Human Creativity Considered Critically

Human Creativity Considered Critically

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In May of this year Billy Grassie published a three-part series on the subject of “Human Creativity: Expanding Complexity and Evolutionary Discontinuities.”  He gave a version of this paper at the beginning of June of this year at a Templeton-sponsored workshop at Haverford College in Philadelphia, and by his invitation I was the respondent.   Again, at Billy’s invitation I have prepared a written response to the paper on human creativity and it is this which follows.  I believe strongly that we best advance our thinking by expressing our differences as strongly and sharply as we can, and it is in this spirit that I have written my response.  I would not have bothered to write a reply had I not thought that Billy’s ideas were interesting and worth criticizing, and it is very much my hope that he now will be spurred to response.

I see three main points in Billy Grassie’s discussion of human creativity, and I will deal with them in turn.   The first is a general criticism of Darwinian evolutionary theory, and an embracing of what Billy calls “Post-Darwinism.”   The second is an extension of the biological to the human, with a strong emphasis on the way in which human thought and culture transcends Darwinian biological theory.   Here Billy seems most comfortable with a form of cultural Lamarckism, that is to say the inheritance of acquired characteristics.   Third, and finally, there is some relating of these ideas to religion, and in particular Billy states strongly that as a believing and practicing Christian he thinks that Darwinism relates inadequately to Christianity, and for this reason a post-Darwinism is to be preferred.  I will not document these claims as one might in a scholarly paper, but they are there for all to see, and I stress critical though I may be I am very keen not to distort Billy Grassie’s position.

Let us start with the whole question of Darwinism and post-Darwinism.   As I see it, Darwinian evolutionary theory is the theory which stems from Charles Darwin’s theory of the Origin of Species first published in 1859.   Darwin stressed the mechanism of natural selection, that is to say a differential reproduction brought about by limited food and space, and the essence of Darwinism is that evolutionary change leads to adaptation.   Today’s Darwinism, of course, is not just Darwin’s Darwinism: most particularly we have had the coming of Mendelian and then molecular genetics.   So if one were inclined one might speak today of neo-Darwinism, but I will just use the generic name without prefix.

I myself would argue that this theory is an adequate theory to explain the living world, and that more than that it is an ongoing productive research programme, to use the terminology of the late Imre Lakatos.  The past fifty years have seen wonderful triumphs of Darwinian evolutionary theory, most particularly in the areas of social behaviour.   We had the magnificent discoveries of the late William Hamilton on hymenopteran sociality, and since then much related and more advanced work.   It is my claim categorically that the Darwinian paradigm is that which is endorsed and embraced by virtually all working evolutionists.   If you think I am wrong about this, then go and look at the major journals in the field: Evolution, American Naturalist, and others.   The fact is that professional evolutionists are Darwinians.

Now what about post-Darwinism?   It seems to me that there are two classes of facts which are potentially pertinent.   First of all, there are those facts or theories or pieces of information that have come to light over the past hundred years or more, about which Darwin was completely ignorant.  Most obviously there was genetics, which now has been incorporated into Darwinian theory, fleshing out areas where Darwin was ignorant and often downright mistaken.   But new information is constantly coming up, and perhaps most excitingly and interestingly recently is the realization that the tree of life is perhaps an inappropriate metaphor and we would do better to think of a lattice or net.   We now know that genes can be transferred from one phylum into another by viruses, and that presumably this can have quite a significant effect on evolutionary change.

Although Billy would say that this all calls for a post-Darwinian approach, I think that it would be a mistake to think of this as a challenge to Darwinism.  Rather this is a new piece of information about which Darwinism was silent, and at most it leads to an extension or augmentation of Darwinism.  My position on this is very much like my position on the Big Bang Theory or on Plate tectonics.   Darwinism had nothing to say about these but certainly in the case of Plate tectonics there has been a significant effect on thinking on the subject of biogeography.   But I do not see this as in any sense a refutation of classical Darwinism — rather a revision and an extension.   My attitude and I think this is an attitude which is shared by practicing evolutionists is that there are going to be all sorts of exciting finds, like the transfer of genes across phyla, and that these are far from being in any sense a threat to Darwinism. They are rather a celebration of what we have, and hope for what we may find in the future.  There is no need here to talk in terms of post-Darwinism or anything like that.

