Common sense vs. Darwinism

What matters most about teaching Darwinism to schoolchildren? I think, what it tells them about themselves. And what it tells them I think can be very harmful. 

Here's why. Can you follow me?

1. I experience being conscious, having conscious experiences. Agreed?

2. Often while I’m conscious I'll consciously decide to do something, and then do it. This won't be just a physical reflex, I'll be doing it for the sake of some other conscious experience in the future. Suppose I buy a book about art. What matters to me is not buying the book, it's the effect that will have on my future conscious experiences. Conscious experience is what gives meaning to something physical like buying that book. For me, conscious experiences are at least as "real" as matter, and on the whole more meaningful. Agreed?

3. Thinking like this is basic to the arts and the humanities. They're usually about how what someone thinks and does today can affect what they'll experience in the future. Agreed?

4. That's true for the physical sciences too. Carrying out a scientific experiment involves a series of conscious operations like these:

Coming up with a question, creating alternative possible answers, designing an experiment to tell which of these hypotheses is more likely right, judging which of them the results confirm, and empathizing with others--assessing who’d like to be told. Questioning, creating, designing, use of reason, judging other people’s reactions—these are just as much the foundation of the sciences as of the humanities.

It's by thinking of mind and matter interacting like this that we make sense of ourselves and the world around us. Agreed?

5. But here's a strange thought: What's true of us must also be true of the universe we live in, since we're a part of that universe. In other words, if mind and matter can interact within us individually then logically they can interact outside us elsewhere in the universe too, right? It could have been through mind and matter interacting that we have both minds and bodies. By studying that, how we evolved to become conscious, we might discover where our conscious capabilities came from and how to enhance them further. 


Here we run up against the account of evolution that's taught to children in school--Darwinism, our shared origin story.

Most people I talk to say, all they know about evolution is what they were taught in school: we evolved through random mutations to our genes, followed by natural selection. No interaction of mind and matter here, these are both purely physical processes. 

What does this story tell children about themselves? To me it tells them that, since they're made by purely physical processes, they must be purely physical too. Imagine a smart kid asking, "What about consciousness?" According to today's science, because consciousness isn't made of atoms it's not physical, so it can't interact with anything that is made of atoms. It's not real like matter so it can't make anything physical happen. Now let's imagine, the kid's really stubborn: "Consciousness is real to me, I can make things happen just by thinking them." No you can't, science will reply. Thinking you can consciously make things happen is just an illusion. You're no different from everything else in the world, you're purely physical too, and everything you do is determined by the laws of physics. What you do is what your brain makes you do. In effect, you're a robot.

This is the physicalism that dominates today's science, believed in by most of the writers of school biology textbooks. I strongly disagree. I can’t live without conscious experiences being real, to some extent at least independent of today's physics. To me that's common sense. It's my mission to encourage you to insist that conscious experiences are real for you, too, and to agitate for some other story about how we evolved, that can account for our conscious experiences. 

Am I misguided? Show me to my satisfaction I am and I’ll be delighted to give up. Otherwise, for me, it's the logic behind today's theory of evolution that's misguided:

Scientists insist that accounts of evolution must stay within the limits set by today's physical laws. But they don't limit themselves to today's physics when what they want to account for is their own mental operations. Instead, to account for those mental operations they invoke future progress in science that they assume will follow along the lines of science today. But sciences able to account for scientists' mental operations could find similar operations in the processes of evolution. After all, those processes are obviously able to make creatures like us that are conscious, they can "transact" in consciousness somehow. Aren't those scientists guilty of defying logic in applying one limit to accounting for evolution and a different limit to accounting for their own mental operations? 

Today's purely physical theory of evolution, Darwinism, could be hideously wrong about almost everything. It could be holding back our understanding of the natural world. And what about us? Our decision-making seems crucially different from that of purely physical things--a volcano can't apply reason, it can't hold two hypotheses in mind while it plans an experiment to distinguish between them as a scientist can. An origin story that tells us our conscious experiences are illusions, that all our decisions are determined by physics, mightn't that have a corrosive impact on human nature over future generations? Should we be teaching that to our children? Isn't that a challenge the humanities should respond to?

Note, the issue isn't dualism or creationism, it's science's assertion that to account for both consciousness and what it means we evolved, all you need is today's physics. Are we sure enough about that to teach it, as the truth, to our children? Doubting Darwinism isn't anti-science if it leads science to abandon an arrogant reductionism it would be better off without.

