Pharyngula

QUANTUMCHOPRA.001

Oh, joy. Deepak Chopra is mad about being called an evolution denialist, and to disprove the accusation, he fires back with a whole long letter full of misconceptions about evolution. As usual, he relies on painting himself as the brave pioneer at the very edge of science, with a hooting mob of regressive scientific dogmatists haranguing him.

…in a recent blog, Valerie Strauss goes beyond catcalls, accusing me of being an evolution denier, which is absolutely false. I work and write with high-level scientists, including physicists, geneticists, and others who believe, as I do, that mainstream science, like mainstream medicine, has a lot to gain from keeping the flow of ideas moving.

As far as evolution is concerned, there’s a cadre of strict Darwinists who will push back against any encroachment into their field, but neo-Darwinism, which tries to address glaring gaps in Darwin’s original theory (after all, he knew nothing of DNA, genes, and the chemical basis of mutations) is a respected field, too. I often think that my interest in genetics, which has led to a book being published this fall, arouses vehement objections because scientists want to protect their turf, and seeing an interested amateur write about troubling issues they haven’t resolved causes them to cry, “How dare he?”

Isn’t it just adorable how he veers wildly from describing himself as an interested amateur, begging to be cut a little slack, and puffing himself up as a co-worker to high-level scientists? Pick a position and stick with it.

But really, this isn’t a question of established scientists being affronted by a clever upstart — it’s about someone who knows nothing about evolutionary theory pretentiously telling competent people what they are supposed to do. He’s Choprasplaining, and it gets old fast.

To demonstrate that he’s an ignoramus, he gives us a list of Major Problems in evolutionary theory. Would you be surprised if I told you that none of them are problems for evolution at all?

Here are some of the problematic issues that evolutionary theory currently grapples with.

1. No one knows the biological basis of mind; therefore, linking the physical nature of the brain with actual thinking is totally unproven.

Well, since most of the products of evolution do not have a brain and are completely mindless, I think we can safely say you can study evolution quite well without ever having to contemplate consciousness at all.

We also do not have to have a complete understanding of how minds work to recognize its biological basis. I know my television uses electricity to work because if I unplug it from the wall, it stops working; similarly, I know my my mind is the product of biology because if I physically damage my brain, or change its chemistry, my mind gets scrambled. It’s entirely clear that there is a strong physical component to the mind, and it’s quite likely that it is entirely natural and mechanistic.

2. Applying Darwinian principles to the meteoric rise of Homo sapiens confronts the bald fact that as a species we have leapt ahead far faster than random mutations can account for.

This is simply false. We have compared the genomic sequence of humans and chimpanzees, for instance, and the number of nucleotide changes since our divergence is entirely within the bounds of normal rates of genetic change. He’s just making stuff up.

3. Without understanding consciousness, one cannot understand human beings.

Does Chopra understand consciousness? I rather doubt it; I get the impression he uses “consciousness” as a buzzword, in the same way he uses “quantum”. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about, but gosh, it sure sounds profound…until you realize that he’s just babbling fatuously.

We could also ask…did Shakespeare understand consciousness? How about Sappho and Basho? How about Homer and Shelley? Yet I would argue that not understanding the biochemistry and electrical activity of the brain did not seem to impair their understanding of human beings.

4. Because we are self-aware, human beings construct societies and thought structures that impact our evolution far more than natural selection, which is based on securing an advantage in two areas: securing food and gaining mating rights.

There’s more to evolution than natural selection, and most biologists would agree that genetic change is driven more by chance than selection. Darwin himself thought it extremely important that individuals make choices — look up sexual selection — and that construction of an environment that modifies the effects of selection is not just a human trait. Quorum sensing in bacteria, for instance, is an example of non-human creatures modifying their environment to have an effect on the propagation of their genes.

And that is the most peculiarly narrow definition of selection that I’ve ever read. Here’s Futuyma’s:

It is important to recognize that “natural selection” is not synonymous with “evolution.” Evolution can occur by processes other than natural selection, especially genetic drift. And natural selection can occur without any evolutionary change, as when natural selection maintains the status quo by eliminating deviants from the optimal phenotype.

Many definitions of natural selection have been proposed (Endler 1986). For our purposes, we will define natural selection as any consistent difference in fitness among phenotypically different classes of biological entities.

Viruses evolve. It’s hard to whittle their existence down to “food” and “mating rights” — a lot of evolving organisms don’t even bother with that mating and sexual reproduction business.

5. Human evolution long ago escaped the physical pressures that other species are entirely bound by—the discovery of fire was just a link in a chain of advances that set prehistoric man on the road to self-sufficiency, eventually leading to the fantastic notion, now at the very heart of science, that humanity can conquer Nature.

