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One of the created phenomena is the dream. Behold how many secrets are deposited therein, how many wisdoms treasured up, how many worlds concealed.

(Bahá’u’lláh: The Seven Valleys page 32)

Triggered

In the middle of April, for the first time in a long while, I had a dream whose intensity strongly suggested it deserved my attention. It went something like this.

I’m in a workshop or seminar. We are trying to check whether we have covered all the books in some kind of long sequence. With difficulty we discover we have missed books 4 and 25 and don’t seem to have copies. I passionately assert that we must complete the sequence. It is the key. Without it we cannot enter (I’m not sure what I’m saying we can’t enter – life? A home? A community or what. I’m not sure I even believe what I’m saying.)

At first sight I was tempted simply to conclude that the sequence referred to a system of study used in Bahá’í communities all over the world as part of a community building process. One key thing at least did not stack up. At this stage there are nowhere near 25 books in the sequence. We’re not even half way there yet.

I struggled to make sense of the dream but failed. As a result I decided to reread Ann Faraday‘s brilliant guide to dreamwork. I won’t explain this in detail here as I’ve blogged about her method at least twice (see these three links).

I interpreted part of her advice as suggesting I should ask my dreaming mind for clarification about what it is I’m missing.

Three days later I got some kind of hints.

In the dream I am with my brother Bill in the family home on the living room sofa, though it’s facing the opposite wall to the one it used to be at, i.e. with our backs to the window now. I have a huge stack of papers, and they are in duplicates of two. They are printed in black. I am separating the duplicates out into separate piles. I give Bill some of the sorted ones. He later piles sorted and unsorted together instead of helping. I am furious. I really scream at him and go into the kitchen.

Mum wants me to apologise. I point blank refuse. She feeds me tomatoes and cheese on a big white plate. It looks very red and round.

I rarely dream of the Stockport house of my childhood, and when I do it’s usually something important. My hearth dream discussed elsewhere is my most transformative experience of that kind.

My associations led me at first down a route that suggested my anger was rational. My brother and I were very different. This can best be illustrated by a story of a visit home that I made in my early thirties. On the train I’d been immersed in Philip Kapleau’s Three Pillars of Zen. My brother picked me up from the station and when we settled down over a coffee to catch up he asked how my journey had been.

‘Reading a book as usual,’ I told him.

‘We’re always reading. What was your book before I tell you my latest?’

‘It was about Zen Buddhism. What’s your book about?’ I asked, genuinely interested, as contrary to his claim he was not what I considered a great reader.

‘The history of the Panzer tank,’ was his deadpan response.

This more or less says it all.

He did his National Service in about 1948 and loved it. He loved his motor bikes and cars. I’d escaped National Service by one year and the after shadow of the war cast over my childhood made me deeply antipathetic to military matters, even though it was armies that had saved us from invasion. For me, a car was, and still is a rather boring box on four wheels designed to move us with minimum effort from one place to another.

So, at first I thought the dream was saying that in some way in my present life the machine mind within me, that I took him to be representing was wrecking my life. It wouldn’t have been the first dream of this kind that I had had. It turned out not to be quite as straightforward as that, though along the same lines in terms of the dream’s overall impact.

However, demonising my brother in this way did not quite feel right because I was the one who was splitting things up as a machine might do. So I did the Gestalt trick of being him. To my astonishment the following words came out of my mouth in his name: ‘Don’t make the same mistake as I did. You’re disconnecting. Stop it. Don’t analyse so much.’

This was definitely not what I expected from Ann Faraday’s description of the typical Topdog/Underdog conflict (page 152):

Fritz Perls, the ‘finder’ of Gestalt therapy . . . called the internal authority voices the ‘top dogs’ of the mind, trying continually yet fruitlessly to impose their will on the rest of the personality, which then behaves like an ‘underdog’ wanting to keep top dog’s approval and at the same time trying to get his own way.

