Ted Dace

Michael Shermer’s Muddled Mind on Evolution


Michael Shermer’s Muddled Mind on Evolution

by Ted Dace


In the muddled mind of Michael Shermer,
the clash of evolution and creationism boils down
to a dispute between natural design and artificial design.

Author of Why Darwin Matters: The Case Against Intelligent Design, Michael Shermer has effectively reduced the debate to an oxymoron versus a redundancy.

The whole point of science is that nature is best understood on its own terms, not according to human concepts such as imagination or design. Nature is what comes naturally, after all, as opposed to the preordained outcome of an intentional program. Design, by definition, is the product of intelligence. To say that something is by design is to say it’s been thought out in advance. If the only explanations for the forms and patterns of life are competing theories of design, there’s nothing left to debate. Intelligent design trumps mindless design.

Of course, Shermer isn’t alone in misusing this term. Scientists and documentary narrators alike commonly invoke “design” in reference to organic forms. But this is colloquial speech, not proper, scientific usage. Though it may be convenient to speak in terms of design, organisms are in no way designed objects.

Even worse, Shermer insists on applying this term to evolution. When I pointed out to him during a recent interview that evolution has no design, he forcefully disagreed, claiming the term was only “ruined” by association with creationism and is still essentially correct. Beyond the fact that “design” is out of place in any biological context, as a dedicated anti-creationist, Shermer ought to know that speaking of organic forms and their evolution in terms of design only encourages those who see such usage as vindication of their blinkered, supernatural outlook. See, even the scientific types call it design!

In his dual roles of publisher (Skeptic magazine) and pundit (primarily for Scientific American), Shermer often points out that science is not so much a set of beliefs as a method. But when he gets around to defining “methodological naturalism” in Why Darwin Matters, what he comes up with is not a sound methodology for distilling knowledge but simplistic, pre-scientific dogma. “Life,” he claims, “is the result of natural processes in a system of material causes and effects that does not allow, or need, the introduction of supernatural forces.”

The implication, literally centuries out of date, is that causation is natural only if it involves material contact. Ever since Newton proposed that the sun acts at a distance, via “gravity,” to hold the planets in place, science has been helplessly in thrall to the concept of physical forces unmediated by matter. As Shermer himself notes, “When electromagnetism and the weak and strong nuclear forces were discovered in the 19th and 20th centuries, scientists did not identify them as supernatural forces; they simply added them to the known forces of nature.”

Well, naturally. And it goes without saying that if biologists were to identify a previously unknown principle, rather than simply dismissing it as “supernatural,” they would add it to the “known forces of nature.” If physicists can propose forces or principles to account for a variety of inorganic phenomena, why can’t the same be done to explain the mysteries of life?

Shermer likes to point out that a scientific theory requires a mystery. If no fundamental mysteries remain in biology, then there’s no need for any new thinking. But this is clearly not the case, particularly in regard to the question of how an organism unfolds from embryo to adult.

Though development from the egg is generally believed to be the automated processing of a genetic blueprint or recipe, no testable hypothesis has ever been proposed that could either verify or falsify this proposition. Biologists are typically well aware of this fact, and a few, including Stephen Jay Gould, have confessed to it in print. The idea that genes and their signature proteins conspire to build living breathing bodies from a microscopic envelope of carbon-rich chemicals ought to be subject to skeptical scrutiny, but self-identified “skeptic” Shermer simply follows the pack and assumes that all mystery has been eliminated.

But why should biologists propose fundamental principles when life is not subject to its own laws apart from those of nature-at-large? Certainly, no “vital force” animates cell, organ, body or biosphere apart from the inorganic world. However, the discovery of principles of nature in the course of biological inquiry doesn’t mean these laws or tendencies are necessarily peculiar to life, only that they aren’t easily seen in the behavior of nonliving matter.

Oddly enough, it’s Shermer who posits a biology somehow set apart from the rest of nature, where fields abound, particles and waves are interchangeable, and causation can occur “nonlocally.” As if protected from all this mayhem by a vitalistic force-field, life is confined to the clockwork operations of the machine, itself a product of human artifice. Shermer can’t let go of design because his worldview hasn’t really changed since his days as a creationist in the 70s. Whether by the hand of God or the conveyor belt of mutation-selection, we are passive products of design rather than living expressions of a genuinely natural, self-propelling evolution.

Shermer treats the ostensible subject of Why Darwin Matters like a child, that is, to be seen and not heard. Darwin’s hallowed name is often invoked, while nothing of substance is ever said about his thought. Shermer’s object is not so much to understand evolution (and the creationist alternative it displaced long ago) but simply to be a loyal booster for the correct side.

Why, anything creationism can do, evolution can do blindfolded! Like a biblical author listing the bounties bestowed on his people by a benevolent deity, Shermer enumerates the many gifts of evolution: “cooperation and mutual aid, sympathy and empathy, direct and indirect reciprocity, altruism, reciprocal altruism, conflict-resolution and peace-making, community concern and reputation caring, and awareness of and response to the social rules of the group… Evolution created these values in us.”

Funny how the religious worldview seamlessly blends with the new paradigm. “Evolution also explains evil, original sin, and the Christian model of human nature.” God may be truth, but “evolution created a system of deception detection.” Much like St. Peter at the gates of heaven, natural selection is “daily and hourly scrutinizing,” rejecting the bad and rewarding the good. That Shermer is just pandering to conservatives is revealed by his equation of natural selection with the invisible hand of the free market. Yes, folks, the triumph of evolution over creationism proves that capitalism is superior to planned economies.

