September 04, 2008

The temptations of teleology


Watching the third part of Richard Dawkins' recent series The Genius Of Darwin, I was struck not by the now familiar phenomenon of Dawkins's libidinal attachment to his adversaries, even though this was in evidence again (why devote a whole third of the series to knocking down Darwin's opponents, when he's already destroyed them numerous times?). No: what was most disconcerting was the final sequence in which Dawkins met with Daniel Dennett. Here, the claim was that, not only had evolution undermined the teleological argument for the existence of God, but that it had revealed a nature which was in many ways the equivalent of a divine designer. Evolution showed a natural world rich in complexity and diversity, and a contemplation of this should be enough to satisfy anyone's spiritual needs: what more could they (religious believers) want, Dawkins scoffed.

Part of the problem here is the one which Zizek touches upon in his occasional remarks on contemporary Darwininianism: why is that that the advocates of a punitively mechanistic theory like Darwininian evolution end up using teleological language? This is partly a consequence of the concept of "natural selection" being (rhetorically) converted from a negative into a positive thesis. The original negative idea was that brutal, blind randomness can account for the appearance of purpose in organisms; there is no need to hypothesise any guiding intelligence at work in nature, since only those organisms that happen to be adapted to their environment will survive and prosper. If this seems like a statement of the screamingly obvious, it is worth reiterating because it is too often obscured, not by religious thinkers distorting evolutionary theory, but by Darwininans themselves, who, it seems, have a tendency to be seduced by their own metaphors. 'Natural selection' was itself something of a reification, which was always in danger of implying that there was an intentional agent doing the selecting. Dawkins' own famous images - the blind watchmaker, the selfish gene - both imply some degree of purposive intent (the emphasis in the blind watchmaker ought to have been on the blindness rather than the watchmaking; the gene has neither a self nor interests which it pursues, only an idiotic program which it follows).

Unfortunately, the positivisation of the idea of natural selection isn't merely a rhetorical error, but something that has had theoretical consequences. Witness, for instance, the most ludicrous claims of evolutionary psychology, which maintain that practically every human behaviour can be accounted for in terms of a natural selection held to operate like some ultra-efficient teleological sorting system, ensuring that every single trait serves some evolutionary function. What is lost here in is the randomness of the process - needless to say, traits can persist even if they have no positive function, provided there is no selection pressure against them.

In his insistence that evolution had not destroyed Meaning but, on the contrary, guaranteed it, Dawkins struck me as precisely the sort of person that was the real target of Nietzsche's "Parable Of The Madman": not the religious believers, who are perfectly aware of the traumatic implications of the death of God, but "those who did not believe in God" who stand around and laugh when the madman brings his bad news. The Creatonists' horror and abomination in the face of evolution seems more in keeping with its mechaninistic nihilism than Dawkins's cheery insouciance, his suggestion that things can go on pretty much the same after Darwin as before.

Posted by mark at September 4, 2008 03:17 PM | TrackBack