Tag Archives: neo-darwinism

Evolutionary Just-So Story, Again!

So yet again we have a story of evolution that seems to say that evolution works like God, i.e., that it indulges in design. I am referring to an article recently published in the New York Times reporting on research into why the squid lost its shell. The phrasing of the article will, in the minds of the naive, create the impression that the squid lost its shell in order to move faster to escape its predators (shells being rather heavy and cumbersome). “The evolutionary pressures favored being nimble over being armored, and cephalopods started to lose their shells.” This seems to be an innocent enough statement, but its construction implies that the pressure to become nimble preceded and caused the loss of the shells.

That is design. It may not be God design, though one could easily make that leap, but it is design nonetheless.

Oh, if only they would read Lucretius!

Here’s what really happened: Originally, “squids” we shelled creatures; generation after generation were shelled. Occasionally, a genetic mutation or defect (call it what you will) resulted in progeny lacking shells. No doubt, most of these shell-less individuals quickly died or were eaten and left no progeny; but at some point, some of them survived (perhaps thanks to another mutation that enabled them to move more quickly than their shelled relatives) and reproduced, eventually giving rise to a new class of creatures, squids and octopuses, etc. In other words, the change occurred first, without intention or purpose, and the benefit followed. The change did not occur in order to confer the benefit. It just happened.

Of course, such changes often occur gradually, say by shrinking the shell over many generations, in what some have called “path dependency” (i.e., evolution follows an already established path and does not go backwards, in other words it doesn’t restore the shell to creatures who have lost it). But the principle remains the same: first the change, and then, if it happens to have an advantage, it sticks.

As Lucretius said, humans did not develop opposable thumbs in order to grasp tools; we can grasp tools because we have opposable thumbs.

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What Is a Species?

That science is a human enterprise and not some pure and perfect object independent of culture is highlighted by a recent investigation into the DNA of American wolves—the gray wolf, the Eastern wolf, and the red wolf. An article in the New York Times (7/27/16) reports that analysis of the DNA of these three wolf species reveals that in fact “there is only one species [of wolf] on the continent: the gray wolf.” The other two are hybrids of coyotes and wolves—Eastern wolves are 50/50, red wolves are 75 percent coyote and 25 percent wolf. The investigators also concluded that the wolf and coyote species shared a common ancestor only 50,000 years ago, which is very recent in evolutionary terms.

Now, anyone comfortable with the fact that nature goes its own way without regard to the human need for tidy intellectual categories is not likely to be much disturbed by these findings. But such people are relatively rare, especially in academic and political circles, so it happens that certain people do find it disturbing that Eastern and red wolves are hybrids. That is, they are not “pure” and therefore may not be entitled to protection from, say, extermination—they are not “pure” and therefore not entitled to the protection of such laws as the Endangered Species Act. In a sense, they are not “natural” because—well, because they violate the notion of the purity of species, they don’t fit neatly into our conceptual categories. As one scientist was quoted (in dissension from the worry warts), “’We put things in categories, but it doesn’t work that way in nature.’”

Indeed it doesn’t. In fact, it couldn’t. The notion of “species” as neatly distinct forms of life, immune to crossings of the so-called “species barrier,” among other common myths of the “logic” of evolution, would cause evolution to grind to a halt. Evolution requires messiness, contingency, happenstance, the unexpected, for it to work. For example, genetic mutations do not magically appear in consequential response to environmental pressures, just in time to save a species from extinction. Instead, a mutation lies quietly in the background, sometimes for many generations, to emerge as the crucial factor of salvation (for those individuals who carry it, and their descendants) when and if a factor in the environment calls it forth.

I am reminded of a startling discovery during the height of the AIDS epidemic in America, that some individuals, despite a particularly risky lifestyle, were immune to the disease. Turns out, they carried a mutation that had first manifested itself centuries earlier, during an epidemic of an entirely different disease, bubonic plague. One could describe how this mutation protects against both diseases, but one could not explain why—why this gene mutation occurred in the first place, why it just happened to confer immunity or resistance to these two quite different diseases (one caused by a bacterium, the other by a retrovirus), and why it resided silently in the genomes of its fortunate carriers for so many generations before it could prove its usefulness.

A fundamental goal of all human endeavors is to reduce the entangled complexities of life, including our own, to a simple set of principles that fit the limitations of the computational power of our little brains, a mere three pounds of meat, of which only a relatively small portion engages in the tasks of reasoning. Not surprisingly, it is difficult to wrap our heads around the genuine complexity of the earth we inhabit, let alone of the cosmos. Being the limited creatures that we are, we need our categories—but let’s not worship them. Let’s not condemn the Eastern wolf and the red wolf to extermination just because they mess up our laws.

