Are humans just animals?

Yesterday I heard on the radio a discussion by neuroscientist turned philosopher Raymond Tallis, who was arguing that humans are not just animals, and that consciousness is not just what happens in the brain. He went on at length about “Darwinitis”, a disease of intellectuals who wish to explain everything in terms of Darwinism. It was a masterpiece of rhetoric, and I gather his books make similar claims. It struck me as quite wrong headed. I’d like to explain why. But first, go listen to the discussion on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s website.

Why do I think Tallis is merely making a rhetorical argument here? Let’s first begin with what we agree upon. Tallis says that consciousness is not merely what happens in the brain, but also the body. This has to be right. We are an integrated biological system, and the brain is effectively a component of that system, not the executive power or the final endpoint of sensory data. It is, in effect, prima inter pares, first among equals. As Tallis says, you have to have a normally functioning brain to be conscious, but that is merely a necessary, and not sufficient, condition for consciousness. Second, he says that human consciousness is relational, that we gain consciousness from our interactions with others in social and cultural ways. This was an argument first put so far as I know by the English idealist philosopher F. H. Bradley in his essay “My station and its duties” in his 1876 book Ethical Studies.

Recently, philosopher Kim Sterelny has made a similar argument, from, as it happens, a very Darwinian perspective. In his award winning book Thought in a Hostile World: The Evolution of Human Cognition, in 2003, Sterelny argues that cognition requires scaffolding from others. He offers a cultural, Darwinian, evolutionary account of how our cultural cognition evolves.

Third, Tallis rightly says that we cannot presume that neuroscience is in any way close to identifying the underlying causes of social behaviours like voting for a political party or being a criminal. Functional MRI (fMRI) has shown us where the brain is active when it does certain tasks, but this is a mile away from being able to say that this or that part of the brain causes the behaviours. Voting conservative is not a natural fact about the world, nor is being a criminal as both are normative social kinds, not natural kinds.

So, given that I agree with this and am a Darwinian, what is the problem? Tallis says that humans are special and not just animals. A lot of weight is put in that four letter Anglo-Saxon word “just”. What can he mean? Are humans special and thus apart from animals? The evolutionary view of human capacities is that they have precursors in ancestral traits, and these precursors can be found in other animals. Dogs, corvids, cetaceans, primates, and a host of other animals display moral, cognitive and conscious behaviour. Humans are special indeed in their capacities. But, and this is what what Tallis overlooks, so are all other animals. The word “special” is merely the adjectival form of “species”. To be a species is to be special. Sure, humans are special in their own way. So is a cat, a mole or a mouse. If the target of your explanation was a mouse, then you would explain it having its abilities and social behaviours in terms of evolved dispositions inherited from ancestors. You may as well say a mouse is special in ways other animals (including humans) are not. Otherwise we couldn’t even tell it was a member of a species, by definition. Unless there are properties that mark it out from other species, it would be folded into other species.

So too with humans. If we were not different in our traits from other primate species like chimps, then we would be chimps. But we have our own special traits, and so we and chimps are distinct species. So the argument is a kind of fallacy (affirming the consequent). Humans can be special and yet be animals, just like every other animal species.

But, Tallis argues, we have our special traits, especially our own moral and social traits. Yes we do. This doesn’t mean that a Darwinian account is somehow illicit. The research program of finding out the biological aspects of what had previously been explained as sui generis properties of humans based either on divine creation or the Enlightenment view of humans as self-standing rational agents is not only effective and progressive, but also fully in line with a Darwinian account. What Tallis is reacting to is not Darwinism, but the Mind-Brain Identity theory of analytic philosophy, and even in philosophy of mind that view is no longer held to be the whole story.

A passing comment about fMRI. In this, researchers study the activity of awake individuals as they do cognitive or emotive tasks in an MRI scanner. This process looks as molecular activity in the brain during those tasks. In effect it “sees” the molecular activity as a raised “temperature”. But fMRI is like trying to reverse engineer the functional behaviour of the internet by measuring the temperature of the network exchanges: at best it tells you which parts of the brain are being used the most. It doesn’t tell you where or how in the brain things are being used, only where the most neural traffic is. Since signals in the brain pass through some regions from one neural network to another, they will light up, but it doesn’t follow that the active region is where the crucial processing is being done, any more than the network exchanges are where you are writing your emails.

So the question “Are humans just animals?” is deeply misleading. Of course we are animals. We are “just” animals, but we do our stuff by being cultural, embodied conscious organisms of a particular kind. The problem is not “Darwinitis” but a fear of Darwinian explanations by those who wish to, as Dennett once said, erect a white picket fence around the human species.

124 thoughts on “Are humans just animals?

  1. My kids when they argue sometimes use a magical word formula that they claim absolves them from any responsibility when engaged in an exaggerated or misleading argument to score points against friends, siblings, parents etc.

    “but I was just saying.” Tallis’s argument looks like this type of saying of the just.


