A future for the humanities

The job of science is to tell us about the world. The job of the humanities is to tell us about ourselves. In this, the humanities have let us down. A crucial foundation for what we know about ourselves is our origin story but today we get our origin story from science: science’s account of how we evolved.

Yes, we evolved. But why has science’s account of how that happened become our official origin story, the only one that may be taught to children at school? That’s purely an accident of history. And it’s one we should set right. It’s up to the humanities to summon up the necessary courage, point out the flaws in the scientific story, come up with a new and better origin story based on us having evolved, and make a case for that origin story supplanting the one pressed on us by science.

Evolutionary theory sprang into existence just three lifetimes ago, and all throughout its first lifetime it was, in the English-speaking world at least, exclusively the province of the humanities. The very first extended account of evolution, published in 1794, was Zoonomia by Erasmus Darwin, poet, inventor, physician and philosopher (see my review). In 1844 an enormous storm of controversy shook England on publication of an account of humans evolving from apes (“Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation”); its author, Robert Chambers, was a journalist and professional science writer (see my review). Erasmus’ grandson, Charles Darwin, on failing medical training settled for becoming a clergyman and then a world traveler, he had no other scientific qualifications than those.

Yet it was he whose work lead science to claim evolution as its own. Caught up in a burgeoning fad for scientific reductionism he devoted himself to devising for evolution a purely physical mechanism. Confusingly, what he came up with he called “natural selection.” For proponents of scientific reductionism it was a godsend--an origin story told in terms of pure physicalism, the belief that all that exists is physical forces acting on physical matter in strict accordance with the laws of physics. In their late 19th century battle against the Church, physicalists made natural selection their poster child. And they’ve continued to march behind it in the face of opposition ever since, even to the point of forbidding alternatives to natural selection to be taught in school.

You don’t have to be a creationist to object to that. At thethirdwayofevolution.com some of the world’s most eminent evolutionists cast doubt on Darwin’s natural selection, and call for alternatives. Let the humanities answer that call.

A good place to begin is with awareness of what’s at stake. As long ago as 1987 David Holbrook testified to how far the scientific account had already infiltrated the humanities. He warns of "... a metaphysic, coming across to the humanities from science, that can only be menacing to any sense that life can have meaning.… 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." See my review.

By 1998 E. O. Wilson had extended this threat to the humanities to the point of calling for them to be taken apart and re-expressed in terms of physical determinism and its accompanying scientific theory of evolution. Of science he says "The question it poses, of universal and orderly materialism, is the most important that can be asked in philosophy and religion… why should the social sciences and humanities be impervious to consilience with the natural sciences?"  See his “Consilience” (my review). 

Wilson defined the threat. Today it’s being implemented nationwide by the Evolutionary Studies Consortium which "introduces students from all majors to evolutionary theory early in their academic careers, emphasizes human-related subjects in addition to biological, promotes the continuation of evolutionary training throughout the undergraduate education, and promotes faculty training and collaborative research related to evolution…. A major goal of the Consortium is growth." (from the Consortium's website.)

How can such institutional pressure be resisted?

To help creatives and humanities’ students get up to speed, ten years ago I launched evolutionforthehumanities.com. It has grown to over 100 articles, including over four dozen reviews of evolutionary theory’s main texts, both classic and contemporary. We can begin by analyzing critically the two foundational documents on which the scientific theory of evolution rests. These are Charles Darwin’s "Origin of Species" and Ronald Fisher’s "The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection."

Gertrude Himmelfarb in "Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution" (1959) set us a fine example by exposing the spurious logic behind Darwin’s arguments (see my review).

Any analysis of the Origin…is plagued by the confusion between the theory of evolution (what Darwin called the ‘theory of descent’) and the theory of natural selection…. in Darwin’s theory cause and effect were related in such a devious way as to permit almost any conjecture and to resist all control or verification…. logic of the Origin was one in which possibilities were assumed to add up to probability. This technique for the conversion of possibilities into probabilities and liabilities into assets was the more effective the longer the process went on… Thus, by the time the problem of the eye was under consideration, Darwin was insisting that anyone who had come with him so far could not hesitate to go further…. As possibilities were promoted into probabilities, and probabilities into certainties, so ignorance was raised to a position only once removed from certain knowledge.

This is the kind of analysis at which the humanities excel, to which evolutionary theory’s texts are highly vulnerable. I’ve come up with attempts myself, such as this:

During Darwin’s lifetime, you practiced science by turning everything into atoms. Darwin did this with evolution. Built into his theory of natural selection is the assumption that the individuals in a species come basically all the same, like atoms, blanks ready for attaching another set of atoms to—characteristics. What got tested for fitness and passed on from one generation to the next was these characteristics, that the environment could select for, separately, one by one.

We’ve since discovered he was wrong. The unit of inheritance isn’t individual characteristics. What gets passed on from one generation to the next is genes, and genes don’t correspond one to one to individual characteristics. What individuals pass on from one generation to another is not different values for individual characteristics but our genomes as a whole.

We know that now, but the damage has been done. In accepting Darwin’s account of how we evolved we’ve unconsciously accepted those same assumptions, that we’re basically all the same, differing only in the value of a limited number of characteristics like IQ and eye color.

