Posted on 23 December 2010.
Since my political commentaries aren’t always publishable here at the Filipino Freethinkers site, I decided to just focus on themes that seem to be prevalent here such as Religion and Science. In a non-religionist environment “Evolution” is quite a popular topic to discuss. While I do not intend to join a choir singing praises to evolution I also do not intend to throw a monkey wrench into it. The purpose of this article is to critically analyze the pitfall of reductionist thinking when it comes to Evolution.
Did you guys know that, Charles Darwin – the father of evolution, shares the same birthday with me? Wow! Isn’t that something? I used to think that my birthday was quite special because every birthday I celebrate the whole United States of America celebrates it (Lincoln’s birthday) too! Now it is even more special because not only do I have Americans celebrating on my birthday, I also have all the Darwinian atheists in the world celebrating, as well. Quite a big deal, huh?
So in one of the godless groups I used to frequent, Darwin’s birthday was always celebrated. Take note that I said Darwin’s birthday was celebrated, not mine. No one in that godless group cared enough to greet me on my birthday, but that’s alright. I certainly am not holding it against President Barack Obama for not giving me a birthday greeting, as well.
Anyway, it is just very much expected to find a discussion on evolution and Charles Darwin in an atheist forum or atheist group. Of course, in an atheist group evolution is treated as some sort of dogma. No one can question it… evolution explains everything in our lives! To question evolution and sometimes even Charles Darwin himself is a heresy! If you are stupid enough to question evolution and Charles Darwin in an atheist forum, you might end up being branded as some sort of an idiot mystic who cannot think freely outside the box of religious credulity.
So what is so special about Darwin and Darwin’s “evolution” that seems to trigger some sort of a Cognitive Dissonance amongst some “atheists”?
I came across an assertion by a self-professed atheist that said Charles Darwin’s Evolution through Natural Selection also answers the “why” questions in life. These “why” questions, he said, were once solely under the affairs of religion. Darwin has shattered religion’s monopoly for the “how” questions and now we are told that it has the “why” questions covered, as well.
I have no problems when it comes to Evolution trumping religion when it comes to the “how” questions. But I would like to take a pause for a moment and think about whether I can jump in the bandwagon with atheists on the claim for the “why” questions. So I pondered on the question whether Evolution based on Natural Selection can really answer some of the “why” questions or more abstract questions in life. Was Charles Darwin able to answer the question why humans have morals?
In the investigation, it is important to have a clearly defined scope. The empirical data needs to be within the scope of interest, which is Evolution through Natural Selection. In light of that, we need to establish a definition of terms – what is Evolution and what is Natural Selection?
As I understand it, Evolution is a gradual process in which something changes into a different and usually more complex or better form. Natural Selection is the mechanism behind evolution and it is a theory of local adaptation to changing environments. Local environments change consistently. The Earth has become hotter and colder throughout time. Environments have become wetter and drier; grassy, more forested, more arid… etc. The empirical data we have certainly shows how different species have adopted to the changing environments. The evolutionary history of the elephant family gives a good insight for how natural selection worked. (Please see: http://elephant.elehost.com/About_Elephants/Stories/Evolution/evolution.html )
So in essence, evolution by natural selection tracks changing environments by differential preservation of organisms better designed to live in them.
Now, does Darwin have any empirical data that shows how the changing temperature throughout the planet’s history, for instance, has changed morality? Or why morality emerged from the change in our planet’s historical climate? Can fossils of Australopithecus afarensis and Homo habilis and Homo erectus and Homo sapiens sapiens be correlated to the changing climates from their respective periods for us to see why morality is what it is today? Does Darwin have empirical data to show that morality is directly proportional to natural selection from changing local environments?
Darwin indeed offered evidence that suggests Natural Selection as the basis for humans’ morality. In his book, “The Descent of Man”, Darwin discussed in chapter 5 of that book, the “Development of the Intellectual and Moral Faculties during Primeval and Civilised Times”. Here is the link to that chapter:
I do not see anywhere from the link above any empirical evidence to support Darwin’s claim of Natural Selection accounting for morality. The chapter, however, offers explanations and rationalizations, but no empirical data is presented.
