Tom Nagel’s antievolution book gets thrice pummeled

January 23, 2013 • 11:53 am

Last October I mentioned that the famous philosopher Thomas Nagel had produced a new book that proclaimed the falsity of neo-Darwinian evolution. I’ll quote from my earlier post:

As I’ve mentioned before, the respected philosopher of mind Thomas Nagel has joined the ranks of Darwin-dissers with the publication of his new book Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly FalseI am eager to read this, but haven’t yet had a chance because I’m travelling and reading Sophisticated Theology™ (this book may qualify in that genre).

Nagel has always evinced a sympathy for Intelligent Design creationism, and in fact he chose Stephen Meyer’s ID book Signature in the Cell as his “book of the year” in the respected Times Literary Supplement (read the letters following Nagel’s endorsement at the link).  But Nagel is no slouch academically, and so it’s very surprising that he joins his colleague Jerry Fodor in bashing Darwin at book length.

Well, I never got around to reading Mind and Cosmos: I acquired a copy, but upon opening it and skimming it I was so disheartened that I just put it aside for the sake of my kishkas. So many books and so little time; did I really want to read another argument against evolution?

Now I’m glad I didn’t, for several people with the right expertise have read the book and they proffer a unanimity of opinion: thumbs way down.

The best of the reviews is by (ahem) my first student, Allen Orr, who, in the New York Review of Books, politely eviscerates Nagel’s ideas in a piece called “Awaiting a new Darwin” (free online). It’s a calm, informed, but absolutely skewering piece, and Orr is eminently trained to review it because he has a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology. (He’s a professor at the University of Rochester). In the end, his reasoned analysis makes Nagel’s book looks pretty worthless.

Among Nagel’s claims are that evolution is wrong because:

  1. We don’t understand the origin of life
  2. We don’t understand the evolution of consciousness (is this list starting to sound familiar?)
  3. There are objective factors about morality, and evolution can’t explain them (Nagel is what philosophers call a “moral realist”)
  4. A reductionist and materialist program won’t suffice to understand evolution, ergo
  5. There is a missing factor, and that factor is teleology. That is, evolution is directed toward certain goals (e.g., consciousness) by a process we don’t understand

Now Nagel is not religious—he’s an atheist—so his teleology can’t involve a god. Instead, he apparently posits an unknown force that drives organisms onward and upward.

To a biologist (Orr is a Drosophila geneticist like me),the response is obvious: there is no direction in evolution, for when organisms evolve parasitism, or move into darkness, they often lose complex features like eyes and wings.  And of course there are those dumb plants:

Nagel’s teleological biology is heavily human-centric or at least animal-centric. Organisms, it seems, are in the business of secreting sentience, reason, and values. Real biology looks little like this and, from the outset, must face the staggering facts of organismal diversity. There are millions of species of fungi and bacteria and nearly 300,000 species of flowering plants. None of these groups is sentient and each is spectacularly successful. Indeed mindless species outnumber we sentient ones by any sensible measure (biomass, number of individuals, or number of species; there are only about 5,500 species of mammals). More fundamentally, each of these species is every bit as much the end product of evolution as we are. The point is that, if nature has goals, it certainly seems to have many and consciousness would appear to be fairly far down on the list.

In fact, bacteria are still with us after billions of years, and they show no sign of a brain yet!

Allen’s conclusion about the value of Nagel’s teleology is measured and accurate:

The question, then, is not whether teleology is formally compatible with the practice of science. The question is whether the practice of science leads to taking teleology seriously. Nagel may find this question unfair. He is, he says, engaging in a “philosophical task,” not the “internal pursuit of science.” But it seems clear that he is doing more than this. He’s emphasizing purported “empirical reasons” for finding neo-Darwinism “almost certainly false” and he’s suggesting the existence of new scientific laws. These represent moves, however halting, into science proper. But science, finally, isn’t about defining the space of all formally possible explanations of nature. It’s about inference to the most likely hypothesis. And on these grounds there’s simply no comparison between neo-Darwinism (for which there is overwhelming evidence) and natural teleology (for which there is none). While one might complain that it’s unfair to stack up the empirical successes of neo-Darwinism with those of a new theory, this, again, gets the history wrong. Teleology is the traditional view; neo-Darwinism is the new kid on the block.

