12 February 2009

from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: Evolution + Looking for English Teacher

Essay plus Job Offer for English Teacher

Dear friends,

This week we are discussing Evolution, this month being the anniversary of Darwin’s birth and this year the 150 year anniversary of the publication of the Origin of the Species. The essay is rather short, but I hope to the point.

Monica sent me this message for any English Teacher looking for some extra classes:

Hi there Lawrence,

I wonder if you could help me: there is a school that needs a native speaker, two hours from 09,00 to 11.00 or 10,00 to 12,00 Monday, Wednesday and Friday starting as soon as possible, preferably next Monday, for a group of advanced students who need conversation related to sports. All of them are adults who work for great events related to sports such as the Olympics.

They can send an email with the CV to: monicahtml@hotmail.com


Speak to you soon.


Take care and see you Sunday


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As I write the news on the Times-On-Line [1] is “Vatican buries the hatchet with Charles Darwin.” Does this mean that evolution is now accepted as a universal truth and that people who ought to know better channel their energies for the benefit of humanity?

Even if we assume that the Vatican comes round to accepting evolution as a scientific theory that can be tested with evidence and experiments, this still leaves a few more million people who are preached to by their leaders the creationist theories and condemned, if not violently victimised, for not endorsing the dogma.

A lot has been written on evolution, at the last count there were 163,000,000 documents recorded by Google on evolution. I therefore feel a bit intimidated and do so with trepidation to increase that number to 163,000,001 documents. The one thing I am not going to do is not to discuss creationism and evolution and then decide who is right and who is wrong. My position is that creationists are 100% wrong, but what is more interesting and important for us is not that a group of people hold a wrong opinion, but what are the implications to evolution, as a natural process, of the fact that a number of people hold a wrong belief?

You might object that my 100% claim above might violate the Heisenberg uncertainty principle (HUP). Unfortunately, the uncertainty principle applies to phenomena that are subject to quantum mechanical processes. However, the claim of some super designer created human being and life is not something that is subject to quantum forces and therefore cannot violate the HUP.

Moreover, a creationist claim must itself be subject to a probability factor since this claim is made about an empirical and physical entity (humans and life which are empirical and physical). And anything that is empirical is subject to a probability factor because quantum mechanics is a probability event (of course all this is more complex than what I am saying here). Even the HUP is not an a priori truth it is being test for its veracity.

To put this idea in a different way, the claim that -Lawrence is Queen Elizabeth the First- is 100% wrong not because someone has mistaken Lawrence for Queen Beth, but because the claim has no probability of being true or false at all; there are no possible conditions which would make Lawrence Queen Beth. Thus this claim cannot be other than wrong (probability 0). Likewise the claim that a designer created human beings does not have a probability, and therefore cannot violate the HUP. Whilst the claims made by today’s creationists does not have a probability of being true or false (their designer is not subject to quantum forces) the creationist idea cannot just be dismissed off hand, although their cause is still loast.

Returning to the main essay now, the other issue that would be relevant for our discussion is this: given the autological and heterological distinction we have in the philosophy of language can we apply some similar test to evolution? (See Wikipedia for autological = self reference word e.g. English, and heterological = a word that does not refer to itself e.g. long.) In other words, does evolution apply to itself?

The answer to this second question is of course, Yes. Evolution does apply to the theory of evolution, and even more evolution does apply to the evolutionary process itself. Today we associate evolution with Charles Darwin (1809 –1882), but he was neither the first nor the only one to advance a theory of evolution. What he did and why he holds the recognition that he does is that he went about testing his theory by collecting evidence from around the known world of his time. In other words Darwin gave us the evidence, his theory may or may not be flawed or the only plausible theory.

You will remember that Dawrin’s theory depend on the idea of natural selection base on fitness. If you read the Wikipedia articles on this subject you will see that these terms are neither clear nor universally defined even though everyone agrees on the validity of evolution. Thus fitness can mean an individual’s ability to reproduce and natural selection is basically traits that increase the chances of reproducing become successful and traits that do not help reproduction become less successful. Read the literature for a clearer definition.

Of course, there are many criticisms of Darwin’s version of evolution, two of which would be: traits are inherited over very long periods of time because a lot depends on random changes and the other criticism is that what really matters Darwinian evolution are group traits (the probable distribution of a trait in a population) and that no useful account is given to the individual.

But like all sound scientific theories Darwinianism has its challengers, and this comes from the French biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744–1829). Lamarck proposed that traits developed to survive during an individual’s life can be passed on to any off springs. As always the topic is more complex than that and a real scientific quagmire. Of course, Lamarck died before Darwin came to prominence, but some historians would argue that both scientist would have agreed with each other and that Lamarck has been more misunderstood than proved wrong.

What Lamarck’s, there were other scientists that came after him who proposed similar ideas Mendel for example, proposed was a fix for the weakness in Darwinism which seems to exclude the individual.

A major drawback of evolution of all kinds is that evolution cannot deal with massive random events taking place in the environment thus making survival subject to random external events.

