Meyer: Return of the God Hypothesis

Stephen Meyer’s ”The Return of the God Hypothesis” consists of two interwoven narratives. One, occupying the great bulk of the book, is an exhaustive compilation of aspects of the physical world that today’s science can’t account for. Let’s refer to that as the text. The other consists of brief comments interspersed within the text suggesting that each of these unknowns can be accounted for better in terms of “intelligent design.” Let’s call that the “commentary.” Apply to that the critical reading needed to appreciate the text, and the commentary fall apart. Meyer lays bare for us the barrenness of creationism’s claims.

First, let’s do justice to the text. It carries considerable authority and is clearly written. It is, however, exhaustive to the point of tedium. I doubt that anyone interested in Meyer’s hypothesis will plough through his text. I was tempted to say “OK, I give in, I’ll take the rest on faith.” I confess I wondered if that was the point. I began to skim and sample.

Text and commentary are written in contrasting styles. Where the text is disciplined scientific discourse the commentary more resembles angels-on-heads-of-pins scholasticism. Words like “transcendent” sometimes mean merely beyond the reach of today’s science, at other times--well, you know, spiritual, supernatural! As accounts besides materialism of what’s beyond the reach of today’s science he recognizes pantheism, deism, and theism, yet in place of them as a group he’ll often say just “God,” capitalized, implying the Christian god.

The properties of the universe and of life—specifically as they pertain to understanding their origins—are just “what we should expect” if a transcendent and purposive intelligence has acted in the history of life and the cosmos. Such an intelligence coincides with what human beings have called God, and so I call this story of reversal the return of the God hypothesis.

As a target to apply critical analysis to I found this kind of writing impossibly slippery.

Here’s how I wish his argument had gone.

First, let’s compile a list of things in the physical world that today’s science cannot account for. Then, let’s allocate them to made-up causes. I suggest we give those causes names like Stoic element 1, Stoic element 2 and so on, along the lines of the Stoic element 5, the quint-essence, that the Stoics supposed was responsible for all the beauty and order in nature. Then we assign each item on our list to one of those causes, involving as few causes as we can. I might assign all unknowns to do with living creatures, all evo devo for example, to Stoic element 1. This cause, however, is unlikely to account for the origin of the universe, so I’d assign that to element 2. Fine tuning of the physical constants I might also assign to element 2, or I might assign it to a new element, 3. And so on.

Once we have all our unknowns assigned to a small number of Stoic elements as causes, we might look for sensible ways to differentiate them. Element 1, cause of all unknowns to do with living creatures, I might liken to pantheism. Elements 2 and 3 I might liken to deism.

Now, would it any longer make sense for someone to liken all these separate causes to theism? I don’t see any logic to that. Then, what does theism correspond to? I think, conscious experiences of a personal god, without question a reality and one that science can’t account for. Assign it to another element.

Such an analysis would give us a ground for assessing the claims of creationism. I think, by contrast, Stephen Meyer, in grouping all my Stoic elements under the header “intelligent design” and identifying them with the Christian God, reveals that all his claims are no more than a pious wish. I’m quite prepared to accept that a Christian consciousness is superior to today’s shallow atheism. But I’d prefer that claim to be based on other grounds that creationism. Sadly missing from Meyer’s book is any passionate testimony to the joys of believing in a personal god. Short of that, what does theism amount to?

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Evolution of Beauty: Richard Prum

The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin's Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World and Us. By Richard O. Prum. Doubleday, 2017.

I’m always hoping I’ll come across stories that enhance my appreciation of living creatures. I started Prum’s book hoping to find there such a story. What I found was more complicated.

I don’t care whether a story is true--I anyway wouldn’t know how to tell—I’m satisfied if it leaves me feeling I understand nature better. I can usually tell that in advance from what kind of story it is: “just so,” or “as if.” “Just so” stories don’t help you appreciate anything, they tell you it’s “just so.” An example of that is the modern synthesis of genetic mutation and natural selection. Of anything in nature I want to know why or how it simply says, “it’s just so.” That may be true but it doesn’t add anything to my understanding. I began reading Prum’s book on the lookout for what kind of story he’d be telling. If it was a “just so” story I’d read no further.

