Monday, February 11, 2008
Imagine a brief which is aimed at both Christianity Today and The Humanist; Cornelius J. Troost's Apes or Angels does just that. Synthesizing the latest research coming out of modern genomics with ideas first mooted by Charles Darwin 150 years ago Troost launches an extended broadside at the pieties of the modern age and the cult of equality. He wields the 'universal acid' of evolutionary thinking and makes a case for a post-supernatural world view which fulfills its promise by making peace with nature; as opposed to pretending as if our dreams of the good and should reflect the truth of a world. Troost asks us to consider the implications of a world wrought in blood, red in tooth and claw. In short, fraternity does not depend upon the reality of equality; at least if fraternity as such already exists while the equality never did. Confronting a many-headed hydra Apes or Angels makes recourse to a wide array of tools to cut its antagonista down to size. In the process Troost surveys the grand arc of the history of evolution, naturalistic philosophy as well as the latest insights from neuroscience. Evolutionary science serves as the sinew, but the bone and flesh of the argument are variegated and diverse.
In The Blank Slate Steve Pinker observed curiously that even into the 21st century we take as our philosophical sages in the domain of human affairs to be men who lived in the 17th and 18th century. Hobbes, Locke, Montesquieu and Hume to name names. All them lived before evolution, before psychology, before even the fissuring of natural philosophy into its manifold faces that we know today as science. It is perhaps a reflection upon our species that decisions we make as to how we order our affairs as a social organism are influenced by the ideas of men who lived before the great flowering of scientific thought; common sense ideas from an a priori world. In Apes or Angels the full arc of the hammer-blow that Darwin's common sense idea about natural selection and descent with modification had upon traditional religion is detailed; from the outraged Victorians to the Scopes Monkey Trial to the Dover fiasco. This is a well known tale and many an enlightened liberal would chuckle at the travails of the yokels who populate the broad expanses of the heartland of this nation. The ignorati who refuse to make their peace with the truths unearthed by science.
But interlaced with this familiar story is a less well known one which suggests that the reality that humans are different in nature, capacity and propensity is being established by the more cutting edge of the human sciences. It is commonly observable that as humans we vary, but the causal factors underlying that variation have long been subject to dispute, and to be frank, the fashions of the day. During the high tide of the blank slate men such as Leon Kamin could claim in polite company that the heritability of IQ was about zero. No more. The waters are retreating and exposing what was once obscured; we need to rapidly prepare ourselves for the new and the surprising. Troost's book is chock-full of research from every cutting edge field relevant to the human sciences. On occasion I would submit that his enthusiasm gets the better of him; results reported do not necessarily imply facts established. Theories propounded are a dime a dozen. Science as a process is riddled with error and noise; its genius is in its rigorous corrective mechanisms. But those mechanisms need time to work so as to shape a better picture of reality. That being said, the tentative findings of one generation are the background assumptions of the next. It is the job of scientists to engage in the process of hypothesis generation and subsequent falsification. It is the job of those who follow science, which should be every broadly educated individual, to determine how science fits into our view of how the world is, should be, and how we can make it be what we believe it should be.