Triumph of Maya: The Rhetoric of Darwinism
by Mark Anthony Signorelli (May 2010)
In certain strains of Hindu philosophy, the concept of maya is used to refer to the persistently deceptive nature of material creation, the prakriti. If Brahman, or the ultimate reality, refers to a realm of unity and absolute stability, the prakriti refers to a realm suffused with division, mutability, and decay, and thus the material universe, in its appearance, becomes like a veil obscuring the genuine truth of Brahman. That veil is maya, and it is not without its own sanctity, since it is the manifestation of the divine will or energy in the act of creation;[i] it is therefore not to be confused with a Gnostic or Manichean notion of matter’s intrinsic corruption. The material universe, as a gift or manifestation of divine beneficence, is a good, but insofar as it inevitably convinces men that it is the greatest of goods, and that its façade of growth and ruination, with the entire sacrificial economy these things pull in their train, is the totality of things that are, it is a source of delusion. The whole task confronting the Hindu sage, then, is to pierce, with the aid of his intellect, through the mist and mystification of maya, to apprehend, behind its constantly roiling surface of agony, multiplicity, and death, the serene authenticity of Brahman, which is one and eternal. He must accustom his mind to searching out causes beyond the merely material, for material causes, which partake entirely of maya, are always contingent, and thus never entirely satisfactory; but matter itself requires an explanation which, by the very necessities of the case, cannot be material.[ii]
It is helpful to consider modern Darwinian theory against the backdrop of this speculative framework, for then several of its most salient features come into focus. What else is its relentless materialism but the confusion of the material creation, the prakriti, with the Brahman, or the final explanation of things? To what else besides maya’s perpetually deceptive influence can we attribute the Darwinian insistence that evolution, which is nothing other than nature’s grand pageant of mutability and division, hides the key to the mystery of existence, as Richard Dawkins claims at the outset of The Blind Watchmaker?[iii] What else should we consider the sociobiological account of man’s spiritual life, including his morals and his religion, in terms of genes and fitness, other than the fruit of minds content to dwell among the appearances of maya? The more one examines the works of the Darwinians, the more one becomes aware of how pertinaciously – one might even say, systematically – these people confound appearance with reality, and endeavor to disguise the former in the trappings of the latter. Considered properly, their theory represents the triumph of maya, which is the victory over the mind of confusion and lies.
When I speak here of Darwinism, I am not referring to the scientific theory of evolution as it is currently expounded, which is a matter for scientists to debate; I am referring to the apotheosis of that scientific theory into an all-explanatory, totalizing doctrine, with all sort of implications of a necessarily philosophical purport. This is the true Darwinism to which I refer,[iv] and which has spread like a pestilence through the corridors of Western academia. Of course, in this respect, Darwinism merely displays that positivism, or scientism, which is one of the grand and stupid prejudices of the modern mind, and arguably lies at the root of all the others. The belief that because science has explained some things well, it can explain all things well, and that therefore the only legitimate form of inquiry partakes of scientific methodology, pervades our era, though nobody now so much as pretends to offer a rational defense of such assumptions. On the occasion that such a defense was attempted, it was a crashing failure. The logical positivists, those masters of sterility, gathered amidst the pallor of early twentieth century decadence for the express purpose of restraining men’s thoughts, for all time, to the wholly material and observable. Stretching out their rheumatic limbs, and exercising their sclerotic minds, they declared, between their coughs and wheezing, that all true propositions are either analytical or empirical – tautologies or observations – a proposition which is itself quite evidently neither analytical nor empirical. Clutching this blatantly self-refuting doctrine in their little withered fists, they warned men that henceforth there would be no more metaphysics. These were men who believed that prakriti was all, and who wished to cajole their fellow man into the like conviction, yet their project ended in such a perfect and irremediable failure that their efforts remain as a kind of startling monument to the absurdity of philosophical presumption. And still, the ranks of the academic materialists are filled with haughty men convinced that the general position of the logical positivists, so nakedly erroneous, is a self-evident truth. We still routinely read the claim, made or insinuated by authors whom we are supposed to take seriously, that metaphysics is a passé and useless discipline, as though a complete and systematic explanation of the universe were possible without a metaphysics, any more than a satisfactory account of wages were possible without an economics, or an explanation of tragedy without a poetics. The Darwinians unreflective belief that scientific explanations alone are valid, then, is hardly unique to themselves, but one which they clearly caught from the linguists, psychologists, and anthropologists with whom they rub shoulders in the dining halls and faculty meetings of our desolate universities.
To begin to get a sense, then, of the unique fraudulence which is contemporary Darwinian theory, consider the following passage from Steven Pinker:
If, however, the mind is a system with many parts, then an innate desire is just one component among others. Some faculties may endow us with greed or lust or malice, but others may endow us with sympathy, foresight, self-respect, a desire for respect from others, and an ability to learn from our own experiences and those of our neighbors. These are physical circuits residing in the prefrontal cortex and other parts of the brain, not occult powers of a poltergeist, and they have a genetic basis and an evolutionary history no less than the primal urges.[v]
In keeping with his relentlessly materialist conception of human mental life, Pinker would like to convince us that the subjective features of our moral life – compassion, prudence, honor, among others – amount to no more than physical circuits, residing in discrete portions of the brain mass. Any other conception of mental life would be superstitious, akin to belief in “occult powers” and “poltergeists.” Thus, when a certain course of action presents itself as more consistent with my self-respect than other courses of action, what is occurring is simply that various neurons are firing in a particular pattern in a particular locus of the brain. And when I choose that course of action in preference to other courses of action urged upon my consciousness by greed or lust or what have you, what is occurring must simply be that the physical process occurring in the “self-respect” locus is more dynamic, neurochemically speaking, than similar processes occurring in the “greed” locus or the “lust” locus. Thus, a complete account of moral reasoning can be provided in the exact same terms used to describe the control of the digestive system by the autonomic nervous system.
