Common Trends in Evolution

Does evolution repeat itself? Could evolution repeat itself? Where do people stand in relation to the thoughts of  Gould and Conway Morris?

Gould has a point, everything is in a state of becoming. As Heraclitus would say, all is change. Replay the tape and nothing would be the same. But would or could there be any similar trends? Would life in general proceed in such a radically different way that Gould makes out?

From “Life’s Grandeur”, Gould states:

“…no persuasive or predictable thrust toward progress permeates the history of life…

“Wind the tape of life to the origin of multicellular animals in the Cambrian explosion, let the tape play again from this identical starting point, and the replay will populate the earth (and generate a right tail of life) with a radically different set of creatures. The chance that this alternative set will contain anything remotely like a human being must be effectively nil, while the probability of any kind of creature endowed with self-consciousness must also be extremely small.”

Conway Morris disagrees with Gould’s conclusion. He champions an inevitable path and cites convergent evolution as evidence which suggests this.

In “The Crucible of Creation” he states,

“What we are interested in is not the origin, destiny, or fate of a particular lineage, but the likelihood of the emergence of a particular property, say consciousness. Here the reality of convergence suggests that the tape of life, to use Gould’s metaphor, can run as many times as we like and in principle intelligence will surely emerge.”

I’m interested in what people have to say about this and its relation to topics such as the emergence of bilateral symmetry and differentiation from head to tail, extreme specialization, encephalization, endothermy, caring for young, transitions from aquatic to terrestrial living and other related topics. These processes have occurred multiple times in different lineages over time.

267 thoughts on “Common Trends in Evolution

  1. Flint: One is intersubjective agreement – do all observers seem to be sensing the same thing. The other is consistency — if we construct models based on what we think we’re observing, and those models pass a fairly wide variety of tests or make consistenly correct predictions or do not produce paradoxes under experiment or “strenuous observation”, these things are strong indications that our perceptions are largely correct.

    I really like this. This semester I’m teaching philosophy of science for the first time, and I’ve selected Peter Godfrey-Smith’s Theory and Reality as the textbook for the first half of the course. Godfrey-Smith has a nice synthetic view of empiricism and naturalism that he defends in the final chapter, citing our hero John Dewey, for something like this.

    I also note that we make extensive use of instrumentation capable of translating what we presume is reality, into things we are able to sense. We can’t see much of the electromagnetic spectrum, for example, but our instruments can. We can intersubjectively agree that radios work and that hard radiation is harmful to us. Perhaps we can consider these as immediate observation once removed?

    I haven’t really thought about apparatus yet, though there’s an excellent book on the subject that I want to read, The Mangle of Practice by Andrew Pickering.

    Apparatus is interesting to me in two major respects.

    The first is that a piece of scientific equipment a material embodiment of our understanding of the laws that govern its operation. Our knowledge of the laws of optics is realized in the telescopes and microscopes that we build; we use our understanding of causal forces in order to build devices that probe causal relations in ways far beyond what our ‘senses’ can give us.

    The second is what’s called “extended cognition”: that under some conditions, our devices are incorporated into our habits so smoothly that we have basically off-loaded a cognitive process from the brain onto technology. (These days, smart-phones are the most obvious example, but I think there’s probably a good argument to be made that all tool-use in extended cognition.) Somewhere Peirce writes that Lavoisier’s revolution in chemistry was to carry his mind into his laboratory and to think with his alembics. I think there’s something very intriguing about the idea that our tools are extensions of our cognitive powers, not just our sensory-motor powers.

  2. colewd:
    Let’s focus here. Is physicalism the cart or the horse.

    Neither. When I say you’re putting the cart before the horse, I just mean to say that you’re putting things backwards, not that there’s a direct equivalence between the cart and the horse, with the foundational necessities of intelligence and intelligence itself.

    Our intelligence is an ability to deal with a somewhat predictable reality, and it can only work by being made of somewhat predictable stuff. If our intelligence wasn’t made of somewhat predictable stuff, it would be random. It would not work. Ar you able to understand why both, the working of intelligence itself, and what it deals with, have to be somewhat predictable? Being the somewhat predictability a requirement for intelligence, both to be and to have something to deal with, it’s nonsensical to propose that the existence of somewhat predictable stuff is proof of intelligent creation. It’s not. The somewhat predictable stuff doesn’t need intelligence, intelligence needs a somewhat predictable reality. Physicalism has nothing to do with it.

    colewd:
    What do you mean by “proven otherwise”. What is the standard of proof you are asking for?

    I mean exactly that, that to abandon physicalism you need to prove that there’s something else. Standard of evidence? How would I know? You’re asking me to believe in something you cannot prove and you want me to solve your problem? Evidence seems to mean something physical, so I cannot imagine a standard for the non-physical. So far all I get is rhetorical twists that loads of creationists seem to think substitute for proper thinking, for proper philosophical foundations.

