Evolving Debate

Kudos to Ronald Bailey for "Origin of the Specious" (July). The real target of neoconservatives like Irving Kristol is not science or even immorality–their target is reason itself. Reason, they say, is the great destroyer of social harmony, whether in scientific discovery, religious toleration, or any other form. This is why Kristol has written that Thomas Jefferson, a scientist as well as a leader in religious freedom, "wrote nothing worth reading on religion or almost anything else." Jefferson represents the influence of Enlightenment reason. Conservative historians in the tradition of Russell Kirk prefer to ignore the tradition of Jefferson, Madison, et al., and focus instead on the likes of John Dickenson, who said, "Experience must be our only guide; reason may mislead us."

Fittingly, Jefferson described these neoconservatives, in his second inaugural address, as those who "inculcate a sanctimonious reverence for the customs of their ancestors; that whatsoever they did, must be done through all time; that reason is a false guide, and to advance under its counsel, in their physical, moral, or political condition, is perilous innovation; that their duty is to remain as their Creator made them, ignorance being safety, and knowledge full of danger…they too, have their anti-philosophers, who find an interest in keeping things in their present state, who dread reformation, and exert all their faculties to maintain the ascendancy of habit over the duty of improving our reason, and obeying its mandates."

These modern Federalists think that reason's challenge to biblical literalism is to be–if all else fails–merely hidden from the populace, who have to be forced into moral behavior by tales of bogeymen and hobgoblins. I do not mean that the theory of evolution and a belief in God are incompatible, any more than Christianity and heliocentrism have been since Galileo's day. But the inquisitive scientific mind, demanding proof always, is incompatible with authoritarianism, or the blind maintenance of tradition in the name of social order. Science and religion are not necessarily opposed–but science and the political manipulations of religion are.

Timothy Sandefur
Rialto, CA

An obvious solution to the morality-without-God problem that so bothers the Irving Kristols of the world would be that at least some of the behaviors we have traditionally justified on religious grounds are emergent properties of biological life in general and primates (or perhaps Homo sapiens) in particular. That view would allow some features of morality to be historically contingent yet relatively obligatory for healthy, viable human societies. A first step or two in this direction can be found toward the end of Daniel Dennett's Darwin's Dangerous Idea. Maybe the task for our age is a reconstruction of the foundations of morality on empirical grounds.

An interesting but depressing reading of where Kristol and like-minded neoconservatives may be headed is: back to the Middle Ages, in the sense of fostering a return to a prescientific worldview. The same issue of REASON in which Mr. Bailey's essay appeared carried a piece on Carl Sagan's last book ("Star Scientist" by Kenneth Silber) which, rightly, praised him for pointing out repeatedly that "widespread scientific illiteracy is a dangerous thing in a society heavily dependent on science and technology." Amen! Such "illiteracy" has multiple components these days. There are those who, like most of my historian friends, cannot relate to mathematics of any sort, or to the powerful tools provided by computer graphics. There are also those who simply don't get the idea of subjecting our beliefs to the test of empirical evidence. Increasingly, there are those who have never been exposed to logical argumentation. On the third point, I recently encountered a Ph.D. student in political science who rejects the idea that there may be logical or empirical grounds for taking some propositions more seriously than others. In his view, it's all ultimately a matter of "hand waving," and whoever is the more skilled sophist will prevail.

Since Darwin, arguments from design have ceased to be credible across a whole range of fields. Attempts to insist otherwise–even if for the best of intentions–strike me as attacking the core of modern science. Science is far from perfect. Nevertheless, like democracy, empirical science may be the best we can do. Given our inability to uninvent things like nuclear weapons and the growing appetite in developed countries for conspiracy theories, it is hard to see that nuking science is likely to help preserve civil societies. If Mr. Bailey properly interpreted Mr. Kristol's motives, then Kristol is being both arrogant and shortsighted in trying to push religion as an opiate of the masses. Surely, as suggested above, there are alternatives to blind religious faith, on the one hand, or the despair of Nietzsche's view that without God anything goes on the other.

