Nature as Historical, and Evolutionary
The Hyper-Focus on Evolution in Defending Modern Science
Today the theory of evolution, which is primarily viewed as a matter of understanding the mechanics of evolution, since outside those with either a childish view of reality or a political agenda evolution is viewed as simply an observable fact, is dominated by the converged theories commonly referred to as Neo-Darwinism.
The real argument is not the straw man argument of simplistic atheists whose only means of argument is to oppose the ignorant and childish views of a minority of the religious, and the corresponding argument of the ignorant and childish which ignores obvious observable reality. The more complex and interesting argument concerns a mechanics of evolution based on purely random causality versus mainstream creation theories that originated as an attempt to supplement evolutionary mechanisms with both a telic causality and an addendum to the mechanics of much older evolutionary theories. The commonality between both arguments, and the reason they are so easily confused by the non-scientific public, stems from the hyper-focus in both cases on evolutionary theory itself. Mainstream creation theories largely are in alignment with Heisenberg’s statement on science in general: “The first taste of the natural sciences will make you an atheist, but God is waiting for you at the bottom of the glass.”
This isn’t a defense of creation theory, but rather a look at the reasons underlying the hyper-focus on one scientific theory by both sides. Lewontin has already dealt with the first argument in terms of a political use of the childish views of certain sects of Christianity to battle one of the last areas of states’ right in the U.S., that of the states’ right to oversee education. As a result I will focus on the second argument, that which takes place at a much more complex level of argument between actual scientists, of whom Lewontin himself is a reasonable example, and actual theologians and scientists who see the same problems with Neo-Darwinism as with old evolutionary theories whose limitations led to the creationism of the Neo-Platonists, and see no new solutions to those issues.
On the latter side, the focus on evolutionary theory comes out of specific problems with Neo-Darwinist theory. On the former, the focus arises both from a distaste for theological solutions to scientific problems, and an underlying unease with Neo-Darwinism as a solution that renders the theological addenda irrelevant. A large part of the issue with Neo-Darwinism lies in its abrogation of two of the fundamental insights of Darwin himself, insights not available to the originators of evolutionary theory prior to the theological addenda begun by the Neo-Platonists.
The first problem concerns the fact that Darwin’s idea of natural selection only deals with one of the two moments of evolution. The second concerns the cause of evolution itself. Neo-Darwinism ignores the first moment of the two which Darwin specifically stated could not be explained by natural selection due to its issue with the second, since the mechanistic assumptions on which it is based does not allow for telic causality in any sense.
The two moments of evolution, well expressed by Bernard Lonergan in the book Insight, concern the following:
1. The likelihood of specific schemes of recurrence actually occurring, a phrase that covers the recurrence of examples of a specific species and the likelihood of greater complexity arising as those species change, and the recurrence of specific environmental conditions.
2. The survivability of examples of schemes of recurrence as specific species, which is largely dependent on the recurrence of specific environmental conditions.
Natural selection is paramount only in the second of these two moments. Rather than being a driver of evolution, it acts primarily as a brake on the development of species into more complex forms.
The difficulty for the Neo-Darwinists arises in finding any reason for the historical increase in the complexity of species given the relative success in terms of survivability of simpler forms of life when compared with the more complex forms. Darwin himself was familiar with the most advanced currents in philosophy of his time, in particular the ideas of Hegel in terms of historical development and the mechanics of telic causality, and combined with his religious upbringing saw no difficulty in a practical sense in accounting for the mechanics of the historical increase in complexity, but not the difficulty the Neo-Darwinists have in accepting either nature as a historical development or the existence of telic causality itself. As a result, aside from stating in the introduction that the development of new species could not be a matter of chance or happenstance, he focused on the second moment – the mechanics of survivability of specific species under changing environmental conditions.
