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The Story of Evolution, Spring 2005
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Hegelian Conflict in Evolution: An Intuitive Appeal

Kate Shiner

On our course forum Anne Dalke recently paraphrased the feminist Cherrķe Moraga as saying, "The biggest illusion of academic discourse is that conflict is resolvable; even Marxism had a dialectic. As we change and grow, we move in and out of inconsistency; this is not contradiction, but evolution." (1) Moraga is not alone in her perspective. Hegel famously articulated the idea that cultural evolution is essentially a clash between opposite theses resulting in the production of a superior synthesis. Although modern academics may try to distance themselves from the discomforting violence this view suggests, I have been hard-pressed to find a person for whom Moraga's statement does not ring true.

However, this view of evolution relies on an aggressive dichotomy which does not necessarily seem to be reflected in Darwin's theory of biological evolution, or in Dawkins' "meme" theory of cultural evolution. So why do we seem so desperate to cling to the Hegelian dialectic? Could this perspective be the result of something unique about the human brain? Or may it actually be possible to find an underlying dialectic in genetic and memetic evolution, salvaging our intuition about the evolutionary process? I believe the answer is a surprising combination of both of these possibilities.

There is no doubt that many have tried to link the image of primeval battle to Darwin's theory. Herbert Spencer coined the phrase "survival of the fittest" as part of his merciless theory of social Darwinism.(2)Although this phrase is not in itself far removed from certain implications of Darwin's theory, the images often used to portray it are not accurate models of the reality of biological evolution. Not only Spencer but many people today still view natural selection as a battle of types, with the strongest and best type surviving victorious. Although this view does not provide for the "synthesis" produced in a dialectic evolution, it still retains the favorable idea of a clash of essential essences.

The problem with this perspective is that natural selection usually operates within the gradual continuum of variation within one species. For example, Darwin observed that individual finches on an island naturally differ slightly in beak size. If during a certain period of time the environment shifts and more of a certain kind of seed is available which is best obtained by a larger beak, the larger beaked finches will have somewhat better nutrition and success at reproducing, passing on their larger beaked genes. Over time this will result in a population of finches with slightly larger beak size overall. Although there is competition, this illustration seems far removed from the idea of dialectic evolution, as well any sort of battle of opposing types. Dawkin's theory of memes; or cultural units of evolution, relies on the same principles of natural selection and descent with variation and in this sense is equally incompatible with a dialectic.

However, there is a fundamental dichotomy within certain types of biological evolution that I have as yet overlooked. This is the male/female dichotomy present in all sexual forms of reproduction. Evolution can and does occur asexually, but in the words of Daniel Dennett, "species that reproduce sexually can move through Design Space at a much greater speed than that achieved by organisms that reproduce asexually." (3) Evolution is a less gradual process in the context of sexual reproduction because the combination and reshuffling of genetic material allows for more variation in a population than asexual reproduction, which relies on rare and random mutation for variation. The unique offspring created as the result of the union of the male and female gamete is very much a synthesis resulting from the "clash" of two types. It seems we have discovered our Hegelian dialectic in biological evolution! But where is the violence and conflict which that is supposed to accompany this process? Ironically, outside the context of rape, human sex is commonly thought to occur in an environment of love and acceptance. Another snag in this solution is that Dawkin's memes are not described as reproducing sexually.

In order to find the source of the conflict Moraga sees inherent in cultural evolution, we must first consider the structure and function of the human brain and nervous system. There are two distinct parts of the nervous system. The first was developed comparatively early in evolution and is present in fish and amphibians as well birds and mammals. It receives and organizes information from the outside world. The second part is known as the neocortex and is not present in fish or amphibians. It is the home of the "higher" functions of the brain, and facilitates language, emotion, and personality. It is also known as the "storyteller" of the brain, and is fully functional during dreaming. To the best of our understanding it receives signals from the rest of the nervous system, and does something with them which presumably results in our conscious thought.

What does this have to do with our uncomfortable, violent dialectic? This can be illustrated by an optical illusion. One can look at a cube drawn on paper with a dot on it, and either see the dot as in front of or behind the cube, but never both at once. If a person commits themselves to seeing the dot in front of the cube upon being presented the image, he or she will most likely eventually see it this way, but it may take some time.

This phenomenon results from the fact that the more primitive part of the nervous system is telling the neocortex one "story," which the neocortex must then either accept or reject. Vital in this example is the inescapable idea of opposing types. For some reason the neocortex seems to endow humans with the need to categorize everything in the world with words, concepts, nationalities, etc. in this vein of opposing types in order to consciously conceive of them. This process may also explain our tendency to view the dialectic as difficult and violent, if for no other reason than that the concept of sex as a loving meme finds its necessary opposite in violence.

The only remaining problem is to fully apply the dialectic to memetic cultural evolution. In biological evolution we found the dialectic in sexual reproduction. Memes are not tangible entities, so they cannot reproduce sexually in any traditional sense. However, in a sense I believe they do. When a person senses two ideas clicking together in her head and finally making sense; a process that seems so often to underlie creativity, could it not be that two memes are reproducing? Perhaps memetic evolution is so much faster because it does not prevent an "extinct" meme from reproducing with a modern meme, since as long as memes are recorded in some way they can never truly disappear. There also may not be the restrictive speciation in memetic evolution present in biological evolution, which could make more hybrids possible. Since memes cannot yet (and may never) be described in discrete physical units this is all mere speculation, but it would explain the intuitive appeal of Moraga's statement.


1)Biology 223 Course Forum. Serendip website, 2005.,

2)Re: Survival of the Fittest. The Phrase Finder website, 2001

3) Dennet, Daniel. Darwins Dangerous Idea. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996

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