Wednesday 5 October 2011

Natural selection as a metaphysical system


I may be missing something, but I have seldom (although not never) been troubled by the conflict of Christianity and evolution by natural selection - because when properly considered, natural selection is a set of metaphysical assumptions.


By metaphysical I mean that these assumptions are (obviously) hierarchically above those of science; and therefore natural selection is not testable by science.

(At least not testable by the doing of science - since a meta-theory which constrains and guides scientific hypotheses and their testing cannot itself be subject to these tests).

This has almost always seemed very obvious to me.


Of course, when progress is being made within a metaphysical paradigm, and when one is an 'expert' in that paradigm, there is a very strong temptation to assume and to assert that the paradigm is universally true (and that therefore one is an expert in 'everything') - and I have fallen into this trap, from time to time.


As I see things, the theory of evolution by natural selection says something like the following:

"Let's see if we can devise explanations for adaptation (the specific functionality of living things) without assuming any purpose towards functionality - adaptiveness simply arising as a consequence of the un-directed variation in reproducing entities and the effects that such variation might plausibly have on reproduction."

That competitive selection processes acting on reproducing entities will tend to amplify those variations which reproduce the most effectively, is not really controversial - it is hard to imagine why this would not happen.

But the key metaphysical assumption is concerned with the raw material upon which selection operates - in other words the assumption that the variation is un-directed.


(It is worth mentioning that variation is not random for the simple reason that in biology nothing is random. Randomness is essentially a mathematical abstraction, although maybe it occurs is some bits of physics - at any rate there is no randomness in biology, although one can sometimes assume randomness as a simplifying approximation.)


It is the assumption of evolution by natural selection that the source of variation upon which selection operates is un-directed - or, at least, may be assumed to be un-directed in the specific instance under consideration - which is critical.

That the variation actually is un-directed is not subject to test - indeed it is often impossible to test the assumption.

Instead, the theory of natural selection simply says, in effect: "Let's assume that the variation (e.g. of genes, or of some other reproduction-affecting information such as epigenetic variation) is in this instance un-directed, and see if we can construct a scenario which results in the observed phenomena".

I cannot see anything intrinsically wrong with consciously making this assumption, and with proceeding to reason on the basis of this assumption; and this is what I do when wearing my cap as an evolutionary theorist.


But there surely cannot be any reason for assuming that un-directed variation is the only possible basis for that variation upon which selection works; and to make such an assumption of universality is wholly arbitrary.


(Indeed, one cannot even be sure that un-directed variation applies even in any one specific instance - the most that can be done is to point at the results of making this assumption: saying, in effect: "Look! when I make this assumption it all seems to fit together very neatly with this set of observations and experiments!" However, another and different assumption, might - whether now or in the future - prove to be equally or more impressive in its coherence and scope. And then what?...)


I do not feel a need to go further than this negative statement: that the assumption of un-directedness is a metaphysical assumption.

I think we can be absolutely clear and certain that there are no grounds whatsoever for assuming that un-directed variations (such as genetic mutations due to radiation or copying errors) are the only possible form of variation that can ever form the substrate of selection processes.

How on earth would one even go about proving such an assertion? Certainly Darwin didn't attempt it - he merely offered a new explanatory metaphysic, an alternative. And, at any rate, nobody ever has proved any such thing.


Yet attempts to put forward alternative possible directed sources of variation (such as divine creation, intelligent design, chaos and complexity theory, or morphogenetic fields) are not scientifically proveable as against natural selection - because they are alternative metaphysical assumptions.

No amount of observational or experimental evidence can count either for or against metaphysical theories - since metaphysics is hierarchically above science: metaphysical is a name given to the assumptions which constrain a particular science.


The problem is that modern culture has no idea what to do about evaluating metaphysical theories - and so keeps on trying to evaluate them scientifically...

But if not by science, then how should metaphysical theories be evaluated?

Ah - that is an almost lost art. The activity by which metaphysical systems are compared and evaluated is called philosophy, and it was invented by the ancient Greeks and perfected by Thomas Aquinas - but almost nobody practices it today...



Proph said...

I take it you mean "directed" and "undirected" in a teleological sense?

If so, the great irony is that evolution is and has always been directed -- hence why we are able to discuss some evolved traits as being "adaptive" or "maladaptive." Such distinctions are meaningless except in the context of a coherent view of the end which evolution can be said to "serve," which is survival.