In my earlier post on Nagel’s book, I highlighted the review by Brian Leiter and Michael Weisberg in The Nation, so I’ll just give their conclusions here (the flaws they pick out are similar to those descried by Orr), which are stronger than Orr’s

We conclude with a comment about truth in advertising. Nagel’s arguments against reductionism are quixotic, and his arguments against naturalism are unconvincing. He aspires to develop “rival alternative conceptions” to what he calls the materialist neo-Darwinian worldview, yet he never clearly articulates this rival conception, nor does he give us any reason to think that “the present right-thinking consensus will come to seem laughable in a generation or two.” Mind and Cosmos is certainly an apt title for Nagel’s philosophical meditations, but his subtitle—”Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False”—is highly misleading. Nagel, by his own admission, relies only on popular science writing and brings to bear idiosyncratic and often outdated views about a whole host of issues, from the objectivity of moral truth to the nature of explanation. No one could possibly think he has shown that a massively successful scientific research program like the one inspired by Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection “is almost certainly false.” The subtitle seems intended to market the book to evolution deniers, intelligent-design acolytes, religious fanatics and others who are not really interested in the substantive scientific and philosophical issues. Even a philosopher sympathetic to Nagel’s worries about the naturalistic worldview would not claim this volume comes close to living up to that subtitle. Its only effect will be to make the book an instrument of mischief.

And indeed, the book is already being touted by creationists, though they have politely ignored Nagel’s atheism.

Finally, philosopher Elliott Sober, who also knows a lot about evolution, pitches Nagel his third strike in the Boston Review.  I’ve had my differences with Sober, but his review is thorough and seems on the money. It’s more philosophical than Orr’s but that’s good: one man covers the biology base, the other the philosophical. Sober concludes, soberly:

Current science may suffer from fundamental flaws, but Nagel has not made a convincing case that this is so. And even if there are serious explanatory defects in our world picture, I don’t see how Nagel’s causally inexplicable teleology can be a plausible remedy. In saying this, I realize that Nagel is trying to point the way to a scientific revolution and that my reactions may be mired in presuppositions that Nagel is trying to transcend. If Nagel is right, our descendants will look back on him as a prophet—a prophet whom naysayers such as me were unable to recognize.

All three reviews are free online, so if you have any interest in Nagel’s ideas, go read them. I recommend you do this before you buy his book!


Bad Nagel! Bad Nagel!

h/t: Alberto, SP

58 thoughts on “Tom Nagel’s antievolution book gets thrice pummeled

  1. Next time I’m in Rochester I would like to buy Dr. Orr a white hot.

    (true Rochesterians will know what that means)

      1. You just made me daydream of the countless late night garbage plates I consumed at Nick’s while an undergrad at RIT. It’s been 20 years since I had one, and I can taste it in my mind like it was yesterday.

  2. H. Allen Orr:

    While one might complain that it’s unfair to stack up the empirical successes of neo-Darwinism with those of a new theory, this, again, gets the history wrong. Teleology is the traditional view; neo-Darwinism is the new kid on the block.

    Oh that feels good.

    1. Doesn’t it though.

      “Never mind about the successes or the fact that I bet my life and that of my family’s on the theory of evolution….it isn’t a fair comparison!”

      “Why not?”

      “Because it isn’t!!”

      “Oh. Well thought out argument you have there.”

    2. as does this: “…and a scientific education is, to a considerable extent, an exercise in taming the authority of one’s intuition.” I’ll say.

  3. Nagel is just plain wrong and seems to have deliberatley misunderstood evolutionary theory.The sheer radical nature of the Darwin/Wallace/Mendelian synthesis still horifies and confounds those who seek comfort in a Platonic/Aristolean cosmosophy
    Sure there are some areas of evolutionary theory that are still just a bit hazy but I am quite sure that the emergent sciences of Evo-Devo and Epigenetics will support the world renowned synthesis.
    It is the only one
    Believe me
    Vincent J Heaney

  4. I don’t like to buy books that support authors expounding poorly thought out ideas. There’s a sort of evolutionary argument here – the niche for nonsense will be exploited as long as it has a market.

    1. Do the people who publish stuff like this ever ask the question, “Will we look like morons if we publish this?” or is it only, “What’s the market for this?”

      Who is the publisher, anyway?

      1. This book of nonsense is published by Oxford University Press [both UK & USA arms]
        They do however have the good grace to park it in their philosophy section along with Alvin Plantinga & other spewers of sophisticated argumentation

        Over in their Evolution
        Biology & Genomics section I find…

        James D. Watson, John Maynard Smith, Eva Jablonka, Mark Ridley, Michael R. Rose, James D. Watson, Richard Dawkins, Philip Kitcher, Maurice Wilkins, W. D. Hamilton, Robert Trivers, Charles Darwin, Richard Gregory, Ernst Mayr, Jared M. Diamond, Mark D. Pagel, Daniel Dennett & of course our good host

    2. I buy all my Creationist material at used book sales. That way my money does not go to the authors or publishers.

    3. I get most of my books out of the public and other libraries.

      That way they don’t pile up and I don’t pay for books worth reading but not worth buying.

