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Sunday, May 10, 2009

Philosopher Thomas Nagel disowning Darwinism

Speaking of Wallace, Darwin's co-theorist, about whom Michael Flannery has published a new book, Alfred Russel Wallace's Theory of Intelligent Evolution: How Wallace's World of Life Challenged Darwinism (Erasmus, 2009), philosopher Thomas Nagel reminds a friend of Wallace, in his skepticism of Darwinism in The View from Nowhere (1986). Echoing Darwin's contemporary, Alfred Russel Wallace, Nagel questions that the human intellect is explicable through Darwinian principles:
The question is whether not only the physical but the mental capacity needed to make a stone axe automatically brings with it the capacity to take each of the steps that have led from there to the construction of the hydrogen bomb, or whether an enormous excess mental capacity, not explainable by natural selection, was responsible for the generation and spread of the sequence of intellectual instruments that has emerged over the last thirty thousand years. This question is unforgettably posed by the stunning transformation of bone into spaceship in Stanley Kubrick's 2001.

I see no reason to believe that the truth lies in the first alternative. The only reason so many people believe it is that advanced intellectual capacities clearly exist, and this is the only available candidate for a Darwinian explanation of their existence. So it all rests on the assumption that every noteworthy characteristic of human beings, or of any other organism, must have a Darwinian explanation. But what is the reason to believe this? Even if natural selection explains all adaptive evolution, there may be developments in the history of species that are not specifically adaptive and can't be explained in terms of natural selection. Why not take the development of the human intellect as a probable counterexample to the law that natural selection explains everything, instead of forcing it under the law with improbable speculations unsupported by evidence? We have here one of those powerful reductionist dogmas which seem to be part of the intellectual atmosphere we breath.

What, I will be asked, is my alternative? Creationism? The answer is I don't have one, and I don't need one in order to reject all existing proposals as improbable. One should not assume that the truth about this matter has already been conceived of -- or hold onto a view just because no one can come up with a better alternative. Belief isn't like action. One doesn't have to believe anything, and to believe nothing is not to believe something" (pp. 80-81).


Misunderstanding Alfred Russel Wallace

A friend comments on Michael Shermer's "A Skeptic's Take on the Public Misunderstanding of Darwin" (Scientific American, February, 2009),
Shermer has exhibited a knack for consistently misinterpreting and selectively quoting Wallace. Shermer is correct that Wallace suggested Spencer's term survival of the fittest, but he doesn't own up to what this came to mean for Wallace. Wallace's mature understanding of evolutionary processes were themselves evolving and would take a distinct turn away from Darwin in 1869. Shermer is understandably big on the pre-1869 Wallace; after that Shermer's treatment of Wallace becomes progressively more selective and idiosyncratic. In fact, Wallace came to understand "survival of the fittest" precisely within the teleological terms Shermer would deny. Consider this from his World of Life (1910): "If then, as I am endeavoring to show, all life development -- all organic life forces -- are due to mind-action, we must postulate not forces, but guidance; not only self-acting agencies as are involved in natural selection and adaptation through survival of the fittest , but that far higher mentality which foresees all possible results of our cosmos. That constitution, in all its complexity of structure and of duly coordinated forces acting continuously through eons of time, has culminated in the foreseen result. No other view yet suggested affords any adequate explanation . . . ." (p. 197) So in the end Wallace not only adopted but championed the so-called "misconception." Notice that Wallace could continue to use the term but within an expressly teleological framework. What Wallace called "mind-action" or "Overruling Intelligence" most of us would simply call God.
Which reminds me, I have just received Michael Flannery's new book, Alfred Russel Wallace's Theory of Intelligent Evolution: How Wallace's World of Life Challenged Darwinism (Erasmus, 2009). More later.

It's good to see someone taking this stuff on. As Darwinism becomes less believable by the year, we can expect more sophisticated "misunderstanding" of alternatives, equivalent to the number that Darwin's disciples did on his co-theorist Wallace.


Sometimes my ability to find evolution believable hangs by a toenail ...

See this, for example

"Humans Walked On Modern Feet 1.5 Million Years Ago, Fossil Footprints Show"

ScienceDaily (Feb. 27, 2009) — Ancient footprints found at Rutgers' Koobi Fora Field School show that some of the earliest humans walked like us and did so on anatomically modern feet 1.5 million years ago.

The footprints were discovered in two 1.5 million-year-old sedimentary layers near Ileret in northern Kenya. These rarest of impressions yielded information about soft tissue form and structure not normally accessible in fossilized bones. The Ileret footprints constitute the oldest evidence of an essentially modern human-like foot anatomy.
From the New York Times story by John Noble Wilford, (February 26, 2009)
The footprints discovered in Kenya, researchers said, indicated that the erectus foot functioned much as a human foot does: the heel contacts the ground first; weight transfers along the arch to the ball of the foot; and the push-off is applied by the forefoot. In apes and apparently earlier hominids, this force comes from the midfoot.

The discovery is “even more explicit evidence,” Dr. Harris said, that the erectus species extended its range into more diversified habitats, camping and discarding stone tools at sites far from the sources of the stone.

Evolution with design, maybe. (I like the idea, anyway.) Without design, for sure not.

Find out why there is an intelligent design controversy:


Fossil record: Book recommended

Ages ago (in February, really), someone wrote to me wanting to know of a good book on the fossil record. I received this reply, but have, in the meantime, lost track of the questioner's e-mail address. So I am putting up the answer here:

For invertebrates and those are the most common ones, I would start with
Clarkson's Invertebrate Paleontology.

Clarkson gives you a good feel for what is known and does not just give
a simple story.

For my area of Paleobotany I might start with Paleobotany by
Taylor, Taylor, and Kringle 2009. It is a big tome but looks like it
covers much of the area. Actually I would first find a copy of Bold's
Morphology of Vascular Plants. He has a great philosophy.

Paleobotany (the study of ancient plants) is a fascinating area, if you enjoy gardening. Plants like Boston ferns, a mainstay of a shade garden, date from about 300 million years ago.

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