Deepak Chopra (Photo by Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images)

Last week I published a post titled “Scientist: Why Deepak Chopra is driving me crazy,” a critique of comments Chopra has said about evolution, a subject to which I pay some attention on this blog.  Chopra, who has millions of devoted followers around the world, was unhappy with the post and asked if he could respond. This post includes his response.

Chopra is a world-famous doctor who advocates for alternative medicine and who has written more than 80 books. He has connections to several universities, including Northwestern and Columbia, even though many scientists and doctors have criticized his views about science and medicine as being unscientific. He founded the Chopra Center for Wellbeing more than a decade ago in southern California, where, Chopra’s website says, people can go “to heal their physical pain, find emotional freedom, empower themselves, and connect to their inner spiritual life.”

The original piece was penned by Steven Newton, the programs and policy director of the National Center for Science Education, a non-profit organization that provides information and resources for schools, parents, and concerned citizens working to keep evolution and climate science in public school science education. The May 15 piece, which appeared on the center’s website, was tough and pulled no punches in attacking comments Chopra made about evolution. Chopra was quoted as saying that Charles Darwin was wrong and that “consciousness is key to evolution and we will soon prove that.”

Newton, who taught geology and oceanography at a number of California colleges and developed courses on the history of science and the geology of America’s national parks, also cited this from Chopra: “An emerging view, alternate to Darwin’s random mutations & natural selection is that consciousness may be the driver of complexity/evolution.”

To give you an idea of Newton’s admittedly sarcastic critique, he responded to that by writing:

Again with the “consciousness.” Again with no specifics on how this drives evolution. Is a jelly in the ocean obeying universal consciousness as it pulses its stinging cells toward prey? Does a plant have consciousness? Does Kim Kardashian?

As I noted above, Chopra took strong issue with the post. On Twitter and in an e-mail to me he called the post an “ad-hominem” attack on him — but he said it was written by me. He didn’t mention that Newton actually wrote the piece. In the introduction to the piece, I did introduce Chopra to readers and then wrote:

“So why am I writing about him? Because of the strong reaction that a scientist has had to statements by Chopra about evolution, the animating principle of modern biology that people, apparently including Chopra, keep denying.”

I told Chopra I would publish a response from him, in which he denies being an evolution denier. It is below. Following that is a  response to Chopra from Newton.

 

From Deepak Chopra:

I started writing blogs on science in 2005, not to drive anyone crazy, but in keeping with a long-standing project begun in the mid-Eighties with my book Quantum Healing. To put it in a nutshell, the project was to link modern thought with ancient wisdom. I knew full well that this would be controversial, even before the age of blogosphere rudeness flowered to its full toxic extent. In my mind, speculative science marks a path to the future, while insights from the path define our humanity. I don’t care if a band of vocal scoffers makes catcalls from the sidelines.

However, in a recent blog, Valerie Strauss goes beyond catcalls, accusing me of being an evolution denier, which is absolutely false. I work and write with high-level scientists, including physicists, geneticists, and others who believe, as I do, that mainstream science, like mainstream medicine, has a lot to gain from keeping the flow of ideas moving.

As far as evolution is concerned, there’s a cadre of strict Darwinists who will push back against any encroachment into their field, but neo-Darwinism, which tries to address glaring gaps in Darwin’s original theory (after all, he knew nothing of DNA, genes, and the chemical basis of mutations) is a respected field, too. I often think that my interest in genetics, which has led to a book being published this fall, arouses vehement objections because scientists want to protect their turf, and seeing an interested amateur write about troubling issues they haven’t resolved causes them to cry, “How dare he?”

Here are some of the problematic issues that evolutionary theory currently grapples with.

