16 May 2008

Biology and Finance

Ben Stein's new movie, Expelled, purports to blow the whistle on a scandal -- i.e. that Darwinians are viciously attacking and ruining the lives of anyone, especially credentialled scientists, who challenge their Orthodoxy of natural selection.

I haven't seen the movie and don't plan to. But because I've attempted (in my other blog, and in HedgeWorld) to expose the badness of some of Stein's ideas on finance, I've become curious about the blogospheric controversy over this movie.

The two subjects are related. In Stein's case, at least, a predisposition to believe in "intelligent design" can't be the result of a Christian fundamentalist upbringing. What is its source. then?

I believe that Stein has adopted the premise that every body of systematic knowledge is a fraud. Darwinian stands on the same footing as modern financial/economic theory. He thinks that by piercing the veil of either of them -- charging that each is a conspiratorial mask -- he is proving his own superior wisdom.

But specifically: I understand that the movie claims that a former editor of the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington (PBSW) was "terrorized," that his "life was nearly ruined," because he posted a pro-intelligent-design article by Stephen C. Meyer.

"The paper ignited a firestorm of controversy merely because it suggested intelligent design might be able to explain how life began," says Stein in the movie.

Still talking second-or-third hand here, though: what kind of "firestorm" would be generated by the publishing decisions of a small academic journal by an unpaid editor? A rather contained fire, I'm guessing.

A little googling showed me that the disputed article wasn't about "how life began." It was about the Cambrian explosion, which Mr. Meyer considers "biology's big bang." Leaving "young earth" theories to the side, the origin of life is conventionally dated to somewhere around 3.6 billion years ago ["billion" in the US sense, a thousand million]. The Cambrian explosion began about half a billion years ago. Quite the difference.

Meyer's contention seems to have been that the conventional chronology is more-or-less right, but that natural selection does not suffice to explain the sudden appearance of so many different variants half a billion years ago, leaving open the possibility of intelligent guidance. That's an anti-Darwinian view although by definition it's an old-earth and in some sense a pro-evolution view.

The mis-statement about the point of the paper is Stein's fault, of course, not Meyer's. But it does seem like a big one, and an indication of carelessness.

For those who'd like to study the issue of Darwinian versus anti-Darwinian readings of the Cambrian explosion further, knock yourselves out.

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Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.