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Natural selection is no mere idle fancy. Every so often the logic behind it stirs a call for eugenics. Last time around evolutionists acted as sponsors and consultants for over 30 states in the USA, promoting surgical interventions to stall our species' descent into oblivion. Now "Unless we embrace genetic engineering, we will become a sickly and frail species" says Johnjoe McFadden, reader in molecular microbiology at the University of Surrey. Is natural selection so established a theory that we must take to the tumbrills and the guilotine once more?
Natural selection is notoriously hard to critique. Logically, it must contribute to evolution to some extent, just as, logically, friction must to some extent contribute to driving an automobile. But just as friction doesn't actually drive the automobile, natural selection may not be what actually drives evolution. How can we think our way through this? We seem to lack an off-the-shelf set of concepts adequate for pinning down the issue. Complicating matters is the endorsement natural selection receives as the effective agent in evolution from sophisticated statistics that has withstood criticism for more than a lifetime, since 1930. It's notoriously hard to argue against statistics, particularly statistics that no one any longer appears to understand. In biology today it functions almost as divine inspiration. I'm referring to Ronald A. Fisher's "The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection."
I've arrived at a context which may make it easier to evaluate natural selection, and to assess Fisher's work. It's a physical situation that I think presents us with a parallel with the action of natural selection.
Compare the genetic blueprints for the superb fitness of existing species of living creatures to a range of steep smooth-sided mountains—perfect cones of rock. Now imagine each one undergoing random damage. For the genetic blueprints this would be random changes to individual genes, for the mountains this would be random avalanches. What happens to the species’ genetic blueprints would be comparable to what happens to the mountains—just as those mountains would steadily degrade and flatten out as avalanches erode their sides, those genetic blueprints would become progressively degraded and code for less fitness. Eventually the mountains flatten out as a plain, and as fitness sinks below some threshold those species go extinct.
Now introduce natural selection. For the mountains this would take the physical form of resistance to the tumbling of the rocks, and small pebbles occasionally being deflected upwards. Very occasionally they may end up higher than where they started out, even atop the mountain they’re a part of. But they’re only top of a much lower mountain. Similarly, natural selection will lead to the culling of some of the worst damage done to fitness, and to individual genes occasionally increasing in the fitness they confer—so-called beneficial genes. But this is only a small addition to a much lower level of overall fitness. In both cases, the overall effect is of a cumulative loss of the original perfection.
This is so obviously how the world works that it’s astonishing it isn’t widely recognized. Why is that? I believe it stems from an error in Fisher's work. Fisher came up with a statistical formula that he applied to only how the frequencies of beneficial genes can compound to predominate at their allele, no matter how small the efficiency of natural selection is, if you allow it to operate over hundreds of thousands of generations. Where he erred, I suppose, is in not applying this same formula also to the frequencies of harmful genes. If he had I think he’d have realized harm would overwhelm fitness in only a few generations as I think is apparent in the physical parallel with the mountains above. If you tracked only how occasional pebbles would be flung upwards in the course of avalanches you would end with the mountains growing taller and taller over millennia, clearly an impossibility.
I believe the entire modern synthesis rests on Fisher’s 1930 book. Discredit that and bang goes the modern synthesis, and any basis for eugenics. One may not be able to say why eugenics isn’t valid, but one can say “Darwinism” doesn’t make it so, which puts the burden of proof in the other court. Just saying Fisher’s wrong isn’t enough, I‘ve found, because no one takes a verbal attack on statistics seriously, that’s why I instead use the physical comparison above. It sums as, contributions to fitness due to occasional damage to genes that’s beneficial are offset by a continuous massive overall loss of fitness due to harmful damage, against which those contributions can make little impression, leading to rapid extinction. I wish some professional working statistician would re-examine Fisher's work along these lines and publish the results. Any volunteers?
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This article responds to April-May posts on Scientia Salon.
“A few [philosophers] have been seen administering a number of discreet kicks to what appears to be the corpse of dualism: Get up, you fat fool, I need you,” (Mark English, “Does Philosophy Have a Future,” May 26). Mike Trites reminds us how remote material monism is from the dualist world view of the large section of the public that rejects physicalism (“What to do about consciousness,” April 23). In an attempt to reanimate the supposed corpse I have extracted from that world view a set of axioms and on them built a dualist theory of evolution.
