Home / Evolution Does Not Equal Progress (Part 2)

Evolution Does Not Equal Progress (Part 2)

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This isn't about the intelligent design debate, although it does consider a driving or guiding force to evolutionary adaptation that I guess some might consider godlike (some mother goddess thing, maybe).

The first post was preamble really; ground rules. It's taken me a while to get to the follow up.

The point I really want to make begins with this line from that first post: "Generation after generation making the same dumb mistakes in the same way, in the same place; generation after generation of predators exploiting the fact."

Or in our case, generation after generation of rulers deploying the same techniques to keep generation after generation of the ruled in line.

So how does it work? Is something in the evolutionary process preventing us from progressing, stopping us learning from the past?

Firstly, to address this, I think we have to separate the interests of the species and the individual.

In the adaptive evolution model (which seems to fit the evidence), it is clearly in the interest of the species for generation after generation to make the same mistakes. The interests of species and individual are not congruent here – the species gets individuals who meet the basic 'fitness' criteria (i.e. they survived), perhaps breeding for luck as much as apparently more obvious criteria like agility and fast learning. Perhaps breeding for traits we can't yet discern.

But the main point is this, not only are the species and individual not congruent, they are diametrically opposed. It actually seems to be in the interests of the species that these individuals die. How does that work for human beings? Generation after generation, who keeps dying in the interests of the 'species'?

Well, in our 'modern' societies, that's pretty easy – it tends to be the young, same as with the birds. Even more, it tends to be young men – through suicide, drugs, war, violence etc.

There are lots of reasons for this, some more obvious than others. In the simplest terms, we are animals with over-developed brains. These brains, and the self and the mind they engender, are not fully survival oriented – they can be hard to live with. Consequently we are afflicted with a range of mental disorders – depression, bipolar, schizophrenia etc.

And unsurprisingingly, adolescence is when these problems can be sharpest – the individual, moulded by the ideals and moral truths of childhood literature, often faces the betrayal of their personality as understood to that point, in the service of animal sexuality. Hormonal drives and competition for partners create very different people of us.

As do the mechanics of lust. Perhaps nowhere else do the the interests of the species assert themselves more clearly over the individual. Do you understand why you find certain types sexually attractive and not others? We can bang on about parental types and Freud, but really we have no idea. And here I think we see some sign of our quarry. This movement from childhood innocence and aspirations to adolescent betrayal is a major theme in our cultures.

I've riffed before on the subject of eusociality – essentially the idea that our species has 'personality' and intent which is nothing to do with our character as individuals, or even groups, and especially not our pretensions to political morality and rationality.

To deploy this idea as metaphor – what do we know about this creature, it's aims and methods?

Nothing reassuring: disdain for individual life, a preference for violent and military solutions, and a apparent preference for the potential over the actual (evidenced in the killing of individuals to serve future generations).

We might even observe signs of our quarry in Elliot wave theory – the apparent fibonacci ratio between optimists to pessimists. Which in electoral terms suggests a reality-oriented pessimism is unlikely to ever win out over optimists in denial.

Of course it's obvious that optimism is beneficial for species survival and breeding – you have to be optimistic on some level to build for the future, for future generations. And optimism can also favour future potential over current pain. We see this in child rearing practices constantly, the deferral of hoped for benefit to a notional future, as parents make sacrifices to provide opportunities for their children, for their line.

So for those of us concerned with injustice, this supra-organism revealed in evolution is probably the real problem, not politics – certainly not the farcical decaying credibility of propagandised two party politics.

Perhaps our problem is not that we are alienated from our animal roots and primitive past, but that we haven't escaped them.

For as long as this creature breeds humans who are viscerally addicted to violent solutions – like all those parents so easily swayed by the witchdoctor's skull on a stick – we are completely doomed to a dark and bloody future, regardless of our achievements in the sciences and material culture. We will continue to breed a core constituency, a majority, able to bear and ignore injustice (including against its own) and its wider implications (even environmental catastrophe), by focussing on the good news and mythical future potential.

Given all this, it's not surprising that intelligent young idealists and pessimists turn to suicide. Especially since adolescence is also the age of social adapation – the transition from the ideals instilled in childhood to the less attractive reality of social existence and competitive economics.

Anyway, just one point to take from this, the interests of the species and individual can be and often are diametrically and violently opposed.