  2. Is there something to be said for Humans being “more special than other species (specialized creatures)”? I make this argument rather coyly, but play along..
    Given that we are here, now, debating the subject of how special we are – we are alone as a species in this debate (presumably because we alone have special skills to do so).
    We aren’t face to face in this discussion because humans built the internet, electrical grids for power, computers and tablets etc. which are popular inventions developed by – yeah – humans.
    Depending on your own definitions of the words below, you may agree that there are no other species capable of these profound human feats:
    1) Civilizations
    2) Substantial progress in advancing technologies of prior generations (a monkey may use a rock, the next one might try a different rock or maybe a stick, but little progress is made technologically speaking).
    3) Science – Science is not a collaboration among species but a study unique to humans. Also it is responsible for everything we know about the world including the concepts of ‘species’ ‘darwinism’ ‘genetics’ and everything which this debate is hinged on.
    Couldn’t we go on and on here? I mean, sure, humans aren’t special in the way that a bat is special. We are special differently and we won’t be navigating via biologically endowed sonar (we make our sonar with technology). So a bat IS specialized when it comes to sonar navigation.. and the evolutionary roots that created bats have also created humans. So, while we acknowledge each species is special in that they are specialized (often in amazing ways) humans are arguably special among the specialists when we consider our incredible accomplishments as a species.


    1. I’ve noticed that people who have special talents tend to view those talents as important enough to serve as a basis for judging others: the athletically gifted judge people on their athletic gifts, the musically giftend on the musical gifts, and so on. I think judging humans as “special” in a good sense because we can talk about it is just another way of thinking that what we do well is what’s important. But for a whale, holding the breath for a long time is important, so that may be how whales judge lifeforms.

      I prefer to think of differences, and certainly species have marvelous differences (and amazing adaptations). But I can’t think of another species that has created/stumbled into/developed a kind of semi-living entity (in much the way that a virus is a semi-living entity) that grows, evolves, and adapts through interactions with another lifeform. Memes are not only unique to us, they are us, in terms of much of our individual identity: we create memes, and we’re also created by memes.


    2. The question asked is whether civilizations, progress in advancing technologies and science are not proof of humans being especially different. The answer is simple – humans have essentially been human for hundreds of throusands of years – long before we could even nominally satisfy those three points above other “just” animals…


      1. I would say that humanhood occurred when those primates first began using memes which, by being reproduced with variation under the constraint of limited human attention, began quickly to evolve. I would guess that the first memes were probably tools—sharp rocks, basically. These begin the “time-binding” the Korzybski saw as a uniquely human characteristic: the ability to accumulate knowledge. But I would say that humanity really took off with the emergence/creation of language, with another leap occurring with written language. Humanity itself emerged as a combination of an animal and a large collection of memes that were used to construct individual identity as well as communities.


  3. You have a point John S. Wilkins, but isn’t man kind of different from other creatures on this earth in another way than just capabilities? I think it is quite obvious that humans surely have a higher existance than any other. To claim something else don’t make any sens based on what we know about the animals of this planet.

    It is also true that some animals might apear to have morality and a soul/conciusness, but this very rare. And we might not be right in our assumptions. And even so do animals know why it is good to be moral? Like man?,And humans do have a much higher level of conciusness than animals. If any animal have this.

    I also find it quite unreasonable to write that man are not special because some animals are specialised on something. You should understand what is meant. Simply that man exist in another way than animals.


  4. If quantum physics is correct the earth and all that is upon it would be reduced to the size of a sugar cube, if all space is removed. There is something else going on here, such as that we are the results of the universes imagination and not special at all, even if we think we are.


  5. Sorry, I didn’t quite hear. Are we saying the human condition is “special” or “specious”?


  6. We may be special on Earth BUT in the overall scheme of things in the galaxy, universe, multiverse we are totally insignificant!


    1. How can you really KNOW that we are “totally insignificant”? (Especially in the unverified “Multiverse”!)

      And if you DID know that, why would you bother writing in to say it, and trying to persuade other “totally insignificant” brains?? (After all, who do you think you are??)

      I suggest your actions have betrayed your real deep-down belief. With which I agree.

      As Pascal argued (along with various commentators in this thread), man is significant in both his greatness and his wretchedness.


      1. “…, man is significant in both his greatness and his wretchedness” and his/her insignificance.


  7. Humans are certainly special in that they are the only species to confine other animals in living hells called factory farms, where they are crowded together for months standing in their own waste, choking on ammonia fumes from that waste, and later subject to dismemberment and flaying while awake and screaming. Among the many other horrible things we do to animals. It takes a special mental gift to do such things while turning one’s eyes away from them and then claiming moral superiority to other animals. Humans do have that gift and are obviously an exemplary species.


    1. Not just farm animals: humans enslave and mistreat other humans, as well. Nor do we treat plants particularly well (I’m thinking of monoculture agriculture and breeding the nutrition out for foods). I think the problem is a determined effort to ignore natural limits: sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.


