Saturday, May 28, 2005

Rushdie on Creationism/Evolution

Rushdie has a piece in The Toronto Star on creationism vs. scientific atheism (via A&L Daily).

Though I don't actually agree with his point here (atheists should remain intolerant of religion, not accommodating), I admire the verve and style. Rushdie's recent novels seem a little tired... why doesn't he take this up full time?

Since I was just talking about this yesterday, let me quote the passage in the column where he talks about Intelligent Design:

And in America, the battle over the teaching of intelligent design in U.S. schools is reaching crunch time, as the American Civil Liberties Union prepares to take on intelligent-design proponents in a Pennsylvania court.

It seems inconceivable that better behaviour on the part of the world's great scientists, of the sort that Ruse would prefer, would persuade these forces to back down.

Intelligent design, an idea designed backward so as to force the antique idea of a Creator upon the beauty of creation, is so thoroughly rooted in pseudoscience, so full of false logic, so easy to attack that a little rudeness seems called for.

Its advocates argue, for example, that the sheer complexity and perfection of cellular/molecular structures is inexplicable by gradual evolution.

However, the multiple parts of complex, interlocking biological systems do evolve together, gradually expanding and adapting — and, as Dawkins showed in The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design, natural selection is active at every step of this process.

But, as well as scientific arguments, there are others that are more, well, novelistic. What about bad design, for example? Was it really so intelligent to come up with the birth canal or the prostate gland?

Incidentally, is another winning Rushdie polemic about creationists in Step Across this Line. It is called "Darwin in Kansas."


[ tyler curtain ] said...

I write about "maladaptation" in my forthcoming book, Mistaken Evolution (Duke UP, forthcoming). The mistake in framing the argument in terms of "bad design" is that at no point are the emergent properties under discussion actually "designs" (a concept that is inseparable from intent and will), nor are they "bad" (which implies an understanding that there is an a priori "good" that "should" have been arrived at). Even evolutionists succumb to this logic when they talk about "survival" as the good. The fact of survival is just that, a fact. Evolution has no goal, and it has no pre-determined 'endpoint.' It is as non-teleological as you can get.

The human back is a good example. Bad design? It's neither. It's an extremely unfortunate historical accident, given the amount of pain it causes humans over the course of their existences. But unfortunate? Only if one believes that pain must be avoided.

I think that evolutionary accounts of the world eventually, discomfortingly, lead to a quietism about the world: it demands that we jettison languages of evaluation that mark phenomenon as felicitious or ill. Things are. And from that we must take what 'is' and reshape it, remake it, construct it to a utilitarian 'should be.'

Evolution-think also demands that we understand that such proactive, imaginative endeavors give rise to un-intended consequences, as pernicious as any other 'outcome' of a system. We can't always know what it is that what we do will in turn do. That's extraordinary, really, and worth grasping as a space of awe and the sublime. Humility in the face of futures that unfold, and not always according to the narratives we attempt to plot, script, fix, finish.

12:46 PM  
coolie said...


Are you looking forward to reading Salman's new novel, Shalimar the Clown which is being published in September?

5:31 AM  
Amardeep said...


Thanks for the comment and the link. Is your focus more on the 'primary' discourse of the evolutionary biologists -- the 'main line' of evolutionary theory, or is it more the sort-of marginal elements?

And Coolie, jeez, I don't know. I only made it to about the half-way point of The Ground Beneath Her Feet, and I stopped cold about 50 pages into Fury. It's just not clicking for me anymore. Maybe I know all of his tricks after having read the first four or five novels very, very closely.

10:22 AM  
Ms. World said...

I'm no serious student of the novel (not compared with your lot) but I do think Rushdie's current non-fiction work (articles, op eds, etc.) is stronger than his latest novels.

10:40 AM  
[ tyler curtain ] said...

Well, both? neither? My account of the nonexistence of an evolutionary "arrow" is what I understand to be the correct philosophy of biology position.

I don't say a "lack" of a trajectory, because that presumes that there might have been such a thing but it is simply missing. Instead, it just doesn't exist and never did exist. I have been calling my position a 'radical empiricism.' Any imposition of intent, will, or directionality to evolution is of a piece with fiction (at best) and malicious mysticism (at worst).

As you might imagine, I am throwing my support behind Rushdie whole-heartedly. People claim to do this all the time, but he really is speaking Truth to Power.

5:03 PM  
Manish said...

Rushdie's recent novels seem a little tired... why doesn't he take this up full time?

I loved Ground as a love story (take that, Lucas). Parts of Fury were just plain bad.

This op/ed is of necessity unadorned, not nearly as pleasurable as his fiction.

4:15 PM  
Anonymous said...

A few belated comments: Evolution, of course, doesn't have any directionality or goal. IDists routinely ignore this elementary point, one which is drilled into freshman biol. students (or, at least, that held in my case).

Having written that, the history of biology post-Darwin, is full of irony. Many biologists in the late 19th century cast about desperately for some form of directionality in evolution, e.g., from Asa Gray (Chuck D.'s champion in America) to those advocating orthogenesis. All of these attempts failed, of course, but Asa Gray's was the most interesting failure. Gray, you'll recall, argued that Darwin made the world safe for teleology.

A current descendant of Gray's is probably the distinguished philosopher John Post. Dr. Post argues that evol. biol. shows that a genuine 'primitive normativity' objectively exists in the natural world. Dr. Post is definitely not an IDist--he's one of the good guys ;) I'm not persuaded, but his work is much subtler than my crude summary would indicate, so everyone should check out his work for themselves, e.g., Naturalism, Reduction and Normativity: Pressing from Below at

P.S., the other post on ID mentioned H. Allen Orr's article in the New Yorker. He has also jousted w/ the IDists in various issues of the Boston Review, all available online. And since I'm plugging Orr's popular essays, I should add that he's done really interesting work on a quantitative theory of adaptation, applying Fisher's model of adaptation to come up w/ some novel results about adaptive random walks.

3:41 AM  
Anonymous said...

Oh, I forgot to add that tracing a link betwenn Dr. Post's work and Asa Gray's views is solely my speculation.


3:43 AM  
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4:16 PM  

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