Monday, July 24, 2006

Buster Poindexter, Asimov, and Darwin

The New York Dolls, a seminal American punk band, never cease to surprise me. I was surprised to read they were making a comeback album after almost 30 years. I was surprised to read that their drummer became a Mormon (before dying an untimely death). I was surprised to learn that their lead singer recently played country-blues. Most of all I was surprised to recently learn that this same lead singer was Buster Poindexter in the 80s. Then the band suprised me again when I saw them on Conan the other night and they played a song critiquing the intelligent design movement (what was ironic about their advocacy of evolution is that as a band they don't look like they have evolved at all since their early days. Aged, but not evolved). Then I was surprised to find that the band doesn't even bother having a website.

I guess given the importance of origins to our culture, it shouldn't surprise me that even a punk band would take in interest in this debate. What intrigues me is that it seems that underlying any given person's belief is a desire to believe whatever it is they believe. I think it goes without saying that a vast majority of people who believe in intelligent design also want to believe in a God. Then you have your theistic evolutionists who want to believe in both in order to have peace of mind. But what of atheistic evolutionists? If the New York Dolls are any indication (and I am fully aware they may not be), their song "Dance Like a Monkey" (and corresponding video) is a full on embrace of an ethos of animal instinct over human reason.

Okay, but what about scientists or philosophers who are not members of punk bands? For many of them, Darwinism may be seen as a liberation from past ages of theistic tyranny, an escape from dogmatism (though they may be blind to the development of a new dogmatism). For others, it may hold the promise of progression: as a species we are always getting better. Others may just embrace the notion that they are in control of their own destiny.

For all these positives though, the evolutionist must find a way to overcome some of the troublesome aspects of believing that we are not only animals, but robotic slaves to our genes. In Total Truth, Nancy Pearcy explores two such people. She cites Richard Wright, author of The Moral Animal, who states that "our genes control us," but that we somehow rebel against our programming and "correct...the moral biases built into us by natural selection" (have you ever known a computer program that can correct flaws a programmer built into it?).

Meanwhile, in The Selfish Gene , Richard Dawkins says we are "robots" and "survival machines," yet we somehow have the "...power to turn against our creators. We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators."

Many creationists have dismissed evolution as just another creation myth, and Dawkins seems to be playing right into their hands by also offering a modern (or perhaps postmodern) version of the Fall. Instead of Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit as a sign of rebellion, he urges an embracing of a new morality in the face of the edicts of a Darwinian "god" (which now takes the form of a DNA helix). Sounds good in theory until you are once again confronted with the paradox of how we argue with our genes. For unlike the traditional personal God that gives freewill to humans, this god doesn't seem to leave much room for wiggle space.

In the realm of pop culture, I think you see this struggle manifested in the sci-fi genre. Many sci-fi creators such as Asimov and Roddenberry were atheist humanists. Presumably, they viewed humanity as genetic robots that still somehow had the power to locate something greater (or more diabolical) than their genetic programming would dictate. Now look at the sci-fi portrayals of robots (or non-emotive beings such as Spock). Almost all of them act contrary to what we would expect actual robots to act like. In almost all cases they take on a sentience, but they also seem to have some kind of moral agenda that comes with it. It's almost as if our minds weren't wired to accept both conscious sentience and the belief in predestined adherence to a prior program. It remains to be seen whether we are wired to accept the re-emergence of the New York Dolls.


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