What you can do for yourself now is look around this site and check out the "Theory of Everything" video, see sidebar on this page. For an alternative mind-focused theory of evolution pick up a copy of the book "Re-thinking What it Means We Evolved," take links also in the sidebar. Please comment below or email me through our contact page. Tell me, does this matter? If so, spread the word. It's a matter of common sense.



The humanities are being presented with a golden opportunity to revolutionize themselves from within, through the study of evolution. The opportunity arises from the abandonment by top evolutionists of the prevailing scientific account of evolution. The scientific account is a synthesis of two purely physical processes—genetic mutation and natural selection. With scientists abandoning this theory, the humanities are free to model the process of evolution around the product of evolution they know best, the traditional subject matter of the humanities--human beings with volition, conscious, creative, and possessed of free will.

For the abandonment of the scientific theory see Among over 50 professional evolutionists testifying to having lost faith in the “modern synthesis” are Denis Noble, James Shapiro, and Eva Jablonka.

The 19th century saw our understanding of the natural world turned upside down. The agent we thought responsible for the entire natural world at the beginning of the century—the Christian God/Creator—by century’s end had been replaced by another, the process of evolution, a process powerful and creative enough to turn microbes into elephants and giraffes and human beings in a mere billion years.

Early attempts to give meaning to this revolution came from the humanities. Erasmus Darwin was a physician, inventor and poet. Robert Chambers was a professional journalist. Samuel Butler was a novelist and art historian. But the meeting of two others, Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace, both initially amateur explorers and naturalists, led to science establishing a monopoly over declaring the meaning of evolution. Evolution would retain its original meaning as what accounted for the origin of species, while issues of more interest to the humanities, such as how evolution impacted human history and ways evolution impacted our lives individually, would be frowned on and relegated to coffee-house chatter.

Alfred Wallace, co-discoverer with Charles Darwin of natural selection, was at first even more insistent than Darwin that natural selection was the mechanism driving all of evolution. But because of a disparity he found between their theory and the course of human history, Wallace concluded that humans were an exception. Some other agency had to be involved in the evolution of our species, Wallace said, and he began attending spiritualist séances to identify it. Darwin’s reaction was unusually strong, he expressed disgust and accused Wallace of disloyalty to the cause they’d jointly embraced.

In the course of years spent living among societies beyond the reach of modern civilization in South America and the Malay Archipelago, Wallace had come to like and admire the people he met there, reporting them his equal as human beings. But he noticed lacking among them certain capabilities history showed us having acquired in the course of becoming civilized, such as mathematics and reasoning. Their lack of these capabilities told him that these characteristics either had to have evolved in us in the course of becoming civilized, which was too rapid a process for natural selection to account for. Or, if humans had been created as a species with these characteristics, through “disuse” in the course of non-civilized existence natural selection would have extinguished them. Either way, natural selection couldn’t account for the mental qualities we experienced ourselves possessing, Wallace concluded.

From this point the sciences and the humanities could have gone their separate ways. The humanities could have established departments dedicated to the study of evolution in history and psychology, for example. But Darwin represented a movement intensely jealous of its principles, from which it would tolerate no deviation. The movement Darwin subscribed to was Positivism, a re-ordering of how science was to be carried out dreamed up by the Frenchman Auguste Comte. The method of science was to be experiment, and the principle of interpretation was reductionism. Findings at “higher” levels—psychological, biological—were to be interpreted in terms of the more fundamental levels of mathematics and physics. Darwin encountered Comte’s thinking while he was looking for a mechanism for evolution in the late 1830’s and  was dazzled by it. Employing it to account for the evolution of living creatures would be a magnificent triumph for Positivist science.

And so it turned out. By the time Darwin published his account of the origin of species Positivist science had come to dominate scientists’ thinking, and Darwin’s mechanism seemed as glorious a demonstration of it as Newton’s work on gravity has seemed of modern science. Thomas Huxley towards the end of the 19th century would generalize Positivism into physicalism, the principle that the Universe consisted only of matter acted on by physical forces. Conscious experiences may exist but, not being made of matter, could have no influence on anything that was physical, to cause any physical change. The sense we had free will was an illusion. Physicalism stripped the humanities of all their meaning.

Here’s how Michael Ruse expresses the situation, in Monad to Man: The Concept of Progress in Evolutionary Biology”, “progress” standing loosely for the humanities-approach to what evolution means. “There was no place for [old-fashioned talk about progress] in the work of the professional evolutionist…. Progress had been eliminated from professional evolutionism to protect its status as “professional”…. The emphasis must always be on epistemic values [origin of species].”