      AFAICT, Nagel, Monkton, and other “philosophers” have discovered that bashing Darwin and science gets them attention and money. Philosophy seems to be desperate for both these days.

      I also don’t care to support these clowns with my hard earned dollars. I’d rather support people like Coyne with WEIT.

  5. When it’s all boiled down is Nagel saying any more than merely subscribing to the school of “This can’t be all that there is”? Is his position fundamentally different from that of the religious who must seek pattern and direction from out of randomness? The appearance of life on earth was an extraordinary event but must it lead us to conjecture extraordinary solutions. Kennedy’s death was an extraordinary event: alas, the cause was mundane.

    1. Although he did a poor job on Dawkins’ The God Delusion, and had his posterior handed to him by Dennett.

      1. Even with that review, I still thought his review was worth reading. Likewise his review of Darwin’s Black Box.

  6. I would not expect creationists to ignore Nagel’s atheism for long; it adds strength to their claims about the reliability of Nagel’s book. It’s just a matter of spinning his atheism correctly.

    The book sounds to me like (as we used to say in the Navy) flatulent crap.

    1. Speaking of which, I just came across an ID proponent who was using Fodor’s criticism of evolution *because* he also happened to be an atheist. “Look, it’s just not the ID proponents who say something is wrong with evolution.”

  7. Well, the book certainly does not deserve a second glance. What i can’t understand is why creationists are all ready to adopt any dissenting person as their messiah and ignoring their other opinions. Like, in this case Nagel is an atheist and yet apparently they have taken a liking for him.
    Thanks for warning though!!

    1. Two fundamental properties; the second is relative or comparative ranking of explanations. As Orr points out, we look for best explanations. Like the proverbial two people running from the bear, evolution doesn’t have to be faster than the bear (i.e., philosophically complete). It just has to be faster/better than the other guy.

  8. In fact, bacteria are still with us after billions of years, and they show no sign of a brain yet!

    Im sorry but this is akin to ‘why are there still monkeys’ argument. I’m not defending Nagel’s book and it is not on my reading list and won’t be based the critiques outlined in the reviews. I call out creationists for making the ‘why are there still…’ arguments, because it’s wrong, it’s no less wrong when people I generally agree with make it.

    1. I’m sorry,but did you even read the post? I am just echoing Orr’s evidence AGAINST progressivism and teleology. Did you for some reason assume that I was agreeing with creationists here?

      1. If I was unclear, apologies. I absolutely do not think you agree with creationists. My point is that the fact bacteria and plants did not evolve brains is not an argument against teleological evolution. I think this argument is analogous to the creationist argument that since we evolved from an ancestor that looked more monkey-like, why are there still monkeys.

        I do realize that you are echoing Orr, but by highlighting this point and noting it in your post, it seems reasonable to assume you agree with it. Orr makes a bad argument (in my opinion), but I agree with the other points against teleology, just not this one.

        I initially considered it somewhat pedantic to point it out, but as creationists are critiqued for making analogous arguments, I thought it was worth brining up.

        1. My point is that the fact bacteria and plants did not evolve brains is not an argument against teleological evolution.

          Why not? It’s pretty hard to suggest that the existence of intelligence animals implies a teleological universe when the vast majority of lifeforms never achieve sentience.

          I think this argument is analogous to the creationist argument that since we evolved from an ancestor that looked more monkey-like, why are there still monkeys.

          But that’s different. The theory of evolution doesn’t suggest that the entire universe is moving toward some specific “goal” and such divergences are entirely expected.

        2. the fact bacteria and plants did not evolve brains is not an argument against teleological evolution

          Well, yes it is. I think Gould made this point before Orr. If you plotted nome proxy measure of complexity (x) vs number of species (y), you’ll get a bell-like curve centered on single-celled organisms. Species like us – very far up on the high-complexity tail – are perfectly adequately explained by a random walk. There does not have to be a drive towards complexity or sentience to explain why one species in a billion is sentient; if mutations that increase or decrease complexity work just as well on average, you’d still expect a high complexity tail.

          If there was some teleological force, you should not see that sort of curve. The average would move up over time. Or it would be some curve with a positive slope. So, the empirical evidence we have on the distribution of species complexity refutes the notion that there is such a force.