Note that this is just the kind of analysis that will occur to those of a humanities’ turn of mind, rather than those of a scientist. Himmelfarb I expect applied her attention to the first edition of Darwin’s text, the first and last time expression of his theory made any sense. I suggest you apply a similar analysis to the sixth and final edition, by which time his rewritings in response to criticisms (such as having to account for how natural selection prevented loss of features through “disuse”) had turned the text into an almost incoherent porridge (see my review).

Ronald Fisher’s text presents a more formidable target. Though Richard Dawkins called Fisher the second most important evolutionist after Darwin himself, it is very unlikely that any evolutionist actually reads his book as it contains page after page of mathematical equations. Fisher became the acknowledged master of the application of statistics to scientific discovery. The one mathematician I asked to make a critical judgment about his book backed away as if being asked to walk over hot coals.

I am certainly entirely unqualified to judge such material but I found a way to tackle it. Before each string of equations I’d read what it was meant to achieve, and review what variables were set. On doing this from beginning to end I found that through omitting a crucial equation (summing together the effects on fitness of both harmful and beneficial mutations) Fisher had arrived at a completely false conclusion (see my review). Perhaps in a book concerned mainly with advocating eugenics this was a case of wishful thinking. Fisher’s conclusion: genomes undergo continuous random damage; natural selection is then able to turn the resulting predominance of harmful damage into a predominance of beneficial damage, resulting in overall greater fitness and evolution of new species. Get that? Which of two species will do better, the one suffering more random damage to its genome or the one suffering less? Duh! I think the one suffering less. See, this isn’t hard.

If I’m right—and I’ve still not been able to get anyone qualified to check my analysis—one of the two elements that make up the modern synthesis, science’s account of how we evolved, is demolished. Keep my experience in mind; in most cases where mathematics is employed by evolutionists, what is claimed for it amounts to little more than the assumptions and variables that went into it, and those are accessible to quite superficial examination (see my review).

Once we apply to these two foundational texts the critical analysis they deserve it’ll be time to come up with a better theory, out of which can be generated a better origin story.

The place to begin coming up with a better theory of evolution is where science stops. What is there that science can’t yet account for? Most of us would agree, consciousness. To that though, as I’ve explained above, I’d add evolution. So there may be at least two important things science can’t account for: consciousness and evolution. Maybe science has difficulty accounting for them because they share properties that defy scientific analysis. Maybe treating them as two aspects of the same thing will help us understand them both better.

Let’s try. First, some basics:

Consciousness is our experiencing of mental processes.

As for where they came from, they evolved.

Right away that tells us something important. First, for mental processes to have evolved they must be able to cause physical changes, otherwise there’d be nothing physical for evolution to work on. And second, for them to have evolved they must do something that physical processes can’t. Take consciousness for example; it can’t just be duplicating what’s going on in the brain else consciousness wouldn’t have had to evolve; for consciousness to have evolved it must be able to do things brain chemistry can’t.

So for consciousness and mental processes to have evolved they must be fundamentally different from physical processes in some important way. How? Perhaps in not being bound by the laws of physics. Otherwise, why wouldn’t physical processes have evolved in their place?

Considering consciousness and evolution together, as I did above, tells us we can have free will. If consciousness can cause physical changes in the course of evolution then, in us, our conscious thoughts can tell our bodies what to do. And it’s reasonable to conclude our conscious thoughts are not determined by the laws of physics.

So what are they due to? What we've just deduced about evolution implies that the universe involves both physical and conscious-evolutionary processes. Let’s assume there are just these two. Then, since thinking isn’t physical it will likely be something evolving. What could be evolving that can make us think? Consciousness consists of thoughts, so it’s reasonable to assume thinking is our thoughts evolving, one thought evolving into another. That’s what it “feels” like to me. Then, thinking is equivalent to something evolving.

Now turn that around. Something evolving is equivalent to thinking. What else evolves? Species of living creatures. Maybe they’re “really” thoughts in someone else’s thinking.

I got this far by simply exploring the logical implications of assuming that two things science can’t account for, consciousness and evolution, are actually two aspects of the same thing. And it makes a lot of sense. It accounts for our thinking as our thoughts evolving. And it accounts for species of living creatures as thoughts in a mind that can bring them to consciousness, rethink them, and store them away again as new thoughts, new species, as we can recall notions from brain chemistry, embellish them, and store them away again in brain cells as changed notions.

To go any further--to figure out whose mind it is that species of living creatures are thoughts in--we need to reflect on what species consist of. Science has found it most logical to define species in terms of their genomes—their collections of genes. If species were thoughts then the “brain” where they’re stored would be that genome. And the mind capable of bringing those genes to mind would be a mind associated with that genome, the way our minds come associated with our brains.

