Ghosts of Evolution

[HT: brain pickings]


Age of Dinosaurs

The first of the dinosaurs appeared around 231 million years ago, and they dominated earth for more than 135 million years. Homo Sapiens, on the other hand, evolved only around 200 thousand years ago. Here’s a chart to help put this into perspective (click to embiggen):


[Pic courtesy: Wikipedia]

Previous “Sense of Proportion” posts: IIIIIIIVVVI.

The Watchmaker Argument

One of the most popular arguments in support of God’s existence is what’s called the watchmaker argument: the world is so complex and refined that there must be a designer. Without an intelligent designer, the existence of such an intricately beautiful world is impossible. This theological argument – that design implies designer – is attributed to Paley, and I’ve heard several versions of this improbability argument during religious discourses over the years. Daniel Dennett calls it one of the oldest ideas known:

[T]he idea that it takes a big fancy smart thing to make a lesser thing. I call it the trickle-down theory of creationism. You’ll never see a spear making a spear maker. You’ll never see a horse shoe making a blacksmith. You’ll never see a pot making a potter.

Richard Dawkins refers to another metaphor (attributed to Hoyle) in his book The God Delusion:

[T]he probability of life originating on Earth is no greater than the chance that a hurricane, sweeping through a scrapyard, would have the luck to assemble a Boeing 747. […] The odds against assembling a fully functioning horse, beetle or ostrich by randomly shuffling its parts are up there in 747 territory.

This is indeed a strong argument. The biological complexity and diversity of life on Earth seem to, quite logically, require an intelligent designer; it all just can’t happen by chance alone.

However, when analyzed throughly, the argument can be shown to have a circular logic, and instead of proving the necessity (and hence, existence) of an intelligent designer, it works in the opposite direction. The self-refuting idea of ‘an intelligent designer responsible for design’ doesn’t solve the problem, it just passes the baton, and raises another question.

Any entity capable of intelligently designing something as improbable [as a universe] would have to be even more improbable than [the universe itself]. Far from terminating the vicious regress, God aggravates it with a vengeance.

The improbability argument states that the universe is too complex, ergo there must be a God. But then God himself/herself/itself must be even more complex than the universe. Who created God? You can easily see how this can spiral out to an endless regress. The only way you can get out of it is by saying something like ‘No one created God.’ But then why not make the same argument for the universe itself?

What is the solution then, to this problem of improbability? Well, to understand the solution, the first roadblock that needs to be cleared off is the wrong assumption that chance is the only possible alternative to intelligent design.

A deep understanding of Darwinism teaches us to be wary of the easy assumption that design is the only alternative to chance, and teaches us to seek out graded ramps of slowly increasing complexity. Before Darwin, philosophers such as Hume understood that the improbability of life did not mean that it had to be designed, but they couldn’t imagine an alternative. After Darwin, we all should feel, deep in our bones, suspicious of the very idea of design. The illusion of design is a trap that has caught us before, and Darwin should have immunized us by raising our consciousness. […]

Natural selection is not only a parsimonious, plausible and elegant solution; it is the only workable alternative to chance that has ever been suggested.

Understanding Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection removes the necessity of an intelligent designer. And God suddenly finds himself left with fewer things to do than before. What shouldn’t be surprising here is that science has consistently done this over the years: shrinking God’s circle of influence. We have come long way from superstitious mythologies —  draughts are caused by angry gods etc. — to the current understanding of the universe that leaves fewer things left for God. This, of course, is a continual process. One of the things that makes science awesome is its denial to admit that we’ve reached a final, ultimate, unchangeable truth. (All scientific truth is provisional.) However, this doesn’t stop the theists to proclaim that science does not have all the answers.

Creationists eagerly seek a gap in present-day knowledge or understanding. If an apparent gap is found, it is assumed that God, by default, must fill it. What worries thoughtful theologians […] is that the gaps shrink as science advances, and God is threatened with eventually having nothing to do and nowhere to hide.

Jerry Coyne hits the nail on the head:

Why is God considered an explanation for anything? It’s not – it’s a failure to explain, a shrug of the shoulders, an ‘I dunno’ dressed up in spirituality and ritual. If someone credits something to God, generally what it means is that they don’t have a clue, they’re attributing it to an unreachable, unknowable sky-fairy. As for an explanation of where that bloke came from, and odds are you’ll get a vague, pseudo-philosophical reply about having always existed, or being outside nature. Which, of course, explains nothing.

On that note, here’s a hilarious comic by Jesus and Mo.

