The Dialectic of Darwinism and Anti-Darwinism

I here present a number of theses, each of which deserves an independent argument in support of it, but which I think are both true and defensible:

(1) The resistance to Darwinism as expressed by creationism and by intelligent design largely arises from treating “Darwinism” as a scapegoat for the social ills produced by capitalism.  It has become commonplace among creationist and other anti-Darwinists to blame Darwinism for any and all of the following: eugenics, acceptance of homosexuality, sexual promiscuity, genocide, school shootings, abortion, and decline of ecclesiastical authority.

(2) Though the obsession with sexuality and anxiety about the ambiguity of embodiment are standard-fare among the religious far-right, my interest here lies in what it is about contemporary presentations of Darwinism that make it such a tempting target for these anxieties.

(3) This scapegoating is due to both (a) a tendency towards imaginative free associations rather than careful attention to the material forces operating in society, esp. recently, and (b) how contemporary popularizers of Darwinism resort to capitalist metaphors in presenting their ideas, e.g. Dawkins’ “selfish gene”.

(4) More fundamentally, contemporary Darwinists, especially in light of Monod’s Chance and Necessity, conflate the theory of evolution with a materialistic metaphysics that is basically Epicurean in origin. (As Monod’s very title, Chance and Necessity, attests.) Previous philosophers who accepted Darwin’s theory of evolution, such as John Dewey (Experience and Nature, “The Influence of Darwinism on Philosophy” and Hans Jonas (The Phenomenon of Life), did not make this mistake.

(5) And it is a mistake, for two reasons.  Firstly, Darwin himself was no Epicurean; he was of the conviction that the universe is not the result of chance and necessity alone, although he was cautious enough to acknowledge that this conviction is vulnerable to skeptical objections grounded in evolutionary considerations (“Darwin’s Doubt,” as Alvin Plantinga calls it).  Secondly, and far more importantly, if Darwin were an Epicurean materialist, it still would not matter.  The theory of that random and inheritable variation and natural selection explain much of natural history would be rationally acceptable, just as Newton’s laws of physics are rationally acceptable independently of his theological metaphysics.  More generally: neither the content of a scientific theory nor the criteria for its acceptability depend upon the implicit or explicit metaphysical commitments of its principle architect, because the criteria for its acceptability depends how the community of inquirers responds to empirical reality.

(6) This conflation between Darwin’s theory and Epicurean metaphysics is directly tied to how Darwinism is turned into the scapegoat for capitalism, because

(7) Capitalism derives its legitimacy from turning Epicurean metaphysics into its dominant ideology, just as the medieval European societal order derived its legitimacy from turning Aristotelian metaphysics into its dominant ideology (though the resurgence of Stoicism also played a prominent role, e.g. in the Scottish Enlightenment).

(8) The period during which Epicurean metaphysics was co-opted into the ideology of capitalism is called “the Scientific Revolution”, and for most of the 17th and 18th centuries, philosophers and scientists (insofar as that distinction can be drawn during this period) wrestled with Epicurean (and also Stoic) metaphysics, much as Aquinas had wrestled with Aristotelian metaphysics.

(9) The result, in each case, was the transformation of metaphysical theory into cultural-political ideology.  Aquinas’ synthesis of Aristotle and Catholicism transformed Aristotle’s metaphysics (with minor additions and corrections) into the dominant instrument of cultural-political legitimization within the Church and the cultures it influences, just as Descartes, Locke, Bacon, Hobbes, and Spinoza transformed Epicurean metaphysics (with minor additions and corrections) into the dominant instrument of cultural-political legitimization within techno-scientific capitalism and the cultures it influences.

(10)   Thus, where anti-Darwinists refer to Darwinism as materialism, or employ the rhetoric of “chance and necessity” in their criticisms of Darwinism, they are endorsing the ‘Epicureanization’ of Darwinism that Monod, Dawkins, and others performed as part of establishing the scientific credentials of the theory for the popular imagination.

(11) This, in turn, cements the association between Darwinism and capitalism to such a degree that the social forces unleashed by modern and post-modern capitalism – such as decline of traditional privileges centered on gender, race, and sexual orientation; the rise of narcissism; the secularization of Western culture; the increasing alienation of individuals from each other; environmental destruction – are attributed to Darwinism rather than to capitalism.  A scientific theory takes the blame for a mode of social organization.

