What if evolutionary science actually posed a problem for the confident atheism of men like Richard Dawkins?

That would odd: first, because Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist; and second, because believers (especially in America) do not normally see evolution as an ally.

So what’s the deal?

Let’s begin with a picture of a beetle mating with a beer bottle.

Obviously.

beetleonbottlebig

EVOLUTION AND PERCEPTION

This past year, a TED talk by the cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman went viral with over two million views. You can watch it here. Hoffman studies evolution and perception at UC Irvine, and gist of his research is this:

Evolution rewards “fitness.” And fitness is defined by how effectively an organism passes on its DNA to future generations. Those adapted to do this best survive, while others die out. Hence: “survival of the fittest.”

Now the kicker. As Hoffman states in a recent interview with NPR (here):

An organism that sees reality as it is will never be more fit than an organism of equal complexity that sees none of reality but that is just tuned to fitness.

To simplify, Hoffman is saying that evolution doesn’t care whether your brain accurately perceives reality. Evolution only cares if you pass on your DNA by feeding, fleeing, fighting and reproducing. And if this means distorting your perceptions, so be it.

(If this is confusing, see the TED talk linked above.)

As Hoffman argues, we do not perceive reality in itself. We only perceive what the neurons in our brain present to us. The brain constructs and reconfigures reality in this process. And while we might think that accurate perception equals “fitter perception,” that is not necessarily the case.

We once thought that the earth was flat, because it looks that way. But we were wrong.  Appearances can be deceiving.  On top of this, Hoffman’s claim is that our brains add to the deception.

As evidence, we return to our besotted beetle.

WHY THE BEETLE LEFT HIS WIFE FOR THE BOTTLE

The Australian Jewel Beetle is shiny, brown, and dimpled. The males fly. The females don’t. And when a male beetle finds a shiny, brown, and dimpled female on the ground, he mates with her, favoring the bigger ones.

But there’s a problem. The Outback is now populated with another species (humans). And this species also likes shiny, brown, and dimpled objects (bottled beer). Thus, as bottles began to litter Outback roadways and campsites, a strange thing happened: the Jewel Beetle nearly went extinct.

The males ignored the females, and passionately embraced “the bottle.” Just like a Merle Haggard song.

As Hoffman notes: “Australia had to change their bottles to save their beetles.”

Similar cases of cognitive distortion (minus the bottles) can even be found in more complex species, including mammals.

As Hoffman, argues: Natural selection gave the beetle a “hack” to be successful in passing on its DNA: Good mates are dimpled, brown, and shiny—the bigger the better. And this worked for thousands of years. Until it didn’t.

So does evolution actually favor the accurate perception of reality? Hoffman, along with many other evolutionists, say “No.”

But what does this have to do with Richard Dawkins?

Enter Alvin Plantinga.

Alvin PlantingaPhoto by Matt Cashore/University of Notre Dame
Photo by Matt Cashore, University of Notre Dame

PLANTINGA’S ARGUMENT

The now 83-year-old Plantinga is an institution amongst Christian philosophers.

He now holds an Emeritus post at Notre Dame, and according to many, is largely responsible for a quiet revival of theistic philosophers in the American university.

Among his more famous arguments is his “evolutionary argument against naturalism” (EAAN). This can be found, most recently, in his 2011 book: Where the Conflict Really Lies.

While the details  are complex, the gist is similar to Hoffman’s argument. As Plantinga writes:

The probability of our cognitive faculties being reliable, given naturalism and evolution, is low (p. 314).

This is essentially Hoffman’s claim.

But then Plantinga continues:

If I believe both naturalism and evolution, I have a defeater for my intuitive assumption that my cognitive faculties are reliable. If I have a defeater for that belief, however, then I have a defeater for any belief I take to be produced by my cognitive faculties. That means that I have a defeater for my belief that naturalism and evolution are true (p. 314).

NATURALISM

For Plantinga, “naturalism” is the view that “there is no such person as God, or anything like God” (p. ix). Yet it is stronger than mere atheism in at least two ways: First, it rises to the level of a “quasi-religion” in claiming to answer life’s ultimate questions. And second, it proceeds with a religious zeal in confidently asserting that all religion is obviously irrational and silly.

In short, naturalists like Richard Dawkins place massive confidence in the power and reliability of their cognitive faculties. Yet—and this is key!—Dawkins’ very discipline (evolutionary science) is now calling into question the reliability of one’s cognitive perceptions.

Perhaps, say some evolutionists, we are more like the beetle on the bottle than we like to think.

The conclusion is this: You can claim with evolutionary naturalists that our cognitive faculties are deeply unreliable. But you cannot claim this while simultaneously placing a god-like confidence in your own cognitive faculties.

That move is self referentially incoherent.

A CALL TO HUMILITY

So what’s my take?

While Hoffman’s research is fascinating, I really doubt that we are essentially in the same position as the beetle on the beer bottle (Merle Haggard and George Jones songs not withstanding!).

Then again, part of my reasoning rests in a Creator who has ensured a general, though not perfect, correspondence between reality and our ability to perceive it.

As for Plantinga, I think he is quite right to challenge the confidence that Dawkins has in his own cognitive abilities. Yet I suspect that he paints too monochrome a picture of the current evolutionary science.

According to a friend of mine in the field, the claims of Hoffman and those like him are hardly universally accepted. And even if they were, it would not mean that our cognitive perceptions are flatly wrong (thus as even Hoffman notes, you shouldn’t try jumping off a cliff…).

Instead, these new findings may only mean that we should be more humble in our cognitive assertions, especially about ultimate reality.

And perhaps that’s the problem with both Dawkins and many Christian apologists: a general lack of epistemic humility regarding what we can demonstrate by way of our own brilliance.

In the end, we may not be as deluded as the beetle on the bottle.  But we are limited in understanding.

So here’s to some humility to season boldness.

And as a “thank you” to the insect who helped illustrate this important truth, here’s a tribute to his unrequited love (here).

 

 


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One thought on “Why beetles mate with beer bottles: evolution and perception

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