155 Aussie Academics: Biology; Philosophy; History

                Though Australia stands, in many ways, on the periphery of Western Civilization, some of her scholars deserve careful reading.  In part this is because as “outsiders” they often bring a refreshing perspective to their respective disciplines.  Indeed, Michael J. Denton’s Evolution:  A Theory in Crisis (c. 1984) helped launch the challenging “Intelligent Deign” movement in biology.  More recently Denton has published a sequel, titled Nature’s Destiny: How the Laws of Biology Reveal Purpose in the Universe (New York:  The Free Press, c. 1998).  He aims, he says, cogently outlining his thesis:  “first, to present the scientific evidence for believing that the cosmos is uniquely fit for life as it exists on earth and for organisms of design and biology very similar to our own species, Homo sapiens, and second, to argue that this ‘unique fitness’ of the laws of nature for life is entirely consistent with the older teleological religious concept of the cosmos as a specially designed whole, with life and mankind as its primary goal and purpose” (p, xi).  The cosmos appears as if were precisely designed to enable intelligent beings to flourish on a very special place, planet earth.  The more we learn about our world, the more it reveals a “deeper order” that orchestrates all that is. 

            Though teleology–the Aristotelian notion that there is purpose and design to the world–has been discarded by many modern thinkers, Denton insists it makes sense.  Indeed, as Fred Hoyle (no friend of theism) acknowledged, “‘a commonsense interpretation of the facts suggests that a super intellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature'” (p. 12).  This is evident in elementary matters, as Denton makes clear in a lengthy, fascinating discussion of the marvelous properties of water.  “What is so very remarkable about the various physical properties of water . . . is not that each is so fit in itself, but the astonishing way in which, in many instances, several independent properties are adapted to serve cooperatively the same biological end” (p. 40).  Without water there would be no life–and its unique composition serves to facilitate life.  Joining water, light is likewise essential for life on earth.  The sun’s radiation, screened by intricately coordinated atmospheric gases, stimulates and sustains living creatures.  That the right amount of the right kind of light reaches earth is a “staggering” coincidence.  That water is transparent to this light is equally amazing.  Indeed, we should “be awed and staggered” by such “coincidences,” defying mathematical probabilities, that are absolutely necessary for the world to be as it is. 

Denton then peruses the presence of radioactive substances, the movement of tectonic plates, the marvelous rightness of the atmosphere and atmospheric pressure, the role of carbon and iron in the processes of life, the positive influence of planets such as Jupiter on the earth, the unique properties of oxygen and carbon dioxide in sustaining life, the mysterious power of photosynthesis, the incredible information contained in DNA, the sophisticated functioning of proteins within the cell, the life-sustaining efficiency of hemoglobin in the blood, the marvel of the cell’s membrane, and the brain’s computing power.  “The emerging picture is obviously consistent with the teleological view of nature.  That each constituent utilized by the cell for a particular biological role, each cog in the watch, turns out to be the only and at the same time the ideal candidate for its role is particularly suggestive of design.  . . . .  The prefabrication of parts to a unique end is the very hallmark of design.  Moreover, there is simply no way that such prefabrication could be the result of natural selection” (p. 233).  So too for man.  Denton finds the cosmos perfectly designed for our flourishing.  He notes our unique capacity to see and speak, our hand’s marvelous dexterity, our fire-making and using capacities, our suitability for our place in the cosmos, and our propensity for mathematics and abstract thought.  All things considered, the “chain of coincidences underlying our existence . . . is simply too long and the appearance of contrivance too striking” (p. 261) to be attributed to naturalistic chance.  

                Having devoted the first part of the book to “life,” he turns to the question of “evolution.”  That life should appear on planet earth is, quite simply, miraculous.  Denton emphasizes that few living creatures existed before the Cambrian Explosion–a 5 million year sliver of time, 600 million years ago–which witnessed the “great and  never-to-be-repeated burst of creative growth” responsible for all the main branches of the tree of life.  Thenceforth occurred an apparently “inevitable unfolding of a preordained pattern, written into the laws of nature from the beginning’ (p. 282).  Indeed, given the “immensely complex” composition of living organisms, “it is hard to understand how undirected evolution via a series of independent changes could ever produce a radical redisgn in any sort of system as complex as a living organism.  “In effect,” Denton says, “modern biology has revealed us a watch, a watch with a trillion cogs!–a watch which wonderfully fulfills William Paley’s prophetic claim in this famous section from his Natural Theology;  or Evidence of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, Collected from the Aoppearances of Nature, published in 1800, that ‘every indication of contrivance, every manifestation of design, which existed in the watch, exists in the works of nature; with the difference, on the side of nature, of being greater and more and that in a degree which exceeds all computation'” (p. 350).  Soon, he hopes, science will increasingly side with natural theology and defend of the “anthropocentric faith” Isaac Newton envisioned two centuries ago.