But of course, necessary to any account of morality is an account of its prescriptive, or obligatory, character; I think morally when I understand that the course of action most consistent with my self-respect, as opposed to those urged upon me by greed or lust, is the one that I must do. It makes as much sense to speak about a morality devoid of prescriptive content as to imagine a science devoid of physical laws. But of course, no portion of the brain can obligate us to act according to its urges, any more than any other portion of the brain; matter cannot obligate us at all. So to say that our moral impulses are only “physical circuits residing in the prefrontal cortex and other parts of the brain” is perfectly identical to saying that our moral impulses are illusory; to say that one’s value of self-respect, over greed or lust, is a consequence solely of a neurochemical process is inevitably to call that value fallacious. If I tell you that the only reason you are abstaining from fulfilling your greedy or lustful urges is because in some portion of your brain, the neurons are firing faster than in other portions of your brain, then what I am really telling you is that you have no real reason to abstain from fulfilling your greedy or lustful urges. To assert that our moral life can be explained entirely and completely in neurological terms – and remember that for Pinker, the introduction of any other terms amounted to a resort to mystification, “poltergeists” and the like – is quite unmistakably the same as asserting that our moral life has no real existence.
Note the form of the argument; what appears like an explanation of a phenomenon – namely, morality – is in actuality a denial of the reality of that phenomenon. It is the explanation of the appearance of that phenomenon, where appearance refers specifically to something insubstantial and false. Note more importantly the rhetorical utility of such a pseudo-explanation; had Pinker baldly asserted that the upshot of his theory was to reveal the unreality of morality, he would instantly have incurred the contempt of any sensible person into whose hands his book had fallen. But by insinuating the unreality of morality behind the mask of an explanation that apparently takes morality seriously, he is able at one and the same time to obtain his polemical ends without drawing down upon his head the censure of any unsophisticated readers. Thus, at various points in his book, he can pretend like he believes wholeheartedly in the reality of moral content, such as when he writes: “certainly it is wrong to enslave, oppress, discriminate against, or kill people regardless of any foreseeable datum or theory that a sane scientist would offer,” or “the point is not that group differences may never be used as a basis for discrimination. The point is that they do not have to be used that way, and sometimes we can decide on moral grounds that they must not be used that way;” while at other points, he states things which quite obviously imply the illusory character of that same moral content: “how much discretion did the ‘you’ making the choices actually have if the outcome could have been predicted in advance, at least probabilistically, based on events that took place in your mother’s Fallopian tubes decades ago?” or “the expansion of the moral circle does not have to be powered by some mysterious drive toward goodness. It may come from the interaction between the selfish process of evolution and a law of complex systems.”[vi] Only if one listens carefully can one can hear the pea shuffle beneath the shells as one turns the pages, and in this way Pinker is able to preserve the edifice of his materialist system without once acknowledging the brutal and shameful nihilism which is a necessary consequence of that very system.
Of course, such pseudo-explanations are not unique to Darwinism; they can be discovered throughout the history of philosophy, and they are especially prominent among modern materialists, who, in attempting to explain the abundance of human mental life, end up explaining it away. But Darwinians have adopted this trick and deployed this kind of pseudo-explanation with such perverse consistency that it deserves to be regarded as their special fallacy. Their whole theory rests on its efficacy, and all of the persuasive success their system has enjoyed stems from their admitted adeptness at pulling off this chicanery; as a result, Darwinism has come to resemble one grand ritual of devotion to maya, the collective endeavor of various initiated persons (read: academics) to confound appearance with reality, and in this way to impress upon the minds of the public their key point of doctrine, that all explanations are physical explanations, all reality physical reality.
David Stove was the first author to expose this feature of Darwinian theorizing, as regards the specific phenomenon of altruism. In a devastating passage in his book Darwinian Fairytales[vii], Stove considers the theory of inclusive fitness, and discovers that one of its prime implications is the prediction of tremendous amounts of altruism in the biological world, an implication starkly at odds with the core Darwinian principles of competition and survival of the fittest. The explanation for this bizarre inconsistency does not seem hard to find for Stove:
(the inclusive fitness theory) can be taken to be a denial of the reality of kin altruism, and a causal theory only of the delusive appearances of kin altruism which the surface of life presents in such abundance. It can be taken to mean that what superficially appears as kin altruism is, in reality, only the selfishness of genes, manifesting itself at the phenotypic level, between individual organisms.