The point I am trying to establish is that the absence of humanities’departments devoted to the study of evolution is an artefact of a very particular historical period, that is coming to an end. Modern genomics has revealed that a combination of genetic mutation and natural selection cannot be what drives evolution. James Shapiro, in “Evolution: The View from the 21st century,” says he expect to find the same processes driving the machinery of the cell at a scale of milliseconds, the evolution of new species at the scale of eons, and processes of life at all scales in between. Denis Noble in “The Music of Life” supposes processes controlling living creatures operate at every scale from individual genes up to entire organisms. The individual human being may all along have been a player in his or her own evolution.

This site is intended to serve artists, writers and members of the humanities as a resource for coming up with new theories of evolution. The site links to the book “Re-Thinking What it means We Evolved,” in which I try to show how such theories can be arrived at.

Prep for "New Trends in Evolutionary Biology" conference

Review of “The Meaning of Science” by Tim Lewens

September marked the start of a 3-year $8 million John Templeton Foundation project, “Putting the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis to the Test” involving 50 experts at 8 institutes who will study and report on “empirical and theoretical research.” Evolutionary theory seems once again to be catching the spotlight. In London November 7-9 evolutionist Denis Noble will preside over a joint conference of the Royal Society and the British Academy titled “New Trends in Evolutionary Biology: Biological, Philosophical and Social Science Perspectives.” How can members of the British Academy use this opportunity to explore what evolutionary theory implies, or could imply, for the arts and the humanities?

They might start by familiarizing themselves with how scientists think. One of the John Templeton Foundation’s project’s four themes is “Conceptual Issues.” The leader of that theme is Tim Lewens. In his recently-published “The Meaning of Science” he describes for non-scientists some of the lines of thinking through which scientists influence social policy and inspire sensational news stories. Through simple writing and down-to-earth examples he defines these lines of thinking unusually clearly. In fact, he defined them clearly enough for me to recognize them as barriers cutting across how I think. I saw my thinking as like a dinghy trying to cross a series of booms to contain oil spills set at right angles to my path.

The book is generally fair and informative. I’ll focus only on those particular lines of thinking that I experienced as barriers to my own way of thinking. Those lines of thinking deal with free will, consciousness, and evolution. What they act as barriers to is thinking about an issue that I expect to be foremost for artists and members of the humanities, the issue of creativity—can we, through our conscious thinking, be genuinely creative? For me, this is fundamental—I cannot doubt that through conscious experience I can be creative. It is in pursuit of that conviction that I experience Lewens’ lines of scientific thinking as barriers.

One barrier to my way of thinking is alternatives being presented in terms of lop-sided dualities--what scientists assume and a straw man alternative. Disposing of the straw man is then taken to confirm the soundness of what scientists assume. Lewens does this now and then. Rebuttal, of course, consists of rejection of these simplistic dualities and the posing of further alternatives.

Here is Lewens’ line of thinking about free will: Science has established that the universe consists of only matter acted on by physical forces. Science tells us that matter and physical forces obey invariable physical laws, which means all happenings in the universe are determined by prior physical events. So “Either our actions are causally determined, or [straw man] they take the form of [random happenings] that might take us entirely by surprise.” Ditching this straw man leaves only the alternative that we are determined. How then to account for our experience of seeming to arrive at decisions consciously? Only something physical, like our brains, can apply physical forces to make us do anything, so it has to be in the brain that our decisions are arrived at. Our consciousness, being no more than a kind of shadow cast by our brains, registers decisions only after the brain’s come up with them. To console those who can’t abandon belief in “the far more spooky, scientifically intolerable idea that human action is independent of prior causal influence,” they are offered the consolation that the world’s far too complex for anyone to actually prove they don’t have free will, so they can go on believing they have free will if they want to. But for those of us in the know, that sense of having free will is nothing but an illusion. Implied is, that must go for creativity too—as behavior driven by the brain it too must be determined and can’t really be novel.

There it is, the now familiar argument denying free will and, along with it, creativity. The argument is usually delivered at greater length but essentially involves this same sequence of claims. Fortunately it is easily rebutted. Here goes: You can apply the methods of science to only what happens the same way each time you study it, in other words to what’s determined. Anything that isn’t determined like that, such as creativity that’s different every time you study it, science can find no evidence for and dismisses as “non-physical”—resistant to further study. The physicalist line of thinking takes science’s inability to study creativity and free will as proof they aren’t “real,” and brands them illusions. This argument is obviously full of holes.

