Monopolizing Knowledge, Part 5: Evolutionary Metaphysics
In his new book Monopolizing Knowledge (available for purchase now), physicist Ian Hutchinson engages with the world-view he calls “scientism”: “the belief that science, modeled on the natural sciences, is the only source of real knowledge” (page vii). In Hutchinson’s eyes, this erroneous world-view is at least indirectly responsible for the apparent friction between science and religion that many see today. In this series (taken from the larger book, which engages the topic in a much fuller and deeper fashion), Hutchinson attempts to both explain and dismantle “scientism” by examining both what we mean when we say “science”, and how the scientistic worldview oversteps this definition and becomes a philosophical and metaphysical framework. In part four, Hutchinson looked at the challenging of defining what is and isn't science. Today he challenges what he calls "scientistic metaphysics".
Some Christians reject evolution by natural selection because of metaphysics. But it is not, I believe, Christian metaphysics that is the most important cause of suspicion of evolution. It is evolutionary metaphysics.
A 2004 paper in the journal Physical Review Letters offers a physics analysis of the optimal size of the inner ear of mammals, for the purpose of detecting sounds.1 Fair enough. The paper implies, though, that mammals all having inner ears close to this optimum supports Darwin's theory of the origin of species. Huh? Contrast the lack of any direct connection to evolution with the importance of the paper's physical theories (mechanics of motion, angular momentum, viscous fluid dynamics, structural mechanics). To imply that this analysis provides evidence for the validity of those physical theories would not even cross the mind of a competent reader. Why then, do references to evolution appear in five separate places in this physics paper? It is because of scientistic metaphysics.
The Smithsonian Institution's Human Origins exhibit at the Museum of Natural History has a very attractive website attached to it. "Human Evolution Evidence", is the largest menu. Over half of its links are called "Behavior", under which are "Primate Behavior, Footprints, Stone Tools, Getting Food, Carrying & Storing, Hearths & Shelters, Burial, Recording Information, Making Clothing, Art & Music". In what possible sense is this "Human Evolution Evidence"? It provides a glimpse of the anthropologists' undisputed findings that human culture has changed over time. Perhaps the exhibit's designers think (unlike many evolutionary biologists) that insights drawn from Darwin's theory have important things to say about human prehistorical cultural development. But it is hard not to see it also as a branding move, to promote a scientistic (mis)understanding of a topic that is a good deal more history than it is natural. The spurious implication of the title that its topics offer evidence for human evolution in the sense meant by the natural sciences, is in the same category as "scientifically-proven Wizzo washing powder".
The close identification of evolutionary explanation with the metaphysics of scientism is without doubt the dominant reason for the rejection of evolution by a large fraction of the public. Biologist Kenneth Miller says, "public acceptance of evolution doesn't turn on the logical weight of carefully considered scientific issues."2 People see and resent the fact that "the concept of evolution is used routinely ... to justify and advance a philosophical worldview that they regard as hostile and even alien to their lives and values"
The National Academy of Science sought to defuse this confrontation in 1998, noting:
At the root of the apparent conflict between some religions and evolution is a misunderstanding of the critical difference between religious and scientific ways of knowing. Religions and science answer different questions about the world.3
This concession, principled though it may be, does not do the trick. The only other "way of knowing" being identified is religion, which makes it sound as if religion is being given a special pass to excuse it from the rigors of scientific knowledge. This does not satisfy either side. It is not convincing to argue that there are certain (few) ultimate questions that are the province of religion while the rest of our knowledge is scientific. The faith-science culture war is not an argument between science and religion; it is between scientism and everything else. The prime movers on both sides of the battle are often equally mired in scientism. "Modern science directly implies that there are no inherent moral or ethical laws, no absolute guiding principles for human society ... We must conclude that when we die, we die, and that is the end of us.4
This is the scientistic view of atheist biologist William Provine. Philip Johnson, father figure of the ID movement, has referred to Provine (and others) as "associate members of the movement. While they differ from us on the answers, they recognize that we raise the right questions..."5 Johnson fundamentally agrees with Provine that an acceptance of evolution as the mechanism for the origin and adaptation of species implies Provine's consequences. The reason, it seems to me, is that Johnson and the ID movement in effect concede to scientism. Their focus, which is to demonstrate scientifically that there must be an intelligent designer of the universe, makes complete sense if science is all the real knowledge there is. ID advocates thereby turn what is really a metaphysical debate into an argument (to be brutally frank) between good science and bad science. They've chosen a battle they are going to lose. But it's the wrong battle. The real disagreement is not between Christianity and an evolutionary account of the origin of species, or Christianity and science, but between Christianity and scientism. The irony is that by choosing to fight on a battlefield they call science, the ID advocates have in effect already conceded the relevant debate; they have spoken and acted as if science really is the decider of knowledge; they have, perhaps unintentionally, endorsed the epistemology of scientism and strengthened its hold on both their supporters and their opponents.