    2. Animals also farm other animals – ants farm aphids, wasps farm worms (in a very cruel way!)…


  8. I will just point out some glaringly obvious stupidity/complete contradictions in John S Wilkins little essay and that is humans are able to tell what special features other animals, organisms have and have complete control over their very existence whereas all of the other animals as special as they are cannot do this.
    Further humans are able to study in microscopic detail the particular things we and or other animals are able to do. More than this whatever takes place in other animals humans are able to replicate and perform that or those functions by any means necessary.
    There is a colossal difference and one worth noting and paying attention to.
    I assume then that Darwinitis causes a mental block to rational thinking.
    Or are we all just assisting in getting the reaction you hoped for. In reality while you may play Devils advocate I know you are not a lesser evolutionary being incapable of clear thought.
    Just a couple of things I thought were noteworthy, have a great day…


    1. “complete control over their very existence” is quite laughable!

      Did the people in Russia have any degree of control over the recent meteor that exploded over their heads? Do people have any control over earthquakes, tsunamis or volcanoes? Did the people in Japan have any control over the two nuclear weapons dropped on them?

      I do believe we have control over very little of what happens on this planet, the solar system, the galaxy or in the overall universe.

      But keep feeling superior (until the end)…


      1. Great idea bwana. I will feel superior to animals and I also know that I am not an animal…(Voice of the Elephant man)…Perhaps YOU are different. Firstly complete control is related to animals in the comment above, NOT to complete control of our existence because as you have noted it is impossible to control random events of nature, certainly at this stage. I point out that Nasa is following a lot of meteors and is prepared at some stage to attempt to destroy or divert meteors, one example.
        However in the great scheme of things the huge ever expanding universe we are infinitesimally small and of no apparent consequence. Despite this apparent no consequence we are the only life in the known universe on a planet specifically enabled for people and animals to live on. We are just the right distance from the sun and everything is timed seemingly perfectly to allow our existence.
        Perhaps we are not so inconsequential after all, perhaps…


        1. I think you are arguing from a lack of evidence; where life is in the universe – it arose from and is adapted to its environment; and would share your opinion of their situation. That we don’t have the technology to observe other life, yet, is unfortunate, but correctable, but we may never be able to communicate with them to discuss the question.


        2. ‘naught more use in their lives but as machines for turning food into excrement’ – perhaps, Da Vinci …


  9. I ?onsider that necessary to differentiate the degree of organization animal.Certainly,comparing human to reptilian we can desery more differences then if we will compare human to mamals.I believe that Humanity never go to single decision about itself genesis and findation possibility of existence of close to him species.To my opinion it is impossiblt to say exactly that human come from someone.Likely he is one of a lot of lifeforms on the our Planet.Because there are a lot of similarites, but and differences among humans and animals.But i sure that the animals have consciousess.may be it different from humans but it is!


  10. Until we can see the picture out of focus and the smallest and largest become one .I know I could use words like universe or infinitesimal but the motion of life from the microscope to the telescope is what we are and life is the motion of energy . Just being part of it is amazing from a germ to an animal or human to a galaxy .


  11. I always think it relevant to note that brain peptide hormones have evolutionary antecedents in gut peptide hormones. The brain is little more than an extension of the gut to help keep it in business (provide access to chocolate). Certainly our consciousness is more than just the brain, even more than the gut. It’s also the gonads so back to Darwin.


  12. Animals are intelligent, monkeys have proved this over and over again while in captivity through the tests that have been presented to them, they have calculated and processed what has been presented to them and with their own actions found solutions that prove successful. Humans take this to another level they have the ability to change the next step to a higher or it’s possible to a lower level. They have the ability to lead intelligently for the good of the whole community by being able to make a blueprint of a design for example a car or just a utensil. There was a point where certain uses of the brain was taboo or a don’t go there attitude was promoted in one way you could say a Victorian attitude then an Edwardian attitude, there was also only so much knowledge to be used, we know more now than we did then so to speak, until a more liberated way of thinking started to emerge, only I would leave it to John Wilkins to say Evolving Thought as I would say Freedom to put good thought into action. After then that would lead to where that good thought began and how was it processed into action, not only what part of the brain did that particular thought begin but having the thought to be processed at all. The history of science takes us through this process in outlining where different attitudes were overtaken by progress and better solutions. I say don’t get stuck altogether with Darwin but I think there is room to build even on his findings. I hope to read Darwin’s Doubt at some time there is nothing wrong with a different point of view.


    1. Humans are ‘just’ elaborated deuterostomes—tubes with appendages to stuff food into one end. Microevolution.


  13. Humans are unique in their ability to affect animals and cultures on a global scale, mostly in a negative capacity. Two World wars and the over fishing of our oceans have proven that. Animals have a level of intelligence that is rarely given credit, indeed they are ‘lower level forms of Life’ to so many. A cat has emotions, hunger, social activity and memory just like humans. Many animals can show love toward a human. It is unmistakable and pure, not contaminated by personal objectives or insecurity. Man is truly a remarkable creature, the scientific and technological advances that pervade our modern society are simply fantastic. I hope that religion and greed are relegated to the Past because only then will Man realize his (and her of course) true potential. There are so many good people out there with positive ideas and hearts full of kindness, hopefully they will overcome the corporate nightmare that engulfs all of us.


