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Diane Ackerman's writing demonstrates how creative sensibility combined with command of the technical aspects of biology can make significant contributions to our common understanding of the nature around us and our own human nature. She backs up her intuitions with interviews; she knows her sales will reimburse her for the financial resources she must commit to the travel needed, and she has sufficient credibility to be welcome wherever her informants work or live. She's won respect as a top-flight communicator in her field.
She's a perceptive observer. She can convey with great delicacy ways we experience ourselves and each other:
We understand ourselves on many more spine-tingling levels: how we're changing the planet, other creatures, and each other. This is not just the Human Age. It's also the age when we began to see, for the first time, the planet's interlaced, jitterbugging ecosystems... We're each a sac of chemicals, forged in the sun, that can sometimes contemplate itself, even if we don't always know where our pancreas is, and are troubled most days by mundaner manners. When we meet, at parties or on the street, we nonetheless feel like strangers. When we find ourselves alone together in an elevator, it is as if we have been caught at some naughty act; we can't bring ourselves to meet each other's eyes.
She can connect such intuitions to her solid grasp of what happens on location:
What began as an effort to bank the DNA of only the most endangered animals has now evolved into an urgent banking of whole ecosystems. The Ark goes into an area and collects everything that crawls, flies, scampers, or slithers. In a tropical rain forest with its thick canopy, groups of people spread sheets underneath a tree, and they shake it. As I picture raining insects, frogs, snails and moths, I feel sure Ann finds the shaking and collecting great fun. I know I would. We haven't named more than about 65% of the biomass of all the species on Earth. So, yes, shake it down, and freeze it...
I admire the confidence with which she can declare her own reactions to, and apply catchy unusual terms to, phenomena she encounters on location. And how she can weave together as a single experience her impressions of other people and the science involved. She's a powerful writer; sometimes I could feel the iron structure of an outline being relentlessly tracked, yet the writing remain as fresh and spontaneous as an onsite journal entry.
How can one progress from a neophyte writer whose speculations about what it means we evolved will be dispatched with furious mockery, to such eminence that few will dare challenge you? Diane demonstrates, I think. You must have sufficient command of your subject matter. You must demonstrate skill in communications well beyond what is commonly met with in writings by scientists. You must develop sufficient confidence to gain access to those you must interview. And you need both the creativity and reason to develop meaningful themes that cut across scientific categories, around which you can focus your research and from which you can come up with an action plan.
In my opinion, it's a hard-won combination of skills. I respect how much Diane must have invested to make it look easy. It's extremely worthwhile.
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I highly recommend the the preface, introduction and the first three chapters of this book as a guide to how to organize one's own thoughts on the subject of evolution's mechanisms and how to assess the ideas of others. (The remainder of the book is about Sheldrake's own hypothesis of morphic resonance.)
The writing is delightfully simple, the clarity of thought impressive. Opening paragraph:
Most biologists take it for granted that living organisms are nothing but complex machines, governed only by the known laws of physics and chemistry. I myself used to share this point of view. But over a period of several years I came to see that such an assumption is difficult to justify. For when so little is actually understood, there is an open possibility that at least some of the phenomena of life depend on laws or factors as yet unrecognized by the physical sciences. The more I thought about about the unresolved problems of biology, the more convinced I became that the conventional approach is unnecessarily restrictive. I started trying to imagine the possible outlines of a broader science of life.
Sheldrake begins by distinguishing between two kinds of theory; vitalism and holism. "Any new theory capable of extending or going beyond the mechanistic theory will have to do more than assert that life involves qualities or factors at present unrecognized by the physical sciences: it will have to say what sorts of things these qualities or factors are, how they work, and what relationship they have to known physico-chemical processes." Theories merely asserting there are such qualities or factors he labels "vitalism." Several such theories have been proposed during the 20th century, he says, "but none has succeeded in making predictions that can be tested, or in suggesting new kinds of experiments." I find this too restrictive. New theories could provide us with more powerful forms of discourse or help us think more fruitfully about life, even merely pinpoint where straight reductionism fails. His (for me) over-concern with prediction and experiment impairs my appreciation of the potential of his own theory of morphic resonance.
