In “’Broken Windows’ in the Evolution Debate” (Evolution News & Views, March 4, 2012), David Klinghoffer reflects on the late James Q. Wilson’s approach to ID. Wilson was famed for the “broken windows” theory in criminology, one of the few theories that actually made a difference when applied – and a theory that is quite compatible with ID. More on that last point in a moment.
In a world where conventional criminologists argued that law enforcement should target the most serious crimes, Wilson said no because the conventional view ignores the psychology of crime. He believed that societies should target public social disorder – unrepaired broken windows, graffiti, masses of litter – all signs that no one cares much what happens, and people don’t see themselves as the joint owners of their neighbourhood.
New York tried Wilson’s idea, and the crime rate collapsed. So much so that in the late Nineties I wrote an article for Canadian tour operators, reassuring them that – contrary to past experience – New York was now a safe tourist destination for their clients (who were unused to high crime rates). His thesis seemed instinctively right to me: When the implicit message of a neighbourhood is, “Someone cares about every little thing here,” the risks of crime are too high for most who are tempted.
But, as Klinghoffer reports,
James Wilson was among a number of conservative heavyweights in academia and journalism who should have known better but, in the context of the 2005 Dover trial and after, condemned intelligent design while knowing hardly anything about it. John West wrote about Wilson and others in his book Darwin’s Conservatives: The Misguided Quest.
For example, in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal (“Faith in Theory,” December 26, 2005), Wilson defined ID in the usual simplistic, inaccurate terms: “Proponents of intelligent design [say] that there are some things in the natural world that are so complex that they could not have been created by ‘accident.'” Coming from James Q. Wilson, of all people, this makes you want to cry.
Yes, because ironically, his own theory of crime was in some respects a theory of design! The broken window thesis does not theorize about how evolution might naturally select a “crime gene.” Wilson asked what information about a neighbourhood does vandalism and disorder convey to people tempted by crime? (He did espouse genetic theories, but they weren’t his signal achievement.)
It’s hard to think of a public debate more plagued by misinformation, bias, sloppiness and shallowness — by sheer mayhem — than the evolution debate. In no other controversy is it more routine or acceptable to spout off without even minimally understanding what people on the other side have to say. This is true not only of rigid materialists but of journalists, bloggers, and others who, on other topics, sincerely want to be objective and consider all sides of a question before rendering a verdict.
Hmmm. Actually, there are some other debates where a reasonable discussion is simply impossible. For example, in Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, Charles Murray discusses the decline of marriage. That’s a brave act.
Usually, rational public discussion of the risks of lone motherhood as the social norm is engulfed in a fireball of righteous anger on behalf of lone mothers. Note, I said, righteous anger on behalf of lone mothers. The people who see the risks, as Murray does, are not offering condemnation to the mothers. Murray merely observes that the bad social outcomes are undisputed among sociologists, regardless of the position they take. (I address some of the reasons for bad outcomes here.)
Men like George Will, Charles Krauthammer and James Q. Wilson, for all there is otherwise to admire about them, have been the broken windows in the evolution debate. If they had taken the trouble to read and think seriously about it, the controversy over Darwin v. Design might be very different than it is: more fruitful and substantive, casting light more than darkness.
Yes indeed. But consider this: When people like Wilson have been in conflict with received opinion for decades about issues they care about a great deal – and know for sure that the facts support them – they sometimes award themselves brownie points for emitting approved nonsense on other subjects.
They feel a bit less stressed and lonely. So they can’t see, for example, that the people who say Darwin’s math does not add up are in precisely the same position as they are. Not only that but it is in their interests, for peace of mind, not to look into the matter too closely …
Darwin’s math does not add up. But it takes far more than contrary evidence, demonstrated improbability, and justified charges of falsehood to topple a colossal elite idol like that. Because Darwinism is only one materialist error among many, Klinghoffer is right: A few more hands pulling on the same ropes would be a welcome change from everyone pulling on different ropes, attached to different idols, in the zaniest temple in world history.
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