Evolution Icon Evolution

Kudzu Science: Ken Miller’s The Human Instinct

Some time ago Evolution News noted a fascinating review in Commentary of Tom Wolfe’s book The Kingdom of Speech. The reviewer, Andrew Ferguson, challenged evolutionist Jerry Coyne’s dismissal of Wolfe’s argument for human exceptionalism and memorably characterized Coyne’s attitude, enveloping all in the weeds of what’s called “settled science,” as a kind of intellectual “kudzu.” 

In neo-Darwinism, the “settled science” has spread like kudzu, as more and more areas of human life, from morality to music, are recast as nothing more than the consequence of natural selection. 

Ferguson concluded by noting that “Wolfe joins a small and hardy band of writers and other high-brows who take joy in staring down the bullies of scientism: Marilynne Robinson, David Berlinski, Wendell Berry, Thomas Nagel, and a few others.” 

Now the kudzu spreads further with the publication of Brown University biologist Kenneth Miller’s latest pop effort, The Human Instinct. Miller is one of those “settled science” bullies. Here he sets his sights on essayist Marilynne Robinson’s 1998 collection, The Death of Adam. According to Miller, Robinson is wrong in asserting the demeaning and destructive influence of Darwinism. For Robinson, the reductionist materialism of the Darwinian paradigm has left humanity bereft of meaning and value, corroding the moral and ethical foundations on which Western civilization was built. Miller, a Darwinian theist, insists that Robinson is completely mistaken:

Let me be clear that I do not believe that the scientific core of [Darwinian] evolution negates human belief and conviction as mere byproducts of our struggle to survive. I don’t believe that it tells us that our behavior is predetermined or that we lack free will. I don’t believe that it reduces us to mere animals, mindless matter, or accidents of nature. Nor does it tell us that our lives are purposeless or pointless. (26)

What reasons does Miller give for his optimism? 

Sips from the Glass

He insists that Robinson simply doesn’t understand the “science” nor does she appreciate how secure the neo-Darwinian paradigm is in biology. Darwin’s world is “out there, real and genuine.” If Robinson would just “try hanging around for drinks in the evening after a few provocative talks at a scientific meeting” then she might “be surprised at the breadth of such discussions and how often they address exactly the points she feels so neglected.” (226) But it wouldn’t take many sips from the glass for her to realize that this glimpse behind the kudzu curtain reveals nothing like the consensus of “settled science.” Instead, a very real and serious questioning of all the Darwinian certainties Miller holds so dear would become apparent. Nowhere was this revealed with more clarity than when the journal Quarterly Review of Biology recently reviewed biologist J. Scott Turner’s book, Purpose and Desire: What Makes Something Alive and Why Modern Darwinism Has Failed to Explain It .

This exposes a problem throughout Miller’s book. The problem is his insistence that virtually all aspects of Darwinian evolution are either matters of universal consensus or questions that can be safely reserved for later payment on a neo-Darwinian promissory note. He does this by setting up “creationism” as his straw man. Focusing on special creationism as the chief opposition to Darwinism, Miller insists that this “means disputing the big bang [but this is neither a universal nor even a predominant anti-Darwin position], the age of the Earth [but this is irrelevant to the truth claims of Darwinian evolution], the geologic ages [also irrelevant], the abiotic origin of life [of course there is no definitive origin-of-life theory], and especially the notion that the fossil record contains any evidence of speciation or change over time [although Stephen C. Meyer’s Darwin’s Doubt demonstrates that the fossil record is, in fact, Darwin’s big problem].” (13)

Miller chides Richard Dawkins for claiming that the Darwinian universe regards us with “blind, pitiless, indifference.” Miller’s sanguine reply is that the “harsh universe Dawkins described is actually bursting with evolutionary possibilities.” (77) However, “evolutionary possibilities” hardly mitigate the chill of a universe of indifference. At least Dawkins’s blind evolutionary world is consistent, which is better than Miller’s consolation prize of “evolutionary possibilities.” Nevertheless, Miller pleads that we should somehow feel “joy and delight” at being, of all biological life, that which emerged from Darwin’s “tangled riverbank of life” as the only species able to understand the world we live in. According to Miller, we should feel ennobled by “knowing the details of Adam’s journey.” (230) But it is a journey that goes nowhere and signifies nothing. 

A Wonderful Wedding

Miller beckons us to feel “genuine delight in knowing that we are part of the natural world” simply by having “evolved with nature.” (75) Yet this is not very different from the view of atheist Daniel Dennett. What is Darwinism? Says Dennett, “It is that wonderful wedding of chance and necessity, happening in a trillion places at once, at a trillion different levels….I can stand in affirmation of its [nature’s] magnificence. This world is sacred.” (Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, 520) Sacred? Let’s be clear: this is a nature that according to three out of four aspects of the neo-Darwinian proposal for life — mutations, genetic drift, natural selection, and the environment — really are random (see Ann Gauger’s “Is Evolution Random?”), a cold reality made unpleasantly tepid by Miller and Dennett’s vacuous language of the numinous.

None of this leaves “Adam’s journey” very “ennobled” or uplifting. Miller’s awkward position forces him to talk out of both sides of his mouth. For example, he wants to insist that humans under Darwinian evolution do indeed have genuine free will. His reason has nothing to do with God’s bestowing free agency on his creation. It is only because “if we lack free will, then scientific logic itself is no longer valid.” (185) But a few pages back he defends Gilbert Ryle’s insistence that there is no “ghost in the machine.” Instead, our thoughts are all physical, “directly based in the material workings of the cell” and no more. (127) If so, we are indeed reduced to a type of biological determinism with no true free will, only the operations of our neural synapses and cellular functions comprising and connected to our bodies. Miller offers no reconciliation, no other explanation apart from his faith in the validity of scientific reasoning. In effect, our free will is based simply in Miller’s brand of scientism, a misguided philosophical position Austin L. Hughes exposes as one of the more dangerous superstitions “of all the fads and foibles in the long history of human credulity.” 