Organismic or holistic philosophy "recognizes the existence of hierarchically organized systems which, at each level of complexity, possess properties that cannot be fully understood in terms of the properties exhibited by their parts in isolation from each other; at each level the whole is greater than the sum of its parts." He quotes A. N. Whitehead: "Biology is the study of the larger organisms, whereas physics is the study of the smaller organisms." As an example he gives us "morphogenetic fields," supposed "to help account for, or describe, the coming-into-being of the characteristic forms of embryos and other developing systems." While he evidently favors such theories over simple vitalism none have proved capable of being tested through experiment, he claims, except his own theory of morphic resonance.
What issues must any new science of life take up? In his first chapter Sheldrake takes us through sections titled morphogenesis, behavior, evolution, origin of life, limitations of physical explanation, psychology, and parapsychology. Of evolution he remarks that the neo-Darwinian theory can never be more than speculative" and he issues this very acute observation: "evolution will always have to be interpreted in terms of ideas which have already been formed on other grounds." He warns us not to expect these grounds to emerge from the study of life's origin, that he anticipates will tell us little about its subsequent evolution.
More fruitful are likely to be challenges in accounting for behavior. He illustrates these under the headings instinct, for example a spider's ability to spin a functional web; regulation--that is, the ability to substitute one mode of performance for another, as a dog can if necessary learn to walk on three legs; and learning and intelligence. "An enormous gulf of ignorance lies between all these phenomena and the established facts of molecular biology, biochemistry, genetics and neurophysiology. How, for example, could the migratory behavior of young cuckoos ultimately be explained in terms of DNA and protein synthesis?"
Sheldrake then drives two darts into the heart of physical explanation. First, the possibility of dualism: If "the mind were non-physical and yet causally efficacious, capable of interacting with the body, then human behavior could not be fully explained in physical terms. The possibility that mind and body interact is by no means ruled out by the available evidence.... it is possible that human behavior, at least, might not be explicable entirely in physical terms, even in principle." Then, the dependence of science itself on mind: attempting "to account for mental activity in terms of physical science involves a seemingly inevitable circularity, because science itself depends of mental activity." Under the heading "Psychology" he says: "at present the idea that all the phenomena of psychology are in principle explicable in terms of physics is itself no more than speculative."
In accounting for morphogenesis he first defines it, then identifies three remarkable problems: "Biological morphogenesis can be defined as the 'coming-into-being of characteristic and specific form in living organisms.' The first problem is precisely that form comes into being. Biological systems are epigenetic: new structures appear which cannot be explained in terms of the unfolding or growth of structures which are already present in the egg at the beginning of development. The second problem is that many developing systems are able to regulate; in other words if a part of a developing system is removed (or an additional part is added), the system continues to develop in such a way that a more or less normal structure is produced" and he goes on to give examples. "Results of this type show that the developing systems proceed towards a morphological goal, and that they have some property which specifies this goal and enables them to reach it even if parts of the system are removed and the normal course of development is disturbed. The third problem is that of regulation, whereby organisms are able to replace or restore damaged structures.... for example, if the lens is surgically removed from a newt's eye, a new lens regenerates from the edge of the iris; in normal embryonic development the lens if formed in a very different way, from the skin."
"The only way in which these phenomena can be understood is in terms of causal entities which are somehow more than the sum of the parts of the developing systems, and which determine the goals of the processes of development. Vitalists ascribe these properties to vital factors, organicists to morphogenetic fields, and mechanists to genetic programmes."He goes on to analyze these positions.
Sheldrake then devotes to morphogenesis an entire chapter. I'll give a single quote from this chapter: "Within the same organism, different patterns of development take place while the DNA remains the same. Consider, for example, the arm and leg of a man: both contain identical cell types (muscle cells, connective tissues etc) with identical proteins and identical DNA. So the differences between the arm and the leg cannot be ascribed to DNA per se; they must be ascribed to pattern-determining factors which act differently in the developing arm and leg."
