Meaningful evolution

A few days ago I released a new video in which I discuss my thoughts on a neo-darwinist spin on the theory of evolution by natural selection. See the video below. Motivated by the comments I received on the video, I feel the need to elaborate a little more on what I am saying – and, perhaps more importantly, what I am not saying – in the video. In what follows, I'll assume that you have watched the video.


The first thing to highlight is that the main thrust of my argument is not a new hypothesis for the processes underlying genetic mutations, but, instead, to point out that there is no evidence for what neo-darwinists casually peddle as established truth: That the genetic mutations that get selected for – or not – by natural selection are random at origin; that is, entail no identifiable pattern. There is simply no evidence for this. In order to get such idea across, I contrast this with the obvious alternative possibility: That there is an underlying, as-of-yet undetected pattern in the mutations. The purpose of my discussing this alternative possibility is not the possibility itself, but solely to demonstrate, through an example, that there are other reasonable scenarios that neo-darwinists seem to lack sufficient scientific imagination to contemplate. Physicists are off talking about parallel universes, hidden dimensions, reverse causality and what not, while neo-darwinists seem stuck in 19th-century billiard-ball materialism.

Science is about finding the patterns underlying nature, and it is a fundamental premise of scientific activity that there may be patterns in natural processes where we currently cannot see one. To deny so amounts to arbitrarily decreeing an end to the process of scientific discovery. Indeed, openness to – and even an inner hope for – the possible presence of new and as-of-yet undetected patterns is integral to scientific thought. The conclusions of the discovery process in science should – and, fortunately, almost always do – focus on the patterns we do find, for these are the footprints of the laws of nature. In this context, neo-darwinism is unique in that it makes a direct, positive statement about there not possibly being a pattern, even though no evidence exists to substantiate such statement. There is a sense in which this is an aberration in modern scientific thought, and runs counter to the scientific spirit of discovery. The only evidence available that relates to such statement is the very richness and variety of nature, which ought to be construed, if anything, as suggestive precisely of the presence of an undetected pattern waiting to be discovered.

When we state that a process is 'random,' all we are stating is that we cannot identify a pattern in such process. This can say something about the process (i.e. it has no pattern) or about ourselves (i.e. we are not able to see the pattern). In the absence of objective evidence, it seems more appropriate to me that we remain cautious and state simply that, so far, we have been able to detect no pattern behind the genetic mutations at the basis of evolution, and that we currently do not see any strong-enough reason to believe there is one. This is accurate, cautious, fair, and leaves the appropriate doors open. To state – or worse, to teach in science classes in schools – that the mutations are random is, in a fundamental way, analogous to teaching religion: It's just a belief, no matter how reasonable and even necessary it may sound to neo-darwinist ears.

For clarity, the alternative hypothesis I mentioned in the video is this: There are phenomena in physics suggestive that the universe is, at a fundamental level, unified; in the sense that any event can potentially influence any other event across time and space limitations, at a quantum level. The phenomenon of quantum entanglement, when taken together with the Big Bang theory, is suggestive of this possibility. Some interpretations of quantum mechanics suggest the same, like David Bohm's Implicate Order. So it is not completely unreasonable to imagine that there could be some form of non-local feedback from the results of natural selection back into the probability envelops governing the quantum-level processes from which genetic mutations arise. After all, those mutations are probabilistic processes at a molecular level, governed by quantum wave functions.

If this is true, natural selection could conceivably not only preserve past mutations that provide a survival advantage; it could also tilt the probabilities of future mutations in favor of complementary ones. If anything, this would help the evolutionary algorithm avoid local minima – where it is notorious for getting stuck at, according to computer simulations – and reach a globally optimum result. The scenario here is one where a hypothetical, underlying intelligence interwoven in the fabric of the universe (or identical to the universe itself) is experimenting in the laboratory of nature, using natural selection as its evaluation function. In the process of experimentation, it does make many mistakes: Mutations that are useless or destructive are continuously tried out. But through such iterative trial-and-error, it learns and gets ever closer to its telos.

You may say that the hypothesis I discuss above is entirely gratuitous, in the sense that we have no strict evidence for it today. And you will be entirely correct to say that. But what I am doing here is not attempting to convince you that there is a telos behind evolution; I don't know for a fact that there is one. Instead, I am merely illustrating one conceivable scenario according to which mutations are not random, so to show that randomness cannot be taken for granted in the absence of evidence. Therefore, all I need to show is reasonable conceivability for my example hypothesis, not proof or even solid substantiation. And reasonable conceivability, I dare say, has been achieved in the discussion above.

In science, understanding what you do not know is often more important than understanding what you do know. I hope it is clear to you now that the core of my argument in the video is not to state positively that there is a telos behind evolution – for I do not have enough objective evidence to substantiate such hypothesis, even though I personally feel it is true – but to show that the hypothesis cannot be discarded on the basis of the available evidence, nor on the basis of hand-waving arguments about what is reasonable to conceive.