However, what is important for us is not who is right and who is wrong between Darwin and Lamarck, but that evolution applies to itself. Today’s scientist and future scientists to come will no doubt clarify some of the scientific issues concerning evolution, but what matters is that evolution (and our theory of evolution) itself is evolving and developing as we go along. In other words a theory of evolution is itself subject to evolutionary forces. Now, whether it is evolution by jerks or evolution by creeps is a different matter and not that relevant for us. [1] An interesting article in The Economist[2] of the 5th February 2009 gives a good outline of the current scientific state of thinking on evolution.

In my opinion there is no doubt that evolution is itself subject to evolutionary forces. And by this I mean that the traits themselves are subject to better efficiencies, maybe more economical use of the environment to survive and so on. I think that this raises a question in the philosophy of science (I have not had time to investigate this idea): is it necessary that universal laws, and hence theories, such a evolution, apply to themselves to make them, both theory and process, valid? Of course, if a universal theory does not apply to some specific situation identified by the theory that it should then surely it is not universal, if not valid, but this is an old issue in philosophy. But what about the law or phenomenon and theory applying to themselves? Is quantum mechanics subject to quantum forces, is gravity subject to gravitational forces, is the categorical imperative subject to the standards of the categorical imperative, is utilitarianism subject to utilitarian selection and so on? I agree with you this is a rather confusing idea and needs super clarification, but it will have to do for now.

So where does all this leave the creationists? I have already said that importance of creationists to our debate is not their beliefs but rather the fact that they hold those beliefs when it is evident that such beliefs are wrong. This means that evolution is not only about biological matter but also about epistemology.

It seems to me that evolution also applies to knowledge and our state of knowledge. If there are members of our population that hold false beliefs than sure this means that, like biological traits, not all universal truths are inherited by everyone at the same time. Just because a biological trait increases the chances of survival not every one inherits a working version of this trait; for example not all Europeans have inherited the gene to tolerate lactose even though have this gene means that we have access to more nutritious food (i.e. milk).

I want to argue that our state of knowledge is subject to evolutionary forces. In fact one of the criticisms against Lamarckianism is that the son of a good bowler does not inherit the skills of his father. Maybe not, but this, I would argue, is a rather limited view about the breath and scope of evolution. In fact the concept of the meme, introduced by a R Dawkins suggests that even ideas and knowledge are subject to a survival process that does not depend on biological inheritance. And if we look at the history of ideas most of the important ideas human kind have come up with were developed through an evolutionary process.

Thus if knowledge and epistemological states are subject to evolutionary forces then it also follows that evolution is not only about biology. The question though is how true is this? In other words, can we attribute anything to human beings that does not originate from our biological make up? And the consequence of this question is this: is our epistemological state a result of epistemological evolution or brain evolution?

We know that knowledge about the Catholic church is not pass on by biological and genetic means because Catholic clergy are bound by a vow of chastity; therefore catholic teaching is definitely passed through memes. But then again good bowlers do not pass their good bowling genes. Maybe a Lamrackian might argue that good bowlers do not pass their good bowling genes/traits because they have children before they became good bowlers and therefore there were no good bowling genes to pass on.

This leads me to the next question in the philosophy of science: does evolution pass on biological matter or does it pass on biological information? Is the biology a means (i.e. mechanics) to pass on information (for example information on how to make a functioning human being to what dress colour suites Aunt Maude best) or is the biology the end in itself i.e. to create more genes? That genes and evolution are focused of reproduction is not in doubt, but are they transferring cells or they really transferring information? Is biology a means or an end?

I started by saying that I will proceed with this essay in trepidation. And this is why I proceed with trepidation. If evolution is about the transfer of information and not biological cells, then do we really need the biological cells at all? Or would it be enough to create a human being simply by accessing the information that presently exists in biological cells? I agree with you, a rather difficult and impossible task, but please humour me and go along with my argument.

Maybe the mechanics might be difficult but conceptually this is not that difficult to understand. But the consequences of accepting the conceptual exercise is that the creationists might have a point after all. They have been assuming and we have assumed that human beings are biological creatures and that we have been created by some biological process. But is this a reasonable assumption to make about biology? It certainly won’t be reasonable if we can separate the information held by the genes from the chemicals of the genes themselves. In which case anyone or any thing can create a human being if they had access to the information on how to make a human being? Conceptually, therefore, there is nothing to stop a non biological mechanism (god?) from building a biological mechanism. We do it in reverse, we are biological mechanism but are able to build non biological mechanism such as machines and mathematics.

But this possibility does not exclude reading tabloid headlines such as: God exists and it is a rock from a distant planet.

Take care


[1]The Times
February 11, 2009
Vatican buries the hatchet with Charles Darwin

[2] New Humanist Volume 118 Issue 1 Spring 2003 >
Evolution by Jerks
Stephen Jay Gould's last work reviewed by Jonathan Rée
(His (Gould's) idea was that evolutionary processes are much more uneven and catastrophic than biologists like to imagine: it was 'evolution by jerks', according to his critics, eliciting a memorable riposte about 'evolution by creeps'.)

[3] Unfinished business
Feb 5th 2009
Charles Darwin’s ideas have spread widely, but his revolution is not yet complete

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from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: Evolution + Looking for English Teacher

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