Archive for the ‘Evolution’ Category

Part 1: “A solipsism as big as all existence”

Lazare’s piece, like so much of this theism/nontheism discourse, is grounded in the longstanding, conceptually buttressed but objectively inaccurate premise that humans exist in the universe but are not (necessarily) the universe itself – the universe aware of itself. He seems to discern this though, although I can’t grasp how clearly, in the review’s penultimate sentence:
“In short, humanity creates meaning for itself by liberating itself so that it can fulfill itself. This is also a solipsism, but one as big as all existence.”

There’s an awful lot of very important meaning in those 28 words. I’ll leave Lazare’s use of ‘meaning’ aside for the moment, because I think that this – “liberating itself so that it can fulfill itself” – begs for a critical analysis.
What is humanity ‘liberating itself’ from? What is restraining humanity from ‘fulfillment’?
The material world?
Is this what’s meant by ‘transcendence’? A perceived need to escape the world we seem to be ‘born into, naked and shivering’? (Who wrote that? A poet? Shakespeare? Anyone know?)

If so, I strongly suspect that this is the real kernel of religion, and here’s why:
Science informs us that the atoms comprising our corporeal molecules can be split into smaller atoms or fused into larger ones, but never genuinely destroyed. These aggregations of energy (subatomic energy) are effectively “immortal”. Therefore what I call “my body” is comprised of energy packets that originated in the Big Bang. These energy packets of me-stuff were once the innards of stars before stellar fusion clumped them into the heavier elements that eventually gravitated into the third rock from the star nearest my typing fingers. After abiogenesis (whether this occurred beside deep-sea volcanic vents or in sunlight near the shores of the planet’s early oceans is a question far from settled) the me-stuff of rock became proto-bacterial life. Then, later yet—after inestimable millions of generations of evolution and flat-out gene-swapping (yes, bacteria can do this)—this microbial patterning of Big-Bang-Stuff became even more complex life before it became me. And since I must consume large quantities of complex life to replenish my me-stuff, I continue to convert biologically re-patterned Big-Bang-Stuff into me-stuff.

So what am “I”, then?
Evidently: ancient stardust as a biospherically engendered, locally mobile, (potentially) self-replicating pattern of the Big Bang in ongoing evolution. orlox incisively reconceptualizes it as ‘process history’:

If only process is fundamental where does the substance come from? If substance is a property of a second level of organization (so atoms have substance but electrons are just process) then atoms should be considered fundamental.

If process is fundamental, then all is process. An entity is a process history, not a discrete substance, even if defined as somehow more than the sum of its constituents.

Wonderfully articulated (although the italics are mine). Yet I’m something more than merely the Big Bang in its ongoing evolution (as if that isn’t an awesome enough realization!) – I’m also a self-aware facet of the Big Bang in ongoing evolution. We humans, in short, are something vastly greater than the mere consciousnesses that seems to “inhabit” our brains.

And this ain’t theology or religion, folks – it’s scientific deduction. And an inevitable scientific deduction: any sufficiently intelligent species of this biosphere or of biospheres elsewhere in the cosmos will likely eventually deduce this. It’s a ‘truth’ out there awaiting discovery: this universe evolves its energies and processes into stars, yes, but into intelligent biological patterns as well (we’re that theory’s inescapable supporting evidence). We don’t live “in” the universe as if it were a house, or a country, or even a potentially domesticable eco-system: it’s a stellar eco-system already that evolves itself into life – into us. We’re the stellar eco-system becoming aware of itself. We’re not “in” it, we are it.
We are “a solipsism as big as all existence”, although I’m probably using that phrase very differently from Lazare’s intention. (And this might be the only instance I can imagine of the concept “solipsism” being more genuinely useful than frivolous). The human species is the universe-as-solipsism, or, at the very least, the biosphere-as-solipsism.

Yet our inherited common language concepts don’t easily represent this realization. We much more easily say very odd things like, “I have a body” rather than the more accurate, “I am this body”. We seem to intuit that we inhabit our bodies, as if our individual lives are rentals on our way toward home-ownership in an entirely spurious hereafter.

And maybe it’s worse than merely linguistic: perhaps we’re consigned, by ancestral evolution-in-wild-environment of our very specialized primate-to-human-being consciousness, to perceive ourselves as ‘within’ the world but not exactly of the world. We seem hopelessly stuck with this sense of separateness – even though we’re not merely the atoms, measurable in kilograms or pounds, of our bodies but the entire universe aware of itself, as biospherically engendered, locally mobile ‘process histories’.

