Posted: August 12, 2013
f someone had predicted a year ago that Oxford University Press would publish a book with the subtitle Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False, I might have wondered what alternate universe he was inhabiting. But Oxford did publish it, and the aftershocks among the intellectual elite have yet to abate.
The book's author, philosopher Thomas Nagel, is a professor at New York University and the recipient of numerous awards and honors, including an honorary doctorate from Oxford University; fellowships from the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities; and elections to such august bodies as the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society. It is a testament to Professor Nagel's stature that his critique of Darwinian theory was allowed to be published at all. But his stature has not immunized him from a flood of abuse and even suggestions of creeping senility.
It's not often that a book by a professional philosopher attracts the notice—let alone the ire—of the cultural powers-that-be. One can think of Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind in the 1980s, but other examples are hard to come by. At any rate, Mind and Cosmos is well on its way to becoming a book that can't be ignored by the thinking public. Thus far, it has been denounced in the Nation and the Huffington Post, dubbed the "most despised science book of 2012" by the London Guardian, defended in the New Republic (where Nagel's critics were blasted as "Darwinist dittoheads" and a "mob of materialists"), subjected to a feature story in the New York Times, and put on the cover of the Weekly Standard, which depicted Nagel being burned alive, surrounded by a cabal of demonic-looking men in hoods.
The author has attracted special displeasure from the powers-that-be for using Mind and Cosmos to praise intelligent design proponents such as biochemist Michael Behe and philosopher of science Stephen Meyer. As the New York Timesexplained, many of Nagel's fellow academics view him unfavorably "not just for the specifics of his arguments but also for what they see as a dangerous sympathy for intelligent design." Now there is a revealing comment: academics, typically blasé about everything from justifications of infanticide to pedophilia, have concluded that it is "dangerous" to give a hearing to scholars who think nature displays evidence of intelligent design.
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Unfortunately for Nagel, he is a serial offender when it comes to listening to the purveyors of such disreputable ideas. In 2009, he even chose Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design as a book of the year for theTimes Literary Supplement. Written by Stephen Meyer, Signature in the Cell made the case for purpose in nature from the existence of the digital information embedded in our DNA. After being denounced by one scientist, Nagel dryly recommended that he should "hold his nose and have a look at the book" before dismissing it.
Nagel now insists in Mind and Cosmos that "the defenders of intelligent design deserve our gratitude for challenging a scientific worldview that owes some of the passion displayed by its adherents precisely to the fact that it is thought to liberate us from religion." He adds that he thinks this anti-religious, materialist worldview "is ripe for displacement"—although he himself remains an unrepentant atheist.
Nagel rejects the positive argument for intelligent design because he thinks it necessitates theism, which he dismisses. His preferred alternative is teleology that is an irreducible part of nature, "a cosmic predisposition to the formation of life, consciousness, and the value that is inseparable from them." Nagel confesses that he is "not confident that this Aristotelian idea of teleology without intention makes sense, but I do not at the moment see why it doesn't."
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For all of the discussion and debate provoked by his book, he ultimately offers a rather simple, if profound, objection to Darwinism: "Evolutionary naturalism provides an account of our capacities that undermines their reliability, and in doing so undermines itself." In other words, if our mind and morals are simply the accidental products of a blind material process like natural selection acting on random genetic mistakes, what confidence can we have in them as routes to truth?
This objection is not new. Indeed, it reaches back to Charles Darwin himself. Darwin published a lengthy tome, The Descent of Man, purporting to prove that his theory of unguided evolution could explain basically everything, including man's mind and morals. Yet in his private writings, he expressed a lingering reservation over the impact of his theory on the trustworthiness of reason. In a letter written in 1881, he disclosed that "with me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man's mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey's mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?"
In the decades that followed, many echoed Darwin's question, but it may have been Sir Arthur Balfour who first helped formulate it into a coherent argument in The Foundations of Belief (1895) and Theism and Humanism (1915). Best known as the British prime minister who issued the Balfour Declaration supporting the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, Balfour in Theism and Humanism wanted to show, post-Darwin,
that if we would maintain the value of our highest beliefs and emotions, we must find for them a congruous origin. Beauty must be more than accident. The source of morality must be moral. The source of knowledge must be rational.