37 thoughts on “The Dialectic of Darwinism and Anti-Darwinism

  1. As long as you’re noting the association of Darwinism with capitalism and attributing the resistance to Darwinism to distress at the effects of capitalism, you might consider some problems with this explanation. Notably, a great many of the people involved with Intelligent Design and with creationism are not exactly anticapitalist. Most are on the political Right, though they largely come from the Religious Right rather than being primarily free-marketeers. (There are of course exceptions).

    Of the founders of theoretical population genetics, R. A. Fisher was a Church of England archconservative who has been described as “slightly to the right of Genghis Khan”, which may be unfair to Genghis Khan. Sewall Wright was a Unitarian liberal. J. B. S. Haldane was an atheist socialist (and later, Stalinist) who towards the end of his life described himself as a Hindu.

    All of which shows that making these correlations is difficult.

    I always think that it is strange that the Religious Right attacks evolutionary biologists for promoting racism, imperialism, and unbridled capitalism when the Right is actually in favor of the last two, and 50 years ago was mostly busy making excuses for the opposition to the civil rights movement. White evangelicals were not prominent in the civil rights movement — they were largely against it, or at best silent.

  2. Notably, a great many of the people involved with Intelligent Design and with creationism are not exactly anti-capitalist. Most are on the political Right, though they largely come from the Religious Right rather than being primarily free-marketeers.

    This has always intrigued me. I tend to view the world in Darwinian metaphors. All systems that “learn” through feedback look Darwinian to me, including human and animal brains. I see societal evolution as Darwinian rather than dialectical. It just looks like that to me.

    Darwin attributed his key insight to Malthus and the Scottish economists (presumably Adam Smith). I don’t see biologists or economists or scientists in general giving a rat’s patootie about philosophical issues. Science in general is funded and thrives because it enables greater control of worldly things and produces more goods and services. The commercial benefits may not inspire researchers, but they wouldn’t have jobs if the enterprise of science didn’t have commercial value.

    If you look at what anti-science types accept and what they don’t accept, I think you can fill the buckets with what has obvious commercial value and what doesn’t. This has presented problems for petroleum geologists like Morton. Geology is one of the strongest and hardest sciences standing in opposition to biblical literalism, but also one of the most useful.

    I can think of several things that in my personal experience have been opposed: Fluoridation, immunization, cosmology, evolution. There are lots of others, but these have lots of enemies.

    Interestingly, the aspects of medicine that are most hotly contested are preventive measures. One can even say that evolution is opposed in part because it runs afoul of antibiotics misuse. Evolution opponents are happy to have the products of science to treat illness, but they tend to oppose public health measures like restricting the use of antibiotics.It may have been forgotten, but for some years, dairy farmers put penicillin directly into milk sold to the public. States still have to have testing programs to prevent this.

  3. (1) The resistance to Darwinism as expressed by creationism and by intelligent design largely arises from treating “Darwinism” as a scapegoat for the social ills produced by capitalism.

    I think you have the causality backward here. My impression is that “cdesign proponentsists” feel threatened by “Darwinism” mainly because it undermines one of their main arguments for God’s existence.

    In response to the threat, they cast about for ways of discrediting Darwinism by tying it to people, movements and ideas they consider to be unsavory. If it didn’t threaten their faith, they wouldn’t feel the need to do this.

  4. I’m unhappy about the Chance/Necessity thing in the first place. I think there’s a category error in there. I don’t think Chance and Necessity are alternatives – I think that Chance is simply unmodeled Necessity. Until we get down to quantum level, I guess, but even then we have statistical Necessity.

    I think that “caused by chance” is incoherent. I think it just means “we haven’t modeled this causal chain”. Chance is our error term, not a model term.

  5. I’m not familiar with Monod’s use the terms chance and necessity, but your point strikes me as accurate Lizzie. Just curious though, in this context is an emergent property – such as the compound “table salt” as the product of combining sodium and chloride – a statistical necessity? Or would it be deemed just a straight-forward necessity? Or is it chance? Or is it something else entirely?

