Lecture 7: Darwin

 Foundations of Liberty
The Intellectual Crisis of the Modern World

A Lecture Series with Prof. Thomas Patrick Burke

In the last lecture we looked at some of the many ways in which living beings differ from dead and inanimate ones. The chief difference, we saw, is that they operate with a radically different kind of causation. While the causation involved in dead and inanimate beings is mechanical, in which A causes B which causes C which causes D and so on further in a descending linear series, the causation typical of living beings is teleological: it is purposive, holistic and reciprocal. A causes B, and at the same time B causes A. The roots of the tree cause its leaves and the leaves cause the roots. The heart of the cat causes its lungs, and its lungs cause its heart. Each part is made possible only by the whole. The immensity of this difference was well understood by Kant.

In this lecture I wish to examine the implications of this for the Darwinian theory of evolution. The mechanistic view of the universe, according to which there is only one kind of causation in the world and it is mechanistic, was developed already in the 17th century as part of the rise of modern science, with Descartes and such writers as Julien Offray de la Mettrie, as we saw in Lecture 5. But it was not until Darwin, two centuries later, that the mechanistic theory completely triumphed. In the intellectual and scientific community, Darwin’s apparent success in explaining the evolution of species by what appeared to be a purely mechanistic process swept Kant and his teleology from the field. Today the marvellous achievements of biological science have served only to expand and confirm Darwin’s victory, convincing very many people that the universe and everything in it operates solely on the level of  the mechanical.  However, we wish to subject Darwin’s victory to an examination.

Darwin’s Theory

It might be best if I begin by refreshing your memory of the main outlines of Darwin’s theory. It can be summed up conveniently in four or five propositions. The first proposition (so far as we are concerned) is based on the distinction between species and varieties. A variety may be described as a race or strain or subspecies. If we take squirrels as a species, red squirrels are one variety of squirrel, and black squirrels are another variety. At the outset of his argument this is an important distinction for Darwin. The overall form of his reasoning is an argument from varieties to species. It is common knowledge that human beings, such as professional breeders, can produce new varieties of even well-established species by selecting particular animals or plants possessing certain qualities rather than others for breeding. A breeder of dogs, for example, can routinely produce new varieties of dog by carefully selecting the kinds of dog he mates with one another.  With regard to species, however, the situation is very different. No breeder has ever produced a new species out of an old one, to our certain knowledge, nor witnessed such a thing happening in nature. How then did the immense multiplicity of species we find in the world come into existence? The fossil record seems to suggest that, although no one has actually witnessed it, new species have in fact originated out of older ones and then replaced them. This is the theory of evolution. But if that is the case, how can it be explained? That is the question Darwin wishes to answer. His answer is that it occurs by the same process that gives rise to natural varieties. Nature, Darwinargues, exerts a kind of selection over the qualities that one generation of plants or animals passes on to the next that is analogous to that which an intelligent agent can exercise in a breeding program, emphasizing some features and weeding others out.  What people can achieve with varieties, by conscious and deliberate selection of the traits they wish to develop, Darwin argues, it is reasonable to suppose nature can achieve in regard to species by natural selection. But there is a big difficulty that Darwin must overcome: while the former, the emergence of new varieties from old, is a commonplace in our experience, as just mentioned, the latter, the emergence of new species from old, happens in our experience very rarely or possibly even never. This is why it could long seem to make sense to believe that species were created distinct by God.

Varieties Emerge By Chance

Darwin’s first proposition, then, can be stated like this: in nature, varieties emerge by chance. The two strains or races of red squirrels and black squirrels  have come into existence in nature without any deliberate action on the part of anyone, so far as we can tell. How this actually happens Darwin was unable successfully to explain: he proposed a theory, but it was soon regarded as unsatisfactory. But around 1860, just as Darwinwas publishing his Origin, the Austrian Augustinian friar Fr. Gregor Mendel, carrying out in his monastery’s garden some careful experiments with peas, discovered the laws that govern the process of inheritance, now known as the Mendelian laws of inheritance, which laid the foundation for the modern science of genetics. The fact that inheritance is governed by laws does not make it any less a matter of chance, since it remains true that the results are not the product of any deliberate plan or intention.

