Robert Wright’s Failed Tactic: His Promotion of Teleology in Natural Selection.

By | March 16, 2010

One of the many confusing points advanced by Robert Wright in his recent book, The Evolution of God, is the claim that the ideas of a purpose and an end (for which organism are “designed”) are found in the Darwinian philosophy of evolution by natural selection. In other words, Wright, while trying not to be too obvious about it, argues for a form of teleology in biological evolution. He even attempts to recruit Daniel Dennett, a well-known exponent of Darwinian natural selection. We can admire Wright for his tireless effort, but ultimately there are good reasons for rejecting his attempt to show that teleology is part of Darwinian natural selection. Wright’s surprising move is a tactic that fails; as I will show, his attempt to “recruit” Dennett on his behalf is without merit. When we look closely at what the Darwinian philosopher, Daniel Dennett, says concerning natural selection we find a categorical rejection of the idea that purpose plays any role in Darwinian natural selection.

First, let’s look at how Wright brings out his case:

On page 402 (The Evolution of God), Wright gives us the following:

Indeed, so special is natural selection that lots of biologists are willing to talk about it designing organisms. (Or, actually, “designing” organisms; they tend put the word in quotes, lest you think they mean a conscious, foresightful designer.) Even the famously atheist Darwin philosopher Daniel Dennett uses that kind of terminology; he says this process of “design” imbues organisms with “goals” and “purposes.” For example: organism are “designed” to pursue goals subordinate to that ultimate goal, such as finding mates, ingesting nutrients, and pumping blood.

The take-home lesson is simple. It is indeed legitimate to do what Paley did: inspect a physical system for evidence that it was imbued with goals, with purpose, by some higher-order creative process. If the evidence strongly suggests such a thing, that doesn’t mean the imbuer was a designer in the sense of a conscious being; in the case Paley focuses on, it turned out not to be. Still, the point is that you can look at a system and argue empirically about whether it has, in some sense, a “higher” purpose. There are hallmarks of purpose, and some physical systems have them.

“Well, the entire process of life on Earth, the entire evolving ecosystem — from the birth of bacteria through the advent of human beings through the advent of cultural evolution, through the human history driven by that evolution — is a physical system. So in principle we could ask the same question about it that we asked about organisms; it could turn out that there is strong evidence of imbued purpose, as Paley and Dennett agree there is in organisms. In other words, maybe natural selection is an algorithm that is in some sense designed to get life to a point where it can do something — fulfill its goal, its purpose.

(p. 402, The Evolution of God, Little, Brown, and Co., 2009)

As has been the case throughout much of his book, Wright tends to equivocate. On the one hand, he tells us that the process of design imbues organisms with “goals” and “purposes”; but adds that biologists don’t really mean a “conscious, foresightful” work of a designer. He discounts Paley’s argument for a conscious designer (i.e., a creator God); but affirms the notion of design in nature in the sense of a “higher purpose.” But then he tells us that “Paley and Dennett agree there is [imbued purpose] in organisms,” suggesting that Dennett (and his kind of Darwinist) agree with Paley that some kind of purpose works in biological evolution.

Any casual look at a dictionary definition of “purpose” shows that the word connotes a purpose in some mind or arranged by some intelligent being. For example:

Webster’s New World Dictionary defines “purpose” as 1.something one intends to get or do. Intention, Aim 2.Resolution, determination 3. the object for which something exists or is done. It gives as synonyms: INTEND, INTENTION.

Obviously, our definitions of purpose imply connection with a mind or intelligent giver of purpose. When Wright mentions “higher purpose,” he surely insinuates some aim or goal set down by some intelligent agency. Throughout his book, he relies a lot on the Logos concept, which he takes from the ancient Jewish theologian, Philo. Obviously Wright’s “higher purpose” working in history is another way of referring to Philo’s Logos principle.

But this talk of “higher purpose” and the Logos is a long way from anything that Daniel Dennett wrote about in his exposition of Darwinian Natural selection in his book, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea.

Dennett elaborates his interpretation of Darwin’s theory [my highlighting]:

“What Darwin discovered was not really one algorithm but, rather, a large class of related algorithms that he had no clear way to distinguish. We can now reformulate his fundamental idea as follows: Life on earth has been generated over billions of years in a single branching tree —the tree of life— by one algorithmic process or another.” (Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, Simon & Schuster, 1995, p.51)
“ . . . Here, then, is Darwin’s dangerous idea: The algorithmic level is the level that best accounts for the speed of the antelope, the wing of the eagle, the shape of the orchid, the diversity of species, and all the other occasions for wonder in the world of nature. It is hard to believe that something as mindless and mechanical as an algorithm could produce such wonderful things. No matter how impressive the products of an algorithm, the underlying process always consists of nothing but a set of individually mindless steps succeeding each other without the help of any intelligent supervision; they are “automatic” by definition: the workings of an automaton.(Ibid., p. 59)

Dennett sees this process of natural selection as being a type of algorithm:

“Darwin offered a skeptical world a scheme for creating Design out of Chaos without the aid of Mind. . . The theoretical power of Darwin’s abstract scheme was due to several features that Darwin .. identified, and appreciated better that many of his supporters, but lacked the terminology to describe explicitly. . . Darwin had discovered the power of an algorithm. An algorithm is a ..formal process that can be counted on —logically— to yield a certain sort of result whenever it is “run” or instantiated. . . [Algorithms have an] underlying mindlessness: Although the overall design of the procedure may be brilliant, or yield brilliant results, each constituent step, as well as the transition between steps is utterly simple. … simple enough for a dutiful idiot to perform — or for a straightforward mechanical device to perform.

(Ibid., pp. 59-60)

Dennett elaborates on this interpretation of Darwin’s theory:

As we well know, Darwin showed that higher, complex forms of life evolved from lower, simpler forms of life by the natural selection alone. Thus, we have refutation of the traditional view that complexity could never arise from the less complex except by intervention of an external, intelligent designer

. (Ibid, p.153)

Dennett states the upshot:

“Darwin explains a world of final causes and teleological laws with a principle that is … mechanistic but —more fundamentally — utterly independent of “meaning” or “purpose” . .

(Ibid, p.153)

In summary, Daniel Dennett shows that the main thrust of the Darwinian response to all creationists and intelligent design advocates is that the wonderful complexity and apparent design found in nature can be explained on a strictly natural, material basis. Yes, it is understandable that we should stand in awe at the physical laws that governed the formation of the universe, at the incredibly fine tuned forces and physical relations, at the unimaginable complexity of the DNA molecule and other building blocks of life, and at the workings of the brain leading to the emergence of high level mental activity (Mind); and understandable that some commentators, like Robert Wright, should invent signs of purpose and design in all this.

Ironically for Mr. Wright, Dennett’s main work on Darwinian natural selection is a categorical rejection of people like Robert Wright (“those who find signs of purpose and design”). We can reject his misguided suggestion that Dennett endorsed his misbegotten, undeveloped philosophy of a “higher purpose” working in the biosphere and universe too.

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