We have a 2 year old, Saul, who is very attached to his comfort jacket. It’s like a security blanket for him, blue and quilted and thoroughly stained. He doesn’t wear it, since it is too small for him by now anyway. He holds it and sleeps with it, and if you try to take it away from him when he’s in bed — say, to put it in the laundry — watch out. He will be extremely ticked off, crying, fussing.
In an important new book, Why Us? How Science Rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves (Pantheon), British physician and historian James Le Fanu speculates that Darwinism works that way for many people. It’s a “comfort blanket,” explaining everything about living creatures in tidy materialist terms without having to appeal to mysterious, unknowable forces outside nature. Maybe that’s why scientists and laymen alike get so very upset and even abusive when you try, however gently, to tug it out of their arms.
Darwinism hasn’t been aired out or laundered in about 150 years. It’s a closed loop, effectively unquestionable, despite the fact that major chunks of biological evidence are against it. Le Fanu, about whom I’ve been writing this series, focuses on DNA and the human brain. Darwinism stands for the belief that everything can be explained in natural terms, but these two features of biology unyieldingly defy such comforting explanations.
Consider the Hox “master” genes that determine the spatial configuration of the front and back ends of creatures as diverse as frogs, mice, and humans. The Swiss biologist Walter Gehring showed that “the same ‘master’ genes mastermind the three-dimensional structures of all living things….The same master genes that cause a fly to have the form of a fly cause a mouse to have the form of a mouse.” Stephen Jay Gould admitted the “explicitly unexpected character” of this discovery.
Unexpected is right. The physically encoded information needed to form that mouse, as opposed to that fly, isn’t there. Instead, “It is as if the ‘idea’ of the fly (or any other organism) must somehow permeate the genome that gives rise to it.”
Biologist Rupert Sheldrake puts a little differently, hypothesizing “the existence of some ‘field’ by which an organism knows itself, and its parts, in their entirety.” But neo-Darwinism’s proposed mechanism of evolution can only, even in theory, affect a physical entity — the genome. How could it produce an “idea” or a “field”?
Same goes for the brain. Again, physical explanations of how it gives rise to the mind consistently explode upon takeoff. The brain is no computer, where every operation can be traced to physically describable events: “Neither the findings of the PET scanner nor Professor [Eric] Kandel’s scientific explanations can begin to account for the power of memory to retain…visual images over decades and retrieve them at will, any more than they can account for remembering the words of a familiar hymn or recalling a telephone number.”
That’s just for starters. The brain-computer analogy utterly fails to clarify how “just a few thousand genes might instruct the arrangement of those billions of neurons with their ‘hardwired’ faculties of language and mathematics.”
And a good thing that is, too. Because if the mind really did reside entirely in the brain, if the mind were genuinely reducible to the brain, that would mean the end of free will — a computer ultimately can do only what it’s programmed to do (in this case, programmed by a mindless nature) — and that in turn would spell the end of moral responsibility.
In fact, materialist scientists and other thinkers have often denied the reality of free will. Le Fanu quotes Britain’s leading neuroscientist, Colin Blakemore: “We [may] feel ourselves to be in control of our actions, but that feeling is itself a product of our brain, whose machinery has been designed by means of natural selection.”
But cognitive science has demonstrated clearly that non-material things — thoughts — can change the brain itself. This is the scientifically confirmable reality behind cognitive therapy where altering the way you think about your own thoughts can remake brain circuitry in ways that anyone can see by a glance at “before” and “after” PET scans of brain activity.
On this point, Le Fanu discusses the research of UCLA’s Jeffrey Schwartz, another Darwin doubter: “Professor Schwartz and others [demonstrate] how ‘beliefs and expectations’ can ‘modulate’ the physical activity of the brain,” thus “restor[ing] the notion of personal responsibility.”
Fascinatingly, Le Fanu describes an enigmatic dance between physical and non-physical forces that drive life’s development, whether historically in the formation of species or individually in the growth and maturing of a single human being. It’s clear however that while life has a physical basis, it’s something beyond the merely physical that drives it all.
Le Fanu is not being coy when he writes that this observation provides “no direct evidence for a Creator.” But he finds “there is vastly greater evidence of ‘design’ — for those who would wish to interpret it as such — than for the supposition that the vast panoply of nature should be the incidental consequence of…numerous random genetic mutations.”
Why that matters, not just to science but to the way we live, Le Fanu takes up at the end of the book. More on that tomorrow.