With regard to the human mind, Balfour argued that efforts like Darwinism to explain mind in terms of blind material causes was self-refuting: "all creeds which refuse to see an intelligent purpose behind the unthinking powers of material nature are intrinsically incoherent. In the order of causation they base reason upon unreason. In the order of logic they involve conclusions which discredit their own premises." Balfour offered a similar critique of Darwinian and other materialistic accounts of human morality, which he thought destroyed morality by depicting it as the product of processes that are essentially non-moral.
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Balfour's argument was later taken up by Oxford don, literary scholar, and Christian apologist C.S. Lewis, who named Theism and Humanism as one of the books that influenced his philosophy of life the most. Lewis's debt to Balfour is prominently on display in his book Miracles: A Preliminary Study.
According to Lewis, modern materialists argue that "[t]he type of mental behavior we now call rational thinking or inference must...have been ‘evolved' by natural selection, by the gradual weeding out of types less fitted to survive." He flatly denied that such a Darwinian process could have produced human rationality: "[N]atural selection could operate only by eliminating responses that were biologically hurtful and multiplying those which tended to survival. But it is not conceivable that any improvement of responses could ever turn them into acts of insight, or even remotely tend to do so." Why not? Because "[t]he relation between response and stimulus is utterly different from that between knowledge and the truth known." Natural selection could improve our responses to stimuli from the standpoint of physical survival but could not turn them into reasoned responses. Following Balfour (and anticipating Nagel), Lewis held that attributing the development of human reason to a non-rational process like natural selection ends up undermining our confidence in reason itself.
Even as Lewis in Miracles rejected a Darwinian explanation for the human mind because it undermined the validity of reason, he rejected a Darwinian account of morality because it would undermine the authority of morality by attributing it to an essentially amoral process of survival of the fittest.
After all, if human behaviors and beliefs are ultimately the products of natural selection, then all such products must be equally preferable. The same Darwinian process that produces the maternal instinct also produces infanticide. The same Darwinian process that generates love also brings forth sadism. The same Darwinian process that inspires courage also spawns cowardice. Hence, the logical result of a Darwinian account of morality is not so much immorality as relativism. According to Lewis, the person who offers such an account of morality should honestly admit that "there is no such thing as wrong and right...no moral judgment can be ‘true' or ‘correct' and, consequently...no one system of morality can be better or worse than another."
Others who have offered arguments similar to Nagel's on the incompatibility of Darwinian materialism with our cognitive faculties include contemporary Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga of Notre Dame University. Plantinga's most recent foray into the area can be found in his book Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism (2011).
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If the fundamental thesis isn't exactly new, why has it proved to be such a shock to the cultural establishment? One reason is undoubtedly that Nagel is an atheist, which preempts the usual invective against religious fundamentalists. More generally, our cultural elites are so parochial and inbred that many of them really cannot conceive that any thinking person could doubt Darwinism. When confronted with such an oddity—from among their own class no less—they are astounded.
One can hardly blame them. Darwinian theory forms the modern secularist's creation myth, a myth aided and abetted by a triumphalist rewrite of Western intellectual history. Western society, you see, was stuck back in the Dark Ages of flat-earthers, witch trials, and the Inquisition until Darwin embarked from the HMS Beagle like Moses from Mount Sinai to deliver his revelation that nature is the product of a blind, impersonal process. Everyone (or at least, all thinking persons) then supposedly became Darwinians.
Nowadays, many Darwinists extend the myth to include leading thinkers long before Darwin. An especially brazen attempt is Rebecca Stott's Darwin's Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution. Stott's book purports to tell "the story of the collective discovery of evolution" starting with Aristotle, medieval Islamic writer Al-Jahiz, and Leonardo da Vinci. If it really accomplished that feat, the book would be extraordinary, given that each of those writers believed in the fixity of species and a natural world imbued with purpose. Though the author herself, a professor of English at East Anglia University, obviously wants to draw a line from Aristotle, et al., to Darwin, she (unlike her book jacket) is frank enough to concede that the thinkers she discusses for the first hundred pages of her book were not in fact evolutionists, Darwinian or otherwise.
