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Science and the soul

The two cultures revisited

The Darwin legend

God, physics and Darwin


Why scientists aren’t sceptical

RICHARD WEBSTER

 

This extract is from a draft of Chapter 24 of Why Freud Was Wrong. Most of it was left out of the published edition of the book for reasons of length.

 

ONE OF THE OBSTACLES which stands in the way of the Darwinian or neo-Darwinian programme to construct an adequate theory of human nature is science itself. For modern science was, as Bacon conceived it, and as it has subsequently developed, ‘a legitimate, chaste and severe form of inquiry.’[1] In these words we can see the influence of Puritanism on scientific thought at its most direct. An attitude of chastity is certainly fitting for the scientist probing into the secrets of mother nature. It is, however, in no way appropriate to the study of carnal humanity. When we confuse the pursuit of knowledge with the pursuit of virtue it is usually at the expense of truth.

 

Truly scientific empiricism cannot be chaste. Although Freud challenged the chastity of science in a more interesting manner than any other thinker who has claimed, and sometimes been accorded, the title of ‘scientist’, his challenge was broken in its very conception both by his mentalism and by his parallel compulsion to subject emotional and erotic behaviour to a process of purificatory rationalisation.

 

When he insisted on basing his theory of human motives on an essentially transcendental conception of ‘mind’ Freud was not only succumbing to the orthodoxies of nineteenth century psychology, he was also allowing himself to fall victim to the profound religiosity of Western science. This religiosity is by no means entirely confined to history. We have already encountered Stephen Hawking’s meditation on physics and cosmology as methods of exploring ‘the mind of God’. We might set this idea alongside the words of the physicist Paul Davies:

 

It may seem bizarre, but in my opinion science offers a surer path to God than religion … science has actually advanced to the point where what were formerly religious questions can be seriously tackled.[2]

 

The statements of Hawking and Davies remain exceptional, however. For the most part the otherworldliness of modern science is not expressed in explicitly theistic terms and remains implicit rather than explicit. Our powerful assumption that physics is a form of materialism and that as such it is by definition free from all traces of mysticism sometimes prevents us from registering this. But the abstruseness of the modern scientific mysteries which are embraced as orthodoxies by every contemporary physicist is captured well by Bas van Fraassen:

 

. . . once atoms had no colour, now they also have no shape, place or volume ...There is a reason why metaphysics sounds so passé, so vieux-jeu today; for intellectually challenging perplexities and paradoxes it has been far surpassed by theoretical science. Do the concepts of the Trinity and the soul, haecceity, universals, prime matter, and potentiality baffle you? They pale beside the unimaginable otherness of closed space-time, event horizons. EPR correlations and bootstrap models.[3]

 

What is so subversive, or potentially subversive, about this particular way of teasing scientists is Bas van Fraassen’s suggestion that modern physics is even more metaphysical than religious metaphysics and even more committed to a form of transcendentalism. His words should serve to remind us that although the particular form of reason which has been legitimated by modern science is generally regarded as having no association with religion, modern physics remains inexorably linked to its origins in seventeenth century Christianity.

 

Because we associate rationalism with science, and because science tends now always to be opposed to religion, we tend to lose sight of what kind of attitude rationalism implied when it was still the ally of religion. The rationalism of Judaism is not cognate with the rationalism of Christianity, though the prophetic traditions of both oppose magic, ritualism, idolatry and sensuality while idealising systematic self-control, which is what leads some commentators at least to stress their rational character.[4] The rationalism of Plato differs significantly from that of Aristotle, though both thinkers agreed that the universe was essentially rational. The rationalism of the great medieval monastic orders differs from the secularised rational asceticism of Puritanism which it helped to engender.

 

It should be noted immediately, however, that the assumption which is common to all these forms of rationalism is monotheism – that there is one god and that he presides over both the material universe and the living beings that populate it. The further assumption is that order and rationality are either in themselves divine or in some other way to be construed as an essential aspect of godhood so that knowledge of the order and rationality of the universe, or of the human soul are themselves to be understood as ways of approaching, or knowing, or glorifying, or contemplating the goodness of God. Even Aristotle, who may have ended by abandoning belief in a transcendent god, still understood knowledge as a way of making contact with the divinely rational order of the universe, which existed in some way above and beyond human beings.[5]

 

It will be noted that, under the characterisation I have offered, rationalism, which is now widely understood to exist in opposition to religion, is itself not only a profoundly religious doctrine, but an interestingly irrational one. One of the things which is irrational about it is the difficulty which its proponents have in offering any satisfactory account of what reason or rationality actually is. Indeed, when not pointing to the sky or to other locations where God reputedly hides, rationalist thinkers are most commonly to be found defining rationality in terms of what it is not.

 

The master of such negativity was Plato. In his view the supreme characteristic both of divinity and of rationality was purity. Purity in turn was an essentially negative concept consisting in the absence of the body, of emotions – which Plato held to reside in the body – and of physical matter, of which both the body and gross universe were made up. What Plato puts forward in Phaedo is, in effect, a pollution-based epistemology in which purity is made into a precondition of intellectual truth. For according to his theory the criterion of truth will be found not in the exactness with which a verbal formulation describes or analyses the realm of experience or sensually perceived objects, but in the completeness with which it is delivered from the realm of the body and the body’s impurity. Knowledge of objects through the senses is thus rejected in favour of the appreciation of ideas through the intellect. Whoever wishes to know the real nature of things ‘most purely’, writes Plato, should approach each idea ‘with his intelligence alone, not adding sight to intelligence or dragging in any other sense...but using the intelligence uncontaminated alone by itself, while he tries to hunt out each essence uncontaminated, keeping clear of eyes and ears and, one might say, of the whole body...’ It is, according to Plato, only the man who approaches knowledge in this way who will be able to ‘hit reality’.[6]