Then secondly there is potentially a set of facts, and here I think Billy and I would disagree, where in some way traditional Darwinism is either going to be refuted or pushed aside.   The sorts of things one would have in mind here would be saltations, that is to say major jumps in one generation from one form to another.  Traditionally, Darwinism rules this out pretty much entirely.    Another item where I suspect Billy would think we have call for a post-Darwinism is with respect to such things as “self organization.”   The idea here being that perhaps complexity and even adaptation can come about through the natural unfurling of inorganic materials, and there is no need to call for natural selection.  And it is surely true that, if indeed this kind of self organization were significant, then natural selection would be much diminished.  We would indeed have the need for a revision which might probably be called post-Darwinism.

Simply put, countering Billy, I am not convinced there is evidence for saltations of a traditional kind.   It is true that in botany one gets certain leaps, but this has certainly been known and accepted by Darwinians for many years.   G.L. Stebbins for instance, one of the architects of the synthetic theory, discussed them extensively.   But traditional macro-mutations — fox into dog, for instance — simply do not exist, and there is no need to worry further about them.   As far as self organization is concerned, all I can say is that I am still waiting.   When people like Stuart Kaufman can actually show that self-organization is a real phenomenon, and that it is widespread and significant I will start to take it into account.   Until that time, however, I will rest with traditional Darwinism and go about my business.   I am quite frankly not holding my breath.

There are of course many other attempts to put forward some kind of post-Darwinism. Stephen Jay Gould, for instance, proposed his theory of punctuated equilibria, but here again quite honestly one is less than overwhelmed.   Today, my suspicion is that the opinion of most evolutionists is that Gould’s ideas are both good and original. “Regretfully,” as the master said about the schoolboy’s paper, “those ideas which are good are not particularly original and those ideas which are original are not particularly good.”   The fact is that Gould’s theory of punctuated equilibria belongs with all the other exhausted evolutionary theories like Lamarckism, orthogenesis, and the like.  There is simply no place for them in modern science. Darwinism rules triumphant.   (I discuss Gould’s theory and its non-impact on the evolutionary community in my Mystery of Mysteries: Is Evolution a Social Construction?)

This is not to say that Darwinism will not evolve or ever be changed.  I have already admitted that.   But it is to say that there simply is no need or place for some kind of paradigm shift, leading away from Darwinism to post-Darwinism or whatever you want to call it.  Darwinism is the way that modern science is today.

Let us move on now to the second point about culture, and Lamarckism.   Of course, in a sense, Billy is quite right.   There is something distinctive about culture.   We can pass on ideas without having to go through the genes, and culture changes much more rapidly than does biological evolution.   More than this, culture in some sense is surely directed in a way that biological evolution is not, or at least is only apparently so.   For instance, if one wants a new idea or new product or something, we can set about in a teleological fashion towards its discovery, and usually we are successful.   We do not at the moment have a cure for cancer, but I suspect that we all think that within a hundred years or so such a cure will be forthcoming.    This is just not the way of biological evolution.

However this much said, I believe it is a bad mistake to think that humans are just creatures apart and that at some level we have escaped our biological nature.   If anything the contrary is the case, and the more we know about biology the more that we see that although culture is distinctive it is something with its roots firmly in the biological world.  The past twenty-five years have seen a veritable growth industry in what is known traditionally as “human sociobiology,” although today it often goes under less provocative terms like “human behavioural ecology” or “evolutionary psychology.” What we now know is that much that we think and do is not so very distinctive at all, but is the product of characteristics which came about by natural selection working on random variation.   One area which could be discussed at length is that of language, but I will leave people to go and look at the works of the evolutionary psychologists on this.   I strongly recommend the writings of Steven Pinker.  Provocative though he may be, he certainly shows in a convincing fashion that the ways in which we think and speak are very much a product of natural selection rather than any other mechanism.

