Dog Food, De-Evolution and theDe-Divining of Man
Keith Riler FAITH MAGAZINE September-October 2013
Keith Riler is the pen-name of a ﬁnancial analyst who has written for this magazine, First Things, the daily internet publication The American Thinker, LifeNews and Texas Right to Life. In this article he argues against reductionist accounts of what it is to be human.
As my Labrador grows, food restocking occurs ever more frequently. On a recent trip to Petco, I assisted an arthritic elderly gentleman with his bag of dog food. This was no big deal and nothing to brag about, just a simple, natural, common and right thing to do. It later occurred to me that this is exactly the sort of thing Thomas Nagel would cite as being inconsistent with the survival of the fittest storyline.
Put differently, the materialist neo-Darwinian conception of nature is almost certainly false and those who hew to its reductivist tenets would strip us of what makes us human.
That the materialist neo-Darwinian concept is false is the subject of Nagel’s 2012 book, Mind and Cosmos. The book is not a religious book, nor a default to a divine explanation. It simply points out that there are things about man, critical things, which are not explained by the merely physical, reproductive fitness, adaptive needs narrative.
Specifically and according to Nagel, our consciousness, cognition and value are incompatible with evolutionary naturalism in its materialist form.
Nagel further suggests that it would be good “if the secular theoretical establishment, and the contemporary enlightened culture which it dominates, could wean itself of … [its] Darwinism of the gaps… the approach is incapable of providing an adequate account, either constitutive or historical, of our universe.”1
Ouch. Nagel is an atheist and a New York University professor of philosophy, but these desirable postmodern credentials have not insulated him from the ire of evolutionism’s faithful, which ire has been directed at the heretic with Torquemadian passion:
A month after the book was published, a group of prominent atheist scientists and philosophers – including Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Alex Rosenberg – held a conference about “Moving Naturalism Forward” in which Nagel’s book was identified as a source for much distress and derangement. The Guardian gave the book the title of “Most Despised Science Book of 2012” and Prospect magazine felt compelled to defend Nagel’s sanity.
As Tocqueville observed: “The majority has enclosed thought within a formidable fence. A writer is free within that area, but woe to the man who goes beyond it.”2 Or, as Mel Brooks sang: “The Inquisition, what a show!”
That those who cling to evolutionism would strip us of what makes us human may seem far-fetched and conspiratorially minded, but try to view the suggestion less as an accusation of coordination and more as a simple statement that ideas matter.
Nagel’s three reductivist evolutionary incompatibles of subjective consciousness, cognition and real value (good/bad and right/wrong) manifest themselves in our common experiences of meaning, purpose, fraternity, courage, optimism, love, honesty, loyalty, justice, sympathy, beauty, fidelity, self-sacrifice and concern, among other things. These things “transcend the imperatives of biology”.3 They make no contribution to our reproductive fitness yet are important, perhaps the most important, human tendencies.
Nagel points out that lions have evolved in such a way that a female lion becomes receptive to a male’s advances soon after that same male has killed her offspring. Us, not so much. Human mothers would have a tendency to reflect longer and deeper about such a man.
Faced with these wonderful facts of human life (charity, beauty, etc), evolutionary reductivists default to subjectivity, assume that our impressions of value are illusory and see moral reasoning as a sophisticated mechanism to get what we really want (a free decoder ring to anyone who, without laughing, can explain my Petco experience in these terms).
Said differently, faced with two mutually exclusive conclusions – (a) evolutionism is true and therefore moral realism is false, and (b) moral realism is true and therefore evolutionism is inadequate – reductivists choose (a). The real-world results of this choice are relativism, the nihilistic despair of chance and the joylessness of being a cellular mass, an accumulation of mere chemical reactions.
The Impact of Materialism
Consider that most creeds have both leader-bishop-theologians and faithful who, although less well-versed, still live out the implications of their faith. Across society we see the impact of the materialist creed and its rejection of our transcendent qualities as untrue. Although the creed is professed by elites, it is lived by the less fortunate and its results are real.