  3. Kantian Naturalist,

    Yet all of your complains imply the physical. Sure, we could have cones (physical), that perceive ultraviolet light (physical), and the world (physical) would look different to us …

    So, sure, there’s stimuli, there’s perceptions, there’s interpretations. Our interpretations might be wrong. The physical might be very different to what we interpret given circumstances, abilities, evolutionary trajectories, blunts to the head, etc. Maybe we don’t even know what the physical or reality “actually” are. Maybe “actually are” is a nonsensical notion. An invalid problem. We might be very ignorant due to our human limitations, but, if we think carefully about it, it’s kind of backwards to deny that the physical is at the very foundation. We confront the physical, learn from the physical, grow in the physical, before we get arrogant enough to deny it.

    Let me try and summarize: our perceptions might be all wrong. Yet, that implies that there’s something to be wrong about.

  4. Entropy,

    Entropy,

    I mean exactly that, that to abandon physicalism you need to prove that there’s something else. Standard of evidence? How would I know? You’re asking me to believe in something you cannot prove and you want me to solve your problem? Evidence seems to mean something physical, so I cannot imagine a standard for the non-physical. So far all I get is rhetorical twists that loads of creationists seem to think substitute for proper thinking, for proper philosophical foundations.

    Proof is a pretty hard standard. Given this there is no proof our minds are reliable. There are assumptions we need to start collecting evidence. What I think is a challenge for your position is explaining the physical world and it origin with the physical world itself.

  5. Entropy:
    Let me try and summarize: our perceptions might be all wrong. Yet, that implies that there’s something to be wrong about.

    I don’t think it makes a lot of sense to fall into solipsism; there’s reasonable agreement that there’s a reality “out there” that can be observed and understood, however imperfectly. But the question of exactly what counts as evidence is difficult to answer for many reasons.

    I read today that observation of a galactic black hole showed indications of some sort of “reflection” explainable if spacetime were distorted around that hole in such a way as to twist space around, letting us see something that was on the other side. Which was reported as yet another ramification of Einstein’s math nobody had actually observed before. And indeed, very little of what Einstein’s equations predicted could be observed at the time, since those equations describe conditions nearly impossible to create. Over the last century there has been a steady stream of newly possible observations fitting Einstein’s predictions.

    The point is that Einstein’s theories predicted observations, rather than resting on them. Theory and observation cannot be disentangled; each is derived from the other.

  6. colewd:
    Proof is a pretty hard standard.

    I think you missed the point, so I’d better summarize: I don’t know what would count as evidence of non-physicalism.

    colewd:
    Given this there is no proof our minds are reliable.

    There’s evidence that sometimes they are, sometimes they aren’t, which is why we develop methods for checking our arguments and conclusions against. But some minds are so severely limited that they cannot grasp the fundamentals of those methods.

    colewd:
    What I think is a challenge for your position is explaining the physical world and it origin with the physical world itself.

    I don’t see that as a valid question. If the physical is all there is, then it has no origin. That’s it. Simple and straightforward. Now, try not to mistake “there’s no origin for the physical” for “there’s no origin to our universe.”

  7. Flint:
    I don’t think it makes a lot of sense to fall into solipsism

    Me neither. That’s kinda my point.

  8. colewd: What I think is a challenge for your position is explaining the physical world and it origin with the physical world itself.

    There is no explanation for the Universe, only speculation.

    This is because explanations require data, and data is generated through measurement.

    But all measurements that are even conceivable by us as measurements involve spatial and/or temporal intervals.

    The universe is the totality of space-time.

    So we have no idea how to generate data about what is beyond the universe

    Hence we cannot explain its origin.

    The very most we can do — and what we actually do, in scientific practice — is begin with a set of observations and background conditions, and extrapolate backwards in time. What we call “the Big Bang” is the limit of those extrapolations.

    There could have been a universe prior to “the Big Bang” and there’s simply no way we could ever know.

    While there’s no harm in speculation, one must never confuse speculation for explanation.

  9. Kantian Naturalist: There is no explanation for the Universe, only speculation.

    Indeed. We’re limited by the speed of light to our past and future light-cone and we’re limited by our collective intellectual ability.

  10. Alan Fox: We’re limited by the speed of light to our past and future light-cone and we’re limited by our collective intellectual ability.

    Yes, it makes me think that perhaps it would be more intellectually honest to say that “the Big Bang” is merely an expression of how far we have succeeded in pushing back the limits of our ignorance, rather than a positive identification of the causal origin of the Universe.

  11. Kantian Naturalist,

    This is because explanations require data, and data is generated through measurement.

    Hi KN
    Can you unpack this for me? What do mean by measurement? Cant data be collected by human observation and reflection?

  12. colewd: Can you unpack this for me? What do mean by measurement? Cant data be collected by human observation and reflection?

    Well, “what is data?” is a huge question!

    But my first thought is that, no, our observations and reflections on them don’t count as data.

    Here’s why: what we observe and what we think about what we observe are always going to be saturated by our biases, interests, values, background assumptions, and biological constraints on our sensory and cognitive processes.

    The quantitative values generated by measurements are a way of bypassing all those biases and constraints.

