?? Would we have Wallacism? I doubt it. You see where I am going?

      1. I look at things from a physics viewpoint, and in modern physics you have to conclude that behavior in complex systems emerges from underlying physics in ways you can’t predict. (Say, strange attractors of deterministic chaos.) This means that “fundamental” now is no more than the order of theories.

        If you want to read someone going berserk on “fundamental”, read Deutsch “The Fabric of Reality”. [But note that the last chapter is outdated.] He rips “fundamental” totally out of the fabric of reality, and replaces it by the interplay of 4 important theories that support each other predictions. (Evolution being one of them.)

        But surely biology is complex, and there are fundamental laws emerging. For example, doesn’t biology have “Fisher’s fundamental [sic!] theorem of natural selection and Price’s equation?

      2. I meant “foundational” as in grass roots basis for life and else. There must be something ‘foundational” that explains things-fabric of reality-which is so corny? and whats wrong with fundamental?

  4. Apropos to this (because of this silly lie that Darwinism has never been challenged), my wife and I watched the first fifteen minutes or so of Expelled! last night. Egads. We just couldn’t handle it, had to turn it off.

    It was fun seeing the clips of all of my favorite skeptics, though. I think it might have been a little annoying for my wife… “Yep, they got Dawkins. Ooo, there’s Dennett! And hey look, it’s PZ! I think that’s AC Grayling, but I haven’t seen a lot of photos of him. Oh, look, Michael Schermer, that guy’s cool.” I think there were some others I was forgetting too.

    What pissed me off the most was not so much Stein’s blatant dishonesty, but the frequent cuts to black-and-white footage of people being oppressed or beat up or whatever. Come the fuck on. How underhanded can you get.

  5. I am unsurprised. I think it was Ross Douthat’s first or second editorial for the Times that led me to mentally editing his name to ‘Asshat’ whenever I see it. He has consistently demonstrated not just knee-jerk right wing ideological idiocy – which one can only expect from Bill “I’ve never been right about anything” Kristol’s successor – but also critical thinking skills far inferior to most of the college freshmen I’ve taught. I’ve long since stopped bothering to read anything Douthat has to say: He’s more erudite than say, Cal Thomas – but no more honest or clear-thinking.

      1. No, he means Bill. Irving was Bill’s father, now deceased, and never, to my knowledge, a Times columnist.


  6. an unchallenged scientific paradigm

    I, a poor reader of biology texts, think Theobald said it best on The TalkOrigins Archive:

    “Nevertheless, a precision of just under 1% [for the gravitational constant] is still pretty good; it is not enough, at this point, to cause us to cast much doubt upon the validity and usefulness of modern theories of gravity. However, if tests of the theory of common descent performed that poorly, different phylogenetic trees, as shown in Figure 1, would have to differ by 18 of the 30 branches! In their quest for scientific perfection, some biologists are rightly rankled at the obvious discrepancies between some phylogenetic trees (Gura 2000; Patterson et al. 1993; Maley and Marshall 1998). However, as illustrated in Figure 1, the standard phylogenetic tree is known to 38 decimal places, which is a much greater precision than that of even the most well-determined physical constants. For comparison, the charge of the electron is known to only seven decimal places, the Planck constant is known to only eight decimal places, the mass of the neutron, proton, and electron are all known to only nine decimal places, and the universal gravitational constant has been determined to only three decimal places. [My bold]”

    And then you have the cheer number of interconnected predictions that biology has tested at an accelerating speed, as opposed to theories on simpler systems like QED.

    Nothing that I know of seems to have been so challenged as evolution. It is then by far the least likely theory to be found wanting. [If you subscribe to the usual (crypto-inductivist) convention that “lasting” theories are “modified”, not more precisely robustly replaced with structurally close relatives as tests fail.]

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