Evolution of Beauty: Richard Prum

The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin's Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World and Us. By Richard O. Prum. Doubleday, 2017.

I’m always hoping I’ll come across stories that enhance my appreciation of living creatures. I started Prum’s book hoping to find there such a story. What I found was more complicated.

I don’t care whether a story is true--I anyway wouldn’t know how to tell—I’m satisfied if it leaves me feeling I understand nature better. I can usually tell that in advance from what kind of story it is: “just so,” or “as if.” “Just so” stories don’t help you appreciate anything, they tell you it’s “just so.” An example of that is the modern synthesis of genetic mutation and natural selection. Of anything in nature I want to know why or how it simply says, “it’s just so.” That may be true but it doesn’t add anything to my understanding. I began reading Prum’s book on the lookout for what kind of story he’d be telling. If it was a “just so” story I’d read no further.

What I hoped to find instead was an “as if” story. That’s a story that adds meaning to some aspect of nature, ideally to nature in general. Richard Dawkins provided us with a story like that in his book “The Selfish Gene.” He didn’t mean genes really are selfish, he meant that, from what he knew about evolution, it was “as if” genes are selfish. Take that story to heart, he assured us, and you’ll feel you understand nature better, too. 

Prum’s introduction charmed me. His writing was direct, personal, full of incident, full of feeling. And he did indeed promise me a new story. “I have always been more fascinated by those aspects of evolutionary process that defy simplistic adaptive explanations,” and "aesthetic evolution has great explanatory power, and... rescues us from the tedious and limiting adaptionist insistance on the ubiquitous power of natural selection," finally "the evolutionary dynamics of mate choice are essential to understanding ourselves." Terrific! I was going to encounter some other story than the “just so” of the modern synthesis, a story we could apply to more fully understand ourselves.

Prum’s field of sexual selection usually offers us slim pickings of “as if” stories able to contribute to our understanding. Most evolutionists insist on giving animal choice no place at all in evolution, he reports. He mimics them: “What can we possibly know about the subjective experience of desire in animals? Subjective experience is, almost by definition, unmeasurable and unquantifiable.” He goes on, “Most scientists have therefore been allergic to the idea of making a scientific study of subjective experiences, or even to admitting that they exist.” They regard sexual displays and preferences merely as parts of the environment a creature must become adapted to. For them, Prum mourns, “beauty is merely the handmaiden of natural selection.”

That’s not so for him.

Although I am rather hesitant to admit it, I think that the process of adaptation by natural selection is sort of boring. Of course, as an evolutionary biologist I am well aware that it is a fundamental and ubiquitous force in nature. I don’t deny its immense importance. But the process of adaptation by natural selection is not synonymous with evolution itself. A lot of evolutionary process and evolutionary history cannot be explained by natural selection alone.

His own field work tells against it. Of bower birds he says:

But how do we know that bower design and ornamentation perform an exclusively aesthetic function? Well, we know that the bower serves no physical purpose other than as a location where courtship takes place.

Not only that:

Evolution can even be “decadent,” in the sense of its resulting in sexual ornaments that not only fail to signal anything about objective mate quality but actually lower the survival and fecundity of the signaler and the chooser. In short, in pursuit of their subjective preferences, individuals can make mating choices that are maladaptive resulting in a worse fit between the organism and its environment…. Natural selection is not the only source of design in nature.

Instead he inclines towards a story of Darwin’s, who he quotes as follows:

Courage, pugnacity, perseverance, strength and size of body, weapons of all kinds, musical organs, both vocal and instrumental, bright colors, stripes and marks, ornamental appendages, have all gained… through the influence of love and jealousy, through the appreciation of the beautiful… and the exertion of choice.

The responsible agent in the story Prum wants to tell, like that in Darwin’s, will involve factors--appreciation of the beautiful and freedom of choice--within the subjective experience of individual creatures.

For me, however, the concept of subjective experience is absolutely critical to understanding evolution. I will argue that we need an evolutionary theory that encompasses the subjective experiences of animals in order to develop an accurate scientific account of the natural world. We ignore them at our intellectual peril, because the subjective experiences of animals have critical and decisive consequences for their evolution.

So Prum is intent on establishing a beachhead behind which to gather support for “an evolutionary theory that encompasses the subjective experiences of animals.”