  1. No one knows the biological basis of mind; therefore, linking the physical nature of the brain with actual thinking is totally unproven.
  2. Applying Darwinian principles to the meteoric rise of Homo sapiens confronts the bald fact that as a species we have leapt ahead far faster than random mutations can account for.
  3. Without understanding consciousness, one cannot understand human beings.
  4. Because we are self-aware, human beings construct societies and thought structures that impact our evolution far more than natural selection, which is based on securing an advantage in two areas: securing food and gaining mating rights.
  5. Human evolution long ago escaped the physical pressures that other species are entirely bound by—the discovery of fire was just a link in a chain of advances that set prehistoric man on the road to self-sufficiency, eventually leading to the fantastic notion, now at the very heart of science, that humanity can conquer Nature.
  6. In order to settle any of the preceding issues, evolutionary theorists are at an enormous disadvantage. They can’t do experiments to validate what they believe happened in the distant past, and when it comes down to certain fundamental beliefs, such as random mutations, their experimentation is largely confined to micro-organisms and primitive species like the fruit fly, conducted within the tiny, sterile confines of the laboratory.

If Ms. Strauss or any other skeptic believes that these issues are woo or the fantasies of a self-aggrandizing guru—a title I’ve rejected for thirty years—they are victims of psychological projection. The nub of the argument involves the current struggle in science to explain how consciousness arose, the so-called “hard problem.” There are two camps in this regard. One camp wants to find an answer to the hard problem and realizes how crucial this is to physics, cosmology, biology, and evolution. The other camp doesn’t see a problem to begin with, resorting to denial and ridicule in order to make the first camp give up and go away.

Ms. Strauss, echoing a noisy group of consciousness-deniers, uses the unwholesome tactic of personal attack instead of looking deeper into the core issues at stake. I sympathize with wanting to pin the tail on the donkey, using me as a target. I’ve pursued an odd career in full public view, respecting none of the boundaries that should keep an interested amateur outside the gates where he belongs.

Fortunately, the trend is toward inclusiveness as more people realize that science, being central to our lives, raises concerns that everyone should be involved in. As a postgraduate fellow, my younger self was on the road to becoming a research endocrinologist before my career took a different direction. I have friends who say I’d be better off having my Twitter account cancelled, because I’m guilty of spontaneous outbursts in reaction to attacks that seem like nothing more than the suppression of curiosity on behalf of a tottering status quo.

Is the universe conscious? Does evolution combine randomness with some variety of teleology? Will brain mapping come close to describing the phantom of mind? Can human beings seize hold of their own evolution through higher awareness? These questions may drive Ms. Strauss and others crazy, but they shouldn’t. On the basis of such speculations the human race is discovering who we can be and what reality itself, the most elusive phenomenon of all, might actually be. Join the parade—it’s more fun than booing from the sidelines.

 

Again, it seems worth mentioning that I did not write the actual post to which he has taken offense. I will also note that while he accuses me and others  of being “victims of psychological projection,” I confess I don’t see myself as a victim of that particular condition.

Now here is a reaction to Chopra’s comments about evolution from Newton, the author of the original post.  Josh Rosenau of the National Center for Science Education helped write it:

 

Dr. Chopra’s response to my tongue-in-cheek piece restates his claims about “consciousness” and its alleged role in evolution. There are several key problems here:

First, Dr. Chopra flips between presenting himself as an expert and as an interested outsider, wearing whichever coat suits him best in a given sentence. In the space of a single paragraph he talks about a book he’s publishing about genetics (noting that he “work[s] and write[s] with high-level scientists”) then insists he’s merely “an interested amateur.” If he is publishing scientific claims and actively collaborating in scientific research, he cannot claim to be merely an amateur. And if he has chosen to leap into the practice of science, he cannot exempt himself from the scientific process. Scientists disagree vigorously with one another as they attempt to build the case for new advancements; this peer review is the heart of the scientific process, one of the tools and techniques scientists have developed to encourage the flow of good ideas and sift out bad one. Unfortunately, Dr. Chopra chooses to circumvent that path, publishing his claims as self-help books rather than subjecting them to the rigors of scientific review.

