I'm James Maxey, the author of numerous novels of fantasy and science fiction. I use this site to discuss a wide range of topics, with a heavy emphasis on cranky, uninformed rants about politics and religion and other topics that polite people attempt to avoid. For anyone just wanting to read about my books, I maintain a second blog, The Prophet and the Dragon, where I keep the focus solely on my fiction. I also have a webpage where both blogs stream, with more information about all my books, at jamesmaxey.net.


Monday, October 12, 2009

The Myth of Darwin as a Prophet

This weekend at Capclave, I'll be on a panel discussing Darwin. The panel description reads:

Darwin was born 200 years ago. Why are his ideas still controversial? Is the voyage of the Beagle the prototype for sf missions of scientific discovery? Why aren't there more books about Darwinism?

It's been a while since I've had a science post, so I'm going to do a little warm up for the panel with a gut reactions to these questions.

Working backwards, when I search Amazon for books mentioning Darwin, I come up with 100,000 hits. So, for the last question, I guess my reaction is, just how many books do you need? By comparison, Jesus has 400,000 hits on Amazon. Of course, this is also the same number of hits returned if you search for the word "diet." In any case, I hardly think that Darwin, natural selection, or evolution are suffering from a lack of exposure.

As for the Beagle being the prototype for SF missions, I think that, if there ever are going to be extra-solar explorations of other planets, they will almost certainly be carried out by the machines that eventually replace mankind. These machines will be able to claim that they were intelligently designed, and that their improvements are the result of deliberate actions. Perhaps they will regard evolution as a mere momentary blip in the natural order of things, the way it was once thought that capitalism was just a blip on the way to socialism. It's an interesting thought, but I'm not sure that I, personally, would be able to milk an entire book out of it.

Which brings us to the last question: Why are his ideas still controversial? And I suppose my answer is, what controversy? It's true that not everyone believes in evolution, and that a lot of people work hard to keep children from being exposed to these ideas. But, in the places where it really matters, I don't think that evolution or natural selection are controversial at all. Where does it really matter? How about hospitals, agriculture, forestry, fisheries, and, of course, universities where the various aspects of biology are studied?

I'm not certain that it matters that half of all American's don't believe in evolution. It is, of course, the central narrative of biology; you can't really understand the natural world without understanding natural selection. But, relativity is a pillar of physics; I'm guessing maybe one person in a hundred has a firm grasp on relativity. Quantum mechanics is the other unreconciled pillar of physics, and I'd be shocked if one person in a thousand really understands the world on a quantum scale. Somehow, the world muddles through; people manage to become bankers and doctors and movie stars and rodeo clowns without understanding the difference between a photon and a proton. If you're an electrical engineer, you need to understand electrons. If you're a house painter... not so much.

I guess the major thing about Darwin, natural selection, and evolution, is that they aren't and shouldn't be and can't be major things in an average person's daily life. Natural selection has surprisingly little day to day impact on a person's behavior. Let's see... I suppose that understanding evolution can help you understand why it's important to finish off your full course of anti-biotics. But, it doesn't help you know how to invest your money. It doesn't guide you in how to deal with your friends and family. It won't tell you what to eat for dinner or what toothpaste will make your teeth their whitest.

Some people treat Darwin as a new prophet, pointing the way to a new religion. But if you really understand natural selection and evolution, you understand that it's actually a rather precise tool for understanding one specific aspect of biology. Some people attempt to misuse it, and say that Darwinism applies to economics. Other's will point to examples from the natural world and draw moral guidance from it. For instance, I've heard serious people argue that homosexuality either is or isn't moral based on things like whether or not there are gay penguins. If homosexuality evolved in flightless sea birds, it must not be a choice for humans. But, of course, if you promote this argument, what are you to make of bonobos, who are always promiscous? Or some insects, where the females devour the males? Turning to the guidance of animals for your moral choices is a dangerous slippery slope.

