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Reply #26: Evolution definitely needs to get out of a couple of jam-ups [View All]

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starroute Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sun Jul-13-08 01:53 AM
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26. Evolution definitely needs to get out of a couple of jam-ups
About a century back, there was a major dust-up between the mechanists and the vitalists, with the mechanists coming out on top.

The vitalists believed there was some sort of vital principle informing life, guiding both the growth of the individual and the further evolution of the species, acting as both the motivating force and the source of order.

The mechanists thought the universe was nothing but atoms randomly bumping together, and explained the existence of life with a lot of hand-waving and metaphors about monkeys on typewriters producing the works of Shakespeare.

The mechanists never did come up with a proper explanation of how order could grow out of disorder through random permutations -- or how doing significant damage to existing, well-functioning genes could lead to individuals of superior fitness. But at the time that didn't really matter. The real argument was between the those who claimed that science could explain everything and those who insisted science must break down at a certain point and fail to explain life, or consciousness, or whatever other sticking-point seemed handy.

The mechanists decisively won that argument back about 85-90 years ago -- because the 20th century was determined to throw its lot in with science, and the mechanistic view of evolution seemed to be the purest and most scientific available. But it was also narrow, limited, and dehumanizing -- which is why the creationists and IDers are still around. Mechanistic evolution just left too much out of the equation to provide a satisfactory explanation of the abundance and potential of life.

Much of the new evolutionary thought today harks back to the vitalistic ideas that got tossed in the dustbin during the 1920's. Form, for example. In everyday experience, you know that if you're going to cook, say, an apple pie, you'll do best if you have both an idea of what an apple pie should look like and taste like and also a set of detailed step-by-step instructions. However, mechanistic evolution insists that the instructions are all that's needed -- and if they're perfectly written and perfectly adhered to, the result will be an acceptable apple pie. But that sort of perfection doesn't exist anywhere in real life. It's not the way cooking works -- and it's unlikely to be the way evolution works, either.

The problem, of course, is that at this point we have a fairly good idea of how DNA might encode the instruction set for making certain proteins in a certain sequence until you get a certain result. We're a lot less certain of how form could be encoded. But that just means science still has a lot to learn -- it doesn't mean that science itself is inadequate, that "God" is necessary to monitor the kitchen, or that evolutionary theory is a racket.

Another issue is that Darwin's survival of the fittest has been interpreted too narrowly. It has been taken to mean that the survival of the individual always takes precedence over that of the community or the ecosystem. It has also been taken to mean that individuals strive to stay exactly as they are and have offspring that are just like them, instead of incorporating any impulse to improve and evolve. And because of that mechanistic image of living things as the biological equivalent of atoms blindly bumping together, anything that benefits the larger community or leads to further evolution has had to be considered an accidental by-product of fundamentally selfish behavior. Even human beings have to be interpreted as blind to the consequences of their own actions, or the mechanistic model won't work.

In addition to the harm it does to our scientific understanding of evolution, this narrow, individual-centered concept has also served as the justification for free-market economics. The assumption has been that individual selfishness is the only "natural" behavior -- that we resist it at our peril -- but that larger social and evolutionary benefits will inevitably arise as natural by-products of selfishness.

That's an assumption which is clearly false and which we very much need to get away from. Luckily, as with form, it turns out that there's nothing "unscientific" about assuming that these larger values can be hard-wired into us. Quite simply, over millions of years, those organizations which optimize their environment are more likely to survive than those which degrade it, and those which readily evolve to meet new challenges are more likely to survive than those who do not. We don't yet know all the mechanisms -- some of it may involve certain genes operating differently under conditions of stress -- but we can be confident they exist.

In recent years, the creationists have been quick to pounce on any sign of weakness or self-doubt in evolutionary theory as proof that the whole thing is about to crumble -- and evolutionists have tended to dig in their heels and hold onto the old mechanistic formulations in self-defense. But that's been changing around the edges, and hopefully this conference means it's starting to change more publicly.

We desperately need a *real* theory of evolution -- one that would unify our understanding of ourselves and our place in the universe and give us a sense of direction in our undertakings. Religion no longer does that the way it did once upon a time. Progressivism originally grew out of the 19th century idea of social progress, but since that collapsed under the weight of mid-20th century disillusionment, liberals haven't had a solid justification for their policies.

Merely insuring a decent quality of life and opportunity for everyone is not enough. We need to be about something larger -- and that has to be grounded in a sense that we and our society are capable of genuine evolution. For that reason, if no other, evolutionary theory desperately needs to get its act together.

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