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How Not To Debate Materialists

This is the story of how a gifted scientist lost a debate with a Darwinist — a debate he should have won

We are often told that humans are just big-brained apes. That’s obviously not true but the idea has a history and here’s a key episode:

In the 19th century, a controversy about the anatomy of human and ape brains pitted Darwinist T.H. Huxley (1825–1895) against creationist Sir Richard Owen (1804–1892) in the debate about human exceptionalism. Owen lost the debate, not because he was wrong about human exceptionalism, but because he misunderstood the fundamental metaphysical difference between humans and apes. Owen made a common mistake among those of us who fight the materialist and Darwinist view of man — he accepted materialist premises and thus lost the debate on materialist grounds.

Of course, Owen was right that humans are exceptional, and the neuroscientific evidence strongly supported (and still supports) human exceptionalism. Here is the story of what happened — why Owen lost a debate he should have easily won.

Richard Owen (right), who coined the word “dinosaur,” was a genius. His scientific accomplishments were protean and spanned disciplines; he was perhaps the greatest biologist, anatomist, and paleontologist of the 19th century. He was also a passionate opponent of Darwin’s theory of the origin of species by natural selection (survival of the fittest). Based on his seminal work in paleontology and anatomy, he was skeptical of any theory of transmutation of species.

Owen was deeply religious and he (correctly) inferred, based on the mountain of evidence for which he was largely responsible*, that species were intelligently designed according to a master plan. A century later, the discovery of DNA and the genetic code would vindicate Owen’s intuition that life evolved according to a blueprint, not according to an accumulation of random mutations.

As the greatest anatomist of his day, Owen noticed that a small region of the human brain, then called the hippocampus minor, appeared to be missing in apes. He publicly claimed this absence as strong evidence for human exceptionalism — evidence that man was fundamentally anatomically different from apes.

Owen engaged in debate with T. H. Huxley (right), an uneducated grifter nicknamed “Darwin’s bulldog” who, like Darwin, failed medical education but unlike Darwin, found subsequent employment. Huxley surfed to fame on a late 19th century Darwinian tide and eagerly (and wisely) challenged Owen’s claims about the hippocampus minor in apes and humans.

The hippocampus minor is a small bump on the inner surface of the posterior part of the lateral ventricle of the brain. It is caused by the thick bundle of nerve fibers that run from the eyes to the calcarine cortex, which is the vision region of the occipital lobe. It is of neurosurgical interest because, unlike some regions in that portion of the human ventricle, damage to it can cause a serious disability (partial blindness); thus, neurosurgeons learn to avoid injury to it.

It turns out that all animals who have vision have nerve fibers that mediate vision in that region. The hippocampus minor (since renamed the calcar avis, shown below) may be somewhat more prominent in humans, for unclear reasons. But it is not unique to humans and it is most certainly not relevant to the very real qualitative differences between human beings and other animals. Any animal with vision and an occipital cortex has a hippocampus minor — whether it’s a visible bump in the ventricle or just a region in the wall of the ventricle in which the fibers run.

Huxley carried out public dissections of ape brains and showed that apes do indeed have a hippocampus minor, thereby refuting Owen in a very public way. His refutation was quite helpful in the Darwinian campaign to replace design with purposeless material processes as an explanation for the evolution of life.

Owen was unwise to base his claim of human exceptionalism — a claim completely vindicated by science and by everyday experience — on the physical differences between apes and men. It is the mental differences which distinguish us. Apes make no claim to ape exceptionalism — they make no claims at all. What distinguishes apes from men is not their brains. I could use ape brains to teach human neuroanatomy to my medical students. Although ape brains do differ somewhat from human brains in cortical anatomy, it is the similarity between the brains of apes and men, rather than the differences, that provides striking evidence of human exceptionalism.

It is the mind, not the brain, that distinguishes men from apes. I cannot use ape minds to teach human language, mathematics, religion, philosophy, logic, literature, art, music, history, science, engineering, and countless abstract abilities which are utterly lacking in apes.

Man’s mind is qualitatively different from an ape’s mind in specific ways: Humans are able to think rationally and abstractly and apes are not. Humans have free will and apes have appetites, which are not free. Apes, unlike humans, make no claims about biology or evolution. Apes make no claims about anything.

