Monday, August 11, 2008

Controversies--5--Darwinian Evolution--II

Although we tend to think of Darwin's theory of evolution as a scientific theory, we deal with it in popular discourse much more like a political theory or idea. The very fact that Darwin's theory is still a subject of debate after all these years is a clear indication that it has a very large political component. Compare Darwin's theory with other scientific theories or ideas that are important economically and even politically. For example, there is hardly any scientific concept more important to our way of life and our economy than the thermodynamic cycles that explain the operation of our large engines, particularly the Otto cycle that explains the operation of the internal combustion engine.

Suppose you go into an automobile dealership and the salesman approaches you and asks if he can help you. You respond that you are interested in buying a new car. The salesman in turn responds that he has many fine automobiles that he would be glad to show you, but before he does, so that he doesn't waste his time or yours, he requires you to sign a statement saying that you believe in the Otto cycle. The most likely response to such a request of 99.99% of the American public would be, "Otto cycle? What the blazes is this Otto cycle that I am supposed to believe in?" Fairly recently I have read two commentaries by prominent political pundits, George F. Will and Thomas Friedman, bemoaning American ignorance of Darwin's theory of evolution and yet Darwin is no where near as important in our day to day lives and our economic well being as the Otto cycle. Why don't they bemoan American ignorance of that? The fact is that compared with their knowledge of the Otto cycle, American high school students are positive whiz kids on their knowledge of Darwin.

We really don't even speak about "belief" in respect to scientific ideas. I doubt that there is even an engineer who has applied to work at an automobile company or teach at a university who is asked if he believes in the Otto cycle. Can you imagine an electrician showing up at your doorstep saying he would fix your house wiring only after you sign a statement assuring him that you believe in Maxwell's equations?

Obviously, we can have no quarrel with the biologist who assures us that because he understands Darwin, he is able to develop more disease resistant peaches, or the geologist who states that his understanding of Darwin enables him to better find oil. For my part, I would be a little sceptical of such statements, but I certainly cannot argue with them if I want better peaches or more oil. One reason I am sceptical of such claims stems from personal experience. I invite, for example, the reader to get a copy of the first edition of James Watson's "Microbiology of the cell" and read the paean to Darwin and compare it with the similar essay on Mendel in the same volume. Mendel's work relates very directly and very understandably to everything that follows. On the other hand, after waxing eloquent about what a wonderful guy Darwin was and how very important his work was, the only thing Dr. Watson can actually come up with to relate what follows in his volume to Darwin's work is that somehow it shows that cell biology follows the same rules as chemistry and physics. To someone in physics this is a stretch, although, Watson's partner, Francis Crick who was a physicist (Watson was a biologist), was a big fan of Darwin so he must of somehow made reconcilition, but the only reconciliation I ever heard in my studies was "life is an open system"--a rather lame reconciliation at best.

The point here is that we discuss and treat Darwin's theory different than any other scientific theory, and the way we treat it is really an indication that, in popular discourse at any rate, it is more in the political arena than the scientific arena. We will, in my opinion, never know the value of Darwin's theory until it is removed from the political arena, any more than we can know the value of anything that belongs in the free market, but is transferred into the poitical market.

In the next segment I will try to relate the problems that Darwinian thought has created for health care and thus relate the two controversies.

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