Irresponsible journalism: The Chronicle of Higher Education goes to bat for woo-driven evolution

May 14, 2013 • 7:59 am

You can never predict what slant a science reporter will produce after interviewing you for a piece—especially a piece on evolution. The truth of evolution, and the solidity of the modern “neo-Darwinian” version, is old news, and reporters are always looking for some new “hook” to sell their stories. What better hook can there be than trumpeting “Darwin was wrong!” or “Theory of evolution in drastic need of revision”? (Note: of course we don’t know everything about evolution, and there are many surprises to come. But half-baked and erroneous criticisms of the theory are a staple of popular journalism.)

When Darwin bites religion, that’s old news; when academics bite Darwin, now that’s news! And this is exactly what The Chronicle of Higher Education just did by publishing a piece by Michael Chorost, “Where Thomas Nagel went wrong” (subtitle: “The philosopher’s critique of evolution wasn’t shocking. So why is he being raked over the coals?”). The piece asserts that Nagel’s criticisms of modern evolutionary theory were right, but that he neglected to cite all the famous scientists and academics who support him. In other words, Nagel didn’t use all the ammunition at his disposal.

The background: as I’ve noted before, Nagel, a once highly-respected philosopher of mind, published a book last year called Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False. The thesis of the book, which I’ve finally finished, is that the theory of evolution is woefully incomplete, for there’s an unrecognized teleological element pushing organisms toward the evolution of mind and complexity.

There are three big problems with the book: Nagel doesn’t specify what evidence requires us to posit some unknown teleological force in evolution, he suggests no kind of force that could do this, and he claims that any solution will not involve reductionism and materialism. To put it bluntly, he’s pushing a Woo-of-the-Gaps argument. Unfortunately, there’s no gap that needs filling.

In the past, Nagel has shown sympathies for Intelligent Design—he named, for example, Stephen Meyer’s ID book Signature in the Cell as his “book of the year” in the Times Literary Supplement—but he asserts that he’s an atheist. No, the teleological force isn’t God, but something else. No matter that no respectable evolutionary biologist has ever seen the need for a teleological force: that idea was abandoned years ago because, to paraphrase Laplace, we simply didn’t need it.

Nagel’s book has been roundly excoriated by highly respected evolutionists and philosophers, including my first student Allen Orr, philosopher Elliott Sober, and Brian Leiter and Michael Weisberg (my summary of their reviews is here, and I especially recommend Allen Orr’s critique in The New York Review of Books). Their criticisms are similar and overlapping, which proves that rational minds think alike.

One would think that a nice piece could still be written about the controversy: “World famous philosopher disses evolution, but his conclusions are rejected.”  But that’s not sexy enough for Chorost. His tactic, instead, is to say that Nagel is pretty much right—there are big deficiencies in evolution’s ability to explain mind and complexity—but that he neglected to cite all the Big Intellectuals who support him.

Chorost begins by quoting (or misquoting) several of us to show that Orthodox Darwinians don’t like Nagel’s thesis (that’s always a good way to begin a contrarian piece):

His latest book, Mind and Cosmos (Oxford University Press, 2012), has been greeted by a storm of rebuttals, ripostes, and pure snark. “The shoddy reasoning of a once-great thinker,” Steven Pinker tweeted. The Weekly Standard quoted the philosopher Daniel Dennett calling Nagel a member of a “retrograde gang” whose work “isn’t worth anything—it’s cute and it’s clever and it’s not worth a damn.”

The critics have focused much of their ire on what Nagel calls “natural teleology,” the hypothesis that the universe has an internal logic that inevitably drives matter from nonliving to living, from simple to complex, from chemistry to consciousness, from instinctual to intellectual.

This internal logic isn’t God, Nagel is careful to say. It is not to be found in religion. Still, the critics haven’t been mollified. According to orthodox Darwinism, nature has no goals, no direction, no inevitable outcomes. Jerry Coyne, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago, is among those who took umbrage. When I asked him to comment for this article, he wrote, “Nagel is a teleologist, and although not an explicit creationist, his views are pretty much anti-science and not worth highlighting. However, that’s The Chronicle’s decision: If they want an article on astrology (which is the equivalent of what Nagel is saying), well, fine and good.”

Well, I stand by what I said (I hadn’t finished the book at that time, but my verdict still holds), but Pinker’s tweet was meant to summarize the book reviews cited above, not to render his own opinion. (Too, Dennett’s quote isn’t exactly the zinger aimed at Nagel that Chorost states. If anything, Dennett assents to Alex Rosenberg’s statement that Nagel’s work is “neither cute nor clever”; check out the original here.)

Chorost also gets in a lick against Dawkins, implying that some of the criticisms of Nagel come from our dislike of religion:

Whatever the validity of [Nagel’s] stance, its timing was certainly bad. The war between New Atheists and believers has become savage, with Richard Dawkins writing sentences like, “I have described atonement, the central doctrine of Christianity, as vicious, sadomasochistic, and repellent. We should also dismiss it as barking mad. …” In that climate, saying anything nice at all about religion is a tactical error.

