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A One Hundred Year-Old Challenge

Michael Flannery

Alfred Russel Wallace Issues Fighting Words to Materialists in 1910: “Nothing in evolution can account for the soul [or mind] of man. The difference between man and the other animals is unbridgeable.” Steven Pinker to the Rescue?


Wallace made the above declaration in an interview with Harold Begbie of The Daily Chronicle, anticipating the release of his grand evolutionary synthesis, The World of Life: A Manifestation of Creative Power, Directive Mind and Ultimate Purpose, in December of 1910. Much to the chagrin of Charles Darwin, this co-discoverer of natural selection had suggested as much even earlier in the April 1869 issue of The Quarterly Review. Despite maintaining cordial relations, this “heresy” would create a great divide between the two naturalists, and Darwin’s disciples have been searching for an answer to Wallace ever since.
Recently Steven Pinker, the darling of evolutionary psychology at Harvard, proposed to rescue Darwinists in his article, “The Cognitive Niche: Coevolution of Intelligence, Sociality, and Language.” (PNAS, May 11, 2010) Pinker points out that Alfred Russel Wallace “claimed that abstract intelligence was of no use to ancestral humans and could only be explained by intelligent design.” In a singular display of perspicacity, Pinker is right. Wallace felt that certain aspects of the uniquely human mind–love of music, humor, abstract reasoning, mathematics, etc.–were wholly inexplicable by Darwin’s own principle of utility, which is the idea that no organ or attribute can exist in a species unless it is or has been useful to the organisms that possess it. Pinker goes on to dismiss Wallace and assure his readers that these higher mental attributes can all be explained by Darwinian principles. Although Pinker attacks Wallace’s claim as “notorious,” Darwin’s disobedient colleague never retreated from his position and he even continued to expand upon the limitations of natural selection. He did this most notably in his book Darwinism (1889) and The World of Life mentioned above.
Now, after more than a century, Pinker pledges to address once and for all the “profound puzzle” Wallace posed with “the cognitive niche.” Let’s see if Pinker’s argument matches his bravado.
The cognitive niche is not new; it was first proposed by Tooby and DeVore in 1987. But Pinker believes it has special significance in explaining the evolvability of the human mind by means of natural selection, precisely what Wallace denied. The cognitive niche rests upon two hypotheses: 1) “a mode of survival characterized by manipulating the environment through causal reasoning and social cooperation”; and 2) “the psychological faculties that evolved to prosper in the cognitive niche can be coopted to abstract domains of processes of metaphorical abstraction and productive combination, both vividly manifested in human language.”
It all sounds impressive until Pinker tries to actually make a case for any of this. The narrative quickly degenerates into a trivial recounting of what humans currently do and then into a collection of speculative scenarios about how certain primordial hominids “might have” done this or “perhaps” did that. Festooned with hedges like “may have been,” “may serve as,” “perhaps,” “may connect” — twenty-one in a seven-page paper! — Pinker promises to “dissolve” the Wallace paradox. If it were all mere speculation it might simply be chalked up to the desperate wishful thinking so common among evolutionary psychologists. But Pinker goes on to try and explain “how cognitive mechanisms that were selected for physical and social reasoning could have enabled H. sapiens to engage in the highly abstract reasoning required in modern science, philosophy, government, commerce, and law.” His answer: most humans don’t do that! Only a few humans were able to do what “all are capable of learning.” Examples? Instead of Newtonian mechanical physics most human “physics” has consisted of intuitions more akin to “the medieval theory of impetus,” most have believed in an “intuitive biology” like “creationism,” most have reasoned towards “vitalism” over “mechanistic physiology,” and with regard to the mind most people have adhered to mind/body dualism over “neurobiological reductionism.” Only “some humans,” he insists, were “able to invent the different components of modern knowledge.” The mechanism for how the apparent “few” were able to achieve this comes from what Pinker calls the “psycholinguistic phenomenon” called “metaphorical abstraction.”
Now this most surely isn’t science; it’s rank presentism and wishful thinking. It privileges those things Pinker values as “progressive” and “modern” and relegates all the rest to a self-fulfilling ignorance. In Pinker’s world, one must suppose, medieval scholars like Avicenna, Jean Buridan, and Nicole Orisme were incapable “engaging in highly abstract reasoning” since they all argued for an impetus theory. Would Pinker include Ren� Descartes here too? What of William Paley and his creationism or Henri Bergson and his �lan vital? Were they incapable of “highly abstract reasoning”? If only “abstract reasoning” that supports the reigning modern scientific paradigms counts, then that is indeed presentism of the worst kind; it reasons backwards and counts only those concepts that privilege the paradigm and assumes all other explanations (abstract and otherwise) are primitive throwbacks. That’s known idiomatically as the proverbial “stacked deck.” Is Pinker claiming that Avicenna, Buridan, Orisme, Descartes, Paley, and Bergson are evincing an intellect akin to the Neanderthal dead-end?! The ridiculousness of the suggestion is its own refutation.
Pinker’s argument is thoroughly untenable; his claim that the key to understanding how the human mind gained its capacity for abstract reasoning through a purported “psycholinguistic phenomenon . . . called metaphorical abstraction” at least begs the question or is at most a tautology. Wallace would have called them “mere verbal suggestions.”
