10/28/2009—You know something is up when you open the letters-to-the-editor section of the New York Times Book Review and see letters from Daniel Dennett, author of Breaking the Spell, and Philip Kitcher, author of Living With Darwin. Dennett is on any list of the New Atheists and Kitcher belongs there too, although he is much more sympathetic to religion. Their letters appeared last Sunday, 10/25.
These two wrote in response to a book review of Richard Dawkins’ The Greatest Show on Earth by Nicholas Wade, which had appeared on 10/11: Evolution All Around. If you read their letters, I think it is fair to say that they wrote to defend evolutionary theory.
But, defend evolutionary theory from what? Nicholas Wade, a science reporter for the New York Times, began his review with the sentence, “The theory of evolution really does explain everything in biology.” And he meant it. How could there be a need to defend evolution against Wade?
Dennett is angry that Wade writes that Dawkins “gets his knickers in a twist” over the question of whether evolution is a theory or a fact. Wade concludes that there is the historical fact of evolution—“Every living thing and every fossil-bearing rock bears evidence that evolution occurred”—and there is also the theory of evolution in the scientific sense, the theory “without which nothing in biology makes sense”. Dennett accuses the New York Times of “giving [those who doubt evolution] respectability in its pages.” But there is nothing in Wade’s review that doubts evolution, unless you count his observation that “when we learn how life evolved on other planets, evolution could turn out to be a special case of some more general theory.”
Kitcher defends Dawkins’ claim that evolution is a fact. Kitchens concedes that evolution is a scientific theory and not a fact in that sense. But he says there is also a more conventional meaning of fact—“′theory’ is used to suggest that there is room for reasonable doubt, whereas ′fact’ suggests that something so amply confirmed by the evidence that it may be accepted without debate.” Evolution is a fact in this sense. But Wade does not doubt anything about evolution in his review. Why did Kitcher feel the need to write in?
Ironically, Wade explains in his review why there is this overwrought reaction. Wade says that Dawkins “has let himself slip into being as dogmatic as his opponents”. Dennett and Kitchers are reacting to the smell of heresy.
There is something going on here, but I am not sure what it is. Creationists say some things cannot have evolved because they are too complicated. Only God could direct the accomplishment of the human eye, for example. No one could believe that Wade accepts that. On the other hand, Dawkins has said in the past that evolution means there cannot be a God. Wade might disagree with that since his book, The Faith Instinct, will be published next month. Maybe we are not fighting about the fact of evolution but about the meaning of evolution.