This is how I had expected the dream to read, making Bill the top dog sabotaging my legitimate attempts to split things up, when in fact the reverse was true. A symbol of the machine mind was warning me of its dangers.

When I checked out further this unexpected understanding seemed to be confirmed by my mother’s perfectly circular plateful of red fried tomatoes, symbolising the organic whole of life, telling me in its red massive traffic light colour to stop splitting and espouse holistic creativity.

When I explored what the sheets of paper had to say the message was unequivocal. Their plea was powerful: ‘We are your means of communication, your messenger, your intermediary with life. Without us you would be disconnected. You know that really. We bring you ideas and information, poems and stories. More than you would ever get from other people directly. We saved you as a child.  We are of course the children of trees, your other close companions. In a real sense we represent who you really are deep down, your Entish self, Peat. Even now you do not understand this well enough, which is why your heart sent you this dream. Everything your brother was you are not. He chains you down inside still to some degree. You fake a self to please him still. It has to stop. Write more. Read more. Do not doubt that this is best. Doing things in the way your brother did is not the kind of action you must take because it betrays who you really are. Explore inside your heart and share what you discover. Apart from that be kind, be wise, protect the earth who is your mother, and assist those in need of your help.’

Bill in the dream is saying essentially the same thing. They were not in contradiction. My anger should have been directed at the apparently still active implanted persona of my brother, whose surface behaviour in the past I was mimicking in the dream by splitting up the papers into piles, and whom I tried to emulate as a child, vainly competing with him to bridge the 14 year gap between our ages.

I may not yet have got to the bottom of this dream, but I’m making progress.

A Fellow Traveller

I don’t know many people who attach as much importance to the dream as I do, so it was encouraging to stumble upon someone at a recent Bahá’í meeting who seemed as enthusiastic as me.

I was moving towards the dinner queue when a lady I didn’t know broke away from the back of the queue to talk to someone several yards behind me. I closed the gap but kept an eye out so she could reclaim her place. By the time she rejoined the queue I was still the last person.

‘You were ahead of me’ I said. ‘Please take back your place.’

‘No, no,’ she demurred. ‘It’s my pleasure.’

‘More like robbery,’ I replied. She grinned. I kept my place.

She commented how expressively I’d read a passage from the Writings earlier.

‘Are you an actor?’

‘Only an amateur in my youth,’ I explained, ‘but I was an English teacher for a while.’

‘That explains it.’

‘Mind you, though I switched careers, I’m still a prize winning pedant.’

Her eyes lit up.

‘That reminds me of a vivid dream I had that still sticks in my mind. I’m marking thousands and thousands of exam papers. I’m correcting what seem like millions of misplaced apostrophes.’

This opened the floodgates and the whole length of the queue and then at a shared table for almost an hour, barely pausing to pick up a mouthful of food from our plates except when the other person was speaking, we poured out example after example of the dreams we’d had or heard about. I can’t remember the last time I had such a long and intense conversation on this subject. My head was buzzing at the end of it and I felt much less of a weird eccentric.

Cryptoamnesia

Before I close this post there is one other point to make. Ever since I discovered more aspects of my Entish self (see link) I’ve been doing a simple meditation, usually to help me calm down when I’m checking my blood pressure. It goes like this:

I am like a tree, my roots firmly in the earth and my branches reaching towards heaven. The trunk of my heart, steady and strong, bridging the gap between them, draws sustenance up from the soil and down from the sky.

You can probably imagine my surprise when I read the following words as I came close to the end of Ann Faraday‘s book. They come from the dreamwork of one of her clients, speaking as a tree (page 254):

 Do you think you’ve been put on the earth for nothing? Do you think you have nothing to learn from it? I am your true spiritual growth – not just nature – the tree of life. With my roots deep in the earth, I learn its secrets and convey them to the heavens; and with my branches high in the air, I learn the secrets of the sky and convey them to the earth. I bring the secrets of the world together – body and soul – and I provide a home in which nature’s creatures can grow, as well as producing life-giving fresh air for them.

I’m almost certain I have not read those words since 1977. I’ve only gone back over sections of the book relating to the basic steps of dreamwork. Cryptoamnesia is indeed an amazing phenomenon.

Back to the Dreamwork

Anyway, better get back to decoding my latest dreams. The most promising one from last night goes like this. I am in a kitchen. There is a bit of a crisis going on. I need to boil the kettle but the black lead from the plug comes up through the sink which is full of water. On the surface of the water there is a yellow foam, dust, or scum, not sure which. I let the water out trying to get rid of the yellow. Then I have to try and make sure there is no water in the socket that goes into the kettle. I don’t want to short out the electrics. I think I’ve managed. I fill the kettle avoiding any yellow as far as I can. I plug it in and it starts to heat but there’s nowhere to rest it apart from the edge of the sink which is precarious. I hold it steady as best as I can. There’s a crowd of people with me round the sink and it’s really tricky.

I haven’t the faintest idea at this point what it’s on about. If I ever find out I’ll let you know. As I’ve moved on to re-reading Montague Ullman and Nan Zimmerman’s Working with Dreams, there’s a good chance I might.

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Damian Carrington’s article in Wednesday’s Guardian explores what supplementary steps should be taken to help us hold back global warming to more survivable levels. Below is a short extract: for the full article see link.

Restoration of forests and coasts can tackle ‘existential crises’ but is being overlooked

The restoration of natural forests and coasts can simultaneously tackle climate change and the annihilation of wildlife but is being worryingly overlooked, an international group of campaigners have said.

Animal populations have fallen by 60% since 1970, suggesting a sixth mass extinction of life on Earth is under way, and it is very likely that carbon dioxide will have to be removed from the atmosphere to avoid the worst impacts of global warming. Trees and plants suck carbon dioxide from the air as they grow and also provide vital habitat for animals.

“The world faces two existential crises, developing with terrifying speed: climate breakdown and ecological breakdown,” the group writes in a letter to the Guardian. “Neither is being addressed with the urgency needed to prevent our life-support systems from spiralling into collapse.

. . .

The signatories include the school strikes activist Greta Thunberg, the climate scientist Prof Michael Mann, the writers Margaret Atwood, Naomi Klein and Philip Pullman and the campaigners Bill McKibben and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.

Rowan Williams, the former archbishop of Canterbury, Mohamed Nasheed, the former president of the Maldives, and the musician Brian Eno are also among the signatories of the letter, which was instigated by the Guardian writer George Monbiot.

The group emphasises that natural climate solutions are not an alternative to the rapid decarbonisation of energy, transport and farming. Both are needed, the campaigners say.

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Metamorphosis v2

For source of image see link

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Charles Darwin

‘. . . . The process of evolution was a process of complexification, of moving from relative simplicity and disorder towards relative complexity and order. . . . It was therefore a process of moving from more probable configurations towards less probable configurations.’

John Hatcher quoted by Kitzing in Evolution and Bahá’í Belief (page 203)

Optimisation – the sceptical view

To recap briefly where we got to last time, in considering the issue of evolution, we reach a point where life seems impossibly improbable, yet it exists. Something seems to be driving it to create increasingly complex forms of life, but we don’t know what. Now I come back to the issue of complexity from two atheists’ point of view before looking at the Bahá’í perspective once more.

A key issue that Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini deal with in their book What Darwin Got Wrong concerns what they call optimisation.

Put simply (page 81):

Evolution seems to have achieved near optimal answers to questions which, if pursued by the application of exogenous filters to solutions generated at random, as the neo-Darwinist model requires, would have imposed searching implausibly large spaces of candidate solutions. This seems an intractable enigma, unless prior filtering by endogenous constraints is assumed.

The standard neo-Darwinian model won’t work, they conclude (page 85): ‘The picture of a blind search winnowed by selection is utterly implausible.’

