Sunday 4 March 2012

Evolutionary philosophy versus specific applications of evolution


Evolutionary philosophy - the application of evolution by whatever mechanism as the primary metaphysical reality - is false.

False because it is self-refuting nonsense (since it destroys any possibility of knowledge, including knowledge of its own truth), and wrong because it is anti-Christian (therefore anti-Truth).


But it is also false to say that evolution cannot happen anywhere, ever.

Indeed we know by ordinary common sense that evolution really happens - the dispute is whether evolution happens in such and such a circumstance, and how far or fast it can go.


The main common sense knowledge of evolution comes from animal and plant breeding - evolution gradually became common sense from the 1700s onward as ordinary people purposefully began to change the functional properties and appearance of crops, farm animals and pets such that these changes were inherited by future generations.

Animal breeding provides the major example of evolution in the Origin of Species precisely because it was - by that time - a matter of undeniable common knowledge that the properties of some living things could sometimes be shaped by artificial selection.

Darwin's primary argument was that if this could happen due to human purpose it could also sometimes happen without human purpose.

Which, once stated, seems obviously correct.


Darwin's secondary argument was that if obvious but quantitative change could be produced in human lifetimes, then vastly greater and qualitative change could be produced over a much longer timescale (time now available to theorists as the estimates of the age of the earth became much greater).

But this secondary argument is not a matter of common sense or common experience - nobody in primary reality has seen qualitative change happen or experienced the age of the earth - it is instead an extrapolation, an assumption.


That all complex adaptations (functionality) in biology and all the diversity of species, and indeed the reality of species differences could be explained by natural selection is a metaphysical assumption, logically incoherent and un-provable by common sense.

But also: that such and such a breed of pig or dog - with a relatively specified appearance and behavior and functionality transmissible by heredity - was produced by the breeding experiments of Farmer Giles or Mr Smith... this is a matter of appropriate knowledge: common experience evaluated by common sense.


So evolutionary philosophy - e.g. the assertion that evolution is always and necessarily happening, or the assertion that adaptations are always and necessarily due to natural selection or chance variation - is false; but evolution as a specific phenomenon is true because humans have seen it, done it and continue to do it.

Science properly works in this area of specific and local - constructing simplified models that are understandable and have consequences and 'checking' these models by using them in interacting with the world, to attain human purposes.

Indeed, I would assert that, since the capacity for human deception including self-deception is so very great, the understandings of science are ultimately worth nothing unless or until they are brought to the level of evaluation by common sense and common experience.


Once we step away from common sense and common experience, reality can be constructed - and these constructions may be utterly false. 

However, evolution passes the test of common sense and common experience - therefore it has potential validity in some situations.

Therefore evolution cannot (and should not) be ruled-out altogether. 


We operate in the space between these bounds: on the one hand evolution is not intrinsically true because it is not the ultimate reality; but on the other hand evolution may sometimes be true with respect to certain situations.



Wm Jas said...

I understand and agree with most of this, but why do you call the theory that evolution is the origin of all species differences "logically incoherent"?

Bruce Charlton said...

@WmJas - I don't think it is logically incoherent - but necessarily an assumption (not a discovery).

By 'logically incoherent' I meant merely to repeat the earlier point about evolution being self-refuting if taken as a general metaphysics/ philosophy.

ajb said...

A similar question to Wm Jas's.

Why can't someone argue as follows: functions and structures selected by evolutionary processes are constrained by their efficacy in guiding or allowing animal behaviour. A frog hops in a way that conforms to the reality of its environment, and the various functions and structures evolved by frogs therefore map onto the 'terrain' in a certain way. Similarly, certain rational processes in human minds were selected because they were useful in allowing humans to manipulate their environment. They were useful because they conformed to the reality of the environment in some way. Therefore, using those rational processes is reliable.

Or am I misunderstanding the meaning of 'logically incoherent' here?

Bruce Charlton said...

@ajb - actually, you are misunderstanding the nature of evolution by natural selection! That isn't what it does.

Gyan said...

Breeding does not purport to change the essence of the species. It merely emphasizes certain traits that already exist. A dog remains a dog, wheat remains wheat.

So breeding is not the same as (macro)evolution where new traits are supposed to emerge and given sufficient time, a proto-bacteria may lead to an intelligent human.

Basically you say that micro-evolution is common observation but macro-evolution is un_Christian.

But I think that there is nothing un-Christian in macro-evolution as well. Only the rational element in man is divine and supposed to me immediately caused by God while the animals are only indirectly caused. So I see nothing un-Christian in macro-evolution.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Gyan - "Basically you say that micro-evolution is common observation but macro-evolution is un_Christian."

No that's not what I am saying - I am saying that micro-evolution is common observation but macro-observation is not - the evidence is indirect, and depends on the competence and validity (and trustworthyness) of scientists (people like myself, in other words).

What *is* anti-Christian is evolutionary philosophy.

Nick said...

Happy New Year Bruce. This is an old post but seemed an appropriate place to pose a question:

Could you please recommend a "layman's syllabus" for learning about evolution and evolutionary psychology? I am most interested in Truth. It's a fascinating topic and 'comes up on my radar' a lot; yet I don't know much about it at all, so I thought I would start with Darwin and work forward from there ... Are there say 5 - 10 books that you could recommend to give me a start/overview?

Bruce Charlton said...

@Nick - Do you mean learning like for an undergraduate module, from no previous knowledge?

If so, the books I recommend might include Richard Dawkins's The Selfish Gene, Matt Ridley's The Red Queen, Dylan Evans's Introducing Evolutionary Psychology (cartoons) and David M Buss's Evolutionary Psychology (a text book).

Nick said...

Thanks Bruce, that's great. Yes I do mean learning from no previous knowledge; but not for an undergraduate model rather just because I am interested and want to learn.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Nick - My advice was very generic since I don't know who you are or why you want to learm - so if you are drawn in some other direction then that is the direction you should proceed.

I found David L Hull's Science as a Process to be valuable - it is about the (historical and conceptual) evolution of the idea of evolution.