What I hoped to find instead was an “as if” story. That’s a story that adds meaning to some aspect of nature, ideally to nature in general. Richard Dawkins provided us with a story like that in his book “The Selfish Gene.” He didn’t mean genes really are selfish, he meant that, from what he knew about evolution, it was “as if” genes are selfish. Take that story to heart, he assured us, and you’ll feel you understand nature better, too. 

Prum’s introduction charmed me. His writing was direct, personal, full of incident, full of feeling. And he did indeed promise me a new story. “I have always been more fascinated by those aspects of evolutionary process that defy simplistic adaptive explanations,” and "aesthetic evolution has great explanatory power, and... rescues us from the tedious and limiting adaptionist insistance on the ubiquitous power of natural selection," finally "the evolutionary dynamics of mate choice are essential to understanding ourselves." Terrific! I was going to encounter some other story than the “just so” of the modern synthesis, a story we could apply to more fully understand ourselves.

Prum’s field of sexual selection usually offers us slim pickings of “as if” stories able to contribute to our understanding. Most evolutionists insist on giving animal choice no place at all in evolution, he reports. He mimics them: “What can we possibly know about the subjective experience of desire in animals? Subjective experience is, almost by definition, unmeasurable and unquantifiable.” He goes on, “Most scientists have therefore been allergic to the idea of making a scientific study of subjective experiences, or even to admitting that they exist.” They regard sexual displays and preferences merely as parts of the environment a creature must become adapted to. For them, Prum mourns, “beauty is merely the handmaiden of natural selection.”

That’s not so for him.

Although I am rather hesitant to admit it, I think that the process of adaptation by natural selection is sort of boring. Of course, as an evolutionary biologist I am well aware that it is a fundamental and ubiquitous force in nature. I don’t deny its immense importance. But the process of adaptation by natural selection is not synonymous with evolution itself. A lot of evolutionary process and evolutionary history cannot be explained by natural selection alone.

His own field work tells against it. Of bower birds he says:

But how do we know that bower design and ornamentation perform an exclusively aesthetic function? Well, we know that the bower serves no physical purpose other than as a location where courtship takes place.

Not only that:

Evolution can even be “decadent,” in the sense of its resulting in sexual ornaments that not only fail to signal anything about objective mate quality but actually lower the survival and fecundity of the signaler and the chooser. In short, in pursuit of their subjective preferences, individuals can make mating choices that are maladaptive resulting in a worse fit between the organism and its environment…. Natural selection is not the only source of design in nature.

Instead he inclines towards a story of Darwin’s, who he quotes as follows:

Courage, pugnacity, perseverance, strength and size of body, weapons of all kinds, musical organs, both vocal and instrumental, bright colors, stripes and marks, ornamental appendages, have all gained… through the influence of love and jealousy, through the appreciation of the beautiful… and the exertion of choice.

The responsible agent in the story Prum wants to tell, like that in Darwin’s, will involve factors--appreciation of the beautiful and freedom of choice--within the subjective experience of individual creatures.

For me, however, the concept of subjective experience is absolutely critical to understanding evolution. I will argue that we need an evolutionary theory that encompasses the subjective experiences of animals in order to develop an accurate scientific account of the natural world. We ignore them at our intellectual peril, because the subjective experiences of animals have critical and decisive consequences for their evolution.

So Prum is intent on establishing a beachhead behind which to gather support for “an evolutionary theory that encompasses the subjective experiences of animals.”

Talk about fools rushing in! While lauding Darwin in extravagant terms for his boldness in making individual female choice one of the drivers of evolution, Prum appears intent on focusing the world’s attention onto what I see as a glaring contradiction in Darwin’s work. Here’s how I expressed it in my book “re-thinking…”:

According to Darwin, peacocks grew enormous tails because peahens like them that way.  If merely liking something could make a creature evolve it then all of evolution could be driven by creatures “liking” things. Then who needed natural selection!