How about conscious experience? Since we all experience it physicalists have to admit it exists. But operations within consciousness such as free will and creativity they deny reality to by making a simplistic division of mental operations into a physical part, our brains, and a non-physical part, our minds. While admitting interaction can proceed from brain to mind, as when we feel pain from a physical blow or when photons register as sight, it is argued that interaction can’t go the other way, from anything non-physical like consciousness to something physical like the brain, to drive our behavior. In fact, the brain-mind duality is purely hypothetical, mental operating may not divide like that at all, it may be all one, of a nature we haven’t yet divined, involving interactions we’ve no clue to.

Let’s give this physicalist line of thinking a name, and simply refer to it as the “already falsified argument based on a misconceived physical reality” or whatever. It would be tedious to have to repeat all the separate rebuttals each time this argument reappears.

Clearly, the meaning of science as Lewens reports it involves a notion of human nature unlike that common in the arts and the humanities. So which version of human nature should artists and members of the humanities ask that theories of evolution be able to account for? How different is that likely to be from what scientists’ theories offer?

Lewens traces how scientists are likely to think about this issue. In his epilogue Lewens says conscious sensations can be studied only as either facts and skills! Of someone imagined to be seeing something colored for the first time he says “Mary’s vast theoretical knowledge of color and color perception was not sufficient for her to know what it is like to see red, because knowledge of what it is like to see red is a skill”! Not a conscious sensation, but either a fact or a skill! This example should warn us that no matter how authoritative scientists may sound, they may be making distinctions imposed on them by limits in how you can apply scientific thinking. So a theory of the evolution of consciousness need account for only the creation of facts and talents, not anything whooshy like “sensations.” Elsewhere, in a chapter titled “Nature Beware,” Lewens reduces the burden that human nature imposes on evolution even further. He quotes philosophers David Hull as being “suspicious of continued claims about the existence and importance of human nature,” and Michael Ghiselin: “What does evolution teach us about human nature? It teaches us that human nature is a superstition.” Why, asks Lewens, are philosophers doubting the propriety of the very notion of human nature? His answer: “They think that the ubiquitous role of variation in the biological world means that no species has a nature… they point out that it is in the nature of evolutionary processes to make rare traits common, and common traits rare, as new mutations are favored by selection and replace previously dominant traits.” Of another philosopher of science he says “In his view, human nature is nothing more than a set of traits made common in our species by evolutionary processes.”

For me consciousness and creativity are fundamental properties of human nature. Accounting for how they evolved I think calls for a mechanism able to transact in terms of things and processes both physical and non-physical. But for these philosophers of science a theory of evolution need account for nothing more than traits that rise and fall in frequency in response to changes in the environment, alternative versions of genes for traits like texture of hair or color of skin that help creatures adapt to a different climate, say, or a higher elevation. They’ll be satisfied by mere extensions to the modern synthesis’ combination of purely physical processes, genetic mutation and natural selection. Ask how purely physical processes can account for the evolution of such processes as consciousness and they may reply that consciousness consists of nothing more than facts and talents, easy to express in terms of traits. No problem.

The John Templeton Foundation project is titled “Putting the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis to the Test.” What extensions would you suggest adding to a theory like that to make it account for consciousness and creativity, as those in the arts and humanities experience it? If scientists ask you for tests you’d want applied to a theory to see if it works, what would you suggest?

The two sides in this debate seem far apart but there’s no point in raising unnecessary barriers. Insisting that something non-physical can be as real as what’s physical does not necessarily amount to dualism. It’s simply a realization that our acquaintance with the real world happens through two separate channels, science, and consciousness. Physics applies to what happens the same way each time you do an experiment, and consciousness is how we experience and create novelty. Human nature employs both channels. And so may evolution.

Timothy Lewins is a professor of philosophy of science at Cambridge University and a fellow of Clare College. In his book he is reporting current thinking in his field. It’s hard to know what he himself believes. But he is a determinist. Decisions that we feel are driven by free will may actually be determined for us by unconscious physical cues. Of them he says, “All of these things involve forms of free will, all are compatible with determinism. It is not clear why we should require anything more.” Not clear to him, perhaps, but clear to those of us for whom creativity is a daily reality that we want taken into account in any theory of evolution.


Below, microdata:

Evolution for the Humanities
The Meaning of Science evolution

"Neurasthenia"--we need it now

Posted by Shaun Johnston, April 7, 2017.

“Neurasthenia” was a medical term characteristic of the period from 1880 to 1920 that I think we’d be well off reintroducing. Also called “Americanitis”: “The best educated, most cultured Americans were suffering from a new, distinctly American condition that was destroying their health. They had migraines, poor digestion, fatigue, depression, and even complete mental collapse in alarming numbers. They suffered from neurasthenia – nervous exhaustion…. Beard saw neurasthenia as created by the hectic, fast-paced life in American cities – he even called it ‘American nervousness.’ The nation’s leaders in business, government, and the arts were made ill by the stress and strain of modern life. The only cure was withdrawal from the pressures of urban life, rest, and a simpler, healthy lifestyle.” (from The term "neurasthenia" was succeeded by terms such as “neuroticism.”

