More on Bret Weinstein’s evolutionary distorting mirror

Yesterday I critiqued Bret Weinstein’s proposed rapprochement of “science” with Christian morality, pointing out that he misunderstood the foundations of Christianity, and merely tried to replace them with an inferior, naturalistic evolutionary, narrative. In fact the problem is worse than that, because it’s not simply that his proposal hides the shaky metaphysical foundations of naturalism, but that even in materialist terms it is pseudoscientific. And that is because societal morals are demonstrably non-evolutionary. As I will now demonstrate.

At the heart of this is the oft-forgotten fact that the theory of evolution by natural selection (the power Weinstein invokes as the true basis of liberal values) is a theory of biology, and only of biology. When Darwin published his theory, the philosopher Herbert Spencer latched on to it as a mere instance of a universal tendency for everything in Creation to move towards perfection. This explains why Darwin was slow to adopt the word “evolution,” since he was not impressed with what amounted to Spencer’s metaphysical mumbo-jumbo.

Adaptive biological evolution, as currently represented by the Neo-darwinian paradigm, is entirely a function of genes. Evolutionary biology, Bret Weinstein’s speciality, is at its core the study of population genetics, or how random genetic mutations spread through populations to produce, ostensibly, evolution in all its glory. But liberal moral values are not genetic, nor inherited in accordance with population genetics, and so they are not an evolutionary phenomenon. Period. And therefore they are not subject to the natural selection Darwin described. To put it bluntly, replacing the narrative of Christianity with the narrative of natural selection to explain Enlightenment values is a pseudoscientific deception.

Let’s try to get Bret off the hook by suggesting that he may be using the the biological language of evolution analogously. After all, evolutionary language has been adopted in a Spencerian fashion to explain everything from the formation of stars to the failure of corporations. But Bret, being a qualified evolutionary biologist, must surely be using his terminology a little more carefully than that if he is asserting the authority of science, rather than of romanticised metaphysics.

So, the broadest kind of statement about biological evolution, sometimes used to accommodate its more esoteric and non-genetic components, runs along the lines that where there is undirected variation, and differential reproduction, in a large population, then evolution by natural selection must, and will, occur.

The simple elegance of this apparently incontrovertible logic is what sells Darwinism as a self-evident replacement for design, but its very elegance hides a lot of questionable small print assumptions even when applied strictly to biology.

For a start, it presupposes that an unbroken series of deleterious variations will not simply cause the extinction of the entire population. That this did not occur at the very start of the tree of life is a rather extraordinary thing, especially as it is now quite certain that deleterious mutations greatly outweigh beneficial ones. In fact, the ratio is such that no reliable measure of the percentage of truly beneficial mutations exists. As Michael Behe has pointed out, the majority of mutations found to improve survival actually result from loss of a function that has become disadvantageous. Examples of new functions are extraordinarily hard, or impossible, to find.

Secondly, the statement assumes that variation is effectively unlimited. But half a century of unsuccessful mutation experiments showed that, in practice, only a limited range of mutations ever occurs, over and over again. You’ve already seen all the deformed fruit-flies that are ever going to be produced by mutation and selection. That’s why the controversy in recent years has been about genetically modified crops, not artificially mutated ones.

Then again, the rise of neutral theory to pre-eminence (against Weinstein’s perhaps old-fashioned adaptationism) comes from discovering the profound limitations of natural selection’s power, also assumed to be infinite in the statement above. Put colloquially, evolution can no more respond adaptively to a myriad of variations simultaneously than individual people can respond rationally to multiple dangers. At some point, the individual will freeze or panic, and the organism’s ability to adapt will be swamped, and deterioration rather than evolution will occur, or even extinction.

Lastly, even Darwin’s contemporary critics noted that although he used livestock breeding as his primary model, he ignored what all breeders already knew from experience – that there are strict bounds to what changes can be produced, and the closer one gets to those boundaries, the less viable the result. My Labrador Charlie, to be frank, is a maladapted wolf with missing genes and would never survive in the wild. And only very stringent testing and culling weeds out lines with the genetic problems of all such inbred lines. Selection has never produced a new species of bacteria, let alone a new mammal.

