Thursday, February 24, 2011

Book Review: Darwinian Fairytales

David Stove is an Australian philosopher who wrote a highly entertaining attack on Darwin, Malthus, Dawkins, E.O. Wilson, and company in Darwinian Fairytales. The fact that he is Australian may be somehow reflected in the delight he takes in contrarian positions. The fact that his is a philosopher is evident from the way he makes his arguments. About half of his arguments hinge on statements made by Darwin or Malthus that include the term "all species" and he finds it sufficient to show that man doesn't fit the proposed pattern and therefore all species do not. This works for philosophers but to a biologist it just seems pedantic. About half of his arguments are more substantive and interesting to think about. Some of them attack evolutionary topics like "kin selection" that are no longer held, precisely because of the problems he points out, but it's still kind of fun to watch him poke at the theories and point out the problems.

"[Selfish theorists] think of people as though they were molecules of a confined gas, which have no mutal sympathy, or any other influence, except by way of collisions with one another. This is the selfish theory to a T, as long as you impute to each molecule a ceaseless and exclusive regard to its own interests. The only thing wrong with this idea is that there is nothing whatever in reality which corresponds to it." -- p. 159

The fact that there is more to man is a constant element in the arguments of G.K. Chesterton against materialism as well, and they have the additional strength of being true. The best essays come from Stove's observation that the new sociobiologists like Dawkins and co. are polytheists of a new stripe, and that Dawkins, Darwin and Calvin have a similar streak of proposing that humans are just puppets of irresistable invisible forces.

"[P]uppetry theories ... always display a strong tendency to expand. The man who has dreamed up a set of demons or puppet masters behind one field of phenomena is quite the likeliest man to dream up, later on, another set of demons behind another field of phenomena; or to come up with a single, but far wider set of demons, comprehending the set which he had happened to stumble upon first. The people who suffer from delusions of being conspired against are always being obliged to conclude that this conspiracy is more widespread than they had previously realized." -- p.187

This answers a question I've always had about Gnosticism. Why does it start with a bad material/good spiritual creation dualism and end up with an extensive angelology? It's because Gnostics are puppetry theorists, and once they find one puppetmaster they are compelled to find another. Dawkins and the Gnostics ... who'd have thought?

"A person is certainly a believer in some religion if he thinks, for example, that there are on earth millions of invisible and immortal non-human beings which are far more intelligent and capable than we are. But that is exactly why sociobiologists do think, about genes. Sociobiology, then, is a religion: one which has genes as its gods." -- p.248

As a believer myself I interpret this in the light of the injuctions against idolatry. Stove is adept at puncturing idolatry. But there's the rub -- he is so good at it that he ends up puncturing himself.

"The trouble is, though, that every religion (or at any rate every one I know of) is incomprehensible when it is not obviously false. Of course, something which is incomprehensible to us might nevertheless be true, and religious people often remind the non-religious of this fact. But, though it is a fact, it is no help, because there are always many competing incomprehensibilities, from religious and other sources, vying for our acceptance. Tertullian said that he believed the Christian religion because of its absurdity. But alas, every other religion possesses the same claim on our belief (if absurdity really is a claim on our belief)." -- p. 254.

This is where Stove and Chesterton (and I) part company. Stove cannot accept anything he cannot fully comprehend, or that he believes he can fully comprehend. I see a reason to adopt the absurdities of Christianity, in which the great inversion of the weak and the strong is accomplished by the tragedy and blood of the cross. That's a good absurdity that one can sink one's teeth into (literally so in the case of the Eucharist). Commitment to some form of absurdity is a necessity, because even Stove's agnosticism is an absurdity -- why should a free-thinking man expect the universe to fit in his head, after all? -- and Christ is indeed the absurdity on which I stand.

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