May 12, 2012 | David F. Coppedge

Evolutionists Need to Mind Their Matters

To a Darwinian evolutionist, the mind is the product of unguided mutations and random environmental pressures acting on material forces.  This raises questions about the mind and morals: do they have any validity?  Evolutionists need to “mind” their matter.  The following examples show how they try to justify these non-material entities arising from matter in motion.

The smart thing:  Intelligence is an immaterial property that, to an evolutionist, must be an epiphenomenon or illusion arising from particles in motion.  New Scientist asked whether intelligence – “what distinguishes humans from the myriad other species with which we share our planet” – can be explained in evolutionary terms.  The article is more a question than an answer about intelligence:

It is a key factor in everything from our anatomy to our technology. To ask why we are intelligent is to ask why we are human; it admits no discrete answer. But let’s ask it here anyway. Why are we, alone in nature, so smart?

One answer is that maybe we aren’t as smart as we think we are.  “Maybe our anthropocentric conceit prevents us from fully appreciating the intelligence of other animals, be they ants, cephalopods or cetaceans.”  This approach however, invokes one immaterial concept, conceit, to dodge another, intelligence.  It seems the article is marching in place so far.  Time for another tentative step:

So let’s rephrase the question. There is a cluster of abilities that seems unique to humans: language, tool use, culture and empathy. Other animals may have rudimentary forms of these abilities, but they do not approach humans’ sophistication and flexibility. Why not?

Again, though, language, tool use, culture and empathy are immaterial, so this approach suffers the same shortcomings.  Appeals to variations of intelligence within species doesn’t solve the problem.  At this point, the anonymous author of this article leapt into storybook land about why not all chimps became champs of intelligence:

Some did, but a long time ago: our own ancestors. Somewhere in our evolutionary history, there were presumably similarly prodigious protohumans, produced by some accident of genetics or environment, whose greater intelligence gave them the edge over their less gifted peers. Today’s chimp prodigies do not seem to profit from their intelligence in the same way. Their society and environment do not reward it as ours did.

So our ancestors may have been fortuitously placed to embark on the runaway cycle of biological and cultural development that led to modern, multitasking humans… and to a level of adaptability that allows us to adjust readily to changes in our environment, and even modify it to suit ourselves.

To avoid belaboring the point that words like history, prodigy, gifted, reward, and suit refer to immaterial concepts and values, this answer reduces to “stuff happens” – we got smart “fortuitously,” by “some accident of genetics or environment.”  If intelligence is an accident, though, philosophers will want to know what gives it validity to be turned on itself to ask questions about its own origin.

The right thing:  Kate Douglas tried to evolutionize morality with a book review for New Scientist entitled, “When did our ancestors learn to do the right thing?” but whether she did the right thing evolutionarily is the question at issue.  The book under review is Christopher Boehm’s Moral Origins: The evolution of virtue, altruism, and shame.  A social anthropologist, Boehm studied the !Kung people of the Kalahari Desert in South Africa for answers.  He believes the !Kung mimic “the original moralists – late Pleistocene foraging societies living in Africa 45,000 years ago.”  Here’s his thesis in a nutshell:

So how did we evolve from amoral apes to moral humans? It is a question that has perplexed many, from Darwin onward, but what sets Boehm’s approach apart is his effort “to make the natural history of moral origins more historical“. In so doing he provides a new and coherent map of the evolution of morality.

He argues that our ancestors were “preadapted” for morality. Like today’s chimps and bonobos, they had a sense of self and of fairness, a tendency for young to learn appropriate behaviour from their mothers, and the potential for collective action, giving subordinates some power over dominant individuals.

The first step was to develop a conscience, or what Boehm describes as a “Machiavellian risk calculator”. At first, this controlled selfish urges through fear of punishment, but morality began to emerge when our ancestors learned to internalise their society’s social rules, connecting them with emotions such as shame and honour. Finally, he says, altruistic genes got a boost as societies came to value generosity and punish selfishness. Our egotistic and nepotistic tendencies still far outweigh the altruistic ones, but by social selection we have unwittingly made our own gene pool more virtuous.

It’s hard to see how Boehm can justify using words like self, fairness, rules, values, shame, honour, altruistic, and virtuous in a materialistic context.  Some of these things he seems to think were just “there,” being somehow “preadapted.”  His law of “social selection” seems contrived out of Darwin’s natural selection.  Another problem is that Boehm studied modern, living humans who already are “egalitarian and share big game equitably,” begging the question on how such immaterial traits got started.  Kate Douglas tried to be as nice as she could: “It is a complex story and Moral Origins is a bit muddled at times, but Boehm’s experience doing fieldwork with humans and wild chimps makes him a wonderfully knowledgeable guide. And some of his ideas are truly revolutionary.”

In short, somewhere, in an unobserved evolutionary history, presumably, an accident of genetics or environment did something, perhaps developing a conscience, that internalized rules, generating “altruistic genes” that in turn produced true altruism, leading chimps down a path that led to us humans with our intelligence, virtue and morality.  To call evolutionary answers “a bit muddled at times” is being truly altruistic.  That, in and of itself, is evidence that altruism and intelligence are not products of material processes of selection and “fortuitous” accident, but of design.  It follows logically that it is neither virtuous nor sensible to think otherwise.


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