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Still sane, are you? Hey, meet a friend you maybe never knew you had: Pulitzer novelist Marilynne Robinson


First, it’s okay to doubt the received ape-ology nostrums. No, really. It is.

Re that:  Memo to Templeton’s Rod Dreher: It is still okay to doubt received nostrums. And it had better be.

Tom Bethell, author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science (Regnery Publishing), wrote to introduce us to the “other side” of Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Marilynne Robinson (for Gilead, 2005), who recently took the occasion of her four Yale Terry Lectures to attack the evolutionary biologists who talk as if science were atheism writ large.

But let Bethell tell it: Marilynne Robinson, who is better known as a novelist, attacked E.O. Wilson, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Steven Pinker and even the sainted W.D. Hamilton [my word! – ed.] in her recent book Absence of Mind. In Harper’s (Nov 2006) she was also fiercely critical of Dawkins’s God Delusion.

Her criticisms are mostly philosophical and religious, so her famous targets will probably ignore her. Still, it’s interesting that she has been able to do this under the auspices of Yale University.

She says that Religion, among the Darwinist writers she criticizes “is treated as a proof of persisting primitivity among human beings that legitimizes the association of all religion with the lowest estimate that Europeans have made of aboriginal practices, and legitimizes also the assumption that humankind is itself fearful, irrational, deluded and self deceived, excepting of course, these missionaries of enlightenment.” [p.14]

This is interesting, but also typical of her convoluted style, involving sentences that tend to be long or longer. Here’s another quotation:

“The characterization of religion by those who dismiss it tends to reduce it to a matter of bones and feathers and wishful thinking, a matter of rituals and social bonding and false etiologies and the fear of death, and this makes its persistence very annoying to them.”

She refers to “the myth of the threshold,” or the notion that after Darwin et al “some assumptions were to be regarded as fixed and inevitable and others as exposed for all time and for all purposes as naive and untenable, supplanted by a better understanding . . . Some transformative concept has obliged us to rethink the world in its new light, assuming pervasive error in previous thought and its survivals . . . Major illusions have been dispelled for good and all. What we had learned from Darwin, Marx Freud and others were insights into reality so deep as to be ahistorical. Criticism was nostalgia, and skepticism meant the doubter’s mind was closed and fearful.”

What was “the great new truth into which modernity has delivered us”? It is generally assumed to be “that the given world is the creature of accident, that it has climbed Mount Improbable incrementally and and over time through a logic of development, refinement and elaboration internal to itself . . .” Once upon a time it was asserted, “and now it is taken to have been proved, that the God of traditional Western religion does not exist, or exists at the remotest margins of time and causality.”

“The degree to which debunking is pursued as if it were an urgent crusade, at whatever cost to the wealth of insight into human nature that might have come from attending to the record humankind has left . . . . may well be the most remarkable feature of the modern period in intellectual history.”

She particularly wants to attack the claim made by E.O. Wilson, Steve Pinker et al that “the mind is what the brain does; specifically the brain processes information, and thinking is a kind of computation.” [A quote from Pinker’s How the Mind Works.] The recent string on phylogeny, “The Brain is Not An Explanation,” includes thoughts similar to Robinson’s.

There is a lot of good stuff here. The book was favorably reviewed by Barton Swaim in The Weekly Standard [Nov 22, 2010]; also by Michael Dirda in The Washington Post (some furious posts came in response). Marilynne Robinson, 67, is not a part of the academy, although she well could be, as she is highly regarded. She seems to have won for herself a rare intellectual passport that gets her through all the political check points that characterize intellectual life.

I have also been reading Dawkins’s Greatest Show on Earth. He writes in the preface that, looking back through his earlier books, he “realized that the evidence for evolution itself was nowhere explicitly set out, and that this was a serious gap I needed to close.”

I have been reading the book slowly and making notes, looking for places where he does set forth some “evidence for evolution.” A wolf was the ancestor of all dogs, he says. I’ll let you know if I find anything noteworthy. In a 2008 interview, Dawkins said that when he was growing up he had little of the naturalist in him; he was not the type to collect beetles in matchboxes; not like E.O. Wilson. His interest was much more philosophical: Where did we come from? why are we here? etc.

The odd thing is that, in his descriptions of nature — as a naturalist — Dawkins is excellent; just about the best there is. But he shows little interest in philosophical questions. (Or perhaps he decided that a philosophy of materialism swept all religious and philosophical questions aside; therefore life just must have assembled itself by accident, evolved, etc. Armed with this philosophy, he had all the answers ready-made.) He’s in complete contrast to Ms Robinson, who has found employment as writer in residence at various universities and at the Iowa Writers Workshop. Odd. As a writer, she is not in Dawkins’s class. But her grasp of the all-important philosophical issues is excellent. She is interested in them whereas Dawkins isn’t.

I’ve decided that evolution is about 90 percent philosophy, 10 percent science. We don’t see it in the rocks. We see it (if we see it at all) in our philosophy.


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