December 3, 2003


From Biology to Biography (William Hurlbut, Fall 2003, New Atlantis)

Nearly sixty years ago the eminent geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky noted that “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” Today, it is becoming increasingly evident that what is true of biology in general is also true of the science of human life. With the sequencing of the human genome and recent advances in our understanding of developmental biology, we are gaining a greater appreciation of the unbroken lineage and intricate interrelation of the whole of living nature. Yet as evolutionary theory has become the unifying principle of interpretation of the organic world, it has raised difficult questions about the source and significance of human life, questions that challenge our traditional concepts of the human person. [...]

In its fullest expression, evolutionary psychology is a theory about the origins of the human mind. It assumes that all human behavior, like that of animals, is directed toward competitive advantage in the evolutionary struggle of life. Just as evolution has shaped our anatomy and physiology for optimal performance, natural selection has shaped our behavior. The crucial filter for preservation is not mere survival but “inclusive fitness”: success in getting our genes into the next generation and beyond. Evolutionary psychology claims that a wide array of adaptive psychological mechanisms have been preserved, ranging from specifics of social interaction to inclinations in mate choice. These adaptations extend beyond the realm of survival and reproduction into the most subtle manifestations of aesthetic preference, religious practice, and moral judgment.

As a statement about human nature, evolutionary psychology challenges our most fundamental concepts of freedom, morality, and spiritual purpose. The individual is subsumed within a larger impersonal process of genetic proliferation; reproduction is the “sole goal for which human beings are designed, everything else is a means to that end.” This concept reaches its most extreme expression in Richard Dawkins’ idea of the “Selfish Gene,” where an organism is simply a “robot vehicle,” the gene’s way of making another gene. Genes are our true masters and human beings are at best unwitting accomplices or, indeed, victims in a process without purpose. Although such ideas are an exaggerated form of determinism, their practical effect is, like moral relativism, the justification of any type of behavior. Behavior that seems altruistic is only slightly veiled genetic self-interest—whether “kinship selection” (helping your genetic relatives) or “reciprocal altruism” (hoping to get something in return). As the author Robert Wright starkly puts it: “the question may be whether, after the new Darwinism takes root, the word moral can be anything but a joke.”

The extensions of evolutionary theory expressed in these perspectives represent an extreme form of naturalism. The practical effect of this approach is to reduce all human behaviors to value-neutral adaptations and to deny the personal significance of mind and moral culture. Categories of good and evil are seen as functional fictions generated for social cohesion, and human freedom is considered an illusion useful to justify the legislation and enforcement of responsible behavior. Motivations are opaque to any introspective or intellectual inquiry, and reason is recognized as a tool of adaptation, not a rational calculator or moral guide. Individual crimes, though socially unacceptable, are from the perspective of evolutionary goals fully understandable; so are broader social crimes like genocide or eugenics. All of life is seen as a dynamic of power and self-promotion, a ruthless competition without mercy or moral meaning. Nietzsche had warned us: “To be natural is to dare to be as immoral as nature is.”

Although proponents of evolutionary psychology often disclaim the deeper implications of their ideas and call on us to rise above the process of our origins, their theory leaves little room for either the freedom or the motivation to do so. [...]

Although evolutionary accounts often stress the contingency of development, it is more likely that the earliest phases of life were highly determined by specific conditions and constraints. Only certain combinations of chemicals with particular properties could form the structural and functional elements necessary for the continuity of life. These few, highly constrained, specific molecular elements in turn became the foundation on which all further complexity had to develop in coordinated and complementary integration. Looking back over nearly four billion years of evolution, it is astonishing to realize that these early life forms set the platform for an increasing flexibility and freedom within the phenomenon of life.

At its primary level, freedom within nature is prefigured as a widening range of possibilities. The most basic way this capacity for freedom expresses itself biologically is at the level of mutation. These variations within the coding sequence of DNA create a diversity of potentially adaptive phenotypes that are essentially biological experiments. This strategy works very well in rapidly reproducing organisms. A single bacterium, which has a limited ability to adjust to a changing environment, can produce tens of thousands of varied offspring within a few hours. This allows an adaptive radiation of new forms in response to circumstances of adversity. Such a capability does not just ensure stability and continuity; it creates an exploratory edge that extends the realm of life into a greater range of environmental conditions.

While early life forms adapted through mutation and reproduction, more complex systems soon evolved that allowed individual organisms to adjust to changing environmental conditions. At the most basic level, this “freedom” originated with an increasing range of vital powers of awareness and action. With the earliest emergence of brains more than 500 million years ago, the limited capacities of selective perception and locomotion in simple organisms were transcended by new programs of integrated organismal response, innate reflex arcs of nerves and muscles triggered by external stimuli. These in turn allowed the extension of life into more varied and challenging environments. Whereas the oceans had provided a more or less stable chemical context and constant temperature, the ascent to dry land required more complex regulation of body water and temperature, but in the process opened a vast new range of opportunities for the extension of life. It also led to the refinement of integrated motor and endocrine systems—a transformation that formed the biological basis of the emotions.

