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It's Complicated: John West on the Long and Messy Evolution Debate

In an excellent review in the Claremont Review of Books, Discovery Institute's John West writes about Thomas Nagel's book, Mind and Cosmos. He observes:

If someone had predicted a year ago that Oxford University Press would publish a book with the subtitle Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False, I might have wondered what alternate universe he was inhabiting. But Oxford did publish it, and the aftershocks among the intellectual elite have yet to abate.

Nagel's book was published almost a year ago, and I bet that the aftershocks will keep coming for a long while. Even if the initial round of angry reviews, blog posts and tweets is past, you can expect that, given the upset that Nagel stirred among his academic colleagues, there will be books and other responses coming through the pipeline for years even, seeking to rebut Nagel's critique of Darwinism and his kind words for intelligent design -- even if those responses don't cite Nagel by name.

Dr. West explains well why the keepers of conventional scholarly wisdom -- the vaunted "consensus" in favor of Darwinian theory -- were so rocked by Nagel's desertion:

If the fundamental thesis isn't exactly new, why has it proved to be such a shock to the cultural establishment? One reason is undoubtedly that Nagel is an atheist, which preempts the usual invective against religious fundamentalists. More generally, our cultural elites are so parochial and inbred that many of them really cannot conceive that any thinking person could doubt Darwinism. When confronted with such an oddity -- from among their own class no less -- they are astounded.

One can hardly blame them. Darwinian theory forms the modern secularist's creation myth, a myth aided and abetted by a triumphalist rewrite of Western intellectual history. Western society, you see, was stuck back in the Dark Ages of flat-earthers, witch trials, and the Inquisition until Darwin embarked from the HMS Beagle like Moses from Mount Sinai to deliver his revelation that nature is the product of a blind, impersonal process. Everyone (or at least, all thinking persons) then supposedly became Darwinians.

Darwinists tell a smooth, simple, and convenient tale about who the critics of their theory are and have been, the purpose of which is to excuse them from having to answer us. Nagel badly scrambled that story. Hence the outrage that greeted the publication of his book.

West notes that an important point Nagel makes is not original to Nagel. It is a doubt about Darwinism that goes back to Darwin himself: the fear that upstart apes like ourselves are not credible purveyors of theories about evolution or anything else.

For all of the discussion and debate provoked by his book, he ultimately offers a rather simple, if profound, objection to Darwinism: "Evolutionary naturalism provides an account of our capacities that undermines their reliability, and in doing so undermines itself." In other words, if our mind and morals are simply the accidental products of a blind material process like natural selection acting on random genetic mistakes, what confidence can we have in them as routes to truth?

This objection is not new. Indeed, it reaches back to Charles Darwin himself. Darwin published a lengthy tome, The Descent of Man, purporting to prove that his theory of unguided evolution could explain basically everything, including man's mind and morals. Yet in his private writings, he expressed a lingering reservation over the impact of his theory on the trustworthiness of reason. In a letter written in 1881, he disclosed that "with me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man's mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey's mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?"

In the decades that followed, many echoed Darwin's question, but it may have been Sir Arthur Balfour who first helped formulate it into a coherent argument in The Foundations of Belief (1895) and Theism and Humanism (1915). Best known as the British prime minister who issued the Balfour Declaration supporting the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, Balfour in Theism and Humanism wanted to show, post-Darwin,

that if we would maintain the value of our highest beliefs and emotions, we must find for them a congruous origin. Beauty must be more than accident. The source of morality must be moral. The source of knowledge must be rational.

With regard to the human mind, Balfour argued that efforts like Darwinism to explain mind in terms of blind material causes was self-refuting: "all creeds which refuse to see an intelligent purpose behind the unthinking powers of material nature are intrinsically incoherent. In the order of causation they base reason upon unreason. In the order of logic they involve conclusions which discredit their own premises." Balfour offered a similar critique of Darwinian and other materialistic accounts of human morality, which he thought destroyed morality by depicting it as the product of processes that are essentially non-moral.

The argument that Darwinian theory is self-refuting was subsequently taken up, under Balfour's influence, by C.S. Lewis and others. I've never heard a plausible counter to it.

What's especially interesting about West's review is the way he traces the pedigree of ideas relating to evolution. That's also the theme of the second half of his review, where he takes on Rebecca Stott's 2012 book Darwin's Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution. Stott "brazenly," as West puts it, tries to make off with Aristotle, Leonardo da Vinci and other famous names as proto-Darwinists. She ends up backing off from the claim implied by the title of her book. "In reality," West observes, "the history of the idea of evolution both before and after Darwin has been considerably messier and more interesting than her triumphalist narrative."

As they say on Facebook about some ambiguous personal relationships, "It's complicated." West points out, for example, that among the figures that Stott tries to appropriate is Alfred Russel Wallace -- who, despite sharing credit with Darwin for the theory of evolution by natural selection, came to reject the pillar of Darwinism that says evolution is without purpose or guidance. Wallace, as our friend and colleague Michael Flannery has tirelessly argued, emerged instead as a thinker in the intellectual lineage of the theory of intelligent design.

The story of the evolution debate extends back long before the contemporary movement that goes by the name "intelligent design" -- back to Wallace and Darwin, and beyond, thousands of years into the past, to the philosophers of ancient Greece. In briefest terms, it poses the question of whether mind precedes matter, or the other way around. It's indeed a messy, complicated story, and fascinating for being so.