Saturday, February 12, 2011

Attacks on Science: Scrambled Eggs and Social Darwinism

On Darwin Day I attended Mike Reid talk on the history of Darwinian thought (further details at: One of the questions that came up was that of Social Darwinism. Mike rightly pointed out that Darwin had nothing to do with this political movement and that Science can be used for bad as well as good. Recently I posted an article on shallow skepticism. One area that illustrates a shallow, skeptical attack on Science concerns Science’s imperfections. In truth there are certainly limits to what we know scientifically and there may be misapplications. But many criticisms of Science are shallow and misguided. For example, some of the more philosophical critics reject evolutionary theory on the basis that it is unproveable, if for no other reason that one can’t go back in time. It fixes on a type of data gap we have to live with. It is true that the theory of evolution may not be completely verified by direct observation of every part of the process. This is true of all theories that provide explanations for processes that involve immense periods of time.
Peacocke (, for example, acknowledges that ‘the postulate of past biological evolution cannot be falsified in the sense of Karl Popper, by performing repeatable experiments whose outcomes are inconsistent with the postulate (that the organic work we see is because evolution has occurred) - nor can most theories of geology and of cosmology.’ Evolutionary biology, then, may be compared to astrophysical events like the Big Bang cosmology, which are understood by models which may never be duplicated in a laboratory. In the cosmological case this is because the energies involved are too high; in the case of evolution, because the timescales are too long for human experiments.

I’ve seen this argument about Science’s limitations generalized as the statement “you can’t un-scramble an egg!”. For instance, if you never had knowledge of what an egg looked like, but suddenly saw a scrambled egg, could you realistically go backwards to figure out that mixture was once inside an egg-like casing, and furthermore, that it was a birdlike creation that lays eggs?

But I think that Science unscrambles how things in the Universe came to be the way we see them ALL the time. One that comes to mind concerns the geological history of the surface of the Earth. You've probably seen pictures of a project back in time to Pangea (see or Gonwonderland. This is one of hundreds of natural history constructions that may start with a hunch about how things fit together, but which use lots of reasoning and evidence to validate the ideas far beyond a casual hunch.

There is a site called "history of the universe" -

It covers such things and lists as evidence for the theory of continental drift (more correctly called plate tectonics) which include the following:

•The coasts of the continents surrounding the Atlantic ocean could, if the continents were moved closer, fit together like a jigsaw puzzle.

• Living animals in widely separated lands are similar. For example India and Madacasar have similar mammals, which are quite different from those in Africa, even though it is now near to Madascar.

• Fossil plants in India, South Africa, Australia, Antarctica and South America are similar to each other. This so-called Glossopteris flora is quite different from plants found in other parts of the world at the same time. The same applies to fossil animals.

• There are numerous geological similarities between eastern South America and western Africa.

• Apparent Polar Wandering: Paleomagnetism tells us how far from the poles rocks were when they formed, by looking at the angle of their magnetic field. The story told by different continents is contradictory, and can only be explained if we assume the continents have moved over time.

•There are ridges in the floors of the main oceans.

• Paleomagnetism shows that the sea floor has spread away from these ridges. Distinct patterns of stripes can be seen in the magnetism of rocks on either side of the ridges

So while there are limits to Science, to many of us natural science provides an unscrambled authoritative worldview on many topics, which is superior to other (informal) interpretations of life. This view is labeled Scientism by some people who use the term in a negative fashion to suggest an improper usage of science, such as with Social Darwinism. Science skeptics generally challenge scientific claims in contexts where they “believe” science can not apply. Part of this naively skeptical view, is science is and always will be incomplete in important ways as previously noted. But these critiques often implied that other approaches are not so limited and have special claims of their own. The main idea seems to be to show that Science is not perfect, and therefore unreliable. A popular whipping boy is the theory of evolution as some purely hypothetical construct (can’t explain the human eye). Science skeptics sometimes take an historical stance citing various scientific inaccuracies, mistakes, weaknesses , unexplained anomalies or undesirable consequences of application.

So one popular example is the idea that ethics or morals is beyond the scope of scientific inquiry and science can’t be applied there. Critics point to the 19th and early 20th century dalliance with Social Darwinism as an example of Scientism gone wrong, although as already noted Darwin was not responsible for any such formulation. Social applications of evolutionary ideas arose in part from naïve and misguided effort to apply lessons from biological evolution to society. In particular some ideologs pushed the idea that biology made the case (if not proved) that society should allow the weak ( less fit) to languish and die. This idea was not proven or even an area of active scientific inquiry. Instead the appeal of the idea was that it “rationalized” re-existing prejudices of the Victorian period of what was due colonized nations, poor, and disadvantaged minorities. Embarrassingly in the Gilded Age some American businessmen eagerly adopted Social Darwinian ideology to defend their business practices as "natural." James J. Hill, a leading "Robber Baron" of the railroad-building era, is representative of the sentiment:

"The fortunes of railroad companies are determined by the law of the survival of the fittest." --James J. Hill

But in reality there was (and is) insufficient empirical evidence to justify such conclusions as scientific, although Sociobiology and it’s child Evolutionary Psychology has introduced the argument anew and advanced the level of discussion (perhaps a topic for a future post).


Anonymous said...

Posted by Lucette Smoes on 2/13.

I am the person mentioned by Gary in his post. At the end of Mike Reid's excellent talk, I made a comment about the exuberant misuse of the theory of evolution by many social scientists during the Gilded Age, the time of the Robber Barons. Herbert Spencer was one of the main culprits. (It is appropriate to talk about culpability here because the distortion of the theory of evolution was used by the Nazis as an excuse to commit their monstrosities. The same distortion of evolution was used to develop and practice the non-scientific system of "eugenics."

I ended my comment by saying that the theory of evolution can be used for good or for bad.
My remark was exclusively concerned about ethics.

At no time, did I express even a trace of skepticism or dissatisfaction about the theory of evolution. Maybe Gary had some justified trouble understanding my French accent. But I am a scientist too (PhD in Chemical Physics) and I have a certain degree of sophistication, even if I say so myself.

In summary, most of Gary's blog is irrelevant to my comment at Mike Reid's talk. In fact, nobody questioned the validity of the theory of evolution at all during or after Mike's talk.

Gary Berg-Cross said...

To be clear my discussion was not aimed at your comment but at Science critics and people who use Social Darwinism as a limitation of Science. This was only touched on at Mike's talk, but it remains something that Science critics bring up. Hence the long discussion of how real Science tackles a problem like plate tectonics as it unscrambles puzzles.

Kevin I. Slaughter said...

I find the use of the term "pseudo-science" or, specifically in the comment above, "unscientific", as a qualifier for "eugenics" to be not only persistant, but generally curious.
Would it not be more accurate to say that people have used the name of eugenics to make unscientific claims, as the basic principals of eugenics is scientific.
Dawkins is willing to admit that in "Greatest Show".

Anonymous said...

Liberals are Creationists, bunch of half-wits.
Sure, lots of eugenics programs have been nonsense, but so is every state program. It's certainly far less fantastic than a belief in human equality, which is a fucking cult delusion.