Darwinian Mythology

Perhaps the title is misleading – perhaps it suggests that Darwin was completely wrong, or non-existent, or a flat out liar. But let me clear things up. I am no creationist, and I do not deny the scientific plausibility of evolution. This post will not call Darwin completely wrong, non-existent, or a flat out liar. It will suggest, though, that Darwin was partly wrong, that modern evolutionary theory cannot be called his, and that his own biases helped to develop his ideas and define the discourse on evolutionary biology.

I will give inspiration for this post to an article in the  American Scientist that I found on 3 Quarks Daily.

As learned in American high schools today, evolution is presented as a straight forward uni-faceted agreed upon fact of nature. It is demonstrated to be wholly Darwinian and completely understood. That was my experience, at least, and in what I’ve learned, that’s wrong. Evolutionary biology is complicated. Evolutionary thought in general – the belief that species change over time – has been around since the Ancient Greeks. I don’t know who decided to teach it otherwise. The philosophical, historical, and scientific roots of modern evolution are not independent. I would propose a slightly far-reaching analogy to explain evolutionary theory with theoretical physics – complicated, debatable, and often philosophical (although evolutionary theory is more rationally oriented). That students learn Lamarckism came from Jean-Baptiste Lamarck is despicable (it didn’t). Claiming that evolution is a synonym for Darwinism, or that competition driven natural selection is the sole basis of evolution is flat wrong.

“The time that natural selection and evolution were synonymous concepts is long gone” (Gontier, 2007). Natural selection, as proposed by Darwin, is only one of a number of evolutionary theories. You have symbiogenesis, neutral theory, punctuated equilibrium, hybridization, and systems theory.  These different schools of evolutionary thought offer different frameworks for understanding the history of speciation. Natural selection is the most competition driven: it is the idea that genes (and more generally species) competed with each over time for resources, resulting in a sort of capitalism in the natural world. As genetic mutations occurred in species over time, some became better adapted than others, and species naturally became better over time. As appealing and mainstream the theory is, it is not the whole story. Scientists such as Lynn Margulis hold to symbiogenesis – the belief that “new cell organelles, new bodies, new organs and new species arise from symbiosis, in which independent organisms merge to form composites” (“Acquiring Genomes“, 2004) . This school of thought traces evolution to cooperation between species, not competition. Another separate framework of evolutionary has to do with gene-centered or organism-centered evolution. Richard Dawkins is of the former, as highlighted in his book The Selfish Gene.  The evolutionary framework the mainstream believes is organism-centered natural selection. I am not qualified to make an opinion, or to say which of the dozens of frameworks is correct, but the wide variety in viewpoints among biologists needs to be recognized. It needs to be taught that competition driven natural selection is not the only perspective, only the one that is most “traditional”.

The “traditional” view is directly traceable to Charles Darwin. But it is only one view and hardly inclusive of all evolutionary theory. Plus, many of Darwin’s views on evolution, though revolutionary for his time, are out dated and incorrect. The study of genetics began with Gregor Mendel, well after Darwin’s death. Darwin was before the time of developmental biology, and neither did he take genetic drift into consideration. This is not to discredit Charles Darwin, but the theory is hardly his anymore. It is the same with physics – we refer to classical physics as Newtonian (from Newton), and modern physics is entirely different and often in direct contradiction. With evolution, the holding onto Darwin as a sort of awkward justification is outright misleading. Creationists refer to evolution as “Darwinism”, using it as an “ism” label for a complex scientific field of study. “Ism” refers to ideology, not an idea. The New York Times argues that “Darwinism Must Die So that Evolution May Live” (Safine, 2010), and rightly so. Darwinian thought and evolution are entirely different in this day and age. This holding grasp to Charles Darwin is some sort of obscure ethical appeal by creationists and scientists alike (note the juxtaposition!). We need to let go and move on.

