My comments on this lecture (and the ensuing discussion) appear as a collection of footnotes. In due course, they will be ordered into a Note (Click here for Note).
Response (Full Text)
- Charles Darwin was a brilliant naturalist privileged to live in extraordinary times, when intrepid voyagers like himself would return from their circumnavigations around the world with their ships’ holds filled with tens of thousands of never previously described species of insects, fish, plants and mammals. This revelation of the astonishing diversity of the living world extended to the long-since extinct, for this was also the Golden Age of Geology with the discovery of the fossilised remains of vast improbable creatures that roamed the surface of the earth long before the arrival of Man.
- Darwin’s pre-eminent position in the pantheon of British scientists derives from his having formulated the all-encompassing theory of ‘natural selection acting on the random mutation of genes’ to explain not just the hundreds of millions of species, in all their diversity, with which we share this planet but the much greater number of the long-since extinct, as all having evolved ‘by modification’ from a single1 ancestor.
- What to make of this? There can be no disputing the fact2 of evolution. The whole history of the universe, after all, from the moment of the Big Bang onwards is an evolutionary history of the simplest forms of matter to the ever-more complex. Nor can there be any disputing the concept of ‘natural selection3’ as there is nothing so self-evident than that Nature selects the strong and robust over the frail and vulnerable. Nor is there any reason to doubt that Darwin’s proposed mechanism of natural selection acting on random genetic mutation accounts, at least in part, for the subtle differences between closely related species – epitomised by the Galapagos finches with their different shaped beaks, each ‘adapted to its particular method of finding food’: one a powerful crushing nutcracker, another similar to a pair of probing tweezers, and so on.
- The problem, rather, and a continuing source of scepticism, about Darwin’s evolutionary theory is that its simple mechanism explains too much – not just, as noted, the entire history of life, but there is nothing too bizarre or extraordinary about the billion-fold biological complexities of the living world that cannot be explained as having evolved to be as it is over aeons of time. And that, on reflection, is a very odd thing for any theory to do for, as the philosopher Karl Popper pointed out, theories that explain everything4 in general end up explaining not very much in particular. Darwin’s evolutionary theory generates the illusion5 that we know vastly more than we really do, while its too simple explanations drain6 the phenomena of life of the sense of the extraordinary. And there is nothing more extraordinary than ourselves. 'Wonders are there many', wrote the Greek playwright Sophocles, 'but none so wonderful as Man'. And rightly so. We are not only (so far as we can tell) the sole witness of the splendours of the universe but uniquely7 capable by virtue of the power of reason and imagination of our extraordinary minds to comprehend it. For the best part of 2500 years from the philosopher Plato onwards this dual aspect of the human experience – the recognition of the wonder and beauty of the living world and the intellectual properties of the human mind – were interpreted as direct evidence of our exceptionality – that we were created Imago Dei, in the image of God.
- This is scarcely the modern view. Many to be sure are moved and uplifted by the wonder of the world about us but the prevailing view is that science and particularly Darwin’s evolutionary theory, solved the fundamental questions – or as the evolutionary biologist Professor Richard Dawkins puts it 'our own existence that once presented the greatest of all mysteries, is a mystery no longer. Darwin solved8 it.' We, like all living things, are the fortuitous consequence of that same blind materialist process of natural selection acting on random genetic mutations – a chance life form on a minor planet lost in the vastness of space. There is indeed nothing that cannot be explained in materialist9 terms – the beauty and diversity of the living world in terms of the materialist genes, and the powers of the human mind in terms of the material electrochemistry of the brain10.
- There are, as you will know, a series of well-rehearsed arguments that challenge the explanatory11 power of Darwin’s theory, particularly ‘the puzzle of perfection12’, how a random process could bring into existence (for example) the remarkable properties of the human eye and the many inconsistencies13 of the fossil record with their failure to provide the empirical evidence for gradualist14 evolutionary transformation.
- But my purpose15 today is, as it were, to extend that argument by showing how, quite inadvertently, the scientific findings of the recent past have confounded the scientific materialist view and in the process reaffirmed our exceptionality.
- It all goes back to the recent past of the mid-1980s when an astonishing series of scientific developments took place that held out the prospect of finally resolving the two outstanding biological problems:
- The nature of ‘form’ – and why it is that the millions of species are so readily distinguishable16 one from another; and,
- The nature of ‘mind’ – how the material working of the brain gives rise to the material17 thoughts, ideas and impressions of the human mind.
- Those major scientific developments were, first, the ability to spell out the entire sequence of genes (the genome) strung out along the Double Helix – of worm, mouse, fly, man and many others, and thus reveal the genetic instructions by which all living things replicate their kind with such fidelity from generation to generation. And, second, sophisticated brain scanning techniques that would permit scientists for the first time to observe18 the brain ‘in action’ from the inside, thinking, imagining and reflecting, and in the process account for that unique character or personality that is each one of us.
- The completion of the Human Genome Project in 2001 marked 'One of the most significant days in history', as one of its architects described it. 'Just as Copernicus changed our understanding of the solar system … so knowledge of the human genome would change how we see ourselves.' At the same time Professor Stephen Pinker19, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, writing in the journal Scientific American described how neuroscientists with their new scanning techniques had investigated everything 'from mental imagery to moral sense', and confidently anticipated 'cracking the mystery of the brain'.
- Nearly a decade has passed since those heady days and looking back it is possible to see how the findings of both endeavours have enormously deepened our knowledge of life and the mind – but in a way quite contrary to that anticipated. The Genome Projects were predicated on a reasonable assumption that spelling out the full complement of genes would clarify, to a greater or lesser extent, the source of that diversity of form that marks out the major categories of life. It was thus disconcerting to learn that virtually the reverse is the case with the near equivalence20 of a modest 20,000 genes across the vast spectrum of organismic complexity from a millimetre-long worm to ourselves. It is similarly disconcerting to learn that the same regulatory or homeotic genes that cause a fly to be a fly cause a human to be a human and that our genome is virtually interchangeable with that of our fellow vertebrates such as the mouse and our primate cousins. 'We cannot see in this why we are so different from chimpanzees', remarked the director of the Chimp Genome Project. 'The obvious differences cannot21 be explained by genetics alone.'
