The Dissent Of Man

By JF Derry

Exploring the influence of Darwin on everyone: atheists, Christians, biologists and entrepreneurs

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Dissecting the Dissent of Man


Current understanding suggests that religion is partly an adaptive advantage by fostering cooperation between individuals. However, antagonistic to this strengthening of community relations, psychological predisposition for faith initially established and now perpetuates a polarised science-religion debate. Yet this evolutionary pre-programming of people is an important but often omitted element. It is also why reasoned arguments are ineffectual because, in the minds of different people, the architecture of reason is constructed differently. Both cannot, by definition, be correct. Hence the conflict.

Human brain evolution has produced an inherently curious and intelligent reasoning that from a very early age seeks to identify causes for effects. Coupled with a propensity for patterns and design, it is hardwired into our cognitive faculties to recognise structural design in nature and interpret a purpose for natural phenomena. While reason and logic are evolutionary adaptions towards problem solving, faith-based myths and religions are likely secondary products of our interpretation of the natural world. Consequently, as faith in the individual is an evolutionary by-product, there is a certain amount of hypocrisy in setting evolution against religion in order to criticise personal religious philosophies. Put another way, if faith is only nature in action, then reacting against it is, in one sense of the word, unnatural.

Why some people are religious and others are not throws up interesting questions about individual differences and histories, for which a burgeoning science of religion hopes to provide answers and a portal into dissecting alternative psychologies. In contrast to a superstitious outlook, being scientifically informed doesn’t mean that we can understand every aspect of the most technical problem, from particle physics to plate tectonics. Instead, it provides us with a basic toolkit of knowledge and skills about science and technology, and a way to look at the world. We can use the tools in this kit to better inform human activity, from living our daily lives to running whole nations, and the case of religion is no different. 

Any good tool should provide a metric, some measure by which comparisons may be made. The one most suited for our attempt to investigate human tendencies towards faith is already at the heart of the science-religion debate: the dissent over our origins as a dissociation from nature. Therefore, think of a continuous road that stretches beyond the horizon in both directions. Close at hand we shall place a recognisable marker to identify a point by which all others can be measured in scale. The scale is defined through an ability to explain natural phenomena, particularly human origins. Enter Charles Darwin and natural selection.

On the Origin of Species is essentially about the generation of biodiversity in nature. Darwinian evolution also features predominantly in arguments refuting biblical accounts of human origins. However, Darwinism has also been stretched far beyond its original scope. It has been applied to a cornucopia of human behaviour, from entrepreneurialism to war crimes, and held up as an answer or a scapegoat in countless situations. To differing degrees, it is an important part of how we understand ourselves, our history and our culture. So, let us place Mr Darwin here as a totem for neo-Darwinism, the most comprehensive acceptance of his ideas, and rank the range of interpretations of Darwinism in order of their loyalty to those original ideas. On moving away from Darwin we can position each alternative interpretation along our road, measured out in units of “distance-from-Darwin”. Our journey will take us quite some distance away from Darwin until he is but a dot on the horizon from which we set out, but hopefully it will reveal insights into human thought, some pertaining to faith.

Understandably, most scientists and the majority of biologists will be placed at a short distance-from-Darwin. Richard Dawkins is a well known Darwinist,

Darwin is so important, it is almost absurd that children don’t learn about it when they are tiny, practically, because it is the explanation for our existence, the existence of all living things, and it’s in a way, one of the most powerful explanations of anything that anybody has ever suggested, because if you think about it, the ratio of that which it explains, which is everything about life and everything about complexity, divided by that which you need to postulate in order to do the explaining. It’s a colossal ratio, because what you have to postulate is extraordinarily simple. It actually amounts to little more than high fidelity genetics because everything else kind of follows naturally. And from that almost miniscule level of assumptions you can explain just about everything about life, and yet, simple as the explanation is, powerful as it is, and huge as the magnitude of what it explains is, nobody thought of it before the middle of the 19th century. Which is an astonishing fact because it doesn’t require great mathematics, doesn’t require highly sophisticated notation of any sort, anybody can understand, although an amazing number of people fail to. So, it’s almost unique, perhaps it is unique, in it’s in the sheer power of what it does for the human intellect.

