Darwinism at Hay on Wye

At the time of writing, Comment is Free and all its articles are down.

Sarah Crown on Comment is Free posted yesterday a write-up of a speech at the Hay Festival by Steve Jones, professor of biology at the University College, London, on the subject of “Why creationism is wrong and evolution is right”. The Guardian itself reported yesterday that Jones had said he had given up trying to persuade creationists that they were wrong “after repeatedly being misrepresented and, he said, branded a liar”. Jones made this broad-brush statement in conclusion to his speech yesterday:

The most important difference between evolutionists and creationists, Prof Jones concluded, is that scientists are always prepared to say, “I don’t know”.

“If there weren’t any unknown parts of evolution, bits we don’t understand, it wouldn’t be a science,” he said, “That’s one thing that believers never say, because it’s all written down in a big book.”

It seems that all were aware that defending evolution would make Prof Jones no enemies at Hay:

“Welcome this morning to a talk on what is not a terribly contentious issue,” said Hay festival director Peter Florence… Certainly, one felt that the huge audience … were there to partake in the pleasure of having their views affirmed, rather than challenged.

“Apparently, 100m Americans believe in creationism,” said Jones, peering bright-eyed over the top of his lecter. “As I said to my publisher I don’t mind if they burn my books so long as they buy them first … ” The aim of the talk, he explained, is to establish the testability and therefore prove the truth of evolution. After gaining the audience’s sympathy with a few well-aimed gags at the creationists’ expense (“I’m not sure why Americans deny the truth of evolution, when the evidence [he gestures to a slide of pictures of George Bush juxtaposed with photographs of apes appears on the screen behind him] is all around them …”) he waltzed them off at top speed on a whistle-stop tour of evidence for that evolution, this fundamental theory which he described as “the grammar of biology”.

What is this supposed to mean: Bush as evidence of the lack of intelligent design? Or that the only people who support Bush are stupid, and they are all creationists, right? Wrong. This is precisely the sort of arrogance that bolsters the image Bush’s wealthy elite backers want their working-class voters to associate with the left: insular, arrogant, academic and ivory-towered. Darwinism is not a preserve of the left, but I’d bet that it is most strongly represented among middle-class, secular Europeans and Americans.

In his speech, he offered the example of HIV and the effect its prevalence has had on human genetics:

Darwin’s definition of evolution is ‘descent with modification’, or as Jones put it, “genetics plus time”, a theory so elegantly simple that “it could even be physics”. He illustrated the principle with examples from linguistic development and, more lengthily, from the progression of the HIV epidemic. This example proves illustrative when it comes to the other great principle of evolution, natural selection: if you contract the HIV virus, Jones explained, your chance of remaining asymptomatic depends on your possession of a protective gene. Chimpanzees, in whom the virus first appeared, tend to have the protective variant; in Africa it is becoming more common; in Europe it remains rare. However, said Jones, if he were to make on evolutionary prediction, it is that in 1000 years time, every one of us will possess the protective gene, rendering the HIV virus no more harmful than flu.
This particular example concerns one gene, which ensures resistance to a particular illness, which is in this case HIV - not an illness which spreads like wildfire and which infects anyone in close proximity to an infected person, but an illness human beings can take measures to avoid if they are aware of it. Among these are not choosing partners who are already infected (and this requires refraining from promiscuous sexual activity) and refraining from sharing needles. Our species, or sections of it, may remain unresistant to this particular illness for considerably longer than it takes to build up genetic resistance to an illness like Ebola fever, which kills a huge percentage of those it infects (with some strains, most of them). It is even possible that infection levels can be maintained at a low level - at least while we still have access to modern technology. While we may never eradicate HIV, other illnesses have been eradicated.

Thus, humankind is able to defy natural selection, something no other species can do. But here is another issue with natural selection: supposing an infection as virulent as Ebola fever kills 90% of a given population, leaving behind only those with the resistant gene. Those left behind may be able to beat this virus, but they might not be those best equipped to survive whatever else life may throw at them. They certainly may not be the most intelligent, or for that matter the most resistant to the next viral outbreak, or those best able to resist - or be - predators. It is their belief that all of this led to the development of our species to the level mankind is at today, but it may not seem to many people an efficient means to the long-term perfection or refining of an individual species, much less a path to developing wild animals into humans.

And this makes a lie of Prof. Jones’ statement that evolutionists are willing to say “I don’t know”, while creationists don’t because “it’s all written down in a big book”. It stands to reason that someone who has a book they believe on good authority to be the word of God will believe that what is in that book is fact. A favourite straw-man argument is that creationists all believe that the universe was created in six 24-hour days less than 10,000 years ago and that all the fossils and other physical evidence which exists is no more than a temptation - a belief of some fundamentalist Christians, but not necessary to believe that the world betrays a design.

Evolutionists do not have the assurance of divine authority, nor, needless to say, any eyewitness evidence; their doctrine does not prove the absence of a God, belief in which is to some of them the mark of rationality (not merely rationalism), but is reliant on it; and yet, they insist that it is fact, and sneer at anyone who disbelieves or even doubts it. (No, these days they don’t kill people for not believing it, but past generations of atheists in certain countries did.) Many of them have the same characteristics as their stereotypes of religious believers - including the aggressive, arrogant sense of certainty and contempt for anyone who disagrees with them. Like other religions, they offer answers to the fundamental questions of life which they find make sense to them and others don’t; I’m sure Steve Jones finds it strange that a liquid which tastes like wine, was made by fermenting grape juice and is not administered to underage communicants is in fact blood. I do as well, but those who believe in it call it a miracle. The notion that we could have evolved from a chimp-like mammal is just as nonsensical to me, unless it’s a miracle, but then, miracles don’t happen by themselves, do they?

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