Barry Watts

Ronald Bailey's article was a fair appraisal of Leo Strauss's political philosophy, particularly with respect to Strauss's Platonist view that the pursuit of knowledge and the necessities of public order would often be in conflict. The only thing I would add is that it is in Plato's Laws, not The Republic, in which this conflict is most explicitly resolved in favor of order. It is worth noting that even many self-described Straussians find this book impossibly pessimistic.

However, Bailey ought to consider more seriously Strauss's concern over vulgarized philosophical concepts. Darwin's "evolution" has suffered as badly as Jefferson's "equality." As an informal experiment, whenever the topic of evolution comes up, I try to discover what relatively well-educated people mean when they use the term. Too often to be mere carelessness, usage suggests a Lamarckian (end-oriented) rather than Darwinian (random) concept.

I do not know why this understanding is so prevalent, but I would venture that "social evolutionists" like John Dewey play some role. The evolutionary rhetoric of Dewey's organic materialism rested upon the public's viewing evolution itself favorably but not understanding it so well as to see that command-and-control social engineering did not jibe with Darwinian randomness. Lamarckian evolution suits political progressivism far better than Darwinian evolution does, and few will ever know the difference, particularly in Dewey-type schools.

Strauss certainly took the Platonic line that some philosophic truths would erode public order. The most serious problem with scientific knowledge, however, is that it tends to have a multiplier effect for pseudoscientific knowledge in the hands of charlatans who know better and fools who don't.

John C. Povejsil
Scandia, MN

Leo Strauss, who died in 1973, must have anticipated Ronald Bailey's attempt to include him in the contemporary party of those who would promote religion for political purposes. Strauss stated: "I shall not waste words on the most popular argument…that we need…revelation as a myth. Now this argument is either stupid or blasphemous." (In "The Mutual Influence of Theology and Philosophy" from Faith and Political Philosophy: The Correspondence Between Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin, 1934-1964.)

Strauss wrote on a similar occasion: "In the last analysis [Plato's] writings cannot be used for any purpose other than for philosophizing. In particular, no social order and no party which ever existed or which ever will exist can rightfully claim Plato as its patron." (In "On a New Interpretation of Plato's Political Philosophy," Social Research, September 1946.) Mr. Bailey should have considered whether Strauss observed the same principle in his own writings.

Compared to the original, Bailey's account of Strauss's work is superficial and misleading, not to say specious.

Alan E. Johnson
Cleveland, OH

Ronald Bailey's "Origin of the Specious" has left me puzzled. After reading it, I am in serious doubt as to whether Mr. Bailey has read the books by Michel Denton and Michael Behe that he discusses.

Bailey focused on the motives of those who question Darwinism. Motives, like what happened before the Big Bang, are scientifically unknown and unknowable. It may be fun to argue about motives, but facts are facts and erroneous statements are erroneous regardless of the motives of the person presenting them.

Bailey doesn't deal with the crowning arguments of Denton's and Behe's books. He gives no reasoned refutation of Denton's presentation about homologous proteins in different species, evidence which strongly argues against a Darwinian evolutionary progression from simple to complex forms of life. Since these protein molecules are direct mirrors of sections of DNA, this is tantamount to a proof that the DNA sequences do not follow a linear progression from simple to complex life forms–a progression which would be expected if Darwinism were true.

Bailey similarly failed to give a plausible presentation of how any of Behe's examples of "irreducible complexity" could have arisen by gradual, step-by-step mutation and natural selection. This is no particular slam against Mr. Bailey, since no other evolutionist has been able to explain them either. Modern evolutionary theory lacks major pieces of evidence: First, at the macro level, the fossil record is consistently devoid of the gradual transitional forms predicted by Darwin. Second, at the molecular level, we find exactly the same obstacles, gaps, and discontinuities as at the macro level. In fact, the biochemical chasms are even harder to bridge than the gaps between species in the fossil record. Third, the mechanisms proposed to explain these discontinuities while still retaining basic Darwinian principles are themselves tautological. They offer only the vaguest suggestions as to how evolution might have progressed. Gould's "punctuated equilibrium" suggests that plants and animals evolved gradually (a bit faster than previously thought, but still gradually), but only in ways and places such that we could not observe evidence of their having done so! In any other branch of science, such desperate tautological fudging would be laughed off the stage.