- These findings were certainly unexpected, but they also undermined the central premise of biology: that the secret of the near infinite diversity of form and attributes that so definitively distinguish living things one from the other must ‘lie in the genes’. The Genome Projects were, after all, predicated on the assumption that the ‘genes for’ the delicate stooping head and pure white petals of the snowdrop would be different from the ‘genes for’ the colourful upstanding petals of the tulip, which would be different again from the ‘genes for’ flies and frogs, birds and humans. But the genome projects reveal a very different story, where the genes ‘code for’ the nuts and bolts of the cells from which all living things are made – the hormones, enzymes and proteins of the ‘chemistry of life’ – but the diverse subtlety of form, shape and colour that distinguishes snowdrops from tulips, flies from frogs and humans is nowhere22 to be found.
- Put another way, there is not the slightest hint in the composition of the genes of fly or man to account for why23 the fly should have six legs, a pair of wings and the brain the size of a full stop and we should have two arms, two legs and that prodigious brain. These ‘instructions’ must24 be there, of course, for otherwise flies would not produce flies and humans humans. But we have moved over the last decade from assuming that we knew the principle, if not the details, of that greatest of marvels, the genetic basis of the infinite variety of life, to recognising that we not only do not understand the principles, but that we have no conception of what they might be.
- We have here, as the historian of science Evelyn Fox Keller25 puts it:
One of those rare and wonderful moments when success teaches us humility … [W]e lulled ourselves into believing that in discovering the basis for genetic information we had found the ‘secret of life’; we were confident that if we could only decode the message and the secret of chemicals we would understand the ‘programme’ that makes an organism what it is. But now there is at least a tacit acknowledgement of how large that gap between genetic ‘information’ and biological meaning26 really is.
- There is, of course, no27 reasonable explanation why the findings of these Genome Projects should have been so contrary to those anticipated but it is important to note that the appeal of the Double Helix and the reason why it has dominated biology for the last sixty years is that the simplicity28 and elegance of its structure held out the promise that the genetic instructions might be ‘knowable’. But, on reflection, that simplicity cannot be because it is simple but rather because it has to be simple in order to replicate29 the genetic instructions every time the cell divides. It must therefore, by necessity, condense within the monotonous sequence of chemicals strung out along its intertwining strands the form and attributes that so readily distinguish one form of life from another. This would seem to pose an impenetrable barrier to current understanding and presupposes rather the existence of some non-material30 force, as yet unknown to science, that from the moment of conception imposes the order of ‘form’ on life and holds it constant as its cells and tissues are constantly renewed.
- It is a similar story with the recent findings of neuroscience. The opportunity provided by those sophisticated scanning techniques to observe the brain ‘in action’ generated many novel insights into the patterns of electrical activity of the brain that looks out on the world ‘out there’ and interprets the grammar and syntax of language, recalls past events and much else besides. But at every turn the neuroscientists found themselves completely frustrated in their attempt to get at how the brain actually31 works.
- Right from the beginning it was clear there was simply ‘too much going on’. There could be no simple experiment that just scanned the brain of a subject when first reading, then speaking, and then listening to a single word such as ‘chair’. This should, it was anticipated, show the relevant part of the brain ‘lighting up’ – the visual cortex when reading, the speech centre when speaking and the auditory cortex when listening. But no, the brain scan showed that each separate task ‘lit up’ not just the relevant part of the brain but generated a blizzard of electrical activity across vast networks of millions of neurons – while thinking about the meaning of a word and speaking appeared to activate the brain virtually in its entirety. The brain, it seemed, must work in a way previously never really appreciated – not as an aggregate of distinct specialised parts, but as an integrated32 whole, with the same neuronal circuits performing many different functions.
- Next it emerged that the brain, moment by moment, fragmented33 the sights and sounds of the world ‘out there’ into a myriad of separate components but without there being any34 compensating mechanism to reintegrate all those fragments back together again into that personal experience of being at the centre, moment by moment, of a coherent, ever-changing world. Reflecting on this problem, Nobel Prize Winner David Hubel of Harvard University would observe:
This abiding tendency for attributes such as form, colour and movement to be handled by separate structures in the brain immediately raises the question how all the information is finally assembled say for perceiving a bouncing red ball. It obviously must be assembled – but where and how, we have no idea35. Meanwhile the greatest perplexity of all remains unresolved – how the monotonous36 electrical activity of those billions of neurons in the brain ‘translate’ into the limitless range and quality of subjective experiences of our everyday lives, where every transient, fleeting moment has its own distinct, unique, intangible feel; where the cadences of a Bach cantata are so utterly different from a flash of lightning; the taste of Bourbon from the lingering memory of that first kiss.
- The implications are obvious enough, that while it might be possible to know everything about the physical materiality of the brain, its ‘product’, the mind with its thoughts and ideas, impressions and emotions, would still remain unaccounted37 for.
- This distinction between the electrochemical activity of the material brain and the non-material mind (of thoughts and ideas) as two quite different things might seem so self-evident as to be scarcely worth commenting on. But for neuroscientists the question of how the brain’s electrical activity translates into thoughts and sensations was precisely what needed explaining – and the failure to do so has come to haunt them. So, for everything that the sophisticated techniques of the brain ‘in action’ have undoubtedly achieved, nonetheless as the late John Maddox, Editor of Nature would acknowledge: 'We seem as38 far from understanding [the brain] as we were a century ago. Nobody understands how decisions39 are made or how imagination40 is set free'.