 

Plato’s most passionate belief is in a multiple equation between truth, reason, goodness, purity and geometry. What is pure must be good. What is good must be true. What is true must be something which can be explained or symbolised in geometrical or rational terms. Any part of human nature or any physical substance which is not compatible with such a language cannot possess any ultimate significance or value. It exists in some sense outside the scope of mind and so does not belong to the realm of truth.[7]

 

Both Plato’s rationalism and his belief in the divine rationality of mathematics has profoundly marked our own intellectual culture, for it is the importance which Plato accorded to mathematics which was his own greatest contribution to the scientific revolution which would eventually take place in the seventeenth century. The role played by mathematics in that revolution is frequently insufficiently recognised. So too are the reasons why mathematics as a discipline is still so highly esteemed by our intellectual culture. Outside the work of Plato himself, the reasons have perhaps best been expressed by Bertrand Russell:

 

Although tradition has decreed that the great bulk of educated men shall know at least the elements of the subject, the reasons for which the tradition arose are forgotten, buried beneath a great rubbish heap of pedantries and trivialities. To those who inquire as to the purpose of mathematics, the usual answer will be that it facilitates the making of machines, the travelling from place to place, and the victory over foreign nations whether in war or in commerce...All these are undeniably important achievements to the credit of mathematics; yet it is none of these that entitles mathematics to a place in every liberal education. Plato, we know, regarded the contemplation of mathematical truths as worthy of the Deity; and Plato realised, more perhaps than any other single man, what those elements are in human life which merit a place in heaven...

 

Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty – a beauty cold and austere, like that of sculpture, without appeal to any part of our weaker nature, without the gorgeous trappings of painting or music, yet sublimely pure, and capable of a stern perfecton such as only the greatest art can show. The true spirit of delight, the exaltation, the sense of being more than man, which is the touchstone of the highest excellence, is to be found in mathematics as surely as in poetry... Real life is, to most men, a long second best, a perpetual compromise between the ideal and the possible; but the world of pure reason knows no compromise, no practical limitations, no barrier to the creative activity embodying in splendid edifices the passionate aspiration after the perfect from which all great work springs. Remote from human passions, remote even from the pitiful facts of nature, the generations have gradually created an ordered cosmos, where pure thought can dwell as in its natural home, and where one, at least, of our nobler impulses can escape from the dreary exile of the actual world.[8]

 

With this exultant modern expression of Platonic rationalism we might well compare Einstein’s recollection of how, confronted for the first time by the proofs of Euclidean geometry, ‘this clarity and certainty made an indescribable impression on me.’ He goes on to write that it is marvellous that man is able, by thought alone, to reach such a degree of certainty and purity as the Greeks showed us for the first time to be possible in geometry.’[9] In these attitudes we may see not so much scientific advance as theological continuity and a secret commitment to that dream of purity which lies at the heart of Judaeo-Christian apocalyptic just as it lies at the heart of Plato’s theory of knowledge.

 

It follows from Plato’s own doctrines that no proposition which has been defiled by human feelings or emotions – or even by the evidence of the senses – can be counted as true knowledge. Knowledge in its ideal form can be pursued only when the intellect concerns itself solely with abstractions. It is precisely here, in Plato’s compulsive extension of pollution concepts into the realm of epistemology, that we find the justification for the esteem in which he held mathematics. For in mathematics we encounter a mode of thought which, like Plato’s spherical ideal being in Timaeus, is hermetically sealed into itself, a mode of thought which refers to no external objects, which relies on no sensual perceptions, which expresses no feelings and which, since it can never contract the impurity of the body, can never defile the purity of the soul. The appeal of mathematics is in this respect simultaneously rational and religious. For what mathematics creates is a kind of transcendental realm – a human fiction resulting from what Whitehead called ‘a divine madness of the human spirit’ and providing, as he put it, ‘a refuge from the goading urgency of contingent happenings.’[10]

 

Whitehead’s words, taken alongside those of Bertrand Russell and of Einstein, express a commitment to order, regularity and pattern, together with a commitment to abstraction, which remain among the strongest and most significant elements in our entire intellectual inheritance. Preserved in its purest form, this essentially Platonic or Pythagorean ethos led to the mathematical idealism of Descartes, Leibniz and Spinoza which maintained that mathematics is itself a system of truth which gives true knowledge either of physical nature or of the realm of essences. This position is one which, by the very status which is now accorded to mathematics in our culture, we would tend to associate with a scientific point of view and oppose to superstitious or religious doctrines. Yet the mathematical idealism of rationalism is closely related to the spiritual idealism of Christianity and is arrived at, in effect, by reapplying to the realm of matter the spiritualist doctrines originally applied by Christianity to the human organism. Just as the central image of redemption in Christianity has traditionally been communicated in the form of an apocalyptic vision in which the corrupt earthly bodies of men and women are resurrected as heavenly bodies, radiant with the purity of the spirit, so the revelation of scientific truth has sometimes been associated with similar visionary experiences. There can be few clearer cases of visionary science than that provided by René Descartes who, on the night of 10th November 1619, at the age of twenty three, was overcome by a vision which left him with a profound religious conviction that the structure of the universe was mathematical and logical, and that the whole of human knowledge would eventually be united under the banner of reason.[11]

 

The visionary science of Descartes, which preserves the Platonic view that truth is guaranteed not by correlating theories with observations, but by conceptual clarity or mathematical purity, is sometimes represented as being the complete obverse of the empirical tradition which flourished above all among English thinkers in the seventeenth century. But the continued pre-eminence of mathematics both in the revolutionary science of the seventeenth century and in the natural sciences as they have developed since should in itself make it clear that the relationship between Platonic or Cartesian rationalism and empirical science is an extremely close one.

