On Intelligent Design

J.M. Coetzee

J.M. Coetzee

I have been reading Diary of a Bad Year by J.M. Coetzee.  It includes a short homily entitled On Intelligent Design, which contains this surprising, in view of its authorship, statement:

I continue to find evolution by random mutation and natural selection not just unconvincing but preposterous as an account of how complex organisms come into being.

Apart from his personal incredulity, Mr Coetzee offers no argument or evidence against mutation or natural selection.  He does not deny that evolution takes place, just that it does not make the grade as an “account of how complex organisms come into being”.  This is fortunate because the evidence for evolution actually occurring is overwhelming: to deny it is akin to denying gravity or believing that the Earth is flat.  He does, however, go on to state that he disbelieves in a personal god who answers prayers and punishes evildoers, but he does believe in some creative intelligence:

It does not seem to me to be philosophically retrograde to attribute intelligence to the universe as a whole, rather than just to a subset of mammals on the planet Earth.

Whether or not such a view is philosophically retrograde is a question for philosophers.  As an ordinary person, I  regard the statement as nonsensical.  Why would anyone ascribe intelligence to the universe as a whole rather than, say, a grain of sand, or a pine tree, or a 1967 Valiant Safari?  All are collections of matter and energy that obey well-established physical laws and show no signs of intelligence at all.

Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin

So far, so bad.  Mr Coetzee then challenges those who believe evolution is responsible for the biodiversity that we see to answer this question:

Why is it that the intellectual apparatus that has evolved for human beings seems to be incapable of comprehending in any degree of detail its own complexity?  Why do we human beings typically experience awe—a recoil of the mind, as if before an abyss—when we try to comprehend, grasp, certain things, such as the origin of space and time, the being of nothingness, the nature of understanding itself?  I cannot see what evolutionary advantage this gives us—the combination of insufficiency of intellectual grasp together with conciousness that the grasp is insufficient.

OK, I’ll give it a try, and if it comes out the way I think it might, the answer to the question may very well go some way towards explaining Mr Coetzee’s incredulity.

Firstly, the question itself is a non-sequitur; evolution does not depend in any way on the capacity of the human brain to understand itself.

Secondly, not every attribute of humans confers an evolutionary advantage.  Take as an example the mess that is the human upper respiratory tract, which is still optimised for an animal that moves on all fours.  Bipedalism has conferred more of an advantage than the disadvantage of a flawed, dangerous respiratory system.  The flaws in human design are some of the strongest arguments against intelligent design.

The entire question betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of what evolution actually is.  To ask “why” evolution produces this or that feature in a species is to assume that it is goal-oriented, that it is working toward some purpose.  It isn’t.  Over time, the changes that “work”, or cause the organism to have a higher chance of surviving and reproducing are passed on, those that impair the organism are not.  There is no goal or even direction to evolution.  The egotistical notion that humans are the topmost twig of the evolutionary tree is simply wrong; it is quite conceivable that we might die out and have our place taken by some currently ill-regarded species which better adapts to conditions than we do.

Humans evolved to survive on the Earth.  That they were successful in that endeavour is evidenced by the fact that we human beings are here to discuss it.  In order to survive we had to have a firm intuitive grasp of our environment on the scale of our prey and potential predators. There was not, and still isn’t, any evolutionary advantage to be had by an understanding of quantum mechanics or relativity, because the effects of those phenomena are only evident at scales very different to those required for human survival on Earth.  Our individual lifespans are measured in decades; we have no intuitive understanding of the billion year time spans over which evolution takes place.  The very small, the very large and the very long ago are beyond the capacity of our brains to grasp, because there is no evolutionary reason for us to grasp those concepts.

It is because these things are intrinsically so alien to our everyday lives that we experience the “recoil of the mind”.  We cannot imagine the distances to the galaxies (or even the stars in our own galaxy), the size of a subatomic particle or the age of the Earth; these things do not fit into our imaginations; they must be expressed in a way that allows us to perform calculations and make predictions, but we can only understand them in a dry, intellectual way not intuitively as we understand the parabola of a thrown rock or the acceleration of a falling coconut.

Perhaps this is why Mr Coetzee and others instinctively find the notion of evolution preposterous.  Because they cannot intuitively grasp the time scale involved, they imagine that all this happened in a time scale they can imagine, which would be preposterous.

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Grumpy Old Man by Mark Widdicombe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 License.

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6 Responses to On Intelligent Design

  1. Gary Nagel says:

    I began Coetzee’s book, but put it down (permanently) when I read his “preposterous” discussion of natural selection. It is baffling to me how a seemingly accomplished writer can dismiss out of hand a concept that is so well documented and accepted scientifically. Thanks for the illuminating response.

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