  6. Joe Felsenstein:
    As long as you’re noting the association of Darwinism with capitalism and attributing the resistance to Darwinism to distress at the effects of capitalism, you might consider some problems with this explanation. Notably, a great many of the people involved with Intelligent Design and with creationism are not exactly anticapitalist. Most are on the political Right, though they largely come from the Religious Right rather than being primarily free-marketeers.(There are of course exceptions).

    Yes, but my thesis isn’t that anti-Darwinists are anti-capitalists — my thesis was that there’s a psychological displacement going on here, whereby Darwinism is scapegoated for social ills that are really caused by capitalism. It’s partly because of their commitment to “the free market” that this displacement, or scapegoating, must take place. But I was more interested in how popularizations of Darwinism allow this scapegoating to take place.

  7. keiths: I think you have the causality backward here.My impression is that“cdesign proponentsists” feel threatened by “Darwinism” mainly because it undermines one of their main arguments for God’s existence.

    I disagree, because (1) there aren’t any good reasons to believe that Darwinism threatens arguments for the existence of God, and (2) plenty of people are perfectly happy to accept both Darwinism and some sort of theism.

    So my question here is, what’s the social and psychological connection divide between cdesign proponentists and theistic evolutionists? And my thesis is that the cdesign proponentists are much more anxious about the social ills engendered by the effects of capitalism on ‘traditional’ sexual and social mores. For them, modernity is a site of anxiety rather than something to celebrate. And, being something of a socialist, I think of modernity as driven by capitalism.

  8. Lizzie:
    I’m unhappy about the Chance/Necessity thing in the first place.I think there’s a category error in there.I don’t think Chance and Necessity are alternatives – I think that Chance is simply unmodeled Necessity.Until we get down to quantum level, I guess, but even then we have statistical Necessity.

    I think that “caused by chance” is incoherent.I think it just means “we haven’t modeled this causal chain”.Chance is our error term, not a model term.

    As a point in the philosophy of science, yes, that’s completely right. I’m more interested in how the rhetoric of “chance and necessity” functions within the vocabulary of cdesign proponentists, and what led to the emergence of that vocabulary. But what you say here — that “chance” and “necessity” aren’t even the right terms to be playing with in the first place, if we want to understand what scientific theories do (and don’t do) — is spot-on.

  9. I disagree, because (1) there aren’t any good reasons to believe that Darwinism threatens arguments for the existence of God…

    Sure there are, which is why Dawkins said that “Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.”

    In fact, had I lived before Darwin, I suspect that I would have remained a theist. Knowing that the diversity of life could be explained in naturalistic terms definitely greased the skids for my eventual deconversion.

  10. In fact, had I lived before Darwin, I suspect that I would have remained a theist. Knowing that the diversity of life could be explained in naturalistic terms definitely greased the skids for my eventual deconversion.

    However, I agree with KN on that. I never saw evolution as an objection to theism. I deconverted because I could not find where Jesus had claimed divinity. And without that, Christian theology was mostly made up. It left Jesus as a liberal activist campaigning against a conservative establishment. And Christianity had become the conservative establishment that Jesus had opposed.

  11. However, I agree with KN on that. I never saw evolution as an objection to theism. I deconverted because I could not find where Jesus had claimed divinity.

    The majority of antievolutionists do see “Darwinism” as a threat to their faith, which is why they are so scathing in their criticism of theistic evolutionists.

    Among other things they think that theistic evolution undermines the authority of Scripture, delegitimizes humanity’s claim to special status within the animal kingdom, and leaves God with too small a role in bringing humans into existence.

  12. The fear is most scathingly expressed by Thomas Kindell, who is a protégé of Henry Morris, shown in this YouTube video reciting the catechism of the Institute for Creation “Research.”

    Those ideas came out in the 1970s after incubating in the mid to late 1960s. Here is Henry Morris in the 1970s laying out the basic misconceptions; and there is much more over at the ICR website. This idea was a central theme in the book “What is Creation Science,” by Morris and Parker, that came out in the early 1980s.

    The central theme is that the world is deteriorating due to “original sin” and a “fundamental law of physics”, the second law of thermodynamics, “proves” this.

