Thursday, November 07, 2013

Darwinism and Amoralism

I went to a thought-provoking talk excellently presented by Professor Kenneth Miller, the Brown-University cell biologist who testified in the Dover trial on teaching intelligent design in public schools. As you may know, he's a Roman Catholic Christian, and the title of his talk was "Darwin, God and Design: Is There Room for God in the Evolutionary Process?".

The answer to the question, in short, was No: God is transcendent, so it's wrong to think of God as requiring "space" (literal or figurative) in his creation. A great point that definitely needs to be made, but one that doesn't do complete justice to our Creator, I'm afraid. God is primarily transcendent, of course, but he's also immanent: the saying goes that he's closer to each of us than we are to ourselves, so it would seem he could act within us. Plus, there's plenty of "room" for divine action in the "randomness" of the mutation that Darwinism says provides the novelty for the natural selection mill. Randomness in modern science basically means, "We don't know." And this room is not a gap, as in "God in the gaps," because even if one came up with a story to describe the particular mechanical interactions that caused what mutations occurred (the kinds of causes modern science in fact uses to explain), it could not in principle eliminate all meta-stories about an intelligent agent coordinating and arranging apparently natural secondary causes (mechanical and otherwise) for a larger goal.1 Every scientific theory will always have boundary conditions but none will ever be able to fix those of the wild, wide world.

Be that as it may, that's not the main subject of this post. Mainly I wanted to discuss the problem of morality in the Darwinian account of nature. Dr. Miller admitted (1) that there is a continuity between apes and men in the fossil record and (2) that we can see in the human genome that we are still evolving. Primarily because of (1), it would seem that it's not clear to which creatures the natural moral laws applies. As Dr. Miller himself put it, if we came across a tribe of Australopithecus afarensis in some remote jungle, whether we should treat them as human or merely as a respected non-human relative is not clear.

Primarily because of (2) it would seem that the natural moral law is not fixed. If human nature is not fixed, then shouldn't the natural moral law that grows from that nature also be unfixed? If humans don't breed true, who's to say a human couple's offspring is necessarily human?

David Stove (an atheist), in his incisive, often funny, critique of human evolution, Darwinian Fairy Tales, wonders what natural selection can even mean with regard to man in light of the fact that the term was coined from "artificial selection," the process by which humans breed better non-human animals. (Is the way we humans pick our mates natural or artificial?) If evolution is a blind process, then why can't human beings lend an intelligent guiding hand? Why not engage in eugenics?


With regard to randomness, I've written in the past. A further point to be made is that Darwinism, child of the mechanical philosophy and its biological consummation, explains using only extrinsic causes. What's so often missed is the interiority of fully natural causation. Why couldn't the evolution of organisms be determined from within (intrinsically), by the natures of the organisms themselves, instead of by an abstract Nature? This sort of immanent intelligence would also show as "randomness."3

With regard to man, it first needs to be noted that the timeline of human descent relies on very little actual hard evidence: the fossils would fit in the back of a pickup truck.2 Archaeologists see a continuity of evolution, but based only on bones and some DNA. We don't have the living creatures to see. We see even in dogs vast differences in appearance within one species. We can also observe (say, between placental predatory cats and their marsupial analogues), similarities of form between two utterly different species. The bones are not the creature, nor is the DNA. DNA is simply a library of blueprints for all the proteins the body can possibly produce and of possible regulations for producing them; these possibilities only come to life when in the context of the proteins that limit the possibilities and actualize the cell, which is why proteomics is the big field these days. People talk about our sharing 96% of our DNA with chimpanzees. Yet beer is close to 100% water and manifestly not the same thing as water—try claiming to the judge in your DWI case that the beer you drank was the same as water.

The only thing that could truly delineate between man and his non-human ancestors is an examination of the full creatures, especially their behavior. Questions like, "Do they have language?", "What is their conception of time?", "Can they conceptualize the natures of things?", "Can they understand right and wrong?" have to be among the tests for humanity.4

Still, Darwinism admits of devolution as well as evolution (or rather abolishes species altogether). So while it is clear that demanding that each individual (esp. newborns, the ill, the handicapped) have such characteristics is unreasonable, it is not clear how one can preserve the humanity of everyone we regard as human without the assumption that species (or at least humans) breed true. More to come on scientific reasons this assumption might not be a mere assumption...


