Bryan Appleyard and creationism

British journalist Bryan Appleyard continues to use The Sunday Times newspaper as a platform for pro-religious campaigning. Today he excels himself with an article on Darwin and natural selection which quotes, without reproach, Dr David Menton of Answers in Genesis, and David Rosevear, chairman of the British Creation Science Movement. Appleyard also quotes the anti-evolutionary opinions of James Le Fanu, (a medical doctor and journalist, no less):

[Le Fanu] insists that new biological discoveries have overthrown Darwin. The old man is “screwed”, he says gruffly.

Perhaps most startling is the discovery from the deciphering of the human genome that we have only between 20,000 and 25,000 genes. We were previously thought to have 100,000. A mere 25,000 doesn’t seem to be enough to sustain our vast complexity and yet genes are supposed to be the heavy lifters of the Darwinian enterprise.

“I wouldn’t get out of bed for 25,000 genes,” says Le Fanu, “and we don’t find form in the genome. We share most of our DNA with chimpanzees, but nowhere in the genome have we found what it is that makes us so different from chimps.”

Which is an interesting point. But here’s a good response:

It is unarguably true that the differences between a monkey and a human are huge…The point is – as every geneticist…knows perfectly well – that a small number of nucleotides can make a very big difference…The fact that, at the molecular level, the difference appears small is irrelevant because, at the molecular level, everything appears small. And, besides, the whole of modern science from quantum theory to chaos theory has successfully persuaded us of the fact that small things make big differences.

Very well put, don’t you think? And the author of those words? Bryan Appleyard, Brave New Worlds, p102. Strange that Bryan didn’t choose to raise this point here, but I’m sure he wasn’t in any way dishonestly attempting to mislead his readership, most of whom will be non-scientists.

Staggeringly, Bryan even uses today’s article to wheel out the most famous evolutionary canard of the creationist movement, namely the claim that natural selection cannot explain the evolution of the eye:

It’s all very well to talk of small mutations changing an organism, but how do such changes make, for example, an eye? Without all its bits and pieces, an eye does not work. It is, in the terms used by the biochemist Michael Behe, author of Darwin’s Black Box, “irreducibly complex”, beyond the reach of blind, random mutation.

On the contrary, as Richard Dawkins points out, “intermediates are not only easy to imagine: they are abundant all around the animal kingdom. A flatworm has an eye that, by any sensible measure, is less than half a human eye. Nautilus…has an eye that is intermediate in quality between flatworm and human. Unlike the flatworm eye, which can detect light and shade but see no image, the Nautilus ‘pinhole camera’ eye makes a real image; but it is a blurred and dim image compared to ours.” (The God Delusion, p124).

The creationist/intelligent design attack upon evolutionary theory is two-pronged: not only does it seek to imply that evolution is incomplete or flawed as a theory, but it hedges its bets by also arguing that the consequences of evolutionary theory have been detrimental to society. Appleyard, of course, follows this exact rhetorical template, and duly quotes David Rosevear’s assertion “If [we are not the children of God], then there is no right or wrong – we can do what we like.”

This argument, another popular canard of the creationist/intelligent design movement, presupposes that the existence of God is necessary for the truth of ethical principles. As philosopher Adolf Grunbaum pointed out in The Poverty of Theistic Morality, this fallacy was exposed by Socrates in Plato’s Euthyphro:

Is the conduct approved by the gods right (“pious”), because of properties of its own, or merely because it pleases the gods to value or command it? In the former case, divine omnibenevolence and revelation are at best ethically superfluous, and in the latter, the absolute divine commands fail to provide any reason at all for imposing particular kinds of conduct.

For if God values and enjoins us to do what is desirable in its own right, then ethical rules do not depend for their validity on divine command, and they can then be independently adopted. But, on the other hand, if conduct is good merely because God decrees it, then nowadays we also have the morally insoluble problem of deciding, in a multi-religious world, which one of the conflicting purported divine revelations of ethical commands we are to accept. Indeed, Richard Gale sees the thrust of Plato’s Euthyphro to be the claim that “Ethical propositions are not of the right categorical sort to be made true by anyone’s decision [command], even God’s” (R. M. Gale, On the Nature and Existence of God. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991, p. 34).

Neither theism nor atheism as such permit the logical deduction of any judgments of moral value or of any ethical rules of conduct. Moral codes turn out to be logically extraneous to each of these competing philosophical theories alike. And if such a code is to be integrated with either of them in a wider system, the ethical component must be imported from elsewhere.

In the case of theism, it will emerge that neither the attribution of omnibenevolence to God nor the invocation of divine commandments enables its theology to give a cogent justification for any particular actionable moral code. Theism, no less than atheism, is itself morally sterile: Concrete ethical codes are autonomous with respect to either of them.

Just as a system of morals can be tacked onto theism, so also atheism may be embedded in a secular humanism in which concrete principles of humane rights and wrongs are supplied on other grounds. Though atheism itself is devoid of any specific moral precepts, secular humanism evidently need not be. By the same token, a suitably articulated form of secular humanism can rule out some modes of conduct while enjoining others, no less than a religious code in which concrete ethical injunctions have been externally adjoined to theism (e.g., “do not covet thy neighbour’s wife”).

Appleyard tells us that Darwinian evolution “was and is, for many, a grim vision,” but also points out that “Darwinism remains only a small part of the popular imagination.” So the claim, then, is that we are depressed by something we are largely unaware of! This contradiction is important because it points to the fundamental fallacy of Appleyard’s worldview. The general thrust of Appleyard’s output is to characterise science as providing a threat to human well-being, with the ulterior motive of promoting, as the remedy, a religious worldview. The general theme permeating the Appleyard oeuvre, is to suggest that humans have needs which, in general, they don’t actually have, such as the need for ‘the sacred’, and the need for ‘spiritual depth’, and to suggest that science is a threat because it threatens these needs. Appleyard wishes us to believe that science is depriving us of something essential. On the contrary, the needs Appleyard speaks of are not general truths about what the human condition is, or what it feels like to be human, but truths about what it feels like to have inherited a certain religious worldview. Darwinian evolution entails neither a ‘grim vision’, nor, as Darwin himself suggested, a type of grandeur; these are extra-theoretical valuations that are tacked-on, depending upon the subjective personality of the individual.

Ultimately, on the subject and evolution and religion, I would agree with the verdict of the Reverend Michael Heller (Where physics meets metaphysics, p272-273, On Space and Time):

Correct theology is obliged to take into account what science has to say to us…And the verdict of science…is clear. The Universe we live in is an evolutionary process, and the thread leading from the plasma of primordial stuff, through chemical elements, galaxies, stars and planets, to more and more complex systems, intelligent life included, is but a fibre in this overwhelming process. And theology that would choose to ignore this magnificent process is a blind way to nowhere.

Bryan Appleyard

Published in: on January 31, 2009 at 10:33 am  Leave a Comment  

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