Human Creativity Revisited

Human Creativity Revisited

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I am grateful to Michael Ruse for his thoughtful response to my essays on “Human Creativity: Accelerating Complexity and Evolutionary Discontinuity” and also for his more colorful criticism at the recent Haverford Conference on “Gentices, Bioethics, and Religion.”  Ruse summarizes and criticizes my argument in three points.  I shall respond in four.

First, Ruse suggests that my advocacy of Post-Darwinism is bad science.  Darwinism was great science in 1859, when it illuminated a possible causal mechanism that might account for observed patterns in nature.  The observed patterns suggested common descent of species; Darwin gave a plausible mechanism as to how this might occur.  In Darwin’s theory, inherited variations and differential reproduction led to divergent adaptations and eventually speciation.  Darwinism was an extremely fruitful research program, which when combined with the new sciences of genetics, provided many important insights into natural processes.  The only question seems to be whether to use the attribute “Neo-Darwinism” or “Post-Darwinism”.  I prefer that latter in order to acknowledge that the quality and quantity of new information available to contemporary biology dwarfs the giant on whose shoulders we also stand.

In his rebuttal, Ruse acknowledges that Darwin and his original theory are “completely ignorant” to the voluminous discoveries of biology in the last 150 years.  Ruse writes “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.”

The example noted by Ruse is one that I would use to argue my larger point.  This kind of leap of information between species, a kind of saltation across lines of descent, undermines the fundamental Darwinian paradigm – variation, competition, survival, reproduction. Without clear lines of descent, there is no simple sense in which the traditional Darwinist paradigm can function.  A latticed and networked view of evolution is not fundamentally compatible with natural selectionism.  This is also why theories of group and multi-level selection are so controversial, because they also tend to undermine the theoretical simplicity and elegance of the Darwinian paradigm.  Post-Darwinism argues that not only the “tree of life” but also the theoretical understanding of it should better be viewed as a network of context specific situations and causal influences.

None of this is to argue against evolution per se, nor to denigrate the importance of Darwin and Darwinism in advancing the biological sciences.  As I took pains to note, the fact of evolution, an observed pattern in the biological history of the planet, needs to be separated from the theories of biology uses to account for this evolution.  Far from undermining a theory of evolution, molecular biology and genetics only lend more credence to some kind of theory of common descent.  The microscopic mechanisms of life, however, seem to care little for Darwin’s theory or the contemporary defenders of the Darwinian faith.

When I read my biology textbook (Life: The Science of Biology, William K. Purves, et. al., W.H. Freeman, 1998), the theory of natural selection is merely a supporting actor for the new stories of cell biology, biochemistry, genetics, and developmental biology.  For instance, in the complex biochemical explanations of the Citric Acid Cycle or the Calvin-Benson Cycle in cells, there is no mention of natural selection.  Rather these narratives, like most of this voluminous textbook, are really new languages about life.  The folding of complex proteins and the developmental pathways of the genomic expression are frankly much larger mysteries, than mere natural selectionism can fathom.  Far from being a linear system of causation, the genome is a complex bureaucracy with a mind of its own.  What is important to note though is that these new languages of life are about hypercomplex chemical possibilities and necessities. Adaptationism and selectionism are hardly necessary in the technical language of biochemistry.  Pharmaceutical companies do not staff research departments on Darwinism.  If I were to weigh my introductory biology text, perhaps one third would come out as Darwinism and two-thirds would be something else.  The quantity of new vocabulary and “grammar” encountered on each page of my biology textbook makes my years learning German, Russian, Hebrew, Arabic and Spanish seem easy by comparison.

My plea here, as in my original essays, is for a new theoretical pluralism about evolution.  We need a lot more self-critical agnosticism, when it comes to thinking we know how to interpret the Book of Life.  Curiously, Ruse is one of the great critics of other people throughout history who have turned Darwinism into a metaphysical and political ideology (see his book Monad to Man, 1996) but fails to apply the same criticism to his own position and that of contemporary sociobiology.  One might think that Ruse had never encountered a finding in biology, linguistic, psychology, sociology, neuroscience, that was not a result of Natural Selection.  He argues for a strong theory of natural selection.  I argue for a weak theory of natural selection, in which survival and reproduction are necessary, but hardly sufficient explanation for the hypercomplexity and hyperdiversity of life.

I am happy to call myself a Post-Freudian or a Post-Marxist, because I take what is useful from these great thinkers and leave the rest. I recognize their important roles in the history of our civilization and also their roles as fathers of the disciplines of psychology and sociology.  There are some orthodox Freudians and Marxists still around, but their voices are very small in contemporary intellectual discourse.  I predict that within ten years, strident Darwinism will be as embarrassing to biology as would be a strident Freudian or Marxist today in most academic departments.  Michael, it is time to move on and separate the fact of evolution from the theory of Darwinism.

There is no singular theory to replace Darwinism, except to say that we know life evolves, but we’re not really all that sure how.   In light of molecular and developmental biology, all bets are off.  We need to go back to the drawing board.  Perhaps some day there will be a new unifying theory for biology, but the hypercomplexity of and reiterative feedback loops within natural processes points to a potential stalemate for deterministic and reductionistic science. Ultimately, this is Ruse’s faith and ideology, one shared with many scientists to be sure.  He is committed to a view of nature operating within deterministic, isolatable units with distinct causal pathways. This faith in reductionistic models Whitehead called “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness.”