This idea, that creatures can evolve whatever they want merely by wanting it, makes of evolution nothing more than a giant Law of Attraction—creatures will get whatever they wish for hard enough. Yet that does seem to me the principle behind Darwin’s mechanism of sexual selection—by wanting it, peahens can get peacocks to evolve just the kind of tails they’d like. Why didn’t Darwin go on from there to assume that all of evolution could be driven like that, by living creatures experiencing wants in the course of their interactions with the environment? Instead he retreated timidly back to account for all of evolution through a strict reductionist/adaptationist mechanism excepting only the one instance he couldn’t make that mechanism account for, sexually-induced ornament in birds. But by doing so he left the door open for others to say, if creatures wanting some evolutionary change could make it happen in one instance, why not in all? That’s exactly the door that other evolutionists want to keep firmly closed. That’s exactly the door that Prum seems intent on flinging wide open. In the following paragraph he implies that ornaments and sexual preferences for those ornaments differ from all other subjective experiences only because in their case how subjective experiences trigger physical evolution is particularly easy to trace:

We cannot measure or know what these [subjective] experiences are like in any detail, but we can sneak up on them, and as with the electron we can learn fundamental things about them indirectly. For example, as we will see, we can investigate how subjective experiences evolve by tracing the evolution of ornaments and the sexual preferences for them among closely related organisms.

To summarize my very long introduction, Prum intends through his study of sexual selection in birds to come up with a story about how they evolve that will help us understand how evolution works in nature in general, and ultimately how it works in us. What I looked forward to finding out from the rest of his book was how much of evolution he was prepared to convert over from the adaptationist “just so” story to a “subjective experiences” story.

And just who did he think was having these subjective experiences? Perhaps because it’s so common among us, it’s easy to imagine males giving in to nagging from their mates about looking good, and dressing more colorfully. In ducks, for example, females can see how males look, and keep after them until they’ve shaped up. Vision provides a ready feedback loop within the individual duck by which she can detect discrepancies between what she would like to see, and what she actually sees. And that goes for all of the senses. That presumably is what led Darwin to set this kind of evolutionary change apart from evolution by natural selection and call it “sexual selection,” and for Prum to prefer the more specific term “aesthetic selection.” That is, selection can be driven by an esthetic sense within subjective experiences in individual living creatures, as we humans detect having an esthetic sense operating within our own subjective experience.

Prum then goes on to describe the seasonal eruption of violence as drakes coerce females into having sex. In association with this contest between male coercion and female choice strange things happen. Drakes' penises grow to an absurd length and extend themselves within the females' vaginas through a clockwise twisting movement, like an elaborate lock picker's tool. The females, in defense of choice, develop a similarly convoluted vagina, with blind endings and a characteristic counter-clockwise twist, to stall the male.

But is the story of “aesthetic selection” plausible when applied in a case like this? While it’s easy to see how these strategies fulfil the wants of both sexes, where is the sensual feedback by which they could be monitored? Even if the female could imagine turning her vagina into an obstacle course for the male’s penis, how could she be directing a process she can’t monitor in the same way she could visually monitor how well her drakes are conforming to her vision of how they could look?

Still, this process of vaginal reconstruction does look exactly like what you’d suppose is a response to subjective female choice. And that really is what Prum believes. For him, how the female duck experiences “forced copulations” is no different from what human female’s experiences during rape.

“Forced copulations” is the term that ornithologists and evolutionary biologists now use to refer to rape among birds and other animals… Human rape is an act with such great symbolic and social impact that the term didn’t seem appropriate in the context of non-human animals…. Although I do not suggest that we return to the wholesale use of the word “rape” in animal biology, I think that the phrase “forced copulation” does an intellectual disservice to our understanding of sexual violence in non-human animals. Certainly in the case of female ducks, it is scientifically critical to recognize that sexual coercion and violence are very much against their wills too.

Not any longer against their esthetic sense. Against their wills! I propose we call this new principle “evolution by volition,” or “evo voli.”

