Lewontin and Numbers: Day One of Darwin 2009 at the University of Chicago - Evolution News & Views

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Lewontin and Numbers: Day One of Darwin 2009 at the University of Chicago

"Go to hell!" said Ron Numbers cheerfully to me, as we greeted each other at the front of Rockefeller Chapel last night. "Hey, did I say that loud enough?" he asked, looking around at the various evolutionary biology and history and philosophy of science worthies -- Lewontin, Kitcher, Sober, Ruse, Dennett, Richards, and so on -- milling about. Ron's smiling insult was a mocking attempt to redress the widespread criticism that he had let me off easy in our notorious Bloggingheads conversation. A spirit of raillery was in the air, given a vigorous kick at the beginning of the evening by Harvard geneticist Richard Lewontin. Little of the secular sanctimony of the 1959 Darwin centennial (see below) was in evidence.

To the talks:

Richard Lewontin
Rockefeller Chapel, the venue for the plenary sessions, is a Gothic cathedral, although an oddly Baptist one, almost entirely void of religious symbols. (I'm sure there's a small cross somewhere in the building, but you'd have to look hard to find it.) Lewontin, who has turned down every invitation this year to speak at Darwin celebratory events, accepted the University of Chicago invitation, he said, "because Jerry Coyne [Lewontin's former doctoral student at Harvard] is the best arm-twister around. But I didn't know I'd be speaking in a church," Lewontin continued, "and we should recognize the religiosity of this occasion. There is a certain worship of a great saint, Darwin, and his apostles, who provide the texts for the day." He then cited contrasting chapter and verse from Sir Ronald Fisher and Sewall Wright, and explained that battles between their respective positions -- the primacy of natural selection, versus the primacy of random events -- had occupied evolutionary theory for decades. "I really wish I could have spoken from there," Lewontin ended his introduction, wistfully pointing to the spectacular high pulpit on the opposite side of the chancel.

"I want to challenge the New and Old Testaments of evolution," Lewontin noted. "The New Testament holds that genes make organisms. The Old Testament says that organisms adapt to their environments. Neither of these testaments is true. It is not true that genes make organisms. Genes don't make anything." Nor do organisms adapt to their environments, he argued, as if they were adjusting -- ad-apting, in its original eytmology -- to pre-established niches. The outcome of genetic (internal) responses to environmental (external) challenges "cannot be predicted -- there is no predictability to how organisms will respond," because that depends in a complex fashion on a range of factors, many unique. Lewontin then illustrated his theme with several examples, from the unpredictability of Drosophila bristle patterns to variations in human fingerprints. One cannot move smoothly from genes to phenotypes: "I made the point," he concluded, "and I'm dogmatic about it."

Lewontin then criticized the Old Testament of adaptation. Organisms don't "fit" into their niches, he said, as if the world could be divided into cubbyholes awaiting organisms to occupy them. There is an infinitude of ways of putting together the world; what actually happens is that organisms construct their niches, taking what is available from their environments to make their living. Lewontin ended with a cautionary critique about the shortcomings of the theory of natural selection, which he said was "in trouble."

All in all, vintage Lewontin. Plainspoken, funny, independent. (And youthful! -- Lewontin looks almost exactly as he did when he was a U of C professor in the early 1970s.)

Ron Numbers
On Thanksgiving Day, 1959, at the University of Chicago Darwin centennial celebration, Julian Huxley delivered a speech entitled "The Evolutionary Vision." Predicting the demise of "supernaturally centered religions," Huxley projected the coming of "new religions" that would replace the Abrahamic faiths: "they are destined to disappear in competition with other, truer, and more embracing thought organizations -- in this case, with the new religions which are surely destined to emerge on this world's scene" (1960, p. 253). Huxley's lecture is notable for its overt religious tone. Religion, he argued, is the inevitable product of human consciousness, and thus like all biological objects, is destined to evolve to higher forms. (It is fascinating to note that Huxley, unlike Lewontin, did speak from the magnificent Rockefeller pulpit. Talk about religiosity.)

Well -- Huxley certainly got the imminent demise of religion wrong. His prediction, at least on a 50-year scale, has failed spectacularly. Ron Numbers began his summary of "Anti-Evolutionism from Scientific Creationism to Intelligent Design" by saying, "I feel like I'm crashing the party." Around the world, he observed, a majority of people do not accept Darwinian evolution.

Numbers then sketched the history of American dissent from Darwinism, making two major points: (1) young-earth creationism (YEC) was not the mainstream anti-evolution position until the last third of the 20th century, and (2) intelligent design cannot be equated with creationism. "Although many critics of ID want to say that it is nothing more than the same old creationist bullsh-t dressed up in new clothes," he argued, "there is really only one historical link between 'scientific creationism' and ID, namely, the textbook Of Pandas and People."

ID in Numbers's eyes was actually a far more radical, indeed dangerous, viewpoint. ID proponents, he said, have made methodological naturalism (MN) their target. But MN, so named by a Christian philosopher of science at Wheaton College, has proved its value to the practice of science for 150 years, Numbers urged, by making it possible "for believers and unbelievers to participate alike" in the scientific enterprise. "This [MN] is a compromise that even scientific creationists typically bought," Number said. However, for ID proponents, he went on, MN sacrifices what ought to be the goal of science, the discovery of truth, for what amounts to practical atheism. Numbers then sounded the alarm (as he often does) about the goals and funding sources of the Discovery Institute. (It's a bit mysterious to me how observers can think Ron cuts ID people too much slack. Ron puts the boot into ID with force.) He concluded by discussing the growth, worldwide, of skepticism about Darwinian evolution. "There is yet a lot of work to do."

If Ron and I had talked before his lecture, I would have reminded him of Huxley's failed 1959 prophecy. Maybe a more realistic view of the future of the ID / materialism debate is not to see "work yet to be done" -- as in trying for quasi-religious conversions of those unsaved theists who have yet to take Darwin into their hearts -- but in recognizing the permanence of dissent from naturalism. If philosophical naturalism were congruent with reality, as Dawkins, Coyne, Dennett, and others argue, it should have won long ago. The fact that it hasn't ought to give its promoters pause.

The last speaker of the evening was Marc Hauser from Harvard, on the origins of morality. His talk -- absolutely fascinating, and (I think) counterintuitive to many in the audience -- presented so much new data, in a short time, that it deserves its own post.

So that's up next.

Julian Huxley, "The Evolutionary Vision," in Sol Tax and Charles Callender, eds., Evolution After Darwin, volume 3: Issues in Evolution (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1960).