darwin & teleology 11-01-2010

there's a really good article in last edition of the london review of books: 'the darwin show' by steven shapin (sadly not online), a critical overview of last year's darwin anniversary mega-fest, which untangles the man, his various legacies and his adoption as a mascot for assorted - often inappropriate - causes (dawkins and darwin, for example, would not have sat comfortably down to tea with one another, though darwin would probably have made more of an effort).

the article contains a particularly interesting passage.

a survey published in nature in 1997 found that 40 per cent of american scientists professed belief in an immortal soul and a prayer-answering god, a figure basically unchanged since 1916. more tellingly still, another survey found that when the claim ‘man gas developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, and no god participated in this process’ was put to them, only a bare majority (55 per cent) of american scientists agreed and 40 per cent believed that a Creator was involved in evolutionary change.


o say that nothing in biology makes sense except in light of darwinism cannot be the same thing as saying that to be a competent biologist is to have command of, or to agree with, any specific version of evolutionary theory, such as those favoured by dawkins and dennett. I have taught many talented biology students, both in the US and the uk, who could not give a coherent account of evolution by natural selection – teleology remains strikingly popular…

it's easy to forget that a belief in evolution by natural selection is not necessary for someone to be a proficient - even brilliant - scientist. but it's that teleology, not god, which prevents many scientists and non-scientists accepting the idea. it's just plain mind-boggling to properly get your head round the idea that life can develop so that it looks, on every level, from blue whale to virus, as if it has been designed, as if it's somehow intentional. we don't even have a word for that kind of process. It's not accident. It's not random. It's not inevitable or pre-determined. even words like complicated and sophisticated imply intention (who complicates? who sophisticates?). it seems to call for some kind of zen koan: undesigned design? unintended intention?

i suspect that this hole in the dictionary (and in the mind) is a sign of something we don't want to think about (or perhaps can't think about). for if life seems both designed and intentional but is neither, perhaps this is true of individual lives, too. we think we are shaping our destinies, we think we have free will, but it merely looks that way.

dawkins says that darwinism leads ineluctably to atheism. i think it leads to something stranger and much more radical.