The emergence of affective life aided survival but also pointed beyond it. Emotions had their evolutionary origins in the physiological processes of body regulation: the postural and visceral changes that place the organism in a condition of readiness of response. Emotion means, literally, “to move away.” But within this rising scale of feeling and self-awareness, sensory perception and action became more complex; the organism developed a more integrated “inner” sense of subjective feelings and appetites. The philosopher of biology Hans Jonas considers this the essence of animal life: “[The animal] emancipates itself from its immersion in blind organic function and takes over an office of its own: its functions are the emotions. Animal being is thus essentially passionate being.” The unconscious process of plant life becomes the inner awareness and purposeful desire of animal life.

This legacy of our animal ancestors is preserved in human beings while transcended by voluntary intentional actions, guided by new powers of associative memory, analytic reason, and conscious aspiration. These capacities further extend the trajectory of freedom within the phenomenon of life. What began in the earliest life forms as chance mutation played out against the constraints of chemical properties has, through the course of evolution, progressed to adaptive indeterminacy and integrated purposeful being.

This entire evolutionary process of creative extension, stretching forth to ever increasing degrees of freedom, reflects the interplay of possibilities and potencies within living matter. Freedom emerges in response to the opportunities of nature, reflecting an ever more complex complementarity between organisms and environment. Although chance may generate the multitude of mutations and recombinations tossed up to the filter of natural selection, their preservation is not random or arbitrary. This is the insight expressed by Leon Kass when he writes:

Ought we to be surprised, should we regard it as an accident, that, in a visible, odorous, and sounding world, the powers of sight, or smell, or hearing, once they appeared should have been preserved, magnified, perfected? Likewise with intellect. However accidentally intellect first appeared, is it surprising that it should have been preserved in a world of cause and effect, past and future, means and ends, all of which can be brought into consciousness and used to advantage in a being endowed with memory, a sense of time, self-awareness, and the ability to order means to ends in securing the future?

This increasing freedom and self-awareness within the individual organism is extended by the extraordinary adaptive benefit of the creative imagination. Here mutations of matter are transcended by permutations of mind, by the self-generated production of possibilities independent of the constraints of immediate reality. The symbolic mind is capable of detaching image from object; recombining images in new ways; envisioning scenarios and sequences detached from time and space; and anticipating their implications and outcomes . This is yet another powerful form of freedom in which the organism can imagine possibilities and try them out (in a kind of dress rehearsal) without the expense of time and risk of resources in the process.

The human capacity for imagination, however, goes far beyond adaptive anticipation; imagination is not mere memory or imitation, but envisioned creation. Forming mental images, maintaining them in the mind, and achieving their realization signify intention, planning and implementation of ideals. The first recorded moment of true creativity occurred in our pre-human ancestors one-and-a-half million years ago. There, in the fossil record, the simple chipped tools representing a million years of hominid history are suddenly transcended by an artifact that bespeaks a cognitive leap: the production of the hand axe. As paleontologist Ian Tattersal explains: “These symmetrical implements, shaped from large stone cores, were the first to conform to a ‘mental template’ that existed in the toolmaker’s mind.” This is perhaps the first intentional innovation: the bringing into being of an imagined ideal. What began as the visualization of an axe within a stone would become, in another million and a half years, the capacity to generate the images and ideals of a complex technological and moral culture.

This imagining and realizing of ideals is the fullest manifestation of human freedom. Whereas most creatures exist in an unbroken immediacy of life, humans are able to draw both the past and the future into the present: from learning stored as memory and through the creative imagination. The immediacy of animal existence becomes the mediated flexibility of human consciousness. Together with the ceaseless drive to organize the unexplained (the “cognitive imperative”), the capacities to calculate, extrapolate and recombine are used to reconfigure that which is into that which could be.

While most creatures are pushed by biological and ecological circumstances, we are pulled into the future by our images of fullest flourishing.

Evolutionary psychologists at least have the advantage of rational consistency, in their argument that evolution is deterministic--that is to say that all of life has been determined by evolutionary forces. Mr. Hurlbut is stuck making the argument that, on the one hand, evolution is the single unifying principle in all of science, but, on the other, was only deterministic up until a certain level of complexity gave creatures the ability to change their environment--though it's unclear why their subsequent behavior is not determined too--and then, failed at the moment when Man, uniquely, acquired "creative imagination" and broke free of reality, space, and time, determining his own form from that moment onward. That's an awfully nonsensical way to try to preserve both evolution and freedom.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 3, 2003 11:48 AM

So, OJ, you read New Atlantis as well! It's a small Internet.