But enough on the breezy assumptions of that general statement when applied to biology: what about their application to public morality by natural selection?

Firstly, as I pointed out yesterday, it is a fallacy to say that ethical principles peculiar to particular cultures arise by random variation. Whether one is thinking about the Law of Moses, or the teaching of Jesus Christ, or the ethics of Kant, or the revolutionary “justice” of Lenin, then some mind first proposes a moral principle, and does so with the clear intention to improve, or at least control, society thereby.

No doubt the formal statement of a principle often arises from observing some universal tendency in human nature. The original British Common Law system assumed that true justice could be discovered by wise men within any particular situation, and hence the judge’s precedents became law. But universal principles of human nature are the very antithesis of undirected variation.

Differential reproduction too is difficult to map to societal ethics. It should not need saying that principles like free speech or individual autonomy are not inherited characters. There is no libertarian gene, although as so often in our age, the implausibility that 20,000 genes could somehow code for a nation’s sexual deviations or attitude to slavery passes under most people’s radar. They even mean it when they say that rock and roll or market gardening are in their DNA. But we have no real idea of how culture is perpetuated, either in man or in higher animals.

The closest evolutionary analogy to biology would have to be that people with different ethical standards have different rates of survival, or breeding success. This is problematic for libertarian values since the first proponents of individual liberty often suffered the death penalty, or the risks of exile overseas. Conversely, in strictly Darwinian terms it is the Muslim populations in the West, who despise liberal values, who are out-reproducing liberals.

But perhaps we can at least salvage natural selection for liberal ethics. After all, that is the specific feature of evolutionary theory that Bret Weinstein says accounts for them, as opposed to the myths and fancies of religious folks. Here we can at least apply an analogy, because natural selection is so notoriously vague a concept that it can describe any situation where what survives survives. If evolution by natural selection is accepted axiomatically, then cows have horns because horns help survival, and alpacas don’t because lack of horns helps survival. Therefore, liberal ethics must have undergone natural selection because they survive.

Now, note how this entirely bypasses everything actual experience tells us about ethics: they are argued over by academic and clerics, they are ignored by wayward children and psychopaths, they are enforced by sanctions and rewards actual and perceived (“All good children go to heaven”), they are encouraged by tales of heroism or examples of villainy. None of those things are natural, and all are thoroughly teleological, conscious and uniquely human.

Worst of all, the very reason Bret (like other good-hearted people) is exercised about them is that, far from flourishing because nature favours them, they are under threat from unrefined human nature reverting to what he calls the old polarisations. Their continuance depends on the principle of J. S. Mill (not Edmund Burke!) that “Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.” We need to struggle, just as Weinstein does in the public arena, in order to maintain whatever is good in our society. Whilst that smacks of the Malthusianism that inspired Charles Darwin, it is not actually what the scientific theory of natural selection entails.

I conclude, then, that to view ethics in the traditional way provides a transparent and coherent history. The loving God calls Israel into Covenant, gives the Decalogue so that his people will imitate him, and lo and behold, Israel still exists today, by the skin of its teeth, with their moral history recorded in the Bible. Jesus lives in recorded history, despite Richard Carrier, lives out his teaching by his death, and proves its superiority by resurrection. And lo, the people called “Christians” still encounter him today, and can reference his ethics, and the reason for them, in the New Testament. Furthermore history explains, fully, the tangled course of development of modern societal ethics by the work of particular humans, under the providence of God and the vagaries of time and error, so that we are able to debate the rights and wrongs of what now is on rational and spiritual principles – and by no means by recourse to the survival of the fittest.

Bret Weinstein’s alternative to that appears to be an opaque Just So Story about hypothetical occurrences in our collective past. But when you think about it, such imaginative story-telling is what evolutionary biology has always been about. Bret, you’re a thinker. You should be shifting paradigms rather than labouring on under obsolete ones from 1859.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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