Commentary on social and moral issues of the day

The God of the Gaps

David Berlinski

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Originally published in Commentary Magazine, April, 2008.


The idea that human beings have been en­dowed with powers and properties not found elsewhere in the animal kingdom - or, so far we can tell, in the universe-arises from a simple impulse: just look around. It is an impulse that handily survives the fraternal invitation to consider the great apes. The apes are, after all, behind the bars of their cages, and we are not. Eager for the experiments to begin, they are also impatient for their food to be served, and they seem impatient for little else. After undergoing years of punishing trials at the hands of determined clinicians, a few have been taught the rudiments of various primitive symbol systems. Having been given the gift of language, they have nothing to say. When two simian prodigies meet, they fling their placards at each other.

More is expected, but more is rarely forthcoming. Experiments -- and they are exquisite -- conducted by Dorothy Cheney and Robert Seyfarth indicate that like other mammals, baboons have a rich inner world. Simian social structures are often intricate. Chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas reason; they form plans; they have preferences; they are cunning; they have passions and desires; and they suffer. In much of this, we see ourselves. But beyond what we have in common with the apes, we have nothing in common, and while the similarities are interesting, the differences are profound.

If human beings are as human beings think they are, then questions arise about what they are, and so do responses. These responses are ancient. They have arisen spontaneously in every culture. They have seemed to men and women the obvious conclusions to be drawn from just looking around. Accordingly, an enormous amount of intellectual effort has been invested in persuading men and women not to look around.

"With all deference to the sensibilities of religious people, the idea that man was created in the image of God can surely be put aside." Thus Nature magazine in a recent editorial. As for those unwilling to put their "sensibilities" aside, the scientific community has concluded that they are afflicted by a form of intellectual ingratitude. After all, the same editorial insists, "The idea that human minds are the product of evolution is unassailable fact."

It is remarkable how widespread our ingratitude really is, and also how far back it goes.


Together with Charles Darwin, Alfred Wallace created the modern theory of evolution.

He has been unjustly neglected by history-per­haps because, shortly after conceiving his theory, he came to doubt its veracity. Darwin, too, had his doubts; no one reading On the Origin of the Species can miss its note of moral anxiety. But Darwin's doubts arose because, in considering his theory's implications, he feared it might be true. With Wallace, it was the other way around. Considering its implications, he suspected the theory might be false.

In an essay entitled "Sir Charles Lyell on Geological Climates and the Origin of Species" (1869), Wallace outlined his sense that evolution was inadequate to explain certain obvious features of the human race. The essay is of great importance. It marks a falling-away in faith on the part of a sensitive biologist previously devoted to ideas he himself introduced.

Certain of our "physical characteristics," Wallace observes in this essay, "are not explicable on the theory of variation and survival of the fittest" -- the criteria of Darwinian natural selection. These characteristics include the human brain, the organs of speech and articulation, the human hand, and the external human form with its upright posture and bipedal gait. Thus, only human beings can rotate their thumbs and ring fingers in what is called "ulnar opposition" in order to achieve a grip, a grasp, and a degree of torque denied to any of the great apes. So, too, with the other items on Wallace's list. What remains is evolutionary fantasy, of the sort in which the bipedal gait is assigned to an unrecoverable ancestor wishing to peer (or pee) over tall savannah grasses.

It is with respect to the human mind that Wallace's argument gathers real force. Do we understand why, alone among the animals, human beings have acquired language? Or a refined and delicate moral system? Or art, architecture, music, dance, or mathematics? This is a severely abbreviated list. The body of world literature and philosophy offers an extended commentary on human nature, yet over the course of more than 4,000 years it has not exhausted its mysteries.

And here is the curious thing. Wallace writes that, among human beings, there is no evident distinction between the mental powers of the most primitive and the most advanced. Raised in today's England instead of the Ecuadoran Amazon, a native child of the head-hunting Jivaro tribe, otherwise destined for a life loping through the jungle, would learn to speak perfect English and up on graduation from Oxford or Cambridge would enjoy the double advantage of a modern intellectual worldview and a valuable ethnic heritage. He might become a mathematician. Or, for all anyone knows, he might find himself a commentator on the BBC, lucidly defending the cultural value of head-hunting in the Ecuadoran jungle.

From this manner of observation it follows, Wallace argued, that characteristic human abilities must be latent in primitive man, existing somehow as an unopened gift -- the entryway to a world that prim­itive man himself does not possess and would not recognize. But the idea that a biological species might possess latent powers makes no sense in Darwinian terms. It suggests the forbidden doctrine that evolutionary advantages were frontloaded, far away and long ago. It is in conflict with the Darwinian principle that just as useful genes are selected for cultivation and advancement, useless genes are subject to negative selection pressure and must therefore drain away into the sands of time.

Wallace identified a frank conflict between his own theory and what seemed to rum to be obvious facts about the solidity and unchangeability of human nature. That conflict persists; it has not been resolved.


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Posted: 26-Apr-08

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