Monday, April 20, 2009

Jeff Carreira - Charles Darwin and the Directionality of Evolution

Blogger Jeff Carreira looks at Darwinian theory and its directionality. It's a given that evolution works sequentially - no complex organisms before more simple organisms, and nothing living before the first protozoa arose in the primordial cauldron. But the deeper element remains debated - is their purposeful directionality?

Here is the central point of the post:

What I realized was that no one actually denies (as far as I can tell) that there is an apparent directionality behind the universe’s unfolding. Evolution clearly happens in a particular direction. For instance you can’t imagine animals evolving on a barren planet before any plants appeared. Plants needed to come first - that is directionality.

What people do argue about is the mechanism of directionality. Darwin’s hugely significant discovery was a theory that satisfactorily explained the apparent directionality of the evolution of species. That theory he called “Natural Selection by Chance Variation.” Essentially it states that the individuals of any given species are born with variations in characteristics. Some of these variations have survival advantages and are passed on genetically to offsprings. Over time successive generations will become more uniformly adapted to the environment. And at times one species transforms into a new one through this same mechanism.

Darwin had this insight and then sat on it for 20 years before publishing his findings in the book, “On the Origin of Species” and only then because another scientist published a paper explaining a dangerously similar theory. One of the reasons that Darwin’s theory was and is so controversial is that he explained the evolution of species, which meant the development of man, without needing to appeal to any form of intelligence or God. He could explain man’s development through purely mechanical means.

Darwin could see that evolution had directionality and he could explain that directionality through a process resting on chance variation and survival. There are good arguments against Natural Selection being the only mechanism through which evolution occurs and many find it necessary either for logical or sentimental reasons to theorize that some form of intelligence must be behind the process. But they are not arguing for or against directionality - they are arguing for or against telos.

Telos is a Greek word meaning purpose. And this is where the problems start.
Darwinian evolution excludes the telos, and science has essentially done everything possible to keep purpose or meaning out of the equation.

But is this the "truth" of the matter?

I am not someone who allows for or believes in "intelligent design," which to me is simply dressed up creationism. But Buddhism tends to believe, in one way or another, that human beings are here to evolve into Buddhas, given enough effort or enough lifetimes.

Wilberian integral theory (which is different than other integral approaches) also posits meaningful directionality - that the Kosmos came into existence to know itself better through physical manifestation and is evolving toward its own perfection once again.

That is a whole lot of metaphysics - and it's a "feel good" metaphysics requiring belief in the absence of proof. There hasn't been a lot of rejection of his theories as a result of this premise (while other premises have been thoroughly debated), but this seems to me one of the hardest things to accept.

I'm fairly convinced that there is meaningful directionality, but remain agnostic as to what it is and why it is there. My sense is that life, once started, seeks its own perfection. And evolution works in a variety of ways, from genetic mutation, to epigenetics, to DNA interacting with its environment and adjusting its expression accordingly - all the way up to cultural and social structures shaping evolutionary patterns.

What do you think?


Karl Higley said...

We don't see free-floating mountain tops, because mountain tops become mountain tops by virtue of resting on everything beneath them. Whether the top of the mountain came to rest there as a result of intention or chance is much less interesting to me than the relationship between the top and the base, and the way that a whole mountain results from the interaction of the two.

I think we, as conscious beings, have a tendency to attribute consciousness to (i.e. personify) a wide variety of things we can not communicate with. When we talk about the intentionality of the universe, I tend to see personification at work. But causality is a sticky wicket in general.

From a postmodern contextual viewpoint (and on forward from there), I think the recognition that attributing causality is essentially interpretive, rather than a reflection of a single real truth, necessitates a shift in the question. Rather than asking "Is there intentionality?", we might ask "What do we interpret to be the cause -- and why do we interpret it that way?"

Unknown said...

This is a VERY interesting question! And I think the reason why it is so interesting is that obviously - if you take a 50,000 ft perspective - there is directionality. But if you acknowledge this fact then you find yourself immediately in the position of having to question where it is coming from or where it is leading to. And while I somewhere know that there is purpose I have avoided the challenge to really look into this question - and that is why I very much welcome Carreira's inquiry. I am curious about where it is going and what I can learn.