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.