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Shotgun wedding for evolution and culture
by Bea Perks, BioMedNet News
"When I hear the word culture, I reach for my revolver," said Steve
Jones, professor of genetics at University College London, at last
night's launch of a program designed to bridge the gap between science
and culture. "It is a totally futile pastime to try to explain uniquely
human attributes, like culture, using Darwinism."
That futile pastime, however, "goes back to Darwin himself," sighed
Jones, introducing his talk, "The Culture of Darwinism: is man just
Both Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, the naturalist who prompted Darwin
to publish his theory of natural selection, used evolution to argue for
their very different political viewpoints. Darwin himself used the theory
to support his interest in eugenics, said Jones. Wallace, on the other
hand, wrote a book arguing that Darwinism provided a rationale for
A close friend of Darwin, the British philosopher Herbert Spencer who is
credited with coining the term "survival of the fittest," used Darwinism
as "a rationale for 19th century capitalism," said Jones.
"The problem of course is that you can fit this logic into any framework
you like," said Jones. "There seems to be a remarkable willingness to
accept Darwinian explanations for uniquely human attributes," he noted.
But evolution is no good at explaining things that are unique, he said,
because it is a comparative science.
"If you look into the various sociobiological explanations which are out
there for human behavior ...every single one of them is perfectly
convincing but every one of them is untestable because there's no
standard of comparison," said Jones.
Sociobiology is an art not a science, he concluded. "When it comes to
culture and science, science can tell you everything you want to know
about yourself ... except, that is, for the interesting stuff."
The program to bridge the cultural divide, Close Encounters? Culture
Meets Science, is the brainchild of Steve Connor, professor of modern
literature at Birkbeck College in London.
Referring to the current fascination for popular science, he told
BioMedNet News, "something is happening in the culture as a whole that
isn't happening in universities, which is where science gets done, which
is where high level sustained reflection about culture gets done."
There is, says Connor, "understandable, but I think very productive,
worry and antagonism about science and whatever the 'opposite' of science
With that in mind, he has organized the series of public lectures at
Birkbeck to "bring together the many people who are actually addressing
people on 'the other side' or sometimes have found themselves on 'the
Connor hopes that issues raised during the lecture series will become a
focus for further discussion in the future. He praised Jones for
providing "a highly scientific warning against the dangers of the
mythology of science."
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