"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Cracks Showing In Darwinism?

Darwinism continues to take hits, more these days than usual.  Just as conspiracy theorists simply cannot accept objective facts and the logical conclusions to be drawn from them, so Creationists cannot accept the fact that human beings – sensate, intelligent, aspiring, and creative – could possibly have evolved from the apes; or worse, from single-celled organisms; and worst still by chance.

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There are those who accept evolution but still challenge certain of Darwin’s assumptions.  At a recent lecture on the evolution of certain species of insects, an entomologist asked why this species had scales and other physical features which had no discernible evolutionary purpose? Why did certain other insects live in galls, horny protuberances on trees? Water and fire, he concluded, was the answer to both questions. Scales which captured air bubbles had evolved to allow insects to survive floods by providing a source of oxygen under water; and galls evolved to protect insects against fire. Competition with rival species, an essential element of Darwin’s Survival Of The Fittest, was not at play here.  Adaptation was.

Darwin, of course, referred more often to competition within species than between them. While it is true that evening swallows give way to night-hunting bats and that both evolved to fill a particular niche, it is the evolutionary adaptation of individuals of one species that defines survival.  Of the billions of malaria parasites generated every day, those individuals which can survive new drugs are the ones which will go on to reproduce and populate entire new generations of drug-resistant strains. Their fight in the gut and blood with the many other parasites there searching for purchase is another story and a different evolutionary battle altogether.  The real, primordial issue, is which individuals within a species can evolve successfully enough to resist environmental hazards and predation.

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The professor’s focus on intra-species adaptation was deliberate; for he wanted to highlight environmental factors which determined evolutionary progress.  He was not challenging Darwinism per se, but was opening the door to reflection on the influence nature in evolution.  What irks most creationists is the randomness of Darwinism.  Nature does not exert a force on the entire species, thus producing evolutionary change. Some individuals are born with a genetic ‘defect’ which happens to be perfectly suited to a prevailing environmental condition, and go on to reproduce an entirely modified, ‘new’ species.

The professor’s explanation of the evolution of scales in certain insects was a slight tipping of the hat to Darwin skeptics.  Of course the first incidence of insect scales happened randomly, but the adaptation never would have come about if it hadn’t been for the periodic floods and fires that periodically altered the landscape.  He was not exactly challenging Darwinism, but he was attributing more causality to the forces of nature than is usually given. 

What is perhaps the greatest sticking point of Darwinism is its inability to explain the quantum leap made in intelligence between the apes and Man.  Darwin’s theory was based on the infinitely small variations in species.  One tiny adaptation which gives marginal survival value becomes a larger, more successful adaptation, etc.  Fish did not all of a sudden get flippers that worked pretty well on land as well as water; but these adaptations evolved slowly and progressively over time.  The jump in mental capacity and ability Homo Sapiens over all previous hominoids was far greater than Darwin would ever have predicted.  Early man did not need the tremendous brain power he found himself with to survive in the late Paleolithic. He could have gotten by with a fraction of his brain cells to be able to better wield a club or track an animal. The brain the caveman possessed was the same brain that Einstein had.

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Non-Darwinian theorists like Thomas Nagel (1937-) go a step further and ponder the question of intelligence itself.  They have been convinced that evolution is all about intellectual progress – that the seeds for higher intelligence and mental ability were in even the most primitive single-celled organisms.  Even if one did not believe in God, as Nagel did not, there still was purpose. Doug Hill, writing in The Atlantic (2.17.13) summarizes Nagel’s theory:
Nagel's argument is that the mechanics of natural selection can't answer one of the most crucial questions of our existence: how living, reasoning creatures emerged from insensate matter. Although he himself is an atheist, Nagel says he shares the theists' conviction that the appearance of such creatures strongly suggests that the universe has, from the beginning, evolved teleologically, meaning it's moving purposively, toward ever-higher levels of consciousness.
"Each of our lives," he writes, "is a part of the lengthy process of the universe gradually waking up and becoming aware of itself."
Nagel was not the first to posit some theories, and his predecessor Samuel Butler (1835-1902) sounded the same skepticism more than 100 years previously:
Not long after Erewhon appeared Butler began to see what he considered the dark side of Darwin's theory: it portrayed evolution as a wholly mechanical process that removed any spark of creative vitality from the universe. This was directly counter to the views expressed, supposedly as a joke, in The Book of the Machines, which argued that willful intention can be discerned on far lower rungs of the evolutionary ladder than those occupied by human beings.
"Even a potato in a dark cellar” Butler wrote, “has a certain low cunning about him which serves him in excellent stead," the Book of Machines says.
He knows perfectly well what he wants and how to get it. He sees the light coming from the cellar window and sends his shoots crawling straight thereto; they will crawl along the floor and up the wall and out at the cellar window; if there be a little earth anywhere on the journey he will find it and use it for his own ends.
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What is surprising is that both a religious believer (Butler) and an avowed atheist (Nagel) came up with the same conclusion.  While it is easy to impute a divine origin to the evolution of species – i.e. God had Man in mind all along – it is much harder to accept the idea that there was a non-spiritual, teleological purpose behind evolution -intelligence has been there all along, and it is the one central trait behind all physical evolution.  It is the reason for evolution, not merely a result of it.  Describing the similarities between Butler and Nagel, Hill writes:
Butler repeatedly argued that Darwinism explained the mechanics of evolution but overlooked its impetus, a point echoed by Nagel:  "The appearance of animal consciousness," Nagel writes, "is evidently the result of biological evolution, but this well-supported empirical fact is not yet an explanation--it does not provide understanding, or enable us to see why the result was to be expected or how it came about."
Like Nagel, Butler believed purposefulness imbues all of creation. He was not an avowed atheist, as Nagel is, but he did eschew and dismiss conventional notions of deity in favor of what can be described as a scientifically-informed pantheism. There's no need, he wrote, to posit some "quasi-anthropomorphic being who schemed everything out much as a man would do, but on an infinitely vaster scale." Rather, he said,
The proper inference is that there is a low livingness in every atom of matter...It should not be doubted that wherever there is vibration and motion there is life and memory, and that there is vibration and motion at all times in all things.

