Book Review: The Human Instinct by Kenneth R. Miller

I have written previously on several occasions (see here for an example) about the influence that Professor Kenneth R. Miller’s splendid book “Finding Darwin’s God” had on me. Miller, a believing Catholic, very persuasively tackled a series of common objections to Darwin’s important theory and explained just how crucial it was to our understanding of the natural world. In the years since, I have recommended Miller’s book to many Muslims who have come to me with questions about evolution and the feedback I have received has always been very positive.

So, it was with a keen sense of excitement that I learned that Miller had just published a new book, The Human Instinct, this time tackling the issues of free will and consciousness and humankind’s place in the world.

One of the most common reasons for rejecting evolution is surely a fear that we would be relegated to being just another animal. Are we just another animal sculpted by evolution? Yes we most definitely are, insists Miller, but he points out that this is certainly not the end of the story.

“We are surely part of Darwin’s tangled bank. But we are also the only creatures to be able to transcend it.”

Along the way to establishing the key unique characteristics of human beings, Miller takes aim at some evolutionary psychologists who would seek to reduce all our behaviour simply to adaptations caused by Natural Selection.

There is no question that we are part of the natural world and that we evolved from earlier species and share common ancestors with the rest of the natural world. So what does Miller mean to tell us with his statement above that we “are able to transcend” those origins? Miller provides a telling example. He cites a Canadian study which found that stepchildren were 120 times more likely to be beaten to death by their stepfathers than children who were killed by their genetic fathers. Miller points out that this study was not a one-off. Similar results have been found in other studies in the US and elsewhere. This is a “chilling” statistic as Miller says, and appears to provide data to back up the thesis that there is a greater likelihood that stepfathers will kill children not related to them to ensure that their resources go only to their biological offspring and not unrelated children. That seems to be sadly true judging by the data, yet Miller refuses to allow the argument to rest there. He delves deeper and finds that the actual rate of stepfather infanticide in Canada was 321.6 per million i.e. the frequency of such tragedies was less than 1 in 2500.

“…the real question is not why evolutionary pressures are powerful enough to induce murder, but rather why they are so incredibly weak that in reality they almost never do…One might fairly generalise that stepfathers, by a huge margin, love and care for their spouses’ offspring effectively and are certainly not inclined toward violence directed at their stepchildren. If the drive to propagate one’s genes, which resides at the theoretical heart of evolutionary psychology, is so powerful, we should ask what other forces exist that seem to have checked that drive so dramatically. What about human nature today has enabled us to largely escape the amoral behavioural claims of our evolutionary past? There must be another, even more powerful influence, acting on the behaviour of stepfathers and everyone else, and I think we know what that is.”

Miller also looks at the current arguments promoted by the neuroscientist Sam Harris and others that seek to portray free will as being an illusion. The argument for behavioural determinism goes something like this: we, including our brains, are made of atoms. These atoms obey physical laws. Hence, there is no room for free will. What we think of as “our choices” are in reality made by our brains in advance according to physical laws. Miller disputes this line of reasoning and says that if we lack free will then our scientific logic itself would not be valid. We would no longer be able to claim we are making decisions on the basis of evidence and reason because our “reasoning” would be due to a combination of “genetics, circumstance, and uncontrollable external stimuli.”  So, the argument that free will is an illusion would appear to undermine the whole of the scientific endeavour.

Miller’s book can be regarded as a welcome pep-talk to remind humankind that although we are creatures of evolution that is not something to be ashamed of. Indeed, there is something truly unique to celebrate.

“What is truly remarkable…is that a mind made up of atoms was able to discover the atom. It is that a creature composed of cells was able to discover, dissect, and understand the cell. And finally, that an animal produced by evolution could identify that very process, to understand the marks that descent with modification left on body and mind, and then to rise far above the demands of mere survival. Evolution does not undermine our humanity, our capacity for reason, or our science. It is, in fact the foundation of each. We have become the reasoning animals we are because we are the products of evolution.”

Miller’s latest book contains evidence of his prodigious reading and mastery of his subject matter on virtually every page and this makes for a wondrous read.

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