Barash, Biology & Balderdash

I feel sorry for David Barash’s undergraduate students at the University of Washington. Why? Because when Barash teaches his animal behavior class, which is grounded in evolutionary theory, he feels compelled to give them “The Talk.” Barash worries that the evolutionary aspects of the course will cause consternation among his religious students. With this in mind, Barash prefaces the course by giving them a talk which strikes me as both gratuitous and wrongheaded. In this recent New York Times piece (“God, Darwin and My College Biology Class”), Barash gives the particulars of this talk:

As evolutionary science has progressed, the available space for religious faith has narrowed: It has demolished two previously potent pillars of religious faith and undermined belief in an omnipotent and omni-benevolent God.

The twofold demolition begins by defeating what modern creationists call the argument from complexity. This once seemed persuasive, best known from William Paley’s 19th-century claim that, just as the existence of a complex structure like a watch demands the existence of a watchmaker, the existence of complex organisms requires a supernatural creator. Since Darwin, however, we have come to understand that an entirely natural and undirected process, namely random variation plus natural selection, contains all that is needed to generate extraordinary levels of non-randomness. Living things are indeed wonderfully complex, but altogether within the range of a statistically powerful, entirely mechanical phenomenon.

A few of my students shift uncomfortably in their seats. I go on. Next to go is the illusion of centrality. Before Darwin, one could believe that human beings were distinct from other life-forms, chips off the old divine block. No more. The most potent take-home message of evolution is the not-so-simple fact that, even though species are identifiable (just as individuals generally are), there is an underlying linkage among them — literally and phylogenetically, via traceable historical connectedness. Moreover, no literally supernatural trait has ever been found in Homo sapiens; we are perfectly good animals, natural as can be and indistinguishable from the rest of the living world at the level of structure as well as physiological mechanism.

Adding to religion’s current intellectual instability is a third consequence of evolutionary insights: a powerful critique of theodicy, the scholarly effort to reconcile belief in an omnipresent, omni-benevolent God with the fact of unmerited suffering…

While I don’t disagree with any of this, it goes way beyond the bounds of a biology class and amounts to theological argument. If Barash were teaching a philosophy or religion course, this kind of talk would be fair game. But in a biology class, without any further exploration or interrogation of what are major issues in the philosophy of biology and history of social science, it is out of place.

There is a much simpler, and intellectually honest, approach to all this. While I’m sure Barash is aware of this approach, the fact that his talk does not mention it is revealing. Evolution and religion are not mutually exclusive. There are in fact many evolutionists who are religious. So why doesn’t Barash mention evolutionary theism or other “spiritual” variants of this idea?

At first blush, it may appear that Barash is concerned about the psychological sensitivities of his creationist students. But I suspect not. Creationists tend to avoid courses that either teach or entail evolution. Those who take such courses may or may not be persuaded, but in either case the theory and facts should speak for themselves without being given atheist or anti-religious glosses by the professor.

At second blush, it may appear that Barash is concerned about the psychological sensitivities of his students who believe in Intelligent Design. But again I suspect not. ID is just another form of creationism, and like creationist students, most ID-believing students are either going to avoid the course or not believe what is being taught. So what? When teaching a biology course, it’s not Barash’s job to persuade his students that evolution and religion are hostile or incompatible.

In fact, they are “compatible” (in the sense of constituting a coherent philosophical or cosmological position) and evolutionary theists prove the point. When I teach my anthropology of religion course, I always tell the students that we will be using evolutionary approaches. I am quick to add that there is nothing inherently atheistic, or anti-religious, about such approaches and that several scholars working in this area are religious. Many of these scholars, whose work we read and then critically discuss, believe that “God works or manifests through evolution.”

Why doesn’t Barash mention this in his talk? I suspect it’s because Barash is stuck inside the artificial confines of theism/atheism and narrow binaries of belief/unbelief. This is a common problem among New Atheists, some of whom should just stick to teaching biology, which is what they know and do best.


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27 thoughts on “Barash, Biology & Balderdash

  1. Larry Stout

    It may be that Barash has learned through experience that not dismissing creationism at the start leads to protracted misinterpretations about the rational content of the course, and counterproductive disgressions from it. When you say “God” works through evolution, which god do you mean, and what is the evidence for such a theory? “Evolutionary theism” is downright medieval. Might as well continue to theorize that Satan deceives us by placing fossils in rocks. Since religion is unconstrained by rationality, it requires, and merits, no rational defenders.

  2. Cris Post author

    Just to be clear, I am not personally saying “God works through evolution.” This is what evolutionary theists say.

    While I don’t find any satisfactory evidence in evolution for this position (or any evidence at all for that matter), evolutionary theists find plenty of it. And I would daresay that most of them are no less “rational” than you or I. We just differ from them in what counts as evidence. We also differ from them on our respective treatments of metaphysical first principles.

    Finally, I’m more than a bit puzzled by the blanket assertion that “religion” (what religion? whose religion?) is unconstrained by “rationality.” To take but one example, have you ever read Aquinas? That is the height of philosophical and apparently logical rationality, within a certain kind of context.

    “Rationality” is such a highly loaded, historically freighted, and rhetorically empty concept that I stopped using it long ago. While I suspect that you and I would agree on what we think is “rational,” this hardly settles the matter.

  3. Bob Wells

    I am both a total believer in Intelligent Design and evolution and see no contradiction between them at all. Trying to understand humans without taking into account our biology or evolution is doomed to failure. But is is equally doomed if we only see humans as science experiments.

