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Atheist Nation

Where in the world are the atheists? That is, in what part of the globe will one find the most people who do not believe in God? Answer: East Germany at 52.1%. The least? The Philippines at less than 1%. Predictably, strong belief shows a reverse pattern: 84% in the Philippines to 4% in Japan, with East Germany at the second lowest in strong belief at 8%. Not surprising, those who believe in a personal God “who concerns himself with every human being personally” is lowest in East Germany at 8% and highest in the Philippines at 92%.

These numbers, and others, were collected and crunched by Tom W. Smith of the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago, in a paper entitled “Beliefs About God Across Time and Countries,” produced for the International Social Survey Programme (ISSP) and released on April 18, 2012. Smith writes: “Countries with high atheism (and low strong belief) tend to be ex-Socialist states and countries in northwest Europe. Countries with low atheism and high strong belief tend to be Catholic societies, especially in the developing world, plus the United States, Israel, and Orthodox Cyprus.”

Many religious scholars invoke the “secularization thesis” to explain lower religiosity in Northern European countries (compared to the United States) in which mass education, especially in the sciences, coupled to the fact that governments do what religions traditionally did in the past in taking care of the poor and needy. With a tight social safety net religions simply fall into disuse; with a porous social safety net people fall through the cracks and are picked up by religions. Other scholars have suggested a “supply side” explanation for the difference between the U.S. and Europe, in which churches and religions in America must compete for limited resources and customers and thus have ratcheted up the quality of religious products and services: mega churches with rock music, baby sitting, BBQs, and even free parking! Smith seems to find evidence of both forces at work, noting that “In the case of Poland, it appears that its strong Catholicism trumps the secularizing influence of Socialism,” whereas elsewhere in the world “there is also evidence that religious competition and/or religious conflict may stimulate higher belief.”

Religion is a complex phenomenon and thus explanations are likely to be complex. (I find that in the social sciences Occam’s razor is rarely true—the simpler explanation is not only usually wrong, it can be terribly misleading.) Smith notes, for example, that “Belief is high in Israel which of course has a sharp conflict between Judaism and Islam, in Cyprus which is divided along religious and ethnic lines into Greek/Orthodox and Turkish/Muslim entities, and in Northern Ireland which is split between Protestant and Catholic communities and shows much higher belief levels than the rest of the United Kingdom.” In the United States there is relatively little overt religious conflict, but intense religious competition across both major religions and denominations within Christianity.”

The outlier appears to be Japan: “The one country that shows a low association between the level of atheism and strong belief is Japan. Japan ranked lowest on strong belief, but also in the lower half on atheism (a difference of 18 positions across the two rankings when the average difference in positions was only 2.7 places). Japan is distinctive among countries in having the largest number of people (32%) in the middle categories of believing sometimes and the agnostic, not knowing response. This pattern is consistent with a general Japanese response pattern of avoiding strong, extreme response options.”

Changes in God beliefs were modest from 1991 through 2008, with the percent saying they were atheists increasing in 15 of 18 countries at an average rise of 1.7%. Between 1998 and 2008 the atheist gain was bigger, with an average increase of 2.3 points in 23 of 30 countries. Predictably, again, the corresponding belief in God decreased by roughly the same amount that atheism grew. The exceptions were Israel, Russia and Slovenia where from 1991 to 2008 there was a consistent movement towards greater belief and less atheists. Israel’s religious shift was a result of an increase in orthodox Jewish and right-wing population, “and the relative decline of the more secular and leftist segment in Israeli society.”

Most interestingly, Smith computed the overall gains and loses of religious beliefs comparing those who say “I believe in God now, but I didn’t used to.” With those say “I don’t believe in God now, but I used to.” “In 2008 there was a net gain in belief across the life course in 12 countries and a decline in 17 countries. The gains averaged 4.1 points and the losses -7.0 points for an overall change of -2.4 points.” The shifts also varied by age, with older people gaining in belief while younger people decreasing in belief. Smith concludes his study with this projection for the future of atheism:

“If the modest, general trend away from belief in God continues uninterrupted, it will accumulate to larger proportions and the atheism that is now prominent mainly in northwest Europe and some ex-Socialist states may spread more widely.”

