BHA conference: Evolutionary theory – is this all there is?

Last weekend the British Humanist Association held one of its regular conferences at Conway Hall in Red Lion Square, London. The topic was Evolutionary theory: is this all there is? and, as usual with these events, there was a distinguished list of academics on hand to discuss questions relating to biology, psychology and philosophy. Here’s my (inevitably subjective) summary of what went on and what we got out of attending.

Are human minds made by memes?

The first session, under the heading of human psychology, was the one that had encouraged us to send off for our tickets in the first place. Having watched videos of talks by psychologist and memeticist Dr Susan Blackmore before, and finding her proposition about memetics fascinating, we were keen to see her in person. Put very simply (and subject to my actually having understood this properly) it goes as follows. Darwinism can be expressed in the following algorithm: If you have variation, selection and heredity then the next generation will be better-adapted to survive in the circumstances and you have evolution. Genes are just one example of this principle, and Dr Blackmore posits another, memes. These are units of information (ideas, stories, habits, skills and designs) competing to be copied and disseminated – by us.

Now, memetics does come in for some academic stick and, to represent the sceptical position, Dr Blackmore was joined by Dr Simon Blackburn, a professor of philosophy at Cambridge University. He set out some of the counter-arguments including the status of memetics as a proto-science and the questions of whether it can be used predictively or subjected to standard scientific scrutiny rather than just being used speculatively. It’s always necessary to be aware of the counter-arguments before becoming too carried away with an idea, so this was a useful talk.

A further fascinating insight from Dr Blackmore came at the end in the general Q&A session with a question on the consequences of memetics for humanity. She suggests the possibility that, with the invention of the Internet, we may just have created another replicator for memes. First there were human brains to disseminate ideas, which clearly need to have humans attached to them, which went on to invent written or printed material like manuscripts or books, which again cannot just bring themselves into being. But with the invention of the World Wide Web we may be moving towards a position where information can disseminate without human intervention of any sort. Dr Blackmore wondered how much information already exists on the web that is not generated or even necessarily read by humans? We’re still integral because we have to provide the electricity that keeps the Internet running. But will that always be the case? This is fantastically interesting and stimulating stuff and you can follow it up via Dr Blackmore’s website or by watching a talk that she gives on YouTube here.

Can there be genuine value in a godless universe?

The second session, under the heading of ethics, was perhaps a little disappointing. And I had the impression that we were not the only members of the audience to think so. A distinguished panel of philosophers considered the above question – but all working from the principle that moral values have an objective existence – for instance, that we can all agree that suffering is wrong. The position that what we refer to as moral values can derive from biological and social causes, which are open to scientific investigation, was more or less dismissed in a sentence by the first speaker and not returned to. I would have welcomed wider discussion of this position, which is often referred to not entirely complimentarily as reductionism. The panel reached a sort-of consensus on the idea of the possibility of ‘objective’ values being able to exist independent of any kind of deity but there was some discussion about where exactly such values might reside.

I was not left convinced, for example, by the idea that we objectively agree that causing suffering is wrong. What about the cancer doctor that imposes huge suffering on a patient in the service of curing their disease and possibly saving their life? Of course, her intention is to cure disease and preserve life, not to cause suffering but we now have a case where causing suffering with a higher motive is acceptable. What about the teacher that sends a disruptive child to sit on the naughty step, causing it embarrassment and mortification? Is embarrassing and mortifying that child in order to modify its behaviour and teach it the essential skill of functioning in society acceptable suffering or not? This raises the possibility of a smaller degree of suffering being acceptable whereas a greater degree (caning the child) might not be. In either case, the idea that we know suffering to be objectively wrong is undermined.

What about the suffering of an individual for the good of the many? This morning the BBC reports that an adulterer has been stoned to death by Islamists in Somalia. Clearly the perpetrators of this awful act would wish to advance the position that his suffering and even death was necessary in the wider interests of society – which seems pretty damned inhuman to a secularist, but which is nevertheless still an available argument. In the face of all this, how we can accept the proposition of an objective moral code rejecting suffering is beyond me.

I am positive that, were I better-versed in the highways and byways of philosophical discourse, the necessary counter-arguments to all of the above would immediately be obvious to me. Which is one reason why it would have been nice to have them offered up by the panel. Perhaps it is to do with the fact that, in each of these examples, we still retain the essential concept of ‘suffering’ that we instantly understand and which cannot be invoked without recourse to justifications. Nevertheless, without the opportunity to address ideas like these I found myself becoming increasingly impatient with what followed. But anything that provokes this degree of heavy-duty thinking is clearly worth the entrance fee, although I found myself longing at times for AC Grayling to descend as a deus ex machina and start refuting right and left. Anyone interested in exploring these concepts further is encouraged to look into the discipline of meta-ethics.

What does evolutionary biology have to say about the meaning of life?

The third session started after lunch and came under the heading of the meaning and purpose of life. It was easily the most ‘feelgood’ of the sessions since both speakers supported the idea that, while dispensing with the notion of a ‘higher purpose’ governing the universe it is still possible for individuals to create perfectly valuable and purposeful meaning in our own lives. The first speaker, Professor Michael Reiss from the Institute of Education, gave an incredibly useful and interesting summary of the last 150 years of evolutionary biology that covered a number of key concepts in an accessible way for the non-expert. An engaging speaker, he ended his talk by pointing out that a key evolutionary pressure on our ancestors was to be able to work out what others were thinking. This explains how rational, empathetic reasoning evolved for entirely selfish reasons – but humans also developed the capacity to behave less selfishly. Meaning is available in our lives without recorse to a relationship with the eternal, and we each have the capacity to derive our own meaning. He ended by saying that we are all products of our evolutionary heritage but with a certain freedom of choice that allows us to move beyond our biological origins.

The last formal session of the day was given by Richard Norman, Professor Emeritus of Moral Philosophy at the University of Kent. With him we had an interesting tussle with the teleological argument – the notion that biological and natural phenomena hava an inherent purpose, in effect the argument from design. He explained how ‘purposive explanations’ seem intuitively plausible and gave the example of a giraffe – which obviously must have a long neck so it can eat leaves from the highest branches of trees. He gave a compelling explanation of how “Darwin dethrones teleology from the biological world” with organs, structures, behavioural traits serving a purpose for an organism but the concept of ‘purpose’ emphatically not explaining how those features came into existence. Again an essential session for the non-expert seeking to understand the tenets of natural selection and the flaws in the arguments of its opponents. He also addressed some of my concerns from the earlier talk on ethics, saying that any theory of morality must satisfy the evolutionary constraint to be plausible.

He ended his talk in similar terms to Dr Reiss, pointing out that humans have the capacity to make sense of thier own lives and that, while we can provide an evolutionary account of those capabilities, this does not mean we have to explain everythings in those terms. Examples he gave were relationships, creativity and cultural artifacts. His final words were: “We are animals, but not just animals.”


Like the Darwin, Humanism and Science conference held at the same venue in June, this was challenging, stimulating, thought-provoking and very well worth attending. Of particular appeal is the opportunity for a general, non-academic audience to get access to the ideas of the people doing the thinking. I find these events to be a good mixture of strengthening existing understanding and encountering challenging ideas. Conway Hall’s a nice venue and the audience (so far) has been made up of polite and considerate individuals so the events aren’t too stressful to attend. So they definitely come recommended by me – keep an eye on the BHA website or subscribe to its newsletter to be kept in touch with what’s happening in the future, or watch some videos of previous events on its YouTube channel here.