But Nagel didn’t say anything “nice about religion”; he said that some arguments of Intelligent Design advocates should be taken seriously. (I disagree—they were taken seriously, but then refuted by scientists.) Dawkins’s statement is simply something pulled out of the air to discredit Richard and fan the controversy.

At any rate, Chorost goes on to argue that Nagel didn’t muster all the ammo he could have against modern evolutionary theory:

The odd thing is, however, that for all of this academic high dudgeon, there actually are scientists—respected ones, Nobel Prize-winning ones—who are saying exactly what Nagel said, and have been saying it for decades. Strangely enough, Nagel doesn’t mention them. Neither have his critics. This whole imbroglio about the philosophy of science has left out the science.

. . .In short, Mind and Cosmos is not only negative but underpowered, as if Nagel had brought a knife to a shootout. (He declines to comment, telling me by e-mail, “I have a longstanding aversion to interviews.”)

But Nagel’s goal was valid: to point out that fundamental questions of origins, evolution, and intelligence remain unanswered, and to question whether current ways of thinking are up to the task. A really good book on this subject would need to be both scientific and philosophical: scientific to show what is known, philosophical to show how to go beyond what is known. (A better term might be “metascientific,” that is, talking about the science and about how to make new sciences.)

So where is the “science” that supports Nagel’s teleological stance? Here are the supporters whom Chorost mentions:

  • Michael Ruse (not a scientist but a philosopher of science). Ruse doesn’t weigh in on Nagel’s book or its science, but simply relishes a good fight, especially if evolutionists are on the receiving end. According to Chorost, Ruse says, “Nagel is a horse who broke into the zebra pen. Evolutionary biologists don’t like it when philosophers try to tell them their business: ‘When you’ve got a leader of a professional field who comes in and says, as a philosopher, ‘I want to tell you all that Darwinian evolutionary theory is full of it,’ then of course it’s a rather different kettle of fish.'”

Sadly, Ruse has a double standard here, since he doesn’t like scientists telling him that some of his philosophical stances are bizarre. Apparently it’s okay for philosophers to criticize science, but not vice versa.

  • Joan Roughgarden: an ecologist and behavioral biologist at Stanford. Chorost quotes her as saying, “”I mean, these guys are impervious to contrary evidence and alternative formulations,’ she says. ‘What we see in evolution is stasis—conceptual stasis, in my view—where people are ardently defending their formulations from the early 70s.'”

Again, there’s no substantive argument here, just the notion that an orthodoxy is being defended. Where are the problems in evolutionary theory that demand a telelological solution? Neither Roughgarden nor Chorost enlighten us.

  • Kevin Kelly (former editor of Wired magazine). Kelly is not a scientist, and in the New York Times I took apart the teleological views expressed in his most recent book, What Technology Wants.
  • Simon Conway Morris. A paleontologist at Cambridge who has touted the inevitability of humanoid evolution as evidence for God, Conway Morris is a devout Christian. I’ve criticized his “convergence” arguments on this site, and in a piece at the New Republic.
  • Stuart Kauffmann: a theoretical biologist at the Santa Fe Institute who has suggested that much of evolution really reflects the self-organizing properties of matter. I disagree with him for numerous reasons (one being that “self organization” cannot explain complex adaptations like eyes), but at any rate his views are outliers, far from the mainstream of most thinkers. That doesn’t automatially make them wrong, of course: he’s wrong for reasons other than being an outlier.
  • Robert Wright: a science writer who has argued for a teleological force pulling history forward. Chorost notes, “Robert Wright said much the same in Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny: ‘This book is a full-throated argument for destiny in the sense of direction.'”  Wright says nothing about Nagel’s book.

Chorost mentions some other people, too, but none of them have cogent criticisms of evolutionary theory. They’re just people who, for unspecified reasons, feel that some unknown teleological force must be pulling evolution in a certain direction. As one of my friends emailed me when he read Chorost’s piece:

What Chorost seems to neglect is that none of these ideas, promulgated  entirely in speculative popular-science books generally by those with an a priori commitment to faith, plays any role in the actual practice of science—one will look long and hard to find them cited in the actual literature.

He’s right: you don’t find these views in the mainstream evolutionary literature. I suppose Chorost could argue that this is because we’re all hidebound neo-Darwinians, committed to maintaining an ideologically-based orthodoxy. But he’d be wrong, for anybody who truly found evidence for teleology in evolution, rendering modern biology sorely incomplete, would become famous.

Part of Chorost’s message, and Nagel’s, is that “progressive” evolution implies teleology. Richard Dawkins is an advocate of the notion of progressive evolution (I disagree with him to some extent on this matter), but he’ll have nothing to do with promoting teleology and rejecting materialism. In an informal email he sent me when I called his attention to Chorost’s piece, Dawkins said this:

I haven’t read Nagel’s book but I read the Chorost article last night. Quite apart from the unimpressive credentials of those who he says support Nagel, what really INFURIATES me is something else entirely. Namely the suggestion that progressive evolution implies some kind of teleological attraction. Bollocks. Natural selection, if very powerful (as Conway Morris and I both think it is, but C-M preposterously manages to draw a spooky conclusion whereas I don’t), could easily produce 100% progressive evolution without invoking any spooky teleology. When I was at school we were taught to call this “orthoselection” to contrast it with “orthogenesis”. There is no inherent inertia in evolution (such as was once invoked to account for the extinction of the Irish Elk). But strong selection (especially when there is an evolutionary arms race, or Fisherian sexual selection) can produce a pretty good simulacrum of inertia.

