Reflections

A Best of All Possible Worlds

First, a Happy Thanksgiving to all celebrating!

Since finishing Ken Miller’s upcoming book The Human InstinctI’ve thought a lot about humanity. The history of the Earth is unique. If we could rewind time, the history of life would not repeat itself. Even with the same early conditions, evolutionary history would be very different. We probably wouldn’t exist. There is a lot of uncertainty inherent in evolution.

Humanity is far from perfect. People suffer from incurable diseases and every kind of poverty. Nations war with other nations without any peace in sight. Still, it’s a biological miracle that we even exist. We are a young species, and possibly the only intelligent life form in the entire universe. And have you seen the size of the universe?

In the 18th century, Voltaire ridiculed Leibniz’s philosophy of optimism in a satire titled Candide. Pangloss, the quack doctor and pseudo-Leibnizian in the novel, suffers every kind of atrocity imaginable, but he somehow survives them all because this is the best of all possible worlds. Voltaire employed vivid descriptions of rape, murder, and natural disasters to ridicule Leibniz’s optimistic view of humanity.

But in a way, isn’t this the best of all possible worlds for humans?

My understanding is that Leibniz’s theory developed in an attempt to reconcile divine freedom and divine goodness. In his model, God created this particular universe out of an infinite number of possible universes (God was free to choose a different universe), and it was the best universe because God can’t create anything less than perfect. All sin is a product of human free will, a faculty God gave to his intelligent creatures. It’s complicated.

But possibility could also refer to the many Earths evolution could have but did not create. We don’t know what could have happened, but if conditions had been even slightly different at any point in evolutionary history, we would not be here. There is a lot of suffering in this world, but this is the only possible world in which we could exist. On a biological (not ethical) level, this is the best of all possible worlds for humans.

I believe that societies can improve. This is not a call for inaction or indifference. But I am thankful that I exist. I am concerned about the future of the planet because I know how miraculous our existence is. We are dust – like bacteria, ants, and giraffes. But we are self-aware dust.

Today, I am thankful for my existence as an individual and our existence as a species.

 

Nonfiction by Genre, Science

Review of The Human Instinct

Image result for the human instinct kenneth millerIn 2000, biologist Randy Thornhill and anthropologist Craig Palmer offered an evolutionary explanation for the presence of rape in the human population. In their book titled A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion, Thornhill and Palmer argued that rape was a direct product of natural selection; men who raped had a higher fitness than men who didn’t, so natural selection favored traits associated with rape.

As you can imagine, A Natural History of Rape received a firestorm of criticism from feminists and moralists alike. By offering an evolutionary explanation for rape, Thornhill and Palmer seemed to excuse rape. Furthermore, they suggested that rapists were the “winners” in the evolutionary arms race, producing more offspring than their non-rapist counterparts.

Despite the overwhelming evidence in favor of evolution by natural selection, millions of Americans remain ardent Creationists. No amount of evidence can convince them otherwise.

In his forthcoming book The Human Instinct: How We Evolved to Have Reason, Consciousness, and Free Will (April 2018), Kenneth Miller tries to unpack the reasons why evolution is rejected by so many people. Evolution deniers are concerned about the ontological and ethical consequences of modern scientific theory. Many are perfectly fine with the evolutionary history of fish, but they insist that humans were uniquely created by a loving God.

Today, evolutionary biology is applied not only to human anthropology but also to human psychology, social behavior, and even art. E.O. Wilson has applied his research on ant colonies to the understanding of human behavior. Others attribute our preference for landscape art to our evolutionary history as hominids living in the jungles of Africa.

But how much of the above is grounded in actual science? Quite a bit, actually. Miller cites numerous studies to show that while popular scientists often exaggerate what we can know about human behavior based on evolutionary biology, humans are just as much a product of evolution as other animals; humans and other animals share similar traits.

But these studies seem to undermine human dignity and to preference aggression and selfishness. Creationists consider evolutionary biology as a threat to human exceptionalism and everything that flows from such a lofty perspective on our species.

Full-blown Creationists are not the only ones concerned. While rejecting young earth Creationism as unscientific, Marilynne Robinson is critical of what she refers to as “Darwinism”. In her essay “The Death of Adam”, which I read last year, Robinson bemoans the apparent nihilism inherent in evolutionary biology. Humans are no longer the center of creation. We are the accidental product of a mindless process that favors aggression and selfishness.

In The Human Instinct, Kenneth Miller offers a more optimistic but equally scientific alternative to the brutal nihilism professed by biologists like E. O. Wilson. After a few chapters dedicated to the defense of human evolution, Miller moves to considering the ontological (related to being) and ethical implications of modern science. He too is concerned about justice, free will, and human exceptionalism. But he doesn’t look for answers in the non-material. We are material organisms, and science may one day be able to explain the entire universe in material terms. Still, there are uncertainties inherent in life.

By assuming the role of Marilynne Robinson’s interlocutor, Miller acknowledges that some criticisms of evolutionary biology are worthy of consideration. Anyone who has studied evolutionary biology (as I have) has struggled with the questions of human dignity and free will. If there isn’t anyhing unique about humans, should we model ourselves after ants? Does human life mean anything outside of the context of reproduction? Is free will compatible with evolution? If not, how can humans be responsible for their actions?

Image result for biology textbook kenneth millerMiller’s treatment of these topics is nuanced and well-grounded in science. He exposes the ongoing controversies in the scientific community surrounding the evolutionary basis of human behavior without once denying that humans are animals. Kenneth Miller is, after all, a cell biologist at Brown University and an outspoken critic of Intelligent Design. He is the co-author of the book on the right, which was my biology textbook in high school.

The Human Instinct is a good follow-up to Finding Darwin’s God (1999) and a much-needed alternative to the overly pessimistic narratives promoted by scientists like E.O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins. It doesn’t offer any definitive answers to the “big questions”, but it challenges popular assumptions about the consequences of evolution on human exceptionalism.

I received this book from NetGalley in exchange for a free and honest review. “The Human Instinct” is scheduled for publication by Simon & Schuster on April 17, 2018.