Posted by: Bruce Cleaver at December 3, 2003 12:50 PM

Doesn't everyone?

Posted by: oj at December 3, 2003 12:57 PM

David Stove, the Austrailian philospher, did an interesting books of essays called Darwinian Fairytales some years back - I read the book while
suffering from flu and pneumonia and my impressions were not the clearest, but I do rember he was scathing on Dawkins, "memes", the concept of inclusive fitness, and what he called the "Hard Man" darwinian, pointing out that if humans were as relentlessly self seeking as the model demands, the species could never have survived for even one generation.

Posted by: JOSEPH at December 3, 2003 6:04 PM

Ypu've gotta wonder about a writer who describes an event that took somewhere around 3 billion years to occur as "soon."

Anyhow, as Mayr likes to say, natural selection operates on individuals to change populations.

The likelihood that, say, aesthetic appreciation is going to appreciably affect even an individual, much less a population, is small. Not zero, maybe, but real small.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at December 3, 2003 10:32 PM

There's a lot of foolishness and tomfoolery going on, on "both" sides of this issue.

The earth is not "round"("spherical" is the relevant term) it is oblate. But an ordinary highest-quality basketball is more of an oblate spheroid than is the earth.

If you bought a property of less than 100 acres, even a property in a part of this country that's as "flat" as one can find, and the surveyor charged you for doing a survey that included measurements and calculations to account for the property's curvature due to our planet's sphericity ..... ya got ripped off, sucker. The surveyor should do his fee-based SURVEYING work grounded in the principle of a "flat earth"

What the heck is my point?

If a person deals with relationships that appear to apply at the quite large scale, and also deals with relationships that appear to apply at the quite small scale, it's easy to encounter incompatibility. But claims at either range of scale do not disprove the other.

Resolution of such seeming incompatibility is darn hard. The pattern in science has been that both sides turn out to be "wrong" or both are "right" when they get merged as a unified understanding. That's what scholarship is about; it ain't easy.

In this BroJudd topic, we witness foolishness and tomfoolery.

Posted by: Larry H at December 4, 2003 7:50 AM

Harry --

The problem with evolutionary psychology is that it is divorced from any evidence and is basically just the telling of stories.

As for the evolutionary justification for an aesthetic sense: humans evolved to value symmetry in a mate, because symmetry is a good sign of health. Our aesthetic sense is derived from the fitness value we place on symmetry.

It's also clear that are aesthetic sense is still evolving. When food was scarce and adipose deposits were a sign of fitness, men were attracted to Rubenesque women. Now that food is plentiful, thinness is a sign of fitness, and we are attracted to sticks. Further, now that silicon is so important to life, we are attracted to thin women sporting big deposits of silicon.

In other words, the problem with evolutionary psychology is that a story can be told explaining everything.

Posted by: David Cohen at December 4, 2003 9:30 AM


And the psychology part conflicts directly with the evolution part--we should have been attracted to the scawny ones when they were plentiful--so as to further the breed--and to the chunky ones now--when that's what we all are. That the many are attrracted to the few makes no sense if the object is to multiply the species.

Posted by: oj at December 4, 2003 9:47 AM

Attraction starts in the soul (or psyche), not in the genes or in the crotch. Now, teenage boys are assaulted from 6th grade on to focus on the bra, but isn't it stale (and sad) to see a 40-year old man drooling over a 38DDD? Likewise, girls may swoon over Tom Cruise from a distance, but up close, there is a lot of empty in there.

Isn't it odd that in the area of sex, the animalistic existence doesn't always prevail? And certainly doesn't always satisfy?

And just how does evolutionary psychology explain the ubiquitous and persistent experience of shame? Not just with sex, but with many areas of life.

Posted by: jim hamlen at December 4, 2003 11:24 AM


quote "...makes no sense if the object is to multiply the species."

i think you have made the fundamental misinterpretation of modern evolutionary theory. there is no 'object', least of all of the multiplication or survival of a 'species'.

the theory is that evolution is, to quote dawkins' famous phrase, 'the blind watchmaker' - it just happens.

Posted by: Brit at December 4, 2003 12:06 PM

But if it 'just happens', and has supposedly happened for eons, the scientific method should be able to measure (or at least record) similarities, repeat occurences, parallels, cause-and-effect, etc. To run away from that it to commit intellectual suicide. The theory of evolution wants to be both scientific and beyond observation (reproof) at the same time. No can do.

Posted by: ratbert at December 4, 2003 1:06 PM

The last paragraph of the article is one of the most astounding things I've read in a very long time. I simply don't know what to make of it.

Posted by: Peter B at December 4, 2003 1:36 PM


That must be Daryl Dawkins--because Richard says he knows exactly what drives evolution:

"We are survival machines - robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes. This is a truth which still fills me with astonishment."

