Saturday, February 7, 2009

Evolution and the Myth of the Machine

Jerry Coyne starts chapter one of Why Evolution is True this way:

If anything is true about nature, it is that plants and animals seem intricately and almost perfectly designed for living their lives. Squids and flatfish change color and pattern to blend in with their surroundings, becoming invisible to predator and prey. Bats have radar to home in on insects at night. Hummingbirds, which can hover in place and change position in an instant, are far more agile than any human helicopters, and have long tongues to sip nectar lying deep within flowers. And the flowers they visit also appear designed - to use hummingbirds as sex aids. For while the hummingbird is busy sipping nectar, the flower attaches pollen to its bill, enabling it to fertilize the next flower that the bird visits. Nature resembles a well-oiled machine, with every species an intricate cog or gear.

Coyne then expresses the obvious, but (for the Darwinist) mistaken conclusion that all this implies a designer:

What does all this imply? A master mechanic, of course. This conclusion was most famously expressed by the eighteenth-century English philosopher William Paley. If we came across a watch lying on the ground, he said, we would certainly recognize it as the work of a watchmaker. Likewise, the existence of well-adapted organisms and their intricate features surely implied a conscious, celestial designer - God.

I will mention in passing that Coyne, like all Darwinists, admits that there is a reasonable, even strong, prima facie case for intelligent design, a case that has nothing to do with authoritative religious texts. In fact, their case for the genius of Darwin was that he showed that the common-sense conclusion of intelligent design was empirically false. Why, then, do folks like Coyne strenuously insist that intelligent design is a "discredited, religiously based theory", one only a fool or fraud could put any credence in compared to evolution, "a theory so obviously true", as Coyne does in his introduction? He compares the introduction of creationism in the classroom with introducing shamanism in medical schools or astrology in psychology classes. But there is no common-sense case for shamanism or astrology like there is for intelligent design - a case Coyne himself presents in his book! The intelligent design movement is simply an extension of the common sense arguments Darwinists admit are true; the appearance of design is true "if anything about nature is true." Of course, the common sense case may be wrong, but Coyne doesn't even want it presented in the classroom, under the penalty of law.

But that is beside the point I really wish to address, which is the manner in which our thinking about nature - including both Darwinists and their modern opponents like Paley - has become dominated by what Lewis Mumford called the "myth of the machine." We see it in Coyne's expression that "nature resembles a well-oiled machine, with every species an intricate cog or gear." This gets it backwards. Machines resemble nature, nature doesn't resemble a machine. There is much more to nature than is captured in the metaphor of a machine, and the insidious result of taking the machine prior to nature is to eliminate from view all those aspects of nature that cannot be fit into the ideology of the machine.

Machines are artifacts made by man to serve his purposes. Therefore the primary quality of a machine is efficiency: How powerfully and cheaply does the machine achieve the end for which it was made? Reading the myth of the machine into nature means turning efficiency into a metaphysical fundamental. But nature is an end in itself; the nature of nature is to be, not to be-for-something-else like a machine. Organisms are about more than efficiency; they are about being what they are.

The classical Christian view of God is that God is an artist, not that God is a mechanic. An artist creates things that are ends-in-themselves and for which efficiency is at most a secondary concern. When God is seen as a mechanic, as implied in Paley's argument from mechanical design, then power and efficiency are seen as the fundamental forces in nature and therefore constitute the measure of nature. Something like Darwinism will ultimately follow as a philosophical consequence (although mistaken for an empirical one), since Darwinism is simply the observation that some organisms are more efficient than others, which is undoubtedly true, allied to the philosophical principle that efficiency is the metaphysical fundamental of nature. As Darwin puts in in the Origin of Species:

In looking at Nature, it is most necessary to keep the foregoing considerations always in mind  - never to forget that every single organic being may be said to be striving to the utmost to increase in numbers; that each lives by a struggle at some period in its life; that heavy destruction inevitably falls either on the young or the old, during each generation or at recurrent intervals. Lighten any check, mitigate the destruction ever so little, and the number of the species will almost simultaneously increase to any amount. (italics mine)

As the philosopher David Stove pointed out, the passage is manifestly false as a matter of empirics; the checks on the population of man, for example, have largely disappeared yet population growth is declining and, in some places like Europe and Russia, population is decreasing despite abundant food. So man is a counterexample to the assertion that every organism is striving to the utmost to increase in numbers. I would like to focus on Darwin's assertion that it is "most necessary" to keep the "struggle for existence" foremost in mind when thinking about nature. If reproductive efficiency were really the be-all and end-all of nature, then why is it necessary to keep reminding ourselves of the fact? The fact should become manifest as a matter of course. Of course, what Darwin is really insisting on is not to keep reminding ourselves of obvious empirical truths, but to read nature through the lens of the principle of efficiency in reproduction.

If we are not spellbound by the myth of the machine, then we may ask just what it means that, as Coyne says, "plants and animals seem intricately and almost perfectly designed for living their lives." In what way do plants and animals fail the test of perfection? A bear lives the life of a bear, and it seems to lead that life perfectly... bears do not sometimes fail to live like bears and instead live like birds. Now grizzly bears fish in streams, and no doubt they could do it more efficiently, and so we could say bears fail in that sense the test of perfection - if we take it for granted that the measure of a bear's life is efficiency. Does a bear become more "bearlike" the more efficiently it fishes? Maybe a perfect bear is a bear that fishes exactly as efficiently as actual bears do... the life of a bear is not about doing what it does with ever more power and violence, as though bears are waiting to discover dynamite so they can blow salmon out of streams. 

One of the standard Darwinist arguments against creation is that nature is "flawed" or contains examples of "bad design", and therefore no intelligent designer could be responsible for it. Although Darwinists typically deny any reality outside nature, the argument is in danger of presupposing it, for it supposes a standard beyond nature (a standard of "perfection") against which nature can be measured and found wanting. If we are not to repair to a standard outside nature, then the standard can only be that of efficiency, for efficiency only demands that nature do what it is already doing, only faster and with more power. Really it reads the ideology of the machine into nature, for machines can always be bigger, faster, and more efficient. Unlike a painting, an opera, a piece of furniture, or an organism, a machine always fails the standard of perfection of its own nature because it is always possible, in principle at least, for there to be a better machine that does what it does faster and more cheaply. There is no inherent limit to the speed of computers, some speed at which we say "the best computers run at one million millon gigahertz and no faster." But a symphony does not always become better by being played faster or more loudly, and why must a bear be viewed under the metaphor of a machine rather than a symphony? Why must the "increase in numbers" be taken as the first principle of nature?

No comments: