Laelaps

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In 1857 Richard Owen proposed that our species, Homo sapiens, belonged to a distinct subclass separate from all other primates. He called this new group the Archencephala and based it as much upon human powers of reason as minute neuroanatomical differences between apes and humans. What’s more, our “extraordinarily developed brain[s]” not only placed us above all other creatures but gave us new moral responsibilities, and in closing Owen stated;

Thus [Man] fulfils his destiny as the master of this earth, and of the lower Creation.

Such are the dominating powers with which we, and we alone, are gifted! I say gifted, for the surpassing organisation was no work of ours. It is He that hath made us; not we ourselves. This frame is a temporary trust, for the uses of which we are responsible to the Maker.

Oh! you who possess it in all the supple vigour of lusty youth, think well what it is that He has committed to your keeping. Waste not its energies; dull them not by sloth: spoil them not by pleasures! The supreme work of Creation has been accomplished that you might possess a body–the sole erect–of all animal bodies the most free–and for what? for the service of the soul.

Strive to realise the conditions of the possession of this wondrous structure. Think what it may become–the Temple of the Holy Spirit! Defile it not. Seek, rather, to adorn it with all meet and becoming gifts, with that fair furniture, moral and intellectual, which it is your inestimable privilege to acquire through the teachings and examples and ministrations of this Seat of Sound Learning and Religious Education.

Though Owen had been studying human and ape anatomy for decades this lecture was a catalyst for a larger debate about the place of humanity in nature, and chief among Owen’s opponents was T.H. Huxley. The structural differences between the brains of apes and humans were of degree, not of kind, Huxley argued, and for several years papers flew back and forth on the subject. It is this argument that caught the attention of philosopher Christopher Cosans, of which he has written a summary called Owen’s Ape & Darwin’s Bulldog: Beyond Darwinism and Creationism.

When Cosans’ book first arrived in the mail I was glad to receive it. I had recently been researching this debate myself and I was looking forward to a detailed historical treatment of what transpired (particularly the reactions of scientists other than Owen & Huxley). I am sorry to say, however, that the book is a bit of a muddle. This is not surprising that a significant portion of the ~140 pages that make up the body of the work are reprinted papers Cosans has already published. I recognized at least two; “Anatomy, metaphysics, and values: The ape brain debate reconsidered” and “Was Darwin a Creationist?“. This alone is not a cardinal sin but it impedes the flow of whatever narrative Cosans was trying to produce.

The book, as a whole, is not so much about the “ape brain debate” as it is about approaches to science. The arguments between Owen and Huxley only serve as a proxy for Cosans to damn what he labels “Scientific Materialism” and “Social Constructivism” in favor of a “Humanistic Realism”. In Cosans’ system scientific materialism is the notion that science is “value-free” and provides a “God’s eye view” of nature, or generates accurate descriptions of reality untrammeled by the values of the practitioners. Social constructivism, by contrast, represents class values placed into science and thus makes any scientific discovery just “one of several untrue opinions.” The approach that Cosans champions is humanistic realism where the values of scientists shape their observations but their discoveries can partially describe reality (leaving plenty of room, of course, for the truths of art, poetry, religion, etc.).

The difficulty is that Cosans is so concerned with keeping these categories intact that he does not seem to recognize where they bleed into each other, nor the difference between the methods of science and studies of the history of science. He attacks “scientific materialism” as a method of knowing about the world but largely criticizes Adrian Desmond for writing about the history of science in as a social constructivist. (Owen is praised as the wise man who knew himself and the epitome of the humanistic realist.) Perhaps I am simply missing something as I am not a philosopher but it appears to me that Cosans has a few axes to grind yet does not have a good idea of what to do with them.

