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The Problem with Natural Selection.

Its not a story

I like the theory of evolution we call Natural Selection. It's one of the most parsimonious and beautiful theory of anything I've ever seen. It's an easy to state idea with enormous scope. It is the explanatory idea that makes biology make sense.

The same idea has a lot to say about how we think, and how technology develops, not to mention the idea of memes. But there is a problem with Natural Selection - it's a poor match with the way we think.

Here's what I mean: We tend to think in terms of narratives. This is because of the way our brain is constructed. It's a web of interpreters, and the output of a network like that is a narrative. A narrative has a structure - it's a story about something. It has a logical progression. One thing causes another in a series. It starts and concludes.

Within narratives things have purpose. Nobody is interested in stories of one damned thing after another. The story has to hang together and go someplace.. Physics and chemistry tell stories like that. There are still questions about origins, but the Big Bang is a story with a beginning a middle and an end. And for millennia as we have talked about biology we have tried to invent narratives that account for it. Stories with purpose and meaning.

Along comes Darwin.
He didn't present a story.
He presented an algorithm.
A mindless mechanism that would work whenever certain conditions were present. Darwin expressed the algorithm in terms of biology and his statement about it is short and beautiful. But the philosopher Daniel Dennett presents the idea in a more abstract and general form.

Whenever you have a situation that replicates entities, with a little bit of variation, and a selection pressure that means that some of the variants reproduce more than others - those variants will come to populate the future.
It's easy to state.
The math works very well. And it's a completely general idea. It's not limited to biology where the idea was born.
But there is no way to make it into a narrative.

It's not a story.

It's just one damned thing after another. I

've seen this in people who think the idea works but think that the purpose of evolution is to produce people. We see this in people like Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and his Omega Point idea - we are evolving towards an Omega Point. That's a story with a beginning middle and end

But this is wishful thinking - purposelessness is essential to Natural Selection.

Natural Selection is entities responding to an environment - they adapt as the environment changes and are themselves part of the environment. An environment has to be chaotic. All goals have to be local ones and are always changing. That is, entities within the environment might have their own purposes but the environment itself doesn't and can't have a purpose.

This is obvious from the theory. It's pretty obvious from the evidence. I mean what purpose is served by the exquisite torture that parasitic wasps inflict on their victims?
Would an all benevolent God design such monsters on purpose?
How about the possibility that this really is the best of all possible worlds but we are just too dim to comprehend why things happen the way they do?
Perhaps the purpose of nature can't be fulfilled without parasitic wasps.

See the problem?
No matter what the situation we want to turn it into a narrative where things have a purpose.

Evolution isn't like that.

Evolution tells us that biology is something that we have to grok. To understand it we need to gather as much information about it as we can, and understand the contemporary narrative about it and then sit back and grok.

Lest people think this is an unusual procedure I point out that this is completely normal. We do it all the time. We all have narratives about what's happening that we can lay out when asked. But our actions are based on our grok level of understanding and often contradict our narratives. This is the way we think, but it's not the way evolution works.

I talk to people about this all the time. Almost everybody is uncomfortable with Darwinian Natural Selection. And we should pay attention to that.

Natural Selection can create an ecosystem - a marvelously intricate self sustaining structure but it doesn't care. Things live and die and are happy and torn apart - the ecosystem doesn't care. It just works.

But people care - which is a bit of a paradox since the capacity to care is a gift from evolution :-) And a further paradox is that unless we actually understand and embrace natural selection our capacity to care for each other is impaired.

We are seeing it now in hospitals where bacteria resistant to all our antibiotics are evolving. Those hand sanitizing stations are screaming about a very serious problem.

Small communities are putting the larger society at risk by refusing vaccinations because they don't understand basic biology. We've looked at Plato and how he got waylaid by his assumptions. This week we're look at evolution and how we get waylaid by our assumptions.

What do you think?

Star I present regular philosophy discussions in a virtual reality called Second Life. I set a topic and people come as avatars and sit around a virtual table to discuss it. Each week I write a short essay to set the topic. I show a selection of them here.

I've been thinking and reading about philosophy for a long time but I'm mostly self taught. That is I've had the good fortune to read what interests me rather than follow a course of study. That has it's limits of course but advantages. It doesn't cost as much and is fun too.

My interests are things like evolution and cognition and social issues and economics and science in general.