The one shocking aspect of Darwin--the thing that generates the most opposition--is that natural selection doesn't require a god to explain the existence of man. It doesn't rule out a god, but the theory doesn't have any major holes in it requiring divine intervention to explain our presence. But, I have to wonder how important the creation myth is to most religions. Is it really, really important, if you are a Christian, that the world was created in six days? How important is that fact to your day to day life? It seems far more likely that the parts of your religion that matter on a daily basis are the moral guidance to love your neighbors, treat the poor and the sick as if they might be Jesus himself, and to stop coveting your neighbor's ass? In all these matters, Darwin offers no guidance whatsoever. Carry on as you were before; science really just doesn't have a lot to tell you about whether or not it's moral to steal.

Darwin wasn't a prophet. He was a scientist. His theory is science, not religious philosophy. Any controversy that exists is built upon the myth of what he said, rather than his actual contributions to our understanding of the world. I don't really expect his opponents to grasp this, but I still hold out hope that, one day, his proponents might.


Mr. Cavin said...

"...when I search Amazon for books mentioning Darwin, I come up with 100,000 hits."

This doesn't really mean an awful lot. When I search for Bitterwood, one word, just like that--including the stipulation that I'm only searching the book category--I get 150 results, the ninth being a how-to guide for growing marijuana, the twelfth a guide to literary agents, the seventeenth some tips on beautiful and decorative curtains, the twentieth a Spanish dictionary, and the fiftieth a guide to Los Angeles County.

Amazon's search engine is a veritable blunderbuss of delirious and unwelcome up-sell padding.

James Maxey said...

True, but I don't want to leave the impression that I think that means that there are 100,000 books about Darwin. I just mean that he's mentioned somewhere in the product description of a book, or in the searchable text, whether that book is about him or not. Still, I'm comparing apples to apples... I don't think there are 400,000 books about Jesus, either. My main point is, if people don't know about Darwin, or about Jesus, it's not because people haven't been writing books about them. Anyone who wants to read about Darwin should be able to walk into any library and walk out with a stack of books as tall as a good-sized midget. (That's how we in the industry measure book quantities, by the way.)

Eric James Stone said...

> [The theory of evolution] doesn't rule out a god...

The main reason evolution is still controversial in the U.S. is because the teaching evolution in public schools does not allow this fact be mentioned, and therefore random natural selection is presented as the only possible explanation for the existence of humans.

James Maxey said...

Eric! Thanks for chiming in. For what it's worth, I don't see why God should be mentioned at all in the context of teaching evolution in public school. I wouldn't support a statement in a textbook that said "Evolution disproves God," so I wouldn't support a statement that reads, "Evolution doesn't disprove God." Evolution (natural selection, more specifically) is a biological theory, not a religious argument.

As far as natural selection being presented as the only theory that explains how humans came to be, I would say that it's the only theory that explains the evidence. Darwin didn't sit around and think of a theory then go out and look for evidence. Instead, he went out and gathered years of biological data about birds and lizards and bugs, then came to the realization that there was something tying all these organisms together.

If someone wants to go out and gather a giant body of hard facts that then points to the evidence of a creator, I'm willing to examine that evidence. To my knowledge, no one has yet done so.

Anyone can form creation theories. You can argue that man was created by aliens. You can propose that we are all characters in a work of metafiction and will cease to exist when the book is closed. You can even theorise that a divine being molded us out of clay and dust and breathed life into us. The main thing these theories lack? Finch beaks, fossil beds, genetics, and bone by bone similarities between species.

Natural selection is taught because the world is full of non-controversial, documentable specimens and artifacts that reasonable men can use to draw connections and conclusions. Darwin provided a theory that fits the evidence. The theory made some predictions that have been supported by further evidence. There were no transitional fossils between men and apes known to Darwin. Now, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of bones of creatures that any fair-minded person will judge as midway between man and monkey. Darwin didn't know anything about DNA. But, if his theory was right, then our DNA should closely resemble the DNA of animals that evolved from our common ancestors, and this has proven to be the case. Darwin didn't know about antibiotics, but his theory could be used to predict that diseases would adapt to our attempts to wipe them out, and this has, indeed, turned out to be true.

