Friday, February 27, 2009

Darwin and the Metaphysicians

Whenever I read a article about Darwin’s theories of the development of life—and there are plenty of them being written on this, the 200th anniversary of his birth—it pains me to think of how timid the metaphysicians have become in recent decades on this subject, and how sheepishly they have abandoned this important field of inquiry to women and men with a very limited capacity for speculative thought. This is not meant to be a criticism of biologists, who know their techniques well and makes use of them with ever-increasing ingenuity to shed light on hitherto mysterious and incomprehensible natural processes. No, I am referring to those who try to put these scientific discoveries in some sort of meaningful perspective, but without the requisite background or insight to pull it off.

To take an example, the Economist recently ran a three-page article on Darwin, complete with one of the graphs for which the magazine is famous. It shows that among economically advanced nations, the United States ranks very near the bottom in the percentage of adults who “believe” in evolution (42%). (Only Turkey ranked lower, at 26%.) Most of the article provides an accurate and conventional description of what Darwin’s theories are, and why they seem to account for phenomena that other theories—including Biblical ones—don’t. At a certain point the essayist veers off into an examination of “behavioral economics,” as we might expect, be we are back on track before long.

At the top of page three, however, we begin to meet up with those tell-tale phrases that are so commonly found, yet so out of place, in discussions of evolution. Here is one key passage:

“People are comforted by the idea of a designed and harmonious natural world, with themselves at the top. It is hard to accept that such harmony has arisen as an accidental consequence of a brutal system with no principles beside the one that every individual is striving for reproductive success. It is depressing to think that life is purposeless and that evolution has no higher destination.”

A little further on, the reporter points out that although many people equate evolution with some sort of progress, most biologists disagree.

In this short span of phrase, we have come into contact with many of the notions that have nothing to do with the development of life, and can be dismissed on logical grounds without the slightest reference to Darwin, Lemarck, biology, or anything else.

Here they are in a nutshell.

1) Evolution does not imply progress. WRONG. Trying looking the word up in a dictionary. My Mirriam-Webster offers these definitions, of which I have highlighted the critical phrases.
1 : one of a set of prescribed movements
2 a : a process of change in a certain direction : UNFOLDING b : the action or an instance of forming and giving something off : EMISSION c (1) : a process of continuous change from a lower, simpler, or worse to a higher, more complex, or better state : GROWTH (2) : a process of gradual and relatively peaceful social, political, and economic advance.

This is what the word "evolution" means. Unfolding, forming, continuous change from a lower to a higher state, growth, advance. And this is also what the paleontological record reports. Living creatures have become more complex with the passage of time. Which explains why scientists chose it to describe the most important life process we know about as "evolution."

The problem is that evolution cannot be fully explained by the notions such as adaption and natural selection. Scientists also recognize this, but rather than abandon their pet explanatory theories, for which they have not yet found a substitute, they lamely argue that “evolution doesn’t imply development.”

2) Evolution is accidental. WRONG. I won’t go into Aristotle’s analysis of chance here, which is far more sophisticated than anything you will find in a scientific (or metaphysical) journal today. The gist of it is that chance is simply nothing. With regard to evolution, what is seldom noticed is that evolution takes place as a result of the advantage taken by living organism of those accidents that come their way. The active agent is the organism, not the accident. The “passive” occurrence that triggers evolution is that “nothing” we call chance or accident. But the organism in question is invariably far more well-organized and purposeful than the accident that it finds a use for.
Between the accidental and the "designed" there is that third thing. Can you guess it?

3) Human beings are vain and mistaken to think that they are the best thing to hit the universe since sliced bread. WRONG. In fact, human beings are the most sophisticated organism that we have any knowledge of. This is a cause for celebration—though not for swagger or arrogance. If you were careening down a hill in an automobile, and were faced with the choice of crushing a pineapple or a human baby, what would YOU do? I mean, REALLY.

4) Evolution is blind. WRONG. It is a mistake to suggest that actions that have no clear end or purpose are “blind.” What they are, rather—presuming they are not random—is “seeking.” I can see perfectly well in every direction, near and far. The fact that I don’t know where I’m going doesn’t make me blind. The sociologt Georges Simmel hit the nail on the head when he remarked: "Life is that which seeks to go beyond life."

5) Nature has no principles beyond the struggle to reproduce. WRONG. Humans are a part of nature and they have conceived the idea of “principles.” Whatever those principles happen to be are ipso facto a part of nature. (And for that matter, why must we accept the idea that reproduction is always a brutal struggle?)

We could go on and on, isolating the grammatical and logical errors of the passage I’ve highlighted above. Yet in the end, I am confident that many readers will say, “All the same, it’s true. Natural Selection. The Survival of the fittest,” in just the same way that their grandparents used to say, “All the same, it’s true; I read it in the Bible.”

Why is this? I suspect it’s because we human beings—many of us—have a conscience. We carry glimmerings and sparks of divinity within us (which include, but are not limited to the urge for reproductive success), but seldom focus on them steadfastly or realize them fully. Therefore, we tend to think badly of ourselves. We berate ourselves and bring ourselves down. The reductive, illogical, and empirically unsound notions of natural selection and blind accident serve the same emotional function for us that the theory of Original Sin did for our grandparents, though they are ethically less sophisticated.
In any case, the thin veneer of scientism can do nothing to shore up their essential illogical nature.

No comments: