Tuesday 19 March 2013

What is the purpose of the discourse of the biology of human evolution?


In considering the origins of Man, the Bible and evolutionary theory are generally considered to be rivals; although in actuality they are in one sense incommensurable and in another (deeper) sense the Christian account includes the biological while the biological is metaphysically-incoherent when detached from divine revelation.

But a puzzle is the actual function of the scientific, biological discourse of human evolutionary origins: what work does this discourse actually do?


This is a necessary question because all sciences must be rooted in wider reality if they are to be valid.

Much of biology is rooted-in, and tested by, practical disciplines (involving prediction and intervention) such as medicine or agriculture; much of chemistry and physics is rooted in engineering.

The performance of scientific theories (and the relevance and validity of experiments) is thus underwritten by some practical field of endeavour, which 'keeps it on the rails'.

(A complementary example is concern over 'superstring' theories in physics, in that this discourse has perhaps detached itself from such practical roots, hence stopped being a science.)


So what, if anything, is the practical application of the biology of human evolution?

My suspicion is that there is no significant practical application for human evolutionary theory - but rather than supplying useful answers, biological evolutionary theory serves primarily to assert itself as the proper method for establishing (or rather denying) the place, function, purpose, meaning of humanity in the larger scheme of things.

The reason I doubt the practical relevance of biological accounts of human origins (having worked in precisely this field over a couple of decades, and been observing it for much longer) is that nobody in general society takes any practical notice of the findings.


The genre of semi-popular accounts of human evolution is a well-established one...

Nevertheless, the successive stories perform a regular series of U-turns in what is put forward as accepted fact.

The same fossil homonids (australopithecines and Homo Habilis) are portrayed in quick succession as daring hunters of big game, peaceful vegetarians, and nimble scavengers from carnivores...

Others (Neanderthals) are described one year as sensitive and religious people who buried their dead with flowers while speaking human language, the next as animals whose difference from chimpanzees and gorillas would not be immediately obvious to us...

Yet other homonids (homo erectus) have often been envisaged as fire-making dwellers in caves; but according to some new versions the caves were merely where their bones were brought by scavenging animals, and the ash of their hearths just debris of occasional natural bushfires.

The examples sound so far-fetched, when put like that, that it might be thought I have invented them. I have not. What has happened in each case is that a careful re-examination of apparently convincing evidence has shown some 'association' to be a product of randomness...

These errors were not malicious or even foolish at the time; they are just what must be expected when so much theory has to rest on so little evidence. 

Each discovery of new fossil bones is liable to cause dramatic revision in the story offered... the resulting changes of story are embarrassing and are not often pointed-out, but they are obvious to anyone whose interest in this fascinating area lasts more than a couple of years. 

Richard Byrne - The Thinking Ape, Oxford University Press, 1995.



I was, for several years, interested by the implication that distinctive human cognition (approximately everything that makes humans different from chimpanzees) probably evolved in the past two and a half million years (when the differential size of the brain grew) and that this meant an awful lot had to happen in not many generations (if there were 4-5 generations per century, then this would mean a maximum of about 100K generations - which is many-fold less then used to be assumed to be necessary for the evolution of consciousness, language and all the rest of it)



But the fact is that nobody really, seriously, does anything, as a consequence of these rapidly-changing theories of human origins.

Therefore, I infer that their purpose is not scientific, nor practical, but popular.

It seems that genre of semi-popular accounts of human evolution is well-established because that is the 'bottom line' (insofar as there is a bottom line) for biological theorizing about human origins.

That this is plausible is confirmed by the fact that, since Darwin, the fossil hunters have always gone straight to the general public with their theories - whether real or (as with Piltdown Man) fake. The evolution of Mankind is indeed the first most enduring, and always present genre of popular science.


But why this link between evolutionary accounts of human evolution and the mass media?

It cannot all be about funding and fame - the public must be getting something from it as well.

Yet, if the story of Man's History is continually changing and reversing, then it cannot be the specific content which is important: it must, by elimination, be the process at which the content is generated that is important - and the continually changing content merely serves as a way to supply novelty and keep public interest going.


What people get from this field is continual affirmation that this (i.e. evolutionary biology) is the way to understand the nature of the human condition.

No matter how often the story is changed or contradicts itself, the one thing that does not change are the assumptions of the field - that scientific disciplines such as paleontology, archaeology, geology, anthropology, primatology, genetics and so on... that these are the way in which we understand what made us human, and what it is to be human.