  14. Here’s one more item for the mix: a statement by Mark Pagel, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Reading (U.K.):

    “It is the strangeness of human behaviour that really puts the darwinian view to the test. And here there is much to discuss. We have enormous brains that make us shrewd beyond belief in comparison to other animals, we have the only fully developed symbolic language on the planet, we cooperate with and engage in elaborate task-sharing and reciprocal relations with people we don’t know, we help the elderly, give money to charities, put on matching silly shirts to attend football matches, obediently wait in queues, die for our countries or even sometimes for an idea, and we positively ripple and snort with righteousness and indignation when we think others don’t do some of these things. We even have a word for this sense of how others ought to behave — morality. Chimpanzees, and for that matter other animals, aren’t like this.

    “No wonder the creationists don’t believe the darwinian account.”

    (“Selling evolution.” Nature 447:533, 2007).


    1. What you describe can be viewed as a totally Darwinian result: the evolution of memes, which obey the Darwinian model: reproduction with inheritable variation and natural selection due to competition for limited resources.

      Creationists have plenty more problems than the existence of human culture. For example, quite a few believe that the universe was created a few thousand years ago, with the fossil record and such simply an effort on God’s part to trick us—but they see through the trick.

      One thing I’ve noticed about Creationists, they constantly move the goal posts. They claimed that the real problem was the lack of a fossil record of what one might call “missing links”: e.g., where is the precursor to the whale? But when such fossils are found, they whirl away to point to something else. It’s hard to discuss things with them because of things like that.


      1. Umm, I think you’re not paying attention. It was not I who described it. It was an evolutionary biologist. From a secular university. As I stated clearly.

        Now regarding your comment, that this “can be viewed as a totally Darwinian result” — such wording indicates that you are afflicted with “Darwinitis”, “a disease of intellectuals who wish to explain everything in terms of Darwinism” (as Wilkins phrases Tallis’s idea).

        The movement of memes, however, is not a Darwinian concept; it comes (most notably) from Dawkins. So, more correctly, what you are afflicted with can be termed “Dawkinsitis.”

        But wait: a meme is an “idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture” — in other words, it’s a product of intelligence, not of a Darwinian process (except metaphorically, or by very loose analogy).

        Furthermore: before you attribute certain beliefs (memes) to creationists, maybe you should explore the possibility that you are simply repeating falsehoods that were culturally transmitted to you (unfit memes).


        1. Couple of points. While the notion of a meme is Dawkins’ idea (and was precursed by Richard Semon in the 1920s), Darwin himself did suggest that cultural items (languages) were the subject of selection in a nonbiological fashion, and Huxley had, during Darwin’s era, suggested that scientific theories were subjected to selection, so the notion of cultural selection is as old as Darwin and arguably Darwinian, proper.

          Secondly, the existence of intelligence in a selection process is not an issue, unless the intelligence has the knowledge and control necessary to determine the outcome. After all, a lion intends, with some cunning, to eat the gazelle and the gazelle likewise intends not to be eaten. Which succeeds depends very much on the conditions and relative strengths and weaknesses of the actors.

          Human intelligence is not a guarantee of success in a cultural evolutionary process, even ignoring the fact that we are not very good at working out the implications of our actions and ideas (the law of unintended consequences and cognitive bias). Memes, or as I prefer to call them, cultural items, can be transmitted more or less as if they were unconscious traits according to their fitness, independently of what we might think about them if we were disinterested hosts.


          1. Of course you’re right, John. Darwin did use the illustration of languages, most memorably in his discussion of vestigial (rudimentary) structures. But Dawkins’s extended discussion of memes surely represents a very large advance over anything Darwin ever suggested,

            You’re also right that to whatever extent we don’t think about what we’re saying or hearing (acting “unconsciously”), the transmission of cultural items may be somewhat analogous to reproduction of Dawkinsian memes. But I suggest that a lot of what we transmit is actually quite conscious and deliberate (e.g., your articles, my comments, politicians’ speeches, imams’ rants, composers’ songs, TV advertisements, even Facebook posts and Tweets), and at least for those items, “intelligent design” is a better description than is “Darwinian evolution.”


            1. If wishes were horses, then beggars would ride. Merely having intentions and plans doesn’t guarantee success. Also, note that all our knowledge that does make for success is the result of past trials and errors, not unlike having an adaptive biological feature. Intelligence is not a magic power. It is the result of the accrual of past success, and depends upon the same conditions obtaining in which we gained the knowledge in the first place.


              1. “If wishes were horses….” — a very popular meme indeed!