    Ask science where life originated from and there is no rational answer. Ask it where the matter found at the Big Bang came from and what laws ruled over it and there will be no answer. Nor will there ever be!

    Intelligent design offers an answer and is totally rational once you begin with that one hypothesis. I can already hear you screaming, “But it is neither provable or verifiable!” Neither is the non-existent scientific explanation!

    But there is anecdotal evidence in the billions of people whose lives have been changed by it. Want “proof?” Go to an AA meeting. No, it’s not a hard science, double-blind experiment, but it is a mountain of soft evidence.

  4. Cris Post author

    Well, Bob, the standard or mainstream account of ID is not simply “how did it begin” or originate. Most ID believers assert that the evolution of complex structures, such as eyes, is impossible; hence, they must have been “created” (by God, of course). So you don’t strike me as a total believer in ID as it is usually understood and argued.

    And just so you know, there are some very good hypotheses about the origins of life on earth and these are being tested all the time. The origin of life may be a scientific problem (with several possible solutions), but it’s not an unfathomable or intractable mystery.

    These issues aside, ever-shifting standards of “rationality” and “irrationality” cut straight across and through both religious and secular positions. Religionists and spiritualists can be both rational and irrational, as can secularists, scientists, and materialists.

    Strictly understood, in the philosophical sense, “rationality” means nothing more than that some cogitation or thought process follows logical procedures or rules. By this limited standard, everyone who can justify a position one way or another is “rational.”

    Once you get past this strict definition of “rational,” all sorts of other considerations come into play. I try avoid these normative, and usually tautological, kinds of arguments. They usually lead to sophistry on the part of all involved.

  5. Dominik Lukes

    Cris, I find Barrash very confused about the nature of science and biology, as well. The idea that species are identifiable in the same way individuals are seems very questionable to me. They are made so by the discourses of science (and animal breeding) but are nowhere near as bounded nor historically coherent as an individual (who in turn is not nearly as coherent across ‘species’ as our human metaphor of individual would make us assume). That’s one of the problems with naive evolutionist propaganda – it closes itself to any self-reflection and sells both bad critique and bad scholarship. Apart from being ignorant about religion, it is actually completely unaware about its own epistemology and how it shapes its external conclusions. Just like Aquinas was ‘perfectly’ coherent (rational) within his framework, or modern ghost hunters are, so scientists can only claim ‘rationality’ within their own frameworks. Now, these ‘magisteria’ are totally overlapping and that’s where the problems inevitably arise (not least due to the unfortunate conflation of science and technology). But today, it is the mainstream scientistic worldview is the totalizing one and the mainstream religious worldview that is pluralistic. I understand that the practicalities of teaching in an environment where just the word ‘evolution’ may create controversy but I’m still uncomfortable with the simplifications employed to counteract this because they seem to be becoming the ‘accepted truths’ rather than just temporary shortcuts.

    (Obligatory disclaimer: Talking here as an atheist as well as technology and history of science enthusiast. I’m interested in embodied and socialised epistemology.)

  6. Larry Stout

    Bertrand Russell:

    “He [Aquinas] does not, like the Platonic Socrates, set out to follow wherever the argument may lead. He is not engaged in an inquiry, the result of which it is impossible to know in advance. Before he begins to philosophize, he already knows the truth; it is declared in the Catholic faith. If he can find apparently rational arguments for some parts of the faith, so much the better; if he cannot, he need only fall back on revelation. The finding of arguments for a conclusion given in advance is not philosophy, but special pleading. I cannot, therefore, feel that he deserves to be put on a level with the best philosophers either of Greece or of modern times.”

    So, “within a certain context” is merely special pleading.

    And, to ask again, what/which god?

  7. Cris Post author

    To begin with your last question, Larry, does it matter what or which god? Let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that 4 billion people in today’s world believe in a first or prime mover “god.” Due to individual variability, experiences, and ideas, this suggests there are up to 4 billion different conceptions of “god.” I don’t see how any of these conceptions, even if bounded into larger sets by essentializing adjectives like “Christian God,” “Muslim God,” “Jewish God,” or “Hindu god” (again, there is no fixed or essential “god” within any of these sets) impacts the argument about whether a thought process is, or is not, “rational.”

    The evolutionary theist-spiritualist assertion, you may recall, is that some god or spiritual force works or manifests through natural selection. People and scholars who believe this may have different first principles than you, but this does not make them “irrational.” Let’s take the paleontologist Simon Conway Morris. He’s an evolutionary theist; he is also a superb scientist and prolific scholar. While we may disagree with some of his conclusions, have suspicions about his methods, or question the larger inferences he draws from his work, he’s hardly “medieval” or “irrational.” When we call his work into question, it really won’t do to dismiss it as lacking “rationality.” That word is a conclusion, or conversation stopper; it’s not an argument.

    This brings me to “special pleading” context. How do you define “rationality”? Once I know how you define, understand, and deploy this term, I can then address this issue in more detail. “Rational,” at least within the disciplines of philosophy and (to a lesser extent) anthropology, has a certain kind of meaning and restricted application. It seems to me that you are conflating “rational” with “scientific.” If so, that’s fine, but it would be good to know how you are using it.

