Saturday, January 17, 2009
Todd Smith, plainly an intellect to be reckoned with, emails me: 'Jesus, you're a dumb motherfucker.' And here's Mark Hollingsworth, who would be a Nobel contender but for his spelling: 'Oh my god... that's got to be the most ignorant and dumfounded (sic) article on Evolution that I've read in a while. Aren't you embarrassed to display such ignorance?' Er, afraid not, Mark, I guess it's my unquenchable sense of fun. All these people keep treating my article as if it were an argument, it wasn't it was a survey. But, if Todd and Mark are anything to go by, literacy is in short supply in these parts.
But that's boring. This is more interesting. Say I had written an article quoting people who disbelieved in plate tectonics or perhaps another headlined 'Quantum Theory: Yeah, Right'. Would either have aroused such anger? I doubt it. There's something about Darwinism. What?
The ruling ideas in any civilisation are always treated as conclusive. Perhaps this is necessary. Once a ruling idea is overthrown - like, for example, the divine right of kings - then so is the civilisation. Science, as the only genuinely cumulative form of knowledge, changes this but not as much as some people think. For, precisely because it is cumulative, science is constantly changing. Ruling scientific ideas may not be overthrown but they are certain to be modified over time, often radically. This is why it is dangerous to attempt to derive an ethical 'ought' from a scientific 'is'. There is an ethic of science, but not one from science. Darwinism, uniquely, seems to attract and encourage such derivations. As a result, it is no longer simply a ruling scientific idea, it is also a ruling moral, social, religious and even political idea. This is a problem - not, Todd, Mark and the rest of you, because I think Darwinism is false, that the world was made with all species intact 6,000 years ago or that the evolution of the eye is inconceivable, but simply because it cannot sustain this load of extra-scientific implication. Darwinism, I am sure is right as far as it goes, but it could easily be seen in a different context, by, for example, higher levels of explanation like the mathematics of complex systems. In addition, its application to human society is dubious. Since we pass on ideas to successive generations, if there is an evolutionary force in society, then it would appear to follow Lamarckian rather than Darwinian principles.
Darwinism is one of the ruling ideas of our civilisation. This is why the slightest challenge to its ascendancy, even quotations from people who don't believe it, arouses such anger, such fear. It is a threat to a world view some people find consoling. It could probably only happen, as John Gray points out, in a monotheistic culture, even when the monotheists have convinced themselves they are atheists.
Posted by Bryan Appleyard at 4:01 pm