            1. Viruses, putative simplified parasites on cells. At least if you believe Caetano-Anolles et al. [“Giant viruses coexisted with the cellular ancestors and represent a distinct supergroup along with superkingdoms Archaea, Bacteria and Eukarya”, Nasir et al, BMC Evolutionary Biology 2012; ]

              I believe Eisen has criticized it, but I haven’t read that yet. So much to read, so little time.

    2. If evolution, as a process, were goal-directed, then all organisms would be striving towards that goal. If you want to posit some sort of more complicated scenario where the goal is that some organisms should attain the goal, but not all… okay, but why?

      It seems to me like the simplest extension would end up with “the goal is to survive”, which then feeds right back into descent with modification and selection.

  9. Quite the list of objections. Four of a kind arguments from ignorance and one non sequitur.

    If it is going to be that kind of party, I am going to reject his book on the grounds that it does not explain how to make a cup of tea.

    1. Do I hear a philosopher insisting that speculating about what’s possible but improbable in the face of mountains of evidence is a means to truth?

      Hey, there are now Newtown shooting denial sites. Go drink deep!

  10. Folks, like Aristotle, naturalist, who posited teleology, so does anti-naturalist Nagel. Thales and Strato are ever right- teleology contradicts science! Were matters teleological, scientists never would do experiments, for all would end up the same! So much for the begged question of directed outcomes as Carneades notes.
    Yes, that teleonomic argument notes that contradiction!
    No kind of teleology ever appears as that magnificient essay @ Talk Reason Reason notes.
    Had scientists heeded those three instead of Aristotle, perhaps Europe would have surged earlier in science [ Eh, WEIT?.
    Ah, Aristotle’s science also held Europe back. Some naturalist!
    This is why the NCES errs with their compatibility statements. The compatibility is only cognitive dissonance in theistic evolutionists! Again, let the NCES just say theists can be evolutionists.
    Nagel and other atheists just don’t get it: ontological naturalism works, being based on methodological naturalism, whilst other isms don’t depend on it as I understand matters.
    McTaggart, idealist, and Ducasse, paranormalist, come to mind, were atheists who believed in the future state. Some atheists still believe in it and the paranormal like Ducasse.
    Ti’s not a matter of the no true Scotsman fallacy as atheists can disagree, but instead the matter of adhering to our conservation – background- of knowledge.

  11. The essay is ” Seeing and Believing.”
    Lorax, I think the reference is to the fact that no kind of teleology-intent, vitalism- pushed bacteria forward to have a brain.
    Paul B. Weisz in ” The science of Biology” makes the argument against teleology and the one for causalism – mechanism, teleonomy – instead. Ernst Mayr uses the term teleonomy [ Google his name to see that.]
    Had adaptation been for perfection, then I’d not have the neurological defects that impinge on my writing! Again, so much for directed outcomes!

  12. The nicest thing I can say about Nagels’

    We don’t understand the evolution of consciousness

    in contrast with Orr’s

    if nature has goals, it certainly seems to have many and consciousness would appear to be fairly far down on the list

    is: maybe down the road a computational biologist can support a Law of Conservation of Proportion of Novel Genes Tending Towards Consciousness.

    Such a law might place bounds on the number of generations an original replicator requires to hit upon pi and curry and cell phones.

    Still a far cry from teleology.

  13. Surely all arguments which posit that evolution cannot be the whole story, (it’s just too improbable,) all disappear in a puff of logic if one accepts M-theory. Quoting Douglas Adams “Space is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.” Well the extension into infinite universes over infinities of time, never mind adding in 11 – 26 dimensions, then space is just peanuts to M-theory. I state again, forget all arguments based on improbability, anything which can happen will happen and will do so an infinite number of times over an infinite period of time. An interesting theory of Tegmark states the following “The lesson is that complexity increases when we restrict our attention to one particular element in an ensemble, thereby losing the symmetry and simplicity that were inherent in the totality of all the elements taken together. In this sense, the higher-level multiverses are simpler. Going from our universe to the Level I multiverse eliminates the need to specify initial conditions, upgrading to Level II eliminates the need to specify physical constants, and the Level IV multiverse eliminates the need to specify anything at all.” In other words, if the simplest answer is usually the correct one then the multiverse, being the simpler answer, is by far the most likely to be correct. Q.E.D. evolution. Forget all arguments based on its supposed improbability.

