He seems very surprised. I guess it’s something he’s never experienced before.
Chopra has a little story to tell. It seems colobus monkeys have discovered that eating charcoal absorbs some of the irritating toxins in their diet, so the monkeys have been chowing down on the stuff for several generations. This is cool and clever, but not at all surprising — organisms adapt and take advantage of their environment all the time. But Chopra being Chopra has to put a very weird spin on it.
He argues that the behavior isn’t genetic, because it’s too recent — not quite right, novel mutations have to arise sometime, but in this case I agree with him that it isn’t likely to be genetic, because it spread more rapidly through the population than genes do. Then he claims that it can’t have been by chance, because, he claims, monkeys don’t eat random stuff. There, of course, he’s wrong — it’s practically a hallmark of monkeys that they are curious and try all sorts of things. What he then tries to do from this fallacious exclusion, though, is leap to an amazing conclusion.
What we are witnessing is an intelligent discovery on the part of creatures who stand far below Homo sapiens on the evolutionary chain, and that discovery is being passed on from mother to child without genetic adaptation. To me, this means that quite a blow has been struck for intelligence being innate in the universe. It suggests that evolution itself has never been random but is guided by the principle of intelligence — not “intelligent design,” which is a red herring supplied by religious conservatives. The intelligent universe is a cutting-edge idea, not a throwback to scripture. As a theory, it gives us a much more elegant explanation for many things that are clumsily explained by falling back on randomness to explain every new development in Nature.
Monkey discovers new material in its habitat, charcoal left by human fires. Monkey eats some. Monkey discovers it has soothing effect on its guts. Monkey eats more, more monkeys watch and learn, habit spreads through population.
That’s it. That’s the simple story. From this, Chopra invents this bizarre idea that an intelligent universe is pushing clever ideas into monkey brains, and is guiding ‘evolution’. It’s a crazy claim spun out of a fairly straightforward observation of entirely natural behavior by some monkeys.
Chopra doesn’t know what evolution is.
At the moment, evolutionary theory refuses to abandon the notion of random selection, and geneticists cling stubbornly to the doctrine of random mutations to explain why new things appear in the unfolding story of life. We all have a stake in this argument, however. Seeing the red colobus evolve before our eyes cannot be denied. It didn’t happen randomly, and their new discovery represents a quantum leap forward in their survival. There’s much to think about here, since we want to know how early humans made their first discoveries and passed them on to us. Rather than saying that a larger brain made intelligence possible, why not say the opposite, that intelligence dictated a larger brain so that it could expand? Life moves forward inexorably, no one doubts that. Now it’s up to us to explain the hidden forces behind evolution, in hopes that we can tap those forces and guide our own future.
The colobus story is not an example of evolution at all — it involves no changes in, or transmission of, heritable traits in a population. It is explainable entirely in terms of simple behavioral plasticity, and requires no intervention by an external intelligence, challenges absolutely nothing in evolutionary theory, and doesn’t demonstrate any hidden forces. If he were to try and present such a fable at a scientific meeting, he’d be laughed out of the room.
The only mystery here is why newspapers like the San Francisco Chronicle continue to publish his drivel. Is someone under the misapprehension that he is a respected or even credible thinker? He’s a loon.