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Philosopher’s Dilema

Mind And Cosmost book cover imageThe philosopher Thomas Nagel has come out with an admirably  short and engaging book, Mind And Cosmos, with the subtitle Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False. Readers unfamiliar with Nagel might assume that his book is an attack on contemporary Darwinism by a person of faith arguing that biological evolution reveals the work of an intelligent designer — God himself. But the author, University Professor in the Department of Philosophy and the School of Law at New York University, removes any such misunderstanding at the start by declaring himself an atheist.

In Nagel’s view, Neo-Darwinism — biological evolution as we understand it today – is fundamentally incomplete, because it doesn’t explain how life originated and, says Nagel, it  won’t ever have the ability to explain the emergence of human consciousness. Nagel believes that a better way of thinking about nature, and specifically about biological evolution, would be to search out nature’s purpose and goal. For while insisting that he is not theistic – quite the contrary – he nonetheless believes that evolution is teleological. That is to say, it has a purpose and it intends to reach a specific goal.

Nagel’s book was recently reviewed — rebutted may be the better word — across three of those very large pages that make up the New York Review of Books. The reviewer, H. Allen Orr, is University Professor and Shirley Cox Kearns Professor of Biology at the University of Rochester, an evolutionary geneticist. These two, the biologist and the philosopher, are well matched in intelligence, prizes and distinguished positions in the republic of the intellect. But you needn’t be either a biologist or a philosopher to read Mind And Cosmos. Although Nagel writes at the highest level of abstraction and rarely yields to the concrete example, he write with pristine clarity and is quite understandable. (more…)

Charles Darwin and Paul Johnson

Darwin - portrait of a geniusHardly anyone actually reads Charles Darwin nowadays, but most people know about him and his work. In the world of science, his ideas are foundational for an understanding of how different species come into existence, how they change, become dominant or get wiped out. Big thinkers, especially in science, cause a big stir, and occasionally their ideas become points of fierce controversy. But if their theories withstand critical scrutiny they become part of the way we understand the physical world; then controversy subsides and withers away. Not so with Darwin.

Darwin’s theory on the origin of species — that they were not created individually, as we are told in the Old Testament, but have evolved from earlier species — created controversy when it was first published in 1859. And his ideas continue to be heatedly attacked and passionately defended even today, chiefly in the United States. Furthermore, his theory of evolution in nature provided the scientific premise for Social Darwinism and eugenics policy. So it’s handy to have a deft little book about Charles Darwin’s life and achievements and that’s what we have in Paul Johnson’s Darwin, Portrait of a Genius.

The book, published by Viking within the past year, is short, only 150 or so pages. It’s nicely bound in black and red with a handsome slip cover showing the old man himself, a white bearded grandfather in a black fedora and Chesterfield coat. Paul Johnson is an experienced writer with considerable knowledge of the subject at hand, and many other subjects as well. This book, being as short as it is, has the feel of an extended essay — a beautifully clear and concise essay.

It’s all here. Darwin’s extraordinary family background (Grandfather Erasmus Darwin, a polymath genius; father Robert, a brilliant doctor of medicine, maternal grandfather Josiah Wedgwood, another genius), his five-year trip around the world as a naturalist on the HMS Beagle, his minute observations of different species, his gradual recognition that different species were not created independently and whole, but evolved from earlier models, his reluctance to publish, and finally his two greatest works, The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man. (more…)

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