Thursday 29 August 2013

Natural selection as religion


One problem with using natural selection as an explanation for a phenomenon is that the applicability of NS to any particular instance is a metaphysical assumption, not an empirical discovery.

That is, in trying to explain some biological phenomenon (such as why the giraffe has a long neck) then it is not a matter of discovering by research that natural selection was in fact the explanation for the specific phenomenon - this is impossible; rather it is first a matter of assuming that natural selection was the explanation, then doing science on that basis ...

(Roughly speaking, 'doing science' by making hypotheses about how 'this' could have happened, then planning observations and experiments to test these hypotheses of how it could have happened - by seeing whether observations and experiments are consistent with the hypotheses. Essentially, the process of science works by checking for coherence and consistency in a domain according to a specified set of causes.)


The assumption that natural selection was the cause of a specific phenomenon is something that is not, and cannot be, tested - because this assumption is outside science, comes before science, structures scientific investigations.

Paradoxically, it is the metaphysical - hence extra-scientific - nature of the concept of natural selection which enables it to serve as a kind of substitute for religion.


This is because natural selection is assumed to be the explanation for phenomena in general - therefore once this metaphysical assumption has been made, once natural selection has been accepted as universally valid, then all further experiences and investigations are structured by this assumption.

Therefore the 'truth' of natural selection is, apparently, reinforced by anything and everything which happens from that point onwards; natural selection can never fail to explain anything, because all valid explanations are required to conform to natural selection.


The problem is that those who accept natural selection as a universal explanation also typically do not acknowledge the fact that natural selection is a metaphysical assumption; instead they want (somehow) to say that natural selection is a product of science - while, at the same time, having the property of structuring science...

They typically want to assert that natural selection is not just an assumption with universal applicability, but that this assumption is necessary - that it is irrational to reject this assumption.

They want to argue that any rational and informed person is compelled by 'evidence' to accept the universal validity of natural selection.


So they are actually assuming the universal truth of natural selection, but falsely believe that they have instead been compelled by evidence to accept the universal truth of natural selection - 'because' everything they regard as valid evidence apparently fits-in with the theory of natural selection.


Hence natural selection functions, among those who regard it as inevitably universal, as their religion - that is, the bottom-line explanation of reality; while at the same time such people deny that natural selection is a religion - precisely because it is a metaphysical assumption outside science which nonetheless regards itself as an empirical discovery within science.


Natural selection is regarded as the epitome of truth and validity, precisely because of this error of classification.

For those who come to treat it as the fundamental reality, natural selection disguises its true nature as a structuring assumption and instead masquerades as a multiply-validated discovery.

Consequently, universal natural selection feels like an objectively factual yet also un-dis-proveable religion - the perfect religion! - necessarily correct and the master key to explaining everything! 



Nicholas Fulford said...

Richard Lenski's long term lines experiment shows natural selection in the lab. The result of two naturally occurring mutations allowed the e-coli to consume citrate and this variant supplanted the other rapidly in the culture.

see --

While these types of experiments can take a long time for natural selection to manifest, the Lenski experiment provides strong supporting evidence for natural selection by showing it in action.

Rich said...

Quite right, Dr Bruce! Furthermore, natural selection can be seen as a continuation of the Judeo-Christian tradition. The idea that progress is made on a linear scale comes directly from the ancient Jews.

Of course modern man can't stick to one metaphysical reality, that would be passe, so they also borrow much from the ancient greeks and the idea of the eternal with math or matter being the ultimate underlying reality and then mush everything together and claim originality in the name of science!

They'll be very disappointed if they ever find out that folks have been thinking about these questions and coming up with better answers to them for thousands of years.

Thanks for your good work, sir.

Bruce Charlton said...

@NF - Sorry, but what is your point here? I am a professional evolutionary theorist (Reader in Evolutionary Psychiatry) and have published extensively on natural selection. Natural selection has been observed among microorganisms for many decades, for example in drug resistance of bacteria. Artificial selection in agriculture and among domesticated animals was done for many decades before Darwin. But what has that got to do with the topic of my post?

Agellius said...

An excellent explanation, helps me to see the situation from a new angle.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Ag - Thanks - I have made several previous attempts to make this argument - but it is one which needs repeating from various angles, because it seems hard for people to 'get' (as it was for me!).

ajb said...

How is NS distinguished from other scientific theories on this line of argument? It seems all science starts with various assumptions, works with certain evidence, coheres to varying degrees.

Sylvie D. Rousseau said...

This is very interesting. But the way natural selection is presented by its proponents is not as religion but as a self-evident axiom, or first principle, that is, as you rightly point out, as a metaphysical principle.

The religion, or metaphysics (what Maritain called a hidden and shameful metaphysics), to which it refers is scientism. I would say natural selection is one among other tools in the religion of scientism, like dialectics was the tool in the Hegelian pantheistic religion of absolute knowledge.

Your reflection inspired me the following comparison about the first principles of Aristotelian-Thomist metaphysics, Christian theology, and scientism:

Metaphysics (ontology):
- Existence: there is something rather than nothing. Some things are perceivable with outer senses, others by inner senses.
- Identity: every being is what it is; being is not non-being.
- Sufficient reason: every being has that whereby it is.
- Causality: causality implies one necessary Being who is Pure Actuality and gives existence to (=brings from potency to act) contingent beings which act as second causes upon one another.

Theology, from revealed religion:
- Existence: apart from the things we can perceive with outer senses, God and other spiritual beings exist.
- Identity: God is present in all beings, and in a special way in spiritual beings, but created beings are distinct from God.
- Sufficient reason: God is self-sufficient and does not need other beings; created beings all have their ultimate reason for being in God.
- Causality: from the superabundance of his being and his love, God creates other beings that are thus brought to participate in various degrees in God’s being.

- Existence: the cosmos is eternal.
- Identity: things are either purely material or epiphenomena of material things.
- Sufficient reason: things come to existence by random forces.
- Causality: order somehow springs from random – including natural selection.

We can see plainly that the unavowed first principles of scientism are all fraught with logical problems that will not go away by mere denial and the proposition of simple (and, as you observed, untestable) hypotheses on origins as axioms.

This also exemplifies the fact that science is devoted to answering the how of things, while metaphysics and religion propose answers to the why. Therefore, real science operates on metaphysical principles given by metaphysics, beginning with the love of truth and the search for the good. When scientists pretend to replace these principles by fakes, they reduce science to scientism, thus work to destroy true science and contribute over time to mar the human mind.

Bruce Charlton said...

@ajb "How is NS distinguished from other scientific theories on this line of argument? "

Because NS isn't a scientific theory.

What we do (I say we, because I do it) is isolate a phenomenon for explanation - for example endogenous depression. I'll give an example from my own work.

Then I make the assumption that it is explained by natural selection. Then try to see how this could be.

Depression has a fairly standard combination of features - which might suggest it was some kind of functional adaptation. Since depression is associated with suicide, then it could not be straightforwardly beneficial - it is a disease.

But there is the idea that depression may be a human version of the sickness behaviour seen in many mammals - a response to acute infection.

But endogenous depression lasts about a year, so it could be a maladaptive prolongation of what would be adaptive if it lasted just a few days (like joint fluid swelling - useful to enforce rest for a few days, but a disease in its own right when prolonged for months or years).

Then assume this is correct and make some predictions. Because acute infections can be treated by painkillers, this predicts that endogenous depression could be treated by pain killers - can it? Yes, because it used to be treated with opium, and because the main drug treatment is with tricyclics, which are also pain killers.

And so on.

The point is that natural selection is used as an assumption to structure the science - at no point is the validity of natural selection tested, nor could it be.

But I hope the example shows that this is not just a matter of making up things - it is rigorous, constrained, and in fact difficult!

(It took me more than a decade of thinking and research to come up with the malaise theory; and there are numerous hopeless evolutionary theories of depression knocking around.)

Philip Neal said...

There must be plenty of phenomena which cannot be explained by natural selection, for instance the phenomenon of sound change in the history of a language. The sounds of Latin evolved into those of French and Spanish in parallel processes involving random mutation, but it just so happens that nasal vowels arose in Northern France and took hold because of the prestige of the capital while different mutations caught on in Spain. This cannot be called natural selection, as if the two languages were adapted to different environments. By contrast, it would seem very plausible that nature selected ancestral giraffes in response to a changing environment.

Anonymous said...

"One problem with using natural selection as an explanation for a phenomenon is that the applicability of NS to any particular instance is a metaphysical assumption, not an empirical discovery." - Bruce Charlton

The Lenski experiment treats NS as a hypothesis, and then tests the hypothesis with the 12 lines of e-coli. The experiment yields two mutations which together allow the bacteria to consume citrate--allowing the most fit variant of the bacteria to continue in the following generations. The experiment is completely empirical, and does not require that the axiom under examination (NS) be taken as true a priori. Hence, your opening as quoted is incorrect. Lenski has tested the hypothesis of NS and found it supported by empricism in the form of his experiment.

That is my point, and if I have erred in presenting it poorly, I apologise.

Bedarz Iliaci said...

I don't understand why natural selection is not scientific. Doesn't it follow from following empirical observations
1) That individuals vary
2) That variation is inheritable.
3) That the variation effects reproductive success.

Bruce Charlton said...

@BI - It is easy to be confused about this, most people are - I was!

But there is no doubt about the metaphysical (extra-scientific) status of NS, once you get things clear.

For example, if what you say *must* be true - could not not be true, given your assumptions, then it is metaphysics and not science.

You could look through these:

stephens said...

I was wondering how you got from "Injustice, inequality and Evolutionary Psychology - 1997", where you seem to use it as an assumed truth, to your current position?

Bruce Charlton said...

@Stephens - *Of course* I used NS as an assumed truth - my point is that is the only way NS can be used to do science!

BTW I modified that paper in a postscript -

Now, behind that specific paper, I also assumed also NS was universally and necessarily true as something like a religion; I presume you are aware I was not a Christian until 2008-9?

stephens said...

Sorry, it's confusing for a non scientist outsider. If I am understanding it correctly some current scientific understanding can only be based on probability rather than provable scientific data, but is often misrepresented as fact, especially to the public.
In "The Dawkins Delusion" - page 35, Alister McGrath accuses Richard Dawkins of "cognitive bias" in his book "The God Delusion."
He says words to the effect that such bias helps us cope with a complex world but that it should be minimized in scientific investigation and the method should give an objective and fair account.
Also, I cannot find it now but I am pretty sure he quotes Richard Dawkins as saying words to the effect that we must expect that our understanding, of this field of science, may change to such an extent that it may become almost unrecognizable from our current position.
It seems unfair that people such as Richard Dawkins who rely on faith, rather than fact, in particular scientific concepts should be so hostile towards Christian faith. Especially as they have no scientific data to support their position.
I guess he believes that he is making progress towards a greater truth and understanding, as indeed you might yourself now your "world view" is Christian.

Bruce Charlton said...

@stephens - " If I am understanding it correctly some current scientific understanding can only be based on probability rather than provable scientific data, but is often misrepresented as fact, especially to the public."

No - that isn't what I am talking about. Try reading the links to previous posts I gave in the comments above.

stephens said...

"Is the Christian evolutionist an oxymoron?" was particularly helpful.