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100 Years of Sri Aurobindo on Evolution: Darwinian Fundamentalism, reductionism, pluralism, play (part 2 of 6)
Good scientific theories usually have the following things:
For the purposes of this paper however, although not suggesting that his is an entirely fail safe system, I will use Karl Popper's falsifiability criterion as a standard for verifying truth claims. Popper put forward this criterion as a critique and replacement for the “verifiability criterion” of logical-positivism. It will be used as a method to separate what we suppose to be “good science” from “bad science” or mere ideology. To the extent that an evolutionary narrative can be considered scientific is to the extent it can be falsified or “the logical possibility that an assertion can be shown false by an observation or a physical experiment a.k.a through common experience of it”
For Kipling, the elephant got its trunk because a crocodile pulled on it. Does this mean that elephant trunks occurred as an adaptation due to hungry crocodiles? Maybe, maybe not because it is a hypothesis that cant be proven. It is “just so”.
Evolutionary psychology seizes on a
given trait in members of contemporary society and make up a just so
story using analogs to Darwinian mechanisms -that inevitably concern
survival - . So language evolves as follows:‘ We talk by making
noises and not by waving our hands because hunter-gatherers living in
the Savannah would have had trouble seeing one another in the tall
grass.’ There is no way to falsify the above statement.
The mechanism of natural selection to explain environmental adaptation has held up remarkably well over the past 150 years. Even the claim by creationist that one can not falsify the fossil record on which Neo-Darwinism depends is not wholly true. The fossil record is constantly under interrogation and paradigm shifts do occur. The Cambrian explosion in which the most complex forms of animal life seem to have appeared 530 million years ago has caused much scientific debate and was thought by Darwin as the single biggest objection to his gradualist theory of evolutionary descent. Since then there have been many theories that have been proposed to account for the rapid explosion of life. Recently the theory of punctuated equilibrium developed in the early 1970s proposed a view that evolution over long intervals is nearly static and "punctuated" by short periods of rapid change.
This theory has forced many scientist to adopt more complex ways of conceiving evolution than simple reductive narratives would allow. Its must not follow that all scientist will agree on a single paradigm and in this instance the debate between reductionist and constructionist perspectives of evolution has been one of the most lively in science. Most notably, Daniel Dennet representing the former and Stephen Jay Gould the latter. However most scientist no longer view evolutionary descent as reduceable to the simple selection at the genetic level.
Recently the finding of the fossil remains of the hobbit man on an island east of Bali has forced anthropologist and paleontologist to rethink human history from the relatively short span of time from ten to fifteen thousand years ago. Although there is no doubt that the paradigms that establish what Thomas Kuhn called “Normal Science” are so ideologically and professionally entrenched on the Universities as to make them hard to displace most paradigms and scientific theories do eventual fade away. This is in fact is considered the strength of science, its singular ability to demonstrate over time ever increasing understanding of phenomena.
Although there is a huge philosophical chasm that separates Gould as a scientist who denies teleology from Sri Aurobindo's spiritual teleology, just the fact that he constructs a theory that integrates consideration of both organism with environment into it, would seem a vision of evolution closer to an integral view than the reductionist strategies of what Gould calls Darwinian fundamentalism.
To understand the difference between the pluralist approach of Stephen Gould and his colleague Richard Lewontin and the reductionist accounts of Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins is important if one wishes to know some of the stark differences between scientist who study evolution. What follows is a short but important history of the feud between Gould and Dennet in which Gould responded to Dennett in an article written for the New York Review of Books called the Pleasures of Pluralism (aka non-reductionism) and accused both Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins of being Darwinian Fundamentalist.
“Dennett had earlier written a feisty attack on theories of Gould, Lewontin, Noam Chomsky, and Stuart Kauffman, who reject a strict selectionist account of evolution and the origin of mind and language. Dennett, in his NYR, letter speaks of Gould's "non-revolutions," claiming that Gould's alternatives to genic selectionism are empty. Gould claims that speciation (the rise of new species) differs in its mechanism from the sort of gradualistic changes observed in the genetics laboratory. Gould also claims that macroevolution, the major main trends evolution, depends in large part of species selection rather than individual or genic selection, thus operating at a different level from the microevolution or the sort observed with breeding fruit-flies. Furthermore, Gould denies selectionism, claiming that many traits have not been selected for and are not particularly adaptive, and coins the term "exaptation" to characterize the functioning of a trait which was not previously selected for or adaptive. He claims this is different from the previous, orthodox neo-Darwinist claim of "preadaptation" where a trait previously selected for one function or adapted to one environment is later selected for another function in a different environment. Dennett denies exaptation differs from preadaptation and accuses Gould of tooting his own horn by inventing a new term for a well-known idea. Gould claims that exaptive traits were not previously selected for, and that preadapted traits were so selected for some other function. (http://tomweston.net/dusek.htm)
These are the four main points that Stephen Jay Gould makes to dispute the reductionist arguments for natural selection.