    Of course there are still going to be values, biases, and assumptions at work in what we decide is important enough to be measured, and what we’re not going to bother measuring.

    (A dumb but simple example: for a long time economists thought it was enough to measure the total economic output of a country divided by the total population. They didn’t care about how the wealth was distributed, or about other metrics, such as health, pollution, or well-being.)

    And of course, simple systems are easier to measure than complex systems, so we often rely on the assumption that the systems that we’re measuring are simpler than they are. And when we formulate policies or theories based on the assumption that the system we are manipulating has fewer dimensions than it really does, this causes many problems.

    So, I would say, it takes a great deal of effort and ingenuity to construct experiments that generate data that are at least somewhat free of our individual, cultural, and biological biases — and thereby gesture towards the real patterns that are there anyway.

  13. Kantian Naturalist: But my first thought is that, no, our observations and reflections on them don’t count as data.

    I disagree (on observation, not reflection). Observation is the first step to collecting data. Shared observation is the first step away from subjectivity. The important tool of science is repeatability. If others can’t reproduce your results, maybe your experiment is flawed.

  14. Kantian Naturalist:
    The quantitative values generated by measurements are a way of bypassing all those biases and constraints.

    As Gould pointed out in The Mismeasure of Man, with respect to measurements of “intelligence”, that while anything that exists can in principle be measured, it’s not therefore necessarily the case that if it can be measured it must exist. We’ve confected lots of measures of “IQ”, but the very concept of IQ might not actually refer to anything real.

  15. Kantian Naturalist:

    CharlieM: Are we any nearer solving these problems today than they were in Steiner’s time?

    Kantian Naturalist: Dewey in Art as Experience (1934) definitely marks an advance beyond Kant in terms of understanding of the problem of aesthetics.

    I haven’t read it, but I’m sure he makes some good points. I’ll try to find out a bit more about this if I get the time. Steiner did say that Kant “set the ball rolling”.

    CharlieM: In The Philosophy of Freedom Steiner denies that nature can be said to have a purpose. It is a mistaken concept which still does “a good deal of mischief”. Machines are built according to purposes external to themselves. The purpose lies within the mind of the inventor, but, as Steiner states, “an animal certainly is not determined by an idea floating in mid-air, but it is determined by an idea inborn in it and constituting the law of its nature. It is just because the idea is not external to the natural object, but is operative in it as its very essence, that we cannot speak here of adaptation to purpose.”

    Kantian Naturalist: Yep, this is why Kant introduces the phrase “purposiveness without purpose” when talking about organisms.

    Steiner explained that Goethe on looking at the mobile forms of life and their expressions as intermediary perceived forms

    Steiner: …he (Goethe) established the theoretical foundations of organic science. He found the essential being of the organism. One can easily fail to recognize this if one demands that the typus, that self-constituted principle (entelechy), itself be explained by something else. But this is an unfounded demand, because the typus, held fast in its intuitive form, explains itself. For anyone who has grasped that “forming of itself in accordance with itself” of the entelechical principle, this constitutes the solution of the riddle of life. Any other solution is impossible, because this solution is the essential being of the thing itself. If Darwinism has to presuppose an archetypal organism, then one can say of Goethe that he discovered the essential being of that archetypal organism. It is Goethe who broke with the mere juxtaposing of genera and species, and who undertook a regeneration of organic science in accordance with the essential being of the organism. Whereas the systems before Goethe needed just as many different concepts (ideas) as there were outwardly different species for which no intermediary existed, Goethe maintained that in idea all organisms are alike, that they are different only in their manifestation; and he explained why they are so.

    We perceive the parts, and our mental processes of combining these perceived images helps us to re-engage with reality.

    Kantian Naturalist: The rather difficult question, which is also the question of the origin of life, is how to understand the transition from a non-teleological kind of organization, even in rather complex molecular systems, to a teleological kind of organization, as we see in living things.

    We could call this, in Aristotelian terms, the question of the origin of the nutritive soul.

    I would not say that we find the origin of life in the remote past. Rather I would say that the fossil evidence shows us the hardening of pre-existing life into forms that were amenable to being fossilized.

    It is stated here that:

    Only paleontology studies offered the possibility of gaining some insight into the ancient processes that led to mineralized skeleton; from the evidence available, it was surmised that the vertebrates were most likely descended from amphioxus-like forms with a notochord. These were followed by jawless creatures with a cartilage-like endoskeleton, reminiscent of the modern hagfish or lamprey The next big event was the appearance of mineralized skeletal parts; this presented a major evolutionary leap and led directly to the rise of the vertebrate lineage

    The vertebrate lineage progresses from creatures having a cartilage-like form, to a mineralized skeleton.

    CharlieM: Reality is unity. Not an amorphous, undifferentiated unity, but a unified whole composed of countless parts, all interconnected and evolving together.

    Kantian Naturalist: Yep, as long stressed by Spinoza, Hegel, and others.

