Saturday, December 19, 2015

Politics & Evolution

In which I claim that Dr. Ben Carson and Mr. Louis Proyect hold similar beliefs.

My Trotskyist friends claim to accept the theory of evolution while also denying it. In this they are typical of the Left. And also of the Right.

Louis Proyect is a good example. I reviewed his extensive criticism of Napoleon Chagnon in a post entitled Marxism & Evopsych, which includes a critique of the Marxist view on evolution. I won't repeat that here except to say that contrary to their claim, Marxists deny the theory of evolution, at least as it applies to human beings.

Since writing that review I have read and reviewed two books on the subject: one by Jonathan Haidt (The Righteous Mind), and the other by Nicholas Wade (A Troublesome Inheritance). These render my Marxism & Evopsych remarks somewhat incomplete, and I confess probably lend some credence to Mr. Proyect's complaints against modern Darwinism.

The latter book is particularly troublesome, as the name implies. It argues that ethnic differences are indeed more than skin deep, and also include variations in personality. In particular, the circle of trust appears to be under significant genetic control. People who have lived in urban areas for many generations, for example, will tend to be more trusting of strangers than folks who've spent the last millennium out in the bush. 

Other people (not Mr. Wade) argue that things like IQ is significantly heritable, and that ethnic groups differ in average IQ, often by a significant margin. Indeed, a recent book by Garett Jones (The Hive Mind) argues that the wealth of nations depends crucially on the average IQ of its population. (He speculates that it may depend more strongly on the IQ of the top 5%, though that's unproven.)

Such ideas have a long and disreputable heritage, as Mr. Proyect will be quick to point out. This chart is easily found by searching for "iq by nation". 

It's been reposted by such worthies as Stormfront (I won't honor them with a link) and FreeRepublic. Nevertheless, the data in this chart seem mostly reproducible and correct, as Mr. Jones discusses in detail. (The causes of the phenomenon are a matter of considerable controversy.)

So actually I don't blame Mr. Proyect for denying evolution's application to human beings. It paints a grim picture of our species. Our prognosis is not good. Mr. Proyect aspires to a better world, and in doing so he is forced to deny science.

Another politico who sides with Mr. Proyect is the presidential candidate, Dr. Ben Carson. Dr. Carson is a retired neurosurgeon, serving as the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins for nearly 30 years. As such he must know something about evolution, and it is unlikely that he rejects it altogether. Even though he says "I don't believe in evolution... I simply don't have enough faith to believe that something as complex as our ability to rationalize, think, and plan, and have a moral sense of what's right and wrong, just appeared." [All Carson quotes from Wikipedia.]

In October 2015, Carson stated that he does accept the idea of natural selection, but there is only evidence for microevolution (changes in allele frequencies that occur over time within a species), which he believes was the result of "a wise creator who gave his creatures the ability to adapt to their environment so that he wouldn't have to start over every 50 years", whereas "there's never been one species that's turned into another species, that can be proved." 
But then, with respect to using fetal tissue for research, he said "to not use the tissue that is in a tissue bank, regardless of where it comes from, would be foolish. Why would anybody not do that?"

So like Mr. Proyect, Dr. Carson is inconsistent on evolution. When it comes to his professional life he has at least implicitly accepted it. But in his religious and political world he adamantly rejects it. In this he is like most people--they reject evolution on Sunday when they go to church, but rely on it on Monday when they visit the doctor. Surely this ability to compartmentalize is an evolved, human trait.

It's very difficult to be consistent on evolution. Maybe some devoutly religious people qualify--like those Christian Scientists who reject any and all medical care, or perhaps some of the faculty at Bob Jones University. But such folks are few and far between.

Then there are people who raise evolution to the status of religion: I'd put Stormfront or FreeRepublic in that category. They consider the above IQ chart to be divinely inspired. Leave aside, for the moment, that they don't know what they're talking about.

Also consistent on evolution is Boko Haram. I don't mean in an intellectual sense--I doubt the Bokos know anything about science. But in the way they live their lives they obey evolution's core principles:
  1. The ultimate measure of evolutionary success can be measured by the fertility rate of one's children and grandchildren.
  2. Evolution cares not a whit for the happiness of the individual organism.
So consider the 250+ schoolgirls from Chibok kidnapped by Boko, and then sold off as wives and concubines.
  1. The lifetime fertility of these girls is likely to be very high--at least for those who survive. Four or five children apiece, subsequently yielding 20+ grandchildren is a reasonable guess. Further, the reproductive success of the kidnappers is virtually assured--how many of the girls are already pregnant?
  2. Yet prospects for happiness for the girls is dire. Or, as an evolutionist might put it, who cares.
Compare the Bokos' fertility with that of aging ex-Trotskyists. I don't believe Mr. Proyect has any offspring (or at least none mentioned on his blog). I have two, but not yet any grandchildren. How many unrelated ex-Trotskyists would you have to put in a room before they could cumulatively match the reproductive success of one Boko platoon leader?

There is no doubt, at least compared to Trotskyists, that the Bokos have a better understanding of evolution.

And yet any member of civilized society--among whom I'd count myself and both Dr. Carson and Mr. Proyect--will object. While we might state it differently, our creed maintains We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Of course evolution denies all of this: the Truths are not only not self-evident, they're not even true. We weren't endowed by any creator, and we don't have any unalienable rights. And for Happiness? Just ask the organisms from Chibok about that!

So I sympathize with Misters Proyect & Carson. Their selective denial of evolution is a mark of civilization, not scientific ignorance (though in the case of Mr. Proyect it is that, too). Despite my own passionate defense of the science of evolution, I have no use for those who raise it to moral principle. Accordingly I would never vote for any ultra-rationalist candidate--not Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett or Christopher Hitchens. Nor would I vote for Barack Obama.

Still, I think Dr. Carson gets the better of any debate. He has three children, and one presumes also some grandchildren. Religious people are more able to successfully reproduce, despite denying evolution, than us more secular sorts. This is civilized religion's great advantage: it potentially answers the question of our age: how can we successfully reproduce in an environment that contains birth control and still remain civilized?

I would never vote for Dr. Carson for biology teacher of the year. For other reasons I probably won't vote for him as president. But on the issue of evolution he's probably closest to getting it right.

Evolution is a science. That's all it is. It tells you something about the human species, but it cannot be the moral lodestar or a religious foundation. As Katherine Hepburn famously said, “Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above.”

Further Reading:

1 comment:

  1. This all gets very messy.

    The recognition of the heritability of IQ can just as well lead one to, in theory, the conclusion that a much stronger safety net is needed to help the poor. The idea that they could will themselves into a tech job or an Ivy League school looks pretty ridiculous with that in mind, after all.

    IQ as sacrosanct and mean right-wing politics is historically contingent, nothing more. In a parallel universe somewhere, people who believe in free will are treated as cruel and inhumane by pundits.