If there were one simple misconception that I could eradicate from the public mind, that one’s near the top of my list. We have not escaped from evolutionary processes at all. Even an ignoramus who thinks that selection only involves food and mating rights ought to be able to recognize that people still starve and people still fail to reproduce and children still die of diseases.

I concede that there probably were scientists who thought they could conquer nature — most of them villains in bad novels — but it’s not exactly a popular idea at all in scientific circles nowadays. It’s certainly not at the heart of science. Especially given that the major trend of scientific discoveries over the past few centuries has been to dethrone humanity from its egotistical view of itself as the Pinnacle of Creation and Center of the Universe.

6. In order to settle any of the preceding issues, evolutionary theorists are at an enormous disadvantage. They can’t do experiments to validate what they believe happened in the distant past, and when it comes down to certain fundamental beliefs, such as random mutations, their experimentation is largely confined to micro-organisms and primitive species like the fruit fly, conducted within the tiny, sterile confines of the laboratory.

Oh. Fuck you too, Deepak Chopra.

We can do experiments to figure out what happened in the past. There are all kinds of cool experiments done, inferring ancestral states of molecules, and then making genetic constructs to test their properties. We look at a phenomenon like limb evolution, for example, and then ask what developmental processes drive digit identity and formation.

Mutations occur in humans, too — we’ve measured the rate. They are random, as well.

I experiment on fish. Others do too; there have been remarkable strides made in understanding the evolution of variations in sticklebacks (that’s variation in the wild, not the lab). There are a huge number of experiments done on our fellow mammal, the mouse.

There are institutes of human genetics in Utah, California, Iowa, Germany, India, Japan, China…everywhere. What does Chopra think they do there?

I’m just going to have to piss on the anti-scientific stupidity of calling Drosophila a primitive species. Fruit flies are highly derived, intricate products of evolution. We are learning a great deal studying them.

How much do we learn studying Chopra’s bizarre New Age ideology? It’s clear that he is an evolution-denier, since he wants to replace well-grounded, evidence based concepts with wacky amorphous blather about “consciousness”, and doesn’t know the first thing about evolution itself.

Comments

  1. #1 Chris Weiss
    United States
    July 29, 2015

    Chopra is a hack and a snake oil salesman. It would be wonderful if he could be sued out of existence by the people he has harmed with his quackery.

  2. #2 bhattathiri
    India, Kerala
    July 30, 2015

    The idea of reincarnation in Hinduism is perhaps as old as Hinduism itself. To students of religion reincarnation is a theological doctrine. Most Hindus consider it a fact. The evidence in support of reincarnation comes from two sources: (1) Jatismaras–people who can remember their past birth or births and (2) the testimony of the scriptures or saints.

    Hindu religious literature is full of numerous references to reincarnation. In The Bhagavad Gita, Sri Krishna, a Divine Incarnation, says to his student Arjuna, “Arjuna, both you and I were born many times in the past. You do not remember those births, but I remember them all.” In this particular context Sri Krishna can be called a Jatismara, a person who remembers his past births—but Arjuna is not.

    Over the years people who are neither divine incarnations nor saints have also displayed the rare ability to remember their past lives. Their number is quite small. Nevertheless, the validity of many such cases has been proved in India after reliable and unbiased investigation.

    The doctrine of reincarnation explains many things, which cannot otherwise be explained adequately. For instance, the genius of a child prodigy like Mozart cannot be satisfactorily explained by heredity or genes alone. Only the doctrine of reincarnation can explain this satisfactorily. Such a prodigy must have been a highly accomplished musician in his last birth, and he carried that talent over to this incarnation.

    Why Do We Reincarnate?

    Hinduism says that our unfulfilled desires are primarily responsible for our rebirth. To understand this position one should know Hinduism’s view about death and thereafter.

    The Gross and Subtle Bodies

    According to Hinduism, a human has two bodies, the gross and the subtle. The gross body is the physical body. The subtle body consists of the mind, intellect, sense organs, motor organs and vital energy. The physical eyes, ears, nose, tongue and skin are not considered real sense organs. They are only offices used by the senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch to establish contact with the external world. The real sense organs are extremely subtle.

    Death and the Lokas—the Different Planes of Existence

    When a person dies, his gross physical body is left behind and the soul with the subtle body, consisting of his mind, intellect, vital energy and his motor and sense organs, goes to a different plane of existence. Such a plane of existence is called a Loka in Sanskrit. According to popular understanding there are three Lokas. They are Swarga, Martya and Patala, but the scriptures speak of many more.

    Other than this earth plane, Bhur-loka, there are innumerable Lokas. They are worlds of different sets of vibration. All of them, however, occupy the same space. Lokas constituting the other world are neither up above nor down below in relation to this earth plane. They have the same spatial existence.

