Natural Selection and Other “just so stories”

The Capitalists and the Materialists both have their invisible god at work silently in our midst—a god who explains everything and nothing, all at once.  A neat trick if you can pull it off.  People actually think there is some mysterious force (no they have no proof, no empirical proof of this force—only the result—which includes any area they wish to pontificate about—in other words just like the “proof” for god) called “the invisible hand” and “natural selection” that “explain” everything and support the larger narratives called Capitalism and Materialism.  What these “keys” to explaining everything truly consist of are strategies of power contained within a “scientific” narrative to give them authority and cultural status.  They are both “just so stories” however and only interpretationsof the “evidence” and, like all narratives, held ultimately by faith.
And when it comes to this ghost called “natural selection” and how the mind works we see, ironically, the same fondness for simple-sounding explanations, which, let’s see, I guess would have an evolutionary explanation…but, how would I then…well…oh never mind.

Barashmuses, at the end of his book, on the fact that our minds have a stubborn fondness for simple-sounding explanations that may be false. That’s true enough, and not only at bedtime. It complements a fondness for thinking that one has found the key to everything. Perhaps there’s an evolutionary explanation for such proclivities.

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5 Responses to Natural Selection and Other “just so stories”

  1. Burk Braun says:

    I am sorry that you are still flogging this horse. Have you lost connection with reality entirely? If a billiard ball causes another fall into a pocket, is that a “just-so” story? Or is it something we can understand through a logical, evidence-based narrative?

    Capitalism and materialism are quite different things in this discussion. Capitalism has large normative and social/political components, in addition to its descriptive component. As descriptive narratives, both capitalism and materialism (and natural selection, as part of materialism) are logical, evidence-based narratives of how things work- processes in the inanimate or social world.

    It is only theologians who insist on apotheosizing or anthropomorphizing what is perfectly well and properly understood without any theological paraphernalia. If a god were needed to explain the various processes of natural selection, one would certainly be invoked in the relevant literature. But that is not the case.

    Gravitation is a good example on the linguistic front. One might very well say that “god causes things to fall”. We know little enough about the ultimate nature of gravitation that we might as well plug in some unknown and unknowable label. But using a more neutral term like “gravitation” encourages us to give that process a mathematical description rather than a empty, mystical, useless, and psychologically freighted “worship”. It might even encourage us to reformulate our understanding of gravity in terms of the shape of space time, which might be an advance in the narrative of knowledge, if only a partial one.


  2. Burk Braun says:

    Let me also comment on something closer to the article- the point of understanding ourselves in terms of natural selection and biology generally.

    Being gay has long been constructed as a choice, and a pernicious, depraved, immoral choice. It has only been with the recognition that people are biologically gay, involuntarily and from an early age, that the tide has turned towards granting gay people respect, rights, and human dignity in general. That is an example of biological understanding replacing psychologically freighted moralizing folk-theories of biology / psychology, to good effects. I expect similarly helpful understandings to develop in the fields of criminal justice, behavioral economics, and other fields.

    Natural selection is only a part of this process, but we can not really understand ourselves in a deep way without it. It replaces the heretofore dominant narratives of creation, original sin, fallen-ness, and all the rest of the religious rot we have inherited from our highly artistic, but highly ignorant, forebears.


  3. Darrell says:


    I have no idea what you are talking about. Are you saying Gottlieb is flogging some horse? Are you saying he has lost all connection to reality?

    My points were fairly clear. We all know that the “invisible hand” and “natural selection” are abstractions. They don’t exist. They stand as markers for our attempts at explaining the physical world and how people and nature operate, whether economically or as the sociobiologists were have us believe—in every social realm. They are simply ways of interpreting our world and social interactions. In that sense (whether good, bad or indifferent) they are “just so” stories. They are not “true” facts like “the fire is hot.”

    The writer is pointing out the obvious.


  4. Burk Braun says:

    I am afraid I don't really understand the distinction you draw between fire-is-hot and evolution. Suppose you had a malfunctioning nervous system, perhaps due to leprosy. Would fire then not be hot? This kind of fact still is constructed and we still have to skeptically evaluate our own senses to know what is going on. If you lived on a long time scale, in the millions of years, you would have no problem “seeing” evolution quite directly.

    You seem to be talking about what sensory apparatus you happen to be equipped with as being responsible for your “facts”, and if you sense god, then that is your truth. I don't think that is a very deep epistemology.


  5. Darrell says:

    Was I or Gottlieb talking about “evolution” per se?

    Again, I have no idea how your responses track with the New Yorker article or my post.

    To what do you think Gottlieb is referring when he speaks of “just so” stories?


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