    Evolution on the other hand says “everything is getting better and better.” Obviously evolution is propaganda that goes against “known physical laws,” against “obvious evidence,” and against sectarian dogma.

    The central theme of this “conflict” between evolution and the second law persists all throughout the writings of the ID advocates.

    So it is an attempt to show “scientifically” the demonic teachings of biology as undermining the authority of a sectarian interpretation of the Christian bible; and as a consequence, the authority of those who speak for that interpretation.

    It’s basically the Culture War on “scientific” steroids.

  13. KN,

    By Epicurean metaphysics, do you mean as outlined in the letter to Heredotus? Are you including the opinion of Cicero?

    Some of the metaphysics in the letter is now simply physics and other statements we know to be wrong. The doctrine that all reality is made of atoms is known to not be accurate. Anyhow, could you clarify exactly what metaphysical baggage you are saying is adopted by popularizers of the theory of evolution?

  14. davehooke:
    KN,

    By Epicurean metaphysics, do you mean as outlined in the letter to Heredotus? Are you including the opinion of Cicero?

    Some of the metaphysics in the letter is now simply physics and other statements we know to be wrong. The doctrine that all reality is made of atoms is known to not be accurate. Anyhow, could you clarify exactly what metaphysical baggage you are saying is adopted by popularizers of the theory of evolution?

    I’m not an expert in Epicureanism — my grasp of it is based on Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things. The historical narrative I’m sketching here is mostly indebted to Sedley’s Creationism and Its Critics in Antiquity.

    What fascinated me, as I read Sedley, was the suggestion that the argument for design was intentionally developed as a response to Democritean atomism, which in trun was intentionally developed as a response to the mind-first cosmogonies of Anaxagoras and Empedocles. (The infinite-worlds gambit, as a response to creationism, hasn’t changed in the thousands of years from Democritus to today. I find that fascinating.)

    The Epicurean rhetoric as I see it in Monod (to some extent in Dawkins, too) is the assumption that teleological causation is incompatible with what Monod calls “the postulate of objectivity”: living things may seem teleologically structured to us, but they really aren’t. (I’m of the opinion that (a) one cannot account for life without teleological realism; (b) if one cannot account for life, then one cannot account for values, consciousness, or freedom.)

    In any event, I wasn’t talking about the basic constituents of Epicurean world — “atoms and void” — but rather about the basic principles of the Epicurean world, “chance and necessity”, and trying to understand better just why it is that the Platonic (and later Stoic) criticism of Epicureanism has been revived in the intelligent design movement’s criticism of Darwinism.

    Maybe my thesis about the Epicureanization of Darwinism is mistaken — or has a a different source than I suggested here.

  15. Lizzie, I quite agree about “chance” being the “error term.” The use of “random chance” as a critically important source of variation upon which selection operates is, unfortunately, widely endorsed by those who seek to explain biological evolution and widely cited as a reason why ID must be so. We have serious semantic problems. “Random” and “chance” are used in many different ways to mean several different things–most of which distort and obscure the explanations. Perhaps the most accurate is to refer to variation of unknown or undefined origin or causation. It is not that the variation has no cause, just that we do not know the cause or the causes are too complicated to describe–and we now know much more about how genomic variation occurs than we did ten or twenty years ago.

    So this brings me to the next point. Darwin knew practically nothing about how variation could arise, and Wallace, whose contributions regarding natural selection are too frequently totally ignored, didn’t know anything about molecular or population biology either. So, how do we get drawn into these arguments about being pro- or anti- “Darwinist?” As if we were just substituting Darwin for Jesus as an authoritarian religious figure and source of all truth? When I began to pay attention to biological science and found the evidence compelling for biological change across lengthy time, I did not just have a religious conversion experience. Not at all. I woke up to the careful consideration of evidence and recognized the tenuous and progressive nature of knowledge. I appreciate the role of Ronald Fisher in advancing integration of genetics and evolution, but I also remain aware of the temporal context and practical consequences of his contributions (some positive, some negative). So, anyway, I am not a “Darwinist” any more than I am a “Christian” or “Fisherite,” “Wallace-ite,” or “Mendelist.” I seek to acquire and evaluate evidence and follow it wherever it leads.

