Good Lord, is Mark Vernon, of “holy rabbit” fame, still writing for the Guardian? And why? In their columns he regularly takes up the cudgels against science: as an ex-Anglican priest, he simply can’t help but cheer when someone disses science, no matter how bad a job they do. And so each year Vernon gives an award to a woo-ish science book that he snarkily calls “the most despised science book of the year”.
Ergo his latest Comment is Free column: “The most despised science book of 2012 is. . . worth reading.” What’s the book? Guess!
Every year, I give an award to the Most Despised Science Book of the Year. The 2010 award went to Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini for What Darwin Got Wrong. In 2011, Ray Tallis won with Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity.
Well, as I concluded in my review of What Darwin Got Wrong in The Nation (and I wasn’t the only one), Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini’s book was absolutely dreadful: a hamhanded and spelentic attack on the concept of and evidence for natural selection. It has sunk without a trace, testimony to the scientific ignorance of two ambitious men bent on overthrowing a paradigm of biology.
I haven’t read Tallis’s book (perhaps a reader can weigh in here), but it appears to be an attack on both scientism and evolutionary psychology.
Vernon then tells us his 2012 also-ran:
Not a decent reception from the people I know (see my take on it here). That book was a critique of scientific materialism, a materialism that goddycoddlers like Vernon can’t abide. There’s simply got to be more to the universe than material and the laws of physics! And so Vernon’s winner this year is an obvious choice—another attack on natural selection and materialism:
So the winner for 2012 must be Thomas Nagel, for his book Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False.
Steven Pinker dammed it with faint praise when he described it in a tweet as “the shoddy reasoning of a once-great thinker”. Jerry Coyne blogged: “Nagel goes the way of Alvin Plantinga”, which is like being compared to Nick Clegg. All in all, Nagel’s gadfly stung and whipped them into a fury.
A fury? I don’t think so. And isn’t it funny that Vernon mentions a tweet by Pinker and a website post of mine, while ignoring three non-furious and scholarly reviews in major venues, each of which politely tore Nagel’s book to shreds. I refer to the reviews by Allen Orr (New York Review of Books) Brian Leiter and Michael Weisberg (The Nation), and Elliott Sober (The Boston Review). So here we have three philosophers of science and one evolutionary biologist with philosophical training, all writing very long, scholarly, and devastatingly critical analyses of Vernon’s favorite book, and Vernon ignores them all.
Why? Because he likes what Nagel suggests: that evolution is not driven by a purposeless and materialistic process, but by some teleological force (Nagel never says what it is). Vernon likes the idea that the universe has purpose, evincing his usual sneaking sympathy for theism:
There it is. The t-word [teleology]– a major taboo among evolutionary biologists. Goal-directed explanations automatically question your loyalty to Darwin. As Friedrich Engels celebrated, when reading On The Origin of Species in 1859: “There was one aspect of teleology that had yet to be demolished, and that has now been done.” But has it? This is the moot point.
The scientifically respectable become edgy when approaching this domain. Read Malcolm Thorndike Nicholson’s measured piece on the reaction Nagel’s book sparked, published in Prospect. The possibility that the universe wants, in some way, to become conscious will “appear absurd” or “strange”, he warns. But bear the anxiety, he doesn’t quite continue, and consider the arguments.
We don’t get “edgy” when we hear about teleology in evolution; we get bored. For there’s simply no evidence for it, and Nagel doesn’t provide any. Have a look, for instance at Orr’s review. Nagel, it seems, simply doesn’t like materialism either, but he doesn’t have any good arguments against it. Like Laplace, we simply have no need of the Divine Hypothesis when we consider evolution.
And, God help us, Vernon is now teaming up with another minion from the dark side to show that science proves God:
I’m considering some of them with Rupert Sheldrake in a series of podcasts, if you’ll forgive the plug. But it is striking that they can be aired in relatively kosher scientific circles too. A recent example is Paul Davies’s bestseller, The Goldilocks Enigma. Davies argues that the refusal of natural teleology rests on an assumption that nature obeys laws that are written into the fabric of the cosmos. However, quantum physics offers every reason to doubt that this is so. The upshot is that Davies himself favours a universe that contains a “life principle”.
So how come teleology is acceptable among cosmologists? It may be that they are used to the basic assumptions of their science being regularly overturned.
Sheldrake and Vernon! Now there’s some podcasts to miss!
But Vernon is wrong about cosmology and teleology. Teleology is acceptable only among cosmologists who are religious or who are angling for the Templeton Prize. I suspect Sean Carroll would have something to say about this. After all, he’s the one who wrote a very good essay called “Why (almost all) cosmologists are atheists,” showing why materialism was a far better explanation for the universe than theism.
All scientists are used to revisions of their paradigms, yet that doesn’t make us sympathetic to teleology. What would is the finding of scientific phenomena that show the hand of God, i.e., the suspension of the “laws of nature”. But we don’t see that, either in evolution or cosmology.
And for quantum mechanics refuting the idea “that nature obeys laws that are written into the cosmos,” I don’t know what the hell Vernon is talking about, and I suspect he doesn’t, either. After all, quantum mechanics obeys its own laws, sometimes probabilistic ones, and has actually provided reductionist explanations for some of the macroscopic laws of nature. Davies, of course, is a deist who won the Templeton Prize in 1995, so he’s not quite your typical cosmologist.
What bothers me is that the Guardian, a paper I once respected, regularly publishes this kind of pap by people like Vernon and Andrew Brown. In the end, it’s every bit as anti-science as straight “scientific” creationism, for it implies that the facts of science themselves point to an Ineffable Deity. And that’s not true. There is no more evidence for teleology in physics as there is for the hand of God in evolution. By publishing junk like this, the Guardian is simply warping the public understanding of science.
If Vernon were a creationist loon like Ray Comfort, he’d never be published in the Guardian. He has just enough respectability to get away with unfounded criticisms of materialism that he coats with the patina of science. Vernon is mendacious and he’s wrong. Give me an honest creationist over that man’s mush-brained lucubrations any day!