Natural Selection Is Vacuous, Says Evolutionist, Part I: Causation
Creationists are not the only ones complaining that Darwin’s ‘mechanism’ fails as a scientific cause for biological complexity.
Stephen Talbott is writing a book, and readers can watch it unfold online as he adds to it. His latest chapter came out today. Who is he?
Stephen L. Talbott, a New Atlantis contributing editor, is a senior researcher at The Nature Institute in Ghent, New York…. Before coming to the Nature Institute, Mr. Talbott did software work and technical writing for engineering organizations of computer manufacturers, ran a family organic farm in Oregon, and completed academic work in philosophy.
Talbott is a member of “The Third Way of Evolution,” a group of evolutionary scientists who are critical of the sufficiency of neo-Darwinism to explain biological complexity. While dismissive of creationism and intelligent design, this group complains that “some Darwinists have elevated Natural Selection into a creative force that solves all the difficult problems without a real empirical basis.” They seek to upgrade evolution so that it is adequate “in the era of genomics and epigenomics.”
Members of the Third Way include over 60 notable scientists, many of them well-known in evolutionary circles, such as James Shapiro, Eugene Koonin, John Odling-Smee and Adrian Bejan. CEH has quoted some of these evolutionists over the years as promoters of evolutionary theory. Without doubting the ‘fact’ of evolution and common ancestry, they do have trouble with the adequacy of neo-Darwinism’s concepts and mechanisms.
This makes Talbott’s views of natural selection worth considering, because they are not attacks from outside, but from inside the evolutionary camp. The Third Way’s introductory statement says, “Many scientists today see the need for a deeper and more complete exploration of all aspects of the evolutionary process.” The only thing they wish to rule out from the outset is consideration of any “arbitrary supernatural force” in explanations of life. They clearly do not wish to be aligned with “Creationism that depends upon divine intervention by a supernatural Creator.” That, they say, is “clearly unscientific” for their project. As with neo-Darwinism, only natural causes are permitted. Even logic, intelligence, and consciousness must be fit into a naturalistic box.
And yet, in Stephen Talbott’s book-in-progress, Evolution As It Was Meant To Be, the latest entry (chapter 12) is titled, “A Mess of Causes.” Evolutionary theory has a causation problem. He says emphatically, “The causation problem is fundamental to biology.”
What we see, that is, once we start following out all the interactions at a molecular level, is not some mechanism dictating the fate or controlling an activity of the organism. Rather (as I have been emphasizing throughout the preceding chapters), we simply observe an organism-wide, narrative coherence — a functional, end-directed, story-like coherence impossible to elucidate from a purely physical point of view. Only so far as they are caught up in this functional story do the individual molecular players find their proper roles.
The misrepresentation of this organic and rational coherence in favor of supposed controlling mechanisms is not an innocent inattention to language; it is a fundamental misrepresentation of reality at the central point where we are challenged to understand the character of living things.
Proof by Metaphor
Talbott finds the ubiquitous analogical and metaphorical references to “controllers” and “regulators” and even “biological clocks” in biology papers to be cryptic references to some mystical agency that leaves unspecified the root cause of the behavior. Life clearly expresses some telos or goal. An embryo proceeds along a path toward an adult, even as individual molecular players take on different roles during development.
The separate processes do not make tidy explanations because they are not really separate and are not doing just one thing. They are harmonizing with everything else that is going on in the organism. We gain understanding when we learn to recognize this harmony in every aspect of the organism. Various analyses can play a crucial role in bringing clarity to our understanding, but (to shift our metaphor slightly) the full picture takes shape only when the analytical threads are woven back into the larger fabric of meaning.
Is the embryo controlling its own fate? What is controlling what? Where is the over-arching cause? Creationists locate the cause in an intelligent agent—God, but Third Way members have ruled that out.
I have argued here that biologists are facing a “causal mess” in their own backyard, and that the refusal to acknowledge it leads to painfully self-contradictory thinking. At the same time, I have hinted here and there that we have a better way to frame the entire issue of causation and explanation. We can, in particular, recognize the role of meaning, idea, and agency as organizing principles of biological phenomena — which, as I have pointed out in various chapters, biologists already do, even if in a blindsighted manner.
Unfortunately, however, my suggestion that we take our true understanding seriously is, in its present, rather undeveloped form, likely to strike contemporary biologists as itself confusing, as well as wholly unexpected. Many will ask in disbelief, “Can proper biological explanation really be bound up with meaning, idea, and agency?”
So it is time to confront this question more expansively. I will do my best in the following chapters.
Readers can decide if he succeeds in answering more questions than he raises. One contender for a cause—Natural Selection—takes its place in the ring in a later chapter.
Natural Selection Fails
In Chapter 19, later in the book but released earlier on July 22 (he does not publish the chapters in order), Talbott specifically discusses Natural Selection’s qualifications as an explanation. We will see what he says about it next time.
Don’t miss Part II of our coverage, next. Talbott butters up Natural selection only to melt it into a puddle!