Stuff Happens

“There’s been another mass shooting in America.” So begins President Obama’s passionate and angry speech after the killing spree at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon. Nine victims and the shooter dead; others wounded; a community in shock and grief.

I almost wrote “a community and nation in shock and grief,” but decided not to include “nation” because I’m not sure what kind of shock, if any, the nation at large feels. As Jeb! and other Republicans have said in response to this shooting and to Obama’s strong reaction, “stuff happens.” Oh, well. Whatever.

Well, yes, stuff does happen. This sentiment has been around for a long time now, dating from a once popular bumper sticker, and it expresses an essentially fatalistic view of life. Because if stuff just happens, then there isn’t much anyone can do about it. It is actually kind of nihilistic, which makes it a rather odd thing for a man who professes to be a devout Catholic to say. Catholicism, and Christianity in general, is not a stuff-happens kind of religion; quite the contrary, it is a religion which believes that “stuff” happens for a reason, not of the pure cause-and-effect variety of pure atheistic materialism, but for thought out reasons, for motivations, i.e., there is a mind behind the stuff.

In Christianity, the Mind behind all Stuff is God, and human beings, being made in the image of God, are the minds behind human actions. Thus, the shooter is not a zombie or the host of some parasite that has taken over his brain and is operating him like a robot. He has intended and acted out his intention according to a grand plan of his own, one that, in his own mind, will finalize his frustrations and resentments and install him in a pantheon of famous killers. He has a goal, he executes a plan, and he achieves his objective. He will be welcomed in Hell. He would be insulted to know that people dismiss his achievement as nothing more than “stuff happens.”

Perhaps this illuminates an essential difference between today’s right-wing Republicans and liberal Democrats, between Republicans and Democrats in general, and the potential for imbalance between them. There’s a strand in right wing thought that seems to believe that human nature is unalterable, that people are who they are as a matter of genes, so that the poor are poor not because of actions taken by others (the not-poor, the movers and shakers, the exploiters, etc.) but because of their inherent laziness, stupidity, dependence, and lasciviousness, whereas the rich are rich because, well, they’re just simply better people: ambitious, smart, creative, hard working, well deserving of their status and privileges. There is therefore no reason to indulge in government programs, for example, aimed at doing the impossible, lifting the defective out of their defective state. They will waste government benefits on drugs and making more babies, and perhaps overwhelm the better sort with their millions. This is a kind of social Darwinism.

Among liberals, the opposite tends to be the case: The world is as it is because of human choices, not because of genetic or any other kind of fate. People can change. People can be lifted out of poverty by wise policy and by reining in the power of those who are already rich and powerful. All individuals have the potential to be successful and to lead fulfilling lives. It is the role of government to guarantee that everyone has equal opportunities. We can change things for the better because humans can change for the better. This is a kind of social gospel.

Thus it is that President Obama can call for a political solution to the problem of gun violence in the United States, and thus it is that the Republicans reply by asserting that stuff happens and that more laws won’t prevent future mass shootings. This seems like a political disagreement, but it is a fundamental difference in world views which lack common ground, and is therefore something much more intractable than can be solved by legislative compromise.

Ethics and Human Nature

It is an unhappy characteristic of our age that certain ignoramuses have been elevated to the ranks of “public intellectual,” a category which seems to consist of men and women who provide sweeping theories of everything, especially of everything they know nothing about. Into this category fall certain writers whose sweeping theory is that, prior to the Enlightenment, everyone lived in abject superstition and physical misery. With the Enlightenment, reason and science began the process of sweeping away misery and ignorance, clearing the field for the flowers of prosperity and knowledge. Such a sophomoric view of human history and thought has the virtue (in their minds only) of rendering it unnecessary for them to acquaint themselves with a deep and nuanced knowledge of the past, an error which permits them to attribute all that is good in human accomplishment to the age of science and all that is bad to a dark past best forgotten.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the recent fad for publishing books and articles claiming that science, particularly evolutionary science, provides the necessary and sufficient basis for ethics.

To read the article, click here.

The Mismeasure of All Things

Some 2500 years ago, Protagoras said that man is the measure of all things. By this he meant something like, mankind can know only that which it is capable of knowing, which in effect is a recognition that the human mind does have its limits; but Protagoras’ statement has often been taken to mean that man is the standard by which all other things are to be measured, i.e., that mankind is the standard of comparison for judging the worth of everything else. This meaning may have been colored by the Christian concept of man as the object of divine history, of man as just a little lower than the angels. The Christian concept, in its turn, derives from a common interpretation of the creation story in Genesis, in which God gives man dominion over the rest of earthly creation.

