Michael S. Roth is president of Wesleyan University. His most recent book is “Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters.”
‘Stories matter. And once, we had one.” This is the portentous first sentence of Kenneth R. Miller’s new book, “The Human Instinct: How We Evolved to Have Reason, Consciousness and Free Will.” The scientific revolution in general and Charles Darwin in particular shook the foundation of this master narrative, he writes, “and then we lost it. Our stories seemed to vanish, and with them our souls, our place in the heavens, and in many ways, ourselves.”
In his book, Miller aims to provide an evolution story so that we — he never says who this “we” is — feel better (about ourselves). That’s a tall order, especially since that story is supposed to be grounded in a realistic, scientific account of “our place in the heavens.” Miller, a biology professor at Brown and author of the book “Only a Theory, Finding Darwin’s God,” is a believer in the power of science and in the importance of religion. He sees no reason why he — and “we” — can’t hold onto both.
Miller certainly is adept at explaining multiple dimensions of contemporary biology and psychology. He provides useful historical contexts for understanding how, for example, sociobiology morphed from a pariah discipline in the 1970s into an approach to the human world — known today as evolutionary psychology — that claims to encapsulate all other approaches. Much like physics in the mid-20th century, this approach has become a theory of everything. Why do so many of us like landscape paintings (especially if they have blue in them)? The evolutionary psychologist has an answer: Because they remind our primitive brains of the savannahs on which humans roamed in the Pleistocene Era. Not much knowledge of painting or of the Pleistocene is required.
The natural-selection framework has given ambitious scientists license to explain almost any phenomenon by telling a story about how that phenomenon must have been “selected” to survive. Sure, there may be some features of living things that persist despite (seemingly) adding nothing to the chances for survival. But with the assurance born of tautological reasoning, reductionist scientists assert that these phenomena must have once helped creatures live long enough to reproduce. Whatever one wants to explain (or justify), one just says that this thing must have played a role in the species’ biological survival.
Miller is very good on the overreach of imperial Darwinians. He is a stalwart defender of the Darwinian paradigm, but he doesn’t think it’s appropriate for understanding all levels of existence. He might have just pointed out that ideas are tools and that some tools are more appropriate for particular problems than other tools. One might, in Darwinian (and pragmatist) fashion, say that we “select” the better tools through trial and error, and that these survive. Instead, Miller assumes that all ideas mirror reality but in different ways. For example, living things can be more fully described by cell biology than by physics. Cells have emergent properties not fully predictable from abstract laws: “There are higher-level patterns of organization that, while based in those laws, are not completely explained by them,” he notes.
Miller is interested in higher-level patterns of organization, such as consciousness and free will, that are not at odds with scientific laws but whose meanings are not fully accounted for by these laws. He wants to hold fast to science to provide opportunities to create new stories about how we come to understand the world through consciousness and take responsibility for our actions through free will. Those reductionists, he repeatedly argues, who claim that they have fully explained these patterns as symptoms of our evolving biology fail to realize that they have also undermined their own critiques, which would also be mere biological symptoms.
In contrast to these reductionists and to atheist public intellectuals, Miller wants to show that the contemporary consensus around natural selection leaves room for things that have long given meaning to human life. Again and again he intones that humans are distinct and noble, that recognizing the brain’s materiality doesn’t compromise the mind’s creativity, and that by understanding our place in nature and in the cosmos, we transcend that place. He even gives “evolution” agency when saying it has provided humans with free will, as if the contingency of the natural-selection process would be less difficult to accept if we saw ourselves as the grateful recipients of its consequences.
Miller wants to take the religious believer’s despair at the cold, nihilistic, Darwinist struggle for existence and turn it into joyful and optimistic recognition of the achievement of human consciousness by evolution. He even recodes the notion of the Anthropocene — that our current geological epoch is characterized by human-driven evolution — from a frightful tale of man-made mass extinctions into a triumphal story of human self-transcendence through scientific understanding.
At one level this is quite simple. Evolutionary biology can’t explain specific short-lived historical occurrences like painting styles or religious ideas any more than a theory of climate change can explain this morning’s weather. Scale matters; meaning depends on it. Miller is bothered by this, and he tries too hard to justify his story of human nobility and exceptionalism with hackneyed references to the stars, the heavens and the cosmos. Evolution, he writes, “invites us to revel in the living world of which we are a part and to see ourselves as central characters in the greatest drama the universe has yet brought forth.” I don’t doubt that Miller does feel so invited.
Some readers will find his defense of Darwinism useful, but he hasn’t provided an inspiring story that would matter for most of those looking for purpose and meaning. Happily, there are other traditions, other tools, for that.
By Kenneth R. Miller
Simon & Schuster. 304 pp. $26