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The real argument from evolution

December 6, 2012

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.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 6, 2012 1:54 am

    I’m trying to follow along but it feels like you’ve left something out, to me. Species is in some sense incoherent in that it merely marks branches of the tree of life. In the way that all life on this planet share some commonality to make species incoherent, they also share some amount of essences. The use of the word language in this post is somewhat ill-defined. Any of these five definitions:

    1.a body of words and the systems for their use common to a people who are of the same community or nation, the same geographical area, or the same cultural tradition: the two languages of Belgium; a Bantu language; the French language; the Yiddish language.
    2.communication by voice in the distinctively human manner, using arbitrary sounds in conventional ways with conventional meanings; speech.
    3.the system of linguistic signs or symbols considered in the abstract ( opposed to speech ).
    4.any set or system of such symbols as used in a more or less uniform fashion by a number of people, who are thus enabled to communicate intelligibly with one another.
    5.any system of formalized symbols, signs, sounds, gestures, or the like used or conceived as a means of communicating thought, emotion, etc.: the language of mathematics; sign language.

    would show that humans are hardly the only ‘species’ with language. We find ourselves to be special because we can’t understand the languages of other life on this planet so well. To a lion human language would be no stranger than say that of a North American Barn Owl. It appears more each week that we humans simply do things with more abstraction and more innovation (tools). We are still hairless apes.

    In a sense, it is evolution that demanded that at some point some species would do what humans do. Competition for food forces evolutionary pressures on groups. The more adaptable of the species will survive to procreate and passes on the essences generation by generation. As populations divide into differing species, they take with them the essences of the previous generations to a new species which refines, adapts, and creates new essences.

    Humans are hairles apes and not all that special. Indeed we do things no other species does on this planet, but it started with only a small change in essences which was built upon for as long as it was useful and evolutionarily successful to do so. I am confused how the traditionalist view can benefit from this? Did I misunderstand what you were saying?

  2. December 6, 2012 2:28 am

    You’re right that I left a few things out (in an attempt at brevity mainly; this post was already twice the length I had wanted it to be). The two that trouble you seem to be, what I meant by “the word ‘species’ is incoherent,” and what I meant by “humans are special because they use language.” So, in that order:

    1) In the traditional understanding, each animal was a member of some species, which was defined by the ways in which it differed from and was similar to other species; two species that differed in “specific” ways would by definition have other things in common, and so be members of the same “genus” (in the philosophical not biological sense). This picture looks like a “tree of life” too; there being commonalities is not the problem. The problem comes when evolution says that the tree is historical, not logical. Now we have “species” blurring into one another, we have two “species” that can’t interbreed but that can both interbreed with a third “species,” etc. If we can’t draw hard lines between species, we no longer think they actually exist, and they become simply useful ways of talking about things.

    2) I realize that there are arguments against human language being “special” in any real sense, but I don’t buy them. Humans have grammar, which no other species does. Humans can predicate one thing of another, and can do so recursively, with arbitrary complexity. Other animals can associate sounds with things, but this is not language. Also, I should point out that the second definition you cited says “communication by voice in the distinctively human manner,” is by definition unique to humans. I agree, however, that this view has trouble explaining how language could have arised in evolutionary history; if it really is “special,” wouldn’t it be impossible for it to arise through a series of incremental changes? Conversely, if it thus arose, how can it be special? My current position is that a single mutation was necessary to bring a number of different puzzle pieces together. But I realize this is relatively unconvincing.

    Finally, how this is supposed to help traditionalists: traditionalists want to make certain ethical claims about humanity that draw hard lines–between humans and other animals, between non-being and life, between life and death. These claims are not taken seriously by a number of people because they seem to contradict common scientific knowledge. If traditionalists want to convince people, then, they need to be able to explain how it does not contradict that scientific knowledge. To do so, they need to figure out how it does not contradict it. To do this, they need to acknowledge that right now, it looks like it does.

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