Stove points to the work of W.D. Hamilton, the original propounder of the theory of inclusive fitness, for evidence of this interpretation:
(Hamilton) did not say that an animal does value, or will value, a neighbor’s fitness against its own, according to its degree of relatedness to that neighbor. What he said was that the animal “will seem to value” its neighbor’s fitness against its own…What an amazing expression to choose! What an inexplicable one, unless Hamilton meant to advance a causal explanation, not of kin altruism, but only of the delusive appearances of kin altruism…This was a clear enough indication that Hamilton intended the inclusive fitness theory as a denial of kin altruism, rather than as an explanation of it.
Nor does the work of Hamilton’s disciples fail to provide a like substantiation of Stove’s interpretation. They employ the same trick we observed in Pinker’s work; they routinely deny the reality of altruism, even while pretending to offer an explanation for its existence:
Yet almost every other line which inclusive fitness theorists write about altruism implies that I was right the first time: that is, that they do intend their theory as a causal explanation of kin altruism. This is so evident everywhere that it would be ridiculous to assemble quotations to prove it…And yet these are the same authors who, in other parts of their books or articles, imply that altruism does not exist! They say, like Hamilton, that a mother seems to put a positive value on her baby’s fitness against her own. Or they say, like Ghiselin, that so-called altruists are hypocrites. Or they refer, like Dawkins, to ‘altruism – something that does not exist in nature.’
The theory of inclusive fitness, presented as an explanation of altruism, is less an idea and more a rhetorical strategy:
Any discussion of altruism with an inclusive fitness theorist is, in fact, exactly like dealing with a pair of air balloons connected by a tube, one balloon being the belief that kin altruism is an illusion, the other being the belief that kin altruism is caused by shared genes. If a critic puts pressure on the illusion balloon – perhaps by ridiculing the selfish theory of human nature – air is forced into the causal balloon. There is then an increased production of earnest causal explanations of why we love our children, why hymenopteran workers look after their sisters, etc., etc. Then, if the critic puts pressure on the causal balloon, perhaps about the weakness of sibling altruism compared with parental, or the absence of sibling altruism in bacteria – then the illusion balloon is forced to expand.
All along, there is no question as to the motives behind the resort to this scam:
But a denial of the reality of altruism which did not openly offend either common sense or decency: that, by contrast, would be exactly what the doctor ordered for all present-day Darwinians. It would give them what no Darwinians had ever had before: freedom to profess their Darwinism fully, without getting a bad name, and with a conscience that, if not quite unclouded, is not in revolt either. A combination ‘devoutly to be wished.’
When we turn to those authors who proffer a Darwinian account of altruism, and morality more generally, we find that it is exactly as Stove indicates. So David Sloan Wilson promises us a Darwinian account of morality, but he does not even get through an entire page before he writes the following: “I showed that morally laden terms such as ‘good’ and ‘evil’ have a surprisingly simple biological interpretation. Traits associated with ‘good’ cause groups to function well as units, while traits associated with ‘evil’ favor individuals at the expense of their groups.”[viii] Why the quotation marks? Why are quotation marks around abstract nouns ever used by modern academics but to express their sneering incredulity towards the principles represented by the words? So “good,” as opposed to good, in its translation means “the appearance of good” or “what is taken for good,” but not “what is genuinely good.” And as Wilson’s alleged account of morality unfolds, it becomes clear that the ability to choose between “good” and “evil” is one that is shared by all biological organisms, down to the microbes. But whatever we mean by referring to morality, obviously the one thing we all mean is that we are referring to a faculty not possessed by microbes.[ix] So if one is referring to a faculty possessed by microbes, one is not referring to morality, and if in so referring, one pretends to be offering an explanation of morality, one is simply employing the favorite Darwinian trick of pseudo-explanation, of offering an account of the appearance of a phenomenon, while at the same time denying the reality of that phenomenon.
There can be no question that Matt Ridley presented his book The Origins of Virtue to the public as a causal explanation of virtue, of virtue as a real thing. After all, it is not entitled The Origins of “Virtue.” And he speaks of virtue in a number of places as though it were quite as real as elephants and starlight, such as when he writes: “if we are to recover social harmony and virtue, if we are to build back into society the virtues that made it work for us, it is vital that we reduce the power and scope of the state.” Yet, interspersed amid such passages, are other passages which imply the falsity and mendacity of virtue, as obviously as anything could be implied: “so gift giving in a tribal society, where the object is to put somebody else under an obligation, is not gift giving at all; it is exploiting a reciprocal instinct;”[x] or “giving blood and working in Rwanda both enhance your reputation for virtue and therefore make people more likely to trust you in prisoner’s dilemmas. They scream out ‘I am an altruist; trust me;’” or “the more you behave in selfless and generous ways the more you can reap the benefits of cooperative endeavor from society,” or “the virtuous are virtuous for no other reason than that it enables them to join forces with others who are virtuous, to mutual benefit.”[xi] When he recognizes that his readership may be catching on to his gimmick, he assures them that he is quite sincere in accepting the reality of virtue: “Before you accuse me of total cynicism, note that I am not trying to take the virtue out of virtue,” but he cannot keep a straight face for long, for only twelve pages later, he quotes, without contradiction, his master Robert Trivers, who wrote: “models that attempt to explain altruistic behavior in terms of natural selection are models designed to take the altruism out of altruism,” and then, just to be sure the point is made, he cites another of his sociobiological authorities, Michael Ghiselin, to the effect that “what passes for virtue is a form of expediency.”[xii] One page whispers “flim,” the next pages utters “flam,” and the whole book screams subterfuge and fraud.