Biologists have begun to question the facile assumptions of Darwinists’ explanations for the human mind. Johan J. Bolhuis and Clive D. L. Wynne, for example, in an April 2009 issue of Nature posed the question, “Can Evolution Explain How Minds Work?” Their short answer was, not so far. But not before leveling some heavy criticism at colleagues over the past two decades who purport to answer this question in the affirmative. According to Bolhuis and Wynne, “A closer look at many studies reveals, however, that appropriate control conditions have often been lacking, and simpler explanations overlooked in a flurry of anthropomorphic overinterpretation.” (p. 832) Skeptical of claims asserting certain cognitive continuities and behavioral affinities between humans and chimps, monkeys, and apes, the authors suggest, “Such findings have cast doubt on the straightforward application of Darwinism to cognition. Some have even called Darwin’s idea of continuity a mistake.” (p. 832) While doffing their cap to “Darwin’s insights,” Bolhuis and Wynne pull no punches in calling for release from the “thickets of arbitrary nomenclature” and “na�ve evolutionary presuppositions” that obfuscate rather than illuminate our understanding of cognition. It’s hard to see Pinker’s “cognitive niche” as anything other can just one more addition to this “thicket of arbitrary nomenclature.”
Even after a careful, if somewhat uncritical examination of Darwin’s theory of mind, C. U. M. (Chris) Smith’s “Darwin’s Unsolved Problem: The Place of Consciousness in the Evolutionary World,” concludes that “his [Darwin’s] initial problem remains unsolved. We may,” he adds hopefully, “be closer to an understanding of how the living world originated on the surface of this planet . . . , but of how it includes qualia, that is phenomenal or sensory consciousness, we are no nearer understanding than Darwin was a century and a half ago.” (Journal of the History of Neurosciences, 19: 2, 3 May 2010:105-120, 119)
A basic problem with Darwinian mind theory is its attempt to link human and animal emotions as differences of degree rather than of kind. Insisting that “there is no deep demarcation between humans and other animals,” (116) Smith, and indeed a great many evolutionary biologists (including Pinker), think Darwin got this right. Darwin came to this conclusion by watching the behavior of “Jenny,” an orangutan in the London Zoo. Noting that Jenny would run and hide when doing something her keeper had told her not to do, Darwin concluded evidence of animal “shame” and “self-consciousness.” But is this really shame in the sense that humans feel shame? Did Jenny attach guilt, embarrassment, and a sense of unworthiness to her keeper’s scolding? There’s no reason to think so. More compelling is the fact that Jenny, like all higher animals, was responding to operant conditioning. Jenny hid because she knew in the past similar behavior resulted in punishment and reprimands from her keeper. Self-reflection, guilt, or embarrassment experienced and even anticipated by humans whenever a larger complex set of mores is strained or broken is unknown in the animal world. These are qualitative not quantitative differences. Orangutan “shame” seems to be just another example of the “anthropomorphic overinterpretation” to which Bolhuis and Wynne complain.
The bridges built over Wallace’s unbridgeable animal/human divide collapse upon the first effort to actually drive over them. The problem is intrinsic to Darwinian and neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory and is in strong evidence in all these approaches, including Steven Pinker’s. Why? Because, like all good evolutionary psychologists, Pinker sees natural selection as the only thing capable of generating biological complexity.
Some might argue that this is just a gap argument, after all, elusive answers to the human mind via Darwinian mechanisms is no reason to assume they might not be found in the future. Perhaps this would hold up if Darwin’s critics had no better solution to the question, but there is an alternative, and moreover, it has an overwhelming body of experiential evidence on its behalf, namely, that specified complexity only arises from intelligent agency. This raises two questions: 1) Is intelligence merely a product of natural selection acting upon random mutation? and 2) Is this an accurate or even appropriate view of intelligence itself? False-positive answers to these questions might explain why Wallace’s challenge remains so intractable for Darwinists. Rather than reducing the mind to some materialistic formulae, another approach is possible. “Might not intelligence, instead, be a fundamental feature of the world,” write William A. Dembski and Jonathan Wells, “a principle that animates the whole of reality, responsible for the marvelous patterns we see throughout the biophysical universe and reflected in the cognitive capacities of animals–and preeminently so in humans? The very fact that the world is intelligible and that our intelligence is capable of understanding the world points to an underlying intelligence that has adapted our intelligence to the world.” (The Design of Life, p. 15) Wallace agreed.
In the end Pinker’s “cognitive niche” is merely another failed attempt to answer Wallace’s challenge. In fact, The World of Life remains unrefuted after a century of Darwinist handwaving. Of course the mind/body problem long predated the co-discoverers of natural selection, but if there is a lesson here it is that modern evolutionary theory never did require Darwin’s reductionist constructions. A different approach was offered by natural selection’s other founder, Alfred Russel Wallace.
To find out much more about this approach, read my just-released biography, Alfred Russel Wallace: A Rediscovered Life.

Michael Flannery

Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Michael A. Flannery is professor emeritus of UAB Libraries, University of Alabama at Birmingham. He holds degrees in library science from the University of Kentucky and history from California State University, Dominguez Hills. He has written and taught extensively on the history of medicine and science. His most recent research interest has been on the co-discoverer of natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913). He has edited Alfred Russel Wallace’s Theory of Intelligent Evolution: How Wallace’s World of Life Challenged Darwinism (Erasmus Press, 2008) and authored Alfred Russel Wallace: A Rediscovered Life (Discovery Institute Press, 2011). His research and work on Wallace continues.

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Darwin's Heretic (Alfred Wallace)