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“Broken Windows” in the Evolution Debate

ENV isn’t the right place for an extended appreciation of sociologist and political scientist James Q. Wilson (1931-2012), who died on Friday. David Frum eulogizes him beautifully here. Wilson was a great scholar and a great man, yet despite the 95 percent admiration one feels for him there’s also 5 percent frustration. That 5 percent does bear directly on the subjects we cover here.

Wilson is known for developing the famous “broken window” approach to policing, which has paid such wonderful dividends in great cities like New York that were once terrifying and are now relatively safe. The idea is that “little” derelictions of civilized behavior, if the police ignore them, act as an invitation and encouragement to more egregious offenses. In a neighborhood where hoodlums toss rocks through the windows and no one bothers to fix the broken windows, the neglect of such an easy thing is a magnet for more serious crimes. Something about slovenliness is a provocation, an invitation to real mayhem.

It was after New York City police began enforcing laws against jumping subway turnstiles and the like that overall public safety in the city improved dramatically. There were other causes but that was a big one. As a parent I have confirmed this dynamic experimentally many times. When our house is neat, the kids’ behavior is better in a variety of ways, great and small, than when the public rooms are untidy.

Which brings us to the Darwin debate. James Wilson was among a number of conservative heavyweights in academia and journalism who should have known better but, in the context of the 2005 Dover trial and after, condemned intelligent design while knowing hardly anything about it. John West wrote about Wilson and others in his book Darwin’s Conservatives: The Misguided Quest.

For example, in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal (“Faith in Theory,” December 26, 2005), Wilson defined ID in the usual simplistic, inaccurate terms: “Proponents of intelligent design [say] that there are some things in the natural world that are so complex that they could not have been created by ‘accident.'” Coming from James Q. Wilson, of all people, this makes you want to cry.

An ideological leftist or committed materialist is likely to be blinded by his own worldview to the evidence for design in nature. On such a philosophically loaded issue, it would be hard for him to see clearly. Anybody without the intellectual resources to study a demanding discipline like biology might be similarly hampered.

For a thoughtful, philosophical conservative scholar, there should be no reason, no excuse, for failing to think and read carefully about a subject as profound as the origins and development of human and other life. Agree, disagree, but first understand the argument for intelligent design. That should be easy.

The failure of some otherwise deep-thinking conservatives to grasp what’s going on in the Darwin debate is like those broken windows in Wilson’s illustration. If even men and women who could and should “get it,” who aren’t handicapped by prejudice or a deficit in intelligence or scholarship, if even those serious thinkers neglect to do their homework and simply go with the intellectual mob, then what can we expect from less impressive minds?

It’s hard to think of a public debate more plagued by misinformation, bias, sloppiness and shallowness — by sheer mayhem — than the evolution debate. In no other controversy is it more routine or acceptable to spout off without even minimally understanding what people on the other side have to say. This is true not only of rigid materialists but of journalists, bloggers, and others who, on other topics, sincerely want to be objective and consider all sides of a question before rendering a verdict.

Men like George Will, Charles Krauthammer and James Q. Wilson, for all there is otherwise to admire about them, have been the broken windows in the evolution debate. If they had taken the trouble to read and think seriously about it, the controversy over Darwin v. Design might be very different than it is: more fruitful and substantive, casting light more than darkness.

Image: lewsviews/Flickr.