They have analysed the endogenous constraints within the genome that I referred to last time and are also aware that basic laws of science add in further limits (page 86):

 . . . it seems that only physico-chemical and geometric constraints can explain the narrow canalisations that natural selection must have explored.… [Otherwise] the space of possible solutions to be explored seems too gigantic to have been explored by blind trial and error.

There are still mysteries that remain unexplained, for example (page 89) concerning the angle of wings:

The angles of effective wing stroke are extremely narrow . . . and one wants to question the process through which this narrow wedge of angles became fixated even before there was any real flight.

They give several other examples of optimisation including the foraging strategies of bees, before moving on to a particularly spectacular one: the example of the wasp that zombifies cockroaches with two strategically perfect injections at the exactly right intervals, prior to making its victim the comatose but still alive host and food supply to its young. They go on to say (pages 90-91 – my emphasis):

Not even the most committed adaptationist neo-Darwinians suppose that all kinds of alternatives have been blindly tried out by the ancestors of the wasp … True: wasps have been around for a very long time (some 400 million years, maybe more) but even this is not a long enough time to try out innumerable alternative behavioural solutions, with alternative possibilities conceivable at each step of the behavioural sequence. What, then? No one knows at present. Such cases of elaborate innate behavioural programs… cannot be accounted for by means of optimising physico-chemical or geometric factors.

There has to be some explanation. Whatever it is science hasn’t found it yet but, as scientists, they understandably place their faith in science none the less (page 92):

The problem of finding optimal solutions to evolutionary problems by filtering candidates generated at random would often be intractable. But, as we have just seen, there are some instances of optimal (or near-optimal) solutions to problems in biology; so, if natural selection cannot optimise, then something else must be involved.. . . factors that the progress of science will in due time reveal.

This is an act of faith even so. We’re in Eric Reitan territory here when he writes in Is God a Delusion? (pages 181-182) that:

 . . . atheism is a matter of faith, . . . a way of seeing the world that they have chosen from an array of alternatives about which reason and evidence have nothing to say. . . . Religious faith . . . involves a choice that is no less rational than theirs.

Complexity and Faith

So, what might a religion have to say about this problem that would be just as rational?

Eberhard von Kitzing writes in Evolution and Bahá’í Belief (page 183):

Just as embryonic development consists in the actualisation of the information stored in its genome, evolution based on the existence of a potential order ‘reveals’ the implicit order encoded in fundamental laws of nature.

. . . Because of the gigantic improbability of the result of evolution by chance, today chance as the primary source of complex life is generally rejected. Most modern evolutionary biologists would agree that pure chance cannot explain the complex order of life.

This seems reasonably concordant with where I left Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini just now. Kitzing goes on (page 185-86) ‘. . . as pointed out correctly by Ward, the gradual appearance of order begs the same level of explanation as its sudden emergence: . . . . If complexity needs explaining, it needs explaining, however long it took to get there!’ adding that (page 192) ‘The origin of complex order by chance alone is too improbable for such a possibility to be taken seriously.’

It should come as no surprise at this point (page 194) to find Kitzing pointing out that ‘‘Abdu’l-Bahá proposes the need of a voluntary First Cause to avoid the problem of an infinite regression of causes.’

Picking up on the issue of optimisation, or in his terms ‘complexity,’ Kitzing quotes Hatcher (pages 203-04):

‘. . . . The process of evolution was a process of complexification, of moving from relative simplicity and disorder towards relative complexity and order. . . . It was therefore a process of moving from more probable configurations towards less probable configurations.’ . . . Hatcher concludes that there must be a special kind of force which causes this complexification during the evolution of life on earth.

Hatcher voices the conclusion to which this inevitably leads (page 204): ‘It seems reasonable to call this force “God,” but anyone uncomfortable with that name can simply call it “the evolutionary force”.’

Ultimately (page 206): ‘Although there are differences in the details of the arguments of Hatcher, Ward, Loehle, and the author of this essay, they agree in the conclusion that God’s will is necessary to explain the origin of the complex order of life.’

