I’m loath to tell anyone, however misguided, to shut up. After all, skepticism goes hand in hand with a penchant for free discussion, and even accommodationists have the right to expel their opinions into the ether. But that doesn’t stop us from calling attention to those opinions that are misguided, delusional, or simply stupid.
And in the latter class we often find Mark Vernon, ex-Anglican priest, obfuscator supreme, and apophatic theologian (read this for some LOLz). Mark Vernon reminds me of the Kardashians: he doesn’t contribute anything to society except gibberish, yet he still gets attention. And for reasons obscure to me, the Guardian continues to publish his lucubrations.
I’ve largely ignored him, but this week he takes on evolution in a column called “Ultra-Darwinists and the pious gene” (did you cringe when you read that?). As you might expect, the combination of his deep sympathy for religion, mushy thinking, and ignorance of evolutionary biology makes for a toxic brew.
Vernon is touting a new book by Conor Cunningham, Darwin’s Pious Idea: How the Ultra-Darwinists and Creationists Both Got It Wrong (did you cringe again?). I can’t wait to read Cunningham’s analysis (NOT!). Vernon doesn’t explicitly name the “ultra-Darwinists”, but it’s clear that they include Dan Dennett and Richard Dawkins.
And here are Vernon’s criticisms of modern evolutionary biology, apparently derived from Cunningham’s book. All of them are misguided. Note that I am not criticizing Vernon because he hasn’t had formal training in evolutionary biology; I’m criticizing him because what he says shows a complete ignorance of modern evolutionary biology.
1. Ultra-Darwinists think that every trait is adaptive, and in an optimal form.
First, why do most mammals walk on four legs? It may be because four is an optimal adaptation for walking on land. Or it may be because the number four originates with the four fish fins that predate mammal legs. The difference is subtle but much hangs on it. If the number four is an optimal adaptation – not merely a byproduct of fins – then it exemplifies the power of natural selection to explain all sorts of traits. Only, consider a millipede. It would presumably think there’s nothing optimal about four at all. I’d blame the fish, it might muse. And we might remember the millipede’s contribution because, if it’s hard to say whether features of organisms are adaptations or not, that causes all sorts of problems for the universal acid of ultra-Darwinism.
It’s as if we’ve never considered the idea of constraints, both genetic and developmental. That’s nuts. Every evolutionist—and that includes Dawkins (who has discussed constraints in several places—see Chapter 3 of The Extended Phenotype, for example) and Dennett—know that the four-limbed configuration of vertebrates is probably the result of our evolution from lobe-finned fish, who had four “limbs.” That is, we have genetic and developmental constraints preventing an increase in limb number, for the same reason (as geneticist J.B.S. Haldane noted) that humans haven’t become wingéd angels. We don’t have the genetic variation and developmental program for either wing buds or exquisite moral sentiments.
As for arthropods, their segmental structure (reflected in their developmental program) makes it evolutionarily much easier for them to change the number of body appendages through mutation and selection. Period.
2. Ultra-Darwinists think that free will, mind, and ethics are delusions, leading to nihilism.
Strongly adaptationist explanations are common in ultra-Darwinism and the work of the acid. But as Cunningham repeatedly – actually, obsessively – points out, when they are rehearsed as gospel, they exact a terrible price. They describe such humanly invaluable features as mind, ethics and free will as delusions – akin to what Nietzsche called “true lies”. The resulting nihilism is one of Cunningham’s prime objections to the paradigm.
Of course, the ultra-Darwinists don’t live as if mind, ethics and free will are delusions. They cut the grass but not their dogs; they eat lettuce but not their neighbour’s children. So, Cunningham suggests, scratch an ultra-Darwinist and watch a hypocrite bleed. Or, in a less gory aside, he notes that an excellent title for an ultra-Darwinist book would be The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Person. You get the point: ultra-Darwinism is empty because it doesn’t explain, it explains away.