Darwin’s studies and resulting theories represented a major advance in comparative zoology, made possible by technical advances in the ability to travel and therefore accomplish comparative zoology on a larger and more varied scale, and represented an advance, largely accomplished in the practical sense by others but figuring largely in his theories, in terms of paleontology as a means of dramatically extending the knowledge of the historical aspect of nature. At the same time Darwin’s theories accomplished a leap back to the original ideas on evolution as a complex interplay of telos and happenstance that over a historical period led naturally to species admirably adapted to their environment. Natural selection provided a mechanics for the happenstance that is largely responsible for the survivability of existent and new species, however it has no bearing on the telic causality, which Darwin himself felt was too complex a topic to tackle at the time of his writing.
The Neo-Platonists’ issue in terms of telic causality arose from the development of the idea of a creator being initially by the Stoics, and was simultaneously answered by the nature of the creator being in question. If reality had a beginning intentional telic causality was necessary to account for nature as natural history and the resulting need to account for the increase in the complexity of life forms over a limited period. For Empedocles the past was limitless, which was simply an assumption common to his society. For later thinkers, in particular Aristotle, the temporal infinity of the universe was a logical deduction based on the notion that any beginning to the universe would create a situation of an infinite regression in terms of the cause of such a beginning. The development of theories such as the Big Bang theory of reality’s origin doesn’t fundamentally address the problem, because the singularity at the beginning in fact replicates the features of the creator being except for the intentionality of the creator being, and the problematic issue that the singularity, as no longer being, must be temporally tensed, and must therefore itself have a cause. As a result the theory still prevalent of the beginning of the universe complicates the situation for evolutionary theory, because the historical increase in complexity cannot be accounted for by an intentional telic causality arising from the intentionality of the creator being itself.
Evolution, then is neither a fact nor a theory, but the description of nature viewed as natural history. When nature is looked at historically, even within the history of man, but more conclusively when geological history is brought into play, it appears as evolutionary. This history is determined by a complex interplay of creativity and destruction, Self-organization and entropy, Self-optimization and the limiting factors of the environment and resulting natural selection. The renormalization of Darwin’s vision of natural history with the invalid assumptions of mechanistic determinism, far from obviating creationism, render it necessary in order to account for the deficiencies in applying their explanation to the actual historical record of nature., as it was originally a necessary complement to the early evolutionary ideas in order to account for the observed evidence.
Darwin’s full vision of natural history as evolutionary, however, does not have the deficiencies present in either the original notions of evolution nor the renormalization of Neo-Darwinism, and as a result requires no complementary creationism to account for nature’s historical development as evolutionary.
Following on the notion of Darwin’s ideas as a historical account of nature, in which, evidentially, nature presents itself as historically evolutionary, we need to look more closely at what this means in terms of the inadequacy of the most commonly accepted theories of nature as historical, usually inaccurately referred to as “theories of evolution”.
Neo-Darwinism and its variants purport to be a more concrete extension of Darwin’s ideas, expressed principally in On the Origin of Species. Darwin’s ideas were an attempt, if only partial, to look at the history of nature, to view nature as historical in precisely the meaning Hegel gave that term. Hegel’s definition of history as the “history of Spirit” doesn’t initially give us much assistance in seeing how Darwin applied the idea to nature, which is generally viewed as precisely the opposite of anything “spiritual”.
Evidentially, given not only the array of examples in Darwin’s own work but in the work of many brilliant researchers since, from de Chardin to Lewontin, when nature is viewed historically it appears as an evolutionary history. The question then arises as to what makes a given history, the history of nature as we know it in this case, an evolutionary history, rather than just a sequential listing of events and changes.
We can distinguish quite readily an evolutionary change from a non-evolutionary change, as well as from a devolutionary change. We also distinguish fairly easily between evolutionary change and revolutionary change. Since evidentially the history of nature has been predominantly evolutionary (although research since Darwin has demonstrated revolutionary aspects to the history of nature at different times – referred to in the literature often as ‘punctuations’) any theory that attempts to understand the history of nature has to be able to distinguish between these types of change, and provide sufficient reason for the predominance of evolutionary change, punctuated by revolutionary change and occasionally halted and redirected by devolutionary disaster.
