There.  Now that I have your attention, let me make clear that I am convinced of the theory of evolution by natural selection first proposed by Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace and since substantially refined by many others.  I subscribe to its essential truth and never fail to find its explanatory powers awesome.   I am not denying it, or even questioning it. Quite the contrary, I am pointing to how responses to its critics treat humans as if they were somehow exempt from the implications of that theory.

I shall elaborate.

There is currently a diary up which quotes some dishonest or unintelligent critic of Darwin and then simply makes no comment.

It appears that it was intended to cast doubt on Darwinism.

Darwinism is one of the foundations of my understanding of the world, which is why it distresses me so much to see its proponents undermining it by their feckless response to these attacks.

So, do you want to know how to deal with these dishonest posers who pretend to only be interested in some interesting questions posed by others?

Well I can tell you what you don't do.  You don't treat your fellow human being as if he or she were a manifestation of pure reason sprung magically from the ether at some time in the recent past, you know, something created in the image of a transcendental source of reason and morality.

There is a word for people who think of people in such terms.  That word is "creationist".  If you are not one then you should be fully aware that the human brain is not a magically produced reason-processing center.  It is the product of evolution by natural selection.  So let's think about what that means.

Scientists have one major problem:

Despite the overwhelming evidence attesting to the fact and (usually) the fact that they accept it to a certain extent, they still have no real idea how odd they are, either as a member of the general population or as historical phenomenon.

They see themselves as reasonable, regard that as an absolute value and cannot see that it just isn't that important to most people.

Now get this: The commitment of the average person to the scientific method is a product of its demonstrated efficacy, and more importantly, its consequent general social acceptance, not their intuitive grasp of its essential beauty.  Got it, boys (and girls)?


And the worst part is, I shouldn't have to tell you this.  The theory you are so feebly advocating tells you exactly why:

Human beings are a product of natural selection.

Human brains are its most complex product.

So, how did they come about?

Human beings are hyper-social animals.  The ability to understand the thoughts of conspecifics is a more significant a part of our inclusive fitness than it is for any other known species.  This point is so obvious that its significance is often overlooked.  Animals survive very well in a world whose fundamental rules are beyond their grasp.  They evolved not as centers of abstract intellection capable of deducing the rules of nature through observation, but as agents optimally suited to the exploitation of a given niche.  Humans are animals and thus, we may deduce that we, like other animals, are the products of evolution, our existences are rooted in our ability to exploit a niche.   Some thinkers have postulated that human beings are in effect the jeet kune do masters of the natural world; we specialize in the niche of no niche; we have evolved brains capable of reasoning so that we can become masters of whatever environment we encounter.  We adapt to fit the  environment and adjust the environment to better suit ourselves.

The problem with this explanation is that it bears little resemblance to the actual process by which historical humanity has succeeded in far-flung and wildly divergent niches.  It puts far too much emphasis on the analytic capacities of our brains.  If one were to take a member of a hunter-gatherer band from one environment and put them in another, that person would be helpless.  An Eskimo in New Guinea, a Maori in the Kalahari, or a Cherokee in Greenland, would stand little chance of surviving even a season, their superior capacity for reason notwithstanding.  Members of any modern industrial society placed in such an environment would fare little better.  The human societies that have flourished in widely divergent environments have adjusted to them slowly.  The innovations that they have used in their adaptations are the products of generations, sometimes millennia, of accumulated wisdom, much of it achieved not through reasoning but through undirected trial and error and dumb luck.  The process has generally been so slow that most known human societies have dogs that are as well adapted to their environment physically as their masters are culturally.  The human capacity for reason, though certainly a necessary element of cultural evolution, is not its most crucial component.  The most important thing for the process of adaptation in human society has been transmitting and remembering the hard-won wisdom of our fellows and forebears.  Consider for a moment our unlucky displaced people once again.  Now consider their chances of survival if we give them one little bit of aid: the goodwill of a native community.  Barring bad luck with differing immune responses, our displaced person now seems very likely to survive to the end of his or her natural life.

The upshot of all of this is that the goodwill of our fellow men is far more important to our survival than our ability to make accurate judgments about the processes of the natural world.  In other words, the niche in which we survive, perish or thrive, is the psychic environment jointly created by our community of fellows.  Thus, it only follows that our brains have developed in such a manner as to best handle that niche.  The obvious conclusion to be drawn, and one that is almost totally consonant with experience is simply this: our brains have evolved not primarily to relate to the natural world, but rather to relate to one another.  We are first social, and only then are we analytical.

