Tuesday, December 20, 2005

The Anglican origins of neo-Darwinianism?   posted by Razib @ 12/20/2005 01:51:00 PM

In terms of the relationship between religion and "neo-Darwinianism," it is interesting to remember that R.A. Fisher, the mathematical geneticist who fused quantitative (biometrical) genetics with Mendelian theory and data, and served as the driving force and spark being the Modern Synthesis,1 was a conventional Anglican. The gradualist-selectionist orthodoxy elaborated by Richard Dawkins is a direct descendent of the ideas that Fisher elucidated in The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection. In fact, in Why Men Don't Ask For Directions, Richard C. Francis argues that the entire adaptationist-selectionist school can be derived from the Argument for Design elaborated by the Anglican clergyman William Paley (recall that Darwin initially considered the Church as a career). Francis' thesis seems to be that modern biology should shift away from "why" (i.e., the ultimate) questions to the "how" (i.e., the proximate) questions. The various interrelationships between these schools of ideas can be more difficult to untangle than one might think. In The Ancestor's Tale Richard Dawkins praises the ideas of Simon Conway Morris, a paleontologist who emphasizes the power of selection and its inevitabilities to a far greater extent than the late Stephen Jay Gould of contingency fame. One might be surprised that P.Z. Myers suggests that Morris' religious sensibilities have have influenced his science! You see, Morris, a theistic evolutionist, seems to favor some sort of teleology in his system (you hear none of this in Dawkins' praise).

I don't want to split hairs and parse the details, rather, I simply wanted to survey that complexities of the landscape above because of the perception that Dawkins' militant atheism has always been the public face of evolutionary theory, and that Creationism and Intelligent Design are in large part responses to evolutionary scientism. The reality though is that the polls do not show a great deal of change in terms of how many Americans accept evolutionary theory as a function of time. In cases where there has been a shift, i.e., the transition from a predominantly theistic student body at BYU to a predominantly Creationist one over the past 70 years, the causative factors are usually ascribed to sociological dynamics, not the rise of evolutionary scientism.2 Physical scientists, like Steven Weinberg and Peter Atkins have been just as candid about atheism being coupled with a deterministic scientific materialism as Dawkins, but concomitant public movements opposed to various physical scientific paradigms do not emerge.3 Atkins in fact tends to speak mostly about evolutionary theory, though he is by training a physical chemist, when he takes up the role of godless bulldog.

In my post below I point to species concepts and intuitions as barriers toward acceptance of evolutionary theory. I suggest that "under the cognitive hood" processes and architectures are in large part the necessary conditions which social and historical factors work upon to generate anti-scientific movements. Some of the comments I see about the web seem to imply that Dawkins' militant atheism is a major factor (though not sole) in why Creationism and Intelligent Design is so vibrant in the United States, in other words, it is a natural reaction by Christians to atheistic scientism. The implication is that if Dawkins would shut his mouth than the problem would be partly solved. I am skeptical of this because of the research which shows that children from non-Creationists backgrounds naturally think like Creationists. In other words, an innate neural substrate is being "triggered" by particular inputs, and I suspect that the inputs are far wider in range and number than atheist intellectuals few people read (Dawkins, Dennett, etc.). Creationist sentiment predates by decades the rise of Dawkins and company. An implication of what I am saying here is that the broad acceptance of Darwinian theory in places like England or China, as opposed to the United States, is on some level rather shallow. It is a tacit acceptance of elite speciality and the lack of social channels to express innate cognitive biases. In the United States, for whatever reason, a vigorous and proudly anti-modernist fundamentalist movement exists. Though its absolute numbers are small (most evangelicals are inerrantists, not fundamentalists), its influence is wide. Historian Ronald L. Numbers has documented how the theories of Seventh Day Adventists have gained wide currency in evangelical circles without those who accept these theories having any knowledge of their provenance. In sum, the anti-evolutionary opinions of the broad American public can not be solved by simply changing the way evolution is taught, or how public intellectuals behave themselves, or reasoning with clerical luminaries. The ruling in Dover is the latest in a long line of elite rebuttals of populist attempts to push forward anti-evolutionary theories. Though some on the Right flirt with Intelligent Design, even the conservative elites tend to reject the popular intuitions when it comes to biology. The lasting power of Creationism (and Intelligent Design) on the American scene might be a function mostly of the powerful channels for the expression of popular sentiment particular to our culture. In a decentralized nation of a thousand denominations and a rejection of elite specialist status one might find the perfect seedbed for the spread of cognitive representations which are easily slotted into intuitions.4

1 - In Sewall Wright and Evolutionary Biology William Provine argues that it was Wright, not Fisher, who was the most central personality within the great span of 20th century evolutionary biology. I think Provine makes a good case, and ultimately, comparing Fisher to Wright is an apples to oranges exercise. Rather, I think that both Fisher and Wright were fundamental to the resurrection of evolutionary theory driven by natural selection upon heritable variation. Wright was a trained biologist, so his natural and empirical intuitions were I think more solid, while Fisher's mathematical background spurred Wright to refine his models in a more precise and formalized fashion.

2 - See Ronald L. Numbers The Creationists. Over the past 3 generations Mormons have assimilated into the conservative Protestant subculture to some extent, without being Protestants. Numbers seems to argue that acceptance of Creationism, despite the lack of direction from the elites of the Church, is symptomatic of an identification on many cultural issues with the Christian Right.

3 - I am not proposing any overwhelming principle component to explain the emerge of anti-scientific theories driven by public support. There are obvious problems with imagining an anti-Grand Unified Theory movement which holds that the forces of nature are fundamentally divisible and distinct.

4 - There are certainly Creationists in other nations. Consider England, which does have a Creationist movement, though polls regularly suggest that ~80% of British accept evolutionary theory (vs. ~40-50% of Americans). When it comes to the spread of intuitionally appealing ideas I would argue that in America the fitness landscape for these ideas is far more congenial to their spread. While in England Seventh Day Adventists are a very marginal group with little social influence, in the United States there are a number of denominations which are to their "Left" which may serve as conduits for their ideas to the evangelical mainstream, which itself is relatively respectable. In other words, in England explicit systematic Creationist ideas do not spread in part because of a deep fitness valley around the locus of their genesis in fundamentalist subcultures. Additionally, the fitness of the ideas themselves might be instrinstically lower because of correlated negative selection (i.e., more shame attached to fundamentalist viewpoints in England than the USA).