About John M. Lynch

teacher, historian, biologist, beer snob. not necessarily in that order.

[Review] Wiker & Witt, “A Meaningful World”

A Meaningful World: How the Arts and Sciences Reveal the Genius of Nature by Benjamin Wiker and Jonathan Witt. Downers Grove (IL): InterVarsity Press, 2006. 257 pages

[The following appeared in Reports of the National Center for Science Education 31.6. I have added some links and made some minor edits.]

In a document written in 1998, the Discovery Institute articulated its notorious “Wedge Strategy,” a plan to defeat “scientific materialism and its destructive moral, cultural and political legacies” and “replace materialistic explanations with the theistic understanding that nature and human beings are created by God.” This change would come about through advocacy of “design theory,” initially within the natural sciences, before conquering the social sciences and humanities. Within twenty years, the concept of intelligent design (ID) would “permeate our religious, cultural, moral and political life” and the cultural renewal would be complete. [Edit: nearly twenty years later, we’re still waiting.] Having seen design on the earth (see the writings of Michael Behe and Stephen Meyer) and in the heavens (see the writings of Guillermo Gonzalez), the ID movement has recently found other arguments for design, and this discovery is outlined in the book under review.

When a book begins with a wild parody of modern life, it becomes hard to take what follows seriously. Yet Benjamin Wiker and Jonathan Witt—both senior fellows of the Discovery Institute—expect us to do so and accept their subsequent argument as being intellectually rigorous and factually bound. Their prologue (pages 11–13) asks us to imagine an alien who, upon visiting the earth, witnesses a prevailing air of despair and despondency manifested in “sullen graduate students … soulless modern architecture … the death of meaning and wealthy fashion models half-starved and aping death with charcoal makeup.” Setting out to inquire why this is so, the alien is told (by a “self-published poet in Birkenstocks” who is reading Nietzsche) that “we’re atoms in the void … [d]ust in the wind” and that this viewpoint comes from “Science … survival of the fittest, everything’s relative, indeterminable”. And why is the poet convinced of this position? Through the writings of “influential human intellectuals,” the “visionaries—Dawkins, Sagan, Weinberg”. Suffice it to say, the world envisioned by Wiker and Witt bears no clear resemblance to the one most readers of this journal live in (though I’ve known a few sullen graduate students), and the influence attributed of Dawkins, Sagan, and Weinberg in the culture at large is surely overstated.

The whole book is, in fact, infused with similarly bizarre views. I offer two, almost at random. Meaninglessness is apparently “the last truth one can still assert in the company of intellectuals without embarrassment, having now the status of a conversational icebreaker, a cocktail party talking point that has taken the place of the weather” (p 17). More astounding is the claim that “in assuming that ‘species’ are not real, Darwinism and the larger reductionist program burn away the original ties that bound the meaning of mathematics to the world and instead leave it stranded in a solipsistic island of the human imagination” (p 237). While there are various schools of thought about the meaning of mathematics (Mario Livio’s Is God A Mathematician? [2009], offers an entry-level discussion of these), the claim that “Darwinism and the larger reductionist program” has anything to say about this—and indeed the authors provide no references — is not only bizarre but a trifle paranoid regarding the influence of the English naturalist.

Wiker has a Ph.D. in theological ethics from the Divinity School at Vanderbilt University and has taught philosophy at a number of venues. This has not stopped him offering skewed— and frankly wrong-headed—views of various philosophers. For example, both Jean-Paul Sartre (p 24) and Friedrich Nietzsche (p 107) are described as nihilists. As anyone with even passing knowledge of the writings of these philosophers will know, neither was a nihilist and Nietzsche, in particular, strongly excoriated nihilism. Most egregious perhaps is the treatment of the Greek philosopher Epicurus. Epicurus has served as something of a bête noire among theists for millennia now, and while he is not the secular saint that some imagine, he is also not the influential hedonistic nihilist that Wiker and Witt present. Their viewpoint was first articulated in Wiker’s earlier work, Moral Darwinism: How We Became Hedonists (2002), and has subsequently been echoed by other DI functionaries such as John West. It is clear that Epicurus serves a similar function for ID proponents that Nimrod did for Henry Morris—the individual on whom all subsequent ills can be blamed. (Nimrod, it will be remembered, received the tenets of evolution from Satan himself at the summit of the Tower of Babel, or so Morris speculated.)

The central argument of the book is simple: certain aspects of nature reveal a purpose that reveals the “Genius of Nature”. This term is not to be seen as figurative—there literally is a Genius (namely, God) behind nature, and we can demonstrate this by the example of the existence of Shakespeare’s works, Euclid’s geometry, the periodic table and its elements, fine-tuning in the cosmos, and biological complexity. The degree to which one is convinced by the marshaled arguments will be dictated by one’s exposure to both philosophical argumentation and contemporary science. I remain unconvinced. Of course, the authors would argue that their inability to convince is a product of the brainwashing that the “materialists” have managed to enforce in schools. At fault is not the “average” person but those who “have assiduously sought out and controlled entrance to the seats of academic power, and so they are represented in the tenured offices of higher education and the benches of our courts in disproportionate numbers” (p 239).

