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National Academy of Sciences: Dobzhansky's "In the Light of Evolution" Mantra Is Not a Deduction, but a Premise

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For several years now, the National Academy of Sciences has presented an ongoing series of colloquia, "In the Light of Evolution." The series takes its title from Theodosius Dobzhansky's 1973 statement, "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution." The NAS is now publishing Colloquium VIII, "Darwinian Thinking in the Social Sciences."

In the introduction to the series in PNAS, Francisco Ayala, Brian Skyrms and John Avise make it clear that evolution is to be viewed as a paradigm, not a conclusion from evidence.

Most scientists agree that evolution provides the unifying framework for interpreting biological phenomena that otherwise can often seem unrelated and perhaps unintelligible. Given the central position of evolutionary thought in biology, it is sadly ironic that evolutionary perspectives outside the sciences have often been neglected, misunderstood, or purposefully misrepresented.... The ramifications of evolutionary thought extend into learned realms traditionally reserved for philosophy and religion. The central goal of the "In the Light of Evolution" (ILE) series is to promote the evolutionary sciences through state-of-the-art colloquia and their published proceedings. Each installment will explore evolutionary perspectives on a particular biological topic that is scientifically intriguing but also has special relevance to contemporary societal issues or challenges. Individually and collectively, the ILE series aims to interpret phenomena in various areas of biology through the lens of evolution, address some of the most intellectually engaging as well as pragmatically important societal issues of our times, and foster a greater appreciation of evolutionary biology as a consolidating foundation for the life sciences. (Emphasis added.)

For short, let's refer to Dobzhansky's remark as the "Light in Evolution" principle, or LIE. Is the LIE a flashlight or a filter? Does it objectively illuminate facts to a candid observer, or does it determine what the observer is permitted to see? In other words, does the LIE shed light, or process it? The passage cited above makes it clear how the NAS views it: it's a filter. It's a framework, or paradigm, for interpreting all observations. Nothing makes sense except within the LIE.

Since the LIE is an axiom -- a given, a premise -- several conclusions deductively follow:

  • All objections to the LIE are nonsense by definition.
  • Outside the LIE framework, biological phenomena "can often seem unrelated and perhaps unintelligible" because the LIE stipulates what relatedness and intelligibility are.
  • Of course "Most scientists agree that evolution provides the unifying framework for interpreting biological phenomena" because the LIE determines who is a true scientist.
  • Since the LIE is assumed prior to religion and philosophy, those realms will also only make sense in the LIE framework.
  • Any research that doesn't explain things with the LIE is unscientific.
  • Any activity that fails to promote the LIE is evil.
  • Any interpretation that fails to pass the LIE detector will be impermissible in science.

So of course nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution. It's like Stalinism: anything that failed to advance the regime was a crime against the state. Researchers in the Soviet system became very adept, therefore, at interpreting every observation in light of Marxism-Leninism, economic determinism, and dialectical materialism. It made perfect sense (if you wanted to stay alive). So too, the editors at the NAS see to it that every paper published submits to the LIE and has the Darwinian imprimatur.

The Darwinian system seeks not just to control the message, but the very thought processes of the people. This has given rise to an Orwellian language called "Darwinian thinking."

Darwinian thinking in the social sciences was inaugurated by Darwin himself in The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex. Despite various misappropriations of the Darwinian label, true Darwinian thinking continued in the social sciences....

Proponents of Marxian thinking would recognize this warning. It would be a crime against the regime to misappropriate Darwinian thinking -- like, say, to use it to support theistic Darwinism. That is why the apparatchiks wage war against theistic evolutionists as vehemently as they fight Young Earth Creationists.

The PNAS article spends most of its time cheerfully describing research by worthy comrades who operate under the Darwinian paradigm. Social cooperation, for instance, can be explained by evolutionary game theory, which they claim Darwin "invented." Since everything must be interpreted with the LIE, morality is another example:

Social norms themselves evolve. They exhibit both commonalities and differences across cultures. This suggests that both biological and cultural evolution -- and coevolution -- play a role in their explanation.

In "Bargaining and fairness" Binmore discusses the evolution of fairness norms as devices for selection between multiple equilibria.

On and on it goes, with every human value reprocessed through the LIE. As with any other biological organism, humans can be treated like bacteria:

Levin focuses on problems of collective action that are common to all social species, from humans to bacteria. Central concerns are (i) the creation of a public good through individual contributions and (ii) collective prudent management of common pool resources. These are really two sides of the same coin.

There must be something comfortable about working under such conditions. Everyone labors on the same puzzles together -- puzzles defined by the LIE. No one is around to ask really hard questions. No one is allowed to do so. However, as Thomas Kuhn noted, anomalies creep into each paradigm, threatening to overthrow it if they continue to accumulate or remain unanswered. Loyal comrades remain confident the problems will be solved with further research:

The paper focuses on three central issues. The first is the nature of discounting the future. The second is prosociality -- the extent to which individuals value the welfare of others. The final one is the nature of collective decision making. The discussion is complex. Some of the factors that make evolution of prosociality possible, such as local interaction in space and repeated interaction in time, can also make possible the evolution of spite. For humans, evolution of social norms is seen as playing a critical role.

With such an entrenched paradigm, it seems hopeless for skeptics to get a hearing. Kuhn feared that paradigms are incommensurable: that those inside the paradigm speak a different language than those outside. Insiders and outsiders are doomed to talk past each other.

Advocates of intelligent design have an ace card, however. Since we do not believe that the human mind is an epiphenomenon of matter, but has an intelligent cause, we view our Darwinian thinkers as rational agents, too -- but captives to self-deception. Deep down, they share our common rationality. This gives cause for hope that their minds can be awakened from dogmatic slumber.

The way to jolt the captives awake is to turn their rationality against the LIE paradigm itself. For instance, when they offer an explanation based in Darwinian thinking, ask them to identify who is the explainer. If nothing makes sense except in the light of evolution, then their own explaining minds are products of evolution, too. Darwinians cannot step outside their evolved skin and play the role of disembodied philosopher (after all, philosophy evolved too in their paradigm). How, then, can they know anything to be true, good, or beautiful?

This is the argument from reason, presented in John West's book The Magician's Twin: C.S. Lewis on Science, Scientism and Society. One quick excerpt:

Lewis argued that reason cannot be accounted for by an undirected material process of chance and necessity such as natural selection acting on random mutations. If reason could be accounted for in this way, according to Lewis, we would have no reason to trust the conclusions of our minds, including the conclusion that our minds are the products of a material process of chance and necessity. The bottom line for Lewis is that the existence of reason within nature points to a need for reason outside of nature as a transcendent intelligent cause.

The argument from reason has the potential to turn a bright light on the LIE. Someday, it will have the effect of showing captives the way out of Darwin's cave, revealing that what they thought was light was only the shadow of their own imagination projected on the walls from the light of their rational minds.

Photo source: Adam Fagen/Flickr.