You can never predict what slant a science reporter will produce after interviewing you for a piece—especially a piece on evolution. The truth of evolution, and the solidity of the modern “neo-Darwinian” version, is old news, and reporters are always looking for some new “hook” to sell their stories. What better hook can there be than trumpeting “Darwin was wrong!” or “Theory of evolution in drastic need of revision”? (Note: of course we don’t know everything about evolution, and there are many surprises to come. But half-baked and erroneous criticisms of the theory are a staple of popular journalism.)
When Darwin bites religion, that’s old news; when academics bite Darwin, now that’s news! And this is exactly what The Chronicle of Higher Education just did by publishing a piece by Michael Chorost, “Where Thomas Nagel went wrong” (subtitle: “The philosopher’s critique of evolution wasn’t shocking. So why is he being raked over the coals?”). The piece asserts that Nagel’s criticisms of modern evolutionary theory were right, but that he neglected to cite all the famous scientists and academics who support him. In other words, Nagel didn’t use all the ammunition at his disposal.
The background: as I’ve noted before, Nagel, a once highly-respected philosopher of mind, published a book last year called Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False. The thesis of the book, which I’ve finally finished, is that the theory of evolution is woefully incomplete, for there’s an unrecognized teleological element pushing organisms toward the evolution of mind and complexity.
There are three big problems with the book: Nagel doesn’t specify what evidence requires us to posit some unknown teleological force in evolution, he suggests no kind of force that could do this, and he claims that any solution will not involve reductionism and materialism. To put it bluntly, he’s pushing a Woo-of-the-Gaps argument. Unfortunately, there’s no gap that needs filling.
In the past, Nagel has shown sympathies for Intelligent Design—he named, for example, Stephen Meyer’s ID book Signature in the Cell as his “book of the year” in the Times Literary Supplement—but he asserts that he’s an atheist. No, the teleological force isn’t God, but something else. No matter that no respectable evolutionary biologist has ever seen the need for a teleological force: that idea was abandoned years ago because, to paraphrase Laplace, we simply didn’t need it.
Nagel’s book has been roundly excoriated by highly respected evolutionists and philosophers, including my first student Allen Orr, philosopher Elliott Sober, and Brian Leiter and Michael Weisberg (my summary of their reviews is here, and I especially recommend Allen Orr’s critique in The New York Review of Books). Their criticisms are similar and overlapping, which proves that rational minds think alike.
One would think that a nice piece could still be written about the controversy: “World famous philosopher disses evolution, but his conclusions are rejected.” But that’s not sexy enough for Chorost. His tactic, instead, is to say that Nagel is pretty much right—there are big deficiencies in evolution’s ability to explain mind and complexity—but that he neglected to cite all the Big Intellectuals who support him.
Chorost begins by quoting (or misquoting) several of us to show that Orthodox Darwinians don’t like Nagel’s thesis (that’s always a good way to begin a contrarian piece):
His latest book, Mind and Cosmos (Oxford University Press, 2012), has been greeted by a storm of rebuttals, ripostes, and pure snark. “The shoddy reasoning of a once-great thinker,” Steven Pinker tweeted. The Weekly Standard quoted the philosopher Daniel Dennett calling Nagel a member of a “retrograde gang” whose work “isn’t worth anything—it’s cute and it’s clever and it’s not worth a damn.”
The critics have focused much of their ire on what Nagel calls “natural teleology,” the hypothesis that the universe has an internal logic that inevitably drives matter from nonliving to living, from simple to complex, from chemistry to consciousness, from instinctual to intellectual.
This internal logic isn’t God, Nagel is careful to say. It is not to be found in religion. Still, the critics haven’t been mollified. According to orthodox Darwinism, nature has no goals, no direction, no inevitable outcomes. Jerry Coyne, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago, is among those who took umbrage. When I asked him to comment for this article, he wrote, “Nagel is a teleologist, and although not an explicit creationist, his views are pretty much anti-science and not worth highlighting. However, that’s The Chronicle’s decision: If they want an article on astrology (which is the equivalent of what Nagel is saying), well, fine and good.”
Well, I stand by what I said (I hadn’t finished the book at that time, but my verdict still holds), but Pinker’s tweet was meant to summarize the book reviews cited above, not to render his own opinion. (Too, Dennett’s quote isn’t exactly the zinger aimed at Nagel that Chorost states. If anything, Dennett assents to Alex Rosenberg’s statement that Nagel’s work is “neither cute nor clever”; check out the original here.)
Chorost also gets in a lick against Dawkins, implying that some of the criticisms of Nagel come from our dislike of religion:
Whatever the validity of [Nagel's] stance, its timing was certainly bad. The war between New Atheists and believers has become savage, with Richard Dawkins writing sentences like, “I have described atonement, the central doctrine of Christianity, as vicious, sadomasochistic, and repellent. We should also dismiss it as barking mad. …” In that climate, saying anything nice at all about religion is a tactical error.
But Nagel didn’t say anything “nice about religion”; he said that some arguments of Intelligent Design advocates should be taken seriously. (I disagree—they were taken seriously, but then refuted by scientists.) Dawkins’s statement is simply something pulled out of the air to discredit Richard and fan the controversy.
At any rate, Chorost goes on to argue that Nagel didn’t muster all the ammo he could have against modern evolutionary theory:
The odd thing is, however, that for all of this academic high dudgeon, there actually are scientists—respected ones, Nobel Prize-winning ones—who are saying exactly what Nagel said, and have been saying it for decades. Strangely enough, Nagel doesn’t mention them. Neither have his critics. This whole imbroglio about the philosophy of science has left out the science.