Chorost’s piece is irresponsible journalism, for it’s meant to give academics the idea that there is a substantial and credible body of opinion that modern evolutionary theory is wrong, and that there’s suggestive evidence for some teleological force driving the evolutionary process. He dismisses critics like myself as simply disgruntled defenders of orthodoxy, and completely neglects the valid criticisms of Nagel’s book made by Orr, Sober, Leitner, and Weisberg. The Chronicle of Higher Education, of course, is widely read by academics and intellectuals.

What a pity that a science writer with an agenda, and a desire to be controversial, manages to both misrepresent and denigrate modern evolutionary theory. This isn’t sober and objective journalism, but tabloid journalism gussied up for intellectuals.

62 thoughts on “Irresponsible journalism: The Chronicle of Higher Education goes to bat for woo-driven evolution

  1. Interestingly. Kenneth Miller talked about the tendency to treat science as, say, literature in which “many points of view are valid” and this might be further evidence of that.

    People really don’t like it when there is “really just one side.” 🙂

    1. Scientists have no problem with “many points of view”, as long as they are supported by evidence.

  2. Nagel’s book has been roundly excoriated by stellar evolutionists …

    Are these people who work on biological evolution (and whose work is first rate), or people who work on the evolution of stars? 🙂

  3. A big problem with journalists is their lack of understanding science. Journalists are of not interested in the nuances of people’s thoughts are simply misunderstanding them.

    Unfortunetly many people got most, if not all, of their knowledge of science from these people. Therefore the mass public gets a skewed picture of science. (I am not saying biased, since that would imply that journalists are malevont rather than just incompetent.)

    1. “A stupid man’s report of what a clever man says can never be accurate, because he unconsciously translates what he hears into something he can understand.” — Bertrand Russell


    2. “A big problem with journalists is their lack of understanding science.”

      Their lack of understanding of *anything* technical. Try reading any report to do with aircraft, or computers, or railways, or the Internet, or any technical subject that you yourself are reasonably familiar with, and cringe at the misused technical terms and obviously mangled quotes.

      The photo-library illustrations that accompany the articles (now that mews media have decreed that ‘it must have pictures’) are even more erratic and a fascinating exercise in random word association.

      1. True and if I read one more woo ingested article about killer WiFi my head is going to explode!

  4. Some years ago, Nagel, in a paper in the journal Philosophy and Public Affairs, advocated the teaching of Creationism. He got there by as contorted a piece of pseudophilosophy as I have ever seen outside ID and YEC circles. To blow my own trumpet, I wrote about one aspect of it at ; Jerry might want to comment on the other issues that paper raises.

  5. Jerry, I just want to point out–and I absolutely don’t want to start one of our arguments about Michael!–that Ruse doesn’t think very highly of Nagel at all. He took him to task pretty thoroughly here (, and basically accuses him of supporting ID.

    I point that out more as an additional example of Chorost’s shoddy journalism, if he indeed claims Ruse as a supporter of Nagel (I haven’t had time to read the original piece) than to take issue with anything in your post. Ruse concludes the essay I’ve linked to by saying “Now those of us who love Darwin and his theory have got the philosophers to deal with, too.” So I don’t think he’s necessarily sanguine about philosophers criticizing science (at least when it’s not him doing it!).

  6. Woo of the gaps is an accurate description. In supramolecular chemistry, there is a number of (perhaps fair to say many) self-organzing and self-assembly processes for complex molecules that are not well understood. Ergo there must be a mysterious teleological force.

  7. Nagel is just like the twit you wrote about yesterday – Ben Carson – who claimed that no “morality” exists w/o a sky fairy, and in particular the sky fairy to which he genuflects.

    Thanks much for playing a role in exposing this dimwit for what he and Chorost are really saying.

  8. This is nothing more than an extended “argument from authority”…only the authorities are in the main not authorities on the subject in question.

    It’s like invoking the contestants of American Idol as experts in the field of astronomy.

    Quite nonsensical.

  9. I don’t understand the kind of slipshod thinking that can lead one to imagine a teleological force in nature driving toward intelligence. Surely if there were, it would have happened much earlier and much more often! It’s a bit like inferring that there is some force in fungi driving them to put humans into anaphylactic shock because rare recipients of penicillin have a deadly allergic reaction.

  10. Ah, the standard “every point of view is valid” approach to journalism. There really is no excuse because even if you didn’t get that sometimes only one side is right, you’d at least understand, as a journalist, that you need credible sources. Chorost’s lists of supporters of Nagel’s nonsense is embarrassing. Why doesn’t suggest asking Justin Bieber what he thinks?

  11. My reading of the review was that it wasn’t that favorable to Nagel:

    In short, Mind and Cosmos is not only negative but underpowered, as if Nagel had brought a knife to a shootout.