Struggle for Existence and Survival of the Fittest

Darwin’s second and third propositions explain how, in his view, the chance emergence of new varieties can lead without any purposeful intervention to the emergence of new species. The second proposition is that there is a general struggle for existence. All living beings are in competition with one another for food and other resources. Predators are in competition for prey, and the prey struggle to escape their predators. The third proposition is that the outcome of this universal struggle is that the fit survive, while the unfit die out. The fourth proposition is that the survivors, the fit, hand on to their offspring the qualities that enabled them to survive. Thus small changes can take place in each species which can accumulate over time to the point where there is a new species. The entire process, as Darwin describes it, occurs entirely by chance and mechanistically. There is no need of any intervening intelligence or will to explain even the most intricate and sophisticated qualities of living beings.

What makes the difference between a variety and a species? This question is not entirely easy to answer. Originally species were distinguished from one another partly on the basis of structure or morphology, but also partly, where the evidence was available, by the principle that only members of the same species could produce fertile offspring.

Although at the beginning Darwin’s argument hinges on the distinction between varieties and species, and his argument moves from varieties to species, after he has made his argument he abandons the distinction and asserts that fundamentally there is no difference: a species is just a variety that has further developed. If he had said that at the beginning, however, it would have undermined his argument; or at least it would have added substantially to his burden of proof.

Has Darwin’s theory been proven?

Has Darwin’s theory been proven? This question typically draws the disdain of the scientific community. The theory is now so universally accepted that only a crank would question it.  An important reason for this view is that no plausible alternative scientific, that is, mechanistic, theory seems available. But if we hold Darwin’s theory up to the standards that other scientific theories are expected to meet, the answer must be that it has not been proven.  In physics and chemistry theories are established by a particular method. First it is necessary to find a consequence of the theory that follows from it by necessity. For if a necessary consequence of a belief is not correct or does not occur, the belief cannot be correct. Second, the consequence must be empirical or observable; if it occurs, it must be capable of being observed directly or indirectly by one or more of the five senses. Having identified such a consequence of the theory, that is both necessary and empirical, and therefore predictable, we look to see whether it does actually occur.

The purpose of experiments is to put the theory to the test by creating the conditions where it should occur if the theory is correct. When Einstein published his General Theory of Relativity, he indicated three consequences of it that would provide just such a test. One was that a ray of light from a distant star passing close to the sun would be bent by the sun’s gravity in the direction of the sun by a certain measurable amount. If this did not happen, he stated, his theory must be mistaken. In the event the British physicist Sir Arthur Eddington led an expedition to the South Seas to witness an eclipse in which the effect was in fact demonstrated to occur. (The bend in the light ray, being close to the sun, is obscured by the brightness of the sun except during an eclipse.)

Darwin, however, proposed no such test that, if failed, would indicate his theory was mistaken. If we wish to put Darwin’s theory to the test in a similar way we must first identify an observable consequence of the theory that follows from it by necessity, and is therefore predictable. But what could that be? Logically the test would be the successful prediction and observation of a new species. But as we just saw, his first proposition is that in nature varieties occur by chance. This means that new varieties are not predictable. But if varieties are not predictable, then neither can species be, since the species must evolve out of the varieties.  Similarly, the struggle for existence is governed by chance, and the survival of the fittest is also a matter of chance. Despite the Mendelian laws, we cannot predict what will be the next variety of squirrel to develop in unassisted nature, let alone the next species that will evolve out of squirrels. The rest of the theory hinges on this first thesis. Varieties that have emerged by chance become, through further development and differentiation, species that emerge by chance. The whole point of the theory is that the evolution of species, the emergence of new species from existing ones, takes place not by design, including not by the human design of experimenters, but by chance. It does not seem possible to identify any necessary consequence of the theory that can be predicted, as the effects of gravity can be predicted. So far, at least, no uncontroversial case of this has been demonstrated. Much has been written about the Galapagos finches, which change the length of their beaks in accordance with the food supply, but unless I am mistaken these finches can mate with one another and produce fertile offspring. (The original categorization of them as different species, by John Gould, ornithological expert of the London Zoological Society, was done solely on morphological grounds.) If that is so, they should be considered only varieties, not species.

Even if it should be possible to prove that Darwin’s theory is in some sense true, however, there remains a further difficulty that is even greater.