Talk about fools rushing in! While lauding Darwin in extravagant terms for his boldness in making individual female choice one of the drivers of evolution, Prum appears intent on focusing the world’s attention onto what I see as a glaring contradiction in Darwin’s work. Here’s how I expressed it in my book “re-thinking…”:

According to Darwin, peacocks grew enormous tails because peahens like them that way.  If merely liking something could make a creature evolve it then all of evolution could be driven by creatures “liking” things. Then who needed natural selection!

This idea, that creatures can evolve whatever they want merely by wanting it, makes of evolution nothing more than a giant Law of Attraction—creatures will get whatever they wish for hard enough. Yet that does seem to me the principle behind Darwin’s mechanism of sexual selection—by wanting it, peahens can get peacocks to evolve just the kind of tails they’d like. Why didn’t Darwin go on from there to assume that all of evolution could be driven like that, by living creatures experiencing wants in the course of their interactions with the environment? Instead he retreated timidly back to account for all of evolution through a strict reductionist/adaptationist mechanism excepting only the one instance he couldn’t make that mechanism account for, sexually-induced ornament in birds. But by doing so he left the door open for others to say, if creatures wanting some evolutionary change could make it happen in one instance, why not in all? That’s exactly the door that other evolutionists want to keep firmly closed. That’s exactly the door that Prum seems intent on flinging wide open. In the following paragraph he implies that ornaments and sexual preferences for those ornaments differ from all other subjective experiences only because in their case how subjective experiences trigger physical evolution is particularly easy to trace:

We cannot measure or know what these [subjective] experiences are like in any detail, but we can sneak up on them, and as with the electron we can learn fundamental things about them indirectly. For example, as we will see, we can investigate how subjective experiences evolve by tracing the evolution of ornaments and the sexual preferences for them among closely related organisms.

To summarize my very long introduction, Prum intends through his study of sexual selection in birds to come up with a story about how they evolve that will help us understand how evolution works in nature in general, and ultimately how it works in us. What I looked forward to finding out from the rest of his book was how much of evolution he was prepared to convert over from the adaptationist “just so” story to a “subjective experiences” story.

And just who did he think was having these subjective experiences? Perhaps because it’s so common among us, it’s easy to imagine males giving in to nagging from their mates about looking good, and dressing more colorfully. In ducks, for example, females can see how males look, and keep after them until they’ve shaped up. Vision provides a ready feedback loop within the individual duck by which she can detect discrepancies between what she would like to see, and what she actually sees. And that goes for all of the senses. That presumably is what led Darwin to set this kind of evolutionary change apart from evolution by natural selection and call it “sexual selection,” and for Prum to prefer the more specific term “aesthetic selection.” That is, selection can be driven by an esthetic sense within subjective experiences in individual living creatures, as we humans detect having an esthetic sense operating within our own subjective experience.

Prum then goes on to describe the seasonal eruption of violence as drakes coerce females into having sex. In association with this contest between male coercion and female choice strange things happen. Drakes' penises grow to an absurd length and extend themselves within the females' vaginas through a clockwise twisting movement, like an elaborate lock picker's tool. The females, in defense of choice, develop a similarly convoluted vagina, with blind endings and a characteristic counter-clockwise twist, to stall the male.

But is the story of “aesthetic selection” plausible when applied in a case like this? While it’s easy to see how these strategies fulfil the wants of both sexes, where is the sensual feedback by which they could be monitored? Even if the female could imagine turning her vagina into an obstacle course for the male’s penis, how could she be directing a process she can’t monitor in the same way she could visually monitor how well her drakes are conforming to her vision of how they could look?

Still, this process of vaginal reconstruction does look exactly like what you’d suppose is a response to subjective female choice. And that really is what Prum believes. For him, how the female duck experiences “forced copulations” is no different from what human female’s experiences during rape.

“Forced copulations” is the term that ornithologists and evolutionary biologists now use to refer to rape among birds and other animals… Human rape is an act with such great symbolic and social impact that the term didn’t seem appropriate in the context of non-human animals…. Although I do not suggest that we return to the wholesale use of the word “rape” in animal biology, I think that the phrase “forced copulation” does an intellectual disservice to our understanding of sexual violence in non-human animals. Certainly in the case of female ducks, it is scientifically critical to recognize that sexual coercion and violence are very much against their wills too.

Not any longer against their esthetic sense. Against their wills! I propose we call this new principle “evolution by volition,” or “evo voli.”

