Denyse “Buy my book” O’Leary thinks that evolutionary biologists are just like religious folk. Among the deep parallels she finds: Scientists and the religious both give booklets to children, celebrate birthdays of important figures, claim that certain things are facts, and seek official recognition. Finally:
- sacred bones. Christian churches have the bones of the saints; Buddhist stupas the toe-nail-clippings of Buddha; evolution is built on sacred bones, that the evolutionists read meanings into in the way that the pagan priests of Caesar’s time read meaning into scattered bones.
What is the difference between science and cleromancy?
As always, the details matter. It is one thing to claim that something is a fact, another to conduct empirical research to determine whether a certain statement is true or not. It is one thing to celebrate a birthday, and another to worship the person purportedly born on that day. And so forth.
But what about those bones. Do “evolutionists” truly read meanings into bones as if they were Christians at a reliquary? The chains shown here are alleged to be those used to bind Saint Peter in prison. People claim that even relics like this, referred to as “second-class relics” because they merely touched a saint and weren’t part of his body, can perform miracles if you pray to them or touch them. Indeed, third-class relics, cloth touched to a reliquary, are said to possess mystical powers as well.
By contrast, consider the role of bones in a discussion of whether Homo floresensis is a microcephalic human or a new species:
The limb bone ratios [of H. floresensis] are unlike those of any apes or humans. They are also very robust: in spite of their small size, hobbits would have been remarkably strong. The arms are too long for humans, and they had unusually large feet…. The lower jaw lacks a chin, a feature found in all humans (even people who look chinless), and that is also true of a second jaw which has been found. The upper end of the humerus has a twist not found in modern humans, but which was then found in the Turkana Boy Homo erectus/ergaster skeleton once it was looked for. Groves’ conclusion: all of these features make it overwhelmingly unlikely that the hobbit was just a small microcephalic human.
Especially noteworthy is the comment that the observation of a particular feature in the skeleton of H. floresensis produced a testable prediction which was in turn confirmed by examining another fossil. That process of examining multiple specimens is fundamental to scientific studies. Phylogenetic studies, or morphological studies in ecology, draw on dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of specimens. That’s why reports of declining revenues for natural history museums are so worrying. The public exhibits in those museums support the collections behind the scenes, collections which support research on everything from evolution to the history of pesticide accumulation in birds. Those museums contain the last remains of extinct species, and of ancient populations of extant species.
My first inclination when I read comments like O’Leary’s is that she knows that scientists don’t actually use bones in museums the way that Christians worship relics in shrines. Surely she is merely exaggerating in the typically misleading manner of IDolators. But then I remembered an old post I wrote about thaumaturgy – the study of miracles – and creationism. I quoted John Holbo paraphrasing Isaiah Berlin to the effect that “those who put their faith in some immense, world-transforming thaumaturgy, like the final triumph of white magic or victory over the Dark One, must believe that all political and moral problems can thereby be turned into magical ones.” This is the religious conservative modus operandi. Evolution, and science in general, are transformed from the sort of “immense, world transforming phenomenon, like the final triumph of reason” (Berlin’s original phrase), into thaumaturgy. Where Berlin denounced those who “believe that all political and moral problems can thereby be turned into technological ones,” we now must also confront those who see only metaphysical problems.
Denyse O’Leary may not be able to conceive of a world in which people look at bones, or anything else, for reasons other than religious devotion. Fortunately for society, there are people who can do that, and can learn useful things about life, it’s history and its diversification, by looking at bones, trees, fields, clouds, and chicken entrails without mysticism.