Let’s grant Vernon the premise that free will, at least in the sense that most people think of it—as a ghost in the brain machine—is delusional. But, as we’ve seen before, Dan Dennett sees free will as something else, an evolved characteristic of our psychology that isn’t teleological. And if we act as if we have free will in the teleological sense, so what? Why is that a problem? I don’t believe in pure free will, but I act as if I do. Really, we have no choice but to act that way!
But as for mind and ethics, those are manifestly not delusions. Mind is the combination of brain and consciousness, and both of those are not delusions, but products of evolution. Now we may not know much about how the brain evolved, and even less about how consciousness evolved (after all, first we have to find out how consciousness is formed by genes and neurons), but mind is not a delusion. We know that because although much of “mind” is a subjective experience, we have every evidence that other people (and other primates) have minds that work in ways similar to ours.
And in what sense is ethics a “delusion”? We practice ethics, many ethical norms are shared among human societies, and we find their rudiments in primate societies. And human ethical norms may be evolved features of our mentality, or byproducts of a big brain encased in a social being, or a combination of both. In that sense mind is no more a delusion than is agriculture or chess. One gets the sense that Vernon (and perhaps Cunningham) would only consider mind and ethics non-delusional if they were given to us by god. And I’m convinced that that’s what Vernon really believes.
3. The lack of a strict correlation between organismal complexity and gene number is a problem for Darwinism.
No it’s not. It was a surprise for geneticists to discover that more “complex” organisms—and be aware that the definition and quantification of “complexity” are slippery—don’t always have more genes or more DNA. But now we largely understand why. Lots of the genome can be junk, and there can be evolutionary duplications of entire genomes (it’s happened twice in vertebrates) without changing the organism much. And sometimes DNA can be selfish, replicating itself in a “genic selection” process that has nothing to do with organismal complexity. In fact, far from baffling ultra-Darwinists, we take up this issue with gusto. The “ultra-Darwinist” Richard Dawkins did so on p. 45 of The Selfish Gene (did Vernon ever read it?)
Sex is not the only apparent paradox that becomes less puzzling the moment we learn to think in selfish gene terms. For instance, it appears that the amount of DNA in organisms is more than is strictly necessary for building them: a large fraction of the DNA is never translated into protein. From the point of view of the individual organism this seems paradoxical. If the ‘purpose’ of DNA is to supervise the building of bodies, it is surprising to find a large quantity of DNA which does no such thing. Biologists are racking their brains trying to think what useful task this apparently surplus DNA is doing. But from the point of view of the selfish genes themselves, there is no paradox. The true ‘purpose’ of DNA is to survive, no more and no less. The simplest way to explain the surplus DNA is to suppose that it is a parasite, or at best a harmless but useless passenger, hitching a ride in the survival machines created by the other DNA.
Further, polyploid plants form commonly by duplicating the genome of an ancestor, and they’re no more complex than were their ancestors. Duplication of whole genomes in animals is rarer, but it still happens, and no new complexity arises.
But after raising the red complexity herring, Vernon goes off into Mushville:
The second question draws attention to the genomes of single-celled organisms that can be found to be much bulkier than those of complex creatures like us. With that discovery, the “gene for x” notion dies. Instead, the way to explain why there’s no correlation between genes and complexity is to realise that the expression of genes has everything to do the environment in which the creature lives: the environment matters quite as much as the genome.
I’ve parsed this paragraph twice, and still can’t understand what Vernon is talking about. I suspect he doesn’t either.
4. Convergent evolution shows an inevitability that is incompatible with ultra-Darwinism, but compatible with Jebus.
The third question asks about the various evolutionary paths of remarkably similar features, of which camera eyes are but one of very many. They show that natural selection repeats itself, and that suggests convergence in evolution, and perhaps that evolution is predictable. If the “tape of life”, to recall the expression of Stephen Jay Gould, were run again, it would not produce dramatically different organisms each time.
