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What's Wrong With Darwinism?

by D.R. Khashaba

I have lately been reading, for the first time, Bernard Shaw's Back to Methuselah, first published in 1921.[1] In the long preface Shaw comments on the Darwinist-Creationist controversy of his day in a manner which is still relevant to the debate as it is currently waged.

Shaw begins by pointing out a truth that is generally obliterated in the current controversies, namely that Darwin was not the originator of the idea or theory of evolution. Darwinism — whether as originally propounded by Charles Darwin or as what it has become now — is a special theory of evolution or a special chapter in the general theory of evolution. Among the many ancient and modern forerunners in the field, Shaw cites Goethe who,

... said that all the shapes of creation were cousins; that there must be some common stock from which all the species had sprung; that it was the environment of air that had produced the eagle, of water the seal, and of earth the mole.

Shaw then quotes Erasmus Darwin, the grandfather of Charles, who, in a book published in 1794 says,

The world has been evolved, not created; it has arisen little by little from a small beginning, and has increased through the activity of the elemental forces embodied in itself, and so has rather grown than come into being at an almighty word. (p.xvi)

Shaw was not primarily concerned to criticize Darwinism as the scientific theory it was in Darwin's work but as the philosophy of materialism and mechanism, of cut-throat competition and unfeeling struggle for survival that was appended to Darwinism by nineteenth century thought. He describes the atmosphere of thought in his day:

We were intellectually intoxicated with the idea that the world could make itself without design, purpose, skill, or intelligence: in short, without life. (p.xxxvi)

He goes on to say:

We took a perverse pleasure in arguing, without the least suspicion that we were reducing ourselves to absurdity, that all the books in the British Museum library might have been written word for word as they stand on the shelves if no human being had ever been conscious, just as the trees stand in the forest doing wonderful things without consciousness. (p.xxxvii)

For myself, I do not even care to quarrel with, or to charge with absurdity, one who maintains that physical elements tumbling and knocking blindly through trillions of years might produce Hamlet and Beethoven's Choral Symphony and all that is good and all that is trash on the world wide web. All that, in itself, would be dead, lifeless, meaningless. But a single conscious individual reacting intelligently to Hamlet, moved by Beethoven's music, or feeling indignant at some imbecility on the world wide web faces me with a reality that is other than the physical world.

This reality, however it may have come about, is what I find meaningful, and it is in this reality that I find life and value and true being. And I cannot think of this reality as a by-product of anything that is without life and without intelligence. To me any existence devoid of life and intelligence is simply unintelligible. To me the fact that is elemental and ineradicable is not the world that presses on me from outside — it is something closer home; it is this life and awareness and will that is on the inside. And I believe that this life and intelligence in which alone I find meaningfulness is fundamental and ultimate.

Shaw, in opposing Darwinism or the Neo-Darwinism of his day, advocates a version of Lamarck's theory. He writes that to one who 'tells you that you are a product of Circumstantial Selection solely' you may offer,

... the counter-assurance that you are the product of Lamarckian evolution, formerly called Functional Adaptation and now Creative Evolution, and challenge him to disprove that, which he can no more do than you can disprove Circumstantial Selection, both forces being conceivably able to produce anything if you only give them rope enough. (xxxviii)

This challenge, as I see it, involves the same confusion that vitiates the current controversies between the Darwinists and the Creationists or their present-day successors, the Intelligent Design advocates. Shaw, in my view, errs in treating the vitalism that may underlie Lamarck's theory, Schopenhauer's Will, Bergson's Creative Evolution, as on a par with Darwin's theory of natural selection. (Curiously, Shaw, while speaking of Creative Evolution and even using the expression Elan Vital, does not mention Bergson anywhere in his book.)

Darwin describes a method, an observed process, which may or may not be seen as adequate to account for the successive changes in living species. Darwin, whether he was quite clear in his own mind on this point or not, was not concerned with what was behind the processes he described. It is not impossible that biologists may find it desirable or necessary to supplement natural selection with a revised version of Lamarck's adaptation and inheritance of acquired qualities or something similar to that. This would still exclude any consideration of what is behind the process. That cannot be approached by scientific method. Scientific method can only tell us how — in what manner — the change has come about, but not what made it come about.

The how remains a brute fact without intrinsic meaning. Then comes a Schopenhauer who says we may conceive of a Will at the heart of things. This confers meaning on the phenomena of life but does not add anything to the facts observed and reported by objective science. A Goethe, a Schopenhauer, a Bergson, a Whitehead, is a poet who takes hold of brute fact and educates its brutality, shapes it into meaning, but does not produce facts.

You might say, 'Well, similarly, a Creationist or Intelligent Design advocate may assert that he conceives of a Creator or a Designer behind nature.' He may, but there is a difference. The Creationist means us to regard his Creator factually, as an existent entity. As I see it, that makes the Creator an object on a par with the physical world. He should then be subject to the same criteria and methods of verification applicable to nature, and by those criteria and methods he fails.

Moreover, suppose that you can demonstrate empirically that there is a mighty being out there controlling all the processes of the world. How can you show that that mighty being is not itself an automaton whose movements are purely mechanical? A mind 'out there' is a contradiction in terms. It becomes a mere addendum to the natural world, a tortoise that carries the elephant that carries the world.

Metaphysics does not, or should not, pretend to give us knowledge of the world outside of us, though metaphysicians commonly speak as if they do. According to the point of view that I have been trying to put through in all my writings, a metaphysician, properly, gives us a principle of intelligibility which makes the world make sense for us, makes the objectively chaotic and dumb world orderly and coherent. The metaphysician is in the same business as the poet and the artist who make the mindless sound and fury of the world signify something. That is why there can be various metaphysical systems, equally meaningful, just as there can be various epics, dramas, symphonies, equally fulfilling.

Does this land us in unrepentant Protagorean relativism? No, since I maintain that what we find to be real — what gives us our concept of ultimate reality — is our inner reality, the reality of creative intelligence and creative love within us. This reality is absolute and ineradicable. But it is ineffable. It cannot be constrained in a determined formulation. But it can be given mythical expression. Hence the possibility of endless metaphysical representations, opposed in letter but one in affirming the one reality we find within us.

Shaw, in his espousal of Lamarckism in opposition to Darwinism, was trespassing into territory that he had no call to stray into, but he is on firmer ground when he takes up the opposition between mechanism and vitalism. ( I think he insightfully portrays the plight of philosophical thinking in his own day and in ours when he says:

Our minds have reacted so violently to provable logical theorems and demonstrable mechanical or chemical facts that we have become incapable of metaphysical truth. (p.lvi)

Metaphysical truth has become completely lost to recent and contemporary thinking. This is not only sad; at the present juncture of human civilization it is ominous.


1. Bernard Shaw, Back to Methuselah, 1921. The page references are to the Penguin Books edition, 1939.

© D. R. Khashaba 2007