Michael Ruse assumes all the gravitas of the professional ethicist – he assures us that he is “speaking now as a philosopher” – as he offers his notion of a Darwinian ethics. The upshot of such a theory is clear: “We have a moral sense, because it is adaptively advantageous to have it, but ultimately – like the secondary qualities that appear so vividly to us – there is nothing that it is sensing.”[xiii] Let us put aside the hopelessly confused assertion about “secondary qualities,” and recognize that the claim “the moral sense senses nothing,” is identical to the claim that moral knowledge is incorrigibly illusory, and Ruse himself openly admits this: “Indeed, to be candid, Simpson might well have pulled back from such a solution, believing that, ultimately, one is downgrading ethics (normative ethics, that is) by claiming it to be (what I myself have elsewhere characterized as) an ‘illusion of the genes.’” Elsewhere, he explicitly states that it is the conviction that morality is objective – ie, real – which is the prime illusion: “Morality may be subjective, but we feel that it is objective…If we thought morality was just a matter of feeling, before long it would lose its authority over us and break down…(morality) succeeds by taking us in.”[xiv] Yet this is the same man who composes whole chapters devoted to a Darwinian account of morality, and who can write passages which, to all the world, imply the reality of moral knowledge: “We are fully moral – uniquely moral – because we have the ability to think about our actions, to judge them, to try to influence ourselves with respect to future behavior. In short, we have a conscience.” He even discovers analogies between the ethics of Darwin and the ethics of Kant![xv] Certainly, if any man has ever been “taken in” by morality’s objective appearance, it is Ruse. But if we take the previous statements seriously, how else can we interpret his explanations than as pseudo-explanations – as explanations not of the reality of morality, but of the appearances of morality? How else can we read his statement, “we have a conscience,” in the light of what he himself has averred, except as meaning “we appear to have a conscience,” which, read in one way, is identical to the statement, “we do not really have a conscience?” What looks like an affirmation of the reality of ethical content is really a denial of that reality. When he writes: “what is crucial is that, although under this picture, morality ultimately has no objective existence (in the sense of an objective referent – it is objective in that it certainly exists), our biology makes us think that it does,”[xvi] how else can we understand his parenthetical academese other than as a claim that morality doesn’t genuinely exist – ie, has no “objective referent” – but “certainly” exists as an illusion, which is just another way of saying “does not genuinely exist.” And what else can we make of those large passages in Ruse’s books devoted to a Darwinian account of morality other than that they are so many rehearsals of the old Darwinian charade, of pretending to explain morality while simultaneously denying its reality?
Still, no one pulls off this hocus-pocus with as much mindless élan as Robert Wright. In his book The Moral Animal, he carelessly shifts between an explanation of morality – implying the reality of it – and an explanation of the appearance of morality – implying the non-existence of it – with almost every turn of the page. So sometimes the causal balloon expands, as when he writes: “Can a Darwinian understanding of human nature help people reach their goals in life…More profoundly, can it help in deciding which goals are worthy…The answers, in my opinion, are yes, yes, yes, yes…” or “once we have decided, with help from the new paradigm, which institutions best serve our moral ideals, Darwinism can make its second kind of contribution to moral discourse: it can help us figure out what sort of forces – which moral norms, which social policies – help nourish those institutions.”[xvii] Then, the illusion balloon becomes filled with air, in such passages as: “gratitude, by reflecting the value of the benefit received, calibrates the repayment that’s in order. Gratitude is an I.O.U;” or “few evolutionary psychologists would quarrel with Daly and Wilson’s basic view that ‘morality is the device of an animal of exceptional cognitive complexity, pursuing its interests in an exceptionally complex social universe;” or “it is amazing that a process as amoral and crassly pragmatic as natural selection could design a mental organ that makes us feel as if we’re in touch with higher truths (italics mine);” or “to an evolutionary psychologist, the delusion seems so pervasive that the usefulness of thinking about any distinct core of honesty falls into doubt;” or, quite conclusively, “it isn’t only moral feelings that now fall under suspicion, but all of moral discourse.” Indeed, Wright turns back and forth between implying that morality is a real thing, and implying – or even stating explicitly – that it is an illusory thing, with such dizzying alacrity, that his reader can only conclude - as is the case with all of the best con jobs – that the con man was the first one taken in.
This form of pseudo-explanation, which Stove first identified as essential to the purported Darwinian account of altruism and morality, and in which contemporary members of the movement indulge ad nauseam, is in fact the basic form of explanation employed by Darwinians on all topics. Whenever they are confronted with some phenomenon which seems to require an explanation not wholly biological, they employ this device; they pretend to offer a wholly biological account of the phenomenon, while implying – sometimes subtly, sometimes not – the unreality of the phenomenon under question. In this way, they gain two of their most cherished ends; they preserve the appearance of coherence for their materialist system, and they avoid the necessity of undertaking the hard philosophical work of explaining perplexing phenomenon, for which their minds are entirely unprepared.
