It wasn’t I who used the term “Egnorance” to refer to the lucubrations of Michael Egnor, a neurosurgeon and an ardent proponent of intelligent design who regularly contributes to the Discovery Institute’s shriveled organ, “Evolution News and Views.” Egnor often goes after me on that site (I’m proud to say that my opinion of him is prominently displayed on his Wikipedia page), but I don’t pay him much attention. The DI has nothing more to do than attack atheists, evolutionary biologists, and tout its Jesus-soaked books; and I don’t feel like giving them hits.
But Egnor’s latest column, “Jerry Coyne endorses free will (inadvertently as you might expect),” has a fundamental error of comprehension that’s worth pointing out.
Now of course I don’t endorse free will, at least of the libertarian or dualistic type, so why does Egnor accuse me of this? Because I argue that humans can counteract the tendencies built into them (that’s a metaphor!) by evolution. If you think about it for a second, which Egnor apparently hasn’t, you’ll see that this kind of “counteracting” is no argument for dualism.
Egnor’s claim comes from a piece I recently wrote defending Dawkins against the accusations of Mary Midgley and Andrew Brown that the metaphor of “the selfish gene” has been deeply misleading. In fact, I said nothing in my piece about our inability to countermand genetically-based behaviors, so Egnor is reduced to arguing that because I endorse Dawkins, I also endorse his views on this issue. Here’s what Dawkins says in The Selfish Gene, and is quoted by Egnor:
We can even discuss ways of cultivating and nurturing pure, disinterested altruism, something that has no place in nature, something that has never existed before in the whole history of the world…. We have the power to turn against our creators. We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.
In fact I do agree with those views. And hence Egnor’s beef:
If we lumbering robot survival machines are to upset the design of our genes, we cannot be deterministic survival machines. As Midgely cogently observes, only free will — in fact, very strong libertarian free will — could permit us liberation from our selfish genes.
Coyne defends Dawkins’s theory of selfish genes. If Coyne believes, as Dawkins does, that we can upset the design of our selfish genes and practice genuine generosity and altruism, then Coyne presupposes strong free will — an idea he has repeatedly rejected up until now.
What nonsense! Egnor doesn’t understand determinism.
Although some genetically-based behaviors are very hard to overcome by volition (breathing and urinating are two), others are easier. Every time someone adopts a child, or uses birth control, he or she is deliberately overcoming genetic propensities. Masturbation also obviates our genetic drive to reproduce, and you can think of a million other ways that we overcome, on a daily basis, what evolution instilled in our ancestors.
Well, Engor might say, that just shows that we have free will: that we can make deliberate choices that go against what supposedly evolved (he doesn’t accept evolution.) And presumably that free will was a gift of God.
But Egnor’s argument for free will is flatly wrong. For one thing, “choice” can be apparent choice, and determinists like me would argue that donning a condom is dictated by your neurons, which have previously absorbed the lesson that if you don’t do so, you could have an unwanted child.
Clearly, environmental intervention, like the thoughts that you derive from learning and observation, can change your brain. We had to learn that ejaculation was connected with reproduction, something that kids learn every generation, and once we did we could go to the drugstore and counteract our evolutionary drive to reproduce.
But Egnor certainly doesn’t accept determinism, and would argue that those “choices” reflect libertarian free will. In that case, we can show that the use of chemicals, which certainly have nothing to do with such free will, can also overcome the tyranny of those selfish replicators. You can take drugs that completely eliminate your desire to reproduce. You can take drugs that eliminate your desire to eat. You can take drugs that make you agitated or placid. All manner of drugs can change behaviors that reflect the ancient actions of natural selection, and every one of these drugs acts by changing something in your brain. As a neurosurgeon, Egnor should know this. But he’s blinkered by his faith.
Finally, diseases like depression or schizophrenia, which often strike in late teens or early twenties, can lead you to the ultimate non-evolutionary act: suicide.
Genetics is not destiny, and what was built into us by selection can be dismantled by rationality—or disease. What’s so hard about realizing that?
So many critics of incompatibilism—the view that free will is incompatible with determinism—simply don’t understand what determinism entails. And the most common misunderstanding—the one committed by Egnor—is to suppose that, under determinism, the environment cannot play a huge role in our “choices”, as it supposedly cannot affect the structure of our brain. But it can.