OK so the title probably would work better if you knew the film quote I'm spoofing (Sixth Sense), but there's something I've noted as I study Darwin's ideas in more detail and apply them to other areas of study.

Systemic evolution is everywhere - and it seems to me that if we allow creationists (and other prats) to diss biological evolution, we risk alienating people from learning from the mistakes of the past.

Darwin's basic idea - survival of the best adapted applies so widely it cannot be ignored, yet it often is.

Society, industry, technology, language... evolution could be the most important scientific concept we have - even outside of biology.

I wonder if any of you agree or disagree?

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One-Hundred-Percent concur.

Bottom line:  Evolution drives everything.  Yeah.

Also ... uhhhh ... probably ... sex.  Yeah sex & evolution.  That's my answer.

As Darwin wasn't the discoverer of "Evolution" (the idea is thousands of years old), but the man who created the scientific theory of "Natural Selection" to explain speciation, the label is at best, misleading when applied to any other evolution concept than the one related to speciation.

"Society, industry, technology, language…"

"Lamarkian" is better suited to these, but …people probably wouldn't get it; seeing as most don't get Darwin either.

Ah yes, Lamark. I'd more or less airbrushed him from my memory. :-)

That is a good point, Richard. Thank you. I will adapt my idea on that basis although there seems to be a bit of both.

Evolution is the key, of course. It strikes me that it's easier to see evolution outside of biology and once you get that, the rest follows quite naturally.

Sometimes when you overgeneralize a concept it loses explanatory power--something that means everything, means nothing.  The theory of evolution is a very powerful explanatory concept in biology--it has observable mechanisms (population genetics, etc.) and considerable predictive (or retrodictive rather) success.  Outside biology it just becomes kind of trivial--"that which survived, survived because it was best suited to survive"--then you come up with an untestable just-so story about that survival.  

There have been attempts to apply a more or less strict "Darwinist" approach (e.g., selectionism or memetics) to science-up the study of human societies, but not with any interesting results. 

As a caution, Creationists are often the worst about expanding evolutionary theory outside its portfolio.  They like to point to things that evolution can't explain, like the origin of the universe, or the beginning of life. Of course these are things evolutionary theory was never intended to explain--no population, no evolution.  So you don't want to set yourself up for that trap. 

Well said.

Interesting.  One of, what I thought at least, of Darwin's most powerful metaphors was comparing natural selection to shipbuilding.  He was using it to explain how parts of the ship originally had other functions (many with nothing to do with ships) and had been co-opted, many times without conscious intention, into performing new functions.  I'm unfortunately away from books right now so I don't have the passage handy.  I'll update with a quote when I can find it.

Anyway, I don't see anything wrong with reversing Darwin's take as long as we recognize it as metaphor and respect the limitations it - like all metaphors- have.  However, in at least one case, I think the comparison goes beyond metaphor and to what may well be a fundamental part of nature.  That case being complexity evolving (the word evolve is used in a very general context here) from simpler beginnings over time.  I can't think of single case from the origin of the universe to the origin of life to the origin of modern society where that is not the case.  Maybe someone can came up with one and I'll have to rethink it, but for now anyway I'd say it is pretty universal.

Promised Reference.  Origin of Species, Chapter 15.  "When we no longer look at an organic being as a savage looks at a ship, as something wholly beyond his comprehension; when we regard every production of nature as one which has had a long history; when we contemplate every complex structure and instinct as the summing up of many contrivances, each useful to the possessor, in the same way as any great mechanical invention is the summing up of the labour, the experience, the reason, and even the blunders of numerous workmen; when we thus view each organic being, how far more interesting- I speak from experience- does the study of natural history become!"

Side note: Hume used a very similar ship analogy dismissing the appearance of design in nature in "Diologues concerning Natural Religion"

I am definitely using "evolution" in a narrow but strong sense.  If we mean evolution as "change through time" or even "descent with modification" it is generally applicable. But if we are talking about the capitalized Theory of Evolution (meaning the modern synthesis built on Darwin's insights), then we are talking about something specific, along the line of evolution being "changes in the gene frequency of a population". We do talk about processes like "social evolution" or "stellar evolution", but Darwinian insights into biological evolution aren't particularly germane in those cases (not even for so-called "social Darwinism").  There are different mechanisms and explanations in play.

As a metaphor, evolution is fine (depending on what you are trying to say).  It's often a great metaphor.  But the scientific Theory of Evolution  isn't, at least in my opinion, a good scientific explanation outside the phenomena it is intended to explain (although it may be a good metaphor).

As for the tendency towards complexity being nearly universal, as a scientific theory, the theory of evolution is an explanation, while the progressive tendency of things to move from simple to complex is an empirical observation. It is something that the theory of evolution explains for biological populations, but is not itself part of the explanation.  For example, a species could "simplify" in response to changing conditions (as human societies often do) without it being a problem for the Theory of Evolution.  The Theory of Evolution is, at its heart, non-directional. We are not evolving towards something.  Biological complexity is simply a result of selection working on populations with genetic histories. 