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At www.thethirdwayofevolution.com is published a manifesto declaring the modern synthesis dead. It is endorsed by 30 eminent evolutionists, among them Eva Jablonka and James A. Shapiro. They claim that “The DNA record does not support the assertion that small random mutations are the main source of new and useful variations,” leaving natural selection without any continuous source of variation to work on. Given the caliber of those listed I find it reasonable to regard as dead both the modern synthesis and the population statistics based on it.
We can therefore speculate about evolution freely (within reason)
For lack of any other generally agreed upon scientific theory, we are once again in the pioneer phase of reaction to the discovery that we and all other living creatures evolved, before scientists assumed they had the appropriate apparatus for studying it. We are once again free to speculate about what evolution implies, starting from scratch, with no prior assumptions--provided we stay within reason. Note: please make allowance for me meaning “reason in the light of logic and experience” not “reason in the light of physicalist principles.”
What most needs accounting for
Science accounts very well for what doesn’t evolve: non-living matter. To represent what does evolve, that makes evolved creatures most unlike non-living matter, I select our own capability of consciousness. First, because we’re among evolution’s most recent creations, furthest from when it was limited to creating creatures very similar to non-living matter. Second, because our capability of consciousness is what among the products of evolution is most different from non-living matter. My strategy: account for how consciousness evolved first, then see if that can account for all other kinds of creatures evolving.
I begin by asking, what must be true of the processes of evolution if they can generate consciousness?
What it is that evolves, for us to be conscious
Interaction between matter and consciousness can obviously take place in one direction—hit us and we feel pain. And we experience conscious thoughts driving interactions in the other direction as well. Here are some instances:
When we talk about our feelings, something we experience in consciousness is influencing something physical. It’s being read out in behavior.
When we want to remember something, someone’s name for example, we can “deliberately” initiate a stream of conscious thoughts, each thought leading directly to the next thought, until we arrive at an association vivid enough to be worth “deliberately” memorizing to help us recall the name later. Conscious thoughts in series like this, linked to one another by associations within consciousness such as feelings, can lead to a decision resulting in physical changes to brain chemistry and behavior.
Some experiences show us our bodies and consciousness functioning together:
You feel the urge to urinate, but you say to yourself, “I’ll wait until I get home.” Let’s parse that: First your brain and body registered something physical (or biochemical), an impulse to urinate, and communicated it to consciousness. Left to themselves your brain and body would presumably have acted on that impulse without delay. But something overrode that impulse, something you experienced as a conscious decision to temporarily suppress it.
Given how frequently our bodies and our conscious experiences appear to collaborate closely like this as a single agent, influencing each other, we may reason that what evolved is not the body alone, but this joint agent.
Processes of evolution can transact in both material form and conscious capabilities
If in us matter and conscious thinking evolved together it is reasonable to ask that any theory of evolution account for the evolution of both. Evolution must be able to transact, somehow, in both bodily form and capabilities of consciousness.
Application of Occam’s razor: Thinking equals evolving.
One process--us evolving--involves two agents we don’t yet fully understand—our conscious thinking and living creatures evolving. It is reasonable to consider they may share some of the same nature. More precisely, since it generated us, our conscious capabilities could be a subset of evolution’s capabilities.
This supposition is groundless and gratuitous, I realize, unless it supports other concepts giving us a sufficiently enhanced understanding of evolution. I propose the following:
Evolution and thinking, not being material, can be genuinely creative
We know from our own experience that thoughts have no weight, no location, obey no laws of conservation, in general resemble no manifestations of the non-living matter that physics is restricted to studying. Thinking therefore, and evolving too, may not be entirely subject to the laws of physics--we have no evidence that they are, given limitations in the methods of science. Then, both processes may be genuinely creative, in ways not seen in non-living matter. This is illustrated by how creative evolution appears, single-celled creatures turning into elephants for example, and reptiles turning into birds. Note: the genetic mutation/natural selection combination is being abandoned, can no longer be relied on to account for nature’s creativity.
In us, thinking could be our thoughts evolving
If our thinking involves something evolving, what could that be? I propose, our thoughts. Thinking could be one thought evolving into another thought. That could account for how we can be creative too--how scientists can come up with new hypotheses and design new experiments for example.
