Who’s Afraid of Mindless Evolution?

I was taught today that Darwin was a believer (but not that he lost his faith in Christianity after his voyage on the H.M.S. Beagle), and that one could both fully embrace evolution and believe it to be directed by a divine will. The overarching theme of the class was that there is no conflict between believing in a “Higher Power” (such as a Mind, Intelligence, Designer, Creator) and being a proponent of evolution.

Let us see if that assumption holds true with by first taking a cursory look at a population of insects. In England, one can find an assemblage of dark-winged moths. Before the Industrial Revolution, the moths’ wing pigments were light. Some moths were lighter than others just as some humans have lighter hair than others. (Alright, nothing seems out of the ordinary so far.) When the Industrial Revolution started, there were coal-burning factories built all over England. Many plants were covered in soot from the factories’ smoke stacks. What happened next? The lighter moths stuck out to the birds who were their predators. The darker ones survived because they were less likely to be identified by predators, and thus were able to reproduce, and pass on, through their genes, the darker pigments of their wings to the next generation. The lighter moths lost the battle of reproduction to the darker moths because they suffered from higher predation rates. What do we see now? The moths that we observe today in England are dark because they are descendants of the darker moths that lived during the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.

How clever of the moths to get darker one might say. But, are moths really that intelligent? I submit that a moth has about as much intelligence as a potato or a mushroom. Did the moths get together and plan how they were going to adapt to the soot enveloping their habitats? Of course it was not a clever move of the moths. Well, whose clever move was it? It was natural selection’s. Leslie Orgel’s second rule is “Evolution is cleverer than you are.” It was the mindless trial and error of moths living out their existence such that some survived because they were less easily detectable by predators, while others were eaten because they stood out against their backgrounds too much to avoid predation. It is not like some of the moths were Einsteins and others were stupid. They were just born with varying traits, and some had what it took to survive until they reproduced – darker pigments that allowed them to avoid being dinner for some chicks. No intelligence necessary on the part of the moths.

The power of evolutionary theory is that its trial and error strategies churn out “design out of chaos without the aid of mind” (Dennett 1995). It turns out that evolution must happen given three simple prerequisites: variability, inheritance, and selection pressure. Does evolution need a mind or intelligent planning? No. Evolution is a mindless, dumb process devoid of intelligence. This is demonstrated not only in the moth case, but in countless and boundless other cases throughout the natural world (the Galapagos finches, for example).

Having crudely established the fact that mindlessness is the key to the power of the universal acid of evolutionary theory, intellectual suspicion is warranted when someone proclaims that they believe believe in both a skyhook (a source of design complexity that did not build on lower, simpler levels – in other words, a miraculous event or force) and evolution.

The belief in a skyhook inherently and most importantly separates the proponents of scientific evolution from the proponents of “not-so-scientific” evolution. Religious moderates against the Intelligent Design movement will be unfortunately saddened to learn that they inhabit the same territory as I.D. proponents when they say they believe in “theistic evolution.” However, if they wish to join the side of sound scientific evolution, they must do away with the idea of any skyhook, which includes any deity, intelligence, life force, creator, or mind – at least until evidence and logical justification for these entities is discovered. The conflict between faith and reason is zero sum. To paper over this conflict is embarrassing and dangerous, and we should stop making apologies for it. Declaring this is not “religious intolerance.” It is just plain honesty.

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~ by jsacc001 on January 10, 2009.

3 Responses to “Who’s Afraid of Mindless Evolution?”

  1. They can still believe in their magic fairy. They just can’t invoke it to explain the diversity of life. Of course it’s fair to say their magic fairy is worthless and it’s pointless to believe in it.

    I liked your “It turns out that evolution must happen given three simple prerequisites: variability, inheritance, and selection pressure.” and the rest of your comments. Very well written and I think I learned some things.

    I wish the evolution-deniers would read your article, I wish they were able to understand it, and I wish they had the courage to accept it. Unfortunately they are too cowardly to grow up and face facts. Or perhaps they are just plain stupid. I will never understand why there’s so many creationists and why they’re so insane.

  2. Good piece. It’s thought that the death of his daughter Annie really did for what remained of Darwin’s Christianity. He was ‘quite orthodox’ while on the Beagle but I think his burgeoning evolutionary thoughts – which he first wrote aboard in 1836 – started his doubts about the reliability of scripture and from there…

  3. Hey, great post!

    Incidentally, I’ve found that recalcitrant mystics, like my father, actually push the mindless evolution take, as a means of making teleological-ish arguments. You know, the watch and watchmaker crap, “it couldn’t have been chance.”

    What always boggles my mind is their incapability to comprehend the scope of this “trial and error.” Random collisions of matter, for billions of years across a galaxy of who knows what size. Even if we’re missing direct observations supporting that, a 4 year old could point that gun the other way. Parsimony dictates that life, and then complex and conscious life, came about in a manner consistent with everything else we’ve discovered to be fact. Like, um, science.

    The “Million monkeys on typewriters with enough time make Shakespeare” always gets a laugh when I point it out, but it’s simple mathematical fact. But don’t worry. As always, we know that in the end, natural selection will sift out the mystics after they’ve destroyed our world for the last time.

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