I was discussing with a colleague the recent media frenzy over ID, not just nationally (e.g., back to back NYTimes front page stories of it) but internationally. The question is whether this interest represents something substantial — a real sea change — or merely a flash in the pan. It seems that something substantial is indeed happening.
One indicator is that the curiosity among the media is genuine as is their growing unhappiness with prevailing dogma in biology. If nothing else, the attention given to ID has served to make Dawkins and Dennett appear vulnerable. Poor Dawkins. He is now being attacked by all sorts of people who ten or fifteen years ago wouldn’t have had the nerve to cough in his presence.
Of cource, media attention will wane. Reporters tend to skip from one thing to another. But in the end this isn’t going to matter much. Science is not in the end conducted from the pages of the New York Times.
But this much is clear. There have already been two immensely important changes that have been more or less coterminous with the recent media frenzy. The first is that criticism of Darwin’s theory has now been internalized by the biological community itself.
To be sure, it is never ever called criticism, but that is what it is nonetheless. Look at Harold Morowitz’ stuff on the origins of life. His papers always contain a purely ritualistic word about Darwin’s great insight. And then Darwin is dismissed. Too random, too unscientific. These are both Morowitz’s terms.
What he wants is a “universal and deterministic” theory of biological origins and development, one based on biochemistry. Not traditional biochemistry, of course, but biochemistry in which “organic laws” are finally revealed. These laws Morowitz argues cannot be reduced to organic chemisty, just as inorganic chemistry cannot be reduced to physics in view of the Pauli exclusion principle. What a remarkable series of claims to find within the very heart of the establishment.
The second phenomenon is political and not scientific. For the first time in the history of science, the general public has come to reject both a scientific theory and the world-view that it represents. This is astonishing. It is a genuinely populist revolt against various elites. The deep, almost irrational, anger that is so conspicuous a feature of blogs such as The Panda’s Thumb does not have a scientific explanation, but it does make perfect political sense. This is how priviledged elites always react when threatened.
This phenomenon is not going to disappear. It can only gather force. Even the most ardent of Darwinians now realize in some sense that in subjects like evolutionary psychology, they have just overplayed their hands. Left to their own devices, they would probably have backed down sooner or later. It’s too late for that. They are taking fire in the form of contempt from the people who really count — the ones who make possible their pampered, isolated, clueless lives.
There is in this something unprecedented and something encouraging as well. It’s about time. An attack on science as a secular institution has long been overdue. And it’s not just biology either. Psychology, sociology and economics have all been rather unobtrusively removed from the Pantheon over the past twenty years or so and this chiefly by the force of public opinion. No one takes these disciplines seriously anymore. When was the last time, for example, a psychologist succeeded in influencing a jury as an expert witness?
In the end, only the serious sciences will be left.