As he described somewhere in the beginning of chapter 5, the lower animals must have their bodily structure modified in order to survive under greatly changed conditions. This certainly fits well within the scope of natural selection (which is the mechanism behind evolution and the theory of local adaptation to changing environments). This can be shown through fossil records. We have empirical data to support such claims by looking at the difference in skeletal structure of similar organisms from different places with different climates/conditions. That is fine and dandy. However, when it comes to morality, we do not see any data from him that shows how, say the change in climate, has triggered the formation or even refined our moral sense. Instead, he offers anthropological data to support his theory. But the anthropological data presented merely builds up his inferences. Testing the inferences is another story.
I am not suggesting that anthropological studies are worthless. However, I would caution about depending on mere anthropological data to readily conclude on something abstract. We see the value in taking a pause in making conclusions right away with critiques to Ruth Benedict’s Ethical Relativism defense using anthropological data. Our Philo 101 course has taught that lesson already.
Anyway, around the seventh paragraph, he avers to natural selection as “survival of the fittest”. He intimates that “survival of the fittest” points to reproductive success or success in the increase in population.
“Therefore, it hardly seems probable that the number of men gifted with such virtues, or that the standard of their excellence, could be increased through natural selection, that is, by the survival of the fittest; for we are not here speaking of one tribe being victorious over another.”
But how does Darwin define “fitness”? In the way he described it from his writing, it seems that he defines “fitness” in terms of survival success. So… the survival success of those who survive? Isn’t that a tautology? Sure, we can probably grant that tautologies sometimes are used for statement definitions ( e.g. “My father is a man.” ), but not as testable scientific statements – there can be nothing to test in a statement true by definition.
In the same book (The Descent of Man), Darwin also expressed his racism and sexism. Darwin argues that the male is an intrinsically more dominant figure than the woman. Darwin argues that because of the woman’s maternal instincts, women are more tender and selfless. But he also adds:
“It is generally admitted that with woman the powers of intuition, of rapid perception, and perhaps of imitation, are more strongly marked than in man; but some, at least, of these faculties are characteristic of lower races, and therefore of a past and lower state of civilization. The chief distinction in the intellectual powers of the two sexes is shewn by man’s attaining to a higher eminence, in whatever he takes up, than can woman – whether requiring deep thought, reason, or imagination, or merely the use of the senses and hands.” ( The Descent of Man, p. 576)
Does Darwin have available empirical evidence using natural selection (featuring changing environments) to support his claim of why men attain a higher eminence in pretty much everything… including intellectual powers?
I do not see anything that gives empirical and objective data to support Darwin’s conclusions. What we can see are mere rationalization that tries to fit all observable human behavior to the Natural Selection framework. Was Darwin able to rationalize how morals could cohesively fit into the Natural Selection framework? Perhaps. Was he able to empirically and objectively test it? Well… there appears to be no evidence for it (at least not in the link provided).
Sure, we may grant that Darwin, from his “The Descent of Man”, concluded that man’s morality stems from the development of social instincts through natural selection. Sure we may grant that Darwin suggested that men are superior over women from the same book. Sure we may also grant that Darwin did write that the characteristic advantages of women are characteristic of “lower races” and “lower state of civilization”. We may even grant his explanations to be plausible. But his empirical data to support his conclusions is another story. I don’t think Darwin’s words ought to be treated as inerrant nor sacred. But then again who the hell am I, huh? For “freethinking atheists”, I’m just a stupid idiot sophist mystic who cannot think freely outside the box of religious credulity.
If that’s not the case, I guess we can just think that we just need more empirical data to support Darwinian claims on abstract questions such as questions regarding morality. With this, I guess the quest for the “missing link” continues.
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