Consider aesthetics. There is one argument that is rehearsed in almost all of the works devoted to Darwinian accounts of art and aesthetic pleasure; it is their account of the causes for the pleasure we derive from landscape painting. Our delight in landscape painting, they maintain, is a genetic legacy passed down to us from our hominid ancestors, who were drawn to territory which appeared especially fertile and promising of sustenance; that is to say, they were drawn to lands where they could feed well. Since they survived as a consequence of this attraction, while the poor brutish clods who felt no such attraction – a sort of Pleistocene Philistine – died off, their genes were passed down to us, and so modern humans sense a distant adumbration of their primordial delight whenever we witness, in some particularly composed piece of landscape painting, scenes resembling the ones which so pleased them. The pleasure of art is but the pleasure of the prospectively satiated digestive system.[xviii]
Undoubtedly, if you have ever taken pleasure in the perusal of a Poussin or a Monet, you have regarded that experience as categorically distinct from the pleasure you may have taken in a properly cooked piece of chateaubriand. But according to the aesthetic Darwinians, they are one and the same thing. If I am aware of two experiences, x and y, and an author, in the process of explaining all examples of y, insists that they are really just examples of x, then I can only conclude that what he means to say is that the distinct experience which is y is entirely illusory, that all examples of y are simply disguised examples of x. I can only conclude he means that y, as a separate experience, does not exist. When the aesthetic Darwinians explain aesthetic pleasure – in this case, the specific aesthetic pleasure of beholding a landscape painting – by asserting that it is only another instance of gastrointestinal appetite, they are implying that aesthetic pleasure, as a unique phenomenon, does not exist; there are not two things – aesthetic pleasure and gastrointestinal pleasure – but one, the latter. Darwinians like to feign incomprehension at the charge of reductionism – “the ‘charge’ of reductionism is too vague to merit a response,” puffs Daniel Dennett[xix] - but this constant insinuation of the unreality of phenomenon which all men regard as distinct from any biological processes is an obvious enough definition of reductionism, and one which, lodged against Darwinian theory, is as merited as any charge could ever be.
Upon no topic do present day Darwinians exercise so much deliberate obfuscation between an appearance and a reality as upon the topic of teleology. Anyone who has dipped into the Darwinian literature knows that the whole essence of the project is to propound an account of biological nature in a manner entirely mechanical, and entirely devoid of final causes. Yet, similarly, anyone who has dipped into the same Darwinian literature knows that these authors help themselves to an almost limitless amount of teleological language, specifically in their use of the word design, or its apparent conceptual relative, “design.” Of course, doing these two things is wildly self-contradictory, a fact with which Darwinians are not wholly unacquainted, or wholly comfortable. So the accepted justification for this practice has become the claim that references to design are really references to the appearance of design. Richard Dawkins refers to “apparent design,” and “apparently designed things,” and states that “biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose.”[xx] Ruse identifies the natural phenomenon he is trying to explain as “apparent organized complexity,” and then goes on to emphasize the “apparent,” such as when he writes, “whether or not organisms really are designed, thanks to natural selection they (or rather, they inasmuch as they are adaptive or adapted) seem as if designed (for the ends of survival and reproduction),” or “the Darwinian is not expecting to get out design. The Darwinian is expecting to get out phenomena with the appearance of design – the eye, the hand.”[xxi]
Stove pointed out to what slippery ends the words “appear” and “appearance” can be used:
It is even easier nowadays to convince people that, even within families, there is nothing but selfishness. All you need to do is tell them that ‘what appears as kin altruism is really gene selfishness. If ‘appears as’ means here ‘seems to be but is not,’ then the statement is a denial of the reality of kin altruism. But ‘appears as’ can also mean ‘result in,’ or ‘has as one of its effects’: as when we say, for example, that the moon’s gravitational attraction appears as tides in the ocean. If this is what ‘appears as’ means here, then the statement is a theory of what causes kin altruism. But what proportion of people can be relied on to notice this ambiguity of the phrase ‘appears as,’ or to notice the result of it: that the given statement can equally well be a denial of kin altruism, or a causal explanation of it? Again, very few.[xxii]
Employing this same ambiguity upon the topic of final causes – or “final causes,” as Ruse, with great dialectical rigor, refers to them[xxiii] - enables Darwinians to similarly insinuate one of two contradictory things, either that purposes are present in the natural world, or that only the illusion of purposes is present in the natural world - which is to say, purposes are not present in the natural world. Then, whichever of the two interpretations is convenient to one’s argument can be put forward. So Daniel Dennett can pronounce that organisms display purposes “as real as purposes can be,”[xxiv] while Richard Dawkins can continue to refer to “apparent design,” from the illusory character of which he draws the conclusion that “the universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose.”[xxv] Sociobiologists can scrawl dozens of references to “design” across their pages, while insisting that they are presenting their readers with an entirely non-teleological account of biological organisms.
