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Human Nature After Darwin by Janet Radcliffe Richards

Glenn Branch ponders Janet Radcliffe Richards’ book about the current state of Darwin’s revolution.

In 1838, a young naturalist copied a passage from a biography of the philosopher Sir James Mackintosh into his notebook: “in fact, in all reasonings, of which human nature is the object, there is really no natural starting place…” But the intellectual revolution that Charles Darwin was to inaugurate suggested the opposite, as he himself hinted toward the end of The Origin of Species: “Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history.” There is no serious doubt that Darwin was right in his understated prediction. Nevertheless, controversies about the power of evolutionary biology to answer the perennial questions about human nature – in Gauguin’s version, where do we come from? what are we? where are we going? – continue to rage. There is, of course, no shortage of popular treatments of these controversies. What distinguishes Janet Radcliffe Richards’ Human Nature after Darwin from the rest of the pack is its author’s conviction that what is needed is a healthy dose of philosophical analysis. Radcliffe Richards is eminently qualified to administer it, as anyone familiar with either her recent publicly visible work in bioethics or her only previous book, the splendid The Sceptical Feminist, will agree.

Human Nature after Darwin is amphibian, dwelling half in philosophy and half in pedagogy: “it is difficult to know whether to count the book as a substantive thesis about the implications of Darwinism with a subsidiary methodological thesis, or a Darwinian introduction to philosophy” (p.3). It is festooned with devices to help the learner: for example, summaries at the beginnings and ends of chapters; lengthy excerpts from popular writers such as Stephen Jay Gould, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Robert Wright, Mary Midgley and David Barash; exercises with answers in the back of the book, and revision – or, as we say in the United States, review – questions and answers. What it is not, however, is a scientific treatise; Radcliffe Richards makes no attempt to consider either the evidence for evolution or the evidence relevant to evaluating competing theories within evolution. She assumes, correctly, that the evidence for evolution is overwhelming and not seriously in dispute; she maintains a studied neutrality on the controversies within evolutionary biology that she considers. Perhaps ‘studied’ is the wrong word ?judging from her bibliography, she relies primarily on popular accounts of the science involved, citing only a handful of actual scientific papers. Whether or not professional biologists are apt to be alienated by her reliance on popularizations, the general public, which learns its science primarily from such accounts, is likely to feel on familiar ground.

Central to the philosophical agenda of Human Nature after Darwin is the distinction of four broad schools of opinion (illustrated on p.54) about the power of evolutionary biology to help us understand our own nature. The most pessimistic of these schools, the anti-Darwinians, in fact rejects evolutionary biology outright, usually, but not always, because of religious commitments to the infallibility of the Bible. The young-earth creationists who run the Institute for Creation Research and Answers in Genesis are cases in point. Radcliffe Richards largely neglects the position of the anti-Darwinians “mainly because from the point of view of controversies about human nature there is not much difference between it and that of their immediate neighbors” (p.55), the Mind-First or dualist Darwinians. So far so good, although the anti-Darwinians and the Mind-First Darwinians might protest at being lumped in with each other.

However, in the section on Further Reading, Radcliffe Richards offhandedly remarks that Philip Kitcher’s 1982 book Abusing Science, a fine philosophical critique of young-earth creationism, is “an oldish book, but still relevant; the subject has not changed much” (p.305). Unfortunately, she is simply wrong here, perhaps because she is unaware of the latest version of creationism: the so-called intelligent design movement. True, she mentions intelligent design as presented in Michael J. Behe’s Darwin’s Black Box, but she categorizes it as exemplifying the Mind-First Darwinian view (p.89). Because Behe then accepted, or at least said that he was not prepared to reject, the thesis of common descent, Radcliffe Richards can perhaps be excused from not realizing that the intelligent design movement is in fact anti-evolutionary – in Leonard Krishtalka’s memorable phrase, “creationism in a cheap tuxedo.” But even a cursory scan of other books by writers in the intelligent design movement, such as Jonathan Wells’s thoroughly meretricious screed Icons of Evolution, ought to disillusion her.

