The Neo-Fredwinian Synthesis
by Fred Reed: Smiting
will bore most people to the point of throwing themselves from a
high bridge. I can't help it. The Devil made me do it..
of evolution does not stand alone. It is part of a vast synthesis
which fits all of existence into a coherent whole:The Big Bang,
the formation of stars and planets, the chance appearance of life
in primeval seas, the evolution of that life, the Pyramids, Space
Shuttle, and Renoir. It is an imposing intellectual edifice, mechanistic,
easily comprehended, self-assured, with only the details to be worked
out. Or so we are told.
of everything under one theoretical roof appeals powerfully to minds
that need an overarching explanation of everything. The great intellectual
divide perhaps is not between those who believe one thing and those
who believe another, but between those who need to believe something
I am tempted to say believe almost anything and those
who are comfortable with uncertainty and even the unknowable. Adherents
of Christianity, atheism, scientism (as distinct from science) and
classical evolutionism fall into the first category; the agnosticof
every sort, into the second. Unshakable belief seems to alleviate
unease with the unfathomed, the anxiety that naturally comes of
not knowing where we came from, or why, or whither.
In the following,
unfairly but conveniently, I use scientist to mean the
sort who needs to think that all of existence is understandable,
if perhaps not yet understood. The distinction between understandable
and understood is crucial. The scientist (again, of
the sort I speak of) regards existence as one might regard a difficult
and unfinished crossword puzzle. The puzzle may be challenging.
The solver may have struggled for days to find a seven-letter word
meaning ancient Sumerian perfume bottle. But he knows
that the puzzle can be solved, that there is an answer, and he understands
the rules of crossword puzzles. The scientist sees the universe
as he would see the puzzle. It is only a matter of time, he thinks,
until everything is understood.
This is very
different from seeing the world as profoundly mysterious, as in
many ways being beyond our understanding, as containing questions
that have no answers.
And so he sees
everything as mechanical, as physics. The Big Bang, if any, was
a monumental eruption following the laws fitting the
descriptions of might be a better phrase of physics.
Chemistry, a subset of physics dealing with the interactions of
atoms, next came into play and then, with the advent of life, biochemistry,
a subset of chemistry dealing with reactions in living things. Evolution,
the study of the interactions over genertions of those physical
systems we call life with each other and their physical environment,
is thus itself a subset of physics. According to this view, nothing
happens, or can happen, that does not accord with physics.
mechanistic and deterministic, works well as long as the observer
is not taken into account. Astrophysics predicts with near exactitude
the motions of planets. Solid-state physics describes accurately
the behavior of electrons in microcircuits. In textbooks of biochemistry
one reads of stereochemistry and charged groups and catalysis and
so on that in fact describe what happens. It all works.
arise when you take the observer the scientist, you, me
into consideration. The obvious first problem is that of consciousness.
Your brain is a complex structure undergoing complex reactions,
but all of these reactions follow the laws of physics. Yet nonetheless
you are conscious. Is this something outside of physics? If so,
then we have the sciences on one hand, and Something Else on the
other, and the question becomes how they interact. Or is consciousness
a physical variable, like gravitation? If I give you a large injection
of Demerol, you will lose consciousness, and the biochemical mechanism
can be given but that doesn't explain what consciousness
is the vexed question of volition. The end points of physical systems
are determined by the starting conditions: The final positions of
balls on a pool table depend entirely on the initial velocity of
the cue ball, elasticity, coefficient of friction, and so on. The
same determinism applies to chemistry: mix identical quantities
of identical chemicals under identical conditions, and you get statistically
identical results. If this weren't true, chemical engineers would
be in a helluva fix.
So how can
you choose to do one thing instead of another? Why is your decision
not completely determined by the starting configuration of your
brain? This is certainly true of computers which, given the same
program and the same inputs, will always produce the same results.
espouse the mechanistic and deterministic view, though more as metaphysics
than science. Selective pressures, plausible though not measurable,
defined, or confirmed, push evolution in certain directions. Much
of it is wonderfully questionable, but we will pass over this. The
evolutionist, again meaning the sort for whom evolution must explain
all human behavior, falls into difficulties when he considers humanity.
For the evolutionist, everything must be explained in terms of maximizing
the production of offspring so that, for example, honesty serves
to promote cohesion in hunting bands, making them more efficient
and therefore having more children. Right and wrong do not exist,
nor Good and Evil, as these have no meaning within evolutionism
unless they can be tied to fecundity.
the evolutionist into logical swamps. I have asked such people why
I should not make a hobby of torturing to death the genetically
feeble-minded. In evolutionary terms, killing them is a good idea,
as it reduces the diversion of resources in maintaining them and
raises the average intelligence of the group.
How they are
killed has no evolutionary importance, and in any event executing
them with a blowtorch would consist merely in substituting certain
chemical reactions for others: Pain has no existence in physics.
Of course if
I actually did such a thing, the evangelists of scientism would
be horrified. They are not immoral. They just can't explain why
they are not.
The other place
where evolutionism breaks down is in human reproduction. All through
evolutionism runs the idea of maximizing reproduction. Women have
big breasts to attract men so that they can make more babies. Men
are big and strong so that they can get the women and make more
or better babies. People cooperate in bands so they can stay alive
and make more babies. On and on.
Yet now we
have whole societies which by choice are not having babies. Japan,
Italy, Spain, Russia, Germany and so on are breeding at below replacement.
In Mexico the birth rate falls like a rock, even though nutrition
has improved and health is better. The drop is easily explained
in human terms. Why do you, the reader, not want fifteen children?
The same answers apply in Mexico. Interestingly, the drop in procreation
is steepest among the most intelligent , educated,and wealthy
that is, among those most able to support large families. There
is no evolutionary explanation. When I ask, I encounter silence
or vague mumblings about how there must be some mutation or, well,
are true believers. You cannot re-program a door knob.
See also Fred
is author of Nekkid
in Austin: Drop Your Inner Child Down a Well and A
Brass Pole in Bangkok: A Thing I Aspire to Be. His latest
book is Curmudgeing
Through Paradise: Reports from a Fractal Dung Beetle. Visit
© 2011 Fred Reed
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