Given that Cosans favors his own definition of humanistic realism, where science can only reveal discontinuous “islands of truth”, it is not surprising that Cosans tries to make room for intelligent design or some kind of teleology in nature. I began to be suspicious when I saw the acknowledgment to Bill Dembski, read the criticism of “scientific materialism”, and saw that modern evolutionists were called “Neo-Darwinists”, and on page 86 I was greeted by a “teach the controversy” type endorsement. Cosans writes;

[Nancy] Cartwright’s analysis raises interesting questions for science policy. If the efforts of any scientist do not yield one true description of reality but only incomplete parts of a true description, then it would be a bad idea to fund or teach only one or a few scientific theories. Seeking to have only one theory about nature, or even a particular phenomenon, would limit our handle on reality because every theory has assumptions that are its blind spots. If, on the other hand, we allow for a diversity of theories, whose assumptions do not overlap, we would get a greater handle on reality. It would involve taking an attitude toward scientific inquiry similar to Mill’s method for debate and seeking truth in On Liberty. In the case of teaching science to children, it is not unusual for people to say that without Darwin nothing makes sense in biology. However, if this is taken as a dogmatic assumption, then an observations that are not readily interpretable with Darwin’s framework of analysis, be they concerning non-Darwinian evolutionary mechanisms, non-evolutionary aspects of biology, or even alternative metaphysical views, would be marginalized, if not ignored.

It is interesting that Cosans puts the weight of responsibility for revealing the workings of nature on individual scientists, as if one authority simply said “It is so” and everyone instantly agreed. This is certainly not the case, and the history of debate over evolution bears this out. Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection has not been an unassailable idea that no one dared criticize until now. It endured intense criticism and was “eclipsed” by non-Darwinian evolutionary mechanisms during the latter half of the 19th century and first half of the 20th century. Why should we return to notions of orthogenesis, vitalism, “racial senescence”, etc. when they have already been refuted (and no new evidence has arrived in their favor)?

It is also telling that Cosans bastardizes Theodosius Dobzhansky’s famous essay title to make his point. Dobzhansky’s article was titled “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution”, which is significantly different than “without Darwin nothing makes sense in biology.” Yes, it is the difference of one word, but should a major non-Darwinian evolution mechanism be identified evolution will remain of the utmost importance to biological studies. Dobzhansky’s statement remains true and will likely remain widely quoted even as science continues to change.

I do not wish to read too much into this paragraph but it appears to me that Cosans is trying to make a little elbow room for the “alternative metaphysical view” known as intelligent design (for which there is no evidence) and non-Darwinian, self-organizing modes of evolution that would be easier to marry to Christian theology. If evolution is driven from within then it could be argued that the Creator imbued the first life with everything necessary for all evolution and that humans were a planned outcome from the start. As I have said, however, this approach has already been taken in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and failed to accurately reflect nature. It would take strong evidence indeed to reinvigorate orthogenesis.

Cosans also makes the claim that rejection of evolution by many people in the United States is the result of belief in the “American Dream.” That each individual is pitted in a Darwinian struggle for existence (with some more “fit” than others) would seem to run counter to the “American” idea that “almost anyone can achieve great things regardless of their parentage.” I do not find this idea convincing. There is no single reason why so many people in America think evolution is wrong, but among the major factors are poor grade school education and the popular style of evangelical religion in this country. If you don’t really understand evolution it is all the easier to reject when your chosen social group (as in a church) thinks it is wrong. If Cosans were correct, however, it would be interesting to compare modern sentiments about Darwin & the “American Dream” with those of the “Gilded Age” in which social evolution through competition was a popular idea.

It is not until the last 50 pages or so that Cosans gets to Huxley’s response to Owen and the debate over ape brains. It is not as thorough a treatment of the issue as I would have hoped and contributions to this argument by scientists other than Owen & Huxley (like that of W.H. Flower) are largely ignored. This is unfortunate, but not surprising given that Cosans wants to cast Huxley as the villain (scientific materialist) and Owen as the hero (humanistic realist). To this end Cosans briefly describes his dissection of a human and chimpanzee brain side-by-side.

Cosans’ description of the brains is superficial and it seems that he did not find exactly what he was hoping for; a vindication of the notion that humanity is far removed from apes. Indeed, Cosans points out the presence of each of the parts of the ape brain Owen initially said were “missing” (which Owen himself apparently later recognized) but he repeatedly points out how much larger the human brain is than the chimpanzee brain. Of course it is larger, but when it comes to brains size is not everything. If size alone was the chief determining factor of intelligence the sperm whale would be the most intelligent being on the planet.