[The quotes are from Richard Dawkin’s The God Delusion. Emphases are mine. Image courtesy: Wikipedia]

Breaking the Spell

There was a time when religion didn’t exist. Was it before the first of the homo sapiens ever walked on earth? Or was it before the invention of agriculture and domestication of animals? Do the developments of language and culture predate the invention of religion? We don’t know for sure. But we do know that most of the religions that we see today came into existence in not-so-distant past (biologically speaking) — when their fundamental truths were revealed by God to somebody, who then passed it on to other mortals.

Once religion (or a proto-religion) came into existence, it evolved. It became more organized and structured to keep up with the humans who were becoming culturally more advanced and psychologically more complicated. But where did this proto-religion come from?

Daniel Dennett argues in his daring, insightful and marvelous book Breaking the Spell, that initially there was folk religion. And it metamorphosed into organized religion in the same way as folk music turned into organized music. The pre-historic developments of religion was perhaps unintentional – like the development of language. “Extrapolating back to human prehistory with the aid of biological thinking, we can surmise how folk religion emerged without conscious and deliberate design, just as language emerged, by interdependent process of biological and cultural evolution” writes Dennet.

But then where did the folk religion came from? The answer to this probably lies in the hyperactive agency detection device. We humans have a unique proclivity to assign agency to events. Our belief in gods is rooted in our “disposition to attribute agency — beliefs and desires and other mental states — to anything complicated that moves.” Quoting David Hume:

We find human faces in the moon, armies in the clouds; and by a natural propensity, if not corrected by experience and reflection, ascribe malice and good-will to everything, that hurts or pleases us. [From The Natural History of Religion]

Today when we speak of angry or benign intent of the rain clouds, or refer to a river’s desire to merge into the ocean, or curse at our computers as if they can hear (and respond to) our urges, we don’t do it entirely seriously — we don’t really believe that the rain clouds are literally angry with us and hence causing droughts. But there were times when we humans took these phenomena so literally and seriously. This practice of attributing intentions (or agency) to moving objects in the environment can in turn make us believe that there are “secret puppeteers behind the perplexing phenomena” in nature. It is easy to comprehend how this belief of unseen or spiritual agencies must have arisen in prehistoric times; and once that belief was born, man would have naturally extended it to the meaning and purpose of his own existence. Once you believe that things happen for a reason or purpose, a belief in a Creator and a Caretaker is not so far away. (We are the seekers of depth and profundity.)

There are other profound and important questions that Dennett passionately explores in his well-argued and balanced book. Through interdisciplinary arguments and reasoning Dennett delves into the theories about “how religion evolved from folk beliefs and how these early ‘wild’ strains of religion were then carefully and consciously domesticated.”

Given the importance, the spread, and the effects of religion in our times I can’t think of any more important subject than objectively studying, investigating and evaluating religion. There are people who believe that religion (or rather, their own religion) is the best hope for peace, and there are others who believe that religion is a major cause of conflict and violence in the world (that religion may increase co-operation within but not among groups). Dennett ends the last chapter of his book with a hopeful (wishful?) note:

So, In the end, my central policy recommendation is that gently, firmly educate the people of the world, so that they can make truly informed choices about their lives. Ignorance is nothing shameful; imposing ignorance is shameful. Most people are not to blame for their own ignorance, but if they willfully pass it on, they are to blame. […]

Let’s open our minds to calm and open discussions about religion – its holy traditions, claims (like religion is the foundation of morality), and beliefs (in God, soul, afterlife and such). Let’s change the climate of opinions that holds religion to be above discussion (especially scientific), above criticism, and above challenge. Let’s remove the “protective veneer of mystery” so that religion can be better understood.  Let’s get the “culture of credulity” to evaporate. Let’s break the spell.


While on the subject of the evolution and history of religion, let me share this cool image. The subtitle reads: “Monotheism is in turn doomed to subtract one more God and become atheism.”

Seekers of Depth and Profundity

In a thought-provoking and stimulating book, Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Density, Amartya Sen provides a powerful critique to the current trend of analyzing modern conflicts as “clash of civilizations” or clash between cultures – i.e., the tendency to look at human beings as distinct groups rather than individuals. He argues, quite convincingly, that the “prospect of peace in the contemporary world may well lie in the recognition of the plurality of our affiliations” rather than communitarian thinking that crudely categorizes people into contending groups by assigning them a singular one-dimensional (often religious, cultural, or ethnic) identities.

