Can Natural Selection Explain Our Advanced Cognitive Abilities?

Yesterday, I was listening to a recent episode of The Atheist Experience, and it brought up an interesting topic. Russell Glasser was hosting, and he was joined by Neil Carter from Godless in Dixie. A little over halfway through, they had a theist named David call in who wanted to contrast theistic evolution with evolution by natural selection. The segment starts here, if you’re interested in checking it out.

David’s argument begins like this [Note: some of these are direct quotes — some are just synopses]:

Do you agree that we are the product of natural selection alone?

Of course, Russell and Neil pointed out that the word “alone” there is problematic, since it sounds like a setup. Also, evolution is primarily driven by natural selection, but it still relies on mutations, heredity, and other factors. David was fine with modifying the statement. He continued:

Do you agree that natural selection favors traits which aid in survival and reproduction?

Yes, that’s a pretty good way of stating it.

Does natural selection favor philosophical insight, scientific acumen, or mathematical skills?

Here, David didn’t immediately give them a chance to answer. He continued by saying that he doesn’t think natural selection favors those higher forms of thinking or that it favors true beliefs about cosmology, neurology, trigonometry, etc.

I disagree with him on this premise, but before I dig into it further, let me present the rest of his case:

If they’re not favored by natural selection, then can we trust them to be selected for?

By natural selection, there’s no guarantee that we’d have true beliefs about reality.

Therefore, no belief that goes beyond finding mates and hunting down food can be reliable. However, theistic evolution doesn’t have the same problem, because in that scenario, our reason is given to us by God.

Russell and Neil talked to David for quite a while, but they mostly went into a different direction than where my thoughts took me. It seems to me that one of the things David is saying is complex thought and philosophical pondering have no direct benefit to an individual’s survival. Therefore, the fact that we have those traits indicates that something beyond mere natural selection is at work.

I think that’s wrong. Higher cognitive abilities have definitely helped our survival. Pattern recognition has helped us predict events far better than most other animals. It helped us develop various tools. The development of language has helped us build societies that are mutually beneficial, and it has helped us pass along knowledge in ways that allow later generations to build on the progress of earlier ones. Perhaps philosophical thought and the ability to do advanced mathematics don’t seem as relevant to tribes living on the savanna, but I think those kinds of abilities came packaged with the ones that led to tool development and language creation.

It reminds me of the principle of pleiotropy, which is when (in biology) one gene can affect several different traits. For example, in the Russian fox experiment, foxes were selectively bred for tameness. But over the generations, not only did the foxes get tamer, they also developed other traits that were more dog-like. Many of them developed curved tails, spotted coats, a different mating cycle, and a different call. Again, the only selection criteria was tameness. These other traits simply came along for the ride. In the same way, the natural forces that selected for intelligence in our species gave us abilities that could one day be used far beyond the hunter-gatherer requirements that we were initially faced with. And since these skills were given to us by natural selection, there’s no reason to doubt their effectiveness. We can still make mistakes, of course, but in combining our intelligence with the scientific method, we’ve shown that we can accomplish quite a lot. To me, this makes David’s entire argument specious.


24 thoughts on “Can Natural Selection Explain Our Advanced Cognitive Abilities?”

  1. I’m kind of surprised David just didn’t go with the more obvious “If we came from monkeys, why are there still monkeys” challenge to EVILution. His position reminds me of the saying, “If God intended us to fly, he would have given us wings.” Evolution can’t explain the computer I’m typing on, therefore God.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Yeah, the whole “monkeys are still around” thing does get old. David was interesting — he accepted evolution; he just believed it was guided by God. His overall argument actually bordered on presuppositionalism, since he was arguing that any ideas we have can’t be considered reliable if there’s no God. I hate arguments like that. And not because they’re compelling — it’s actually the opposite.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Spot on Nate. It is a very strange notion of ‘mind’ to partition our faculties the way David did. You could also flip this around and approach from the other perspective – if our cognitive faculties are designed by some omnipotent agent who wishes us to have advanced intelligence, then why are we so limited? Why can we hold about seven things in short term memory? Why can’t we perform complex mathematical calculations as quickly as a computer? Why are we vulnerable to misinterpretation and sensory illusions? Seems to me that this converse argument is even more forceful than David’s argument and this will become more and more evident as our limitations are contrasted to the capabilities which arise in artificial intelligence. David seems to start with an assumption that we are essentially the pinnacle of intelligence, but it may be that we are relative pond scum compared to what is truly possible.

