Of Chimps, Computers, and Chemical Bags

The “nothing but” approach to describing humans

About three years ago, I predicted that the intelligent design controversy would explode in a few years, with every instapundit punding away furiously about it—some thoughtful, some foolish, some merely malign. The latter mood was expressed beautifully by a board member of Kansas Citizens for [promoting materialism in] Science, who summarized her public relations strategy against intelligent design advocates in February 2005 as follows: She advised her troops to portray them “in the harshest light possible, as political opportunists, evangelical activists, ignoramuses, breakers of rules, unprincipled bullies, etc.”

Why does intelligent design generate such hysterical hatred? Having studied, researched, and blogged on it almost full-time for the last three years, I think the answer is that it challenges the point of view that philosopher of science Karl Popper has called “promissory materialism”—currently the strongest trend in science. According to promissory materialism, any problem, including human nature, that currently eludes a materialist interpretation will eventually be solved by future findings—as long as we stay faithful to the purely materialist perspective. Materialism is the best tool we’ve got, we are told. It has given us the car, the computer, the atom bomb, the cure for AIDS—no, wait; that last one is still in the pipeline, but please be patient, folks.

If intelligent design is correct, however, then some aspects of nature—the human mind, for example—might not be purely material entities in a closed universe. Investigating them properly would include addressing that fact and its outcomes.

In popular culture, promissory materialism is the staple of almost all science writing. It powers the “nothing but” approach to humans. Humans are nothing but robots, or meat puppets, or a bunch of chemicals running around in a bag. These descriptions, coined by academics, incidentally, not rappers, have in common only the materialism that underlies them. The trend reached its latest peak in the fall of 2005 with the London Zoo’s display of “Homo sapiens,” a group of eight nearly buff humans cavorting in a cage for the express purpose of assuring the public that “the human is just another primate.”

If so, then why were the eight just-another primates wearing swimsuits under their artful fig leaves? Why were they permitted to go “home” at closing time? One somehow suspects that for the just-another primates, home—however shabby a squat—is not a pile of bracken somewhere. Thus, innocently enough, the London Zoo curators expose a fatal flaw in their own thinking.

The nothing-but approach is doomed, not because it violates religion or morality but because it is not producing the goods. Consider three of pop culture’s science darlings: evolutionary psychology, primate studies, and artificial intelligence.

Evolutionary psychology would be better titled “Furry tales for baby hominids” on account of its practitioners’ talent at coming up with just-so stories that explain current culture according to fictions about early man, loosely based on scant evidence. Spouses who cheat, parents who kill, and kids who won’t eat greens, to name just a few, can all receive absolution through evolutionary psychology. It’s way more fun than the Catholic Church, too, because no stern moral lectures are offered and no penance imposed. Evolutionary psychology has proven unable to explain the specifically human trait of altruism in situations where there is no reciprocal benefit— like the young Canadian who recently gave a kidney to save a dying stranger. As Ernst Fehr and Suzanne-Viola Renninger admitted recently in Scientific American Mind, “Our species is apparently the only one with a genetic makeup that promotes selflessness and true altruistic behavior.”

Primate studies is based on a simple principle: Humans share 99 percent of our genes with the chimpanzee, and therefore the 100 percent chimpanzee can help us understand ourselves. Hmmm. As British rabbi Harvey Belovski has pointed out, we share perhaps 30 percent of our genes with a banana. So can the banana help us 30 percent toward understanding ourselves? Maybe the chimp and the banana would make a better pair than the chimp and the human. The chimp would certainly think so. Seriously, what have primate studies really shown us? As anthropologist Jonathan Marks says, despite the public interest in efforts to teach apes to communicate with humans, “Unfortunately, they have nothing to say.” If this is truly so, the trail ends here.

Then there is artificial intelligence (AI). Remember: this is supposed to be the “age of spiritual machines,” when computers are becoming indistinguishable from humans. In reality, though, the human mind works quite differently from a computer, and simply increasing computing power does not produce characteristic human qualities. AI enthusiast Kenneth Silber complains, “This is a disappointing state of affairs.” It sure is, if you are HAL or Deeper Blue.

Notice the pattern? Ominously, all three media-darling disciplines fail at precisely that point at which, if materialism were true, they should succeed: Evolutionary psychology can’t explain uniquely human qualities. The 100 percent chimpanzee has nothing to say to the 99 percent chimpanzee. And the human brain is not enough like a computer that AI studies are even particularly relevant, great as their future achievements may be.

I think this is a great time for open-minded individuals to go into science. Clearly, promissory materialism is failing, and there is a need for new directions. A real seeker of truth, of course, will need courage and strategy to fend off the materialist mob whose god has failed them. Oh, and a sense of humor helps, too. Keep in mind: you will be dealing with people who think that you (and they) are either a chimp or a computer or a bunch of chemicals running around in a bag. Whatever. •

From Salvo 1 (Autumn 2006)

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is a Canadian journalist, author, and blogger. She blogs at Blazing Cat Fur, Evolution News & Views, MercatorNet, Salvo, and Uncommon Descent.

This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #1, Fall 2006 Copyright © 2024 Salvo | www.salvomag.com https://salvomag.com/article/salvo1/the-nothing-but-approach-to-describing-humans


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