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.