Review: “Why Us? How science rediscovered the mystery of ourselves” by James Le Fanu

Books like this are not written every day; actually, they’re hardly ever written. In Why us? How science rediscovered the mystery of ourselves, medical doctor James Le Fanu sets out to demonstrate how two indisputably phenomenal achievements of science – the mapping of the human genome and the deeper understanding of the human brain’s workings – are impossible to reconcile with the worldview of absolute materialism adamantly held and preached ad nauseam by scientists today. And it goes without saying that his criticism immediately targets Darwin’s theory of evolution and common descent, though it extends well beyond that.

Le Fanu’s central thesis is that the model of common descent via random mutation and natural selection cannot even begin to explain a) the surprising similarity between genomes of completely different species and b) the non-material nature of the human mind (as opposed to the brain), which does however exert very material effects (you reading this review is a good example).

Chapters overview

Science triumphant, almost

An overview of the history of scientific achievement, culminating in the recent mapping of the human genome and the findings of the Decade of the Brain. However, both have failed to reveal how life can be organised by mere genetic “chemicals” or how the human mind can function by mere “electrical firing” in the brain.

The ramifications of the seemingly disappointing outcomes of the New Genetics and the Decade of the Brain are clearly prodigious, suggesting that we are on the brink of some tectonic shift in our understanding of ourselves.

The Ascent of Man: A riddle in two parts

The art, social life and intellectual achievements of the earliest civilisation of Homo sapiens, dated around 30,000 BC, challenge the notion of human evolution.

…how and why twenty or more distinct species of hominid should, over a period of several million years, have undergone that wholescale anatomical transformation required for standing upright, and then followed it up with acquiring that prodigiously sized brain whose potential to comprehend the workings of the universe appears so disproportionate to the needs of a hunter gatherer.

The limits of science 1: The quixotic universe

Isaac Newton’s landmark discovery of the law of gravity gave us a Grand Unifying Theory of the universe, but left us with the question of how mass exerts its gravitational force over mind-boggling distances without any physical medium (e.g. planets in space). It is an example of the limitations of science and an absolutely materialistic worldview.

Thus, ironically, this most scientific of theories, grounded in the observation of the movements of the planets expressed in mathematical form, subverts the scientific or materialist view which holds that everything must ultimately be explicable in terms of its material properties alone.

The (evolutionary) ‘Reason for Everything’: Certainty

The history of Charles Darwin’s “On the origins of species” and the way it was received as the Grand Unifying Theory of life, despite contemporary and later scientific criticism. The mostly non-Darwinian fossil record and the mysterious Cambrian explosion have presented with the problem of “transitional species” (aka “missing links”), i.e. the conspicuous absence of the multitude of intermediate organisms demanded by gradualistic evolution.

…there are dangers in supposing the wonder and diversity of the natural world to be so much more rapidly explicable than it really is… Darwin’s evolutionary theory readily short-circuited serious intellectual enquiry as it could, in an instant, produce a reasons for (literally), everything.

The (evolutionary) ‘Reason for Everything’: Doubt

The experiments of Gregor Mendel introduced the concept of the gene. Although his own notion of genetic “fixity” seemed to contradict Darwin’s theory, the discovery of gene mutations provided a biological way by which speciation could occur via natural selection – except that random mutations are rare and almost invariably disadvantageous. Mathematical models attempted to solve this dilemma by shifting the locus of evolution from the individual to the species as a whole, but failed to actually provide a consistent answer. Furthermore, the fossil record failed to answer the problem of “perfection” of organs and organisms as well as the conundrum of limb homology.

Thus, as of the early 1980s, science no longer had an adequate materialist explanation for the history of life. The surprise perhaps is how readily refutable Darwin’s theory turns out to be, as if it must contain some hidden flaw that invalidates its scientific credentials – as indeed it does.

The limits of science 2: The impenetrable helix

The discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA led to a progressive understanding of the genetic code, culminating in the mapping of the entire human genome in 2001. In light of this, genetic information could no longer be thought of as a chain, but rather as an intricately complex network between genes. This further minimised the impact of a single random mutation in driving evolutionary diversity. Further, vastly different species share hosts of identical genes, often in relatively similar numbers. Finally, identical control (“master”) genes produce entirely different variations of an organ (such as the Pax 6 gene for the eye), further compounding the problem. The gap from genetic material to genetic information cannot be bridged by strictly materialistic means.

The Double Helix fails the further test of scientific knowability because, like Newton’s gravitational force, it imposes the order of ‘form’ on life without there being any evidence of some scientifically measurable objective means by which it might do so.

The Fall of Man: A tragedy in two acts

In The descent of Man (1871), Darwin explained away the human mind by evolutionary means. The ripple effect of his theory had virtually unavoidable consequences on the way humans viewed themselves, setting the stage for racism, eugenics and other reprehensible forms of “genetic oppression”. Further, this “sociobiology” brought about the new discipline of evolutionary psychology that sought to “naturalise” human virtues like altruism.

