Evolution of Evolution
When Ken and I go on our annual weeklong beach vacation, we planon a week of just about nothing. A lotof swimming, even more snorkeling, and even more just lazing around andreading. We usually do one shopping tripand maybe one (no more) edifying, educational trip. The latter, this time, was a very interestingand important tour of former slave communities in the Bahamas. As in Bonaire, where the island councilinsisted on making a monument of the old slave dwellings so that history wouldnever be lost, the Bahamian government is restoring old slave huts now and theywill soon be a memorial park, with explanatory text, looking out to the sea,and almost directly opposite the most exclusive, hidden gated property on theisland, where Sean Connery and others live.
That?s a bit of a detour on today?s tour, but it has apoint. History counts. But what we make of history is more about our present than the past. And when scientists talk about the evolutionary past, well, they reveal far more about themselves than they do about what may have happened several million years ago and why. So, now, back to my beach reading. Being a lifelongscience geek (despite a career as a literature prof and journalist), forpleasure I love to read nonfiction science books. Ken happened to be reading the samebestselling kind of sciency book on this trip and as we floated out in theturquoise Caribbean we compared notes on the various books we werereading. On one of these floatyafternoons, we both expressed frustration at how often our beautifully written,well-reasoned, scientifically documented books would drift into the intellectualstratosphere with the ?why? question. I?ll be filing a book review of some of my reading in other blogs (I?veread some great ones!) but for now I?ll just generalize about the scientifictheology of our moment: at this moment,it seems as if evolutionary biology is the be-all and end-all of every?why?? I read lots and lots ofscientific studies, both because of my lifelong interests and because I?mwriting a new book on learning, on how we learn, and on how we could beteaching for learning, not for tests. Solots on cognition, neurology, biology, psychology. In most scientific explanations, there is atightly controlled experiment. Thefindings of that experiment are paired with findings from similar or parallelexperiments. And then a conclusion is reached. The progression from the finding to the generalization is not always oneI agree with but I can see how the scientist arrived at his or hergeneralization. The path of inference isclear. But then there is the old ?why??question and, in this moment, the answer is not only ?in evolutionary terms .. . blah blah? but some idea ofevolution based on the most ludicrous assumptions (i.e. not experimentalscientific findings) about gender, or race, or human character, or what ittakes to survive. How do we get fromthe operation of one cluster of neurons to the (for example) repurposing ofmillions of neurons after an infant brain injury (a brilliant extrapolation) toa theory of human evolution? It makesno sense. And when the whole humanevolutionary pathway seems to lead to modern American bourgeois whiteheteronormativity, I really, really go haywire. This ain?t science. It issanctimonious platitudes packaged with scientific arrogance and certitude. (Oh, Ambrose Bierce, I hear you . . . surelythere is something in the Devil?s Dictionary making fun of suchpomposity.). I don?t at all approve ofthose Fundamentalists (of any stripe) who want evolution taken out of textbooksor who say the earth is 4000 years old or who believe the only explanation forevery scientific ?why?? question is ?God made it so.? But, if we are talking about science, myfriends, we cannot substitute ?evolution made it so? for ?God.? That?s theology. It would be more honest, in so many cases,to say we are beginning to understand ?how? questions and we even know themechanics (extremely complex ones) of many ?why? questions . . . but we don?t,in the end, have scientific evolutionary proof for every scientificquestion. We have lots and lots ofscientific evolutionary proof for evolution. But we do not have scientific proof for the evolution of evolution intoan all-purpose answer, a knee-jerk generalization, that is a plug-in for every?why?? that science has to offer. That,to me, is the role of theology. One sizefits all. One answer fills all. You give me the question, I know theanswer. Whether Ken?s book on foodproduction or mine on neurology, the ?why?? answer should be complex, a matterof philosophical and humanistic explanation and consideration-----not aneasy-out ?evolution!? Ah, whoknew? I?m back to yet another kind ofexplanation. It is possible that theevolution of evolution into an all-purpose explanatory model evolved preciselybecause of that two-culture division where scientists are now called upon notonly to do experiments and generalize from those experiments but to offer thelarger ?truth? of what those experiments mean. That is not a form of training scientists have. And that may be why the same rigor applied toempirical findings within a highly specialized subfield falls away when thereare generalizations beyond that field. This is where partnerships of humanists, social scientists, andscientists would help us all. Get us beyondthe theology of evolution to other explanations that don?t close off questionsbut, in fact, beg us to probe farther, think more deeply, and moreprofoundly--which is to say with more humility about what we claim to know. End of sermon!