Did Darwin prove reductionism true?

What are we to make of how much more fruitful science is when it’s applied to what’s purely physical than to what’s alive? That could persuade us that’s what’s purely physical and what’s alive are fundamentally different and we need to study what’s alive with something other than science. Let’s call that (methodological) dualism. Or it could tell us they operate on basically the same purely physical principles, what’s alive is just more complicated and returns results more slowly. Let’s call that reductionism.

How dry and remote that sounds! But for me it’s supremely important. That’s because it makes all the difference to something else that’s supremely important to me—the quality of my conscious experience. Think of consciousness as running on a platform. Choice between reductionism and dualism is choice of what software the platform runs on. Is it reductionist, or dualist?

I choose to believe I have that choice, and I choose to be a dualist. First, it lets me believe consciousness draws on processes not limited by the laws of physics. And, through coming to understand those processes better, that I can make my conscious experiences richer. For me that’s ultimate meaning—my conscious experiences being richer.

You may say, what matters more is what’s true and that’s reductionism. But is that truly what matters more? At the end of your life imagine looking back and reflecting, “What’s really mattered to me all along has been what I’ve been conscious of. If I’d believed I could make my conscious experiences richer, mightn’t I have looked for ways of doing so?”

That’s point one: one has the choice of believing in either dualism or reductionism, and the choice is significant and important, both for each individual and for the culture at large. Point two is, how can we make that choice? What concepts do we have available to help us?

It’s the argument that’s most often repeated that carries the most weight. That’s an argument for reductionism. It goes like this: if there were processes active in the universe that science couldn’t study or detect, it would have discovered them by now. In other words, lack of scientific evidence for those processes proves they don’t exist. It’s a notoriously weak argument but it makes intuitive sense. It can be harder to make sense of arguments for dualism.  Here’s an example: we create information. But we’re alive. Could information exist on a lifeless planet, like Mars? Information implies that something could be other than it is or could be made to become other than it’s otherwise bound to be. But in a reductionist world that isn’t possible. Put that another way: would it be possible in a reductionist world for two alternative possible outcomes for a future event to be conceived of, or does an ability to conceive of possible alternatives imply dualism? I think this is a powerful argument for dualism but it’s a squirmy kind of logic. Elsewhere on this site I’ve given other reasons for choosing dualism, I’m afraid they may appear to have a similar squirmy logic.

In this arena of vapid logics there sits an 800 pound gorilla, that fastens down the scales in favor of reductionism. That’s the mechanism Darwin proposed for evolution, natural selection, since extended by association with genetic mutation—the modern synthesis. This--today’s scientific mechanism of evolution--involves only purely physical processes. It’s hard to dispute that anything created entirely by a purely physical process is going to be purely physical too. We evolved therefore, this argument goes, we are purely physical. No dualism.

This blockbuster argument in favor of reductionism is seldom brought up in debates but looms implicit overhead. If even we, with our supposed minds, are products of a purely physical mechanism, what need is there for non-physical processes at all? With this blockbuster proof in favor of reductionism, why extend even a courtesy consideration to arguments for dualism?

This is made explicit in “The Science of Can and Can’t” by Chiara Marletto, a self-described radical reductionist: “the laws of physics… put formidable constraints on everything in our universe: on all that has occurred so far and all that will occur in the future… Their dominion extends even beyond what actually happens in the universe to encompass what can, and cannot, be made to happen” from page one. On page five she introduces living things, focusing particularly on what she says defines them, their genes, that she refers to as recipes. On page 9 she claims “It is now well understood how those have come about. Darwin’s theory of evolution explains how living entities and their stupendous biological adaptations… have come about in the absence of a designer, under no-design physical laws… What Darwin’s theory tells us is how the recipes coding for complex biological adaptations have come about without being explicitly designed. This will be key to understanding what the recipes are made of.”

Marletto’s goal is to shift the science world’s attention from what science has already discovered to what it hasn’t yet discovered, but could, what she refers to as counterfactuals. In other words, if there are things science can’t yet explain, we’re better off looking at what science hasn’t yet figured out, but could, rather than in new directions. It’s a bold new attempt to redefine the debate from the bottom up. In it, Marletto makes truth of Darwin’s theory the foundational argument for reductionism. Presented in these terms, if Darwin’s theory were to be abandoned, so would the primary argument for reductionism.