                Denton’s two treatises provide persuasive building blocks for the Intelligent Design movement.  Though personally agnostic, he remains open to and respectful of religious perspectives.  And he certainly thinks nature’s design reveals its underlying intelligence.

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The late philosopher David Stove had an amazing ability to cogently refute shoddy logic, especially in the philosophy of science.  Largely unknown outside Australia, a Stove sampler has been edited by Roger Kimbell and titled:  Against the Idols of the Age (New Brunswick, NJ:  Transaction Publishers, c. 1999).  In the book’s prefeace, Kimball commends Stove as a healthy antidote to the intellectual cowardice and pernicious illogic that pervades far too many fashionable theories.   

                In the book’s first section, “The Cult of Irrationalism in Science,” he deals with “Cole Porter and Karl Popper:  The Jazz Age in the Philosophy of Science.”  The mood of jazz–”anything goes,” as Cole Porter  crooned–provides “the key to Popper’s philosophy of science” (p. 5).  In the philosophy of science, Popper spawned thinkers such as Thomas Kuhn (of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions fame) who amplified and made respectable Nietzsche’s “transvaluation of all values.”  Rather than discovering truth, they alleged, science merely advances theories and probabilities, all of which decay like fallen leaves.  The best example of such Jazz Age nihilism is P.K. Feyerabend, a University of California professor who called himself “a ‘Dadaist’ and his philosophy ‘epistemological anarchism.’  He maintains that science knows, and should know no rules of method, no logic” (p. 14).  Thus witchcraft and astrology and even the sorcery of Carlos Casteneda’s Don Juan fictions, as well as Newton and Pasteur, have “scientific” standing. 

                Confronting such blatant irrationalism, Stove simply asks if Popper, Kuhn, Feyerabend, et al. make sense.  He examines their words.  They assert, for example, that “unfalsifiable” and “irrefutable” statements are the same.  This is, however, patently untrue.  An “unfalsifiable” statement means “consistent with every observation statement,” whereas an “irrefutable statement” means “known for certain” (p. 21).  “They are no more related in meaning than, say, ‘weighty’ in ‘weighty thinker,’ and ‘overweight.’  Someone who identified weighty thinkers with overweight thinkers, and took himself to have gained a new insight into the nature of thinkers, would be guilty of a stupid enough pun.  Someone who identifies irrefutable propositions with unfalsifiable ones, and takes himself to have gained a new insight into the nature of scientific propositions is guilty of no better” (p. 210).     

                In “Idols Contemporary and Perennial,” Stove deals with some social and political issues.  He attacks  Harvard University Professor Robert Nozick in “‘Always apologize, always explain’:  Robert Nozick’s War Wounds.”  Following WWII the only nation able to resist Communism’s march toward world domination was the United States, so Nozick illustrates how during the Vietnam War “America’s capactity for such resistance remained intact, [but] her willingness did not.  For that war was lost, not through defeat of American armies in the field, nor yet through treachery among them, but through a massive sedition at home” (p. 93).  Consequently, Nozick’s Philosophical Explanations reveals “the gruesome and disabling wounds which were inflicted on American life, and on American intellectual life in particular, by the defeat in Vietnam” (p. 94).  Yet Nozick, strangely, wore such wounds as badges of honor.  He celebrated the defeat of America as a “moral” advance. The U.S. learned, he claimed, the signal virtue of “non-coerciveness.”  Just be nice to everyone and tolerate everything!  Impose nothing, especially anything as controversial as universal truth, on anyone. 

                Philosophizing in a non-coercive manner, Nozick foregoes rigorous proofs and indulges in pleasing “explanations,” an exercise that “is as insubstantial intellectually as it is over-charged emotionally:  in fact it is like nothing so much as a paper kite driven by a fifty horsepower motor” (p. 99).  Nozick’s views, Stove shows, are rooted in the notions of Kant, who declared that our experience “‘constitutes’ nature.  If this is not madness, and more specifically the self-importance of the human species run mad, it will do so until the real thing comes along” (p. 103).  While declaring his intent to address tough questions in Philosophical Explanations, Nozick instead indulges in verbal gymnastics that enable him–and philosophers like him–to “sound nicer:  that is, ‘gentler, softer, more considerate of others, respecters of their rights, and so forth'” (p. 107). 