While here is another, 

Most of what Dawkins uses in regard to Darwin, of course we agree with. Because we agree with natural selection, we agree with speciation, we agree that mutations occur and so on … Dawkins and us are very similar in very many ways.

Who do you think said this? Another biologist? Another scientist? In actuality, it was a young-earth creationist, Ken Ham the president of Answers in Genesis and the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky. 

Attitudes like this contradict the standard perception of the science-religion debate, that neo-Darwinist atheism forms one side and creationism the opposite, of which young-earth creationism is generally thought of being an extreme. Clearly a better understanding of the psychology of faith is needed in order to identify the underlying causes of dissension. 

So, if there is significant agreement, then from where does the debated difference stem? Unsurprisingly, for young-earth creationists the problem lies with a 4.54 ± 0.05 billion year old planet and a Darwinian gradualist view of nature,

for me Darwinian evolution is not really this issue so much as the millions of years. The age of the earth is the crucial issue … Darwin needs time.

But here Ham reveals more than the root cause of dissension. He also indirectly identifies an important difference and perhaps the most fundamentally divisive influence that maintains the science-religion debate. Simply put, people differ in their starting points.

It is no mystery that science and religion have different starting points. For example, the UK’s Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks, who believes that science, “is one of the greatest achievements of humankind, a gift given to us by God” (BBC 2012 Rosh Hashanah: Science vs Religion), defines it as, “science takes things apart, to see how they work”, whilst, “religion puts things together, to see what they mean”. From this dichotomy arises the single most used apology (sensu “argument”) for religion, that it can answer questions that science cannot. The issue for science isn’t so much reductionism versus non-reductionist methods, but that creationism uses a starting point with an a priori assumption that a deity exists, while creationists like Ham claim science’s starting point is that a deity does not exist,

I think Dawkins is not prepared to accept that he has a starting point. He says that he works from evidence, and you're not allowed to work from the Bible. And if I was in discussion with him, I would have to force him to admit that he has a particular starting point. If he’s not prepared to admit it, then I’d say he’s inconsistent. I’d say that he’s also inconsistent in that, if he’s going to talk rationally and logically, we all accept the laws of logic and natural law, and the uniformity of nature, and so on, and I’d say it's illogical to do so if you don’t believe in God. 

The additional problem involves the differing standards for acceptance of the underlying evidence that informs those starting points. Creationists claim the Bible is evidence, but science dismisses it as inadmissible. In their turn, Darwinists forward On the Origin of Species as a flagship for Darwin’s empirical work, and the wealth of data that have been collected since, but creationists question the scientific methods of measurement and interpretations of these findings. Thus, the overlaps between Darwinism and creationism appear in the details of shared understanding about evolutionary processes, but this is countered by their lack of sharing a common starting point for their world views. Evidence is at the heart of the matter, but what constitutes viable evidence is questioned by both sides of the debate.

In similar discord with Darwinists is a relatively recent derivative of creationism, the intelligent design movement. Intelligent design also accepts some aspects of evolution by natural selection, however, because of its outright rejection of Darwinian processes in the formation of some structures, which they claim are irreducibly complex, William Dembski and his colleagues remove themselves even further from Darwin,

Before Darwin, the power of choice was confined to designing intelligences - to conscious agents that could reflect deliberatively on the possible consequences of their choices. Darwin's claim to fame was to argue that natural forces, lacking any purposiveness or prevision of future possibilities, likewise have the power to choose. Accordingly, Darwin invented an oxymoron: natural selection. In ascribing the power to choose to natural selection, Darwin perpetrated the greatest intellectual swindle in the history of ideas. Nature has no power to choose. All natural selection does is narrow the variability of incidental organismal change by weeding out the less fit. Moreover, it acts on the spur of the moment, based solely on what the environment at the present time deems fit, and thus without any prevision of future possibilities. And yet this blind process, when coupled with another blind process, namely, incidental organismal change (which neo-Darwinians understand as genetic mutations), is supposed to produce designs that exceed the capacities of any designers in our experience … Getting design without a designer is a good trick indeed. But with advances in technology as well as in the information and life sciences (especially molecular biology), it's a trick that can no longer be maintained. It's time to lay aside the smokescreens and the handwaving, the just-so stories and the stonewalling, the bluster and bluffs, and explain scientifically what people have known right along, namely, why the appearance of design in biology is not merely an appearance but in fact the result of an actual intelligence. This is the fundamental claim of intelligent design.

