Darwin part deux

By Eric Mathison

Last week I finished by pointing out the difference between a scientific truth and a political (social, cultural) ought. Many people, including some well-known scientists, have confused this issue. Science is not in the business of telling us how we should live; rather, it describes the world and defines the implications of philosophical ideas. Darwinian theory is frequently attacked on mistaken grounds, so it is important to look at the effects of the misunderstandings and why they are wrong.

Many people hold the view that nature is a good thing and that whatever comes from nature has value. It could have been called the Ben Harper Fallacy, but the philosopher Hume seems to have got there first. We should, says Harper, smoke marijuana because it’s from the Earth, “and what’s from the Earth is of the greatest worth.” In fact, there are a great many things that come from the Earth that are bad for us. Harper may be right and we should all smoke pot, or at least decriminalize it, but not for the reasons he gives in his treatise, “Burn One Down.”

Another example of confusing descriptions with prescriptions is the work of biologist E. O. Wilson. When Wilson published his work Sociobiology in 1975, he was attempting to show that some behaviours have a genetic component and therefore can be inherited, leading to adaptation through natural selection. It was the last chapter on humans that sparked controversy. Some scholars, the most famous being Steven J. Gould, felt that the political implications of the theory, should it be true, were too disturbing. He invoked Nazism and eugenics in his attack.

Was Gould mistaken? If a politician ran for office saying she would begin by instituting sociobiology (as well as eugenics, and thought Hitler had been misunderstood), then we would have cause for concern. It doesn’t follow that because something is true in nature we should elect people to make it a social reality.

Genetic variation does exist among populations– I am lactose intolerant, which is common in about 15 per cent of those from Scandinavian descent, whereas around 90 per cent of the African Bantu can’t digest milk products. This fact is not problematic for most people. However, what if 90 per cent of Bantu were stronger, faster and smarter than everyone else in the world? Would that be justification for them to kill or enslave everyone else? Certainly not. They may dominate the Olympics, win more Nobel prizes and have more chess grandmasters, but that would be all.

Much opposition to Darwinian theory stems from its implications. If you were brought up thinking you were designed (with a plan!), and even the hairs on your head are numbered, it is a shocking realization that you really aren’t the centre of the universe. But people mistake it for an alternative philosophical model to their past view. We have to let the fittest survive? We must live “red in tooth and claw?” We won’t get the most grandmasters? No, no and possibly.

Science done right has no political agenda and every scientist knows exactly what it would take to change his mind on any issue: evidence to the contrary of the current view. Evolution is as substantiated as gravity. The only people making concerted attempts to disprove it are those with a faith to uphold, which requires no evidence and can never be changed. The rest of the world has figured out that, although it is just a theory, it is one that works whenever it is tested and therefore has necessitated no revision.

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