This omnipresent phenomenon of thinking-in-terms-of-groups reduces people to confined unidimensional space. Be it “the Islamist world” against “the Western world”, the Hindus against the Muslims, the Tamils against the Sinhalese, or the Marathi manoos against the “non-Marathis”, this us-against-them rhetoric is very effective in provoking hatred (that easily gets manipulated by vote thirsty politicians). Why, one would think, this communitarian approach is so popular? Sen explains:

It is not hard to understand why the imposing [communitarian or] civilizational approach appeals so much. It invokes richness of history and the apparent depth and gravity of cultural analysis, and it seeks profundity in a way that an immediate political analysis of “here and now” — seen as ordinary and mundane — would seem to lack.

We are the “seekers of depth and profundity”. We try to find greater meaning and higher purpose in not only conflicts or struggles (as mentioned above), but also in the very existence of life itself.

Which brings me to the topic of my last post (Divine Justice?): how this tendency increases our proclivity towards unscientific convictions. We want to believe that life has a greater divine purpose. But if there’s one lesson that evolution teaches us, it is that the human beings are, like monkeys, fishes, birds, ants, worms, roaches, and bacteria, a product of a random, unsupervised and impersonal process. Darwin’s evolution is a pink slip to the benevolent creator, to the purposefulness of life.

Depressing? It shouldn’t be. Consider the following passage from Richard Dawkin’s Unweaving the Rainbow:

To live at all is miracle enough. — Mervyn Peake, The Glassblower

We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.

And here’s a short interview between two of the greatest living stalwarts of Darwin –Richard Dawking and Daniel Dennet:

Hallelujah for the universe!

Whatever Works

In an interesting article in the American Scientist associate professor Robert Dorit challenges a common misunderstanding about how evolution works, and explains how the evolutionary process doesn’t necessarily lead to an optimal design.

This perspective [that evolution inexorably leads to optimal adaptations] beguiles in its simplicity, but in the end, it trivializes the complexities of the evolutionary process. Natural selection sorts among existing alternatives, but sometimes a good-enough solution may become inextricably locked in place. Evolution is not about what’s best, but what works.

The placement of alphabet on typewriter/keyboard is a prefect example of how persistence of an early functional solution can account for the survival of a feature – the QWERTY arrangement, in this case. The early solution is often not the best solution, but can have such a tenacious grip that the possibility of other adaptations/changes gets minimized.

There are many explanations for why the inventors of QUERTY keyboard chose this specific arrangement out of total 4 x 1026 ways the alphabet could have been laid out. The most convincing explanation is that this arrangement minimized the mechanical constraint of jamming keys in those old typewriters with metal arcs.

However, the days of mechanical typewriters are gone and we don’t have the jamming-keys issue with our electronic keyboards. Moreover, whether the QWERTY arrangement was the best solution for minimizing jamming is also questionable. But, this arrangement survived the test of time. The QWERTY arrangement, in spite of being a sub-optimal solution, prevailed because it was deeply embedded in the technology and our consciousness.

Can the constraints of history and optimality can play similar role in biological evolution as well? Read the fourth page of this article (here) to understand how the alphabet of our nucleic acid (A, U, C and G) in RNA are not optimally coded. (I have to confess that it took me some time to understand this so called redundancy of the genetic code.)

In conclusion:

The power of the evolutionary perspective resides in its acknowledgment of the importance of [the] past. Perhaps more subtly, evolutionary logic makes a profound distinction between history and destiny. We may find great comfort in the idea of inexorable progress, but the products of the evolutionary process, like the products of human ingenuity, are not about perfection.

Beyond Reasonable Doubt

In an extract from his upcoming book, The Greatest Show on Earth (that I am eagerly awaiting to read) Richard Dawkins explains that it’s the ‘proof beyond doubt’ that established a scientific theory as a “fact” – unlike, say in Mathematics, where a rigorous, impeccable, ultimate proof is (a) possible, and (b) required to prove a theorem.

Why, then, do we speak of “Darwin’s theory of evolution”, thereby, it seems, giving spurious comfort to those of a creationist persuasion — the history-deniers, [] — who think the word “theory” is a concession, handing them some kind of gift or victory? Evolution is a theory in the same sense as the heliocentric theory. In neither case should the word “only” be used, as in “only a theory”. As for the claim that evolution has never been “proved”, proof is a notion that scientists have been intimidated into mistrusting.

Influential philosophers tell us we can’t prove anything in science.