Evolutionism’s fruits include the loss of virtue, an incoherent aesthetic culture and a rejection of our human nature. Consider, as a small sample, the collapse of marriage and female dissatisfaction; the rejection of beauty and deconstruction of art; abortion; and our growing hopelessness and loss of a sense of American exceptionalism.
First, we may not be cub-eating lions, but we do have cougars [a term which, for the benefit of readers not familiar with North American slang, refers to an older woman seeking a sexual relationship with a younger man]. The sexual revolution and the impermanence wrought by no-fault divorce have produced unprecedented loneliness and the phenomenon of sad, bar-crawling post-divorcee moms. The “paradox of declining female happiness” has been well documented and is traced to the sexually autonomous ethos and its ditching of fidelity, perseverance and marital fortitude. With new-found freedom has come new-found dissatisfaction, for which promiscuity has not been an antidote.
Second, the artistic equivalent of choice (a) above is the sophomoric, oft-heard and thoroughly modern question “Who’s to say what’s art?” As the American poet and essayist Mark Signorelli has written: “Once it became common to doubt or to deny that man had any essential inclination toward beauty or truth, the purpose of making objects intended to unite beauty and truth in various ways was no longer evident.”
Therefore, and consistent with the rejection of every standard norm of artistic creation, as art we get urinals, smeared paint, found junk, literary nonsense, mutilated bodies, amorphous blobs and excrement. The modern artist finds himself “possessed by a horrible freedom … undermined by any higher purpose than choice itself.”
Third, the assumption of our being just a clump of chance biological cells has no clearer spawn than abortion. Pro-choice euphemisms like “pre-embryo,” “foetal tissue,” and “ball of cells” are materialistic and reflect fully the diminishment of human life as chance – easy come, easy go. However, widespread revulsion to the horrors of Kermit Gosnell’s abortion clinic in Philadelphia is an encouraging proof that common sense still rejects the reductivist model (even if only when hit over the head with it).
Finally, it seems more than ever that modern American society is “an experience in dissatisfaction, a wager on the benefits of discontent”.4 Consistent with the despair of chance, there is a new and growing hopelessness and a draining of American optimism. We see this in both the aimlessness of popular culture and the actively managed withdrawal of American international influence. This widespread sense that we have lost our prospects reflects a bad trade of confident teleology for acedia.
The De-Divining of Man
Evolutionism’s clingers-on are leading us down a path of de-evolution, stripping us of the good and the beautiful. This theory-consistent return to individualistic animalism brings us to rivalry. As Blessed John Paul II predicted in Evangelium Vitae (20):
[P]eople inevitably reach the point of rejecting one another. Everyone else is considered an enemy from whom one has to defend oneself. Thus society becomes a mass of individuals placed side by side, but without any mutual bonds. Each one wishes to assert himself independently of the other and in fact intends to make his own interests prevail.
This is the de-divining of man and it is the project of those who hold the idea that there is no more to reality than what the most developed science describes. The desire for a theory of everything is understandable and a natural outgrowth of the human consciousness, cognition and value that Nagel describes; but so is humility. Perhaps we’re just not there yet. Perhaps the materialist theory is incomplete.
Obviously, we can do a lot more damage forcing reality to fit into a reductivist model than being patient enough to require that the theory describes reality. Ideas matter and evolutionism’s forced result is evolutionary back-tracking, putting us on the path to being less human.
St Paul teaches us that now we see God “in a mirror dimly, but then face to face”;5 but the reductivist model blacks out the mirror completely. It is unclear whether these efforts are deliberate, to make the theory work, or simply self-fulfilling prophecy; but the result is a de-divining of man by way of the removal of all that makes us created in God’s image.
So today move the ball forward and be a counter-evolutionist. Do something good and nice, just because it’s the right thing to do.