In case you’re wondering, the percentage of Americans who say “I don’t believe in God” was 3% at 4th lowest in the world, and who said “I know God really exists and I have no doubt about it” at 60.6%, the 5th highest in the world. Americans who agreed “I don’t believe in God and I never have” was 4.4 at 6th lowest in the world, who agreed “I believe in God now and I always have at 80.8% at 3rd highest in the world. In terms of the changes in atheism and belief in God over time, from 1991 to 2008 the U.S. showed an increase of 0.7% atheists and -0.2 from 1998–2008; in 2008, taking those who said “I believe in God now, but I didn’t used to” minus “I don’t believe in God now, but I used to” nets +1.4 in the United States.

The paper is chockablock full of data figures. Here’s the press release for more information.

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Shermer in Seminary School

My weekend at the New Orleans Baptist Seminary discussing God, religion, and the afterlife

On Friday, April 13, 2012 in the chapel of the New Orleans Baptist Seminary I debated the Liberty University philosopher and theologian Gary Habermas on the question: “Is There Life After Death?” I went first. I stated that since Gary is taking the affirmative I’m suppose to defend the negative, but in fact when it comes to the afterlife, “I’m for it!” Tellingly, that line didn’t get the usual laugh it engenders in audiences, but then in seminary school the afterlife is a deadly serious subject. I began with this thought experiment:

Imagine yourself dead. What picture comes to mind? Your funeral with a casket surrounded by family and friends? Complete darkness and void? In either case you are still conscious and observing the scene.

I then outlined the problem we all have in thinking about life after death: we cannot envision what it is like to be dead any more than we can visualize ourselves before we were born, and yet everyone who ever lived has died so death is inevitable. This leads to either depression or humor. I prefer the latter. For example, Steven Wright: “I intend to live forever—so far, so good.” Or Woody Allen: “It’s not that I’m afraid to die. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”

Of course, you won’t be there when it happens because to experience anything you must be conscious, and you are not conscious when you are dead. I then outlined four theories of life after death, gleaned from my recent Scientific American column based on Stephen Cave’s marvelous new book, Immortality, which I highly recommend reading.

The Four Theories of Immortality

1. Staying Alive. That is, one way to achieve immortality is to not die. I then reviewed the various realities involved, such as the 100 billion people who lived before us who have died, and the various problems involved with longevity efforts, genetic engineering to change the telomeres involved in aging, cryonics, and Tulane University physicist Frank Tipler’s Omega Point theory about how we will all be resurrected in the far future of the universe in super computer-generated virtual realities.

2. Resurrection. I then explained Theseus’s Ship and Shermer’s Mustang: how Poseidon’s son Theseus sailed to Crete to slay monster Minotaur and how his ship was preserved for posterity but rotted over time and every board was replaced with new wood—is that still Theseus’s ship? Ditto my 1966 Mustang, which I purchased in 1971 and wrecked and ruined to the point where there was hardly an original part on it when I still sold it as a classic car 16 years later. Is that really still a 1966 Mustang? I then segued into discussing the transformation problem (how could you be reassembled just as you were and yet this time be invulnerable to disease and death?) and Julia Sweeney’s challenge to the Mormon boys who told her that she would be made whole again and when she asked them if she’d have her uterus back (which she had removed because of cancer) told them “I don’t want it back!” And what age are you resurrected? 5, 29, 85? And how would a duplicate you be any different from your twin who happens to have your same memories?

3. Soul. I explained to these young seminarians that there isn’t a shred of evidence for anything like a “soul” that survives death, no new physical system that scientists have discovered to allow soul stuff to survive. I noted that Thomas Jefferson made this killer observation: we do not understand how the mind causes the brain to act, or how thoughts are transduced into physical movements. Adding a soul only doubles the mystery, as believers would then have to explain how the soul effects the mind, and how the mind effects the brain. In reality, I explains, there is no soul or mind. Just brain. I asked rhetorically: Under anaesthesia, where’s your soul? Why is it knocked out? And: If the soul can see, why can’t the souls of blind people see when they are alive?

4. Legacy: glory, reputation, historical impact, or children. But as Woody Allen said: “I don’t want to live on in the hearts and minds of my countrymen. I want to live on in my apartment.” Clearly this is not what most people desire for life after death, so…

Which Afterlife Theory is Correct?

Which religion’s afterlife story is the right one? Egyptian, Christian, Mormon, Scientology, Buddhist, Hindu, Deepak’s Quantum Consciousness? What are the odds that Gary Habermas’s theory of the afterlife will happen to match that of the God and Religion he believes in? Virtually 100%!

