Sunday, January 11, 2009

Bryan Appleyard and creationism

Bryan Appleyard has an article on Darwin and natural selection in The Sunday Times newspaper, which quotes, without reproach, Dr David Menton of Answers in Genesis, and David Rosevear, chairman of the British Creation Science Movement. Appleyard also quotes the anti-evolutionary opinions of James Le Fanu, (a medical doctor and journalist, no less):

[Le Fanu] insists that new biological discoveries have overthrown Darwin. The old man is "screwed", he says gruffly.

Perhaps most startling is the discovery from the deciphering of the human genome that we have only between 20,000 and 25,000 genes. We were previously thought to have 100,000. A mere 25,000 doesn’t seem to be enough to sustain our vast complexity and yet genes are supposed to be the heavy lifters of the Darwinian enterprise.

"I wouldn’t get out of bed for 25,000 genes," says Le Fanu, "and we don’t find form in the genome. We share most of our DNA with chimpanzees, but nowhere in the genome have we found what it is that makes us so different from chimps."

It's an interesting point. But here's a good response:

It is unarguably true that the differences between a monkey and a human are huge...The point is - as every geneticist...knows perfectly well - that a small number of nucleotides can make a very big difference...The fact that, at the molecular level, the difference appears small is irrelevant because, at the molecular level, everything appears small. And, besides, the whole of modern science from quantum theory to chaos theory has successfully persuaded us of the fact that small things make big differences.

And the writer of these wise words? Bryan Appleyard, in fact, on p102 of his 1998 work Brave New Worlds. It's strange that Bryan didn't choose to raise this point in his Sunday Times article.

Moreover, Bryan uses today's article to wheel out the most famous evolutionary canard of the creationist movement, namely the claim that natural selection cannot explain the evolution of the eye:

It’s all very well to talk of small mutations changing an organism, but how do such changes make, for example, an eye? Without all its bits and pieces, an eye does not work. It is, in the terms used by the biochemist Michael Behe, author of Darwin’s Black Box, "irreducibly complex", beyond the reach of blind, random mutation.

On the contrary, as Richard Dawkins has pointed out, "intermediates are not only easy to imagine: they are abundant all around the animal kingdom. A flatworm has an eye that, by any sensible measure, is less than half a human eye. Nautilus...has an eye that is intermediate in quality between flatworm and human. Unlike the flatworm eye, which can detect light and shade but see no image, the Nautilus 'pinhole camera' eye makes a real image; but it is a blurred and dim image compared to ours." (The God Delusion, p124).

The creationist/intelligent design attack upon evolutionary theory is two-pronged: not only does it seek to imply that evolution is incomplete or flawed as a theory, but it hedges its bets by also arguing that the consequences of evolutionary theory have been detrimental to society. Appleyard duly follows this rhetorical template, and quotes David Rosevear's assertion "If [we are not the children of God], then there is no right or wrong – we can do what we like."

This argument, another popular canard of the creationist/intelligent design movement, presupposes that the existence of God is necessary for the truth of ethical principles. As philosopher Adolf Grunbaum pointed out in The Poverty of Theistic Morality, this fallacy was exposed by Socrates in Plato's Euthyphro:

Is the conduct approved by the gods right ("pious"), because of properties of its own, or merely because it pleases the gods to value or command it? In the former case, divine omnibenevolence and revelation are at best ethically superfluous, and in the latter, the absolute divine commands fail to provide any reason at all for imposing particular kinds of conduct.

For if God values and enjoins us to do what is desirable in its own right, then ethical rules do not depend for their validity on divine command, and they can then be independently adopted. But, on the other hand, if conduct is good merely because God decrees it, then nowadays we also have the morally insoluble problem of deciding, in a multi-religious world, which one of the conflicting purported divine revelations of ethical commands we are to accept.

Appleyard tells us that Darwinian evolution "was and is, for many, a grim vision," but also points out that "Darwinism remains only a small part of the popular imagination." So the claim, then, is that we are depressed by something we are largely unaware of!

This contradiction is important because it points to the fundamental fallacy of Appleyard's worldview, the general thrust of which is to characterise science as providing a threat to human well-being, with the ulterior motive of promoting, as the remedy, an aesthetic-religious worldview. The general theme permeating the Appleyard oeuvre, is to suggest that humans have a need for 'the sacred', and for 'spiritual depth', and to suggest that science is a danger because it threatens those needs. Appleyard wishes us to believe that science is depriving us of something essential.