My second point dealt with the discontinuities between humans and the rest of life on the planet.  Ruse suggests that “it is a bad mistake to think that humans are just creatures apart and that at some level we have escaped our biological nature.”  As I tried to show in my essays with the example of water deprivation, this is a trivial point.  Of course, we are a part of nature and are constrained by natural processes.  This is hardly a new discovery.  The Darwinian framework tends to flatten the context specific differences between different species and members of the same species in different contexts (as in the cases of making strong normative arguments about human nature from studies of fruit flies or baboons).  In the case cited, Ruse makes hay about the higher murder rates of children killed by step-fathers versus natural-fathers, as evidence for the applicability of Darwinian concepts to the study of human behavior. Why not also talk about the vast majority of step-fathers who love and nurture their step-children, or for that matter, the natural-fathers, who act in ways that diminish the prospects of their genetic off-spring surviving.  What have we really learned from this application of Darwinian concepts to human culture except another just-so story.

It really is important to talk about human distinctiveness, especially within an evolutionary context.  As I emphasized in my essays, we are a Lamarkian wildcard in the epic of evolution.  Not since the invention of photosynthesis some 2 billion years ago has the planet seen such a significant development. Our ability to intentionally and unintentionally alter the future evolution of the planet is certainly something that makes us radically different from fruit flies or baboons.  Unfortunately, Ruse’s paradigm renders this new state of affairs invisible or unintelligible.  To be sure, sometimes humans really do act like animals or even insects, but we tend not to celebrate this as virtuous behavior or a defining characteristic of our species (of course, I am only speaking of animals and insects in a metaphorical sense and don’t really want to impute their species-specific characteristics by making this figurative analogy to bad qualities in humans).

Third, Ruse doesn’t seem to understand the theological point, which I tried to make in light of this discussion.  I am not really troubled with reconciling Darwinism and Christianity per se, though I certainly look forward to reading Ruse’s new book of the subject.  I think both Darwinism and Christianity have had some nasty historical manifestations, that there is a fuzzy causal connection between their respective ideologies and their tendencies to end up in genocide and pogroms.  In my science and theology, I want to help exorcise these evils from evolutionary theory and our sundry theologies.  I am happy with the strong Biblical prohibition against idolatry and a cloud of unknowing around God.  I am attracted to panentheism and process theology as promising constructive reinterpretations, perhaps recoveries, of tradition in light of science.  We can’t solve the problem of theodicy, but I’d rather discuss it within the framework of kenosis theology, rather than in the framework of an omnipotent, unmoved mover.  I am not much attracted to what could be called a Maoist view of God, who issues five-year plans, micro-manages our lives, and places posters of himself all over Creation.  Rather, I am attracted to a view of a God, who celebrates and suffers with us, who redeems our pain and loss, who supports a telos of goods and values, and who takes pleasure in the self-creative processes of this universe and we humans within it.

Ruse turns out to be a conservative Christian in his core commitments, albeit a conservative Christian in skeptical rebellion. He would much rather spar with evangelicals like Philip Johnson than work constructively with liberals like Philip Hefner.  Perhaps the theological labels, conservative and liberal, don’t really work anymore, but the point is well taken.  The task today is to reconstruct theology and tradition in light of the best natural philosophy of our time, which is exactly what Augustine and Aquinas did in their own time.  Ruse’s orthodox Darwinism is not really the best science anymore, so his theological project also fails.  Were that he was also existentially and authentically religious in his belief, then he might also have more credibility in constructing his Darwinian apologetics for the religious.

Ruse leaves us with Galileo’s aphorism that truth cannot oppose truth.  From the Rig Vedas, the oldest of the Hindu scriptures, I choose a different aphorism: the truth is one, but the wise call it by many names.  To mix metaphors and traditions, in our post-Babel world, God/Universe has seen fit that we should speak many languages. Modern science proliferates these languages, as we learn more from nature about the specific vocabularies and grammars of specific natural processes.  There is, however, no universal language of life, even though translation is always possible from one context into another.  Good science is altruistic fidelity to the phenomena, knowing that in the translation, something essential is also always lost.  Science, theology and philosophy are all subsumed by hermeneutics.

My fourth and final point is simply to reiterate the main thesis of my essays on “Human Creativity,” which has been neglected in Ruse’s critique (and also that of David Magnus from the Center for Bioethics given verbally at the Haverford Conference on “Genetics, Bioethics and Religion.”)  Humans have become an incredibly significant species in the present and future unfolding of the evolutionary epic.  This can be seen dramatically in population and consumption growth patterns over the last century.  This can also be seen dramatically in the trajectory of technological innovation over the last century and into the next.  Genetic engineering is merely an example of the larger problem of environmental engineering, though the latter is really the result of distributed, out of control, economic and cultural processes.  We are at a threshold in the natural history of our planet and the cultural evolution of our species.  Something novel, our human creativity, has arisen in the epic of evolution and we only dimly understand this novelty and how such novelty can be produced.  I call it a Lamarckian wild card in the epic of evolution. All bets are off.  Rather than focus on optimistic or pessimistic accounts of the present and future unfolding of evolution, we might better try to understand what all this hypercomplexity means, in the hope that there is a transcendent adaptation agenda to our being-longing-ness for a better future.

I am extremely grateful to Michael Ruse (and David Magnus) for their thoughtful rebuttals to my rambling reflections on human creativity, accelerating complexity and evolutionary discontinuity.  Perhaps we can continue this thread on Metanexus with other commentaries.