Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Evolution and Emergence

Paul Grobstein's picture

Welcome to the public on-line forum area for Phil 310 = Bio 310 at Bryn Mawr College. This is not a required part of the course. It is, though, a way to keep course conversations going between meetings, and to do so in a way that makes our course conversations available to others who may in turn have interesting thoughts to contribute to them. I'll be posting my thoughts in progress here throughout the course, and would be delighted to have others join in.

Feel free to write about whatever has been on your mind this week. The focus of class discussion was on Daniel Dennett's Darwin's Dangerous Idea and Steven Johnson's Emergence.

Paul Grobstein's picture

Science without/beyond "Truth" and "Reality"?

The conversation, well facilitated by Lisa on Dennett and Elise on Johnson, took off from some passages from the end of Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (pp 170-173). Speaking of his portrayal of science, Kuhn notes

nothing that has been said or will be said makes it a process of evolution toward anything .... We are all deeply accustomed to seeing scince as the one enterprise that draws constantly nearer to some goal set by nature in advance. But need there be such a goal? ... If we can learn to substitute evolution-from-what-we-know for evolution-toward-what-we-wish-to-know, a number of vexing problems may vanish in the process ... The analogy that relates the evolution of organisms to the evolution of scientific ideas can easily be pushed too far. But with respect to this closing section it is very nearly perfect. The process described (earlier) as the resolution of revolutions is the selection by conflict within the scientific community of the fittest way to practice future science. The net result ... is the wonderfully adapted set of instruments we call modern scientific knowledge. And the entire process may have occurred, as we now suppose biological evolution did, without benefit of a set goal, a permanent fixed scientific truth ...

Can there be "progress" in the absence of a goal or target? an animator/motivator without a goal. Might we think of science as "'getting it less wrong' and forget all the other talk"?

Dennett's portrayal of biological evolution as the ongoing result of "mindless, motiveless mechanisms" based in random change suggests the possibility that we might consider yes answers to both questions. At the same time, it sharpens some questions needing better answers. Among them is "who created natural selection"? (parallel to "who created God?"). Along these lines, it was suggested that the "selection" part of "natural selection" was misleading. One might better speak of biological evolution in terms of "differential persistance." There is no "selector" but only variations in persistance of different life forms.

A second important question is whether accounting for things in terms of randomness and differential persistance is "refutable" in the Popperian sense. It was agreed that it isn't, just as a "non-interventionist" God is not "refutable". Does this mean that evolution (and God) should be regarded as "non-scientific"? An alternative is to acknowledge a fundamental role in science for things which are non-refutable things and may be "incommensurable" (for now? for ever?).

A third important question was the absence of "intention" in Dennett's description of biological evolution. Is he missing something? Could perhaps "intention" be integrated into the picture, not as something always present, or present at the beginning, but something that itself evolves, relatively late in the process, and in turn becomes significant?

The notion of "emergence" broadens the discussion of "mindless differential persistance" beyond the realm of biological evolution to include other phenomena, both physical and social. The idea of accounting for things in a "bottom up" fashion makes it possible to make sense of the world without presuming, as we often do, either a "designer" or a "conductor". And allows for the possibility, indeed the likelihood that two (or more) "incommensurable") responses to the same challenge will "bubble up". At the same time, successful simulations of emergence don't show that a designer/conductor doesn't exist but only that it needn't. And we still have the issues raised in the discussion of biological evolution. For some additional relevant discussion of emergence in a different venue see Irreducibility without dualism: chaos or indeterminacy.

Our issues for next week

  1. Can science be understood without "logical refutability"?
  2. Is science simply fashion?
  3. Can we reinstate "intentionality" in some useful way?


Serendip Visitor's picture

Thank science (or God) for paradigm shifts.

Many natural science departments ensure that the discussion of evolution falls on their pedagogical curricula. In light of this, scientific inquiry supporting the idea of "natural selection" steers a vigilant course due "North" towards the vanguard of public discussion and acceptance. Why is this so? From a practical standpoint, it gives to some an "answer" to the observances of change in nature. It wraps the numerous occurrences of irreversibility in nature in an eloquent equation that gives sound satisfaction to a scientific mind. Why do some species die off? What did they fail to do or change? etc... As such, champions of science, who seem endowed with a specific understanding, give insightful notions that fulfill the needed responses to similar questions (namely Darwin). These notions are then tied to numerous arbitrary and "controlled" testing which leads to the subsequent ascribing of honorary titles of “theory” to the former. So as long as we perceive that theories are established notions pending a natural contradiction of its premise, there may be a case for a vigilant pursuit for natural selection in the public sphere.

No matter how scientific the inquiry for natural selection may be, it must not relegate its course towards dogma. In this day in age, dogma is easy ascribable to theological inquiry, yet latent with regard to the scientific. Due to its own potential dogma, science can afford--without loss of reputation-- to relegate its status to the theological. For, there are potential theological gains, even for science. Let's hold off on this proposed tangent for a bit.

Going back the questions which led to the acceptance of "natural selection", it is quite likely that there is a need for a theory of evolution to give meaning to observable changes in nature. However, more emphasis need be placed on the epistemological implications of observation. Experiments of all kinds are finite, whereas experience is more elusive to scientific pursuits. We can only prove our theories less true than to do so in the opposite regard towards less falsity. As such, might it well be possible that the current theory of evolution which includes the premise of natural selection, weighs insurmountably on the observances of natural extinction rather than the those of natural persistence. It stands to reason that natural mimicry among differentiated but symbiotic species may allude to a deeper story of natural evolution (i.e., coral snake and Mexican Milk snake; the mimic octopi and other sea creatures, preying mantises and vegetation). Moreover, does the emphasis of extinction hold water with regard to the microscopic (viral and bacterial persistence)? What are the implications of natural selection on this scale? Does the persistence of viral strains give a more “platonic” definition and function to evolution?

Here is where we renter our discussion on theology. Ages ago, a Greek philosopher by the name of Plato spoke of the idea of perceptual reality. He claimed generally that observation thought the senses may hardly scratch the surface of reality, if reality is devised by a conglomeration of intangible Forms. This is where experience would surpass the limits of experimentation. If mimicry, microscopic persistence and various other phenomena evidenced a peripheral silhouette of platonic Forms, could this mean that “shared” structures, occurrences, and actions are forever stored in a matrix of compartmentalization. From our sensual standpoint, could viral strain reappearance and mimicry give a glimpse of the same opportunity of appearance of extinct animals of bygone days on a grander scale of time? Such is a wonderful and delightful question. The potential is limitless for any paradigm shift.