The final chapter I refer you to is titled "The Causes of Form." It starts: "It is not immediately obvious that form presents any problem at all. The world around us is full of forms; we recognize them in every act of perception. But we easily forget that there is a vast gulf between this aspect of our experience, which we simply take for granted, and the quantitative factors with which physics concerns itself: mass, momentum, energy, temperature,pressure, electric charge, etc." Sheldrake goes on to give a nice analysis of the springs of mechanistic thinking, one of which is "a mathematical mysticism of the Pythagorean type: the universe is seen as dependent upon a fundamental mathematical order which somehow gives rise to all empirical phenomena; this transcendent order is revealed and becomes comprehensible only through the methods of mathematics. Although this attitude is rarely advocated explicitly, it has a strong influence within modern science, and can often be found, more or less thinly disguised, among mathematicians and physicists." He then explores for us the influence on contemporary biological thinking of Plato's theory of forms.
In the next chapter Sheldrake tackles morphogentic fields, transitioning into his own theory of morphic resonance.
I recommend the first three chapters of Sheldrake's book as a measure of the problems to be dealt with in coming up with new theories of evolution.
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Where Dawkins' "The Ancestor's Tale" parcels out evolution from the human present going backwards, Lane's book presents evolution from its origin heading forwards. Where we can use Dawkins to test our hypotheses about how human mental capabilities arose from our recent ancestors we can use Lane to text hypotheses about the evolutionary process itself from end to end. Lane's book is an astonishingly effective overview of the process, written as simply as I can imagine possible yet conveying a due sense of the complexity involved, both in the phenomena themselves and in the thinking and methods wielded by today's evolutionists.
Could so many brilliant and capable people be wrong about the mechanism behind evolution? Lane himself periodically pro forma credits natural selection with all the wonders he presents, each time prompting me to imagine a more plausible mechanism. Always in the background, though, is awareness that all these brilliant scientists subscribe, as he does, to the modern synthesis. It's sobering. But bear in mind, our enterprise is not science, it's natural philosophy. We're in the humanities.
I will share with you a framework I've adopted on which to hang speculations about evolution. There is no evidence for it, and nothing particular to recommend it, except it may inspire you to come up with your own version, to serve as a rack on which to arrange and re-arrange your assumptions. My framework divides evolution into five stages:
1. Evolution begins as diverse chemistry.
2. Much of this chemistry gets transcribed into DNA and RNA.
3. DNA develops machinery making it intelligent, able to create intelligently, maybe pre-adaptively.
4. The genome learns to build some of its intelligence into its creatures.
5. The genome starts building into its creatures (us) some of its own volition. (Volition means, the equivalent of our conscious decision-making and freewill.)
I think of my five stages as corresponding to five distinct mechanisms of evolution. My first stage might correspond to something purely thermodynamic, the second to something like natural selection. The fourth might correspond to Lamarckism, the fifth to something like my volitional genome. The third? l've no idea. But I feel on safe ground assuming that over 4 billion years the dominant mechanism changed several times. It seems to me unlikely that a single mechanism dominated over all that time. There's no superior logic in supposing so.
Lane's book provides us with a wonderful opportunity for testing such a scheme and translating it into appropriate mechanisms. He presents evolution through "Ten Great Inventions." This challenges me to test the fit of my five stages to these inventions. In my scheme, The Origin of Life belongs to stage 1, DNA, and Photosynthesis belong to stage 2. The Complex Cell and Sex belong to stage 3. Movement, Sight and Hot Blood belong to stage 4. And Consciousness belongs to stage 5.
Isolating from all of evolution just ten inventions is a brilliant device, giving us a sampling of evolution's accomplishments over time. And notice, his inventions march in the precise reverse order of Dawkin's book, tracing just those inventions that lead to us. His book in conjunction with Dawkins book serves our needs perfectly.
I suggest, as you read this book, imagine for each of Lane's inventions what must be true of the evolutionary process at that time. The first invention requires very little more than today's physics and chemistry. But the complex cell, including the transport system described in "Movement"? Here you must be your own Galileo, conceiving of new worlds no one has grasped before. You will be treading where very few others have trodden. Orthodoxy in evolutionary theory in the form of Darwinism, while becoming an emblem of free thought, has actually suppressed it.
