Home » Intelligent Design » Literary Darwinism: Crap? Lit crit chasing its collective tail?

Literary Darwinism: Crap? Lit crit chasing its collective tail?

Well, if we go by Britt Peterson’s survey article, “Darwin to the Rescue”, in Chronicle Free, even its supporters don’t totally disagree, despite all the huffery:

Gottschall points out that much of his writing has been published in scientific journals. He admits, however, that under the name of Literary Darwinism “there’s also a lot of crap. There really has been a lot of crap. Now the question is, what does that prove? Does it really prove that it’s futile and jihadist and all of that? Or does it prove that we need to do a better job? Because you can also go out and find hugely depressing lists of problems in quantitative approaches.”

The original idea was to put literary criticism on a “science” footing, in order to rescue it from competing nutty ideas.

The literary Darwinist traces “evolution” themes (= war and sex among cave men) in, oh, Jane Austen and T.S. Eliot. Charts, graphs, PowerPoints.

But their efforts have not been well received.

For the Literary Darwinists, however, the urgency is so high that they see their work, whatever its flaws, as the literary academy’s last, best hope — if, of course, it has the courage to embrace the inevitable. “We’re desperate,” says Gottschall. “The field is really, really desperate. Morale is so bad. No one really knows what to do. Everyone is saying what I am, in some way — they have the same critique, the same feeling that our old ways are just plain spent.

I studied HELL (Honours English Language and Literature) in the bad old days (’71) before my profs had heard of any of these fads. HELL was the course you took if you wanted to be a writer. We studied the history of criticism as well as of literature – a good approach in my view, and an excellent inoculation against fads.

Now, as for literary Darwinism, it has a small, rightful place, as follows: Some famous writers were in fact conscious Darwinists, and the Darwin theme in their work repays study.

I recall, for example, that early twentieth century British playwright George Bernard Shaw had a habit of editorializing on why his characters married whom they did. In Pygmalion, Eliza Doolittle marries the foolish Freddy, instead of Professor Higgins (but the movie version was compelled to almost redact this fact, because sentimental taste simply could not endure it). Such themes resonate through Shaw’s work. Darwinian themes are also easy to spot in the work of H.G. Wells.

Seriously, one can dispute design in nature perhaps, but not in plays and novels. These works of art are not created by “selfish genes” to blindly spread themselves.

Oops, I better be careful. Next, I will hear from some pontificator about the “selfish meme” that blindly spreads itself in literature … “The hardwired brain memes do all the writing but fool the writer into believing she is sweating over the word processor herself” … As if.

(Oh wait! For all I know, that’s next month’s New Scientist feature.)

Also, just up at  Colliding Universes:

This summer’s fashion in origin of life theories is diamonds (Well, of course, because diamonds are a swirl’s best friend … )

Extraterrestrials: Younger astronomers less likely to believe than older ones?

Universe: Dinesh d’Souza finally debates Richard Dawkins – at Al-Jazeera!

Some scientists hope that the aliens are NOT out there!

And at the Post-Darwinist :

Ottawa Citizen’s David Warren vs. the Darwinoids

The plant ate it? Not as unlikely as some might think … (And what does that mean for Darwinian evolution?)

No, not without a fight …

  • Delicious
  • Facebook
  • Reddit
  • StumbleUpon
  • Twitter
  • RSS Feed

16 Responses to Literary Darwinism: Crap? Lit crit chasing its collective tail?

  1. O’Leary on “Colliding Universes”:

    Remember, even if someone creates life in a lab, that does not prove life started that way – only that that way is possible. It is somewhat like the Crown prosecutor showing that the defendant “might have” committed the murder. That won’t get the defendant convicted

    Oh my, no! If the scientific community can demonstrate a possible naturalistic pathway for life to have arisen (I would expect that the protein/DNA-RNA puzzle would have to be solved, and the creation of ATP synthase) I would throw my hat in the ring. To me it would be the equivelant of the defense attourney claiming that the defendant, dispite a case that is lousy in every other way, could not have possibly committed the murder, then the prosecution proving that he could have.

    Where I sit it is not the obligation of science to prove exactly which path nature took (would be nice), only that there is a possible path. So far they seem very far from showing any possible naturalistic pathway.

  2. Read the d’Souza bit. Here’s one thing I’m wondering. If it really is not helpful to introduce a more complex thing to explain a current mystery, what is the multiverse?

    It contains all the complexity of the visible universe–AND MORE.

    Some people might object that the multiverse is really just the universe we see in a larger context. God is external to the universe. That’s a difference, but I don’t know that it’s a significant difference. After all Dawkins accents the complexity, not the externality. It still seems to me that we’re adding complexity to explain.

    When we talk about the multiverse, we assume there are life-bearing complex universes like ours and degenerate universes that didn’t make it. But there really is no prohibition on vastly more complex universes either, where ours is relatively degenerate. So because we characteristically shut this side of things down, doesn’t mean that we aren’t adding unknown levels of complexity, just to explain why constants are “just so”.

  3. bFast, producing life in the lab is by definition not naturalistic, because the life designer is providing all the input in terms of selected chemicals, interactions, temperature, et cetera.

