The real argument from evolution
We all hear a lot from people like Richard Dawkins about how evolution supposedly proves God doesn’t exist. If you’re like me, you’ve always found this vaguely silly, a debate between fundamentalist Christians and fundamentalist atheists in which both sides were obviously wrong.
But evolution really does change things. (What follows makes no attempt at originality, only at lucidity.)
This is the gist of evolutionary theory: (E1) “We can give a purely materialist causal explanation of how the many biological species all share a common ancestor.”
Some metaphysical idealists respond to evolutionary theory with: (I0) “Stop telling lies!” More sophisticated metaphysical idealists respond to evolutionary theory with: (I1) “Yeah OK guess that makes sense.” Some materialists then claim: (N1) “Evolutionary theory proves materialism.”
These idealists then respond: (I2) “Stop telling lies!” These materialists, seeing no difference between (I0) and (I2) save (I1), then say: (N2) “That you thought evolutionary theory made sense proves you did not fully understand its revolutionary nature.” These idealists repeat (I2), and the debate reaches an impasse.
This happens because both sides take the relevant part of the evolutionary claim to be (E2): “We can give a purely materialist causal explanation.”
These materialists conclude from this: (N3) “Since we can give this purely materialist explanation, we no longer need to assert a supernatural entity to make sense of life, and Occam’s razor tells us we shouldn’t.” To this these idealists have a ready response: (I3) “We reject your application of Occam’s razor; a full explanation requires an account not only of material and efficient, but also of formal and final, causation.”
The materialist can, of course, respond: (N4) “Material and efficient causality, as you call them, are the only kinds of causality.” But then the idealist has won: (I4) “This is a philosophical disagreement thousands of years old; how, exactly, has evolution changed anything?” The argument does not end here only because the materialist cannot accept this; evolutionary theory struck him as not merely another scientific discovery, but as something with metaphysical implications.
The materialist was not wrong for it to thus strike him, as he would have seen had his argument focused on the actually innovative part of evolutionary theory (E3): “The many biological species all share a common ancestor.”
The obvious implication, which the materialist sensed but did not focus in on, is this: (N4) “The concept ‘species’ is incoherent, and no firm lines can be drawn between animate and inanimate, or human and nonhuman.” How do the idealists respond to this? For the most part, they say over and over, (I4) “Humans are special for reasons!”
The New Atheists do not press this argument because when they hear (I4), they think they agree, but in fact they do not. They think: (N5) “Language (e.g.) is special, and so any entity possessing it is special.” But we think: (I5) “The human species is special for these reasons, and thus any human, be it embryo, idiot, or comotose, is special.” If they are right that ‘species’ is incoherent–which is basically the claim that ‘essence’ is incoherent–our position becomes rather difficult to maintain.
Of course the abortion and euthanasia debates play out constantly; what I find strange is that they only rarely do so with reference to evolution.
It should not surprise us that evolution challenges traditional anthropology even more than it challenges traditional theology. When fundamentalist Christians retreat to (I0), they do so, yes, to preserve the Genesis story of the world being created in six days, but also to preserve the Genesis story of God making man in his own image. Evolution challenges the latter because it historicizes essences more thoroughly and more convincingly than any of the more theoretical attempts to do so.
Why is evolution so rarely mentioned by opponents of the traditionalist view when it seems a winning argument for them? I suspect it is because the argument has already won; the traditional view already looks absurd in most people’s eyes, and this is because most people have internalized the metaphysical implications of evolution without much conscious deliberation. If this is right, the best way to argue for the traditional view may be to confront those implications head-on. We need an alternate account of what happens to essences under evolution.