 

Without grasping the primacy of mathematics to the scientific revolution we will almost certainly misunderstand its significance. For it was not simply coincidence which led to mathematics playing the role that it did. It was the religious zeal with which a number of prominent seventeenth-century Christians held the essentially transcendental view of mathematics which is expounded both by Plato and by Russell. When these thinkers set out to find the lineaments of God in his creation they were not open-minded about the kind of signs they were looking for. Like skilled trackers hunting an animal with which they have long been familiar, they disregarded vast tracts of nature and focused with extraordinary intensity on certain tiny areas which exhibited exactly the kind of pattern, order or symmetry which could be construed as the imprint of God. Following Plato and Pythagoras, they assumed that evidence of mathematical pattern was the surest indication that the divine and creative intelligence had been at work. Thus from the theological point of view, which was ultimately decisive, it was crucial that empirical observations could be expressed in terms of mathematics.

 

It is sometimes thought the immense role accorded to measurement, to weighing and to all other forms of quantification by the scientific revolutionaries of the seventeenth century was purely a mark of their empiricism – of their desire to register the material universe accurately. Yet, as Whitehead has pointed out, without ever recognising the subversiveness of his insight, this was not the main motive. For behind this emphasis on measurement there lay the Pythagorean doctrine that number lies at the base of the real world, ‘that the mathematical entities, such as numbers and shapes, were the ultimate stuff out of which the real entities of our perceptual experience are constructed.’ The practical counsel to be derived from this Pythagorean doctrine was, as Whitehead puts it, ‘to measure, and thus to express quality in terms of numerically determined quantity.’[12] Measurement, in other words, was an essential step in the process of abstracting aspects of nature into numbers which could then be used to establish patterns of purely mathematical relationships. It was a way of translating the raw data of matter back into the ideal – which both for Plato and for those Christian philosophers who stood at the forefront of the scientific revolution – was the only place in which it was ultimately possible to find the real data of divinity.

 

Measuring nature and mathematising it in this way was not, ultimately, seen as a way of understanding the properties of matter. It was a way of understanding the properties of God. In this respect each triumph of seventeenth century physics was a small miracle which proved the existence of the divine mathematician who had created the universe and led to a greater appreciation of his glory. For the empiricists it was necessary to insist on proof and on evidence not in order to elevate the mundane over the celestial, but for the same reasons that Wycliffe, Luther and their successors insisted on accuracy when they translated the scriptures – so that that nature of God should not be traduced, as it so frequently was by the Cartesian rationalists. The scholastics might very well criticise the new philosophers for burdening religion with principles deduced from matter but their answer was clear. ‘The revealed truths,’ wrote Boyle, ‘if they be burdens to reason, are but such burdens as feathers are to a hawk, which, instead of hindering his flight by their weight, enable him to soar toward heaven, and take a larger prospect than, if he had no feathers, he could possibly do.’[13]

 

This view of the scientific revolution suggests that we should take a different view of the development of seventeenth-century physics and chemistry from that which is normally advanced. It suggests that the mode of knowledge favoured by the new philosophers both pre-existed and determined the choice of object on which it was exercised. Seventeenth century scientists focused on the study of matter and inanimate nature rather than organisms, not because the former are more interesting than the latter (or more susceptible to explanatory hypotheses), but because it is only in the relatively simple structure of matter that an object of investigation may be found which, since its motions, interrelationships and transformations can be measured with precision, renders it susceptible to mathematical description and mathematical abstraction. The motive for such mathematical empiricism was not realism, but transcendentalism. For it was by converting nature into mathematical abstractions and viewing it as a pattern of mathematical relationships that the divinely rational essence concealed within it could be made clear for all to see.

 

The underlying aim of Newton’s physics was not to offer proof of the hypothesis of gravity; it was to offer proof of the hypothesis of God. It was to this glorious end and no other, save to confirm his own deep sense of messianic mission, that Newton invented the infinitesimal calculus, unlocked the mystery of differential equations and became the foremost mathematician in Europe.

 

When Isaac Newton and his fellow Christian scientists embarked upon their study of the Book of Nature they had done so with the same burning faith of those other Protestants who had already embarked upon a profound scholarly study of the scriptures. They undertook such study not in the spirit of scepticism but in the belief that the deeper they probed, the more proofs of the existence and glory of their maker would be uncovered. But just as study of the New Testament in relation to history would eventually point up certain discrepancies and implausibilities in the word of God, so close scrutiny of his creation had an awkward tendency to draw attention to certain seeming imperfections in the mathematics of God.

 

The first person to notice this was Kepler, one of the founders of modern science. Whereas Plato had believed that matter was refractory to being shaped by divine mathematics, and was therefore free to disregard the material universe when seeking evidence of divine rationality, Kepler, along with Galileo, believed not only that God had worked with a mathematical master-plan but that he had realised it precisely in the universe. This view, which was one of the earliest formulations of mathematical empiricism, would eventually lead to one of the most decisive moments in the history of science.[14]

 

For up to the time of Kepler it had been universally assumed by philosophers that, since the circle was a perfect geometrical form, and since God could be presumed to be a perfect geometer, that movements in the heavens could be nothing other than uniform and circular. Following Plato, Aristotle and many other noble philosophical precedents Copernicus, Galileo and Kepler had all accepted this dogma. Yet in seeking to furnish evidence of God’s good geometry by observing the orbit of Mars, Kepler discovered a discrepancy of eight minutes between the theoretical spherical orbit and the orbit he had actually observed. After struggling for some years to reconcile his observations with the orthodox theory, he could find no other solution but to abandon the theory of circularity and to adopt the hypothesis of irregular motion in elliptical orbits.