I'm hardly the first to notice this, and Part 3 (when I get round to it) will look at insights and strategies from the past on this subject – including the experience and practices of early Christian ascetics, and the institutions they created to pass their values down to future.

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About Chromatius

"You are not big enough to accuse the whole age effectively, but let us say you are in dissent." Thomas Merton. The Unspeakable.
  • Chromatius sez…
    *And quite likely that under those new physical laws true randomness will have a role. *

    ummm…something to do with FreeWill…i think


  • sr

    It would seem an essential component of the human and other vertebrates is haemoglobin. Since it’s made up of amonoacids joined together in twisted chains to make its biochemically-unique structure. This sequence of about 575 components and my understanding is they are linked together. The human cells do not synthesize such compounds by random chemical processes as we all know. Also by specific enzyme-controlled biochemical reactions. I know this is just simple and basic high school biology as I recall.

    It would also seem to me that even if there were primeval soups of chemicals on a so called primitive earth, where is the random/chance abiogenic process operating at that time could possibly have given molecules as complex haemoglobin or for that matter any other complex protein molecule, especially chlorophyll let alone a living cell.

    Will not at this time discuss about all life runs on light. Photosynthesis concerning plants etc.

    My understanding of the possible processes leading to the origin of life and the transition from non-living to living matter probably occurred only once and could have occurred only once.

    I would think a chance happening is improbable with almost impossible odds. But we all know life did originate. So was it by chance? Or was it by design and control?

    Just a thought.


  • Not true, duane, believers hold that the divine does not just create but continues to act in the world and influence it through grace and other such things.
    The Second Law is not so remote when you consider such things as decay, decomposition, my desk &, metaphorically, death.
    In my opinion a theology that accepts entropy as a force of nature is foreign to a benificent God. It is dualist and, characteristic for our age, gnostic, I suspect.

  • troll

    *The interests of species and individual are not congruent*

    and as an lone individual I cannot solve a species problem by changing myself alone…no gills yet

    yet individuals alone are actors in this complex world and can’t resist influencing evolution by manipulating matter within the physical laws governing it as they discover them – humans are busybodies who overlay order wherever possible

    unfortunately individuals have a crappy record of grouping together to ‘solve’ problems generated by the antisocial personality disorder of the posited ‘species being’ – unanticipated shit seems to accompany everything they do in the attempt to direct change

    looking forward to the third post in this most interesting series


  • “on the other hand – random process does not explain complexity…only the discover of new physical laws will suffice”

    But only a godlike intelligence could encompass all causality – we will always have what we consider the accidental, the random.

    And it’s arguable that only in Newtonian clockwork style models could all causality be known.

    And quite likely that under those new physical laws true randomness will have a role.

    But not really my point…

  • troll

    in response to impending climate change I have been trying to evolve gills by remaining submerged in hot tubs for extended periods…no joy so far

    on the other hand – random process does not explain complexity…only the discover of new physical laws will suffice

    *nothing is certain, but change*

    that and unintended consequences


  • “The heat death of the Universe is a non-issue when you believe in a glorious afterlife in a spiritual realm.”

    And the likely impending ‘heat death’ of our civilisations due to climate change… which looking a lot less distant these days.

    We tried to get bleak on the “heat death of the Universe” in the 70s (“what is the exact nature of the catastrophe?”), but it’s just too distant, too abstract.

    Unlike climate chantge, looking more immediate every year. I’m a career pessimist who’s known his stuff most of my life and even I’m stunned by the pace of change. And the damage one US administration’s managed in a few years.

    One thing’s changed: in the 70s and 80s science had a strong ‘anti-catastrophist’ bias i.e. all this would happen in geological or sidereal timespans so vast we’d never notice.

    The comet strike on Jupiter changed that, and the ice core evidence about the sheer swiftness of past climate change i.e it can happen in 10 years.

    And then there’s those supernovas that appear and fade within two years… nothing is certain, but change.

  • duane

    ixotl: Isn’t the Second Law of Thermodynamics where all leads toward disorder much more challenging to a system which requires a benificent Actor working in the world?

    Believers would have it that the Actor is a necessary ingredient of creation, the one who enables order to rise out of a system imbued by the Second Law with a tendency toward maximum entropy, which is a fallacious interpretation of the Second Law, of course. So, from the believers point of view, I don’t see a conflict. Nor is there a conflict from the scientific point of view, since Nature is perfectly capable of creating ordered subsystems, with or without a Big Guy waving his omnipotent hands. This happy situation will break down only in the very distant future. And in that distant future, heaven. The heat death of the Universe is a non-issue when you believe in a glorious afterlife in a spiritual realm. It’s all very safe and cozy.