The Struggle for Existence is by Definition not a Mechanistic but a Goal-Seeking or Teleological Activity

The purpose of Darwin’s argument is to explain the emergence of new species without appealing to design, purposes or intentions, whether divine or human. Everything should take place mechanistically, by chance or necessity. That is what makes his theory scientific. Yet it is a key concept of his theory that all living beings struggle for existence. For this winnows out the unfit, creating “natural selection.”  But in reality this struggle for existence, far from being a mechanistic event, is entirely a product of natural purposes or intentions, as the very phrase “struggle for existence” makes clear. “For” indicates that existence is a goal. The struggle occurs only because every living being actively seeks to live, to survive, and tries to avoid death.  Let us examine this a little more closely.

The effects of the struggle for survival are entirely negative and destructive. It kills off those beings that are not fit. Yet to this purely destructive process Darwin attributes all the enormous improvements that have taken place in the natures of plants and animals through the emergence of every single new species from the beginning. All the forms of life that now exist in the world have come about, in Darwin’s view, because they were fitter in relation to their circumstances than the more primitive forms that preceded them. How does Darwin explain this improvement? “Natural selection acts solely by the preservation of profitable modifications,” he states. (Ch. 6)   And these profitable modifications arise entirely by chance, because they depend on the surrounding conditions, which are a matter of chance.

All the immense variety of living forms on the face of the earth have developed out of possibly a single original living thing, piling up profitable modifications which occurred by chance on profitable modifications that occurred by chance through many generations.  But there is a question to be asked: how can there possibly be such a thing as a “profitable modification”?

Mechanical causation has no implications of “good” or “bad.”   If I put sugar into water, it dissolves. Nothing suggests that this is either good or bad, so far as either the water or the sugar is concerned.  The sugar does not benefit from being put in the water, and it is also not harmed by it.  You cannot benefit or harm sugar, or for that matter water.  You can change them, but that is not the same as benefitting or harming them.  The concepts of good and bad, or benefit and harm, simply do not apply of themselves to inanimate chemistry (including what is called “organic” chemistry).

But as soon as a living being arrives on the scene, immediately the ideas of good and bad become applicable. Some things will be good for it and some things will be bad for it. Every living thing desires to live, that is, to survive. It is good for a dog or a rosebush to survive. I mean, from the viewpoint of the dog or the rosebush, and not just from my viewpoint as their owner. It is also good for a weed to survive, from the perspective of the weed. The dog regards being alive as a good thing and dying as a bad thing; it wants to live and will do everything it can not to die, and a rosebush or a weed in its own way likewise strives to live.  The concept of value does not apply in the inanimate world, but in the world of living beings it is always in question.

What does it mean, then, for a modification to be “profitable”?  Rocks also undergo modifications. Rocks exposed to the weather change their molecular constitution. They are subject to constant radiation from cosmic rays which can also induce changes in them. Some rocks contain radioactive substances which produce alterations in them internally.  Are any of these changes profitable to them?  No. Nothing can be of profit to a rock. A profit means something good or beneficial, but nothing can be beneficial to a rock.  The reason is that the rock is not alive, it is inanimate.  But the first canine, out of which all subsequent dogs evolved, was alive. This was the small point that Darwin forgot to mention. The phenomenon of life is not mechanistic but teleological.

What is meant by the struggle for existence? For all living beings, survival is a purpose. The struggle for existence is not a case of efficient or mechanistic causation, but of teleological causation. Darwin believes he has explained the emergence of new species without invoking design, that is, intention or purpose. A design is a form or shape that is intended or purposed. By “design” Darwin means, in addition, an intention or purpose imposed from outside the existing species, either by a human breeder or a divine one. But he has overlooked the fact (which of course he otherwise knows perfectly well) that there are natural purposes present within every existing living species. For, as we have just pointed out, every living thing seeks to continue living.

Darwin assumes, on the one hand, that living things are only mechanisms. If that is true, however, nothing can be good or bad for them. Perhaps someone will say that efficiency is good for a mechanism. But that holds good only from the perspective of the person or other living being using the mechanism.  Yet although Darwin assumes that living things are only mechanisms, he attributes to them the utterly non-mechanical quality of desiring to survive. In other words, he commits the fallacy of logic known as “begging the question.” To beg the question is to assume what you have to prove. He has undertaken to prove that the process that gives rise to new species is entirely mechanistic. But he can do this only by unwittingly smuggling teleological or purposive causation into his description of the process, namely the desire for survival, and the preservation of what is beneficial. These are just another name for design.

