Monday, May 11, 2009

Evolution's Appeal

Scientific problems with evolution don't really matter. This genre of thought scratches too many itches to let science bring it down. Traditionally those itches have mainly been theological and philosophical. Now, as the evolutionary narrative subsumes human nature, new itches emerge. Geoffrey Miller, an evolutionary psychologist, provides a peek into this latest addition to evolution's intellectual necessity. This quote appears in a fancy, inside cover advertisement run by the John Templeton Foundation, in this month's Scientific American:

In the last two decades, evolutionary psychology has cast new light on ever more facets of human nature. And contrary to popular critiques of the field, it has done so in way that are ever more intellectually thrilling, morally enlightening, spiritually satisfying, and socially progressive. What we mean by "evolution" and "human nature" continues to develop through mutual interaction, lie the passions of a whispering couple in a close-embrace tango.

What a coincidence that objective scientific research just happens to be "intellectually thrilling, morally enlightening, spiritually satisfying, and socially progressive." Any chance that is not really a coincidence? Any chance evolutionary research is not really scientific research?

During the 1990s, biologists developed a whole new toolbox of ideas about the nature of evolution, including theories based on life history, multi-level selection, strong reciprocity, good-genes sexual selection, and costly signalling. These terms may be unfamiliar to non-specialists, but they represent a revolution in Darwinian theory and have proven their value again and again in understanding aspects of human nature that defy simplistic "survival of the fittest" reasoning.

That's true, there has been a revolution in Darwinian theory. And the just-so stories have become even more unbelievable. This new toolbox of ideas does explain many aspects of human nature, but so does astrology. Ever since Darwin, evolution has become increasingly complex and circuitous. Today it looks like one massive Rube Goldberg machine, ready to collapse on itself.