Is this the best Darwinists can do? When faced with unanswerable challenges, they attack the motives of those who report these challenges–a classic case of "kill the messenger."

Eric J. Anderson
Ankeny, IA

Ronald Bailey ascribes hidden motives to conservatives' doubts about Darwin. A more plausible explanation is healthy, show-me skepticism. When told that all of life's staggering functional complexity is the result of a simple algorithm, should a reasonable person be a) credulous, because that's what most evolutionary biologists believe, or b) skeptical, until shown convincing evidence of the power of natural selection? Bailey votes for a and begrudges the intransigence of others. Well, sure, for decades Darwinism has failed to explain the origin of life, flagella, intracellular transport, metabolism, the genetic code, cellular control mechanisms, embryological development, body plans, vision, feathers, etc. ad nauseam. But heck, that doesn't mean it won't explain them real soon–just ask any Darwinian.

Among other confusions, Bailey gets my critique of Darwinism wrong. He asserts that "Behe is addressing the origins problem," which he seems to take as the problem of the bare origin of life 4 billion years ago. (Bailey says the origin of life "is a question that scientists are only beginning to address in an organized manner." That will surprise Stanley Miller, whose famous experiment launched modern origin-of-life studies in 1953.) Since others had effectively criticized that subject, however, in my book Darwin's Black Box I concentrated on the many biochemical difficulties for Darwinism, like the origin of the cilium (which arose about 2 billion years after life started) and the blood clotting system (3.5 billion years after the first cellular life).

Further, I do not "more or less concede that Darwinian evolution occurred" once cellular systems were in place, if by that Bailey means I agree natural selection produced such wonders as the kidney or the flowthrough lung or echolocation. I state clearly (page 41 of my book) that we can't tell what caused those macroscopic systems if we don't first understand how molecular systems were produced. Given the breakdown of Darwinism at the molecular level, I am currently quite skeptical it can explain much about the further development of life.

Bailey questions whether others are letting their philosophy interfere with their judgment about a scientific theory. Perhaps he should ask himself the same question.

Michael J. Behe
Professor of Biochemistry
Lehigh University
Bethlehem, PA

Ronald Bailey replies: I much appreciate the comments of Timothy Sandefur and Barry Watts. Like Sandefur, I, too, am a great admirer of Thomas Jefferson. But reason isn't everything. We must avoid what F.A. Hayek called "constructivist rationalism."

As Hayek explained in The Fatal Conceit, "an evolutionary theory of morality is indeed emerging and its essential insight is that our morals are neither instinctual nor a creation of reason, but constitute a separate tradition between instinct and reason…a tradition of staggering importance in enabling us to adapt to problems and circumstances far exceeding our rational capacities. Our moral traditions, like many other aspects of our culture, developed concurrently with our reason, not as its product."

Furthermore, Hayek suggested: "We owe it partly to mystical and religious beliefs, and, I believe, particularly to the main monotheistic ones, that beneficial traditions have been preserved and transmitted at least long enough to enable those groups following them to grow, and to have the opportunity to spread by natural and cultural selection. This means, like it or not, we owe the persistence of certain practices, and the civilization that resulted from them, in part, to support from beliefs which are not true or verifiable or testable in the same sense as are scientific statements, and which are certainly not the result of rational argumentation."

But this does not mean that humanity must blindly follow tradition. Hayek also wrote that "reason may, although with caution and humility, and in a piecemeal way, be directed to the examination, criticism and rejection of traditional institutions and moral principles."