To explore that mind a bit further I turn to something else science has difficulty accounting for: development. What directs the growth of living creatures like us from a single cell to trillions of cells in the adult? I’ve had this explained to me as involving a series of chemical gradients, initially simple, each one first carrying out one stage in development throughout a creature’s body, then inducing the next even more complex gradient to take its place, and so on. Can you imagine that? The slightest hiccup early in the series would result in massive disruptions further down the chain. Can you see such a process working in a creature like the blue whale that maintains perfect proportions while growing up to 100 feet length, all the while vigorously churning its tissues by swimming and diving? What else but its genome, where the information that defines each living creature resides, could have the intelligence to monitor and direct such a process? And not any one genome, but the genomes throughout the creature, they must all be in communication, somehow, to coordinate that process over a distance of up to 100 feet.

Let’s draw on the license that Himmelfarb identified in Darwin’s thinking, of multiplying possibilities. If genome intelligences can communicate telepathically over a distance of 100 feet, why set a limit there? No scientific data prohibits us from supposing genomes can communicate with one another through a net of intelligence ranging from the individual cell to individual living creatures, to species, orders, even to entire Kingdoms. The result would be a tree of conscious intelligences extending over the entire tree of life, with nodes maintaining living creatures at every branching. Individual ants might draw on the wisdom of their entire colony. Individual protists might draw on their species’ wisdom. Growth of a new twig on the branch of that tree of conscious intelligences managing mammals might result in bat species being popped into existence as that twig grows into a new branch.

Hey presto! A new theory of evolution.

You may draw back in alarm at the thought of resorting to such armchair science. But once you pore over the field’s founding documents you’ll see that this is exactly what Charles Darwin and Ronald Fisher did. Here’s all the proof Fisher provided for the existence of the beneficial mutations—beneficial damage to genes—that the modern synthesis rests on:

In addition to the defective mutations, which by their conspicuousness attract attention, we may reasonably suppose that other less obvious mutations are occurring which, at least in certain surroundings, or in certain combinations, might prove themselves to be beneficial.

That’s it! Consider once again the theory of evolution I came up with above, that the agent of evolution is a network of genome intelligences spread throughout the living kingdoms. Is that supposition any less reasonable than his?

Our campaign can begin by employing sufficient criticism to sink the founding documents supporting science’s theory of evolution. We get that theory withdrawn from the school science classroom. As I’ve suggested, through “reasonable supposing,” as Fisher and Darwin model for us, as I in my turn modeled above, we come up with a new and better theory. All that remains is coming up with a new origin story.

That I haven’t yet done. But I can suggest properties in human nature we need accounted in for our new tale, and new sources of wisdom we can draw on.

First of the properties in human nature we need to account for is deliberation. I define that as ability to anticipate alternative possible future events, evaluate their outcomes, and intervene to take advantage of those outcomes. Nothing purely physical can do this but we do it all the time. “Does it look like rain? Probably only a shower, so I’ll take just a jacket with a hood.” And we’re probably not alone. Take a cat, for example, poised to make a jump. It may hesitate, you can see it weighing the likelihood of landing safely, it may opt for a better take-off surface.

Now, to deliberation let’s add imagination. How could use of your own strength and talents bring about other alternative futures? Want to cross a valley? You could build a bridge. Want to have more food? Look for seeds to plant. Want to catch fish? Make a fishing rod, or a net. I’m going to call this capability “creativity.” Again, in our experience it’s an everyday reality, we do it all the time.

And consciousness--deliberation may not require it but in my experience creativity does. These—deliberation, creativity and consciousness—I prescribe as essential ingredients of human nature, the source of our free will, to be accounted for in our new origin story.

Having got this far I suggest we rejoin the main stream of the development of reason where the Ancient Stoics left it. They supposed that running throughout all of nature there ran an extra element responsible for the creativity and order maintained within it. For them nature in the form of climate and weather was as mysterious as life is to us, but we may confine our “element” to life and identify that element with the genomes in living creatures. Then we can draw on Stoic wisdom. As the Stoics thought inside each human being there came embedded part of that extra element, a “microcosm” reflecting the wisdom of the “macrocosm,” so we may expect to find within us wisdom embedded in us by genomes.

Besides that built into us, I expect we’ll find further wisdom in at least three sources. One is the wisdom inherent in individual species of living creatures, the echolocation of bats for example. Another would be wisdom in how genomes think up species, as I’ve suggested they could themselves think up new kinds of creatures. But before that, genomes themselves had to evolve, and I see some ultimate wisdom lying in that process. There seem to be some strands running throughout nature, beauty for example, and play, that might give us clues to wisdom lying in the ultimate process lying at the root of the living kingdoms.

Scientists will likely mock our project. The prevailing consensus among them is that consciousness is merely a passive reflection of processes in brain chemistry, it can’t by itself decide anything or defy physics by being genuinely creative. What we call mental processes, they say, are simply physical processes taking place in the brain, which is purely physical.

So, reason and science may disagree. Is there any higher authority to appeal to? I believe there is, and that’s the near-universal passion for meaning in life. Meaning in life concerns just those aspects of reality that remain hidden from science today and may do so for hundreds of years. Meanwhile, what are we to do today and in our lifetimes? It is entirely reasonable for us to come up with the best story about life’s meaning that we can, leaving science to catch up with us when it pleases.

Let’s begin.

I have posted this article here so it can conveniently contain links to reviews on this site. But it is available for publication elsewhere. It could be removed from this site on agreement it be published.