    Most of the article, though, doesn’t seem to lend any support to teleology, but instead nods favorably towards the notion of directionality in evolution. That idea doesn’t seem wildly out of the mainstream to me, since Dawkins and others have argued that intelligent life was inevitable.

    Overall, the article was disorganized and fuzzy; I’m not really sure what point the author wanted to make.

    1. Spot on. And in an earlier critique of evolution (see my comment above) Nagel has the gall to describe the argument from incredulity as the argument from common sense.

  12. Put succinctly, the only requirement for progressive evolution is time.

    Progressed really means nothing more than complex. A more complex organism is more progressed simply because it’s further from the starting point, which is simple matter.

    There are many ways of making a living; some simple, some complex (terms that are always relative). The more time that passes, the greater the odds that the more complex options will be explored (gradually, of course). So time entails progress.

    The mistake people make is to assume that progress must be like the tide, lifting all boats. It’s nothing of the sort. Discovering new ways of making a living does not necessarily invalidate old ways. And some old ways (like the metabolic capabilities of bacteria and archaea) are bricks in the foundations of essentially all new ways.

  13. This type thing has been going on a while. I see it this way. Because persons who do not accept evolution are primarily driven by teleological factors (or just plain, unphilosophical religious fervor) and therefore assume some ownership, or partnership, in any discussions of what has been and how it came to be. They cross the scientific boundary at their risk because they bring uncritical views that are driven externally. They aren’t looking for the truth, they are looking for ways to make the truth more palatable to their views. They will not find it, so they become frustrated, aggressive and illogical. They should not dabble in areas where the truth they seek is not forthcoming.

  14. My wife uses Nagel’s “what it is to be a bat” in one of her freshman/sophomore levels courses. Kids like it, but quickly spot the central argument against reductionism as a variant of the argument from personal incredulity. A bout of hand-waving if not bat-winging.

  15. Reading this reminded me that only a few weeks ago the local newspaper, a fairly conservative rag, (unlike Portland, this is a conservative part of the state), ran a column on the front page of the Sunday paper, defending evolution and trashing Intelligent Design, What’s Science, What’s Not. One of the few authorities cited was Prof Coyne, (oddly, I thought, referencing Speciation rather than WEIT). Occasionally, the mainstream news does get it right – you’d think something with as fancy a name as Chronicle of Higher Education could do at least as well.

  16. Jerry, as you know, I think you’ve significantly misrepresented my work in the past (see: ), though perhaps not intentionally. Now you’ve again (perhaps not intentionally) misrepresented my work by saying that I posit a “teleological force pulling history forward.” I’ve never said that a “pulling” force–or *any* “force” other than natural selection–is needed to explain the evolution of biological complexity. Indeed, back in 2001, I was one of the first journalists to write a debunking of the intelligent design crowd’s attempt to invoke some such force:
    . And I’ve never said that a “pulling” force–or *any* “force” other than a materialist cultural evolution–is required to explain the directionality in human history (i.e., a net growth in social complexity). Again, I can see how your mistakes could be unintentional: It’s an in-some-ways subtle distinction that separates what I’ve actually said (that one can imagine a wholly materialist teleology that’s consistent with Darwinism and doesn’t involve any spooky “forces” or any “pulling”) from what you say I’ve said. I’d welcome the opportunity to try to convey the distinction to you, so if you’d like to discuss/debate this whole thing on my website, let me know.
    Robert Wright
    Author of The Moral Animal, Nonzero, The Evolution of God

    1. I love these Annie Hall moments, even when they work the other way around!

      Robert: Have you made this point to Chorost? Presumably he thinks you’re one of Nagel’s teleologically inclined “spooks”!


      1. To be honest, I haven’t looked closely enough at the work of the various people Chorost mentions to know in exactly what sense their ideas are similar to or different from mine. (I’m pretty sure that a number of them would call themselves materialists, but I don’t think any of them are saying exactly what I’m saying. E.g., I gather that some of them think that some not-wholly-understood physical law drove a “pre-biotic” evolution that got things to a point where self-replicating strands of organic information existed, at which point natural selection kicked in. This is certainly possible, but it’s not an idea that I’ve ever advanced or evaluated.) And the same goes for Nagel: I haven’t read his book, so I really can’t comment with much confidence. But if it’s true that, e.g., he thinks natural selection can’t account for biological evolution, then I do differ with him there. And I probably differ with him in other places as well. In any event, this whole controversy has made me wish I had time to read his book right now.

        1. Robert Wright wrote:

          But if it’s true that, e.g., he thinks natural selection can’t account for biological evolution, then I do differ with him there.

          I think it’s safe to say that is his position, since he writes,

          “With regard to evolution, the process of natural selection cannot account for the actual history without an adequate supply of viable mutations, and I believe it remains an open question whether this could have been provided in geological time merely as a result of chemical accident, without the operation of some other factors determining and restricting the forms of genetic variation.”

          He repeats this claim at various points throughout the book but never supports it. He writes, “It is prima facie highly implausible that life as we know it is the result of a sequence of physical accidents together with the mechanism of natural selection”. The entire argument is one from incredulity.

