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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Darwinism Fails to Explain Man's Higher Faculties

The main principle behind Darwinian evolution is the principle that organisms tend to gradually evolve characteristics that give them a greater survival value in their environment. This principle allows us to explain many facets of humanity, particularly everything underneath our necks. We have arms and hands because we are descended from species that used to live in trees, and needed arms and hands to swing from branch to branch. We have legs capable of running fast, because we needed those to escape from predators. We have good vision because we needed that to find food and spot predators. All of these things can be explained through the principle of natural selection – survival of the fittest. Most characteristics of a species that make the individual members of a species more likely to survive (until they reproduce) can be explained by referring to natural selection and evolution.

However, there are some important aspects of human nature that seem to be difficult or impossible to adequately explain by using an explanation of evolution and natural selection. Humans have inner selves and personalities. Humans are great at language, and at formulating very abstract ideas. Humans are capable of wonder, joy, love, guilt, compassion, imagination, and spirituality. Humans can create art and literature, ponder their own deaths, wonder about the meaning of life and the nature of the universe, create and follow moral codes, and consider philosophical matters.

It is hard to explain any of this by evoking evolution or natural selection, because most of it has no survival value, from an evolutionary standpoint of making an organism more likely to survive until it reproduces. 50,000 years ago a human who felt wonder by looking at a sunset was not any more likely to survive than a human who did not (in fact, the sunset-appreciating human was actually less likely to survive, as he might let down his guard and be attacked by a predator while he was enjoying the sunset). We can't explain the origin of man's talents at art, philosophy, mathematics and literature by imagining that such talents evolved because people who had them were more likely to survive until reproduction.

Darwinism is bad at explaining these things.

Imagine you're a cave man 50,000 years ago. Life is pretty simple: find food, don't freeze to death, and don't get eaten by a predator. People at that time had no need for language, math, art, literature, planning abilities, or inner thoughts. Grunts and hand signals would have worked just fine to alert your fellow cave man when you see a predator. So how did man get all of his higher faculties that have allowed him to create art, novels, science, philosophy, and government?

At the John Templeton Foundation website, there is a page in which professors and experts attempt to answer the question, “Does evolution explain human nature?” The short answers given by a panel of professors and experts run the gamut:

Obviously, says the monkey.
Except where it matters.
Quite well.
Not entirely.
More fully by the day.
Not yet.
In part.
Only up to a point.
Yes, but...
Totally, for a Martian.
Yes and no.

That's a spectrum of answers, but when we look at the answers in detail, things don't go too well for those trying to answer the “Does evolution explain human nature?” question affirmatively. The expert giving the answer “Obviously, says the monkey” loses his credibility by making the ridiculous claim that humans “have no basic wants or needs that cannot also be observed in our close relatives” such as chimpanzees. I guess this fellow has never heard of the desire to obtain truth or the need to make a lasting accomplishment or numerous other wants or needs that humans have and chimps don't have. His “man is just a chimp” reasoning fails to persuade.

Another expert who answers “Yes” to “Does evolution explain human nature?” then undermines his own answer by saying this: “Why there is subjective experience at all - is actually a mystery. Only a few Darwinian thinkers, such as Steven Pinker and the late John Maynard Smith, have appreciated this problem.” So if that's true, then it's not right to answer Yes to the question “Does evolution explain human nature.” This is the “hard problem of consciousness,” and there is a confession that “only a few Darwinian thinkers have appreciated the problem,” which sure doesn't sound like evolutionary theory has a real answer for it.

The typical evolutionary explanation involves random mutations and random variance plus survival of the fittest. For example, imagine a population of early humans. Because of random mutations and random variance, some of the population would by chance have longer, stronger legs. Then more of that population would survive because those organisms could run faster to escape predators. That works fine for explaining the evolution of certain physical characteristics of the human body, and also some parts of the brain involving human perception.

But the same type of explanation would seem to be impotent and useless for explaining some higher faculties of mankind – simply because we would not expect that any random mutations or random variance would ever cause some early humans to have a slightly higher amount of such faculties. It would not seem that random variance or random mutations could cause a certain number of early humans to be a little more capable of love, guilt, language, mathematics, self-introspection, philosophy, inner lives, spirituality, wonder, or advanced moral concepts. It almost seems to require a kind of quantum jump to go from an animal mind to a mind capable of such things. Can we really imagine that a random mutation or a random variance would cause an organism to have a little bit of an inner self when its parents had no inner self?

Evolution is a fact, and we know that man is very old and the universe is much, much older. But nevertheless we have a problem in explaining how evolution could have produced all of human faculties. Among the possible ways to explain this discrepancy are as follows:
  1. There might have been some extraterrestrial interference in human evolution which led us to develop some of our advanced faculties.  Our evolution could have been altered by visitors from another planet.
  2. Evolution might have been assisted by either a divine influence, or by some unknown insentient force of nature that we do not currently understand.
  3. There may be some philosophical explanation for the origin or existence of advanced human faculties, perhaps something along the lines of a philosophy that grants consciousness more of a central role rather than making it a mere by-product of unconscious natural processes. It could be that mind comes before matter, rather than the other way around.
I'm not sure what the answer is – perhaps one of these three, or perhaps something else. I do think that evolution is overall a fine theory that explains much. But champions of evolution may be hurting their own cause when they try to make it look as if evolution can explain the entire human mind. When advocates of a theory claim too much for it, they may make it more likely that someone will reject the theory altogether.

Rather then pretending we have most or all of the pieces of nature's jigsaw puzzle, we should admit that we have only a few, and that our knowledge of nature is only fragmentary.

Postscript: my theory of a programmed material universe (described here and here) may offer an additional possibility for explaining the origin of Mind. I noticed recently a web post that describes a position similar to that taken in this post. It refers to the book Mind & Cosmos by Thomas Nagel:
Nagel is an eminent philosopher and professor at NYU. In Mind & Cosmos, he shows with terse, meticulous thoroughness why mainstream thought on the workings of the mind is intellectually bankrupt. He explains why Darwinian evolution is insufficient to explain the emergence of consciousness—the capacity to feel or experience the world.