    The Scriptures of Hinduism mention other Lokas also. Kaushitaki Upanishad (1. 3.) mentions Brahmaloka, Prajapatiloka, Indraloka, Adityaloka, Varunaloka, Vayuloka and Agniloka as the seven higher Lokas.

    It is not possible to produce an exhaustive list of the Lokas because the Lokas are innumerable. Nevertheless, Hinduism speaks of fourteen Lokas including this earthly plane (Bhurloka). They are Satyaloka, Tapoloka, Maharloka, Janaloka, Swarloka, Bhuvarloka, Bhurloka, Atalaloka, Vitalaloka, Sutalaloka, Rasatalaloka, Talatalaloka, Mahatalaloka and Patalaloka. Obviously, this is a selective list, not an exhaustive one. Among these Lokas the first six are considered the higher Lokas, and the last seven are considered the lower Lokas.

    The adjectives higher or lower are used in comparison to conditions found in Bhurloka. In the higher Lokas, in ascending order, there is more and more enjoyment or spiritual bliss compared to what is usually found on this earth plane. Similarly, in the lower Lokas, in descending order, there is more and more suffering. All these joys or sufferings, however, are experienced by the departed soul only through the mind. The degree of purity of the mind determines where his or her soul along with the subtle body will go. Departed souls go to higher Lokas if their minds are pure. If their minds are not that pure, they goes to relatively lower Lokas. As determined by h past Karma, the departed souls remain in one of these Lokas for a certain period of time, either suffering or enjoying there.

  3. #3 markm8`18
    California, USA
    July 30, 2015

    Of course there is a strong physical component to the mind., I doubt that Chopra would disagree. But you go way beyond science when you assert that it is probably “entirely natural and mechanistic”.

    You also assert that he is “just babbling fatuously” about consciousness. yet, consciousness something that Chopra obviously does understand a lot about, and about which you apparently understand very little.

    You are definitely very dogmatic, and your attitude reminds me of the Catholic Church, in the time of Galileo, demanding that he not think ‘outside of the box’. And there was definitely a lot outside of the box!

  4. #4 dean
    July 30, 2015

    Great, one poster babbling foolishly about reincarnation, and then this:
    “consciousness something that Chopra obviously does understand a lot about,”

    which may be the most fundamentally stupid comment of the year.

  5. #5 G
    July 31, 2015

    Let’s see… first he works with scientists, then he concedes he’s not a scientist, then he resents scientists… speaking of “not understanding consciousness,” Deepak apparently doesn’t understand cognitive dissonance or its probable motives.

    That said, shortly after 9/11 I heard “some guy” on National Public Radio talking about the common ground between Islam and Christianity, and I thought he clearly knew what he was talking about. I was surprised to find out, at the station break, that it was none other than Deepak. So, objectively, I have to concede that he’s good on comparative religion: he knows his stuff in that field, and he was seeking to calm things down at a time when the public mood was not good.

    Though, a year or so ago when I took a look at his website, I was just downright embarrassed for him at his utter misuse and abuse of QM language and concepts. I’m a silly layperson but even I could see how bad it was. It was _really, really bad._ As in, “I can’t finish reading this dreck” bad. If anyone here doubts PZ or Orac or others who routinely shred him in these pages, go have a look for yourself. Seriously.

    If he would just stick to what he knows, and stop trying to pontificate endlessly about stuff he clearly does not know (including his medical quackery), he could do some good. As it is, he’s doing much more harm than good, his credibility is less than zero, and he’s undermining whatever good might have been done had he stuck to the field he actually knows.

    If his current round of dreck is a precursor to publishing a book about genetics this fall, he ought to invest in some umbrellas, because he’s going to need a few to fend off the deluge that’s going to come his way when that book comes out.

    @ 2: As for Hindu doctrines about the soul and reincarnation: all nice and well, but not exactly relevant to the subjects at hand.

    @ 3: Look, another Galileo! There do seem to be so many of them around these days. Reminds me of a story by psychiatrist Milton Erickson when he was in charge of a hospital psych ward. He had two patients who each were fully convinced that they were Jesus. He arranged for them to meet one day. They spent the better part of the day arguing with each other about which one was really Jesus. Finally each of them came to him separately, to report that they ended up recognizing that they were crazy. Perhaps we need to organize a Galileo convention.

    The fact that consciousness is still “the hard problem” does not mean that it is not amenable to empirical study and logical hypothesis-testing. Slowly but surely we’re going to solve this one. And as with many other things, when we do, we’ll most likely discover that nature is more interesting than we gave it credit for. But that does not imply any need for supernatural explanations or other black boxes.

