Tony Kushner, Darwinism, & Scientific Dogmatism

How Tony Kushner introduced me to Darwinism, how Darwinism violates the scientific method, and how that violation illustrates scientific dogmatism.

Creationists vs Darwinists

remington LOTR 250

Middle Earth

Let me divert from our narrative here for a moment to clear something up. When I posted my Defense of Creationism the other day, I started getting traffic and even feedback from fundamentalists who thought I was one of them; and then from Darwinists who also assumed I was a fundamentalist.

Both groups made me uncomfortable.  In each case I got the impression that these adherent of either side started off with conclusions:  they have never questioned what they believe, or rather, what they know.  My beef is not with either creationism or Darwinism.  My beef is with the intolerance of those who arrive with conclusions, who refuse to examine their conclusions, and who nevertheless still insist that anyone who disagrees is wrong.

I will argue that both are fundamentalist.

Both are closed minded.  To my mind that is the largest problem humanity faces.  Nuclear holocaust, global pollution, war, famine, and persecution all require the sort of us-vs-them closed mindedness we see everywhere.

So to clear the air, let me say that I seriously doubt creationism is true, and that I believe evolution is probably correct.  Note that I said ‘probably.’  Thereby hangs an interesting tale.

Tony Kushner

From time to time I would pick up my dad’s copy of Time magazine (he kept it in the bathroom, long story). It exposed me to events and ideas that I probably wouldn’t have come across otherwise.  When I was around 12, I began to realize that just about the only people I ever read about in his magazines were in NY, DC or LA (which are among the few cities that are known simply by their initials, unless you want to include NI).  I started wondering why I never read about anyone from my neck of the woods.

Which is interesting; a friend of mine at the time was Tony Kushner, who moved off to New York (of course) and won a Pulitzer for his play Angels in America.

Tony’s parents were professional classical musicians who met while working in New York, and their home was a revelation to me.  It was a bit of cosmopolis in southern Louisiana. There were various musical instruments (including a grand piano, which I had never seen outside of a concert hall), serious stereo equipment, objets d’art, modern furniture, exotic cuisine (to me, at least), and lots and lots of books. (They also had a very sweet basset hound, Azucena, named for a character in Verdi’s Il Trovatore.  The dog was absolutely lethal.  He could take out dining furniture with his tail.)

I also encountered a lot of different ideas there.  Tony and his diverse interests had a large impact on a small town kid like me. From him I learned about Tolkien before most anyone else ever heard of him (a copy of the poster at the top of this page hung on his wall) and many other topics of which I remember only a few:  James Thurber, Atlantis,1)Cretan civilization was wiped out by the explosion of Santorini around 1600 BC, and there is some speculation that Crete or Santorini may have been Atlantis.  The Phaistos Disc, found in Crete, certainly supports the conjecture of a highly advanced civilization.  It suggests that either the Cretans, or possibly one of the civilizations with whom the Cretans traded but which also disappeared in the explosion, were imprinting clay with character type 3,000 years before Gutenberg.  I am certainly no expert but the finding of a lone disc makes me wonder if the source might have been Santorini.  That sort of printing technology suggests a well-developed, long-standing technique that was used to distribute information to many people.  After stone, fired clay is the most durable substance the ancients left us.  Given those starting points, if Crete were the source we might have expected to see many such discs, particularly in the Minoan palace where the first was found.  Unless, perhaps, the source was Santorini, which left far fewer artifacts than Crete.  If any of you know more about this than I do, please feel free to weigh in below. Camille Saint-Saëns, Bullfinch’s Mythology.  There was also a breakfast dish I call ‘the blasphemy’:  toasted bagels, butter, creme cheese… and bacon.  If your dietary regulations don’t prohibit such things, try it.  It approaches the hallucinatory.

Darwinism

And then there was Darwin.  Once Tony told me that humans were descended from apes.  That one, I thought, needed to be run past my parents.  So when I got home, I asked my dad, an Episcopal priest, if we were descended from apes.

“Probably,” he said.

At the time, I took that as simply permission to look at unorthodox things (most kids are hopelessly neurotic; I certainly was).  Over the years however, I have come to realize that dad’s answer was much better than I would have heard from a professional biologist.  Granted, a trained biologist would have been more accurate.  She would have noted that we believe apes and humans have a common ancestor, so we’re more like cousins. But although that explanation is more consistent with orthodoxy, it is less useful for promoting the intellect.

Because beyond that, the biologist would have simply said, “Yes.”

The Scientific Method

Not “We think so,” nor, “A lot of evidence suggests we were,” both of which are also accurate.  Just “Yes.”  Which as I noted, is an answer that can’t be verified, at least not with the scientific method.  If you were to bet that humans and apes are related, you would never lose your money.