Copyright © 2012 by Bernardo Kastrup. All rights are reserved.

Comments

  1. The main challenge would be to postulate and then demonstrate some kind of causal mechanism that filters mutations away from true statistical randomness. Without that you could speculate forever about whether it's "really random."

    Personally, my hunch is that the mutations ARE truly random but the constraints of reality upon the mutations give rise to developmental properties which are highly un-random, perhaps even teleological in some broad sense. Evolution is like trying to open a single locked door with a key-chain full of different keys; eventually you unlock the door even if you have to select from the keys at random.

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  2. Don't we see numerous examples of natural selection by random mutation today? For example, in the development of anti-biotic and anti-viral resistance. A prime example being HIV's ability to develop resistance by selecting out treatment resistance mutations during sub-optimal adherance or sub-optimal treatment (as in the early AZT monotherapy era). I'm very attracted to the idea of teleological evolution, but when you see natural selection by random mutation in everyday situations, this weakens the idea for anything more, IMHO.

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    1. Well, the thing is, are they _really_ random? There is a difference between true randomness (i.e. no pattern) and a difficulty in seeing the pattern that is there. The dots in an autostereogram (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Autostereogram) _appear_ completely random until the pattern jumps out at you; in 3D! If you look only at a 1 millimeter square section of a Persian carpet, you won't see its intricate pattern at all. Similarly, if you sample a Persian carpet sparsely over its entire breath and length, you will also see no pattern. But in both of these examples you are looking at segments of a very clear and undeniable pattern. To see it, you need to look at _sufficiently complete_ data over a _sufficiently large_ segment of time and space. In the case of evolution, you need to look at nearly all mutations, across species and locations, over an evolutionary-significant period of time, i.e. perhaps millions of years. The HIV example you gave is only one tiny species over a microscopically short period of time; it's like looking at one thread in the Persian carpet (actually, much, much less than one thread) and declaring the carpet to entail no pattern. We just don't know that.

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    2. Do you know that you are in a way repeating what Roger Cotes said in 1713, in his "Editor's Preface to the Second Edition" of Isaac Newton's Principia? Addressing the materalists, he writes: "(They say) that matter has existed always and everywhere of its own necessity... On this supposition, matter will also be uniform everywhere, for variety of forms is entirely inconsistent with necessity. Matter will also be without motion; for if by nevessity matter moves in some definite direction with some definite velocity, by a like necessity it will move in a different direction with a different velocity; but it cannot move in different directions with different velocities; therefore it must be without motion. Surely, this world - so beautifully diversified in its forms and motions - could not have arisen except from the perfectly free will of God, who provides and governs all things. From this source, then, have all the laws that are called laws of nature come, in which many traces of the highest wisdom and counsel certainly appear, but no traces of necessity...". (quoted from "Isaac Newton, The Principia, a new translation by I. Bernard Cohen and Anne Whitman", University of California Press, 1999).

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    3. Do you know that you in a way repeat what Roger Cotes writes in his "Editor's Preface to the Second Edition" of Newton's Principia (London 1713)? Addressing the materialists he writes: "At least they must sink to the lowest depths of degradation, where they have the fantasy that all things are governed by fate and not by providence; that matter has existed always and everywhere of its own necessity and is infinite and eternal. On this supposition, matter will also be uniform everywhere, for variety of forms is entirely inconsistent with necessity. Matter will also be without motion; for if by necessity matter moves in some definite direction with some definite velocity, by a like necessity it will move in a different direction with a different velocity; but it cannot move in different directions with different velocities; therefore it must be without motion. Surely, this world - so beautifully diversified in its forms and motions - could not have arisen except from the perfectly free will of God, who provides and governs all things. From this source, then, have all the laws that are called laws of nature come, in which many traces of the highest wisdom and counsel certainly appear, but no traces of necessity...." (quoted from "Isaac Newton, The Principia, a new translation by I. Bernard Cohen and Anne Whitman, University of California Press, 1999).

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  3. Ed,
    Very interesting quote, many thanks! Clearly, this is an expression of a very different paradigm of thought that comes across today as quite naive. But if one can "reframe" his/her mind for a short while, suspending the disbelief that arises from modern assumptions about the nature of reality, and then read this quote again with such slightly different perspective, one can feel not only the logic, but the beauty of the worldview it encompasses.
    Cheers, Bernardo.

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    1. Bernardo,
      thanks for the quick reply. The case is that the materialist worldview is based on a momentous misinterpretation and corruption of Isaac Newton's natural philosophy. Newton holds a dualist view of reality as consisting of nonmaterial active "forces" (active as "causes of change"), and passive matter.
      This view resulted from reason and experience only (ny "hypotheses"!). But during the French Enlighenment,
      natural science was conseived anew, and on an unproven and unproveable hypothesis, namely the paradigm of
      "active, or omnipotent matter" (able to move itself, to evelove by itself, to organize itself, etc. ). So the materialist paradigm has indeed simply replaced "God" by "matter".
      I'm working now for more than 30 years to make the scientific community aware of the fact that they hold a very distorted view of Newton's natural philosophy; but with very little effect, so far. See my website www.neutonus-reformatus.com for more information, if you will.
      Best,
      Ed.