But after all, these authors must mean one of the two things – either that purposes are present in biological organisms, or they are not. If they mean the first, then the natural world is replete with purpose, not necessarily the externally imposed purposes of a supernatural creator, but the internal directedness of organisms towards growth and survival, which is precisely what Aristotle had in mind when he commented on the ends latent in creatures of organized heterogeneous parts.[xxvi] This means that the theory of natural selection would constitute a challenge to the entire enterprise of modern science, by returning science to an essentially Aristotlean conceptual foundation. Whatever Darwinians are up to, they are obviously not hoping to accomplish this. On the other hand, if they mean that purposes are not present in nature, then vast passages of their works instantly become incoherent and meaningless. Dawkins claim that “our brains were designed to understand hunting and gathering, mating and child-rearing”[xxvii] can then only mean, “our brains have the illusion of appearing designed to understand hunting and gathering, mating and child-rearing,” which of course means, “our brains were not designed to understand hunting and gathering, mating and child-rearing.” Similarly, Wright’s claim “animals, including people often execute evolutionary logic…by following their feelings, which were designed as logic executers,”[xxviii] must really mean “feelings are not designed to be logic executers (whatever that means), which just means, “feelings are not logic executers.” It would mean that Darwinians are in the habit of asserting the precise opposite of what they believe is the truth, as though they were a gang of school-kids using a strange code to hide the year-end prank from the principal, or, more literally, as though they were a gang of sophisters trying to obscure the philosophical implications of their doctrines. If they take a Kantian tack, and hold that teleology is a ineradicable feature of our rational apparatus, which scientists “read into” nature in order to understand it properly,[xxix] then they are insinuating that there is a fundamental difference between man and nature – the difference of end-directedness – which, of course, violates the most cherished premises of Darwinism. There is just no way for a Darwinian to candidly treat the issue of teleology, without compromising the coherence of his system, so these authors do their best to shuffle the cards as quickly as possible, in order to preserve the ambiguity of “appearances.” Indeed, the only way out of their conundrum would be the resort to some cheap linguistic trick, like referring to “non-teleological purposes.” Yet surely no one has had the impudence to try to get over on the public with such a blatantly stupid ploy. No one, that is, except Harvard’s Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology: “it holds out the hope of understanding the design or purpose of the mind – not in some mystical or teleological sense, but in the sense of the simulacrum of engineering that pervades the natural world.”[xxx] By the time an author is trying to sell the idea of “non-teleological purposes” to his readers, there is simply no reason to take him seriously any longer.
When Darwinians feel the pressure of these objections closing in upon them, they retreat to their last stronghold; they say they are using design as a metaphor. And it is a metaphor which, as Michael Ruse insists, is necessary for the continuation of fruitful biological research: “the question is simply whether you find it particularly helpful to think in this way or not.”[xxxi] Of course, it does not matter one way or another to non-evolutionary biologists whether this metaphor assists them in their speculations; the rest of us simply want a true account of the world. Ruse is simply demonstrating, yet again, that incorrigible habit of academic materialists of mistaking methodology for ontology. And one can only imagine what Francis Bacon would think to discover that his enterprise was being carried on by men who contend that metaphor is a necessary auxiliary to science, since it was his position that language, even at its most literal, was an impediment to clear thought, in danger at all times of degenerating into the “Idol of the Marketplace.”[xxxii] Nor is it even clear that Darwinians are employing a metaphor, and not simply an elaborate manner of ascription. To say that organisms are like end-directed things, is just another way of saying that organisms are end-directed. This is not metaphor. One does not compare the lover’s eyes to brightness, but to the sun; one does not compare Achilles to violence, but to a lion. When Ruse writes, “we are doing this through metaphor – looking at the trilobite as if it had intentions and interests,”[xxxiii] he is not really comparing the trilobite to anything, so much as merely ascribing the quality of purposefulness to the trilobite’s lense.
But putting these matters aside, the important point to recognize is that the appeal to the “design metaphor” is evidently just another dodge of the question, since it can be used to signify a belief in the presence of real purposes in nature, and a belief in the absence of real purposes in nature. Metaphors consist of comparisons between things that are like in one respect, and unlike in more respects; by claiming to be employing metaphor, one could be emphasizing the likeness, or the unlikeness. Aristotle thought that there was an analogy between biological organization and the artifacts of man’s device, though he stressed the ways in which man’s artifice mimicked nature in its end-directedness. But of course, this was because he thought that the teleology in nature was something real, and so an adequate analogy for the similarly real teleology displayed in human craftsmanship.[xxxiv] But one who says that organisms are like human artifacts – and this is what the design metaphor must say – can also mean to imply that they are like human artifacts in the appearance of purposefulness, but ultimately unlike them in the reality of purposefulness. So the vaunted “design metaphor” is just another way to maintain the ambiguity of “appearances,” which is just another way for Darwinians to pretend to offer an explanation of a phenomenon, while subtly hinting at its fundamental unreality.
Again, we must recognize the tremendous rhetorical utility of such a device, for contemporary Darwinism essentially is, when all is said and done, a rhetorical strategy. Were these authors simply to come out and state their conviction that teleology is a mirage and a falsehood (and in denying its reality in the biological sphere, they must necessarily deny its reality anywhere, since their great principle is that natural selection is all-explanatory), their assertion would be received with incredulity, for the lack of teleology renders vast aspects of life incomprehensible, and after all, as Mary Midgley has pointed out, it is impossible to understand how men could have conceived of the notion of a purpose if there were no such thing in the world.[xxxv] On the other hand, if they conceded that the appearance of end-directedness in organisms constitutes real purposefulness, their great structure of an exclusively scientific account of the universe would come crashing to the earth, for the minute one allows final causes into an explanation, one ceases to practice science – at least in its modern form – since “teleology entails things which are not demonstrable.”[xxxvi] The “design metaphor” allows Darwinians to shelter themselves from the easy rebuttals that would follow upon a frank confession of their lack of belief in teleology, while at the same time casting enough suspicion upon the concept of teleology to pretend that they are offering a strictly non-teleological – ie, strictly scientific – account of reality.