Vernon is conflating two things here: convergence and predictability. The first is no problem for Darwinism: certain designs will arise more than once, due simply to similar selection pressures, to genomes and developmental programs that are similar among not-too-related groups, and pure coincidence. That’s why the euphorbs of the Old World resemble the cacti of the New World: it’s adaptive in both places for plants to lose their leaves, form spines, and have barrel shapes that store water.
But remember that for every case of convergence there are also evolutionary one-offs: complex traits that have appeared only once. These include the elephant’s trunk, feathers in birds, closed carpals in plants, erectile fangs of vipers, the wings of insects—and the mentality made possible by the complex human brain.
Which brings us to “predictability”, which differs from convergence. What Vernon and his fellow theistic evolutionists, like Kenneth Miller and Simon Conway Morris, mean by “predictability” is this: the appearance of humans was inevitable, and human-like creatures would always reappear if we were to rerun the tape of life. This is a key argument of religious biologists and mushbrain apologists like Vernon, for the appearance of humans must have been inevitable if God was steering the evolutionary process. After all, according to theists like Vernon, Homo sapiens is the sine qua non of evolution: the apogee of the process and its ultimate, god-directed goal.
Note that because humans and their big brains arose only once in evolution, they have nothing to do with convergence. Like feathers and elephant trunks, humans are an evolutionary one-off. Giving examples of convergence says nothing about the evolutionary inevitability of a creature that arose just a single time.
At any rate, the argument that the appearance of humanoid creatures was inevitable is specious, and I’ve discussed why several times before (see, for example, here and here). It’s telling that people like Vernon, Miller, and Conway Morris spend a lot of time arguing for the inevitability of the singleton human, but not for the inevitability of the singleton bird feather or elephant trunk. But of course we know why:
If you accept such convergence and predictability – and both are still controversial – the possibility of teleology returns to evolution. That, in turn, raises the possibility of a universe right not just for life like ours, but for self-aware, even God-seeking, life. You get the point: post-ultra-Darwinist evolutionary theory can – and should – be welcomed by theologians.
Maybe those theologians should learn some biology before rushing to embrace “post-ultra-Darwinist evolutionary theory.”
Clearly Vernon understands very little about modern evolutionary biology. He just culls whatever ideas he can that appear to support Jebus, and presents them as a reconciliation between science and faith. He even drags out poor, misused Thomas Aquinas, doomed to be eternally (and wrongly) praised for his prescience about science:
Some theologians could even be said to have anticipated this new Darwinism. “It is clear,” wrote Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century, “that nature is a certain kind of divine art impressed upon things, by which these things are moved to a determinate end. It is as if a shipbuilder were able to give to timbers that by which they would move themselves to take the form of a ship.”
I’m learning that the invocation of Aquinas, like the use of the word “nuanced”, is a signal to run away very fast.
Finally, Vernon’s post shows his hallmark: the use of deepities. I’ve already given one example, and here’s one more:
The debating point here is that Richard Dawkins’ notion of the immortal gene – the selfish replicator for which the organism is but a vehicle and the environment but a medium for its perpetuation – is not only mistaken but, further, anti-evolutionary. The immortal gene must be somehow above evolution in order to be immortal. It’s at such moments that Cunningham concludes that the ultra-Darwinists are rather like the creationists they so loathe: both smuggle “supernatural” elements, like immortality, into their accounts of the natural world.
The first part, about he immortal gene being above evolution, sounds very academic and deep, but means nothing. The second part, about “immortal” genes being a “supernatural” concept, is simply wrong; it uses the passing on of DNA between generations, due to replication and reproduction, as something synonymous with god—or rather with creationism. There is nothing numinous or celestial about DNA replication. And even that specious analogy is flawed, for surely Vernon himself, like Miller and Conway Morris, believe in immortality—and they’re not garden-variety creationists.
Can someone at the Guardian—someone who knows a bit about science and evolution—please take a look at Vernon’s pieces? I’d really like to know why stuff like this is considered worthy to publish.