But even a story involving the volition of individual creatures can be stretched only so far. Prum goes on to give another example, the Club-winged Manakin, unique for the male having altogether-reconfigured ulnas, four times wider and three times larger in volume than those of related species. "In fact, there is nothing else like it in any other bird in the world." Birds’ ulnas have been honed to an invariable sleek mechanical perfection over 135 million years of adaptation to the demands of flight, yet uniquely in the male of this species it has become reshaped in an extraordinarily complicated manner to generate sounds as part of the male's courtship dance. "It is the acoustic collaboration among the multiple feathers attached to the male's ulnas that gives the sound its distinctive harmonic structure and decidedly musical, ringing, violin-like quality." Surely the idea of reshaping a part of your body vital to flight so extravagantly merely to serve sexual display could not have arisen in the subjective experience of any one animal. In my judgment, any story accounting for such evolutionary changes through subjective experience has to locate whatever mind is making those imaginative leaps elsewhere than in individual living creatures.     

Have I lost you? Let’s recap. Whose subjective experience is involved in sexual selection? In the case of the duck directing how her drakes dress we can imagine it being her, we can imagine it taking place in her mind, since she can monitor the process visually as it’s going on. That’s an esthetic selection story. But in the case of the reconstruction of her vagina during mating season, it’s hard to imagine such a thought entering her mind, and even if it did it’s hard to see how it could take place without her being equipped with senses through which she could monitor the process. So who is exerting choice on her behalf? Perhaps it is a representative of the females of her species about which we might create a story involving some ancient female goddess. But even that won’t suffice in the case of the bird with the singing ulnas. The process of shaping his ulna occurs so early in development that it affects the females also, who therefore are burdened with the same impediments as the male but without any corresponding benefit. It seems unlikely that even a female representative of the females of her species would inflict such a pointless burden on her, would so punish her for her lustful delight in her mates’ performance. So in this case, is the subjective experience occuring in the mind of the species as a whole, in expression of its desire to contribute this enhanced performance to the wonders of nature, even at the cost of lessened fitness in both of the species’ sexes?

For me, Prum’s researches open up a huge can of worms. He has analyzed the courtship dances of tropical birds into their component parts and been able to trace the origins of individual components back to ancestor species still living a thousand miles away. Some appear entirely original, and the product of creative subjectivity. Yet it seems impossible to locate the subjective experiences through which he expects to account for the evolution of such items in the minds of individual living creatures. So, must we default back to the prevailing “just so” story, the modern synthesis? No, Prum's fieldwork makes that highly implausible too. Anyway, I’m sure Prum wouldn’t want to see us forced back to that resort.

Through his rashness Prum seems to me to have indeed reduced to a pile of tiny chips all the principles we have available to account for the remarkable creatures he studies. Instead his fieldwork hints at shadowy intelligences lurking in the undergrowth or the canopy directing the evolution of some of the most remarkable tools and ornaments with which living creatures come equipped. Okay, that’s the inference, but where’s the story? Prum admits he doesn’t have one. Perhaps to the story of sexual selection he found in Darwin he should have added that identified by Siddhartha Mukherjee in his "The Gene": "The crucial driver in evolution, Darwin understood, was not nature's sense of purpose, but her sense of humor." Lacking such a story, Prum ends his book with no more revelations about how we evolved than some details of our genitalia.


The Evolution of Everything: Matt Ridley

The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge

This provocative book raises interesting issues, pursues bold missions, but for me ends in contradiction.

Issue 1. Human culture is not directed top-down by creative geniuses, instead it evolves bottom up through the pursuit of self interest by intelligent hordes. This Ridley details in chapters titled “The Evolution of” followed by topics: morality, culture, economy, technology, personality, education, population, leadership, government, religion, money, and the internet. A few other chapters cover the evolution of how we’ve thought about things: the universe, life, genes, mind. At any time, Ridley demonstrates, the condition of culture acts to elicit from intelligent hordes a barrage of innovations through which, like a crystal, culture grows.

Mission 1. Discrediting of the supernatural. “To say that culture ‘evolves’ is not metaphorical.” Human culture evolves the same way living species do, through selection for effectiveness acting bottom-up in a mass of individuals. If even among humans evolution works bottom-up, as Darwin proposed, not top down, why should evolution among living creatures be any different? In our accounts of where living creatures came from we’ve no need of top-down direction by a supernatural being.