However, the example I would like to give (and this was an example that I gave at Haverford, so I want to stress that I am not changing my position at all) is that of the work of the Canadian psychologists Martin Daly and Margo Wilson.   They have looked in some detail at problems to do with homicide, and certainly at the one level they find that homicide is a cultural phenomenon.   For instance, in America homicide is at least five times if not significantly more common than in Canada, the country just to the North.  And if you look at some of the major cities (like Detroit in Michigan, and Hamilton just two hundred miles to the East in Ontario), one finds even more striking differences.   We know that this is a matter of culture, and to a great extent is simply a function of the fact that Americans have much more ready access to guns than do Canadians.   There are historical reasons for this, not the least of which is the way in which the American constitution is written.

However, once the culture is spoken of what Daly and Wilsonshow is that homicide is very much a function of biology.   One would expect for biological reasons that the most violent would be the young, and particularly young men who are on the outer sphere of society; that is to say those who have least to lose.   In fact, the findings strongly confirm this both in Canada and in America.   But more interesting than this even are the homicides rates within families, where most violence occurs.   Daly and Wilson were particularly interested in the fact that there is an ongoing problem of murderous violence within the family, particularly of parents killing children.   From a biological point of view, that is from a Darwinian point of view, this simply should not happen.   The way to reproduce is not by killing your children.

However, what Daly and Wilson hypothesized is that there is one case where one might expect to find such violence, namely from males towards children; particularly when the males, although they may be the social parents of the children, are not the biological parents.   It is a well-known phenomenon in the animal world that, when the males move in on a female, the first thing they do is kill off the offspring of other males.  And if the female is pregnant, they bring on an abortion.   There are good biological reasons for doing this, namely the female is then receptive to their own genes, and willing or at least prepared to raise the new male’s offspring. Such violence is clearly understandable from a Darwinian perspective. Daly and Wilson suspected that a similar case might obtain in the instance of humans.   They therefore hypothesized that one would expect to find that cases of homicide within the family, where a parent kills a child, are going to involve males being the killers, and more usually than not these males are going to be step-parents or people in a similar role.

What is really interesting is that when Daly and Wilson went to check out their hypothesis they found that there were no statistics being kept!   They wanted to compare Detroit with Hamilton, and yet they found that in neither city did the responsible authorities keep statistics, separating out biological parents from social parents.  In fact there was some considerable prejudice and pressure against doing this, because it was thought to be unfair to step-fathers and the like.   When, however, Daly and Wilson insisted that such statistics be kept, an absolutely fascinating asymmetry emerged.   It turns out indeed that (in both Detroit and Hamilton) step-parents are more than one hundred times more likely to kill children than are biological parents.   If this is not a strong confirmation of Darwinian evolutionary theory as applied to humans in culture, I simply do not know what is.

Of course “one swallow does not make a summer” (as Aristotle said), but this is but the tip of a very large iceberg today.   More and more we are finding — or rather evolutionary biologists are finding — that Darwinian evolutionary theory applies to humans, not just physically, but also to humans in culture.   I believe that when people like Billy Grassie spend their time emphasizing the non-Darwinian nature of humankind, they do themselves and the world a grave disservice.   The important place to start is with the fact that Darwinian evolutionary theory applies to humans no less than it does to fruit flies.   Unless this point is grasped, progress forward in understanding will be sadly diminished if not blocked.

I come now to the third point of Billy’s position, namely that in some sense Darwinism is not very friendly towards religion, and hence if one is a religious person one has a pressure to look elsewhere.   Of course, and I am sure Billy would agree with me here, the fact that one has religious reasons for looking for a different theory cannot in itself be definitive.  It may be indeed be very uncomfortable for one to know certain facts, for instance that the earth is not the centre of the universe, but no one today would reject Copernican theory simply because it causes more problems for the religious believer than does Ptolemy’s geocentric theory. However, I can certainly understand that if one is a Christian then one might well have reasons for looking elsewhere even if one eventually ends up disappointed.