However, while both Protagoras’ saying and the Genesis story carry the concept forward through history, neither explains how the idea actually originated. It may have been Giambattista Vico (1668-1744) who first recognized that it is ignorance rather than knowledge that makes man the measure of all things: “When men are ignorant of natural causes producing things, and cannot even explain them by analogy with similar things, they attribute their own nature to them.” That is, when primitive men and women surveyed the world and sought explanations of phenomena, they had nothing to go by other than what they knew about themselves, so that, for example, a terrible destructive storm could be explained as the anger of the gods, since when human beings became angry they too engaged in destructive behavior; or when a gentle rain caused plants to grow, the gods were in a good mood, perhaps pleased by some human act of worship, because when humans were in a good mood, they engaged in benevolent acts. After all, the earliest humans could not have had any knowledge of the material causes of storms, droughts, etc., nor of course of animal behavior, which they attributed to motives much like their own. As Stephen Toulmin and June Goodfield summarize Vico’s views, in primitive mythologies people “could measure the world of Nature only by that which they already knew—namely themselves” (The Discovery of Time).

Both Protagoras and Genesis simply give more sophisticated glosses on this primitive impulse. They reflect the increasing body and complexity of knowledge developed by ancient civilizations, particularly those that had developed writing systems, which in turn enabled them to impose order on what had been a plethora of local myths and their variants. Simply by creating relatively coherent pantheons containing gods with discreet attributes, roles, and positions in a divine hierarchy, ancient civilizations were able to organize their intellectual world and provide authoritative explanations. Monotheism carried this further, by providing an even more unified world view, but it also somewhat depersonalized the concept of God, making him more abstract and less personal (e.g., no images or idols, no household god or genie of the local spring, etc.). This was an important achievement in the ongoing development of knowledge, a necessary step in the process that led to the state of knowledge we enjoy today, in large part because it put more emphasis on cerebral, intellectual rather than personal and experiential modes of understanding—in a sense, creating theory to replace myth. Thus we see the Greek philosophers creating the first science and the Jews creating the first inklings of theology and, importantly, teleology (a sense of history with a goal towards which it was moving). Nevertheless, the Judeo-Christian god retained strong anthropomorphic features, especially in the popular imagination and in visual arts, in which, for example, God the Father was usually depicted as a white-haired old man. Perhaps as long as most people were illiterate and dependent on visual media for their abstract knowledge, anthropomorphism was to be expected.

The Western European, Christian intellectual (literate) tradition combined these two strands of ancient thought, the scientific/philosophical with the historic/teleological, setting the stage for a modern world view that sees the world as making coherent sense and as operating according to consistent, universal laws, which then can be exploited by human beings for their own betterment. As scientific knowledge expanded and material explanations could be provided for phenomena that once were viewed as signs of divine intervention, God receded to the back of men’s minds as less necessary to explain the world—at best, perhaps, He became little more than the Prime Mover, the one who got it all started or the one who established the universal laws which continue to operate without His immediate intervention. But if the Age of Reason or the Enlightenment put God into retirement, it did not give up the belief in coherent laws and the quest for universal theories, nor did it give up the teleological view of history.

It is important to note that the teleological view is always a human-centered view; history, whether of cosmos, nature, or society, was still about man; very few thinkers hazarded to speculate that man might be merely one among many creatures and phenomena rather than the point of the whole enterprise. In this sense, at least, the early modern era retained the primitive impulse to both anthropomorphism and anthropocentrism. The widespread acceptance of Darwin’s theory of evolution by means of natural selection did little, indeed perhaps nothing, to change that for most people. It was not difficult to switch from believing that God had created man for dominion over nature and as the center of the historical story of fall and redemption, to believing that evolution is teleological, both in the sense of inevitably leading to the emergence of homo sapiens as the crowning outcome of the evolutionary process and in the sense of evolution as a progressive process. And it was easy enough, in the context of nineteenth-century capitalism, to believe that modern industrial culture was the natural continuation of progressive evolution—indeed was its goal.

It took a generation or more for it to dawn on people that Darwinism, along with the geological discoveries regarding the great age of the earth and the astronomers’ and physicists’ discoveries of the even greater age of the universe, implied there is no god at all, not even the reticent god of the Deists. One would think that once this implication struck home, both the teleological and the anthropocentric views would fade away. But, perhaps due to human vanity, neither has done so.

