Posts Tagged ‘genes’

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.


[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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Parenting Styles

Rather as with climate, this is a complex topic which it is potentially dangerous to simplify. Some earlier posts have looked at how the Bahá’í community is seeking to apply its spiritual principles to this issue. It is all too clear to us that, in examining the impact of parenting, we can’t discount the effects of other extremely powerful variables in the wider environment.

The Spirit Level picks up on the destructive effects of inequality, a serious problem in Bahá’í terms, upon child development. For instance, on page 105 the authors write:

More unequal countries and more unequal states have worse educational attainment.

Also, twin studies alone are enough to suggest that our genes can influence our development even though there is still much room for variation.  Studies with Rhesus monkeys clearly demonstrate that, even when a genetic predisposition to social anxiety and other problems exists (for technical details see Fonagy et al: pages 116-116), a bad outcome is not inevitable:

Calm mothering of these genetically vulnerable individuals not only will reduce the risk associated with this genotype, but there is some evidence that if they receive particularly sensitive caregiving, here individuals will develop special capacities of resilience.

(Fonagy et al: page 117)

(Unfortunately this intriguing book should come with a warning: ‘This book contains strong jargon. Completely unsuitable for anyone with a jargon allergy.’ Jargon shock may not be fatal but it can seriously damage your self-esteem.)

So, such factors as genes and economic circumstances do not completely determine the outcome. It would therefore be foolish in the extreme to ignore the critical role of parenting in the formation of character and through that the future of society, even though parenting is not the only factor at work.

On the Demos website there is a particularly thorough review of  this whole topic. Clicking on the link will give access to a free download.

To summarise their view, the report investigates how parenting style influences the development of character in the early years. Using a typology that measures four different parenting styles – tough love, laissez-faire, authoritarian and disengaged – they found that ‘tough love’ children are more than twice as likely to display strong character capability in the early years than those with ‘disengaged’ parents. Conversely, children with ‘disengaged’ parents are more than three times as likely to display weak character capability in the early years than children with ‘tough love’ parents.

They analyse the skills acquired by children as a result of a good parenting style, i.e. application, self-regulation and empathy and the benefits these bring in their train. They place their discussion of all this in the complex context of the many factors that can impact on a child’s development and also explore the policy implications.

Concerning policy they feel:

Nanny State

There are some who would argue that the performance of parents in building the character of their children is no business of the state in any case – that this is a private, civic issue rather than a concern of government. But the implications for life chances are such that character development must be seen as a collective concern. The term ‘nanny state’ is used pejoratively to describe government meddling in the private concerns of citizens. But if there is one area where government intervention is justified, it is in precisely the area of life signalled by the term ‘nannying’ – the development of children’s capabilities.

I would be tempted to substitute the word ‘community’ for state and/or government in that paragraph but otherwise feel they make a powerful point.

In the short space of little more than 100 pages they cover a huge amount of ground. I am still in the process of digesting the rich body of material they pull together to make their case. Already I am convinced that this paper deserves to be carefully read by all of us. And it has no jargon warning!

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