Abandoning the Human Machine

I recently read a very informative article on the move toward an “extended synthesis” in genetics and evolutionary theory that would move beyond the notion of the “selfish gene” propounded by Richard Dawkins (see the article here). The author, David Dobbs, argues that “… we enter this genomic age with a view of genetics that, were we to apply it, say, to basketball, would reduce that complicated team sport to a game of one-on-one. A view like that can be worse than no view. It tempts you to think you understand the game when you don’t. We need something more complex.” Recent and not-so-recent discoveries have made the selfish gene model increasingly hard to hold, but we continue to do so for a very “simple” reason:

In other words, the gene-centric model survives because simplicity is a hugely advantageous trait for an idea to possess. People will select a simple idea over a complex idea almost every time. This holds especially in a hostile environment, like, say, a sceptical crowd. For example, Sean B Carroll, professor of molecular biology and genetics at the University of Wisconsin, spends much of his time studying gene expression, but usually uses gene-centric explanations, because when talking to the public, he finds a simple story is a damned good thing to have.

The selfish gene model continues to have traction not because it can explain everything we know, but because it’s very easy to explain.

Oversimplification is a systematic problem with the ideas of Richard Dawkins and others who see humans as merely biochemical “machines.”. I will never forget being the only person in a class of thirty or so philosophy of science students who would admit that I don’t think physics can *in theory* explain everything about everything including “what you are for breakfast this morning.” Most of these students were 19 or 20, so they had the excuse of youth for supporting an idea that manages simultaneously to flout common sense, logic and evidence. Dawkins’s ideas lead to equally glaring absurdities–even if he is clever enough not to advertise them–what excuse does he have?

But it’s worse than that. As this article mentions, evidence for the less than central position of the single gene long predates Dawkins’s work. This article doesn’t come close to exhausting the examples. Evelyn Fox-Keller’s Reflections on Gender and Science describes a researcher who very early on showed DNA doing things it wasn’t supposed to be able to do. In the 1960s Clifford Geertz astutely observed that the presence of tool-assemblages that were consistent over time showed conclusively that at least as early as Homo habilis our ancestors possessed culture in some form–I.e., culture predates the appearance of our species. How is it that at the end of the 2010s so many people continue to support the historically untenable notion that culture is an epiphenomenon of biology?

The proposition that all things human can be explained by biochemical processes is can only be obvious if we decide to accept it a priori, without convincing evidence–since nothing none of our theories comes close to explaining the complexity we witness daily in human life. lol of us are guilty of such a priori reasoning at times. It has even led at times to important discoveries. The supporters of the “human machine” concept, however, have promoted their ideas with a passion and attacked their opponents with a vehemence whose only equal can be found in religious bigotry–the very evil that Dawkins and many of his supporters claim to be uprooting.

The notion that humans are simply biochemical machines reduces us all and does damage to human dignity. That may be an unpopular term nowadays, but it is an important one. Recognizing our dignity as humans can make us more responsible, more willing to sacrifice our desires, and more driven to improve ourselves. Furthermore, seeing human culture as an epiphenomenon inevitably reduces the importance of the arts, the humanities, literature, religion, and all other enterprises that deal with something other than particles, atoms, and molecules. We live in an age when we desperately need to broaden our approach to our problems not narrow it. Until we are willing to give aesthetic reasoning, historical reasoning, literary reasoning, etc. a place in substantive discussions about where we are going, we will not be able to carry our civilization forward.

A human is far more than a machine. Reductionist ideas like this crop up in part precisely because we cannot understand our own true nature. This rabbit hole doesn’t have a bottom. We will always be learning more about ourselves  As Bahá’u’lláh, prophet-founder of the Bahá’í Faith, reminds us, however, acknowledging the limits of our capacity is in fact a sign our intellectual and spiritual maturity and an opening to the possibility of a better tomorrow:

Wert thou to ponder in thine heart, from now until the end that hath no end, and with all the concentrated intelligence and understanding which the greatest minds have attained in the past or will attain in the future, this divinely ordained and subtle Reality, this sign of the revelation of the All-Abiding, All-Glorious God, thou wilt fail to comprehend its mystery or to appraise its virtue. … This confession of helplessness which mature contemplation must eventually impel every mind to make is in itself the acme 166 of human understanding, and marketh the culmination of man’s development.  (Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’ulláh, LXXXIII)

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