    We have a point of agreement. 🙂

  16. Biomineralization is a common trend in both the evolution of life and the development of individual organisms.

    Thales believed that everything has its origin in water (flowing fluidity). And it is easy to see why he thought this when we look at life on earth.

  17. Flint,

    I disagree. The IQ does measure something, and the something does relate to intelligence. The measure is not perfect, but I suspect that the IQ is rejected out of political correctness, rather than for being an absolute failure.

  18. Flint to Kantian Naturalist: I think there are two primary tools we can use here. One is intersubjective agreement – do all observers seem to be sensing the same thing. The other is consistency — if we construct models based on what we think we’re observing, and those models pass a fairly wide variety of tests or make consistently correct predictions or do not produce paradoxes under experiment or “strenuous observation”, these things are strong indications that our perceptions are largely correct.

    Whether or not perceptions are correct depends on what we mean by “perceptions”.

    If two people are looking at a table then their sense impressions of the table are subjective. Each sees it from their own perspective. One person might see the table top as distinctly elliptical while the other sees it as almost circular, but they both agree that the top is indeed circular.

    They can both agree, not from what they sense, but through the means of thinking they attach to what their senses are giving them the concept of a circle and the concept of perspective. Without this thinking element their perceptions will remain subjective. The table top becomes a model or a representation of the reality.

  19. Entropy: The IQ does measure something, and the something does relate to intelligence.

    I’m not convinced that intelligence tests demonstrate much more than the subject’s comparative ability to perform the particular intelligence test they take. Years of following the progress of the “Intelligent Design” community have often caused me to ask what is generally meant by “intelligence”. I’ve yet to see a satisfactory definition.

  20. Alan Fox,

    That’s only true above some minimal IQ. For lower IQs, it’s pretty straightforward that the problem is not the particularity of tests, but authentic mental limits.

    The true issue is PC. People don’t want to hear that there’s such thing as mentally limited people. They want everybody in a university, regardless of lack of mental prowess, regardless of preferences, regardless of whatever. Then we are left dealing with idiots who neither can nor want to learn anything but still want their titles, and they feel entitled to those titles by “virtue” or merely attending lectures. Worse, it’s starting to feel as if truly, everybody is entitled to a university degree by merely existing.

    I witness this every day. Idiocy is abundant even with students in their later senior university years. Yet, professors are so used to the PC, shit, they’re even promoters of the PC, that they become blind to this problem. They give students too much of the benefit of the doubt. We end up surrounded by whinny imbeciles with meaningless university degrees.

  21. Entropy,
    Well, that’s more about entitlement, perhaps. I felt poorly served by my university but my attendance fees were paid by (my local) government and so I didn’t feel entitled to complain about the perceived shortcomings. Universities seem to operate as businesses now with students taking out loans that they have to repay. It’s much more of a client/business relationship and students expect value in return for investment. Sure the right thing for universities to do is accept only students capable of benefiting from the course they apply for but the temptation to take anyone who can pay the fees must be strong.

  22. Entropy:

    That’s only true above some minimal IQ. For lower IQs, it’s pretty straightforward that the problem is not the particularity of tests, but authentic mental limits.

    The true issue is PC.

    No, the issue is emphaticallty NOT a matter of political correcness. How extensively have you studied the very wide variety of “intelligence” tests. Enough to know that people can raise their measured intelligence by a significant amount just by practicing the sort of tasks the tests examine? Is intelligence the ability to see clearly, or the ability to solve verbal or spacial or physical problems? Are you familiar with the debate as to whether there is such a thing as “big G” general intelligence applicable to most any task, or whether there are “little G” abilities specific to certain tasks? The interesting thing about this debate is that it is not very difficult to “prove” either one – just concoct the appropriate tests.

    One fascinating case was an intelligent test for a monkey. The scientists hung a banana from the ceiling, too high to reach by jumping. And they put a long pole in the room. They wanted to see how long it would take the monkey to figure out to knock the banana down with the pole.

    The monkey looked at the banana, grabbed the pole, plunked it down on end below the banana and ran up it to grab the banana before the pole could fall over. NOW, did the monkey have higher intelligence than the testers?

    Intelligence tests produce scores which measure the ability to provide expected answers to those particular tests. Plenty of people have mastered the art of taking these tests, measure out as geniuses, but often do stupid things. Infants have been taken from the Borneo jungles to the US, given good educations, and they become respected professionals as lawyers, doctors, musicians. But those individuals left in the jungle would score as imbeciles all their life on American IQ tests.

    This isn’t to say there are no “authentic mental limits”. Only that “intelligence” is a nebulous concept, and operational definitions are limited to the operation that defines it. As you point out, performance at a university is a lousy measure decreed as “intelligence” for cultural and economic reasons. Take that highly educated person from Borneo out of his law firm and put him back in the jungle. THEN see how “smart” he really is.

    As a computer science student I got outstanding grades. I also flunked French II five times, and might never have graduated except the school started accepting Fortran to fulfill the foreign language requirements. Clearly, I have authentic mental limits. That’s not PC, that’s just the way I am.

