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June 16th 2014 print

B.J. Coman

The New War of the Roses

What might be called the latest eruption of "the Darwin Wars" are a subset of a broader conflict. Funding and status are at stake. These days, unless you can demonstrate what you are doing is “scientific”, your likelihood of attracting support is very low

fossilInternational Darwin Day was held on February 12. It is a recently established feast day for the non-deluded. Celebrations were held in many localities including Costa Rica, where inhabitants and visitors at Sloth Creek enjoyed a day of “Darwin, thought, reason and fun”. I would have thought that the first three activities precluded the fourth, but that’s just me perhaps. They might have chosen a better-named venue too. The event is managed globally by the American Humanist Association. No surprise there! In London, the event was chaired by Professor Richard Dawkins. No surprise there either. I have a suspicion that anyone turning up in clerical garb would not be made to feel welcome. Unless, of course, that person had a copy of Bishop Robinson’s Honest to God prominently displayed. For Catholic clerics, a conspicuous volume of Teilhard de Chardin might just pass muster.

I mention all this by way of background. The establishment of such a secular feast day might lead you to believe that the celebration bespeaks of a united appreciation of the great man and his theory. It is not so. If you thought that the sort of verbal pugilism exhibited between Darwin’s Bulldog (Huxley) and Soapy Sam (Wilberforce) was consigned to the dustbin of history, you are very much in error. Today, wars over Darwin and his theory are not just continuing, but are of increasing ferocity.

There is, however, one major difference between then and now. Soapy Sam’s opposition to Darwinism was of a religious nature, but today’s opponents are, for the most part, godless. This is not a battle between science and religion: it is a battle between rival factions within Darwinism. And like Legion, they are many. I hesitate to say that it is a battle within science, because I am not at all convinced that the various parties always argue from a purely scientific point of view. Indeed, I’m not sure there is such a thing.

In fact, the Darwin wars are really a subset of the more general science wars which reached their peak a couple of decades ago. The heart of the matter is a turf war concerning the objectivity of science and what counts as being “scientific”. Put in over-simplified terms, the old science disciplines tend to be on one side and the newer social sciences on the other. This is not just an ideological matter. Funding and status are at stake. These days, unless you can demonstrate that what you are doing is “scientific”, your likelihood of attracting funding is very low. Ask any of the refugees from the former Humanities departments in the universities.

In some respects, the science wars resemble the history wars but, as will become evident, simple comparisons are unhelpful. Although both conflicts involve what might be termed postmodern influences and a strong presence of New Left ideo­logy, the science wars, especially as they apply to Darwinism, are more complicated and any simple characterisation of Left/postmodern approaches as relativistic compared to the supposed objectivity of their opponents is quite incorrect.

Right at the start, I need to make my own position clear. Having now laboured through a good number of books and articles dealing with the general matter of evolutionary theory and its application to human nature (Wilson, Ehrlich, Dawkins, et hoc genus omne) I find myself in general agreement with the late David Stove, the Sydney philosopher, whose book Darwinian Fairytales first appeared in 1995. He had no difficulty accepting the fact of evolution, but the various theories were another matter. I concur and thereby must describe myself as a lapsed Darwinist. The term connotes not so much a total break as a slow falling away or inattention to devotional practices, and is thus far less serious than the term apostate, which usually involves some form of vigorous denial. With this distinction in mind, the reader might understand that, in classing myself as a lapsed Darwinist, I am not thereby committing myself to the ranks of the Young Earth Creationists or sundry other groups who are vigorous in their denial of evolution. I should also add that my lapsed condition has nothing to do with any religious belief, although I class myself as a Christian. The Christian doctrines in which I believe have nothing to say about natural selection, genes and random mutation.

If your knowledge of evolutionary theory comes simply from watching David Attenborough on the television or reading press reports on the latest utterances from Richard Dawkins, or Daniel Dennett, or even our own Tim Flannery, then any notion of disturbances amongst the White Coats will come as a surprise. To really get a feeling for the scope and intensity of the Darwin wars, you need to dig deeper. You could go to the various specialist scientific journals where most of the hand-to-hand fighting is taking place but this is an arduous business, made all the more tedious by the need to translate the peculiar terminology used by evolutionary biologists/psychologists/sociologists. A far better option is to find a book where a more general account of the various protagonists might be found. Of course, it is too much to ask for a non-partisan account—they don’t exist. In ordinary wars, they say, we usually get only the victor’s account, but in the Darwin wars there are no victors and we tend to get many accounts. Even so, some are better than others, and I want to concentrate on one example which at least has the virtue of giving a reasonably clear account of the battleground. This is Alas Poor Darwin, edited by Hilary and Stephen Rose and published back in 2000. There are fifteen essays by academics (most are professors) in sociology, genetics, animal behaviour, psychology and philosophy. It is not my intention to provide a full review of the book. Rather, I wish to highlight some of the material contained in it which, I think, is critical to understanding the Darwin wars and their importance. Whilst the book is now somewhat dated, I believe most of the issues under contention are unchanged.

