Saturday, May 29, 2004

Transplant 1

I posted the following on my other blog first. But it's time to get some furniture up in this new blog wid a kwikness! Enjoy.

Well, isn't that conveeeeenient...!

I recently finished Matt Ridley’s fairly popular The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature (Perennial 1993). Ridley is, true to the reviews, witty and lucid. But, as much as I wanted the book to be a riveting tour of Darwinian evolutionary biology (no term of which is redundant), the book was actually kind of monotonous. I won’t, can’t, go into details now, but suffice it to say I found many of Ridley’s conjectures forced and simplistic. In fact, whenever I read Darwinian theory, I can’t help but imagine a thinktank of anxious, sweaty comic book writers wringing their smooth hands trying to figure out how X ends up in Y with Z. Sure, their explanations “work" -- but they sure can be hokey and well-isn't-that-convenient at times.

Predictably enough for a nontheist, Ridley is plagued by the inescapability of references to “plan," “will," “purpose," etc. in nature. The more Ridley discussed the interrelated intricacy of nature, the more I thought of God putting all things in order. The grandeur of nature working together, even in some pretty brutal ways, is precisely the point of the doctrine of divine creation. Telling me more about will do little to shake my faith in God’s creative wisdom; quite the opposite. As much as Ridley might liked to have bucked our benign assumptions about nature, his effort was rather tiresome for me, since I already believe in the fallenness -- the selfish competitiveness -- of this world. Evolutionary biology is for the 21st century what journalism has been for prior centuries: a relentless expose of original sin at all levels of life. Is that doctrine really that hard to believe?

It was interesting to note how Ridley often made telling concessions about the arbitrariness of sexual selection -- almost as if something, or Someone, pairs up species and mates for its, or His, own mysterious reasons. I also noted more than once Ridley’s inadvertent descriptions of the (exasperatingly clear) uniqueness of humans in some regards.

The worst chapter -- as I’ve heard is standard fare for Ridley’s books -- was the last. There, Ridley stumbles back and forth over himself trying to make evolutionary sense of the “point" of human intellect. Every other evolutionary pressure we can hypothesize as producing intellect in humans was also present for other species. Why then did this ungainly gift of intellect emerge only in humans?

To reply it was merely a biological accident, an indissoluble just-so story, misses the heart of the problem human reason poses for the Darwinian theory of evolution. According to that theory, all of -- and, crucially, only -- what we see today is a direct result of natural selection by way of mutation + adaptation + evolutionary pressures. That is, we have what we have because what came before us needed to develop it in the face of biological pressures. But the riddle is why we, and we almost exclusively, have an intellect which exceeds any and every imaginable antecedent biological pressure.

Darwinism says nature is parsimonious, stingy; it will provide only what is needed to advance life forms. Imagine Darwin’s nature as a paranoid man covered in odd gadgets and random machine parts. Anyone can come to him for some help with a problem, but it’s up to that person to survive -- or, more importantly, reproduce -- with the help of those gadgets. If you need to open a bottle of wine, nature might give you a shard of metal and a string. He certainly won’t give you a whole corkscrew. “Here, um, try this thing. See if, uh, you can make anything good," mumbles Darwin’s nature, then shuffles off like a psychotic Santa. The problem with human intellect is that its presence is like nature having given one species a whole refrigerator when all it needed was a doorstop. “Thanks, nature," says the hapless Homo sapiens, “but what am I gonna do with this thing? It’s way more than I need." The human intellect evolved (to absurdly advanced levels, no less) before it needed to, and that’s very unsettling for Darwinists. Shucks, it's almost like human reason done got stuck onto a hominid species from somewheres else. I reckon that's a might peculiar.

Ridley’s only solution to this, as of 1993, is that intellect was just an ornate side-effect of a more fundamental development in humans to attract as many mates as possible. (Well, isn't that convenient?) If you can seem witty, and, more than that, can manipulate a possible reproductive partner with your hyperactive intellect, then your hyperactive intellect will pass to more progeny and hyperactive intellects will, in turn, become more widespread. Pete and repeat.

Aside from the difficulty that this scenario requires the target partner also have an intellect advanced enough to respond to intellectual efforts, it’s quite hard to see how the huge surplus of our mental abilities would arise from an evolutionary pressure, which, as I alluded to above, every other species faces: luring mates. Chimps use every means they have to seduce each other, but they sure as Hades don’t compose poetry to do it. Why do we have so much more upstairs when everything else in life uses so much less to accomplish the same things downstairs? In the end, I just realized, a biological explanation of the human intellect slides nicely into the massive corral of evidence for the strong anthropic principle (i.e., that the universe was fine-tuned for human life).

At any rate, I wanted to set to paper an intriguing idea I just came across tonight, care of Edward T. Oakes, S.J. Oakes made a ten-minute reply ( to a professor’s talk at a symposium on the brain, mind and emergentism ( I was most impressed by how manfully Oakes embraced Darwinism and turned it toward the glory of God. To make his point, Oakes adopted an idea from Daniel Dennett, a leading Darwinian philosopher (and pretty snazzy cognitive researcher, to boot). He quoted at length from Dennett’s quite popular Darwin’s Dangerous Idea about “reverse engineering" (RE). RE is the idea that we can infer from a present biological (or mechanical) artifact about the antecedent conditions in which that artifact existed. Dennett’s example is a bird’s wing. In very simple terms, aliens could examine the wing and infer (based on the bone structure and density, feathers, wingspan, etc.) that the wing functioned in an environment of such and such viscosity, up to such and such heights, etc. The heuristic (or, learning) point is that we can learn about an environment by, so to speak, looking in the mirror of an environment’s furniture. The biological point is that something could emerge into an environment only if the environment had room for it, or let it come in. In rather Whiteheadian terms of "process," Oakes mentioned there is an organic interdpendence between a habitat and its inhabitants. A world without an atmosphere simply would not tolerate the emergence of winged creatures, at least as we know them.

Fair enough. But then Oakes made a very exciting move. Basically he asked, “What can we reverse engineer, or infer, about the world based on the presence of human minds?" Just as the bird’s wing requires air into which it can emerge, or in which it can function, so the artifact of present human minds presuppose a kind of “mental air" (props to Oakes) into which mind could emerge. This is basically a Darwinian way of saying minds presuppose Mind (or some kind of enduring “mentalhood" in the world).

Oakes's little insight reaffirms for me the idea that “all truth is God’s truth." I’m not bothered for theological reasons whether Darwinism is a valid theory. I’m bothered more by the many, and increasingly many, scientific and philosophical flaws in Darwinism. If it turns out Darwinism is basically accurate and does shed light on Creation, well and good. But the key question, as with all supposedly “self-interpreting" scientific evidence, is, “Okay, so now where do we go?" We know about the human genome; now what about the other stuff?

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