Darwin is, of course, known for the idea of natural selection. However Darwin himself did not feel comfortable with the focus given to the idea, since on its own it doesn’t provide sufficient reason for what the evidence available to him, presented as a steady evolutionary trend in the changes involved in nature throughout its history. While not proposing another mechanism himself, he does note in the introduction to On the Origin of Species that whatever that mechanism might be it
Naturalists continually refer to external conditions, such as climate, food, etc., as the only possible cause of variation. In one very limited sense, as we shall hereafter see , this may be true; but it is preposterous to attribute to mere external conditions, the structure, for instance, of the woodpecker , with its feet, tail, beak, and tongue, so admirably adapted to catch insects under the bark of trees. In the case of the misseltoe, which draws its nourishment from certain trees, which has seeds that must be transported by certain birds, and which has flowers with separate sexes absolutely requiring the agency of certain insects to bring pollen from one flower to the other.
Darwin, Charles (2012-05-16). On the origin of species (p. 3). . Kindle Edition.
In criticizing the “naturalists” of his time, Darwin indirectly levels a serious criticism at the Neo-Darwinists, mechanistic geneticists, and other “convergence” theorists that believe they are extending his work. Random change, by virtue of its being random, cannot distinguish between evolutionary, revolutionary, non-evolutionary and devolutionary change. While Darwin does make the claim that natural selection is the “main” arbiter that ensures change will, overall, operate in an evolutionary manner, thus matching the evidence at his disposal, he does not claim that it is the only agent of evolutionary change.
Going beyond Darwin, we have not only to provide a theory that fully accounts for change that can be described as evolutionary, we have to account for the ‘punctuations’, revolutionary changes that do not fit well with the slow, steady model of change originally envisioned. As well, the theory of the history of nature must provide a stronger accounting for an overall evolutionary style of change capable of overcoming the devolutionary disasters we have since discovered in the evidential record.
What, then, do we mean by evolutionary (and revolutionary as a more sudden form of the former) versus non-evolutionary or devolutionary change? We see nature’s historical record as evolutionary because we see evidence of a progression in terms of diversity and complexity within nature. As Darwin noted there is a fundamental difficulty in understanding
… how a simple being or a simple organ can be changed and perfected into a highly developed being or elaborately constructed organ;
Darwin, Charles (2012-05-16). On the origin of species (p. 5). . Kindle Edition.
This difficulty obviously doesn’t lessen when the requirement of understanding how revolutionary increases in diversity and complexity could occur, as they appear to have done relatively often in the geological record.
Diversity, while perhaps difficult to account for, is at least easier to initially understand than complexity. Natural selection, for its part, has nothing to say on the latter. Complexity, as far as all the evidence we have available, in and of itself shows no intrinsic advantage in terms of survivability. When we add in the likelihood of any particular scheme recurring, complexity inherently makes chance recurrence less likely, while making intentional recurrence (in the widest sense of intentionality) intrinsically more difficult and costly in terms of energy utilization. The law of entropy throws a further difficulty in the way, in that evolutionary change appears to occur in spite of a necessary general tendency towards simpler forms of organization with lower inherent energy requirements to maintain that form. Neo-Darwinism pairs random genetic mutation as the driving force behind change, with natural selection as the arbiter guaranteeing that change overall will be evolutionary, but in practice random genetic mutation doesn’t occur often enough for sufficient favourable mutations to occur, and thus doesn’t provide a sufficient base from which natural selection could select only the more favourable mutations. While it’s certainly true that mutations do occur, and it’s also perfectly possible that natural selection could ensure that a favourable mutation survives, in general mutations are not favourable, and while natural selection does, definitely, de-select these changes from proliferating, the overall negativity of its effect makes it sufficiently unsuitable as a means of increasing diversity and complexity.
We also know far more about natural selection as a mechanism than Darwin could have, in that it is both far more efficient than he anticipated in a stable environment, where a given species will reach its optimal configuration within three to four generations, and simultaneously radically inefficient in a rugged environment, where no observable improvement can be expected in an infinite number of generations. Given that the majority of environments where life is observed are sufficiently rugged to make natural selection ineffective in distinguishing advantageous traits from disadvantageous ones it’s place as the main arbiter of change is rendered at least highly questionable. At the same time the much higher than anticipated efficiency in stable environments renders it doubly problematic, since the diversity observed in stable environments is magnitudes greater than should be expected.