Man has a capacity for abstract reason — the ability to contemplate universal concepts abstracted from particular objects. This uniquely human capacity was known to Aristotle (384–322 BCE), who called man a “rational animal.” We are indeed animals — hence we have brains that are quite similar to apes — but we are rational, and thus we have minds that are utterly unlike those of apes.

The best evidence for human exceptionalism is the fact that our minds are unique while our bodies are not. What is unique about man is his soul, not his brain. We are composites of spirit and matter, composites of immaterial rational minds and animal bodies. The immateriality of the human mind is a scientific inference, abundantly supported by the best neuroscience of the 20th and 21st century. Some of the strongest evidence against a Darwinian evolutionary explanation for man is this radical difference of mind despite similarity of body.

If our brains were radically different from those of apes, that would strengthen Huxley’s argument that humans are merely evolved animals — Huxley could try to explain human reason as an evolved brain trait. But the similarity between human and ape brains means that the radical difference between human and ape minds — the human capacity for reason — doesn’t have a material (evolutionary) basis.

We are a different kind of being from apes or any other animals, not because of the structure of our brains but because of the abstract powers of our minds. Thus, here is the argument Owen should have made:

“Human and ape brains are very similar .Yet our minds are radically different, so that difference cannot be physical. We have spiritual souls, and it is our spirituality — our capacity for reason, rather than the physical structure of our bodies — which is the basis for human exceptionalism. My friend Huxley is quite right about our physical similarity with apes, which is strong evidence that matter cannot account for the obvious radical differences in our minds. We are created, not evolved.”

Owen, had he used this argument, would have forced Huxley to argue with himself — to explain the unique capacity for human reason in light of the similarity of human brains to ape brains. That’s quite a challenge, even for a man so experienced in Darwinian story-telling. But the idea did not occur to Owen because he accepted the materialist premise that human beings are purely physical beings. Owen, although a man of deep Christian faith and a scientist of the first rank, neglected the human soul. By accepting the materialist metaphysical premise, he lost a debate he should have easily won.

The difference between man and other animals is immaterial — spiritual — not physical. Darwinism, a naturalist (materialist) theory, could not, in Owen’s day, provide a scientific basis for this obvious spiritual difference. And it cannot do so now. Darwin’s theory is wrong not merely — as Phillip Johnson so eloquently pointed out — in its conclusions but in its premises. It is junk science predicated on junk philosophy—never more so than when the Darwinist comes into conflict with the immaterial powers of the mind. If we wish to understand well-established, uniquely human qualities with help from neuroscience, for example, we must be careful not to tacitly accept materialist metaphysical premises, as Owen did. We could then misread our science and lose debates we can otherwise easily win.

* A war of statues also ensued. Owen discovered and named hundreds of species and the natural history division of the British Museum was created to display his work. But Darwin’s theory of evolution became very fashionable and a “war of the statues” ensued:

1882: Darwin’s marble statue was installed on the landing in “Owen’s own cathedral,” the Natural History Museum.

1927: Owen’s statue replaced Darwin’s, which was placed in a secondary position

2009: At the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of his seminal work, On The Origin of Species, Darwin was restored to pride of place.

Further reading: Michael Egnor on

reason: The real reason why only human beings speak: Language is a tool for abstract thinking—a necessary tool for abstraction—and humans are the only animals who think abstractly

free will: How Libet’s free will research is misrepresented: Sometimes, says Michael Egnor, misrepresentation may be deliberate because Libet’s work doesn’t support a materialist perspective.


the soul: What is the difference between “soul” and “spirit”? Neurosurgeon Michael Egnor explains the subtle distinction between the meaning of the two, often confused, terms

Michael Egnor

Senior Fellow, Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Michael R. Egnor, MD, is a Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics at State University of New York, Stony Brook, has served as the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery, and award-winning brain surgeon. He was named one of New York’s best doctors by the New York Magazine in 2005. He received his medical education at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and completed his residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital. His research on hydrocephalus has been published in journals including Journal of Neurosurgery, Pediatrics, and Cerebrospinal Fluid Research. He is on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Hydrocephalus Association in the United States and has lectured extensively throughout the United States and Europe.

How Not To Debate Materialists