On the contrary, the needs Appleyard speaks of are not general truths about the human condition, or what it feels like to be human, but truths about what it feels like to have inherited a certain religious worldview. Darwinian evolution entails neither a 'grim vision', nor, as Darwin himself suggested, a type of grandeur; these are extra-theoretical valuations, which can be tacked-on, depending upon the subjective personality of the individual.

Ultimately, on the subject of evolution and religion, creationists and their journalistic apologists, would do well to heed the verdict of the Reverend Michael Heller ('Where physics meets metaphysics', p272-273, On Space and Time, Cambridge University Press, 2008):

Correct theology is obliged to take into account what science has to say to us...And the verdict of clear. The Universe we live in is an evolutionary process, and the thread leading from the plasma of primordial stuff, through chemical elements, galaxies, stars and planets, to more and more complex systems, intelligent life included, is but a fibre in this overwhelming process. And theology that would choose to ignore this magnificent process is a blind way to nowhere.


Robert Iddiols said...

Good assessment, sir. I can't help but feel a pang of pity for Mr Appleyard when he clutches at straws in this way, especially since his columns, and his blog have become beacons of logic and commendable social commentary over time. I couldn't have said it better myself.

Anonymous said...

The general theme permeating the Appleyard oeuvre, is to suggest that humans have needs which, in general, they don't actually have, such as the need for 'the sacred', and the need for 'spiritual depth'...

What is your evidence for this? I have not studied this systemically myself (nor am I sure how you could), so I don't know whether you or Appleyard is correct, but circumstantial evidence suggests that lots of people do indeed have a need for 'the sacred'.

My own experience inclines me to believe that people generally do seek out something that they can believe is 'higher' than them. Perhaps most in the West today find this moral purpose in politics or trendy charity work (or less trendy classical liberalism or secular humanism or any other ism) but some still find it in religion.

On what grounds can you assert that people "in general" do not have this need?

I have been wondering for a while why it is that people feel science is a threat to this sense of the sacred.

What is it about science, which for me has always been a quest to uncover mystery, to understand the world, that other people find spiritless and dry?

When I look at a clear night sky, for example, I get an incredible sense of the ganz andere that I wouldn't hesitate to describe as an experience of 'the sacred'. However, it does not turn me to religion, but rather to astronomy and astronautics.

I rather like this quotation, which I have only ever seen attributed to anonymous: "A mystic is someone who wants to understand the universe, but is too lazy to study physics."

But really mystics and religious people are not merely lazy, they actually seem to believe that science is antithetical their purpose. Why is this?

Gordon McCabe said...

An excellent contribution DH!

My evidence for claiming that there is no general need for the sacred, or some sort of transcendent meaning to life, is based simply upon living in a largely secular society where people do, indeed, live meaningful and fulfilling lives.

I must apologise for quoting Adolf Grunbaum again, who expresses this point beautifully in The Poverty of Theistic Morality:

"How would our lives be more meaningful, if we were to suppose narcissistically that man is the centerpiece of an avowedly inscrutable overall divine purpose, which constitutes 'the' meaning of our lives but must remain unknown to our finite minds? Being at the focus of elusive cosmic 'meaning' is clearly irrelevant to finding value on this earth: Experiencing the embrace of someone we love, the intellectual or artistic life, the fragrance of a rose, the satisfactions of work and friendship, the sounds of music, the panorama of a glorious sunrise or sunset, the biological pleasures of the body, and the delights of wit and humor.

"There are as many 'meanings' as there are fulfillments of human aspirations. It is sheer fantasy, if not arrogance, on the part of theists to proclaim inveterately that their lives must be more meaningful to them than atheists and secular humanists find their own lives to be to themselves. Where is their statistical evidence that despair, depression, suicide, aimlessness, or other dysphoria are more common among unbelievers than among believers?"

You're right, DH, when you point out that people seek something external to themselves, but as you acknowledge this can be something external to the self within the human world. Some people feel the need for a transcendent meaning and some people don't; it depends upon the subjective personality of the individual, and there is no necessity for that external meaning to be religious.

Equally, amongst religious believers, some perceive science as a threat, whilst others believe that science provides the best means of understanding the glory of God's creation. Again, this is simply dependent upon the subjective personality of the individual.

Anonymous said...

"intermediates are not only easy to imagine: they are abundant all around the animal kingdom. A flatworm has an eye that, by any sensible measure, is less than half a human eye.

Another good example is that humans are still spinning their evolutionary wheels with a neck that is much less than half a giraffe's. Damn, I hate stasis.

Anonymous said...

I think Appleyard is aging and afraid of death.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post and the reference to Adolf Grunbaum's book, which I definitely need to check out. (It would be really great if you tagged your posts, so I could find the science and philosophy ones without having to skim over all the sports, no offence intended.)