Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Story of Evolution

What fascinates me about evolution is not so much the science of it, but the philosophy. The science seems pretty straightforward and, well, boring. Organisms undergo random modifications, some of which are passed on with greater probability to descendants than others, and so become a more or less permanent part of the genetic heritage. These modifications accumulate to the point that, many generations on, the descendants bear only little resemblance to their ancestors.

So far, so boring. It sounds like geology. A river flowed over the same patch of ground for millions of years, gradually wearing down the rock underneath it, creating the Grand Canyon. Great.

It's when evolution turns from a dry account to a story that my interest perks up, as in a quote from Michael Shermer at the beginning of the Introduction to Jerry Coyne's Why Evolution Is True:

Darwin matters because evolution matters. Evolution matters because science matters. Science matters because it is the preeminent story of our age, an epic saga about who we are, where we came from, and where we are going.

Now we are talking! I've always been a sucker for history, especially "epic sagas" with deep meaning - like the Civil War or the New Testament, for instance. But here is where the philosophy comes in. Freedom is essential to a story. A story is the account of the decisions of a free agent as he grapples with the demands of existence. A story must be told because there is no a priori way to predict the actions of a free agent with assurance; it is only in the act itself that the decision reveals itself. Will Rick assist Victor Laszlo in escaping from Casablanca, or turn him in to the Germans? Will MacBeth murder his way to the throne of Scotland? Will Gen. Richard Ewell hesitate at the end of the first day and cost the Confederates victory at the Battle of Gettysburg, and miss perhaps the best Confederate chance to win the war? If decisions follow of necessity from first principles, then there is no story, only logic and empirical necessity. When water flows over rock it wears it down; this is what happened over a long, long time and made the Grand Canyon. And if Rick must of necessity turn Laszlo into the Germans, there is no Casablanca.

Chance and contingency are no substitutes for freedom. If an earthquake occurs and diverts the Colorado River two miles west, this changes the location of the Grand Canyon but we still don't have a story, let alone an epic saga. Neither is Casablanca a story if the events are entirely driven by chance and contingency; say, if all that matters to Laszlo's safety is whether it happens to rain on the day he leaves.

Evolution, its proponents insist, is a scientific theory like any other, as for example geology and astronomy. There can't really be any epic sagas in evolution, then, anymore than there are in geology, because there is no more freedom in evolution than there is in geology. What is Shermer talking about, then, in the words I just quoted? There is a studied ambiguity in Shermer's words. He writes that Darwin and evolution matter because science matters, and science matters because it is the "preeminent story of our age." Now there is a story of science, insofar as there is a history of scientific endeavor. Galileo spying the moons of Jupiter or Darwin's journey on the Beagle or Freidrich Kekule discovering the structure of benzene in a dream; these are events full of freedom, drama and danger. And the history of science does have much to tell us about who we are, where we came from, and where we are going. We are a creature who not only lives in an environment, but a creature who can investigate, understand, dominate and transcend his environment.

But I get the sense that this isn't really what Shermer is talking about. It's not the history of scientific endeavor, but the science itself, specifically the science of evolution, that tells us who we are, where we came from, and where we are going. Evolution, then, can't be just another science like geology. As the "preeminent story of our age", it must be the story of stories, or the science of sciences. Geology may reveal the nature and history of rocks, but evolution reveals the nature and history of man, the creator and conductor of the science of geology. Man is also the creator of evolutionary science, so evolution has the further peculiarity that it is a science of itself. Darwinists speak of the evolution of religious belief, but there must also be an evolution of evolutionary belief, as there is an evolution of everything else.

This raises several puzzling questions about evolution. Every story has a storyteller, and so must evolution, the preeminent story of our age. Just who is telling the story, and how is it he is able to tell it? The second question is: Who are the characters in the story, the ones whose freedom makes the story a story?

In his first chapter, Jerry Coyne summarizes evolution in the following sentence:

Life on earth evolved gradually beginning with one primitive species - perhaps a self-replicating molecule - that lived more than 3.5 billion years ago; it then branched out over time, throwing off many new and diverse species; and the mechanism for most (but not all) of evolutionary change is natural selection. (p. 3)

I will only note in passing that Coyne uses the word itself ("evolved") in its own definition. Coyne elaborates by saying that evolution consists of six components:

When you break that statement down, you find that it really consists of six components: evolution, gradualism, speciation, common ancestry, natural selection, and nonselective mechanisms of evolutionary change.