 

In a time-table as large as God’s eight minutes was a relatively minor discrepancy and it is at least understandable that Kepler found it within him to readjust his theories without relinquishing his faith. Yet once the principle of scrutinising God’s time-table had been introduced, it was almost inevitable other discrepancies would eventually be discerned. One of the most remarkable aspects of the history of science is just how long it took scientists to notice the largest and most significant discrepancy of all. Kepler had formulated his law of elliptical orbits in 1609. It was not until 1859, a full two hundred and fifty years later, that Darwin’s The Origin of Species was published. Darwin’s theory, as has often been observed, could not have been formulated at all if nineteenth century geologists had not noticed that the earth had not been created six thousand years before, as had been almost universally believed by the educated, but that it had been in existence for many millions of years. A discrepancy of eight minutes between God’s timetable and his presumed creation might be pardonable. A discrepancy of hundreds of millions of years was more serious and took a great deal more explaining.

 

The question of why it took scientists so long to confront this problem – a problem which was in many respects far more obvious and accessible than the elliptical orbits of the planets – is a fascinating one. There is one particularly interesting way of answering it. This is to point out that throughout the first three hundred years or so of the scientific revolution there were no scientists. The word ‘scientist’ was first used only in 1840. Until then scientists had most often been described as natural philosophers – or even as natural theologians. As should by now be clear, the modern image of the scientist was as alien to the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as the word itself. For the idea of the scientist as an objective seeker after knowledge, dispassionately exercising his scepticism in order to dismantle the entire structure of religious belief, is a distinctively modern invention. Until the nineteenth century almost all natural philosophers were not dispassionately and objectively seeking disconfirmation of cherished theories, as scientists are supposed to do. They were passionately and subjectively seeking confirmation of their most cherished belief – their belief in a divine creator.

 

Because their goal was so clear, and because faith rather than scepticism was their motive, the tendency of almost all the early natural philosophers – the very thinkers who laid the foundations of modern physics and modern chemistry – was not to carefully attend to the kinds of evidence which posed most difficulties for orthodox creationist theory. It was to seek out those elements of nature which seemed most clearly to confirm it. In this sense at least it could be said that the founders of empiricism were not empiricists at all in that they systematically disregarded almost all their experience in order to concentrate on a tiny fraction of it.

 

Historians of science inadvertently point to the religious fault which runs beneath the epistemology of modern science when they talk of the ‘mathematical empiricism’ of Kepler and Galileo, or the ‘rational empiricism’ of Boyle and Newton. For a rational empiricist is no more of a true empiricist than a vegetarian omnivore is truly omnivorous. Although the rational or mathematical empiricist is bound to disavow idealism, he remains a crypto-idealist. He is committed to accepting the testimony of his senses and his experience only to the extent that this can be formulated according to rationalist or mathe­matical models. Any experience which cannot be assimilated in this manner into a universe of rationality is tacitly denied or repudiated.

 

To say this is not to impugn the objectivity of the natural sciences, or to dispute their claim to have contributed to knowledge of the natural environment. The fact that most early modern astronomers were impelled towards their study of the heavenly bodies by their belief that in discerning their course they were studying the workings of God does not mean that the stars which they perceived through their telescopes were illusory or that the measurements they made were wrong. What it does mean, however, is that the theological focus of their researches frequently led them to a profoundly unscientific neglect of the very evidence which was most at odds with their creationist outlook. Seventeenth and eighteenth-century physics and chemistry were in this sense essentially fragmentary sciences in that they accumulated their specific forms of knowledge only by disregarding much larger scientific questions concerning the origins of the universe and of life.

 

They disregarded these questions not because they found them uninteresting but, as I have already argued, because they were entirely satisfied that they had already been answered by orthodox, creationist doctrines. It was because of the power of these doctrines, and because of the manner in which they had been internalised into their own rationalist sensibilities – into the very neuronal configurations of their brains – that the early Christian scientists who followed in the footsteps of Newton and Boyle could not actually ‘see’ the extraordinarily rich stores of evidence all around them which, intelligently construed, would have undermined their creationist outlook.

 

Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, mathematical or rational empiricists thus tended to adopt towards the entire biological and material world an attitude which was akin to that which we have already observed in the doctrines of Plato and Descartes. They saw rationality, order, pattern and they discarded as irrelevant or insignificant any evidence which could not be assimilated to such a rational, god-centred world-view.