Afterlife myths follow the same pattern as all religious myths: where you happened to have been born and at what time in history determines which myth you believe. To an anthropologist from Mars these are all indistinguishable.

Where do you go to live after death?

I then noted that ever since Copernicus and the rise of modern astronomy and cosmology there is no place for heaven. This has led some to speculate that perhaps it is in another dimension. But those dimensions are physical systems subject to the laws of entropy, so that doesn’t help. I then recounted a few other “theories” of the afterlife:

  • Egyptians: a physical place far above the Earth in a “dark area” of space where there were no stars, basically beyond the Universe.
  • Vikings: Valhalla—a big hall in which to drink beer and get ready to fight again
  • Muslims: “the Garden” with rivers, fountains, shady valleys, trees, milk, honey and wine—all the things Arabian desert people crave, plus 72 virgins for the men. (No one seems to have asked what the women want.)
  • Christians: eternity with angels at the throne of God.
  • Hitchens: The Christian heaven is a Celestial North Korea at the throne of the dear leader
  • Who’s to say that Heaven will be good? What if it isn’t? What proof do we have?
  • What if it’s boring? My college philosophy professor Richard Hardison once asked rhetorically: “Do they have tennis courts and golf courses there?”
  • Ethnologist Elie Reclus describes Christian missionaries attempting to convert Inuits with the promise of a God-centered heaven. Inuit: “And the seals? You say nothing about the seals. Have you no seals in your heaven?” “Seals? Certainly not. We have angels and archangels…the 12 apostles and 24 elders, we have…” “That’s enough. Your heaven has no seals, and a heaven without seals is not for us!”

Evidence for Life After Death

  1. Talking to the dead: Frank’s Box/Telephone to the Dead/Psychics.
  2. Information Fields and the Universal Life Force. —21 Grams: 1907 Duncan MacDougall tried to find out by weighing six dying patients before and after their death—medical journal American Medicine: a 21-gram difference —Rupert Sheldrake
  3. ESP and Evidence of Mind. Experimental research on psi and telepathy
  4. Near-Death Experiences

    • Clue: “Near” death. Not dead.
    • 80% of people who almost die and recover have no NDEs at all.
    • OBE: people “see” themselves from above. But what is doing the seeing?
    • TPJ (temporo-parietal junction) stimulation = OBE
    • G-Force Induced Loss of Consciousness, Dr. James Whinnery: “dreamlets,” or brief episodes of tunnel vision, sometimes with a bright light at the end of the tunnel, as well as a sense of floating, sometimes paralysis, and often euphoria and a feeling of peace and serenity when they came back to consciousness. Over 1,000, apoxia, oxygen deprivation: “vivid dreamlets of beautiful places that frequently include family members and close friends, pleasurable sensations, euphoria, and some pleasurable memories.”
    • Neurochemicals such as endorphins, serotonin, and dopamine produce feelings of serenity and peace.
    • Methylenedioxyamphetamine (MDA) triggers long-forgotten memories and produces the feeling of age regression, while di-methyl-tryptamine (DMT)—AKA “the spirit molecule”—causes the dissociation of the mind from the body and is the hallucinogenic substance in ayahuasca, a drug taken by South American shamans.
    • Olaf Blanke, 2002 Nature article: willfully produced OBEs electrical stimulation of the right angular gyrus in temporal lobe of 43-year old epileptic woman.
    • Andrew Newberg: Buddhist monks meditate, Franciscan nuns pray, brain scans show low activity in the posterior superior parietal lobe, a region of the brain the authors have dubbed the Orientation Association Area (OAA)—orient the body in physical space.
    • 2010 discovery by Italian neuroscientist Cosimo Urgesi: damage to posterior superior parietal lobe through tumorous legions can cause patients to suddenly experience feelings of spiritual transcendence.
    • Ramachandran: microseizures in the temporal lobes trigger intense religiosity, speaking in tongues, feelings of transcendence.

Why do people believe in the afterlife?