Why would Cosans give such shallow treatment to the subject of neuroanatomy? The reason does not become clear until a few pages later when he writes;

In our time, several biologists have done work that supports Owen’s general conclusions that humans are anatomically distinct from orangutans, chimpanzees, and gorillas.

This is a vague statement but, in my reading, it hints that Cosans thinks there might be some validity in Owen’s subclass Archencephala. Of course we are “anatomically distinct” from other apes, but we are still apes all the same. Cosans ignores genetic, paleontological, and primatological studies and focuses only on research that shows we have bigger brains for our bodies than other apes. Indeed, Cosans seems to approach the question of our place in nature from the same place Owen did over a century and a half ago, thus ignoring the extraordinary mass of evidence confirming that we are apes that shared a common ancestor with chimpanzees between 4 and 7 million years ago. How such a huge omission of evidence could be made, I have no idea.

Is Owen’s Ape & Darwin’s Bulldog “a perfect study of the relationships between science, ethics, and society” as the back cover proclaims? Hardly. It is a messy patchwork of ideas in which Cosans appears to be struggling to find a place where science & religion meet each other. By considering science (including evolution by natural selection) unable to fully explain reality Cosans appears to be trying to make some room for religion and the direct intervention of God in nature. His case is not convincing, particularly given the poor historical and scientific scholarship present in some sections of this book. As much as I had been looking forward to this study it may be better to simply download Cosans’ existing papers and purchase a copy of Owen’s On the Nature of Limbs (in which is included some excellent introductory material).

Comments

  1. #1 Blake Stacey
    March 10, 2009

    It is also telling that Cosans bastardizes Theodosius Dobzhansky’s famous essay title to make his point. Dobzhansky’s article was titled “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution”, which is significantly different than “without Darwin nothing makes sense in biology.” Yes, it is the difference of one word, but should a major non-Darwinian evolution mechanism be identified evolution will remain of the utmost importance to biological studies. Dobzhansky’s statement remains true and will likely remain widely quoted even as science continues to change.

    Accepting the word “Darwinian” in its biographical sense — i.e., referring to ideas which flowed from Charles Darwin’s pen — evolutionary biology has been non-Darwinian since the Modern Synthesis. I mean, Darwin didn’t know the mechanism of heredity. Later generations learned about the mechanisms of heredity. We are all post-Darwinians now.

    Seeking to have only one theory about nature, or even a particular phenomenon, would limit our handle on reality because every theory has assumptions that are its blind spots. If, on the other hand, we allow for a diversity of theories, whose assumptions do not overlap, we would get a greater handle on reality.

    Alice: “My model begins with postulating that objects move in straight lines at uniform speed, unless acted upon by an outside force, in which case they accelerate in the direction of the outside force to a degree inversely proportional to their mass.”

    Bill: “My model begins by postulating that the planets are pushed by whimsical unicorns.”

    Cosans: “Hooray! We’re getting a greater handle on reality!”

  2. #2 Joshua
    March 23, 2009

    I’m quite late to the party here, but doesn’t it seem as though Owen would fall more into the “social constructivist” camp there? He’s pretty clearly interpreting the comparative brain anatomy in a way that suits his own privileged upper-class English worldview, i.e. that he himself and his race are the favoured amongst God’s creation. (And therefore bear the responsibility for stewardship, yadda yadda yadda, white man’s burden.)

  3. #3 Joshua
    March 23, 2009

    (I’m going by your summary of Cosane’s definition for the meaning of “social constructivism”, by the way, so I’m quite likely wrong about how it applies. But I find it ridiculous to put Owen into the “humanist realist” camp that Cosane defined, based on the quote that starts your post.)

  4. #4 Joshua
    March 23, 2009

    (I’m going by your summary of Cosans’ definition for the meaning of “social constructivism”, by the way, so I’m quite likely wrong about how it applies. But I find it ridiculous to put Owen into the “humanist realist” camp that Cosans defined, based on the quote that starts your post.)