If not, well, that's something that's always intrigued me. If we assume that a God figure is, in fact, sustaining the universe in every level of being, it follows that His actions are probably unobservable -- meaning that there would be a level of matter which would appear to be self-moving and self-changing because we cannot see the manipulation which is causing it to move and change. In that sense, perhaps it's the case that even an apparently random and causeless scientific mechanism, whether evolution or spontaneous generation and destruction of matter at the quantum level, is consistent with a divinely-directed universe.

Gabe Ruth said...

That this is ultimately a metaphysical point is a good observation, but my question has always been whether biologists are being honest when they say undirected natural selection can explain the observed phenomena at our current level of understanding. I wouldn't grant that UNS is the only possible explanation until someone who had earned some credibility has argued that it actually is an explanation, without handwaving about monkeys and typewriters.

I know you don't trust modern science, but do you accept that the variety of species may not require a Director, only enough time?

Bruce Charlton said...

@GR - The way that biologists see things is that either

1. things are the way they are from pure undirected chance (and any apparent order is in the eye of the beholder); or

2. things are the way they are from a combination of undirected change plus selection (which channels and amplifies chance).

So, biologists don't really ask *whether* UNS can explain things, rather they look for the things that UNS seems to be able to explain - and the rest is just left as unknown - and presumably 'to be explained' at some point in the future (but in the mean time of no interest).

My own belief is that from a *metaphysical* perspective, it can be seen that Natural Selection in practice has implicit form and teleology; therefore is less complete than 'Thomism' where these are explicitly dealt with. But that at the level of practical biology this has no consequences.

In fact, the most complete version of Natural selection used as an explanation of 'everything', including itself, and including the mind which is doing the analysis - is Niklas Luhmann's Systems Theory - about which I wrote a book (available online) called The Modernization Imperative - where this is tackled in the appendix (obviously I reject this now!).

But at this very deep and abstract level of selection theory - and this relates to the point made by Proph - there is no teleology at all - the story is simply one of 'stuff happens' - and the theory is self-subverting because no direct knowledge is possible: each system (including the human mind which uses system theory) knows nothing about anything except itself; and all it knows about itself is that it is existing at the moment - that is the sum of its 'validity'.

Luhmann gets to this point via several axioms, which are not defended and indeed cannot be defended - they are just axioms. From these axioms he builds a model of reality which is self consistent (I believe). However there is no reason whatsoever to believe it is true; and by the account of systems theory it is infinity:1 improbable that it is *untrue*, but that the untruths have merely not *yet* led the system that is the human mind to collapse in contradiction.

Gabe Ruth said...

Thanks for the detailed response. I will at least try to bang my head against your book. I think I agree with you, but do you think it would be more precise to say that NS implies a certain metaphysical reality from a physical viewpoint, rather than that you need look at NS from a metaphysical perspective? I'm sorry if this seems annoying, but I think this is an important difference.

On a side note, I've been reading through some of Mr. Moldbug's archives and your comments there. You have travelled a great intellectual distance in the last few years.

Bruce Charlton said...

@GR - I'm not clear what you are asking - would you like to try again?

A great distance, indeed - or rather a qualitative difference in perspective.

(And I believe that Thos Carlyle was evil!)

PhilR said...

Ed Feser writes compellingly on these issues in 'Aquinas' and even more entertainingly in 'The Last Superstition' suggesting that we moderns can and should recover Aristotelian final causes without which natural selection makes no sense. (Not that biologists in general would let on)

Bruce Charlton said...

@PhilR - I know! - that's where I stole these ideas! Feser persuaded me, then I went on to check his arguments (as best I could) in a wide range of other authors, and concluded he was correct.

Bruce Charlton said...

From Kristor:

"Synchronicity strikes again. A book leapt off my shelf last night: Planetary Mind, by astrophysicist Arne Wyller. Wyller’s basic argument is that there has not been enough time in the history of the universe for the information encoded in the DNA specification for a single simple enzyme to have been assembled by a purely random procedure. Briefly, it would take 102 codons to specify an enzyme made of 34 amino acids. Because there are only four codons, it would take 4102 random tries to succeed at assembling the molecule. If we assume that each attempt takes a second, then the attempts would take 3 X 10 power of 53 years. The universe is around 2 X 10 power of 10 years old. Even if there were a billion series of assembly attempts proceeding simultaneously, and the attempts took a tenth of a second each, there is no way there has been enough time for a single strand of DNA to have been assembled correctly.