  17. I think one of the problems going on here is that there seems not to be a lot of agreement about what counts as “teleology.”

    For some people, the idea that there are reasons for why bird wings and feathers are the way they are already counts as a teleology in nature. In fact the very concept of a “fitness landscape” is (for them) already inherently teleological, whether or not there is any “force” aside from natural selection pushing or pulling the evolutionary process to peaks in that landscape. With that working definition of teleology, a world without it would have nothing but flat fitness landscapes (and probably no organisms or “engineering problems” in the first place).

    1. I don’t agree with those people, by the way — I think they err in treating metaphors like “landscape,” “up-down,” “force,” and the like a little too literally. “Of course you need a force to push something up a hill…”

  18. If these guys think you folks are hard on ST and woo, they should read some of the stuff in technical peer reviews that I’ve sent to publishers (and received).

  19. Dear Mr. Nagel, Mr. Chorost, and friends:

    You are absolutely right; there is” a teleological element pushing organisms toward the evolution of mind and complexity.” However, it is not unrecognized; it is called “natural selection” and works by sieving variants in existing plants and animals, with the natural result that those which are best-adapted to their environments reproduce in greater numbers than those which are not as well adapted. The reason that this appears to lead inevitably to increasing complexity, and eventually to consciousness is simply that in many environments, these two characteristics, complexity and consciousness, are extremely useful in producing a greater number of offspring, which by the way might serve as a helpful shorthand for the congeries of ideas gathered together in the concept of “well adapted to the environment.” Hence, any mutation which leads in that general direction will usually be naturally selected for, leading to the spread of that trait in its species.

    It’s a fascinating concept, and which once seizes the mind obviates the need for any sort of external teleology, especially those, such as religion, for which there is no corroborating evidence. I respectfully encourage you to learn about it; you can find solid discussions of the concept in two well-known and easily accessible books written by professional biologists, Why Evolution is True by Jerry Coyne, and The Greatest Show on Earth by Richard Dawkins. I have found both books extremely enlightening.

    Best Wishes,

    Mark Joseph

    1. “There *is* a teleological element pushing organisms toward the evolution of mind and complexity… it is called ‘natural selection.'”

      Very good way of putting it.

      There are two ways of thinking of teleology — that involving a supernatural force, pushing things in the direction It means for them to go, and that involving natural processes, which through successive iterations pulls itself along. Natural selection pulls, and for all we can see, its activity suffices to explain the effects we observe.

  20. A teleological force that is not God is more mysterious than one that is.

    An end, aim or purpose implies an intelligence (or at least some kind of mental quality of purposiveness), and at least God is supposed to have that, in spades. What on earth could be the nature of this “teleological force”? What would its qualties be? Would it be uniform through space and time? Since it will tend to reverse entropy locally, does it mobilise energy itself to do that, or leave that to the more or less animate units it has – created?

    This “teleological force” seems very like the “life force” they invoked (as late as G. B. Shaw) to explain life before biochemistry.

    1. +1

      (Not just, “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours;” your last sentence is magnificently incisive).

  21. This internal logic isn’t God, Nagel is careful to say. It is not to be found in religion. Still, the critics haven’t been mollified.

    The critics aren’t mollified because the definition of what counts as “God” goes all over the place, including, yes, “’natural teleology,’ the hypothesis that the universe has an internal logic that inevitably drives matter from nonliving to living, from simple to complex, from chemistry to consciousness, from instinctual to intellectual.”

    The problem is not the term which is used — it’s the concept. Just saying that it “isn’t God” means nothing. Especially since there are no doubt people out there calling this thing ‘God’ and sneering at the atheists who make attacks on such unsophisticated versions.

    I see this tactic used a lot. People start talking about some non-material intentional teleological force permeating the universe and then suddenly say “but it’s not supernatural, it’s natural” or “this isn’t God, though” and it’s like they think all criticism will now melt away. Spiritual people apparently think atheists have a knee-jerk reaction against anything associated with organized or traditional religion and that’s it. All you have to do is reassure them you’re not one of the Bad Guys and teleology will now be fine.

    In other words, they think our main objections are mostly political, moral, or tribal — as opposed to scientific.

  22. It seems to me that Chorost wants to have it both ways:

    fundamental questions of origins, evolution, and intelligence remain unanswered,

    While seemingly separating biological evolution from, say, the evolution of the first cellular population, he wants to mash it all together. But asking of biological evolution to predict the chemical evolution that ends up in cells is like asking of mathematics to predict integers or of classical mechanics to predict the existence of rods and masses.

    Since biological evolution is already covered, I can try to cover the astrobiology.

    De Duve, euthanized May 4 (cancer; Wikipedia), was a Nobel-winning cytologist and biochemist who worked on endosymbionts.
    “”Life is almost bound to arise,””. Not really teleological, since for example chemistry is also almost bound to arise. As soon as you get a hydrogen filled universe with gravitation in it, so element forming stars, it is nearly inevitable.

    Robert Hazen, minerologist who has initiated the field of mineral evolution.
    “”With autotrophy, biochemistry is wired into the universe. The self-made cell emerges from geochemistry as inevitably as basalt or granite.””

