August 17, 2015 | David F. Coppedge

Darwinism: The Joy of Being Clueless

Two evolutionists describe Darwinian evolution as a brilliant mess, with “a thousand times more questions than satisfactory answers”.

“Alas, poor Darwin?” — With apologies to Shakespeare (“Alas, poor Yorick!” the skull Hamlet holds in philosophical contemplation), that’s the headline two evolutionists gave their entry in this year’s Edinburgh Fringe (see The Conversation). They hold Darwin’s skull with respect for his brilliance, yet find themselves uneasy with the mess in evolutionary biology and psychology that his ideas wrought.

Evolutionary theory is a bit like a chocolate ice cream in the hands of a two-year old: it’s going to get applied everywhere, but will anything useful be achieved in the process? The central tenets of Darwinian theory – variability, heredity and selection – are as beautiful as they are compelling. They completely revolutionised biology.

But applying these principles to the study of human behaviour has caused far more controversy. The evolutionary explanations for human behaviour that grab the headlines can often be neat; really neat – like tightly-plotted narratives in which everything works out perfectly in the end, usually with a guy getting a girl, where everything happens for a reason.

Real life rarely makes for such a neat story. We’ve all seen enough action movies to notice that the more satisfying the ending, the more plot holes you have to ignore as you walk out of the cinema. Neatness makes a good story, but it’s not enough for good science.

The rest of the article is consumed with trying to squeeze good science out of Darwinian storytelling. Not that they doubt its principles; psychologist Kate Cross and biologist Lewis Dean still think Darwin’s theory is beautiful and compelling. They just want to see it get more rigorous, according to the summary of their talk at Edinburgh Fringe:

If Darwin was alive today he’d be very, very angry about what we’ve done with his idea. Evolutionary theory can be used to explain pretty much any human behaviour, but that doesn’t mean it should be. Is it natural for married men to have affairs? Are good novelists more evolutionary? Does the pill make you more attracted to your brother? Psychologist Kate Cross and biologist Lewis Dean will use sketches, debate and game shows to explore the data behind the headlines and help decide: evolutionary just-so story, or evolutionary just-right?

This sounds a bit like a more sober-minded Bah! Fest event (Heads up! 3 of them coming this fall). Dean, author of the Conversation article, gives examples of some of the slipshod storytelling that passes for evolutionary psychology these days. Then he plunges into the philosophical implications about “The Reality of Scientific Enquiry [sic].”

In our own work we don’t generally find neat, satisfying stories that are easy to tell, hard to critique, and make everything fall into place. We tend to end up with tantalising hypotheses, really interesting ideas that might be true but we haven’t quite gathered the data to nail down beyond all doubt. We find theories that are dazzling in their elegance but multitudinous in their caveats.

The human mind is simply too complicated to fit into simple, neat stories.

We find that the mind steadfastly refuses to behave like a collection of perfectly adapted units, each with a single function that afforded a clear evolutionary advantage at some weirdly specific yet curiously under-specified time during human evolutionary history. Instead the human mind seems to be full of compromises and by-products, highly flexible, and intricately intertwined with this weird thing called “human culture”.

In spite of these issues, Dean and his colleague cling to the brilliant elegance that first attracted them to Darwin. That attraction still overcomes the mess inside the sausage factory they encountered as career Darwinians:

BM-EmperorCharlie-smYet having been drawn to evolutionary science for its extraordinary elegance and having found a thousand times more questions than satisfactory answers, we persist. Because if you expand your ideas about what “evolutionary” means – if you cease looking for the neat stories and embrace the fact that it’s going to get very, very messy, you can start to get somewhere really interesting.

Culture and evolution are not opposites. Evolved doesn’t have to mean adaptation. It might or might not mean “useful under some circumstances”. (It certainly doesn’t mean – and has never meant – good or right).

One problem remains: the quest for something interesting is not science. Science is judged by results, not hopes.

Dean and Cross caution that just because they find flaws in some of the Darwinian stories, it doesn’t follow that they are all flawed. That gives them hope to persist. God forbid they should be lumped in with “science denialists” like those skeptical of Darwinism. Anything but that!

Arguing about the how, when and why isn’t a sign of science denialism, nor a reason to scrap the whole line of investigation – it’s healthy disagreement and we’d like to see more of it. Being an evolutionary scientist is a bit like being Dirk Gently: you might not get where you were hoping to go, but you’ll probably end up somewhere it’s worth being.

If they ended up as intelligent design advocates, would that qualify?

It’s good to see two young scientists with some courage to ask hard questions. They have a long way to go, but we encourage them to keep asking questions, while letting go of emotion as a reason to cling to Darwinian theory. In science, it doesn’t matter if you are attracted to a theory because it once appeared brilliant, elegant, or revolutionary to you. It has to be right. It has to be logical.

To help them on their quest, we ask them to consider this problem: is Darwinian storytelling adaptive? How do you know that prehistoric evolutionary forces are not influencing you to pursue a line of investigation that ends up with a mess of tantalizing hypotheses lacking rigor? Is not your ability to contemplate larger issues evidence that your brain transcends the unguided, mindless forces of variability, heredity and selection? If you think not, are you not left to tilt at windmills, driven by some purposeless process that did not have “satisfactory answers” in mind? If evolutionary theory has “never meant good or right”), then is it good or right for products of evolution to try to apprehend such non-adaptive concepts as goodness or morality?  Is that not an impossible dream?

To dream the impossible dream
To fight the improbable odds
To bear all the cosmic indifference
And to run with
the atheist gods
To right the unrightable wrong
And to love tantalizing suggestions
To try when your data are messy
To reach the unreachable goal
This is my quest
To run from that Light
No matter the darkness
No matter how far
To seek empty answers
Without question or pause
To be willing to march,
march into hell
For that Darwinist cause
And I know
If I’ll only be true
To my thousands of questions
That my brain
Will lie mindless and dead
When I’m laid to my rest
And the world will
care nothing for this
That one man, plagued
with thousands of questions,
Still strove with his last
ounce of folly
To reach the unreachable,
the unreachable,
The unreachable goal
And I’ll always play
The unwinnable game
Yes, and I’ll dream
The undreamable dream

All I have to do is dream; dream dream dream.

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  • rockyway says:

    – Darwin didn’t invent variability; the bible clearly claims that all people (etc.) came from a single pair.

    – Darwin didn’t invent heredity… (“Let the earth bring forth living creatures after their kind: cattle and creeping things and beasts of the earth after their kind”)

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