Now, this is a mathematical disproof of random variation as the origin of biological order. But to say that it is a mathematical disproof is just to say that it is a metaphysical disproof, for mathematics is a department of metaphysics: it is with music and logic a science of the Platonic Realm. Random variation – or rather, the notion that there is really no such thing as order – is indeed a metaphysical assertion, that is not susceptible to scientific proof. But it is susceptible to logical, mathematical and metaphysical disproof. Because by its own hypothesis it is itself meaningless, and because only meaningful statements can have truth value, it cannot be either true or false; so it cannot be true. And, therefore, the only way the statement “there is no order” can be meaningful is if it is false.

While Wyller accepts evolution, and natural selection, his mathematical test leads him to reject random variation as a factor of biological order. But he is no theist. He argues instead that variation is directed by a field, the planetary mind. I have not got into his discussion of that yet, but it looks from what I have picked up so far as though he is going to be arguing that there is something like Sheldrake’s morphogenetic field, that is influencing all the biological procedures on the planet, and that those biological procedures in turn influence the development of the morphogenetic field – deform it in certain ways. I.e., he is arguing that the Gaia of the Gaia Hypothesis is a mindful entity. I.e., he is arguing that there is an Angel of the Earth.

So, this was all pretty interesting to me, and I read until I fell asleep. The next thing I read – on a site that has lately discussed angels, Sheldrake, morphogenetic fields – was this entry. No doubt Wyller will at some point in his book ascribe synchronicity to the providence of Gaia."

Bruce Charlton said...


This problem was noted by an outstanding (real) scientist who I used to know called Graham Cairns Smith. (Seven Clues to the Origins of Life - etc) He is a physical chemist.

GCS calculated that random events could not lead to nucleic acids, but within the natural selection paradigm suggested that this implied that therefore a much simpler self-replicating molecule must have first arisen by chance - he suggested clay/ silica-based life.

The idea was that once you had a molecule, any molecule, which was subject to natural selection, then you would be able to retain and amplify any undirected adaptive change, building stepwise in a way that purely random processes cannot.

The power of natural selection, by this understanding, it that it takes tiny undirected benefits (benefits to reproduction) and conserves them; it is this conservation and canalization of incremental benefits which cause adaptiveness and accelerating change.

In other words GCS saw this constraint not as a refutation of natural selection, but as a challenge to refine and develop the theory.

Gabe Ruth said...

Dr. Charlton, Kristor, thanks for the book reference. This is exactly my reservation about undirected natural selection as a hypothesis. We know the time frame, and we can estimate from that how long each step in developement took. As our understanding of genetics grows, we should be able to see if UNS requires a series of chance events similar to all the molecules in the hand of a statue moving in the same direction at once and making it appear to wave at you, or not. If it does, our existence is much more logically explained by the Spaghetti Monster than chance.

Bruce Charlton said...

@GR - The interesting thing is that Cairns Smith's thesis - which is perfectly 'mainstream. and seems conclusive, still did not have any significant impact on standard descriptions of The Origins of Life.

Even Francis Crick, founder of mol biol and a man who had deep biological intuitions, seemed to feel that there was 'not enough time' for natural selection on earth to have gotten as far as it did without some 'help' from elsewhere - in this case outer space: -

Volume 19, Issue 3, July 1973, Pages 341-346

Directed panspermia
F.H.C. Crick, L.E. Orgel

Medical Research Council, Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Hills Road, Cambridge, England
The Salk Institute for Biological Studies, P.O. Box 1809, San Diego, California 92112, USA

Received 22 June 1972; revised 20 December 1972; Available online 4 December 2003.

It now seems unlikely that extraterrestrial living organisms could have reached the earth either as spores driven by the radiation pressure from another star or as living organisms imbedded in a meteorite. As an alternative to these nineteenth-century mechanisms, we have considered Directed Panspermia, the theory that organisms were deliberately transmitted to the earth by intelligent beings on another planet. We conclude that it is possible that life reached the earth in this way, but that the scientific evidence is inadequate at the present time to say anything about the probability. We draw attention to the kinds of evidence that might throw additional light on the topic.

Gabe Ruth said...

I remember feeling some amused respect for the intellectual honesty it took to publish that.

Gabe Ruth said...

Forgot to ask, why do you think Carlyle was evil?

Bruce Charlton said...

@GR - Why was Carlyle evil? Isn't is obvious? What did he want? What evaluative principles did he have for society? What's not to hate?

Gabe Ruth said...

My knowledge of Carlyle comes almost exclusively from UR (see yesterday's post; I thought it was pretty good). From that I assumed he was primarily a critic of modernity. He was an inveterate racist, which obviously we can't condone, and he lost his faith. But evil?

Bruce Charlton said...

@GR - well, not good. I have little knowledge of Carlyle because whenever I read him I feel it is doing me harm.