    Lane & Martin has proposed that methano- and acetogene autotrophy are homologous to alkaline hydrothermal vents when taking pH modulation of free energy into account.

    Whether such vents are wired into Earth analogs remains to be seen. Maybe early Mars will tell us. Meanwhile we see many terrestrials that have nothing similar.

    Harold J. Morowitz, biophysicist. What Chorost attributes to Morowitz, Morowitz seems to attribute to Teilhard de Chardin.

    Stuart Kauffman. Enough said.

    Eric Chaisson, astrophysicist. Interesting case, as Chaisson is actually working in cosmological evolution than astrobiology as such. Chaisson draws the kind of ‘complexity increase over time’ cherrypicked plots that I detest, but uses a more sensible measure than most, the energy density.

    Of course, that leaves him open to criticism of the kind that biologist Daniel McShea levels even though he is as Chorost notes sympathetic to the overall idea:

    “Chaisson’s second goal is to show that the physical principle producing complexity in these disparate transitions is the same in each case. I understand this principle well enough to explain it only very roughly. Where strong energy gradients are present, conditions are sometimes right for the spontaneous emergence of structures that tend to dissipate the gradient.”
    “He proposes that we measure complexity as energy density, the rate of energy flow through a system per unit mass, or φ m . This quantity, he argues, is likely to be inversely correlated with degree of disorder and therefore positively correlated with complexity. This claim is somewhat problematic, I think (see below), but φ m does have the great virtue of being measurable in real systems.”
    “My understanding, based on Chaisson’s argument, is this: In a far-from-equilibrium system (including the universe as a whole), the dominant dissipative structures will be those that are able to capture the greatest part of the energy flow—that is, those with the highest energy density. Thus φ m should increase as new structures arise (via fluctuations or mutations) and the system discovers faster dissipative routes.”
    “More worrisome is that in actual systems, complexity (as degree of order) seems to increase with φ m only up to a point, and then it decreases, as Chaisson acknowledges. There are a number of reasons for this. For example, in some cases, as φ m rises past some optimum, the flow of energy starts to tear the system apart, to destroy order.”

    I would add that the idea suffers from the general problem that all these ideas have. At some point they level out. Eukaryotes can only feed that much protein turnover (Lane’s energy theory on eukaryotes) so a maximum energy density (Chaisson) and a maximum genome size (others).

    Oh, and did I mention that Chaisson cherrypicks as all such diagrams?

    Archaea was the first cell population that diversified (in the latest phylogenies) and they are energy specialists (Valentine’s energy theory on archaea). Meaning Chaisson’s overall complexity lowered.

    Or look at Chaisson’s table over increasing energy density of animals. He places birds @ 125 My bp and 9*10^-8 W/kg. Well, unless I am mistaken, foraging bees has a metabolic rate of ~50 mW @ 20 degC, meaning a ~ 100 mg worker has an energy density of ~ 5*10^-6 W/kg. (I hope someone checks me, since it is at least one oom larger). True, flowers evolved ~ 125 My bp too, but insects and their body plans are ~ 400 My old.

    To sum up, I don’t see that astrobiology supports Chorost any better than evolution does.

    [And I didn’t know de Duve had just died. I’ve read some of his papers, and he did great work.]

  23. When I looked up what Chorost’s example of Chaisson did in astrobiology, I discovered another example of the small-scale world of Templeton apologetics. No wonder Chorost uses him.

    Chaisson, together with Davies and Kaufmann and other usual suspects, features in Templeton’s sponsored meeting on “a general principle of increasing complexity” at ASU. It is a “Humble Approach Initiative“, oh, so “humble”, of Templeton.

    And as Daniel Shea notes, Chaisson writes “using inflated language”. Which is probably why he is so popular among apologists. Templeton himself used Chaisson as astrophysics reference. And The Secular Outpost declares an apologist using Chaisson as “taking some embarrassing cosmic effusions by Eric Chaisson too seriously”.

    To paraphrase Weinberg, large universes makes large worlds. And small people lives in small worlds. But it takes religion for large universes to make small-scale worlds.

  24. Dear Dr. Coyne:

    I read you comments on Michael Chorost’s piece in the *Chronicle *and feel some response is called for.

    First some preliminary comments regarding myself so the reasons for my writing are clear.

    1. I am a scientist (theoretical chemist) working in chemical reactivity for 40 years and the chemistry-biology interface for some 10 years, have written a number of papers on the topic as well as a book with Oxford “What is life? How chemistry becomes biology” that you discussed favorably on your blog some months ago.

    2. I am as materialist in my outlook as it is possible to be – an atheist if you like, though I want to avoid words that are inherently emotive. No conceptual axe to grind whatsoever – other than working toward scientific truth, at last as I see it.

    3. I believe that evolutionary theory as it now stands does leave serious issues unresolved. I am not alone. Let me just quote the great Carl Woese who said some years ago that biology at the beginning of the 21st century is where physics was at the beginning of the 20th century – before Einstein, Schrodinger, Bohr, etc, revolutionised the subject. If that statement is even partially correct there *are *fundamental issues in evolutionary theory that need to be clarified. Simply put, we are still lacking a theory of life – that is why we don’t understand how (a) it was at all possible for inanimate matter to become transformed into life, (b) how one would go about making life in the lab (Richard Feynman famously said “what I cannot create I do not understand”), (c) how to explain in simple chemical terms life’s extraordinary characteristics.