Richard Dawkins
--The Selfish Gene

Posted by: oj at December 4, 2003 1:48 PM

Lot to think about there, Larry, and new to me. Thanks.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at December 4, 2003 2:48 PM

That the many are attrracted to the few makes no sense if the object is to multiply the species.

It does if the few are those that possess genes which maximize their fitness. And, in fact, in conditions of hardship such as famine, there will be some individuals whose genetic makeup allows them to thrive while others remain scrawny (this may explain why certain ethnic groups are so obese today). It would be in one's genetic interest to favor those exceptions, since they possess optimal genes, rather than the commonest ones.

And as a staunch evolutionist, I have no problems with understanding where my moral sense comes from on the one hand and exercising my morality on the other.

cheers, & thanks for an interesting article.

Posted by: Bradley Cooke at December 4, 2003 11:32 PM

That the many are attrracted to the few makes no sense if the object is to multiply the species.

It does if the few are those that possess genes which maximize their fitness. And, in fact, in conditions of hardship such as famine, there will be some individuals whose genetic makeup allows them to thrive while others remain scrawny (this may explain why certain ethnic groups are so obese today). It would be in one's genetic interest to favor those exceptions, since they possess optimal genes, rather than the commonest ones.

And as a staunch evolutionist, I have no problems with understanding where my moral sense comes from on the one hand and exercising my morality on the other.

cheers, & thanks for an interesting article.

Posted by: Bradley Cooke at December 4, 2003 11:33 PM

That the many are attrracted to the few makes no sense if the object is to multiply the species.

It does if the few are those that possess genes which maximize their fitness. And, in fact, in conditions of hardship such as famine, there will be some individuals whose genetic makeup allows them to thrive while others remain scrawny (this may explain why certain ethnic groups are so obese today). It would be in one's genetic interest to favor those exceptions, since they possess optimal genes, rather than the commonest ones.

And as a staunch evolutionist, I have no problems with understanding where my moral sense comes from on the one hand and exercising my morality on the other.

cheers, & thanks for an interesting article.

Posted by: Bradley Cooke at December 4, 2003 11:33 PM


to clarify:

'selfish gene' evolutionary theorists like Dawkins do indeed explain evolution in terms of individuals being 'programmed' to replicate - to preserve the selfish gene.

and they use language like "the gene 'wants' to survive" or "'strives' to replicate"

but, as Dawkins continually takes pains to point out, this is of course just a nice way of explaining (and dramatising) the theory by using anthropomorphism.

genes don't consciously 'do' anything. and certainly there is no 'nature' with a grand scheme trying to acheive a goal.

that's the basic misinterpretation of gene theory that an amazing number of people still make.

to help see this, imagine water flowing down a mountain. it follows the path of least resistance. it doesn't literally 'want' to get to the bottom in the quickest time, but you might describe it thus to help explain its route to a child.

Posted by: Brit at December 5, 2003 6:26 AM

Brad/Harry et al.

When your giggling kids ask you to tell them how you met mommy, do you talk about maximizing fitness, gene pools and survival? Seriously, do you actually have a sense that your own personal lives reflect these beliefs? Are you personally conscious that your are living proofs of evolution and can you relate the choices in your lives to it?

Posted by: Peter B at December 5, 2003 6:28 AM

Bradley --

I understand how it can make evolutionary sense for many women to be attracted to a small number of men. I have more trouble understanding how it can make sense for many men to be attracted to a few women.

Posted by: David Cohen at December 5, 2003 9:02 AM


Bingo! Evolution has nothing to do with reality. It's a story we tell ourselves so that we children can think we understand what's going on. It's metaphor, not science.

Posted by: oj at December 5, 2003 10:06 AM


Come on, old chap, catch up. I'm telling you now what the theory of evolution is, not asking you to buy into it.

Are you a creationist? If so, I'm not going to bother trying to convert you. But it always helps if you understand the other man's argument.

You don't understand what the theory is, which is why your arguments like the one above miss the mark.

Some points:
1) yes, evolution is a theory.

2) but the theory is not that there is some 'aim' to evolution, that genes and species are somehow working to an ultimate goal of perfection, or 'strive' to survive individually

3) rather, the theory is that genes are self-replicating, and, because of random mutations and complex external factors like environment, predators etc, some just survive and some don't. ie. genes don't have little brains with little geney desires and geney cunning!