Though he takes evangelist Kent Hovind to task for arguing that creationism is “proven by the impossibility of the contrary,” Shermer commits the same fallacy in reverse: if creationism is wrong, then the species must have evolved according to the blind mechanics of mutation-selection. That both views might be wrong never enters his mind. Yet evolution is best understood as the multi-generational self-creation of species in the process of intelligently exploiting environmental opportunities. Though this is what Darwin himself believed, for Shermer it’s just “another kind of creationism,” insufficiently mechanical-sounding to constitute real science.

Shermer comes across a bit conspiratorial as he alludes to creationists’ “favorite tactics” in pursuit of their “real agenda” of placing “science under attack.” Freud would say Shermer’s obsessive denunciation of creationists indicates a deeper, unconscious affiliation. Indeed, this affiliation rises to the surface when he rehashes the old thought experiment with the monkey that types Shakespeare.

The improbability that a purely mechanical evolution would spit out anything like Homo sapiens is sometimes illustrated with the metaphor of a monkey hacking away at a typewriter until coming up with TOBEORNOTTOBE. According to the mathematics of combinatorics, the number of letters the monkey would probably have to type before getting it right is 2613. That’s one tired monkey. But Shermer’s got a trick up his sleeve. Even blind evolution isn’t entirely random. This is because the effects of genetic mutation are coupled with the nonrandom power of natural selection. According to Shermer, “if each correct letter is preserved and each incorrect letter eradicated, as happens in natural selection, the process operates much faster.” By this scenario, only 335 trials are needed before the monkey is likely to have typed the correct sequence.

Trouble is, this scenario bears no resemblance to natural selection. What Shermer is actually promoting is divinely-guided evolution. Natural selection operates according to the immediate demands of the local environment, not some far-off goal. There’s no reason to believe that local selection pressures will match the needs of a descendent millions of years later. What’s correct for a tree shrew doesn’t necessarily bring it any closer to becoming human. Once you accept the need for selection on the basis of distant goals, you’ve abandoned science in favor of the supernatural.

Shermer may not understand evolution, but he’s the master of evilution, the creeping out of American Christians by making evolution seem downright diabolical. To embrace science, it seems, we must give up all sense of meaning. No human values are allowed, unless of course they’re reducible to the struggle for survival. No need for vague, obsolete notions like “purpose and intelligence,” as “the science of complexity shows how design, form, and function are all derivatives of self-organized emergent complex systems.”

Being a hip, cutting-edge kinda guy, Shermer is fond of buzzwords like “self-organization” and “emergent properties.” What he may not realize is that the science of complexity is essentially an application of nonequilibrium thermodynamics. As ecologist Eric D Schneider and science writer Dorion Sagan explain in their recent book, Into the Cool, complex systems are nature’s way of efficiently breaking down gradients. A tornado, for example, serves to eliminate the temperature gradient between warm air near the ground and cold air above. This gap will ultimately disappear anyway, but a tornado wipes it out a lot faster (and with a lot more flair). The paradox of nature is that complexity is way more efficient than simplicity.

At the chemical level, complex systems are “thermodynamically selected” insofar as they efficiently break down energy gradients. Like a pocket of warm air, a concentration of energy will eventually dissipate on its own, but a complex system naturally pops into being because it does the job so much better. The transition from chemical systems to living systems requires only the ability to store some of that energy, making productive use of it before it dissipates, thereby prolonging the “life” of the system indefinitely.

Shermer talks the complexity talk, but he doesn’t have his footing. “At some point,” he told me last year, “you have to have a stepwise, bottom-up, natural, self-organized complexity out of simplicity.” Quite the contrary. As Schneider and Sagan demonstrate, complexity isn’t built up stepwise or otherwise from simplicity but emerges fully formed as if from the head of a thermodynamic Zeus. Whether living or only lifelike, dynamic systems are holistic, shaped by energy flows rather than their constituent molecules. DNA is no more responsible for building organisms than dust is responsible for building tornados.

While complexity theory radically improves our understanding of life, there’s a limit to what it can explain. One thing you’ll never squeeze out of nonequilibrium thermodynamics is living memory. An organism is not some generic complex system. It has a particular form characteristic of its kind, and this form is retained from generation to generation. Though species-specific memory has long been thought to be encoded in genes, the only thing we know for sure about DNA is that it distinguishes individuals, not that it provides the general template of a species. Perhaps the collective memory by which our bodies form is itself holistic.

This is precisely the theory proposed by the esteemed physicist Walter Elsasser, who coined the term “holistic memory” to explain not only development from the egg but also the habits and memories of day-to-day life. Just as planetary orbits reveal action at a distance over space, organisms, according to Elsasser, reveal action at a distance over time. The meaning of memory is that causation can operate from the deep past as well as the immediate past. Though the computer hard drive is often taken as a model for genes and brains as information storage devices, surely the memory of life is not artificial but natural.

Shermer doesn’t seem interested in a biology that accounts for life on its own terms. For him, it’s all just a big game, and the winner is whoever conjures up the most realistic picture of life while utterly denying its reality. The idea of invoking a general principle of nature, such as holistic memory, to provide for a reasonable biology is simply unfathomable, though of course this is precisely how science has progressed for centuries. But then, why bother making room for memory, intelligence, purpose, character, the unconscious or self-existence when the blind machinery of chromosomes, neurons and natural selection can account for it all?

He may not have invented the machine fetish of modern biology, but nobody strokes that sprocket better than Shermer.

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