    4. Through a new area in chemistry, termed Systems Chemistry, the situation is changing – and, I believe, dramatically.

    Now to the issue:

    Natural Selection selects – no argument there, but for what? Fitness? You probably know better than me how confused and controversial that biological concept is. But if you place the entire evolutionary process – including abiogenesis – into a broader physicochemical framework, you discover that the principles underlying life go beyond Darwin, that Darwin represent the biological expression of deeper laws. Fitness is the biological expression of a more fundamental concept – dynamic kinetic stability. Now this is not the place to elaborate on that but let me just point out that Darwin himself, that prescient genius, in a letter to a colleague already understood over a century ago that there was some underlying principle, some theory of life, from which his biological ideas stemmed. I believe we are now, belatedly, discovering that principle. Let me in a final comment just say that once you strip away biology’s complexity, the essence of that principle come more clearly into view. That’s what systems chemistry has done.

    Bottom line: All natural process are directed. In the non-living world the directedness is governed by the Second Law, but in the biological world it is now turning out that there is a directedness as well, one might think of it as a Second Law analog. Simply there is another stability kind in nature that has been effectively overlooked.

    Finally I attach a very recent paper of mine that shows how this new way of thinking is opening new doors into biological understanding – specifically, how function was able to emerge from a world without function, and how the emergence of function led to the emergence of (bio)complexity.

    Kind regards,

    Addy Pross

  25. The fossil record, etc, do show consistently increasing complexity, more or less, but this is exactly what is expected from a directionless process that starts from a very simple beginning. If you start from extreme simplicity (the first cell/protocell), then you just have nowhere to go but to increase complexity. It’s a statistical artifact: the left wall effect.

    A pure, unweighted random walk with a lower bound that starts near that lower bound will tend to increase. Even though there’s no bias toward complexity in the individual steps, there are simply more available steps with high complexity than low.

    Teleology averted.

  26. Dear Dr. Coyne,

    As the author of the Chronicle piece, let me offer a response to your blog entry.

    In several ways, you misconstrued what I wrote. I didn’t “completely neglect the valid criticisms of Nagel’s book made by Orr, Sober, Leitner, and Weisberg.” In fact I quoted from Orr’s review, like so:

    “That has left him [Nagel] open to a number of obvious rebuttals. The biologist H. Allen Orr, at the University of Rochester, pointed out that some species become less complex—parasites, for example, after learning how to steal resources from their hosts. And many species, such as sharks, have been happy to stay just the way they are for millions of years. Only one species—us—has bothered to reach sentience. ‘The point is,’ Orr wrote in The New York Review of Books, ‘that if nature has goals, it certainly seems to have many and consciousness would appear to be fairly far down on the list.’”

    We’ll get back to goals in a minute, but one more misconstrual, if I may. You said, “The piece asserts that Nagel’s criticisms of modern evolutionary theory were right, but that he neglected to cite all the famous scientists and academics who support him.” As evidence you say, “Wright says nothing about Nagel’s book” – as if Robert Wright’s NONZERO, published in 2000, could have discussed MIND AND COSMOS, published in 2012.

    That’s the thing: I didn’t say that any of the scientists and other writers I named *supported* Nagel. I said the reverse: that Nagel could have used their ideas to support his argument.

    To be more exact, I said that Nagel should have discussed the work of scientists who think that variation and selection alone are not sufficient to explain the increase in life’s functionality and complexity. They are investigating the idea that there may be fundamental physical laws that favor complexity in biological systems.

    Kevin Kelly did an excellent job of discussing this idea of “laws of life” in his book WHAT TECHNOLOGY WANTS. You disputed his argument in your NYT review of the book, of course, and let me quote how you disputed it. You wrote,

    “True, evolution shows some trends — species are on average more complex now than at the beginning of life — but does that mean that there is a consistent evolutionary impulse toward complexity, with natural selection always favoring the more complex over the less? Not at all. After all, that increase in complexity is a default trend: because the first organism was simple, any change must have resulted in greater complexity.”

    Everyone agrees that there is a “default trend” – that is, passive increases in complexity. But other biologists have questioned whether there is *only* a default trend. In a review for Nature, Sean B. Carroll wrote, “Thus, whereas global trends may be passive, there may be active, directional trends nested within the overall arc of evolutionary history.”

    By “active, directional” Carroll was not by any means suggesting intentional or supernatural forces (and to be clear, I’m not, either.) One such active element, he suggested, could be the modularity of life’s developmental toolkit, the Hox genes. Once you have modules for forming (say) chitinous segments or mammalian vertebrae, those modules can be doubled and reshuffled very easily via mutation, and you get a burst of rapid diversification. One outcome of that diversification is the kind of increased complexity that leads to superior functionality. There’s no intentionality here. But you now have a biological system that has the tools, and the environmental impetus, to improve itself very rapidly. Nobody built the arrow, but you get one anyway. (References: Carroll’s article “Chance and necessity: the evolution of morphological complexity and diversity,” Nature 409 (22 Feb 2001), p. 1105, and his marvelous book “Endless Forms Most Beautiful,” in which he explains Hox genes at length.)

