Defending The Apparent Truth Of Evolution’s Mindlessness

Last Christmas Eve, I argued that the belief that God “guided evolution” was not a rationally respectable way to reconcile science with faith but rather it was essentially an effective denial of the theory of natural selection, in its scientifically explanatory sense. Part of the revolutionary character of the discovery of evolution by natural selection was that it made the personal benevolent God hypothesis not only no longer the best explanation for the existence of complex organisms, but a superfluous and counter-indicated hypothesis.  In some ways it is still possibility butis no longer at all likely.

We are left in a position in which saying that “we evolved by natural selection—and God guided it” becomes as superfluous and foolish as saying that “we fall because of gravity—and God pushing us”.

Today biologist Jerry Coyne made an informative post about specific attempts of theologians to squelch admission of evolution’s apparently mindless, blind, material, purposeless, undirected character in classrooms:

some people object to such a description as a needlessly “theological” assertion: a flat and insupportable claim that natural selection was not designed by, and is not being guided by, gods.  How can you be so sure, some theologians say, that there really isn’t a goal, purpose, or mind behind evolution?

On this score they presume there can be no philosophical answers based upon inference to the best explanation, but only blind theological guessing in which no one answer is any more likely than any other simply because there is a faint possibility, however small, that a process that looks and effectively works as though it were unguided is actually guided after all.

You might remember that a while back the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) persuaded the National Association of Biology Teachers (NABT) to change its characterization of evolution, which originally read:

The diversity of life on earth is the result of evolution: an unsupervised, impersonal, unpredictable and natural process of temporal descent with genetic modification that is affected by natural selection, chance, historical contingencies and changing environments.

As NCSE Executive Director Eugenie Scott recounts, the words “unsupervised” and “impersonal” led to pushback from the faithful:

As one Christian said to me, defining evolution as “unsupervised” and “impersonal” implied to many Americans that “God had nothing to do with it and life has no meaning.”

Theological ignorance strikes again.  This time, it is the misconception that meaning and purpose in life require supernatural guidance.  Rather than challenge most Americans to deal with the truth about how we evolved and engage with the question of meaning and purpose in philosophically respectable terms, we must leave them with their superstitions, however counter-indicated by the science they may be.

Reflecting these public concerns, two distinguished theologians, Cornell’s Huston Smith and Notre Dame’s Alvin Plantinga, wrote a polite letter to NABT’s board of directors, asking it to delete the two words “unsupervised” and “impersonal”. They specifically noted that the use of the two words has two unfortunate and unintended consequences. It gives aid and comfort to extremists in the religious right for whom it provides a legitimate target. And because of its logical vulnerability, it lowers Americans’ respect for scientists and their place in our culture.

Logical vulnerability?  Scientists advance a philosophical conclusion that evolution is mindless, which is admittedly not 100% certain but which is “only” overwhelmingly indicated by the evidence.  This foray into taking a philosophical stand that lacks 100% certainty makes them “logically vulnerable” to the bare possibility that they are wrong and actually a flying spaghetti monster created the universe.  And such potential to be wrong makes them less estimable to the ignorant American public.

In particular the scientists would lose esteem with the radical right wing of the country, which does not believe in evolution at all and which is so authoritarian and nihilistic as to think that without a belief in an absolute, unquestionable rule- and meaning-giving God there would be mass immorality and suicide, and which bullies people into accepting its religious and policy prescriptions by exploiting these sorts of fears.  And so rather than challenge and educate the American public, we will cave to right wing extremists so that a foundation of their worldview by which they emotionally propagandize both their regressive politics and their repressive religion will not be in the least disturbed.  Brilliant!

This is why secularists always lose to religionists: because we refuse to offend them with the truth, and we refuse to ever publicly, rationally, vigorously, or coherently defend a counter set of values grounded in an alternative metaphysical and ethical world view with anything like the scope and popular appeal of theirs.

I have nothing to add to the rest of Coyne’s paragraphs quoted below but they make all the vital points I tried to malke before and deserve to be read all over the place.  So I hope he does not mind that I liberally reproduce them here for that reason alone:

Scott also considered such language to be a pollution of science with philosophical naturalism.  And so she persuaded the NABT to drop the two offending words. (I’m baffled why they weren’t asked to strike out “natural” as well!)

