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Chronicle of Higher Ed on Nagel: Yeah, We Knew It All Along

"Hindsight bias" refers to the common human propensity to look back at a surprising outcome and say "Yeah, I knew it all along." It really is surprising -- and I did not know this all along -- how quickly Thomas Nagel's critique of evolution as blind, directionless churning seems to be achieving the distinction of this kind of retrospective appraisal.

Writing about Nagel's Mind and Cosmos in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Michael Chorost's basic point is that scientists and science writers have long been saying that evolution appears to have direction built somehow into it. He is careful to remind us that those who say this aren't in the camp of intelligent design:

Yet some scientists think that increases in complexity also happen "actively," that is, driven by physical laws that directly favor increases in complexity. As a group, these scientists have no sympathy for intelligent design. However, they do see reasons to think that seen as a whole, life does go from simple to complex, from instinctual to intellectual. And they are asking if there are fundamental laws of nature that make it happen.

While not advocates of ID, neither are they orthodox Darwinists -- as demonstrated by the reactions to the piece by actual Darwin proponents. Jerry Coyne calls it "irresponsible," while Richard Dawkins writes in an email to Coyne that the picture of evolution as obeying some source of "teleological attraction" "INFURIATES me."

But Chorost can't be surprised by such reactions. He quotes one evolutionary biologist on exactly how resistant to changes her field really is:

Joan Roughgarden, an ecologist and evolutionary biologist at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, agrees that evolutionary biologists can be nasty when crossed. "I mean, these guys are impervious to contrary evidence and alternative formulations," she says. "What we see in evolution is stasis --- conceptual stasis, in my view -- where people are ardently defending their formulations from the early 70s."

Impervious to contrary evidence! "Conceptual stasis" -- that's a nice formulation. It sounds like she's been reading ENV.

Chorost wonders why Nagel's book, despite being so unshocking, nevertheless got "raked over the coals." He thinks it's partly because Nagel didn't cite the dissenters -- "Mind and Cosmos is not only negative but underpowered, as if Nagel had brought a knife to a shootout" -- even as Nagel does refer respectfully to advocates of ID. He is "alarmingly nice to intelligent-design theorists." That too rankles Coyne:

In the past, Nagel has shown sympathies for Intelligent Design -- he named, for example, Stephen Meyer’s ID book Signature in the Cell as his “book of the year” in the Times Literary Supplement -- but he asserts that he’s an atheist. No, the teleological force isn’t God, but something else. No matter that no respectable evolutionary biologist has ever seen the need for a teleological force: that idea was abandoned years ago because, to paraphrase Laplace, we simply didn’t need it.

Coyne isn't impressed by the dissenters Chorost mentions -- saying, for example, of Stuart Kauffman:

Stuart Kauffmann: a theoretical biologist at the Santa Fe Institute who has suggested that much of evolution really reflects the self-organizing properties of matter. I disagree with him for numerous reasons (one being that “self organization” cannot explain complex adaptations like eyes), but at any rate his views are outliers, far from the mainstream of most thinkers. That doesn’t automatically make them wrong, of course: he’s wrong for reasons other than being an outlier.

It will be interesting to see what folks like Coyne and Chorost make of the middle third of Steve Meyer's forthcoming book, Darwin's Doubt, which is all about how the scientific search for a replacement theory for Darwinism has gone very mainstream. It's no longer possible, in fact, to dismiss it as merely a fringe phenomenon of "outliers" and eccentrics.