  16. Robin,

    Emergent properties are really at the heart of evolution and adaptation, but it seems to me that in some sense, an emergent property implies an interactive relationship between an inherent quality (of a compound or organism or whatever) and something contextual (e.g., a “niche”). While ID claims the “lock” and the “key” must have been designed for each other, I see them as opportunistic–neither has arisen by “random chance” nor by a “designer.” Both are “gestalt” configurations of pre-existing components, and each is more than the sum of its parts. That they happen to fit together in some functional synergy is fortunate and relates to their inherent structure and functional properties. Evolution is neither random chance nor externally designed, it seems to me….

  17. Kantian Naturalist: The Epicurean rhetoric as I see it in Monod (to some extent in Dawkins, too) is the assumption that teleological causation is incompatible with what Monod calls “the postulate of objectivity”: living things may seem teleologically structured to us, but they really aren’t. (I’m of the opinion that (a) one cannot account for life without teleological realism; (b) if one cannot account for life, then one cannot account for values, consciousness, or freedom.)

    Okay, so it’s teleology you’re talking about.

    What concessions do you think biologists should make to teleology? I suppose I am asking you to explain the why of (a).

  18. Thanks Joe. That’s what I was getting at, but again, not being familiar with the Epicurean metaphysics I’m just not sure how that sort of “gestalt” concept is dealt with.

  19. We get into some trouble, I think, when we deny what I would call “trajectories.” Adaptation involves refinement of function–not actually to achieve some superior function on purpose (sometimes, perhaps, called an evolutionary “strategy”), but simply because it can. Refinement is enabled by the existence of somewhat variable functional properties. The POTENTIAL for adaptive selection must precede the actual selection and emergence of refined function. The use of explanations claiming purpose is confusing and promotes misunderstanding more than understanding. But claiming that everything selected from “chance-o-genic” variation loses sight of the progressive accumulation of inherent characteristics that enable adaptive refinement of function.

  20. davehooke: Okay, so it’s teleology you’re talking about.

    What concessions do you think biologists should make to teleology? I suppose I am asking you to explain the why of (a).

    I think that the cdesign proponentists have gotten one thing right — they insist on paying careful attention to the “purposiveness” of living things. (That they make the quick leap from purposiveness to design is where they go off the rails.) But, staying just with the bit about purposiveness — “purposiveness without purpose,” in Kant’s lovely phrase — I think that it is just true that we experience living things, including ourselves, in purposive terms — as striving, hunting, playing, chasing, fleeing, and so on. I don’t see how we can eliminate the descriptive vocabulary of purposiveness and still explain what we want to explain. The purposiveness of life needs to be explained, not explained away.

    I worry that contemporary biology has not fully gotten over a sort of “teleophobia” inherited from the 17th-century critics of scholasticism. At that time and in that context, criticisms of teleology were fully justified on a variety of grounds — not only empirical and conceptual, but also cultural-political. (Even today there really good cultural-political reasons for being skeptical of teleological vocabulary.) But I think that the rejection of Aristotelianism/scholasticism went too far when it distinguished between final and efficient causes and then eliminated the former in favor of the latter.

    What I want to do, instead, is reject the distinction between final and efficient causes in favor of a renewed examination of how the vocabulary of purposiveness is grounded in the specific types of causal processes we see in living things. I think that the cdesign proponentists have brought up the right issue — the role of teleological vocabulary in biological description and explanation — but have at the time time muddied the waters, by moving far too quickly from purposiveness to ‘designedness’.

    .

  21. I don’t see how we can eliminate the descriptive vocabulary of purposiveness and still explain what we want to explain. The purposiveness of life needs to be explained, not explained away.

    I think that is a very fundamental biological question. The simple Darwinian answer is that organisms without an innate joie de vivre, a “desire” to mate and produce offspring, would be eliminated immediately from the gene pool. But maybe it is simpler than that. With bacteria and more generally with plants, there seems a sort of passive exploitation of the niche. Bacteria infect a wound because a few spores tumble haphazardly into a spectacularly cosy little niche. Plants race to recolonise a patch of cleared ground because there is an unrestricted source of light and nutrients for the seeds that happen to arrive there. Does there need to be more to it than that?