Mission 2. Facilitation of Edward O. Wilson’s consilience. Ridley’s bottom-up generation of culture invalidates how the humanities conceive of their role. Evolution “is not confined to genetic systems, but explains the way that virtually all of human culture changes: from morality to technology, from money to religion.… The way that human history is taught can therefore mislead, because it places far too much emphasis on design, direction and planning, and far too little on evolution.” Ridley is providing a mechanism through which the humanities can be re-established on scientific principles. “There is an almost perfect parallel between the evolution of DNA sequences and the evolution of written and spoken languages… Cities, marriage, language, music, art—these manifestations of culture all change in regular and retrospectively predictable ways, but in ways that nobody did predict, let alone direct.

Mission 3. Confirm natural selection is the primary mechanism of evolution. Of cities, marriage, language, music, art, Ridley says they “evolve… driven by natural selection among competing ideas.” This rounds out Ridley’s stout support of three physicalist positions: denial of the supernatural, claim that physics should be made the basis of the humanities, and that evolution is driven by a purely physical mechanism—natural selection. Finally, to support that claim, that human culture evolves through a purely physical process Ridley has to prove that humans are purely physical, too. That constitutes a second issue he covers in his text.

Issue 2. The universe, and we humans within it, are governed by physical laws of the kind we know today. If we are bound by those laws, everything we do must be determined by prior physical events. Of physicalists’ arguments about mind he says “there is no doubt that these thinkers have banished the popular, dualist version of free will, the one that is incompatible with determinism. All that determinists are asking you to accept is that there cannot be effect without cause.” That is, without physical cause. You are not free to consider options and choose between them. Your choice is determined, you cannot create anything genuinely new, your thoughts and behaviors are determined by what’s happened before. The only conclusion, then, is that Francis Crick was right in his “astonishing hypothesis,” namely that “A person’s mental activities are entirely due to the behavior of nerve cells, glial cells, and the atoms, ions, and molecules that make them up and influence them.” Ridley refers to “the absurdity of the ‘self,’ the mind, the will, the ego or the soul. All, to the extent they are real, are mere manifestations of the body, rather than separate from it… The notion that there is a unitary piece of self-ness somewhere deep within the grey porridge inside the skull is plainly just a powerful illusion.” There’s nothing about us you couldn’t create through a purely physical process such as natural selection, given enough time.

Contradiction. Evolution depending on innovation, and the universe being purely physical “I am going to argue that innovation is an evolutionary phenomenon.” Humans can innovate. “The truth is, almost all discoveries and inventions occur to different people simultaneously…The phenomenon is so common it must be telling us something about the inevitability of invention.” So the ground out of which human culture evolves is whatever it is that allows us to innovate. But doesn’t “innovate” mean coming up with something new, not something that already exists? Doesn’t that demand of us capabilities, creativity for example, that can’t exist in a purely physical universe? Ridley can’t tell. “I suspect that we will never explain innovations fully, for the best of Lucretian reasons—that an explanation would require omniscience.” Ridley’s claim that human nature is purely physical can’t be proved.

Does Ridley really know how evolution works? Except through someone else’s poetry, see below, he provides us with no examples involving the non-living world. He can say “The development of an embryo into a body is perhaps the most beautiful of all demonstrations of spontaneous order” and yet he’s sure that “There is no overall plan, just cells reacting to local effects.” How can he know? Of course, he can’t. It’s physicalist dogma.

There’s a logic to Ridley’s view of evolution that he ignores. If evolution involves a torrent of innovations generated by an intelligent horde, for cultural evolution that horde can easily be identified as made up of individual humans. For the evolution of other living creatures, the corresponding horde may be made up of the genomes in those creatures’ bodies. In my current writings—see sidebar—I argue that evolution is “managed” by intelligences associated with genomes, often likely to be more “intelligent” than the creatures themselves. I don’t think I’ll be able to persuade Ridley of this. “The genome, now sequenced, stands as emphatic evidence that there can be order and complexity without any management.”
Ridley quotes a poet, Emile Chartier (“Alain”), about the design of boats. “It is the sea herself who fashions the boats, choosing those which function and destroying the others.” Literally of course this isn’t true, the sea damages boats and the shivers the timbers from them into splinters, it never fashions them into new boats. That’s takes a living creature, able to innovate. Maybe not a genius, but intelligent and creative.