    It would prove that life can be created on Earth by an intelligent non-divine designer.

    That isn’t certain as yet – hence the number of great scientists who have flirted with panspermia.

    We would never know if that was the path life actually took, or if any such path could occur by accident.

  4. producing life in the lab is by definition not naturalistic, because the life designer is providing all the input in terms of selected chemicals, interactions, temperature, et cetera.

    To some extent I agree. For the production of life in the laboratory to prove a viable pathway validating that life could have come about without intelligent intervention it must pass a few tests:
    1 – The experimental environment must be one that likely occurred naturally on the primordial earth.
    2 – Any induced product must have reasonably occurred. Chances must be much better than the UPB.

    However, if ID is going to cling onto “some human was involved, so we are only showing the effects of intelligence” then the naturalists’ claim that IDers are mere science stoppers is legitimate. Our hypotheese (in this case the hypothesis that life could not occur spontaneously) must be genuinely and reasonably falsifiable, or our hypothesees are not science.

  5. Wouldn’t this all be Artificial Selection and not Natural Selection (Darwinism)? Artificial Selection was practiced by humans for over 10,000 years, though, they probably didn’t understand that they could do it deliberately for some time after that.

    Isn’t it a little disingenuous to attribute these ideas to Darwin even though his contribution was Natural Selection and not Artificial Selection?

    This, of course, applies to all accusations of Darwinism where, in fact, it is Artificial Selection that is taking place and not Darwinian Natural Selection, including Eugenics and the Holocaust.

    Blaming all this on Darwin is dishonest, and/or ignorant, in my opinion.

  6. bFast, “cling onto ‘some human was involved’”? But that is a given if a human creates life in the lab!

    If I understand what you are saying, you mean that if life could be created by human design in a lab, it could happen by natural selection on the early Earth too.

    I don’t know that that follows at all.

    For one thing, we may never be sure of conditions on the early Earth.

    A real danger is that we will assume that they must have been like what happened in the lab because we made it work that way.

    Not necessarily a valid inference, and maybe a dead end for future science!

    The only thing that the creation of artificial life in the lab would show is that the level of design need not be God-like.

    Failure to create life in the lab does not demonstrate the reverse, but suggests it (On the other hand, we might not have got the method right … ).

    For the record, I believe it more likely that scientists will create life in the lab than that they will definitively show what happened on early Earth.

    That is because it is easier to solve a present-day problem when you are allowed to use any method that works than it is to retrace a series of steps without much reliable information.

    Here’s something to think about: We never see life getting started from nothing. It is always passed on from a previous instance of life.

    That shows that starting life is very difficult – though obviously not impossible!

  7. O’Leary:

    If I understand what you are saying, you mean that if life could be created by human design in a lab, it could happen by natural selection on the early Earth too.

    I am saying that if scientist can create life in a lab, if they limit themselves to an environment that is likely to have existed in the primordial earth, and if they limit themselves to injecting the amount of information that chance alone would realistically achieve (especially if they inject no information at all), then science would have established that self-generating life is a reasonable possibility. This would falsify the ID based hypothesis that self-generating life is not possible.

    IE, the burden of proof is on the naturalistic scientific community to prove the feasibility of self-generating life on earth. The naturalistic community has no obligation to prove anything more than the existance of one feasible pathway, even if what happened is a different pathway.

    If science is obligated to prove exatly what naturalistic pathway nature took, then they are being asked for a rediculous level of proof. Such assertions on the part of the ID community justify claims on the part of the scientific community that ID is creationism in a cheap tuxedo — religion. We must present a vulnerable theory or we are not doing science. By the same token, if the Darwinists do not permit challenges to their theory, they are not doing science but are practicing religion. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

  8. bFast, if we do not know for sure what happened at the origin of life, how can we reasonably limit ourselves to those conditions?

    Given the low probabilities of life’s origin, “likely” won’t cut it.

    Actually, I think the whole OoL project a waste of time for precisely that reason.

    If life (in the sense in which we normally use the term*) is created in a lab, that shows that intelligent (but non-divine) design can create life.

    That’s all it shows.

    The vulnerable theory, if someone wants to advance it, is that intelligence at the human level cannot create life.

    ID says that a design input is required, and that is not refuted by lab life. Quite the contrary.

    I should perhaps add that I think lab life unlikely. But not as unlikely as discovering exactly what happened at the origin of life.

    PS: the assumption that the intelligence required to create life must – by its very nature – be a divine intelligence is additional to the design inference, so far as I can see.

  9. bFast wrote:

    “. . . if scientist can create life in a lab, if they limit themselves to an environment that is likely to have existed in the primordial earth, and if they limit themselves to injecting the amount of information that chance alone would realistically achieve (especially if they inject no information at all), then science would have established that self-generating life is a reasonable possibility. This would falsify the ID based hypothesis that self-generating life is not possible.”

    Denyse wrote:

    “If we do not know for sure what happened at the origin of life, how can we reasonably limit ourselves to those conditions?”

    I think there are two issues that are getting crossed here. One is whether scientists would have given a reasonable explanation as to OOL in our particular case. Denyse correctly points out that it would not demonstrate that life in fact arose in such a manner by natural conditions, as the question of the initial conditions would still be up in the air.