4) but those like Dawkins who seek to popularise the theory, ie. explain it to the ordinary reader, find it easier to explain when using language like 'strive', 'want' and 'ruthless'

5) which is why confusion can arise when people think they literally mean that genes 'want' to do things.

the very worst misinterpretation is to think that genes want to promote 'the species'.

you have made this blunder with your comment: "That the many are attracted to the few makes no sense if the object is to multiply the species."

sorry, but no evolutionary theorist would argue that there is an 'object to multiply the species'.

here's an analogy:
imagine a bagatelle board with lots of ballbearings tumbling down it. most fall down the little holes or get caught in the other obstacles. but one makes it all the way down, perhaps because it is too big for the holes.

now: did that ballbearing get down because it 'strove' ruthlessly? or perhaps the species of ballbearing sent it down deliberately to preserve the species!?

no, it just happened, by sheer accident, to be the best adapted to survive the environment of the bagatelle board.

i urge you to think about'll have a eureka which i don't mean that you'll suddenly believe the theory...but you'll suddenly understand it a lot better, and if you wish you can argue against it from a stronger position

Posted by: Brit at December 5, 2003 10:33 AM


That's how evolution works--whatever happens was necessatry.

Posted by: oj at December 5, 2003 10:35 AM


No I'm not a Creationist and yes I believe in gravity. The ball bearings are still ball bearings, no? Even though some were fitter than others?

Posted by: oj at December 5, 2003 10:38 AM

Brit --

I agree with everything you say, or at least I understand the point you are making. But it is not without meaning that evolution is always spoken about in the language of directed progress or that the great unwashed all think that they are the end product of a rigorous process of ever-better development.

You are like the priest of Ba'al who knows that the fires are stoked and he's going to get to eat the offering, but decides it's in everyone's best interest if the people believe in the god's wrath.

Posted by: David Cohen at December 5, 2003 10:45 AM


look, the ballbearing analogy doesn't fit to evolution in every bloomin' respect, i just made it up off the top of my head! if i wanted to make it exactly like evolution, i'd have to go on to make them self-replicating ballbearings where the slightly big one makes other big ones etc, and then it would all just get a bit silly.

the point is to explain that evolutionary theorists do not believe that evolution as an object, or that genes literally strive to protect a species.

today's evolutionary theorists disagree amongst themselves about all sorts of things, but they all agree about that basic principle.

Sorry - you've lost me.

Posted by: Brit at December 5, 2003 10:57 AM


Yes, it does get silly when you try to use a real example doesn't it? That's the point.

Posted by: oj at December 5, 2003 11:02 AM


i fear your glib comments miss the target by many a mile.

please, just try thinking about what i've written and why i made the analogy.

Posted by: Brit at December 5, 2003 11:06 AM


You made the analogy because the direct case is so silly.

Posted by: oj at December 5, 2003 2:41 PM

Brit --

You and I know that it makes no sense to speak of the marble "wanting" to get to the bottom of the board. Indeed, in your analogy, you can't even really speak of the marble that gets to the bottom as being "fitter", rather than "luckiest". The marble is in no way designed to get to the bottom, it just happens not to fall through as gravity pulls it down.

But it is highly artificial and stilted to speak of evolution in this manner, and in fact everyone just talks about genes wanting this and evolution designing that. In fact, in common conversation, evolution or natural selection or survival of the fittest just takes the place of G-d in having sculpted the species. People believe that they are the end-product of a careful process of design in which their every trait and habit has been selected because it is fitter than any other alternative.

In point of fact, we all talk like Lamarckists, and most people are Lamarckists.

In other words, for everyone except a few, "natural selection" is just another god and those few who know better speak of It as if It were.

Posted by: David Cohen at December 5, 2003 3:06 PM


To perhaps put it another way, if evolution is as limited and mundane as you have described it, does it, in your view, have anything at all to do with the origins of life and the source of morality?

Posted by: Peter B at December 5, 2003 3:17 PM

David, you have not seen me writing about evolution as if the genes are motivated, except once in a while jocularly. I am careful not to.

I think Dawkins's approach is regrettable, and I don't agree with all of his interpretations, either. Having been asked, I've recommended authors who, like me, do not talk, even metaphorically, about teleology.

I've been trying to elevate the discussion here concerning natural selection above the Paluxy River level, but without much success.

It's psychological, I think. Christians are primed to think that Darwinism is incompatible with revealed religion (perhaps with any religion), and they cannot therefore look to closely at it, like the Jesuit who refused to check for Jupiter's moons.

This is, to me, a false fear. Darwinism doesn't offer much comfort to religionists, but it is not necessarily incompatible with it, as many, many scientists have decided for themselves.

It does not enhance credibility to jeer at a theory that no one, not me, not Darwin, not anybody, would accept. Which is what we find on this blog, almost entirely. If I thought Darwinism was what Orrin thinks it is, I wouldn't buy it either.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at December 5, 2003 5:08 PM

Harry --

I'm not sure how much of that is directed my way. I'm certainly not going to try to come up with a unified theory of Christian evolution. But as I think you know, I'm enough of a solipsist that I don't recognize any conflict between coherent scientific explanations of reality and faith. After all, if people can do useful math assuming a square root of -1, there's no reason they can't do useful science assuming G-d does not exist.

