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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).


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