  23. Every extant species has in common that they are within a continuous evolutionary line stretching back to the beginnings of physical life on earth. Every extinct species marks a terminated line of physical evolution.

    So rather than thinking of birds as being descended from dinosaurs it would be more accurate to think of theropod dinosaurs as terminal branches which have diverged from the bird line. The line leading to extant birds retained its plasticity whereas the line leading to extinct dinosaurs was a path of extremes and specializations which were not adaptable enough to cope with changing conditions. Any line which leads to extremes of specialization is in danger of becoming extinct.

    Professionals who become highly specialized in a particular field beware. 🙂

  24. Flint: Clearly, I have authentic mental limits. That’s not PC, that’s just the way I am.

    PC would be to deny that you have mental limits. So, in the end, you agree with be by disagreeing with me.

    The problem we’re facing at universities is this fantasy that because intelligence can be a nebulous concept, therefore everybody should enter university, regardless of being able to deal with it or not. Then we have to lower expectations or being chastised because so many students fail to meet standards that, frankly, are already way too low.

    Anyway …

  25. What does it take for life to arrive at the stage where organisms become not just creatures, but individual, self-aware, cooperative creators. Creature/creators that can learn, not just from those with whom they are in physical contact, but from any other members who have been able to convey their knowledge in a way that any of those with similar abilities can understand and carry into the future.

    The following points give some of the attributes which contribute to the appearance of such creature/creators.

    1. A high level of thinking ability which in turn requires a nervous system that consumes large quantities of oxygen. Oxygen is much more readily available in air rather than water so terrestrial living is more advantageous.

    2. A well balanced range of senses that work in concert with the thinking power of the individual and where no sense dominates in such a way as to require much of the the energy of the system.

    3. Limbs or similar features that can provide high levels of manipulative skills.

    4. A sophisticated bodily temperature control system that allows the individual to move and work in a wide range of local environments.

    5. A level of parental care which allows the individual the freedom to learn without having to deal with the personal responsibilities of surviving in a dangerous world.

    6. Moderate size and relative long lives gives a suitable metabolism that allows for time to learn and develop in a suitable way.

    Of the top of my head those are just a few of the attributes required for an organism to become a conscious creator. I might come up with more details if or when think of any.

    Many creatures have attributes like these in common with humans. But humans have all of these attributes whereas creatures that rival humans in intelligence do not have the complete balanced range.

    Cephalopods follow the trend of acquiring these traits as seen in the octopus. But its aquatic habitat and lack of bone-like structure prevents it from becoming terrestrial.

    Birds can be very intelligent but because they have developed their forelimbs for flight they cannot now be further developed in a manner similar to human hands.

    Cetaceans are also highly intelligent but obviously lack the dexterous limbs.

    Like birds, elephants don’t have any limbs that are free enough to be used creatively and so any manipulative abilities originate in the structures of the head.

    Primates have a more balanced configuration and humans are the most advanced among them. No other organism come close to the human with respect to unique individual creativity.

  26. Entropy: The problem we’re facing at universities is this fantasy that because intelligence can be a nebulous concept,Not ev therefore everybody should enter university, regardless of being able to deal with it or not. Then we have to lower expectations or being chastised because so many students fail to meet standards that, frankly, are already way too low.

    Not even close. There are real economic pressures at work that are driving students to university regardless of their level of preparation, forcing universities to allow as many students as possible regardless of how prepared they are for college-level work, and forcing professors to drop their standards in order to get as many students to graduation as possible.

    Political correctness has nothing to do with the political economy of higher education.

  27. Neil Rickert: I very much agree with this assessment.

    Well, I’m not sure. What I do believe is libertarianism taints everything. Value isn’t always economic.

  28. Alan Fox,

    The students attend university, because they believe it will get them better paying jobs.

    They are mostly right about that, but only because employers use that education in their hiring practices, even when the education has no relation to the actual job. And, of course, this probably started as a way of using educational levels as an indirect form of racial profiling.

  29. Kantian Naturalist:
    Political correctness has nothing to do with the political economy of higher education.

    And I would argue that success in university has little to do with scores on the Stanford-Binet.

  30. Kantian Naturalist: Political correctness has nothing to do with the political economy of higher education.

    While I agree about the political and economic pressure to get everybody into universities, of course PC has a lot to do with this. It’s not the political/social pressure alone. It comes charged with PC excuses. Anything can be said about the quality of courses, quality of professors, but you shall never blame anything to student differences in mental aptitudes.

    Then it’s also a vicious circle. Employers ask for a university degree for jobs unrelated to university degrees because these degrees are already there for all to have.

  31. Entropy: Anything can be said about the quality of courses, quality of professors, but you shall never blame anything to student differences in mental aptitudes.