Nagel agrees entirely:
"My guiding conviction," he says, "is that mind is not just an afterthought or an accident or an add-on, but a basic aspect of nature...I believe that the role of consciousness in the survival of organisms is inseparable from intentionality: inseparable from perception, belief, desire, and action, and finally from reason."
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An interesting aspect to Butler’s theories is that he believed that intelligent evolution would apply to machines as well as to human beings.  In Erehwon, written in 1872, Butler expresses his fear that machines might one day attain consciousness and take over human beings. He was certainly prescient, for artificial intelligence is quickly approximating human brainpower.  More important, however, is his theory about the fundamental nature of evolution – i.e. that all systems, human or mechanical, are subject to the same rules of progressive ‘upward’ movement towards higher and higher intelligence – a theory just as intriguing (and doubtful) as Complexity Theory:
Complexity Theory is a set of concepts that attempts to explain complex phenomenon not explain traditional mechanistic theories. It integrates ideas derived from chaos theory, cognitive psychology, computer science, evolutionary biology, general systems theory, information theory, and other related fields to deal with the natural and artificial systems as they are, and not by simplifying them (breaking them down into their constituent parts – businessdictionary.com
The field of complex adaptive systems theory (also known as “complexity” theory) seeks to understand how order emerges in complex, non-linear systems such as galaxies, ecologies, markets, social systems and neural networks. Complexity scientists suggest that living systems migrate to a state of dynamic stability they call the “edge of chaos.”
Mitchell Waldrop provides a description of the edge of chaos in his book, Complexity: “The balance point -- often called the edge of chaos -- is where the components of a system never quite lock into place, and yet never quite dissolve into turbulence either. . . The edge of chaos is where life has enough stability to sustain itself and enough creativity to deserve the name of life – slideshare.net
The theories of Butler, Nagel, and Complexity proponents are a bit too hippy-dippy to stand up to much scrutiny.  For any  non-believer, it is impossible to conclude anything other than the purely mechanistic, random, and purposeless evolution of all life.  While one may remain perplexed about the nature of human intelligence and the vast difference between it and that of animals, a non-believer is never tempted to believe that at one point in the evolution of a mechanistic universe, something happened – e.g. God intervened – to fundamentally change its course.

One day we will solve the puzzle just like the evolutionary entomologist solved the problem of insect scales.  We just have not been looking hard enough, he said, or we have been looking in the wrong places; and our presumptions, assumptions, and predilections get in the way.  We are looking at insect defenses, mating behavior, shows of display; but have  missed the real connection.

So it will be with human intelligence.  At one point in a long evolutionary history, human beings developed a powerful brain. Perhaps its advanced computational power was an unexplained anomaly in Darwinian theory; or perhaps the definition of ‘incremental change’ was too narrow to describe an unusual but predicable phenomenon. Even the most hallowed theory of all – Relativity – has been recently challenged; and although the challengers have been beaten back, doubt will always remain.

Darwinism may be complete right except for this one little thing that the master overlooked.
To impute design in the process of natural selection, either by God or some still unexplained force, is, ironically, very human.  We simply cannot stand the idea that we are here by pure accident and will do our best to disprove Darwin and prove the existence of God. Most human of all is our drive to figure it all out, whatever the result.

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