Here is part of a response made by Stephen Jay Gould to Daniel Dennett in a well publicized letter that followed the article that was well publicized in The New York Review of Books:
So if natural selection builds all of evolution, without the interposition of auxiliary processes or intermediary complexities, then I suppose that evolution is algorithmic too. But—and here we encounter Dennett's disabling error once again—evolution includes so much more than natural selection that it cannot be algorithmic in Dennett's simple calculational sense. Yet Dennett yearns to subsume all the phenomenology of nature under the limited aegis of adaptation as an algorithmic result of natural selection. He writes: "Here, then, is Darwin's dangerous idea: the algorithmic level is the level that best accounts for the speed of the antelope, the wing of the eagle, the shape of the orchid, the diversity of species, and all the other occasions for wonder in the world of nature" (Dennett's italics). I will grant the antelope's run, the eagle's wing, and much of the orchid's shape—for these are adaptations, produced by natural selection, and therefore legitimately in the algorithmic domain. But can Dennett really believe his own imperialistic extensions? Is the diversity of species no more than a calculational consequence of natural selection? Can anyone really believe, beyond the hype of rhetoric, that "all the other occasions for wonder in the world of nature" flow from adaptation? (Gould 1997)
Gould and Dennett's battle notwithstanding on how much of evolution can be solely attributed to natural selection, the state of the art in contemporary molecular biology that concerns the actual mechanisms that cause mutations in genetic evolution is called evo-devo and combines studies of species evolution -evo– with studies of individual development -devo-.
An excellent overview of Evo-Devo is to be found in an article written by Israel Rosenfield and Edward Ziff. entitled Evolving Evolution which is a review of two recent books on the subject by Sean Carroll, Marc Kirschner and John Gerhart. What follows are a few excerpts from this article:
In 1894, the English biologist William Bateson challenged Darwin's view that evolution was gradual. He published Materials for the Study of Variation, a catalog of abnormalities he had observed in insects and animals in which one body part was replaced with another. He described, for example, a mutant fly with a leg instead of an antenna on its head, and mutant frogs and humans with extra vertebrae. The abnormalities Bateson discovered resisted explanation for much of the twentieth century. But in the late 1970s, studies by Edward Lewis at the California Institute of Technology, Christiana Nüsslein-Vollhard and Eric Wieschaus in Germany, and others began to reveal that the abnormalities were caused by mutations of a special set of genes in fruit fly embryos that controlled development of the fly's body and the distribution of its attached appendages. Very similar genes, exercising similar controls, were subsequently found in nematodes, flies, fish, mice, and human beings.
What they and others discovered were genes that regulate the development of the embryo and exert control over other genes by mechanisms analogous to that of the repressor molecule studied by Monod and Jacob. Eight of these controlling genes, called Hox genes, are found in virtually all animals—worms, mice, and human beings—and they have existed for more than half a billion years. Fruit flies and worms have only one set of eight Hox genes; fish and mammals (including mice, elephants, and humans) have four sets. Each set of Hox genes in fish and mammals is remarkably similar to the eight Hox genes found in fruit flies and worms. This discovery showed that very similar genes control both embryological and later development in virtually all insects and animals...............
According to this theory, the mutations, or variations, needed to drive evolutionary change can occur with little disruption either to the basic organization of an organism or to the core processes that make its cells function.” (Rosenfield Ziff 2006)
A common set of genes that is shared by all life forms that would seem responsible for all mutations and embryological morphology would in itself not be inconsistent with a perspective favoring an integral view of life.
The next section of this paper demonstrates that, in his own way, Sri Aurobindo anticipated some of today's predominate scientific theories on biological evolution as well as presented a view about the meaning of human evolution that in its secular aspects is consistent with contemporary social theory.
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