But what does this mean for the larger academic picture? Social Darwinism, for example, arguably draws directly from Charles Darwin himself (although more so from sociologist Herbert Spencer). Indeed, the first publication of The Origin of Species was On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. Beyond race relations, a sort of naturalist capitalism emerged from Darwin’s views. The idea of natural selection and competition as a means of improving a species “morally liberated people to be selfish, and it intellectually liberated them to interpret a range of complicated questions in terms of simpler individual parts” (Harris, 2013). Darwinian thought (in its proper usage!) was revolutionary in the Enlightenment period for these very means. E. O. Wilson, frequently mentioned on 3 Quarks Daily, is a retired biologist from Harvard who arguably calls for a revival of eugenics. Perhaps, however, a different evolutionary framework could reorient philosophical discussions based on Darwin. After all, a symbiogenesis outlook would give a strong appeal to cooperation. Neutral theory is entirely depressing and makes life even more meaningless than Camus (if that’s possible). How we deal with the history of the sciences, teach them, discuss them, and draw from them has an incredible effect on everything else. Especially evolution.  

Traditional understandings of evolution – the Darwinian ones – aren’t bad, but they also aren’t perfect. Evolutionary biologists have known for decades that there are other opinions that radically differ from public perception. Darwinism is a misnomer, and natural selection isn’t synonymous to evolution. Science requires us to separate preconception from discovery, and we must do just that.

Darwin’s struggle for truth was an incredible story of free thought and utter creativity. His discovery was ultimate liberation for some, and a hell’s damnation for others. It brought an entire new discourse to science, philosophy, and even economics. However, when we misguide its history, label things incorrectly, or teach what really isn’t true, we are dishonoring what needs to be a time-honored tradition. Whatever you think of Darwin, or of his  discovery, it cannot be questioned: evolution, for better or for worse, is the most thought-provoking discovery of the last few centuries.

See Texas’s new policy on evolution in textbooks

See more soon on Darwinian philosophies and evolution in American discourse.

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The Extinction Dilemma

A black rhino calf born at the Saint Louis Zoo in Saint Louis, Missouri. The IUCF said that the Western Black Rhino of Africa, a species related to these black rhinos, is officially extinct

The Western Black Rhino went extinct today. Poachers, they say. Of course, we forget of the many other species that went extinct today. And that’s from a panda saving website. It’s a dilemma people don’t bother pondering about – extinction. Darwinian evolution, right? Herbert Spencer’s survival of the fittest, Charles Darwin’s natural selection, the Lion King’s circle of life. It’s all natural, isn’t it?  The rhino didn’t adapt for the new era we’re in. To bad for the rhino.

What’s it to us, anyway? We try to save pandas, koalas, polar bears. Why? They’re cute and furry and bear-y. Forget the rest. It’s all about us. We want the world to look pretty, so we save the pretty looking animals. Sounds like playing God to me. But then again, who’s to stop us?

It’s sad this rhino went extinct. It really is. I liked rhinos. Same way I like humans, so I’ll save a fellow homo-sapien when I need to. Some of them look pretty, too. But they’re not furry….

In other words, they are winners and losers. The cutest and the rest. Humans, pandas, koalas, we’re all pretty darn cute. The Pyrenean Ibex? Eh, not as interesting. So I guess it’s still survival of the fittest, except being cute means being fit. I just wish we realized the contradiction. It’s the circle of life. But the rhino broke the cycle. Liberation, right? Not everything can be saved. I hope I didn’t burst your idealism bubble. If I did, you better hurry up with adaptation.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Survival_of_the_fittest

Everyone Is In Love With Ideology

Except that he misused the terms “intelligent design” and “evolution” (see the comments), the Ethical Warrior does it again! I’d like to recommend to him and you all this TED talk; it is relevant:

http://www.ted.com/talks/jonathan_drori_on_what_we_think_we_know.html

Cheers, Lux.

The Ethical Warrior

Everybody is in love with ideology.  Actually, it would be more correct to say that everybody is in love with their OWN ideology.  The truth is that many people don’t care about other people’s opinions, and they feel justified because they are certain that they are right.