    However, I think bFast is correct, that if it were shown in the lab (or in contemporaneous, observed nature — it doesn’t matter which) that life could arise under plausible natural conditions without intelligent intervention, then I think we would have to concede that, yes, the hypothesis that design is required for the origin of life would be falsified.

    Personally, I’m quite certain that this will never be demonstrated — and I can’t offhand think of anything that is a much safer bet — but if it turns out that a naturalistic origin of life scenario is demonstrated, then I would concede that a key design hypothesis had been falsified and I would further concede that such a demonstration would call into question any other design hypothesis that relied upon probabilistic calculations and analyses of similar scope.

  10. Eric Anderson, I would consider a design hypothesis falsified if we saw life regularly arising from scratch under all sorts of conditions – provided we were certain that there was no underlying design in the universe that created that outcome.

    Otherwise, how would we know?

    But we never see life arising, and so far no one has created it in the lab.

    So any claim that life can arise by chance alone, in accord with the presumed laws of the universe, is a claim based purely on faith at present.

    I find surreal the fact that such a claim is considered “science” but any contrary assertion is considered “religion”.

    I think a chance origin of life extremely unlikely in this universe, from what I have read, and also doubt that anything like life will soon be created in the lab.

    But if it is, I would say it is a victory for design, not chance. After all, the creators only have the design. They do not have the chance.

  11. Thanks, Denyse, I think we are largely in agreement. If life is “created” in the lab it will certainly not impugn design, and will likely support it. I completely agree with that.

    I think bFast was focusing on a naturalistic scenario (which, if properly done, could be set up in a lab). I don’t think that will happen, because there is too much evidence to the contrary; but if it did — even once — I think we’d have to acknowledge it as a significant blow to the idea that design is absolutely necessary for OOL. You are right, that there might still be underlying design in the universe, laws of nature, etc. leading up to the OOL event.

  12. “Nature could have somehow done it”, despite what some may claim, is not falsifiable. If no viable ‘unguided’ OoL pathway is ever found, ‘extraordinary chance’ or ‘unknown pathway’ will be claimed, and in fact has been claimed to this point.

    On the flipside, a lab simulation of likely early earth conditions that results in life will not have falsified a design hypothesis. It will be a partial vindication, since even in that scenario you’re dealing with agents producing an ideal situation for a specific end. It’s a question of what kind of design you’re left with, what kind of actions are necessary.

    The sad truth is that, for all the claims of ID being unfalsifiable, no-ID is just as unfalsifiable. It’s simply offered up as the default view, unjustifiably so.

  13. nullasalus:

    “Nature could have somehow done it”, despite what some may claim, is not falsifiable. If no viable ‘unguided’ OoL pathway is ever found, ‘extraordinary chance’ or ‘unknown pathway’ will be claimed, and in fact has been claimed to this point.

    Agreed. The naturalism is not falsifiable.

    nullasalus:

    On the flipside, a lab simulation of likely early earth conditions that results in life will not have falsified a design hypothesis.

    Also agreed. This would not, for instance, address the issue of irreduceable complexity. It would not address Haldane’s Dilemma. It would even not establish that life came about via natural means. It would, however, falsify the sub-hypothesis that life could not have happened by natural means. If there is a feasible pathway, “could not have” is falsified.

  14. H’mm:

    It seems the blog is currently in a mood to discuss OOL.

    On that I note that the key issue is the claimed origin of functionally specified, quite complex, algorithmically relevant information seen in OBSERVED cell based life by “lucky noise.” That is deeply incredible.

    So, we can be highly confident in making the prediction that — apart from seeing a programming of life into the laws of the cosmos (itself a very ID-friendly observation!) — OOL by chance + necessity under any reasonable projected prebiotic environment is maximally improbable. Indeed, that is why Shapiro and Orgel had a recent, mutually destructive exchange on the credibility of RNA and metabolism first OOL models.

    In so making a focus on OOL, however, there has been here a bit of a diversion from a key point: the pervasion of intellectual and wider culture by Darwinist themes, which lends a degree of plausibility to Darwinist thought that it may not have earned on its own merits. Ironically, the disintegrative “Romans 1 world” consequences Denyse outlines above, may be trying to tell us something!

    GEM of TKI

    PS: I must note that I am rather uncomfortable with the level of language used in the OP and its headline.

  15. kairosfocus, I was a bit uncomfortable too – but it was a literary Darwinist who admitted that much in his field is “crap”, and I owe him accurate quotation.

    Thank heaven he isn’t the Prophet Myers.

    I’ve had real trouble quoting the Prophet accurately without offending the standards of this list.

    This is an interesting discussion, though, and that’s partly because no one picked up on “literary” Darwinism!

  16. Denyse

    Thanks for the thought. I appreciate the accuracy issue, though that in another way simply underscores my underlying concern.

    For, I am concerned on the general breakdown of civility, and also that the broken window theory of policing will apply: if you fix the little offenses, it sends a message that discourages the bigger ones.

    Let the little ones pass and that opens the door . . .

    GEM of TKI

Leave a Reply