Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Danger: Unreadable Flying Objects

We've had a rather nice, quiet time here in the OD household over the holidays so far (though it's been a bit too drearily rainy outside).

It's been good to withdraw from the world a bit, perhaps except for catching up on the latest terrorist panic: is it just me, or is it a particularly sad comment on the state of the world when one of ABC News's biggest recent scoops seems to be publicising pictures of 'a singed pair of underwear with a packet of powder sewn into the crotch'?

Our retreat into the domestic cave has been accompanied by trying to focus on some of the real-world writing we need to do, hence the relative hiatus in any light blogging recently.

Which may continue; we'll see.

But I felt the urge to break radio silence tonight while reading Steven Shapin's lengthy LRB article on Darwin Year 2009.

Not after reading the article, I stress, since I haven't finished it yet.

I may not ever, in fact.

An distant early warning blip sounded in my mind when visitors to the Galapagos were referred to as 'tourists making scientific haj'; a few more followed when Shapin recounts the majority of Darwin Year events in a tone of condescending mockery.

The alarms rang a bit more loudly when Shapin--apparently approvingly--offers another quote:

‘Every age moulds Charles Darwin to its own preoccupations, but the temptation is hard to resist,’ Philip Ball noted in the Observer. ‘In the early 20th century, he became a prophet of social engineering and the free market. With sociobiology in the 1970s, Darwinism became a behavioural theory, while neo-Darwinist genetics prompted a bleak view of humanity as gene machines driven by the selfish imperatives of our DNA.’

Beyond question, the first part is generally right, and, indeed, Darwinism has been misused in all kinds of ways.

Still, the sweeping reference to 'bleak' views of humanity and the 'selfish' imperatives of DNA caused me to nearly throw the paper across the room. I'm used to people making this reference who haven't managed to get past the title of Dawkins's 1976 book, but Shapin is a historian of science, so I'm assuming he has.

But one of the underlying aims of Shapin's article is to reveal the shocking true agenda of many of the Darwin enthusiasts over the last year--Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett prominent among them--i.e., to promote atheism.

Which Shapin apparently thinks is foolish, judging by his sarcasm:

The International Darwin Day Foundation, acting as publicist and clearing house for hundreds of the year’s global events, is administered by the American Humanist Association, a secularist pressure group which defends the civil liberties of the endangered species of the American godless, and hands out annual awards to its chosen ‘Humanist of the Year’ (past winners include Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, E.O. Wilson and Steven Pinker). For the Darwin Day Foundation (whose advisory board includes Dawkins, Dennett, Wilson and Pinker), as for other sponsors, Darwin Day is less about a historical figure than an occasion for extending versions of scientific materialism and rationalism to ever new cultural domains, encouraging an appreciation of ‘science and the role of humans in developing the Scientific Method that permitted the acquisition of an enormous amount of verifiable scientific knowledge, that is now available to modern humans’.

One can almost hear the phrase 'militant atheist' echoing in the background.

Shapin raises the the hoary old straw-man 'panadaptationist' critique (originating with Stephen Jay Gould) of Dawkins, Dennett and Pinker which verges into his letting us know that he Disapproves Strongly of evolutionary psychology (EP); unfortunately, he demonstrates as much subtle knowledge of that as he does of The Selfish Gene, summed up by his quip that it basically means 'Nature beats up nurture all the time.'

I know that EP's not everybody's thing; it's a wide-ranging field, most of it quite interesting and sensible, some of it a bit batty.

But I happen to be reading a fair amount of EP and EP-related material at the moment while preparing for an article that The Wife and I are working on, and--as is all too often the case--it bears little resemblance to the caricatured intellectual Gleichschaltung Shapin (like others) depicts.

(I may be feeling a bit touchy on this point, as I found out only yesterday about the death a few months ago of Margo Wilson, who, with her husband Martin Daly, was a pioneer in EP perspectives, especially on homicide. Her work has been important and inspirational to me over the last decade or so, and it is careful, subtle and methodologically most of the serious academic work in EP that I've read, in fact.)

At about this point, Steven Pinker is referred to as 'EP Thought Leader'.

At about this point, I could not resist throwing the paper across the room.

I don't have the energy to deal with this at any further length. I'm used to reading (or rather avoiding) this kind of crap at Comment is Futile, but I hold the LRB (perhaps naively) to a higher standard.

I'm almost tempted to make a new year's resolution: only to read and comment on things in my personal life that make me happy.

Judging by recent experience this would, however, mean that I would mostly be writing about The Wife, horror films, heavy metal and handguns.

And I'm not sure how much of that you all could all stand.


Anonymous said...

handguns make you happy...?

The Wife said...

Yeah - JC is only superficially harmless ....

John Carter Wood said...

@Anon: Well, not the handguns, perhaps, themselves, but rather shooting them competitively.

@TW:'Superficially harmless'?

Please: 'mostly harmless', at worst.