Our campus library sends around a monthly list of recent acquisitions as a service to the academic departments. This past month a book called Evolution and the Humanities materialized on the list. Given my posts on the local Committee on the History and Philosophy of Science and the special task force striving to redefine the goals of a University of California education (including "scientizing the humanists" as well as "humanizing the scientists"), I literally ran to the library to find out what this book was about.
I found out. It is about disciplinary paranoia, inferiority complexes, sophistry, and plain old obtuseness.
David Holbrook, Fellow of Downing College, Cambridge, has written a polemic not so much against evolution as against scientific reductionism (which he sees incarnate in neo-Darwinism). He proceeds from revulsion at the existentialist vision of "life as a 'scientific accident.' " He's no creationist but, rather, a from-the-gut free-form vitalist—just as preoccupied with the perceived moral consequences of the Darwinian revolution as any Bible-thumping moralist could be. As usual, he conflates science with scientism and evolution with evolutionism, materialism, and atheism; with perverse functionalist-teleological zeal, he condemns an idea for the sins of those who elaborate upon or make use of it. Holbrook sees the baleful impact of evolution everywhere in our civilization, most notably in the destruction of any moorings for values; he reacts to the perceived crisis by rolling out all the old standard anti-evolutionary chestnuts in an attempt to show that the theory was never worth taking very seriously:
The theory cannot be falsified (according to the requirements of Karl Popper for scientific hypotheses), and cannot be refuted by any possible observation. . . . But evolution has been observed by no witnesses and cannot be put to the test of experiment.
Today, many of the opinions of evolutionists depend upon blind faith, as Professor Otto Frisch demonstrates . . . he says, "Even if a very unlikely mutation caused a reptile to have offspring with feathers instead of scales, what good would that do without muscles to move them and a brain rebuilt to control those muscles?"
We are also treated to Piltdown, Cyril Burt, Fred Hoyle, and much more, including the insufficiency of Darwinism to explain the origin of life, which it is not required to do. Most of the chapters focus upon specific critics of evolution. Since their arguments are strongly repetitive, the book is, too. To find stale old quotes on stale old issues, one need only open the book at random.
As I say, Holbrook is a vitalist, strongly influenced by Michael Polanyi (and by Marjorie Grene, who was also strongly influenced by Polanyi; having taught philosophy of biology with her, I know she no longer believes much of what she did a couple of decades ago). He quotes Polanyi: "The process must have been directed by an orderly innovating principle . . . . (Personal Knowledge, 1953, p. 386). He professes a rigorous critique of the logical structure of evolutionary theory and of its status as science (or in science) but again and again betrays his motives by lapsing into Jeremiads about the moral malaise of the times:
. . . although there have been teleological arguments about the nature of life, the modern mind has turned against these in favor of mechanical explanations combined with the metaphysical view that life is pointless and absurd.
. . . A great deal of the secret of life still evades us, and so it is absurd to take a nihilistic stance in the Humanities on the implications of attempts to reduce life to . . . molecules. . . . on what ground can a really radical general philosophy be based on a theory which can offer so little to explain the primary processes and features of life on earth?
By way of an alternative, he offers:
. . . the mystery of life is there, and may one day strike us startlingly in the face with its reality—the danger is it may then be too late, and the web of eternity could close its infinite meshes for the last time on Faustian man . . . because he did not think enough, in awe, before the mystery of his own being.
I am not sure what makes me angriest about this book: the mediocrity and fuddledness of its argument, its appalling functionalist premise, its repetitive and tedious organization, or the lack of any visible copyediting or proofreading. On this last point, Ernst Haeckel's name appears as "Maecell" and "Haedel" in two consecutive paragraphs on page 207 and as "Kaeckel" on page 212. "Maecell" appears in the index; "Haedel" and "Kaeckel" do not, but Haeckel isn't referenced on page 212 either. Such howlers can be counted in the hundreds. I was about to congratulate Holbrook for not buying RUpert Sheldrake's mystical theory of epimorphic fields when I noticed that the chapter devoted to the subject is entitled "Robert Sheldrake's 'A New Science of Life"' (p. 74).
If sloppy editing is sinful, sloppy reasoning is much worse, especially in a loudly self-proclaimed scholar of the humanities. Holbrook quotes with seeming approval a letter to the London Times purporting to disprove the evolutionary history of horses by showing that dwarf breeds of horses, as small as very early members of the lineage, are alive today (p. 208). The irony in this—that such breeds were produced by humans using selection—is lost on the letter's author and on Holbrook. Although many of my friends in the humanities know rather little about science, I think most of them could pass a freshman course in critical reasoning with flying colors. I'm not so sure about Holbrook.
Holbrook's whole book is driven by the irrational fear that the agenda of science is to render what he does redundant:
Speaking for myself as a teacher of the Humanities . . . there are words that I want to use which science threatens to deny me . . . order, harmony, direction, primary consciousness, intelligence, striving, ingenuity, achievement, and aims. The upshot of any exploration of the debate will be, I hope, that these words and the thinking that goes with them are perfectly legitimate.
But of course they are legitimate. So are evil, good, virtue, value, and freedom.
There may indeed be biologists so bloodless that they can view the birth of their own child as a purely mechanical process, so steeped in probabilism that they can sit alone atop a mountain and feel no hint of awe—I have never met one—but they are to science what sociopaths are to the world at large: there is something defective about their wiring. Such a statement would make Holbrook cringe.
The last paragraph of this book quotes Michael Pitman at exhausting length on the perfection of the human eye and the insufficiency of any gradual-improvement scenario to explain it. Of course, Richard Dawkins' recently published The Blind Watchmaker addresses exactly this hoary objection to evolution, but it cannot hope to lay Holbrook's doubts to rest. It is much harder to visualize what would do that than to imagine a falsifier for the general theory of evolution.
Holbrook wants us to abandon Darwinism and neo-Darwinism in favor of a candid declaration of ignorance, which he thinks is the intellectually honest thing to do. The remarkable explosion in our understanding of the workings of the eukaryotic genome is exactly the kind of antidote biologists need for their perennial hubris. We don't know everything. But we do know something. And by and large we are not the self-promoting, self-deluding knaves, bigots, and fools caricatured in this book. We, too, have journeyed to the mountain and to the edge of the abyss.