. . .In short, Mind and Cosmos is not only negative but underpowered, as if Nagel had brought a knife to a shootout. (He declines to comment, telling me by e-mail, “I have a longstanding aversion to interviews.”)
But Nagel’s goal was valid: to point out that fundamental questions of origins, evolution, and intelligence remain unanswered, and to question whether current ways of thinking are up to the task. A really good book on this subject would need to be both scientific and philosophical: scientific to show what is known, philosophical to show how to go beyond what is known. (A better term might be “metascientific,” that is, talking about the science and about how to make new sciences.)
So where is the “science” that supports Nagel’s teleological stance? Here are the supporters whom Chorost mentions:
- Michael Ruse (not a scientist but a philosopher of science). Ruse doesn’t weigh in on Nagel’s book or its science, but simply relishes a good fight, especially if evolutionists are on the receiving end. According to Chorost, Ruse says, “Nagel is a horse who broke into the zebra pen. Evolutionary biologists don’t like it when philosophers try to tell them their business: ‘When you’ve got a leader of a professional field who comes in and says, as a philosopher, ‘I want to tell you all that Darwinian evolutionary theory is full of it,’ then of course it’s a rather different kettle of fish.’”
Sadly, Ruse has a double standard here, since he doesn’t like scientists telling him that some of his philosophical stances are bizarre. Apparently it’s okay for philosophers to criticize science, but not vice versa.
- Joan Roughgarden: an ecologist and behavioral biologist at Stanford. Chorost quotes her as saying, “”I mean, these guys are impervious to contrary evidence and alternative formulations,’ she says. ‘What we see in evolution is stasis—conceptual stasis, in my view—where people are ardently defending their formulations from the early 70s.’”
Again, there’s no substantive argument here, just the notion that an orthodoxy is being defended. Where are the problems in evolutionary theory that demand a telelological solution? Neither Roughgarden nor Chorost enlighten us.
- Kevin Kelly (former editor of Wired magazine). Kelly is not a scientist, and in the New York Times I took apart the teleological views expressed in his most recent book, What Technology Wants.
- Simon Conway Morris. A paleontologist at Cambridge who has touted the inevitability of humanoid evolution as evidence for God, Conway Morris is a devout Christian. I’ve criticized his “convergence” arguments on this site, and in a piece at the New Republic.
- Stuart Kauffmann: a theoretical biologist at the Santa Fe Institute who has suggested that much of evolution really reflects the self-organizing properties of matter. I disagree with him for numerous reasons (one being that “self organization” cannot explain complex adaptations like eyes), but at any rate his views are outliers, far from the mainstream of most thinkers. That doesn’t automatially make them wrong, of course: he’s wrong for reasons other than being an outlier.
- Robert Wright: a science writer who has argued for a teleological force pulling history forward. Chorost notes, “Robert Wright said much the same in Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny: ‘This book is a full-throated argument for destiny in the sense of direction.’” Wright says nothing about Nagel’s book.
Chorost mentions some other people, too, but none of them have cogent criticisms of evolutionary theory. They’re just people who, for unspecified reasons, feel that some unknown teleological force must be pulling evolution in a certain direction. As one of my friends emailed me when he read Chorost’s piece:
What Chorost seems to neglect is that none of these ideas, promulgated entirely in speculative popular-science books generally by those with an a priori commitment to faith, plays any role in the actual practice of science—one will look long and hard to find them cited in the actual literature.
He’s right: you don’t find these views in the mainstream evolutionary literature. I suppose Chorost could argue that this is because we’re all hidebound neo-Darwinians, committed to maintaining an ideologically-based orthodoxy. But he’d be wrong, for anybody who truly found evidence for teleology in evolution, rendering modern biology sorely incomplete, would become famous.
Part of Chorost’s message, and Nagel’s, is that “progressive” evolution implies teleology. Richard Dawkins is an advocate of the notion of progressive evolution (I disagree with him to some extent on this matter), but he’ll have nothing to do with promoting teleology and rejecting materialism. In an informal email he sent me when I called his attention to Chorost’s piece, Dawkins said this:
I haven’t read Nagel’s book but I read the Chorost article last night. Quite apart from the unimpressive credentials of those who he says support Nagel, what really INFURIATES me is something else entirely. Namely the suggestion that progressive evolution implies some kind of teleological attraction. Bollocks. Natural selection, if very powerful (as Conway Morris and I both think it is, but C-M preposterously manages to draw a spooky conclusion whereas I don’t), could easily produce 100% progressive evolution without invoking any spooky teleology. When I was at school we were taught to call this “orthoselection” to contrast it with “orthogenesis”. There is no inherent inertia in evolution (such as was once invoked to account for the extinction of the Irish Elk). But strong selection (especially when there is an evolutionary arms race, or Fisherian sexual selection) can produce a pretty good simulacrum of inertia.
Chorost’s piece is irresponsible journalism, for it’s meant to give academics the idea that there is a substantial and credible body of opinion that modern evolutionary theory is wrong, and that there’s suggestive evidence for some teleological force driving the evolutionary process. He dismisses critics like myself as simply disgruntled defenders of orthodoxy, and completely neglects the valid criticisms of Nagel’s book made by Orr, Sober, Leitner, and Weisberg. The Chronicle of Higher Education, of course, is widely read by academics and intellectuals.
What a pity that a science writer with an agenda, and a desire to be controversial, manages to both misrepresent and denigrate modern evolutionary theory. This isn’t sober and objective journalism, but tabloid journalism gussied up for intellectuals.