What should our criterion be? What is true? I think that's inaccessible. l propose the criterion, what would it be efficacious to think? What kind of natural philosophy would most fruitfully connect our being evolved to our experience of self? What would most profoundly connect us to the rest of evolved nature? What would make for a sound basis for further experiment and speculation?
Lane's book gets drier towards the end. You can safely confine your reading to the first eight inventions, the first 200 pages.
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(An extended version of this glossary now appears in "Neither Darwin Nor Deity,")
Adaptation. Take any dozen plausible theories of evolution and one thing they must all account for is adaptation, because if living creatures aren't adapted to their environment they can't survive. Being able to account for adaptation is the lowest-common denominator that all theories of evolution must share, it cannot by itself tell us which of those dozen theories is the most plausible. It is however the principal lure by which Darwinism draws you in. It then entangles you in spirals of discourse that reel you into its heart like a whirlpool. Instead of setting a test that all theories of evolution must pass, a better test would be to ask, which can account for the features by which living creatures differ most from un-evolved matter, such as human consciousness and volition. When you set criteria like that you can more readily assess the relative plausibility of your theories.
Consilience. The unity in knowledge that results when separate fields of knowledge are refounded on a common basis, giving them also a shared language. As knowledge has become more splintered, consilience has become more desirable. In his book "Consilience" the biologist Edward 0. Wilson appealed for the humanities to join science in a consilience based on physics and Darwinism. This site suggests the humanities instead join all their separate branches into a consilience based on a new theory uniting volition and evolution, neither of which science appears capable of accounting for. This consilience would then be reconciled with material science and offered as a comprehensive consilience to incorporate all of science into the humanities.
Darwinism. Refers to all Darwin's theories but especially his theory that the mechanism driving evolution is natural selection. It's also come to refer to the later combination of natural selection and genetic mutation, though this is more specifically referred to as the Modern Synthesis, title of a book by Julian Huxley published in 1942. Neo-Darwinism has been a term for updates of Darwinism going back to the 19th century and does not have a clear meaning.
Determinism. In his private notebooks Darwin declared himself a determinist, which no doubt influenced his choice of a creation story free of free will. Treating determinism and free will as opposites creates a false dichotomy and leads to a sterile scholasticism. A better option may be a discourse based on evolution. Evolution is creative; once there were no elephants, now there are elephants. One might say what we have is neither free will nor determinism, what we have is volition. And what's that? We don't know, we just experience it as a process taking place in consciousness with a capability for creativity something like the process behind evolution. This takes the issue out of logic and puts it in the real world, associating it with the evident powers of evolution far beyond our ability to account for today. Sample the futility of trying to resolve this issue using logic at http://www.naturalism.org/fatalism.htm (source of my reference to Darwin being a determinist). Elaboration of a discourse based on evolution able to account for volition is clearly a task for the humanities.
Free will. Free will is the conscious self’s experience (see "self" below) of being able to initiate thoughts and actions. In contrast to what I observe of matter—that it’s entirely determined on physical principles—I experience my free will as able to exercise judgment and be creative in ways those principles can’t account for.
The conscious self experiences being able to review the thoughts it initiates, and to make judgments about them. Using both its creativity and its judgment the conscious self can extend a train of thoughts to a conclusion. It also can tell the body’s muscles to express that decision as something happening in physical matter—by talking and writing about its experiences, for example.
Intelligent design. By adopting this phrase as a code word for Special Creation (by God), Creationists have shrewdly maneuvered evolutionists into appearing to admit they fail to see any intelligence in nature. What evolutionists mean, of course, is that even though the outcome appears intelligent the process behind it doesn't involve an intelligent agent such as a god. One unfortunate result has been to foreclose consideration of theories of evolution such as Lamarckism that do propose a mechanism with intelligence. In the context of a consilience linking science and the humanities, where the humanities should be permitted to come up with their own theories of evolution, the widespread use of "intelligent design" as a term of abuse is inappropriate. It is employed very widely by, for example, the National Center for Science Education. "What is Intelligent Design, and how does it threaten science education?" asks their website.