We each of us have to make up our own minds, on the basis of the evidence as we understand it, where we stand on this issue. My main contention here is to suggest that a religious explanation of evolution is as rational as a materialistic one: to commit to either is an act of faith. Reason alone can only warrant agnosticism.

The Social Consequences of neo-Darwinism:

Having dealt with the main issue, I would like to take a brief look at another aspect that needs to be borne in mind: what has been the impact on culture and society of buying into a neo-Darwinian perspective?

Kitzing makes clear that (page 213):

[‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s] particular interest was in the social and religious consequences of Darwinism as it was interpreted by ‘some European philosophers.’

‘Abdu’l-Bahá has not been the only one to voice such concerns.

David Wallace-Wells, in his book The Uninhabitable Earth, speaks of how Social Darwinism appeals ‘to unequal outcomes as “fair” ones, an already familiar one-percenter view.’ In effect, neo-Darwinism works hard to make bllnd competitive selfishness seem  almost rational and certainly inevitable.

In Alas, Poor Darwin, Hilary & Steven Rose strongly express their concerns (page 3):

The claims of evolutionary psychology in the field of biology, psychology, anthropology, sociology, cultural studies and philosophy are for the most part not merely mistaken, but culturally pernicious.

One of the many examples in the book comes from Charles Jenks (page 44):

Social Darwinists and John D. Rockefeller . . . argued that, since nature shows the survival of the fittest coming out of competition, then society should make permanent the winners and losers. It is only natural to follow natural selection. In spite of such arguments continuously being shown to be logically false and morally suspect, they are, I believe, being continuously made and especially by those trained to avoid them, academics.

One way to fossilise inequality, I suppose.

There is another delusion whose balloon he seeks to puncture: it’s the deterministic one about free will being an illusion. This is rooted in a reductionist view of the mind which Dorothy Nelkin explains (page 18): ‘Evolutionary psychologists…, [c]onvinced of the centrality of the genes, believe that the mind will ultimately be reduced to material properties…’ Ironically, they proselytise their views in the manner of religious evangelists (page 19): ‘Evolutionary psychologists are missionaries, advocating a set of principles that define the meaning of life and seeking to convert others to their beliefs.’

Charles Jenks then spends a whole chapter subverting the idea that this means all we do is determined either by genes or culture (page 31):

 . . . we actually have three variables: nature, nurture and self organisation. For convenience I will label them genes (G), culture (C) and free will (F).

He argues that sneezing is almost completely genetically determined while artistic creativity is one of the most extreme examples of the exercise of free will.

If there were no free will, and everything was determined, then none of us would be responsible for what we do and should not therefore be held to account for it, a proposition that would make it hard to adhere to any workable system of crime and punishment.

Perhaps as importantly, it would make most of us give up the struggle to overcome tormenting mental states such as depression and obsessive-compulsive drives.

Thankfully there is a wealth of evidence to demonstrate that this would be a defeatist delusion. There is a book dealing with a wealth of research that is exactly in line with this.

The Mind & the Brain by Jeffrey Schwartz and Sharon Begley tackles the complexities of the issue in a  most accessible style and marshalls the evidence in an engaging and persuasive way (page 18):

Modern neuroscience is now demonstrating what James suspected more than a century ago: that attention is a mental state . . . that allows us, moment by moment, to “choose and sculpt how our ever-changing minds will work, [to] choose who we will be the next moment in a very real sense . .

The authors discuss in detail various models of mind, highlighting the problems problems with reductionism (page 40):

The basic principles of evolutionary biology would seem to dictate that any natural phenomenon as prominent in our lives as our experience of consciousness must necessarily have some discernible and quantifiable effect in order for it to exist, and to persist, in nature at all.

They introduce us to Chalmers‘ notion that consciousness can be regarded (page 47) as a “non-reductive primitive,” a “fundamental building block of reality”.

