On the question of formal qualifications:
Can someone correct me if I’m wrong? I believe that the only degree that Darwin ever completed was a degree in the humanities. I know he started medical studies, but he dropped out. I think he studied theology also, and he may have graduated, but I think he dropped out of that, too. But I don’t think he ever passed a university exam in biology proper (or whatever it would have been called then — zoology, botany, etc.), despite the fact that he was on the way to becoming one of England’s greatest naturalists when he was still an undergraduate. So when the foes of ID scream loudly that Dembski or Berlinski are “not qualified” to talk about evolution because they are philosophers or mathematicians rather than biologists, a delicious retort is available to us. But as I say, I’d like to be corrected if I misunderstood what I read about Darwin’s academic curriculum vitae.
More generally, I find the anti-ID side hypocritical about qualifications. They’re glad to take help from Ruse or Forrest, who aren’t scientists, or from Matzke, whose highest degree, a Master’s, is in Geography, but they are the first to point out any supporter of ID who is “not qualified” to criticize evolution because his or her degree isn’t in biology. They thus switch back and forth between “credentialism” and “respect for actual knowledge, no matter how acquired”, as it serves their turn. So they can demand that Behe answer grad students like Matzke and Abbie Smith, and not hide behind his credentials, but at the same time they can dismiss the arguments of Meyer, Johnson, etc., without answering them, by pointing out a lack of biological credentials. They make note of Dembski as “not a scientist” but a mathematician, but praise the blogs of Rosenhouse, whose Ph.D. is also in Math and appears to know much less about biology than Dembski. And on the Amazon blog, the only anti-Behe writer with a Ph.D. in biology, Levin I think his name is, who frequently criticizes IDers for lack of knowledge of basic biology, accepts without hesitation the biologically ignorant “help” of a lawyer and a “paleobiologist” (who by his own admission has no graduate degrees and will not point to a single one of his refereed publications). The double standard, or rather shifting standard, in all of this is obvious.
(If any Darwinist is reading this, I double-dog-dare him to reply and say EITHER that Matzke and Ruse and Rosenhouse are unqualified scientific quacks who have no business speaking about Darwinism vs. design, OR that it’s the argument, not the formal training, that matters, and therefore that Dembski and all the other “non-scientists” who support ID deserve a hearing, regardless of their degrees, on the basis of the arguments they offer.)
As for the more general question of autodidacts, that’s not really our main concern here, but for what it’s worth, my impression of autodidacts is that they can be either (1) very impressive, thoughtful individuals who are more worthy of a hearing than many Ph.D.s (I believe that Lincoln, Franklin, Montaigne, Rousseau and Socrates were largely self-taught), or (2) very brittle, combative, picky individuals, frequently concerned more about being “correct” (catching people out on little slips of grammar or arithmetic or historical fact) than about getting to the philosophical heart of a subject, and frequently rather manic hobbyists for some pet cause, be it Ayn Rand, Bacon wrote Shakespeare, atheism, or the like. The latter sort are often verbally very fluent and in a fashion erudite, but the fluidity tends to remind one of diarrhea, and the erudition frequently smells of pedantry, or of facts memorized without deep understanding. The latter type also often write with a cocksure arrogance that many scholars with a greater degree of formal education would eschew; it’s almost as if they feel second-class due to lack of degrees and have to make up for it with bravado. I’ve encountered many such people on listserv groups and I see them blogging on Amazon against Behe etc.
So I’ve found autodidacticism a mixed blessing for the world. Some people aren’t harmed by it at all, and can even become more creative and less hidebound thinkers because of it, whereas other people are so stubborn, contrarian, and lacking in humility by nature, that they desperately need formal education to break down their intellectual pride and teach them well-mannered intellectual discourse. Thus, just as the internet makes a healthy autodidacticism possible, it makes the unhealthiest kinds of autodidact even more insufferable then ever.
Wednesday, December 19, 2007