- There is in the most recent findings of genetics and neuroscience a powerful impression that science has been looking in the wrong place, seeking to resolve questions whose answers lie somehow outside its domain41. It is not just a matter of science not yet knowing all the facts42; rather there is the sense that something of immense importance is ‘missing43’ that might transform the bare bones of genes into the wondrous diversity of the living world and the monotonous electrical firing of the brain into the vast spectrum of sensations and ideas of the human mind.
- This necessarily focuses our attention on what that potent ‘missing force’ might be. This is, however, an even more formidable question than it might appear for, along the way, those recent scientific findings have also subverted the credibility of what till recently we thought we did know about ourselves – transforming the certainty of the conventional evolutionary account of the 'Ascent of Man' into a riddle.
- The major palaeontological discoveries of the last few decades, particularly the near complete skeletons of ‘Lucy’, Australopithecus afarensis, in 1974, and ‘Turkana Boy’, homo erectus, in 1984, would certainly appear to confirm the conventional account culminating in the emergence of modern man, homo sapiens, in Africa around 120,000 years ago that first created the human civilisation of Cro-magnon Man in southern Europe with its astonishing artistic and technical achievements. But while it is certainly very difficult to conceive of anything other than some form of evolutionary scenario to account for these palaeontological discoveries, why, one might reasonably ask, is there not the slightest hint44 in the findings of the Human Genome Project that might account for those hundreds of anatomical changes necessary for that unique human attribute of standing upright that so readily distinguishes us from our primate cousins? Again, while the similarly genetically unexplained prodigious45 expansion of the size of the human brain is clearly a prerequisite for the uniquely human attributes of the faculty of language, reason and imagination, the explanatory gap46 between the physical materiality of the brain and the non-material properties of the mind would seem to defy47 the simplicity of the evolutionary doctrine that would maintain they are ‘nothing but’ the consequence of natural selection acting on the random mutation of genes.
- The ramifications of the most recent findings of genetics and neuroscience and their implications for the validity of the conventional evolutionary account are clearly prodigious, suggesting we are on the brink48 of some tectonic shift in our understanding of ourselves. So it would take a much longer lecture than this to anticipate what form49 a tectonic shift might take but at the very least it would seem to refute50 unequivocally Darwin’s proposed mechanism of evolutionary transformation – with profound implications for our understanding of ourselves. We are, it would seem, not just a mystery to ourselves, but the51 central mystery of the universe to which we belong.
General Discussion (Full Text)
- Peter Adams:
- Thank you, James. I had thought my job here might be to widen the scope of what you were going to say, but I think you have offered us a huge sweep across the topic. I have read your book, and, if I may be permitted to ‘plug’ it, I do so here and now. You spoke for less than an hour, and have tried to give us a taste of what is in your book. If anyone has found some aspect of the topic particularly interesting, and would like to go into it a little more, I recommend the book.
- I come at this subject in a slightly different way, I suppose because of my background. Being more of a theoretician, I try to see what the theory is supposed to be and then ask if the facts meet the theory. (This is something you, James, have also done in our own way.) I find a problem of terminology with ‘evolution’, and seek to avoid the word, because, as you have said, ‘evolution’ certainly happens over a grand sweep of millions of years. I focus rather on ‘Darwinism’ which is, of course, supposed to be the explanation of evolution and a mechanism or law to explain change and improvement through mutation and natural selection – or ‘descent with modifications’, as it is also sometimes called.
- It is very puzzling that evolutionists should think Darwinism has something to say about the origin of life, because it – being about modifications of species as they are born, live, reproduce, and die, with offspring taking over, and so on – presupposes many living things. I cannot, in fact, see that it has anything to say about the origin52 of life. That makes one suspicious when told, ‘Oh yes it does!’.
- Darwinism, moreover, because of the mechanism it postulates – change caused by random mutations and then selected for (if they are bad, things die out; if they are good, even advantageous, they tend to take over) – presents a view of the tree of life. You, James, showed us Darwin’s spreading tree. We should want, of course, to see if that tree of life is actually present in reality. We have long had fossils, but these have allowed us only to go by appearances. Nowadays, with genetics, it should be possible to tell what came first, and how genes have modified themselves through mutations which do happen in accord with the second law of thermodynamics53. When we look now at the tree of life it is not actually simple, but rather one with many, many cross-connections.
- Years ago I read a scientist complaining about evolution, and asking, ‘Well, why do broad beans contain haemoglobin?’. (Apparently they do.) There are cross-connections between species. It is well-known in the case of bacteria that they exchange54 genetic information between species, increasing the complexity of their genetic information, not by random mutation and natural selection but rather by actually pumping over whole chunks of their genome to their fellows in the race for life. It is said that most living things are micro-organisms of which bacteria form the greater part. Most living things, therefore, do not55 follow Darwin’s process of evolution.
- I have heard key questions posed recently. What makes something, even a simple organism, alive? What makes this bundle of chemicals live? What makes it struggle to survive, to search for nutrients, to fight off competitors, to reproduce or to divide? Why does it bother56? Scientists simply do not know the answer. It is the very fundamental problem of vitalism. Is it57 a force? Whatever it is, it is certainly there. A living thing is quite different from a dead thing.
- A physicist looking at a bundle of chemicals doing something might expect to find it in a minimum energy state. They components might get excited over something or other that has happened, but they would settle down again to a minimum energy state. A living bundle of things is not in such a state. When it dies, it reverts to that state. Here we have a mystery.
