Darwinism

Darwinism and popular culture: Bill Moyers moonlights as a geneticist

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Recently, at Uncommon Descent, we discussed Jesse Kilgore, who killed himself after reading Dawkins and Pekka Eric Auvinen, the young Finnish social Darwinist shooter (2007) , to say nothing of Eric Harris at Columbine. While some have pointed to these examples of the harm done by pop Darwinism, I’ve always been cautious. Disturbed people have taken their own or others’ lives for a variety of reasons. Better evidence, it seems to me, is the bad assumptions of people assumed to be intelligent, emotionally normal, and well-meaning. Consider then the case of Bill Moyers of PBS:

Richard Landes at “Augean Stables” draws attention to this gem from Moyers’s Journal, from his January 9 interview with Barack Obama:

What we are seeing in Gaza is the latest battle in the oldest family quarrel on record. Open your Bible: the sons of the patriarch Abraham become Arab and Jew. Go to the Book of Deuteronomy. When the ancient Israelites entered Canaan their leaders urged violence against its inhabitants. The very Moses who had brought down the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” now proclaimed, “You must destroy completely all the places where the nations have served their gods. You must tear down their altars, smash their pillars, cut down their sacred poles, set fire to the carved images of their gods, and wipe out their name from that place.

So God-soaked violence became genetically coded.

(Transcript here.)

Landes wasn’t very impressed, and neither was the Anti-Defamation League’s Abraham Foxman. Moyers told Foxman he didn’t mean it:

And, to your claim that I was “declaring Jews are ‘genetically coded’ for violence,” you are mistaken. My comment – obviously not sufficiently precise – was not directed at a specific people but to the fact that the human race has violence in its DNA, as the biblical stories so strongly affirm. I also had in mind the relationship between all the descendents of Abraham who love the same biblical land and come to such grief over it.

Unfortunately for Moyers, the text will not bear the interpretation he wishes to give it. He was referring specifically to Moses and the Israelites (ancient Jews), as described in Deuteronomy, not to people in general. However, as I have no interest in contributing to political correctness, I am content to let that matter rest.

The specific contribution of pop culture Darwinism to this episode is the notion that “God-soaked violence” is “genetically coded.” If so:

1. No one is responsible for their violent behaviour, so both sides are off the hook and we can all quit blaming anyone.

2. Violent conflicts are probably irresolvable. (You may as well try to teach non-violence to grizzly bears.)

3. It wouldn’t make any difference what Deuteronomy says because people are genetically coded for violence. So even God is off the hook. (Dawkins, check your mail.)

4. Deuteronomy is not a legend, as some claim, but can be invoked as a source of historical information, including information about genetics.

Moyers doesn’t mean any of that, because if he does, he would never have written the other things he has. So what does he mean?

Well, first, his genome isn’t Francis Collins and Craig Venters’s famous genome, mapped in 2000. That’s a matter of chromosomes. If anyone wanted to show that there is a violence gene, they’d likely be asked its exact location and functions. As Mike Behe likes to say, science is a matter of “how, exactly?”, not of handwaving.

No, Moyers’s genome is rather the genome of “It’s in your genes” and “It’s a trait that evolution selected for in humans because ….” In other words, the pop Darwin genome.

Ironically, Darwin’s actual theory is in serious trouble. Serious scientists are trying to modify it in a variety of directions. Yet the news doesn’t filter down to the hordes of angry bloggers who (one must charitably assume) honestly believe that his theory is “overwhelmingly confirmed.”

Why doesn’t the news filter down? The Darwinism they know – in which Bill Moyers (or anybody at all) can be a geneticist – is overwhelmingly confirmed in their own hearts and minds.

God-soaked violence genes are probably a habitual way of thinking for Moyers, which is why he said what he did in an interview with the President-elect (for which, one must suppose, Moyers had prepared carefully.)

That, I think is the primary way that pop Darwinism is harmful. It short circuits careful thinking in favour of easy explanations that don’t explain anything. And false knowledge drives out true knowledge by displacing the time available to acquire true knowledge.

