Thursday, June 16, 2005

Column on Darwinism

An Omission of Darwinism

Tibor R. Machan

No, no, I will not reenter the debate about whether Darwin set us on the
right course for understanding the development of life on earth. The point
I wish to stress it that one particular problem faces those who think he
has. This is that there appears to be little room left for genuine
morality in the story Darwin and his students tell about human life.

Darwin himself worried a bit about this. He wrote on the topic in The
Ascent of Man and affirmed the uniqueness of homo sapiens on that score,
namely, that for them there is a special task in their lives of having to
get things right. But, admittedly, Darwin, not unlike other modern
thinkers, had a difficult time with making room for the phenomenon of
moral choice. David Hume, Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx, Herbert
Spencer, among others, with varied philosophical and political positions,
saw the same difficulty, mainly because modern philosophy was hamstrung by
a certain popular and appealing materialist outlook that seemed to
everyone to demand determinism.

The idea, since at least the time of Galileo and Thomas Hobbes, was that
everything that happens has to have been produced by some prior event,
which itself had to be so produced, ad infinitum, in an everlasting chain
of causal connections. The earlier, Aristotelian notion that it isn?t only
events but beings, too, that can be causes, had been discarded for a
variety of (ultimately not every good) reasons. That, however, rendered it
theoretically incoherent for free will, a basic ingredient of bona fide
morality, to exist. No choice, well, then no choice between right and
wrong conduct, period.

Nothing, however, in Darwinism implies this?it was an earlier proposed
reductive materialism that led to this result. Indeed, Darwin?s theory of
evolution opened the door to the possibility of the development of a
living being that has free will. After all, one thing Darwin is about is
how through the process of natural selection new and different life forms
emerge. The highest of these, Homo sapiens, could well possess quite
unheard of attributes and capacities, not excluding that of free choice or
initiative. Whether human beings do have this attribute or capacity is a
matter of discovery, not of metaphysics.

Materialism, by the way, is a metaphysical position that has many
problems?first of all, with what exactly is matter anyway? It seems matter
is a formal concept, meaning no more than anything that has mass, is
quantifiable. But the units of quantity aren?t specified and depend on
what kind of matter something is; so if the matter happens to be human, it
all depends on what that comes to, that is, on whether it has certain
attributes like the capacity to initiate some of its conduct, not on the
fact that it is material, which, of course, it is but tells us virtually
nothing about it.

Anyway, unfortunately many who have found Darwin convincing on the score
of natural selection also believed he is a metaphysical materialist, which
by no means follows (mainly because that is an empty idea). He is, of
course, largely a naturalist, although Darwin himself had some deistic
inclinations, thinking?actually, like some contemporary defenders of
Intelligent Design?that God got the whole shebang off the ground but stood
back ever since to let the laws of, among other things, evolutionary
biology do the rest. In any case, none of what he argued rules out free
will and morality. But those who champion Darwin often think so.

It is this fact, not so much natural selection and the rest of
evolutionary biology, which makes many people queasy about evolution?it
seems, in the hands of many of today?s Darwinians, to preclude morality.
Yet, morality is such a firmly entrenched aspect of human life that any
viewpoint will be widely shunted which makes no room for it.

It is sad. We need a coherent account of how the world got to be where it
is, especially regarding the life in it, and Darwin certainly is a good
beginning toward making sense of it. No one can reasonably expect
Darwinism to be a finished story?only God, if He exists, could have a
finished story in any field of human interest; for us it would require to
have managed to get a peak at the end of it all to come up with one. With
contemporary challenges of Darwin we get, in fact, greater mysteries than
anything Darwinism includes?like, how can intelligence exist prior to
everything else when, in fact, intelligence requires a living brain that
can produce it (and the activity of designing something).

If Darwin?s defenders spent some time figuring out how human morality?and
its prerequisite, free will?fit into Darwinism, I am sure the position
would fare much better with ordinary men and women, most of whom know that
morality matters and also might give a naturalist view a chance that makes
room for it. As to God, well that must be left to faith and not science,
if faith is to have a role in any of this.

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