But are we hopelessly stuck? Must we eternally experience our lives from ‘in here’ looking ‘out there’? Might we ever learn to easily perceive our unity with the rest of the cosmos, or must we instead remain intuitively prey to the feeling of separation—which is the probable source of the ancient concept called ‘soul’?

Well, I can’t pretend to assure you that we can overcome the ‘intuitive perception’ part of that problem—maybe we can, maybe not. I can’t offer any predictions on that. But I don’t see why we can’t begin to more accurately conceptualize our inescapable unity with ongoing creation. It will require, as orlox has already done, rethinking ‘things’ – nouns – into events or actions – verbs. Or, perhaps creating a specialized hybrid of verb and noun that represents living patterns as processes instead of entities.

It will require another even more important revisioning too: a sense that we’re not small and vulnerable (although it’s intuitive to think that we are), but that our smallness and vulnerability is a kind of illusion. We are the universe aware of itself. We’re the whole damned thingall of the events that ever happened – even those we’re not yet aware of. Our ignorance of the events beyond our personal perceptions shouldn’t diminish us or our senses of self worth, however: we are the universe examining itself – and such examinations, especially by those just beginning to learn how to examine, cannot be concluded in an instant, or in a lifetime, or even in a millennium. Which implies then that in this phase of the universe-examining-itself, each of us is an invaluable examiner.

Think of a sphere: where is its center? Every point on it is its center, right? That’s the sort of metaphor necessary for the conceptualization we need to cleverly incorporate into our future verbiage – into our grammar of unity. (And no, I can’t claim to have worked up such any such cleverness myself – but I’m hardly a philosopher. Someone else, someone much more clever than me, will eventually do it.) Each of us is the universe’s center: none of us are more important than any other.

It’s hardly unreasonable to characterize us a ‘young species’: originating about 200,000 years ago, and as an evolution of the line(s) of hominids that diverged from the ancestors of contemporary apes about 6 or so million years ago. Grebes, in contrast, have a fossil record going back approximately 24 million years. Permit me then this metaphor: we’re an ‘adolescent’ species, growing from childlike naïveté toward a more richly experienced and knowledgeable – but still youthful – maturity.

And how do children learn? Via belief: by accepting as ‘the truth’ whatever their parents and elders tell them. Yet if this epistemology—rote-learning and careful imitation—were our only option, we’d still be knapping Neolithic flint and stitching sinew though pelts to clothe us. Human learning and cognition transcends the limitations of belief and faithful imitation: we innovate, not only technologically but, and much more crucially, conceptually. This symbiotic capacity to innovate technologically and to innovatively conceptualize allowed our ancestors to evolve beyond Neolithic culture, to evolve in turn beyond the Bronze Age, and, with breathtaking rapidity, to evolve into this ultra-technological and ultra-inquisitive culture that allows us to question and converse with one another from the privacy of our personal dens. We are a species unlike any to have preceded us (that we know of); and yet we are even more than that: we are this local neighborhood of the universe so hyper-aware of itself that we can discern the patterns of universal energy that comprise our individual selves and our greater self the cosmos.

We didn’t discover this new level of knowledge via belief. In our recent (metaphoric) puberty, one of us, named Augustine, wrote:

There is another form of temptation, even more fraught with danger. This is the disease of curiosity. It is this which drives us to try and discover the secrets of nature, those secrets which are beyond our understanding, which can avail us nothing and which man should not wish to learn. – Google Book Search

Shocked? If not, I suggest you should be. This sentiment by Augustine (a ‘Saint’, no less) is the philosophy of Dark Ages – and of faith.
Contrast that with this:

It is an essential part of the scientific enterprise to admit ignorance, even to exult in ignorance as a challenge to future conquests. As my friend Matt Ridley has written, ‘Most scientists are bored by what they have already discovered. It is ignorance that drives them on.’ Mystics exult in mystery and want it to stay mysterious. Scientists exult in mystery for another reason: it gives them something to do. More generally…one of the truly bad effects of religion is that it teaches us that it is a virtue to be satisfied with not understanding.
—Dawkins, The God Delusion, pp.125-6

Thank goodness for human curiosity. (But what a pity Augustine and his ilk influenced our ancestors for so many disease-ridden centuries, effectively obliterating the proto-science of the classical world and pushing the development of the scientific method a millennium and a half further into the future than it needed to be.)

So, I’m suggesting that humans, especially in the past couple of centuries, have uncovered, in quantities of thousands or even millions, of what had previously been “secrets and mysteries” of the cosmos, and that these discoveries are collectively forming a very different paradigm from this:
Lonely souls inhabiting fragile, clawless, fangless, unarmored bodies, bodies too often prey to disease, and yet made to endure a harsh and cruel world, spending a lifetime in a kind of post-womb exile before earning—or failing to earn—a rescue back into a state of perfect love, nurturance, and protection.
Let’s call it the ‘exiled-child’ paradigm.