                But haven’t you lost track of your original distinction between conscious (deliberate) and unconscious transmission. That is what I was addressing. You wrote, “Memes, or as I prefer to call them, cultural items, can be transmitted more or less as if they were unconscious traits….” My point was simply that they cannot necessarily be treated as unconscious. No warrant there for your attempt to pin the m-word on me (“magic”).

                But really, John, don’t you think the whole meme (cultural item) transmission business, treated as if it represented something significantly like a Darwinian process, is rather far out? Haven’t evolutionists themselves criticized Dawkins rather heavily for that theme in his writing?


              2. Don’t know what “evolutionists are”, but Dawkins has attracted some criticism (not least from me). However, I did say “as if”: the mere fact they are conscious doesn’t mean they behave any differently in the mass than if they were unconsciously spread, because our very dispositions to spread memes are themselves the result of selection. You mentioned Facebook. Are you really going to argue that the use of Facebook is somehow consciously spreading memes that are better because they are somehow true or worthy? I think you don’t spend much time on Facebook.


              3. I don’t spend any time on Facebook whatsoever. Never touch the stuff. My point was simply that people who post on Facebook are (at least in some cases??) consciously doing so, with some purpose.

                I concede, perhaps, that “intelligence” may not be an apt word for a lot of Facebook material.


            2. I think you miss the point of memes. We deliberately create things, but whether they succeed at memes is to some extent out of our hands and is strongly affected by the interplay between the creation and memeverse environment into which its launched. There may well be hits, but I’m sure you recognize flops—and even memes that gave rise to successful “offspring” that displace the parent: men’s ties today are not like those at the beginning of the 20th century.

              In other words, the memeverse is inhabited by many deliberate products, but the thing as a whole is not designed, but rather evolved. (Or, if the collection of all cultural elements currently active—music, movies, politics, policies, literature, architecture, and so on—is indeed a design, it’s a strangely chaotic and incoherent one, at least to the mind of humans. Maybe it is indeed a creation for the enjoyment of a Higher Being.


        2. When you quoted it, I assumed you were advancing it as a position. My apologies. Consider my comment as a comment on the quotation.

          Dawkins was, I believe, describing how memes also fit the pattern that Darwin described (and I described in my comment). I don’t think he particularly tried to lay claim to the generalization of the idea, but perhaps so—it’s been a while since I read that.

          I think you have it backwards: human intelligence (in practice) is a product of memes. Certainly the meme host must have sufficient intelligence and capabilities to mimic behaviors—that is, reproduce the meme well, with minor (and occasional major) variation. And obviously memes that are easier to mimic and more interesting/useful will tend to drive out (or replace) memes that are difficult and useless. The big leap into humanity is, I speculate, a combination of tool-making (stone axes and probably sharp sticks at first) and language. Once language started, memes came thick and fast, though I’ve read recently that perhaps the first use of language—or perhaps merely of deliberate sound—was in group singing/chanting (and undoubtedly dance as well): memes again in dance steps and chants: some become popular, give rise to variations, and so on. And, of course, the animal host began to be selected by meme-capability: protohumans who were better at wielding a stone ax or speaking a language would have a selection advantage over others.

          I appreciate your advice. I worked for three years in a small company whose employees were all creationists. Perhaps you also occasionally leap to a conclusion? 🙂


    2. Please don’t quote mine from Answers in Genesis CreationBC.

      Here’s the next paragraph:

      A popular view among students of human evolution is that special ideas may be needed to explain what is sometimes called our ‘extreme sociality’ — the helping, reciprocity and morality. Sloan Wilson is among the principal advocates of the view that humans have evolved by a process of ‘group selection’ in which groups of people — our hunter-gatherer or early tribal ancestors — worked together in ways that allowed them to outcompete other groups. Over time, this process moulded our psychology and social behaviour so that we became, as Sloan Wilson puts it, like cells in a body, or bees in a hive, devoted to the well-being of our group. Laughter, music, dance and religion are interpreted as aids to promoting a sense of group membership and mutual well-being. Sloan Wilson pays particular attention to ways in which religions prohibit murder and other antisocial behaviour within the group but offer rewards for those who use it against people outside the group.

      It’s a review of a book. Pagel is setting up the problem that Sloan Wilson discusses in detail.


      1. A Russian scientist did a well-known experiment with foxes, at each generation breeding the least aggressive for the next generation. Within a couple dozen generations, the foxes were tame—domesticated, in effect.

        I’ve read the speculation that protohumans did much the same to our species: exceptionally aggressive and anti-social individuals were culled from the group, with the effect that succeeding generations became better able to cohere as a group, which brings its own survival advantages.


      2. First of all, regarding the charge of quote mining:

        A scraggly-bearded man in dusty prospector’s garb walks into the assay office in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory. He plunks a large gleaming rock on the counter and says, “Please tell me the value of this nugget.”

        The assayer questions him, “Where did you get this? Did you find it by deliberate searching, or by accidentally stumbling upon it, or did somebody give it to you?”