It would be impossible to describe all the evidence they adduce to support the claim that volition is real and its exercise can change the brain, i.e. mind alters matter in this case and it cannot be explained as one part of the brain working on another part.

Crucially, they draw on Schwartz’s work with patients suffering from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder who had agreed to combine the therapy with regular brain scans. This work showed (page 90) that “self-directed therapy had dramatically and significantly altered brain function.” His model involves four stages. He concludes (page 94):

The changes the Four Steps can produce in the brain offered strong evidence that willful [i.e. willed], mindful effort can alter brain function, and that such self-directed brain changes – neuroplasticity – are a genuine reality.

In case we miss the full implications of this work they spell them out (page 95):

The clinical and physiological results achieved with OCD support the notion that the conscious and willful mind cannot be explained solely and completely by matter, by the material substance of the brain. In other words, the arrow of causation relating brain and mind must be bidirectional. . . . [M]odern quantum physics provides an empirically validated formalism that can account for the effects of mental processes on brain function.

So, there I will leave the matter for now at least.

In my view, it is as rational to believe in a transcendent driver behind the improbable complexities of evolution, as it is to believe we will eventually find a convincing material one. There may also be good reasons for being more alert to some of the more potentially toxic ways a neo-Darwinian perspective has been contaminating our culture.

Over to you.

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Charles Darwin

In truth, neither of these extreme positions is valid. It makes no sense to reject evolutionary ideas; and it makes no sense to try to use these ideas to justify atheism.

(Page 54: Colin Tudge The Secret Life of Trees) 

Why am I suddenly struggling to understand evolution when it stands in the middle of what is fairly abstruse and alien territory to me? I can do psychobabble till the cows come home, reading and writing it fluently and with relative ease. Wading through texts that use terms like ‘chaperonines,’ ‘transposons,’ ‘epistasis,’ and many others, most of which I have filtered out of this sequence in order to stick with what I feel fairly confident of understanding, is an altogether different and more difficult matter.

Well, I got a nudge from Tudge as the quote at the head of this piece suggests, followed by a hard prod from Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver[1], but the final motivator was the invitation to give a talk to a local humanist society about the Bahá’í Faith.

I will have to mention that a key tenet of the Bahá’í Faith is the essential compatibility of religion and science. I can deal ad nauseam, as readers of this blog will already be aware, with mind, brain, soul and spirit issues, but evolution is quite another matter. I have been quite content to take for granted that lines of thought exist to make evolution and Bahá’í metaphysics comfortable companions: what made me uncomfortable was that I would not be able to marshall them clearly and deeply enough if anyone raised questions about this issue.

So, as luck would have it, there were three books on my shelves, two of them purchased around the year 2000 plus What Darwin Got Wrong bought in 2010. That I had read none of them beyond the first few pages until now indicates the level of my indifference blended with the degree of difficulty I experienced plodding through their opaque arguments whose value I was blind to – till now that is.

I’m going to attempt now to give as clear a presentation of the Bahá’í perspective, derived in the main from Evolution and Bahá’í Belief edited by Keven Brown, mixed with quotes from the other two books, where they help to clarify the points I’m trying to make. I have to confess I didn’t get far with Alas, Poor Darwin edited by Helen and Steven Rose: its relevance to my purpose was too low to motivate me to persist after culling a handful of helpful pointers.

It is worth bearing in mind right from the start the caveats articulated by Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini in the introduction to their book, What Darwin Got Wrong.

They honestly admit that (page xvi):

In fact, we don’t know very well how evolution works. Nor did Darwin, and (as far as we can tell) nor does anybody else.

They also criticize neo-Darwinism’s attitude in the face of undermining evidence (ibid) ‘[N]eo Darwinism is taken as axiomatic… a view that looks to contradict it, either directly or by implication, is ipso facto rejected, however plausible it may otherwise seem.…,’ before concluding that ‘we think that . . . Darwin’s theory of natural selection is fatally flawed.’ The position they attack smacks of materialism’s a priori rejection of any evidence that suggests there is some kind of transcendent realm. Needless to say, this is not science but dogma.