In a supremely ironic twist, both teleology and anthropocentrism have been inverted. Whereas the theological age measured other creatures in human terms, the evolutionary age measures humans in animal terms. We are no longer a little lower than the angels but only a little bit higher than the other animals—or maybe not even that. We are naked apes, talking apes, singing apes. We are like social insects, we are vertebrates, we are aggressive because we are animals seeking to maximize our survival, we are merely transportation for the real biological players, selfish genes. We are not rational or conscious, we do not have free will, we operate by instinct, each of our seemingly advanced traits is hard-wired. Our morality is nothing more than an adaptation. We take a word like altruism, which originally meant a certain kind of human behavior, apply it to ants, where it becomes a description of instinctive eusocial behavior, and then re-apply that meaning back onto humans. Thus making us just like all the other animals. Therefore, we study them in order to understand ourselves. We focus on the similarities (often slim) and ignore the differences (often radical).

This continues the old habit of anthropomorphism in new guise and fails to recognize the independent existence of other creatures—their independent lines of evolution as well as their ontological separateness from us. We unthinkingly repeat that humans and chimps share 96 percent of their genes (or is it 98 percent?), as if that meant something—but then, it’s said we share 97 percent of our genes with rats. We neglect to mention that apes and humans diverged from each other some 7 to 8 million years ago and have followed independent lines of evolution ever since. We are not apes after all.

Consider the fruit fly, that ubiquitous laboratory subject which has yielded so much knowledge of how genes work. It is often cited as a model of human genetics and evolution. But consider what Michael Dickinson, a scientist (he calls himself a neuroethologist) at the University of Washington (Seattle), has to say about fruit flies: “I don’t think they’re a simple model of anything. If flies are a great model, they’re a great model for flies.” To me, this is a great insight, for it recognizes that fruit flies (and, frankly, insects in general) are so other than like us that to study them as if they were a model of anything other than themselves, as a model of us, is in a sense not to study them at all. It is rather to look into their compound eyes as if they were mirrors showing our own reflections. It is a form of narcissism, which perhaps contains our own demise.

Our demise because in continuing to look at nature as being about ourselves we continue the gross error of believing we can manipulate nature, other organisms, the entire world, to our own narrow purposes without consequences. It turns other organisms into harbingers of homo sapiens, narrows research to that which will “benefit” mankind, and misses the very strangeness of life in all its diversity and complexity. It continues the age-old world view of human dominion and fails to recognize that our “dominion” is neither a biological necessity nor a feature of the natural world. Dominion is a dangerous form of narcissism which a maturely scientific age should discard.

Empathy Imperiled: A Review

One can to some extent understand the current enthusiasm of conservatives for Darwinian deterministic explanations of human behavior, inasmuch as determinism is compatible with the views of human nature already held by conservatives. Even religious conservatives, those who go so far as to deny evolution per se, subscribe to a deterministic view. The Edenic fall, the apocalyptic view of history, etc., are elements in God’s overarching plan, and human free will is largely limited to submitting to God’s will or facing the dire consequences. Secular conservatives hold that Evolution is the grand plan (even though they usually deny teleology for appearances’ sake) and that we should submit to the inevitabilities of our genes and our Pleistocene natures. But it is puzzling that a considerable number of scholars in the humanities and social sciences submit to Darwinian explanations of art, literature, philosophy, etc.; perhaps they do so in a desperate attempt to retain “relevance” in an age when technology, science, and the MBA have the hegemonic edge.

It is especially surprising when a writer of definitely left-wing political beliefs attempts to recruit biological evolution to the socialist or communitarian cause. Such is the case, sadly, with Gary Olson’s book Empathy Imperiled: Capitalism, Culture, and the Brain (Springer, 2013). Olson is a professor of political science at Moravian College in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and active in liberal causes. In this book, he explores a two-part thesis: the first is that mirror neurons in the brain hardwire us for empathy; the second is that the culture of capitalism thwarts this natural empathy in favor of selfishness.