  • Impossible to conceptualize death, or a world without life
  • Agenticity: we impart agency and intention to inanimate objects such as rocks and trees and clouds, and to animate objects such as predators, prey
  • Natural born dualists: corporeal/incorporeal, body/soul, brain/mind
  • Essentialism: Hitler’s jacket, Mr. Rogers’ sweater, Brad Pitt’s shirt, organ transplants
  • Theory of Mind (ToM). We project ourselves into the minds of others and imagining how we would feel. ToM occurs in the anterior paracingulate cortex just behind our forehead. We project ourselves into the future.
  • Extension of our body schema. Our brains construct a body image out of the myriad inputs from every nook and cranny of our bodies, that when woven together forms a seamless tapestry of a single individual called the self that we project into the future.
  • Extension of our mind schema/Decentering. afterlife is extension of our normal ability to imagine ourselves somewhere else both in space and time, including time immemorial.
  • Cosmic justice.

Habermas then gave his opening remarks and we went back and forth twice, took questions from the audience, and I ended with this call for us all to live life in this life and not in some imagined next life:

Not Life After Death…Life During Life

Either the soul survives death or it does not, and there is no scientific evidence that it does or ever will. Does this reality extirpate all meaning in life? No. Quite the opposite, in fact. If this is all there is, then how meaningful become our lives, our families, our friends, our communities—and how we treat others—when every day, every moment, every relationship, and every person counts; not as props in a temporary staging before an eternal tomorrow where ultimate purpose will be revealed to us, but as valued essences in the here-and-now where purpose is created by us.

Science tells us is that we are but one among hundreds of millions of species that evolved over the course of three and a half billion years on one tiny planet among many orbiting an ordinary star, itself one of possibly billions of solar systems in a commonplace galaxy that contains hundreds of billions of stars, itself located in a cluster of galaxies not so different from millions of other galaxy clusters, themselves whirling away from one another in an accelerating expanding cosmic bubble universe that very possibly is only one among a near infinite number of bubble universes. Is it really possible that this entire cosmological multiverse was designed and exists for one tiny subgroup of a single species on one planet in a lone galaxy in that solitary bubble universe? It seems unlikely.

Through a natural process of evolution, and an artificial course of culture, we have inherited the mantle of life’s caretaker on Earth, the only home we have ever known. The realization that we exist together for a narrow slice of time and a limited parsec of space, potentially elevates us all to a higher plane of humility and humanity, a provisional proscenium in the drama of the cosmos.

Matthew Arnold, Empedocles on Etna:

Is it so small a thing,
To have enjoyed the sun,
To have lived light in the Spring,
To have loved, to have thought, to have done;
To have advanced true friends, and beat down baffling foes;
That we must feign a bliss
Of doubtful future date,
And while we dream on this,
Lose all our present state,
And relegate to worlds yet distant our repose?

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Reason Rally Rocks

Shermer leading the Reason Rally Cheer (photo by John Welte)

Yours truly, leading the Reason Rally Cheer (photo by John Welte)

March 24, 2012 marked the largest gathering of skeptics, atheists, humanists, nonbelievers, and “nones” (those who tick the “no religion” box on surveys) of all stripes on the Mall in Washington, D.C., across from the original Smithsonian museum. Crowd estimates vary from 15,000 to 25,000. However many it was, it was one rockin’ huge crowd that voiced its support for reason, science, and skepticism louder than any I have ever heard. Anywhere. Any time. Any place. It started raining just as the festivities gathered steam late morning, but the weather seemed to have no effect whatsoever on the enthusiasm and energy of the crowd…or the speakers and performers. The organizer and host David Silverman and his posse of tireless staff and volunteers pulled it off without a hitch. Organizing big events can be an organizational nightmare, but they did it, marking what I hope is the first of many consciousness raising events in the civil rights movement for equal treatment for us nonbelievers and skeptics.

James Randi and I arrived well before our scheduled talk time and mingled among the crowds, swamped with well-wishers and camera-hounds and feeling the love from so many people that makes fighting the good fight for science and reason well worth it when you know there are people out there who care. Hanging out behind the stage and in the wings was an especially nice treat for me as I got to watch the speakers and performers and the audience together. Someone snapped this pic:

Shermer hang in out backstage

I think I was watching Tim Minchin, whom I have never met or seen perform live. It was clear from the start that he was a major headliner as the audience exploded in energy for him, cajoling him to remove his boots and perform barefoot, one of his trademark features, along with distinct eyeliner highlighting his radiant blue eyes (he says he uses make-up in order to highlight facial expressions for audiences because his hands are usually both busy on the keyboard). Here we are hanging out after his remarkable performance. He was brilliant, funny, witty, insightful, clever, and most of all inspirational. Minchin is a genius.