    After a decade as a college student (not consecutively), I have to disagree with this rather strongly — depending on what you consider an “aptitude”. My observation is that success in college depends on several factors. In my arbitrary order these are 1: academic discipline, the ability to focus on studies when there are other attractive things to do; 2: Interest in the subject matter – boring “well rounded education” courses are hard to consider necessary; 3: Valuing education both for its own sake and for future earnings, not just “what you do after high school”; 4: maturity, not succumbing to confusion, loneliness, or lack of direction.

    I’m confident that anyone possessing all of these traits can succeed in college. I’m also aware that it’s not uncommon for those scoring sky-high on “IQ” tests to perform poorly, mostly from lack of effort (the same reason most students do poorly). Indeed, many employers will pay higher salaries for those with college degrees totally unrelated to their jobs, on the grounds that someone with the focus and discipline to get a degree will apply those abilities to any job. I’ve never known anyone to flunk out because of stupid.

  32. In the lecture, The Origin of the Vertebrate Nervous System, Part 1 given by >Marc Kirschner (Harvard U), he describes the nervous system of the acorn worm. (I’ve linked to the relevant point in his lecture where he gives some details about this system)

    The acorn worm does not have a central nervous system, it has a diffuse network of nerves all over its body in a regular pattern. But if we look at animals that do have a central nervous system there are patterning genes that correspond to the forebrain, midbrain, hindbrain and so on. A very interesting fact about acorn worms is that they too have the same arrangement of patterning gene expressions without the accompanying CNS.

    The genes that play a vital role in the organization of a CNS are present as if in preparation for the arrival of this advanced nervous system. A system that plays such a central role in the development of individual consciousness.
    And I’ve already mentioned a similar scenario regarding the heart. And of course aquatic organisms developed lungs and limbs before any vertebrate became obligate terrestrial dwellers. And tetrapod limbs evolved in such a way that the highly dexterous human hand was pre-empted. And the possibility of becoming bipedal meant that hands could be used to their full creative advantage.

    If evolutionary trajectories are obliged to follow on from past lifeforms then was it just a suite of fortuitous developments whereby attributes possessed by those basal forms led to individual, conscious, uniquely creative, organisms?

  33. In this video Wallace Marshall describes the “Ten Craziest Things Cells Do”.

    Here is his countdown:
    10. Cells can become very large (caulerpa) and they can be extremely small (ostreococcus tauri).
    9. They can be motile and some can walk as in stylonychia.
    8. White blood cells are biased towards moving left.
    7. Tunnelling nanotubes (TNTs) join separate cells. One activity of TNTs is that they traffic whole mitochondria between cells.
    6. Cytoplasts. Although microplasts leave behind most of the cellular components they can still move and do chemotaxis. They don’t need the nucleus or genes to do this. He also shows how megakryocytes fragment to form platelets in the blood.
    5. Cells can sense electricity.
    4. Cells can solve mazes. And they can solve the travelling salesman problem as in the well documented case of physarum syncytium mimicking the Tokyo subway system. And some demonstrate learned behaviour.
    3. There are Cells that “see”.
    2. Some cells can explode. And they use this ability to propel material through adjacent cell walls.
    1. Cells known as toxaplasm can eat your brain and control your mind.

    He brings up a fascinating selection of facts.

    “Along with exosomes, TNT mediate long-range communication, independent of soluble factors.” TNTs are just one example of how interconnected groups of cells are. The interconnectedness of cells reminds me of the interconnectedness of trees in a forest. An obvious case of self-similarity.

    Another interesting observation he makes is how the mitotic spindle looks very similar to the lines of force of a bar magnet (see diagram). This suggests to me that the microtubules are being assembled in conformity with a field of some sort in the same way that iron filings follow the lines of magnetic force.

    Marshall’s video brings up much food for thought.

  34. CharlieM: If evolutionary trajectories are obliged to follow on from past lifeforms then was it just a suite of fortuitous developments whereby attributes possessed by those basal forms led to individual, conscious, uniquely creative, organisms?

    Yes.

  35. Kantian Naturalist:
    CharlieM: If evolutionary trajectories are obliged to follow on from past lifeforms then was it just a suite of fortuitous developments whereby attributes possessed by those basal forms led to individual, conscious, uniquely creative, organisms?

    Kantian Naturalist. Yes.

    Or perhaps not.

  36. CharlieM: Or perhaps not.

    So you keep saying, but every time you’re pressed for an argument, you respond by posting long blocks of Rudolf Steiner.

  37. CharlieM:
    If evolutionary trajectories are obliged to follow on from past lifeforms then was it just a suite of fortuitous developments whereby attributes possessed by those basal forms led to individual, conscious, uniquely creative, organisms?

    Consider the striking success of people’s breeding programs historicaly – both animals and plants remarkably tailored for human purposes. Yet the breeders have had absolutely no control over what sorts of mutations they get to work with. It doesn’t take too much careful breeding to distill alleles already present into desirable organisms, and beyond that it’s essentially random. What we’re seeing is the amazing power of selection.

    One error I see made often is to regard current life forms as targets, and try to calculate the enormous odds against hitting any particular one of them. Hard to communicate that the actual target is “anything that survives”. Your “suite of forrtuitous developments” is more like amazement that water just happens to flow downhill, producing watersheds of impressive complexity.