Conversely, human science (the biosphere examining itself) – inspired by a symbiosis of curiosity, adventurousness, and imagination, has uncovered is a markedly different paradigm:
We are comprised of indestructible – “immortal” – cosmic energy, and we cannot be removed from our cosmic environment. We are not separate from the cosmos but the cosmos itself. We live no longer in the wild environment of our early human forebears but in a domesticated one: a world wherein we could (and hopefully will after maturing a bit longer) eradicate poverty and its associated sufferings.

Human science has found not only no sign of supernatural agency, it has found, progressively, discovery by discovery, no need for such an extra-universal agency. Einstein found belief in a personal god naïve; while the implications of more recent discoveries find no compelling need for even a Spinozan/deism kind of ‘celestial watchmaker’: an impersonal god who set the universe up, and then apparently vanished (and to where?!).

Yet human science isn’t just a bunch of nerds scheming to overthrow morality and uproot venerated ancient faiths; human science is the Earth itself investigating its cosmic neighborhood and its own holistic processes and constituents. This isn’t necessarily a ‘cosmic purpose’ though. I’d characterize it instead as the inevitable outcome of any planet’s biosphere, after evolving itself into environments (because life itself creates its own environmental conditions) that allow the emergence of a sufficiently inquisitive intelligence.

The ‘exiled-child’ paradigm might be plausible if we really were separate from the cosmos, but the Earth-as-human-science hasn’t found any evidence to support that. Then why do we feel that way intuitively? Probably as a consequence of our ancestors having evolved in a wild and hazardous environment instead of in the sort of domesticated one that has allowed our minds the peace and leisure to use our brains for much, much more than our ancestors had time to do. Fifty-thousand or more years ago, feeling holistically immortal as the living planet just might have made you-the-individual somewhat less suited to survive the various predators, animal and hominid, that our ancestors probably had to contend with.
But we don’t face threat of predation any longer – and haven’t for most if not all of the centuries since the Bronze Age at least. Which means we have found, at long last, an opportunity to evolve a sense of unity with the universe – as Zen Buddhists have strived to develop on an individual basis for more than a millennium. (And Buddhism, despite its curious, almost incongruous concerns with reincarnation, is a nontheist ‘religion’ – I put it in quotes because I don’t think of it as a religion as much as a philosophy.)

We can feel whole with the cosmos instead of feeling alien, vulnerable, and forlorn. We needn’t feel any longer that we are on trial for a berth in an afterlife: a manufactured soul undergoing a perverse sort of moral examination. We can instead begin to feel that we are the examiners – because we are!

Who wouldn’t welcome that?

Ah, actually, some folks would: the faithful. Adherents of the exiled-child paradigm.

What’s the solution? Education – but not dogmatic education. Lessons in not what to think but how to think: lessons in logical fallacy and in the scientific method; lessons in comparative religion and in all manner of ancient mythology alongside world literature. Because, as a guest on a recent ROS program said, we are “the storytelling species.” Education in the metaphor underlying our languages, too. (We chronically conflate metaphor with the reality the metaphor tries to illuminate by comparison, causing hopeless entanglements of semantics and keeping people from understanding one another’s points of view. In science, for example, Dawkins’s “meme= gene” metaphor is taken literally instead of metaphorically, and as a result folks are wasting years trying to assess “how memes operate” – as if metaphors are real!!!)

I’m running out of time, so I’ll wrap up hastily, post this, and link to it on ROS.

What I question fundamentally about Lazare’s review is his premise that “…humanity creates meaning for itself by liberating itself so that it can fulfill itself. ”
I’ll be referring to this objection, when I write part 2 of this response later (and it will be much shorter than this). I suggest the only liberation necessary for humans to achieve a more fulfilling existence is liberation from the exiled-child paradigm. We’re rapidly outgrowing it. Manning on ROS wrote:

Are modern religions essentially adult versions of the story of Santa Claus? If so, does the editor’s comment that there is a Santa Claus tell us something more profound than how to comfort a child?

I would suggest that we as a species are (metaphorically) in the phase when some of us have deduced that Santa doesn’t exist except as a character of myth. Others of us feel a powerful need to deny this. Einstein wrote: “The idea of a personal God is quite alien to me and even seems naïve.”
I agree – but I would NOT say the same for an interpersonal god. Why not honor one another as gods and goddesses? Don’t the monotheisms imply that we should?

