Evolution for Everyone

Working backwards through our four reasons to ignore evolution, we have shown that smart people don’t necessary converge on the facts of the matter from different starting positions (4) and that reasoning on the basis of design benefits from knowledge about the designing process (3). Here is our next reason for ignoring the E-word (2):

A reasonable research strategy is to study what is, without worrying much about how it got that way. After all, something like the brain is available to be studied in minute detail, whereas how it got that way is more speculative. Why speculate when we can study the real thing?

This statement can be true in a limited sense. All of Tinbergen’s questions can be studied independently, including questions about proximate mechanisms. Insofar as science involves division of labor, individual scientists can spend their entire careers studying proximate mechanisms without thinking about the other three questions.

Yet, what’s sufficient for a specialist can be woefully inadequate for a field as a whole. In the course of writing these posts, I have been emailing my colleagues for their thoughts. Herb Gintis offered this observation: “Some researchers only care about proximate mechanisms. They don’t care about ‘why’ but rather about ‘how’. This is why a molecular biologist could be a creationist, for instance.”

Herb’s example of a creationist molecular biologist perfectly illustrates how a reason for ignoring evolution can suffice for a small minority of individuals but fail miserably for a field as a whole. If all molecular biologists were creationists, that would be a disaster. If all biologists were creationists, that would be more disastrous still. Yet, the issue before us is whether entire human-related subjects such as psychology, economics, or education, need to be approached from an evolutionary perspective. The argument that everyone can restrict themselves to proximate mechanisms fails as miserably for these broad fields of inquiry as for molecular biology and biology as a whole.

Moreover, the study of proximate mechanisms is always founded upon a set of assumptions about function or lack of function. The only reason that a creationist can function as a biologist is if the function (or lack of function) of the particular mechanism being studied has been correctly inferred. You can’t ask “how” questions unless you are in the ballpark of the right “why” question.

To illustrate this point with a biological example, some bird species are genetically adapted to migrate south during the winter. The proximate mechanisms that enable them to do this include the ability to memorize the night sky as nestlings. Other bird species are genetically adapted to overwinter in cold climates. The proximate mechanisms that enable them to do this include the ability to memorize hundreds of locations where food has been stored. Imagine that I give you a bird species to study without telling you anything about its ecology or migratory habits. How many decades would it take you to discover its particular adaptations, just by studying its brain? This is why asking “how” and “why” questions in conjunction with each other, along with phylogenic and developmental questions, is so essential for evolutionary biology as a whole–and just as essential for human-related subjects.

The human-related disciplines abound with examples of “how” questions founded upon the wrong “why” questions. Consider an article titled “Why do humans reason? Arguments for an argumentative theory“, by Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, published this year in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences. I cannot improve upon their language:

How do humans reason? Why do they reason? These two questions are mutually relevant, since the mechanisms for reasoning should be adjusted to its function. While the how-question has been systematically investigated…there is very little discussion of the why-question. How come? It may be that the function of reasoning is considered too obvious to deserve much attention. According to a long philosophical tradition, reasoning is what enables the human mind to go beyond mere perception, habit, and instinct.

Mercier and Sperber propose that human reasoning abilities evolved largely for the purpose of producing and evaluating arguments in communication. This provisional answer to the why-question makes sense of empirically documented phenomena that appear anomalous and paradoxical against the background of different answers to the why-question that have guided philosophical inquiry on reasoning for centuries and scientific research for decades. The lively open peer commentary that follows their target article reinforces the main point of this post–you can’t ask a good “how” question if you’re not asking the right “why” question. And you can’t ask the right “why” question without seriously consulting evolutionary theory.

Comments

  1. #1 Chris Lindsay
    June 18, 2011

    Thank you. Nice post. I was having a conversation about this with a friend of mine, about a week ago. And the part where you discuss the “how/why” questions brings some clarity to a point we were trying to actualize (but couldn’t), on the similarities/differences between “how” and “why” questions and whether they can be interchanged in a way to ask good questions.

  2. #2 Rob
    June 18, 2011

    Great post. Recalls this recent discussion at Edge (including a contribution by Mercier):
    http://edge.org/conversation/social_psychological_narrative

  3. #3 Roy Niles
    June 18, 2011

    “human reasoning abilities evolved largely for the purpose of producing and evaluating arguments in communication.”
    More to the point, all social species communicate and evaluate their prospects on some level.
    Our reasoning evolved to deal with more long term problems and our language evolved to deal with more abstract concepts accordingly. Why, because we found that we could compete mentally with other species much more successfully than we could compete physically.

  4. #4 Yasha Hartberg
    June 19, 2011

    Not to detract from Gintis, but it would, in fact, be extremely difficult for a creationist to work as a molecular biologist. Phylogenetic analysis is a central part of a molecular biologist’s work. Without it, every gene, every regulatory system, every protein and every metabolic pathway in every organism would have to be understood on its own terms without reference to ongoing research in other organisms. Moreover, it would make the proposition that understanding biochemical processes in, say, mice could lead to treatment of human diseases seem preposterous.

  5. #5 John K.
    August 20, 2011

    My rejecting evolution has nothing to do with my religious beliefs. Maybe for some people, but not me. There was a large span of my life that I backed that theory until I looked into it further and realized that a lot of it just doesn’t make sense. Like there have been numerous test failures trying to link micro and macro evolution together and no one as had any real successful trial that is worth publishing. The Cambrian fossil record can’t be submitted as real evidence because both sides claim it as evidence as their theory. So obviously it can be taken from two very different view points. What I’m trying to say is that while yes people do often let their beliefs choose the science theory for them. They shouldn’t. They should treat science as science and religion as religion. Evolution for one is a theory and there fore it is perfectly rational to question that theory and look into alternative explanations such as adaptation and naturalism. Most people I come across now a days only stand by evolution because they have a beef with God. Who knows if they actually believe it.

  6. #6 Collin
    September 11, 2011

    Adaptation and naturalism are part of evolutionary theory. I don’t know what you’re arguing against.

    Some people who study evolution as a science are atheists, but not all of them. What they have in common is not what they choose for their faith, but their adherence to the common-sense principle that believing a large cohesive body of evidence, such as that in favor of evolution (despite what you may have been told), is not a matter of choice, but of honesty.

    There are some people, such as Richard Dawkins, who clearly do have a beef with God. However, they’re not the ones doing the serious studying.

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    May 23, 2012

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    May 26, 2012

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    May 31, 2012

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