The Corner

David Klinghoffer On Darwin

A couple of readers have prodded me to make some rejoinder to David

Klinghoffer’s column yesterday, dissing poor old Chuck Darwin.

I beg to decline, mainly because I am too fond of David. He was my

first boss at NR–literary editor when I started doing book reviews for

the magazine 6-7 years ago. He is the nicest guy you could meet, and I

will only register a mild, sad regret that he has fallen in with the

wrong crowd.

I am, in any case, coming to believe that ID-ers and working scientists

have different types of brain organization. (Incipient speciation,

perhaps?) One thing I notice, talking to working scientists, is how

deeply, deeply uninterested most of them are in metaphysics–in the

topics that fill up ID websites and talk, and the emails I get when I

write about ID. If you try to talk metaphysics to the average working

scientist, his eyes glaze over at once. ID-ers want to talk about

nothing else. Scientists just want to get on with finding out things.

It’s Guelphs and Ghibellines, Yankees and Mets–some fundamental

difference in ways of thinking. A small number of scientists–Sagan,

Dawkins, et al.– make much noise with their opinions on metaphysics

(which are usually no more profound than what you or I could come up

with) but most couldn’t care less.

I recall a conversation I once had with an actual cosmologist (the only

such conversation I have ever had, I think). Eons ago (he said) the

universe was much hotter and denser than it is now. At earlier periods,

it was hotter and denser yet. At the remotest period we can theorize

about, it was so hot and dense that our current understandings break

down. If we can improve our understanding a bit, we might push back

that break-down point a few trillion trillion trillionths of a second.

That was his aim. But what (I asked) happened before that? How did

the whole thing get started? Where did it come from? What was there

before? I could see the guy’s eyes glaze over before I finished asking.

“How the **** should I know? I’m a physicist.” But those metaphysical questions are, of course, the ones everyone wants to talk about.

It is the same, incidentally, with mathematicians. The great “crisis of

foundations” that roiled the further edges of mathematics from the 1890s

to the 1960s, and many of whose big questions are still unresolved

today, left surprisingly little mark on the actual daily work of actual

mathematicians, and it is very hard to get a conversation about

“foundations” going in a group of working mathematicians (outside the

tiny number who specialize in it). They just don’t care much. They

want to get on with finding out stuff.

To alter the old joke slightly: Those who can, do; those who can’t,

talk metaphysics. Probably science is too important to be left to the

scientists. I’m beginning to wish it weren’t, though.

John Derbyshire — Mr. Derbyshire is a former contributing editor of National Review.

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