The Biologist's Mistress: Victoria Alexander

The Biologist's Mistress: Rethinking Self-Organization in Art, Literature, and Nature

By Dr. Victoria Alexander

This book is not about evolution primarily, rather it illustrates how practitioners of the humanities can find new meaning through a joining of art and science. In Dr. Alexander’s hands this joining points toward new ways of understanding the world. These new ways can describe not only the physical world but also the natural world and the world of our conscious experience. Like the worldview typical of working scientists they involve only matter and physical processes, yet they are not totally deterministic, and central to them are meaning and purpose. Key to this worldview is who it’s for. I think it is intended primarily to serve artists, more than scientists; to provide artists with a set of procedures for extracting meaning from the sciences that they can then apply to their creative work. Maybe eventually science will benefit from these new meanings too.

This book is about teleology, the study of the purposes in nature that make life (seem like) a meaningful work of art. … Along the way, I hope to rescue teleology from theology... and reconnect it to artistic practice.

Dr. Alexander’s specialty is literature. She has written several novels. For her PhD dissertation she chose teleology. She is cofounder of Dactyl Foundation, a showcase for projects combining art and science. She aspires to contribute to a “new cultural era, which will, I hope, bring us art that’s meaningful and adds something to what we know about ourselves and our world.”

Alexander brings together several previously unrelated disciplines within the humanities and the sciences: teleology, or the philosophical study of causes, purposes and goals; semiotics, or the study of language, specifically the study of signs and symbols and how they represent meaning; “complexity,” bringing along with it an entire suite of up-to-the-minute scientific disciplines including self-organization and information theory; and “continental” phenomenology. Or, as she puts it, “I tend to favor medieval philosophers over today’s analytic philosophers, pre-Darwinian biology over 20th century developmental systems biology, biosemiotics over teleosemantics, the complexity sciences over general systems theory, neuroscience over psychology, pragmatism over deconstruction, and fiction over physics.”

One of the disciplines coming out of this collision of fields is biosemiotics, or “the study of sign action in biological systems” (email communication). It appears to consist of a system for mapping events in nature in terms of language relations. Agents within this biosemiotic discourse go by the names attractors, constraints, selection, directiveness, design, creativity, interpretation, feedback, and error correction.

The book’s title comes from a saying attributed to J. B. S. Haldane: teleology is like a mistress to a biologist: he may not be able to live without her but he’s unwilling to be seen with her in public. For Alexander “Teleology is the study of the purposes of action, development and existence. Its practitioners believe nature is purposeful…” For her, though, purpose is not defined in terms of how we might suppose real things to be connected, such as energy gain or loss, or quantum mechanics, but in terms of certain ways they can be thought of as relating to each other. “Teleologists argue that ideas, or something like mental concepts or thoughts, cause events in a way wholly different from the way that objects cause events.” An example is the relationship of parts to wholes: wholes emerge from the parts, the whole then acts back on the parts to constrain them, the parts, acting under these constraints, serving to maintain the integrity of the whole. “Teleological behavior, in my view, is always some kind of self-organized behavior that involves the way the whole constrains the parts…. True teleology requires no further explanation of final cause; it emerges in nonlinear systems through interaction and feedback.”

What evidence is there that this is in fact how the physical and biological worlds work? That doesn’t seem to be the point. What matters is extracting from those worlds narratives involving purpose and intention through which we can feel we understand them. But how do we come up with appropriate relations, such as that of wholes to parts?

What I do share with all teleologists, authentic or so-called, is a deeply felt folk-sense of purposefulness in nature. It is clear to me that many processes and patterns in nature can’t be fully explained by Newton’s laws or by Darwin’s mechanism of natural selection. These are processes that are organized in ways that spontaneously create, sustain and further that organization. Although I believe that mechanistic reductionism is inadequate to describe these processes, I don’t believe that purposeful events and actions require guidance from the outside—from divine plans or engineering deities. Nature’s purposeful processes are self-organizing and inherently adaptive, which is the essence of what it is to be teleological.

To illustrate her use of such terms as “sign” and “purpose” Alexander talks of a lion’s purpose in pursuing a gazelle:

The purposeful acts of chasing, seeking, fleeing and etc. are self-organized responses to signs of self. Think of a gazelle as what the lion’s body recognizes as part of its metabolic cycle. The gazelle is not the real goal. The gazelle is means of survival, which is the ultimate end. So instead of imagining the teleological process going in a linear direction—the lion (agent) chasing the gazelle (goal)—imagine instead the cycle that maintains the lion’s life and the gazelle caught up in that cycle. It is as if the lion’s selfhood extends itself into its environment and identifies a part of itself (potential food) and takes it in. The characteristics of the prey becomes a “sign” of the ultimate end of survival when they interact with the predator’s evolved repertoire of self-organized responses to the world…. Only under these conditions of recognition and maintenance of a cycle, can the lion’s response, chasing, be considered purposeful.