Michael Shermer and Tim Minchin

No less a showman in humor and poignancy was Mr. MythBuster Adam Savage, who quickly moved off his scripted comments to do stand-up commentary on why science is the coolest thing one can possibly do. Even though Adam said “I’m not a scientist, but I play one on TV,” I disagree. I think the MythBusters are doing science, at least provisionally in testing hypotheses by running experiments over and over and over until they get some result, often not the one they were expecting. The fact that they have fun doing it, and usually blow up the experiment at the end, should not distract us from the fact that the core principle behind MythBusters is testing hypotheses, which is the core principle behind science. Adam was absolutely loved by the crowd. Here we are back stage after his talk.

Michael Shermer and Adam Savage
God Hates Bags

One observation: there were rumors that the Westboro Baptist Church protestors were going to be there with their now-infamous signs declaring “God Hates Fags”, and in anticipation of this people decided to fight hatred and bigotry with humor and wit, pace signs that read “God Hates Figs” and this one (right) plastered on bags carried around: “God Hates Bags.”

I had 5 minutes to speak. It doesn’t sound like much, but consider the fact that the greatest speech ever given in American history, Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a Dream” speech, was only 17 minutes long, and most of his other famous speeches, such as his “How Long, Not Long” speech, were even shorter. I began my talk by inveigling the crowd to, on the count of three, yell out “Skeptics Rule,” then “Science Rules” then “Reason Rules.” I couldn’t resist filming it with my iPhone camera. Here it is, the loudest cheer I’ve ever heard for skeptics, science, and reason.

Michael Shermer next to Thomas Jefferson statue

Here I am with my hero, TJ.

I veered away from my written speech here and there depending on the response from the crowd, and I added this line, which was picked up by the press and published in many places:

“America was not founded on God and religion. America was founded on reason.”

I was especially motivated to make that comment because the day before I visited Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello, which is a monument to reason. In point of fact, the Declaration of Independence is a monument to reason, along with the country it created.


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The Natural & the Supernatural: Alfred Russel Wallace and the Nature of Science

A couple weeks ago, I participated in an online debate at Evolution News & Views with Center for Science & Culture fellow Michael Flannery on the question: “If he were alive today, would evolutionary theory’s co-discoverer, Alfred Russel Wallace, be an intelligent design advocate?” Before reading this week’s post, you can review my opening statement in my previous Skepticblog and Flannery’s reply. The following is my response. A link to Flannery’s final reply can be found near the end of this page.

Michael Flannery’s assessment of Alfred Russel Wallace as a prescient scientist who anticipated modern Intelligent Design theory is premised on the belief that modern evolutionary biologists have failed to explain the myriad abilities of the human mind that Wallace outlined in his day as unanswered and—in his hyperselectionist formulation of evolutionary theory—unanswerable. In point of fact there are several testable hypotheses formulated by scientists—evolutionary psychologists in particular—that make the case that all aspects of the human mind are explicable by evolutionary theory. Flannery mentions just one—Steven Pinker’s hypothesis that cognitive niches in the evolutionary environment of our Paleolithic hominid ancestors gave rise to abstract reasoning and metaphorical thinking that enabled future humans to navigate complex social and cognitive environments found in the modern world. In his PNAS paper Pinker outlines two processes at work: “One is that intelligence is an adaptation to a knowledge-using, socially interdependent lifestyle, the ‘cognitive niche’.” And: “The second hypothesis is that humans possess an ability of metaphorical abstraction, which allows them to coopt faculties that originally evolved for physical problem-solving and social coordination, apply them to abstract subject matter, and combine them productively.” Together, Pinker concludes: “These abilities can help explain the emergence of abstract cognition without supernatural or exotic evolutionary forces and are in principle testable by analyses of statistical signs of selection in the human genome.” Pinker then outlines a number of ways in which the cognitive niche hypothesis has been and can continue to be tested.