        The prospector responds, “That’s just idle curiosity. How I got it is irrelevant, so long as I didn’t steal it. Your job is simply to figure out what it’s worth.”

        The assayer backs down: “Fair enough, sir. I will inspect it, test it, and evaluate it for you.”

        Evolutionists frequently charge creationists with quote mining, misquoting, and quoting out of context (these are popular Darwinist “memes”). The second and third can be legitimate accusations; they concern the evaluation of the quote. But the first “charge,” quote mining, is irrelevant and not worth making.

        For the record, though, your detective work has produced an incorrect result. I did not obtain the quote from either Answers in Genesis or CreationBC; I first encountered it in its original context in Nature, one of the scientific periodicals I regularly peruse. In point of fact, it was I who provided the quote to CreationBC — which you would have deduced if you had read the byline at the top of the quote package (“smorgasbord of quotations”) on that website.

        The proper questions are: (1) Did I quote the author correctly?, and (2) Did I take the quotation out of context, so that my selected citation gives a significantly different impression of the author’s view from that gained by reading the entire article. These questions are legitimate to ask, and I fully acknowledge that creationists, being fallible, are not always sufficiently cautious in their use of quotes. If I saw that I had made such an error, I would admit it and either amend or remove the errant quotation from the CreationBC website.

        The answer to question #1 is yes, I quoted the author correctly. You have not stated otherwise. The only thing I did differently from the original article was to put the final sentence in its own paragraph, which I suggest is not a substantial change.

        What about question #2, concerning the possibility that I quoted the author out of context? You have attempted to defuse my quote by saying the article was a book review (true) and that Pagel is setting up the “problem” (N.B.) that the book’s author discusses (also true). But those true observations do not come close to demonstrating that I misused the quote. Pagel believes what he wrote in my citation, or at least he gives no indication otherwise in this article.

        Besides that, Pagel says some other rather slighting things about “evolutionists” (his word) in general and about Sloan Wilson in particular. Those sorts of statements comport with the tone of the citation I used, and provide additional support for my claim that I did not quote Pagel out of context in any way whatsoever. For example:

        “Evolutionary biologists — those enthusiastic foot-soldiers of Darwin’s grand notion that life evolves by a process of descent with modification — cannot understand why so many people reject the great man’s theory, and often in favour of some form of creationist account of the existence and diversity of life on Earth.” “Where have the evolutionists gone wrong?” “What is there to say? The usual answer, that we share more than 98% of our genes with chimpanzees, is becoming hackneyed.” “The group-selection account [of Sloan Wilson] is seductive, explanatory and may even be right, but what about . . .? . . . Might it just be that . . .? Could it be that . . .?” “But perhaps even Sloan Wilson should not expect to change people’s minds about religion. If our minds evolved to help us wade through the complexity of social life, to use groups for our own gain, and to help us rebound from ‘the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’, which set of beliefs, on balance, will be more useful, religious ones (whether true or not) or a belief in natural selection?”


        1. Having read the whole review by Pagel, I wonder how something so vacuous was published in Nature or anywhere else for that matter.

          The idea that cooperation “sells” evolution better than competition and therefore should be promoted as “the way it happened” is a strange way to do science. One commenter at Biologos has championed this view – something like “my god is good therefore it would create a world where cooperation ruled, while competition is the devil’s handiwork.” Truth be damned.


          1. Obviously one seems many instances of cooperation in evolution (symbiotes, most directly, but also virtuous cycles of several steps); competition is also present, most obviously in competing for mates. I recall reading how in some periods life on earth reached a kind of equilibrium, with each form having found a niche that allowed it to live “cooperatively” in the sense of not competing directly with another species for the niche—but then things happen that put the game in motion again.

            Without bringing in God, but simply looking at nature, cooperation and competition are both quite present and active.


            1. “Without bringing in God, but simply looking at nature, cooperation and competition are both quite present and active.”

              Did I say anything different?


              1. No, you didn’t. But the guy you quoted did: I was musing about why God was being brought in (and especially God v. Devil), and how, if God supports cooperation (and we do indeed see cooperation in nature), we also see so much competition as well: is the Devil so strong?

                And if you simply remove God from the equation, then the mix seems natural as process of evolution finds ever-more-complex balances.

                Probably I was a little cryptic. 🙂


            1. “Speaking of “selling” evolution, a lot of scientists seem to feel evolution can be sold better to the public if they claim (despite their own real convictions?) that evolution is compatible with “religion.””

              This is very clear in the publications of the AAAS, NAS, and NCSE in the US. Why science organizations (or anyone for that matter) would presume to tell the public what is theologically permissible is beyond me. When it comes down to it, can any two people actually practice the same religion or believe in the same god?


              1. Or experience the same taste when eating a plum or see the same color when they look at the sky?

                I didn’t get your point at first: by postulating that evolution is compatible with religion, and since evolution (as a theory) is pretty well defined, then the range of religious belief is sharply restricted: religious beliefs must now be cut to fit an evolutionary restriction—which, for example, would make the Genesis account of creation more a folk myth than a real event. I can indeed see that would be a problem for some, but don’t most want/believe their religion is consistent with actual experience and evidence? Maybe not.