Posted by: David Cohen at December 5, 2003 11:23 PM

David, Peter and OJ:

Regrettably we find ourselves at odds again...which is strange because i suspect that we probably agree on a great deal...

I do happen to believe in evolution, but I'm not trying to give you here a defence of the theory, or a particular version of the theory that is different to what most evolutionists believe.

I really am trying to explain 'Evolution: level 1. The basics'

No evolutionist thinks that there is a guiding, conscious 'It' pointing evolution towards another goal.

Even Dawkins, whose way of popularising the theory has unfortunately really created the confusion, makes enormous pains to make this clear. Whole chunks of The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker are devoted to stepping back and reminding the reader of this fact: that the way he speaks is just a way of helping the reader understand, and of giving the book a kind of novelistic 'punch'.

Posted by: Brit at December 6, 2003 3:51 AM


I'm sure we would agree on certain things--for instance, one shouldn't condemn unreadable, execrable books without trying to read a few pages first. :-)

It is the nature of this site to keep the debate going on the basis of conflicting first principles. While great fun, it is at times frustrating that we have a hard time moving to more subtle levels. Personally, I blame Harry and Jeff, but then I always do.

However, regarding evolution, eight months of tough sparring have brought me no closer to understanding what the darn theory does and doesn't say. I am perfectly willing to believe it says something important and is backed by "mountains" of evidence I have neither the ability nor desire to challenge. But the fierce commitment to a theory that all agree is still in a nascent stage from the perspective of actual proof puzzles me. (Your apologetics on the subject of Mr. Dawkins seems to ignore the fact that he fulminates against all dissenters and seems to be calling for war against any conflicting thinking). Can you imagine anyone getting so wrapped up in germ theory?

Also, I have the sense that there are several theories of evolution out there. Or that it is protean. I have complained before about how, when you challenge an evolutionist directly, he emphasizes its modesty and incompleteness. Slip out to the loo for five minutes and you come back to find him using it confidently to explain everything from sexual morality to language development, and scorning religion as claptrap for ignorant peasants while he is at it.

All of which is why I posed the question above about how you see it relating to life's origins and morality. Any thoughts?

Posted by: Peter B at December 6, 2003 6:45 AM


Good question(s)!

As you point out, it's pretty difficult to talk about this stuff without constantly going back to first principles.

The original article that started this thread assumes that the reader basically accepts that evolution is true: ie. that all life is where it is now due to the processes of genetic evolution, and not through some higher consciousness 'guiding' it towards a particualar goal.

It then tries to find ways to make this fact, which is taken as given, compatible with human free will.

This is an immensely difficult philosophical task which raises all sort of debates, but the crucial point is you can agree or disagree in all sorts of ways with the argument, while still accepting the basic principle.

(in the same way that 2 creationists could have a debate about free will: one might say that if God sees everything, how can there be any true free will, while the other says there is choice, but both nonetheless both believe in the first principle of creationism).

so how can you argue against issues raised in this article?'s 2 ways:

1) someone who accepts evolution might disagree with its conclusion, perhaps on the grounds that humans do not have any more autonomy in their decisions than any other animal...etc. This would be valid, and its basically the audience that the article aims at

2) someone who is sceptical about evolution could deny the first principle and then perhaps say that, because we do have free will, evolution must be wrong. this would be valid, but the author would probably ignore it all together as he's not aiming at a creationist audience

What you can't do is argue against a position that the author, and no other evolutionist holds, which is that evolution is working towards a particular goal and in that respect 'nature' replaces God. again, to use the famous phrase, this is a 'straw man'


If you're asking me to provide an answer to whether free will and, lets call it 'genetic determinism' are compatible, i'd, I'm still thinking about it!

if forced to give an answer, i guess my instinct is that I accept that the human brain has been formed by evolution, but that its level of complexity is such that at some point we have to accept that humans can make genuine choices - and even if that choice is determined by neurons being hit by other neurons, which have in turn been hit by other neurons etc just have to define 'choice' as just that process.

but, blimey, this really is difficult stuff. 'thoughts' is about right. i don't pretend to have answers but i always try to understand what the arguments are.

Finally, if you really do want to find out what the basic evolutionist argument actually says and why so many people buy it...i recommend Dawkins' The Blind Watchmaker. he may be controversal on tv etc, but that is a brilliantly written book

Posted by: Brit at December 6, 2003 7:32 AM


Everyone believes in evolution. We doubt Darwinism.

Posted by: oj at December 6, 2003 8:19 AM


Thanks. I promise to tackle Dawkins just as soon as I finish Ulysses and Finnegan's Wake. Meanwhile, you should get cracking on that Old Testament.

