Last October I mentioned that the famous philosopher Thomas Nagel had produced a new book that proclaimed the falsity of neo-Darwinian evolution. I’ll quote from my earlier post:
As I’ve mentioned before, the respected philosopher of mind Thomas Nagel has joined the ranks of Darwin-dissers with the publication of his new book Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False. I am eager to read this, but haven’t yet had a chance because I’m travelling and reading Sophisticated Theology™ (this book may qualify in that genre).
Nagel has always evinced a sympathy for Intelligent Design creationism, and in fact he chose Stephen Meyer’s ID book Signature in the Cell as his “book of the year” in the respected Times Literary Supplement (read the letters following Nagel’s endorsement at the link). But Nagel is no slouch academically, and so it’s very surprising that he joins his colleague Jerry Fodor in bashing Darwin at book length.
Well, I never got around to reading Mind and Cosmos: I acquired a copy, but upon opening it and skimming it I was so disheartened that I just put it aside for the sake of my kishkas. So many books and so little time; did I really want to read another argument against evolution?
Now I’m glad I didn’t, for several people with the right expertise have read the book and they proffer a unanimity of opinion: thumbs way down.
The best of the reviews is by (ahem) my first student, Allen Orr, who, in the New York Review of Books, politely eviscerates Nagel’s ideas in a piece called “Awaiting a new Darwin” (free online). It’s a calm, informed, but absolutely skewering piece, and Orr is eminently trained to review it because he has a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology. (He’s a professor at the University of Rochester). In the end, his reasoned analysis makes Nagel’s book looks pretty worthless.
Among Nagel’s claims are that evolution is wrong because:
- We don’t understand the origin of life
- We don’t understand the evolution of consciousness (is this list starting to sound familiar?)
- There are objective factors about morality, and evolution can’t explain them (Nagel is what philosophers call a “moral realist”)
- A reductionist and materialist program won’t suffice to understand evolution, ergo
- There is a missing factor, and that factor is teleology. That is, evolution is directed toward certain goals (e.g., consciousness) by a process we don’t understand
Now Nagel is not religious—he’s an atheist—so his teleology can’t involve a god. Instead, he apparently posits an unknown force that drives organisms onward and upward.
To a biologist (Orr is a Drosophila geneticist like me),the response is obvious: there is no direction in evolution, for when organisms evolve parasitism, or move into darkness, they often lose complex features like eyes and wings. And of course there are those dumb plants:
Nagel’s teleological biology is heavily human-centric or at least animal-centric. Organisms, it seems, are in the business of secreting sentience, reason, and values. Real biology looks little like this and, from the outset, must face the staggering facts of organismal diversity. There are millions of species of fungi and bacteria and nearly 300,000 species of flowering plants. None of these groups is sentient and each is spectacularly successful. Indeed mindless species outnumber we sentient ones by any sensible measure (biomass, number of individuals, or number of species; there are only about 5,500 species of mammals). More fundamentally, each of these species is every bit as much the end product of evolution as we are. The point is that, if nature has goals, it certainly seems to have many and consciousness would appear to be fairly far down on the list.
In fact, bacteria are still with us after billions of years, and they show no sign of a brain yet!
Allen’s conclusion about the value of Nagel’s teleology is measured and accurate:
The question, then, is not whether teleology is formally compatible with the practice of science. The question is whether the practice of science leads to taking teleology seriously. Nagel may find this question unfair. He is, he says, engaging in a “philosophical task,” not the “internal pursuit of science.” But it seems clear that he is doing more than this. He’s emphasizing purported “empirical reasons” for finding neo-Darwinism “almost certainly false” and he’s suggesting the existence of new scientific laws. These represent moves, however halting, into science proper. But science, finally, isn’t about defining the space of all formally possible explanations of nature. It’s about inference to the most likely hypothesis. And on these grounds there’s simply no comparison between neo-Darwinism (for which there is overwhelming evidence) and natural teleology (for which there is none). While one might complain that it’s unfair to stack up the empirical successes of neo-Darwinism with those of a new theory, this, again, gets the history wrong. Teleology is the traditional view; neo-Darwinism is the new kid on the block.
In my earlier post on Nagel’s book, I highlighted the review by Brian Leiter and Michael Weisberg in The Nation, so I’ll just give their conclusions here (the flaws they pick out are similar to those descried by Orr), which are stronger than Orr’s
We conclude with a comment about truth in advertising. Nagel’s arguments against reductionism are quixotic, and his arguments against naturalism are unconvincing. He aspires to develop “rival alternative conceptions” to what he calls the materialist neo-Darwinian worldview, yet he never clearly articulates this rival conception, nor does he give us any reason to think that “the present right-thinking consensus will come to seem laughable in a generation or two.” Mind and Cosmos is certainly an apt title for Nagel’s philosophical meditations, but his subtitle—”Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False”—is highly misleading. Nagel, by his own admission, relies only on popular science writing and brings to bear idiosyncratic and often outdated views about a whole host of issues, from the objectivity of moral truth to the nature of explanation. No one could possibly think he has shown that a massively successful scientific research program like the one inspired by Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection “is almost certainly false.” The subtitle seems intended to market the book to evolution deniers, intelligent-design acolytes, religious fanatics and others who are not really interested in the substantive scientific and philosophical issues. Even a philosopher sympathetic to Nagel’s worries about the naturalistic worldview would not claim this volume comes close to living up to that subtitle. Its only effect will be to make the book an instrument of mischief.
And indeed, the book is already being touted by creationists, though they have politely ignored Nagel’s atheism.
Finally, philosopher Elliott Sober, who also knows a lot about evolution, pitches Nagel his third strike in the Boston Review. I’ve had my differences with Sober, but his review is thorough and seems on the money. It’s more philosophical than Orr’s but that’s good: one man covers the biology base, the other the philosophical. Sober concludes, soberly:
Current science may suffer from fundamental flaws, but Nagel has not made a convincing case that this is so. And even if there are serious explanatory defects in our world picture, I don’t see how Nagel’s causally inexplicable teleology can be a plausible remedy. In saying this, I realize that Nagel is trying to point the way to a scientific revolution and that my reactions may be mired in presuppositions that Nagel is trying to transcend. If Nagel is right, our descendants will look back on him as a prophet—a prophet whom naysayers such as me were unable to recognize.
All three reviews are free online, so if you have any interest in Nagel’s ideas, go read them. I recommend you do this before you buy his book!
Bad Nagel! Bad Nagel!
h/t: Alberto, SP