Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Darwinian Apostles' Creed

I've mentioned before, and agreed with, the argument that you shouldn't judge a religion by its worst adherents, but by its best.  I still agree with it, up to a point, though as always the first question is how to decide who the best adherents are.

But, as I say, only up to a point.  Dismissing the "worst" adherents of a religion is often an evasion.  If a religion makes supernatural claims, as Christianity does, then it's fair to ask why the Holy Spirit fails to cleanse and purify and set straight the hearts of so many Christians.  But even without the supernatural baggage, it seems to me fair to notice that a religion doesn't manage to transmit its high ideals to most of its adherents.  Along the same lines, atheists who talk as though the absence of belief in God clears away irrationality, superstition, and magical thinking all by itself, are setting themselves up for a fall.  Atheists, of course, have no central authority, no organization to set doctrine and practice and inculcate them into the laity.

On the other hand, I think it's useful to look at the middling adherents of a religion, just I think it's useful to look not only at the best works of art but at the mediocre and even bad ones.  You can't see the virtues of an outstanding work if you can't see the background against which it stands out.

This is why I was interested as well as entertained by the discussion under this meme, posted by the liberal-Democrat site Daily Kos on their Facebook page on the 155th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species.

Something seemed off to me in that quotation, partly because it's not an accurate description of how natural selection works, so I looked around and sure enough, the quotation is not from Darwin.  It's a paraphrase of Darwin by a teacher in management studies, which explains to me why it sounds like it was said by a twenty-first century motivational speaker instead of a nineteenth-century naturalist.  Leon Megginson, the likely author, probably didn't claim to be quoting Darwin, but somewhere between 1964 and 1982 the paraphrase came to be treated as a direct quotation.  It was even inscribed in letters a foot high on the floor of the California Academy of Sciences.  This writer says that the Academy removed Darwin's name from it but evidently kept the text, which is too bad because the text will still convey an inaccurate picture of natural selection to students who see it.

So, what do the Facebook followers of Kos have to say about this meme?  They loved it.  Some samples:
Well, so much for the GOP!!!

They cannot die off soon enough. If ever a species should have gone extinct before its time...

The Pope got your message loud and clear , Mr. Darwin !

I guess if you look at politics from a Darwinian point of view, and seeing as the rich and powerful are the ones with the most to lose from change, you can understand why they fear change so much. Thus the term conservative and its ideology.

Well thank you, President Obama for hanging in there!
... In other words, thanks to President Obama for resisting change?

A few commenters pointed out that the quotation is bogus.  No one so far of the people who like the quotation have acknowledged that.  Predictably, since it's Daily Kos, many of them have interpreted it as a prophecy of the downfall of the American Republican Party.  (Just as conventional religious believers see current events reflected in Holy Scripture.)  Some commenters have pointed out that the GOP is currently managing change pretty well, having won control of Congress and many state-level governments besides.  This also rolls off the backs of the true believers.

While culture, such as our ability to create artificial environments so that we can live in regions that would otherwise kill us, certainly has played a role in human survival, that's not "managing change."  ("Manage change" is one of those empty phrases beloved of motivational speakers and gurus.  Does it mean to respond creatively or passively to change, or does it mean to make change happen?  What kind of "change" are we talking about here?)  Nor does functioning in an organization have much to do with natural selection.   Success in Darwinian terms means reproductive success, not climbing the corporate ladder.  A CEO with a multimillion-dollar paycheck who doesn't have offspring who in turn have offspring, is "unfit" for evolutionary purposes.

Even more, Darwin's theory is not about individuals or political parties, it's about species.  (Note the commenter above who referred to the Republicans as a species.)  It is species that adapt, or fail to adapt, and species that persist or die out.  All individuals die; it's the species -- a statistical abstraction that evolutionary theorists still have trouble defining -- that Darwin was concerned with.

It's not a big deal that so few people recognized that the Darwin quotation in this meme isn't genuine, though it's still significant since liberal secularist Democrats like to see their opposite numbers as gullible fools who'll believe anything they're told.  What matters is that so many pledge their allegiance to Darwin and Evolution, but have no idea what Darwin's theory actually says. Whether human beings and dinosaurs coexisted, for example, is not part of Darwin's theory; it has more to do with geology in any case, but it's an empirical question, not a theoretical one. (For that matter, I suspect that contrary to what orthodox Darwinians like to say, it's possible to do valid biological research on the details of evolution without understanding -- or even believing -- the theory as a whole.)

I don't have any real numbers, of course, but this meme and the reactions it inspired support my suspicions of poll numbers about belief in Evolution versus belief in Creationism.  (Just in passing, the percentage of Americans who subscribe to Creationism, according to Gallup, dropped from 46 to 42 percent since 2012.  That number has held fairly steady for "the past three decades.")  That a certain number of Americans say they believe that human beings evolved doesn't tell me anything about their grasp of evolutionary theory, and I have heard from enough people who clearly misunderstand the theory to wonder.  (Gallup asked its respondents to declare how "familiar" they are with the theory of evolution, but that's no help.  Thirty percent of those who said they were very familiar with the theory also believed that God guided the process, while thirty-four percent left God out of it.)  "I believe that Man Evolved, without help from God" is a declaration of faith, not evidence of scientific literacy.