Also the concept of evolution, as Richard Ewald (I don't know how to type sigmas) pointed out above, didn't start with Darwin.  The simple==>complex movement is an observation that preceded Darwin, and there were theories of evolution to explain this that also preceded Darwin (like Lamarck).  In a word, the simple==>complex observation isn't a specific contribution of the Theory of Evolution.

Hey MK,

I agree with your take on the specific/general use of the word evolution.  So, do you think the metaphor might be too easily confused or maybe require so many qualifiers as to lose its descriptive economy?

As for the simple to complex observation, I didn't word it very well.  I meant that if you encounter something of a great complexity (life, a galaxy) its earliest predecessor was something simpler (organic compounds, hydrogen gas). Which I think is pretty well explained by the 2nd law of thermodynamics, but I don't have a good way of simplifying that into everyday jargon (any suggestions would be appreciated). As far as not implying a  teleological purpose in metaphor, I've really about given up.  I mean when I say something along the lines of, "...and the electron sees this field and then it wants to move in that direction..."  I get a bunch of "I UNDERSTAND" looks.  On the other hand if I use the word the "cause" too much (applied potential differential causes field in the horizontal plane, field causes emf at 180 degrees..), I get a lot of blank stares.  I used to preface it with an explanation that I would be giving the electron wants and desires but realize that it doesn't really have those, but even that took away some of the effectiveness.   Now I just anthropomorphize at will and clean up any misunderstandings when questions come up.

My motivation is to take what I know of science and make it more accessible to people who haven't the time or inclination to do the background work.  I think, beyond any doubt, the natural universe is more intriguing, more fascinating, more awe inspiring than any work of fiction I've ever come across and I want share that.  Metaphors are powerful tools in the box, but I know if misused I can wind up losing the credibility of the message.

Seems that some of us are at crossed purposes here. The post (and the clue is in the  title) is referring to general discussion - not specifics or context. I'm betraying my background as a tech writer with a bent towards making the complex more accessible.

I deal with people at both ends of this issue - those who are far more educated and insightful than I and those who know precisely nothing. My goal is to bridge that gap - and metaphor is a great way to do that.

Context is everything; and for brevity many writers assume (perhaps incorrectly) that the context is clear. I think the difficulty we're having here is that the audience is great and diverse. From professional scientists through science popularisers through to people who are still floundering.

Anthropomorphising something isn't correct - but it's easy for uneducated people to get a hold of. Uneducated does not mean stupid - it just means lacking in foundation.

In context, like JJ, I'll use anthropomorphisation freely in speech - but rarely, if ever, when I'm writing.

As a parallel, one of my editors hated contractions with such vengeance that, just for fun, we used to see just how awkward we could make phrases where contraction was clearly needed for brevity, let alone clarity. To this day, I'm not aware of any he let go to press - no matter how long winded and ugly we made them.

The point is, used with skill, the language tools at our disposal are powerful tools which aid understanding; but, when applied with blunt force they are counterproductive.

When presenting biological evolution, for instance, I might make reference to the common ancestry between birds and reptiles. As children love poop stories, I make great effort to draw the parallels between the two digestive tracts - that is, what comes out - and show how science used this to figure out that the two vastly different creatures share some common ancestry.

Which is to say, I talk a lot of shit. ;-)

JJ, I am not disagreeing--my problem with applying the theory of evolution outside biology is only when it is done literally, not metaphorically, e.g. that the evolution of human society can literally be studied in Darwinian terms, which is not your point.  You definitely need metaphors and analogs to teach new concepts, just as entry points--giving people something to hang on to while trying to understand something foreign.  What makes a good metaphor is an interesting topic, and obviously depends on your audience.  With Creationists you need to be extra cautious, since they are people who, almost by definition, think very, very literally--one could argue their whole problem is taking metaphors literally.

 I can see where if you are dealing with a particularly unsophisticated group, it might be wise to explicitly bracket your metaphors  to avoid going down rabbit holes--"I am now using a metaphor.  I am using it in this way to illustrate this concept"..." I have now stopped using the metaphor".

 I didn't mean to imply you were being teleological in bringing up increasing complexity.  Teleological or not, it is more or less an empirical fact.  I was just saying it wasn't a particular contribution of the theory of evolution (ToE from now on).  ToE does explain it (although doesn't require it).  It is a difficult observation to talk about without implying teleology, and without resorting to accurate but incomprehensible jargon.   And teleology is built into popular ideas of evolution--e.g., some people are "more evolved" (whatever the hell THAT means) than others, or we are evolving towards some goal.  Star Trek was awful that way. 

ToE is difficult to explain simply because so many people think they understand it and there are so many popular misconceptions about it.  Threading the needle between bible thumping Creationist and crystal-gazing New Age understandings of evolution can be a trick. 




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