 

Part of Darwin’s particular genius as an investigator of the natural world seems to have derived from the fact that he was relatively unafflicted by deeply held religious or theoretical beliefs and was unusually willing to distrust existing authorities and to rely upon experience. He himself was never trained academically as a biologist or as a natural historian. The rich stores of evidence which he continually scrutinised in his theorising were for the most part gathered informally. He drew not only upon his own experience of the natural world but he also consulted the experience of others – sometimes of learned men, but sometimes also of untutored men: stockbreeders, pigeon-fanciers, gardeners and countrymen whose knowledge of nature was founded upon no theory but on the fact that they conversed with it each day. Above all Darwin never ceased to use his eyes. He paused to notice the uncountable seeds of thistledown being carried down­wind or the numberless variety of insects in his path. He looked and never ceased to be puzzled by what he saw. He combined his powers of observation with scepticism in a way that no natural historian had ever done before and few have ever come near to doing since. When he said of his theory of natural selection that he saw what the clever men had missed, he was not posturing as a faux naïf philosopher or expressing anti-intellectualism. He was turning his own deeply intellectual scepticism back upon the intellect itself. At the same time, he was expressing a profoundly anti-transcendental philosophy of science which, precisely because it implicitly rejected Platonic or Cartesian rationalism, was both more empirically sound and more theoretically coherent than that any ‘empirical’ scientist before him. In the end it was by scrupulously attending to those details and features of nature which were obvious to the untutored and the untrained that Darwin was able to reconstruct networks of relations and causality which had eluded the most scholarly.

 

Darwin’s attitude towards evidence was very different from that of Christian scientists. Darwin’s implicit refusal to draw moral lines across nature or to allow abstractions to take the place of real phenomena, was crucial to his science. Phenomena which Christian scientists had rejected from the rationalist, creationist scheme as matter out of place, as ‘dirt’, were carefully analysed by Darwin as data. Throughout the scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Christian scientists had not only rejected an extraordinary wealth of data as irrelevant or meaningless, they had also divided nature into different areas and focused on particular aspects or properties of it in order that they might more easily measure and thus mathematise it. In adopting these partial approaches they had actually broken the complex unity of nature into tiny fragments which could not easily be reassembled into any coherent picture. But whereas rationalism had led to this microscopic approach to science in which nature was divided and dissected before it was analysed, Darwin’s own much larger conception of empiricism led him to recognise that any truly scientific theory of nature could not be formulated from any other point of view than a macroscopic one. His own task was therefore clear. It was to formulate a theory which would itself help him to laboriously piece together the fragments of the vast picture which had been broken up by the particular form of para-scientific analysis favoured by Christian philosophers. Only by disregarding artificial disciplinary boundaries between botany and zoology, between geology and biology, and by viewing the whole of nature in a historical perspective, was Darwin able to theorise himself into a position where he could reclaim nature from rationalistic abstraction, see the entire coherent picture and thus discern for the first time the complex and subtle relationships which existed between the structure of every organic being and that ‘of all other organic beings with which it comes into competition for food or residence, or from which it has to escape, or on which it preys.’[15]

 

The difference between the microscopic analysis of the natural philosophers and the macroscopic approach adopted by Darwin was both dramatic and radical. Whereas microscopic analysis was essentially transcendental and creationist in its conclusions, Darwin’s macroscopic approach was, in almost all cases, truly scientific and truly empirical. The revolutionary difference between Christian microscopic science and Darwinian macroscopic science can be summed up in a single example. Abstracting a flower from the dark tangle of its earthy roots and the sticky sex of its stigmata, the nineteenth-century natural philosopher would point to the symmetry of its petals as evidence for the existence of a pure-minded, pattern-loving deity. It took a Darwinian perspective to establish that the petals were crucial to the flower’s reproductive cycle and had evolved their colour, shape and scent in response to the appetites, preferences and anatomical proportions of pollen-bearing insects.[16]

 

Darwin was able to establish this functional and objective view only because he was able to subvert the idealised vision of nature which had been brought into being by Christian rationalism. His concept of nature included not only all those aspects which seemed to the human observer economical, rational, ingenious and aesthetically pleasing, but also all those aspects which seemed wasteful, destructive, gratuitously or aesthetically unpleasant. It included, to use his own words, even the ‘myriads of creeping parasites and slimy worms which have swarmed each day of life on land and water on this globe.’

 

It was through his holistic imagination, which, when applied to non-human reality, refused to select evidence according to theological or pollution-based criteria and was temperamentally averse to drawing lines across the unity of nature, that Darwin was eventually able to subvert the world-view not only of religion, but of science itself – which until this juncture had itself been the handmaiden of religion.

 

Or so it might reasonably be assumed. And yet this, although it might have been what Darwin attempted, and what Huxley and Haeckel assumed he had achieved, was not what he actually achieved. For Darwinian biology, like many revolutionary ideologies, failed to take the citadel of orthodoxy. As a consequence, rather like Marxism and psychoanalysis, it became one of the vehicles of orthodoxy.

 

In this respect one of the most striking aspects of Darwin’s thought is the huge disparity in intellectual quality between his work on species and his reflections on human society.

 

Whereas, in his work as a naturalist, Darwin had succeeded in imaginatively reintegrating the image of natural forms which had been fragmented by Christian dualism, he now unthinkingly accepted the idealised version of human nature which had been produced by that same dualism. While the profligacy of frogs in spawning or of plants in seeding themselves were things that excited Darwin’s scientific curiosity, the profligacy of men and women was dismissed as a moral defect and then rationalised as indicating ‘inferior’ adaptation to the environment. While he defined nature inclusively, and recognised even the most trivial anatomical feature or reproductive contrivance as standing in need of an explanation, he defined human nature exclusively. Whatever aspect of human behaviour aroused in him distaste or incomprehension was either explained by invoking the ‘insufficient powers of reasoning’ of those who engaged in it, or dismissed as ‘senseless’ or ‘absurd’. The practice of celibacy, the caste rules and dietary restrictions associated with certain religions are all dismissed in this manner. Darwin confessed that he did not understand how such ‘absurd rules of conduct’ and ‘absurd religious beliefs’ had come into being ‘in complete opposition to the true welfare and happiness of mankind.’ In contrast to the ‘utter licentiousness’ of savages, with their widespread propensity for ‘unnatural crimes’ Darwin implicitly defines Victorian men (not women), and above all Englishmen, as rational, restrained, modest, pacific, benevolent and humane.[17]

