Sunday, July 27, 2008
So What’s So Wrong with Darwin?
The late William Provine, a professor at Cornell University, once wrote about what he called the five inescapable conclusions about Darwinism, if Darwinism is true. These are:
1. There are no purposive principles whatsoever in nature.
2. There are no inherent moral or ethical laws, and thus no absolute guiding principles of human society.
3. Human beings are complex machines, which become ethical persons by means of two primary mechanisms: heredity and environmental influence.
4. When we die, we die, and that’s it.
5. There is no such thing as free will. Quote: “There is no way that the evolutionary process as currently conceived can produce a being that is truly free to make choices.”
It should be noted that in drawing these conclusions, Provine was not trying to disprove Darwinism. He was not trying to portray it as ridiculous or silly. He was not, by any stretch of the imagination, a Bible-thumping creationist viewing Darwinism as a threat to his religion. He remained, until his dying day, a secular scholar who found no fault in Darwinian principles and who agreed wholeheartedly with the Huxleyan assertion that Darwin at long last made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist and who considered himself a member of that good company.
No, this is an open and honest critique, a simple statement of the core beliefs of the faith, made by a member of the faithful. It is the Nicene Creed of Darwinism.
By “Darwinism” I mean the belief that new species arise from pre-existing ones; that over great periods of time by means of gradual, slow changes from one species to the next, new genera, orders, and phyla are established; that the mechanism behind the change from one species to the next is natural selection operating in tandem with random genetic mutation; that this mechanism applies universally throughout nature; and that the process occurs on its own, without any help from outside the natural system. My standard shorthand is: A Darwinist believes that the great-great-great grandchildren of a fish can become the great-great-great grandparents of a bat. The shorter shorthand: A Darwinist believes a fish can become a bat. Same difference.
To expand on each of Provine’s assertions just a bit:
1. There are no purposive principles whatsoever in nature. By this Provine means that when something happens in nature—say, the beaver acquires buck teeth—it occurs only because natural forces have allowed it to come about, and never because of some goal-oriented force wanting it so. The beaver has his buck teeth because there is a benefit to having buck teeth, not because someone ever said to himself “If we want the beaver to build a better dam, we’d better give him a couple of whopping great incisors to help him bring down more trees.”
2. There are no inherent moral or ethical laws, and thus no absolute guiding principles of human society. Morality and ethics are mere human constructs, formulated perhaps to help us survive in a world red in tooth and claw (or perhaps for some other reason), but not imposed upon us by some exterior force. They do not exist because they have to exist but because we allow them to exist. Murder, for example, is bad only because society claims it is bad; if humanity were suddenly to decide that murder is good, we could murder with impunity.
3. Human beings are complex machines, which become ethical persons by means of two primary mechanisms: heredity and environmental influence. If no laws of morality/ethics exist, and since morality and ethics are mere tools of our own invention, these come about either because we have evolved with these notions already in mind, or because our experiences have led us to adopt our particular ideas of what is moral or ethical. Any strictly scientific theory such as evolution does not contain within itself the resources to underpin or to undermine a normative activity such as morality. Specifically, the theory of evolution does not tell us directly what we ought to do, but only aids in explaining why we engage in such normative activities.
4. When we die, we die, and that’s it. The explanation for our existence is to be found within nature. Mind is just an epiphenomenon of the neural activity of our brains, and notions such as religion have only come about because they somehow facilitate our survival, and offshoots of those notions such as the idea of Heaven or Hell are but the creation of our own fancies. An afterlife implies a purpose to the present life, which we know not to be the case because the universe is purposeless as stated in #1. Because being is a mere temporal verity having no real ontological meaning, we are thus mere physical beings and not spiritual ones.
5. There is no such thing as free will. Everything that we are is the product of natural selection operating in tandem with random genetic mutation, including our minds and our ability to use our minds in decision-making. The choices we make are due entirely to our heredity, which is the product of our environment, or to our environment, which acts upon our heredity, or to some combination of the two. Since our choices are dependent upon either our DNA or our environment, there is ultimately so such thing as free will, which is necessitated upon an ability to act independently. If we can’t act independently of our genes or our environment, we aren’t free from it, either.
So, why do I find the Darwinistic outlook so bleak?
If Darwinism is true, the universe itself is without purpose. A notion such as God becomes superfluous, since He is not needed in explaining where a fish, a bat, or anything else, comes from. I see no intrinsic difference between a God who is unnecessary and one who does not exist.
If the universe is without purpose, and if everything that exists is part of that universe, then there is no purpose in anything. The fish, the bat, you, me, and the scum on the bottom of your shoe are all on the same level—the meaningless, accidental offshoots of an accidental universe, resulting from blind, undirected, purposeless processes which did not have the fish/bat/you/me/scum in mind as an end product.
If there is no purpose behind our being, then there is no purpose in our living, either. Our creation was purposeless, and likewise our existence and all phases of it: our birth, our life, and our death. What does it matter whether you die today or eighty years from now? There was no purpose in your being here in the first place, and once you die there’ll be nothing left of you to know the difference.
Morality is a purely subjective illusion. Murder is not immoral, only illegal. Were we to change the law, there would be absolutely nothing wrong with murder. And, anyway, if morality is an illusion, so is the law. So we are left with no means whatsoever of establishing murder –or anything else, for that matter—as right or wrong. Murder is only a meaningless event in a meaningless universe, perpetrated by meaningless people upon meaningless others. There’s no sense in crying over spilled milk, especially when even the significance of the milk can be called into question.
Moreover, Provine’s assertions about Darwinism, to use his own verbage, are inescapable—if Darwinism is true.
If there is something inaccurate in describing such an outlook as “bleak,” it is only in that the description represents a rank understatement.
But I believe that free will exists. I believe that right is separate from wrong. I believe that we are here for a purpose. And my only means of reconciling what I believe with what Provine asserts is to understand that there is therefore something wrong with his premise that Darwinism is true.
And that is to realize that Darwinism is NOT true.
If right and wrong are but processes that come from within human beings, then right and wrong are only significant inasmuch as human beings are significant.
Further, if human beings are the unintended result of purely naturalistic process, it follows that human beings are accidents.
So, human beings are accidents, but the processes that come from within them are nonetheless valid? I fail to see how.
As to the validity of human-made processes, I have to ask, valid in what sense and to what end? Certainly the cross-cultural moral rules are valid in the sense that no society can thrive without them. What more validity ought one require?