If “thinking equals evolving” seems a stretch, that may be because our discourse for how we think and feel is very ancient, while we came across evolution only very recently and probably still think of it as something we created. Think the other way round, of us as a product of evolution, and the idea of our thinking being an offshoot of a capability in evolution can seem more plausible.
New mechanism of evolution
If living creatures evolving is a form of thinking, what is being thought? I propose, species. And where is the physical substrate for the information that defines a species? I suggest, the genome! As species are thought, their supporting data gets recorded in a genome. If that memory gets read back out as thought, and is rethought, as we can rethink an idea we recall from memory, it can inscribe itself back into a genome as information defining a new species.
And the agent that does the thinking? As knowable to us as we, if we were invisible and inaudible, would be to each other—knowable only through our handiwork.
Result—a dualist evolution-based, supernatural-free, natural philosophy
Four main axioms--conscious experience can drive behavior; thinking is something evolving; thinking and evolving can be genuinely creative; and species are thoughts recorded in the genome and subject to being rethought—comprise (along with material science) a new natural philosophy able to account for everything we know about or experience, without resort to the supernatural.
Comparison, physicalism and dualism
Auguste Comte, the guru of Positivist science, banished considerations of volition from the practice of science. Surely this disqualified it from the study of the evolution of volitional creatures such as human beings. It did pursue that study, however, leading to the inevitable consequences—a purely physical mechanism unable to account for the evolution of volition—and, through absence of evidence for volition being mistaken for evidence for its absence, to the doctrines of physicalism.
Over the past 150 years the study of evolution appears to have fallen into the hands of a physicalist minority. In a 2002 survey* published in the American Scientist 78% of 149 participating professional evolutionists declared themselves to be physicalist. Perhaps reflecting their antagonism to any form of dualism professional scientists such as these appear to have used opposition from creationists to justify imposing a physicalist theory on a public still preferring to think of themselves in terms of both matter and consciousness. The response of the public has been a growing disregard for any scientific theory of evolution, spilling over into an antipathy to science in general. Surely this is not a desired outcome.
“Consciousness is… woven into the fabric of reality,” Mike Trites wrote. Can today’s physicalists, released from loyalty to the purely physical modern synthesis, find ways to extend material monism as he suggested to encompass the conscious experiences and observations he celebrated?
*Evolution, Religion and Free Will, Gregory W. Graffin, William B. Provine. Available at . He is currently translating his views into a ventriloquism performance. Shaun lives in the mid Hudson Valley.
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Science, Evolution, and Creationism
National Academy of Sciences, 2008.
SUMMARY: According to how the modern synthesis is explained to the public, evolution is due to natural selection changing the preponderance of harmful mutations in each new generation to a preponderance of beneficial mutations entering the gene pool. But unless natural selection is 100% efficient this is not possible.
How is the mechanism of evolution most authoritatively presented to the public? Surely the gold standard is this book from the National Academy of Sciences, revised by a committee of fifteen eminent scientists chaired by Francisco Ayala.
Could it be flawed? Below, extracts, in italics, from pages 4-5, plus my comments.
"Evolution consists of changes in the heritable traits of a population of organisms as successive generations replace one another....The differential reproductive success of organisms with advantageous traits is known as natural selection... Natural selection can also reduce the prevalence of traits that diminish organisms' abilities to survive and reproduce."
Fine. Natural selection tends to both increase the prevalence of advantageous traits, and reduce the prevalence of deleterious traits. Clearly implied, this is the mechanism of evolution.
"Most organisms in any species, including humans, are genetically variable to some extent... the DNA of the two parents is combined in the offspring. In addition, DNA can undergo changes known as mutations from one generation to the next... "
Genetic variability has multiple causes, of which mutation is only one. That is, survivability and reproduction is determined by mutations less than 100% of the time. Let's say X%. Can we call that the "efficiency" of natural selection?
Now, some elaboration, with my summary below:
"The mutation may result in an altered trait that harms the organism, making it less likely to survive or produce offspring... Another possibility is that the mutation makes no difference to the well-being or reproductive success of an organism. Or the new mutation may result in a trait that enables an organism to take better advantage of the resources in its environment, thereby enhancing its ability to survive and reproduce...