    Do you really want to claim that Descartes, Kant, Kierkegaard, Leibniz, and Spinoza — all of whom believed in some kind of “god” or spirit force active in the world — were not “rational.” They, after all, are generally recognized as Rationalists.

  8. Larry Stout

    It matters to me, because any discourse employing undefined terms is, to me, implicitly irrational. And, yes, there are disparate conceptions of “rational”, just as there is no end of imaginary gods. Deductive reasoning that begins with mere doctrine instead of sound principle is irrational. Inductive reasoning that ultimately infers “a creator” is invariably a non sequitur — a “leap of faith”. Leaps of faith are irrational.

  9. Dominik Lukes

    I’m going to have to agree with Cris against Larry. Let’s throw Newton (the Young Earth Theorist) into the mix and the two centuries worth of natural philosophers. Russell, for all his strengths, was a really really bad historian of philosophy. His book is a high-school level intro as his undue adulation of the Greeks suggests.

    I’m particularly interested in Larry’s last point: “any discourse employing undefined terms is, to me, implicitly irrational”…”Leaps of faith are irrational.” This is a perfect example of overexpansive scientism unconcerned with knowledge and learning from the disciplines that study them – such as language – or sociology of science. First, you can’t define all the terms you’re using. That’s impossible. Language simply does not work that way and that’s even specialist language. You can at best outline your intended usage of certain subset of terms you use but even that is subject to semantic change in context as the discussion continues. Definitions (either in encyclopedias or dictionaries) do not ‘define’ the meaning of the terms. They suggest patterns of usage. This is not only inevitable but (despite many difficulties) often useful. I recommend the book ‘Century of the Gene’ that shows how these subtle differences in meaning were essential to moving the field of genetics forward.

    As to leaps of faiths, there’s extensive literature about the essential nature of intuition in science and leaps of faith based on it. In fact, you could argue that the whole experimental paradigm is based on leaps of faith – choosing certain designs over others on intuitions. Recent discussions about replication showed how many laboratory scientists rely on intuitive, hard to express actions (rituals) to make sure their experiments work – accusing those who fail to replicate them of a lack of ‘faith’.

    Every deductive reasoning has to begin with some kind of doctrine. How about axioms in mathematics? Or in fact the very words ‘sound principle’. You’re just calling your own doctrine a sound principle and other people’s sound principles doctrines. The problem is that all of these critiques of ‘religion’ (as if it were one thing) rely on silly caricatures by people extolling ‘good science’ while engaging in shamefully bad and irresponsible scholarship.

    Which reminds me. This statement of Barrash is utter nonsense:

    “Living things are indeed wonderfully complex, but altogether within the range of a statistically powerful, entirely mechanical phenomenon.”

    It’s another example of the magical use of scientific sounding words. There is no such thing as a statistical phenomenon. And the fact that he’s even willing to utter this makes me doubt everything else. Statistics can only provide models for linking sampled observations to populations. The extension of these models is purely the work of human imagination. Equally, the idea that living things are ‘mechanical’ strikes me as being very much 18th century. We can certain provide very good models of how parts of living things function (e.g. circulation) but describing them as purely mechanical seems to ignore other important aspects of living things (e.g. growth, reproduction, healing) which can perhaps be simulated through mechanical models but hardly completely.

  10. Cris Post author

    So if we obtain definitions of “god” from evolutionary theists, that would cure the rational deficiency? Ironically, I think Aquinas would have agreed with you on this point!

    This aside, let’s stop talking in generalities and consider some evolutionary theists. Simon Conway Morris (paleontologist), Robert Bellah (sociologist), Nathaniel Barrett (psychologist), Michael Blume (demographer), Matt Rossano (psychologist), and Francisco Ayala (biologist) are all evolutionary theists. All of them have done substantial work, in their respective fields, on evolution. That work has been peer reviewed and published in major scientific journals.

    Are you saying that if each of them gave us a definition of “God,” that all this work would as a result become “irrational”? It seems strange to me that their definitions, whatever those might be, would have anything to do with the merits or substance of their work.

    In the end, I think this entire conversation just goes to show how wrongheaded Barash’s “Talk” is. He’s teaching an animal behavior class, not a philosophy or theology class. If, as you suggested earlier, he’s worried about creationist digressions, there is a simple solution to that: if a student raises a creationist point or objection, you simply state that creationism is religion, not science, and because this is a science class, we won’t be discussing or considering creation.

    But I don’t think this was his problem, and he certainly did not state that was his problem. His talk delves deeply into philosophical issues going far beyond simplistic, and readily dismissed, creationism. It’s fairly evident that Barash wants to “educate” his students on the ways in which evolution has impacted religion. If that’s the case, then he should at least provide a fair overview of those positions, which include evolutionary theism.

  11. Chris Kavanagh

    Cris> In the article Barash does say that he introduces the Talk by outlining NOMA and also specifically states: “According to this expansive view, God might well have used evolution by natural selection to produce his creation. This is undeniable. If God exists, then he could have employed anything under the sun — or beyond it — to work his will. Hence, there is nothing in evolutionary biology that necessarily precludes religion, save for most religious fundamentalisms”. That sounds to me precisely like the summary of the evolutionary theist position you are suggesting he fails to acknowledge.