A Comfort Offered, and Withdrawn

Similarly, Miller asks us to take comfort in our special capacities for self-awareness and in the knowledge of our biological and cosmic environments. Yet he withdraws this comfort by asserting Darwin’s idea of a continuity between animals and humans. “Even the behaviors to which we assign the greatest moral significance,” he argues, “are present in our animal cousins.” (132) Chimps and bonobos, he assures the reader, are just “like us,” with complex social structures and all the senses of conflict, fair play, trust, and cooperation that we have. But as John L. Bolhuis and Clive D. L. Wynne ask in a 2009 article in Nature, “Can evolution explain how minds work?”:

Over the past two decades, researchers have reported that chimpanzees can empathize with other members of their species, and that they reconcile and even console each other after conflicts. Monkeys and apes have been credited with a sense of fairness and aversion to inequality and, in the case of apes, an awareness of the mental states of others — in other words, a theory of mind.

A closer look at many of these studies reveals, however, that appropriate control conditions have often been lacking, and simpler explanations overlooked in a flurry of anthropomorphic overinterpretation….

Such findings have cast doubt on the straightforward application of Darwinism to cognition. Some have even called Darwin’s idea of continuity of mind a mistake.

Miller ignores this counterevidence and moves on as if his demotion of humanity’s moral nature to simian parallels is sufficient. But sufficient for what? Certainly not sufficient to dispel Robinson’s concerns, and surely not sufficient to answer something that never occurs to Miller, namely, that Darwin’s human/animal continuity might be wrong.

A.R. Wallace and Human Exceptionalism

Of course, Miller acknowledges important human differences, but his methodological naturalism, a hallmark of the Darwinian approach, constrains his available solutions. This is seen, for example, when he tries to address one of history’s more interesting proponents of human exceptionalism, Alfred Russel Wallace. For Miller, Wallace represents a real problem because he co-discovered the theory of natural selection and was himself an evolutionist. But Wallace also argued that the special capacities of human beings — love of music, art, mathematical ability, abstract thought, etc. — can’t be explained by Darwin’s own principle of utility (the notion that a morphological feature or attribute will not be developed and retained unless it affords that organism a useful survival advantage). None of these uniquely human high-order functions would enhance survival. Thus they remain inexplicable by the principle of natural selection. 

Miller answers that Wallace didn’t consider spandrels. Calling on Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin’s “elegant” 1979 essay, “The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm,” the “strikingly beautiful spandrels” that depict “biblical scenes that tell the stories of Christianity and its links to Old Testament events and prophets” are triangular spaces created between the Venetian cathedral’s arches. They are not the “the starting points of the surrounding architecture” but “are byproducts, formed by the intersecting multiple domes of the structure, meeting at right angles. Build a cathedral with multiple domes, and there will be spandrels at the points where they meet, whether you want them or not.” (133-34) By analogy, these special human abilities are evolutionary byproducts and not the direct effects of natural selection. They represent exaptations, traits that have been co-opted for a use other than the one for which natural selection has created it.

Some Problems with Spandrels

Miller’s quick and ready answer to Wallace again fails to consider all possible objections. For example, far from ruling out a teleological explanation, the argument by Gould and Lewontin actually suggests it. In fact, Sydney Brenner in Current Biology objects to its appeal precisely because “There is too easy a transition from the analogy to the Great Designer and his intentions.” Spandrels, whether primarily or secondarily a product of their architecture, were not created blindly by chance and necessity. They emerged from intentional arches of the cathedral’s construction and then for added measure were adorned with decorative features designed to convey the original purpose of the structure in the first place. Like the spandrels themselves, the mental attributes that make up human exceptionalism are made “in the image” of their creator and are on full display in the spandrel. 

Furthermore, Armin Schulz, in a closely argued analysis of exaptations and spandrels, notes that either the exaptations arise indirectly from the operations of natural selection or they are merely negative explanations of how traits did not evolve. In other words, the effort to extricate the trait or traits in question from natural selection either fails or becomes wholly uninteresting and lacking in explanatory value. In all cases, Wallace’s original objection to natural selection’s accounting for human exceptionalism obtains.

Additionally, David Premack explains that there are significant differences between human and animal brains: 

The broad range of cognitive cases, which includes teaching, causal reasoning, short-term memory, planning, TOM [theory of mind], etc., consistently shows fundamental limitations in the animal version of the human competence. There is no anomaly in the disparity — the disparity between human and animal cognition is compatible with the disparity between human and animal brain.

Thus, Darwin’s human/animal continuity appears falsified. The very physicalism Miller refers to so approvingly actually supports the human exceptionalism he wants to negate. And the physical features signaling that exceptionalism are not themselves explained by any Darwinian mechanism.

In a curious way, Miller does achieve an unintended goal. We really do have cause for joy over our human condition. Human uniqueness is real, free will is not an illusion, there really is a higher purpose to the world around us. But it is not found in Miller’s Darwinian world. For all his double talk, straw-man arguments, glib certainties, obeisance to authority, scientism, and hand-waving, Miller winds up proving Robinson’s point after all: Darwinism really is a “chilling doctrine.” Fortunately, it is demonstrably wrong. In the final analysis evolution may be a fact, but if so Wallace was right all along — it is intelligent evolution.

Photo: Kudzu, by Norm, via flickr.