In point of fact, Darwin himself addressed this larger problem of “pre-adaptation”: Since evolution is not prescient or goal directed—natural selection operates in the here-and-now and cannot anticipate what future organisms are going to need to survive in an ever-changing environment—how did certain modern useful features come to be in an ancestral environment different from our own? In Darwin’s time this was called the “problem of incipient stages.” Fully-formed wings are obviously an excellent adaptation for flight that provide all sorts of advantages for animals who have them; but of what use is half a wing? For Darwinian gradualism to work, each successive stage of wing development would need to be functional, but stumpy little partial wings are not aerodynamically capable of flight. Darwin answered his critics thusly:

Although an organ may not have been originally formed for some special purpose, if it now serves for this end we are justified in saying that it is specially contrived for it. On the same principle, if a man were to make a machine for some special purpose, but were to use old wheels, springs, and pulleys, only slightly altered, the whole machine, with all its parts, might be said to be specially contrived for that purpose. Thus throughout nature almost every part of each living being has probably served, in a slightly modified condition, for diverse purposes, and has acted in the living machinery of many ancient and distinct specific forms.1

Today this solution is called exaptation, in which a feature that originally evolved for one purpose is co-opted for a different purpose.2 The incipient stages in wing evolution had uses other than for aerodynamic flight—half wings were not poorly developed wings but well-developed something elses—perhaps thermoregulating devices. The first feathers in the fossil record, for example, are hairlike and resemble the insulating down of modern bird chicks.3 Since modern birds probably descended from bi-pedal therapod dinosaurs, wings with feathers could have been employed for regulating heat—holding them close to the body retains heat, stretching them out releases heat.4

So one testable hypothesis about the various aspects of the mind that so troubled Wallace is that cognitive abilities we exhibit today were employed for different purposes in our ancestral environment. In other words, they are exaptations, coopted for different uses today than that for which they originally evolved. But even if these hypotheses fail the tests new hypotheses will take their place to be empirically verified, rejected, or refined with additional data from the natural world. This is how science operates—the search for natural explanations for natural phenomena.

By contrast, Intelligent Design theorists offer no testable hypotheses at all, no natural explanations for natural phenomena. Instead, their answer to the mysteries of the mind is the same as that of all other mysteries of the universe: God did it. Although their narratives are gussied up in jargon-laden terms such as “irreducible complexity,” “specified complexity,” “complex specified information,” “directed intelligence,” “guided design,” and of course “intelligent design”—these are not causal explanations. They are just linguistic fillers for “God did it” explanations. It is nothing more than the old “God of the gap” rubric: wherever creationists find what they perceive to be a gap in scientific knowledge, this must be where God intervened into the natural world. If they want to do science, however, they must provide testable hypothesis about how they think God (or the Intelligent Designer—ID) did it. What forces did ID use to bring about wings, eyes, and brains? Did ID intervene into the natural world at the level of species or genus? Did ID intervene at the Cambrian explosion or before (or after)? Did ID create the first cells and pack into their DNA the potential for future wings, eyes, and brains? Or did ID have to intervene periodically throughout the past billion years to build bodies one part at a time? And more to the point here, did ID layer on cortical neurons atop older naturally evolved brain structures to enable certain primates to reason more abstractly than other primates?

The reason scientists do not take seriously the claims of Intelligent Design theorists today is the same reason scientists did not take seriously Wallace’s speculations about an “overarching intelligence” that guided evolution. As I noted previously, Wallace’s hyperselectionism and hyperadaptationism blinded him to the possibilities offered in a multi-tiered evolutionary model where the concept of exaptation expands our thinking about how certain features might have evolved for reasons different from what they are used for today. As Wallace’s biographer it is my opinion that he was driven as much by his overarching scientism of which his theory of evolution as pure adaptationism was a part, and that even his spiritualism was subsumed in his scientistic worldview.5

Read Flannery’s final reply in this debate.


  1. Darwin, Charles. 1862. On the Various Contrivances by Which British and Foreign Orchids Are Fertilized by Insects, and on the Good Effects of Intercrossing. London: John Murray. p. 348.
  2. Gould, Stephen Jay and Elizabeth Vrba. 1982. “Exaptation: A Missing Term in the Science of Form.” Paleobiology, 8, pp. 4–15.
  3. Prum, R. O. and A. H. Brush. 2003. “Which Came First, the Feather or the Bird: A Long-Cherished View of How and Why Feathers Evolved Has Now Been Overturned.” Scientific American, March, pp. 84–93.
  4. Padian, Kevin and L. M. Chiappe. 1998. “The Origin of Birds and Their Flight.” Scientific American, February, pp. 38–47.
  5. Shermer, Michael. 2002. In Darwin’s Shadow: The Life and Science of Alfred Russel Wallace. New York: Oxford University Press.
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Alfred Russel Wallace was a Hyper-Evolutionist, not an Intelligent Design Creationist

A couple weeks ago, I participated in an online debate at Evolution News & Views with Center for Science & Culture fellow Michael Flannery on the question: “If he were alive today, would evolutionary theory’s co-discoverer, Alfred Russel Wallace, be an intelligent design advocate?” The following is my opening statement in the debate. A link to Flannery’s reply can be found near the end of this page.