    Furthermore, regarding Nagel’s five points against evolution, they are, at their heart, appeals to the concept that, if they are outside our current understanding, then there must be magic. But why should it be that the sum total of all knowledge be bounded in a nutshell who’s supposed bounds are only just out of sight? After all, we know what we know but know not what we may know.

    Reference: just look up Multiverse theory in Wikipedia

    1. I think Tegmark’s suggestion was an interesting early attempt to understand the multiverse, but is flawed.

      For one, it is based on platonism. His mathematical objects need not be testable, so isn’t connected to realism.

      A recent problem is his many worlds quantum theory (MWT) multiverse. I believe MWT has problems with the latest Bell experiments, where you change the observed correlations during the experiment. I haven’t seen a MW theorist address this new physics. (Accordingly I have been forced to abandon MWT for the time being.)

      We have to wait and see how the chips fall down on multiverse physics. Inflation was just tested to over 5 sigma in WMAP’s 9 year data release, up from below 3 sigma, and the generic inflation physics is the multiverse.

  14. According to this week’s New Scientist, physics is still wrestling with the problem of the nature of gravity, and still has no explanation for the equivalence of gravity and inertia.

    If physics doesn’t really understand the nature of gravity, why should it be so shocking to claim that biology doesn’t really understand the nature of life?

    1. @sunyavadi I see what you’ve done there in your second paragraph & it’s an argument immune to criticism/analysis because it’s lacking in sufficient meaning. Just the “nature of life” part would keep me busy down the pub for the rest of my drinking days !

      If you read Jerry’s piece again you’ll note that he’s pointing out the holes in Nagel’s chain of logic that are sufficiently large to drive a truck through. There is a touch of presuppositionalism [wishful thinking] in Nagel’s reasoning & that is the point at issue NOT known & unknown knowns

    2. And I need to reinforce my point further. I need to do that because you have annoyed me, but you are not the problem specifically it’s the culture you represent that repulses me ~ the idea that uncertainty & the unscalable barriers imposed by the nature of reality should give permission for woo to leak in…

      We know through Hilbert’s program that [for example] to find a complete and consistent set of axioms for all mathematics is impossible, but that doesn’t open a woo door does it?

      I can’t identify why you think that your comment adds to the discussion [so please tell me], but let’s put that to one side & examine the extraordinary success of predictive science & then you tell me why that should be thrown out [or diminished] to accommodate your example of the problem of knowledge

      Read this LATEST of Ethan Siegel’s Starts With a Bang! posts & love the precision with which calculation from theory is confirmed by observation

      That’s the world we’re in

    3. Besides being beside the point, the spat that I would think New Scientist, the former science magazine reborn as hype machine, refers to is a return to a subject that was last visited 20 years ago. The brilliant scientist Polchinski saw a problem with the old physics. [ ]

      It is however controversial (as seen in the linked article’s preamble and its comments), and likewise brilliant physicists like Bousso has come up with potential solutions to the potential problem. (Um, I saw that on youtube I believe, some conference talk by him.)

      The reason inertia and gravity is the same was understood by general relativity – it means inertial motion is the same regardless of spacetime curvature (with and “without” gravity). That was understood ~ 1915, just about a century ago.

      1. More precisely, inertial motion is indistinguishable from free fall with or “without” gravity. Sorry about the confusion!

  15. I just watched an episode of the U.K. show “The Big Questions” which was a debate between creationists and real scientists, including Steve Jones. A young earth creationist brought up Nagel’s book, and Steve Jones was quick enough to shoot his argument down on move on to taking down the creationists crap argument about randomness.

    The creationist said something like “Evolution can only work with the chance things that it is given and to me the way the evidence is going the more we discover the more impossible it becomes to accept evolution. Thomas Nagel, an atheist philosopher agree”.

    Steve Jones response was beautiful. : “We should always listen to philosophers over scientists”.

    1. I also want to add that the host of the show did an excellent job. He didn’t pretend that there is a real scientific controversy.

    2. Utterly sterile debate as such programmes always are, but at least civilly conducted. The most interesting contributor in my view was Dr. Robert Asher of Cambridge University. He is the writer of a book entitled “Evolution and Belief – Confessions of a Religious Paleontologist”. I have not read it but from reviews and articles it is apparent that Dr. Asher accepts no part of biblical mythology from “virgin birth” to “resuscitated cadaver”. His God sounds like that of the classical 18th / 19th century theist but he considers himself Christian.
      May I ask if anyone has read the book and found it of interest.

  16. Sounds like very old stuff copied (borrowed?) from Teilhard de Chardin! I am surprised no one I have read on Nagel makes this connection.

Leave a Reply