Me, Derbyshire, and Darwin

An Excavation

July 28, 2014

Over the years I have occasionally expressed doubts over the tenets of evolutionism which, perhaps wrongly, has seemed to me a sort of political correctness of science, or maybe a metaphysics somewhat related to science. As a consequence I have been severely reprehended. The editor of a site devoted to genetic expression furiously began deleting any mention of me from his readers. Others, to include Mr. John Derbyshire of Taki’s Magazine, have expressed disdain, though disdaining to explain just why.

In all of this, my inability to get straight answers that do not shift has frustrated me. I decided to address my questions to an expert in the field, preferably one who loathed me and thus might produce his best arguments so as to stick it to me. To this end I have settled on Mr. Derbyshire.

He has the several advantages of being highly intelligent, an excellent writer, ardent of all things evolutionary and genetic, and well versed in them. I would profit by his instruction in things in which I am only an amateur—should he be so inclined. (He may well have other things to do.) To this end, I submit a few questions which have strained my admittedly paltry understanding for some time. They are not new questions, but could use answers. I agree in advance to accept his answers (if any be given) as canonical.

(1) In evolutionary principle, traits that lead to more surviving children proliferate. In practice, when people learn how to have fewer or no children, they do. Whole industries exist to provide condoms, diaphragms, IUDs, vasectomies, and abortions, attesting to great enthusiasm for non-reproduction. Many advanced countries are declining in population.   How does having fewer surviving children lead to having more surviving children? Less cutely, what selective pressures lead to a desire not to reproduce, and how does this fit into a Darwinian framework?

Two notes: (1) The answer cannot rely on contraception, which is not a force imposed from outside. Just as people invented spears because they wanted to kill food and each other, they invented condoms because they wanted not to have children. The question is how that desire evolved. (2) The non-evolutionary explanation is clear and simple. “We could have two children and a nice condo, or fifteen and live in a shack.”

(2) Morality. In evolution as I understand it, there are no absolute moral values: Morals evolved as traits allowing social cooperation, conducing to the survival of the group and therefore to the production of more surviving children. The philosophical case for this absence of absolutes usually consists in pointing out that in various societies everything currently regarded as immoral has been accepted as acceptable (e.g., burning heretics to death).

I cannot refute the argument. However, I thnk it intellectually disreputable to posit premises and then not accept their consequences.

Question: Why should I not indulge my hobby of torturing to death the severely genetically retarded? This would seem beneficial. We certainly don’t want them to reproduce, they use resources better invested in healthy children, and it makes no evolutionary difference whether they die quietly or screaming.

(3) Abiogenesis. This is not going to be a fair question as there is no way anyone can know the answer, but I pose it anyway. The theory, which I cannot refute, is that a living, metabolizing, reproducing gadget formed accidentally in the ancient seas. Perhaps it did. I wasn’t there. It seems to me, though, that the more complex one postulates the First Critter to have been, the less likely, probably exponentially so, it would have been to form. The less complex one postulates it to have been, the harder to explain why biochemistry, which these days is highly sophisticated, cannot reproduce the event. Question: How many years would have to pass without replication of the event, if indeed it be not replicated, before one might begin to suspect that it didn’t happen? For all I know, it may be accomplished tomorrow. But the check cannot be in the mail forever.

(4) You can’t get there from here. Straight-line evolution, for example in which Eohippus gradually gets larger until it reaches Clydesdale, is plausible because each intervening step is a viable animal. In fact this is just selective breeding. Yet many evolutionary transformations seem to require intermediate stages that could not survive.

For example there are two-cycle bugs (insects, arachnids) that lay eggs that hatch into tiny replicas of the adults, which grow, lay eggs, and repeat the cycle. The four-cycle bugs go through egg, larva, pupa, adult. Question: What are the viable steps needed to evolve from one to the other? Or from anything to four-cycle?

Here I am baffled. As best I can see, the eggs of the two-cycler would have to evolve toward being caterpillars, which are enormously different structurally and otherwise from adults. Goodbye legs, chitinous exoskeleton; head, thorax, and abdomen, on and on. Whatever the first mutation toward this end, the resulting newly-hatched mutant would have to be viable—able to live and reproduce until the next mutation occurred.

It is difficult to see how the evolution from insect to caterpillar could occur at all, or why. But if it did, it would lead to a free-standing race of caterpillars, a new species, necessarily being able to reproduce. Then, for reasons mysterious to me, these would have to decide to pupate and become butterflies. Metamorphosis from caterpillar to butterfly is enormously complex and if you don’t get it right the first time, it’s curtains. Where would it have gotten the impossibly complex genetic blueprint of the butterfly?

Among intellectual loin-cloth-wearers like me, there seems no answer. I do not doubt that Mr. Derbyshire can provide one. Upon receiving same, I promise to shut up.

(5) You can’t get anywhere else from here. Mr. Derbyshire believes strongly in genetic determinism—that we are what we are and behave as we do because of genetic programming. I see no flaw in this. From the baby’s suckling through walking and talking, the adolescent’s omniscience, making love and war, and cooling off with age things seem undeniably genetic.

