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Darwinian Dissonance?

Paul A. Dernavich

It is safe to say that the creation/evolution debate will not be resolved anytime soon, and why should it?  With the recent squabbles in states throughout America, and the Dawkinses and Dembskis trading haymakers with each other, things are only getting interesting.  Although I am merely a ringside observer, I am here to blow the whistle on some apparent foul play which I have observed. It is up to you to determine whether any of the participants should be disqualified. 

Let's go to the videotape...

Simply put, the language used by many of today's prominent Darwin defenders, at least as it appears in the popular press, is inherently self-defeating, as if they had a collective case of cognitive dissonance.  They routinely describe non-human processes as if they were actual people. No sooner do they finish arguing that the universe could not possibly have an Intelligent Designer, that they proceed to comment on how the universe is so seemingly intelligently designed. No sooner do they discredit evidence for a grand, cosmic plan, that they reveal their anticipation towards what the next phase of it will be. Let me give you examples.

Dr. Massimo Pigliucci, in his Secular Web critique of Intelligent Design theory ( "Design Yes, Intelligent No" ), utilizes several phrases whose "scientific" definitions, I assume, are sufficiently esoteric enough to obscure the fact that, as concepts, they defy common sense.  He describes the natural world as being a result of "non-conscious" creativity, "non-intelligent design," and "chaotic self-organizing phenomena."  If these terms mean something very specific to evolutionary biologists, it cannot be anything that is inferred by the actual words themselves.  For the very notion of design cannot be thought of in any other terms than that of a conscious being with an intent, a scheme, a protocol, a plan, or an intellect.  Each of the 21 definitions  of "design" in Webster's pertain to a living subject, human by implication.   This is not to say that random arrangements of things cannot be fantastically complex; but if they are not purposefully complex then the word "design" is incorrect.   And "chaotic self-organizing" is a cluster of words similar to "triangular circles": an excessively clever term to describe something that can't possibly exist.

Other examples abound.  A 1999 Time magazine cover story described human evolution like it was General Motors, replacing the "clunkers" with "new and improved" models: but doing it, of course, "blindly and randomly." [1] Spare me, please, from blind and random "improvements."  In the most recent Free Inquiry (the magazine of the Council for Secular Humanism), a scholar writes that both "Christians and humanists agree on one thing: that humans are the most valuable form of life on the planet," and that we are "the crown of earthly creation." [2] That is precisely the one thing that a secular humanist cannot call us: the crown of earthly creation. And valuable? Valuable to whom, and on what basis?  Another term which receives heavy usage is "success," as in a "successful" species of lizard.  But in order for anything to be a success, it must have had some prior goal or standard to fulfill.  If we cannot confirm a purpose for which life is supposed to have originated, how can we say anything is a success?  What if chickens were supposed to fly?  What if beavers were supposed to build A-frames?  Naturalistically speaking, anything is successful if it exists.  Even a pebble is successful at being a pebble.

Finally, Robert Wright, in a New Yorker piece which dope-slaps Stephen Jay Gould for being an unwitting ally to creationists, proves himself to be a pretty solid creationist in his own right, as he goes on to refer to natural selection as a "tireless engineer" with a "remarkable knack for invention," even comparing it to a brain, indicative of a higher purpose, which stacks the evolutionary deck and responds to positive feedback.[3]  Maybe evolution is a focus group!?  Whether it is by ignorance, defiance or the limits of our language, these Darwin defenders liberally use terms which are not available to them, given their presuppositions.  One cannot deny the cake, and then proceed to eat from it!

It brings up the problem I have always had with the term "natural selection."  We all know what it means, and I can't dispute it's validity as a model for the differentiation of species.  As a word couplet, though, it is a grammatical gargoyle, like the term "cybersex."  If you were asked to describe what sex is, it probably wouldn't sound like what happens when a lonely data-entry intern in Baltimore starts typing his fantasies on a flat screen which, thanks to thousands of miles of fiber-optic cable, is then read by someone in Spokane. That situation has nothing to with the purposes or processes of sex, as either God or nature intended it. The modifier is not true to its object.  Although the word "cyber-" is intended as a kind of adjective, it comes dangerously close to totally redefining the word which it is only supposed to modify.  Contrarily, one could have a blue book or a brown book, but in either case it is still a book.  One could make a hasty selection or a careful selection; it is still a selection. But natural?  A selection is a choice, and only a conscious being that can process information can really make a choice, or even input information into a system which will later result in a choice.  However, when the drying of a swamp puts a salamander out of existence, that is an occurrence.  We are comfortable with "natural selection" as a phrase, because it conjures up images of Mother Nature, or some cosmic Gepetto tinkering with his toys.  As a technical term, it is a misleading oxymoron.