But even a story involving the volition of individual creatures can be stretched only so far. Prum goes on to give another example, the Club-winged Manakin, unique for the male having altogether-reconfigured ulnas, four times wider and three times larger in volume than those of related species. "In fact, there is nothing else like it in any other bird in the world." Birds’ ulnas have been honed to an invariable sleek mechanical perfection over 135 million years of adaptation to the demands of flight, yet uniquely in the male of this species it has become reshaped in an extraordinarily complicated manner to generate sounds as part of the male's courtship dance. "It is the acoustic collaboration among the multiple feathers attached to the male's ulnas that gives the sound its distinctive harmonic structure and decidedly musical, ringing, violin-like quality." Surely the idea of reshaping a part of your body vital to flight so extravagantly merely to serve sexual display could not have arisen in the subjective experience of any one animal. In my judgment, any story accounting for such evolutionary changes through subjective experience has to locate whatever mind is making those imaginative leaps elsewhere than in individual living creatures.     

Have I lost you? Let’s recap. Whose subjective experience is involved in sexual selection? In the case of the duck directing how her drakes dress we can imagine it being her, we can imagine it taking place in her mind, since she can monitor the process visually as it’s going on. That’s an esthetic selection story. But in the case of the reconstruction of her vagina during mating season, it’s hard to imagine such a thought entering her mind, and even if it did it’s hard to see how it could take place without her being equipped with senses through which she could monitor the process. So who is exerting choice on her behalf? Perhaps it is a representative of the females of her species about which we might create a story involving some ancient female goddess. But even that won’t suffice in the case of the bird with the singing ulnas. The process of shaping his ulna occurs so early in development that it affects the females also, who therefore are burdened with the same impediments as the male but without any corresponding benefit. It seems unlikely that even a female representative of the females of her species would inflict such a pointless burden on her, would so punish her for her lustful delight in her mates’ performance. So in this case, is the subjective experience occuring in the mind of the species as a whole, in expression of its desire to contribute this enhanced performance to the wonders of nature, even at the cost of lessened fitness in both of the species’ sexes?

For me, Prum’s researches open up a huge can of worms. He has analyzed the courtship dances of tropical birds into their component parts and been able to trace the origins of individual components back to ancestor species still living a thousand miles away. Some appear entirely original, and the product of creative subjectivity. Yet it seems impossible to locate the subjective experiences through which he expects to account for the evolution of such items in the minds of individual living creatures. So, must we default back to the prevailing “just so” story, the modern synthesis? No, Prum's fieldwork makes that highly implausible too. Anyway, I’m sure Prum wouldn’t want to see us forced back to that resort.

Through his rashness Prum seems to me to have indeed reduced to a pile of tiny chips all the principles we have available to account for the remarkable creatures he studies. Instead his fieldwork hints at shadowy intelligences lurking in the undergrowth or the canopy directing the evolution of some of the most remarkable tools and ornaments with which living creatures come equipped. Okay, that’s the inference, but where’s the story? Prum admits he doesn’t have one. Perhaps to the story of sexual selection he found in Darwin he should have added that identified by Siddhartha Mukherjee in his "The Gene": "The crucial driver in evolution, Darwin understood, was not nature's sense of purpose, but her sense of humor." Lacking such a story, Prum ends his book with no more revelations about how we evolved than some details of our genitalia.


Metazoa: Animal Life and the Birth of the Mind.

I’ve long wanted an authoritative but readable account of how consciousness is thought about in a biological context, to compare my own thinking to. Peter Godfrey-Smith is a professor in the School of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Sydney. His “Metazoa: Animal Life and the Birth of the Mind” is what I wanted. He is the needed combination of academic philosopher and field worker; he illustrates essays on creatures and their minds ranging from microbes to humans with accounts of scuba diving amongst such creatures. In “Metazoa” I trust I come across all the ideas common in thinking about consciousness in a biological context.

My conclusion: those ideas are absurdly inadequate to the task. If we’re confused about consciousness that’s largely because we lack concepts we need for understanding it.