First, a word about the Roses. They have form, if you know what I mean. Hilary Rose is described on the cover blurb as a “feminist sociologist”, whilst Stephen has been described by an admiring colleague as “the last of the Marxist radical scientists”. Even the Guardian once described him as “a polemicist on the left”. This is a case of the pot calling the kettle red—or pink, anyway. But I have to say that the material in the book is well written and well argued and this includes the essays contributed by the Professors Rose themselves. Both of the Roses have published widely and are well regarded by their peers. This is reflected in the fact that they were able to attract a diversity of talent in this volume, including Stephen Jay Gould and Mary Midgley. To be sure, there is a spicing of feminist/leftish analysis but I found most of the essays reasonably even-handed.

Alas Poor Darwin is a sustained attack on a particular grouping of evolutionary thought called evolutionary psychology, or EP for short (one of the essays has the marvellous title “EP Phone Home”—an allusion to the need for the devotees of EP to return to the real world). I use the term grouping because there are many rooms in the EP mansion but their occupants are by no means a harmonious family. What justifies the collective title of EP is a shared view that human nature (including aspects such as memory, perception and language) is a product of evolution. The brain is an information processing device that evolved way back in the Stone Age. Different neural mechanisms that we recognise today evolved in early ape-persons (I tread carefully here). More accurately, they are a product of natural selection during the Pleistocene, when our prehistoric ancestors are said to have roamed the African savannah. What this means for us today is that our behaviour is directly linked to those neural structures that developed back in the distant past. What it also means, for the devotees of EP, is that this approach is “scientific” compared with what they see as the dubious status of all other approaches.

Now, if you think all of this appears to be acceptable, consider the consequences a little more carefully. What EP asks you to believe is that the theory explains war, male aggression, love, altruism, marriage, rape, our appreciation of beauty, our preference for landscapes with open vistas, and so on. In fact—let’s be honest—it explains everything. If you think I am exaggerating here, let me quote a couple of examples from the “scientific” literature.

Back at the turn of this century, biologist Randy Thornbill and anthropologist Craig Palmer published a book called The Natural History of Rape. In it, they argue that rape is an adaptive strategy by which otherwise sexually unsuccessful men propagate their genes by mating with fertile women. Here they were merely echoing the sentiments of the sociobiologist David Barash, who some twenty years earlier had written, “If nature is sexist, don’t blame her sons.”

The second example comes from an article published in Psychology Today in 2007. Here, two practitioners of EP, Alan Miller and Satoshi Kanazawa, explained why men like blonde bombshells. For clarity, it will be necessary for me to quote at a little length:

Until very recently, it was a mystery to evolutionary psychology why men prefer women with large breasts, since the size of a woman’s breasts has no relationship to her ability to lactate. But Harvard anthropologist Frank Marlowe contends that larger, and hence heavier, breasts sag more conspicuously with age than do smaller breasts. Thus they make it easier for men to judge a woman’s age (and her reproductive value) by sight—suggesting why men find women with large breasts more attractive.

Alternatively, men may prefer women with large breasts for the same reason they prefer women with small waists. A new study of Polish women shows that women with large breasts and tight waists have the greatest fecundity, indicated by their levels of two reproductive hormones (estradiol and progesterone).

Blond hair is unique in that it changes dramatically with age. Typically, young girls with light blond hair become women with brown hair. Thus, men who prefer to mate with blond women are unconsciously attempting to mate with younger (and hence, on average, healthier and more fecund) women. It is no coincidence that blond hair evolved in Scandinavia and northern Europe, probably as an alternative means for women to advertise their youth, as their bodies were concealed under heavy clothing.

Bernard Levin once discussed the possibility of a new “shortcut” symbol or word (similar in function to sic or ibid) which indicates, “I have not made this up”. Such an abbreviation applies to the above. By now, you may be getting just a glimmer of an idea why Hilary Rose, amongst many others, is not enthusiastic about these EP theories.

“But surely,” I hear you say, “these are just a few cranks at the extreme end of EP?” Not so. The crankiness goes all the way down, and for one simple reason: when you make an a priori assumption that evolutionary theory explains everything, you are committed to doing just that. Hence, for instance, the respected godfather of sociobiology, E.O. Wilson, finds that our liking for pleasant gardens with lawns, water features, abundant flowers and fruiting trees and, perhaps, a distant prospect of Eton College, all hark back to the Pleistocene when we appreciated good foraging spots close to water and with a clear view of approaching enemies (in which case, I should replace Eton with the LSE). He knows, too, why men have a preference for women with high cheekbones, a thin jaw, large eyes and a shorter distance between mouth and chin and between nose and chin—we have an exaggerated view of those features in women which are indicators of youth, virginity and the prospect of a long reproductive period. Again, I have not made this up.