The specific sciences involved matter little - because all of them exclude the divine, and indeed the transcendental as matters of assumption.

Therefore, the discourse of human origins is a prime domain, perhaps even the prime domain, for establishing and enforcing the 'primacy of science' and the elimination of religion from public discourse.


On scientific grounds it certainly made sense to eliminate divine will from the study of evolution - after all, it has never been precisely or in detail known what is the divine will, so that is disputed; and the way in which divine will opertes is likewise a matter of continual debate.

How straightforward and clarifying, therefore, to eliminate the divine from the business of science.

But this elimination is not, of course, evidence that the divine will is not real, nor that it is of no effect. It is just a pragmatic, an heuristic, which simplifies things - just as it simplifies ballistics to ignore wind and air resistance and potentially changing effects of gravity.

However, that does not mean that wind and gravity don't exist - and sometimes they need to be taken into account.


Most evolutionary biologists, and almost all those who read and 'believe' the stories of human origin, have forgotten that Darwin did not discover that God did not exist, nor did he discover that God was un-neccessary - he simply made the a priori decision to try explaining things without God.

Did this work? Well, it depends what you mean by 'work'.

If by 'work' you mean something practical and tangible like medicine or technology, then evolutionary theories of human origin seem to make no difference either way - they change and they change, and nobody seems to care.

But if by 'work' you mean 'effectively destroy Christianity'; then sure, the theories of human origins have worked; they have worked very well indeed.



Anonymous said...

Two things have struck me as odd:

1) We look find a fossil of a life form that no longer exists. We automatically conclude that this life form was a step on the path. It could just as well have been a veering off of the path, into the woods and into death. A failed adaption.

2) Do supporters of biological evolution as the origin of species know anything about breeding? A breeder has to take care not to breed too specific of a set of traits. The prodigy become weak, susceptible to disease and ultimately sterile. A failed organism.

ajb said...

The idea of humans as designed to be in an environment significantly different from what we have now (i.e., hunter-gatherers) has lots of practical 'technologies'.

For example, would we have naturally spent large amounts of time sitting in chairs? Not surprisingly, when people stop doing this, various health problems are ameliorated (back problems, obesity). Similarly, would we naturally wear thick-soled shoes? No, and many people solve knee problems by wearing 'barefoot' shoes, which more closely emulate going shoeless. Similarly with nutrition.

Yet. All these things don't actually involve *evolutionary* theory too much, although they are often presented as following from such.

Rather, it is about figuring out the natural environment for which we were 'designed'. How exactly we got there, by which mechanisms, whether it was guided in some sense - the answer to these questions doesn't seem to matter too greatly to the practical applications in most cases ...

Bruce Charlton said...

@ajb - agreed.

But that is adaptation (selection shaping already evolved traits within already evolved Humans/ Homo genus) and is not what I am talking about here.

Adaptation is - as I have previously blogged, something that can be verified by experience; although its reality is of course denied by mainstream Leftists.

The Crow said...

Surely the main 'purpose' of any human idea of God is to provide something we all have in common.
'Proving' God's non-existence removes that one thing. Is where we are now any better than where we were?

The meaning of life is to live.

Whether or not there is a God is irrelevant. Belief changes nothing. God is unlikely to not-exist because we deem it so. But by not-believing, we make it so, for us.

Sylvie D. Rousseau said...

…all sciences must be rooted in wider reality if they are to be valid
So true.

There seems to be a wilful oblivion of this philosophy of science principle in favour of the shameful metaphysics Maritain spoke of, which as you explain here, is used more or less consciously to eliminate any whiff of Christianity from ‘science.’

It proceeds by eliminating teleology first, then denying the validity of criticism on the part of philosophers of science. By so doing, and as predicted by Maritain (I suppose he was not alone), unscrupulous scientists unwittingly killed ethics in science, and finally science itself. Hence Climategate and all other supposedly ‘scientific’ endeavours that are only pursuit of monetary gain or undue influence, or else are worthless demonstrations of biased hypotheses.

There is maybe a slight chance to reverse the trend, because the workability of theories in the real world will always matter in physics, and the hugely improbable mathematical grid of nature is made obvious by the best physicists and mathematicians. The Borde-Guth-Vilenkin theorem and the story of Fred Hoyle and the carbon atom, for example, are glimmers of hope.