There are many other problems with this book. Throughout there is a lack of solid quotes and much nebulous talk of what scientists think and feel. Individuals such as Stephen Weinberg and Richard Dawkins are overly relied on and used as exemplars of the much richer and diverse community of scientists. For a book coauthored by a former instructor of creative writing (Witt), the prose is often florid, even if one is willing to ignore the tendentiousness of the sentiment being expressed: for example, “Materialism has created a kind of flatland that crushes the life out of life, despoiling its native richness, denying its true depth, mudding over its brilliant and variegated hues” (p 46). In short, for a popular work, reading this was a remarkably tedious and miserable task.

A Meaningful World is certainly a work that would not have survived review by a mainstream press. In fact, I would say that it would not have survived as an undergraduate thesis. The very fact that it has appeared in print is symptomatic of the ID movement’s ability to find sympathetic pulpits from which to preach to the choir. No one without preconceived sympathy is going to be convinced by the arguments presented by Wiker and Witt and, like much ID literature, it serves as a justification of belief rather than a scientific or philosophical investigation. It is notable that the publisher chose not to classify the work as science but as discussing religious aspects of nature and meaning.

References

Livio M. 2009. Is God a Mathematician? New York: Simon and Schuster.

Wiker B. 2002. Moral Darwinism: How We Became Hedonists. Downers Grove (IL): InterVarsity Press.

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On Contemporary Anti-evolutionism

Old-time readers will remember I spent a lot of time and energy writing about contemporary anti-evolutionism, whether young earth creationism or its bastard offspring, intelligent design. Since 2010, I’ve largely lost interest in tilting at these particular windmills, primarily because life is too short and I realized that the tilting was futile in that the creationists were impervious to any reasonable argument. So, other than posting a few old book reviews, the topic of anti-evolutionism will be largely non-existent here (unless there is some egregious handling of the history of biology that I need to deal with!). Sorry to disappoint.

[Review] Wiker, “The Darwin Myth”

Benjamin Wiker, The Darwin Myth: The Life and Lies of Charles Darwin (Washington DC: Regnery, 2009), xii + 196 pp., $27.95.

[The following appeared in Journal of the History of Biology, 43: 609-611. I have added some hyperlinks and corrected some minor errors.]

When the promotional material for a book screams out ‘‘WHY CAN’T SCIENTISTS BELIEVE IN GOD? Book Exposes Charles Darwin as The Man Who Separated God From Science’’ you know you are in for a rough read. By the time you read the claim that seeing humans as animals has dire consequences which include cannibalism (‘‘If you think cannibalism too distant a possibility, then you do not understand the dark spirit behind embryonic stem cell research,’’ (p. 170)), you realize that any historically nuanced – or for that matter, rational – attempt at an examination of Darwin’s life and legacy has long disappeared.

Benjamin Wiker holds the Ph.D. in Theological Ethics and is a Senior Fellow of the Discovery Institute (DI), a neo-creationist organization that has been responsible for much of the sound and fury that has surrounded teaching evolution in American public schools over the past quarter of a century. During this time, the DI has funded anti-evolutionists who have in turn produced books and opinion pieces that have blamed ‘‘Darwinism’’ for many perceived ills in modern culture. Wiker, for his part, previously authored Moral Darwinism: How We All Became Hedonists (InterVarsity Press, 2006), a tendentious work that attempted to see modern evolutionary thought as little more than a warmed-up version of Epicureanism. The work under review, while completed when Wiker was a DI Fellow, was funded by the tothesource Foundation, a group that seeks to challenge ‘‘hardcore secularism’’ and provides a ‘‘forum for integrating thinking and action within a Judeo-Christian moral framework.’’ Given this background, regular observers of American anti-evolutionism will know what to expect before beginning reading The Darwin Myth.

Wiker begins by telling us ‘‘[i]t is high time we understood who Darwin really was, and what he really did’’ (p. ix). To Wiker, Darwin was a serial liar and cheat whose ‘‘triumph has been to set ideological atheism as the default position of science’’ (p. xi). Darwin apparently lied about the motives for his investigations, the evidence for his theory, and the originality of his ideas. He was engaged in a long-term plot to remove God from Victorian science and culture and lied about his own religious belief. In making this last claim, Wiker is unwilling to offer a sympathetic or nuanced reading of what Darwin himself wrote throughout his life and how these views changed. For Wiker, Darwin was always functionally an atheist, even before he departed on HMS Beagle. One is left wondering whether there was anything that Darwin did not lie or cheat about and how Emma Darwin ever managed to win a game of backgammon against her husband!

