The Magazine

Darwin Turns 200

The gentleman-naturalist who reinvented biology.

Dec 28, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 15 • By DAVID GELERNTER
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Except there is no case. In evolution, all outcomes are equally improbable--but there is no reason to think that the one we know is somehow the ideal; is somehow the tiny bull's eye that natural selection (by a stupendously implausible run of luck) somehow managed to hit. Evolution deals in failures, not successes. All we know about the "successes" is that they have survived so far, because they've proved stronger than the other contestants with which they were matched along the way. The human eye is impressive, but it's easy to imagine a human-type creature with eyes that see only infrared, or with some sort of radar instead of eyes. And although our eyes are impressive (I am not filing a complaint), why can't they see infrared, giving us a sort of built-in night vision? Why can't they tune in radio waves? And would it have been asking so much for them to be slouch- and deformation-resistant, so that no one would ever need glasses?

Yet Darwinian evolution does sometimes seem to crash into a wall.

Consciousness is a hard problem for Darwinians. Imagine a "zombie" (which is a standard exercise not just at the movies but in philosophy) that looks and behaves just as we do, speaks in the same way, and is completely indistinguishable from a human being. But a zombie has no mental life. Inside its head, there is nobody home. It forms no mental images and, although it registers the world around it, it experiences nothing. Tell it to imagine a rose and it's capable of describing an imaginary rose, but it sees no picture in its mind's eye; it's no more capable than your laptop of calling to mind mental images. Kick it hard in the shins and it shouts--but it's all just an elaborate act, because the zombie experiences neither pain nor anything else.

Some thinkers hold that zombies are impossible. But others see no reason in principle why they couldn't exist. And if they did, such zombies could thrive just as well as we do. But if that's so, why should self-aware, conscious beings like us ever have emerged? What good does consciousness do us? What selective advantage does it confer? It might simply have come bundled with the "fancy brain" package, as an accidental byproduct. But such a hypothesis seems to violate the economy and efficiency we associate with the ruthless mechanism of natural selection. To imagine consciousness, the central fact of human existence, as traveling beneath the radar of natural selection is not satisfying.

It's also true that the more biologists insist on our near genetic kinship to apes and other mammals, the more striking our utter incomparability to all other creatures, plain and fancy. We have known all along that apes are much closer to us than to jellyfish, and the narrow genetic footing on which this towering difference stands makes it all the more amazing. We've heard all about the intelligence of dolphins, whales, and apes; but if they're so smart, why don't they make Ape-TV documentaries about us? Why is it only we who study them? Why don't they build hospitals, write books, paint pictures, make jokes, or argue about God?

David Berlinski, one of the most impressive Darwin dissenters, quotes (in a Commentary essay) a smugly childish pronouncement by the journal Nature: "With all deference to the sensibilities of religious people, the idea that man was created in the image of God can surely be put aside." But what makes these ignoramuses so sure they know what the Bible means by "create"? How do they know that "evolution by natural selection" is not exactly what the Bible does mean? And how do they know that man is not "in the image of God"? Yes, we all know about the Bible's famous seven days, but has Nature never heard of a parable? It's not such a difficult concept. Does Nature fault the Bible for not starting with an account of Darwinian evolution?--right after the verses dealing with the Big Bang and astrophysics, which in turn follow the verses that brush everyone up on the necessary algebra, geometry, and calculus?

"The Torah speaks in the language of man," say the rabbis, and when the Bible emerged, men did not speak Darwin's language. But they did care about right and wrong, good and evil, justice and mercy, sanctity and man and God, and these (not biology or astrophysics) are the Bible's topics.
Charles Darwin was a great thinker who taught us not only about science, but about religion--specifically, about what religion does not teach, and (for that matter) does not care about. He was buried in Westminster Abbey, at England's Christian heart. Darwin rejected the church, but the church didn't reject him. What does that mean? Berra has no comment.

David Gelernter, a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD, is a professor of computer science at Yale and the author, most recently, of Judaism: A Way of Being.