To me, the argument that we don't have free will is just so palpably and obviously wrong in the face of our personal and collective histories as to be beyond the pale, whatever the fossils and genes may say. I often wish we didn't, but we clearly do. I also hold the unpopular view that, generally speaking, the validity or "truth" of the tenets of what I will loosely call traditional morality are blindingly obvious, both individually and collectively, and have been proven by mountains of evidence easily as high as those backing evolution(yes, with limits, exceptions, tough cases and ambiguities, etc.). Whether the goal is survival or fulfillment, they're the ticket. It wasn't Darwin that set the parameters. It was Nietzsche.

But, of course I don't deduce these from science and move forward. I induce them from observation and experience and work backwards. At some point, I meet the sunny secularists steaming forwards with their inscrutable language and clever experiments.

If they are merely describing a natural process of historical physical development, well I would be a fool to seize up like a Savonarola, cover my ears and hide in a corner reading Genesis. Science is science and we can't just pick and choose what makes us feel safe and comfortable. But if they argue that the theory explains everything about why we are here (or why not), what we do and why (or why it doesn't matter), and further asserts that all pre-Enlightenment thought was basically error, then they are simply wrong and have been so proven. Their science may be impeccable, but real life defeats them, assuming we can agree social and physical extinction aren't terribly cool.

So, again, what does the theory, as you understand it, say about morality, if anything?

Posted by: Peter B at December 6, 2003 8:42 AM


That, I think, is the key to which you believe in: Free Wiull or Evolution. Dawkins argues that Free Will is totally illusory, that we are 100% driven by mere biologigcal;, chemical, physical processes. This is admirably honest of him, because it is what belief in Darwin requires. But it must be intoilerable to anyone who believes that humankind is more than meat.

Posted by: oj at December 6, 2003 8:47 AM

One of the regular blunders in discussions such as this, is seen when folks believe that they're debating about evolution, when in fact they're debating about natural selection. These are two explicitly different matters.

There is a consistent pattern in the geologic record of fossils, which provides the bulk of the evidence for evolution. This worldwide and miles-deep pattern, which came about due to forms of life which were capable of causing fossils("firm plant and animal parts") establishes the EXISTENCE of the evolutionary pattern for biological species. Evolution was a FIRMLY established field when Darwin came along. As for evolution among the innumerable biological species, the vast majority of which deceloped AND went extinct long ago, the existance of that biological EVOLUTION was in very little doubt.

Consequently, Darwin dealt with NATURAL SELECTION, ... NOT with evolution! Now, Darwinian selection provides a tremendous buttressing to biological evolution, but the weak areas of natural selection do not disprove evolution, they disprove the claims about selection. Note that it's usually the detractors of evolution who argue that if NEARLY EVERYTHING about evolution is not tidyly explained by natural selection, then evolution is false - - which is intellectual dishonesty. If Darwin's theory had been seen to be incorrect, it would not have negated the validity of evolution, it would have negated natural selection, a theory which accounts for HOW a portion of the evolutionary process OPERATES.

We so often witness this failure to differentiate the issues of evolution from the issues of natural selection. Various writeups which do so, figuratively scream forth "I AM A NINCOMPOOP" - - but alas it is sometimes not a case of sloppiness or stupidity - - unfortunately it's sometimes deliberate obfuscation.

If folks cannot keep straight the relatively simple issue of what is relevant regarding natural selection, versus what is relevant regarding evolution; how can those folks possibly understand the relatively complex issues which are the basis for the academic work of Dawkins and others?

..... Another comment: ... ...

" Some points: 1) yes, evolution is a theory. "

and YES, gravitation is a theory.

The view that the earth does not have, near its center, a hundresd-of-miles-in-diameter cavity, ... is a theory.

The view that any water on Ganymede has physical properties like that on Earth, ... is a theory (this is the THEORY that the laws of physics apply throughout our known universe.)

Posted by: Larry H at December 6, 2003 8:59 AM


Exactly. Evolution appears to be a fact, but why it happens we are no closer to knowing than was Cro-Magnon man. It may be natural mutation, selection, etc.. It may be intervention by God or gods. We may be a lab experimewnt by an alien species.

Posted by: oj at December 6, 2003 9:03 AM


all agreed. and i meant that remark about it being a 'theory' in the same sense that you in the same way that gravity is a one level it can never be 'proven', but only in the same Cartesian-doubt sense that it can never be 'proven' that i'm not in The Matrix.


natural selection says nothing about morality per se. it is a scientific theory about physical matter. but there may be more philosophical room for manoeuvre than you think (hence the article that started this thread)

but remember, the atheist could equally say to the believer: how can there be free will if God knows everything I'm going to do?

which is just as difficult a challenge as that faced by the person who believes in both natural selection and human free will. both require defining and challenging the meaning of the terms 'choice' and 'free will'.

Posted by: Brit at December 6, 2003 12:38 PM


You'll recall that God didn't know that Adam had eaten of the apple and even Christ felt forsaken on the Cross. Free will is free.