Behavior less obviously biological also seems built-in. Political orientation, for example.  Note that conservatives usually see the world as dangerous and life as struggle; to have intense loyalty to the pack (patriotism), to reverence the military, to feel empathy for members of their tribe (our fallen heroes, etc.) and none at all for enemy dead; to favor capitalism; and to be hostile to or disdainful of other racial and ethnic groups. That these traits tend strongly to appear together though they are logically independent suggests a genetic basis.

In his book, We Are Doomed, Mr. Derbyshire describes the brain, correctly as far as I can tell, as an electrochemical mechanism, and somewhat delicately hints at chemical determinism in that organ. I see no way of avoiding this conclusion.

But again, does one not have to accept the consequences of one’s suppositions? A physical (to include chemical) system cannot make decisions. All subsequent states of a physical system are determined by the initial state. So, if one accepts the electrochemical premise (which, again, seems to be correct) it follows that we do not believe things because they are true, but because we are predestined to believe them. Question: Does not genetic determinism (with which I have no disagreement) lead to a  paradox: that the thoughts we think we are thinking we only think to be thoughts when they are really utterly predetermined by the inexorable working of physics and chemistry?

(That was fun. I recall Samuel Johnson’s remark on the existence of free will: All theory is against it, but all experience is for it.)

(6) The evolutionary noise level. In principle, traits spread through a population because they lead to the having of greater numbers of children. Consider the epicanthic fold, the flap that makes the eyes of East Asians seem slanted. In evolutionary writings this is often described as an adaptation either to save energy or to protect the eyes from icy winds. We will here assume that actual studies have shown that it actually does so.

I do not understand how the fold evolved.

Unless it results from a point mutation, (and I do not think it does), it must have evolved gradually. This means, does it not, that even a partial fold conferred so great an advantage in survival that the possessor had more children than their unfolded relatives.

Being as I am untutored in these matters, the idea seems ludicrous. Did the eyes of the unfolded freeze, leaving the Folded One to get all the girls? Did the folded conserve so much energy that they could copulate more vigorously?

While grounds can doubtless be found for dismissing the example of the epicanthic fold, countless instances exist of traits that become universal or nearly so while lacking any plausible connection to greater fecundity.

Here I sink into a veritable La Brea of incomprehension.  Genes already exist in populations for extraordinary superiority of many sorts—for the intelligence of Stephen Hawking, the body of Mohammed Ali, for 20/5 vision, for the astonishing endurance in running of the Tarahumara Indians, and so on. To my unschooled understanding, these traits offer clear and substantial advantage in survival and reproduction, yet they do not become universal, or even common. The epicanthic fold does. Question: Why do seemingly trivial traits proliferate while clearly important ones do not?

(7) The universality of the unnecessary. Looking at the human body, I see many things that appear to have no relation to survival or more vigorous reproduction, and that indeed work against it, yet are universal in the species. For example, the kidneys contain the nervous tissue that makes kidney stones agonizingly painful, yet until recently the victim has been able to do nothing about them. Migraine headaches are paralyzing, and would appear to convey little advantage in having more children. (“No, honey, I have a violent headache….”)

Sensing pain clearly has evolutionary advantages. If you fall on your head, it hurts, so you are careful not to, and thus survive and have more children (though frankly I have sometimes thought that it might be better to fall on one’s head). Wounds are painful, so you baby them, letting them heal. But, Question: What is the reproductive advantage of crippling pain (migraines can be crippling) about which pre-recently, the sufferer could do nothing?

(8) Finally, the supernatural. Unfairly, as it turned out, in regard to religion I had expected Mr. Derbyshire to strike the standard “Look at me, I’m an atheist, how advanced I am” pose. I was wrong. In fact he says that he believes in a God. (Asked directly, he responded, “Yes, to my own satisfaction, though not necessarily to yours.”) His views are reasoned, intellectually modest, and, though I am not a believer, I see nothing with which to quarrel, though for present purposes this is neither here nor there. Question: If one believes in or suspects the existence of God or gods, how does one exclude the possibility that He, She, or It meddles in the universe—directing evolution, for example?

A belief in gods would seem to leave the door open to Intelligent Design, the belief that the intricacies of life came about not by accident but were crafted by Somebody or Something. The view, anathema in evolutionary circles, is usually regarded as emanating from Christianity, and usually does.

Though this column is not about me or my beliefs, to head off a lot of email let me say that I am not remotely a Christian but a thoroughgoing agnostic, more so it seems than Mr. Derbyshire, and my suspicions regarding Intelligent Design—suspicions is all they are—are not deductions from Christianity but inferences from observation. To my eye, the damned place looks designed. By what, I am clueless.

To close, I ask these questions in a spirit of inquiry, not of ideological warfare. Mr. Derbyshire is far deeper in these matters than I, who can barely distinguish a phosphodiester bond from a single-nucleotide polymorphism. All I seek are clear, straightforward, unambiguous answers devoid of the evasion I have so often encountered. I do not doubt that he can help me if so inclined.

Philip Francis Stanley and Grotesque Ophthalmological Malpractice