Among the schools of opinion that accept evolutionary biology, the most traditional is that of the Mind-First Darwinians, who are distinguished from their materialist colleagues by their acceptance of dualism (the belief in minds or souls as sui generis entities) and theism – or, to be specific, forms of theism in which God is causally involved in creating and sustaining the material universe. Thus, the Mind-First Darwinians presumably include theistic evolutionists such as the theologian John F. Haught and the biologist Kenneth R. Miller. Although Radcliffe Richards repeatedly says that she is not taking sides, it is disturbing that she condescends to name only one representative of Mind-First Darwinism, and then she errs (by citing Behe). Is it that she secretly regards theistic evolutionism as a pallid compromise or limp accommodation between science and religion? Or is it only that she assumes that the contours of Mind-First Darwinism are sufficiently predictable that there is no need to investigate the writings of any of its proponents? Neither assumption is defensible.

The final distinction is between two sorts of materialists who accept evolutionary biology (Radcliffe Richards ignores, harmlessly for her purposes, the possibility of materialists who reject evolutionary biology): blank-paper Darwinians or standard social science theorists on the one hand, who think that humans “have pretty well broken free of” our evolutionary heritage “and are essentially creatures of our culture” (pp.62-3), and sociobiologists or evolutionary psychologists on the other hand, who think that present human behavior is largely shaped by our adaptation to the ancestral environment. (The distinction is also connected in her mind with the dispute over the unit of selection; evolutionary psychology, she appears to think, is intimately associated with genic selectionism. The connection is not immediately obvious.)

Equipped with these distinctions, Radcliffe Richards then proceeds to investigate whether the supposed implications of evolutionary biology for human nature vary in the way that the participants in the discussion have often assumed. In general, the answer is no. She starts by considering whether evolutionary psychology has unwelcome implications for human nature (especially vis-à-vis the sexes); she argues that evolutionary psychology’s foes have misrepresented its claims. More importantly, she contends that the standard social science theories are equally at risk of having the same unwelcome implications. (Fans of Richard Dawkins will be reminded of his response to his critics in The Extended Phenotype, and indeed Radcliffe Richards quotes from and largely endorses his discussion there.) Thus, whatever position on the Darwinian spectrum turns out to be correct, the implications for human nature (whatever they are) are the same.

Continuing, she considers the contention of Mind-First Darwinians that their materialist opponents are unable to account for freedom of will and genuine responsibility. She argues that Mind-First Darwinians are also at a loss here, because the concepts are inconsistent (chap.6). Turning from freedom to morality, she similarly argues that the question of the possibility of altruism is unaffected by one’s position in the Darwinian spectrum (chap.7), as are the questions of whether there is objective moral truth and of whether we are able to discover it (chap.8), and as are the merits or demerits of various politically conservative views (chap.9), illustrated again with reference to sex differences. (Radcliffe Richards spends a dozen pages (pp.224-36) quoting, analyzing and reconstructing a passage from James Fitzjames Stephens’s critique in Liberty, Equality, Fraternity of John Stuart Mill’s The Subjection of Women; as there is no evolutionary biology to speak of in Stephens, the digression strikes me as selfindulgent.) She concludes by addressing “The real differences” (chap.10), which turn out to divide, not standard social science theories and evolutionary psychology, but materialism and the Mind- First view; these differences pertain to personal immortality and the moral order of the universe, neither of which is possible according to the materialist.