              2. “Why science organizations (or anyone for that matter) would presume to tell the public what is theologically permissible is beyond me.”

                Well, here’s a possibility: The taxpaying public is largely creationist. Evolutionists get a lot of their money from the taxpaying public. Evolutionists don’t want to bite the hand that feeds them (with a few exceptions like Jerry Coyne and PZ Myers). So evolutionists pretend evolution and “religion” can be compatible in order to minimize disturbance to their source of funding.

                That’s Graffin’s idea anyway, based on his PhD research under Will Provine at Cornell:


              3. “… don’t most want/believe their religion is consistent with actual experience and evidence?” (LeisureGuy)

                In a way, yes. But then, we wonder, where is the “actual experience”/”evidence” for
                (1) something arising from nothing, for no reason;
                (2) life arising from non-life, through unguided, naturalistic chemical processes;
                (3) the appearance of all Earth’s biodiversity through negative/destructive processes like natural selection (early deaths of lots of organisms) and mutation (degrading, or at best mere rearranging, of existing DNA information)?

                But in a way, no. A lot of people believe that God has done and will do things way beyond their “actual experience”. Such as:
                (1) Creating the universe as described in Genesis;
                (2) Raising Jesus Christ from the dead;
                (3) Raising all the dead and judging the world at Jesus’s return;
                (4) Bringing in “a new heaven and a new earth” wherein righteousness dwells and all sorrow is eliminated;
                (5) plus a variety of other acts termed “miracles” which do not necessarily accord with our “actual experience”.


              4. @Peachey: Good point: the logically unassailable proposition that God did everything, and for reasons we can never understand, is indeed one possible worldview. It does result in some things to wonder at—e.g., why God went to the trouble of (say) emplacing fossils and other evidence to deceive us about the age of the earth, or creating a network of DNA links that show evolutionary patterns to give us physical evidence that contradicts the creation story in Genesis (where each species is created on the spot rather than evolved, and various genera are postulated as created completely independent of others—e.g., plants independently of birds and fishes, and both independently of animals). Perhaps the Devil could be blamed for evidence that contradicts the story. 🙂

                I suppose it’s really no surprise that humans don’t know everything (e.g, details of the origin of the Big Bang), so we can use God to as sort of “ignorance filler”: if there’s a knowledge gap, we can stuff God into it (until such time as we learn what’s actually there, whereupon we can extract God and use instead the process/reasons we’ve discovered).

                Indeed, one could believe that the entire universe was created about 15 minutes ago, and all the evidence of earlier existence (our memories, physical evidence, etc.) was also created at the same time so that it seems that it has a longer history—even including all the overwhelming evidence of evolution (not omitting some intriguing discoveries about the possible origins of life from non-living matter). But that belief really doesn’t seem satisfactory to me (YMMV), though it does give a universal answer to any question regarding the natural world: “Because God wants it that way.”

                Still your point is taken: religious beliefs (in general, not just Christian or Jewish) can be extremely remote from experience while devoutly believed. Indeed, that, as I understand it, is Fugate’s point: to say that evolution is consistent with religion implies that religion (properly defined) will not hold positions inconsistent with evolution, and that restriction eliminates all religions that I know, at least in terms of their creation myths.


              5. “LeisureGuy” — re yours of July 17, 11:02 pm . . .

                You write, “Indeed, that, as I understand it, is Fugate’s point: to say that evolution is consistent with religion implies that religion (properly defined) will not hold positions inconsistent with evolution, and that restriction eliminates all religions that I know, at least in terms of their creation myths.”

                I don’t see that Mr. Fugate made such a point, nor do I think such a point would be worth making, since it’s nothing but a tautology.

                Here’s a better point: True (biblical) religion is inconsistent with evolution (= Darwinian worldview, broadly speaking), and that restriction eliminates evolution, at least in terms of its obligately-naturalistic speculative historical reconstructions (a.k.a. creation myths).

                Regarding your objections to a biblical-creation worldview, a few brief responses:

                (1) God deceives about the age of the Earth — no, the Bible clearly indicates a young Earth (thousands of years, not billions). Many scientific lines of reasoning point in the same direction:

                (2) DNA similarities and patterns point to evolution — no, they point to a Creator. DNA is a marvelously complex information molecule which could not have originated by unguided chemical processes, as nicely documented in Stephen C. Meyer’s “Signature in the Cell.” The evolutionary concept of “junk DNA” tended to hinder research. More and more functions continue to be discovered for non-protein-coding DNA.

                (3) The universe might have been created 15 minutes ago — do you know anyone who actually believes that? But many great scientists (in the past, and today) actually have found the Bible to be quite credible — even though it contradicts many of the speculative historical reconstructions of current scientists based on their philosophical naturalism.

