From an evolutionary perspective… you don’t see much of interest

Clare Craig’s book on the COVID experience, Expired, whilst perhaps not the best-written book on the subject (she herself acknowledges her literary limitations) is nevertheless important because she herself has had such an important role in challenging the official narratives from mid-2020 onwards. It is full of good information, and therefore I recommend it highly.

If I have one overall criticism of her book it is in her use of Christian religion as a metaphor for authoritarian systems and unthinking compliance. In this, like many secular scientists, she misunderstands both Christianity and science, believing the myth that science is always evidence-based and self-corrective even as she herself suffers at the hands of the intolerant conformism of the modern scientific enterprise. This delusion is widespread, of course, and one needs look no further than the generally very worthwhile video interview of Clare by Dr Drew Pinsky, in which he reiterates the old “Galileo persecuted by doctrinaire religion” myth (as has been repeatedly shown, Galileo’s prosecution was mainly for political and personal reasons, and the greatest and longest-lived critic of his work was the scientific consensus).

I won’t dwell overlong on this misunderstanding of religion, except for one example where she describes the Old Testament prophets as Establishment figures claiming unevidenced divine sanction, who must be obeyed unthinkingly. The truth, of course, is that the prophets, speaking truth to power, mostly ended up dead at the hands of the ruling class or the mob (see Matt 23:37). Furthermore, their words were to be tested both by their faithfulness to Israel’s foundation Covenant, and by the strict test of whether every prediction they made actually came true. Clare herself, apart from not speaking the dabar of the Lord, is closer to the spirit of the prophets than she realises.

I guess she might be OK to compare the COVID response to a cult, but Christianity is not a cult, appealing from the first to testable evidence, to undisputed history, and to critically transparent interpretation of its sacred texts.

Having got that off my chest, the core of my piece today is based on another criticism, which is not (unlike the religious metaphor) a central theme of the book. In the chapter on “Risk” she starts by pointing out the well-known fact that, in times of acute danger, emotional fear responses tend to outweigh rational analysis. This phenomenon has, in fact, been known since classical times as “panic,” after the god Pan who was believed to cause it. But Clare then goes on to two paragraphs beginning:

From an evolutionary perspective this makes sense. Our brains are wired to be oversensitive to danger. In terms of evolution, only three things matter: food, safety and sex. Those of us better able to ensure survival, via finding food, keeping safe, successfully reproducing, and keeping offspring fed and safe, will make a larger contribution to the human gene pool. Genes that influence the way we think, feel, and act with regard to danger have been selected and our brains hardwired to keep us safe.

And so on. But think about how much of this information is either definitely true or usefully relevant. Nobody has ever pinpointed where in the fossil record “panic” appeared. No genes for it have ever been found, nor a cladogram constructed demonstrating, even putatively, its evolutionary origin. Instead the commonsense fact that the flight-fight response is useful now in acutely dangerous situation has been spun into an entirely conjectural and fictional Just-So Story, attributed to genetic inheritance without any firm evidence, and this fable supposedly helps us to overcome it in some way.

In fact we would know just as much if the fear response were attributed to God on the sixth day of Creation, or to Pan’s malice now, of if she cut the storytelling altogether and simply said “People are prone to panic, and it isn’t always helpful.” In fact the only thing the evolutionary tale adds, were we to take it seriously, is that because the brain is hardwired we may as well abandon any attempt to do better in future. Naturally, we don’t take it seriously, because we then explore how to bypass it as not hardwired. But it sounds more scientific to mention evolution.

Clare Craig is by no means alone in this vacuous appeal to evolution. I recently critiqued a comparable example from Bret Weinstein here and here. Apart from questioning the legitimacy of his evolutionary explanation of liberal moral values compared to the Christian explanation for their origin, what does their origin matter at all, if it does not appeal to some human wisdom that can be consulted further, but only to a speculation about distant prehistory?

Once again, the existence of such values is simply observed as a fact and, ignoring their rather obvious historical origins, an entirely speculative evolutionary scenario is created to explain them, and this story is then fed back into the present observations to… Well, to do what? It could explain why liberal values are universal amongst humanity, except that they are not, which completely undermines the Just-So Story in itself. If it were the case that evolution had hard-wired these liberal values, then there would be no more need for controversy than there is to argue the toss about whether all humans have a brain or haemoglobin in their blood. In other words, if anything the evolutionary perspective, were it taken seriously, would undermine any effort to promote liberal values. But we don’t actually take it seriously, as it’s just paying lip-service to the secular creation-myth of our age.

Even when the “evolutionary perspective” does not involve dubiously biological matters of human behaviour, I find it hard to think of a single instance in which it adds to our knowledge, if only because there is not a single instance in which a mechanism of evolution by natural selection can be proven. When the nature documentary says “evolution has adapted porpoises perfectly to the aquatic life,” all that is being said is, “We observe that these mammals have all it takes to live in the sea.” What does it profit us to spend time hearing a made-up story spun by somebody who has taken that known fact and imagined a possible scenario for its origin? What is more interesting is how porpoises live their life now, in the real world.

In fact, far from “nothing in biology making sense apart from evolution,” millions of man years have been spent performing evolutionary speculation instead of biology. It’s hard to think of a single clade, at large or small scale, where the details are undisputed. Sometimes this is because morphology contradicts genetics, and often because the morphology or genetics disagrees with itself. Palaeontology itself rarely casts much light on the matter, though it can tell us more interesting things about the fossils in life. This lack of dependable knowledge is one of my reasons for becoming increasingly sceptical about even common descent, but even were the cladograms indisputable, what actual use is it to know that a bird has descended from a theropod, when there are no theropods left, and the birds we study to make the comparison (instead of studying their rich lifestyles) aren’t theropods any more?**

A good analogy is family history. There are good cultural reasons for studying your genealogy (we might be the heir to a fortune, and our brains are perhaps irrationally hard-wired to take an interest in our distant ancestry!) but two or three generations will erase most information of physical significance. What connection does my illiterate Irish great-grandmother have with my university-educated entrepreneur son? It was fascinating, a few years ago, to meet up with three branches of my Garvey ancestors after 120 years of separation, but even after that short separation, we had little in common but the surname. We didn’t even share a hereditary disease, and if we did, it would be our doctors, not our distant relatives, that determined how much it affected us. Genealogy didn’t seem to predict our jobs, interest, social status, intelligence or anything else of real note.

There is a place for the study of natural classification, just as there is a place for stamp-collecting, though the former is more noteworthy as some, at least, of the categories are God’s. But I think the only reason for mentioning supposed evolutionary links outside the back-rooms of museums is, in practice, to continue to sell the story of Darwinian evolution to the people as the secular religion of the age. It is the equivalent of the loyal toast at civic functions, which reminds councillors of their duties, but does nothing to help in their performance.

But I may be wrong, of course. If you can think of how viewing panic as an evolutionary phenomenon guards us against more lockdowns, I’d be pleased to hear from you. Maybe a new mRNA vaccine could erase the relevant genes, but I’m inclined to think this thought is more helpful:

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. (Romans 12:2)

** Hot off the press: it appears from this article that a set of bird tracks has been found that pre-dates birds’ supposed thetopod ancestor by tens of millions of years. The biologists’ answer to the upsetting of the applecart? “Convergent evolution” of theropods that walk like birds.

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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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