Evolutionary Theory and Reality: A Response to Seagrave

Darwin’s evolutionary theory doesn’t ask us to “overlook” how we usually “behold the face of nature,” but instead asks us to consider more carefully what we do see.

I have come across many critiques of evolutionary theory over the years, but none stranger than the one made by Adam Seagrave at Public Discourse.

He does not base his argument on the fossil record, on the supposed “irreducible complexity” of cells, on information theory, or indeed on any kind of critical analysis, whether mathematical, scientific, or philosophical. While all those disciplines are valid ways of knowing, he says, we have at our disposal “another type of lens,” namely “our own two eyes.” And those eyes allow us to see quite directly, prior to any “scientific inquiry, philosophical refinement, [or] even religious belief,” that there is something radically wrong with evolutionary theory.

Darwin, says Seagrave, proposed a view of the world that is “actually nothing like our experience of it.” For evolution is contrary to “the way the world looks to our ordinary senses” and “contradicts the reports given to us” by those senses.

I guess I must be missing some of those reports. And I am not really sure what he means by “our experience” in regard to evolution. I can only speak for myself, but the fact is I have never personally experienced the Cenozoic Era or the Jurassic Period. And though I suppose I am dating myself by saying this, I cannot even claim to have experienced the Neolithic.

Seagrave is operating with rather simplistic ideas about how we know things. He starts his essay with a discussion of how one might come to know the quality of a professional athlete. He draws a contrast between “scientific” evaluations based on “the armchair judgments of statisticians” and the old-fashioned but often more reliable “eye test” of seeing the athlete in action. The former tells you what things look like “on paper,” but the latter what they are like “in real life.” Darwin himself, Seagrave tells us, “clearly struggled with the objection that his theory looked much better ‘on paper’ than it did in real life.”

Darwin was no armchair theorist or paper-pusher. His theory grew out of years of field work and careful observation. He used his “own two eyes” quite extensively to study the world of living things.

The central problem with Seagrave’s discussion, however, is his theory of knowledge, which attributes too much to our “ordinary senses.” Rational knowledge (as opposed to the kind possessed by lower animals, which we too make use of) is never a matter of mere sensation, of simply “taking a look.” Whether in everyday life or in the most esoteric branches of science, the process of coming to know always involves a subtle and dynamic interplay between observation and theoretical interpretation.

Consider Seagrave’s sports example. If a scout from the New York Yankees and I were both to watch the same pitcher in action, we would not see the same things. The details that would be deeply significant to the scout would mean nothing at all to me and would pass me by unnoticed. Each of us would be using his “own two eyes,” indeed, but the scout differently, for his perception is informed by a deep theoretical knowledge of baseball and the craft of pitching that I lack.

“Seeing” and interpretation are interwoven. A baby and an adult may both gaze upon the same scene, but only the adult can be said to see “a bird sitting in a tree,” because while the baby sees something that happens to be a bird, he does not see it as a bird, while the adult does. Similarly, what the layman sees as mere lines of bubbles in a liquid, the particle physicist sees as tracks of electrons or muons. What the layman sees as just a skull of some sort, the paleontologist sees as an australopithecus skull.

The idea that the plain untutored man living in the “real world” and using just his eyes and mother wit will typically see more than the technical expert is a pleasant one, and doubtless consoling to ignoramuses everywhere. But it is false. Generally speaking, the greater one’s theoretical knowledge and understanding the more one sees.

So, in what way is Seagrave able to “see,” simply by looking, that Darwin’s theory is wrong? He gives a few examples. The first comes in a discussion of a comment by Darwin that when we “behold the face of nature bright with gladness … we do not see or we forget” such unpleasant realities as predation, starvation, and the struggle for survival. To Seagrave, this means that Darwin was asking us “to look past—or overlook—how we normally ‘behold the face of nature.’”

But Darwin was asking no such thing. He was not asking that we “overlook” anything, but that we look more closely. And, after all, isn’t the “eye test” of the pitching scout also a matter of looking closely and seeing more than the casual and uninformed observer?

Seagrave’s second example is Darwin’s famous discussion of the intricate structure of the eye. Darwin admitted that it is hard to imagine how such a remarkable organ could have arisen by natural selection, but insisted that “reason must conquer the imagination.”

Seagrave misinterprets this as a claim that mere speculative theory can trump the evidence of our senses. But what Darwin was actually saying—and quite rightly—is that our rational knowledge is capable of going beyond rather than contradicting what we can sense and imagine. Sensation reigns supreme within its own domain, but its domain is not the whole of what is knowable. But Seagrave apparently thinks it is. He appears to attribute to the bare sense of sight the capacity to judge the most abstract propositions—for example, whether natural selection is capable of crafting organs as intricate as a human eye. Now, the human eye is certainly a remarkable organ, but it is an organ of sense, not of judgment. Judging truth and falsehood is the prerogative of reason, not of any bodily organ.

Seagrave’s third example (and most astonishing claim) is that everyday experience and direct observation somehow testify against evolutionary theory:

As far as we know from direct observation and recorded history, trees seem to have always been trees, starfish to have always been starfish, squirrels to have always been squirrels, and human beings to have always been human beings.

Yes, indeed, a squirrel is a squirrel; that is a mere tautology and requires no support from observation. But I think Seagrave is saying something more substantive, namely that the fact we do not see species evolving before our eyes is grounds for doubting that they have evolved. And that is clearly nonsense. We also do not see mountain ranges being thrust up, or the continents drifting, or the great galaxies turning like pinwheels before our eyes. The time scales are far too long. But we know that these things happen. We know it not by “direct observation” but by a combination of observation and inference, as indeed we know most things.

Finally, one cannot let pass Seagrave’s statement that “the longstanding evolution debate has traditionally pitted proponents of science against proponents of religious belief.” Virtually all doubters of evolution sincerely regard themselves as proponents of science (even if they show themselves deficient in their understanding of it), and a very great number of those who think the evidence for evolution is overwhelming (including myself) are proponents of religion.

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