The only certainty

Among my most irritating traits — naturally selected, perhaps, by my participation in hack journalism over the years — is conducting intelligence tests in public bars. They would perhaps be more acceptable if I announced them openly, & set each in the format of a pub quiz. But my purpose is seldom to provide entertainment. It is instead, to find out whether it is worth arguing with any given interlocutor, about some topic he has raised. I ask apparently innocent questions, or make leading remarks, in order to establish if he has the fondest idea what he is talking about. For if he doesn’t, & by his manner shows no inclination to learn, there is really no point in arguing. Were I as wise as I am irritating, I would perhaps stop arguing when there is no point. Alas, too often, I take the bait anyway.

Out “drinking with the boys” last night (only one Tuesday left until Lent!) I was reminded of a test conducted elsewhere fairly recently. This was a couple of years ago, when I found myself being verbally assaulted by a pair of dreadful Darwinoids, to whom I had just been introduced. They knew me for the dreadful anti-Darwinian from the Ottawa Citizen, & had “a problem with that.”

Soon after our conversation began, for reasons too dull to recite, I became curious to know if either understood what the word “epigenetic” means. I wasn’t looking for a technical definition, along the lines of “an alteration in the genome that does not correspond to an alteration in the nucleotide sequence,” but something more fundamental than that. Did they grasp that genes can express themselves differently, & indeed so differently that a dramatically different creature could be constructed from exactly the same genes? (The point is important, because unless fully grasped, a great deal of deterministic nonsense about genes will be spoken.)

One of them rolled off something like a technical definition, but with a mistake to suggest it had been learnt by rote. The other, with no direct biological training that I could discern, was entirely clueless. He had incidentally been the more aggressive of the two in accusing me of “Mediaeval ignorance.”

But again: I wasn’t testing for rote acquisition of neo-Darwinist jargon. I was testing for elementary comprehension of biological process. Does the pupil in this case begin to understand the dimensional depth of his error when he glibly assigns, for instance, certain fixed traits to certain fixed genes? And if not, might it still be possible to explain the matter to him, so that he can, eventually, “get” the concept? In the event, “Darwinoid A” proved possibly teachable, “Darwinoid B” definitely unteachable.

A second line of intelligence testing was then administered. Both interlocutors asserted that the essential doctrine in some neo-Darwinian “consensus” is natural selection from random mutations. Now, this is unfair even to neo-Darwinism, which does flirtatiously wink at a few decidedly non-random factors in the production of mutations that must then pass through the “selection” filter. But more fundamentally: As avowed Darwinists, did they have any idea what Darwin himself had taught? For the old bearded wonder never asserted that mutation would be “random” in the coin-flipping sense. (He was cautiously vague.) Nor did he assert that “natural selection” was the only possible filter. On the contrary, he expressly asserted that he was not asserting that. (The man knew how to cover his backside.)

This is why I feel sorry for Darwin sometimes, & even for Karl Marx. Bad as they might have been, they did not deserve their supporters. Late in life, Herr Marx supposedly exclaimed, “I am not a Marxist!” while listening to French Marxists expounding his ideas. Likewise, we might imagine Mr Darwin in ye pub, exclaiming, “I am not a Darwinist!”

The specific issue at the 21st-century pub table became the book, What Darwin Got Wrong, by Jerry Fodor & Massimo Piattelli Palmarini. The authors are a couple of explicitly atheist, cognitive science types whose training was, respectively, more philosophical & more biological. It came out in 2010, & attracted the predictable hailstorm of abuse, mostly ad hominem. That I was physically carrying a copy of this book, & moreover, produced it visibly with a recommendation, perhaps contributed to my interlocutors’ spleen.

The book is worth keeping in circulation if only because it does actually provide a good summary of the case against basic Darwinism — against the idea that “natural selection” can explain anything at all about evolution — & then against the various ways neo-Darwinists have tried to extend the definition of “natural selection” to get around this obstacle. It is a summary only: so far as I remember (my copy of the book having since been passed along) none of the arguments were original. The genius was in gathering the arguments together, updating them with recent findings, setting them in concrete logical order, then placing this slab over poor Darwin’s corpse, in the hope it might stay buried.

The authors did not argue for “intelligent design,” unless implicitly. Their point was that Darwinism — in any form at all — is absolutely useless for the purpose of explaining evolutionary developments. Its attraction has nothing to do with science, & everything to do with metaphor: it appeals because its believers desperately want it to be true. But by now we know too much biology by direct observation to entertain the notion that evolution could have any single material driver, let alone such a limply passive one. There are so many drivers — so many, many, many drivers — & such incredibly complex interactions between them — that no sequence of trial-&-error experiment, nor other empirical method, can possibly extract such a philosopher’s stone. Darwinism must perforce go the way of alchemy, astrology, phrenology, &c.

My favourite chapter in What Darwin Got Wrong was entitled, “The Return of the Laws of Form.” This is because it exhumed one of my own great heroes, the polymath Scotsman, D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson (1860—1948, & anti-Darwin to his dying day). His glorious book, On Growth & Form, used mathematical principles from physics to inquire into the phenomena of morphogenesis in biology — how living creatures acquire pattern & shape. At its heart is the knowledge that Nature is not “random” in any sense — that not even the smallest fleck of inanimate dust will or could behave randomly. And, that the “Laws of Nature” are necessarily coordinated: you can’t change one thing without changing another.

At the frontiers of biology today, these principles from physics & chemistry have come back into play, on a molecular & sub-molecular scale. Crucial things happen for comprehensible physical & chemical reasons not separate from, but integrated with, biological process — providing plain empirical paths to the destruction of materialist glibness. Yet nowhere — not even where simplicity is presented at its simplest — can we observe an isolated cause & effect. Too much is always going on for that. We are dealing with “machinery” vastly too intricate for mechanistic analysis; with “machinery” that is, simply, not machinery by the metaphor handed down from Descartes & Bacon.

That is what makes current science so interesting. The phenomena have themselves, as it were, broken from the Cartesian (& Darwinian) moulds. The Mechanical Fallacy imposed upon Nature something the evidence can no longer bear &, so far as it is honest, empirical science is left with no choice but to revert once again from smugness to wonder.

That this would be a source of distress to those deeply invested in the Mechanical Fallacy, is easy enough to understand. Their very faith in the meaninglessness of human life is threatened, along with often quite elaborate liberal-progressive (or fascist) views that depend on that faith. The most fundamental salvationist article in the Atheist creed — that through suicide one may always escape the consequences of one’s acts — is, ultimately, kicked away. Where is one to turn for certainty after that?