Darwin's Dangerous Idea

"Darwin has convinced all the scientists that evolution works. The how and why it works is still somewhat embattled, largely because those who resist can dimly see that their skirmish is part of a larger campaign. If the game is lost in evolutionary biology, where will it all end?" - Dan Dennett in Darwin's Dangerous Idea
I've been reading this famous work of Dennett's recently, and it's a beast of a read – a book that truly command's one's attention. It's a fascinating and well-researched tome on the philosophical implications of evolution. While reading it, I've been reminded of an essay for the Templeton Foundation by the primatologist Frans De Waal, in which he commented on the broader implications of evolution:
Human nature simply cannot be understood in isolation from the rest of nature. This evolutionary approach is already difficult for many people to accept, but it is likely to generate even more resistance once its implications are fully grasped. After all, the idea that we descend from long-armed, hairy creatures is only half the message of evolutionary theory. The other half is continuity with all other life forms. We are animals not only in body but also in mind. This idea may prove harder to swallow.
In his recent debate with Sam Harris, theologian William Lane Craig argued that on a naturalistic world view, humans are "just animals." Craig means to imply that without God, humanity's behavior may as well be red in tooth and claw; but such shallow reductionism is a disservice both to animals and to our evolutionary roots. "Survival of the fittest" is too often mistaken to mean merely the survival of the fittest individuals. The greater meaning of the term, however, is the survival of the fittest population. This is far from a trivial distinction; many, if not all animals, including humans, are fit to survive precisely because of their altruistic, cooperative nature – a distinction we have erroneously assumed was uniquely our own. De Waal expounds, in his book The Age of Empathy:
Don’t believe anyone who says that since nature is based on a struggle for life, we need to live like this as well. Many animals survive not by eliminating each other or by keeping everything for themselves, but by cooperating and sharing. This applies most definitely to pack hunters, such as wolves or killer whales, but also our closest relatives, the primates. In a study in Ta├» National Park, in Ivory Coast, chimpanzees took care of group mates wounded by leopards, licking their blood, carefully removing dirt, and waving away flies that came near the wounds. They protected injured companions, and slowed down during travel in order to accommodate them. All of this makes perfect sense given that chimpanzees live in groups for a reason, the same way wolves and humans are group animals for a reason. If man is wolf to man, he is so in every sense, not just the negative one. We would not be where we are today had our ancestors been socially aloof. What we need is a complete overhaul of assumptions about human nature. Too many economists and politicians model human society on the perpetual struggle they believe exists in nature, but which is a mere projection. Like magicians, they first throw their ideological prejudices into the hat of nature, then pull them out by their very ears to show how much nature agrees with them. It’s a trick for which we have fallen for too long. [p.6]

Darwin's idea has challenged us to more carefully examine many of our most fundamental intuitions about nature. It has demonstrated that complex living things can arise by blind algorithmic processes, without the need of a Designer. This undermines the central assumption of all arguments for God's existence by the imposition of design: that like must come from like. This arouses fear and loathing in the believer, for if we as a species arose from blind processes, then – as Dennett observes – where will it end? Cosmologists have long believed – though they cannot yet prove – that the universe itself is a self-contained set of blind algorithmic processes. A central feature of such processes is the absence of telos, a "final cause" or ultimate purpose. Even some evolutionary biologists, such as Kenneth Miller, struggle with the implication that Darwin's idea strips humankind of its inevitability – that is, if we rewound the clock and started evolution from the first life-forms again, we'd likely end up with a completely different outcome – one in which humans, or even primates, never arose at all. And if there is no telos, then what of our mere existence? It's as though we had been lying in a crib, being told by a soothing voice how special we all are, and in an instant we found ourselves fully grown with the realization that the voice has been exposed as a projection of our own evolved consciousness.

It would be too easy, and too simple-minded, to mistakenly believe that this mechanistic, materialistic view of nature somehow robs us of our humanity. On the contrary, it is these naturalistic mechanisms which gave rise to our humanity in the first place – a thread that began millions of years ago, with our evolutionary ancestors. The beauty of such algorithms is that, blind though they may be, they give rise to a whole which possesses properties absent in its parts. Besides, the notion that our humanity must be derived from some mystical, extrinsic source doesn't answer its own objection – it only pushes it back a step, positing in lieu of natural mechanisms some sort of mysterious, divine mechanism. We can always ask, What is the purpose of that? or What is so special about that?, regardless of whether we terminate the regress in nature or in imponderable divinity.

As I read this book, I'm starting to get a better grasp on what Richard Dawkins meant when he said that while one could have been an atheist before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an "intellectually fulfilled" atheist. I'm also reminded of Stephen Hawking's controversial statement in The Grand Design: "philosophy is dead". Darwin's idea was powerful not just because of its concise and thorough explanatory power, but because Darwin spent most of Origin explaining the empirical evidence which supported it – evidence which, with the advent of genetics and molecular biology, has multiplied exponentially to a degree Darwin likely never could have imagined. A great many philosophers before Darwin had mused on the nature of reality, but Darwin showed us that to be a good philosopher, one must also be a scientist.


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