The double dangerous game of Whiggish What-if? history is on the table in this debate that inexorably invokes hindsight bias, along the lines of “Was Thomas Jefferson a racist because he had slaves?” Adjudicating historical belief and behavior with modern judicial scales is a fool’s errand that carries but one virtue—enlightenment of the past for correcting current misunderstandings. Thus I shall endeavor to enlighten modern thinkers on the perils of misjudging Alfred Russel Wallace as an Intelligent Design creationist, and at the same time reveal the fundamental flaw in both his evolutionary theory and that of this latest incarnation of creationism.

Wallace’s scientific heresy was first delivered in the April, 1869 issue of The Quarterly Review, in which he outlined what he saw as the failure of natural selection to explain the enlarged human brain (compared to apes), as well as the organs of speech, the hand, and the external form of the body:

In the brain of the lowest savages and, as far as we know, of the prehistoric races, we have an organ…little inferior in size and complexity to that of the highest types…. But the mental requirements of the lowest savages, such as the Australians or the Andaman Islanders, are very little above those of many animals. How then was an organ developed far beyond the needs of its possessor? Natural Selection could only have endowed the savage with a brain a little superior to that of an ape, whereas he actually possesses one but very little inferior to that of the average members of our learned societies.

(Please note the language that, were we to judge the man solely by his descriptors for indigenous peoples, would lead us to label Wallace a racist even though he was in his own time what we would today call a progressive liberal.)

Since natural selection was the only law of nature Wallace knew of to explain the development of these structures, and since he determined that it could not adequately do so, he concluded that “an Overruling Intelligence has watched over the action of those laws, so directing variations and so determining their accumulation, as finally to produce an organization sufficiently perfect to admit of, and even to aid in, the indefinite advancement of our mental and moral nature.”

Natural selection is not prescient—it does not select for needs in the future. Nature did not know we would one day need a big brain in order to contemplate the heavens or compute complex mathematical problems; she merely selected amongst our ancestors those who were best able to survive and leave behind offspring. But since we are capable of such sublime and lofty mental functions, Wallace deduced, clearly natural selection could not have been the originator of a brain big enough to handle them. Thus the need to invoke an “Overruling Intelligence” for this apparent gap in the theory.

Why did Wallace retreat from his own theory of natural selection when it came to the human mind? The answer, in a word, is hyper-selectionism (or adaptationism), in which the current adaptive purpose of a structure or function must be explained by natural selection applied to the past. Birds presently use wings to fly, so if we cannot conceive of how natural selection could incrementally select for fractional wings that were fully functional at each partial stage (called “the problem of incipient stages”) then some other force must have been at work. Darwin answered this criticism by demonstrating how present structures serve a purpose different from the one for which they were originally selected. Partial wings, for example, were not poorly designed flying structures but well designed thermoregulators. Stephen Jay Gould calls this process “exaptation” (ex-adaptation) and uses the Panda’s thumb as his type specimen: it is not a poorly designed thumb but a radial sesamoid (wrist) bone modified by natural selection for stripping leaves off bamboo shoots.

Wallace’s hyperselectionism and adaptationism were outlined more formally in an 1870 paper, “The Limits of Natural Selection as Applied to Man,” in which he admitted up front the danger of proffering a force that is beyond those known to science: “I must confess that this theory has the disadvantage of requiring the intervention of some distinct individual intelligence…. It therefore implies that the great laws which govern the material universe were insufficient for this production, unless we consider…that the controlling action of such higher intelligences is a necessary part of those laws….”