Sociobiology and evolutionary psychology are beginning to shed considerable light on the sources of human morality. For an excellent popular account, I recommend Matt Ridley's The Origins of Virtue (reviewed on page 56 of this issue). What I objected to in my article is the wrong-headed attack on science by some neoconservatives that they apparently believe will bolster popular morality. But I must add that I share the neoconservative concern that some people will illegitimately try to argue from the facts of evolutionary biology to ethical conclusions about how society should be ordered, or even make the claim that biology shows that there is no such thing as morality. This is just as illegitimate as arguing that evolution must be wrong because you think it undermines your notions about human dignity, religion, and morality.

I largely agree with John Povejsil's comments, but believe that more science will eventually drive out pseudoscience.

As Alan E. Johnson points out, Leo Strauss does not acknowledge that "revelation is a myth." Of course he doesn't. To do so would undermine whatever salutary effects that he thought religious belief would have on society. And of course Plato can only be used for "philosophizing," since Strauss believed that public morality is grounded in religious beliefs, particularly divine revelation. In Strauss's view philosophizing is an activity which by its nature tends to undermine public morality.

With regard to Eric Anderson's comments, I did indeed focus on the motives of the neoconservatives like Kristol. After all, that was what my article was about: Why are these political thinkers so eager to attack evolutionary biology? But I did not question the motives of Berlinski, Denton, and Behe. In fact, I believe that they sincerely believe that they have found good evidence against evolutionary biology. Consequently, I took a brief look at the nature of their arguments against Darwinian theory and why they fail.

Probably the only way that "a linear progression" of DNA sequences of the sort demanded by Anderson or Denton could exist is if all of the ancestral species that gave rise to today's current species were still alive to be tested. Since at least 98 percent of all species that ever lived are now extinct, this is, of course, impossible.

With regard to the supposed lack of "transitional species" in the fossil record, Anderson should take a look at the fossil sequence that paleontologists have developed for horses. Based on morphological characteristics, paleontologists generally conclude that fossilized species A appears to be ancestral to fossilized species C. Anti-Darwinists then demand to know where is the transitional species B? When paleontologists find species B, the anti-Darwinists then demand to know where's the transitional form between A and B? When paleontologists find transitional species Aa, the doubters then demand to see the transitional species between A and Aa and so on. Ultimately, the only way to satisfy their demands for transitional forms would be to have fossils for every individual ancestor for species C.

It appears that I gave Professor Behe too much credit when I concluded that he was dealing largely with the origin of life problem. I based that conclusion on his statement that he "believe[s] in descent of life from a common ancestor." If this doesn't mean that Behe "more or less concedes that Darwinian evolution occurred," I don't know what it could mean.

In his letter, Behe dismissively lists all of the things that evolutionary biology has yet to explain completely. What the heck, as he says, biologists have had 138 years since On the Origin of Species was published; almost a hundred years since the basis of heredity was dimly beginning to be understood; 44 years since DNA, the substance that makes up genes, was unraveled; 25 years since recombinant DNA techniques were developed, making it easy to probe; and a little more than a year since the first complete genome of any organism (a bacteria) was decoded. What's keeping them? Why haven't they solved all of the problems in biology?

Behe is engaging in what has been called a "God of the gaps" argument–God is smuggled into the gaps of our knowledge. The plain fact is that as evidence is gathered, it all points toward "descent with variation" as the mechanism for the development of species. For a thorough treatment of outstanding issues in both macro- and molecular evolutionary theory, I recommend Evolution by Mark Ridley (no relation to Matt).

Finally, no, I am not allowing my philosophy to interfere with my judgment about scientific theory.

The New Yellow Peril

In "MFNemies" (July), Rick Henderson attempts to defend the indefensibly immoral act of financing the economy and state-owned businesses of Red China, thereby propping up the military of a totalitarian nation with a nuclear capability that is indisputably hostile to the United States and most other free nations.