Mathematicians can prove things — according to one strict view, they are the only people who can — but the best that scientists can do is fail to disprove things while pointing to how hard they tried. Even the undisputed theory that the Moon is smaller than the Sun cannot, to the satisfaction of a certain kind of philosopher, be proved in the way that, for example, the Pythagorean Theorem can be proved. But massive accretions of evidence support it so strongly that to deny it the status of “fact” seems ridiculous to all but pedants. The same is true of evolution. Evolution is a fact in the same sense as it is a fact that Paris is in the northern hemisphere. Though logic-choppers rule the town, some theories are beyond sensible doubt, and we call them facts. The more energetically and thoroughly you try to disprove a theory, if it survives the assault, the more closely it approaches what common sense happily calls a fact.

Read the whole thing here.

Also see my earlier post Science Never Proves Anything where I argue how all scientific truth is provisional.

A Sense of Scale

If the entire course of evolution were compressed into a single year, the earliest bacteria would appear at the end of March, but we wouldn’t see the first human ancestors until 6 a.m. on December 31.

That’s from Why Evolution is True by Jerry Coyne (which I am reading right now).

P.S. The first organism – simple photosynthetic bacteria – appeared around 3.5 billion years ago, one billion years after the earth was formed. Then about 600 million years ago, worms, jellyfish and sponges (multicelled organisms) came into existence. The first mammals showed up around 250 million years ago, while we humans are newcomers on the scene arising only around 7 million years ago.

A Good Question

“Does the empirical nature of science contradict the revelatory nature of faith?” asks Jerry Coyne in his essay Seeing and Believing. Simply put, the question is, is it psychologically contradictory to claim to believe in God and evolution (or science in general) at the same time?

True, there are religious scientists and Darwinian churchgoers. But this does not mean that faith and science are compatible, except in the trivial sense that both attitudes can be simultaneously embraced by a single human mind. (It is like saying that marriage and adultery are compatible because some married people are adulterers. ) It is also true that some of the tensions disappear when the literal reading of the Bible is renounced, as it is by all but the most primitive of JudeoChristian sensibilities. But tension remains. The real question is whether there is a philosophical incompatibility between religion and science. Does the empirical nature of science contradict the revelatory nature of faith? Are the gaps between them so great that the two institutions must be considered essentially antagonistic?

I think Jerry Coyne, whose book Why Evolution is True I intend to read some day, has posed a very good question here. The answer is certainly not straightforward. According to Albert Einstein science without religion is lame, and religion without science is blind. He observed strong reciprocal relationships and dependencies between religion and science. But as Coyne has noted, the existence of religious scientists is wearing thin. A survey involving thirty-four countries revealed an inverse correlation between the degree of faith and the acceptance of evolution.

There’s a very interesting debate about this question here. I liked the following comment by the philosopher Daniel Danette:

Each reason for belief in God is defensible up to a point, but we need to weigh the indirect side effects of going along with tradition. First, there’s the systematic hypocrisy that poisons discourse, and even more important, our vulnerability to those who abuse the “reverence” with which we are supposed to respond to their indulgences. We can continue to respect the good intentions of those who persist in professing belief in God, but we’ll be doing them a favor if we stop pretending that we respect the arguments they use to sustain these fantasies.

Sam Harris’ sarcastic response is worth reading. But the best response comes from Steven Pinker. At the risk of quoting too much, below is an excerpt:

Knowledge is a continuous fabric, in which ideas are connected to other ideas. Reason-free zones, in which people can assert arbitrary beliefs safe from ordinary standards of evaluation, can only corrupt this fabric, just as a contradiction can corrupt a system of logic, allowing falsehoods to proliferate through it.

Science can not be walled off from other forms of belief. That includes meaning and morality – reason connects them all. […] Just as coherent biological reasoning cannot proceed under the assumption that God can step in at any moment and push the molecules around, coherent moral reasoning cannot proceed under the assumption that the universe unfolds according a divine merciful plan, that humans have a free will that is independent of their neurobiology, or that people can behave morally only if they fear divine retribution in an afterlife.

Reason is non-negotiable. Try to argue against it, or to exclude it from some realm of knowledge, and you’ve already lost the argument, because you’re using reason to make your case. And no, this isn’t having “faith” in reason (in the same way that some people have faith in miracles), because we don’t “believe” in reason; we use reason.

I think Pinker is absolutely right that the rigorous standards of logic and evidence should be applied to the claims of religion and its attempts to reconcile with science. There’s no reason why the validity of religion should not be tested against the standards of reason.

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