Turns out, the modern synthesis mechanism for evolution is not as decisive an argument as it is given credit for. At thethirdwayofevolution.com evolutionists as eminent as Denis Noble, James Shapiro and Eva Jablonska testify to their growing doubts about Darwinism. Darwin himself subtitled his “On the Origin of Species” with the more accurate “… the Preservation of Favoured Races.“ Essentially natural selection works by making yes-no decisions on instances of randomly occurring variations, with an efficiency of around 1% (according to Ronald Fisher). This mechanism can select among limited choices, such as alleles--alternative forms of existing genes--resulting in selection among races. But the creation of a new gene would require an almost infinite number of yes-no choices, for one out of 20 amino acids in as many of 500 positions along a protein for example, far beyond the capacity of yes-no choices in finite space and time. Making natural selection the deciding factor in whether to go with reductionism or dualism is a risky bet. If natural selection turns out not to be the primary mechanism of evolution, I think the loss to science would shift the debate in favor of dualism. Then the field’s wide open. That’s exciting. Counterfactuality, not so much.

Challenge to purely physical mechanisms of evolution

I see the past four centuries as having introduced us to two major scientific revolutions. However, I see the first of these revolutions, involving the physical sciences, having distracted us from exploring the second, involving how we evolved, holding us back from extracting wisdom from it. How might we get access to that wisdom?

The second revolution was announced in 1794 in Zoonomia by Erasmus Darwin, Charles Darwin’s grandfather. Erasmus outlined all the theories of evolution later picked up and developed by Lamarck, Robert Chambers (“Vestiges”) and his grandson Charles (natural selection). But a fourth has lain dormant. Here it is:

"… in the great length of time, since the earth began to exist…would it be too bold to imagine:

  • all warm-blooded animals have arisen from one living filament
  • possessing the faculty of continuing to improve by its own inherent activity,
  • delivering down those improvements by generation to its posterity."

Today his “living filament” seems an astonishingly accurate prediction of something that wouldn’t be discovered for another two centuries, the genome. In effect Erasmus is asking, could the genome be the agent that, “by its own inherent activity,” drives evolution? Up to now, all that’s been available to support evolution since life began has appeared to be the physical environment. But Erasmus reminds us that the genome too has been a constant presence throughout evolution and, unlike the material world, as evolved creatures changed so did their genomes.

To allow for taking Erasmus’ suggestion seriously I challenge two assertions coming out of the first revolution.

  • Physical determinism: all events occur as determined by the laws of physics.
  • Mechanisms of evolution are purely physical.

Here’s my reasoning: Experience tells us that consciousness and brain can communicate with one another in both directions. For example, there’s no aspect of conscious experience I can’t decide to write about, that I can’t make my brain give physical expression to. If my brain can respond to that decision and report what I’m conscious of, I see no reason to doubt it can respond to any other decisions I arrive at consciously. For example, I can decide I want to know more about consciousness itself and make my body order a book about it. Such experiences persuade me that body and mind can work together as one. And, for this capability to have evolved, I conclude, brain and mind must surely have evolved together, as a single capability or set of adaptations. For that to have happened, human physical bodies and consciousnesses must be able to take on some combined form that can evolve as one. So in terms of both our conscious experiences and how evolution progresses, brain and mind appear to make up a single entity.

Physicalists account for this by making mind merely another rendering of the purely-physical brain. Us having any kind of volition independent of physical laws they say can only be an illusion. I understand there are some people, “aphants,” who don’t have a mind’s eye and aren’t aware of arriving at decisions consciously (see “my girlfriend has no inner monologue” on youtube.com) and I can see why they would deny experience consciousness any independent existence.

I see a way around this objection. It has to do with the creation of novelty over the course of evolution. Mars and the moon appear to be purely physical. They display very little evidence of novelty, no more than you’d expect on a purely-physical body. But on the Earth novelty abounds, in the form of species of living creatures. Could that be due to purely physically-deterministic processes or does it indicate there are other kinds of processes at work?

I think this is open to study. At the end of this paper I suggest how to do that. When I apply this to the combination of genetic mutation and natural selection it falls hopelessly short.

In such a situation, what is it reasonable to do? What I did was, I looked elsewhere for clues to what the mechanism of evolution could be. I got a clue from our ability to create novelty, in engineering and architecture for example. New designs do not seem to arise initially from physical forces acting on prior designs, but consciously, creatively, in human minds. If we assume this capability evolved, that tells us the processes of evolution can engage both physical processes and processes of consciousness.

And where might this creative agent of evolution be lodged? I will follow Erasmus Darwin and suppose it to be lodged in the genome.

This conclusion is radical enough to amount to a second scientific revolution. I think it offers us wisdom of two kinds. First, it suggests we’ll find far more wisdom within us than we’re likely to expect if we limit ourselves to having evolved through a purely physical process. Second, it suggests we can find wisdom in the natural world, by how the processes of evolution manifest themselves creatively in the capabilities of living creatures.