1. One questioner astutely asked Dr. Miller how his view was theistic not merely deistic. It must be admitted that there is a large gap between what Dr. Miller admitted as miracles (amounting to 'inexplicable' goodness in human action) and an event manifestly supernatural, like the Resurrection.

2. Cf. the October 18 NPR story "New Fossil May Trim Branches of Human Evolution" in which fossils of a mere five individuals are apparently upsetting established notions of the field. Also cf. reconstruction of a fossil tooth in Tom Weller's hilarious Science Made Stupid. (WARNING: This may be the funniest book of all time.)

3. As in Physics II.8.199b26-29:

"It is absurd to suppose that purpose is not present because we do not observe the agent deliberating. Art does not deliberate. If the ship-building art were in the wood, it would produce the same results by nature."

Aquinas comments:

"Hence it is clear that nature is nothing but a certain kind of art, i.e., the divine art, impressed upon things, by which these things are moved to a determinate end. It is as if the shipbuilder were able to give to timbers that by which they would move themselves to take the form of the ship" (Commentary on the Physics, no. 268).

4. But also, "Are they physiologically suited to such activities?" Swift's talking horses are clearly absurd horses for their supposed ability to carry things with their limbs. Cf. Erwin W. Straus, 'The Upright Posture', in Phenomenological Psychology, (London: Tavistock, 1966) 141.

David Stove, Darwinian Fairytales: Selfish Genes, Errors of Heredity and Other Fables of Evolution (Encounter Books, 2013), 232.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Modesty Is Simply Thoughtfulness

Huffington Post is promoting a story about Mark Frauenfelder's daughter being told by a TSA agent to cover up. According to Frauenfelder, the agent said,

"You're only 15, cover yourself!"

The latter link includes the single public photo of how she was dressed. Of course it was unprofessional of the agent to remark on anything personal. But except for that, it's about time someone says something to young women who dress revealingly. Even in that one photo in which she's "covered up," it's clear that the leggings don't leave much of the shape of the girl's lower half to the imagination. We also might suspect that the photo is not exactly what the agent saw: it's clear that the top is the kind that tends to ride up revealing the navel, and we can't see (Deo gratias) how revealing the top might be close-up despite its apparent thickness here. So we shouldn't rush to judge the remark based on a single photo.

Of course, the subsequent reaction is typical of our times: that the agent's remark was creepy, that it's up to a woman how she dresses, that they want to force women to wear burkhas, etc.

A while ago, a friend posted a story about women protesting rape and sexual harassment. Any civilized person has to agree wholeheartedly: men are fully responsible for their actions and need to control themselves, regardless of the context. But then the photo showed the women dressed scantily, immodestly. Clearly these women weren't getting a deeper point.

People these days forget that we dress not only for ourselves, but also for others, to ease our common life together: we dress decently to make others comfortable. Men are naturally attracted to women's bodies; more visibility means more attraction. That this was something that could only be controlled with effort used to be a fact widely understood. It's just in the nature of men and women, how we're put together. (In fact we owe our continued existence as a species to this aspect of our nature.)

In saner days women dressed modestly to make life easier for men. But no more. I think our modern attitude comes from two ideas that stand in tension with each other:

  1. We think of ourselves as entirely rational, autonomous agents, transcending the gross corporeal world.
  2. We identify ourselves with our inclinations and desires (and fail to acknowledge that we can resist our desires, and that some should be resisted).

From these two sides of Enlightenment mind-body dualism, we conclude by divinizing our desires and choices, placing them above doubt or question. Women tend to think that there's nothing wrong with using their sexuality to manipulate men; that they can dress however they wish, the rest of the world be damned. Men tend to think that satisfying their base desires is necessarily good; that getting what we 'want' is victory, the rest of the world be damned. Clearly the actions of men here, being direct violations of another person, are more condemnable, but both selfish tendencies, unchecked, add up to a war between the sexes and the splintering of society. But peace won't come from answering power with power, but from answering power with peace.

The irony is that Mark Frauenfelder presents himself (as do his supporters) as socially conscious. In actuality, by failing to teach his daughter about the social implications of dress, he is contributing to the impoverishment of community. In a world so individualistic that it's off-limits to comment on another's dress, if the parents don't teach their children about such things, who will?