Why is his first point important to his second point? According to Olson, that we (and at least some other animals) have mirror neurons has been proven by science, which in turn provides support for the idea that human beings are naturally (i.e., biologically) empathetic. It is not biology or our evolutionary history that makes us divisive and driven by selfishness and enmity but rather, culture, particularly capitalist culture, has thwarted this natural trait. However, while the existence of mirror neurons in macaques appears to be well established, their existence in human beings is not. It further is not at all certain that mirror neurons are the source of empathy. They seem instead to mirror others’ motor movements, such that when a macaque sees another macaque pick up a peanut and put it in its month, the first macaque can imitate that action, but it is a long way from motor imitation to empathy. But by means of a non sequitur, Olson evades the problem: “The monkey’s neurons were ‘mirroring’ the activity she was observing, suggesting she was responding to the experience of another, such as when we experience empathy for someone else’s circumstances” (p. 21). As in all non sequiturs, there is some verbal sleight of hand in this sentence: from mirroring an activity (outwardly visible) to mirroring an experience (inward and subjective), and then the leap from a monkey mirroring/responding to another monkey’s actions to a human being actually feeling with another human being (and what “circumstances” are implied here?). No explanation for this leap from an activity to a subjective state is provided.

It is worth pointing out here that complex animals like macaques, chimpanzees, or humans do not consist of one behavioral trait. Even if mirror neurons do exist in monkeys or humans, even if we are willing to make the leap of faith that mirror neurons hardwire us for empathy, empathy is not our only behavioral trait and can then, quite naturally rather than culturally, be over-ridden by other traits that might be more appropriate to a particular situation or circumstance. Thus a person might be empathetic one day and jealous the next, or understanding and helpful to one person and belligerent to another. None of us would hurt a fly—until the situation called for a fly swatter.

Perhaps “empathy” is a poor word, anyway. The observant macaque might use its ability to “mirror” another’s actions by stealing the peanuts; a human being who can “feel with” another person might use that to manipulate and outwit. Merely “mirroring” does not guarantee virtuous cooperation.

There are equally damaging inadequacies with Olson’s development of the second part of his thesis, that capitalism thwarts our natural empathy. He writes that “capitalism is by its very nature competitive and exploitive, not communal and empathetic except to the degree that empathy can enhance profitability” (p. 25). Well, true, at least to some extent. But is this true only of capitalism? As a leftist, Olson seems to think that it is. But Olson fails to show that capitalism is more destructive of empathy than other actual (rather than ideal) economic systems. To do so, some comparisons (other than to Cuba) would be necessary. For example, given the endemic slavery of the Roman Empire, which was not capitalist, surely we can say that Rome was destructive of empathy. Indeed, a major motive for official Roman antagonism to early Christianity was precisely its encouragement of empathy, particularly for the poor, the oppressed, and the enslaved. Ancient Greece, despite Athens’ reputation as the birthplace of democracy, also depended on slavery and denied citizen status to everyone except free-born, native-born males (i.e., not “foreigners,” women, slaves, etc.). It is the ancient Greeks who gave us the word barbarian, a pejorative for the “them” of the us vs. them dichotomy. In the Americas, aside from the Aztecs and Maya (human sacrifice, fierce warfare), there were the Iroquois, who made territorial war against their neighbors, and slavery was also practiced by numerous Indian tribes. While many sins have been committed under capitalism, so have they under all other actual economic systems.

On the other hand, some ancient sins withered away under capitalism. Chattel slavery was abolished after capitalism was established, the vote has been extended to all adults, men and women alike, of whatever class. The various products of industrial/scientific medicine have eliminated or vastly reduced the ravages of infectious diseases, to the point where infant and child mortality has gone from being a commonplace to an exception. The disease, smallpox, that many historians estimate killed as much as 90% of Native Americans after the arrival of Europeans has been eliminated. These examples are not meant to absolve capitalism of its sins, but to demonstrate that any political and economic systems, just like the human beings who create and sustain them, are complex mixtures and degrees of good, bad, and indifferent. Capitalism may have run its course and may, through the usual difficult process that attends major historical shifts, be replaced by something better suited to our new globalized, over-heated world, but I doubt that that new system will be as morally exemplary as many dream of.

In my opinion, mirror neurons, neuroscience, genetics, etc., add little of interest or usefulness to issues of morality. In Olson’s book, the best passages are not those which unsuccessfully attempt to recruit mirror neurons to moral purposes but those which explore the profound words of Jesus (e.g., the parable of the Good Samaritan) and Martin Luther King, Jr. (e.g., King’s interpretation and application of that parable). Such wisdom does not require a pseudoscientific gloss.

Boehm’s “Social Selection”

Christopher Boehm’s book Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame (Basic Books, 2012) is yet another sad example of the futility of the widespread hope that Neo-Darwinism, as over extended by evolutionary psychology and sociobiology, can ever be a theory of everything, particularly a theory that explains modern human behavior and values. It is not science. It is an ideology, or perhaps merely a hope, dressing up in a sloppy imitation of science.