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  4. I’ll also note that neuroscience is pointing toward our brain having generalized faculties which combine to give us the power for specialized tasks, rather than the type of modular functionality that David supposes. Some portions of the brain are heavily involved and tightly coupled with particular functions but most tasks rely on many different areas of the brain and regions are often re-used for very different things. Check out Ep 124 of the Brain Science Podcast for a good discussion of this.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thanks for the great comments, Travis. You make an excellent point about our limitations. And I’ll check out that podcast link. I listened to the one you posted about the resurrection from “Unbelievable” and thought it was really good.


  6. theistic evolution” – So that’s what they’re calling it – it would appear that some theists have finally accepted evolution as a reality, but now seek a way to spin it so that their god did it. Pathetic.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. It seems to me that one of the things David is saying is complex thought and philosophical pondering have no direct benefit to an individual’s survival. Therefore, the fact that we have those traits indicates that something beyond mere natural selection is at work.

    Yes, that seems to be the argument. It is his version of Plantinga’s EAAN (evolutionary argument against naturalism).

    But maybe there wasn’t selection for complex thought. Instead, there was selection for cooperative behavior in a large community. And cooperative behavior is complex, so the ability to engage in complex thought is really a side effect of the evolution of social behavior.

    Liked by 5 people

  8. You say, in the Russian Fox experiment that the foxes were selected for “tameness” which is a criterion but unlikely to have a gene dedicated to it. What is looks like is that tameness was generated by encouraging juvenile behavior, which definitely does have a genetic foundation.

    So, I don’t think this example proves your point (“… the principle of pleiotropy, which is when (in biology) one gene can affect several different traits.”) it seems an example of one trait can be created by several different genes, which is the reverse.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I’d go a step further, running with something Russell Glasser said in the video. Russell says something along the lines of most species not developing intelligence and philosophical insight, and so evolution does not favour that trait/those traits especially. However, I would argue that intelligence is our niche; it defines our ecology, our ecological function and our niche.
    If you take Gause’s exclusionary principle seriously, the idea that a species is defined by occupying a niche and utilising certain resources, then evolution cannot favour philosophical insight in another species; it would compete with us and one species would end up being excluded from the niche altogether.
    If you’re unsure about intelligence essentially being our niche, consider trying to define human ecology. All my resources are delivered through an infrastructure that was built. My ecology is not defined by energy and water flows and an ecosystem, it is defined by schematics and logistics.

    There is an argument that what has been favoured in human evolution is not base-level mate-finding and prey-hunting, but a cognitive simulator. Low-level simulation exists in a lot of species, it has to to account for delays in sense-input. And the mistakes that happen at that low-level still exist in the human mind. But the basic process may have allowed us to start developing agriculture, by pattern recognition in nomadic tribes. The evolutionary benefits of simulation and creativity abound; look at the population it has managed to support.
    So long as a genetic basis for creativity or simulation exist at a level, I think such a mechanism of explanation is plausible.

    Liked by 3 people

  10. Great post, Nate, and comments, too. Neil’s and Travis’ comments reminded me of an article I read that included a discussion about misapplied cognitive functions. It’s a lengthy article, so I’ll quote a short excerpt from part of the section related to some side-effects of evolution:

    3.1. Misapplied Cognitive Functions

    “Our enjoyment of music is the result of a side-effect of our complicated auditory systems in the brain and a lot of other behaviours are of a similar ilk: an over-stimulation or a misuse of a built-in system. Figurative art is another area Boyer uses as an example of our embrace of artificial stimulation of parts of our brain (object and face recognition, etc). These parts of the brain would normally have a purely practical function.”