In “No Place for Grace” Jackson Lears accounts for neurasthenia as a reaction against the meaninglessness associated with the loss of Christian faith and the onrush of modern city life, and he details various distinct strategies that sufferers employed. Interesting, because in today’s widely-reported transgressiveness and feeling of not belonging to the world these causes are often blended and hard to identify. I think the term helpfully tags a common modern attitude that otherwise we find it difficult to acknowledge and engage with.

Here are some of the strategies Lears mentions: retirement into arts and crafts handwork, losing insistent invidualism in the imperatives of combat, mind cures, return to a medieval lifestyle, adopting Catholicism for its ritual, romantic creativity, folk customs, exotic travel and eastern religions. Lears has a wonderful turn of phrase. Some examples: modernity's evasive banality,the worship of force, republican strenuosity, quest for authentic selfhood, the spiritual dessication of a rationalizing culture, and repeated references to modernity as "weightless." 

Notably, the period 1884 to 1940 is also marked by a lull in belief in evolution. Today we could add to Lears' various causes of neurasthenia the debilitating implications for human nature of its evolution being thought to consist of purely physical processes.

Kahneman's selfs include an important "planning" self

How many selfs do we have? In “Thinking Fast and Slow” Daniel Kahneman points out that we each have at least two. One is the “experiencing” self that experiences the present moment. The other, the “remembering” self, provides us with access to memories of past present-moment experiences.

So obvious, so banal. Except… I’m astonished how this simple distinction can induce so much illumination.

First Kahneman points out ways our memories of past events differ from how we actually experienced them. Our memories give greater emphasis to peak experiences, and to the events’ closing moments. These tend to take precedence over our experience of the event as a whole. I realized that was true, and made a mental note to adjust my recall accordingly.

But then he came up with something that really shocked me. “A thought experiment about your next vacation will allow you to observe your attitude to your experiencing self.” Offered the most wonderful vacation I can imagine, how much would I consider it worth? But he adds a wrinkle—on returning home I must drink a potion that will dissolve and flush away all memory of my vacation experiences, I am left with nothing to recall it by. Now how much would I consider the prospect of the vacation worth? I realized with a shock that I placed much less value on the prospect of present moment experiences if they would not be available for recall. I thought I had become wise enough to value peak experiences for their own sake, in the moment alone. Obviously not. That, as I say, shocked me.

Posing this question to a friend I learned of a third self, a “planning” self that estimates the value of future experiences of present moments. My friend said she would pay nothing for such a vacation because she had learned from experience that the value of present-moments experiences cannot be predicted in advance. So, offered a vacation of a kind associated with all her fondest memories, whether or not she would have recall of it, for her made no difference to its value. The question did not challenge her opinions about the self, as it did mine.

How would other parties respond to being asked the same question. Take Bob, for example, who believes consciousness passes like a baton to whichever of many independent mental modules most insistently claims it at each instant, without any having executive privilege to speak for them all. To consider the question won’t he have to assume he does have an executive module prepared to arbitrate between how other modules over how they influence the executive’s estimate of the value of the offered vacation?  

And how about Mike, who believes the universe is purely physical. Because we all experience conscious experience he has to admit the brain can generate it. But because it isn’t physical it can’t act back on the brain, he insists--all our behavior is generated by what’s physical about us, our brains and bodies. Now the vacation-question faces him with having to make some damaging concessions: that conscious experiences can impose themselves on the brain, to get themselves recorded in memory. And, he must concede the brain can register the value consciousness places on its own experiences. The question even implies that his purely physical brain can conceive of conscious experiences of which it retains no memory. How can the brain form a concept of something that he supposes can make no impact on it, in the first place? The vacation-question seems to pry the physicalist position apart.

However, what does it mean for people like me, shocked to discover their valuation of conscious experiences is greatly affected by whether they retain recall of them? To me it signifies that I have developed a narrative self that values experiences ultimately by what they contribute to the narrative that self is composing. Essentially that narrative self is second-guessing present-moment experiences with a “what is it worth” assessment. It signals an end of innocence in being in the moment that I regret.

In reading this you must have formed an opinion of what the vacation-question “means.” Please do add a comment to share your opinion with the rest of us. Here’s Kahneman’s: “Odd as it may seem, I am my remembering self, and the experiencing self, who does my living, is like a stranger to me.”