Boehm’s thesis is that human moral values, the virtue, altruism, and shame of his subtitle, evolved through a process of what he calls “social selection,” which can be defined as the selecting out of socially uncooperative individuals (whom Boehm equates with psychopaths) and the selecting in of cooperative ones. Lengthy as the book is (at 362 pages of text), with its elaborate arguments and numerous examples, Boehm fails to support his thesis with anything more than supposition and false analogies.

First let’s consider what social selection would have to do in order to affect the evolution of human beings:

1) It would require a concerted effort species-wide over a great swath of time to define, identify, and eliminate socially uncooperative individuals (psychopaths and free riders).

2) In order to affect the gene pool, undesirable individuals would have to be identified very early in life, before they had the chance to reproduce. Killing the parent without killing the child does not eliminate the parent’s genes.

3) The criteria for determining whom to eliminate would not only have to be clear but consistent over many generations. Any change in the standards midstream would ruin the whole scheme. Yet any historian can tell you that standards have changed over time, sometimes quite sharply.

There is no evidence that any of this obtained at any time in human history or prehistory. There is also no evidence that if it did occur it would have had a significant impact on human evolution. Prior to modern medicine and germ theory, infant and child mortality, not to mention plagues and epidemics that affected adults as well, would have had an impact many times that of social selection, effectively diminishing its proportionally infinitesimal effects.

In order to compensate for the serious lack of evidence, Boehm resorts to highly suppositional phrasing and subjunctive grammar. The following examples from pages 80 and 81 are illustrative of far too much of the book:

“prehistoric forager lifestyles could have generated distinctive types of social selection” (Perhaps they could have, but science wants to know if they actually did.)

These types of social selection “could have supported generosity outside the family at the level of genes.” (Again, did they actually do so?)

“were likely to have”
“could have become”
“It’s even possible . . . if”
“may have begun to differ”
“it’s likely that”
“would have been”
“would not have negated”
“they would have”
“were likely to have been”
“what could have happened”
“very likely”

And all these from just two pages! The careless or naïve reader might not notice this suppositional language and therefore mistakenly believe that Boehm is solidly establishing his argument; but the careful reader will find these to be crippling stumbling blocks.

There are also problems of self-contradiction. For example, Boehm seems to be saying that social selection eliminates psychopaths, but then states that psychopaths constitute a significant percentage of modern day populations. He claims that “People very significantly [psychopathic] probably number as high as one or more [vague: how many more?] out of several hundred in our total population,” which may not seem all that many, but perhaps too many if humans began socially selecting these people out thousands of years ago. Other sources put the percentage as low as 2% and as high as 4%, but no doubt problems of definition affect the numbers. Whatever the true number may be, I think Boehm does need at the very least to clarify just how effective social selection really is.

The examples he pulls from contemporary forager societies are also contradictory of his thesis. He cites the example of Cephu, a Mbuti Pygmy who, as recounted by Colin Turnbull, let his greed overcome his responsibility to the rest of his group. His colleagues caught him in the act of helping himself to more game than he was entitled to and subjected him to an intense course of humiliation—but they did not kill him or his progeny, and after he had adequately apologized and humbled himself, he was readmitted to the group. The story of Cephu, meant to illustrate the book’s thesis, actually proves its opposite. Cephu’s behavior was corrected not genetically, but culturally.

Perhaps a comparison would clarify the problems with Boehm’s thesis. There is another form of behavior that one might think would have been socially eliminated fairly early in human evolution, male homosexuality. It is not, after all, conducive to reproductive survival, and has often been punished, quite horribly in many instances, not only with shunning and shaming techniques but with imprisonment, torture, and execution; yet it has persisted through thousands of years, in part because homosexuals can camouflage themselves but also because efforts of social selection to eliminate the behavior have proven to be ineffectual—just as has been, I would argue, social selection to eliminate socially uncooperative individuals. This analogy suggests that social selection is a very weak hook on which to hang the hope that biology and genetics can account for all human behavior in terms of “fitness.”

Finally, we should note that throughout history there have been people we would today label as psychopaths who have been quite successful leaders, often revered not only in their own times but long after their deaths. One thinks of Napoleon Bonaparte, killer of millions yet romanticized and admired by other millions, credited with the Napoleonic Code and sympathized with in his exile. One also thinks of Genghis Khan, the great butcher who, far from being selected out of the gene pool, is now thought to be the ancestor of as many as 16 million people living today. Of course, being a psychopathic great leader is no guarantee of reproductive success; Hitler, fortunately, had no children, and though he did have nieces and nephews, none of them has followed his example. While Boehm believes that psychopaths and free riders were (at least to some extent) weeded out of the gene pool through social selection, it may be that such individuals were selected for because in some ways that we 21st century Americans may not comprehend, they were in fact socially useful. Perhaps they made good warriors, or maybe they built the great empires that encouraged the arts and sciences, or maybe they made their liege lords great fortunes (perhaps Cortez and Pizarro were useful psychopaths, enriching the Spanish treasury while taking all the risks). What we can say is that they have been, and are, legion.