And now it’s time to move on to some of the considerations of EP which lie outside the province of “straight biology”. Earlier in this essay, I warned that there are no non-partisan accounts of EP. When it comes to the political ramifications of EP, the Roses have decidedly strong views. Amongst other things, they feel that EP has been used to justify the horrendous programs of the Right. During the 1980s, they penned a joint essay showing how sociobiology was culturally underpinning “the Thatcherite attack on the welfare state”. Now, we must grant them their initial feminist/Marxist positions for, in EP, there is no such thing as “the view from nowhere”. Even so, I do find it hard to fit Denis and Maggie Thatcher into any Darwinian picture. Denis was hardly the epitome of male aggression and Maggie was certainly not known for submissiveness. Concerning hair colour and other more delicate matters, I have no data. But, to be fair, the influence of Darwinism in politics is not without some historical evidence. Everyone has heard or read about Social Darwinism and Herbert Spencer. And everyone, including the Roses, knows that Marx and Engels were greatly attracted to Darwin’s theory. The point is that ideas have consequences, often outside their own particular field, and this is especially true of Darwinian ideas.

At a broader level, as the Roses correctly point out, the terms “Darwinian” and “evolutionary” are now applied to almost every province of human endeavour. We have, as well as evolutionary biology (the type species, so to speak), evolutionary medicine, psychology, psychiatry, sociology and even evolutionary economics. And, of course, we have the evolution of the universe. As for “Darwinian”, its features and methodologies are now invoked to explained advances in computer technology, expansion of internet companies and even the growth and competition of rival scientific theories. What the Roses fail to mention is the enormous boost given to the whole Darwin business by television nature shows and how, by this means, it has seeped into popular culture as a theory of everything. Darwinism is now certainly a great deal more than a theory in biology.

The baleful influence of the EP nonsense has a very long reach indeed. Jonathan Gottschall, an American literary scholar and EP fellow traveller, has written on Homer’s Iliad (The Rape of Troy: Evolution, Violence and the World of Homer, 2008). Here, as he tells us, he “experienced the Iliad as a drama of naked apes … Intense competition between great apes, as described by both Homer and by primatologists, frequently boils down to precisely the same thing: access to females.” Yet again, I have not made this up. Forget about the talking horses; forget those lines in Book 7 (421–32) when the Trojans and Achaians gather to bury their dead; and, especially, forget this line—“There is nothing alive more agonised than man / of all that breathe and crawl across the earth”. It’s all down to raping women. Sic transit gloria mundi.

As I intimated above, the real source of the Darwin wars has little to do with straight biology, despite appearances to the contrary. The mutual detestation flowing between Richard Dawkins and E.O. Wilson (age has not wearied them) might be the stuff of legend, but it is incidental to the main game. No doubt their particular conflict has its origins in the Palaeolithic when cave-persons fought over access to food, water, mates, or a hill with a view. Mind you, both of these persons have enjoyed rich pasturage over their long careers and the concept of some sort of Darwinian struggle for scarce resources somehow doesn’t ring true. No, the Darwin wars are all about differing conceptions of the nature of scientific inquiry and, as a corollary, of scientific respectability. And it is here that a real Darwinian struggle for resources takes place—funding, university professorships, appointments to chairs, and so on.

There are many ways to provoke a conflict between humans, not all of them recognisably Darwinian. In the olden days, it was enough to administer a gentle slap to the face with your glove. Amongst Australian drovers, as Banjo Paterson astutely observed, the surest way to ensure a fight is to kick another person’s dog. For practitioners in the social sciences, the worst possible insult is to imply that what they do is not science. The EP faction, as well as many in the more traditional sciences, uses this insult regularly. Back in 1994, scientists Paul Gross and Norman Levitt published Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and its Quarrels with Science. It was a very palpable hit and the Roses, in particular, took it hard. Even the title has a bite, suggesting as it does a sort of Darwinian analogue of Higher Criticism. This was no leather-glove slap but a mailed fist. Soon after, the physicist Alan Sokal published a hoax article in Social Text, an academic journal of postmodern cultural studies. It was another palpable hit, the scientific equivalent of the Ern Malley affair.