Ideology is a wonderful thing.  Where else can a person be absolutely certain about something that they might know very little about?  One of my favorite sayings along these lines is from Dorion Sagan who said, “The difference between science and philosophy is that the scientist learns more and more about less and less until she knows everything about nothing, whereas a philosopher learns less and less about more and more until he knows nothing about everything.”

With regards to science, Paul Feyerabend, a philosopher of science himself, said that, “…it (science) is inherently superior only for those who have already decided in…

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Altruism…is it real?

Concerning altruism, there are many perspectives on whether or not we can be purely altruistic. There are many stances we could take, and many lenses we could look through. Let’s see what they are, what they signify, and why they are misleading.

An evolutionary lens, for example, would suggest that our genes encourage altruism so that we get things in return, so that we reproduce. In other words, organisms can be, while the roots of it, in our genes, are selfish. That is the view of Dr. Richard Dawkins, hence the book title The Selfish Gene. Dawkin’s argument is fairly satisfying in the scientific community.

We could also take a more philosophical lens, in that to treat others selflessly we’d have to be happy doing it, right? Should someone want to save another person’s life, and attempts to do so, they satisfied their desire, thus being selfish in the end.  This at first may seem to be irrefutable, it did to me at least for a number of years. But there are counter arguments: someone may not think about the fact that they want to be altruistic. After all, impulsiveness is a given in the human condition. However, if we are altruistic impulsively, would that still be considered altruism? That is another question that is debated.

What we know from egoism is that we are only altruistic to get altruism back. This is similar to the evolutionary view, except on the scope of organisms along with individual genes. This, perhaps, is too pessimistic. Certainly, could holding the door open for a stranger be an act of kindness done solely in the hopes that one day the stranger will see you, and will open the door for you? It simply doesn’t make sense. Additionally, such a thinking process wouldn’t be all that logical, considering someone who thought this way would probably have to be. Statistically, not everyone could possibly have a net “gain” in altruism, there would always be winners and losers, if you will. And certainly, the nice people don’t always win.

Perhaps a more psychological approach, one less dealing with evolution. Studies, such as one I found in The Atlantic Monthly, show that newborns begin life with some sense of selflessness. It is interesting to support arguments like these with evidence from the psychology of newborns, I’ll write soon on the lack of self awareness in babies and it’s significance in the study of artificial intelligence. The fact that newborns are surprised by the lack of sharing in a movie, and that most do willingly share is astonishing, and it does support half of the evolutionary perspective.

I think that much of the debate comes from the lack of a proper definition of altruism. Philosophers, psychologists, and economists alike (yes, economists play a role) only spend time on studying how altruism works, without actually defining the word. Perhaps we can see it’s dictionary definition, and then dissect it:

Merriam Webster defines altruism as “unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others.”

Unselfish is defined as: “having or showing more concern for other people than for yourself.”

Concern, in the context, means: “a feeling of being interested in and caring about a person or thing.”

In other words, altruism is being more interested and devoted to the welfare of others than to yourself. But that still isn’t very clear, and that’s where philosophers, psychologists, and economists need to step up. Should we take the philosophical view that altruism is only impulsive, we must decide if it can still be altruistic. After all, “it’s possible that babies are more likely to be altruistic than older people, because they think less about it” (from The Atlantic Monthly article). However, this could be like saying I did a good deed even though I didn’t know it was a good deed.

Should we take the egoist perspective, as economists unfortunately do, we must assume that humans act “altruistically” out of self interest. Although the traditional arguments of egoism don’t stand, one might say that people act for the welfare of others solely to satisfy some sort of “sense duty” they have,  according to this literary magazine. Alternatively, one might also argue people act benevolently to satisfy some sort of deity or obey inherent natural laws (heaven or hell, karma, etc). That is another possibility. But once again, could one still be altruistic while maintaining a shed of selfishness, as long as that selfishness is the very thing leading to the altruism?  And if we all act out of this inherent self-interest, maybe there is no such thing as self-interest at all.

These are serious issues with debating altruism, and we can’t move forward in this debate until we agree on the questions I posed. Otherwise, we’re simply beating around the bush and arguing over different things without realizing it.