Thomas Nagel’s “Mind and Cosmos”

The general problem addressed by Thomas Nagel’s latest book, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False addresses this general problem:  As a conscious, reflective and self-reflective creature, man is preoccupied with questions of, Who am I? How did I get here? Where did I come from? What is my purpose? What can I know?  What is true?  These questions have been the traditional starting points for those fraternal twins religion and philosophy and have been answered in a shifting spectrum ranging from the nihilist to the promethean, with innumerable shades between.  As a philosopher (most widely known perhaps for his essay “What Is It Like to be a Bat?”), Nagel is rather put out by the fact that this general problem has been usurped by science, particularly by a hyper-reductionist world view that denies consciousness and all that it entails, including free will, cognition, and value, and especially purpose.

The goal of his book is to restore all these human capacities and to challenge the Neo-Darwinian or hyper-reductionist position, which in his view is “radically self-undermining” (p. 25).  It is radically self-undermining because, if logically followed through to its end point, “Evolutionary naturalism provides an account of our capacities that undermines their reliability, and in so doing undermines itself,” (p. 27); that is, if it is true, we are incapable of knowing that it is true, but the very fact that certain thinkers assert that it is true proves that it is not true.  This can be called an anti-tautology, i.e., if it is true it is self-evidently false.  For example, how can a person who denies free will or who asserts that consciousness is an illusion write an entire book, sentence after sentence, chapter logically following chapter, with arguments and citations, while actually believing that he or she has done so in a trance or had no choice but to do so?  How can an illusion believe that it is an illusion?

The best point in this otherwise flawed book is that consciousness is self-evident and obvious—it is something each of us experiences personally and directly.  Therefore, evolutionary processes must be “reconceived in light of what they have produced” rather than being misconceived in a hyper-reductionist way that denies evolution’s products.  “Conscious minds must be part of what is explained by any theory of the world” rather than explained away by the inexorable logic of a flawed theory.  Alas, as much as one agrees with him on this central and important point, Nagel’s proposed alternative hypothesis fails to correct the problem.

That hypothesis is, basically, that consciousness not only exists, but that it is a feature of the universe—not just of humans and/or other developed organisms, but the telos of the whole cosmos.  “We should seek a form of understanding that enables us to see ourselves and other conscious organisms as specific expressions simultaneously of the physical and mental character of the universe” (p.69, italics added).  And, “Each of our lives is a part of the lengthy process of the universe gradually waking up and becoming aware of itself” (p. 85).  His solution, then, is an explicitly panpsychic world view, and I am sure most scientists would wonder just how that hypothesis could be investigated or proven.  That Nagel seems to have a seriously inadequate knowledge of science and fails to provide any specific evidence or examples in support of his notion is not likely to inspire their enthusiasm.

Nagel does, however, share at least one prejudice with the Neo-Darwinists:  He is too tied to the concept of “fitness” (though in his case rather naively understood), particularly to the idea that fitness, or natural selection, is logical.  Nagel believes that natural selection is the engine that drives evolution and therefore that every new development must have arisen to serve a purpose, a belief that does logically lead to a teleological view of evolution.  Thus, because evolution led to human consciousness, it must be true that “the propensity for the development of organisms with a subjective point of view [consciousness] must have been there from the beginning” (p. 61).  But in a nice U-turn, he questions the likelihood that consciousness arose because it had strictly survival value:  “Is it credible that selection for fitness in the prehistoric past should have fixed capacities that are effective in theoretical pursuits [today] that were unimaginable at the time?” (p. 74), and “It is not easy to say how one might decide whether this could be a manifestation of abilities that have survival value in prehistoric everyday life” (p. 77), such as, one would imagine, the savannahs of ancient Africa or the caves of Neanderthal Europe.  These last two quotations might lead one to believe that Nagel is now arguing against fitness as the driver of evolution, but in fact he is not, except in the sense that he is turning it on its head; by agreeing that fitness drives material evolution, he is able to argue that Neo-Darwinian evolution is incomplete, that there is something more, indeed much more, than natural selection and matter at work.  There is the “mental character” of the universe, the Great Pan-Psyche, of which we are the conscious expression.