Throughout the book, Radcliffe Richards’ philosophical acumen is on vivid display, as is her spritely sense of humor – consider the following reductio ad absurdum:

Consider also what altruism would have to consist of if your genes’ interest really were your own. If acting unselfishly is doing what is against your genetic interests and advances other people’s, the unselfish man will refuse to cooperate when his wife wants children, or insist on her having them only by other men; the unselfish mother – who will be a mother only by accident – will neglect her children so that other people’s genes have a chance, persuade her daughters to be nuns, and devote her time to anti-contraception and anti-abortion organizations; the unselfish friend will surreptitiously swap her friends’ contraceptive pill supplies for placebos and go around pricking holes in their condoms. It opens up a whole new world of altruistic possibilities. (p.174)

Unfortunately, the philosophical value of Human Nature after Darwin is compromised by its pedagogical ambitions. Take, for example, Radcliffe Richards’ argument that the issue of free will doesn’t genuinely divide Darwinians because, whether or not materialism is true, free will is impossible:

If the world is deterministic there is no free will and responsibility, because if everything that happens was determined from the beginning of time, we cannot freely choose, or be really responsible for, any of it. But the only difference between a deterministic state of things and an indeterministic one is that some of the determined (caused) events are replaced by undetermined (uncaused) ones, for which no one and nothing can be responsible. That can hardly make us responsible for them. And if we cannot be responsible, it means that an indeterministic state of things is incompatible with free will as well. Either way, free will cannot exist. (p.140)

This familiar argument is presented as conclusive. But it relies upon a silent inference in the first sentence: from the claim that all events (except the first events, if there are any) are caused, to the claim that all events (except the first events, if there are any) are caused by other events. The inference would be valid on the assumption that events are caused only by events, but there is a philosophical tradition – most famously represented by Aristotle, Suarez and Reid – according to which agents are also capable of causing events. If there is agent-causation, then Radcliffe Richards’ argument is invalid; moreover, if partisans of agent-causation are right in contending that free will is possible only if there is agent-causation, her conclusion is false; finally, if agentcausation is possible only if agents are immaterial, her view that the issue of free will does not genuinely divide Darwinians is falsified. (It is suggestive that in a classic deterministic system there is a first, uncaused cause, often identified by theists with God; a theory of agent-causation multiplies the uncaused causes, in effect representing agents as created in God’s image.) Whether agent-causation is only possible if agents are immaterial, whether it is useful in philosophical investigation or scientific inquiry, and whether it is possible or indeed even intelligible, are questions beyond the scope of a review. For the moment, my point is only that Radcliffe Richards’ pedagogical aims have in the present instance – and in others as well – led her to oversimplify the philosophical issues with which she deals.

Besides the problem of oversimplification, the painstaking and obsessive analysis of the arguments, so essential for beginners, quickly begins to wear, and space is taken up thereby in which Radcliffe Richards could have considered further arguments; as it is, there are vast tracts of relevant issues left unaddressed. Reading through Human Nature after Darwin, and even trying my hand at the exercises, I was frequently reminded of Michael Ruse’s Can a Darwinian be a Christian? Ruse isn’t particularly concerned there to adjudicate between the supposed implications of the standard social science theories on the one hand and evolutionary psychology on the other, but he is interested (as his title suggests) about the supposed implications of Darwinism for Christianity (and thus for the Mind-First view). He seems generally to agree with her position that Darwinism as such possesses few important implications for Christianity; rather, the real culprit, or hero, is materialism (or naturalism, in Ruse’s lexicon). Without sacrificing either clarity or sparkle, Ruse manages to cover more issues in a hundred pages fewer, and his discussion, dealing as it does with Christianity as opposed to Radcliffe Richards’ rarefied theism-cumdualism, is more concrete and hence easier to follow. I would immediately recommend Ruse’s book (or his subsequent The Evolution Wars) over Radcliffe Richards’ to a reader who only wanted to read one. But I would then recommend that he or she find the time to read Human Nature after Darwin as well.

© Glenn Branch 2003

Glenn Branch is Deputy Director of the National Center for Science Education, whose website can be found at www.ncseweb.org.

Human Nature after Darwin: A Philosophical Introduction by Janet Radcliffe Richards (Routledge, 2001). 313 pages.

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