Evolution and the Humanities: David Holbrook

David Holbrook, born 1923 in Norwich, UK, served the humanities as a fellow in Kings College Cambridge and in Downing College where he became director of studies, also as a poet, novelist, literary critic, anthologist, commentator on culture, educator and author of several books on writing for schoolchildren.  In “Evolution and the Humanities” he identifies himself primarily as a poet. “He recognized in culture not the Freudian sublimation of natural drives but a necessary part of our consciousness and the way we search for meaning.,” said the Guardian in his obituary. “A polemical writer of letters to newspapers, he waged an untiring campaign against nihilism in its many forms. His belief that human beings cannot live without a sense of meaning underlies all his work…” Of his own opinions he says: “My critical approach does not deny that evolution has taken place: but it is to say that Darwinian evolutionary theory does not offer anything like an adequate explanation of the origin and nature of life. No religious arguments will be invoked here: the ‘Creationist’ alternative and all the explanation based on God, and on the invocations of spiritual forces intervening in the world, do not seem to provide an adequate explanation.” 

Most of the book, published in 1987, is commentary on the writings of others: chapters on Norman Macbeth, Marjorie Green, Pierre-Paul Grasse, Michael Polanyi, Rupert Sheldrake, Richard Dawkins, E. W. F. Tomlin, Theodosius Dobzhansky, Michael Denton, and Jacques Monod, among others. If you think being a member of the humanities is any excuse for failing to grasp the intricacies of evolutionary theory, check out this book. Only at the beginning and the end does he draw on his own experiences of the relation of the humanities to evolutionary theory. 

On the book’s opening page he writes

It has become a stereotype accepted almost without thought, without question--and remains unexamined. ‘Science says’ it seems, that life and man are ‘random’ results of an ‘accident’ in ‘chemistry’. And although this contradicts all that we know of the world and ourselves, it remains the only philosophy of life that seems to be upheld by the one remaining authority in the modern world, science… Week after week one is reminded by chance remarks in publications that many people accept a certain attitude to life, a metaphysic, coming across to the humanities from science, that can only be menacing to any sense that life can have meaning. I hope this explains how an English specialist came to adventure into debate on evolutionary theory—for the grounds of the myth are in Darwinism.

I will quote perhaps more than is proper in a review because for me his is an authentic voice of the humanities, entitled to be quoted as an authority.

My conclusion is we urgently need new forms of thinking, new paradigms, new modes of understanding, but until we have these, we must live with awe and ignorance—as the poet does anyway, while there is no ‘factual’ justification for absurdism or nihilism… Certainly we do not have simply to sit down under the metaphysical implications of conventional scientific theories about the origin and nature of life. Moreover, we must not surrender proper humanist disciplines in the Universities, as some urge that we do, to reductionist and mechanistic theories which offer themselves as so exclusive they must be taken to supplant other subjects. An example of this is the attempt of some sociobiologists like Dawkins and E. O. Wilson, to suggest that all questions of morality, human nature and society should be given over to reductionist biology… We may pursue questions of the nature and meaning of human existence, and questions of morality and values in the subjective disciplines, without any need to feel that there is a greater, more adequate and more ‘realistic’ delineation of the truth about existence in the physical sciences to which we must defer.

At the end of the book he returns to his jeremiad. From “Rescuing the humanities from Darwinism”:

Moreover, this new way of thinking about what it is to be human, and what man’s place in nature may be, requires of us no less than a reconsideration of what knowledge is, since the reason why we have not made so much progress as we should have done is that we are still too much influenced by the scientific ideas of ‘objectivity,’ and the exclusion of all that belongs to poetry and inwardness.” In his “Conclusions” he speaks of a betrayal of “Greek civilization…when the pursuit of truth… was born. Since the seventeenth century…there has developed a fatal development of attention to the objective realities, split off, and divided from, the subjective realities. Until, in the end, it is now as aspect of our lives, as here especially in Cambridge, that those whose disciplines are of the inner life, exist daily alongside deniers of this realm, who tell us that consciousness is only chemicals, that the brain is only a computer, and that we are only survival machines built by genes. That is, not only is subjective truth split off from science, but science turns aggressively against this area of truth, and seeks to bury it altogether. In this assertive naturalism… there is not only a failure to bring objective and subjective together… there are signs of a psychopathological disturbance, displaying a sense of alienation from ‘mother earth’ often combined with a hatred and fear of existence, life and being—not least because these cannot be entirely subject to analysis and to triumphant manipulation.

Groping for an appropriate response he quotes Gillian Beer’s neat aphorism placing Darwin’s theory neatly within the humanities’ bailiwick: ‘a determining fiction by which to read the world.”  Recalling Kekule’s vision of snake biting its own tail, he says:

What we need now is far better dreams, by which, through the exercise of symbolism in the realm of imaginative power, scientists may penetrate further into the secrets of life: not so much into substance and structure, but into form, with a new sense of time, and of wholeness.” On the side of the Humanities, or the subjective dsciplines, we must persist, certainly, in asserting the validity of our concern for being. Not only must we resist the extrapolations from mechanistic science into regions where it has no business to be,. We must accept that we deal with realities not caught in the that net… The danger is that, under the influence of such scientific theories as Darwinian mechanism, we may be led to feel that, whatever we feel, we cannot uphold our own valued unique being… Speaking for myself as a a teacher in the Humanities, as will be seen, there are words I want to use which science threatens to deny me: I want to speak of ‘higher things,’ a ‘gradient’ in nature, order, harmony, direction, primary consciousness, intelligence, striving, ingenuity, achievement and aims. The upshot of any exploration of the debate will be, I hope, that these words and the thinking that goes into them, are perfectly legitimate.

Though he was a reputable scholar he appears to have  encountered problems getting his manuscript accepted. As published the book is a bottom-of-the-barrel production, with no design graces at all, not even running heads, and enough typos to suggest the pages were reproduced by typewriter from his handwritten copy with minimal correction. Arthur M. Shapiro, professor and vice-chairperson of the Zoology Department at the University of California at Davis, in a review published by the National Center for Science Education (“Dedicated to keeping evolution in the science classroom”), uses this as an opportunity to dismiss Holbrook. “I am not sure what makes me angriest about this book: the mediocrity and fuddledness of its argument, its appalling functionalist premise, its repetitive and tedious organization, or the lack of any visible copyediting or proofreading… Such howlers can be counted in the hundreds… [The text] is about disciplinary paranoia, inferiority complexes, sophistry, and plain old obtuseness…. Holbrook wants us to abandon Darwinism and neo-Darwinism in favor of a candid declaration of ignorance, which he thinks is the intellectually honest thing to do.”