The reasonableness, then, of the converged Neo-Darwinist theories only survives when natural history is looked at as a just-so story. When the combination of random genetic mutations and natural selection is applied predictively to a relatively stable environment, it would predict a much lower amount of diversity than is actually observed. When it is applied to a more rugged environment, the increase in adaptive traits is much higher than would be predicted. Neo-Darwinist mechanisms do provide a handy account of how unfavourable changes are prevented from proliferating, but the overall predictive picture that emerges is one of a general lowering of diversity and complexity over time, which of course is in keeping with the mechanics of physics expressed in the law of entropy itself. Since this does not account for the evidential history of nature, it does not suffice as a theory of that history.
As I remarked earlier, complexity itself remains a problem, one more difficult initially to fully understand than diversity. Why there should be a steady tendency towards its increase, whether in natural history or human history, remains a mystery as far as mechanistic scientific accounts purport to explain the world as we experience it. Diversity has obvious advantages in terms of survivability both within a species and in terms of life itself. Complexity, however, displays no obvious advantages in either reproducibility or survivability, in fact it appears positively detrimental to both in the majority of cases.
Further, what complexity itself consists in is not well understood. While it may be obvious in concrete instances which of two systems is the more complex, defining precisely what makes one system generally more complex than another is a less obvious task. Simple calculations such as size, number of parts, even number of obvious relations, all fail radically when analyzing different types of systems, yet generally we intuitively understand which of two systems is more complex (assuming a reasonable basic understanding of both systems).
If we take living systems as examples, we could for instance draw up a list of living systems of varying complexity:
It would be relatively easy, given a general knowledge of each of these, to put them in order of complexity, while there might be questions on certain of the examples (is a worm more or less complex than a tree?) for the most part the ordering is fairly obvious:
(It’s my view that those who would put worm after tree are intrinsically biased in favour of animal life as inherently more complex than plant life, which I have decided against in this case since trees not only appear more structurally complex, in many cases they display complex behaviour that many people don’t associate with plants)
The question is, then, how did I quickly arrive at that particular ordering, and with one possible exception, why would the majority of readers agree with me with little to no hesitation? How do we recognize more complex (living) systems almost without thinking about it?
If we take two examples that, at least to an untrained eye, appear to be similarly complex in terms of number of parts and relations, for instance the mouse and the tree, on what do we base our intuition that the mouse is the more complex system? There was a hint in the ellipsis above: we tend to view complexity as either structural or behavioural. While the tree demonstrates a high degree of structural complexity, we might initially say that it doesn’t display the behavioural complexity of the mouse. Even this differentiation proves to be simplistic, however. While the organs of the mouse are certainly more complex in their activities than the leaves or trunk of the tree, much of what we ascribe as the behaviour of the mouse as a mouse, rather than as a collection of more or less complex parts, involves not only its individual behaviour but its behaviour as part of a group of mice with which it lives and interacts. While trees also tend to be found in groups and interact to a certain degree, the extent of and sense to their interactions doesn’t compare to that of a group of mice. Complexity, then, isn’t restricted to an individual system any more than a subsystem of that system, and by the same logic is not combined to a single group within a species, or a single species, but to the complexity of all the interaction between all the species. Darwin’s vision of the evolutionary nature of the history of nature was a vision of nature as a whole. Only as nature itself as a system gains in diversity and complexity do subgroups and individuals gain in degrees of freedom, which is the fundamental manner in which we judge complexity. Insects, for instance, have degrees of freedom in the way they interact that sponges do not. Dogs have magnitudes greater degrees of freedom than insects in their social interactions, arising from the complexity of having a world, even if in the main that is a semiotic, and not a linguistic world. Human beings have evolved the means of evolution itself, where evolution is primarily a societal rather than a biological matter, precisely supplementing natural history with history proper. The rate at which the interplay in human societies has increased outstrips that of natural history by further magnitudes, and each increase in social complexity results in the potential for an increase in individual complexity, for instance from mythical being to metaphysical being and beyond, which in turn increases the possibility of gains in social complexity.