- Towards the end of his book, James writes, towards the end, of the scientific paradigm, following Thomas Kuhn’s famous notion of a ‘paradigm shift’. Every so often there must be introduced a different sort of approach. I am struck by how Newton’s solution for planetary motion – how things move under gravity – had so great an effect on all sorts of thinkers – not just scientists, but philosophers, and others working in all sorts of fields. It was a really big event. Scientists wish to emulate that achievement today. They are seeking the answer, the big answer. I have in my mind the image of a rabbit being fired from a cannon. Newton’s laws provide for the trajectory of the rabbit and will tell you exactly where it should fall, and how fast it is going to hit the ground. Nonetheless, we still feel that that the physical laws governing its motion are not what is really interesting about a rabbit58.
- I shall add a word about genes. I suppose everybody knows that genes code for proteins. Most of the DNA that mammals possess, certainly that we possess, has been called ‘junk DNA’, because it does not seem to have any purpose. Much of it is filled with a sort of repeating code like ones and noughts going on and on. A small portion of the code is for proteins – of which we are made. In man, and probably in the mouse as well, each gene is actually the source of the code for five or six proteins. This means that any mutation or change in that gene is probably – rather than necessarily – going to affect, a number of these proteins. This is by no means a simple matter59.
- My last proper comment is about Steve Jones, Richard Dawkins and such people. I have seen them over thirty years or more complaining in print from time to time in the U.S.A. and here about students who attend their courses of lectures and fail to ‘get it’. Lecturers find that if they survey their students at the outset of a course on evolutionary biology, and again at the end, there is no significant difference in the percentage declaring a belief in evolution before and after. What should they do? Students do try in attending lectures to take in what they are told, but there are whole ranges of things – some of them pointed out by James this evening – that simply do not square with the theory. They therefore remain sceptical60 and perhaps suspend judgement on the matter. There was an article two or three weeks ago in the Daily Telegraph saying precisely this, and then positing genetic reasons why there should be sceptics! What gene that explains this?
- Dr. Andrew Hegarty: Have you seen John Cleese’s amusing podcast61 on precisely this – taking off a scientist lecturing?
- Peter Adams: I have indeed, and it is very funny. Perhaps we should have shown it here. With that, I finish my comments.
- Dr. Andrew Hegarty: I should like to give James a chance to come back, but I think we had better move on at this stage to the general discussion.
- Alexander Boot: A question to Peter Adams… You mentioned the second law of thermodynamics. If I remember my school physics – which I may well not do very well – that suggests entropy – which is to say, chaos – increases with passage of time. It might explain why species should disappear over a billion years, but…
- Peter Adams: It is basically to do with the physical process of copying.
- Alexander Boot: My question is slightly different. Is the theory of evolution not in contradiction62 of the second law of thermodynamics? It claims that with the passage of time, order, rather than chaos, increases, that species become more ordered rather than more chaotic. Does that not contradict the second law of thermodynamics?
- Peter Adams: I do not know the answer to that question. Probably over the very, very long term, the answer will be, Yes. The problem with the general second law of thermodynamics is to what exactly it applies? It applies to a closed system, I think, and you will find that a living organism is not a closed system. The law, as such, does not apply here. I was referring to the process of copying, for any process of copying produces errors. The error rate is a function of temperature. Funnily enough, the error rate in copying genes is more or less the same as that of copying bits off a hard-drive in a computer. I was making the point that there is no problem with random mutations, because they can come about in several different ways. They will, however, certainly come about through copying DNA many, many times. It is a very remarkable process.
- Russell Wilcox: You have pointed very well to the deep confusions63 underpinning the conventional Darwinian paradigm. One of the confusions, or holes, is what exactly ‘random’ means. Nobody64 has explained it. There is, however, a deeper metaphysical problem, namely the reduction of causal explanation to efficient and material causality65. That deficiency points to potential integration of some of these insights into a more satisfactory explanation by revival of formal and final causality66. This is implicit in some theories like those of Simon Conway Morris67, with the notion of the ‘anthropic’ principle. When formal and final causality68 – metaphysically absolutely essential, since there can be no metaphysics of causality69 without them – are taken seriously many of the conundrums to which you have pointed become less problematic. They, indeed, also give some answer to what randomness is. There is no such thing as complete indetermination. There is always some specification, and there are limitations upon what can be selected for. One of the great works of philosophy of biology by Hans Jonas, The Phenomenon of Life, tried to do precisely this some decades ago, but unfortunately nobody took any notice70.
- Dr. James Le Fanu: I take your point. One of the astonishing things that struck me in writing this book was a recognition that the fault lies not just with hard-line evolutionary biologists who think they have the answer. It is shocking that so many philosophers have simply fallen into line over this. In mainstream philosophy in this country the fascinating questions that lead to reflection on notions of determination and causation71, and so on, seem to have been completely resolved in favour of physicalist or naturalist views. It seems to me that this must make life very boring for philosophers. Perhaps that is why philosophy itself seems boring72!
- Russell Wilcox: Not if you are an Aristotelian!
- Dr. James Le Fanu: Mainstream philosophy in this country does – with a few notable exceptions – exclude the metaphysical73 perspective. Things are probably slightly different in America where some people are much more sophisticated in these matters. If I were a philosopher, I should find the inconsistencies in the naturalist story most interesting. They are pretty obvious74, and I could envisage spending all my time writing papers about them. I do not know if it is just blindness or pig-headedness not to see that this is where the really interesting questions lie.
- Russell Wilcox: The paradox is that there has been a revival of interest in Aristotle in ethics and certain other fields. It would seems that the time is now right for revived interest in the philosophy of nature. One can, of course, be a philosophical naturalist without being also a philosophical materialist. That is an important distinction75 to make.
- Peter Adams: Might I just say that there is a book by an Australian, David Stove, titled Darwinian Fairytales. He is a philosopher76 and he has pointed up some of these questions.
