Sunday, January 3, 2016

Evolution made me do it!

This was originally published in December 2012, which was a while ago. I'm pretty sure some of my ideas have evolved since then...

I recently read a report that records how scientists have “proved” that women are naturally promiscuous because (as the explanation goes) it increases the likelihood of their conceiving and giving birth to healthy children. It has long been suggested that men are also naturally promiscuous and often resort to rape for the same reason. In other words, infidelity and sexual deviance are somehow genetic mechanisms that perpetuate the ‘survival of the fittest’ (This is TH Huxley’s phrase, not Darwin’s, contrary to popular belief). Apart from the troubling use of science to legitimate human idiocy and cruelty and also the failure of this theory to point out that promiscuity is also quite helpful for killing off people as in the case of HIV/AIDS among other STDs, it presents a problem that I don’t think gets enough attention, namely the problem that a great many scientists think that they understand what they mean when they claim that “evolution” makes things the way they are when it is obvious to me that they don’t.

To be utterly transparent, I have absolutely no problem with the theory of evolution at all insofar as it remains within the scientific paradigm. It is an elegant albeit unprovable theory with some very valid and plausible conclusions. But what I do have a problem with is the fact that so many people evoke it without understanding what it is actually about. What follows is an attempt to deal with this problematic understanding using Hume’s Razor, which helpfully splits isness from oughtness.

Evolution, as Darwin recorded it, was simply meant as a descriptive theory, which is why he never saw it as contradicting various faith claims about the meaning of life and the existence of God. Evolution describes not how or why things change, but simply that they do change. It notes that certain birds started off with short, stumpy beaks and ended up with slightly longer beaks and that such a transition, by chance and accident (emphatically not design), happened to be ‘good’ for said birds in the sense that it allowed them to reach pollen at the bottom of more elongated flowers. Those that didn’t adapt to such flowers would have had to look for other sources of food, or perish. Notice how Richard Dawkins puts it so eloquently: “Evolution is blind to a goal”. This is to say that evolution is not willfully aiming for anything; it simply happens; things work out in a certain way and cannot be said to be either good or bad. If people evolve to be dumber and with an extra set of arms or eyeballs, evolution wouldn’t care. The Huxleyan phrase “survival of the fittest” is therefore merely a means by which it is noted that those that don’t adapt tend not to survive. That is all.

But here is where the trouble comes in. Somewhere along the line, people (eager to feed into the modernist myth of progress) took “survival” to be a value judgment in evolutionary theory, rather than a simple description about the presence or absence of life. In other words, it was deemed that evolution “thinks” survival is better than its opposite. It was concluded that evolution “deems” survival “good” and death “bad”. And the worry here is that evolution is given a mind, a will, and a reason to promote various kinds of social Darwinism. But evolution does not, and in fact cannot be bothered one iota about how we do and do not survive and whether survival is perpetuated or not. Evolution is utterly, completely and thoroughly blind. Dawkins points out elsewhere that “our genes neither know nor care … we just dance to their music”. Do our genes care whether they live or die? Nope. Not one bit. Does evolution care whether the human race is perpetuated or diminished? Again, no.

Evolution begins and ends with a world that is simply stuff. It is material and therefore not in the least bit mindful. It is not meaningful or charged with hope or love or destiny. It is just stuff. As soon as we start to talk about survival as better or worse than dying out, we are no longer in the realm of science. We are then dealing with metaphysics and, yes, even religion. As soon as we insist that evolution has a mind and a will, we are no longer talking about a description of how things happen to have happened the way they happened; rather, we are talking about a particular kind of conceivable ‘god’. We are no longer working with empirical observations (not that evolution is truly empirical; let’s be honest, it is still a theory, albeit a very good one in the sense that the usual criteria of testability and repeatability do not apply), we are working with faith claims. At this point, unavoidably, we are fully immersed within the domain of ideology.

I know I am making a fairly brutal division between science and philosophy, but I think it is helpful for navigating what each brings to the table. I want the scientist to tell me what kind of poison will kill me; it is for my local metaphysician to determine whether or not I ought to be killed. The division of science and philosophy does not suggest that the two are incompatible, but just the opposite. They are compatible and even helpful insofar as they allow people to make decisions within the limitations of each discipline. And this should be pointed out even to people like Dawkins, who while being a brilliant scientist seems to me to have the philosophical finesse of a chainsaw. A scientist may be able to tell me about how the material world works, but I’d rather talk to a philosopher about whether or not it may actually have any meaning.

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