Now the defenders of scientific purity certainly have a lot going for them. There is a good deal of rubbish coming from social sciences. In the January-February issue of Quadrant, I made mention of “happiness studies” as an example. The trouble is that the forces of scientific purity have been consistently undermined by the EP crowd (who suppose that they fight under the same banner) whose own “research” often amounts to little more than pure speculation—“And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?” The examples I have quoted earlier in this essay are just the tip of the iceberg. As Hilary Rose rightly points out:

For those conscious that scholars of prehistory work with highly fragmentary evidence, from shards of bones, fossils, and very occasionally entire bodies preserved by ice or some geological quirk, the belief that late twentieth-century people can know the human psychological architecture of our early ancestors with any degree of certainty and accuracy is difficult to take seriously.

In any case, the whole attempt to reduce consciousness and mental actions to physical explanations (which is, at base, what a lot of EP is about) is fraught with problems. There have been powerful critiques of this from philosophers such as Thomas Nagel (The View from Nowhere; Mind and Cosmos) and David Stove (Darwinian Fairytales) and from scientists themselves. The mathematician and philosopher David Berlinski has produced a very entertaining account titled The Devil’s Delusion.

There can be no question that the science wars and the Darwin wars in particular have had a negative influence on the standing of science in society. Hilary Rose correctly identifies this but then supposes that it has been feminism and environmentalism, working in tandem, that have done much to challenge the pretensions of scientific reductionism. I would have thought that these two influences were minor compared to modern science’s capacity for self-harm. The self-harm in my view arises because of the consistent habit of the White Coats to make premature announcements of their successes. Every other week on the television news or in the papers, we have reports of new breakthroughs (usually cancer cures) or of new evidence confirming some impending doom—climate catastrophe, super bugs, ocean acidification, collapse of fish stocks. Like the very super bugs themselves, the general populace eventually develops, via adaptation, an aversive response. People no longer take much of it very seriously. When you send out mixed messages, combining ecological catastrophism with promethean claims of salvation via new technologies, and then fail to deliver, what else can you expect?

The premature and “golly gosh” announcements of success or of impending doom arise for one simple reason—Darwinian struggle for scarce funding. This is the era of short-term, results-based funding and you either produce the goods quickly or you starve. The whole landscape of scientific research has changed utterly in the last fifty years. When I began as a young research biologist in pest animal research back in the 1960s, funding was rarely a critical issue. There were cashed-up industry funds (Wool Board, Wheat Board, Australian Meat and Livestock Corporation, and so on). CSIRO enjoyed an immensely high reputation and was well-funded. Most of the states had their own government research stations and, most importantly, there was a willingness on the part of the funding bodies to put money into long-term, basic research. For their part, the universities also enjoyed generous research funding. Like many other young graduates of my era, I was encouraged by my employer to return to the academy and study for a higher degree. Science never had it so good.

Perhaps I could repeat a little true story, published in a Quadrant article of mine many years ago, which demonstrates the (excessively) high standing of science back in those days. For many years, I worked at a regional research centre in Victoria. There were pasture scientists, sheep and cattle specialists, and even people to advise on such lowly tasks as poisoning rabbits or spraying Paterson’s curse (I was such a one). One specialist, a colleague of mine, was a soil scientist. He once visited a farm to help with a soil erosion problem and, in the course of general conversation, the topic got around to geology. “See those volcanic rocks,” he said to the old cocky, “they are Pliocene, six million years old.” Now it so happened that, some eight years later, another colleague of mine from the old Department of Agriculture visited this same farm to advise on pasture treatment (for red-legged earth mites, as I recall). They drove past the same rock outcrop. “See those rocks,” said the old cocky, “they’re six million and eight years old.”

There is a final irony in all this. Readers must now consider the awkward position confronting those fundamentalist Christians long accustomed to the ridicule of the EP mob (and their opponents) and, of course, to that of the general media (Kick a Fundo for Science—or the ratings). Suddenly, they behold the spectacle of their long-time enemies falling upon each other in mortal combat. Should they rejoice or take pity? Certain of the Church Fathers were of the opinion that the spectacle of the suffering inflicted on the damned in hell would add to the happiness of the souls in heaven. But Schadenfreude is hardly a Christian virtue. There are theological problems—taking delight in the suffering of others is not in the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount or, for that matter, in the spirit of certain books of the Old Testament—“Rejoice not when thine enemy falleth, and let not thine heart be glad when he stumbleth” (Proverbs).

Besides, there is a more general problem for Christians, nicely summarised by Tertullian: Omne enim spectaculum sine concussione spiritus non est. (There is no public entertainment which does not inflict spiritual damage.) It is worth adding that he made this observation eighteen centuries before the advent of reality television and the ABC. This is a powerful argument for the efficacy of Christian prophecy—and for getting rid of the ABC.

B.J. Coman is the editor of Connor Court Quarterly and the author of the essay collection A Loose Canon. He contributed “The Enduring Problem of Monkey Business” to the January-February issue.