Against the endarkenment

Against the endarkenment

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From the book : Evolutionary Psychology 5 issue 3 : 680-682.

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Publié le 01 janvier 2007
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Evolutionary Psychology
www.epjournal.net – 2007. 5(3): 680682
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Book review
Against the Endarkenment A review of Gerald Weissmann,Gout: Science in an Age of EndarkenmentGalileo’s . Bellevue Literary Press: New York. 2007. 192 pp. US $25.00 ISBN 10 1934137006 David P. Barash, Psychology Department, University of Washington, Seattle, WA. email: dpbarash@u.washington.edu  Evolutionists (David S. Wilson’s term, I believe) – which is to say, those whose goal is to explore the wideranging power of evolutionary insights – can legitimately lay claim to being children of the enlightenment. As such, we are well advised to beware what Gerald Weissmann labels “the endarkenment.” As he points out in his latest collection of essays, Galileo’s Gout, “Last year, Gallup reported that 45 percent of Americans believe that God created human beings like us about 10,000 years ago. Indeed, less than a third of Americans believe that Darwin’s theory is supported by scientific evidence, and just as many believe that evolution is just one of several, equally valid theories. A third of Americans believe that the JudeoChristian Bible is the word of God to be taken literally, word for word. One out of five Americans believe that the sun revolves about the earth!” Clearly, scientists – and not just evolutionists – have work to do, and not only in their research labs. At another juncture, Weissmann rages that “only 40 percent of Americans believe in evolution and that only 13 percent know what a molecule is. There are more professional astrologers than astronomers (10,000 v 800) in our country, more who preach metaphysics than physics (422,000 ministers v 16,000 physicists).” Endarkenment indeed.  Gerald Weissmann is a research professor of medicine at the NYU School of Medicine and no less accomplished as a writer than as a biomedical researcher; indeed, it is altogether appropriate that Lewis Thomas was one of his mentors. AlthoughilaGoels Gout is primarily concerned with biomedical matters, evolution is never far from the author’s mind, and his alarm about an antievolutionary endarkenment fits alltoowell with his concern about similar folly when fundamentalist ideology and medical research collide (see, also, his impassioned essay on the Bush Administration’s war on stem cell research). “It would be reassuring for many of us,” he writes, “were the lessons of Darwinian evolution simply a collection of tall stories we could take or leave at will – a tale of comfort or terror, of promise or warning, but tales after all of the mind, texts without bite. Marianne Moore described the world of poetry as composed of imaginary gardens with real toads in them. Well, I’m afraid that the facts of evolution are those ofreal with gardens real toads in them. They are not the baubles of one race, one gender, one class, or one Reich. They have been worked out by the buzzing of eager minds over complaints of the
Against the endarkenment
pious, the zealous, and the herbally inspired. Of course, evolutionary theory may be only one of several explanations for life on our planet, but it’s the only theory that has held up against disproof. And however much we think we know of evolution today, it must be a minute fraction of what remains to be discovered tomorrow. Finally, I’d argue that the facts of evolution impose a kind of necessity on the chance of our imagination, they cut short many a tall tale. Experimental science is our defense – perhaps our best defense – against humbug and the Endarkenment.”  To which I’d only add that such science needn’t be experimental. Observational research – as in much of astronomy, atmospheric science, paleontology, and, yes, evolutionary biology – often plays a key role.  At this point, you doubtless have the clear impression that I’m very impressed with this book. Full disclosure: the publisher, Bellevue Literary Press, is also bringing out my most recent offering, so perhaps I have a conflict of interest. But I would have been delighted withGalileo’s Gout, regardless.  Gerald Weissmann is, in addition to a noted biomedical scientist, an excellent phrasemaker. Here he is on Galileo, in this volume’s eponymous essay: “Galileo had previously tried to softpedal his support of the Copernican view of the heavens, but to no avail… As he feared, his sunspot letters gained acute attention by the Inquisition, and the battle was on between Church and the State of Nature.” And in a superb treatment of Claude Bernard, Walter Cannon, and the discovery of homeostasis, Weissmann shows his historian and writerly chops while recounting the identification of “anaphylaxis,” by Richet, connecting it to World War I by way of poetry from Horace (Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori) as well as Wilfred Owen: “As Richet suggested, when the shield of antibody (Philaxos) becomes inverted (ana), defense can become selfdestructive; the Guns of August proved him right.” I have my gripes, but they are few. In an already tooshort book, the author devotes too much space to recounting certain personal lineages in American medical research, mostly of interest to a small fraternity in academic medicine: who recruited whom, which renowned researcher served as attending physician for the nextwunderkind … now eminent graybeard. (I skipped most of these begats.) But even in the realm of medicine, Weissmann has interesting insights for the evolutionary biologist/psychologist. Thus, thanks to the efforts of George C. Williams, Randy Nesse, Paul Ewald and company, Darwinian medicine has been gaining justified recognition; but how many of our colleagues realize the extent to which even traditional medical advances were stimulated by th evolutionary thinking on the part of many of the research giants of the early 20 century? Take, for example, Walter Cannon’s interpretation of the homeostatic physiology underlying mammalian stress responses: “The organism which, with the aid of increased adrenal secretion can best muster its energies, can best call forth sugar to supply the laboring muscles, can best lessen fatigue, and can best send blood to the parts essential in the run or the fight for life, is most likely to survive.” Weissmann is an especially admiring acolyte of James Watson; I favor Francis Crick, although I’d bet there are few evolutionists who would dispute this typically Watsonian assertion, quoted approvingly (albeit once too often) by Weissmann: “Life, as we now know, is nothing but a vast array of coordinated chemical reactions. The ‘secret’
Evolutionary Psychology – ISSN 14747049 – Volume x. 20xx. 681
Against the endarkenment
to that coordination is the breathtakingly complex set of instructions inscribed, again chemically, in our DNA.” I’d only add that evolution provides the ultimate, organizing principles whereby all this proximate coordination is achieved, and I have no doubt that Weissmann – and Watson  would heartily agree. WhereGalileo’s Gout really shines, however, and where it is likely to provide important intellectual sustenance for most evolutionary psychologists, is in its eminently wise, highly literate, historically informed embrace of scientific reductionism (á la Watson), and the author’s recognition of how the scientific enterprise, whether medical or evolutionary, is all of a piece, as well as how endarkenmentlinked threats to one become threats to all: “I’m afraid that our current tolerance of homeopathic, chiropractic, Ayurvedic, holistic, crystalbased or aromadriven modes of healing has helped to clear the way for the alternative or complementary science of intelligent design. Once advocates of folkbased remedies persuaded the public that there are alternative or complementary explanations of what ails us, why not accept faithbased alternative or complementary explanations for how we came about? If the laws of chemistry and physics (e.g., PV = nRT) need not apply to medicine, why should we rely on the laws of evolution such as that of natural selection or the Hardy Weinberg equation?”  But although Weissmann warns of endarkenment, raging almost Learlike in opposition, he doesn’t wallow in despair, and neither should we. To the contrary:soleliGa Goutis a masterful celebration of scientific progress, the kind of highly literate, thoughtful, encouraging, desperately needed materialist triumphalism that not only gives the lie to any claims of empirical research being a cold, narrowminded, antihumanist enterprise, but should also inspire evolutionists of all stripes.
Evolutionary Psychology – ISSN 14747049 – Volume x. 20xx. 682