October 19, 2010 | David F. Coppedge

Darwinism in Chaos, but Gave Us Morals

Two papers on evolutionary theory create a strong tension.  One says that there is no law of evolution – just chaos.  The other claims that morality evolved out of the mess.

  1. Evolution is a theory in chaos…:  If you thought Charles Darwin brought biological evolution under natural laws, think again.  Keith Bennett on New Scientist argued, “Forget finding the laws of evolution.  The history of life is just one damn thing after another.”  His surprising article undermines the two pillars of evolution: common descent and natural selection.  Common descent, he says, was not discovered by Charles Darwin; it was stipulated by him.  It has been “accepted as a basic premise of biology since 1859.”  If it is a premise, it is an a priori assumption or axiom; it is not a finding.  Bennett left it at that.
        As for the second pillar, the claim that life “evolves by means of natural selection and adaptation,” a principle he equates with adaptationism, Bennett says it is “more controversial, but has come to be accepted over the past 150 years as the principal mechanism of evolution.”  But is it?  Microevolution is uncontroversial, he said, but “there is still huge debate about the role of natural selection and adaptation in ‘macroevolution’ – big evolutionary events such as changes in biodiversity over time, evolutionary radiations and, of course, the origin of species.”  The impact of that admission can hardly be overestimated.  Many of the bitter disputes at school board meetings across the country have occurred over the presumption that there is no controversy over evolution among scientists.  Darwinians have railed against citizens who have lobbied to “teach the controversy” about evolution.  But Bennett continued to say that a “long-running debate” about it included the famous Stephen Jay Gould, who in 1972 “challenged the assumption that evolutionary change was continuous and gradual.”  His notion of “punctuated equilibria” also challenged the expectations of adaptation to produce continuous change over long periods.
        Bennett argued instead for a “Chaos theory of evolution,” a theory that acknowledges that evolutionary changes are unpredictable, individualistic, highly sensitive to initial conditions, nonlinear, and fractal.  Even the dynamics of evolution are changing all the time, he said, meaning that even the principles of flux are in flux.  Using fossil data from the Quaternary period with its ice ages, he shows that many populations did not adapt to the changes, others adapted in unpredictable ways, and many went extinct.  Here’s how he summed up the implications of his view:

    This view of life leads to certain consequences.  Macroevolution is not the simple accumulation of microevolutionary changes but has its own processes and patterns.  There can be no “laws” of evolution.  We may be able to reconstruct the sequence of events leading to the evolution of any given species or group after the fact, but we will not be able to generalise from these to other sequences of events.  From a practical point of view, this means we will be unable to predict how species will respond to projected climate changes over next century.

    Yet it has been the great goal of Darwin and his followers ever since to bring biology under natural laws.  His ending reinforces the fact that there are none.  “In the last analysis, evolution can be likened to the description of human history as ‘just one damn thing after another,’” he smirked.  If the only law of human history is that we do not learn from history, then his analogy is apt.  What can a biologist learn from a Chaos theory of evolution?  No predictions can be made; there is no way to falsify it, there is no way to understand it.

  2. ….But it creates morality:  It’s doubtful that Franz der Waal read Bennett’s article, because he launched out in the New York Times Opinion Pages to explain how natural selection produced morality.  Taking on all creationists and moralists, he argued that moral motions emerged out of the pleasure response.  These “building blocks of morality” evolved into social instincts, he said, that increased the pleasure and survival of the group.  Drawing on observations of apes, he constructed a “bottom up morality” –

    Such findings have implications for human morality.  According to most philosophers, we reason ourselves towards a moral position.  Even if we do not invoke God, it is still a top-down process of us formulating the principles and then imposing those on human conduct.  But would it be realistic to ask people to be considerate of others if we had not already a natural inclination to be so?  Would it make sense to appeal to fairness and justice in the absence of powerful reactions to their absence?  Imagine the cognitive burden if every decision we took needed to be vetted against handed-down principles.  Instead, I am a firm believer in the Humean position that reason is the slave of the passions.  We started out with moral sentiments and intuitions, which is also where we find the greatest continuity with other primates.  Rather than having developed morality from scratch, we received a huge helping hand from our background as social animals.

    Taking that cue from David Hume, he argued that religion came in as a latecomer and stole the credit for sanctioning these evolved behaviors.  He admitted, though, that no human culture has been studied that was never religious.  “That such cultures do not exist should give us pause.
        Interestingly, however, though he believes science no longer needs God to explain how we got where we are today, he ended by supporting religion’s role in society.  “I doubt that science and the naturalistic worldview could fill the void and become an inspiration for the good,” he concluded.  “Any framework we develop to advocate a certain moral outlook is bound to produce its own list of principles, its own prophets, and attract its own devoted followers, so that it will soon look like any old religion.”

So on the one hand, Bennett claimed that evolution is completely unpredictable and not necessarily adaptive, and on the other hand, der Waal argues that morality was a natural adaptation to social populations.  Can these disparate views be reconciled?  A heated set of comments followed the second article.  Should schools “teach the controversy”?

Bennett has reaffirmed something said often here: Darwinism is the Stuff Happens Law (SHL) in disguise.  If universal common ancestry is a premise, then it is a deduction from a chosen world view, not a science.  And if macroevolutionary changes are not adaptive, natural selection reduces to “stuff happens,” the absence of an explanation (see 10/03/2010).  Thank you, Dr. Bennett, for affirming the demise of evolution as a theory in chaos.
    As for Franz der Waal’s attempt at putting a narrative gloss on his a priori commitment to naturalism, it doesn’t work, and it can’t work.  There is no law inherent in producing moral motions in any population, because natural selection has no direction, no goal, no predetermined outcome.  An impersonal, unguided universe could not care less whether it produces Disneyland or a world of all against all.  What’s more, you can’t believe that morality is good or normative without begging the question.  An anonymous commenter said, “The basic problem with De Waal’s approach (as so many other sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists) is that if altruism is simply an evolved trait, then so is genocide.  If helping the old lady across the street is an evolved trait, then so is raping the young woman in the dorm…. both are simply acting according to the moral character given to them by evolution.”  Q.E.D.  He pointed out also that there is a distinction between viewing God as the source of morality (as stated, for instance, in the Declaration of Independence) and religion as a source of morality.  These separate issues must not be confused.
    Bennett and de Waal illustrate the bankruptcy of evolution as a scientific approach to biology, and the shallow thinking of Darwinians pretending to be philosophers.  You can’t get there from here, and evolution doesn’t even know where here or there is.  Stuff happens?  Science was supposed to do better.  If Hume and de Waal really believed that reason is the slave of the passions, then the rest of us should most passionately reject their views as unreasonable.

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