What I would argue however is that there really is no reason to look elsewhere.   I can see very strong reasons why people might think that they should look elsewhere.   That is to say, why as Christians they think they should look for non-Darwinian theories. In recent years, a number of prominent Darwinians have argued very strongly that Darwinism is antithetical (if not outrightly hostile) to Christianity.  One only has to look at the writings of Richard Dawkins to see this, and Dawkins (a biologist) is backed strongly by Dan Dennett (a philosopher), not to mention William Provine (a historian of biology).   All of these men as well as others (including interestingly all of the anti-evolutionary Creationists like Phillip Johnson), want to put strong barriers between Christianity and Darwinian theory.   However, what I would suggest is that, although this is the reason why people feel threatened, it is in itself no reason to draw definitive conclusions immediately.   My position (one which I defend strongly in my forthcoming book Can a Darwinian be a Christian? The Relationship Between Science and Religion) is that in fact if anything traditional Darwinism is very empathetic or welcoming towards Christianity.  Although, I would want to say that the Christianity which traditional Darwinism welcomes is traditional Christianity.  It welcomes the Christianity of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, not to mention the great Protestant reformers, rather than the liberal modernism which passes for Christianity with so many today.

Interestingly, this connection between Darwinism and traditional Christianity is not a new phenomenon.   Scholars have long reported that, at the end of the nineteenth century, almost all modern Churchman were embracing evolutionary theory, but it tended to be the more conservative Churchman who felt most comfortable with literal Darwinism.  The more liberal Churchman were those who looked for post- or non- or quasi-Darwinian positions, usually some kind of evolutionism based on the ideas of Herbert Spencer.

But history in itself, although supportive, is ultimately no guide.   What I would argue (and indeed have argued in my forthcoming book) is that when one turns to look at the traditional problems of Christianity, one finds that often they are very much in tune with the way that a Darwinian thinks.  At least, satisfactory solutions are very much in tune with what a Darwinian thinks.  I cannot go into all the details here, but let me just mention one particular problem, the biggest problem of all for religious belief: the theodicy problem.  Why is it that a good God, who is all powerful, allows evil?   One of the traditional and I think most convincing solutions is that evil comes about because of the way that things are, given natural law.  It has never been part of the Christian claim that God’s omnipotence allows Him to do everything.   God cannot make two plus two equal five, and the traditional Christian would argue that if the laws of nature are such that they lead to pain necessarily then this is no limitation on God’s powers.

But in fact what traditional Darwinism argues, what Richard Dawkins particularly argues most strongly, is that the only way in which one can get design-like nature of the world — the adapted Darwinian nature of organisms including humans — is through natural selection brought on by a struggle for existence.   In other words, what Richard Dawkins himself argues is that if the world is to be created through law, then pain and suffering come as part of the price.   If this is not something which is supportive of a Christian position, then I simply do not know what is.

There are many other issues which ought to be dealt with by someone looking at the relationship between science and religion. For instance, there are issues to do with the immortal soul, with freedom and determinism, with morality, and the like.   But here also my strong conviction is that Darwinian theory has much to say of a positive nature, rather than simply as an acid dissolving all before it (to use the metaphor employed by Dan Dennett in his well-known book, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea).   In short, my position is that all three points that Billy Grassie wants to emphasize — the need for post-Darwinism, the special nature of humankind, particularly humankind in culture, and the uncomfortable relationship between Darwinism and Christianity — prove on closer examination to lead one away from Billy’s position rather than towards it.

I say this in a positive sense rather than in a tone of negativity.   I think that one can get all that Billy and his fellow believers want without compromising good science.   Here I think I stand in the tradition of the great Church theologians from Augustine on, and in conclusion I would invite readers of Meta to join with me in celebrating Galileo’s aphorism that truth cannot be opposed to truth.   The truth of Darwinian science, as we know it, cannot be opposed to the truth of religion, as we know it.