All too often evolution has also been a prolific source of political, social, ethical, and metaphysical opinion. This proclivity lies at the root of the visceral reaction of many Christians to evolution. Criticism of Social Darwinism, though, comes deservedly from many different quarters not just religion. It is a world-view without a clear ideology: "the success of Social Darwinism lies in this very flexibility, in the possibilities it contained for transference to a whole spectrum of ideological positions." The results are less than salutary.
Herbert Spencer's political advocacy, backed up by evolutionary arguments (from 1852 on) was for limiting the power and interference of the state, and for economic laissez-faire. It was perhaps his books' promotion of what seemed like rugged individualism, as well as their being received as representative of the "scientific spirit of the age", that brought his writing such astonishing popularity in America. It certainly appealed to those Americans, like Andrew Carnegie, who could thereby justify their own business success - and the failure of others - as the working out of an ineluctable law of nature.
In contrast to the meteoric rise - and fall - of Herbert Spencer's popularity, the ideas of eugenics, associated most notably with Francis Galton, gained acceptance much more gradually. From his earliest commentary, Galton was concerned with what he saw as dysgenic practices: "Many forms of civilization have been peculiarly unfavorable to the hereditary transmission of rare talent."6 Eugenics, therefore, was the opposite of laissez-faire. It was consciously to select, and encourage through state support, the marriage and subsequent fecundity of youths whose children "would grow into eminent servants of the State" and to discourage breeding by the less worthy. The initial idea that "the weak could find a welcome and refuge in celibate monasteries or sisterhoods" became a more practical (and chilling) sterilization. Galton spent the last decade of his life in the promotion of eugenics, "It must be introduced into the national conscience, like a new religion" he said. In America, state sterilization laws were enacted starting in 1907. Virginia's law was upheld by the US Supreme Court in 1927. Justice Oliver Wendel Holmes wrote for the court "It is better for the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind." The number of sterilizations in the U.S. rose to 3000 per year in the 1930s7. In Germany, eugenics got its big chance when the Nazis came to power in 1933, leading to the sterilization of an estimated 400,000 individuals. Eventually the "final solution" of the eugenic Jewish problem was approved by Hitler in 1942. About 6 million Jews, and perhaps as many again of other races, died in Nazi concentration camps. Metaphysics has consequences.
None of this is to argue against the scientific theory of the common descent of species. It is to indict its unwarranted transformation into scientistic metaphysics.
1. Todd M Squires. Optimizing the vertebrate vestibular semicircular canal: Could we balance any better? Physical Review Letters, 93: 198106, 2004.
2. Kenneth Miller. Finding Darwin's God. Harper Perennial, New York, 2002.
3. Working Group on Teaching Evolution. Teaching about Evolution and the Nature of Science. National Academy of Sciences, Washington, D.C., 1998, p 58.
4. W Provine. Evolution and the foundation of ethics. MBL Science, 3: 25-29, 1988.
5. Phillip Johnson. Is scientific naturalism scientific? In Scott B Luley, Copan Paul, and Stan W Wallace, editors, Science: Christian Perspectives for the New Millenium, volume II, pages 79-106. Christian Leadership Ministries and Ravi Zacharias Ministries, Addison, Texas, and Norcross, Georgia, 2003.
6. Francis Galton. Hereditary talent and character. Macmillan's Magazine, 12: 157-166,385-327, 1865, p 164
7. Michael Bulmer. Francis Galton Pioneer of Heredity and Biometry. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 2003.
Ian H. Hutchinson is professor of nuclear science and engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His primary research interest is plasma physics and its practical applications. He and his MIT team designed, built and operate the Alcator C-Mod tokamak, an international experimental facility whose magnetically confined plasmas are prototypical of a future fusion reactor. He received his bachelor’s degree in physics from Cambridge University and his doctorate in engineering physics from the Australian National University. He directed the Alcator project from 1987 to 2003 and served as head of MIT’s nuclear science and engineering department from 2003 to 2009. In addition to over 200 journal articles on a variety of plasma phenomena, Hutchinson is widely known for his standard monograph on measuring plasmas: Principles of Plasma Diagnostics. For more, see Hutchinson's book Monopolizing Knowledge.