In my classes, however, I still characterize evolution and selection as processes lacking mind, purpose, or supervision.  Why? Because, as far as we can see, that’s the truth.  Evolution and selection operate precisely as you’d expect them to if they were not designed by, or steered by, a deity—especially one who is omnipotent and benevolent.  And, more important, the completely material nature of selection is of great historical and intellectual importance.  After all, Darwin’s greatest achievement was the explanation of organismal “design” by a completely naturalistic process, replacing the mindful, purposeful, and god-directed theory that preceded it.  That was a revolution in human thought, and students should know about it.  (This achievement is also why Dawkins claimed, inThe Blind Watchmaker, that “Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.”  Perhaps Darwin did not mandate that evolution ineluctably proves the absence of God, but he kicked out the last prop supporting the action of a deity in nature.)

Evolution and selection lack any sign of divine guidance.  Earlier teleological theories based on divine or spiritual guidance, such asorthogenesis, have fallen by the wayside.  Natural selection is a cruel and wasteful process.  99% of the species that ever lived went extinct without leaving descendants.  There is no sign that evolution always goes in a fixed direction.  Do primates always get bigger brains? There is some suggestion that orangutan populations evolved smaller ones.  Fleas lost their wings; tapeworms lost nearly everything when evolving a parasitic lifestyle.  There is no sign that the goal of evolution was Homo sapiens (if that were true, why the virtual extinction of Neandertals or the robust australopithecines)?

Now you can always say, along with many liberal theologians, that god just created the world, knowing that life would eventually arise and evolve largely by natural selection.  If you add the caveat (viz. Kenneth Miller and Simon Conway Morris), that god made sure that evolution coughed up a complex and intelligent primate that would apprehend and worship him, then you have modern theistic evolution.  But even liberal theologians have no explanation why God would use such a wasteful and tortuous process to produce humans. (Curiously, while they claim absolute knowledge that god used evolution to produce humans, these theologians bail when asked why he did it that way).

In the end, the absence of evidence for a godly hand in evolution isevidence of godly absence, for evolution and selection show precisely the characteristics they would have if they were purely material, mindless, and purposeless processes. There is no sign of orthogenesis, directed evolution, or a one-way march to Homo sapiens.  There is no more evidence that god directed evolution than there is that god keeps the engine working in your car—and yet nobody keeps an open mind about the possibility that god is pushing their pistons.

To withhold from students the evidence that natural selection is purposeless—lacking direction, guidance, or goals—is to cheat them of the very essence of that process. It is part of the wonder and beauty of selection that this purely material process can produce species so exquisitely attuned to their environments.

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • kate

    If Evolution was “guided”, why so many species are extinct? Why so many “failures” or adaptations that did not “survive” to our day? Why humans are not all the same… if we were created at the image of someone or something? Do I dare to say that “god” is not perfect? And why do we even bother by the notion of one?

  • Nick Matzke

    This is why secularists always lose to religionists: because we refuse to offend them with the truth, and we refuse to ever publicly, rationally, vigorously, or coherently defend a counter set of values grounded in an alternative metaphysical and ethical world view with anything like the scope and popular appeal of theirs.

    We do? Eugenie Scott got NABT to change that statement (back in 1995 is when this stuff happened, I think) — and went on to win a great many battles with creationists after that. She made the recommendation because it made the pro-evolution statement a stronger bulwark against creationism, not a weaker one.

    • Daniel Fincke

      I didn’t mean that as an attack on Scott, just as an attack on all those who cave to such threats in general. Sorry if I implied otherwise. It was a broad, hyperbolic “never”, not a specific one.

  • http://hht// Naturalist Griggsy

    Lamberth’s teleonomic argument notes that as the weight of evidence indicates no divine intent, to add that intent not only violates the Ockham with convoluted, ad hoc assumptions but also contradicts that very teleonomy-causalism-mechanism with vitalism so that it contradicts science rather than complements it. Therefore, directed -theistic-evolutions is an oxymoronic obscurantism! Been making this argument.
    Nick, yes, as confined to that, but in the grave battle with thew t win superstitions the supernatural and the paranormal what Paul Kurtz calls “The Transcendental Temptation,” no!
    This truth would set billions free!
    This is not just a philosophical position but also scientific fact! George Gaylord Simpson and Ernst Mayr and others knew and know that. Were evolution directed, then scientists would not be able to vary experiments. It would be backwards causation, the present before the past and the e vent before the cause, negating time as Paul B.Weisz Weisz notes in ” The Science of Biology.”