  22. KN,

    I would argue that “purposiveness” is real when agents are involved but is otherwise illusory. When an agent deliberately uses something as a means to an end, then that “something” has a purpose. Purposes are bestowed by agents.

    Wolves on the hunt are purposive. They are agents using hunting as a means toward the end of alleviating their hunger.

    We speak loosely of conch shells as having the purpose of protecting the delicate animals inside, but I would say that this is an example of an illusory purpose. No agent deliberately bestowed the shell upon the conch, nor did any agent design the conch to produce the shell. And the conch itself certainly didn’t decide that it needed a shell for protection.

    These animals have shells because over the generations, variants that produced protective coverings happened to survive and reproduce better than their competitors. There was no purpose in the mutations themselves. There was no purpose in the differential survival of the variants. Indeed, nature was indifferent to their survival and would have been equally indifferent if an asteroid had arrived and wiped out the entire lineage.

    What makes teleological language so attractive in these cases isn’t that real purpose is involved, but rather that teleological metaphors work very well for explaining Darwinian adaptations

    Consider these two explanations:

    1. The purpose of the conch shell is to protect the animal from predators.

    2. Among the soft-bodied ancestors of the conch, mutations occurred. Some of these mutations caused the formation of coverings. Animals with these coverings tended to survive predator attacks better than the ones without. This meant they were more likely to reproduce successfully than their uncovered counterparts. Over time, the animals with the coverings came to dominate the population while the others died out.

    #2 is technically more correct than #1, but who wants to read (or write) language like that all the time? I’ll take #1 any day, even if that sort of language is sometimes miscontrued by the ignorant or the perverse.

  23. KN,

    For this to mean anything to me, I would need some idea of actual science that was aided by thinking in terms of telos. To me, the relevant causal processes are explained in terms of proton gradients, thermodynamics…

    Does your program extend to telos in thermodynamics?

    Teleological vocabulary seems to me to be grounded in the arrow of time, which is bound up with entropy having a “direction”, which is a low entropy boundary condition plus the verity that there is only one way for an arrangement (of particles) to be replicated exactly and many ways for it to be differed from.

    (Incidentally, I just realized I have no understanding of entropy in terms of fields, so if someone could explain that or point me in the right direction that would be appreciated.)

  24. For this to mean anything to me, I would need some idea of actual science that was aided by thinking in terms of telos.

    Probably all of it.

    That is to say, scientists themselves are purpose driven, and without that it is unlikely that there would be any science.

  25. Almost all of physics can be cast in teleological language. There is a very good reason for this; the second law of thermodynamics along with the fact that energy flows in the direction of momentum transfers.

    Matter can’t condense unless energy is shed. Particles bind by falling into mutual potential energy wells and staying there. Staying there means some energy went elsewhere and didn’t return to the system of particles.

    Hamilton’s principle says that the motion of a system from time t1 to time t2 is such that the “action integral” has a stationary value for the actual path of the motion.

    You don’t have to know what that mathematical statement really means to recognize that it is a teleological statement.

    Without getting into the math, there are some fundamental reasons why sentient beings capable of hierarchies of memory would discern patterns around them that appear to tend toward some end.

    The first reason is that matter condenses; and that requires the second law of thermodynamics. Energy has to spread around.

    The second reason is that the existence of matter is required for the existence of time. Time is directly connected to the relative relationships among material particles. The motion of a particle can only be stipulated by referring to what is going on with other particles, or collections of particles, that get singled out as “clocks.” The motion of a given particle is stated in terms of some number of increments of behaviors of those reference particles.

    But without the existence of consciousness and hierarchies of memory – and these require condensed matter systems, which require the second law – there would be no way to record the paired sequences of events taking place between a particle and a “clock.” There would be no awareness of the “passage of time.”

    Without a sufficiently complex memory and the ability to extrapolate paired events like the particle and the “clock,” there would be no anticipation of a “future;” hence there would be no notion of teleology.

    So teleological thinking requires a complex nervous system and memory, which depends on matter condensing, which in turn depends on energy spreading around, which is the second law of thermodynamics.