Fight between two grizzly bears (if you can stand it):

(Do you think there might be a market here for Conflict Resolution Manuals?)

4 Replies to “Darwinism and popular culture: Bill Moyers moonlights as a geneticist

  1. 1
    dgosse says:

    Liked the bear bash. Did you notice the little guy won? Always watch out for the little guy. I never did have a high opinion of Moyers.

  2. 2
    dacook says:

    What we are seeing in Gaza is the latest battle in the oldest family quarrel on record. Open your Bible: the sons of the patriarch Abraham become Arab and Jew. Go to the Book of Deuteronomy. When the ancient Israelites entered Canaan…

    Moyers is very confused here about history, geography, and geneology.

    Gaza is part of old Philistia, not Canaan. It’s one of five cities settled by “the Peoples of the Sea” during the reign of Ramesses III in Egypt’s 20th dynasty. One of these peoples were the Perasata, probably from Crete, who became the Philistines, now Palestinians. They are not descended from Abraham and are not Arabs. They arrived in the land to which they gave their name, Palestine, at about the same time as Israel, ca 11th century BC.
    (source: “A History of Israel, 3rd ed., by John Bright, Westminster Press)

  3. 3
    KRiS says:

    “That, I think is the primary way that pop Darwinism is harmful. It short circuits careful thinking in favour of easy explanations that don’t explain anything. And false knowledge drives out true knowledge by displacing the time available to acquire true knowledge.”

    I hear this type of comment a lot. Usually, though, it’s phrased more like this:

    “That, I think is the primary way that [Intelligent Design] is harmful. It short circuits careful thinking in favour of easy explanations that don’t explain anything. And false knowledge drives out true knowledge by displacing the time available to acquire true knowledge.”

    I have to say that I far more agree with the second statement. There are questions which can be answered scientifically by Evolution which cannot be answered scientifically by Intelligent Design. Not just have or have not been answered (which can be debated, and often is), but actually can and cannot be answered. The easy answer of “somebody just designed it that way” short circuits careful thinking about how such complex designs could have arisen. By stating that an intelligent agent did it, you are in no way indicating how it was done…only that someone did it. In fact, the question of how it was done is completely unanswerable except by asking the agent him/her/itself. This is highlighted by the debate over sub-optimal design. Most people would look at something like our “backward” retina and say that it could have been designed much better. It doesn’t even appear to be a case of a trade-off, where the retina is backward so that some other function of the eye or of the organism as a whole can actually work, or even just work better (there are many examples of better designed eyes in nature). The usual answer to such challenges is, of course, that “design doesn’t necessarily mean perfect design.” This is true. However, this essentially means that questions about how something was designed cannot be answered reasonably, even with well educated guesses, because the answers are subject to the whim of some intelligence that may or may not be making reasoned and reasonable judgements about the design. No amount of scientific investigation can ever bring us any closer to an answer as to why sub-optimal design appears as often as it does, or even why anything at all was designed the way that it was. We can only shrug our shoulders and say that it was designed that way and nothing more can be said about it.

    Evolution, on the other hand, can provide an answer. Of course, you can claim that it doesn’t, or even that you think it won’t provide an answer (presumably you’d need an example of every step along the evolutionary path from non-sight to a fully formed eyeball before you accept the answer, which isn’t likely to happen), but that doesn’t mean that it can’t provide an answer. Further scientific investigation can potentially lead to new ways of understanding how evolution works, or to new ways of creating lab conditions that can mimic evolution more completely, or even just a better fossil record that shows a more complete evolutionary path for eyeball design. The point is, we can at the very least potentially answer such questions through further scientific investigation. The same cannot be said for ID, where answers of this sort can only come from the designer. It’s a simple answer that doesn’t explain anything.

  4. 4
    KRiS says:

    Sorry for ignoring the point of the original post and focusing on that one phrase. I just kind of got caught up in the moment with that one.

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