- Dr. Anthony Newman-Sanders: We are much aware in medical technology of the amazing increase in the power of computing. Whilst the term ‘artificial intelligence’ is a misnomer, nonetheless, by virtue of increasing size, power and complexity, certain attributes, if you like, of the human intelligence or complex manifestations of human brain-power, can be at least simulated by computers. Their capacity to do these things is likely to turn out to grow exponentially. Does everyone here believe it to be out of the question that self-awareness in machines might somehow be simulated? When I studied psychology many years ago there was a view about that actually all self-awareness amounts to is the ability of an information system to reflect on what it is doing and to do that in infinite regression. Being aware of oneself being aware of oneself being aware… The notion is that if one does that often enough, it might effectively simulate self-awareness. Another related but more biological question: when one looks into the eyes of one’s dog, is one absolutely sure it does not have awareness of self?
- Peter Adams: I have wondered about this myself actually.
- Dr. Andrew Hegarty: The dog or the computer?
- Peter Adams:
- I am referring to the computer. We will indeed see quite big advances in interaction with computers. However, in interacting with a computer, one is very often interacting with the programmer who programmed it. It is not, therefore, a jumble of circuits that has put itself together. That is one way of thinking about it. There will be advances in that respect, and I am only surprised that we have not seen more of them already.
- I do, however, subscribe to Roger Penrose’s view on A-I computer intelligence, which is, very simply, that there are mathematical problems with mathematical proofs that a computer cannot solve. Human brains can solve these problems, or at least some of them, ergo the human brain is not a computer. That may not quite answer your question, but it does offer some sort of comparison which seems to me compelling despite the fact that he has been much attacked for it.
- In regard of the dog, I was watching one in the park the other day, and was quite convinced that it was enjoying itself, that it was not just totally an automaton. There is surely a spark of something present in the dog which loves chasing about after the stick or ball, and which seems so happy to find it and to bring it back.
- Dr. James Le Fanu: The notion that one might conceive of the brain in terms of artificial intelligence, an idea which had great popularity in the ’sixties and ’seventies, seems to have fallen slightly by the wayside. Paradoxically, as the powers of computers become greater and greater there is no doubting that computers can do things infinitely beyond the power of the mind, but at the same time they seem unfortunately unable to do the most trivial things. For example, they cannot read poems and recognise them as poems.
- Dr. Anthony Newman-Sanders: They can apparently have a crack at composing like Bach…
- Dr. James Le Fanu: They do not have unique characters and personalities that change over time but remain the same – which you and I have. As for the dog, here is a very good question: do we believe that the dog’s undoubted devotion to his owner is the same as the owner’s love for his own wife? Does anyone seriously believe the dog’s curiosity while sniffing the ground on a daily walk is the same as the human curiosity that looks to the stars and seeks to understand the movement of the planets? To suggest that these are comparable phenomena is, it seems to me, to defy reason and common sense. They are massively and qualitatively different, and it would be perverse to suggest otherwise.
- Dr. Michael Platt:
- Thank you for a very entertaining talk and for very interesting insights. It fascinates me that we have moved from a happy co-existence of creationists and evolutionists, to almost total embattlement and opposition.
- I am not quite sure how that has happened. In a few articles that I have been reading lately researchers have taken babies, neonates, and shown to them a number of blocks, using which, they have demonstrated that the babies can count, although they have not been taught to do so. There is, it would seem, innate intelligence in the brain that is clearly not just evolved. It demonstrates an increasing complexity, which cannot be explained solely by evolution. Why, again, are we increasingly polarised? Surely, in a modern society, we should, if anything, be less polarised and more accommodating, looking in fact to understand each other. As you say, there is room aplenty for both sides.
- Dr. James Le Fanu: No, the reason is, I believe, political. There is, as you will know, a potent intellectual and political force in America, one that we lack, namely the Intelligent Design movement. These are very clever people, and their arguments are, it seems to me, impossible to counter. I do not wish to go into Intelligent Design, because I do not personally find it very useful idea. One might ask what ‘unintelligent design’ could be. It does necessarily invoke the idea of a sort of ‘God up there’ designing 10,000 species of beetles, and that sort of thing. The essential argument, however, is that associated with Michael Behe, by which one looks at the cell and says, ‘Tell me how that came spontaneously into existence’, and so on. This is very powerful, as well as very influential, and scientific. These are proper scientists. Essentially, Intelligent Design is creationism. Scientific American, in its latest issue, presents endless articles about how wonderful Darwin is, and then devotes the last article is to the wickedness of creationism, the latest tricks of the creationists, and so on. It is quite fascinating. In its 2,000 or so words, it does not mention a single argument of intelligent design. The hope is, I suppose, that by shouting loud enough, and by accusing anybody who is vaguely sceptical of being a closet creationist, they will continue to hold the fort. Certainly, back before all this started, religion and science were of course cheerfully reconciled. Consider Isaac Newton – ‘What am I? The more I think of myself, what am I but a small boy, standing on the seashore, throwing every so often a small pebble across the vast ocean of truth that lies undiscovered.’ Think on the physicist, Robert Boyle, who saw himself as ‘a priest in the temple of nature’. People are bored with science because it maintains the idea that ‘We have all the answers, and if we do not, we are going to find them pretty soon!’.
- Dr. Michael Platt: Darwinism is actually a reductionism ad absurdum. My professional interest is in pain medicine. The more we investigate pain mechanisms in the body, the more complex and unintelligible they appear. The more we investigate them, the more receptors we find, the more molecules we find. The more we discover about the human body the greater the complexity we find. At the same time the Darwinists are trying to reduce everything to simple evolutionary theory, which cannot possibly explain it.
- Dr. James Le Fanu: The evolutionary theory says, ‘No matter how complex and wonderful such and such a thing is, or whatever it might be, it is as it is because it evolved that way over billions of years. That is it, really.