  26. Joe Felsenstein:
    Notably, a great many of the people involved with Intelligent Design and with creationism are not exactly anticapitalist. Most are on the political Right, though they largely come from the Religious Right rather than being primarily free-marketeers.(There are of course exceptions).

    A great many people think that capitalism is a good idea, even when they have no way to act as a capitalist. What matters is their objective relationship to the means of production. Do they accumulate capital via the labour of other people, or do they labour at someone else’s beck and call? If the former, they are a capitalist; if the latter, then they are not.

    The confusion between reality and belief about how capital works is commonly known as alienation.

  27. Neil RickertThat is to say, scientists themselves are purpose driven, and without that it is unlikely that there would be any science.

    As an answer to my question, this seems to me to be to be the same category of mistake creationists make when they say that GAs do not model nature because they are designed by intelligent agents.

    Or perhaps you were just being flippant.

  28. Or perhaps you were just being flippant.

    No, I was not being flippant.

    I realize that I was not answering what you thought you were asking. However, your discussion was with KN, and I think I am looking at teleology roughly as KN does.

    Scientists commonly avoid teleological language — or at least they think they avoid it. But they cannot avoid it.

    Biologists talk of mutations as being copying errors, and think that they are avoiding teleology. But the very idea of error is already teleological.

  29. Well, teleological vocabulary is not unavoidable — the question is, if we adjure from using teleological vocabulary, are we still able to capture the explanandum?

    (Note: I am not suggesting that teleological causation is the explanans — put otherwise, I’m trying to revive teleology on the side of description, not of explanation. So I shall need to say something about the distinction between description and explanation, as soon as I figure out what I want to say.)

    I can say, however, that I do not wish to regard our use of teleological vocabulary as mere “projection” of our own agency onto a wholly non-purposive nature. The problem with that view is that it smuggles an unacceptable dualism into the metaphysics — for if nature is wholly without purposes, but agents do have purposes, then agency looks non-natural. And that runs counter the continuity between humanity and nature suggested by the post-Darwinian metaphysics of nature. (To indicate what I mean by ‘continuity’ here, consider this line by Richard Rorty: “as good Darwinians, we want to introduce as few discontinuities as possible in the story of how we got from the apes to the Enlightenment”.)

    To avoid teleological descriptions from becoming mere projections, they would need to be understood as answering to something that is there anyway. To the suggestion that what is there anything is just the Second Law of Thermodynamics, I hesitate — not only is there a crucial difference between an owl’s hunting and a nail’s rusting, but even a bacterium’s tumbling is, I submit, more like the former than the latter. (Perhaps I’m a vitalist!) One promising approach, I think, is what Stuart Kauffman provisionally calls “the fourth law of thermodynamics”: open systems have an inherent tendency to diversify.

  30. One promising approach, I think, is what Stuart Kauffman provisionally calls “the fourth law of thermodynamics”: open systems have an inherent tendency to diversify.

    That is just a restatement of an old idea from quantum mechanics; namely, “Anything that isn’t forbidden will happen somewhere, sometime.” 😉

  31. Mike Elzinga: That is just a restatement of an old idea from quantum mechanics; namely, “Anything that isn’t forbidden will happen somewhere, sometime.”

    It might just be that, at the end of the day, but Kauffman doesn’t want it to be that, because Kauffman wants his “fourth law” to show that there’s a real tendency towards increasing complexity in open systems, within certain parameters. I doubt that could be cashed out in quantum mechanical terms; at any rate I found Kauffman’s own attempts to do so less than convincing, though I thought his ‘fourth law’ a very promising approach to furnishing what Nagel labels “natural teleology.”

  32. That kind of “teleology” (which isn’t teleology) is a very attractive possibility — maybe there are laws as to how much overall progress will be made in an evolving ecosystem — if we go to another solar system and find life evolving, how efficient and diverse will it have gotten in a given amount of time?

    It is not obvious that we can make any generalization along these lines, but it is also not obvious that we can rule out finding such generalizations. I made a try in 1978 in my American Naturalist paper. I know Stuart and can kind-of see where he is coming from. While there are quite a few people who are scornful about any attempt to find such generalizations, I’m not.