 

The result is that whereas, in his work on species, Darwin acquits himself as an empirical scientist of genius, in his writings about human nature he emerges as an apostle of orthodoxy and, like Freud himself, a crypto-theologian. Darwin, like Freud, was able to dispute with orthodoxy only in the terms and within the limits which orthodoxy itself ordained; ultimately he could find the sense of intellectual security he needed in order to undermine theological doctrines of evolution only by inwardly accepting the lofty identity which his own crypto-theological distortion of these theories conferred upon human beings. Viewed from this lofty perspective evolution could only be seen as a hierarchical process and the theory of natural selection as opening up vistas of endless progress. Indeed, according to Darwin, who, by the penultimate paragraph of The Origin of Species, had evidently forgotten about the fate of the dinosaurs, ‘as natural selection works solely by and for the good of each thing, all corporeal and mental endowments will tend to progress towards perfection.’[18]

 

What Darwin in effect advanced was not one but two theories of evolution. The crux of his work – his ‘first’ theory – consists in a revolutionary hypothesis which explained, without ever needing to invoke the idea of progress or the concept of God, the development of organic forms and the origins of the differences between species. The implications of this theory have perhaps best been expressed by the one of the most lucid and brilliant of all Darwin’s modern explicators, Stephen Jay Gould:

 

Darwin maintained that evolution has no direction; it does not lead inevitably to higher things. Organisms become better adapted to their local environments and that it all. The ‘degeneracy’ of a parasite is as perfect as the gait of a gazelle.[19]

 

These words eloquently convey what might be termed the ‘inner spirit’ of Darwinian thought. It must be said, however, that, unqualified as they are, the words present a misleading impression of what Darwin himself actually said. For Darwin was never able to escape the domination of an older, teleological, view of nature regarded as God’s creation. As a result his ‘first’ evolutionary theory, instead of being presented nakedly, was regally clothed throughout his work in the metaphors, and the habits of mind and sensibility which belong to theological and progressive doctrines of evolution. It is this progressive version of evolution which constitutes Darwin’s ‘second’ theory. In its empirical content his theory is objective and scientific at least in relation to animals and plants; in its rhetorical substance – even in The Origin of Species itself, it is both theological and ideological.

 

In The Descent of Man the rhetorical substance of Darwin’s theory takes over almost entirely. Rather than viewing ‘man’, in line with his own theories, as an animal organism, he continues to see him as a spiritual compound made up of a ‘god-like intellect’ which resides in an animal, and therefore ‘lowly’, frame. Because Darwin accepts unquestioningly the existence of the mysterious entity ‘mind’ and endorses a vision of evolution as an upwards progress, the vision of human beings which he offers, far from representing them as wholly animal, represents them (especially those of Anglo-Saxon descent) as very nearly divine. If we apply to Darwin what Newman said of the secularists we may say that never before had a theory been so well adapted to ‘persuade the world of what is false by urging upon it what is true.’[20]

 

The characterisation of Darwin’s work which I have offered here suggests the interesting conclusion that it is not only science which stands in the way of the development of an adequate neo-Darwinian theory of human nature, but Darwin himself. For although Darwin’s theory provides a solution to the problem of species and an account of the development of organic forms, its perspective on human society and human behaviour embodies the very kind of theological reductionism which, in the rest of his work, Darwin had so successfully subverted.                     

 

One of the great problems with Darwin’s own account of human nature is that it grew directly out of his particular perspective as a natural historian. For since his own orientation as a naturalist was primarily towards species whose behavioural repertoire appeared to be largely fixed by heredity – such as the beetles he collected passionately as an undergraduate, his ‘beloved barnacles’ which he studied continuously for eight years, and the earthworms on which he composed a monograph – Darwin assumed as a matter of course that all basic social behaviour is subject to the same rigid determinism. As he himself wrote: ‘It can hardly be disputed that the social feelings are instinctive or innate in the lower animals: and why should they not be so in man?’[21]

 

The illicit nature of Darwin’s deductions in this area has been recognised by some modern Darwinian biologists and evolutionary theorists but not by all. For Darwin’s own example has frequently led to the formulation of extreme hereditarian theories of human behaviour such as the ‘hard-core’ model of human nature which was put forward in uncompromising terms by the biologist C.D. Darlington:

 

Owing to inborn characters we live in different worlds even though we live side by side. We see the world through different eyes, even the part of it we see in common...The materials of heredity contained in the chromosomes are the solid stuff which ultimately determines the course of history.[22]

 

In recent years a number of influential ethologists and sociobiologists have attempted to explain human behaviour in terms of similarly narrow hereditarian categories. In doing so they have tended to adopt the habits of mind which we find in Darwin’s ‘second’ teleological and crypto-theological theory rather than those of his ‘first’, truly scientific theory. For, like the Christian scientists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and like many orthodox modern scientists, they have disregarded what ought to be recognised as one of the most important of all scientific principles. Instead of sceptically testing out their theories against the hardest and most refractory forms of evidence, which was what Darwin himself had done in order to develop his ‘first’ theory, many modern Darwinians have followed the approach adopted in The Descent of Man and have sought out just those aspects of human behaviour which can be fitted most easily into crude forms of genetic determinism. Ethologists frequently observe that primates copulate; they do not frequently observe that some primates publish poetry, that other primates worship the Virgin Mary, and that others still are professional philosophers. It is just such facts as these, however, which remain anomalous and unaccounted for in most neo-Darwinian biology. If we wish tacitly to maintain a theistic view of the world, this will not, of course, disturb us. But if we wish to use the theory of natural selection in order to illuminate human nature, then it is just these mysteries which must be turned into problems.