    Despite this, I agree with you that the ‘Talk’ does seem unnecessary, but then I have no experience teaching evolutionary biology, and it may very well be that this is a course in which creationism/religious inspired misunderstandings frequently crops up (which his article implies). If that is the case, I don’t see his talk as being so objectionable and a number of his points are relevant and valid, specifically:

    1. Intelligent design is an unscientific religious based pseudoscience and evolution does provide an alternative account for complexity. You say this can be easily dismissed but judging from opinion polls it doesn’t seem statistically to be an insignificant position.
    2. The golden barrier between human and animals has been repeatedly broken by successive evolutionary findings. Our cumulative culture does distinguish from other life on the planet but we share much more with animals, especially with other social primates, than a lot of mainstream US religious narratives would be comfortable with.

    It also seems somewhat contradictory to recommend evolutionary theism as a valid position, when a few posts ago you dismissed Matt Rossano’s work as being so thoroughly tainted by his theistic perspective on evolution that you use it to teach students “how not to do science”.

    Domink> Which reminds me. This statement of Barrash is utter nonsense:

    “Living things are indeed wonderfully complex, but altogether within the range of a statistically powerful, entirely mechanical phenomenon.”

    I don’t think this is meaningless at all. The point of the statement is to highlight that we have entirely natural explanations for the extraordinarily complex biological world. Statistically powerful = able to account for changes in species over millions and billions of years and at another level in gene frequencies over generations, entirely mechanical= non magical/natural. You might not like his choice of description and, I can see why from your interpretation, but I think ‘utter nonsense’ is a bit inaccurate.

    Ironically, Barash is also the author of a book promoting the compatibility of Buddhism and biology. I haven’t read it so can’t comment on how this is achieved but I suspect the same kind of reasoning and selective focus that is often found in evolutionary theism will be at play.

  12. Cris Post author

    Thanks for the comment Chris, nearly all of which is well taken. Just to be clear: I am emphatically not recommending evolution theism as a valid position. As you know, I am highly suspicious of work that is done, and stories being told, by evolutionary theists.

    I am saying that if you are going to discuss the complex relationships between evolution and religion, you have to address and acknowledge the evolutionary theist position. I don’t think that position (actually, it’s “positions” since there are variable views) is adequately addressed by dismissing it under NOMA, and then spending the rest of “the talk” giving a very particularized and incomplete story about the relationship between evolution and religion.

  13. Cris Post author

    All this talk (and especially Barash’s “mechanical” claim, which ironically comes from Descartes’ metaphysical rationalism) reminds me that I wanted to recommend, particularly for Larry, the work of Bertrand Russell’s adviser, colleague, and co-author of the Principia Mathematica, Alfred North Whitehead.

    Later in his career, Whitehead developed a powerful critique of “substance materialism” and exposed the metaphysical assumptions that are embedded in the purely mechanical view of nature, things, or “stuff.” He developed an alternative metaphysics which he thought better accorded with the facts of science. This “process” philosophy is fairly profound and accords well not only with science (especially quantum flux), but also with certain kinds of historical cosmologies (particularly eastern ones and animist worldviews). It also accords well with certain ontological views, including those of Heraclitus and Nietzsche.

    Interestingly, Whitehead extended these ideas and used them to develop a definition of “God.” While I think this extension is a bunch of ill-advised and nearly impenetrable mumbo-jumbo, it was certainly the product of Whitehead’s enormous powers of induction and deduction (i.e., “reason”), the “rationality” of which can hardly be doubted.

    All this aside, Whitehead’s greatest service was to show how “naive empiricism” and “substance materialism” are, when presented as the final and foundational word on what constitutes “reality,” metaphysical positions. This explains why views such as those pushed by Dawkins and other New Atheists are, ironically and at bottom, metaphysical.

  14. GregJS

    I had actually clipped that article (yes, I know, people don’t clip articles anymore; they bookmark them online; but I’m a clipper) because it seemed such a clear example of unacknowledged faith-based scientism. I’m with Bob Wells in that science (biology, anyways) takes the existence of life itself for granted – takes it as a given. It then studies its physical-mechanical expressions, completely forgetting that it (science) has no idea what life actually is. This applies to both parts of Barash’s supposed “twofold demolition” of religious faith. First, when he says that complexity can be fully accounted for “within the range of a statistically powerful, entirely mechanical phenomenon.” Second, when he says that “no supernatural trait has ever been found in Homo sapiens; we are…natural as can be and indistinguishable from the rest of the living world at the level of structure as well as physiological mechanism.”

    Implied in both statements is the necessarily faith-based (i.e., unprovable/undisprovable) belief that life and nature are strictly physical-mechanical. We do not know that. So…evolutionary theory/natural selection alone cannot explain the complexity of life because it can’t explain life itself. As far as science is concerned, life is an unknown “Factor X” in all of this. The complexity that arises through natural selection only arises when this unexplainable, unknown Factor X is present. The recognition that life can’t be explained in material-mechanical terms is also at the root of religious conceptions that put humans at the center of existence. So again, not knowing what life is, science cannot rule out that life is indeed somehow centered on humans.

    I agree with Stephen Jay Gould’s statement that evolution and religion are “nonoverlapping magesteria.” Barash ought to just tell his class, “We are only going to be considering the material-mechanical aspects of evolution in this class,” and leave it at that.

  15. Cris Post author

    I think science has a fairly good, if difficult to apply at the origins and margins, definition of “life.” By this definition, “life” would be any bounded entity that replicates or reproduces by a process that relies on “information” (i.e., RNA/DNA) and energy. The latter refers to metabolism and this is the issue that makes definitions of life difficult.

