starting a controversy for controversy’s sake

February 24, 2010 — Leave a comment

Everybody loves a good controversy and getting the chance to debate about something for a while. However, a controversy shouldn’t be a requirement to publish a book, especially one in which two scientists speaking out of their depth on a subject which neither of them seems to have understood, attack natural selection’s role as a driving mechanism behind evolution. Too bad nobody told that to philosopher Jerry Fodor and a professor of cognitive science, Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini who decided they were much smarter than biologists and tried to use modern sciences offering further explanations for how selection works in nature as arguments against the work of Charles Darwin. I suppose if you want a book sold, you have to try and tackle Darwin’s ghost in the footsteps of New Age cranks and blowhard political pundits desperately seeking their time in the spotlight.

But hey, Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini are scientists after all and they should understand that just having three extra letters after your name doesn’t make you an expert in everything under the sun. Just like we’ve discarded the idea that one could be a polymath with universal knowledge due to the sheer complexity of many subjects of study, they should know their limitations and be able to handle criticism. So it’s not like they’re about to give interviews to a political publication and complain about biologists pointing out their mistakes with a clichéd appeal to civility we see from many self-appointed experts trying to shield themselves from criticism they don’t know how to address in the following manner…

Most of the backlash to the book so far has been on blogs, which have been pretty obscene and debased. What’s upsetting is that they tell you that they think you’re an idiot, but they don’t tell you why – people who aren’t part of the field or who may not, in many cases, know much about Darwin. I’m not sure that all people who have been blogging about it are very sophisticated. It’s frustrating because you don’t know who you’re talking to.

Ah. Well. Forget that last part about being able to handle criticism the way we would expect a scientist to do it, offering more detailed evidence for their claims. Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini simply don’t take kindly to being publicly dissected by actual biologists who offer concrete examples to every major folly they see. Take the big and detailed review by PZ Myers. Or Jerry Coyne and Bob O’Hara. They’re biologists, know quite a bit about the work done by Darwin and their names are out there for the world to see. So for Fodor to pretend that a big horde of nameless, faceless bloggers who aren’t experts in the relevant field are going off on expletive-laced tirades without offering concrete examples of where he and Piattelli-Palmarini went wrong is simply false. Oh and before someone decides to add this little blog as an example of those faceless, debased critics, might I point out that my name is readily available for anyone who wants to click on the link to the about page and my post includes links to actual experts who are doing the work these pop sci pundits misuse to move copies off the shelves and clumsily use to verbally bludgeon a long dead naturalist?

Seriously, this obsession with Darwin on the part of evolution manufactroversy creators is unhealthy. Might as well go after Newton and decry that he was wrong about the mechanics of gravity while using Einstein’s major expansion of his theories as the evidence that he was wrong. It will be equally illogical. You can’t get to where general relativity has taken physics without the foundations laid down by classical Newtonian gravitation, just like without Mendel and Darwin, you couldn’t get to modern zoology and genetics. And yet this is exactly what’s being done by Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini much to the delight of the Discovery Institute whose ignoramuses go into a fit of ecstasy anytime someone with a PhD after his name says that Darwin was wrong, even if at the end of the day he’s still coming out in support of the evolutionary theory as a legitimate field of study. It seems like satisfying the personal grudge of creationists is being used by publishers to sell backwards, alternative theories of evolutionary development directly to the public and it’s absolutely the wrong thing to do.

[ illustration by Armin Cifuentes ]

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