After an extensive analysis of brain size differences between humans and non-human primates, Wallace then considers such abstractions as law, government, science, and even such games as chess (a favorite pastime of his), noting that “savages” lack all such advances. Even more, “Any considerable development of these would, in fact, be useless or even hurtful to him, since they would to some extent interfere with the supremacy of those perceptive and animal faculties on which his very existence often depends, in the severe struggle he has to carry on against nature and his fellow-man. Yet the rudiments of all these powers and feelings undoubtedly exist in him, since one or other of them frequently manifest themselves in exceptional cases, or when some special circumstances call them forth.”

Therefore, he concludes, “the general, moral, and intellectual development of the savage is not less removed from that of civilised man than has been shown to be the case in the one department of mathematics; and from the fact that all the moral and intellectual faculties do occasionally manifest themselves, we may fairly conclude that they are always latent, and that the large brain of the savage man is much beyond his actual requirements in the savage state.” Thus, “A brain one-half larger than that of the gorilla would, according to the evidence before us, fully have sufficed for the limited mental development of the savage; and we must therefore admit that the large brain he actually possesses could never have been solely developed by any of those laws of evolution…. The brain of prehistoric and of savage man seems to me to prove the existence of some power distinct from that which has guided the development of the lower animals through their ever-varying forms of being.”

The middle sections of this lengthy paper review additional human features that Wallace could not conceive of being evolved by natural selection: the distribution of body hair, naked skin, feet and hands, the voice box and speech, the ability to sing, artistic notions of form, color, and composition, mathematical reasoning and geometrical spatial abilities, morality and ethical systems, and especially such concepts as space and time, eternity and infinity. “How were all or any of these faculties first developed, when they could have been of no possible use to man in his early stages of barbarism? How could natural selection, or survival of the fittest in the struggle for existence, at all favour the development of mental powers so entirely removed from the material necessities of savage men, and which even now, with our comparatively high civilisation, are, in their farthest developments, in advance of the age, and appear to have relation rather to the future of the race than to its actual status?”

Modern Intelligent Design creationists generally (with few exceptions) believe that the designer is God. Nowhere in this paper does Wallace invoke God as the overarching intelligence. In a footnote in the second edition of the volume in which this paper was published, in fact, Wallace upbraids those who accused him of such speculations:

Some of my critics seem quite to have misunderstood my meaning in this part of the argument. They have accused me of unnecessarily and unphilosophically appealing to “first causes” in order to get over a difficulty—of believing that “our brains are made by God and our lungs by natural selection;” and that, in point of fact, “man is God’s domestic animal.” … Now, in referring to the origin of man, and its possible determining causes, I have used the words “some other power”—“some intelligent power”—“a superior intelligence”—“a controlling intelligence,” and only in reference to the origin of universal forces and laws have I spoken of the will or power of “one Supreme Intelligence.” These are the only expressions I have used in alluding to the power which I believe has acted in the case of man, and they were purposely chosen to show that I reject the hypothesis of “first causes” for any and every special effect in the universe, except in the same sense that the action of man or of any other intelligent being is a first cause. In using such terms I wished to show plainly that I contemplated the possibility that the development of the essentially human portions of man’s structure and intellect may have been determined by the directing influence of some higher intelligent beings, acting through natural and universal laws.

Clearly Wallace’s heresy had nothing to do with God or any other supernatural force, as these “natural and universal laws” could be fully incorporated into the type of empirical science he practiced. It was not spiritualism, but scientism at work in Wallace’s world-view: “These speculations are usually held to be far beyond the bounds of science; but they appear to me to be more legitimate deductions from the facts of science than those which consist in reducing the whole universe…to matter conceived and defined so as to be philosophically inconceivable.”

In Wallace’s science there is no supernatural. There is only the natural and unexplained phenomenon yet to be incorporated into the natural sciences. That he left no room in his evolutionary theory for exaptations of early structures for later use is no reflection on his ambitions and abilities as a scientist. It was, in fact, one of Wallace’s career goals to be the scientist who brought more of the apparent supernatural into the realm of the natural, and the remainder of his life was devoted to fleshing out the details of a scientism that encompassed so many different issues and controversies that made him a heretic-scientist.

If modern Intelligent Design theorists restricted their visage to only natural causes they would, perchance, be taken more seriously by the scientific community, who at present (myself included) sees this movement as nothing more than another species of the genus Homo creationopithicus.

Read Flannery’s reply to my opening statement and tune into Skepticblog in a couple weeks for my response to him.

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