The energy and matter comprising us is earth and water, powered by sunlight and freshened by air. We each are ancient stardust made conscious by the seeming miracles that follow Earth’s absorption of sunlight. Therefore:
Revere all other humans: they are you in different bodies. They see, on your behalf, what you cannot. On your behalf they hear what you cannot. On your behalf they smell what you cannot. On your behalf they taste what you cannot.
And on your behalf they feel what you cannot.
Revere all other creatures: they may not ponder as profoundly as you, but they feel just as deeply.
Revere the plants: they feed you, whether directly or through animals that consume them, that you consume in turn.
Revere the mountains and the valleys, the forests and the deserts, the wild steppes and the tamed plains. Revere all water, no matter its amount. Earth and water combine with sunlight to make you and all other life.
Consider carefully – with empathy as your guide – the effect on other creatures and people any action you make.
After empathy guides you, choose the action that harms the fewest other sentient creatures.
A Cosmic Perspective

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First, the “old school” understanding of evolution (which I do not plause, empiricate, believe, or buy “lock, stock, and barrel”, because of the “new school” understanding that doesn’t conflate life with machinery, and that discerns at least as much cooperation/collaboration as competition in the evolutionary dynamic).

From Michael Shermer’s Why Darwin Matters: The Case Against Intelligent Design a(n oversimplified) summation of evolutionary theory’s 5 constituent descriptions:
1. Evolution: Organisms change through time. Both the fossil record of life’s history and nature today document and reveal this change.
2. Descent with modification: evolution proceeds through the branching of common descent. As every parent and child knows, offspring are similar to but not exact replicas of their parents, producing the necessary variation that allows adaptation to the ever-changing environment.
3. Gradualism: all this change is slow, steady, and stately. Given enough time, small changes can accumulate into large changes that create new species; that is, macroevolution is the cumulative effect of microevolution.
4. Multiplication: Evolution does not just produce new species; it produces an increasing number of new species.
5. Natural selection: Evolutionary change is not haphazard and random; it follows a selective process. Codiscovered by Darwin and the naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace, natural selection operates under five rules:
A. Populations tend to increase indefinitely in a geometric ration: 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, 1024…
B. In a natural environment, however, population numbers must stabilize at a certain level. The population cannot increase to infinity—the earth is just not big enough.
C. Therefore, there must be a “struggle for existence.” Not all the organisms produced can survive.
D. There is variation in every species.
E. Therefore, in the struggle for existence, those individuals with variations that are better adapted to the environment leave behind more offspring than individuals less well adapted. This is known as differential reproductive success.

(unquote, Shermer, pp6-7)

Now, evolution’s “New School” understanding, from Elisabet Sahtouris’s EarthDance: Living Systems in Evolution

Scientists quickly made Darwinian evolution fit the idea of nature-as-mechanism by regarding creatures more or less as wheels fitting cogs of other wheels in the great clockwork of nature. Some wheels just happened to be made better than other by lucky mechanical accidents during their replacement, or reproduction. The idea of natural competition leading to the survival of the fittest appealed to men who were obsessed with the new social structure of industrial capitalism.

With the advent of genetics, accidents of birth were discovered to reflect changes in genes. When the structure of DNA and its copy process were understood, these accidents were believed to occur on a random basis—meaning without any pattern—as DNA copied itself or was damaged. Most biologists today still see accidents, now known to occur in DNA, as the only source of natural variation, despite growing evidence that such accidents are detected and repaired very quickly. (italicized emphasis Nick’s)

Ever since Darwin, our general view of evolution has been of a battle of among individual creatures pitted in competition for inadequate food supplies. Only now are we in a position to understand the Earth as a whole—a single geobiological dance woven of many changing dancers in a complex pattern of interaction and mutual transformation.

Competition and cooperation can both be seen within and among the species as they improvise and evolve, unbalance and rebalance the dance. Consider again the spiraling pattern described as unity—>individuation—>competition—>conflict—>negotiation—>resolution—>cooperation—>new levels of unity, and so on. Note that competition and cooperation are different phases of the cycle. Young species tend to grab territory and resources, maximizing the numbers of their offspring to spread themselves where they can. As species encounter one another, conflict develops in the competition for space and resources. Eventually negotiations leading to cooperation prove useful to competing species and they reach the higher level of unity, as we saw happening in the transformation of monera into protists.
(unquote, pp.106-7)

That transformation she cites deserves its own citation here, too:
The idea of cell symbiosis—the origin of eukaryotes as prokaryotes living together in cooperatives—had been proposed simultaneously by a German, an American, and a Russian biologist around the turn of the (20th) century. All had noticed that the photosynthesizing choloroplasts—meaning ‘green producers’—in the cells of plants resembled bluegreen bacteria. The Russian, K.S. Mereschovsky, suggested that other ancient bacteria had evolved into other cell parts. But biologists, who were trained to see living things as put together from mechanical parts, could not see cell parts as creatures in themselves.