I know what this proves.  It proves absolutely nothing.  This is innocent embellishment, lazy usage, or a validation of Chomskyesque theories about the inadequacy of language. One could say that a critique based on language is aimed at the most inconsequential part of any argument, like saying that Kierkegaard would have been more compelling if he had typed in New Times Roman.  However, a more careful consideration will reveal that exactly the opposite is true, at least in this case. The words used by modern-day Darwinists are not a sidelight, they are symptomatic of a fissure in the structure of their thought.  I believe that when someone wrongly calls the evolutionary process a purposeful "design," it is not because of sloppy writing, but because of intentional and thoughtful writing.  It is because that is the only idea that will work.  It is the only word that will work.  It is because there is something brilliant, something awesome, and something significant about our world, and our instinct is to want to know who gets credit for it.  The impulse is innate and proper.  It is  the decision to give credit to an abstract and unauthored "process" which is out of sync.

Let me make the point in a more obvious way.  Here are two written accounts:

A. Two similar clusters of matter came into physical contact with each other at a single point in space and time.  One cluster dominated, remaining intact; while the other began to break down into its component elements.

B. A 26-year old man lost his life today in a violent and racially motivated attack, according to Thompson County police.  Reginald K. Carter was at his desk when, according to eyewitness reports, Zachariah Jones, a new employee at the Clark Center, entered the building apparently carrying an illegally-obtained handgun.  According to several eyewitnesses, Jones immediately walked into Carter's cubicle and shouted that "his kind should be eliminated from the earth," before shooting him several times at point-blank range.

If asked where these two fictitious excerpts came from, most would say that A was from a textbook or scientific journal, and probably describes events observed under a microscope or in a laboratory.  B would be a typical example of newspaper journalism.  Most people would say that, of course, they are not talking about the same thing. But could they be?  Well, to the materialist, the answer is certainly negative. To those who don't take their Darwinism decaffeinated, who embrace it as a philosophy which excludes any non-natural explanations for life's origins, the answer is absolutely.  B perhaps wins on style points, but the content is the same.  Any outrage or emotion felt upon reading the second excerpt would be a culturally conditioned response, but not a proof that there had been anything "wrong" that had happened.  In this view, A is probably the most responsible account.  Nature, with its fittest members leading the way, marches on. I think I would be correct in stating that many would disagree with, or be offended by, that analysis.  What I am not really sure of, and would like explained to me, is why?  What is in view is not so much of a Missing Link, as much as a Missing Leap: the leap from the physical to the metaphysical.  Taken as a starting point, I have no problem with quantitative assessments.  They establish a baseline of knowledge for us. 

But what about life?   Life is an elusive concept that cannot be quantitatively assessed.  As Stanley Jaki writes in his most recent book. [4] Moreover, long before one takes up the evolution of life, one is faced with a question of metaphysics whenever one registers life.  Life is not seen with physical eyes alone unless those eyes are supplemented with the vision of the mind.  No biologist contemptuous of metaphysics can claim, if he is consistent, that he has observed life, let alone its evolution. We then start to have an aesthetic appreciation for the beauty and ingenuity of these life forms, and it is not long before we get around to talking about abstract concepts such as rights, justice, and equality, and assigning some species - namely, us - some kind of moral responsibilities for them, none of which can be measured according to scientific methods.