Conspicuously absent from either the original statement or the elaboration is any notion of freedom. This is as it should be so far as science is concerned: The elements of a scientific theory are thoroughly determined by that theory, as mass, force and acceleration are determined in the science of mechanics. But a storyteller requires distance from a story in order to tell it, as the story of The Princess Bride is told by Peter Falk to a little boy in the film of that name, or Philip Marlowe tells the story of The Big Sleep in retrospect. We immediately see the humor when Woody Allen plays on this truth by having his character in Annie Hall "break the frame" and speak directly to the audience, exercising a freedom he cannot possibly have as a character in the story.

Well, we are all part of the story of evolution, are we not? If we are in the story, how can we tell the story? The very fact that we can tell the story seems to be proof that the theory of evolution cannot be the entire truth about the nature of man. There must be some further truth - a truth that permits man to know evolution for what it is (and to possibly inflate it with a grandiosity it can't possibly have.)

And who are the characters in the story? The airplane that carries Laszlo away from Casablanca, the gun with which Rick shoots Major Strasser, the knife MacBeth uses as an instrument of murder, are all props. Props are things with no freedom used in a story by things that have freedom; that is, people. But if people ultimately do not have freedom - and evolution, by its nature, has no place for freedom - then they must be props. For whom are they props? This leads to the search for the true characters of the story of evolution. Originally, the characters of evolutionary history were species, as in the "origin of species." Individual organisms - this amoeba, that squirrel, you, me - are props for the species of which we are representatives. The story of evolution is the story of species struggling to succeed in the survival of the fittest. This worked because the mechanism of mutation, until recently, was unknown and therefore mysterious. Freedom is the essential mystery and will find it's philosophical place in the locus of mystery, wherever that locus is according to a particular philosophy (and every philosophy will have it, explicitly or implicitly.) Since mutation was mysterious, freedom found its implicit home in it, and a mythology of the "survival of the fittest" with its "arms races" was born. 

With the advance of genetic science, the mystery of organismic change was dispelled and species lost their ability to serve as characters in the evolutionary story. Now it is genes, as in Richard Dawkins's "selfish genes", that are offered as the true characters of evolutionary history. People are merely carriers - props - of genes, and species are merely the outward manifestation - the costume - worn by genes. Instead of the mythology of the survival of the fittest between species, we get the mythology of clever, ruthless genes manipulating biological forms for their own ends. Some day, and perhaps this day has already come - I don't know - the details of genetic mutations will themselves become known and lose their mystery, and genes will be dethroned as the characters of evolutionary history. A new protagonist, the "ruthless cosmic ray", perhaps, will kick genes off the stage, the same way genes kicked species off the stage.

Of course cosmic rays, genes or species can't ultimately be any more free than people are, because there is no freedom in evolutionary theory. This is the philosophical dilemma of Darwinism. The ultimate dream of evolutionary theory is to explain man - "who we are, where we came from, and where we are going." Now man is manifestly a free being. The key to explaining him will not be like the key to explaining the solar system, which was Kepler's breakthrough that the planets travel in ellipses rather than circles. Such a "closed-form" answer works for planets because planets are not free. The key to the nature of a free being like man will be getting his story right, because we know free beings through stories. So Darwinists are forced to tell a story, but since their philosophy has no place for freedom, it also has no place for the free characters essential to a story, and so Darwinism becomes the never-ending hunt for the true protagonists of evolution.


EdT said...

You quote Coyne as saying:

"Evolution matters because science matters. Science matters because it is the preeminent story of our age, an epic saga about who we are, where we came from, and where we are going."

From the get go I don't really see much of a story here from an evolutionist's perspective. He already know the answers:
We are a complicated chemical reaction and no more, we individually and as a species came from raw elements and that is where each of us is returning. There is not much of a story left, just some details to work out between the beginning and the end. I guess you can have a story where you know the beginning and end of the tale, then the story is about the why. In this story or any strictly scientific story there can never be a why only a how. Hence there is no story.

To clarify my how versus why distinction; we know how gravity works, i.e. we can write an equation for it but we have no reason or purpose for why it works that way. I am sure you can expand on this if needed in a more comprehensive philosophical phasion.
- Ed

David T. said...


That's a good way of putting it. Free agents have a why, but non-free and non-intelligent agents only have a how.

The other thing I was trying to get at was that free agents have a "what", as in what will happen is undetermined until it actually happens, unlike the trajectory of particles, which is predictable given an initial state.