APPENDIX. Method for assessing if a purely physical mechanisms such as genetic mutation plus natural selection could account for the evolution of an interbreeding human population of one million individuals in the one million years during which its evolution occurred most rapidly.
Estimate the capability of that mechanism:

  • If generation length is 20 years, one million years corresponds to 50,000 generations.
  • If for the efficiency of natural selection we use the 1% Ronald Fisher used in his equations that the modern synthesis got based on, the effective number of generations is 5000.
  • If you allow each woman to have had, say, eight progeny of which only two survive, then natural selection gets to select for changes among 3 billion nucleotides by rejecting only three progeny out of every four.
  • From these data in this population ( taking into account the order in which they would be needed, see below) calculate how many particular changes to genes natural selection could select for. 

Estimate what has to be accounted for:

  • Estimate how many changes to the chromosome must have occurred and become widespread to account for rapid evolution of characteristics in that population in one million years. Include consideration of changes in development from embryo to adult. Allow also for continued selection of existing characteristics to prevent their loss through disuse.
  • Estimate how many beneficial mutations to our genome that many changes would require, taking into account the order in which they’d be needed. Given that random damage to a blueprint if more likely to be harmful than beneficial, for each beneficial mutation allow a corresponding, say, one hundred harmful but not fatal mutations, that make equal but opposite contributions to fitness. Given Fisher’s efficiency for natural selection of 1%, confirm that overall fitness rises as both beneficial and harmful mutations accumulate generation by generation.

I've treated this at greater length in "Are You Wonderful? Good Science Says, Yes." (Amazon)

Doubts about modern science

My doubts about modern science originate in three observations.

  • First, I experience consciousness as not being physical--my thoughts lack properties common to physical objects such as having a location or size or being countable or being conserved and have properties physical objects lack such as leading on from one another in consciousness in ways physical objects can’t. I experience thoughts as real, they’re an everyday reality, they no more spiritual or supernatural than matter is.

  • Second, how living creatures develop and how species evolve show far more finesse and control than I see when physical processes alone act on physical objects. Physical objects and living creatures have coexisted on Earth for billions of years without coming to resemble each other. They have fundamentally different natures and follow different trajectories.

  • Third, anything I can think about I can express physically, for example in writing and speaking, so brain chemistry and conscious experiences aren’t separate from one another, they’re aware of each other, they’re continuous with one another. They’re a single thing that will have evolved together. Their evolution will have involved both physical and mental processes.

From these observations I conclude that physical and evolutionary processes are distinct and different in nature yet equally real, neither is spiritual or supernatural. Yet despite having different natures they can interact to support and express conscious experiences. And, by interacting, they drive evolution.

Seems to me, given my observations, it’s reasonable to arrive at these conclusions. But given they’re incompatible with today’s scientific wisdom, what is one to do? I maintain this web site, and write books. Is that OK?

A new population statistics

Here’s a critique of neo-Darwinism that, unusually for me, I express numerically.

Consider a species of elephants consisting of an average of one million inter-breeding individuals evolving into a new species over the course of one million years.

A female elephant has progeny over the course of 50 years. Call that a generation. Each generation is one opportunity per successive pair of elephants for the action of natural selection. Allotting 50 years to a generation, one million years per successive pair of elephants offers 20,000 potential opportunities for natural selection.

How efficient is natural selection at taking those potential opportunities? The ultimate expert Ronald Fisher in his equations used a figure for that of 1%. That would leave natural selection only 200 actual opportunities per pair of elephants in a million years. Spreading that over 500,000 pairs in the population gives a total for opportunities for selection of 100 million.

What must each act of selection involve? Female elephants have on average six progeny in their lifetimes, from which two must survive. So each opportunity is the culling of only two progeny for each one selected. That’s a very coarse selection tool.

How many items must that tool select for? All those involved in adaptive changes, of course, but also all those needed for continued survival. Independently-living creatures that become parasites over time lose functions they no longer need, so selection must act on our elephants to maintain all the assets they need for independent living. If natural selection is to be our primary mechanism of evolution we must come up with a figure for this. Making every amino acid in every protein in the body an asset to be maintained alone adds up to 50 million, half our total number of opportunities for selection. Maintaining all elephants’ genes would amount to three billion assets to be maintained, far in excess of the opportunities open for selection available to natural selection.

