Ye Olde Natural Philosophy Discussion Group

Reviews and comments on
Gary Cziko:
Without Miracles [1995]

      This book is about the central abstract concepts in evolutionary theory, variation, selection and retention, and the application of these concepts to additional spheres besides basic biological evolution. In other words, it is about a universalized selectionist theory which seeks to explain the origin and development of many different sorts of things based on blind variation and selective retention of certain features. For example it has chapters about how an individual human’s immune system develops in a selectionist manner, and on how the organization of a person’s brain develops through the proliferation of synaptic connections among the neurons and the consequent selectionist pruning of these synapses. It also seeks to apply these same sorts of ideas in numerous other areas, including human knowledge, cultural development, and so forth.

      Our group gave this book a collective rating of 5.0 on a scale of 0 to 10. But our most enthusiastic supporter of the book missed our discussion, and we may increase that average rating a bit when his rating is added in!

      Rosie, who read the book a long time ago, liked the first half of it a lot, but thought that it trailed off considerably beginning with the discussion of Chomsky. In general, she thought it was too detailed. Overall, she had very mixed feelings about the book, and gave it a rating of 6.

      Kevin had some problems with the basic thesis of the book, and also thought it was a little outdated. He thought the author didn’t address the counter-examples, and instead just ignored things that didn’t fit in with his view. He felt that Cziko really didn’t make his case with language and many of the other later topics in the book. It seemed to him that Cziko was merely setting out to prove a pre-established view without adequately considering the possible objections to it.

      Barbara said she agreed with what the author said. She read up to the chapter on education, and also the appendix on miracles. She commented that relying on miracles for explanations is for the less educated.

      Ron said that the evolution/selection theory worked fine for biological evolution, but just didn’t fit for the later topics. He commented that he wouldn’t recommend this book for others to read, and that most people who try to read this book probably would not be able to finish it. Reading it, Ron remarked, was something like eating dried liver crystals!

      John felt that the first part of the book was pretty much preaching to the choir, as far as our group is concerned. The part he liked best was the discussion of the evolution of neural connections in the brain. He had read half of the book and likes it more than dislikes it so far. Rich agreed with the comments of other people, especially Kevin and John. He just wasn’t convinced by the arguments in the later part of the book.

      Scott had a hellova time getting into this book at all, in part because of the peculiar language used by Cziko and others in this field. He said he cringed violently every time Cziko talked about the “development of fit” (rather than the development of fitness), for example! Once Scott finally got past the first 25 pages, and built up some limited resistance to the weird language and abundant sloppy statements, he found it a much more interesting book. The best single chapter, for him as well as John, was the discussion of the evolutionary development of neural connections in the brain.

      Scott agreed with the criticisms of others that Cziko did not do a very good job of making his case with regard to human knowledge, cultural development, and most of the other topics in the later part of the book. But his biggest disappointment was that Cziko did not really expand his theory into other aspects of biological evolution itself, as he certainly should have done. This is actually rather strange. While Cziko does give two examples of individual evolutionary development—of the individual immune system and of the organization of the brain of individuals—he still doesn’t really break with the reductionist theory that all the basic biological evolution in nature occurs at a single level (i.e., as a single evolutionary process). If it is really true that there is evolutionary development wherever there is variation, selection and retention, then there must also be biological evolution occurring at the level of not only the species, but also at the level of the cell, at the level of particular organs or tissues, the level of the organism, possibly at the level of higher taxons (genera, families, ...), at the societal level, and probably many more levels. The conflation of all this into a single “biological evolution” is quite wrong, let alone when it is pushed into Richard Dawkins’s dogma of “the selfish gene”. It is quite ironic that Cziko is still so firmly stuck in this way of thinking that he cannot recognize that his own “universal selection theory” has far more scope in biology than he himself understands!

      Kirby was one of the few of us who had read the entire book as of the time of our meeting. He remarked that in this universal selection theory Cziko had found his hammer and thus everything looked to him like a nail! Before reading the book, Kirby tended to agree with this wide selectionist perspective, but after reading the book he commented that he no longer agrees with that! Kirby did like the book a bit more than some others in our group. He said it did bring up a lot of fascinating points, but unfortunately many of them were not followed up on very well. He thought Cziko did the worst job on human knowledge, though his discussion of language was not very good either. In general Kirby felt that Cziko “cherry picked” his topics to try to prove his wider argument, and that some of his arguments seemed to have been quite stretched.

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