Neo-Darwinism as an Inherently Anti-Evolutionary Stance

It’s a truism that the more alike people, groups, or views are, the more vehemently they are likely to argue about the differences. Although, like most truisms, it’s not always actually true, as a generalization it does more often fit that its inverse.

The supposed argument between ‘science’ and ‘religion’ is one of those situations. Properly speaking, the argument is between scientists who believe relatively (as compared with scientists as a group) extreme versions of nominalism, reductionism, and determinism, and theists who take ‘creation’ as a literal event that occurred at a specific moment.

I should point out, firstly, that nominalism, reductionism and determinism are not themselves scientific concepts, but theological concepts, and the extreme versions are those of a very specific theology, predominantly expressed in Calvinism and its descendants. I should also point out that ‘creation at a specific time’ is also a concept of a specific theology, in fact the same specific theology.

Within the argument the focus is generally evolution. Why evolutionary theory is the constant battleground of the argument is not immediately obvious, though.  Why not quantum mechanics, or cosmology, or genetic theory, for instance?

Evolution is not a theory but a description of nature as it appears when looked at historically. That nature can be viewed historically (in the same sense as society) is not immediately an obvious idea. In fact the idea is largely accidental, in that it came about by a transposition of the term ‘natural’ which prior to the 17th century meant precisely something man-made, or as we would put it today, artificial. Darwin didn’t ‘invent’ natural selection, he took a concept (oddly enough called ‘natural selection’ but intending what we mean by artificial selection) and applied it to nature viewed as the sum of living entities.

we shall then see how Natural Selection almost inevitably causes much Extinction of the less improved forms of life and induces what I have called Divergence of Character. In the next chapter I shall discuss the complex and little known laws of variation and of correlation of growth. In the four succeeding chapters, the most apparent and gravest difficulties on the theory will be given: namely, first, the difficulties of transitions, or 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).

Darwin though was not a Neo-Darwinist, nor would have been if he lived today. The myth of Darwin removing teleology from the study of reality is just that, Darwin saw natural selection as one means by which teleology functions, not as a replacement.

In considering the Origin of Species, it is quite conceivable that a naturalist , reflecting on the mutual affinities of organic beings, on their embryological relations, their geographical distribution, geological succession, and other such facts, might come to the conclusion that each species had not been independently created, but had descended, like varieties, from other species. Nevertheless, such a conclusion , even if well founded, would be unsatisfactory , until it could be shown how the innumerable species inhabiting this world have been modified, so as to acquire that perfection of structure and coadaptation which most justly excites our admiration. 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, it is equally preposterous to account for the structure of this parasite, with its relations to several distinct organic beings , by the effects of external conditions, or of habit, or of the volition of the plant itself.Darwin, Charles (2012-05-16). On the origin of species (p. 3).

Neo-Darwinists are probably the most vocal of the group of scientists who believe in extreme versions of the three concepts I named above. It may seem odd that proponents of evolutionary theory would subscribe to three major theological concepts shared primarily with the main opponents of evolutionary theory, but as I said, this is one of those situations where two schools of thought argue so vehemently because they are so alike.

In fact Neo-Darwinists are not evolutionary theorists at all. Their picture of reality is a strange mixture of absolute determinism and random chance, neither of which correspond to an evolutionary picture of reality. They are simply more subtle in their anti-evolutionary stance than their opponents.

The question, then, as to what is intended by ‘evolutionary’ as a descriptive, and why Neo-Darwinism is therefore anti-evolutionary, may not be obvious to everyone. However the majority of people would intuitively understand the difference between evolutionary change, random change, and devolutionary change, which implies it has a determinable meaning other than simply change itself.

When we initially think about what differentiates those three types of change, the immediate notion is that the first implies ‘more’ in some unspecified sense, the second ‘equivalent’, and the third ‘less’. For Darwin, this ‘more’ was specified as diversity and complexity of the interplay of living beings as a whole, viewed as history. Even here, we can see that natural selection and random chance can’t justify at least the second term, since greater complexity doesn’t imply greater survivability, which is all natural selection deals with, while random chance doesn’t imply ‘more’ in any way.  Yet these are the only means Neo-Darwinism allows to nature as historical.

This would be strange were it not for the extreme versions of the concepts of nominalism, reductionism and determinism the scientists involved believe in. The most important of the three is the final one, although the other two are involved. Diversity, when nature is looked at as a whole, seems a relatively self-evident measure, but complexity is not as obvious. Why should a more complex entity be viewed as somehow ‘more’ or ‘greater than’ in the widest sense of measurement? Nothing in Neo-Darwinism (or converged theory, or any compatibilist theory for that matter) implies such a thing. Since those ideas don’t imply a significant part of what makes evolution evolutionary, they therefore begin to appear as anti-evolutionary, at least in some sense. As noted in the first quote from On the Origin of Species, Darwin himself refers to ‘improved’ forms of life as intrinsically evolutionary, although his reliance on survivability as the root improvement fails to accomplish the task he sets it.  He also criticizes those (whom he refers to as ‘naturalists’) for believing that ‘external conditions’ alone could produce the complex interplay of historical nature.

If we compare different life forms where we would definitely view one as more ‘evolved’ than the other, for instance an amoeba and a bee, or a bee and a cat, or a cat and a human being, we can see that complexity is involved, but not why this should be considered ‘greater than’ except in a fairly irrelevant sense. In a functional ontology, bees function as well as cats do, as do amoebas. It is not complexity itself, though, but an effect of complexity, that we are looking for.