Whenever we, as a nation, trade with other countries, we must also consider the motives of our trading partners. If those motives are mutually agreeable and beneficial, there should be no objection to trading with such nations. If, on the other hand, the motives of trading partners are in conflict with our basic standards of human decency and national security, then we not only have a right, but a moral obligation, to not allow our money to be used for our own demise.

Attempting to get the Chinese leadership to treat its own people better is only part of the equation on this issue; the other part is to avoid financing and supporting a dangerous totalitarian regime. Rejecting MFN status for Red China would not in itself make the Chinese leadership behave as we would like. Since every evil act and atrocity by the Chinese leadership has been rewarded very generously time and again by the United States and by Britain (goodbye, free Hong Kong!), why should we expect more-acceptable behavior? Rejecting MFN status, however, would send a very strong message that we will not support, financially or morally, a totalitarian regime that does not even understand the concept of basic human rights and is extremely dangerous to the United States and other countries.

Not only should MFN status be rejected, but the United States should impose an absolute embargo on all trade with Red China. Henderson's blind worship at the altar of free trade without considering the implications to our national security and self-preservation is blindness indeed.

Steven A. Panteli

Rick Henderson fails to consider our most important reason for denying China most-favored-nation trading status: China is no friend to America. While human rights and our ability to affect changes in that arena in China are important, national security is the most important issue for us to consider. Henderson's article completely ignores this issue.

There seems to be little question that significant portions of the profits from China's MFN status will be used in a military buildup, much to our detriment. In addition, the kind of partnerships which trade requires set up numerous areas of vulnerability for the surreptitious and covert transfer of technology and equipment that China can use in building its military and technological capabilities.

No matter what our reasons for extending MFN to China, China wants MFN for its own reasons. It wants access to our capital and our technology. And it seems China is even willing to involve itself in our internal political processes at the highest levels to insure its needs are met. Under these circumtances, my support for the libertarian principle of free trade is insufficient to outweigh my concerns.

Jere Bashinski

Rick Henderson replies: Steven Panteli and Jere Bashinski have bought into a fallacy that permeates many trade discussions: that the "United States" trades with "Red China." Most international trade–even arms sales–takes place not between governments but instead between individuals and businesses that happen to be located within different nations.

Because China's labor camps and its army (both government institutions) sell goods internationally, an interesting response might be for the U.S. government to target those items for high tariffs or even outright bans. And my article mentioned that some in Congress had (unsuccessfully) tried to enact those policies.

The only options under serious consideration at the time my article went to press were those that would completely or conditionally end China's MFN status for all products and from all producers. The people who would be hurt by these policies would not only be the embryonic entrepreneurs in South China and Hong Kong (who would constitute any middle class that might emerge from that huge marketplace), but American producers and consumers. Denying MFN status to China would not bring about the reforms Mr. Panteli and Mr. Bashinski seek; it would also needlessly restrict the rights of individual Americans to buy and sell from whom they choose.

Twin Paradox

In "Fatalist Attraction" (July), Virginia Postrel wrote, "[t]he chances are good that if…a clone were created, the parents involved would be ordinary human beings with reasons both quite rare and extremely sympathetic." Such a case recently took place in California.

Seven years ago, Alissa Ayala was diagnosed with terminal leukemia. Her only hope was a bone marrow transplant from a compatible donor. None were found. In desperation, her father had his vasectomy reversed and her parents conceived another child, hoping the newborn would have compatible marrow. The probability that this would occur was only 25 percent, but that was better than zero, which is what Alissa's chances otherwise were.

The newborn, Marissa, did indeed have compatible marrow. The transplant was successful. And since it is now seven years since Alissa last had leukemia, she can be considered cured. The story had a happy ending.

If the Ayalas were willing to conceive a new infant with only a 25 percent probability of a successful transplant, how much more eager would they have been to conceive Alissa's clone, where the probability of success would have been 100 percent? Even the likes of Patrick Buchanan would have had trouble criticizing the Ayalas for doing so. What would have been so wrong? Alissa would have had a new twin sister–just one 17 years younger than she!

Michael Nollet
Wilmington, DE