The critical response to ‘Why Us?’ in the past few months could scarcely be more polarised spanning the spectrum from the gratifyingly enthusiastic (‘refreshing and profound’) to the remorselessly hostile (‘a dreary rant’). This is only to be expected as its central theme – the validity or otherwise of the prevailing, exclusively materialist view of Man – is itself highly divisive. It thus seems appropriate to set this (b)log rolling by briefly clarifying my reasons for disputing the materialist view and defend myself against the implicit (and sometimes explicit) charge that in doing so I must be a closet creationist.
I have, for as long as I can remember, been a Darwin sceptic on no more sophisticated grounds of incredulity at the supposition that the same simple biological mechanism (natural selection acting on the random mutation of genes) could begin to account for the billionfold complexities and diversity of life. This is not to deny the ‘fact’ of evolution as there can be nothing more self evident than that the history of the universe is an evolutionary history – from the simplest elements of matter to the evermore complex. Nor is it to deny the ‘fact’ of natural selection, as again it is self evident that nature selects the strong and robust over the frail and vulnerable. Again, there is no doubt that Darwin’s proposed mechanism does indeed account (at least in part) for those subtle variations of form epitomised by the Galapagos finches.
Rather, the insuperable difficulty posed by Darwin’s theory is that it explains too much. There is no aspect of the living world too extraordinary, bizarre or wonderful that cannot be accounted for as having evolved to be as it is over billions of years. The inevitable weakness of such an all encompassing theory is that it portrays the phenomena of life as being vastly simpler than it really is and in purporting to explain everything ends up explaining very little in particular. This particularly applies to ourselves where the conventional evolutionary account of Man as set out in standard textbooks does not begin to acknowledge the staggering biological problems posed by the upright stance and acquiring that prodigiously sized brain with all its uniquely human attributes of speech, music, abstract thought and so on.
There is, in short, a striking discrepancy between the beguiling simplicities of the evolutionary mechanism and the profundity of the biological phenomena it purports to explain. This is no trivial matter for the supposition that biologists have proven the phenomena of life (and ourselves) to be the consequence of a known materialist evolutionary process is not just taught (virtually) uncritically in our schools and universities – but has obvious profound philosophical implications.
Still the presumption endures that Darwin solved the ‘mystery of life’ primarily on the grounds of there being no better theory, but also because its claims can never be put to the test of empirical verification as there is no way of telling one way or another whether the process of natural selection acting on those random mutation of genes really does account for all the extraordinary biological events stretching back billions of years – the Cambrian explosion, the Mesozoic and Mammalian radiations.
But the findings of genetics and neuroscience of the recent past have changed all that, buttressing the commonsensical scepticism about Darwin’s (evolutionary) ‘Reason for Everything’ with the extraordinary revelations and hard empirical data of the Genome Projects and the findings of sophisticated brain scanning studies. Memorising, perceiving and interpreting the world out there. Together they tear away at science’s façade of knowing to reveal the depth of our radical ignorance of the most elementary principles of genetic inheritance and brain function.
My purpose then in writing ‘Why Us?’ was to describe as clearly as possible this extraordinary (and quite unexpected) state of affairs, and examine its wider implications for the future of science and our understanding of ourselves. This has nothing to do (as alleged) with a hidden religious agenda, and everything to do with following the facts and observations of science where they will lead – rather than ignoring their significance or imprison them within the straightjacket of current theory. This will be the subject of a future posting.