We need, in short, a fuller, more rounded view that acknowledges the core reality of the human experience which sets us apart – the sense of the autonomous, independent ‘self’ not as some shadowy, elusive entity, but something real and tangible that explains the force of character and the personality that is within each of us.

The limits of science 2: The unfathomable brain

The human mind is obviously non-material, and yet it exerts material effects. The history of brain research has given us many tremendous insights into how our brains interact with the outside world. However, the purely scientific approach has left us with five seemingly insurmountable mysteries: subjective awareness; free will; the richness and accessibility of memory; human reason and imagination; and the Self.

Might neuroscientists discover how the electrical activity of the neuronal circuits of the brain gives rise to the non-material mind, and confirm as ‘mere illusion’ our perception of ourselves as free autonomous beings? The answer… must be ‘no’.

The Silence

An evaluation of the role of science in understanding the dual nature of reality (material and non-material). Some history of philosophy, looking at the way materialistic thinking overtook religious worldviews during the Enlightenment and the rise of modern science. However, the scientific inaccessibility of the genetic code and the human mind demand an alternative approach in defining the world and decisively challenges the claim of science as the absolute means of knowledge.

We can no longer be certain, as we might have been till recently… ‘that is all there is to it’, because we cannot, by definition, comprehend the nature of that potent non-material realm with its power to conjure the wonders of life from the bare material bones of scientific knowledge.

Restoring Man to his pedestal

Looking to the future, we realise that we have reached a tipping point for science. We realise that the long-held theory of evolution fails spectacularly to fit the evidence, and a worldview of materialistic reductionism is no longer sustainable. Instead, the author calls for a new paradigm of science; one that can accommodate notions of extraneous (or even intelligent) design in nature and the non-material dimension of the human mind. In particular, the exceptionality of the latter must drive us to an understanding of man that goes against Darwin’s Descent. Just as Marx and Freud failed to provide a “Theory of Everything” for history and human behaviour respectively, so does Darwin ultimately fail to provide an overarching explanation of life.

It now seems deeply irrational for materialist science to deny the exceptionality of the human mind and to insist that the sense of self and free will are no more than illusions generated by the workings of the brain. It is certainly irrational to assert the truth of the evolutionary doctrine (‘the mystery of our existence is a mystery no longer because Darwin solved it’) in the face of all the scientific evidence that would contradict it.

Evaluation

There isn’t really much left to say after the above. As a scientist, I think this is a powerful book and an inspiring call for science to do what it does best: self-correct – in this case, before it’s too late.

The fact that Le Fanu does not have an obvious religious context behind him (at least as far as I can see) means that, for once, a strong critique of Darwin might actually be taken seriously by the scientific community. Having said that, we cannot overlook that he does utilise many arguments (fossil record, comparative anatomy and irreducible complexity, to name a few) that have been previously posited by openly religious writers who, in turn, have been largely ignored or dismissed as ‘the crazies’. What that says about the scientific world, we leave the reader to decide.

The strength of Le Fanu’s arguments lies especially in the fact that they are up-to-date. His research is solid, both from a literary and scientific point of view. The writing flows and never becomes bogged down with the technical language that often plagues this genre (‘public communication of science’). His ability to clarify and simplify complex concepts is enviable, and certainly makes the book accessible to a wide audience (I particularly enjoyed his two-page description of gene coding).

Of course, the very nature of the book calls for a non-scientific evaluation. For people of religious conviction this will leave a few gaps. Despite his call for a non-materialist approach to knowledge, Le Fanu is careful not to lend ammunition to those who would accuse him of being a ‘creationist’, whatever that means anymore. He certainly gives scientific credence to the Design hypothesis, but with qualifications:

There is, of course, nothing in the new paradigm that can be interpreted as direct evidence for a Creator, or that would resolve the insuperable difficulty for many of conceiving of his existence and purpose. But while it is hard to imagine him hard at work designing several thousand species of beetle, there is vastly greater evidence for ‘design’ – for those who would wish to interpret it as such – than the supposition that the vast panoply of nature should be the incidental consequence of those numerous genetic mutations that the genome projects have so unequivocally failed to identify.

Overall, this is an important book in more than one ways. Its purpose is to raise awareness on the shortcomings of Darwin’s evolutionary theory, which has further stagnated in light of recent scientific discovery. But where the book really succeeds is in opening a bold way in which religion and science can find a realistic common ground. For those of a religious persuasion and especially Christians, who have been particularly shunned and berated by scientific materialism, this can only be good news.

Why Us? calls for scientists to free themselves from the bonds of Darwinism or risk corrupting the very essence of science itself. In my opinion, the book does this persuasively, though it is certain that the more vocal members of the evolutionary camp will proceed (and already have) with the usual accusations of “bad science” and “quote-mining”, followed by nit-picking that misses the big picture.

Of course, this will do nothing more than prove Le Fanu’s point: Adhering to (macro)evolution is no longer rational, but demands virtually religious faith. Ironically, the evidence leads us further and further away from Darwin; the problem is that science is desperately clinging on instead of looking for a new direction. But what that direction may be lies beyond its current materialistic borders.

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