  6. #6 jrkrideau
    At the bottom of the lake (the bottom end that is)
    July 31, 2015

    # 5 G
    I must say I get really tired of the “Galileo Gambit” when whoever uses it is just showing his or her total lack of knowledge about the actual subject.

  7. #7 markm8128
    California
    July 31, 2015

    “one poster babbling foolishly about reincarnation”

    I don’t know anything about reincarnation, and am not a believer….but I didn’t see anything that was “babbling foolishly” about his remarks. Actually, they were quite scholarly….at least in comparison to your remarks…..which were totally boorish, and said absolutely nothing, except that you don’t agree with him. Can’t you come up with any logical ideas to support your views, rather than mindlessly slamming someone?

  8. #8 Duncan Parks
    July 31, 2015

    “Alas, to wear the mantle of Galileo it is not enough that you be persecuted by an unkind establishment, you must also be right.” – Robert Park

  9. #9 GregH
    July 31, 2015

    markm, your comments are very amusing. “Can you come up with any logical ideas to support your views, rather than mindlessly slamming someone?”

  10. #10 chamel
    Vancouver
    July 31, 2015

    My favourite response to Chopra (from a physicist):

    “I understand what each of those words mean individually…”

  11. #11 Stella Yfantidis
    Singapore
    August 1, 2015

    The more i know the more i realise how little i know. Keep an open mind.

  12. #12 G
    August 1, 2015

    jrkrideau @ 6: Yeah me too. Over the years I’ve seen/heard enough cranks make reference to Galileo, to think “here we go again” whenever I saw it. But it took reading Orac and others around here before I heard that this actually has a name, “the Galileo Gambit.” One would think that by now the cranks should know we’re onto them for it and pick a new name to abuse. Sigh…

    chamel @ 10: Ha, that’s excellent. When I read it I laughed out loud. That’s just made it into my contagious memes file.

    In general it’s good to admit to ignorance, especially when experts are around and there’s no risk (such as to one’s job). Usually the experts are wiling to be helpful and this is an incredibly easy way to learn things. Very often one picks up enough from casual replies to be able to get on the trail to find out more.

  13. #13 Manavalan Krishnamoorthy
    Malaysia
    August 1, 2015

    Each one is arguing that other man is wrong and he is right. It is like six blind men trying to identify an elephant. Each one touch one part and conclude that is all about elephant. Let us not force others to accept what we think is right. Science is a name given to a subject identified by man. It has limitations. Many miracles are happening in the world. It is beyond science to explain. When it occurs frequently we try to find points to fit into science and we are satisfied.
    This arguments are going to exists till humans exists. Hence let us not force ideas on others. Noting is either right or wrong in the world. Yesterday’s right can be today’ wrong and vice versa.

  14. #14 dean
    August 1, 2015

    “Actually, they were quite scholarly”

    No, any implication that there is something real about reincarnation is foolishness, not scholarly.

  15. #15 markm8128
    California
    August 1, 2015

    ” Look, another Galileo! There do seem to be so many of them around these days. ”

    If references to Galileo’s persecution keep cropping up in your life, it may be an issue you need to work with. Perhaps the Universe is trying to tell you something.

    Go to your meditation cushion, and just sit with it, and see what comes up.

  16. #16 Captain Obvious
    United States
    August 1, 2015

    @dean It doesn’t matter if he’s talking about how the earth is flat, if he references evidence of water being flat, and all you have to offer is an appeal to incredulity, his argument is more relevant, and depending on the definition of scholarly, more scholarly! Instead why not point out how he only once mentions who his sources are, outside of Hindu scriptures. There I win.

  17. #17 Captain Obvious
    August 1, 2015

    @dean & @G “‘some guy’ on National Public Radio talking about the common ground between Islam and Christianity, and I thought he clearly knew what he was talking about. I was surprised to find out, at the station break, that it was none other than Deepak. So, objectively, I have to concede that he’s good on comparative religion”
    It appears we have a new recored for the most stupid comment ever. Sorry G, but hearing him sound like he knows what he’s talking about makes him an expert? He just talked about evolution, and he sounded like he knew what he was talking about, so unless your an expert on those two religions, we don’t know whether he knows more about evolution or something else. Especially when the topic pertains to religion, you just can’t trust what you hear without directly looking in to their holy book. I realize that calling your comment the dumbest might be mean, but between money and believing people who sound like they know what they’re talking about, they help produce pretty much every man made problem ever.

  18. #18 Bayowolf
    Sonoran Desert
    August 3, 2015

    @Captain, Maybe ‘G’ is a Professor of Comparative Religion at Harvard in which case G would know that Deepak was giving straight dope back on 9/12 or whenever he was comparing Islam and Christianity.
    It’s dumb to make assumptions.

    My $0.02 worth.

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