How does the God theory work as science? I can list a hundred or more lines of evidence that support the theory of natural selection. Can anyone name a hundred bits of evidence that are best explained by the action of God? Can anyone make any predictions about the biological world based on the God theory?

Eric, I know that you, specifically, have an excellent scientific mind. I've read your science fiction and your posts on Codex. You must know what fits in the realm of science, and what doesn't.

If you can show me some way that God works as a sensible scientific theory, I'll be glad to support teaching it in a science class. If you can't, then don't drag down Darwin just because he's succeeding in these criteria where God isn't. I don't push Darwin into areas reserved for religion. For instance, you won't find me wearing a bracelet reading "WWDD?" There are very few instances in daily life where asking "What would Darwin do?" will provide a useful answer. (Whether you get a useful answer asking what Jesus would do is debatable as well, but at least the question isn't pure nonsense.)

Mr. Cavin said...

I hope it doesn't seem too much like a change of direction for me to quibble with this:

"Now, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of bones of creatures that any fair-minded person will judge as midway between man and monkey."

Which, in its oversimplification, advances a completely incorrect picture of the conclusions drawn by scientists. It also does probably reflect the thinking of the regular clear-minded joe. Bear with me here.

See, these dozens, if not hundreds, of bones are theorized to construct a precursory physicality, equally plausible as the distant morphology of both humans and apes, and therefore a possible point of ancestral divergence. Does this seem to be nit-picking?

Well, a fork in an Oklahoman road where one chooses to either head toward Alaska or Maine cannot really be considered a midpoint between the two. Not by any scientific yardstick I can think of, anyway. What Darwin said was that throughout a historical time-line, all creatures have advanced toward the states in which we observe them, states that were chosen by propagation in response to environmental stimuli.

It takes a lot longer to get to Alaska than it does to get to Maine, at least from Oklahoma it does. And before a certain point, this has all just been a trip to Oklahoma, anyway. Only after the fork can it become a drive to one or the other distant state, and then only if your car is up to it.

The bones of early hominid co-ancestors are not monkeymen. They are not some fifties Hollywood midpoint monster exhibiting base attributes of both modern species. They are a third thing, vastly different from both humans and apes, but able to become one or the other eventually. At the time they lived, however, way back in the Oklahoma Era, these things were state-of-the-art hominids, so damn advanced that they were able to not only stay alive and viable till right then in history, but also diverge into a spate of atypically successful relatives.

Your word "midway" sort of indicates a point on a line between poles. The common ancestors of apes and men are more like the third point in a triangle. I know you understand all this, and believe you've crafted an excellent counterpoint here, sir. But I wanted to illustrate a third angle. So you've read all this way just for my set up.

Were I to advance a reason for creationism not being taught alongside Darwinism in schools--and avoiding hot-button issues like the constitution, the sheer number of creation theories compared with Darwin's exactly one, and the idea that moral instruction belongs only within the purview of the home--I'd say that it's because your given religion's typical creation story is a pretty cut-and-dried ten minutes worth of rote memorization, whereas Darwin advanced a difficult-to-grasp, multi-part theory of such astonishing clarity and ramification that it takes a student some weeks to get from beginning to end of it.

James Maxey said...

Cavin, you are definitely correct in jumping on my term "midway." (One could also jump on my use of the word "monkey," since I chose it for alliteration with man, over the more accurate word "ape.") Still, natural selection predicts, before we found such bones, that we would find the remains of earlier hominids that predated man. Whether any of these more famous hominids was an actual human ancestor, or a mere dead end, we will probably never know without a time machine. But, as evidence, they do seem to point to the existence of creatures similar to man that existed earlier than man. This evidence is consistent with Darwin's theories. It isn't consistent with any religious theory that I'm aware of.

Of course, it's silly to even talk about religious theories as scientific theories. As you note, there's really not much to the various creation myths. You can fill encyclopedias with the the evidence of the material world and the various scientific theories that explain the origins of planets, porcupines, and people. You can barely get a half inch picture book out of any religious creation theory.