    The question is, are apparent “arrows” like these — Hox genes, etc. — purely derivable from variation and selection, or is there some deeper law at work here, one that is discoverable and can be put into equations? One that will get itself cranked up and going wherever conditions are propitious? This is where we get into Kauffman’s autocatalytic processes, Brandon and McShea’s zero-force evolutionary law, Pross’s dynamic kinetic stability, and so on. It does not seem to me in the slightest antiscientific to investigate such things. Perhaps evolution is a complexly nested set of processes, some of which are passive, some of which are active.

    Having said this, let me be clear about my own background in this debate. I’m not a biologist, much less an evolutionary biologist. I’m not qualified to judge whether these proposals about evolution are right, and I didn’t say that they were. I wrote, “While the jury is most definitely out on whether these proposed laws and measures are right or wrong (and if right, whether they are profound or trivial), this is a body of work that Nagel could have drawn upon in making his argument.”

    In fact, I agree with you that Nagel’s book is ultimately a “woo of the gaps” argument, since he claims that Darwinism is insufficient but offers no specific proposal for patching up the gaps he thinks it has.

    But I do know, as a science writer, that there are a lot of people looking to do just that. That was my main point in the essay: there is an intellectually respectable literature that Nagel could have drawn upon. The origin-of-life literature, the laws-of-life literature. As your student H. Allen Orr said in his review of Nagel’s book, it is not unscientific to ask if evolution has a direction, and to probe what that direction’s underlying mechanics might be. In the end, one has to find evidence, of course. And that’s what they’re are trying to do. It’s speculation at the moment, but speculation is an important part of science.

    One final word. You seem to think that anyone who is interested in this issue must have a secret agenda of being religious, looking for God, being anti-scientific, etc. Well, let me tell you what my agenda is. I have been working on a book on the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. SETI naturally raises the question, is the emergence of life accidental? And once it emerges, is the ascent to intelligence a matter of sheer chance? We haven’t found ET yet, but in the meantime it’s fair to ask whether we can deduce, from basic principles, that it is likely to exist. I know the universe is not obligated to supply the answer that I personally would like, but I think it’s reasonable to look for it.

    That’s where I’m coming from, Dr. Coyne. You might want to think about this: not everyone who asks if life is inevitable, or has an arrow of progress built into it, is an enemy of science and reason.


    Michael Chorost

    1. “That was my main point in the essay”

      With good will, let me say that you simply didn’t do the best job you might have in foregrounding this point. I can imagine an edited version of your essay whose different form could have circumvented much of the ensuing clamor.

  27. Don’t you love Amazon’s “Look Inside”? Without even buying the book, I notice that the author doesn’t mention the word *causality* once (clearly a topic of great historic interest in philosophy) — while using “teleology” 10 times (much more likely to come up in “theology”). Could it be that the author has mistakenly presumed that issues in his own field are “settled,” while attracting attention (i.e. the currency of the realm) by accusing others of limiting their intellectual range?

    Mark Stahlman
    Brooklyn NY

  28. When mentioning the list of scientists who think evolution is teleological, why didn’t the CHE mention Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, Alpheus Hyatt, and certain 19th and 20th century proponents of Naturphilosophie? That evolution was teleological was always the default assumption until Darwin (and afterwards in many non-Darwinian views of evolution like orthogenesis), and it is Darwin’s view that has displaced them as much as the statistical, directionless view of Ludwig Boltzmann of atoms randomly colliding displaced classical thermodynamics.

    Whenever I read teleological speculations on anything from quantum mechanics to evolution, I think of Shakespeare’s line from A Midsummer Night’s Dream about how “as imagination bodies forth / The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen / Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing / A local habitation and a name.” The woo-meister also attempts to give airy nothing a local habitation in scientific fields where they are unneeded and unwanted.

    1. If we’re getting into general teleology, has anyone mentioned Herbert Spencer yet? There’s a sympathetic discussion of his concept of general evolution (sympathetic in the sense of explaining how he could reasonably think as he did in the context of his time) in Peter Medawar’s “Pluto’s Republic.”

      Medawar, of course, had no time for woo – hence the title of the lecture that I was privileged to hear almost 50 years ago, that gives the volume its name.

  29. I am a little confused as to why Kaufmann doesn’t count as being a part of the science or why his fringey-ness counts against him so swiftly.

    First, I realize you have objections to his views, but the objection you gestured to seems sufficiently sophisticated enough to say that he’s not crack pot. You actually need to do some work to show why his view is wrong.

    Secondly, maybe I’m wrong about the type of work being done by all the cross-pollination at the Sante Fe Institute, but my understanding is that the fringe folks are an integral part of the exploration of important issues, such as complexity which is a burgeoning interdisciplinary field fomenting. It’s pretty darn science-y.

    I guess my complaint is that you should let Chorost have Kaufmann and move on.

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