 

Alex Comfort is undoubtedly correct when, writing as a biologist, he reminds us that ‘if we reject Mendel as bourgeois, we find that we have no beef.’[23] But what we must always bear in mind is that Mendel’s theories were designed to explain how the peas in his monastery garden reproduced their species, and not why the monks in the chapel within had renounced the opportunity to reproduce theirs. The fact that neither our ascetic and religious behaviour nor our complex non-reproductive behaviour can be explained by the existing theory of natural selection appears to indicate that some crucial element is missing from that theory. The ultimate aim of any empirical study of human nature must be to supply that momentously important missing element. It must thus set out to complete the enterprise which Darwin started by adding to his own theory of the evolution of organic forms a theory which is capable of accounting for the complexity of the human imagination, the development of human culture, and the course of human history.

 

The intellectual knot which prevents us from untangling the strands of theory we need in order to weave this problem back into Darwin’s ‘first’ theory is one which sociobiologists and other hereditarians tend to cut rather than untie. It is the question to which Darwin thought he knew the answer, but which has increasingly perplexed and divided neo-Darwinian theorists: to what extent are we justified in attributing human behaviour to genetic factors and to what extent is ‘human nature’ actually the product of nurture – of environmental factors, child-rearing procedures, education, religious instruction and other kinds of social conditioning?

 

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One of the crucial questions surrounding the construction of any scientific theory is the manner in which theorists seek to deal with counter-instances to their theory. According to the mythology of the natural sciences, all scientists conscientiously devote great attention to such counter-instances and are always prepared to relinquish their theories when they fail to explain such instances. In practice, as Thomas Kuhn has observed, this is not what happens. For frequently scientists strive to maintain their old theories against the facts in a manner which sometimes seems ‘stubborn and pig-headed’.

 

Kuhn quotes Max Planck who sadly observed that ‘a new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.’[24] In Kuhn’s own view, the transfer of allegiance from one scientific paradigm to another is ‘a conversion experience’ which cannot be forced:

 

Lifelong resistance, particularly from those whose productive careers have committed them to an older tradition of normal science, is not a violation of scientific standards but an index to the nature of scientific research itself. The source of the resistance is the assurance that the older paradigm will ultimately solve all its problems, that nature can be shoved into the box the paradigm provides.[25]

 

Kuhn’s interesting attempt to portray an attitude which involves a stubborn disregard for evidence as something which is an entirely legitimate aspect of science is, in one sense at least, entirely correct. For historically speaking, as we have seen, rationalistic or ‘microscopic’ science is the methodology of faith rather than of scepticism. The scientific revolutionaries of the seventeenth century would no more have considered giving up their own favoured theoretical ‘box’ than they would have relinquished their faith – the most precious of all their possessions. For the ‘box’ which they spent their lives trying to force nature into was creationism.

 

They would not discard this hypothesis for the simple reason that it was ultimately identical with none other than the hypothesis of God. Some modern scientists may have relinquished the theism of their intellectual progenitors. But, temperamentally and psychologically, many remain just as profoundly conformist, just as timorous of transgression - just as ‘convergent’, to use Liam Hudson’s term, as their seventeenth century predecessors.[26] Because their own theoretical orientation is rationalism, which is ultimately a transcendental belief, it should not be surprising that orthodox scientists frequently use theories to oppose or otherwise disenfranchise facts rather than to explain them.

 

So long as he was focusing on the problem of organic structures, Darwin’s attitude towards counter-instances was very different. Whereas many orthodox scientists have a tendency to bar their theoretical doors against counter-instances and treat them as outcasts, for Darwin even the most awkward facts of nature were like foundling children. However difficult and unruly they might initially seem, he would treat them with immense thoughtfulness, consideration and care. Rearranging his theoretical household where necessary, while always carefully maintaining a clear, logically consistent and coherent plan, he would not be satisfied until he could welcome them into his intellectual home and treat them as members of his own family. It was because, in the very earliest stages of his thinking, Darwin had been generously willing to disrupt his own living arrangements in order to accommodate the orphan facts of nature that he had eventually fashioned a household whose principles were so strong and so coherent that they could not be broken or disrupted by any fact.

 

Except the fact of human nature, which alone Darwin, like an upright Victorian gentleman faced with his own natural child, could not bring himself to acknowledge, and which he cast out into the cruelly competitive darkness of nineteenth century England to survive – or not – according to its fitness.

 

The tragedy and the unintended cruelty of Darwin’s second theory of evolution should not be underestimated. But neither should it be allowed to obscure the coherence and the immense organisational power of his first theory – or the example of how macroscopic scientific theories must, if they are to succeed, deal with counter-instances.

 

It is because empiricism at its best does not disdain the organisational power of theory that it can afford to remain open to the evidence provided by the full range of human behaviour and to accommodate even the most unruly facts of human nature. Indeed, by refusing such openness, and by treating artificial disciplinary boundaries as though they corresponded to the real structure of intellectual problems, we have, up to now, effectively ensured that the problem of human nature cannot even be formulated, let alone approached with a coherent theory.

