Irving Kristol, Darwin Doubter, RIP - Evolution News & Views

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Irving Kristol, Darwin Doubter, RIP

If you're ever given a choice between seeing one of two doctors about a health concern, with all else about them being apparently equal, you'd be well advised to choose the older one. Oh but won't the young guy have all the latest techniques and therapies at his disposal, fresh from med school? Maybe or maybe not. What's more likely, and more important, is that the seasoned practitioner will have wisdom and experience of the human condition.

So too in the political world, where on the conservative side of the spectrum you have "neocons," "paleocons," and "theocons." Those distinctions have always seemed a bit spurious, having to do more with preferences in personal style and social networking than anything else. A more important distinction may be between generationally older conservatives and younger ones.

The thought is prompted by the death of conservative icon Irving Kristol. The older conservatives, like Kristol and his wife Gertrude Himmelfarb, William F. Buckley, Richard John Neuhaus, Robert Bork, and others had (or have) a broader view and didn't miss the forest for the trees. They were also Darwin-doubters. It's the younger ones who are so focused on inert policy details that big philosophical issues mostly pass over their (or rather, our) heads. That, or they're too intimidated or impressed by the culture around us to think fundamentally about the most important questions.

On the Darwin issue in particular, the explanation may also have something to do with the fact that former lefties like Kristol, or daring intellectual nonconformists like Buckley, had already shown the temerity to break with former ideological comrades or shock friends and elders. They took risks and had guts. Following their work as pioneers, being a conservative today requires no comparable courage, much as some conservatives would like to think otherwise.

Here, for your delectation, is Kristol on teaching the evolution controversy, from a New York Times op-ed ("Room for Darwin and the Bible") in 1986, one that likely could not be published there today (or in many a conservative venue for that matter):

The majority of our biologists still accept, and our textbooks still teach, the ''neo-Darwinian synthesis'' ....

Though this theory is usually taught as an established scientific truth, it is nothing of the sort. It has too many lacunae. [The] evidence does not provide us with the spectrum of intermediate species we would expect. Moreover, laboratory experiments reveal how close to impossible it is for one species to evolve into another, even allowing for selective breeding and some genetic mutation. There is unquestionably evolution within species: every animal breeder is engaged in exemplifying this enterprise. But the gradual transformation of the population of one species into another is a biological hypothesis, not a biological fact.

Moreover, today a significant minority of distinguished biologists and geneticists find this hypothesis incredible and insist that evolution must have proceeded by ''quantum jumps,'' caused by radical genetic mutation. This copes with some of the problems generated by neo-Darwinist orthodoxy, but only to create others. We just don't know of any such ''quantum jumps'' that create new species, since most genetic mutations work against the survival of the individual. So this is another hypothesis - no less plausible than the orthodox view, but still speculative.

And there are other speculations about evolution, some by Nobel prize-winning geneticists, that border on the bizarre - for example, that life on earth was produced by spermatozoa from outer space. In addition, many younger biologists (the so-called ''cladists'') are persuaded that the differences among species - including those that seem to be closely related -are such as to make the very concept of evolution questionable.

So ''evolution'' is no simple established scientific orthodoxy, and to teach it as such is an exercise in dogmatism. It is reasonable to suppose that if evolution were taught more cautiously, as a conglomerate idea consisting of conflicting hypotheses rather than as an unchallengeable certainty, it would be far less controversial. As things now stand, the religious fundamentalists are not far off the mark when they assert that evolution, as generally taught, has an unwarranted anti-religious edge to it.