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If You Want a Good Story, Look to Darwinian Evolution, Not Intelligent Design

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It's all the rage to explain away other people's undesirable political, religious and scientific views as no more than the product of brain chemistry and the unlucky sweepings of evolution. Of course a fellow like Chris Mooney never tells you what in his brain's wiring makes him want to dismiss other people's views this way rather than confront and argue with them on the merits.

Now writer Tom Bartlett in the Chronicle of Higher Education gives the same exercise a creative new try by examining the ultimate no-no: that of doubting evolution itself ("Is Evolution a Lousy Story?"). Evidently we doubt Darwinian evolution, preferring intelligent design, because evolution doesn't tell a proper story.

Bartlett begins with a fiction of his own: "In Tennessee a new law took effect last month that allows teachers to discuss creationism as an alternative to evolution." Never mind that this is an utter falsehood: the law explicitly rejects teaching religious doctrines like creationism and extends protection only to teachers who teach about scientific criticisms of Darwinian theory.

He goes on to lament that most Americans are Darwin-doubters of one stripe or another and quotes comedian Louis C.K. on resistance to evolution: "Why are you fighting this?" (Why are smart folks always quoting Louis C.K. when nothing he's quoted as saying is actually funny or, apparently, even intended to be?)

Bartlett cites a pair of scholars -- psychology professor Dan P. McAdams at Northwestern and "literary Darwinist" Jonathan Gottschall -- who think that evolution leaves us cold because it's a narrative without a protagonist, a kind of story our brains aren't suited to easily accept:

In his latest book, The Storytelling Animal, Gottschall sets out to prove that the human brain is wired for story and to figure out why that might be useful. "If evolution is a story, it is a story without agency," he writes in an e-mail. "It lacks the universal grammar of storytelling." Stories are about a character finding a solution to a problem. Evolution has problems and solutions but no character. As a result, according to Gottschall, "it doesn't connect as well -- especially at the emotional level."
The intention, of course, is to patronize evolution skeptics. We can't get over our need to hear a good story, a need that in turn is "wired" in the brain.

You may have noticed something, however, about intelligent design. It tells an even lousier story than Darwinian evolution. Unlike Darwinism or Biblical creationism, it offers a narrative full of questions that remain unanswered. There's a general drift to it: the evidence points to intelligence and purpose at work in guiding life's history. But beyond that, all the elements of storytelling -- who?, what?, where?, when? -- are the subject of debate and uncertainty. How were the designs we observe actually instantiated? Not clear at all.

But that's the way of the truth, isn't it. Falsehood tends to offer smooth story lines, whether including a protagonist or not, while airbrushing out all the ambiguities and doubts. We've got it all figured out! Truth is always more complicated, subject to revision and rewriting, with lots of admitted gaps where we're still working on it. On the other hand, nothing could be simpler than Darwin's branching tree of life, fueled by random variation and pruned by natural selection.

An aspect of personal maturity is coming to find such simple answers inherently suspicious. With apologies to Tom Bartlett, we doubt Darwinism precisely because it has the hallmarks of fiction.

Photo credit: New Jersey Library Association/Flickr.