    Evolution is pretty much guaranteed to produce a constellation of utterly unpredictable results – every one of them such a “fortuitous development” that it seems it couldn’t possibly have arisen by chance. Yet every single result was from the same process – selecting chance modifications that work from a huge number of modifications nearly all of which didn’t work, and preserving them.

  38. Kantian Naturalist:
    CharlieM: Or perhaps not.

    Kantian Naturalist: So you keep saying, but every time you’re pressed for an argument, you respond by posting long blocks of Rudolf Steiner.

    I’ve posted three “long” quotes from Steiner in this thread, here and here, with the longest at 20 lines I don’t think that is excessive.

    The first quote reveals how Goethe was favourable towards “The Critique of Judgement”. It wasn’t in response to any argument you made because I didn’t think you were arguing against what I said. I presumed you did not disagree with the Joe Norman quote and you were pointing out that Kant was saying the same thing centuries ago.

    You then provided three questions which you said are the big questions philosophers of biology are dealing with since Kant. You are the philosopher so I saw no reason to doubt or question this. As the questions were to do with teleology I decided to post a quote from Steiner’s “Philosophy of Freedom” on purposiveness in nature to see if I would get any feedback on this.

    Kant could see a division between the deterministic physical world and the self-determination of living beings where cause and effect are reciprocally, internally connected and Newtons laws are of little use when describing processes. We should not look for external purposes in order to understand organisms. Kant believed that organisms could never be fully understood mechanistically and Goethe agreed with this. But Goethe maintained that organisms could be understood through other means. Goethe was developing a method whereby one could perceive the idea of a plant by intensive study. With the “thing in itself” Kant set limits to understanding, Goethe broke through those limits. And my third quote was aimed at giving an idea of Goethe’s thinking and how he claimed that what Kant held relevant for the moral sphere could also be applied to the natural world and not just in the mind of God.

    The third quote gives an account of Goethe’s apprehension of the objective idea of organisms, their essential nature.

    I don’t post these quotes for the sake of argument but for the sake of understanding. I don’t ask for agreement, just a hint of a level of understanding. When people call this steinerian “woo”, I’m not filled with any confidence that they have put any effort in trying to understand any of this.

    I’ll just add that I was not the first person to mention Steiner in this thread.

  39. Flint:
    CharlieM: If evolutionary trajectories are obliged to follow on from past lifeforms then was it just a suite of fortuitous developments whereby attributes possessed by those basal forms led to individual, conscious, uniquely creative, organisms?

    Flint: Consider the striking success of people’s breeding programs historicaly – both animals and plants remarkably tailored for human purposes. Yet the breeders have had absolutely no control over what sorts of mutations they get to work with. It doesn’t take too much careful breeding to distill alleles already present into desirable organisms, and beyond that it’s essentially random. What we’re seeing is the amazing power of selection.

    Breeders don’t need to know anything about genomes, alleles, mutations of any of that. As they have done for millennia, they work with what is in front of them, the phenotype. Most of the traits that breeders select for have a complex set of genetic interactions which probably involve various pathways which could be taken to produce the same features. What we see is amazing plasticity within species or kinds.

    Flint: One error I see made often is to regard current life forms as targets, and try to calculate the enormous odds against hitting any particular one of them. Hard to communicate that the actual target is “anything that survives”. Your “suite of forrtuitous developments” is more like amazement that water just happens to flow downhill, producing watersheds of impressive complexity.

    Water does amaze me. But when I look at water flowing downhill I don’t just gaze in amazement. It leads me to think about its remarkable properties. Properties which enable life to exist.

    I think about how the water takes on the shape of the solid matter it rests on.

    But through its movement it also shapes the earth it comes into contact with. I think about the earth’s water cycle, the movement of sap through plants and the flow of blood through animals. I think the thoughts of Heraclitus.

    Flint: Evolution is pretty much guaranteed to produce a constellation of utterly unpredictable results – every one of them such a “fortuitous development” that it seems it couldn’t possibly have arisen by chance. Yet every single result was from the same process – selecting chance modifications that work from a huge number of modifications nearly all of which didn’t work, and preserving them.

    Convergent and parallel evolution ensures a certain predictability in life’s journey through time. When adaptations lead down too narrow a path and organisms take on forms which are restrictive, then their further evolution becomes increasingly unlikely. Take the dodo. It had become confined to the island of Mauritius, lacking the ability to fly its ability to escape predators was very restricted.

    I’m not sure what you mean when you imply that species that have become extinct have failed, or as you put it, they were modified in ways that “didn’t work”. In order for earthly life to thrive, death is a necessity.. Whether it be the death of cells in an individual organism, the death of individuals in a group of organisms or the death of species in an ecosystem: all contribute to the ongoing survival or further development of the whole to which they belong. What “doesn’t work” regarding the individual entity quite possibly does work for the greater whole.