- Dr. Tibor Hortobagyi:
- I am a clinician scientist. I am with Pope Benedict in regarding creationism as not right if it excludes evolution. You have argued that evolution, as such, takes place, but that it cannot explain everything. That is a fair point. Evolution and selection of the fittest, through competition, or mutation, or adaptation to environment, cannot provide the sole answer to the question of how we have evolved. Other components may be there, and Intelligent Design may offer some explanation for what is missing.
- Darwinism emphasises mutation, while it has been shown that many of new species evolved through cross-breeding between species which surprisingly often produces viable offspring.
- Another point in response to your talk… You suggested, I thought, that the complexity of the human brain is so great that it actually implies creation by God. I have a little problem with this. Even if we studied only the brain of a mouse or of a fruit fly, we should find it so complex that we can never understand how such an animal reacts to certain stimuli, like noises or different smells. The very complexity of the human brain as such does not call for the divine will as explanation.
- Dr. James Le Fanu: I really do think that the fly’s brain is more impressive than that of the human being. It is dot-sized, but the fly can do the most extraordinary things. We at least have billions and billions of neurones to do all the sort of things that we do with ours. Every form of life, of course, has its own special intelligence. We cannot be bats; we cannot be dolphins. They all have their brains which ensure their survival, and one cannot distinguish on that basis. My point was, rather, that the exceptionality of the human brain lies in its giving rise to the structure or phenomenon of the human mind, with special attributes: we can uniquely operate mobile phones, and, more seriously, bear witness to wonders of the living world. Nothing else can do that. I am not seeking to draw any theological inference from that, but I do say that it gives credibility to a fundamental premise of western philosophy that persisted for 2,500 years until overthrown by rampant scientific materialism: namely, that the attributes of the human mind may be interpreted as evidence for the religious view that there is a mind behind our minds. That seems to me an entirely legitimate inference. It may not be a necessary inference. Indeed, there is nothing I have said that can necessarily be considered evidence for God one way or another. Certainly, however, those who might wish to interpret it as such would be within their rights to do so, if I can put it that way.
Found while looking up James Le Fanu in response to reading "Le Fanu (James) - The Queen of Beasts" in The Oldie. Link (Defunct).
Footnote 1: Darwin in "Darwin (Charles) - The Origin of Species" (p. 243, the last paragraph of the book) allows decent with modification from a single progenitor – or a few.
“There is a grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved”.It’s not clear whether Darwin is entitled to this quasi-religious attitude, but he clearly holds it, so there is no prima facie antithesis between Darwinism and religion.
Footnote 2: So, Le Fanu is an evolutionist, just not a card-carrying Darwinian.
Footnote 3: So, Le Fanu thinks Darwinism has a part to play in explaining the diversity of life.
Footnote 4: Surely, this is a misunderstanding. Newtonian mechanics explains everything within its domain, yet this is not “too much”. The trouble with Darwinism is rather in its (supporters’) use of the term “explanation”. It’s only at a very high level that things get explained (unless we can spot the precise genetic locations). Newtonian mechanics is much easier to apply, as its predictions are much more specific.
Footnote 5: I agree with this complaint …
Footnote 6: … but not with this one.
Footnote 7: I’ve two objections here:-
Footnote 8: Presumably, the “solution” is in "Darwin (Charles) - The Descent of Man"?
- We don’t know there are no alien intelligences, and
- Only the “best” human beings have the superlative qualities that separate “us” from “the beasts”. True, we all have language, but what’s this used for by the majority but for social cohesion? But for a few “excellent” individuals, we’d still be hunter-gatherers.
Footnote 9: Does Le Fanu have an a priori (religious?) objection to the naturalist programme? Depending on what counts as “material”, his objection (or complaint) may nor may not be anti-naturalist.
Footnote 10: So, does Le Fanu think there’s more to minds than brains? Why?
Footnote 11: Does Le Fanu actually want explanation or does he think explanation destroys mystery and wonder? I think his objection to Darwinism is that the explanations on offer are too broad-brush and imprecise. But if there was a precise explanation (for each particular phenomenon), wouldn’t this be wonderful?
Footnote 12: I thought that Darwinian theory explained the problem of imperfection - that biological features (while admittedly wonderful) are not perfect but “good enough for purpose”, given their evolutionary provenance.
Footnote 13: What are these supposed to be? Maybe there are examples in the book.
Footnote 14: Does Le Fanu consider punctuated equilibria in his book? Of course, this would be an enhancement to Darwinism.
Footnote 15: Le Fanu’s purpose is really to plug his book "Le Fanu (James) - Why Us? How Science Rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves". At least, he goes over the same ground, in brief.
Footnote 16: Surely this really is explained (in principle) by the genome? Reading on, Le Fanu seems to think it (ie. sequencing the genome) is insufficient to explain the differences between the species because so much of the genome is shared. While he might be right epistemologically – that currently science can’t say exactly how the genome encodes for what it does – it (the genome) surely does do so, metaphysically speaking.
Footnote 17: Is this supposed to be “immaterial”? Presumably most materialists are property-dualists and don’t think of thoughts as “material”?
Footnote 18: But surely the view is only very superficial? While 3D MRI or PET scans are better than the older EEG scans that just pick up electrical signals available at the exterior surface of the skull, all they really do is show which areas are active, not what they are doing in detail. And what they have shown is how non-local the processing is (to be expected if “graceful degradation” is to be possible). But there are doubtless lots of clues to be picked up (if these aren’t already obtained from the psychopathology of brain-lesions).
Footnote 19: I don’t know which issue this was in, but see (e.g.) Link (Defunct) for Pinker’s January 2007 high-level thoughts on the topic of consciousness (the article originated in Time,Link (Defunct).