The main failure of Neo-Darwinism is analogous to the failure of social Darwinism, in that the focus on the individual, or the individual species / genus / people / nation, forgets the interplay which allows any given individual or group to grow in complexity, and the increase in diversity which allows that growth in interactivity and sustains it. The history of nature as evolutionary is not the history of the preeminence of any one species, but the increasing diversity and complexity of nature as a whole made possible by the development of more complex species and individuals, which in turn makes the development of more complex species and individuals possible. Thus any theory of natural history as evolutionary must be a dialectical theory – one that not only handles seeming contradictory tendencies (e.g. development of selfishness and altruism) but sees the interplay of these contradictions as necessary to the development of either.
The final problems a theory of natural history must confront are:
the problem of the seemingly inevitable tendency towards such increase in complexity, which is not obviated by the record of dramatic devolutionary catastrophes in the historical record, but in fact made stronger by them, in that natural history has remained evolutionary on the whole despite such massive catastrophes
how an individual or species can posit itself as such, indeed must do so, retroactively, in order to come into existence at all. Simplistic linear cause and effect does not suffice for this, but without it we have no conception of the necessary ability of beings to found the (local and temporary) abrogation of the law of entropy by becoming increasingly complex and raising the local energy levels.
The theory of Genetic Accommodation, as expounded most fully by Mary Jane West-Eberhard, is a tidy way of understanding how a priori phenotypical changes become embedded in the genome. For the sake of brevity and simplicity of understanding I will quote the following succinct expression of the theory by David Dobbs:
Genetic accommodation involves a three-step process.
First, an organism (or a bunch of organisms, a population) changes its functional form — its phenotype — by making broad changes in gene expression. Second, a gene emerges that happens to help lock in that change in phenotype. Third, the gene spreads through the population.
Die, selfish gene, die
While this is a seemingly natural way of understanding how a phenotype’s reinterpretation of a gene is ‘written back’ into the genome, the questions arise as to whether it a) really makes sense, b) is at all likely and c) matches the available evidence.
The answer to all three, when the theory is thought through sufficiently, is no.
In terms of whether the theory really makes sense, we need to consider the following:
In the generations that follow the initial reinterpretation of the gene, the phenotype has to remain as it was in the initial reinterpretation, awaiting a genetic mutation that happens to be useful to replicate the phenotypical change. No means for this to occur is proposed in the model.
While the initial phenotypical change occurs through a ‘re-reading’ or reinterpretation of an existing gene, once the proposed genetic mutation occurs, the new gene is read literally, and this is assumed to be more efficient at creating a similar phenotype. In fact the theory requires that the new gene produce a better phenotype than the initial reinterpretation could.
The problems are compounded when the likelihood of the above, and the other implications of the theory, are assessed:
The likelihood of an appropriate mutation occurring soon after a given phenotypical change approximates the likelihood of an appropriate mutation that is phenotypically advantageous in standard converged evolutionary theory. That is, phenomenally unlikely, which is the major logical objection to converged theory.
The likelihood that the mutated gene somehow produces a better adaptation than the initial reinterpretation, given that the former is random and the latter environmentally aware, is even lower than the case in (1.).
Lastly we need to assess whether the theory matches the available evidence, again we run into significant problems:
The theory arose firstly in order to understand the identically of the genomes of various wasp phenotypes, and the identically of the genome in the very different phenotypes known as the grasshopper and locust, the latter pair being able to reinterpret the genome on the fly and change back and forth from one phenotype to another; secondly to understand the lack of significant enough difference between the genomes of fundamentally different species.
Since the genome is both of these cases is identical, the assumption that the gene needs to somehow exist in the genome is not always true.
The theory fails to account for the lack of sufficient difference in genomes between radically different species, since were the majority of phenotypical changes ‘written back’ into the genome, the genomes would be nearly as different as converged theory would predict.