Posted by: oj at December 6, 2003 12:42 PM


Re-reading your post, you're quite right about the natural selection/'evolution' confusion, to which i have no doubt added.

when i say 'evolution' on the above posts, i do of course mean natural selection, by the most popular scientific explanation for evolution, and when i say 'evolutionists' i mean people like Dawkins, Pinker etc. everything i have said still stands.

in common usage or debate with the creationist the terms tend to be used interchangeably, but i accept that for the purposes of debate with someone who accepts evolution but doubts Darwinism, the distinction is essential.


the scientific attractions of natural selection are obvious to most people on first perusal of The Selfish Gene: the sheer simplicity of the explanation, and the removal of any need for mystical or divine intervention.

The drawback, as OJ says, is the difficulty of squeezing in free will. but i doubt that it is any more difficult than squeezing free will into the same world as an omniscient God.

Posted by: Brit at December 6, 2003 12:59 PM


even an omniscient God would in no wise conflict with Free Will--just because He knew what you'd do doesn't mean you didn't have a choice.

Posted by: oj at December 6, 2003 1:04 PM

Since we now can measure genetic events at the atomic level, strict reductionism is no longer permissable.

I've used the example before, but the force of it seems to have been missed. A disease like Tay-Sachs
(rather unusual as a one-gene defect, but still well within darwinian confines) was the result of an event we can never identify, but it could well have been the collision of a particle of radiation with a spot on the DNA of a cell in the spermatic sac of a Jew living somewhere around the Baltic a few centuries ago.

Now, if the came from, say, uranium in a mine in, say, the Harz Mountains, where, say, the Jew was a miner, then the decay that produced the particle that produced the mutation was unpredictable -- natural fission of uranium is random.

That takes care of radical reductionism.

There is left the issue of instant reductionism, or behavior above the level of quantum events. The sequence of events is incomputable, so we cannot approach it that way.

But as sentient beings, we react to what goes on around us, and that's unpredictable, both practically and radically.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at December 6, 2003 4:40 PM

How'd he pass it on to the whole race?

Posted by: oj at December 6, 2003 4:45 PM

Someone included in a comment:
"Mr. Hurlbut is stuck making the argument that, on the one hand, evolution is the single unifying principle in all of science..."

Silly me, I thought that EXISTENCE might be the single unifying principle in all of science(i.e., that miracles, ghosts, and hell need not be accounted for; that empirical claims trump nonimperical claims.)

Perhaps everyone has seen that cartoon in Science Citation Index's "Current Contents." This scientist is filling many chalkboards with a derivation, via innumerable assumptions, formulae and axioms; a peer walks up, points to a section within this huge sequence, and asks, "Please elaborate on this." The "THIS" consists of the words...... "Then a miracle occurs."

Evolution is a darn good candidate as the single unifying principle in all of BIOLOGICAL science(for those dysfunctional, lazy people who gravitate toward the pecking-order mentality of looking for SINGLE or for "this-is-number-one" claims.)
. . . . ...... ..... ..... ...

Bringing free will and morality into this current debate(i.e., a debate based upon an early 21st century perspective and knowledge base) brings to mind the occasional appropriateness of that acronym "ROTFL". I'm impressed that mankind came so far in its scientific understanding, as to seriously cogitate about natural selection and evolution ... as EARLY in history as the 19th century. It was a quite impressive accomplishment. If the behavior pattern of homo sapiens sapiens does not get incorporated into this theme, through reasonable investigation, for another two centuries, mankind need not feel ashamed about any "tardiness."

Meanwhile, some of the folks posting here can park their fat ass in front of a keyboard, and feel "advanced" ... for they no longer engage in that ritual of regularly walking down the street to the corner bar, then imbibing to the point that they can argue about anything and everything - - with a knowledge base and behavior pattern that borders on the comical. With the internet, such can now be accomplished almost anywhere.

Posted by: Larry H at December 6, 2003 5:26 PM


Yes, it may not be readily obvious to all how free will and an omniscient god can be reconciled. But Jewish and Christian thinkers have been working very hard on this for five thousand years and have come up with answers. You may not like them, but they are there and have been widely accepted by many. They are certainly respected and have been challenged and tested to say the least.

This article is (I think) an effort to do the same with evolution (or natural selection or whatever). I agree with Orrin that it is very unsatisfactory. Sitting here at the keyboard on my ample backside, I am not sure I even understand it. Can you help?

Posted by: Peter B at December 6, 2003 6:58 PM


Which is further proof that Nature does not select for fitness.

Posted by: oj at December 6, 2003 11:19 PM


Well-played. :-)

Posted by: Peter B at December 7, 2003 9:41 AM


Thanks, but the competition is inferior.

Posted by: oj at December 7, 2003 9:50 AM