Footnote 20: Is this an accurate representation of the situation? Also, maybe we confuse what are the complex and what are the simple things that genes have to do? Behe is always banging on about how complex a cell is – so presumably building one takes a lot of genes? Also, we tend to focus on the differences that matter to us, rather than on what is objective. Human beings and chimpanzees are really very similar indeed, so we’d expect them to share a lot of genes. Finally, a minor difference in the genome can (presumably) make a major difference to the organism that is built.
Footnote 21: Firstly, how different are we? The size of the cortex presumably requires very little encoding – what could require a lot of encoding might be universal grammar, if Chomsky is right (and folk physics, if other inatists are right – though maybe folk-physics is encoded for other mammals, birds, …). But if human language arose from a “language of thought”, other animals might have this to a lesser degree.
Footnote 22: Surely this is nonsense? “Haven’t been found”, maybe, but the encoding for the differences between species must be there in the genome somewhere.
Footnote 23: “Not the slightest hint”? Again, is this correct and, if it is, does it point to a temporary epistemological problem or a permanent metaphysical issue? If the genome doesn’t do the encoding, what does? Morphic fields?
Footnote 24: So, we’re in agreement. Le Fanu’s complaint is, therefore, in scientists claiming to know more than they do – or is it more than that?
Footnote 25: Not known to me from the philosophy of science – see Link.
Footnote 26: So, there’s a lot more to understanding the genome than sequencing it. Should this have been a surprise? But there’s a huge difference between acknowledging that the problem is more difficult than first thought, to abandoning the explanatory programme altogether.
Footnote 27: Why “of course”? And why no explanation? Has anyone tried?
Footnote 28: It depends what you mean by “simple”. The encoding power is effectively infinite. No doubt we understand the replication process – which has to be sufficiently fail-safe so that mutation rates are low – but I doubt the encoding and decoding principles will be understood any time soon. But this doesn’t mean that we need to look elsewhere for an explanation.
Footnote 29: Bah! This confuses two issues – the replication mechanism with the encoding / decoding mechanism. Replication is a discrete localised process that takes place within cell nuclei – relatively easy to understand and describe. Gene expression (the decoding) is a highly diffuse phenomenon that takes place all over the organism, and depends critically on the environment in which the expression takes place (and therefore on how other genes express themselves). How could anyone think explaining this mess would be easy? But explanatory difficulties have nothing to do with abandoning the naturalist paradigm.
Footnote 30: What tosh! This is an epistemological, not a metaphysical problem. There’s easily enough complexity in the genome to encode the differences. We just don’t know how the meaning is encoded, only how the replication works.
Footnote 31: Well, the human brain is the most complex structure in the universe, so determining – in detail – how it actually works is very difficult. But this epistemological difficulty doesn’t imply that the brain isn’t responsible – somehow or other – for all things mental.
Footnote 32: Indeed – and why wouldn’t this have been anticipated? But it’s an exaggeration to say that there’s no specialisation – as neuropathology reveals. But it’s also known that various parts of the brain can “have a go” when the specialised parts fail.
Footnote 33: Well, maybe. I suppose the 5 senses will need to disassemble an apple and re-assemble it for it to be fully appreciated, but a “view” isn’t really integrated in the first place. But it must do it somehow as it gets done (or we are under the illusion that it is; the brain is good at “filling in the gaps”).
Footnote 34: Again, how can this be known, given that the brain “does it” somehow. The “binding problem” has long been an issue in consciousness research. It’s just a very hard problem, that’s all. It had been hoped that more invasive scans would reveal more than (it is said) they have. No doubt we’ll get over the disappointment.
Footnote 35: Fair enough, but is this giving up the search, or an admission that the problem is hard? What is Le Fanu’s point – that scientists should avoid premature celebration, or that their job is forever undoable?
Footnote 36: Why “monotonous”? Does Le Fanu not appreciate the complexity of what is going on – a complexity (I would say) forever beyond the possibility of a computer to simulate (in real-time, anyway)? He doesn’t mention the quantum-mechanical aspects, nor the possibility that there’s more to consciousness than just the neurons and their interconnections (even though consciousness is a brain process).
Footnote 37: Well, this is just the hard problem of consciousness, which has been around for a while.
Footnote 38: This is a gross exaggeration – surely there have been huge advances in understanding the brain in the last century, even though we still don’t “fully” understand it. I suppose the issue is how far from a full understanding we are. Do we have all the pieces of the puzzle, or are some conceptual breakthroughs still required?
Footnote 39: This is effectively the problem of free will. If this problem was resolved as a brain process, we’d have strong determinism: OK for the compatibilists, bad news for the libertarians.
Footnote 40: This is a related question – just what is the imagination? Can digital computers ever be creative? Are we often creative in ways that digital computers can’t be (if they can’t be)?
Footnote 41: What justification has Le Fanu for this claim, other than that the recent advances haven’t proved to be the final ones?
Footnote 42: The facts: well, in both neuroscience and genetics, science doesn’t know all the facts. What we have is hugely complex systems with hugely complex (but largely understood) rules of operation. What could be simpler to express than the 3-body problem in Newtonian mechanics, yet it is insoluble, except in friendly cases, as the motion is chaotic (seeLink also Link)?
Footnote 43: But what might this missing ingredient be? As far as I can see, there’s no real conceptual problem in genetics – other than a difficulty in determining the solution. In cognition, there’s a sharp divide between the sensory and non-sensory. The former remains a mystery, but what needs to be added, conceptually, to what is currently being done with digital computers, other than more hardware and hard work?
Footnote 44: Again, what’s the evidence for this assertion? He’s saying that there’s nothing in the genome (even in principle, if not yet found) to account for human bipedalism. How can he know this, and how likely is it that no explanation will ever be found. Le Fanu’s objections aren’t just to Darwinism, nor anything to do with evolution. What he’s saying is that there’s nothing in the genome that makes it the “form” of the body – for humans or mice. This is a revolutionary thought, but not one we need take seriously at the present stage of research. Maybe after scientests have been stuck for a few hundred years …
Footnote 45: Is it really “prodigious”? The human cortex is only 3-4 times the size of that of the chimpanzee (see, eg., Link (Defunct)).