                (4) God is used as a sort of “ignorance filler” (God of the gaps) — well, if there are creationists who reason in such a fashion, they are not unique: evolutionists have great faith [sic] that their worldview will eventually account for everything they cannot currently explain — i.e., all those major gaps between phyla, etc., and especially between non-life and life. For a summary of several major gaps, see the first paragraph of Eugene Koonin’s abstract in this article:


              6. @ Peachy: Regarding Fugate making the point that I also first missed: It’s made in this statement: “Why science organizations (or anyone for that matter) would presume to tell the public what is theologically permissible is beyond me.” That is, by saying that beliefs are theologically permissible only if those beliefs are consistent with evolution (which is what “evolution is consistent with religion” implies), one is defining what is theologically permissible. That’s the plain statement of what he said. And since evolution is based quite evidently on evidence (is that a tautology?), inconsistencies favor what we can observe over what we cannot—at least for me, YMMV. And I’m sure many are unbothered by inconsistencies, figuring the two systems are independent cultural realms, each with its own definition of “truth” and “proof” and the like.

                Oops. In reading your responses, I understand better where you’re coming from, and you definitely have a dog in this fight. I’ll leave the floor to you. From my view, your arguments simply don’t hold water, but we needn’t get into that.


              7. “Here’s a better point: True (biblical) religion is inconsistent with evolution (= Darwinian worldview, broadly speaking), and that restriction eliminates evolution, at least in terms of its obligately-naturalistic speculative historical reconstructions (a.k.a. creation myths).”

                If “biblical” Christianity is true, then it is not just evolution that is eliminated – it is all of science.

                It is much more likely that science eliminates Christianity; Christian scientists in the early days of modern science showed that the Bible was dead wrong when its hypotheses about the natural world were put to the test.


              8. Michael, re yours of July 18, 7:52 a.m.:

                You write, “If ‘biblical’ Christianity is true, then it is not just evolution that is eliminated – it is all of science.”

                Actually, that is not the case, as recognized by several careful academics (including one article from The Skeptical Inquirer):

                Creationists respect hard data, but not necessarily the speculative reconstructions/theorizing done by those using a philosophical naturalist framework (many of them atheists).

                Again, you write, “It is much more likely that science eliminates Christianity; Christian scientists in the early days of modern science showed that the Bible was dead wrong when its hypotheses about the natural world were put to the test.”

                Historically, science was in fact encouraged by a biblical worldview. Science historian Peter Harrison (not a creationist) has described how a literal understanding of Genesis, as favoured by the Protestant Reformers, actually promoted rather than hindered the rise of modern science:


              9. I disagree. Evolution is not speculation – theology, however, is entirely speculation.

                So what if the protestant revolution promoted science? What happened was when these protestant and catholic scientists actually tested the Bible against reality, they found the Bible was wrong on every count.


              10. A great of deal of evolutionary thinking most certainly involves speculation.

                “Evolutionary scenarios are an artform. They usefully exercise the brain, causing us to look at old data in new ways and stimulating us to collect new data. They do not have to be true!” —W. Ford Doolittle, Dalhousie University, Reviewer’s report 1, in Eugene V. Koonin, Tatiana G. Senkevich, and Valerian V. Dolja, “The ancient Virus World and evolution of cells.” Biology Direct 2006, 1:29

                “As to assertion without adequate evidence, the literature of science is filled with them. Carl Sagan’s list of the ‘best contemporary science-popularizers’ includes E. O. Wilson, Lewis Thomas, and Richard Dawkins, each of whom has put unsubstantiated assertions or counterfactual claims at the very center of the stories they have retailed in the market.” —Richard Lewontin, Harvard University, The New York Review of Books 44(1):30, Jan. 9, 1997.

                You state: “… they found the Bible was wrong on every count.”

                Really? Is it possible you’re exaggerating a bit? (How many “counts” is that, anyway? How is it possible for a book of that length to be exactly 100.00% wrong? No mere human being could be that consistent!)


  15. Some years ago, George Gaylord Simpson argued against the argument that man is just another animal.

    Neglecting the bacteria, the success or failure of all species on earth, humans included, is going to depend on how well they respond to human activities and modification of the planet. That, unfortunately, is how we are special.


  16. Your argument about all species being special is rather superficial, though I would expect that from someone who calls him or her self a Darwinian.

    Let’s use your example of a cat. A cat is the only creature who purrs, has retractable claws, and meows; there exist other animals who possess all those traits individually, but not in the same combination that a cat does. Therefore, we can strongly define a cat and attach a schema to it because of the unique combination of traits it has. Human beings, on the other hand, are the only strongly-defined animal that has unique traits, not just unique combinations of traits. (Artistic expression, dancing, taboo phrases, et cetera.) These unique traits make the human being special in ways that separate it from any other animal.

    That is what I mean when I say that your argument was superficial – you assumed what “special” meant only in a way that advanced your own argument, but you didn’t consider any alternatives. That itself is a fallacy.


Leave a Reply