Thursday, October 7, 2010

Cornelius Hunter is Blogging Again

Cornelius Hunter hadn't updated his blog, Darwin's God, since September 13, and I was wondering if he'd abandoned it.  Now I suddenly find he's posted three articles in three days.

On Tuesday, he wrote about the same interview with Virginia Ironside that Ray Comfort referenced in a recent blog post.  Interestingly, he seems to assume that all "Darwinists" will be uncomfortable with her position, which was not quite the impression I got from comments to Ray's blog, or his.

His argument is that evolutionary theory undercuts the possibility of any moral judgment (his takeoff in this argument is a bit shaky: he seems at first to be arguing that "survival of the fittest" implies that we ought to kill the unfit, but he abandons this line having barely started it, so I shall merely content myself with pointing out that if a process has no particular goal, we can't very well be acting in accord with or against that goal -- or, as one epigrammatist put it, natural selection is no more reason for killing the weak than gravity is a reason for pushing people off rooftops).  Now, I will argue that evolutionary theory, by itself, does not tell us how to feel or reason about euthanasia, any more than, say, meteorology or developmental biology does.    That is not the purpose of scientific theories.

But Hunter goes further: he argues that if evolution has "magically" (not, e.g. by selecting variations that encourage behavior that increases, on average, our chances of leaving offspring) wired our brains to oppose killing our fellow human beings, that is no reason to think homicide is bad.  Human feelings, human nature, and human judgment don't make things right or wrong; only the feelings, nature, and judgment of our presumed Intelligent Designer could do that.  More interestingly, he implies that if evolution is true, then evolution must have created not only everything that exists that we approve of, but everything that exists that we loathe and fear -- and therefore, we can have no moral reason for loathing and fearing it.  Oddly, he does not apply this reasoning to the intelligent design with which he would replace evolution.

I think the problem here is that Hunter does not distinguish between the moral sense and the causes (or Cause) that produced it.  If natural selection shaped our moral sense, then, he assumes, our morals must be based entirely on natural selection and judge things entirely by their compatibility with natural selection (or possibly, how closely they can be analogized with natural selection); if a Designer made us, then we must judge things by the Designer's values.  Neither conclusion follows: the cause of a thing, even a mind or a moral sense, is not the thing itself.

The next day's article is about a paper in Nature about the fixation (or rather, the lack of it) of beneficial traits during the selective breeding of fruit flies.  The authors had expected certain mutations (that, in this case, made the flies mature faster, that being what they were breeding for) would quickly "sweep" through the population, becoming homozygous in 100% of the population.  After 600 generations, this had not happened.   The authors suggest a number of explanations: e.g. there might be multiple slightly advantageous genes, none sufficiently better than others to sweep completely through the population, or six hundred generations just might not be enough time.  Hunter prefers a more radical conclusion: evolutionists were wrong about something again, and therefore, there is no reason to suppose common ancestry or adaption by natural selection is real.

Deep down, I sometimes suspect that Cornelius Hunter just doesn't like science.  He disagrees with the idea, rather central to science, that an account that can explain the data is to be preferred to one that cannot (so that, e.g. he does not see shared ERVs and pseudogenes as any reason to prefer common ancestry to the ineffable and unaccountable whims of a Designer), and he seems to feel that not having all the answers right at the start really ought to count against research program.

His post for Thursday, October 8, starts with a recounting of the court-martial of Charles McVay, commander of the USS Indianapolis, which sank near the end of World War II in 1945.  McVay was convicted (wrongly, the Navy later decided, long after McVay had committed suicide) for a failure to rescue his crew that apparently was actually the fault of his naval superiors.  Oddly, Hunter does not blame this miscarriage of justice on Darwinism among the Navy brass.

Rather, he draws an analogy between people in power writing history to suit themselves, and the way that  that biology textbooks falsely -- well, correctly, he notes, but still, they don't put the Discovery Institute's preferred spin on it -- claim that Darwinism ran into religiously-inspired opposition but convinced scientists of its merits.  He notes, correctly, that many early fundamentalists accepted an old Earth -- which is relevant to absolutely nothing he quotes from the textbook he complains about, since the book is speaking about opposition to evolution, not opposition to an old Earth.   Hunter does not like the acknowledgment that opposition to evolution was almost entirely due to religious dogma because he himself wants to insist that evolution is only accepted on the grounds of "metaphysical mandates" -- the idea that nature should have natural explanations.  I myself would say that it was accepted based on epistemological mandates -- that explanations should actually explain things and be testable -- but that, no doubt, is merely a sign of my religious bigotry.

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