Cardboard Darwinism

My recent review in Nature of Nicholas Wade‘s, Michael Yudell‘s, and Robert Sussman‘s new books criticizes all three. The first comes out of the political right wing and is slyly allied with the racist, Pioneer-Funded scientific camp; the latter two identify with the Left’s argument that race is purely a cultural construct. Wade’s argument is far more dangerous than Yudell’s or Sussman’s, but I didn’t like any of the books. It is just as wrong-headed to argue that science proves that race isn’t genetic as it is to argue that it is.

Interesting, then, that the Orwellian HBD crowd, whose newspeak renders white power as “biodiversity” and anti-racism “new creationism,” is jumping down my throat for criticizing their current darling but ignoring my criticism of their antagonists. Since the piece came out, I’ve fended off attacks on Twitter and on white-supremacist sites (Nature wouldn’t let me call them that; it’s good to get it off my chest) such as Stormfront (I refuse to link to them; you can Google it if you want).

And then this missive from Larry Arnhart, a not-quite Dead White Male political scientist:

Dear Professor Comfort,
You might have some interest in my blog post on your Nature review:

Very little, in fact. The gist of Professor Arnhart’s argument is that he doesn’t understand mine. Actually, I’ll give him that much–his commentary makes it abundantly clear that he can’t follow the thread of my reasoning. But that’s a pretty weak rhetorical position, n’est pas? If the book reviews in Nature are over his head, perhaps he should stick with lighter fare.

Arnhart’s basic stance is typical of the people who like Wade’s book. Darwinism, they say, is inherently a politically conservative ideology. This is laughable. Shall we start with those ardent Darwinians Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels? From them forward, a thick cord of Leftist Darwinian thought courses through the history of evolutionary biology, down through Richard Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould.

A cord of right-wing politics, similar in girth, twines around it. You have your Herbert Spencer , your William Graham Sumner, your Charles Davenport, etc., on up to Jared Taylor. But really, are those the kind of people you want to associate with?

One important difference between Marxist Darwinians and right-wing Darwinians is that the Marxists don’t use Darwin to justify their politics the way the right-wingers do. The HBD types wrap themselves in the flag of Darwinism–and anything one says against them is taken as unpatriotic to Darwin and to science.

You can use science, just as you can use history, to support any ideology you want. But Darwinism has not been kind to right-wingers–it tends to make them look like ignorant bigots.

The HBDers hide their faces behind a cardboard Darwin stapled to a stick. They make that gentle and egalitarian soul stand for hatred, arrogance, and xenophobia. It must be the most cynical appropriation of science I’ve ever seen.

It’s not over till it’s over. And it’s over.

I get some flak for criticizing biomedicine. But science is not–and should not be–a sacred cow. Withstanding criticism and becoming stronger for it is one of the qualities that unites scholarship and science.

My critique of science is about hype, oversell, and corporatization, not evidence. When it’s a matter of evidence vs. politics or superstition, I stand arm-in-arm with science. On evolution. On race. And on climate change.

Wish I could have been in New York for the People’s Climate March. But there is just no denying the evidence anymore. I know the climate deniers make their own graphs–it’s a good example of how ideology can be drawn into charts as well as essays. But the consensus is clear, and it’s not just a bunch of liberal Chicken Littles. We’re losing Florida, man. And the reason is clear. The Collapse of Western Civilization, the new genre-bending book from the distinguished historians of science Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, is at the top of my reading pile. Check it out.

Truth in science advertising

I’ve run across this chestnut from NdGT before, but this time it struck me as both untrue and misleading. Of course in a crude sense it’s true. When you get on an airplane, it flies thanks to Bernoulli’s principle whether you believe in or even know of Bernoulli’s principle.

But in a deeper sense it fundamentally misrepresents the nature of science. The good thing about science is not that it’s true–it’s that it’s open to revision. Science’s truths are constantly in flux. As John McPhee said, “science erases what was formerly true.” It’s time to abandon the science cheerleaders’ trope that science is about finding the truth about nature. Every scientific fact ever discovered, every scientific theory ever put forward, is eventually rejected, revised, or limited. The beauty of science isn’t that it’s right–it’s that it can be proven wrong.

The statement is misleading because it is actually more true of religion than science. In his essay “Science and Theology as Art Forms” (Possible Worlds, 1928), JBS Haldane made the point about Christianity, although it holds for certain other religions as well: its gravest problem is its view that it is only true if you believe in it. Hinduism, Buddhism, and many, many others do not hold this view. They hold that their beliefs are true whether you believe in them or not. Karma, for example, just is. It doesn’t matter to a Hindu whether you believe in karma–the wheel will turn on you just the same.

The good thing about good science popularization is that it’s true, period. At a time when science is under fire from fundamentalists, we need to make sure that what we say about rational inquiry into nature is accurate.

NdGT quote

Race and Genetics in Nature

My review of Nicholas Wade, Michael Yudell, and Robert Sussman leads off Nature‘s Fall Books number and is featured in the Nature/SciAm Diversity special. And it’s free–no paywall!

This is the piece I was writing when the brick hit my deck, inspiring this earlier post, which is now a finalist for the 3QuarksDaily science blog prize. For a more detailed and absolutely deadpan look at Wade, see Dick Dorkins’s review.