Thursday March 19th, 2009

People Are Strange

Why Us? How Science Rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves by James Le Fanu
Pantheon, 320 pp. $26.95

I scribbled my first “Huh?!” in the margins of Why Us? on page 124, when James Le Fanu calls the theory of evolution “readily refutable.” Up to that point, I was trying my best to nod along with Le Fanu’s attack on scientism, or excessive faith in science. After all, in his acknowledgments the British science writer cited my writings (among others) as an influence, so naturally I was inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.
Moreover, I agree with some of Le Fanu’s initial points. He begins by noting science’s extraordinary successes. We have split the atom and discerned the laws that rule it at scales small and large, peered back in time to the fiery birth of the cosmos, constructed a narrative of life’s origin and evolution, including the emergence of our ancestors several million years ago, and cracked the code that governs heredity. “The triumph of science, one might suppose, is virtually complete,” Le Fanu writes on page five.
He quotes prominent scientists prophesying that science will soon solve the mystery of mysteries, ourselves. The Human Genome Project, the prodigious effort to decode our DNA, inspired the biologist Walter Gilbert to enthuse, “The search for the ‘Holy Grail’ of who we are has now reached its culminating phase.” Advances in neuroimaging and other brain probes prodded the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio into proclaiming, “The question is not whether the neural machinery will be understood but when.” The British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins has even suggested that our existence “is a mystery no longer” because Darwin solved it 150 years ago when he published On the Origin of Species!
Le Fanu is at his best when exposing how far these chest-beating declarations diverge from reality. He points out that modern evolutionary theory, for all of its power, still leaves Big Questions unanswered. We still don’t know how life began; how, exactly, new species emerge; and why natural selection rapidly transforms certain lineages — notably our own — while leaving others relatively untouched for tens of millions of years.
In spite of all the hype surrounding the Human Genome Project, researchers remain as baffled as ever by how subtle differences in DNA yield such disparate organisms as yeast cells, elephants and bond traders. Moreover, geneticists have failed in their attempts to identify “genes for” traits and disorders such as high intelligence and homosexuality. That is not surprising, Le Fanu asserts, because recent research has shown that genes do not churn out proteins in a simple, linear fashion but interact with each in “staggeringly complex ways” via negative and positive feedback loops.
As for neuroscience, Le Fanu says, researchers still can’t comprehend how, precisely, we perceive, remember, emote, decide, act. Scientists have learned that the brain breaks even the simplest perceptions — say, our perceiving a dog named Lola bounding into a room — into many different components, such as color (black), shape (short and stout), smell (doggy), and sound (yappy). But scientists have no idea how the brain fuses these elements together so we can say, “Hi, Lola!” This is sometimes called the binding problem, but I prefer to call it the Humpty Dumpty dilemma: neuroscientists can break the brain into pieces, but they can’t put it back together again.
Le Fanu still had me more or less agreeing with him by page 108, when he writes, “The greatest obstacle to scientific knowledge is not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge.” But his book then devolves into an anti-science diatribe depressingly similar to those mounted by intelligent-design advocates. The theory of evolution is “erroneous,” he contends, the double helix “fails the test of scientific knowability,” and neuroscience has disproven its own premise that brains make minds.
Switching to a moral perspective, Le Fanu reminds us that evolutionary theory, recast as social Darwinism, was used to justify racism, sexism, imperialism and other unsavory isms in the late 19th century. Similarly, genetics spawned eugenics (Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton coined the term), which culminated in the Nazi program to breed a master race. These horrific pseudo-scientific ideologies, Le Fanu argues, “are an almost inevitable consequence of any solely materialistic doctrine.” (That earned another “Huh?!”)
Le Fanu complains that neuroscience, in its attempt to explain cognition in terms of neural firing patterns, threatens to expose free will as an illusion. “And if that is the case,” he writes, “the whole notion of human action and activity would vanish — the saint and the criminal held in equal regard, for both would be no more than stooges of their brain.” Le Fanu proposes that we need a new scientific paradigm, which rejects materialism and reductionism, grants the “non-material reality of the human soul” and recognizes that perhaps life was designed by a “higher intelligence.” (Margin note: “Oh no!!”)
Le Fanu makes the case that evolutionary biology, genetics and neuroscience leave some crucial questions unanswered and have inspired some morally noxious ideologies. On that we agree. But I reject his conclusion that these fields are thus wrong in both senses, empirically and morally. This stance is a non sequitur, as much as condemning physics because it cannot explain where the universe came from and inflicted nuclear weapons on us.
Scientific hubris disturbs me, too, and science is never more dangerous than when it purports to tell us what we are, what we can be, and what we should be. But the last thing humanity needs now is to abandon reason and embrace our more superstitious ways. For all its flaws and limitations, science — hard-nosed, reductionist, materialistic science — represents our best hope.

John Horgan is the author of The End of Science, The Undiscovered Mind, and Rational Mysticism. He is currently working on a book about belief in the inevitability of human warfare. He is the Director of the Center for Science Writings at the Stevens Institute of Technology, in Hoboken, New Jersey.