 

Like naive pre-Darwinian botanists we have studied people as though they were autonomous organisms which can be analysed by dissection. Because our unacknowledged purpose has been to preserve the essentially creationist view of human nature which was so profoundly threatened by Darwin’s first theory of evolution, we have insisted on adopting a microscopic approach rather than a macroscopic one. In an effort to simplify our task and lend a spurious precision to our hypotheses, we have studied not our own nature but certain aspects of it which we have artificially abstracted and delimited. We have studied not human beings but human beings without one or several of their most vital dimensions – without a history or without a significant religious tradition, without dependent family relationships or without sexuality, without emotions or without a mammalian nature, without a sense of humour or without a determining physical and economic environment. Above all we have often written about human beings in a language which no man or woman speaks and which few are expected to understand. At a certain extreme we have surrounded our beliefs with a difficult scientific language whose secret purpose is to transcend or to mystify the human behaviour it purports to analyse.

 

In modelling our approach to human nature not on the holistic science of Darwin’s first theory but on the fragmented approach of rationalistic science, we have repeatedly mistaken the part for the whole. At the same time, in attempting to substitute for the richness, subtlety and complexity of ordinary language an artificial scientific or technical-sounding language, we have renounced the most accurate and the most sensitive instrument we have for analysing our own nature.

 

In all these ways, far from easing our task, we have made it much more difficult. Instead of solving real problems we have frequently created non-existent ones. Adopting the posture of the rational and dispassionate observer in order to clear our vision, we have sometimes ended by converting human nature into a replica of our own rationalistic ideals; form, structure, rationality – these become the deodorised and hygienic abstractions to which human nature must be reduced. In the end we do not divide human nature in order to understand it. We divide it because secretly we do not want to understand it. If we did we might make the terrible discovery that we are only human after all, the only animals in the whole of evolution who like to pretend that they are not animals.

 

In this we resemble the seventeenth century Puritans whose scientific ethos we have adopted as our intellectual ideal. For it was in order to avoid making this terrible discovery that they turned their eyes upwards in order to study the mathematics of the heavens, after which they began to discern the rational plan of God in every part of nature. The evidence which confuted their creationist theories postulating an omniscient and benevolent God was not, for the most part, either abstruse or hidden. It teemed in every village pond, grew quietly in every meadow and every orchard, swarmed in every hive, and decayed on every autumn fruit tree. It was written in blood on every page of every history book, carved on every gallows, and screamed aloud from every engine of torture. Yet so powerful was the doctrine of creation, and so subtle and complex the doctrines of ‘evil’ and of ‘original sin’ which had been elaborated by Christian theologians, that seventeenth century natural philosophers could perceive these rich stores of evidence only by viewing them through creationist theory. Since this particular theory defined almost all the most puzzling phenomena of nature and of human nature as being without ultimate significance, they were almost universally treated by natural philosophers as being irrelevant or insignificant with the result that these same philosophers ceased to ‘see’ them in any important sense at all.

 

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This extract is from a draft of Chapter 24 of Why Freud Was Wrong. Most of it was left out of the published edition of the book for reasons of length.



NOTES

[1] Bacon, Works, ed. Spedding, Ellis and Heath, London 1857-9, IV, p. 66

[2] Paul Davies, God and the New Physics, Penguin, 1983, p. ix

[3] The quotation from Bas van Fraassen is taken from Mary Midgley, Science as Salvation: A Modern Myth and Its Meaning, Routledge, 1992, p. 107, via Anthony O’Hear’s The Element of Fire: Science, Art and the Human World, (Routledge, 1988) from ‘Empiricism in the philosophy of science’, in Images of Science, ed. P. Churchland and C.A. Hooker, University of Chicago Press, p. 258.

[4] The thinker who has been most influential in this regard is Max Weber who has made a fundamental contribution to illuminating what might be described as the religious pre-history of modern secularised rationalism and who, more than any other thinker, has made clear that rationalism is, in its origins, essentially a religious phenomenon. See for example his The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Allen and Unwin, 1930, pp. 118-9 (cited at length at pp. 607-8 of Why Freud Was Wrong). See also Weber’s The Sociology of Religion, (1922), Methuen 1965, passim.

[5] See Midgley, p. 71

[6] Plato, Phaedo, 65A-67A translated by W.H.D. Rouse, Great Dialogues of Plato, Mentor, 1956, pp. 469-70

[7] The subject of pollution concepts and their role in Christian and post-Christian thought is one of the most inadequately treated of all large sociological or historical questions. On Greek concepts of pollution and purity, see E.R. Dodds, The Greeks and the Irrational, University of California Press, 1968. p. 48. On Dodds’s argument see Hugh Lloyd Jones, The Justice of Zeus, U. California Press, 1971, pp. 70-8. See also Erwin Rohde, Psyche, Books for Libraries Press, 1972; Louis Moulinier, Le Pur et L’impur dans la pensée des Grecs, Arno Press, 1975. For general discuss­ions of the role played by pollution fears in ethical systems and religions, see Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger, Penguin, 1970. Preferable to the naive structuralism of Douglas’s argument, however, is the naive empiricism of Ernest Crawley, in his once classic account of primitive pollution fears, The Mystic Rose: A Study Of Primitive Marriage and Primitive Thought, 1902.

[8] Bertrand Russell, Mysticism and Logic, Allen and Unwin, 1963, p. 49-50.

[9] Einstein,

[10]Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, Cambridge, 1927, p. 27

[11]see Philip J. Davis and Reuben Hersh, Descartes’ Dream, Penguin, 1991, pp. 3-8.

[12]Whitehead, pp. 36-7

[13]Boyle, quoted in Hooykaas, R, Religion and the Rise of Modern Science, Scottish Academic Press, 1972, p. 51

[14] Hooykaas, p. 36

 

 

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© Richard Webster, 1994/2002

www.richardwebster.net

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