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Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Problem with Darwin…

Ya… how would you look as Darwin?
Darwin Darwin Darwin. Darwin is a problem. It isn't that he was wrong. In fact, it is very very hard to find any kind of mistake in his theory or his supporting data and arguments. What makes Darwin problematic is his myopic assignment of the process of evolution to the domain of biology. In doing so, Darwin has (inadvertently) misled generations of readers, who now confuse biology's "how" in evolution with big "E" Evolution in all domains. Big "E" Evolution is informative because it describes the more general "why" driving the direction of change in ALL domains.

When understood as a "how", the process of evolution is reduced to orrery – like the awkward clockworks that spin planets and moons around concentric bearings – substituting method where there should be cause. How is always specific to domain, but why, the ultimate why, is general enough to explain all of the how's. Armed with a robust understanding of the big WHY of evolution, one should be able to walk into any domain and predict and then map it's how. Again, it isn't that Darwin's evolution orrery doesn't accurately predict biological patterns of change, or even that Darwin's evolution orrery doesn't accurately abstract the salient causal aspects of biological change, it is that Darwin's how of evolution in biology leads people to the idea that evolution is specific and exclusive to biology, or that one can understand evolution in other domains by overlaying biology's how.

Darwin never generalized the process of evolution. Imagine had Newton and Einstein had not generalized dynamics and motion and that we had, as a result, built all of our machines on the principle that motion was caused by legs and feet.

The people who have come the closest to the generalization of evolution, the thermodynamisists, have never been able to or interested in the development of a generalization of the direction of change and the cause of that direction. I will get back to this absence of generalization in the understanding of evolution but right now will only hint at an explanation… in the aftermath of the all too human race and cultural superiority wars and atrocities, it has been socially dangerous to think of evolution as having a direction as such thoughts can be read as rhetorical arguments for superiority and pre-judgement, the likes of which were used by Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao, and others as justification for mass exterminations and other exclusionary policies. That humans have the proclivity to exploit incomplete knowledge in the pursuit of ridiculous selfishness at absurd scales should be nothing new or noteworthy. But no one would advocate the cessation of the study of chemistry simply because arsenic is a chemical, or the study of high energy physics simply because the atom bomb can be built from such knowledge.

Or would we? Cautionary reactions to the self-superior pogroms that so blighted the 20th century have driven several generations of researchers towards the relativist rhetoric we see most prominently in the post-modernist movement, but which is evident in the works of less irrational and otherwise, empirical scientists like Stephen J. Gould and Richard Dawkins. Both represent an interesting study in overcompensation. In their quest to irradiate the all-to-natural self-superiority that seems to cause humans to erect unfounded tautologies that place humans on top of pre-destined hierarchies, both argue and argue brilliantly, for a flat evolutionary environment in which change happens but without any directionality at all. Again, this is like saying that because metal can be shaped into swards and knives and guns it shouldn't be produced even should we need plows and trains and dynamos and bridges and buildings and printing presses and lab equipment and computers.

Of course, caution is its own form of rhetoric, as potentially dangerous as its more obviously tyrannous cousins.

And, yes! Evolution has a direction. There I said it! Say it with me. You won't be struck down by post-modernist lightning. Trust me. Trust your self. It is more than a little absurd that one would have to argue for direction in a process that explains directionality. They are of course correct in their assertion that evolution isn't pre-determined. Nothing is. Of course. But the "brilliance" of evolution is that it results in a direction without need for prior knowledge, plan, or determination of any kind. To toss this most salient aspect of the evolutionary process simply to make a sociological point seems reckless in the maximum.

Randall Lee Reetz

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