Sawing off the branch on which it sits

Sawing off the branch on which it sits December 15, 2017


Temple Square Christmas lights
On Temple Square in December (


Some notes from a manuscript:


It would seem, for example, that evolutionary psychology’s insistence that ideas are the products of evolution, “chosen” for their utility in the battle to survive and replicate, is self-refuting.  For included among those ideas, obviously, is evolutionary psychology itself.  If ideas are nothing more than tactical tools for survival, it is unclear how they can be judged to be objectively true or false.  (Even our judgment would be nothing more exalted than such an idea.)  “What evolution guarantees,” comments the philosopher Alvin Plantinga, “is (at most) that we behave in certain ways—in such ways as to promote survival.”  However, “it does not guarantee mostly true or verisimilitudinous beliefs.”  To put it another way, while natural selection favors actions that promote survival and replication, the question of whether those actions are based upon accurate beliefs is, in terms of evolution, largely if not entirely irrelevant.[1]  The Darwinist philosopher Richard Rorty agrees, remarking that “keeping faith with Darwin” requires us to understand the orientation of the human species as not “toward Truth” but only “toward its own increased prosperity”—in other words, to its survival and reproductive success.[2]

Daniel Dennett’s trademark slogan is that Darwinism is a “universal acid” that “eats through just about every traditional concept” in religion and morality, and puts our views of the social order in an entirely different light.[3]  And yet, as philosopher Mary Midgley observes, “This is . . .  evidently a selective acid, trained to eat only other people’s views while leaving Dennett’s own ambitious project untouched.”[4]

Nancy Pearcey suggests that we

consider one of the favorite concepts employed by evolutionary psychologists—the idea of “memes,” proposed as a kind of mental analogue to genes.  Just as genes are the carriers of physical traits, so memes are hypothetical units of culture that are said to be carriers of ideas.  Some evolutionary psychologists speak of them almost as parasites that can “infect” people’s minds, just as biological parasites infect their bodies—though instead of producing physical illness, they produce patterns of thought and behavior.  Memes are entirely mythical entities, yet the idea has caught on and become widespread. . . .

Not surprisingly, evolutionary psychologists’ favorite example of a meme is religion, and Richard Dawkins has even suggested that religion is nothing but a computer virus that infects the brain.  But of course, sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, and we might reasonably ask how memetics applies to Dawkins’s own convictions.[5]

As Mary Midgley points out, if we accept the concept of memes as Dawkins and his co-believers seek to propagate it, we must conclude that the only reason they “campaign so ardently for neo-Darwinism must be that a neo-Darwinist meme . . . has infested their brains, forcing them to act in this way.”  After all, she says, “if you propose the method seriously you must apply it consistently.”[6]

Darwin himself recognized and was troubled by this.  “With me,” he wrote, “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.”[7]  He was right to be concerned.  Consistent materialism seems to saw off the branch upon which the materialist sits while thinking.


[1] Alvin Plantinga, Warrant and Proper Function (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 218.

[2] Richard Rorty, “Untruth and Consequences,” New Republic (31 July 1995): 27.  [See original.]  Pearcey, “Darwin Meets the Berenstain Bears,” 70, rightly comments that Rorty’s choice of phrasing (“Keeping faith with Darwin”) is “telling.”

[3] Daniel Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995), 63.  

[4] Mary Midgley, “Why Memes?” in Hilary Rose and Steven Rose, eds., Alas, Poor Darwin: Arguments against Evolutionary Psychology (London: Jonathan Cape, 2000), 72. 

[5] Pearcey, “Darwin Meets the Berenstain Bears,” 61-62.

[6] Mary Midgley, “Fate by Fluke,” a review of Daniel C. Dennett, Freedom Evolves, in the Guardian (1 March 2003).  

[7] Francis Darwin, ed., Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1898), 1:285.  


[These paraphrastic notes are drawn from an essay by Nancy Pearcey titled “”Darwin meets the Berenstain Bears,” which appeared as chapter 4 of Uncommon Dissent: Intellectuals Who Find Darwinism Unconvincing, edited by William Dembski.]



Posted from Salt Lake City, Utah



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