The question then arises as to why we need the second and third parts of the theory, since the problems mentioned can be adequately accounted for simply by the first part, i.e. that the genome is interpreted differently depending on the environment in a dynamic fashion. Other than maintaining the assumption of some importance to the actual composition of the genome, it appears that the second and third parts are superfluous. It seems unlikely, though, that decades of research that include the identification of some causally determinative genes, at least in similar environments, has absolutely no relevance to genetic or evolutionary theory. There is also the evidential issue that different species do have different genomes, in fact the determination of a species as unique is via the fact that two life forms with sufficiently differing genomes can no longer effectively reproduce.
The answers to the latter two questions, although having fundamentally different assumptions than either converged theory or genetic accommodation theory, are actually rather obvious in terms of the requirements and available evidence.
We have evidence that organisms can and in fact do rewrite the genome, at least temporarily, in the immune system. However immune system genome changes do not replicate between generations. Given that the ability exists, though, and simultaneously is unnecessary for a large variety of phenotypical changes, it’s unsurprising that we have no direct evidence of a rewritten genome being passed on generationally. It simply isn’t required often enough for us to have direct evidence of it.
Whether or not it is required (or at all advantageous) appears to be dependent, evidentially, on whether the available variety in the genome, without sacrificing reproducibility with others of the species, is sufficient to maintain the phenotypical changes via consistent reinterpretation. If the phenotypical changes require more than reinterpretation for the phenotypical changes to reliably ‘stick’ generationally, the ability to reproduce is sacrificed in order to persist the genotypical changes that initially differentiate species. Of course, this is inherently a difficult and risky proposition, because it depends on a combination of genotypical changes that sufficiently differentiate a species arising from rewritten genes merged from two parents who could reproduce with the origin species. These parents are not species differentiated, but in combination their offspring may be. Precisely at this point natural selection intervenes, acting as a brake on the survival of ineffective combinations, since there is a good chance these offspring are sterile and cannot reproduce, and a good chance that the merged, rewritten genomes do not produce a viable new species.
This also answers another issue with standard converged evolutionary theory that is not addressed by genetic accommodation: that the already low probability of any given genetic mutation leading to an evolutionary advantage is rendered dramatically lower in the case of a new species, since the number and variety of available reproductive mates is reduced initially to offspring of the same parents. This disadvantage is generally avoided, which helps to understand why immune system variations are generally not inherited – the advantages conferred are for the most part overridden by the disadvantages. Only where a sufficiently significant advantage is conferred do the parents rewrite their genomes, and only where mating results in a significantly more viable species does the changed genome have sufficient survivability to overcome the reproductive disadvantages.
While it seems simple common sense that causality works bottom-up and forward temporally (past creates present) this ‘common sense’ became common based on a particular prevalent belief-system or ideology. For Aristotle, the telic cause, i.e. the goal, was the principle cause, since the other causes could be replaced with entirely different ones, yet accomplish the same result. However for this to be the case the cause has to posit the effect top-down and retroactively. This became unthinkable to common sense when phusis, or self-origination, was replaced by techne, or production, as the mode of origin of all beings. Converged and Neo-Darwinist theory, and the various modifications of them that attempt to overcome the issues noted in the past few chapters, fail for the most ironic reason imaginable. As technical, mechanistic understandings, they are fatefully embedded in a perspective on reality that has its basis and justification in a creationist worldview. This can be easily demonstrated in the history of science itself, from the abandonment of telic causality made possible in the first place by theologians such as William of Occam, who not only maintained the creationist notions of common Christians that predated him, but re-posited the god of that creation as an engineer that would obviously accomplish everything in the most efficient, simplest manner possible. Simultaneously, Occam and others posited all meaning as supernatural, the things of this world were precisely meaningless, hence nominalist. This nominalism provided the theoretical framework by which science could treat ‘things’ as meaningless objects, which could be fully determined mathematically, and of course if the other part of the theological change, that all meaning adheres only in god, were simply dropped or forgotten, the result is the meaningless reality of modern science.