    The Second Law is a remote concept to most people, whereas the notion of tree-dwelling ancestors easily incites an emotional response.

  • On another note, I’m curious why the classic debate between science and religion surrounds Darwinism. Isn’t the Second Law of Thermodynamics where all leads toward disorder much more challenging to a system which requires a benificent Actor working in the world? Could it be that there is, from Clarence Darrow and the Stokes trial, simply a tradition of making an emblem out of this debate and political theatre?

  • I agree with Reuven that social change is a different type of evolution. Natural selection can be quite subtle, though. Consider Matt Ridley’s discussion of blood types in his __Genome__, written a few short years ago and already woefully out of date. Over our recent history there have been adaptations in our blood types, the purpose of which no one noted until they were discovered to help with parasites &c. There may be subtle changes in selection of which we are not aware.
    I always select against people who sniff repeatedly and then scratch the backs of their heads, for example.
    What of civilisation precluding selection? Maureen Dowd’s __Are men necessary__ notes that couples who met, courted and mated on the basis of plastic surgery are shocked to find they have produced together ugly babies. Nose jobs in the womb — until designer genetic engineering — are next.

  • Ruvy – actually, there’s BOTH processes going on. Maybe it should be called Intelligent Design instead of Evolution!

    rofl hahahahahahahahahahaha

  • I don’t believe that kind of adaptive evolution is imcompatible with Christianity, and many neo-platonists and others have had little problem with it. Of course in that view it is guided, and an expression of that divine guidance. As his human history, which is an expression of God’s relationship with his creation.

    I should say that I realised after I posted that comment (#4), that it completely contradicted my article, which is suggesting a guiding force revealed in evolution and social development.

    Which is of course not blind chance etc.

    The idea was – let’s take adaptive evolution as a given; what can we learn from the obvious tension between species and individual.

    Especially in political terms.

  • Ruvy in Jerusalem

    “we are still evolving – and very rapidly too.

    I’m not arguing with your contention, Chris – I went to the sites you sent me to a while ago. But I would suggest that what is happening that you are describing is not “evolution” but humans taking charge of changing themselves – a very different kettle of fish.

    Interesting article, Chromatius, though I disagree about humans being the product of luck or accident. I used to believe that, but life has taught me otherwise.

    Shabbat Shalom,

  • Indeed we will, Chromatius. Great, innit?

  • Nothing new there, Christopher. We probably have no “innate” nature.

    Although scientific techniques make it more obvious, we are the product of evolutionary accident and the eugenicist practices of our leaders and societies through history (I explain here what I mean by that).

    There is no core to our species’ development, no centre around which development is focussed and no guarantee we retain an essential ‘humanity’. I’d normally add, no god to guarantee it either.

    But we act as if there is. As if we can’t lose that core, innate character. As if there is one.

    We will just become what we become, the product of accident, chance, change, habit and manipulation. As always.

  • Actually, despite the views of many people who see the current human race as in some way fixed or “supreme”, we are still evolving – and very rapidly too.

    Then add into the mix that DNA manipulation is increasing the possibilities for changing our “innate” nature, humans are going to start looking very different as the rest of this century unfolds.

  • I’m not acquainted with the term ‘climax species’

    I took a look and found it applied to plants – “A climax species is a plant species that will remain essentially unchanged in terms of species composition for as long as the site remains undisturbed” and wikipedia has ‘climax community’:

    “The term climax community, also described as a climatic climax community is a largely obsolete ecological term for a biological community of plants and animals which, through the process of succession–the development of vegetation in an area over time–has reached an equilibrium or steady state. This equilibrium occurs because the climax community is composed of species best adapted to average conditions in that local area.”

    My point is more more about our core character as a species and how it impacts what we call ‘politics’, especially since politicians’ use of fear as a tool seems to strike so deeply as to be beyond politics or culture.

    But I suspect you’re right; we’re too unstable to be a climax species/community, especially since we’re ‘disturbing the site’ of our existence so radically as part of our apparent success.

  • Bliffle

    I think the biologists long ago decided that man is not a climax species, that we would burnout and disappear in the (relatively) near future.