                To Stove, such spinelessness cannot be considered philosophy.  Philosophers should seek and demand truth, a fundamentally “coercive” notion, “since what is true is independent of what anyone wants or believes” (p. 111).  Still more:  “No ideal could be more destructive of human life than the ideal of non-coerciveness” (p. 111).  Were not parents coercive their offspring would never survive.  Were not teachers coercive students would never learn.   Nozick’s endeavor, ultimately, reduces to an “autism” akin to America’s withdrawal from Vietnam.  “Autism is your only non-stop guaranteed-non-coercive fun.  At least, it is, if ‘fun’ is the right word” (p. 112).  Whatever it is, Stove says, it ought not be taken seriously!

                Finally, in the third section of the book, Stove tackles “Darwinian Fairytales.”  Whatever one may think of the empirical evidence, however one may respect the “authorities” endorsing it, Darwinism’s illogic, he says, deserves pillaring.  According to Darwin, constant competition ruthlessly weeds out the unfit and facilitates the evolution of species.  However, Stove insists, “the facts of human life” manifestly disprove this thesis, leaving us with “Darwinism’s Dilemma.”  For we do, in fact, cultivate religious values, help each other, nurture each other, build hospitals to care for the sick, and even give our lives for others.  Some Darwinians say the “Cave Man” (but not us moderns) lived according to the survival of the fittest code; others say the ruthless “Hard Man” still reigns, directing our species’ development; and still others, taking the “Soft Man” approach, cheerfully contradict themselves, declaring Darwin was right about natural selection while defending the need for welfare programs, foreign aid, etc.  What Stove insists is that the species we know best–our own–amply illustrates the very antithesis of Darwin’s fundamental thesis.

                Darwin erred, egregiously, by embracing the demographic theory of Thomas Malthus as the key to understanding evolution, whereas many “organic populations” never “obey this principle” (p. 240).  Microorganisms, parasites, and insects may seem to illustrate the idea that a species proliferates geometrically until food supplies are exhausted.  But more advanced creatures defy Malthus’ view.  Both domestic pets and “huge African wild” animals frequently “fail to increase in numbers, or even decline, in the presence of abundant food” (p. 241).  More importantly, the very species Malthus studied–man–easily demonstrates the “grotesque falsity” of his thesis.  Darwin’s modern defenders similarly fail Stove’s logic tests.  In “Genetic Calvinism, or Demons and Dawkins,” he ridicules Oxford University Professor Richard Dawkins’ portrait of  “selfish genes” guiding biological evolution in strictly deterministic fashion, much like the predestinarian God of Calvinist theology.  To call genes selfish, Stove insists, counters common sense.  To say a gene is “selfish” is akin to saying a virus is “studious, or shy.  You could just as intelligibly describe an electron as being slatternly, a triangle as being scholarly, or a number as being sex mad” (p. 255).  Yet Dawkins attained international eminence by propounding such nonsense. 

                Neo-Darwinists like Dawkins struggle (as did Darwin himself) to explain many things, especially the “altruism” that pervades creation, since it ought not exist in a dog-eat-dog Darwinian world.    Some, like E. O. Wilson, promote “sociobiology” to suggest that altruism is nothing but selfishness dictating preferential treatment for next-of-kin.  One would expect, then, Stove insists, that in bacteria, which reproduce by fission and “have 100 percent of their genes in common,” altruism would prevail. In fact, there is utterly “no kin altruism” evident (p. 295).  Few animals even recognize their first cousins, much less treat them favorably.  But human beings adopt orphans, send money to unknown starving people, and illustrate the utter folly of such “shared genes” musings.

                With sarcasm and relentless logic, Stove makes his case.  He admits that Darwinism may be the most persuasive theory afloat, but it simply cannot be true.   He’s no theist.  Indeed he’s rigorously skeptical about most everything.  But he’s a truth seeker and truth teller, and one profits from the clarity of his critiques.

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                In The Killing of History:  How Literary Critics and Social Theorists Are Murdering Our Past (San Francisco:  Encounter Books, c. 1996), Keith Windschuttle documented the demise of traditional history in many realms.  For  2400 years, beginning with Thucydides, historians have sought to discern and narrate what actually happened in the past.  Mistakes might be made, interpretations might vary, but they sincerely believed there is “truth” to tell.  That ancient endeavor has lately been discounted by thinkers swayed by Neitzsche’s equation of  history and myth.  Nietzsche “wanted to replace the whole of Weswtern philosophy with a position that held there are no facts, only interpretations, and no objective truths, only the perspectives of various individuals and groups” (p. 24).  His disciples, such as Martin Heidegger and Jacques Derrida, insisted that all “history” is merely a momentary perspective, historically shaped, and valuable insofar as it empowers whoever constructs it.  Consequently, today’s young people are “taught to scorn the traditional values of Western culture–equality, freedom, democracy, human rights–as hollow rhetoric used to mask the self-interest of the wealthy and powerful” (p. 5).  “Cultural studies,” focused on popular culture (especially movies and TV), have replaced the disciplined investigation of documents and discovery of facts.  Massaging texts and words, rather than portraying persons and locating events, enamor historians. And everyone’s free to creatively construct his own past.   