Let us return for a moment to our thought experiment, if we take an Eskimo and put him in New Guinea with a group of friendly New Guinea natives, they and he will immediately begin trying to communicate.  Over time, given a reasonably facility for language, our Eskimo will be able to communicate with his new neighbors.  They will then teach him of their world.  They will introduce him to their material culture and their diet.  They will show him the tricks that they have devised to deal with the troubles they encounter and they will explain to him how all of these things came to be and why it is that they do what they do.  This knowledge will be invaluable to our Eskimo adventurer.  It will also consist largely of risible superstition and cockamamie nonsense.

It is no accident that most known human societies began their explanations of natural phenomena by postulating the existence of anthropomorphic entities; their most crucial intellectual activity, their most important skill is to guess the motives and anticipate the actions of their fellows.  That they should rely on this skill, at which, relative to any other known animal, they thoroughly excel, to assist them in solving other intellectual puzzles is hardly surprising.  Even our closest relatives, chimpanzees, have been observed making threat displays toward natural phenomena like waterfalls.  Though no one has ever succeeded in intimidating a waterfall or placating an angry volcano, appeasing an angry acquaintance has been accomplished by almost every living human, and the fact that we are still here is powerful testimony to the fact that understanding your neighbor is, on average, far more important to survival than understanding volcanoes.

Our brains did not evolve primarily to accurately analyze the environment.  They evolved to understand and get along with groups of our conspecifics.

Ergo, it follows that we are better at getting along with given groups of our conspecifics than we are at accurately determining what is going on in the world around us.

Getting along with a well-identified group of others requires having an identity.

Beliefs and values, more than anything else, determine that identity.

Critics of Darwin do not share your beliefs and values.  They only seek to raise doubt in the minds of others who do, but who have less information and less analytical prowess than you do.  You must remember that their commitment to the scientific method is feeble at best and derives from its general acceptance.  They very much like the thought of themselves as reasonable, scientific people, but they really just don't have either the firepower or the temperament for it.

ID frauds target these people by convincing them that they can still be all reasonable and sciencey and have doubts about evolution by natural selection.

They do this by coming up with two things:

1. Appeals to apparently respectable authorities that will impress ignorant bystanders.

2. The use of very complex technical points that will confuse those same bystanders.

Their agenda?  Confuse and create the impression of doubt where none exists.

The result: Those who cannot follow the argument will fall back on the age-old human instinct of trying to get along, because they actually can't follow what in the hell is going on!

It's their instinct.  They are first and foremost hypersocial animals, products of evolution.

You should know that.

And yet what is the response?

You treat them as if they were rational beings capable of objectively judging what is really going on in nature, beings that just somehow sprang from the ether, or were created in the image of some transcendental intelligence.


Yes, you throw out the hyper-technical rebukes to these folks that they can't understand.

"Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny"?

Are you effing kidding me?

What do hyper-social animals without the means to accurately read nature objectively do in such a situation?  They shut up and go wishy-washy.

Think about this.  Who are the targets here?

They are people who want to believe that they are reasonable, but cannot follow the specifics.

They see two sides.

One side raises doubt about something they think is probably true.

The other side gets technical.

Result: "Hmmm... I don't know.  They both seem to have some good points."

Game over.  You lose.  It's just that simple.  There are enough people whose identities are built on the idea of the one true faith that in a democratic society you cannot fail to win over the fence sitters and hope to win.  It's just not going to happen.

So, what to do?

Do not accept the burden of proof.

Yours is already the null hypothesis.

All you have to do is draw your opponents out:

How do you do that?

You make them offer their alternate ideas.


"Well, yes many people have raised such objections, but I don't think they really present any fundamental challenge to accepted science.  What are you proposing took place?

Evasion will inevitably follow this.

You follow with: "It seems to me that you don't really have a point to make."

More evasion and obfuscation.

You: "Look, I don't mean to be rude, but what exactly are you trying to say?"


You: "I'm sorry, but I can't follow you at all.  Evolution by natural selection is the accepted explanation of life on earth.  It seems to me that you don't really have any effective challenge to that."

Fence-sitters, those who "believe in" science, but don't understand it, will be persuaded by this tack.

They don't even know what "recapitulates" means, let alone "ontogeny" or "phylogeny".

In short, think about what humans really are and play to your strengths:

1. You have authority.

2. That authority puts the burden of proof on your opponent.

3. Your opponent doesn't have an alternate explanation.

4. That's good enough for most people.

Originally posted to journeyman on Wed Sep 28, 2011 at 03:42 PM PDT.

Also republished by Street Prophets .

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