Metazoa does share with me some of this concern:

If we ask whether there is “something it’s like to be it,” then we are back where we started. Our current language seems somehow inadequate for asking the crucial questions here. But I don’t think the problem can be solved just by coming up with better terms; at this point we are inside a thicket of every kind of uncertainty.

His basic position is physicalism--mental is physical. To account for mind and conscious experience all we need to explain is how the brain generates thoughts and experiences:

The aim… is to make sense of why it feels like something to be a material being of the kind that we are.

Brain processes are not causes of thoughts and experiences, they are thoughts and experiences… experiences and other mental goings-on are biological, and hence physical, processes of a certain kind…

If materialism is true, then the storms within cells, the threading together of countless cells’ activity, the perturbed rhythms of their electrical breathing, and their large-scale coordination are the stuff of mind. This is what we are asked to identify with—not to think that our minds are a consequence of this, but that our minds are such activities… What is experience? First and fundamentally, it is the activity described above as felt from the inside.

any alternative seems to head back toward dualism… To say that is to go back toward a view in which brain activity somehow causes consciousness. Instead, once we have worked out the kinds of brain activity that matter here, we can say that having that pattern of activity is having conscious experience.

His method of study:

Evolution has shaped animals not just into complicated collections of cells, but into centers of agency and subjectivity... [To be explained] varieties of subjectivity, different ways of being a subject that relate to an animal’s lifestyle and circumstance.

He draws his conceptual terms mainly from human psychology and neuroscience:

There is also the possibility of a separation between different forms of experience, which I will call sensory and evaluative experience. (They might also be called sensory and evaluative consciousness)… They do sense and respond, and are full of signals, but this is probably not enough to have felt experience even in simple forms… These emotion-like states are in between those two timescales—longer than a jolt of pain, shorter than learning. When we look at these intermediate scales [similar to those of our experience], the evidence for experience can be quite strong.

What does a philosopher of biological philosophy have to say about the role mind plays in the cosmos?

Two starkly different pictures can be compared; we might think of these as desert and jungle. The desert view holds that mind exists hardly anywhere [human exceptionalism?]… The opposite vision is a jungle, with mind everywhere or nearly everywhere. The most extreme version of this view is panpsychism, with soul-like powers seen even in atoms… The truth is between these, neither desert nor jungle.

To propose such a vast range of roles for mind as from human exceptionalism (my reading of desert, above) to panpsychism is essentially to throw up one’s hands as to its place in the cosmos. “Metazoa” confirms my impression that the philosophy of biology, as far as mind goes, is barren. It lacks a discourse adequate to account for the biological origins of our experiences of consciousness and what that implies more broadly.

I’ve written the above not as an even-handed review of “Metazoa” itself but as a survey of the conceptual framework professional academic philosophers of biology bring to the study of the evolution of mind and consciousness. I am unembarrassed to assume the role of creative writer free to speculate wildly without consequences. Godfrey-Smith’s account helps me appreciate where and how I will appear to violate professional wisdom. Below a quick summary of my thoughts on the subject:

We humans are capable of thinking up novelties. By novelties I mean events that appear not to follow from the action of physical laws on prior events, ie are not physically determined. Examples are scientists coming up with alternative hypotheses and novel equipment they design to judge between them. Thinking up novelties like this typically involves conscious experiences. I will refer to being able to think up such novelties and conscious experiences as mind. Being able to generate novelty, mind is not physically-determined yet invariably comes associated with a brain, which is. Despite this, minds and brain work closely together: I can consciously decide to have my brain report on my current conscious experience and it will express it physically, in writing, and accurately, as my consciousness confirms.

For mind and brain to work together as closely as this they must have evolved together as a single entity. Evolutionary processes must be able to harness both physical and non-physical processes at the same time. If mental processes must have some physical support, as our minds are supported by our brains, where is the physical support for evolutionary processes? Drawing on Erasmus Darwin’s suggestion in Zoonomia that there exist “living filaments” capable of directing their own evolution and identifying his living filaments with our genomes, I suppose that genomes, as physical “brains,” support minds capable of thinking up novel kinds of living creatures.

