Evolution and the Extent of Explanatory Power




evolution-personA friend recently sent me this article by Micah Mattix titled, “Portrait of the Artist as a Caveman”. In the piece Mattix looks at recent attempts to explain and understand art and artistry from an evolutionary explanatory framework. The author makes some important observations many with which I agree (though maybe for different reasons).

While I think many explanatory models built on evolutionary frameworks are very informative and explanatorily sufficient, I’m pretty skeptical of current attempts to develop a grand evolutionary history that is based around reverse-engineering phenotypes to genotypes and genotypes to pre-historic precursors to modern biological functions. We simply don’t have a history of natural selection and never will. (This is part of the reason why I don’t think “irreducible complexity” style arguments work either. As critics of this style of argumentation have pointed out, we just don’t know how specific mechanisms we see in current organisms might have developed because we don’t have a history. IC arguments make inferences about what might have been the case in terms of functional usefulness just as evolutionary historians do about functional development.) The only reason I tend to buy any evolutionary story for any particular explanandum (and I think there are only situational explanatory narratives in evolutionary theory, no explanatory meta-narrative—at least not yet) is because that particular evolutionary story has more explanatory power than any other explanans for that explanandum. And it also has to be in a better position in terms of metaphysics and epistemology than its rivals. It’s a pretty tall order but one that any theory or explanatory model faces.

Evolutionary stories about human psychological properties tend to have the same plot which attempt to break down what we know about some given thing (language, art, reason) into smaller, atomic parts, then make assertions about the role those parts probably played in early humans or pre-human biology, and finally provide a narrative for how those parts formed into what we see today. Even if the explanation is completely coherent and reasonable (and based in the evidence we have at our disposal), it can never be considered history. Just a good explanatory, but ultimately a “just so,” story. I’m not implying that this counts against evolutionary explanations at all. Any other model faces the same challenges (and, frankly, there are scant few other options worth considering). But as Mattix tries to point out, when we fail to consider that we’re not talking about history but about inferences to the best explanation, we tend to lose sight of the fluid nature of the underlying model and the need for open-mindedness to other explanations and for potential revision to the story—something philosopher Thomas Nagel has argued for recently in his book, Mind and Cosmos.

When it comes to art, I think all we can say is that humans have an artistic impulse and if the current evolutionary narrative is correct, then it somehow developed through the process that theory describes. I just can’t see how we can come up with any story about how it actually formed based on the paltry evidence, and type of evidence, we have at our disposal. Any story will be at best a product of inferential speculation and has, ultimately, to be defeasible and taken with a grain of salt. The point, I think, is not that we shouldn’t attempt to develop these stories. Rather, it’s to temper the tendency to treat these stories as historical narratives that have enough explanatory strength to marginalize or even prohibit other explanatory models—even non-evolutionary ones (as Nagel and, to an extent, Mattix argue).

I think we also seem to forget that we can always say, “we just don’t know.” Our drive for causal stories is just too strong (and I’m sure there’s a good evolutionary story for why that is).