Perhaps someone will say there is a difference between design or purpose as it applies to a being’s structure and as it applies to a being’s actions. The question of species is a question of the structure of  beings. Whereas what I am pointing to is purpose in the actions of beings, their desire to live. But Darwin unites these two into one question by arguing that the structure of beings is a product of their actions: their struggle for existence.

Darwin does not see that he has introduced through the back door, as it were, the very thing he aimed to eliminate from his explanation of evolution: purpose, intention or design. Consequently he left out of his explanation of why new species emerge what Plato had seen many centuries before, and what we can see whenever we examine them, that living things change themselves.

Consequences for Darwin’s Theory

If we once accept the fact that living things change themselves, without, therefore, necessarily waiting for the struggle for existence and the survival of the fittest, or for random mutations, this has far-reaching implications for our estimate of the Darwinian theory.  Living things do what they always do: they act. They take the initiative. This suggests that the emergence of new species is a product, not of chance and the struggle for existence, except incidentally, but of the natural purposes of living things. This is not directly identical with being designed by an intelligent but invisible mind. Natural purposes are purposes that we can observe with our own eyes being carried out in nature: the growth of a seed into a plant, the plant putting forth new leaves in the spring, the healing of a wound, a hen laying eggs, a human baby becoming an adult, the search for food and the struggle for existence. These are not random or arbitrary events. Likewise, they are not the necessary effects of any known cause. We may have much scientific knowledge of the particular mechanisms involved, but these mechanisms only produce these results in living beings. If the seed dies, no plant emerges from it. If the plant dies, it puts forth no new leaves in the spring. If the hen dies, it lays no more eggs. When any living being dies, its struggle for existence comes to an end. But in each case while it lives, we can observe that its activities fulfill a pre-existing plan.

Where did this plan come from? Some will no doubt respond: the DNA. But this is no answer. DNA comes into existence only in living beings and is itself the product of a pre-existent plan. By itself DNA produces nothing, for example in animals that have died.  Properly speaking, we do not know where or how the plan of living beings originated. The only true purposes we know directly are our own, which are the product of our mind. But in the case of plants and animals fulfilling a plan, no mind is evident. The fact that they obviously fulfill a pre-existing plan does not prove that they are the product of a mind. We cannot positively demonstrate that no other solution is possible. But we, as human beings with human minds, cannot think of natural purposes in any other way than that they are a work of intelligence. If you like, this is in the first place a comment on the limitations of our own mind. But it does inevitably suggest, even if only in the second place, the existence of a mind that is not our own.

The influence of Darwin’s mechanistic philosophy has not been confined to the world of science, but has reached deep into the culture of Western civilization. Its most fundamental consequence has been, notoriously, to empty the universe of meaning. For meaning is a matter of purpose: if there is no purpose, there is no meaning. It is true that the process of the destruction of meaning began earlier, with the rise of modern science in the 17th century. But Darwin carried the process further, for he did not merely suggest it as a theory but is widely believed to have proved it. The effects of his theory on the religious world are well known. By the end of the 19th century, according to a statement attributed to Queen Victoria, half the bishops of the Church of England had ceased to believe in God. But the shadow of meaninglessness also came to hang over the world of art and literature. It is not implausible to see in Darwin’s theory a principal source of the movement known as modernism, which undermined the traditional search for nobility and beauty in the arts, and which remains with us still today despite the advent of “post-modernism.” Matthew Arnold’s poem “DoverBeach,” and Tennyson’s “In Memoriam” are powerful testimonies to the corrosive power of Darwin’s argument at the time, and since then the expulsion of beauty altogether and its replacement by what might be called the rage for ugliness are even more eloquent. For beauty is surely one of the very greatest of teleologies, the one that above all explained the universe both for Aristotle and for Dante.

Darwin’s theory has emptied the world of meaning only because he first eliminated meaning from his theory. He consciously and deliberately ruled purpose out from the form of his explanation of the world, even while unwittingly preserving it. It is not surprising, then, that he cannot find purpose in the world. If the argument of these lectures is correct, Darwinian meaninglessness needs to be rethought. For its refutation is contained within every living thing.