Not surprisingly, his claims about the role of “consciousness” in evolution do not hold up to even cursory scrutiny. What Dr. Chopra seems to mean by his usage of “consciousness” is very broad and difficult to pin down. The word is used as if its meaning was plain, its implications undeniable, and its existence unchallengeable. Many scientists, without denying the phenomenon of consciousness, see it as a continuum, a trait which evolves, not as a trait uniquely granted to humans by some mystical force.

Indeed, the idea of a unique human “consciousness” echoes 19th century misunderstandings, both the debunked notion of vitalism and the vision of biology which placed human beings at the apex of a single ladder of progress. The idea of a supernatural “consciousness” directing evolution would find a home among advocates of intelligent design creationism, for whom the “intelligent designer” creates the “information” of biologic systems, with humans occupying a special, privileged status among other animals.

Without some clearer definition, Dr. Chopra’s claims about the science of evolution and how “consciousness” may have influenced it fail the minimal standard for any scientific claim: testability. For scientific ideas to succeed, they must survive rigorous experimental testing and attempts at disproof. If there really is no way to work one’s claim into such tests, then that brings into question whether the claim can say anything meaningful about scientific fields. It’s encouraging that Dr. Chopra acknowledges a certain speculativeness to his claims, but let’s see the tests that prove them.

Worst of all, Dr. Chopra repeats a host of creationist claims, even as he insists that he is not an evolution denier. He asserts as a “bald fact” that human evolution has proceeded “far faster than random mutations can account for.” This claim is a staple in creationist writings, and not a conclusion supported by science. Indeed, there is substantial evidence that evolutionary processes can produce remarkable changes in short periods. The human evolutionary record is quite well understood, and the evolution of the human brain shows a smooth process of growth over millions of years (http://www.pandasthumb.org/archives/2006/09/fun_with_homini_1.html).

His claim that humans have “escaped the physical pressures that other species are entirely bound by,” and thus are no longer subject to natural selection and evolution is equally false. As a simple example, consider the strong selective pressure we see on human birth weight, with high infant mortality for both very small and very large babies (http://mumford.albany.edu/mortality/PrenatalCare.htm). Indeed, humanity’s technological advances have themselves resulted in evolutionary change, as evidenced by the pattern of lactose intolerance around the world, with ethnic groups that traditionally kept dairy cattle evolving lactose tolerance as adults, and adult lactose intolerance remaining common in ethnic groups which did not domesticate cattle, or did not use their milk for food. (http://evolution.berkeley.edu/evolibrary/news/070401_lactose)

Finally, Dr. Chopra’s claim that evolution is at “an enormous disadvantage” because it isn’t possible to conduct experiments, or because such experiments rely on “primitive species” is utterly false. It is true that much research proceeds in laboratories using model organisms such as bacteria, fruit flies, zebrafish, and mustard plants, but evolutionary biologists can also draw on extensive field work with species in the wild, and studies of fossil life, to inform modern research. A recent example of this interplay was research which identified key genetic changes which led to the evolution of legs (http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/speaking-of-science/wp/2014/12/31/researchers-find-the-ancient-genetic-link-between-fish-fins-and-animal-hands/). Researchers used fossils to understand the ways that the bones in fins and shoulders of ancient fish changed as they became more leg-like, then used that knowledge to track which genes control the development of those bones in modern fish–genes similar to those found in humans and other animals with legs.

We don’t need to experiment directly on our 350 million-year-old ancestors to inform and advance modern evolutionary biology. Dr. Chopra’s assertion that evolution is somehow deficient because its claims cannot all be tested in the laboratory is a staple of creationist writings, and not one which scientists or philosophers of science who study the matter would endorse.

For better or for worse, Dr. Chopra has a substantial audience and is seen by many as a scientific expert. It is tragic that he uses that credibility to spread the long-debunked claims of creationists. Whether or not he believes he’s marching in their column, he is carrying their banner.