I think it is safely assumed by all parties that, although we have some physical and behavioral characteristics in common, humans are significantly more intelligent and sophisticated than our mammal friends, and possessed of a vastly different consciousness. For whatever reason, we are unique enough to make us "special." The problem is that the physical sciences cannot explain how, much less why, this consciousness emerged. And a bigger problem is the strangeness of our consciousness: abstract self-doubt, philosophical curiosity, existential despair. How does an intense awareness of my accidental existence better equip me for battle?  Why do we consider compassion for the sick to be a good thing when it can only give us a disadvantage in our vicious eat-or-be-eaten world?  Why would these traits emerge so late in the game, when one would think evolution would be turning us into refined, high-tech battle machines? We cannot acquire a transcendent or "higher" purpose through evolution, any more than a sine wave can develop separation anxiety. And yet many who swear by the powers of Darwin and empiricism also cling, hypocritically, to a quite unproven assumption that the human race is somehow set apart, created for a glorious destiny. Just as determinists argue undeterministically, scientists believe unscientifically. The most serious offenders in this category have to be the various minds behind the Humanist Manifesto, who roundly reject the metaphysical even as they affirm it, by assumption, in their grand prescriptions for humanity.  This is called talking out of two sides of the mouth.  Now, biologically speaking, developing this trait would be a great way for an organism to gain a tactical advantage in the struggle for survival.  Unfortunately, it also opens the creature up for easy attack in life's intellectual jungles. These contradictory assumptions met each other vividly in the theater of mainstream culture last year, during the pop radio reign of "Bad Touch," the Bloodhound Gang song. You know the song: it was the one with the refrain of "You and me, baby, ain't nothing but mammals / So let's do it like they do on the Discovery Channel."  It was pure Darwinism for the dance floor and became an instant dorm room classic, despite (or most likely, because of) the fact that it was too explicit for the kitsch it aspired to.  The party music stopped, however, upon arrival of Thornhill and Palmer's  The Natural History of Rape, the book that investigated whether rape was a genetically determined trait that enabled humans to climb the evolutionary ladder. The book's research was as swiftly refuted as The Bell Curve's.  However, the white-hot center of controversy surrounding this book was not the research, but the inferences that might have been made from it: the fear that rape could be rationalized, or even accepted, on a biological basis.  The science may have been bad, but the logic is faultless.  Why can't a chameleon's color change, a bat's sonar, and a man's sexual coercion all be examples of successful evolutionary "design"?  Given the absence of any empirical alternative to social Darwinism, the nonconsensual Discovery Channel bump-and-grind is a pretty educated approach to sexual ethics.  I repeat: one cannot deny the cake, and then proceed to eat from it.

That, then, is why the language is confused: because the ideas are confused, because the mind is confused.  To the extent that our Darwinians and humanists seek answers to humanity's dilemmas using the natural sciences, they are absolutely on the right track.  To the extent that they reject the idea of a divine or supernatural creator using the natural sciences, they are not only overstepping the boundaries of their field, but they are plainly contradicted by their language, their goals, and their lives.  G.K. Chesterton, writing a century ago, astutely observed this dichotomy in the modern mind when he said that "the man of this school goes first to a political meeting, where he complains that savages are treated as if they were beasts; then he takes his hat and umbrella and goes on to a scientific meeting, where he proves that they practically are beasts." [5] It is precisely this incongruity which remains unaccounted for today.  This incongruity was raised to heights both humorous and sublime by noted Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson, writing an essay for the Atlantic Monthly called "The Biological Basis of Morality."  In it, Wilson outlines the argument for his suspicion that morals, ethics, and belief in the supernatural can all be written off to purely materially-originating, evolutionary-guided brain circuitry, and that's that.   In the light of this, he suggests in his conclusion that evolutionary history be "retold as poetry, " because it is more intrinsically grand than any religious epic.[6]  But if moral reasoning is just a lot of brain matter in motion, where does that leave appreciation for poetry? And seeing that poetry has a definite beginning and an end, as well as an author and a purpose, isn't the evolutionary epic the very last thing that could be told as poetry? Besides, who could possibly come up with a rhyme for lepidoptera?  If life is a drama, then it needs a Bard; and we need to learn to acknowledge our cosmic Bard, just like Alonso in the final act of The Tempest:

This is as strange a maze as e'er men trod,
And there is in this business more than nature
Was ever conduct of.  Some oracle
Must rectify our knowledge.

1. Michael D. Lemonick and Andrea Dorfman, "Up From the Apes," Time Magazine 154 no. 8, August 13, 1999.

2. Theodore Schick, Jr., "When Humanists Meet E.T.," Free Inquiry 20 no.3, Summer 2000, pp. 36-7.

3. Robert Wright, "The Accidental Creationist," The New Yorker, Dec. 30,
1999, pp. 56-65.

4. Stanley Jaki, The Limits of a Limitless Science, (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2000, p. 97).

5. G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, (NY: Image Books, 1990, pp 41-2).

6. E.O. Wilson, "The Biological Basis of Morality," The Atlantic Monthly 281 no. 4, April 1998, pp. 53-70.


  Evolution, Naturalism

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