This effect of complexity is in direct contradiction to the last of the three terms, determinism. What leads us to view a given species as more ‘evolved’ than another is the same as what leads us to view different societies as more ‘evolved’ than one another. It is in the greater degrees of freedom that complexity allows that a more ‘evolved’ being is so.

Determinism, though, particularly in the compatibilist formulation, is a difficult idea to disprove, particularly since the nature of compatibilist theory prevents the use of the main issue, that it contradicts experience. While that in itself may disqualify it as compatible with the tenets of natural science, it makes determinism more difficult to dislodge as a belief. The advantage determinism has over the main metaphysical notions of freedom is that it places the observer in reality, not somehow outside reality, observing it. Compatibilism argues that it is our misconception of ourselves as outside what we observe that leads to the apparent contradiction, and indeed it does lead to a further misconception, but the compatibilist notion is backwards.

If the degrees of freedom available to a given being determines its evolutionary status, then determinism even in the compatibilist form is inherently anti-evolutionary. An increase in perceived freedom, if the perception is in error, is not a real increase, and therefore our idea of a bee as ‘more evolved’ than an amoeba would also be in error. That denies the evolutionary nature of natural history itself (not to mention the evolutionary history of any given reality), and the history of nature becomes a narrative of random change constrained only by survivability.  The creative moment of increasing the likelihood that a given pattern will occur and recur is missing from their account.

The clue to the problem lies in the retrospective nature of the compatibilist argument. The argument, in a simple form, is that what we actually do is predetermined, only retrospectively do we ascribe intentionality and therefore an expression of free will to the action. The mistake in compatibilism is to conflate the past as actual with the past perfect, the past as retained and therefore still present in a certain sense. Looked at as having been, the past that is retained has the character of necessity that determinists point to. This necessity, though, is freely posited in the present as the retained history of any given being. The degrees of freedom we have in positing our (contingent in the actual past) history as necessary in the retained past, are precisely what has become greater in the course of evolutionary history, both of nature and of society.  Creationists of course make precisely the same mistake when they argue that we can’t know the actual past, because the actual past isn’t at issue, only that which is retained and thereby posited as historical is at issue.  We don’t need to know that dinosaurs existed, they exist today (the extinct ones) precisely as records of our own natural history.  We do so precisely as the reality we experience, and are therefore embedded in it.  Teleology itself is what is posited retroactively by any given entity, and this gives to what-has-been its necessary character.

There is a famous quote by Douglas Adams viz retrospective positing that like many insightful notions, fails to continue the thought to where the crux of the issue arises.

“This is rather as if you imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, ‘This is an interesting world I find myself in — an interesting hole I find myself in — fits me rather neatly, doesn’t it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!’ This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, frantically hanging on to the notion that everything’s going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise. I think this may be something we need to be on the watch out for.”
Douglas Adams, The Salmon of Doubt

What Adams fails to do here is to take the analogy the step further, and ask “how did the puddle posit itself as such, in doing so making its hole an environment to begin with?”.  This retrospective positing of the necessary conditions for any being’s existence must posit what was in the actual past purely contingent (although, as noted above, systems do behave in a manner that may increase the likelihood of specific occurrences and recurrences, such as the manner in which the Eucalyptus tree reconfigures reality around it to make forest fires, which are helpful to it rather than harmful, more likely to occur).  The creationist error is to stay with the same cause -> effect temporal correlation (one that is problematic in any case, since both temporal sequencing and location of interacting beings are perspectival, with no perspective having any additional truth-claim than any other) as the mechanistic evolutionists they oppose (and of course they know of no other kind).  Given this mistake, it’s easy enough to see why creationists posit a goal-oriented ‘designer’ that existed prior to anything else, and also easy enough to see why a certain type of ‘intelligent design’, one that restricts itself to the posit of there being ‘something’ intelligent behind the recurrence of specific systemic patterns and not others, is in fact a rational conclusion based on the assumption of mechanistic causality, and is in fact a held belief by many top evolutionary scientists.  Finishing the look at Adams analogy, the puddle is the only being that could have posited itself as such, and therefore separated from everything else in its reality, which as separated becomes thereby environment.  The ascribed teleology, then, is a retrospective teleology that arises because by definition, if one exists as a being, then everything one posits as a precursor to one’s coming into existence has to become necessary and not contingent, and that necessary past is what we refer to as the ‘pure past’ or ‘past perfect’.  Teleological causality in effect was always seen as retrospective, hence Aristotle’s determination of it as the ‘final’ cause, as well as the necessary cause (the others could be replaced without changing the result).

Everything new changes what is retained as what has been, rather than what was, even if in a tiny manner, and the retained past maintains a necessity that is purely posited by the presently existing entity. Social evolution has a massive advantage in terms of speed of change over natural evolution, but is fundamentally part of the same process, a process that even precedes nature (viewed as living entities) as part of the history of non-living entities as well.  The argument that this necessity is not ‘real’ is a specious argument, taking us back to the substantialist metaphysics of there being an unknowable reality that underlies appearances, which reaches its impasse in Kant, where Cartesian subjective substantialist metaphysics is demonstrated to imply that the experiencing subject is an illusion.

The vehemence of the argument, then, is not a vehemence of an evolutionary manner of thinking versus its opposite, but a vehemence between those that argue against evolution itself and those that argue against the evolutionary character of evolution, in which consists the basic sameness of Neo-Darwinism and fundamentalist creationism.


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