Discount for a moment the current scientific mechanism for evolution of genetic mutation and natural selection, two purely physical processes, and look at the products of evolution with a fresh eye. Once freed from the assumption that they are the result of physical determinism, the process of evolution stands out as having vast capacity to create novelty, beyond anything we see in a purely physical environment such as the Moon or Mars.

In this view, genomes had to evolve first, before they could think us into existence, together with a portion of their creativity. But genomes are unlikely to have been the original platform for life. All (almost) of the genomes of species of living creatures are written in the same arbitrarily-settled-on redundant code, suggesting that some mind had to have evolved first able to migrate prior living creatures from a variety of other codes onto the genetic code of DNA and RNA. This suggests an origin of life as follows: First, physical creatures of a great variety were generated by chemically-generated AI, these induced into existence a mind that evolved able to bring about that migration of those creatures from a variety of platforms onto one consisting of nucleotides. The nucleotide platform facilitated further evolution leading to genomes as we know them. My cosmos consists of living creatures like us, thought up by genomes, in turn thought up by a process of evolution they in turn support.

This suggests there are several kinds of evolutionary processes, that we’d learn about by studying their products, first genomes, by studying the evolution of their creatures they generate, and then other processes of evolution by studying the evolution of genomes themselves.

Such a study is likely to generate a set of concepts with greater reach than those we have now.

I do not believe my account above is actually true, it can’t be, we don’t have the concepts yet. This is what I call an “as if” theory. It could act as a forcing ground for generating such concepts.

Now let’s see if there are signs of such ideas surfacing in “Metazoa.”

One of my suppositions is that genomes can read each other’s minds, that they form intelligences at every node in the tree of life. Otherwise, how could living creatures’ bodies maintain such perfect proportion as they develop, to an invariable schedule? But there may not be minds at every node. We each seem to have one, at the level of the entire individual, but not at the level of individual organs or cells. Then, there may be a mind corresponding to an ant colony, but not to individual ants:

Wound tending has never been seen in an insect. After injury these animals just continue, as best they can, with whatever they have to do. They may show some initial squirming, but then they get back to work.

Maybe the test should be for whether the colony repairs itself.

And, possibly, a convergence with some of my thinking:

the genealogical tree of life on Earth, the tree produced by evolution, now over 3 billion years old. First, and surprisingly, some activities that are mind-like in a broad sense are all over the tree, perhaps on every branch and stem…. one option has it that although precursors to experience exist in much of the animal part of the tree, felt experience arose several times in different evolutionary lines… second possibility is that a primordial form of experience arose just once, longer ago, early in animal evolution. That form was in place for the evolutionary radiations we have charted in this book, and developed in its own way down various different lines. Which is it? The attempt to resolve this question encounters every possible problem.

I sense a welcome open-mindedness.

The Evolution of Everything: Matt Ridley

The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge

This provocative book raises interesting issues, pursues bold missions, but for me ends in contradiction.

Issue 1. Human culture is not directed top-down by creative geniuses, instead it evolves bottom up through the pursuit of self interest by intelligent hordes. This Ridley details in chapters titled “The Evolution of” followed by topics: morality, culture, economy, technology, personality, education, population, leadership, government, religion, money, and the internet. A few other chapters cover the evolution of how we’ve thought about things: the universe, life, genes, mind. At any time, Ridley demonstrates, the condition of culture acts to elicit from intelligent hordes a barrage of innovations through which, like a crystal, culture grows.

Mission 1. Discrediting of the supernatural. “To say that culture ‘evolves’ is not metaphorical.” Human culture evolves the same way living species do, through selection for effectiveness acting bottom-up in a mass of individuals. If even among humans evolution works bottom-up, as Darwin proposed, not top down, why should evolution among living creatures be any different? In our accounts of where living creatures came from we’ve no need of top-down direction by a supernatural being.