Footnote 46: As throughout this article, there are two issues :–
The two questions are independent.
- What is the relation between mind and brain?, and
- How did the human mind and brain evolve or otherwise come into existence?
Footnote 47: Only if we over-emphasise the superiority of man and play down the cognitive skills of animals.
Footnote 48: What nonsense! All that Le Fanu’s essay suggests is that the problems might be more difficult than first thought by some optimists in pursuit of academic funding.
Footnote 49: Does his book provide any of this “anticipation”?
Footnote 50: Again, nonsense. This is (or is related to) the genetic fallacy (Link). Problems with what is have nothing necessarily to do with how they came to be. This is an error perpetrated by evolutionary psychologists; though, in their case, explaining how we came by our moral predispositions is relevant to explaining why we have them, but says nothing about whether we ought to retain them.
Footnote 51: We might well be, but this statement isn’t warranted by anything demonstrated by Le Fanu in this article.
Footnote 52: Maybe Darwin didn’t, because he knew nothing about genes. But there may have been competition for resources amongst replicators. If so, Darwinism applies to them as well – and otherwise, we are reduced to “intelligent design”. There would certainly be competition amongst replicators if (as per Wickramasinghe) alien life is forever arriving on planets via comets etc.
Footnote 53: This causes confusion. What is intended is that there will be occasional copying errors.
Footnote 54: This is an interesting supplement to neo-Darwinism. Whether it’s a supplement to, or within the original spirit of, Darwinism itself I don’t know how to judge.
Footnote 55: Since Darwin didn’t know what the genetic material was, sharing via bacteria is just another way of achieving descent with modification. Also, while most individuals may be bacteria, most species are not.
Footnote 56: It’s not clear to me that simple organisms “bother” about anything – bothering is something that selves do (and I think some of the higher animals are selves). If by “bothering” we just mean “do what they do”, then doubtless there are causal explanations. If we mean “care”, then most organisms don’t care. But for those that do, there are solid Darwinian explanations – caring is more conducive to survival than not caring.
Footnote 57: I didn’t realise that there were any vitalists around these days. The definition of life is complex (and maybe ague or arbitrary at the “edges”. But there are definitions of “life” around. Maybe one of the following can help?
… "Wollheim (Richard) - The Thread of Life", or
… "Wilson (Jack) - Biological Individuality - The identity and Persistence of Living Entities".
Footnote 58: I’m not impressed by this analogy. The application of Newton’s Laws to rabbits – treated as “point masses” – or even as extended objects with no interesting features except their mass and geometry – clearly misses out most of what’s interesting about them – but the application of physics and chemistry to rabbits’ brains, in an attempt to understand their cognitive processes, doesn’t so obviously miss anything out.
Footnote 59: So what’s the point of all this?
Footnote 60: Can students really evaluate the evidence as undergraduates? And, what about those that go on to become biologists? Do they “suspend judgement”? No doubt any suspension is for religious reasons, suspension being possible because – for non-biologists – the truth or falsity of evolutionary theory has little practical import outside the religious sphere.
Footnote 61: For John Cleese’s skit on genetic determinism, see Link.
Footnote 62: I’m glad to see that this silly old idea gets refuted by Peter Adams, who should have expressed himself more clearly.
Footnote 63: I’d not noticed anything of the sort. What were the “confusions” supposed to be?
Footnote 64: Randomness: isn’t this known mathematically? And does it matter to Darwinism – it just means that there’s no “design” or “directedness” to the mutations that occur and are selected for or against.
Footnote 66: Isn’t it one of the triumphs of modern science to be able to do away with this sort of thing?
Footnote 67: He seems worth pursuing, as he’s a Christian evolutionist (professor of evolutionary palaeobiology at Cambridge; see Link (Defunct)) who rejects reductionism and materialism as well as intelligent design. See Link. Also:-
… "Conway Morris (Simon) - Life's Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe",
… "Conway Morris (Simon) - One Impossible Thing Before Breakfast: Evolution and Christianity", and
… "Conway Morris (Simon) - Darwin’s Compass: How Evolution Discovers the Song of Creation" (his 2005 Boyle Lecture (Link; Keith Ward responded, though I don’t have the text of what he had to say).
The following conference - Link - may be worth following up sometime.
Footnote 70: Why was no notice taken, and who else considers this work by Jonas “great”? There’s an appreciative (though for some reason only 3-*) review of the book on Amazon Link.
Footnote 72: This seems to be a very sweeping comment, with which I naturally disagree. In any case, whether or not something is boring has little to do with whether or not its claims are true. But it is true that there are few Aristotelians (outside Heythrop) in UK philosophy, and that naturalism has been the default position for a century.
Footnote 73: Does Le Fanu know what he’s talking about? Suspicion of metaphysics went out with Logical Positivism.
Footnote 74: Well, if they are obvious, they aren’t obvious to most philosophers, and it’s a shame that Le Fanu doesn’t enlighten us as to what they are. Maybe this is the sort of comment you can get away with in a gathering of Catholics? And, maybe his book is more enlightening.
Footnote 75: Yes – one of the few points in this discussion with which I agree! There is a distinction between naturalism and materialism (this distinction was made at the Heythrop debate: Click here for Note).
Footnote 76: This is another useful lead. For the book, see Link (Defunct). For more on David Stove see Wikipedia (Link), and for a lot of his stuff on-line, see Link. He was philosopher of science, an evolutionist and an atheist, though a contrarian – in particularly contrary to most of the heroes of 20th century philosophy of science who Stove considered to be irrationalists. See his book, Popper and After: Four Modern Irrationalists on line at Link.
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