How Tony Kushner introduced me to Darwinism, how Darwin exceeds the scientific method, and how that disconnect illustrates scientific dogmatism.
Creationists vs Darwinists
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. I also received comments from Darwinists who also assumed I was a fundamentalist.
Both opinions made me uncomfortable. In each case I got the impression that the 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 begin with conclusions, who refuse to examine their conclusions, but who nevertheless still insist that anyone who disagrees is wrong.
I will argue that both are fundamentalists.
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.
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 NINew Iberia. Humorous reference to South Louisiana.). I started wondering why I never read about anyone from my neck of the woods.
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.“The thing about basset hounds you need to remember,” said one dog trainer, “is that they start out slow, and then they taper off.”)
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, Camille Saint-Saëns, and 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.
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 received from a professional biologist. Granted, a trained biologist would have probably been more accurate about the theory. 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.
The Scientific Method
Because beyond that, the biologist would have simply said, “Yes.”
Not, “We think so,” nor, “A lot of evidence suggests we were,” both of which are factually accurate. Just “Yes.” Which, as I noted, is an answer that can’t be verified, at least not with the scientific method. Of course, if you were to bet that humans and apes are related, you would never lose your money.
But you would never collect your winnings, 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 these 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. It 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.
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.
Which is interesting. Origin of Species hasn’t a jot of the scientific method in it. It doesn’t include a single measurement, experiment, or mathematical equation. It simply describes intriguing patterns in life, over and over; but even with the application of modern 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, the theory of natural selection suggests we would end up with very different living things. Organic evolution is also not universally demonstrable; it is not even uniquely demonstrable, because it would be impossible to run such an experiment, recreating all of life, even once. When it comes to the hypothesis that natural selection produced all species 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 complicated, and really important things.
So there is simply no way to ‘prove’ that natural selection produced all the life we see. There is tantalizing evidence everywhere, but that does not constitute a rigorous scientific proof. The theory of evolution is certainly the most parsimonious explanation for life on our planet, but that is still not a proof.
Of course, scientists almost uniformly ridicule dissenters (such as people like me) but their behavior is an embarrassment to open minded inquiry. It is 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.