Magazine | December 31, 2015, Issue

The Reductionist Trap

The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge, by Matt Ridley (Harper, 368 pp., $28.99)

The author of this always-informative new ode to Darwinism took a doctorate in zoology at Oxford. I am a grad-school dropout who took geology (Rocks for Jocks!) to avoid math as an undergrad at George Washington University. So it’s gingerly that I suggest Matt Ridley calm down a bit on the explanatory power of evolution by natural selection.

Ridley has written a number of books more narrowly focused on genetics and biological evolution, and, even having skimmed through them, I can say they are more careful on the subject than this latest free-for-all.

The central question about a cosmology of ideas in which evolution has the catbird seat — in which it is asked by Ridley to account for everything from religion to government, the economy, and morality — is whether the vast array of phenomena that can be usefully described in evolutionary vocabulary is an indication of that theory’s profundity, or of its banality.

There is a minority report on Darwin, not dominant in the discourse but naggingly fascinating, in which the theory is not false but minor: if not trivial exactly, then far less consequential than its zealots purport. As the cognitive psychologist and philosopher Jerry Fodor, leader of the Darwinist skeptics, bids us ask: What if Darwinian evolution through natural selection is reducible to the mere combination of statistics and natural history?

Fodor, like biologist Stephen Jay Gould and others before him, seizes on two problems for Darwinism, one conceptual and the other empirical. On the former, he chooses as his analogy what can be called the “spandrel problem.” Spandrels are the triangular spaces between dome-supporting columns in classical architecture. We know that the spandrels — while carefully adorned and lovely — were by-products of the columns. Roman architects, in other words, “selected” the columns, and the spandrels came along for the ride. But we can’t tell any such story about traits “selected for” in the adaptationist story of biology, because, as Fodor says:

There is, by assumption, no architect to do the deciding. If cathedrals weren’t designed but grew in the wild, would the right evolutionary story be that they have arches because they were selected for having spandrels? Or would it be that they have spandrels because they were selected for having arches? Or neither? Or both?

 The same sort of worry is illustrated in cases of selective breeding. One oft-cited example is Russian husbanders who bred wild foxes for docility. They learned in short order that a number of other traits — floppy ears, distinctive coloration, and the like — piggybacked on docility. But we also know, because breeders have informed us what they were thinking or demonstrated it, that those traits were not the thing selected for.

But we have no such recourse when nature is the breeder. There’s nobody we can ask. Thus adaptationist pictures are, as Gould and others have pointed out, narrative frameworks imposed as a regulative fiction on the chaotic mass of facts.

Then there’s the empirical limitation on the explanatory power of Darwinism. In short, it’s that the evolution of creatures is path-dependent. The evolutionary history of salmon — indeed, the even more basic biochemical facts of what salmon genes can do — forecloses all manner of adaptations. It’s simply “too late,” in the cosmic sense, for salmon to evolve into German shepherds, even if the Atlantic Ocean starts to “select for” shepherdly traits.

Natural selection is additive, conservative. It moves like the king on the chessboard, one step in any direction. And there are, of course, other pieces at play, which further limit the king’s movement by blocking off particular avenues of advance and escape. Natural selection alone doesn’t give us a theory of what those other pieces might be or how important they are.

As a layman, I won’t speculate on exactly how problematic the empirical and conceptual problems are for working evolutionary biologists. But I can say they rear their ugly heads time and again as Ridley tries to extend the adaptationist framework to cover nigh every process that’s ever played out on Planet Earth.

This is evident most starkly when Ridley discusses evolutionary phenomena not with genes as the units, but with conscious beings — that is, us. In a section on the evolution of language, for instance, he mentions the case of the change in meaning of “prevaricate” from “lie” to “procrastinate.” Ridley says, “Nobody thought up this rule; it is the process of evolution.” Except that’s not right. There really was a first person to use “prevaricate” this way, just like there really was a first person to tell a “knock-knock” joke, and a first person to eat moldy, curdled milk. It may be that a neuron misfired and that first person meant to say “procrastinate” after all, just as it may be that the knock-knock joke emerged from some humorous misunderstanding and cheese was born from the accidental storing of milk in the improperly cleaned stomach of a cow. But in these cases there was still a listener who properly decoded the speaker’s “prevaricate” in context, resulting in a successful communication; still an audience member who internalized the knock-knock structure and repeated it to good effect; still an Adam or Eve of cheesemongers.