But you would never get your money back, either.  There is simply no way to prove it one way or the other.  True, almost all the evidence we have points one way.  But first, all of us, scientists included, have a tendency to simply gloss over anything that does not support our preordained conclusions.  The data supporting our relationship with the apes is far from perfect, there are many gaps and conundra.  An open mind requires that this problems be kept in mind.

And second, we have become absolutely consumed with the scientific method, forgetting that it is only one tool for analyzing, or even viewing, life and reality.  I have come to realize that for most modern thinkers, the scientific method has left the philosophical realm, and has become a very rigid, clerical, and bureaucratic mindset, one that often begins to fall apart when we examine the complexity of life.

And when we consider what is most important to us, the scientific method becomes near useless.

Scientific Dogmatism

Some may think I am splitting hairs here.  I am not.  Consider Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.  It would be hard to find a scientist who denies that it is one of the monumental works of science.

It hasn’t a jot of the scientific method in it.  It hasn’t a single measurement, experiment, or mathematical equation.  It simply describes the same patterns, over and over; but even after the advent of statistics, none of those patterns is amenable to analysis against probability.

And, of course, none of it is repeatable.  If we went back to beginning of life, and let it evolve all over again, we would end up with very different living things.  It also is not universally demonstrable; it is not even uniquely demonstrable, because it would be impossible to run such an experiment even once.  When it comes to the hypothesis that natural selection produced all life on the planet, we can produce neither controls nor experiments for our conclusions.   Which is yet another limitation to the scientific method:  there is no experiment to test really big, really important things.

So there is simply no way to ‘prove’ that natural selection produced all the life we.  There is evidence everywhere, but that does not constitute a rigorous scientific proof.  It is the most parsimonious explanation, but that still does not constitute a rigorous scientific proof.  Scientists almost uniformly ridicule dissenters, but that is an embarrassment, and certainly no proof.

On the Origin of Species is just one example of where science and the scientific method part company.  The fact is, such separations are all around us; we simply refuse to see them because we are all immersed in scientific dogmatism.

And like all good students, we stick to orthodoxy, and studiously ignore anything that does not fit our paradigms.


Next:  Why did God Create the Fossil Record? or, Mommy, Where Did You Put My Tail & Gills?



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Picture: Barbara Remington, Lord of the Rings, courtesy of 2 Warps to Neptune. Click here for an interesting history of the poster. © 1968, Ballantine Books.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Cretan civilization was wiped out by the explosion of Santorini around 1600 BC, and there is some speculation that Crete or Santorini may have been Atlantis.  The Phaistos Disc, found in Crete, certainly supports the conjecture of a highly advanced civilization.  It suggests that either the Cretans, or possibly one of the civilizations with whom the Cretans traded but which also disappeared in the explosion, were imprinting clay with character type 3,000 years before Gutenberg.  I am certainly no expert but the finding of a lone disc makes me wonder if the source might have been Santorini.  That sort of printing technology suggests a well-developed, long-standing technique that was used to distribute information to many people.  After stone, fired clay is the most durable substance the ancients left us.  Given those starting points, if Crete were the source we might have expected to see many such discs, particularly in the Minoan palace where the first was found.  Unless, perhaps, the source was Santorini, which left far fewer artifacts than Crete.  If any of you know more about this than I do, please feel free to weigh in below.

4 Comments

  1. Vaughan

    Many, many years ago when the Woods Hole Oceanic Institute in Massachussetts was just starting to look seriously at Santorini and the huge volcanic eruption that created its modern shape, I wrote a term paper arguing that the Minoan city there was indeed Atlantis, remembered dimly in the minds of the Egyptians who reported the tale to Herodotus. I am still convinced by the abundance of evidence now much greater than it was then that is was the source of the Mediterranean memory. If you take Plato’s description and compare it to the known facts of pre-volcanic Minoan Santorini it is very convincing. And I am in complete agreement with your argument about closeminded a priori certainties. There are way, way too many squint-minded self-appointed authorities on everything today–voting their ignorance and self-rightousness. Very scary.

    • Bookscrounger

      I agree, but only sheepishly.

      My memory is filled with too many instances in which I was the squint-minded one…

      😉

      • Robin Tanner

        Kinda funny Joe, but I remember only one exchange between you and Tony at the Program. I can’t remember what position you were defending but you held forth as evidence that Jesus was the most perfect man who ever lived. Tony retorted “Oh Joe, what a thing to say to a Jew”.

        Funny what sticks with us over the years!

        • Bookscrounger

          Oh Lord. Oh hope I’m not held accountable for anything I said as a kid.

          Or yesterday, for that matter…
          😉

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