This approach to writing history is assailed in Windschuttle’s chapter entitled “Semiotics and the Conquest of America.”  A torrent of books re-evaluating Columbus’s landfall appeared in 1992.  In David Stannard’s American Holocaust, for example, we’re told that “‘The road to Auschwitz led straight through the heart of the Americas'” (p. 39).  Tzvetan Todorov, in The Conquest of America, declared there’s no difference between Christians ingesting the sacramental bread and wine and Aztecs cutting out the hearts of their sacrificial victims.  Hernando Cortes and the conquistadores are routinely demonized.  But Indians, who routinely offered human sacrifices to their gods and indulged in cannibalism, are always treated sympathetically.  They lived according to their cultures’ code.  To historians like Stannard and Todorov, cultural relativism is an article of faith until one deals with Cortes or Christians, who are wrong all the time in all places! 

In fact, Cortes conquered Mexico because the Aztecs’ Indian foes assisted him.  And his much-lamented  Spanish brutalities were, primarily, the result of following their Indians allies’ approach to war, for the Tlascalans  insisted:  “‘In fighting the Mexicans . . . we should kill all we could, leaving no one alive:  neither the young, lest they should bear arms again, nor the old, lest they give counsel'” (p. 58).  The religion and culture of the Aztecs, Windschuttle inists, “made it necessary for Cortes to destroy Tenochtitlan and kill most of its inhabitants.  The Mexica had no concept of surrender and the transfer of power to the victor.  During the final stages of the siege, Cortes made several attempts to negotiate with the remaining Mexican lords but was rebuffed.   They refused any terms save a swift death.  Even with all their warriors either dead or unarmed and the people starving, they responded to further mass killings from cannon and handgun not by surrendering but by pressing on to destruction.  Exasperated, Cortes decided to raze the city, and unleashed his native allies who massacred the remnants of the defenseless men, women and children” (p. 54). 

Turning to the history of Hawaii and Australia, Windschuttle shows how postmodern historians are re-imaging and rewriting the past with little concern for empirical data.  Underlying this approach is Michel Foucault, the anti-humanist, anti-history historian whose theories largely shape “the directions history is now taking” (p. 131).  He’s especially noted for his rejection of the “humanism of the modern era” (p. 134).  To Faucault, there is no “autonomous” human person, no subjective self.  Indeed, neither consciousness nor free will nor external reality are real.  Our words and the way we interpret them are all there is. 

Foucault’s radical relativism, of course, subverts itself.  He claimed that all cultural groups have their own “truths,” none of which is objective or universal.  Histories are mere “fictions.”  Yet he assumed, of course, that his thesis–all cultures normalize only small “truths”–is True for all cultures at all times everywhere!   Toward the end of his life, he began back-peddling, suggesting that perhaps one must be a “subject” of some sort, capable of real moral acts.  “He defines the basic practice of ethics as self-mastery that is derived from ‘the thoughtful practice of freedom.’  Unfortunately, neither he nor his supporters like to admit that he has thereby jettisoned key passages of his earlier work.  But rather than admit he was mistaken or wrong, they dealt out  equivocations such as ‘shifts of emphasis’, ‘discontinuities’ and a similar range of euphemisms” (pp. 148-149). 

With the collapse of the USSR one would have expected a related retreat of Marxism.  Such has not, however, occurred.  Tactics have simply shifted.  Rather than hoping to overthrow capitalistic regimes through revolution, Marxists now work to reform and ultimately transform them through “creeping socialism.”  Adopting the approach of Antonio Gramsci, this led to “leftist participation in the upper reaches of government, education, the law and the media, as well as lobby groups concerned with environmental, feminist, homosexual, ethnic and welfare issues” (p. 185).  Infiltrating the historical profession, they have replaced the empirically-based narrative  with a “grand theorist” method that explains the past in terms of class struggle and historical dialectic.

Windshuttle finally examines efforts to kill history by reducing it to a social science or re-casting it as imaginative literature–as did Hayden White, who declared, in his influential Metahistory:  “‘The aged Kant was right, in short:  we are free to conceive “history” as we please, just as we are free to make of it what we will'” (p. 258).  And that, precisely, is our problem!  Kant’s heirs are killing history!