A Call To The Humanities To Reclaim Its Concious Self
- Written by Shaun Johnston Shaun Johnston
- Published: May 18, 2017 May 18, 2017
The humanities are being presented with a golden opportunity to revolutionize themselves from within, through the study of evolution. The opportunity arises from the abandonment by top evolutionists of the prevailing scientific account of evolution. The scientific account is a synthesis of two purely physical processes—genetic mutation and natural selection. With scientists abandoning this theory, the humanities are free to model the process of evolution around the product of evolution they know best, the traditional subject matter of the humanities--human beings with volition, conscious, creative, and possessed of free will.
For the abandonment of the scientific theory see thethirdwayofevolution.com. Among over 50 professional evolutionists testifying to having lost faith in the “modern synthesis” are Denis Noble, James Shapiro, and Eva Jablonka.
The 19th century saw our understanding of the natural world turned upside down. The agent we thought responsible for the entire natural world at the beginning of the century—the Christian God/Creator—by century’s end had been replaced by another, the process of evolution, a process powerful and creative enough to turn microbes into elephants and giraffes and human beings in a mere billion years.
Early attempts to give meaning to this revolution came from the humanities. Erasmus Darwin was a physician, inventor and poet. Robert Chambers was a professional journalist. Samuel Butler was a novelist and art historian. But the meeting of two others, Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace, both initially amateur explorers and naturalists, led to science establishing a monopoly over declaring the meaning of evolution. Evolution would retain its original meaning as what accounted for the origin of species, while issues of more interest to the humanities, such as how evolution impacted human history and ways evolution impacted our lives individually, would be frowned on and relegated to coffee-house chatter.
Alfred Wallace, co-discoverer with Charles Darwin of natural selection, was at first even more insistent than Darwin that natural selection was the mechanism driving all of evolution. But because of a disparity he found between their theory and the course of human history, Wallace concluded that humans were an exception. Some other agency had to be involved in the evolution of our species, Wallace said, and he began attending spiritualist séances to identify it. Darwin’s reaction was unusually strong, he expressed disgust and accused Wallace of disloyalty to the cause they’d jointly embraced.
In the course of years spent living among societies beyond the reach of modern civilization in South America and the Malay Archipelago, Wallace had come to like and admire the people he met there, reporting them his equal as human beings. But he noticed lacking among them certain capabilities history showed us having acquired in the course of becoming civilized, such as mathematics and reasoning. Their lack of these capabilities told him that these characteristics either had to have evolved in us in the course of becoming civilized, which was too rapid a process for natural selection to account for. Or, if humans had been created as a species with these characteristics, through “disuse” in the course of non-civilized existence natural selection would have extinguished them. Either way, natural selection couldn’t account for the mental qualities we experienced ourselves possessing, Wallace concluded.
From this point the sciences and the humanities could have gone their separate ways. The humanities could have established departments dedicated to the study of evolution in history and psychology, for example. But Darwin represented a movement intensely jealous of its principles, from which it would tolerate no deviation. The movement Darwin subscribed to was Positivism, a re-ordering of how science was to be carried out dreamed up by the Frenchman Auguste Comte. The method of science was to be experiment, and the principle of interpretation was reductionism. Findings at “higher” levels—psychological, biological—were to be interpreted in terms of the more fundamental levels of mathematics and physics. Darwin encountered Comte’s thinking while he was looking for a mechanism for evolution in the late 1830’s and was dazzled by it. Employing it to account for the evolution of living creatures would be a magnificent triumph for Positivist science.
And so it turned out. By the time Darwin published his account of the origin of species Positivist science had come to dominate scientists’ thinking, and Darwin’s mechanism seemed as glorious a demonstration of it as Newton’s work on gravity has seemed of modern science. Thomas Huxley towards the end of the 19th century would generalize Positivism into physicalism, the principle that the Universe consisted only of matter acted on by physical forces. Conscious experiences may exist but, not being made of matter, could have no influence on anything that was physical, to cause any physical change. The sense we had free will was an illusion. Physicalism stripped the humanities of all their meaning.
Here’s how Michael Ruse expresses the situation, in Monad to Man: The Concept of Progress in Evolutionary Biology”, “progress” standing loosely for the humanities-approach to what evolution means. “There was no place for [old-fashioned talk about progress] in the work of the professional evolutionist…. Progress had been eliminated from professional evolutionism to protect its status as “professional”…. The emphasis must always be on epistemic values [origin of species].”
The point I am trying to establish is that the absence of humanities’departments devoted to the study of evolution is an artefact of a very particular historical period, that is coming to an end. Modern genomics has revealed that a combination of genetic mutation and natural selection cannot be what drives evolution. James Shapiro, in “Evolution: The View from the 21st century,” says he expect to find the same processes driving the machinery of the cell at a scale of milliseconds, the evolution of new species at the scale of eons, and processes of life at all scales in between. Denis Noble in “The Music of Life” supposes processes controlling living creatures operate at every scale from individual genes up to entire organisms. The individual human being may all along have been a player in his or her own evolution.
This site is intended to serve artists, writers and members of the humanities as a resource for coming up with new theories of evolution. The site links to the book “Re-Thinking What it means We Evolved,” in which I try to show how such theories can be arrived at.