I have a hard time with this definition of purpose. To me it doesn’t apply to the lion or, by extension, to us. Since we and lions are similar creatures I assume the lion experiences what I would call “purpose” in its awareness of the delightful experiences it can anticipate from catching and killing the gazelle. But no. “It may seem to some that conscious deliberation is necessary for intentional actions or ‘free will’ to be exercised…. Being conscious of one’s purpose is not a requirement in my view of purposeful behavior.”

So although the philosophical discourse Alexander employs does include the word “purpose” as one of its terms, this is not ”purpose” as consciously experienced. In fact that isn’t even possible. “I agree with the scientific findings that we do not make conscious choices; rather choices are made as electro-chemical activity in the brain, and we become aware of the choices we have made seconds later.” Purely physical yes, but not deterministic. “I do not believe in a-causality. I argue for a different kind of causality, in which the effectual factors come from emergent holistic features.”

How does Alexander propose we explore these features?

Human purpose is a specific type of a more general purpose in nature. Both can be defined abstractly and generally as forms of self-organized adaptation. But this definition is not intended as an explanation. The structuring process that we call “self-organization” still needs to be understood. With this book, I hope that I can offer some general insights, showing how chance and constraints might work together to make us purposeful beings. What we learn about our own purposeful behavior will help us understand how nature, society, or culture can be said to act purposefully too…. Art and teleology are intimately related. This is so because teleology involves representation, design, and meaning. Perhaps aesthetics and teleology are actually the same formal discipline. To say nature is teleological is to say nature works like an artist. To say something is a work of art is to say it is teleological.

For Alexander this involves a curious combination of chance and creativity.

Nature is creative… When I say “creative,” I mean progressively more able to make more complex and astounding things, like us, not quite by pure accident, but by availing itself, in the way that artists do, of the emergent ordering tendencies of chance.… chance, as I use it, which is to say meaningful chance, is a particular kind of selection process involving constraints and feedback… we may say that chance (whatever that is, for we will need to define it) is final cause…

After the earlier and more accessible chapters I’ve summarized above come technical accounts of semiotics, the philosophy of C.S. Peirce and other thinkers, a long and detailed history of teleological thinking, and accounts of how various artists and writers have responded and added to that history over the past couple of centuries.

What problem is this new discourse being forged to help us tackle? Need for a new discourse was implied by William James “neutral monism” surmise in 1904: “if there is only one primal stuff or material in the world, a stuff of which everything is composed, and if we call that stuff 'pure experience,' then knowing can easily be explained as a particular sort of relation towards one another into which portions of pure experience may enter,” almost a prescription for Alexander’s quest. But she appears to want not only the solutions but also the problems to emerge from the quandaries modern writers have experienced in their work, which she reviews in her final chapters. Of a novel by Martin Amis she writes:

As the novel was being written, Self [a character] began to acquire a direction, which Amis came to realize in the process of creating him. This is what selves do, after all. Purposes emerge in the course of the life of a character, an organism, an entity, a system. They are not there from the beginning and they are not defined by the end.

More quotes:

In artistic creations, noise matters. One might say this is the essence of art. I will try to make the case that teleological order—since it can’t be predetermined and it isn’t strictly materially determined, and it’s not a-causal—must emerge out of something like error, chance, coincidence. It must involve interpretation. So rather than subjectivity having only a benign effect on teleological design (not disturbing it too much), it has the utmost importance…

Today, a new understanding of purposeful action as creative self-organization may be used to revise our understanding of telic phenomena and vice-versa. Even so teleology has not and will not stop developing. Its end is still and always will be dynamic, something new, something larger, something greater, something more complex than anything we can measure or touch, something that guides and constrains but never pushes. In describing nature with metaphor [by-chance like] and metonymy [by-chance near], art has explored many of her secrets, showing us her teleological ways.

How, out of all this, does Alexander conceive of the process of evolution?

Purposeful behavior then is defined by the self-organizing tendencies of a selection process that does not involve conscious selection…. In nature, as in the artist’s mind, when one thing is coincidentally near another [by-chance near], or when one thing is coincidentally like another [by-chance like], this may affect or constrain the outcome or the way they interact. This is selection, but not á la Darwin, not quite. It is not selection for reproductive fitness. This kind of selection simply builds formal patterns. The “by-chance” near become like each other through habitual interaction, and the “by-chance” like bond together, forming constrained systems.