I can understand why people might feel this half-reactionary stuff to be refreshing from our current perspective - but it doesn't hang together - it's just pure assertion, pride...

Carlyle was a typical transitional figure, in process of shrugging off his childhood Christianity (of a particularly dry type). Others are Emerson, Nietzsche and artists like Joyce or DH Lawrence.

These transitional figures who are rooted in religion and half-way to modern secular hedonism are very distinctive - sometimes what we call geniuses - and very seductive to intellectuals who want to make their mark on the world; but they are a time slice, not a steady state; and offer no general principles for living, and are folded-in upon their own self-regard to sustain them against opposition.

Anonymous said...

You could look at the theory of natural selection from the point of view of epistemology and the point of view of systems theory. Epistemology tells you to prefer undirected evolution over directed evolution because of Occam's Razor. If you assume it's directed, then now you have to consider who or what is directing it and why. From systems theory (which is more of an abstract science rather than being "above" science), you just have to understand a simple principle -- Blind Variation and Selective Retention, of which life is just one instantiation. You can study self-organizing systems as well. In short, science has got this issue covered.

Gabe Ruth said...

Dr. Charlton:
I can accept that description of Carlyle. I'm not sure why I feel inclined to defend him. It may be because he stood against the zeitgeist, which takes great character in any period. Today, our objections to modernity are nearly as much empirical as they are theoretical. He saw it coming, when one could be forgiven for being optimistic and everyone who was anyone was a liberal. I would be interested in reading how he lost his faith. But he was a Calvinist, which I feel is a hard denomination for an intellectual to live in.

Not having an infinite time frame presents problems for UNS. If Ockham thinks we're just really^^^^32 lucky, and finds that simpler than a Director, I can't really argue. Blind variation (random mutation) and selective retention (natural selection)... que? Is this a new argument?

Chris said...

"but they are a time slice, not a steady state"

I think Moldbug believes this, too, and likes to use Carlyle as a poker in the eye, the same way he makes 'racist' posts, although he is not.

This was a great post and comment thread.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Chris - thanks.

I'm not sure what MM currently believes - as I have written elsewhere I think he is on the cusp of becoming a (catholic/ orthodox) Christian. But he seems to use Carlyle as 'the last word' or 'the bottom line' as if his was the best analysis of which MM is aware.

I, on the other hand, regard Carlyle much as I regard Emerson or Nietzsche - I think they are all first rate *literary* figures, with brilliant snippets of insight; but a bad guide to life.

Rich said...


To me, it is a bit ironic that Moldbug is an atheist because it was his writings that sent me down the path to believing in God. I was an atheist strutting about in a careless anarchist fog when his words forced me to reconsider my politics. Moldbug led to Deogolwulf. Deogolwulf led to Ed Feser (and this site, I believe). Feser led to actually reading some Aquinas and Aristotle. All culminating in some startling realizations. And I am eternally grateful to you and all the others for providing a glimmer of sanity in a world otherwise enveloped in a troglodytic craze. Having not the gift for words, it is difficult for me to express just how much my life has been changed for the better by yours and their words. I applaud your efforts and may they continue evermore.

Bruce Charlton said...

@ads - I too owe a considerable debt to MM - as I expressed here:


which is why I am dismayed and worried by his personal development having (it seems to me) stalled - especially (it seems) on Thos. Carlyle.

Gabe Ruth said...

ADS, Deogulwulf also led me here. I have been a believer all my life, but Mr. Moldbug set me free from many essentially Marxist assumptions about history and politics. It's been my project since then to free the minds of my family and friends from that poison. Unfortunately he makes no effort at being palatable to the unprepared, and I don't have his way with words.

I remain optimistic about him. If he does convert, I don't know if he would (or even should) tell his audience. Destroying lies is always a service to the Truth, and he doesn't tell anyone what to think, just calls it like he sees it. I'm sure ADS is not the only one influenced by him in this way, which must count for something.

Anonymous said...

Hello - been looking for this type of debate for a long time and finally stumble on it (somewhat later than you posted!). Karl Popper described the theory of natural selection as a 'Metaphysical Research Programme'. Despite a very mild change o f heart from Popper, and some experimental advances in the last 20 years, suspect that Popper's view is still authoritative. The important thing here is that there is absolutely nothing wrong with that and when you think about it, it makes Darwin's ideas even more beautiful for he has effectively constructed a bridge between mind and matter. Natural selection in itself is not a real force (like gravity) but a lens that gives a true account of the world and is happening always. And as you point out at the start of your blog – what need is there for a tension between religion and science?