A Bit of Missionary Supercessionism

Can Biology Do Better than Faith?

I love when, in the same brief piece of prose,  an author accuses his intellectual opponents of narrow-mindedness and asserts with dogmatic triumphalism that his own position has overcome all others.  Normally one has to read partisan political prose to find such things, but as more and more lab researchers set forth to do metaphysics, one gets paragraphs like this one:

IT IS surpassingly strange that half of Americans recently polled (2004) not only do not believe in evolution by natural selection but do not believe in evolution at all. Americans are certainly capable of belief, and with rock-like conviction if it originates in religious dogma. In evidence is the 60 per cent that accept the prophecies of the Bible’s Book of Revelation as truth, and in yet more evidence is the weight that faith-based positions hold in political life.

Not even considering the bizarre elongated-and-italicized title of the Apocalypse, Wilson’s rhetoric seems to hold all beliefs as being of one sort, that the only strange thing is that one belief rather than another is ascendant, considering that Americans as a group are big on “belief.”  But a couple paragraphs later, one gets this:

The critics forget how the reward system in science works. Any researcher who can prove the existence of intelligent design within the accepted framework of science will make history and achieve eternal fame. They will prove at last that science and religious dogma are compatible. Even a combined Nobel prize and Templeton prize (the latter designed to encourage the search for just such harmony) would fall short as proper recognition. Every scientist would like to accomplish such a epoch-making advance. But no one has even come close, because unfortunately there is no evidence, no theory and no criteria for proof that even marginally might pass for science.

Now the question is not one of “belief” but one of “evidence.”   Questions of how things become evident are apparently not important enough to include in his brief piece (though villainizing accounts of bishops make the cut); what makes something evident must be self-evident.  Neither does Wilson note the scientific theory that I learned, namely that scientific proof, a descendant of empiricism, is always a matter of probability rather than deduction.  Instead, crossing that metaphysical line that neither Francis Bacon nor John Locke would cross, Wilson takes broad consensus as indisputable truth.

Perhaps even more condescending than his theoretical sleight-of-hand is Wilson’s evaluation of the political ramifications of various metaphysical schools.  (He never does name them that, but such should be obvious):

In the more than slightly schizophrenic circumstances of the present era, global culture is divided into three opposing images of the human condition. The dominant one, exemplified by the creation myths of the Abrahamic monotheistic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – sees humanity as a creation of God. He brought us into being and He guides us still as father, judge and friend. We interpret His will from sacred scriptures and the wisdom of ecclesiastical authorities.

The second world view is that of political behaviourism. Still beloved by the now rapidly fading Marxist-Leninist states, it says that the brain is largely a blank state devoid of any inborn inscription beyond reflexes and primitive bodily urges. As a consequence, the mind originates almost wholly as a product of learning, and it is the product of a culture that itself evolves by historical contingency. Because there is no biologically based “human nature”, people can be moulded to the best possible political and economic system, namely communism. In practical politics, this belief has been repeatedly tested and, after economic collapses and tens of millions of deaths in a dozen dysfunctional states, is generally deemed a failure.

Both of these world views, God-centred religion and atheistic communism, are opposed by a third and in some ways more radical world view, scientific humanism. Still held by only a tiny minority of the world’s population, it considers humanity to be a biological species that evolved over millions of years in a biological world, acquiring unprecedented intelligence yet still guided by complex inherited emotions and biased channels of learning. Human nature exists, and it was self-assembled. Having arisen by evolution during the far simpler conditions in which humanity lived during more than 99 per cent of its existence, it forms the behavioural part of what, in The Descent of Man, Darwin called “the indelible stamp of [our] lowly origin”.

I do find it amusing that an evolutionary biologist sounds more like Sean Hannity than like the nineteenth-century humanists and more like Jim Dobson than like the Renaissance humanists by the end of this little section.  But chuckling about strange bedfellows is merely an amusement, not an intellectual move.  On a historical level, Wilson seems more than willing to ignore theories of “nature” that separated white nature from black nature, male nature from female nature, Aryan nature from Jewish nature.  Once one begins linking biology to an immutable “nature,” one ought to be willing to grab onto all of the resulting ideologies, not only the cuddly American ones (which are still infused with Protestantism anyway) that inform his cadre of lab-researchers-turned-atheologians.

Honestly, as I consider more and more of the prose coming forth about evolution, creationism, and ID, I’m more and more convinced that the third is the most historically responsible, the most accommodating of what is evident, and the most promising for theory that means something.  I suppose I’m drawn to it mainly because it retains some metaphysical skepticism where creationism locks metaphysics in the fifth century BC and materialism in the nineteenth AD.  I’d prefer a historicism with regards to metaphysics, a willingness to consider the possibility (strange as it may seem) that not everyone outside of my little intellectual circle is either a child or a charlatan.

But such skepticism does not sell books, I suppose.


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