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  11. This is what I like about my blog: the commenters often know more than I do. 🙂

    Steve, thanks for the correction!

    Allallt — great comment! I completely agree with you about intelligence being our niche.

    NeuroNotes — thanks for the praise, and thanks for the article reference, too! Very interesting…

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I think there is a logical fallacy proceeding from ‘evolution didn’t specifically select for philosophy, etc,’ to ‘philosophy, etc. couldn’t have come via evolution’. Quite a jump made there. Lessing might have had trouble with that leap also.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. David is saying is complex thought and philosophical pondering have no direct benefit to an individual’s survival.

    Nor does music. Such things arose as we acquired more and more free time, time to think and play and, importantly, enjoy.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. I came across Plantinga’s EAAN while deconverting and my reaction was the same as yours. Proponents of this take a huge leap by claiming no survival advantage. Seems like another example of creationists starting with their conclusion, and then coming up with an argument that makes them feel better and mistaking that for a convincing argument.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. This point jumped out at me too. The idea that “we didn’t evolve for philosophy” so it must have come from a god is just nonsense.

    We didn’t evolve to play baseball, we evolved to be really good at throwing things.
    We didn’t evolve to run marathons, we evolved to chase prey animals for long distances.
    We didn’t evolve to do math, we evolved to track complex seasonal patterns of animal migrations and plant growing seasons.
    And most particularly we evolved the cognitive ability to figure new things out, which is what allowed us to survive in each new environment we encountered as we spread over the globe.

    In each case, we’ve figured out new uses for the capabilities we had evolved for some other purpose. So natural selection most certainly does favor “…philosophical insight, scientific acumen, or mathematical skills,” in a way, because it has favored the evolution of the kind of brain that also was capable of those things.

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  16. Nice post, Nate. Darwin himself was the first to recognize how evolution by natural selection threatens to undermine the truthfullness human cognitive abilities, but the apologist that phoned in was likely referencing Alvin Plantinga’s more detailed argument. As you pointed out, this line of argument fails to consider the other evolutionary forces, primarily random mutation. Why are things the way they are? Well, we basically randomly developed truth-representing cognitive abilities because this was bound to happen in an infinite multiverse.


  17. Maybe primitive intelligence was favored by natural selection, and maybe higher cognitive skills like advanced math and what have you aren’t so much.

    And by that I don’t mean to minimized fire building, tool making or pattern recognition, but just mean to separate certain intelligent functions from Einstein-like thoughts and abilities.

    Maybe the primitive skills led to civilization, agriculture and ranchers, which led to wealth, which led to free time – time for the higher cognitive skills to be exercised. And in those “artificial” set ups (where we have free time opposed to a continual quest for food and sex) that the higher skills became more valuable because they led to more surplus of food, water, other needs and wants, as well as more free time.

    But then I guess maybe we could say that’s still natural selection, as it’s led to medical advances, which means more babies and mothers survive child birth, and that people live longer and are able to reproduce longer.

    I like Allallt’s point. And if the idea that our niche is intelligence, that we strive for answers, then maybe God is just a result of that – not that we’re programmed to seek a god, but that we’re programmed to seek answers and god is an easy catch all answer. Religion comes when we try to make sense of that answer. Non-religion is what comes when we try to make sense of religion.


  18. If his argument is that natural selection can’t account for higher-order thinking, then isn’t the widespread belief in religion a validation of natural selection? If being smart were more important than finding food and a mate, then we would have abandoned religion long ago. The fact that we haven’t doesn’t prove there is a god; it merely shows that you can find food and a mate without having a completely accurate understanding of reality.

    Liked by 2 people

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