But this is only the beginning of the benefits they reap from their chicanery. The “design metaphor” prepares readers for all the absurdity of the selfish gene theory, one of the integral components of contemporary Darwinism. The great obstacle to all claims that our genes compel us to do such and such is the knowledge that we have of our own deliberation and its efficacy. We know, or we think we know, that we have our own conscious purposes. Once a reader is trained to think of all examples of natural purposefulness as only the illusory appearance of purposefulness, it is little work to convince him that all examples of human, conscious purposefulness are similarly only the illusory appearance of purposefulness. Then the wholly mechanical conception of mental life, necessary for the success of the selfish gene theory, can easily be insinuated.
Furthermore, since it is the great ambition of the Darwinian movement to drive out of the world, once and for all, the specter of supernatural belief, the “design metaphor” would appear to offer a fearsome weapon to be wielded towards that end. If it can be implied that purposefulness is absent from the world, then it can further be implied that design – and hence, a designer – must also be absent from the world. Thus, the so-called “argument from design” is trashed. And since almost all Darwinians are so miserably ignorant of theology as to suppose that William Paley was the only important theologian, and his unique version of the cosmological argument the only important argument for supernatural belief, they think this move clinches the matter.
But the most significant reason why Darwinians employ the “design metaphor” is so that Richard Dawkins can write passages like this: “I want to inspire the reader with a vision of our own existence as, on the face of it, a spine-chilling mystery, and simultaneously to convey the full excitement of the fact that it is a mystery with an elegant solution which is within our grasp.”[xxxvii] And Michael Ruse can write passages like this: “what I am arguing for is a theology of nature…that sees and appreciates the complex, adaptive glory of the living world, rejoices in it, and trembles before it.”[xxxviii] And all of them can quote unceasingly those concluding lines of the Origin of Species: “there is grandeur in this view of life, etc.” Passages of this sort allow both author and reader to revel in a vision of the cosmos replete with harmony and wonder; such a vision cannot but be compelling and attractive to any number of readers, and this is of the utmost importance since – it bears repeating – Darwinism is now at root a mode of rhetoric, and not a science. Only by allowing the veneer of purposefulness to hang over the universe, in the form of the “design metaphor,” can these authors preserve the splendor of that vision. Once it is stripped away, their universe becomes exposed for the mechanical, monotonous, and perfectly meaningless mélange of gases and minerals which they truly believe it to be. Then the only sort of description which would match up genuinely with their theory would be that one which Tolstoy, in his Confessions, puts into the mouth of the scientist:
You are what you call your ‘life;’ you are a transitory, casual cohesion of particles. The mutual interactions and changes of these particles will cease and what you call life will cease, and so will all your questions. You are an accidentally united little lump of something. That little lump ferments. The little lump calls that fermenting its ‘life.’ The lump will disintegrate, and there will be an end of the fermenting and of all the questions.
By this time, Darwinians have trained themselves, and their readers, to ignore the brutal implications of their doctrines. Instead, they have learned to content themselves with the appearances of things – with the appearance of virtue, the appearance of purpose, the appearance of meaning - and in this way they can indulge their predilections for enthusiastic prose without ever once suffering from the irreducible pangs of sense or honesty. Jonathan Swift, who witnessed with contempt the earliest stages of the West’s scientistic fetishism, knew about such men, and he described them for us perfectly several centuries ago:
He that can with Epicurus content his ideas with the films and images that fly off upon his senses from the superficies of things; such a man, truly wise, creams off Nature, leaving the sour and the dregs for philosophy and reason to lap up. This is the sublime and refined point of felicity, called the possession of being well deceived; the serene peaceful state, of being a fool among knaves.
This describes the Darwinians now, the serene fools among the knavish world of contemporary academia. It is the ecstasy of “being well deceived” which one hears mindlessly warbling from the pages of Dawkins and Ruse, and this is the substance of their joy.
In his stupendously fraudulent book, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, Daniel Dennett writes the following, “Darwin’s idea (bears) an unmistakable likeness to universal acid: it eats through just about every traditional concept, and leaves in its wake a revolutionized world-view, with most of the old landmarks still recognizable, but transformed in fundamental ways.”[xxxix] It may come as news to Dennett that acids don’t “transform” things; they destroy them. The Darwinian “idea” (Darwinian prejudice would be more accurate) is one that would obliterate the authority of all beliefs which men have cherished since the beginning of their sojourn; not just the religious ones, as these people like to pretend, but all sense of purpose and dignity and hope. Dennett’s relentlessly materialist and mechanistic account of human life is one that obviously leaves it hollow, desperate, and insignificant - however much he protests to the contrary. So when we arrive at the end of the book, and we find him acclaiming, “this world is sacred” – that same world which, on his own account, has been emptied of any genuine goodness, triumph, or significance – we have discovered a man who has reached that “sublime and refined point of felicity,” if any man ever has. He is so blissfully indifferent to the reality of purposefulness, that he dismisses the whole question as a “definitional quibble.”[xl] He ponders, with undisturbed satisfaction, the appearances of things, and as time goes by, he takes these things for reality. Those old Hindu philosophers considered the physical world to be a source of deception in its appearance, blinding men to the authentic and irreducibly spiritual truth which is Brahman. Dennett and his ilk have inverted the entire picture – he even boasts that Darwinism represents a “strange inversion of reasoning”[xli] – identifying the physical world and it contents to be the exclusive reality, with all moral, metaphysical, or religious belief constituting so much obscure gauze over this raw materialist truth. Thus maya, the mystifying veil of matter, becomes all in all to the Darwinian mind, and thus she achieves her great and final victory.