Mission 2. Facilitation of Edward O. Wilson’s consilience. Ridley’s bottom-up generation of culture invalidates how the humanities conceive of their role. Evolution “is not confined to genetic systems, but explains the way that virtually all of human culture changes: from morality to technology, from money to religion.… The way that human history is taught can therefore mislead, because it places far too much emphasis on design, direction and planning, and far too little on evolution.” Ridley is providing a mechanism through which the humanities can be re-established on scientific principles. “There is an almost perfect parallel between the evolution of DNA sequences and the evolution of written and spoken languages… Cities, marriage, language, music, art—these manifestations of culture all change in regular and retrospectively predictable ways, but in ways that nobody did predict, let alone direct.

Mission 3. Confirm natural selection is the primary mechanism of evolution. Of cities, marriage, language, music, art, Ridley says they “evolve… driven by natural selection among competing ideas.” This rounds out Ridley’s stout support of three physicalist positions: denial of the supernatural, claim that physics should be made the basis of the humanities, and that evolution is driven by a purely physical mechanism—natural selection. Finally, to support that claim, that human culture evolves through a purely physical process Ridley has to prove that humans are purely physical, too. That constitutes a second issue he covers in his text.

Issue 2. The universe, and we humans within it, are governed by physical laws of the kind we know today. If we are bound by those laws, everything we do must be determined by prior physical events. Of physicalists’ arguments about mind he says “there is no doubt that these thinkers have banished the popular, dualist version of free will, the one that is incompatible with determinism. All that determinists are asking you to accept is that there cannot be effect without cause.” That is, without physical cause. You are not free to consider options and choose between them. Your choice is determined, you cannot create anything genuinely new, your thoughts and behaviors are determined by what’s happened before. The only conclusion, then, is that Francis Crick was right in his “astonishing hypothesis,” namely that “A person’s mental activities are entirely due to the behavior of nerve cells, glial cells, and the atoms, ions, and molecules that make them up and influence them.” Ridley refers to “the absurdity of the ‘self,’ the mind, the will, the ego or the soul. All, to the extent they are real, are mere manifestations of the body, rather than separate from it… The notion that there is a unitary piece of self-ness somewhere deep within the grey porridge inside the skull is plainly just a powerful illusion.” There’s nothing about us you couldn’t create through a purely physical process such as natural selection, given enough time.

Contradiction. Evolution depending on innovation, and the universe being purely physical “I am going to argue that innovation is an evolutionary phenomenon.” Humans can innovate. “The truth is, almost all discoveries and inventions occur to different people simultaneously…The phenomenon is so common it must be telling us something about the inevitability of invention.” So the ground out of which human culture evolves is whatever it is that allows us to innovate. But doesn’t “innovate” mean coming up with something new, not something that already exists? Doesn’t that demand of us capabilities, creativity for example, that can’t exist in a purely physical universe? Ridley can’t tell. “I suspect that we will never explain innovations fully, for the best of Lucretian reasons—that an explanation would require omniscience.” Ridley’s claim that human nature is purely physical can’t be proved.

Does Ridley really know how evolution works? Except through someone else’s poetry, see below, he provides us with no examples involving the non-living world. He can say “The development of an embryo into a body is perhaps the most beautiful of all demonstrations of spontaneous order” and yet he’s sure that “There is no overall plan, just cells reacting to local effects.” How can he know? Of course, he can’t. It’s physicalist dogma.

There’s a logic to Ridley’s view of evolution that he ignores. If evolution involves a torrent of innovations generated by an intelligent horde, for cultural evolution that horde can easily be identified as made up of individual humans. For the evolution of other living creatures, the corresponding horde may be made up of the genomes in those creatures’ bodies. In my current writings—see sidebar—I argue that evolution is “managed” by intelligences associated with genomes, often likely to be more “intelligent” than the creatures themselves. I don’t think I’ll be able to persuade Ridley of this. “The genome, now sequenced, stands as emphatic evidence that there can be order and complexity without any management.”
Ridley quotes a poet, Emile Chartier (“Alain”), about the design of boats. “It is the sea herself who fashions the boats, choosing those which function and destroying the others.” Literally of course this isn’t true, the sea damages boats and the shivers the timbers from them into splinters, it never fashions them into new boats. That’s takes a living creature, able to innovate. Maybe not a genius, but intelligent and creative.