Thus the symbiosis theory was ignored until Lynn Margulis an American microbiologist who became James Lovelock’s partner in developing the Gaia hypothesis, revived it and produced a great deal of evidence to support it.

After much work, Margulis and others have shown that these energy-producing cell parts really are descendants of the ancient breather bacteria that came to live inside larger prokaryote cells, cooperating in building the first eukaryote cells. Luckily, teams of biologists working to unravel the ancient mysteries of cell symbiosis have found many clues in the behavior of today’s bacteria. Rather vicious breathers can still be found drilling their way into other bacteria to reproduce there and eat the host bacteria from the inside. In the Tennessee laboratory of Kwang Jeon, protist hosts so invaded learned to tolerate them and then to cooperate with the invaders in a mutually dependent relationship that brought about a new kind of creature. Surprisingly, this replay of ancient evolution shift from outright aggression to full cooperation happened in only a few years time.

Margulis’s discovery, that eukaryote protists evolved cooperatively internal schemes to overcome the problems caused by competition among prokaryote bacteria, was almost as much a shock to the world of science as was the Gaia hypothesis itself. Besides showing that cell ‘mechanisms’ such as mitochondria are creatures in their own right, she was suggesting that harmonious cooperation played a big role in evolution. This ran counter to the beliefs stemming from Darwin’s work, adopted by scientists in western countries, that evolution was just a survival race driven by competition.

It took a century and more after Darwin’s theory was published for us to understand that environments are not ready-made places that force living being to adapt to them, but ecosystems created by living things for living things. All living things belonging to an ecosystem, from tiny bacteria to the largest plants and animals, are constantly at work balancing their lives with one another as they transform and recycle the materials of the Earth’s crust.

Darwin, along with Lamarck, and Wallace, were modern pioneers in showing us that species evolve and attempting to explain how this could happen. Their theories were a great step forward for science, since religion had put an end to all theorizing about evolution since a few ancient Greek philosophers, such as Anaximander, had thought about it. Anaximander had said that everything forming in nature incurs a debt, which it must repay by dissolving so other things could form—a marvelous description of evolution through recycling in a single sentence!

Now we can see that Darwinism—and its updated version, neo-Darwinism—is a misleading way of seeing nature. The notion of the separateness of each creature, competing with others in its struggle to survive, had well described, and justified, English and American societies’ new forms of competitive and exploitative industrial production in a world of scarcity. But now we are beginning to understand that humans must learn to harmonize our ways with those of the rest of nature instead of exploiting it and one another ruthlessly. The social view of individual people pitted against one another in such struggle makes little more sense as an ideal than the notion that our bodies’ cells are competing with one another to survive in hostile bodies. It is simply no longer useful to see ourselves as forced to compete with one another to survive in a hostile society, surrounded by hostile nature.

The point is that we do see ourselves in such competition, not because this is inevitable, but because Western science developed in close harmony with social and political traditions that welcomed these ideas. The Darwinian theory of evolution was applied to forming a society, a social system, designed in accord with, and justified by, the Darwinian concept of nature. If we learn to see evolution as a single holarchy of holons working out the mutual consistency of cooperative health and opportunity, we can set up a social system to match that view.

History may someday record the greatest discovery of twentieth-century science not as nuclear power or electronics, but as the recognition that there is no absolute truth to be discovered about the world—that scientific theories can be judged only by their usefulness to science and ultimately to all society. Definitions of usefulness often change over time, and thus scientific ‘truths’ must necessarily evolve along with human society. (italicized emphasis in this paragraph Nick’s)

Neo-Darwinism insists that random accident and natural selection are the sole ‘mechanisms’ of evolution. Yet the self-organized creatures and ecosystems…such as that which we saw evolving through the genetic information exchange web of bacteria, included their negotiated organization of nucleated cells are not readily explained as simple accumulations of lucky accidents. Nor does natural selection amount to a real theory, since it tells us little more than that some creatures die before they reach the age of reproduction. A modern theory of evolution must concern itself with the way in which natural holons are organized and maintained in holarchies, with descriptions of continual interactions of DNA, organisms, and whole ecosystems.
(unquote, pp.108-110)

That’s a thumbnail of the “new school”. I’m immensely gratified to have found it. I’ve been thinking along similar lines for years, but not nearly as cogently as Sahtouris.

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