    At the origins (for which there are many good hypotheses with promising lab results), the transition from inert-inorganic chemical reactions to autocatalytic and self-sustaining (i.e., replicating-metabolic) life is a difficult question. It’s also a difficult question at viral or parasitic margins, where the entities in question lack their own energy production or metabolism. But these original-marginal difficulties aside, science does not really have a problem with “life.”

    Moreover, natural selection does not purport to explain origins. It describes the process that occurs after life originates and begins to radiate. There is no question in my mind that natural selection is quite capable of explaining the complexity of life. Since the last common universal ancestor ~3.5 billion years ago, natural selection (in conjunction with drift, sexual selection, and stabilizing selection) can account for life forms that are relatively easy to identify and define. I don’t see this as a mystery.

  16. GregJS


    These are such huge topics it seems futile to try to do justice to them here. So without trying to achieve any sort of resolution, permit me to ramble a bit and spit out a bunch of things that are just now jumping out of my head – without expecting you to respond because this could go on forever and I might be off-point anyways.

    No doubt you’re providing a reasonable material-mechanical definition of life – the sort of definition we’d expect from a science that approaches life in those terms. But of course if we pre-determine that life is only material-mechanical, then we’ll only consider material-mechanical evidence as real – which then seems to verify, but possibly only locks us into, our initial definition of life. What about defining life also in subjective-experiential terms? What about the possibility that life can best be defined by the “what it feels like” quality to which it gives rise? Of course, we can’t objectively-scientifically verify that other forms of life have a subjective experience; but that doesn’t invalidate the possibility that subjectivity really is the chief, defining characteristic of life. But science seems to preclude this from the outset. Certainly, a definition of life that at least includes subjectivity would account for a range of phenomenon that science can’t account for, but would not in any way impinge on science’s explorations of the material-mechanical realm.

    Has science really brought us any closer to understanding what life is than where we were 50 years ago – or 100, or 1000? Even if we do someday soon get molecules and energy to interact and combine in such a way that life “pops” out, does that tell us how this is possible – how it is that inert chemicals and energy have this potential? Does this tell us that life is nothing other than those chemical-energetic combinations/interactions? Does it answer the larger question of whether life is an “epi-phenomenon” that appears when matter is combined in the right way, as science tells us, in what seems to be a purely faith-based assumption; or whether, instead, it is somehow inherently part of the very fabric of existence (but only “pops out” and “clothes itself,” so to speak, in a material-mechanical form under specific circumstances), as religious-spiritual views suggest? It’s hard to imagine that science can resolve – or even take into account – these issues because they seem to lie outside the range of science as currently construed – as the objective study of material-mechanical phenomena.

    Is any of this relevant to the topic at hand? It could be. Natural selection does provide a very logical mechanism by which complexity can develop; that seems certain. But still, science can’t know the extent to which, or the way in which, life – with whatever innate properties it might have (as a more-than-material-mechanical phenomenon that includes subjectivity) – is “driving” the specific way in which evolution unfolds and is setting the direction for complexity to develop. If the subjective component of life is at play in any of this, then this seems to leave the door wide open for a range of “non-scientific” possibilities, including those of the “God works through evolution” sort.

    Is a mechanism and the force that puts that mechanism into operation one and the same thing? Could life come pre-loaded with its own innate purposes, which are then realized through natural selection? My legs explain the mechanism by which I run; but if I – the subjective, living person – die, my legs won’t run without me. Maybe not a good analogy, but the point remains that the potential unknown dimensions of life – largely denied or ignored by science – could be playing a decisive role in all of this.

    The mechanistic point of view could also be skewing our understanding of the entire process right from the start. From the mechanistic pov of a tiny martian exploring the insides of my body, my lungs could appear to be in competition with my kidneys for the nutrients flowing through my system. Of course this seems ludicrous from my point of view as a living person, where my lungs and kidneys are clearly in cooperative balance with each other. Which pov is correct? Similarly, are different species in competition or are they actually in cooperative balance? Evolving in cooperative balance might be closer to the purpose served by natural selection when viewed from a non-mechanistic-life pov. Natural selection remains the mechanism whereby complexity develops, but if that complexity is serving some purpose at a non-mechanical, subjective (we can also say “personal”) level, then this “hidden” level might explain where the specific forms of complexity we observe really come from.

    There’s really nothing new in what I’m saying – I’m just emphasizing how the unknowns of what life is provides a real basis for what many others have already claimed, sometimes from a purely religious pov. Not sure if this directly addresses what you were saying, but hopefully seems closely enough related.

  17. Chris Kavanagh

    GregJS> ‘Subjectivity’ as a criteria is rather heavily laden with (acknowledged or unacknowledged) humanocentric qualities related to consciousness. I seriously doubt the ‘subjectivity’ of a xenophyophore can be meaningfully compared to the ‘subjectivity’ of a social primate and if it could be determined in the future that a xenophyophore’s life is entirely devoid of subjectivity would that make it any less alive? I don’t think so, and similarly, I don’t believe that the dividing line between life and non-life involves some kind of golden barrier but rather, a fuzzy boundary that involves simple chemical structures that are hard to classify. Such fuzziness really only makes us, living beings who have evolved enough intelligence to think about our existence (and the universe’s) uncomfortable and concerned with things like “how it is that inert chemicals and energy have this potential”. However, I strongly suspect that this kind of question only seems deeply important to us because of how our minds work and their love of generating bounded categories. I am certainly not immune to such tendencies but it does seem that this fetishing of ‘life’ and ‘subjectivity’ as somehow uniquely divorced from the material universe is likely misguided.

