Thursday, 7 February 2013

Does natural selection explain human intelligence, language, consciousness, morality?


I certainly used to think so - as can be seen from my book of 2000 entitled Psychiatry and the Human Condition, and available at

But what is interesting, and perhaps surprising to those not engaged in the field, is that my view was highly unusual.

In other words, most modern intellectuals - and especially the public intellectuals who write in the highbrow media and publish big-selling nonfiction books; and including most scientists and indeed biologists and psychologists - do not believe that natural selection explains 'higher' human faculties such as intelligence, language, consciousness and morality.

Yet these are not religious people; they are indeed atheist, materialist... and (importantly) leftist.


It is sometimes a little difficult to recognize this, because in fact these people believe in human evolution, in the sense that they believe humans descended from primates etc - yet they do not believe that this evolution was caused by natural selection - yet they do not have any other explanation.

In essence, they believe that the higher human faculties just happened. They are simply brute facts.

And at the same time they believe that these brute facts also carries a behavioural imperative.


I first was sure about this in listening to an interview with Noam Chomsky, in which the interviewer pushed him hard to explain how it was that humans developed language.

Chomsky was uncomfortable and rather irritated, and eventually came up with a scenario where something like a cosmic ray caused a mutation and human language ability was accomplished at a stroke.

(No wonder Chomsky was uncomfortable, since this is a ridiculous assertion; yet here it was, emanating from the most highly-cited human scientist/ social scientist of the modern era.)


But similar end points can be reached among most intellectuals who write about intelligence, language, consciousness and morality.

They are sure of only two things about higher human faculties:

1. These phenomena cannot be explained by supernatural agency (because they know that the supernatural does not exist),


2. These phenomena cannot - or at any rate should not - be explained by natural selection.


This is the way of thinking about evolution that comes from Aristotle and which has dominated theoretical biology with people such as Goethe, D'Arcy Thompson, Gregory Bateson, Waddington, Kauffman and the modern chaos complexity theorists - and Sheldrake.

Such thinkers are generally evasive or vague about where these forms come from, or how we know about them - necessarily vague since they exclude any divine role or revelation.

Somehow we know about them and somehow we can recognize them.


These attributes of humans, these phenomena which are what make humans distinctive, did not evolve but are part of reality.

In particular, morality - by which they mean modern leftist morality as it has emerged in the West in the past three hundred years - is built into reality.

But the same applies to language, consciousness, and intelligence - these are seen as qualitative and 'given'.


I am pretty sure that most people do not realize, have not noticed, how vague and strange are these bottom-line beliefs of hard-nosed, mainstream intellectuals.

On the whole these beliefs are never stated. On the whole these dominant thinkers are able to evade examination of their own bottom-line convictions by means of articulate and aggressive attacks on those with whom they disagree.

That is to say with Christians (the religious Right) and with sociobiologists/ evolutionary psychologists (the secular Right).


But it is a remarkable fact of modern intellectual life that public discourse is dominated by a perspective that is defined almost entirely negatively - on the basis of convictions that are mostly unstated, and which when stated are absurd to the point of being self-refuting.

Yet when any person tries to explain human distinctiveness on the basis of stated and explicit convictions - either religious assumptions, or else on the axiomatic assumption that all such phenomena must be explicable by natural selection and the only question is a matter of specific detail - then that person is unrestrainedly attacked, vilified and mocked on the evil ridiculousness of their beliefs...


The reason behind the dishonest absurdity of mainstream public intellectuals is obvious: these people want leftism to be true, to be part of reality to be a brute fact of human existence; therefore they do not want higher human attributes to have evolved, because that would mean they were accidental and contingent facts; nor do they want human attributes to be divinely given, since that would subordinate leftism to religion.

So they reach this weird, unstated but undeniable position of arguing from the brute facticity of leftist morality - without any possibility of explaining how this can be known to be true, or why it should be true, or how it is true - or even why such brute facts have any influence on human choices (given that other brute facts, such as sexual differences, are denied to have any implications whatsoever for human choice)...

Being underpinned by this swirling maelstrom of evasion and confusion; no surprise, then, that modern intellectual life is in such a sorry state.


JP said...

A good deal of the disonesty emerges from the uncomfortable fact that if intelligence evolved (and is still evolving) then the disparity in performance between various groups could not be explained as the product of racism or poverty, and thus would not be amenable to the typical Leftist "solutions" of the application of more propaganda and more money.

Bruce Charlton said...

@JP. Yes, I think so. Plus that if it is acknowledged that higher human faculties can change with environment, then humans are not equal either in time or in space - this undercuts leftism, and explodes the social sciences including economics. Just too much trouble all round!

Daybreaker said...


I think this shows how high the priority of the racial issue is for political correctness.

Vicent said...

JP nailed it. The Left uses evolution (from the neck down) to explain human nature without divine intervention (the horror!!).

It denies evolution from the neck up because these would imply that human beings are not equal, which is a tenet of liberalism.

This explains the opposition of the Left towards evolutionary psychology

Bruce Charlton said...

@V - Yes - the aspect of this which I am trying to emphasize here is the extent to which Leftist politics dominates science.

These people (I mean almost all the leaders of science, as well as the intellectual punditry) have long-since given-up on trying to make sense, or trying to be coherent - anything and everything necessarily* gets thrown under the bus in order to preserve Leftism.

I guess the resulting coginitive dissonace is one major reason for their ANGER at and HATRED of those who are somewhat more consistent and coherent.

(Not forgetting that most of them are also dumb and uninformed and have not ever thought-about anything for more than three minutes consecutively - but leave that aside for a moment!)

But then, I guess we already knew that...