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    2. Ed, yes, I was already having a look at that page, which I found by clicking on your name ;-). I took the liberty to link it to my own facebook page (http://www.facebook.com/BernardoKastrup) so to help spread awareness of this very interesting work. Cheers, Bernardo.

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    3. Yes, thank you. Sorry for my typing errors.
      - Newton is a store-house, the true Newton that is, not the one who was transmogrified into a narrow-minded father of the materialist world view.

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  4. Hi Bernardo, thanks for replying (as always). The Persian carpet analogy assumes there is an over-arching principle governing (all) evolution, so as to be invisible for specific examples (like HIV), but discernable if you could step back and look at all of creation from a cosmic timescale. This may be true, (if I'm reading you correctly?) but doesn't Occam's razor dictate that if we see a prime example of natural selection by random mutation, (has in the development of HIV drug resistance) than why extrapolate to teleological evolution on a grand scale? In my view, although very attractive, it is unwarranted until other evidence for goal oriented evolution is forthcoming.

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    1. > but doesn't Occam's razor dictate that if we see a prime
      > example of natural selection by random mutation, (has in the
      > development of HIV drug resistance) than why extrapolate to
      > teleological evolution on a grand scale?

      I don't know that even that is random! This is just an assumption you and lots of people make. I don't of anyone who ran a formal randomness test on:

      1) All known HIV mutations;
      2) All the HIV mutations;
      3) All virus mutations;
      4) All mutations.

      Even if (1) would turn out to be random (which I don't think we know formally to be the case, but which I would accept as highly likely), it would say nothing of the randomness of (2), because of the "Persian carpet"argument. Similarly,(2) would say nothing about (3), and (3) of (4). Randomness, though a contradictory concept, is formally defined in mathematical terms. So we cannot just state lightly that something is random; there are formal tests.

      > ...but doesn't Occam's razor dictate...

      Here the suggestion is that the randomness explanation is the simplest one and, therefore, should be adopted until evidence for anything else emerges. I dispute this too:

      1) I don't know whether randomness is an explanation at all over a 4 billion year, Earth-wide scale. No simulation has ever been performed of an evolutionary algorithm at that scale to see if it would converge to anything like the variety and complexity of life on Earth today. Evolutionary algorithms, like genetic algorithms, often get stuck in local minima when solving simple engineering problems, regardless of the computational power available. So we just don't know if randomness cuts the custard.

      2) Even if randomness were an explanation, the statement that it is the simplest one is a tricky and subjective assessment, very much paradigm-laden. Usually Occam's razor is invoked for extrapolations of patterns (i.e. laws) that are known to work under different, but similar, circumstances. Randomness is precisely the absence of law or pattern, so the invocation becomes tricky.

      Cheers, B.

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  5. I think there is another possibility here. Rupert Sheldrake suspects that the genes only supply part of the blueprint. If you like, they define the components at the lowest level (proteins) but not the larger blueprint - which he thinks is stored in an information field. If that is the case, evolution as a whole might not be random, even though the actual DNA changes do follow natural selection!

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  6. Bernardo,

    Thanks--I enjoyed the video and your post. It's actually quite spooky, because I have been making very similar arguments over at the Skeptiko thread I mentioned, even using the same metaphor of intelligence "experimenting" and getting feedback, etc.

    If such intelligence exists, then it isn't omniscient and omnipotent. It itself is an integral part of an evolving system. The Abrahamic concept of God doesn't fit in with that, and as you indicate, such a God could just wave a magic wand an create everything ex nihilo in an instant, including a misleading fossil record, etc.

    I've also been saying that I can't prove my suspicion that intelligence is involved in the process of evolution; it's just a metaphysical stance which seems to make most sense to me. I can't wrap my head around how mind could possibly arise from not-mind. Having studied biology, even done some research in it, for a long time I just accepted the standard paradigm. It's only when I started thinking that I began to see how many holes there were in that.

    One point where we might differ is that it may be possible that at the micro-level, natural selection operating on random mutations might indeed be occurring; but if so, I can't see them all accumulating over time to produce macroevolutionary changes.

    Michael Larkin

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  7. Hi Michael,

    I'm no longer surprised that we think alike! :)

    > One point where we might differ is that it may be possible that at
    > the micro-level, natural selection operating on random mutations
    > might indeed be occurring

    I don't deny that, in the process of experimentation, some things may be tried 'just-so' (i.e. randomly), in order to get some sense for the 'knobs' available.

    Cheers, B.

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