    As for detecting purpose behind natural selection, again I see much more human bias than objective evidence behind such a case. Natural selection does not always lead to equilibrium, it can lead to mass extinction, destructive invasions and, indeed, can have millenia of ‘work’ completely undone through cosmological/ecological disasters. There might be some cosmic purpose behind the millions of years of dinosaurs but it seems more parsimonious that such perceptions are the products of human’s promiscuous teleological tendencies and that natural selection is really just an impersonal selective force with no guiding purpose ‘in mind’.

  18. GregJS


    I’ll just try to give a quick sense of how one might respond to your objections from a “subjective” pov (one perhaps compatible with a religious pov):

    Whatever one can say about subjectivity, it is the central fact of our existence in that we never know anything except through our subjective experience – so it cannot be dismissed, no matter what difficulties may surround it, no matter how fuzzy it might be. And we cannot even begin to explain it through material-mechanical principles or laws, which leaves the door wide open to other possibilities (like, for instance, that evolution is the mechanism by which the subjective principle explores itself).

    From this pov, everything you’re describing as “human bias” (like purposiveness) is actually part of the very fabric of existence (so I’m not saying that life and subjectivity are separate from the material universe, but that they may be fundamental to it – i.e., not “epi-phenomena”). Maybe that is why we tend to have these particular “biases.” Maybe these are not any kind of biases at all, but the most natural form of perception, and it is the strictly impersonal, mechanical-material, so-called “objective” view of reality that is a highly biased aberration.

    After all, is seeing extinctions and invasions as detracting from balance an “unbiased” or “objective” point of view? Or are all of those sorts of “disharmonious” things part of an overall balance? Imagine that tiny martian seeing thousands of cells dying in my body every minute. Imagine what it would seem like to him every time I sneezed or farted! He would see massive disequilibrium from his point of view, but is that pov “objectively true?”

    Life and subjectivity are such strange, unknown factors. Any view of reality that leaves them out – or that treats them as “epi-phenomena” – hardly seems parsimonious to me. (To me, it would seem that Occam’s Razor would come in on the side of assuming that they are fundamental to reality, rather than produced by some special combination of material/energy. Both pov are equally inexplicable and ultimately “faith-based”; but the former leaves out a seemingly unnecessary layer of theorizing.) It just doesn’t make sense to assume that evolution is a strictly mechanical process when the only thing ever presumed to have evolved – life – seems to be fundamentally non-mechanical in nature. It seems that this non-mechanicalness would have to be taken into account (and not just in the origins of evolution, either, to go back to something Cris had said, but in every step and stage and moment of it).

  19. Cris Post author

    Greg, I don’t see that the current material-mechanical definition of life is forever fixed and rigid; it’s just a baseline that is built on what has been observed, universally, among all known life forms on earth. If we acquire additional facts and data of the sort that would lead us to modify the definition, then so be it. Who knows what such facts and data might show or suggest; they could either confirm the current mechanical definition or cause us to amend it. Perhaps astrobiology will eventually provide us with data along these lines. Science should of course search for such data and be open to such questions. In the end, I don’t think the current definition precludes any kind of investigation. Neither does it prohibit the formulation and testing of any alternative hypotheses about the constituent elements of “life.”

    As for your subjectivity-experiential suggestion, I agree with Chris Kavanaugh’s response. I will add that such a definition could have some weird effects. We don’t know that any organisms, other than ourselves, have subjective experiences. Subjectivity is usually defined, in ethology and psychology, as being self-aware. While it appears that some organisms, such as apes, cetaceans, and elephants are self-aware (because they recognize themselves in mirrors), we don’t know much more about their inner experiences. Heck, we don’t know very much about our own subjectivity, or the qualia that are associated with Nagel’s famous question: What is it like to be a bat?

    Given all this, I don’t see how your suggested definition would work, or how it could be operationalized for testing.

    While I was reading your post I was thinking that the subtexts for it might be Henri Bergson and Teilhard de Chardin. Bergon’s organismal vitalism and Teilhard’s evolutionary teleology are intriguing, and many people have been open to those ideas, but the evidence for them is (in my estimation) rather weak.

    I was also thinking (with respect to your questions about the transition from inorganic to organic or inert to life) that you would be interested in Stuart Kauffman’s work and books. He’s a complexity theorist who investigates the origins of life, and he explores the ways in which the various interacting properties of physics/biology can give rise to “emergent” phase changes.

    Many of the more doctrinaire Darwinians (i.e., the metaphysical materialists) don’t like Kauffman because he seems to be opening up theoretical space for “spiritual” conceptions of the universe and life. I’m not sure this is Kauffman’s intent, but his work might answer many of your questions and provide additional food for thought.

    As for teleology in biology, I recommend that you read this brilliant essay by Stephen Asma. After I read Asma’s essay, I realized that I had never really understood all the different forms of teleology in biology, and had never given these complex issues much thought. Asma’s essay made me realize we don’t have good analytical or evidentiary warrant for simply stating (by way of unproved assertion or unexamined conclusion) that biological evolution is not teleological. There may in fact be some limited ways in which it is. Asma’s essay is challenging, but well worth the intellectual effort.

