I just visited the Filipino Freethinkers site and I was pleased to read comments on my “Darwin’s Missing Link” article. However, I may have touched a nerve amongst some of my Darwinian Atheist friends. For that I hope they can forgive my “heresy” and appreciate my intent of questioning “evolution determinism” and not evolution itself.
To expand on this issue, I would like to again share a personal experience I had in a forum I used to frequent. In that forum, we had many interesting and stimulating discussions. Amongst the many topics touched on was the nature of virtues like altruism, morality, art, beauty, romance etc.
One of the forum’s contributors offered an explanation from evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller’s book “The Mating Mind”. The forum contributor finds Miller’s work as the “final nail in God’s coffin”. He avers that Darwin was able to account on how we can become complex beings without a creator guiding each step of the process. Furthermore, he goes to say:
“Darwin is right. God then is reduced to simply a being pushing a ‘go’ button to let natural process takes its course.”
Now, Geoff Miller, indeed has produced some controversial theories. However, I think he is hardly the final nail in God’s coffin. Miller, too, has been criticized for his explanations by evolutionary biologists. Miller, is a follower of evolutionary psychology, NOT evolutionary biology. Many evolutionary biologists regard evolutionary psychology as a non-science.
Miller has made a few sweeping claims which has earned the ire of many evolutionary biologists. In accounting for the development of the human brain, Miller claims, in an interview with PBS on it’s Evolution Series, that the human brain can be likened to a peacock’s magnificent tail that evolved to attract a mate and pass on genes. He says that:
“The human brain is the most complex system in the known universe. It’s wildly in excess of what it seems like we would need to survive on the plains of Africa. In fact, the human brain seems so excessive that a lot of people who believe in evolution applied to plants and animals have real trouble imagining how natural selection produced the human brain.”
Further, he says that:
“All the other species on the planet seem to get by with relatively small, simple nervous systems that seem tightly optimized just to do what the species needs to do to get by.”
“I think people are perfectly sensible in being skeptical about the ability of selection for survival to account for the human brain. I think there was a sort of guidance happening, there was a sort of decision-making process that was selecting our brains. But it wasn’t God, it was our ancestors. They were choosing their sexual partners for their brains, for their behavior, during courtship.”
“There are all sorts of things that mess up brains. And paradoxically, for that reason, brains make really good indicators of how fit you are during courtship. In fact, they’re probably better indicators of that even than, than a peacock’s tail is about how fit a peacock is.”
In summation, Miller avers that:
“I think when a lot of people produce cultural displays, what they’re doing in a sense is exercising these, these sexual instincts for impressing the opposite sex. They’re not doing it consciously, but what they’re doing is investing their products with an awful lot of information about themselves. I think the capacity for artistic creativity is there because our ancestors valued it when they were making their sexual choices.”
So, Miller pretty much reduces such things as by-products of sex. This is similar to Freudian accounts. However, not many in the science community consider the Freudian lens as good science anymore. University of Chicago evolutionary biologist Dr. Jerry Coyne said:
“When people realized that they were not at all based on science, but were really an ideological edifice, a myth about human life, that was utterly resistant to scientific refutation. By judicious manipulation, every possible observation of human behavior could be (and was) fitted into the Freudian framework. The same trick is now being perpetrated by the evolutionary psychologists. They, too, deal in their own dogmas, and not in propositions of science.”
Coyne adds that:
“The latest deadweight dragging us closer to phrenology is “evolutionary psychology,” or the science formerly known as sociobiology, which studies the evolutionary roots of human behavior. There is nothing inherently wrong with this enterprise, and it has proposed some intriguing theories, particularly about the evolution of language. The problem is that evolutionary psychology suffers from the scientific equivalent of megalomania. Most of its adherents are convinced that virtually every human action or feeling, including depression, homosexuality, religion, and consciousness, was put directly into our brains by natural selection. In this view, evolution becomes the key–the only key–that can unlock our humanity.”
“Unfortunately, evolutionary psychologists routinely confuse theory and speculation. Unlike bones, behavior does not fossilize, and understanding its evolution often involves concocting stories that sound plausible but are hard to test. Depression, for example, is seen as a trait favored by natural selection to enable us to solve our problems by withdrawing, reflecting, and hence enhancing our future reproduction. Plausible? Maybe. Scientifically testable? Absolutely not. If evolutionary biology is a soft science, then evolutionary psychology is its flabby underbelly.”
Many other scientists have criticized Miller’s specific ideas about the evolution of the human brain. University of Sheffield’s behavioral ecologist Dr. Tim Birkhead, in a 2000 review of Miller’s work wrote:
“How do we test these ideas? Without a concerted effort to do this, evolutionary psychology will remain in the realms of armchair entertainment rather than real science.”
Also, the American History of Natural Museum paleoanthropologist Dr. Ian Tattersall comments on Miller’s work ( “The Mating Mind” ) from his New York Times Book Review in June 2000:
“In the end we are looking here at a product of a storyteller’s art, not of science.”
With regards to the claim that “Darwin is right”, I think I can only go half way on that. The late Harvard University Professor, Dr. Stephen Gould, who was also an evolutionary biologist (or more accurately, a comparative zoologist) and a professing Darwinian (but not necessarily a Darwinian apologist), said that Darwin did two separate things. First, he convinced the scientific world that evolution had occurred and second, he proposed the theory of natural selection as its mechanism.
I am with Gould on this. Fossil records are indicators that evolution has occurred. However, the theory of natural selection does not guarantee the rightness on the documentary’s claim for Darwin.
Gould, in his article “Darwin’s Untimely Burial” ( http://www.stephenjaygould.org/library/gould_tautology.html ) tells:
“Natural selection is a theory of local adaptation to changing environments. It proposes no perfecting principles, no guarantee of general improvement; in short, no reason for general approbation in a political climate favoring inmate progress in nature.”
“Darwin’s independent criterion of fitness is, indeed, `improved design,’ but not `improved’ in the cosmic sense that contemporary Britain favored. To Darwin, improved meant only `better designed for immediate, local environment.’ Local environments change consistently: they get colder or hotter, wetter or drier, more grassy or more forested. Evolution by natural selection is no more than a tracking of these changing environments by differential preservation of organisms better designed to live in them: hair on a mammoth is not progressive in any cosmic sense. Natural selection can produce a trend that tempts us to think of more general progress…”
When it comes to explanations of “goodness” in humanity, or rather, rightness in moral issues, Darwin never really had any empirical evidence to back up any of his attempted explanations that fit the Natural Selection framework. Actually, Darwin also eschewed any attempts to discover an antireligious ethic in nature; he also expressly stated his personal bewilderment about such deep issues as the problem of evil. We can see Darwin’s modesty in a letter he wrote to Asa Gray, considered the most important American botanist of the 19th century:
“I feel most deeply that the whole subject is too profound for the human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton. Let each man hope and believe what he can.”
I, for one, feel that considering Miller’s work as the final nail in God’s coffin, is a little too premature. If science should be regarded as an authority over non-science on pretty much all issues including “morality” or other “why questions in life”, then the claim on Miller’s work being the final nail in God’s coffin is flimsy, to say the least.
To paraphrase Mark Twain: “Sometimes the reports of death are greatly exaggerated.”
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