"If a mutation increases the survivability of an organism, that organism is likely to have more offspring than other members of the population. If the offspring inherit the mutation, the number of organisms with that advantageous trait will increase from one generation to the next. In this way, the trait--and the genetic material (DNA) responsible for the trait--will tend to become more common in the population of organisms over time. In contrast, organisms possessing a harmful or deleterious mutations are less likely to contribute their DNA to future generations, and the trait resulting from the mutation will tend to become less frequent or will be eliminated in a population."
In other words, both creatures with beneficial mutations and those with harmful mutations can survive and reproduce, and those mutations can affect fitness and hence evolution by how their representation in the gene pool changes over time. Through the action of natural selection, individual harmful mutations end up with less representation in the gene pool.
NOTE: the NAS omits mentioning that the "great majority" of mutations are harmful (Huxley's phrase in "Evolution: The Modern Synthesis"). Here's contemporary confirmation from "Mutation" in Wikipedia: "Studies in the fly Drosophila melanogaster suggest that if a mutation changes a protein produced by a gene, this will probably be harmful, with about 70 percent of these mutations having damaging effects, and the remainder being either neutral or weakly beneficial." And among the remainder beneficial mutations are usually acknowledged to be rare. (The reference is to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.) I propose we assume harmful mutations start out 100 times as prevalent as beneficial mutations.
Now let's see how this works out in practice. I compare things before the action of natural selection in a single generation, with after:
In progeny, before the action of natural selection:
(prevalence of harmful mutations) = 100(prevalence of beneficial mutations)
Among genes entering the gene pool in a single generation, following the action of natural selection,
(prevalence of harmful mutations) = 100(prevalence of beneficial mutations)x(100-X)/100
ie, if natural selection identifies mutated genes with an "efficiency" ("X") of 5%, of 100 harmful mutations that would otherwise enter the gene pool natural selection will eliminate 5, leaving 95 harmful mutations to enter the gene pool, for every 1 (or 1.05) beneficial mutations. For that value of X, far more harmful mutations than beneficial mutations enter the gene pool in each generation, they will accumulate rapidly with each succeeding generation, and lead swiftly to extinction.
So why aren't all species extinct? Possibly because the cell's repair apparatus is so accurate there may be no incidence of mutations for natural selection to work on, and evolution would then have to be due to some other mechanism.
I am of course looking at the action of natural selection through a less usual end of the telescope. Usually one considers how natural selection, acting over millions of generations, is able to amplify the frequency of a single beneficial mutation to dominance of its allele, no matter how slight the efficiency of natural selection is. Seen this way round, individual harmful mutations quickly fade out of existence. But when you take relative prevalence of harmful and beneficial mutations into account, for all practical values of its efficiency natural selection can't in each generation change a prevalence of harmful mutations into a prevalence of beneficial mutations. Can it?
I plan to ask members of the committee responsible for the NAS book for a way out of what appears to me to be a dilemma. But until I hear from them I'd welcome your opinions.
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Anti-darwinism covers a multitude of opinions. To Darwinists we appear as a united militant throng of anti-darwinists, but we're actually so thinly scattered we have difficulty finding each other. I have yet to find anyone with an opinion similar to mine (except perhaps Samuel Butler). Let me re-assure you, we are not a throng (except for creationists who do tend to huddle around altars).
Anti-darwinists are not usually anti-Darwin, Charles Darwin himself being a very likeable gentleman. I'm actually part of the scientific opposition to Darwin, and what he stands for. I feel entitled--I am British, the same age as Darwin was when his thinking finally matured (73). And I have a long beard like his. I feel entitled to judge.
More accurately, I am part of the opposition to Darwin's theory of natural selection. Darwin was an early apostle of Positivism, and gave physicalism its ultimate justification--if we could be created entirely through physical processes acting on brute matter, such as natural selection, then what could not be possible in a universe running on physicalist principles. Largely because of Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution, science is today still predominantly Positivist.
You may wonder what it's like to be shunned for being anti-darwinist. It's halfway between being set alone in middle of a desert, and in a blender with the on button jammed on. Not that I'm complaining. I accept that anti-darwinism seems to be part of my personality. From being an ardent admirer of Darwin I've become just as vehement an apostle of anti-darwinism.