Sunday, April 15, 2007

David Brooks and the Age of Darwin

NY Times columnist David Brooks has written about our society's new grand, all-encompassing narrative - evolutionary theory (Times select - subscription required).

His point is basically this:

"And it occurred to me that while we postmoderns say we detest all-explaining narratives, in fact a newish grand narrative has crept upon us willy-nilly and is now all around. Once the Bible shaped all conversation, then Marx, then Freud, but today Darwin is everywhere."

He concludes that our society has set aside a postmodern aversion to grand explanatory narratives and embraced Darwinism - one which we can "embrace, argue with or unconsciously submit to."

In his column, Brooks makes reference to both popular science books as well as the latest genomics or brain research. While I don't disagree with Brooks that this latest biological view of life is something one can "embrace or argue with," I think it's very important to distinguish between popular science and mainstream research. It's one thing to read Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell (basically David Hume's The Natural History Religion skillfully and elegantly reframed from an evolutionary perspective) and disagree with such a thoroughly evolutionary outlook, but quite another to reject the message from genomics research showing that genes impact our susceptibility to type II diabetes, nicotine addiction, prostate cancer, and Alzheimers. Our genes really do affect so much of our lives, including our personalities, our sexual behavior, how we think, and how we age. In fact, too much of the credit for this grand narrative goes to Darwin - Mendel is at least equally responsible.

Our society may have a new "grand narrative that explains behavior and gives shape to our history." Maybe not all, but certainly a good part of this grand narrative is based in solid research that has revealed much about how the world does in fact work, unlike previous grand narratives noted by Brooks - those based on a literal reading of the Bible, or Marx, or Freud. This new narrative is not exclusively the work of "evolutionary theorists" who write popular books and come up with theories to explain everything. True scientific theories are always tested against nature in the lab or in the field, and like physics, with its grand narrative of atoms, modern biology's grand narrative is based deeply in the rigorous study of our world.

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