In nature, mutations (genetic or other) are generally concordant with the original configurations, very much as with meaningful creative change in art, which is largely metaphoric (similar) [by-chance like] or metonymic (contiguous) [by-chance near]. The repeated production of similar and/or contiguous changes (rather than merely random changes or changes reflecting a much wider range of possibilities) automatically results in structural patterns and associations, the basic building blocks for the creation of systems and sub-systems, that is, for the creation of life, art and language. Look at it this way: if genetic mutations usually result, not in some random group of dissimilar cells all mixed together, but in a group of cells that form some kind of pattern containing different types that might interact and feedback the way black and white daisies do, then mutations might result naturally in a new stable “system” that might produce an effect, as the daisies produced a stable temperature, that might be useful to the organism in some way. Random things aren’t useful in the way that things that change in fairly predictable ways are. Such new forms can emerge without natural selection, which only helps them proliferate and/or stabilizes them in a population.

This kind of process is selection for self-creation and self-maintenance of systems or entities, which we can think of as more or less functionally neutral pattern building and development of stable tendencies, and which must occur prior to natural selection. It is a formal selection process that creates the entities, which natural selection can later favor or not with respect to others with which they compete. A self-organized entity might be an autocatalytic chemical reaction or gradient reducing cycle, any system that forms spontaneously when there is some difference, like the temperature difference of Daisyworld. When these types of self-organized entities are harnessed by life in metabolic processes, allowing the organism to better survive and to develop, there is purpose.

It is because these kinds of creative self-organizing processes are going on in nature, prior to natural selection, that Intelligent Design (ID) people find fault with Darwinism. I think ID people are partly right: an additional explanation is necessary, but a Designer is not the answer.

This website was launched to encourage and equip artists and humanists to come up with their own theories for how we evolved. I’ve come up with one such theory. Now Alexander presents us with the theory I've reviewed here. Together we illustrate not only that it’s possible to come up with alternative theories, but that such theories need bear little relation to those of “hard” science. We can look for meanings in having evolved other than those sought by science. And we can use alternative methods to arrive at those meanings, as Alexander draws on terms of rhetoric such as metonymy and I use storytelling.

Please, more theories.


Evolution and the Humanities: David Holbrook

David Holbrook, born 1923 in Norwich, UK, served the humanities as a fellow in Kings College Cambridge and in Downing College where he became director of studies, also as a poet, novelist, literary critic, anthologist, commentator on culture, educator and author of several books on writing for schoolchildren.  In “Evolution and the Humanities” he identifies himself primarily as a poet. “He recognized in culture not the Freudian sublimation of natural drives but a necessary part of our consciousness and the way we search for meaning.,” said the Guardian in his obituary. “A polemical writer of letters to newspapers, he waged an untiring campaign against nihilism in its many forms. His belief that human beings cannot live without a sense of meaning underlies all his work…” Of his own opinions he says: “My critical approach does not deny that evolution has taken place: but it is to say that Darwinian evolutionary theory does not offer anything like an adequate explanation of the origin and nature of life. No religious arguments will be invoked here: the ‘Creationist’ alternative and all the explanation based on God, and on the invocations of spiritual forces intervening in the world, do not seem to provide an adequate explanation.” 

Most of the book, published in 1987, is commentary on the writings of others: chapters on Norman Macbeth, Marjorie Green, Pierre-Paul Grasse, Michael Polanyi, Rupert Sheldrake, Richard Dawkins, E. W. F. Tomlin, Theodosius Dobzhansky, Michael Denton, and Jacques Monod, among others. If you think being a member of the humanities is any excuse for failing to grasp the intricacies of evolutionary theory, check out this book. Only at the beginning and the end does he draw on his own experiences of the relation of the humanities to evolutionary theory. 

On the book’s opening page he writes

It has become a stereotype accepted almost without thought, without question--and remains unexamined. ‘Science says’ it seems, that life and man are ‘random’ results of an ‘accident’ in ‘chemistry’. And although this contradicts all that we know of the world and ourselves, it remains the only philosophy of life that seems to be upheld by the one remaining authority in the modern world, science… Week after week one is reminded by chance remarks in publications that many people accept a certain attitude to life, a metaphysic, coming across to the humanities from science, that can only be menacing to any sense that life can have meaning. I hope this explains how an English specialist came to adventure into debate on evolutionary theory—for the grounds of the myth are in Darwinism.

