Yesterday I got an email from one Tam Hunt, complaining that my popular book on evolution left out what he called “the warts that accompany the Modern synthesis [i.e., modern evolutionary theory developed beginning about 1935].” He referred me to an article he wrote in the Santa Barbara [California] Independent touting a “middle path” between evolution and creationism. His particular beef was natural selection, which he sees as “little more than an assumption that evolution has resulted from natural causes rather than supernatural causes. As such, the theory of natural selections explains nothing in itself – it is a very loose framework that needs filling in rather substantially.”
As you might expect, Hunt fills the gap with complete nonsense. If you’d like, have a gander at his essay “On natural selection and the universal Eros” at the Independent.
He begins with a disclaimer,
This essay continues my extended critique of “absent-minded science,” the tendency in modern science to ignore, intentionally or through oversight, the role of mind in nature. I want to be clear up front that I am not a supporter of “intelligent design” or any religiously-motivated critique of natural selection. Rather, I approach these very difficult problems primarily from the point of view of a hard-nosed philosopher and scientist trying to make sense of it all – and finding that many mainstream approaches could be significantly improved. . .
He then characterizes natural selection as tautological, because it’s “survival of the fittest,” and the fittest are defined as “those who survive. ” This, of course, is an old creationist canard, which completely ignores the fact that hundreds of biologists are trying to understand those particular traits that promote survival and reproduction. Saying that natural selection is tautological is like saying that putting flour through a sieve is tautological, because “only the lumps survive” and the lumps are defined as “those parts of the flour that don’t go through the sieve.” Ergo, we conclude that a sieve can’t work. (For more sophisticated refutations, see this essay by Steve Gould or this discussion at Talk Origins. Does Hunt not know how to Google?)
Hunt goes on to make a criticism familiar to readers of Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini’s (F & P-P) dreadful critique of Darwinism, What Darwin Got Wrong (it’s no surprise that he praises that book):
Natural selection is, in the final analysis, simply a postulate and not a theory. It is the postulate that evolution has happened naturally, without supernatural influence. “Natural selection” stands as the counter to the long-held view of “supernatural selection,” that is, the various theories of creationism or intelligent design. To be a theory of evolution, however, the theory must say something about how and why historical changes occurred and make meaningful predictions about what kind of changes we may see in the future. And natural selection, a logically empty theory, is clearly not that theory.
As if evolutionary biologists aren’t trying to figure out how selection acts on different traits! As I pointed out in my review of the F & P-P book, there are now hundreds of studies trying to relate specific features of animals and plants to their differential survival and reproduction in the wild. These include the work of Peter and Rosemary Grant on beak shape in Galápagos finches (documented in Jonathan Weiner’s The Beak of the Finch), historical changes in color of the peppered moth, Biston betularia, and a whole host of more recent studies. Anyone who makes this argument against natural selection is either completely ignorant of the literature or willfully ignorant in service of an agenda.
The latter seems to be the case for Hunt. He sees the solution as a teleological force driving evolution, a “basic force in all things that leads to greater connection, thus greater complexity, and thus greater awareness of our universe around us.” Listen to this teleological gobbledygook:
The panpsychist solution is to recognize that mind and thus purpose are inherent in all of nature – but extremely rudimentary in most cases. However, as matter complexifies in macromolecules like amino acids (which form spontaneously in many situations), this innate mind and purpose starts to play an increasingly significant role in evolution. It is, thus, a bootstrapping process that has no end in sight. . .
. . . In evolution, then, God is indeed in the details – literally. The “dispersed” God that Margulis and Sagan refer to is the mind contained in each thing, in each organism, that exercises some degree of choice – no matter how small – in how it manifests.
. . . To sum up this series of essays to this point: We cannot adequately explain matter in physics or evolution in biology without re-naturalizing mind. We needn’t appeal to an archaic notion of God as omniscient designer to provide adequate explanations. Rather, we can appeal to the dispersed god of panpsychism, the god manifested in a million million little pushes from each entity making its own choices (though we shall have a role for a non-dispersed God later in this series of essays).
I don’t think I’ll be reading any more of Hunt’s essays. Before we require an alternative theory to natural selection, we must show how this well-established idea, instantiated in hundreds of cases, is inadequate to explain adaptation. Hunt hasn’t. And his alternative—to posit that things like amino acids have minds that actually drive evolution—is not only without evidence (the data show no single “drive” in evolution—certainly not one towards greater complexity and awareness), but is also so mush-headed as to be opaque. When Hunt tells me in precise detail how amino acids and proteins have minds that drive evolution in ways not encapsulated by natural selection, I’ll start to listen to him. I don’t anticipate this happening soon.
The Independent describes Hunt as “a philosopher, lawyer and biologist who was lucky enough to land in Santa Barbara and stay.” The worse luck for Santa Barbara! However, the University of California at Santa Barbara website (where Hunt is a visiting lecturer), describes him as “a renewable energy law and policy expert” who has a law degree from UCLA. I can’t find any evidence that Hunt has any higher degrees, training, or practice as a “biologist.” Neither can I find any papers by a Tam Hunt in the ISI science citation index.
Indeed, I suspect Hunt isn’t a “biologist,” for no biologist who has absorbed his craft could make statements as idiotic as his. I only hope he’s not teaching biology at UCSB, and I mourn the fact that the city newspaper has given him a platform to spout anti-evolutionary nonsense.