The Basic Bahá’í Position

Quotations in this section come mainly from Evolution and Bahá’í Belief except when indicated otherwise. All references from pages up to 133 are from Keven Brown: the references after that are from Eberhard von Kitzing.

Brown draws an important distinction. He states that (page 77), from a Bahá’í point of view, everything in the universe ‘exists by design and has a purpose, . . . whereas ‘evolution’, in the meaning of Darwin, implies the transmutation of species without any underlying goal.’

He confirms that (page 84) ‘‘Abdu’l-Bahá does not deny the reality of evolution as a process by which the universe and its creatures change and develop overtime, . . . All created forms are progressive in their planes… under the stimulus of the power or spirit of life’ and explains that ‘this state of motion, which implies transformation, is not a purely random and chaotic motion.’ However, he also emphasises that ‘It does not imply the transmutation of one species into another . . . ‘Abdu’l-Bahá is adamant that physical species evolved purposively within the boundaries of their own essences.’

The term essence is used here somewhat in the sense of a divinely created template which shapes the material forms of all species.

So, (page 86) ‘Creation and evolution, to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, are not contrary, but complementary and mutually necessary processes.’

‘Abdu’l-Bahá is prepared to accept, Brown argues, that (page 94) ‘. . . there was a time when the material reflection of the human essence, due to the undeveloped nature of the planet, took on more primitive forms,’ which implies that (page 95: ‘[A species essence] must contain all of its possible evolutionary pathways from the most primitive to the most advanced,’ and that (page 105) ‘. . .  each timeless species essence should begin manifesting its influence as soon as the environmental conditions are prepared to receive it.’

Kitzing takes the clarification a step further (page 163): ‘Only if evolution can be decomposed into a sufficient number of small gradual progresses does neo-Darwinism become reasonable.’

Progress in Small Steps driven by an Organisng Force:

The relative subtlety of the Bahá’í position now begins to surface (page 167):

The explicit dependence of life on its history makes it impossible to apply the classical concept of essences as it was applied in classical biology, which assumes that the form of a particular cat is defined only by a timeless reality considered to be independent of the details of the particular history of the ancestors of this cat.

Moreover, this gradual but purposive development cannot be automatic (page 174): ‘Only disorder occurs on its own; complex order needs a non-trivial origin.’

The existence of some organising force seems necessary (page 179:

If the form of the laws (of the universe) are not predetermined by any kind of timeless abstract order, one would expect different chemistries in different parts of the universe. . . . Dennett would have to explain why the chemical laws are apparently the same everywhere and all the time in the known universe.

Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini locate the limits of their scepticism right from the start of their first chapter (page 1):

[Even though the authors believe that] Natural selection (NS) is irredeemably flawed . . . it is perfectly possible – in fact, entirely likely – that the genealogy of species (GS) is true even if NS is not. [They feel it likely that] most or all species are related by historical descent, perhaps by descent from a common primitive ancestor . . .

This still leaves room for a driving force, albeit subject to constraints from within not just from outside (page 27):

 . . . the whole process of development, from the fertilised egg to the adult, modulates the phenotypic effects of genotypic changes, and thus ‘filters’ the phenotypic options that ecological variables ever have a chance to select from.

Their search for a driving force of course stops short of a Creator (page 30 – my emphases for clarification):

Evo-devo tells us that it’s the other way around: nothing in evolution makes sense except in the light of developmental biology.… Researchers have been grappling for some years with the problem of reconstructing the way in which similar genes mastermind the development of wildly different creatures.

‘Mastermind’ is an interesting metaphor in this context.

The process of boundary setting is crucial in their view (page 32):

The old argument in evolutionary biology was about whether internal constraints are the exception or the rule; the present consensus is increasingly that they are the rule.