Furthermore, Darwinists and creationists are equally disparaging of intelligent design, accusing the movement of not carrying its arguments to the obvious conclusion and naming the source of intelligence. It is obvious that theirs is a teleological argument about which Ham says, “the intelligent design movement … They go on about saying there has to be an intelligence behind life, and we would agree with that, but as creationists we’re saying you cant stop there. We want to tell them who the intelligence is, that’s the guy in the Bible.”

Other faiths also adopt a variety of Darwinism, each adapted to their preconditions. Michael Cremo is a Hindu creationist, a religion populated by millions of avatars of their godhead Brahman,

My Vedic alternative to Darwin's theory is not, however, in all ways the same as the theory of special creation of each species that Darwin argued against, nor is it in all ways different from Darwin's theory. Like Darwin's theory, my Vedic alternative explanation for the origin of species involves common descent from an original form (although that original form turns out to be Brahma, not a single celled organism). My Vedic alternative also involves a process of descent with modification, although not exactly the kind that Darwin envisioned.

Here a Hindu has applied Darwinism outside a purely biological context. Notably, Dembski previously accused biology of employing “just-so stories” in his attack on Darwinism, but interestingly, it has also been used in defence of Darwinism and criticism of other applications outside the original context. Richard Lewontin is a staunch critic of gene-oriented reductionism in the social sciences and other disciplines such as, evolutionary psychology, evolutionary ethics, evolutionary computation, evolutionary cosmology, memetics, digital Darwinism, corporate Darwinism and social Darwinism, etc., 

The problem is that many have turned Darwin's description of the way in which organic evolution works into (1) a speculative tool for inventing a natural selective explanation for everything in the world, with no conceivable way of checking on the reality of these "Just So" stories and (2) have extended Darwin’s structure which was tied to a particular natural phenomenology- the biological reproduction of offspring and the differential probability of survivorship and reproduction of those offspring in a real world of biological objects into a generalized metaphor for every kind of historical change in human culture and human history. This has led to the production of a vast literature on sociobiology, "evolutionary" psychology, "evolutionary" accounts of history, "evolution" of culture which are all intellectual games that vulgarize the Darwinian explanatory structure in the interest of producing a general theory of everything.

Evolutionary psychology has perhaps proven the most contentious field to receive the Darwin treatment. Arguments have revolved around such topics as units of selection, adaptation, hypothesis testing, extrapolation and political versus scientific purpose. These concerns would place it at a further distance-from-Darwin than that envisaged by Steven Pinker, one of its greatest advocates,

Evolutionary psychology [is] the organizing framework—the source of ‘explanatory adequacy’ or a ‘theory of the computation’—that the science of psychology had been missing. Like vision and language, our emotions and cognitive faculties are complex, useful, and nonrandomly organized, which means that they must be a product of the only physical process capable of generating complex, useful, nonrandom organization, namely natural selection … Evolutionary psychology is changing the face of theories, making them into better depictions of the real people we encounter in our lives and making the science more consonant with common sense and the wisdom of the ages. Before the advent of evolutionary thinking in psychology, theories of memory and reasoning typically didn’t distinguish thoughts about people from thoughts about rocks or houses. Theories of emotion didn’t distinguish fear from anger, jealousy, or love. And theories of social relations didn’t distinguish among the way people treat family, friends, lovers, enemies, and strangers.

A them-and-us approach has resulted in a stand-off, and clearly there is more complexity involved in the science-religion debate. A comparative gradient that acknowledges diversity in thought, rather than a parsimonious 2-sided debate, is informative in checking our assumptions and drawing out differences and similarities. When we are done with our gradient, we will be able to look back along our journey and recognise the true diversity of understanding that really describes a continuum spelled out by individuals standing shoulder to shoulder along our road. Nonetheless, we will have our path running from one extreme to the other and between them a distance-from-Darwin gradient that traverses the rich and fertile landscape of human thought.


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