  20. Gyrus


    We don’t know that any organisms, other than ourselves, have subjective experiences.

    This is of course the bottom line. But if so, why is it so customary for the scientific position to assume that other organisms don’t have subjective experiences? “Burden of proof” seems important in some restricted way, but taking a wider view, it seems like a way of avoiding the irreducible mystery in the fact of “we don’t know”.

    Subjectivity is usually defined, in ethology and psychology, as being self-aware.

    I think that definitions of subjectivity are needlessly monolithic when given by people without much experience of radically altered states of consciousness. For instance, “lucid dreaming” is usually seen as a pretty clear-cut phenomenon, where you become aware that you’re dreaming. It’s a distinct state, which has been scientifically verified (AFAIK by Keith Hearne in the ’70s, though Stephen LaBerge later did some interesting experiments). However, while my first experiences of lucidity in dreams definitely had this aspect of being a qualitative leap into another state of subjectivity, since then I’ve experience many intermediate states, where I become aware that I might be dreaming, but end up suspended in an indeterminate grey area.

    In the end, I don’t personally see subjectivity as necessitating self-awareness. Surely it’s just awareness? Past that, there may or may not be varying levels of reflexive compounding of that awareness.

    In terms of strict empirical science, as Descartes showed (with God as his get-out clause), I don’t even know that my closest friends are subjectively aware. But this just shows the limitations of objective certainty. And I would extend this “friendly assumption” that my friends are subjectively aware, across the organic spectrum – although I might not credit a dog or a mushroom with precisely the same subjectivity as a human friend. Darwinism doesn’t preclude certain “symmetry breaks” in different types of consciousness, but I don’t see any reason why its gradualistic implications and its suggestion of continuity don’t lead to an unprovable-but-good assumption that all life, in some sense is subjectively aware.

    When I’m feeling especially well-disposed to the world, I can extend that to all matter, but that’s another story 😉

  21. Cris Post author

    Gyrus, I don’t disagree with what you’ve said, but my comment about the self-aware definition of subjectivity was really only mean to highlight the fact that we don’t know much about subjectivity in ourselves, let alone in other organisms. Those definitions were formulated for the explicit purpose of testing using mirrors and self-recognition. They don’t purport to address larger issues of subjectivity, awareness, qualia, or consciousness.

    Using “experiential subjectivity” as a definition for life (which is what Greg suggested), when we are investigating biology and evolution, doesn’t seem like a very promising way to proceed, at least if you are interested in formulating hypotheses and then testing those. Such a definition may be useful for other purposes, as you outline in your comment, but I don’t see how it could work for a scientific research program on the origins and evolution of life.

  22. Gyrus

    Agreed. The implication for science from this perspective may never be any kind of research program, but more an agreement on the limitations of science. Simply not talking about these issues in any way (by never suggesting that other organisms either have or lack subjectivity) is probably better than the common implication (that because we can’t test it we might as well assume it’s lacking). The latter seems like a drawn-out Cartesian hangover to me. And fair play to Richard Dawkins for staying true to the evidence in his support of the Great Ape Project, extending basic human rights to apes.

    Best of all, though, would be explicit admission that science doesn’t know one way or the other – certainly in introductory classes etc. Not talking about it at all can be slippy, because people often seem to have a tendency, when in “science” mode, to assume that absence of evidence is evidence of absence. When of course, this doesn’t hold for real scientific thought.

  23. GregJS


    The thing is that, apart from any other consideration (like whether or not other life forms have it, or in what way other life forms have it, or if it emerges at some point along a spectrum of life forms, or how we can even know or test any of this) there is still the sheer, undeniable, and as-yet utterly, conspicuously unexplained fact of subjectivity – and I mean subjectivity of any kind whatsoever – any sort of “what it feels like.” Just this alone seems enough to strongly suggest a view of reality fundamentally different from the objective-material-mechanical view associated with modern science and secular civilization. I’m not certain, but it seems this comes down to those two (equally “faith-based”) fundamental assumptions that so many discussions of this sort boil down to:

    life-subjectivity-personhood is an epi-phenomenon of matter-energy
    life-subjectivity-personhood is integral to/part of the very fabric of existence

    Even if only one life form – even if only one individual – has a subjective experience of any kind, this is enough to open the door to the latter assumption because, as of right now, we have no basis for assuming that subjectivity (again, of any kind) is reducible to material-mechanical properties, forces, or laws (although it could be, in some as-yet unimagined way; but I’m not aware that anyone has been able to so much as describe what this would even mean). The latter assumption/view of reality implies many other things about the nature of reality in general – like, for example, Gyrus’ “unprovable-but-good assumption that all life, in some sense is subjectively aware” which could be further extended “to all matter”; but also about things like natural selection in particular, which I’ve taken a couple stabs at describing above. But really, if it’s these two probably irresolvable views of reality that are at play here, then, while we could go back and forth endlessly responding to each other’s statements (in ways that would probably sound increasingly incongruous to each other), it seems enough, at this point, to note these two points of view – and the fact that it’s probably a good thing that people explore these very different kinds of possibilities and see where they lead.

  24. Chris Kavanagh

    I’m onboard with Gyrus that the default assumption should be expecting some form of subjectivity (although obviously not self consciousness) in practically all life forms. I do however think that there is a tendency for us, as humans, to imagine other beings subjectivity as being something like our ‘self conscious’ experience, which seems increasingly unlikely the father (evolutionarily) we are from the comparison species.

