The Scientific Battle for the Soul of Man

Andrew Brown

London, 1999

ISBN 0-684-85145-8.

The first thing that needs saying about this book is that it was a great pleasure to read it. Brown's flair and sense of humour make this an unusually engaging account of the contexts and contents of a very vexed set of ideas.

A good example of his vivid style is this description of a wrangle in a learned journal between Richard Dawkins and Mary Midgley:

"The two contestants struggling savagely in the cramped confines of Philosophy, like fig wasps fighting in the dark..." (p.92)

Also mightily refreshing is Brown's forthrightness, as evidenced in this passage from an extended discussion on whether religions can be seen as "viruses of the mind" (which he disputes):

"Take, for example, a religion which almost every reader of this book would agree is founded on lies. Mormonism, so far as any historian can tell, was invented in 1827 by Joseph Smith, a gifted, attractive and unscrupulous young man who had earlier tried his luck as a treasure hunter. The founding scriptures, which he produced in seventy-five days in a sort of trance, pretending to have received them on golden tablets from an angel, were a rambling parody of the King James version of the Bible. After his wife caught him with a servant girl, there was considerable tension in the household, resolved only when God told him to institute polygamy..." (p.175)

One of the notorious features of the debates between Darwinians about selfish gene theory, memes, and so on, has been the rampant misrepresentation of opponents' ideas and claims. Brown provides a good deal of background information about this, and also offers explanations of the toxic ferocity of some of the controversies. There are places, though, where he too succumbs to this tendency to misrepresent, as in his treatment of Nicholas Humphrey's suggestion that,

"we should no more allow parents to teach their children to believe in the literal truth of the Bible, or that the planets rule their lives, than we should allow parents to knock their children's teeth out or lock them in a dungeon" (p.172).

Brown's response to these words of Humphrey's is:

"Something has gone very badly wrong when the pieties of atheism are so stifling that no-one notices anything odd in the proposal to take into care children who are allowed to read an astrology column (or perhaps merely to jail or fine their parents)..." (p.173)

Allowing a child to read something is obviously not the same as teaching them to believe in its literal truth. There are other wobbles in this section. Humphrey also argued that,

"conversions from science back to superstition are virtually unknown. It just does not happen that someone who has learnt and understood science and its methods and who is then offered a non-scientific alternative chooses to abandon science." (p.182)

Brown counters:

"But of course these conversions happen all the time. Every measure of popular belief over the last fifty years shows that unscience is growing in popularity by leaps and bounds."

This popularity is a dismal fact, but it is not about conversions of the sort Humphrey referred to, and Brown himself goes on to say that,

"scientifically educated fundamentalists may well suffer from intellectual dishonesty amounting to a sort of cognitive dissonance."

Humphrey's argument is hardly dented by all this, yet Brown is strangely persistent in his attempts to rubbish the former's reasonings. He goes on to make the preposterous claim that,

"All religions pretend to rationality, and most of them attain it. They are constantly giving believers reasons to believe, and these reasons are constantly being rationally confirmed." (p.183)

Brown confuses popular belief with theology, saying that,

"It may be based on premises he finds repugnant or false, but it is conducted with a high degree of sophistication and respect for the facts."

But even this won't do, as he undermines it himself later on by describing someone as,

"one of the few theologians both able and willing to be intellectually honest". (p.192)

Read on, but don't let the breeze sweep you along too fast.

Andrew Brown's site: The Darwin Wars



Paul Taylor 2001