  40. CharlieM:

    Water does amaze me. But when I look at water flowing downhill I don’t just gaze in amazement. It leads me to think about its remarkable properties. Properties which enable life to exist.

    I think about how the water takes on the shape of the solid matter it rests on.

    But through its movement it also shapes the earth it comes into contact with. I think about the earth’s water cycle, the movement of sap through plants and the flow of blood through animals.

    Thus completely evading the point about evoluton having no targets, and about every organism that has ever existed being vanishingly unlikely to have evolved, and about how evolution can ONLY produce vanishingly unlikely organisms.

  41. Flint: Thus completely evading the point about evolution having no targets, and about every organism that has ever existed being vanishingly unlikely to have evolved, and about how evolution can ONLY produce vanishingly unlikely organisms.

    When you say that evolution has no targets I agree with you. Any organism is an individual expression of the archetype. It does not reach for any target because any perceived target belongs to it from its very beginning.

    If I were to pay attention to a plant, as in this video, I realize that it grows a finite number of leaves all unique. If I took the two leaves with the most diverse forms I could imagine one morphing into the other by an infinite series of steps. Any one of these could potentially be the form that a particular leaf takes. Each leaf was not developing towards a target it was expressing its individuality in accordance with the whole. The same is true for all life forms.

    If an organism has existed then the probability of its existence is one. But as in the example of the leaf life infinitely variable within its own limits. If I see a pregnant dog I can have a good idea that it will produce offspring which is most likely to have fundamental similarities to the mother. Life’s future is not entirely unpredictable.

  42. Flint: Thus completely evading the point about evoluton having no targets, and about every organism that has ever existed being vanishingly unlikely to have evolved, and about how evolution can ONLY produce vanishingly unlikely organisms.

    Indeed 🥺

  43. CharlieM: Any organism is an individual expression of the archetype. It does not reach for any target because any perceived target belongs to it from its very beginning.

    Nonsense.

  44. CharlieM: Any organism is an individual expression of the archetype.

    This seems to imply that the archetype came first, and then the organism had to fit.

    I suggest that’s backwards. We humans invented the so-called archetype only when we saw what was there. The organisms came first. That they seemed to roughly fit an archetype is just a consequence of common descent.

  45. CharlieM: . But as in the example of the leaf life infinitely variable within its own limits. If I see a pregnant dog I can have a good idea that it will produce offspring which is most likely to have fundamental similarities to the mother. Life’s future is not entirely unpredictable.

    In the short run (in terms of evolution), of course this is correct. If offspring were too different from the parents, we wouldn’t have species and we wouldn’t have sexual reproduction. Two organisms must be highly similar if they are to have offspring together. For example, chimps cannot breed with humans or with gorillas, but can produce hybrids with bonobos in captivity. Humans interbred with Neandertals and Denisovans, and still have a bit of their DNA.

    But in the longer run (say, millions of years) the future of life is not nearly so predictable. Yes, because of the nested nature of life, we can say that any organism descended from today’s mammals will be a mammal — but there is no way to predict what it will be like.

  46. Alan Fox:
    CharlieM: Any organism is an individual expression of the archetype. It does not reach for any target because any perceived target belongs to it from its very beginning.

    Alan Fox: Nonsense.

    Yes, nonsense….to anyone who believes that if it can’t be seen, measured, counted, touched, heard, or weighed, then it isn’t real. 🙂

  47. Neil Rickert:
    CharlieM: Any organism is an individual expression of the archetype.

    Neil Rickert: This seems to imply that the archetype came first, and then the organism had to fit.

    It did not come first because it is not subject to the same laws of time and space as classical physical substance. It is the “time “body” which informs the spatial body of the organism.

    Neil Rickert: I suggest that’s backwards. We humans invented the so-called archetype only when we saw what was there. The organisms came first. That they seemed to roughly fit an archetype is just a consequence of common descent.

    If you see an organism in front of you what do you see? You see a brief instance of the reality of that organism. To “see” it in reality, not the physical constituents which come and go, and not even the form in front of you which is just one aspect of its dynamic form, is to look upon the archetype.

  48. Flint:
    CharlieM: . But as in the example of the leaf life infinitely variable within its own limits. If I see a pregnant dog I can have a good idea that it will produce offspring which is most likely to have fundamental similarities to the mother. Life’s future is not entirely unpredictable.

    Flint: In the short run (in terms of evolution), of course this is correct. If offspring were too different from the parents, we wouldn’t have species and we wouldn’t have sexual reproduction. Two organisms must be highly similar if they are to have offspring together. For example, chimps cannot breed with humans or with gorillas, but can produce hybrids with bonobos in captivity. Humans interbred with Neandertals and Denisovans, and still have a bit of their DNA.

    But in the longer run (say, millions of years) the future of life is not nearly so predictable. Yes, because of the nested nature of life, we can say that any organism descended from today’s mammals will be a mammal — but there is no way to predict what it will be like.

    The evolution of life reveals a general trend towards increasing freedom from the constrains of the surrounding environment. There are many ways in which creatures evolve to become more free in this respect.

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