Ours is an age of fraudulent appearances, of marketing and mass politics, so it is hardly surprising that a movement which has its life in the manipulation of such appearances would grow so popular among our contemporaries. But this popularity remains a testament, not to the movement’s philosophical substance, of which there is little, but to the black midnight of the intellect regnant throughout the present Western world. There are two types of persons in regards to Darwinism: those who despise it, and those who are beguiled by it. There is no third category. Perhaps the latter remain the more numerous for now, but it will not remain so forever. Eventually, some faint and fugitive light will break in upon the nighttime of the modern world, and then Darwinism will go lie amid other dead things, like the unholy, desiccated, blood-thirsty monster that it is. Until then, we do well to remind ourselves that, in the Darwinian movement, we are confronted not with a scientific theory, to be tested; nor a philosophical school, to be debated; but with a lie, to be detested and combated.
[i] Morgan, Kenneth The Religion of the Hindus (New York: Ronald Press Company, 1953) 411.
[ii] “If Maya explains the world, we have to seek for the explanation of Maya itself beyond it...it is not ultimate, and that entity which explains it is spirit.” Hiriyana, M. The Essentials of Indian Philosophy (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1956) 161.
[iii] “This book is written in the conviction that our own existence once presented the greatest of all mysteries, but that it is a mystery no longer because it is solved. Darwin and Wallace solved it…” Dawkins, Richard The Blindwatchmaker (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1996) xiii.
[iv] “evolution has always been more than just a scientific theory – it has ever been a philosophy, a metaphysics, a Weltanschauung, a secular religion (not so secular at times), even indeed an eschatology,” in Ruse, Michael. Defining Darwin (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2009), 122.
[v] Pinker, Steven The Blank Slate (New York: Viking, 2002) 166.
[vi] Pinker, 103, 149, 51, 167.
[vii] Stove, David Darwinian Fairytales (New York: Encounter Books, 1995) 232-247. My entire essay relies heavily on this passage from Stove.
[viii] Wilson, David Sloan Evolution for Everyone (New York: Delacorte Press, 2007) 125.
[ix] A fact admitted by no less ardent a Darwinian than G.G. Simpson: “on the whole it is nonsensical to speak of ethics in connection with any animal other than man, and still more so in connection with the plant kingdom…man is the only ethical organism in the full meanings of the words.” Quoted in Ruse, 143.
[x] Ridley, Matt The Origins of Virtue (New York: Viking, 1996) 264, 124.
[xiii] Ruse, Michael “Julian Huxley and George Gaylord Simpson on Evolution and Ethics” in Defining Darwin (Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2009) 145.
[xiv] Ruse, Michael Charles Darwin (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2008) 240.
[xvii] Wright, Robert, The Moral Animal (New York: Vintage Books, 1994) 10, 104.
[xviii] See Chapter One of Dennis Dutton’s The Art Instinct.
[xix] Dennett, Daniel Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995) 81.
[xxi] Ruse, Michael Darwin and Design (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard Univ. Press, 2003) 265, 325.
[xxv] cited in Midgley, Mary “Purpose, Meaning, and Darwinism” in Philosophy Now Issue 71, 16.
[xxvi] Gilson, Etienne From Aristotle to Darwin and Back Again (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2009) 6.
[xxix] Ruse hints at such an approach. See pg. 288 of Darwin and Design.
[xxx] Pinker, 51. As proof of how shameless Darwinians are about these matters, Dutton actually quotes just this passage on pg. 86 of the Art Instinct.
[xxxii] “The express fault which he finds with words is that they either represent things which do not exist in nature, or else convey very confused ideas of things.” Jones, Richard Foster Ancients and Moderns (New York: Dover, 1961) 48.
[xxxiv] “The analogy with art, then, assists us to recognize the presence in nature of a cause analogous to that which is intelligence in the operations of man, but we do not know what this cause is. The notion of a teleology without consciousness and immanent in nature remains mysterious to us. Aristotle does not think that this should be a reason to deny its existence. Mysterious or not, the fact is there.” Gilson, 12-13.
[xl] “you risk turning a definitional quibble (is it “design” or design?) into something that distracts your attention from the undeniable brilliance of the results of the evolutionary process” http://scienceblogs.com/omnibrain/upload/2007/03/fodorondarwinism3b.pdf
To comment on this essay, please click here.
To help New English Review continue to publish thought provoking essays such as this one, please click here.
If you enjoyed this essay and want to read more by Mark Signorelli, please click here.