Monday, September 5, 2005

One Reason to Rebuild

To the Salafi Jihadis throughout the world the deaths of over a thousand Shia during a stampede in Baghdad and the almost simultaneous destruction in America caused by Katrina is an omen that Allah is on the march against apostates and infidels. According to Walid Phares these twin tragedies are boosting jihadi confidence and spirits.

I had my doubts about the wisdom of rebuilding New Orleans, but having read the Islamo-fascist reaction to this calamity I've come to think that, even were there no other good reason to restore the city, it should be done anyway just to show the Wahhabists that Allah is not in the business of killing Muslim women and children and poor old folks in America just to facilitate their warped, perverted hopes for a world groaning under the stifling demands of Islamic law.

Rebuilding the city will show these nut cakes that their Allah smiles upon mercy, compassion and kindness, and holds out no blessing for those who promote hatred, ignorance, and murder. The lesson will be lost on most of them, probably, but maybe a few will be able to discern the message.

The Grand Unifying Theory

One frequently hears it said that evolution undergirds and unifies all of modern biology which would be devastated were evolution to be somehow disproved. Evolutionary theory, the thinking goes, is the sine qua non of biology.

Such claims, however, have recently come under fire. They're being criticized as at best overblown and at worst completely false. Consider, for instance, this article in The Scientist by Philip Skell, Emeritus Evan Pugh Professor at Pennsylvania State University, and a member of the National Academy of Sciences. Skell writes:

...the modern form of Darwin's theory has been raised to its present high status because it's said to be the cornerstone of modern experimental biology. But is that correct? "While the great majority of biologists would probably agree with Theodosius Dobzhansky's dictum that 'nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution,' most can conduct their work quite happily without particular reference to evolutionary ideas," A.S. Wilkins, editor of the journal BioEssays, wrote in 2000.1 "Evolution would appear to be the indispensable unifying idea and, at the same time, a highly superfluous one."

I would tend to agree. Certainly, my own research with antibiotics during World War II received no guidance from insights provided by Darwinian evolution. Nor did Alexander Fleming's discovery of bacterial inhibition by penicillin. I recently asked more than 70 eminent researchers if they would have done their work differently if they had thought Darwin's theory was wrong. The responses were all the same: No.

I also examined the outstanding biodiscoveries of the past century: the discovery of the double helix; the characterization of the ribosome; the mapping of genomes; research on medications and drug reactions; improvements in food production and sanitation; the development of new surgeries; and others. I even queried biologists working in areas where one would expect the Darwinian paradigm to have most benefited research, such as the emergence of resistance to antibiotics and pesticides. Here, as elsewhere, I found that Darwin's theory had provided no discernible guidance, but was brought in, after the breakthroughs, as an interesting narrative gloss.

Darwinian explanations for such things are often too supple: Natural selection makes humans self- centered and aggressive - except when it makes them altruistic and peaceable. Or natural selection produces virile men who eagerly spread their seed - except when it prefers men who are faithful protectors and providers. When an explanation is so supple that it can explain any behavior, it is difficult to test it experimentally, much less use it as a catalyst for scientific discovery.

Darwinian evolution - whatever its other virtues - does not provide a fruitful heuristic in experimental biology. This becomes especially clear when we compare it with a heuristic framework such as the atomic model, which opens up structural chemistry and leads to advances in the synthesis of a multitude of new molecules of practical benefit. None of this demonstrates that Darwinism is false. It does, however, mean that the claim that it is the cornerstone of modern experimental biology will be met with quiet skepticism from a growing number of scientists in fields where theories actually do serve as cornerstones for tangible breakthroughs.

Some writers have been so carried away in their enthusiasm for the neo-Darwinian synthesis that they've asserted it to be not only central to biology but to all of science. That always seemed to me to be a whopper of an exaggeration. In light of Skell's essay it seems not only hyperbolic but risible.

Does God Punish the Innocent?

I don't often agree with Juan Cole but its hard to argue with him on this one. There were, apparently, some who had made the claim that Katrina was God's punishment on New Orleans for its decadence. Unfortunately for this hypothesis, huge swaths of populated land across the Gulf coast were devastated yet the most decadent section of the city of New Orleans was largely unscathed. So what conclusion is to be drawn from that? Cole says it leaves us with three alternatives:

1. God does not exist. Or:

2. God does not use natural or man-made catastrophes to punish people for moral failings. Or:

3. God does not actually object to people having a good time occasionally.

With appropriate qualifications we'll take options two and three, thanks.

Cole also posts a transcript of the conversation between Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson after 9/11 in which they interpret the huge loss of life as God's judgment on America for its secularism. The biggest flaw in their argument, of course, is that none of the groups which they accuse of having precipitated God's wrath were harmed on 9/11. The people who died were salt of the earth types, many of whom were Christians.

And who suffered from the tsunami last December? It wasn't the people who Falwell and Robertson would think deserve it: wealthy, hedonistic tourists and others. It was innocent, poor children, mostly.

Make no mistake, I agree with Falwell and Robertson in their claim that the ACLU, NARAL, PAW, etc. have done great harm to the social fabric of this nation. But to state that God sends babes in arms and their poor mothers into the raging torrent because of the sins of such organizations as these entails a concept of God more compatible with Islam than Christianity. The God of Christianity doesn't kill the innocent in order to punish the guilty.