We’re not very good at hypothesizing about how incidents such as these turn into full-fledged cultural institutions — first, because those causal chains are composed of so many fine links, and are viewed from such a remove, that they appear to be continuums, with neither beginnings nor ends; second, and relatedly, because vagueness is endemic in our conceptual apparatus. Evolutionary biologists know there were australopiths and then there were hominids, but there is no correct answer about when the one became the other, just as there is no correct answer about the precise number of beans that suffices for a “heap” or the number of hairs you’d have to add to Sir Patrick Stewart’s head before he was no longer bald.

This might sound like a niggling complaint. Why does it matter? It isn’t that evolutionary theory — at least in the weaker sense I would propose — isn’t a plausible and fruitful way of talking about these things. It’s that Ridley is at pains to explain just about everything as a “bottom up,” not a “top down,” process — one driven by local information and local decisions, with almost no efficacy assigned at all to overarching human designs. Ridley needs this to be true, or at least seems to strongly believe this needs to be true, to bolster his political commitments, which are, broadly, reductive atheism in the mold of Dawkins and Dennett, free-market economics, and what he calls “a vague sense of progress” that he sees underlying all evolutionary processes.

I’m interested in bolstering some of these things, too (you can guess which). But the others I’m not so sure of. The idea that evolution is “progressive,” in particular, blows through the big Darwinist no-no of using teleological language to describe natural selection. Indeed, Ridley’s suggestion that the evolution of moral, political, and religious norms (including even the move away from religion) is in some sense progressive lands us well past teleology and into the realm of destiny. But we know that species do not begin flawed and evolve unto a state of perfection. Rather, Darwin tells us that the only kind of perfection that matters is fitness, and fitness is radically context-dependent. Dinosaurs and trilobites are no more or less perfect than Homo sapiens living in London at the beginning of the 21st century. They are only more or less fit to their niches.

Lots of the “weakly” evolutionary pictures Ridley paints — weak, again, in the sense sketched above — are perfectly uncontroversial. For example, Ridley’s idea that “Mozart could not have written what he did if Bach and his like had not written what they did, nor could Beethoven have written his music without drawing upon Mozart” is hardly something that would have scandalized Europe before Darwin.

But others clearly beg the question of plan versus improvisation. And many of the dynamics Ridley shows to emerge from the bottom up are also present in organizations planned from the top down. Here, surely, the planning is doing some of the work. Ridley has a long section on innovation as an essentially bottom-up process, an arena of evolutionary accidents. But it would be unusual if a carefully constructed team at IBM set out to design the next great microprocessor and wound up producing the next great R&B jam instead.

Time and again in human contexts, Ridley rehearses some great triumph — global economic growth, the invention of the Internet, the emergence of modern government — and finely and commendably summarizes outcomes that are the result of a complex amalgam of planned processes and improvisations, group dynamics and individual agency, context and contingency, iron laws of man and nature and one-time, black-swan miracles. It becomes downright odd, then, to see Ridley compulsively driven to end these always cogent and often provocative mosaics on the great flux of history with one fell swoop of reduction, often coming close to punctuating sections and chapters with the exclamation “Evolution!” and some jazz hands.

Focusing on the undirected, unplanned aspects of phenomena leaves Ridley blind to deeply significant levels of analysis and judgment in human affairs. He tells a plausible story, for instance, of how agricultural and economic conditions in different parts of the world exerted selective pressure toward polygamy; how monogamy emerged initially with Christianity, and then only finally with the rise of bourgeois merchants; and of how competitive pressures can explain the prevalence of violence between the monogamous West and the polygamists at its periphery (fundamentalist Islam) and in its midst (the early Mormon Church). But readers will recognize here the trap of the materialist. The fact that a phenomenon admits of a structural or a statistical description, among others, does not make that description the essential, much less the morally relevant one. Michelangelo’s David is a lump of non-foliated metamorphic rock. But to understand David this way — as to understand marriage as an accretion of economic incentives — is to miss something of great beauty and consequence.

This materialist myopia is most offensive whenever Ridley discusses faith, as he does compulsively and pathologically. His chapter on the evolution of religion would require a book-length rebuttal. Suffice it to say that Ridley’s operating assumption is that every theistic thinker who ever existed assumed, without evidence, that God and God alone was the guarantor of virtue and morality. This does casual and plenary violence to a millennium or three of Western philosophers who wrestled consequentially with the question of whether the good precedes the godly.

Nietzsche styled himself “the hammer of the gods.” Ridley is keen to grant Darwin that honorific. Not surprising, then, that every realm on which Ridley brings the naturalist to bear should look like a nail.

Daniel FosterDaniel Foster is a former news editor of National Review Online.

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