Also, if we are to make the action of genetic mutation plus natural selection our primary mechanism for maintaining a species' fitness, that mechanism must compensate for what's likely to happen in each generation when the blueprint of a successfully-working organism suffers the random damage needed to generate beneficial mutations. Suppose that, besides neutral changes and those harmful enough to forestall reproduction, for each mutation that's beneficial there are 100 that are merely harmful. Then with each generation there's a large decrease in fitness. Can the increase in fitness due to the occasional beneficial mutation offset the rapid loss of fitness resulting from that rapidly-growing preponderance of harmful mutations? Natural selection only 1% efficient would in each generation reduce each 100 harmful mutations only to 99. In his laying of the foundations for the modern synthesis Fisher omits an equation summing up the combination of fitness contributions of both beneficial and harfmful mutations that would have shown this. He tallies inheritances from only beneficial mutations.

From both these sets of figures it seems to me that random damage to genes plus a 1%-efficient selection for fitness can't account for how the evolved world appears. 

The logic of natural selection still prompts calls for eugenics

Natural selection is no mere idle fancy. Every so often the logic behind it stirs a call for eugenics. Last time around evolutionists acted as sponsors and consultants for over 30 states in the USA, promoting surgical interventions to stall our species' descent into oblivion. Now "Unless we embrace genetic engineering, we will become a sickly and frail species" says Johnjoe McFadden, reader in molecular microbiology at the University of Surrey. Is natural selection so established a theory that we must take to the tumbrills and the guilotine once more?

Natural selection is notoriously hard to critique. Logically, it must contribute to evolution to some extent, just as, logically, friction must to some extent contribute to driving an automobile. But just as friction doesn't actually drive the automobile, natural selection may not be what actually drives evolution. How can we think our way through this? We seem to lack an off-the-shelf set of concepts adequate for pinning down the issue. Complicating matters is the endorsement natural selection receives as the effective agent in evolution from sophisticated statistics that has withstood criticism for more than a lifetime, since 1930. It's notoriously hard to argue against statistics, particularly statistics that no one any longer appears to understand. In biology today it functions almost as divine inspiration. I'm referring to Ronald A. Fisher's "The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection."

I've arrived at a context which may make it easier to evaluate natural selection, and to assess Fisher's work. It's a physical situation that I think presents us with a parallel with the action of natural selection.

Compare the genetic blueprints for the superb fitness of existing species of living creatures to a range of steep smooth-sided mountains—perfect cones of rock. Now imagine each one undergoing random damage. For the genetic blueprints this would be random changes to individual genes, for the mountains this would be random avalanches. What happens to the species’ genetic blueprints would be comparable to what happens to the mountains—just as those mountains would steadily degrade and flatten out as avalanches erode their sides, those genetic blueprints would become progressively degraded and code for less fitness. Eventually the mountains flatten out as a plain, and as fitness sinks below some threshold those species go extinct.

Now introduce natural selection. For the mountains this would take the physical form of resistance to the tumbling of the rocks, and small pebbles occasionally being deflected upwards. Very occasionally they may end up higher than where they started out, even atop the mountain they’re a part of. But they’re only top of a much lower mountain. Similarly, natural selection will lead to the culling of some of the worst damage done to fitness, and to individual genes occasionally increasing in the fitness they confer—so-called beneficial genes. But this is only a small addition to a much lower level of overall fitness. In both cases, the overall effect is of a cumulative loss of the original perfection.

This is so obviously how the world works that it’s astonishing it isn’t widely recognized. Why is that? I believe it stems from an error in Fisher's work. Fisher came up with a statistical formula that he applied to only how the frequencies of beneficial genes can compound to predominate at their allele, no matter how small the efficiency of natural selection is, if you allow it to operate over hundreds of thousands of generations. Where he erred, I suppose, is in not applying this same formula also to the frequencies of harmful genes. If he had I think he’d have realized harm would overwhelm fitness in only a few generations as I think is apparent in the physical parallel with the mountains above. If you tracked only how occasional pebbles would be flung upwards in the course of avalanches you would end with the mountains growing taller and taller over millennia, clearly an impossibility.

I believe the entire modern synthesis rests on Fisher’s 1930 book. Discredit that and bang goes the modern synthesis, and any basis for eugenics. One may not be able to say why eugenics isn’t valid, but one can say “Darwinism” doesn’t make it so, which puts the burden of proof in the other court. Just saying Fisher’s wrong isn’t enough, I‘ve found, because no one takes a verbal attack on statistics seriously, that’s why I instead use the physical comparison above. It sums as, contributions to fitness due to occasional damage to genes that’s beneficial are offset by a continuous massive overall loss of fitness due to harmful damage, against which those contributions can make little impression, leading to rapid extinction. I wish some professional working statistician would re-examine Fisher's work along these lines and publish the results. Any volunteers?