Erewhon: The 1872 Fantasy Novel That Anticipated Thomas Nagel's Problems With Darwinism Today

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It may be that the distance between educated amateur and scientific expert has widened since the 19th century, but the religious sensitivities Darwinism inflames seem to have remained fairly consistent.

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We live in an era of scientific triumphalism, when leading researchers in any number of fields claim they are supremely qualified to explain not only how the universe works, but also what it means. Metaphysics, they tell us, can now be considered a subset of physics.

Thus it's not surprising that distinguished hackles would be raised when a spirited counter-attack is launched by a well-known philosopher who contends that scientists

a) have conveniently ignored gaping holes in their understanding of how evolution has shaped the world and

b) might learn something from the evangelical Christians who promote Intelligent Design.

The philosopher in question is Thomas Nagel, who years ago attracted more than the usual attention accorded philosophy professors with his essay, "What Is It Like to Be a Bat?" Nagel's new book, Mind and Cosmos, comes with a subtitle that succinctly describes the epistemological chip he's placed on his shoulder, daring scientists to knock it off: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False.

Nagel's argument is that the mechanics of natural selection can't answer one of the most crucial questions of our existence: how living, reasoning creatures emerged from insensate matter. Although he himself is an atheist, Nagel says he shares the theists' conviction that the appearance of such creatures strongly suggests that the universe has, from the beginning, evolved teleologically, meaning it's moving purposively, toward ever-higher levels of consciousness.

"Each of our lives," he writes, "is a part of the lengthy process of the universe gradually waking up and becoming aware of itself." In the present intellectual climate, Nagel hastens to add, "such a possibility is unlikely to be taken seriously."

He got that right. Mind and Cosmos has been the subject of a number of high-profile takedowns, earning it top honors in the Guardian's list of Most Despised Science Books of 2012. So vitriolic has been the response that, as Jennifer Schuessler pointed out in the New York Times, even a relatively sympathetic review ran under the headline, "Thomas Nagel is Not Crazy."

My purpose here is not to review the Nagel controversy (the Times article includes a generous sampling of links for those interested in such a review), but rather to add some historical context by pointing out the striking parallels between his arguments and those made more than a century ago by one of my heroes, the great Samuel Butler.

Butler is best known as the author of the fantasy novel Erewhon, published in 1872. Erewhon, in turn, is best known for its extended meditation on the possibility that machines might one day attain consciousness and take over human beings.

The central character in Erewhon, unnamed in the original novel but identified in the sequel as Higgs, is a hiker who becomes lost in the mountains and stumbles upon an isolated civilization called Erewhon ("nowhere" spelled backward, sort of). Higgs learns that, five hundred years before his arrival, the citizens of Erewhon were alerted to the danger of technological revolt and banned the use of anything but the most primitive machines. The rationale behind this decision is spelled out in a manifesto called The Book of the Machines, which serves as a vehicle for Butler's musings on the implications of Darwinism.

The basic argument in The Book of the Machines is that technology is just as subject to the laws of evolution as plants and animals. There had to have been a moment in biological history when matter made the leap from inert to alive. Who's to say that at some point machines won't make the same leap? The speed of technological progress suggests they're already half way there.

The playful, almost absurdist tone of the Book of the Machines made it easy to conclude that Butler was making fun of Darwin - The Origin of Species had been published 13 years earlier, and remained hugely controversial. Butler denied it. He told Darwin in a letter that he'd intended only to demonstrate, for purposes of his own amusement and that of others, how easily a scientific concept could be distorted by exaggerated analogy.

Those feelings soon changed. Not long after Erewhon appeared Butler began to see what he considered the dark side of Darwin's theory: it portrayed evolution as a wholly mechanical process that removed any spark of creative vitality from the universe. This was directly counter to the views expressed, supposedly as a joke, in The Book of the Machines, which argued that willful intention can be discerned on far lower rungs of the evolutionary ladder than those occupied by human beings.

"Even a potato in a dark cellar has a certain low cunning about him which serves him in excellent stead," the Book of Machines says.

He knows perfectly well what he wants and how to get it. He sees the light coming from the cellar window and sends his shoots crawling straight thereto; they will crawl along the floor and up the wall and out at the cellar window; if there be a little earth anywhere on the journey he will find it and use it for his own ends.

Thomas Nagel makes the same point in Mind and Cosmos when he contends that "intelligibility" is "latent in the nature of things." The difference is that Nagel means his argument to be taken seriously, whereas Butler, initially at least, did not.

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