Evolutionary Anthropology as Religion
There’s something magical about believing in evolutionary anthropology: a sense of numinous awe at how much they don’t know but believe might be possible.
A man ponders a bone in his hands, holding it as if it were a sacred relic. “Fossil raises puzzling questions about how upright body plan of great apes evolved,” reads the subtitle of a piece called “Walk like a Man” in the Harvard Gazette. Harvard staff writer Peter Reuell seems to relish the mysteries that lie beyond the great unknown. One thing is certain: he doesn’t ask “if” upright posture evolved, but “how” it evolved. That dogma is beyond question; everything else is up for grabs.
For decades, scientists have recognized the upright posture exhibited by chimpanzees, gorillas, and humans as a key feature separating the “great apes” from other primates, but a host of questions about the evolution of that posture — particularly how and when it emerged — have long gone unanswered.
For more than a century, the belief was that the posture, known as the orthograde body plan, evolved only once, as part of a suite of features, including broad torsos and mobile forelimbs, in an early ancestor of modern apes.
But a fossilized hipbone of an ape called Sivapithecus is challenging that belief.
Reuell discusses how the old picture of man proceeding gradually from knuckle-walking ape to upright posture through a straight line of intermediates has been replaced by a new picture. Michele Morgan, curator of the university’s museum, explains:
“We initially believed that Sivapithecus, with a narrow torso, was on the orangutan line, but if that is the case, then the great ape body shape would have had to evolve at least twice,” she added. “There are a lot of questions that this fossil raises, and we don’t have good answers for them yet. What we do know is that the evolution of the orthograde body plan in apes is not a simple story.”
What Sivapithecus may ultimately demonstrate, said Flynn, assistant director of the American School of Prehistoric Research at the Peabody Museum, is that evolution doesn’t occur in a straight line, but happens as a mosaic across many species.
It’s going to be harder for artists to draw that. No more straight line, but a tree with many branches: a “very rich and complex tree.” Evolution works in mysterious ways. Reuell defines the vision quest: more fossils and more research. Well, one might think, surely the past century and a half of research has turned up something reliable, hasn’t it? Lawrence Flynn, co-author of a paper with the Harvard team, responds:
“It’s a very easy thing for people to ask, why do we need to go find more fossils; don’t we already know everything? The answer is no,” he said. “We’re only just beginning to understand what we don’t know. And as we learn more, there are more interesting and exciting questions we can ask, and hopefully we can answer.”
So after all this time, they’re only beginning to understand what they don’t know. What they think they know is that this bone in their hands is a channel for visions of an unobservable past, when many species were aimlessly wandering until a lucky strike—perhaps a random mutation—allowed the universe to become aware of itself.
Vision Quest Theater
Meanwhile, over at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, evolution gamer Chris Adami and fellow gamers play at their computers with animats. That’s animats, not animals. These are creatures of their own design that they reward when they solve problems, like Tetris. As the mythical creatures evolve, the gamers decide that “Complex environments push ‘brain’ evolution.”
“This shows that by adapting to a more complex environment, the organism itself becomes more complex,” says UW-Madison researcher Larissa Albantakis, the study’s lead author. More complexity in the environment requires the animats to develop more neural functions. But because the size of their brains was limited to the eight nodes, the animats adapted to complexity by creating more integration between the nodes. Neuroscientists have proposed this as a strategy for brain evolution.
What they don’t seem to notice is that they are the gods of their tiny creation. Like puppeteers, they pull the strings.
The cosmology of a Clemson researcher, reported in a Clemson University press release, is one of a mysterious hidden potential in matter. Kelly Smith, a philosopher and evolutionary biologist at the university, reports in third person about his own views:
Recent developments in science are beginning to suggest that the universe naturally produces complexity. The emergence of life in general and perhaps even rational life, with its associated technological culture, may be extremely common, argues Clemson researcher Kelly Smith in a recently published paper in the journal Space Policy.
What’s more, he suggests, this universal tendency has distinctly religious overtones and may even establish a truly universal basis for morality.
This is no ordinary religion. It’s a godless one. Or, the god is an undefined force that permeates all space and time. This is his “scientific” religion that swallows up the Humanities.
He points out that scientists are increasingly beginning to discuss how the basic structure of the universe seems to favor the creation of complexity. The large scale history of the universe strongly suggests a trend of increasing complexity: disordered energy states produce atoms and molecules, which combine to form suns and associated planets, on which life evolves. Life then seems to exhibit its own pattern of increasing complexity, with simple organisms getting more complex over evolutionary time until they eventually develop rationality and complex culture.
Is this a religious belief? Smith thinks not; “It need not imply that the universe was created by a God, but on the other hand, it does suggest that the kind of rationality we hold dear is not an accident.” By that, he is not implying intelligent design of any kind. It’s just some force built into the nature of matter that drives it to produce minds over “evolutionary time.”
Smith is taking a sabbatical to write a book on this. He thinks he has even figured out alien morality:
And Smith feels another similarity to religion are the potential moral implications of this idea. If evolution tends to favor the development of sociality, reason, and culture as a kind of “package deal”, then it’s a good bet that any smart extraterrestrials we encounter will have similar evolved attitudes about their basic moral commitments.
Humans and aliens will get together some day to celebrate the rationality, sociality, and morality that the Universe drew out of their emergence.
Perhaps some of the aliens, though, will warn Smith and humans like him about the need for evidence to back up one’s claims.
What a cushy job, being an evolutionist. You don’t have to know anything. You can say, after a century, that you are just beginning to understand what you don’t know, and your bosses will give you more money to continue finding more ignorance. You can engage in fact-free speculation about aliens and nobody will laugh. You can play computer games on the job and get published in major journals. You can gamble, betting that smart extraterrestrials are as moral as us, knowing you will never have to pay up.
As you wag your heads over these stories, remember that these people are looked up to in the media as heroes of science. Claiming to be rational, they put the roots of rationality in mindless matter. Claiming to be moral, they consider morality as an inevitable property of evolving material. Claiming to be social, they hang out with fellow academics who never ask them hard questions. What great faith they have to think that evolution tends to favor the emergence of sociality, reason and culture—and morality.
Notice most of all that they are not really materialists or physicalists. Smith gives the best glimpse in recent weeks about the true nature of evolutionary philosophy: it is pantheism. The evolutionists’ reality is a universe that wants to evolve and see itself in the mirror. Humans are the smartphone through which the Universe will take a Selfie.
So when we debate the evidence about this or that bone, keep in mind that evolutionists filter all their thinking through their chosen religion: pantheism. They live in a Hollywood universe of Star Trek and Star Wars, a Disneyland fantasy universe where wondrous things emerge when they wish upon a star. Before you can reason with such people, you need to drag them out the gate to the parking lot, shout “Wake up! Face reality!” until their eyes blink, and then send them out on the road in a real car that has to operate within the laws of thermodynamics.