Too many lazy authors take the principle of natural selection out of biology, where it belongs, and then apply it outside its proper sphere in ways that can only be regarded as completely preposterous.
No, this is not another article on evolution, still less an attack on it. Provided that that unfortunately loose term evolution means strictly “descent with modification,” it hardly seems possible to deny it without denying the findings of genetics. Of course controversy still rages about how genuinely explanatory the term natural selection is inside the undisputed reality of evolutionary biology. But as long as natural selection refers to differential rates of survival—whereby some organisms survive to reproductive age and others don’t, with the former getting to transmit their genes and the latter not—I would at least concede heuristic value to the term.
What has got me so hot under the collar this time is a passage I just ran across in the revised version of Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, called, amusingly enough, A Briefer History of Time, coauthored with Leonard Mlodinow. Early in the book, alarm bells went off in my head. The authors are trying to justify their initial assumption that “we are rational beings who are free to observe the universe as we want and to draw logical deductions from what we see,” and thus “might progress ever closer toward the laws that govern our universe.” But then a doubt seizes them:
Yet if there really were a complete unified theory, it would also presumably determine our actions—as the theory itself would determine the outcome of our search for it! And why should it determine that we come to the right conclusion from the evidence? Might it not equally well determine that we draw the wrong conclusion? Or no conclusion at all?
Good questions all, and they have been raised time and again in the philosophical literature against determinism: If we really are so hard-wired by physical events that what we say is merely the inevitable product of prior physical causes, then how can we claim any truth-value to the sentences asserting determinism?
To which Hawking/Mlodinow blithely answer with that great Magic Wand of inestimable value to the epistemologically lazy: Natural selection guarantees the truth of our theories! Because of variations in genes and upbringing, “some individuals are better able than others to draw the right conclusions about the world around them and to act accordingly. These individuals will be more likely to survive and reproduce, so their pattern of behavior and thought will come to dominate.”
But even in the act of invoking natural selection, these authors unravel their case. At least Penelope unraveled her shawl each evening; these men do it after each sentence:
It has certainly been true in the past that what we call intelligence and scientific discovery have conveyed a survival advantage. It is not so clear that this is still the case: our scientific discoveries may well destroy us all, and even if they don’t, a complete unified theory may not make much difference to our chances of survival. However, provided the universe has evolved in a regular way, we might expect that the reasoning abilities that natural selection has given us would also be valid in our search for a complete unified theory and so would not lead us to the wrong conclusions.
There are so many non sequiturs in this passage that the authors could sell them at discount and still make money. The authors even seem to admit as much in all their back-and-forth hemming and hawing.
To get themselves out of the very corner they painted themselves in, they conclude with what can only be called the Argument of the Subjunctive Premise: “we might expect,” they say, that natural selection will allow us to recognize a true unified theory when it comes along. So, based on that might, we do trust we are being led to that Platonic Shangri-La, the Realm of Timeless Truth. Problem solved.
As John Derbyshire, the resident science maven at National Review, points out: “The whole point of Darwin’s work was to offer an explanation for the great variety of living things, not for convergence on One True Thing,” a category-mistake that pervades the whole band of intellectual adolescents currently enrolled in the school of epistemological Darwinism.
The passage I’ve quoted above, though, is not only internally lame and radiantly silly on its own terms. Besides its many internal contradictions, it is also fatally hobbled by what is supposed to be the gravamen of the theory of natural selection: that is, that only blind nature is doing the selecting, with no ulterior purpose in mind. Under the very presuppositions of the theory, “nature” doesn’t care one way or the other what happens to the products of its mindless processes, let alone whether they concoct a “true” theory.
Well before the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, Alfred Lord Tennyson caught this dilemma when he penned these lines in In Memoriam:
Are God and Nature then at strife,
That Nature lends us evil dreams?
So careful of the type she seems,
So careless of the single life. . . .
“So careful of the type?” But no.
From scarped cliff and quarried stone
She cries, “A thousand types are gone:
I care for nothing, all shall go.” (stanzas 55-56)
How one can squeeze a theory of truth out of the blindness of natural selection is a mystery to me. Anyone, after all, who writes a book purporting to give the latest news about cosmology must antecedently hold that its sentences (all written in the indicative mood) are, at least potentially, truth-bearing. But how can natural selection establish that presupposition on its own terms?
Natural selection might well have selected the human brain (I will concede that point here for the sake of argument), but does it even make sense to say it selected for the human mind? Not according to Tennyson, who again must be saluted for having caught the implications of Darwinism before it ever appeared on the scene:
I trust I have not wasted breath:
I think we are not wholly brain,
Magnetic mockeries; not in vain,
Like Paul with beasts, I fought with Death;
Not only cunning casts in clay:
Let Science prove we are, and then
What matters Science unto men,
At least to me? I would not stay.
Let him, the wiser man who springs
Hereafter, up from childhood shape
His action like the greater ape,
But I was born to other things. (stanza 120)
Edward T. Oakes, S.J., teaches theology at the University of St. Mary of the Lake, the seminary for the Archdiocese of Chicago in Mundelein, Illinois. His The Blind Programmer, on the failure of evolutionary psychology to explain the workings of the human mind, was published in the March 1998 issue of First Things.