The Human Instinct by Kenneth R. Miller (2018)

Does evolution diminish humanity from the pinnacle of creation to a place of purposeless worthlessness? This paradigm is shared by many evolutionary scientists as well as their creationist opponents, but in The Human Instinct: How we evolved to have reason, consciousness, and free will, Kenneth R. Miller argues against both, contending for a positive, inspiring view of evolution and humanity’s place in the universe.

Miller leaves no doubt that he accepts evolution, and especially human evolution, as settled science in a heavily materialistic view of the universe. He discusses the infamous Chromosome 2 fusion, the growing collection of hominid fossils of intermediate cranial capacities (and the inability of creationists to agree on which ones are “human” and which ones are “ape”), and the remarkable relation of NANOG pseudogenes serving as an apparent checkpoint in human-chimpanzee branching.

At the same time, Miller makes it clear that he recognizes creationist fears of the theological, philosophical, and moral implications of an evolutionary past for humanity. “The story of human evolution, according to those who spin this narrative, is one of pointless accident, dark struggle, and ultimate meaningless.” In contrast, Miller hopes to resurrect Darwin’s sense of “grandeur,” believing that in “the beauty and subtlety of evolution” comes “a new and exhilarating way to see our place among other living things.”

Covering a variety of topics like human psychology, consciousness, and free will, Miller provides succinct backgrounds of existing paradigms, noting the consensuses and controversies around them, quoting profusely from everyone from C. S. Lewis to Richard Dawkins and offering his own opinions and humble attempts at further contribution. He provides needed caution against some of the alleged historical explanations for human behavior  pouring from the field of evolutionary psychology without proper evidence. He offers reasons to doubt the neuroscience claims that our conscious decisions are made ahead of us by brain activity before we realize it.  In response to those who argue that all of our features are shared in lesser degrees by other animals, and that the human species is only unique in the way that every species is technically unique, Miller notes: “De Waal’s book is a marvelous display of pure brilliance on the part of our animal cousins. But it’s worth noting that the book was written by Dr. de Waal, not by any of the high-achieving animals he describes.”

Like Jonathan Losos in Improbable Destinies, Miller describes the contingency debate between Stephen Jay Gould’s randomness and Simon Conway Morris’s inevitability, arguing that, like other consistently repeated patterns, intelligence itself may be a “niche” that the “deep structure” of the universe is destined to exploit. While a replay of history might not result in our exact species, “not everything is possible in terms of physics, genetics, biochemistry, and physiology.” Pointing to octopuses which “could be on the verge” of self-awareness, “there is at least an element of predictability” in the limited pathways that random evolution can explore, suggesting that “great intelligence” may be “inherent” in evolution.

Miller doesn’t provide a final explanation for human consciousness, though he remains extremely optimistic that future brain science will give us a full understanding, possibly even to the point of powering through Chalmer’s “hard problem” by figuring out how to generate (for example) subjective sensations of color in blind individuals. Comparing the details of present brain structures, he hypothesizes that our ancestor’s growing brains disrupted old neuron connections and caused new ones that played some part in our emergent self-awareness. Against the self-defeating logic that a brain that evolved for survival instead of truth cannot even trust its own attempts to discover truth, including the very truth that it evolved for survival: “Yes, the human brain is a faulty instrument.” But “the human brain is fully capable of consciously recognizing its faults and correcting for them.”

Resistant to the idea of a non-material soul, he says “we do not need to postulate a ghost in the machine,” yet he admits that “genuine thought remains an elusive property” of life. He points out that life and non-life use the same carbon atoms which themselves are not “alive” to analogize that consciousness may work similarly on another level.

While thinking doesn’t appear to violate the laws of physics, Miller nevertheless rejects a fully deterministic view of free will, though he also points out shortcomings in opposing paradigms – like a handwavy removal of the problem to quantum mechanics, somehow – and doesn’t offer much in their place. Recognizing the pervasiveness of the illusion, he hopes that free will can somehow emerge as a phenomenon on a higher level of complexity. He weakly concludes that at least we seem to have a higher degree of freedom than other creatures, with the unique ability to imagine the consequences of different actions and to use that imagination to choose between them.

All of this leads to a claim, or at least a hope, that we can still somehow view ourselves at “center stage,” creating our own meaning, preferably including the idea that our connection to the rest of life gives us a unique responsibility to steward and protect it. In conclusion:

Our biological heritage is merely the beginning our what we can be, not the end of it… Evolution may explain the human need for art, music, religion, and even science, but it cannot explain those disciplines away. Each exists, in its highest form, as an expression of the best humanity can offer in making sense of this remarkable world… Far from diminishing us, knowing the details of Adam’s journey ennobles each of us as a carrier of something truly precious – the genetic, biological, and cultural heritage of life itself. Evolution describes not the death of Adam, but his triumph.

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