    I also don’t accept GregJS’ claim that a) life-subjectivity-personhood is an epi-phenomenon of matter-energy and b) life-subjectivity-personhood is integral to/part of the very fabric of existence are equally ‘faith based’. Beyond philosophical and theological speculation, we have no evidence for subjective experience existing anywhere in the absence of life and life, as we know it, requires material beings capable of performing certain biological processes. Hence, given that the only subjective experiences, which we currently know of, are experienced by complex biological beings and inferred to exist in less complex biological beings, it seems to involve an extra non-evidence based step to infer that ‘subjectivity’ is some fundamental property of the universe. It is the defining feature of our existence and hence I understand fully why we would like it to be a special and intrinsic property of the universe but I don’t see any compelling evidence in support of such a claim.

    Still, I do agree that these are issues worth exploring and that our current level of scientific development is inadequate to provide any definitive answers.

    My comments may have gone a bit too far off topic now as well, so I’ll withdraw here (unless there is some direct question), but I would just add that it is a pleasure to read such well thought out comments/arguments, even when I thoroughly disagree.

  25. Cris Post author

    I guess my (final) point is that we know, with empirical certainty, that only one organism possesses human-like subjectivity. That’s us. Even though I’m perfectly happy to think about other organisms having (and granting to them) “subjectivity” and even various kinds of “consciousness,” I’m hesitant to draw large-scale inferences about “life” based on a sample size of one.

    I think it would be good to recall that this part of our conversation began with a consideration of how we define “life.” How does “subjectivity” (however defined or conceived) help us to identify “life”? What does “subjectivity” add to the current definition(s) of life, or the attributes which we use to identify “life”?

    Some of the most recent comments have delved into issues that reminded me of the panpsychist philosophical tradition. While this may sound goofy (and it certainly is in some recent New Age incarnations), pansychism has a fairly respectable, and definitely serious, intellectual pedigree. David Skrbina’s Pansychism in the West is a really good book on this topic for those who are interested.

    All this aside, I agree with Chris that this has been a most stimulating discussion all around. We might also recall that this conversation was prompted, at least initially, by “The Talk” that Barash gives his students. Unfortunately for them, his class is about animal behavior, so after Barash gives that talk, debates like this one don’t take place. I think this goes to show that his talk raises profound and important philosophical issues, and if those won’t be further considered, it’s a disservice to his students to raise these issues in the first place.

  26. Gyrus

    We do only know “with empirical certainty” that one organism possesses subjectivity – and that’s not just “us”, but “me”! But as I said, I feel that simply reveals the limitations of empirical certainty. It reminds me of a James Hillman quote:

    You’ve studied philosophy; you know how much serious time is spent proving the reality of the external world. Imagine having to prove what every animal knows!

    I supect that “animal” knowledge is closer to the knowledge prioritised by foragers than our modern “empiricism”. And definitely, panpsychism deserves much more credibility than it’s usually given, and a whole lot more than its least eloquent proponents deserve. I remember an English teacher at school who used to be an Anglican vicar, who, when “pantheism” was mentioned (possible when we were talking about Coleridge), dismissed it with such casual disgust – as if this position could never be taken seriously by anyone with a grain of sense – that I thought it must be pretty interesting. The more I read and experience, the more I think that was a pretty good contrarian teenage sentiment.

  27. Cris Post author

    Apropos to some aspects of our discussion, NASA announced today that it has awarded $50 million in grants for astrobiology research. These grants will go to seven different teams whose research is oriented around the definition, origins, and evolution of “life.” Here are the research descriptions from NASA’s website announcement:

    NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland. Research will investigate one theorized source of Earth’s water and the organic molecules needed for life: comets and the other small bodies in our solar system. The results of this research will inform the search for habitable environments in our solar system and habitable planets around other stars.
    NASA’s Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, California. Research will address the chemistry that occurred to create the organic molecules that may have been brought to the early Earth by comets and other small bodies.
    NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. Research will conduct laboratory experiments and field research in environments on Earth, such as The Cedars in Northern California, to understand the habitability of extraterrestrial icy worlds such as Europa, Ganymede and Enceladus.
    The SETI Institute, Mountain View, California. Research will produce guiding principles to better understand where to search for life, what to search for, and how to recognize finding evidence of past or current life. The goal of the proposed research is to best prepare for NASA’s Mars 2020 rover.
    The University of Colorado at Boulder. Research will study what scientists call “Rock-Powered Life.” Rocky planets store enormous amounts of chemical energy that, when released through the interaction of rocks with water, can power living systems on Earth, as well as on other planets such as Mars.
    The University of California, Riverside. Research will examine the history of oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere and ocean between 3.2 and 0.7 billion years ago. This is a time range in which the amount of oxygen present is thought to have increased from almost nothing to the amounts present today. This work will address the question of how Earth has remained persistently inhabited through most of its dynamic history and would provide NASA exploration scientists a template to investigate the presence of habitable conditions on Mars and other planetary bodies.
    The University of Montana in Missoula. Research will look to unlock the secrets of life’s transitions from small “units” conducting simple chemical reactions to self-organizing, self-reproducing, energy-gathering systems that range in complexity from single cells to ecosystems.

    These descriptions give us a good sense for the current status of scientific research programs on these issues. Science, being the art of the soluble, does not yet have the tools or techniques that would be required to address the “subjectivity” aspects of life.

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