The Matter of Evolution

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”  (Genesis 1:26)

This is the 3rd blog in this series which began with The Brainless Bible and the Mindless Illusion of Self and is exploring ideas about free will, the mind, the brain and the self expressed in two books: Michael S. Gazzaniga’s  WHO’S IN CHARGE?:  FREE WILL AND THE SCIENCE OF THE BRAIN and Raymond Tallis’  APING MANKIND:NEUROMANIA, DARWINITIS AND THE MISREPRESENTATION OF HUMANITY.  The previous blog is  The Brainless Bible and the Mindless Illusion of Self (II).

While both Gazzaniga and Tallis accept the basics tenets of Darwinian evolution, both authors note to differing degrees disagreement with the growing emphases  in some evolutionary thinkers that:  a) humans are nothing different than any other animal  and,  b) humans should not distinguish themselves from other animals or really from the rest of matter since we are nothing but an animal and matter ourselves.  This is a philosophical assumption of scientism based in materialism.  Interestingly, Tallis, an atheist and secular humanist, argues vehemently that human evolution has in fact moved to the point that we are not simply evolving deterministically based solely in the laws of physics.  We have emerged as a creature which interacts with and influences its evolution and so we are not merely the deterministic effects of an endless chain of materialistic causes.

“…neuromaniacs and Darwinitics seem unable to notice or accept that, for many hundreds of thousands of years we have been drifting away from our biological origins and from our solitary bodies and solitary brains and have been weaving a collective space on which we each have our own individual take.  … So to try  to find our public spaces, lit with explicitness, in the private intracranial darkness  of the organism illuminated by the fMRI scans and other technology is to look right past what it is that makes us human beings, and makes us what we, and our lives are.”  (Tallis, p237)

Tallis sees as a major part of and proof of the human distinctiveness from all other animals is that humans have created a collective space in which we share ideas and communicate abstractions including notions of the past and future.  It is because of this “immaterial” space of intellectual and abstract ideas which we also turn into the stuff we invent to advance our lives on earth that Tallis dismisses as not being proven at all the new neuroscientifc claims that they have identified memories and ‘free will’ as nothing more than biochemical train reactions in the brain.   Tallis sees in human evolution that “we actively lead our lives rather than merely live them” (p 242).  We have in many aspects taken control of our life on earth rather than merely being determined by it.  So while he accepts evolution, he rejects the biological determinism of scientism as being inappropriately applied to humanity which has evolved in a unique way which allows us to actually influence and affect our live on earth and our future evolution.

Tallis critically sees a type of circular reasoning in which the scientists who believe in materialism,  see only materialism at work; then since they only see materialism at work they argue that this proves that materialism is the only force at work.   What they believe becomes without proof the proof for what they believe.  Thus he argues that the current fascination by neuroscientists (he himself is one) with fMRI scans is misplaced and is not at all proving what they claim:  that there is no free will in humans only biochemical activity in the empirical brain.  (We will get back  to this claim in a future blog, but see also my Environmental Clues, Shaping Behavior and Free Will in which I question what the new neuroscience has in fact proven).  Tallis takes images right from Darwinian explanations in defining what has in fact occurred in evolution:

“The challenge is to imagine, how, ultimately out of the blind forces of physics, there arose the sighted watchmakers that we are; or, less ambitiously, how we came to be fundamentally different from other creatures and not merely exceptionally gifted chimps.”  (Tallis, p 214)

Where some atheists claim if there is a watchmaker which created the universe, it is the blind watchmaker of chance, Tallis while denying any God says humans have emerged as sighted watchmakers who are now actively engaging the universe in our own continued evolution.   He affirms free will and the value of humans in the universe, things which theists have accepted for centuries.

Michael Gazzaniga offers similar thoughts in his book: evolution has taken a turn in humanity and our intellect and brains are evolving differently than are the rest of the animals on the planet.

“With this mounting evidence of physical anatomical differences, differences in connectivity, and differences in cell type, I think that we can say that the brains of humans and the brains of other animals appear to differ in how they are organized, which, when we truly come to understand it, will help us understand what makes us so different.”  (Kindle Loc. 668-71)

“Modern neuroanatomists are quick to point out that as you climb the primate scale to humans, it is not that additional skills are simply being added on as once was hypothesized, but the whole brain is getting rearranged throughout.”  (Kindle Loc. 495-97)

Thus humans, though following the natural path of evolution, have emerged as a species quite distinct from all other animals in the evolutionary process.  It is not only that we think differently, but we create shared intelligence, and the very nature of our cell types and of the arrangement of our physical brains is causing an ever greater distance to emerge between the human animal and the rest of the created world.

Minerva: Goddess of Learning

Tallis argues that too many modern philosophers even are way too eager to cave in to the unproven claims of neuroscience that humans are nothing but predetermined beings pushed through time by the irresistible forces of nature.  He calls for humanists to show a little more backbone and a lot more brainpower in confronting the claims of scientism.

“The distinctive features of human beings – self-hood, free will, that collective space called the human world, the sense that we lead our lives rather than simply live them as organisms do – are being discarded as illusions by many, even philosophers, who should think a little bit harder and question the glamour of science rather than succumbing to it.”  (Tallis, p 8)

Obviously for those of us who believe in the Creator who has a plan for the universe which involves humanity, recognizing the uniqueness of human beings among all the animals on earth has been part of our thinking from the beginning.  It may be that we will find common ground to dialogue with scientists as some distance themselves from the extremist claims of those who embrace scientism.  The question, what does it mean to be human?, is a a basic question of theism, philosophy and science.

[See also my blog series Atheism: Luminous or Delusion? which looks at David Bentley Hart’s criticism of the new atheism in his book ATHEIST DELUSIONS: THE CHRISTIAN REVOLUTION AND ITS FASHIONABLE ENEMIES]

Next:  Humans: Merely Evolved Chimps?

2 thoughts on “The Matter of Evolution

  1. Pingback: The Brainless Bible and the Mindless Illusion of Self (II) | Fr. Ted's Blog

  2. Pingback: Humans: Merely Evolved Chimps? | Fr. Ted's Blog

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