Wiker’s work is entirely secondary and (selectively) derivative of the fine biographies produced by Janet Browne, Adrian Desmond and James Moore. He uses their work but accuses these historians of distorting the picture of Darwin that they present. Yet this is precisely what Wiker himself does. Chapter 1 briefly discusses Darwin’s youth and sees him as an unhandsome slacker who was resistant to change. No mention is made of the social milieu in which he lived. We are told that John Stevens Henslow’s ‘‘machinations’’ (p. 24) diverted Darwin from the path to being a curate and onto the Beagle, the voyage of which is shallowly covered in Chapter 3. This discussion almost completely ignores Darwin’s fossil discoveries and their significance, and does not mention his extensive geological work. Indeed, Wiker seems obsessed with Darwin’s anthropological observations, to a degree that greatly skews the reader’s impression of the effect that the voyage had on the young Darwin as a developing scientist.

Chapter 4 is titled ‘‘Hatching the Evolutionary Plot’’ and offers no substantive discussion of Darwin’s work between 1835 and 1859. There is neither mention of why he rose to prominence in scientific circles, nor of his various geological and biological studies (particularly his award-winning and meticulous work on barnacles). One can only wonder whether these omissions are necessary to solidify Wiker’s depiction of Darwin as a slacker with little scientific talent but an overarching plan to remove God from sight. The following chapter glosses Origin and Descent without providing any discussion of the arguments and evidence contained therein. No mention is made of sexual selection and how the theory was related to Darwin’s observations of aboriginal groups while on the Beagle. Chapter 6 presents St George Jackson Mivart’s objections to descent with modification through natural selection. Little mention is made of how Darwin himself dealt with those objections in the sixth edition of Origin. In his ongoing attempt to diminish Darwin, Wiker sees Mivart as ‘‘a distinguished scientist who had every right to claim to be at least Darwin’s equal if not his superior’’ (p. 128). Like Darwin, Mivart received no formal training as a scientist and the claim that he was Darwin’s equal or superior is ludicrous and belied by their publications. (I write this, by the way, as someone sympathetic to how Mivart has been treated by historians and who has been engaged in an examination of his anatomical and philosophical writings for some time now.)

But all of this serves as a mere 134 page prelude to the real argument that Wiker wishes to make. Three chapters (‘‘What to Make of It All,’’ ‘‘Darwin and Hitler,’’ ‘‘Christianity and Evolution’’) repeat a series of creationist canards. Natural selection is a tautology. Darwin lied to himself when he felt that morality and natural selection could co-exist. Darwin’s ideas led to, or supported, eugenics, Nazism, abortion, euthanasia, sex education and contraceptives for the poor, and pornography. Indeed, apparently, Darwinism can be used to justify cannibalism.

This is poor history and, frankly, it is also a poor polemic. Wiker does not present Darwin fairly but distorts him into a dark figure bent on destroying everything that Wiker apparently holds dear. As such, the book has nothing to recommend it beyond offering a snapshot of how certain groups in America have been unable to deal with scientific ideas.

*Ping*

I haven’t blogged since August 2010. I’m going to give it a try again to see if it can satisfy an itch. Since I stopped, my old home at Scienceblogs has shuttered and there has been somewhat of an extended diaspora and I can’t imagine any of my old readers/blogmates still have me on their blogrolls (if you do shout out in the comments!). Let’s see how this goes …

Edit: Grrrrrr. One of the downsides of Sb shuttering is that I’ve noticed many of the images they hosted for me have now gone off-line.

This blog will self-destruct in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 …

I have been blogging since January 2004 but of late my heart hasn’t been in it. So I’m taking the opportunity of a new school year to hang up my shield and move on. I may return someday, either here or elsewhere, but for the foreseeable future, you can consider me a non-blogger. Best wishes and good luck to all the readers and bloggers I have met over the years.

Onward!

David Hull (1935 – 2010)

John Wilkins is reporting that the noted philosopher of biology, David Hull, has passed away. I first read Hull’s Science as a Process (1988) as a break from writing up my zoology PhD in 1993 and it opened me up to the world of history and philosophy of science. Indeed, it left me cursing the fact that I wasn’t able to study HPS (in hindsight, I think it would have been my career choice for various reasons). Years later, I met David at an ISHPSSB meeting and I coyly introduced myself. David was delighted to hear that a biologist had read and enjoyed his work. He was a gentleman and will be missed.

Update (8/12): I forgot to mention that ASU houses the David L. Hull Collection (actually the collection sat in my office for a few months). And via Wilkins – obits from the Chicago Sun-Times and Northwestern.