Monday, May 23, 2011

Marjorie Grene, and the fate of the Faith of Darwinism

I didn't know much about Marjorie Grene until a few weeks ago, and I admit I still don't. However, she has suffered the ill fortune, shared by not a few, that in death she has been taken up by creationists as supporting their cause against Darwinism.

My own interest was piqued by a reference to her work with Michael Polanyi. I think Polanyi is the intellectual mother lode of all the thinking that underlies the intelligent design movement, and most of that movement would agree with me. That is why Dr. Dr. William Dembski named his ill fated foray onto the Baylor campus the Michael Polanyi Center.

Grene's fame with the ID crowd rests on an essay she wrote in 1959, The Faith of Darwinism. Even the title is quote-minable! The style of the essay is the overheated, bombastic rhetoric that philosophers often use against each other. Unfortunately, she frequently conflates neo-Darwinism (the science) with "Darwinism", a reductionist philosophy she doesn't approve of.

Her attacks on the science are of the form, 'sure it works, but Eminent European Authority X has his doubts', and 'it might explain all of that, but it hasn't yet explained this, and its supporters are too smug in their expectation that it will.'

From our vantage 50 years later, having seen evo-devo and gene regulatory networks answer the doubts of Authority X, and learned that new forms of variation, and acceptance of genetic drift, expand the explanatory power of the core theory, it is too easy to be condescending. We have 50 years more fossils, 50 tremendous years of growth in molecular evidence.

But even Marjorie Grene realized later that she had overblown her statements and position. The essay was collected into a book "The Knower and the Known" as chapter 7. In 1974, Grene wrote in the preface to the paperback edition:

Were I to write this book now, I would perhaps tone down the rhetoric and would certainly (in chapters 7 and 9) separate more prudently than I did then the strictly empirical scope of evolutionary theory from its metaphysical associations or implications.

and further

I would still stand by the criticisms made in Chapter 7 of ambiguous and overambitious evolutionary thinking, and of course by the main theme of Chapter 8; but I confess to having been unfair to the stricter evolutionists who have always seen clearly what they were not explaining, and to having overestimated the relevance of teleological thought for evolutionary theory - which I would now place at zero.

But with juicy quotemines comparing Darwinism to a religion and a religious orthodoxy, you can't expect creationists to read the preface.

And Polanyi? Grene did work with him, and had this to say about the experience later in an interview with The Believer magazine in 2005:
BLVR: Was there any relation between your project with Polanyi and the later philosophy-of-biology work?

MG: Not directly. But OK, yes, continually, in the sense that he had asked me to look up heresy in evolutionary theory, because he hadn’t a clue about evolutionary theory. He didn’t think that neo-Darwinism could be right at all. He was very silly about it, evolutionary theory in general. He said natural selection was like catching two tigers and letting one go! He just had no understanding of evolutionary theory. What he wrote about it was just terrible. He had a friend, a clergyman, who tried to get him to change it. He was just as shocked as I was, this clerical guy. But it was really bad. I think that’s when I started looking through the literature, to help him out. Even before that, my work on Aristotle started because I was asked to teach Greek philosophy at Belfast, and I didn’t know anything about it so I had to start studying him.

But it matters not. Google "Grene faith Darwinism" and the first page of results is taken up by creationists quoting her rhetorical flings of 1959.

No comments: