Darwin and Evolution

Evolution and Design

Philosopher Kevin Vallier generated a hailstorm of comments by posting the following on Facebook:

Darwinism does not significantly alter the force of the design argument for God's existence.
If it was weak before Darwin, it was weak after Darwin.
If it was strong before Darwin, it was strong after Darwin."

Kevin is surely correct here.

One way to see this is to reverse the situation:

If we tomorrow were to see animals simply popping into existence out of nowhere, would (and should) this convince any atheists that God exists? No: it would simply be held that somehow nature is such that animals pop into existence out of nowhere, and a "naturalistic" theory of how they do so would be developed.

Or think of this:

If you believe Rembrandt painted a particular picture hanging in your hallway, would this belief be weakened if someone told you, "No, the reason that paint clings to that canvas can easily be explained by the chemical properties of the canvas"? Showing that something came about through a physio-chemical process has no bearing on the question of whether or not it was designed.

It might have implications about who the designer could be: if it appeared beyond the physical capacities of the posited designer to manipulate the process in question, then we could conclude that, whether or not the item under examination was designed, that was not the designer! For example, if someone says to you, "All life on earth was designed by slugs," it's fair to point out that this doesn't seem to be the sort of thing of which slugs are capable. But of course, faced with someone who believes "An all-powerful being used the process of evolution to generate the creatures he wished to have populate his world," to respond "Nah, that would be beyond such a being's capabilities" is silly.

Another telling example:

Last night [at the I wrote this] against the Thunder, Miami's Shane Battier banked in a three-point shot. I can picture a Heat and a Thunder fan sitting together watching the game. The Thunder fan screams, "What a lucky shot!" The Heat fan claims, "No, he meant to bank that." So the Heat fan is claiming design, and the Thunder fan chance. The Thunder fan might present various arguments backing his view, such as "Battier never banks his three-point shots," or "Nobody tries to bank in a shot from there." But it is pretty clearly useless to his cause to say "There was no design involved: that shot followed the laws of physics the whole way!"

Evolution Confusion

Let us consider a recent article on "The Myths of Evolution" from The New Scientist. Unfortunately, the article is full of the usual philosophical rubbish put out in these pop-evolution pieces. As Eric Voegelin said, Darwinism has provided a "new creed for the semi-educated."

Here are a few examples:

"Darwin presented compelling evidence for evolution in On the Origin and, since his time, the case has become overwhelming."

Kind of like the case for Newtonian physics in 1880, heh?

"Countless fossil discoveries allow us to trace the evolution of today's organisms from earlier forms. DNA sequencing has confirmed beyond any doubt that all living creatures share a common origin."

Fine. Neither of those statements has any bearing on the truth of NeoDarwinian evolutionary models as opposed to other evolutionary models.

"Innumerable examples of evolution in action can be seen all around us, from the pollution-matching pepper moth to fast-changing viruses such as HIV and H5N1 bird flu. Evolution is as firmly established a scientific fact as the roundness of the Earth."

Once again, the authors are confusing (deliberately?) the issues of "Do species evolve?" and "Is NeoDarwinism the correct model of how they evolve?"

"For those who have never had the opportunity to find out about biology or science, claims made by those who believe in supernatural alternatives to evolutionary theory can appear convincing."

And for those who have never had the opportunity to find out about philosophy, philosophical rubbish can appear convincing! So what about supernatural evolutionary theories (such as those accepted by the Catholic Church, e.g., evolution happened much as the Darwinists claim, directed all the while by God)? And, in any case, the whole distinction is fatuous, given that the existence of nature itself is not susceptible to anything other than a "supernatural" explanation.

Have the people who write this stuff taken even an introductory course in the history or philosophy of science? Have they ever heard of the Duhem-Quine thesis?

Collingwood on the Vacuity of "Evolutionary Ethics"

Here is Collingwood from Philosophy and Religion:

The last theory we shall examine defines evil by reference to the conception of evolution. Our sins, according to this theory, are the habits proper to a past stage in the evolutionary process, lingering on like rudimentary organs into our present life. Here again there is a fact at the bottom of the theory. It is true that the particular way in which we go wrong is often explicable by reference to past habits of which we have never entirely got rid. But the question still remains unanswered why we should go wrong at all. Nor is the theory fully true even so far as it goes; for atavism is not a crime, and just so far as our "crimes" are really cases of atavism they are not culpable; unless indeed it is supposed that our evolution is entirely in our own hands. But if that is so, morality must be called in to account for evolution, not vice versa.
It is a striking fact that the biological conception of evolution has never yet produced anything but confusion when applied to philosophical questions. The reason seems to be that it gives, in the form in which it is commonly held, no answer to the one question with which philosophy is concerned. As we said in a former chapter, science (including the theory of evolution) is simply a description of behaviour, and advances no hypothesis as to why things behave as they do. The theory of evolution is a purely historical statement about the way in which life has developed; ethics is concerned with the force of will which lies behind all merely descriptive history. It makes little difference to the scientist whether he regards evolution as a purely mechanical process or as directed by the volition of conscious agents; but until this question is answered, evolution is simply irrelevant to ethics.
In this case, for instance, there are three conceivable hypotheses, [any] of which might be adopted by science without greatly altering its particular problems; but for ethics they are poles asunder. (i.) If the process is really mechanical, the habits may be explained, but they are not sins, [If (i) is held, as is usually the case, then "evolutionary ethics" actually is not a theory of ethics, but a theory as to why there is no such thing as ethics.] (ii.) If a central mind such as that of God directs the process, then the habits in question are not our sins but God's. (iii.) If, as above suggested, the process is in the hands of the evolving species, the bad or superseded habits are sinful, but they are not explained. Thus the evolutionary view of the question only restates the problem in terms which conceal the fact that no solution is offered. -- Philosophy and Religion

And for those inclined to think that "evolutionary ethics" is a new development... the above was written in 1916. The fact that ideas refuted a century ago are today put forward as if they were new discoveries is simply a symptom of philosophical ignorance on the part of those forwarding them.

T. H. Green on Evolutionary Ethics

Here is Green from Prolegomena to Ethics:

In Hume's time a philosopher who denied the innateness of moral sentiments, and held that they must have a natural history, had only the limits of the individual life within which to trace this history. These limits did not give room enough for even a plausible derivation of moral interests from animal wants. It is otherwise when the history may be supposed to range over an indefinite number of generations. The doctrine of hereditary transmission, it is held, explains to us how susceptibilities of pleasure and pain, of desire and aversion, of hope and fear, may be handed down with gradually accumulated modifications which in time attain the full measure of the difference between the moral man and the greater ape...
...the theory of descent and evolution opens up a vista of possibilities beyond the facts, so far ascertained, of human history... Such enquiry, it is thought, will in time give us the means of reducing the moral susceptibilities of man to the rank of ordinary physical facts, parts of one system, and intelligible by the same methods, with all the natural phenomena which we are learning to know...
It has generally been expected of a moralist, however, that he should explain not only how men do act, but how they should act: and as a matter of fact we find that those who regard the process of man's natural development most strictly as a merely natural one are as forward as any to propound rules of living, to which they conceive that, according to their view of the influences which make him what he is, man ought to conform. The natural science of man is to them the basis of a practical art…
Now it is obvious that to a being who is simply a result of natural forces an injunction to conform to their laws is unmeaning. A philosopher, then, who would reconstruct our ethical systems in conformity with the doctrines of evolution and descent... if he has the courage of his principles, having reduced the speculative part of them to a natural science... must abolish the practical or preceptive part altogether...
[This theory] logically carries with it the conclusion, however the conclusion may be disguised, that, in inciting ourselves or others to do anything because it ought to be done, we are at best making use of a serviceable illusion. -- Prolegomena to Ethics, pp. 7-12

The above was published in 1883.

What is interesting to me in the passage is:

  1. Evolutionary ethics had already been propounded by 1883 in a form very close to the one it has today. It is not some new discovery of the sociobiologists of the 1970s or the later evolutionary ethicists of the present day.
  2. Idealists such as Green (and Bosanquet and Collingwood and Oakshott) understood the theory perfectly well, and even acknowledged its genuine achievements in partly explaining how we have come to have the ethics we do have.
  3. The chief problem with the theory was already well understood: while it might explain, in whole or in part, why we do behave the way we do, it cannot possibly recommend how we ought to behave, and fact renders such recommendations otiose: they are like recommending to amoebas that they stop reproducing asexually and get on with having sex like us more advanced beings. Genghis Khan was every bit as much a product of evolution as St. Francis of Assisi, and was, in fact, fantastically more successful at passing on his genes. It is hard to see how something calling itself "evolutionary ethics" could argue, with a straight face, that capturing women and using them as sexual slaves is "wrong," so long as one is fairly certain to be able to successfully implement that strategy. (Of course, a society where every single male tried to do this would not turn out too well, but if someone was certain that he would be as successful as Khan, how could the "evolutionary ethicist" say anything other than "Help yourself!"?)

There Is No Valid Route from "It Evolved" to "It Is Good"

One response from people who want to reject moral realism but still hold that, say, the view "slavery is A-OK" is wrong and our current view is correct is to say something like, "Well, this is part of an evolutionary process."

If what they mean by this is, "This shift is part of a spiritual learning process by which humanity comes closer to understanding objective moral reality," well, that concedes my point.

On the other hand, if they are thinking in terms of Darwinian evolution, the argument goes nowhere. It embodies the vulgar Darwinism that equates "evolution" with "progress," a mapping Darwinism properly understood forbids. It recalls that Darwinian evolution involves "survival of the fittest," but forgets that it also involves "wiping out of the not fittest."

The species living on earth today represent perhaps .1% of all species that have ever existed. So, 99.9% of what evolved "failed"! For every one evolutionary "progression" that survives today, a thousand didn't make it... and that doesn't even count all of the random mutations that never produced a distinct species. 99.9% of species turned out to be evolutionary dead ends.

If one takes a "naturalistic" view of evolution, it is completely invalid to move from "Y evolved from X" to "therefore, Y represents progress over X." The tyrannical, late Roman Empire "evolved" from the Roman Republic, after all: do these naive believers in progress wish to insist that it was therefore better?

And note: most often, the entire idea of "progressive" politics relies on this nonsensical conflation of evolution and progress.

It's the Same Old DeWrong, with a Different Beat Since Reason's Been Gone

It is always fascinating when one can detect an irrational obsession in an otherwise smart person. I have no doubt Brad DeLong is smart. But when it comes to any questioning of reductionist materialist dogma, DeLong just loses it. For instance, in "responding" to Steve Landsburg, he starts a post off as follows:

"Someone who claims to be a 'friend' makes me aware that others are joining Alvin Plantzinga and Gene Callahan on the side of Thomas Nagel's creationists..." (Is 'friend' perhaps in quotes here because DeLong has no friends and knows this person must be making the claim up? Hahaha, just kidding, Brad, I'm sure you have at least one friend!)

Here, we have hit upon the Paretian "residue" that drives DeLong's irrational rants: he hates creationists. Now, Nagel is not a creationist, I am not a creationist, and Landsburg is not a creationist, but DeLong is afraid, very, very afraid, that some creationists might like some of the things we say! So what we say must be stamped out at all cost, even at the cost of spouting nonsense, making up arguments and putting them in one's opponents mouth, and random name-calling with no regard to when the name applies and when it doesn't.

The title of DeLong's post is: "THE QUESTION IS WHETHER OUR MINDS ARE TOO POWERFUL TO BE THE RESULT OF PURELY DARWINIAN PROCESSES." Yeah, why all caps? I don't know. But who has made any claim about the "power" of our minds? Nagel? No. Me? No. Landsburg? No. DeLong has simply invented this out of whole cloth! The real issue, as far as I understand Nagel, and certainly as I would put it, is "Why should evolution, understood in purely Darwinian terms, have spawned organisms that are conscious and can reason, instead of just spawning automatons that can survive without thought?" I am not saying that this question is not answerable by strict Darwinians (perhaps it is, perhaps it isn't); no, I am just saying that DeLong has totally missed the point: it is not a question of "power," but quite the opposite: if, as reductionists insist, mere mechanisms thoughtlessly implementing algorithms can evolve so as to continually enhance their own survival, what the heck is the evolutionary point of making them all worried and neurotic by developing consciousness in them? Now, Darwinists may or may not be able to give an adequate answer to that question; that is not what I wish to discuss here. No, my point is that DeLong has not even engaged with the real question at all.

Nagel (as I understand his argument from reviews, not having read the book) is claiming that, while Darwinian evolution may account quite well for a lot of what we find in life, it is incomplete. Well, isn't that exactly what the scientific attitude towards all of our scientific theories is supposed to be? They are all provisional, and all will be supplanted by better theories one day? (For the record, I regard Darwin's theory as one of the greatest achievements of science. In fact, with my daughter, who appears to be very adept at biological reasoning, I often present her with little challenges: "Emma, think about this trait: how would you account for it in terms of evolution?" She typically then uses her knowledge of evolution and her reason to devise a very nice answer.)

So who is being "unscientific" here: Nagel, who acknowledges the genuine achievements of this theory but notes it leaves some things unexplained, or the "evolutiomentalists," who dogmatically insist that, "No, if you doubt the total and complete explanatory power of this theory for even a moment, you must be cast out as a heretic"?

Finally, look at the rubbish DeLong launches at Landsburg: because in the case of a neutron star, it is not true that "The ratio π of the circumference of a circle to its radius is such that 6.29 > 2π > 6.28," therefore Landsburg has 'self pwned.'"

Oh my. How about this, DeWrong: "The closer any real space comes to being Euclidean, the more closely will the equation given above be accurate for relating the circumference of a circle in that space to its radius."

The above certainly seems to be a statement about reality. Does DeLong really want to deny it?

Peter Klein Doesn't Grasp the History of Science

Klein was trying to knock Paul Krugman by rejecting the idea that we can have a science of higher-level phenomena before understanding the lower levels that make the higher level up:

Methodological individualists don’t deny that there are interesting macro-level regularities that should be recorded and studied, only that claims about them don’t reach the status of science until we understand the underlying causal mechanisms.

But that claim is nonsense. Kepler certainly was doing science, and good science, when he developed his laws of planetary motion, without having any idea what underlay those laws. And so was Newton, when he developed his law of universal gravitation, without the least notion of what underlying casual mechanisms were behind this regularity -- something he freely admitted himself. And both physics and chemistry would have been stopped in their tracks by trying to be Kleinian "sciences": they progressed for centuries before it was even clear that atoms existed.

Peter has to go so far as to claim that Darwin's theory of evolution, generally acknowledged as one of the greatest scientific accomplishments ever, was not a scientific theory at all!

Well, when you try to spit into the headwind of the obvious (which is that you can have perfectly sound, completely scientific macro theories way, way before you know any microfoundations whatsoever), it will tend to come back at you!

To Klein's credit, when someone in the comments noted similar things to what I point out here, Peter backed off. But not far enough to admit the truth, which is that Krugman was right in the first place, and did not deserve Peter's "ugh" or accusation of "scientism."

Evolution: A Fact?

Arthur Silber, at The Light of Reason, writes: "Keep in mind the essence of this conflict: evolution is not 'just a theory,' it is scientific fact -- supported by mountains of evidence, which grows almost every day."

Arthur doesn't seem to understand the nature of scientific facts. In 1500, it was a "scientific fact," supported by "mountains of evidence," that the Sun revolves around the Earth. The evidence was so overwhelming that basically there was not a single natural philosopher in Europe who doubted it. In the 19th century, a famous physicist (Maxwell?) said that no theory in science was as well-confirmed as ether theory.

One day, the "fact" of Darwinian evolution will seem as quaint as ether theory or phlogiston. I have no idea what will replace it -- most likely not Biblical creationism! -- but it will be replaced.