Stott highlights what she sees as the oppressive forces of religion squelching heterodox ideas among the valiant, free-thinking proto-evolutionists. For anyone familiar with 19th-century broadsides like Andrew Dickson White's The Warfare of Science with Theology, this approach is far from fresh. But writing the book was obviously therapeutic for Stott, who makes clear at the start that she was traumatized by growing up in a "Creationist household."
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In reality, the history of the idea of evolution both before and after Darwin has been considerably messier and more interesting than her triumphalist narrative.
To many of his contemporaries, Darwin made a convincing case for the development of current animals from earlier life forms, partly because others had paved the way for him (a point to Stott), and partly because he marshaled an impressive amount of data and argumentation. Nevertheless, his truly radical claim—that complex life developed through an unguided process of natural selection acting on random variations—was a much tougher sell. As historian Peter Bowler has explained, for a long time after Darwin many scientists still believed "that evolution was an essentially purposeful process.... The human mind and moral values were seen as the intended outcome of a process that was built into the very fabric of nature and that could thus be interpreted as the Creator's plan."
One of the most interesting of Darwin's contemporaries to advocate purposeful evolution is featured, albeit misleadingly, in the final chapter of Stott's book. His name is Alfred Russel Wallace, and this year marks the centennial of his death. Forgotten by popular culture, Wallace is generally recognized by scholars as the co-discoverer with Darwin of evolution by natural selection. As Stott points out, Wallace came up with roughly the same idea as Darwin while suffering from a malarial fever in 1858 on the island of Ternate, now part of Indonesia.
A magnanimous man, Wallace never felt slighted by being relegated to Darwin's shadow, and he went on to pioneer an important new sub-field of biology, biogeography. There, most standard accounts of Wallace end, except for occasional swipes about his interest in spiritualism (an interest shared with many prominent Victorian-era scientists and intellectuals). What is usually suppressed is the most fascinating development of all: Wallace's embrace of intelligent design.
In 1869, Wallace published an article in the Quarterly Review arguing that man's mental and moral faculties went far beyond what was needed for survival and therefore could not be accounted for by unguided natural selection. Instead, they required the operation of a "Higher Intelligence" in the history of life, a.k.a., an intelligent designer.
Darwin was aghast. "I differ grievously from you, and I am very sorry for it," he wrote Wallace. But Wallace was not to be dissuaded. By the end of his life, he was propounding what historian Michael Flannery has aptly termed a theory of "intelligent evolution," the idea that the history of life required guidance from top to bottom by a cosmic mind. Not a Christian, Wallace insisted that his theory was based on science rather than faith. He explicated his account of intelligent evolution in two books near the end of his life: Man's Place in the Universe (1903) and The World of Life (1910). Anticipating contemporary proponents of intelligent design, Wallace found evidence of purpose in the functional complexity of the cell, the exquisite design of biological structures, and the rare constellation of physical factors that allows life to exist on the earth in the first place. "[E]verywhere, not here and there, but everywhere, and in the very smallest operations of nature to which human observation has penetrated, there is Purpose and a continual Guidance and Control," he concluded.
This was outright heresy for Darwinists. Yet none of it is even alluded to in Stott's chapter, which makes one wonder how much of his writings she has actually read. It is telling that her book, whose theme is the supposed suppression of evolutionary argument throughout history, should itself suppress the heretical arguments of modern evolutionary theory's co-founder.
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At least Thomas Nagel's views are not being suppressed. Whether they are enough to reopen a serious cultural conversation about the nature of nature, or will be quickly forgotten like the teleological arguments of Alfred Russel Wallace and Arthur Balfour, only time will tell. But in writing Mind and Cosmos, Nagel has issued a powerful invitation to both his colleagues and his readers to expand their horizons: "I would like to extend the boundaries of what is not regarded as unthinkable, in light of how little we really understand about the world."