I will quote perhaps more than is proper in a review because for me his is an authentic voice of the humanities, entitled to be quoted as an authority.

My conclusion is we urgently need new forms of thinking, new paradigms, new modes of understanding, but until we have these, we must live with awe and ignorance—as the poet does anyway, while there is no ‘factual’ justification for absurdism or nihilism… Certainly we do not have simply to sit down under the metaphysical implications of conventional scientific theories about the origin and nature of life. Moreover, we must not surrender proper humanist disciplines in the Universities, as some urge that we do, to reductionist and mechanistic theories which offer themselves as so exclusive they must be taken to supplant other subjects. An example of this is the attempt of some sociobiologists like Dawkins and E. O. Wilson, to suggest that all questions of morality, human nature and society should be given over to reductionist biology… We may pursue questions of the nature and meaning of human existence, and questions of morality and values in the subjective disciplines, without any need to feel that there is a greater, more adequate and more ‘realistic’ delineation of the truth about existence in the physical sciences to which we must defer.

At the end of the book he returns to his jeremiad. From “Rescuing the humanities from Darwinism”:

Moreover, this new way of thinking about what it is to be human, and what man’s place in nature may be, requires of us no less than a reconsideration of what knowledge is, since the reason why we have not made so much progress as we should have done is that we are still too much influenced by the scientific ideas of ‘objectivity,’ and the exclusion of all that belongs to poetry and inwardness.” In his “Conclusions” he speaks of a betrayal of “Greek civilization…when the pursuit of truth… was born. Since the seventeenth century…there has developed a fatal development of attention to the objective realities, split off, and divided from, the subjective realities. Until, in the end, it is now as aspect of our lives, as here especially in Cambridge, that those whose disciplines are of the inner life, exist daily alongside deniers of this realm, who tell us that consciousness is only chemicals, that the brain is only a computer, and that we are only survival machines built by genes. That is, not only is subjective truth split off from science, but science turns aggressively against this area of truth, and seeks to bury it altogether. In this assertive naturalism… there is not only a failure to bring objective and subjective together… there are signs of a psychopathological disturbance, displaying a sense of alienation from ‘mother earth’ often combined with a hatred and fear of existence, life and being—not least because these cannot be entirely subject to analysis and to triumphant manipulation.

Groping for an appropriate response he quotes Gillian Beer’s neat aphorism placing Darwin’s theory neatly within the humanities’ bailiwick: ‘a determining fiction by which to read the world.”  Recalling Kekule’s vision of snake biting its own tail, he says:

What we need now is far better dreams, by which, through the exercise of symbolism in the realm of imaginative power, scientists may penetrate further into the secrets of life: not so much into substance and structure, but into form, with a new sense of time, and of wholeness.” On the side of the Humanities, or the subjective dsciplines, we must persist, certainly, in asserting the validity of our concern for being. Not only must we resist the extrapolations from mechanistic science into regions where it has no business to be,. We must accept that we deal with realities not caught in the that net… The danger is that, under the influence of such scientific theories as Darwinian mechanism, we may be led to feel that, whatever we feel, we cannot uphold our own valued unique being… Speaking for myself as a a teacher in the Humanities, as will be seen, there are words I want to use which science threatens to deny me: I want to speak of ‘higher things,’ a ‘gradient’ in nature, order, harmony, direction, primary consciousness, intelligence, striving, ingenuity, achievement and aims. The upshot of any exploration of the debate will be, I hope, that these words and the thinking that goes into them, are perfectly legitimate.

Though he was a reputable scholar he appears to have  encountered problems getting his manuscript accepted. As published the book is a bottom-of-the-barrel production, with no design graces at all, not even running heads, and enough typos to suggest the pages were reproduced by typewriter from his handwritten copy with minimal correction. Arthur M. Shapiro, professor and vice-chairperson of the Zoology Department at the University of California at Davis, in a review published by the National Center for Science Education (“Dedicated to keeping evolution in the science classroom”), uses this as an opportunity to dismiss Holbrook. “I am not sure what makes me angriest about this book: the mediocrity and fuddledness of its argument, its appalling functionalist premise, its repetitive and tedious organization, or the lack of any visible copyediting or proofreading… Such howlers can be counted in the hundreds… [The text] is about disciplinary paranoia, inferiority complexes, sophistry, and plain old obtuseness…. Holbrook wants us to abandon Darwinism and neo-Darwinism in favor of a candid declaration of ignorance, which he thinks is the intellectually honest thing to do.”