Scientists are still not clear exactly how this all works. The authors start by quoting from Rob Krumlauf (page 35):

‘A major challenge for the future will be to decipher how the basic gene “tool kit” and common signalling pathways are controlled and integrated in the development and evolution of so many distinct organisms.’ . . .

And then add in other points, for example (ibid.):

The list could be continued with RNAi (i stands for ‘interference’) and various processes of ‘proofreading’. There are also processes of post-transcriptional silencing, adding a further mechanism of regulation.

Their focus is predominantly on the role of DNA variation and its constraints. However, it seems to me they are positing a driving force of some kind none the less, whose existence, given the improbability of life existing at all in terms of the Anthropic Principle, stands in need of explanation.

Just in case there are those unfamiliar with this term, Russell Stannard in his book Science and the Renewal of Belief (pages 132-139) summarises the Anthropic Principle by saying that the preconditions for life provide an infinitesimally narrow window in terms of the constraints around the range of variables permitting an appropriate big bang and the required force of gravity. These, combined with the improbability of carbon, make the odds against the existence of life in any form unbelievably long.

The odds are so daunting Paul Davies, in The Goldilock’s Enigmaalmost threw up his hands in despair (pages 292-93):

So, how come existence? . . . all the approaches seem . . . hopelessly inadequate: a unique universe which just happens to permit life by a fluke; a stupendous number of alternative . . . universes . . .; a pre-existing God . . .; or a self-creating . . . universe with observers. . . Perhaps we have reached a fundamental impasse dictated by the limitations of the human intellect.

So, we reach a point where life seems impossibly improbable, yet it exists. Something seems to be driving it to create increasingly complex forms of life, but we don’t know what. In the next post I’ll come back to the issue of complexity from an atheist’s point of view before looking at the Bahá’í perspective once more.

Footnote:

[1]. It was also a bit strange to find the name Kingsolver embedded in What Darwin Got Wrong by Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini. The initial of the writer of a piece they quote on the evolution of insect wings is ‘J’. I can find no internet evidence they are related, but it seems likely they are.

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Organic carrot harvest in Germany. Organic agriculture makes up just 1% of global farmland. Photograph: Julian Stratenschulte/EPA

In addition to the widely known challenges of man-made global warming and plastics pollution, there is a third threat on the list, which extends more widely than insect Armageddon: the decline of biodiversity. Below is a short extract. For the full post see link.

Plants, insects and organisms crucial to food production in steep decline, says UN

The world’s capacity to produce food is being undermined by humanity’s failure to protect biodiversity, according to the first UN study of the plants, animals and micro-organisms that help to put meals on our plates.

The stark warning was issued by the Food and Agriculture Organisation after scientists found evidence the natural support systems that underpin the human diet are deteriorating around the world as farms, cities and factories gobble up land and pump out chemicals.

Over the last two decades, approximately 20% of the earth’s vegetated surface has become less productive, said the report, launched on Friday.

. . . 

Many species that are indirectly involved in food production, such as birds that eat crop pests and mangrove trees that help to purify water, are less abundant than in the past, noted the study, which collated global data, academic papers and reports by the governments of 91 countries.

It found 63% of plants, 11% of birds, and 5% of fish and fungi were in decline. Pollinators, which provide essential services to three-quarters of the world’s crops, are under threat. As well as the well-documented decline of bees and other insects, the report noted that 17% of vertebrate pollinators, such as bats and birds, were threatened with extinction.

. . .

Most countries said the main driver for biodiversity loss was land conversion, as forests were cut down for farm fields, and meadows covered in concrete for cities, factories and roads. Other causes include overexploitation of water supplies, pollution, over-harvesting, the spread of invasive species and climate change.

The trend is towards uniformity. Although the world is producing more food than in the past, it is relying on ever-expanding monocultures.

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In the light of the current sequence on Climate Change and Denialism, it seemed a good time to republish  three poems and weave them in-between the other posts. 

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