  33. I would expect that Kauffman is using “complexity” in a rather restricted manner. I don’t know the context you are referring to with the word “diversity.”

    “Complexity” is a term that is used so loosely that it takes a lot of wrangling over the meanings of the meanings of meanings to find out what a person is talking about.

    If it is being used to describe “patterns” observed by humans, then it becomes so nebulous that it is nearly useless. For example, how does one characterize a “face” seen in a cloud or in a thicket of bushes? How does one decide on what features to label and how fine the scale will be for labeling such features?

    If it is being used properly from the information theory derived from physical systems, then it is proportional to the entropy of a system. But the entropy of a system depends not only on temperature, it depends on internal degrees of freedom; and this is where discussions among novices start going off the rails.

    Soft matter is made up of constituents that interact strongly among themselves, yet are loosely enough bound to allow many coordinated degrees of freedom of movement among the constituents. Such systems exist in extremely narrow temperature ranges where their internal kinetic energies are comparable to the binding energies of the constituents.

    These kinetic energies can’t be so high that the system comes apart and the constituents start behaving independently. If that happens, usually the number of degrees of freedom goes down because coordinated motion among constituents is lost. The number of degrees of freedom also goes down as the temperature goes down because internal kinetic energies are reduced, the constituents become more tightly bound, and many degrees of freedom get “frozen out.”

    So the “complexity” of a system, in the proper technical sense of that word, becomes greater when the entropy of a coordinated, bound system has many internal degrees of freedom. The system exists as an identifiable, bound unit, but it also has many internal degrees of freedom. A heterogeneous system often allows even more degrees of freedom.

    I know something of Kauffman’s work; but I don’t know the context of the “tendency toward diversity for open systems” that you refer to.

    Heterogeneous systems in the soft matter state are enormously complex in the manner stated above. Matter condenses into all kinds of complex systems depending on the elements and compounds available, and depending on the temperature range in which such systems exist.

    They do have to be in contact with a wider environment in order to maintain the temperature range that keeps them soft; so they are definitely not isolated systems. If they can also exchange matter with a larger environment, then matter and energy can flow through them and excite even more internal degrees of freedom.

    If what Kauffman is referring to is that complex systems will form in every opportunity allowed, then that is just the restatement of the old quantum mechanical aphorism to which I referred.

    Pick a nice temperature range where lots of things can bind loosely and dance together, and provide the right mix of elements and compounds and energy and matter flow; yes, lots of complexity (diversity?) can start happening.

    I am guessing that “diversity” refers to lots of different kinds of complex systems.

  34. KN:

    I can say, however, that I do not wish to regard our use of teleological vocabulary as mere “projection” of our own agency onto a wholly non-purposive nature. The problem with that view is that it smuggles an unacceptable dualism into the metaphysics — for if nature is wholly without purposes, but agents do have purposes, then agency looks non-natural.

    Not necessarily. A brain can conceive of a concept although none of its constituent atoms can. Likewise, certain arrangements of atoms can achieve agenthood despite the fact that their constituent atoms are non-purposive non-agents.

  35. I posted this paper in the CSI thread, as part of a brief discussion Joe F and I had regarding complexity in infinite systems. It may be of interest, taking an information-theoretic approach to the evolution of ‘complexity’ (defined with reference to informational entropy) in Avida organisms. (2nd Law/informational entropy conflation alert!).

  36. Ouch; I have some problems with that paper. I haven’t finished it yet; but, indeed, the conflations are glaring and painful. Perhaps this could be a separate thread for discussion.

    I’m in the middle of a bunch of scheduled tasks, and in a couple of weeks I will be traveling to Los Angeles for a few days; but the paper might be an interesting springboard for discussion. I’ve downloaded and printed it.

  37. Maybe not so much “ouch;” after I get use to the way the terms are used.

    Figure 3 is most interesting because the entropy behaves as one would expect when the environment of a physical system changes. The way the entropy per genome site is specified makes sense.

    I am not familiar enough with the way Avida works or how it defines “fitness;” so I don’t know how “Maxwell’s Demon” is doing its selecting. However it works, it appears to get its “energy” from the environment.

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