Intelligent genome. In this variant of Lamarckism the intelligent agent driving evolution is the genome supposed to have intelligence and free will and able to create new species by thinking changes into genes.
Physicalism. Claim that only physical agents can be the cause of changes in the material world. Therefore, because consciousness is not physical, it cannot be the cause of such physical processes as speaking and writing. Implied: such behaviors must have their origin entirely within brain chemistry, making them subject to physical determinism. This issue has implications for theories of evolution. If we could originate behaviors within consciousness then in the course of natural selection they'd compete with behaviors with a purely genetic basis, and Darwinists would have to take consciousness into account in their theories. More damaging, behaviors could be pre-selected within consciousness, only those judged fittest permitted expression, and natural selection would no longer be the primary mechanism driving evolution. Because you have to believe in phyicalism for Darwinisn to make sense, widespread acceptance of Darwinism appears to endorse physicalism.
Population statistics. Evolutionists will sometimes refuse to discuss evolution except in terms of population statistics, mathematical re-statements of natural selection and mutation that supposedly make biology scientific, making it possible to carry out experiments in accordance with Positivist scientific principles. You can respond by asking them if they have ever studied Ronald Singer's classic 1930 study that established the field? Can they explain why he showed rare beneficial mutations spreading slowly but inexorably through a population but failed to apply the same procedures to harmful mutations which are bound to spread much more rapidly and quickly lead to extinction? Since no biologist today understands statistics or has read Singer this will put the two of you on a level footing.
Reductionism. Scientists guiltily confess to a delight in practicing reductionism, to wanting to be able to account for anything in terms of the properties of its elements. But they will quickly point out that they also practice synthesis and they'll even concede the possibility of emergence--new properties appearing out of nowhere as systems grow more complex. What they may fail to realize is how much they're in thrall to the powers of the scientific method to answer questions. They may not realize that's not the ultimate goal of the humanities which, as I understand it, is to elaborate both a self and an environment for the self leading to ever-richer conscious experience. ln contrast to that goal, the entire problem-solving impulse in scientists can all be labeled reductionism. It's a reduction of experience to questions for science to solve. A consilience with reductionism at its root would turn the humanities into PhD-thesis-topic generating factories for science.
Self. When I recall my dreams I remember them as experiences. The person who experienced those dreams I recognize as me: the self in the dream feels distinct, and I have that same feeling whether I’m dreaming or conscious. It feels like something to be me. That’s the agent that does my experiencing. That’s what I call “I” or my conscious self, or “the self.”
Volition. This is a useful technical term for what distinguishes the humanities from the sciences, that physicalism denies the existence of. In us it refers to our experience of consciousness and free will. Think of "doing things of your own volition." The issue at stake is, can our own behavior originate, to any extent at all, within consciousness, where it appears to us to operate free of limits otherwise imposed by today's science? Or is what we do and say and think driven entirely by chemistry in our brains and our experience of being able to arrive at decisions "consciously," of having volition, is an illusion? Volition nicely sums up what's at stake. Also, being a nice abstract term it allows us to ask, is there any volition involved in evolution, without reference to traditional concepts such as gods or intelligent design or consciousness. Conceivably intellectuals within the humanities could come up with discourse accounting for evolution in terms of volition, which could provide us with a second independent instance of volition in the universe and possibly lead to a consilience uniting the humanities and the social sciences.
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The Ancestor's Tale: a Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution
If you're looking for a one volume summary of what happened in evolution, this could serve. Dawkins' overview has several unusual and important features. First, it traces our ancestry specifically, which is helpful when it's the origin of the human self you're interested in. Second, it begins with us and traces our ancestry backwards in time, which is helpful if you're concerned to trace signs of human nature back through the course of evolution. Third, Dawkins measures time in years, instead of in periods or aeons. And fourth, of course, it's by Dawkins and his team of research assistants, well-written and authoritative.
I recommend skipping quickly through Dawkins' initial set-up of the "ancestor's tale" metaphor and, later in the text, his tedious endorsements of Darwinism. Interspersed with coverage of creatures, though, is an otherwise painless coverage of many aspects of evolution.