Nevertheless, just a Nagel correctly points out that the existence of consciousness is obvious and self-evident and therefore must be a big part of that which any adequate theory claims to explain (and not explain away), so too is he correct in pointing out that natural selection or fitness is not adequate to explaining consciousness; and that because it is not, those who hold to it as sacred doctrine must inevitably deny the existence of that which is obvious and self-evident.  (Again, the anti-tautology.)  So, perhaps it is time to get rid of, or at least demote, the doctrine of natural selection.

And given that natural selection, or the survival of the fittest, is a cultural construct with a well-known cultural history, getting rid of it ought to be easy (though in fact it is not).  Many have noted that Darwin did not originate the expression “survival of the fittest” and did not use it in his earlier editions of On the Origin of Species, that it was instead coined by Herbert Spencer, a founder of sociology and one of the roots of the Social Darwinist movement; but Darwin did incorporate it in a later edition of his book because he heard in it a nice nutshell expressionof a basic tenet of his theory.   Both Spencer and Darwin were products of a Great Britain near the height of its imperial powers, and it was common among English gentlemen to view themselves as superior beings, either blessed by God or by evolution to rule over the inferior masses.  Darwin made occasional references to such superiority in his notebooks and often described native peoples he encountered on his famous voyage in deprecatory terms.  Not even great geniuses can set aside their biases (look at Aristotle’s justification of slavery for another example), and so it should not be surprising that the biases of 19th century English gentlemen should affect their views on evolution, and that these gentlemen should emphasize the idea of fitness over other mechanisms of evolution (especially since they had no knowledge of genetics).  Survival of the fittest suited their biases too much to be modified.

“Fitness” does entail notions of teleology as well as whispers of some kind or degree or standard of “perfection” to which all life either progresses or conforms.  Those organisms that do not survive or that go extinct after a brief day in the sun are “unfit,” are in some way therefore weak, imperfect, deserving of their fate.  A kind of Platonic materialism seems to be at work in a great deal of neo-Darwinian thinking.

But there really is no reason to view natural selection or survival of the fittest as the engine that drives evolution.  One could as easily, and perhaps more logically, view mutation as the engine, with natural selection as the brakes (if you are noticing the metaphors, good for you!).  In other words, evolution will tolerate whatever mutations can throw into the world to whatever extent the variety of circumstances will permit, without regard to logic or telos or whatever else human thinkers may wish to propose.  Life mutates in ways both splendid and mundane, pushing to the very limits of survival, yet with no premonition of the new life forms that are yet to come.  During the Mesozoic era, the age of the dinosaurs, life was at least as various and elaborated, as cruel and beautiful, as it is today, and it is only time, not telos, that eventually ushered in our own very different world.

Both Nagel and the hyper-reductionists whom he attacks want the same thing: a universe, and an evolutionary process, that makes sense.  He believes, without any evidence to support that belief, that since we are the product of the universe it stands to reason that we should be able to understand it; hence his repeated use of such terms as “intelligible,” “likely,” and “credible.”  Both Nagel and his opponents also want an essentially spiritual explanation of human consciousness. The hyper-reductionists deny the spiritual dimension and therefore deny the possibility of consciousness, along with all that consciousness entails (free will, etc.).  Though they claim to be materialists, they have no faith in matter; thus spirit is present by its denial (which might explain why some of them have written quite virulent books attacking religion).  Nagel, on the other hand, denies the possibility that matter can think and therefore adds back in a barely disguised spiritual dimension (throughout the book he reiterates that he is an atheist, but perhaps he is only in a Western sense).  The motive in both cases is a broadly religious one—like it or not.

However, if we return to Nagel’s point that consciousness is an obvious and self-evident fact, and if we accept that the universe is matter with no spiritual dimension or God, then we must reach the obvious conclusion that matter sufficiently organized can think and be conscious.  And we can do so 1) without concluding that what it thinks must be correct or adequate to explaining the universe or even itself, 2) and without concluding that the universe must be intelligible, either now or at some time in the future, 3) and without concluding that the universe has a purpose or that evolution is teleological.  Time is all the teleology there is.

Evolutionary Just-So Stories

Although I am convinced that evolution occurred and that Darwin’s theory of how it occurred is the best explanation for evolution that we have so far, nonetheless I question speculation by both scientists and journalists when they propose explanations or scenarios in the absence of evidence.  On this page I discuss some examples of wishful thinking or just-so-stories that mislead as to what we actually know about the evolutionary past and about the evolutionary causes for contemporary observable behaviors or traits.

Go to the Evolutionary Just-So Stories page for these short essays.