May 13, 2013


Where Thomas Nagel Went Wrong : The philosopher's critique of evolution wasn't shocking. So why is he being raked over the coals? (Michael Chorost, 5/13/13, The Chronicle)

Nagel didn't help his cause by (a) being a philosopher opining on science; (b) being alarmingly nice to intelligent-design theorists; and (c) writing in a convoluted style that made him sound unconvinced of his own ideas.

The Florida State University philosopher of science Michael Ruse, who has written extensively about arguments over Darwinian theory, says Nagel is a horse who broke into the zebra pen. Evolutionary biologists don't like it when philosophers try to tell them their business: "When you've got a leader of a professional field who comes in and says, as a philosopher, 'I want to tell you all that Darwinian evolutionary theory is full of it,' then of course it's a rather different kettle of fish."

Joan Roughgarden, an ecologist and evolutionary biologist at the ­Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, agrees that evolutionary biologists can be nasty when crossed. "I mean, these guys are impervious to contrary evidence and alternative formulations," she says. "What we see in evolution is stasis--conceptual stasis, in my view--where people are ardently defending their formulations from the early 70s."

Nagel really got their noses out of joint by sympathizing with theorists of intelligent design. "They do not deserve the scorn with which they are commonly met," he wrote. "It is manifestly unfair." To be sure, he was not agreeing with them. He notes several times that he is an atheist and has no truck with supernatural gods. He views the ID crowd the way a broad-minded capitalist would sum up Marx: right in his critique, wrong in his solutions. But ID, he says, does contain criticisms of evolutionary theory that should be taken seriously.

Whatever the validity of this stance, its timing was certainly bad. The war between New Atheists and believers has become savage, with Richard Dawkins writing sentences like, "I have described atonement, the central doctrine of Christianity, as vicious, sadomasochistic, and repellent. We should also dismiss it as barking mad. ..." In that climate, saying anything nice at all about religion is a tactical error.

The amusing thing is that Mr. Nagel is unscientific at precisely the point where he refuses to follow where his ideas lead.  He is a Creationist, he just can't bear the thought. 

Posted by at May 13, 2013 5:29 PM

blog comments powered by Disqus