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The following is a list of what I think a theory of evolution should account for. Such a list could help us judge whether any particular theory does an adequate job. It could also help us identify quickly what we agree and disagree about.
This a personal list--read each point as starting with “I think…”
- Species first appear in the fossil record where the species most like them already live. This suggests that species are somehow generated from each other, rather than each being created independently. I see this as the original meaning of “evolution.”
- All of life uses the same code for genes and proteins, suggesting that the process began only once. It can therefore be an extremely unusual process occurring on average only once in a billion years. This means it may bear very little relation to any other processes we’ve been able to study. We shouldn’t let our familiarity with those processes limit what we hypothesize may be possible for evolution.
- As evolution proceeds, corresponding changes happen in genes, sometimes genes being changed singly, sometimes many at a time.
- Evolution is creative in ways non-living matter on Earth has not been--once there were no multi-celled creatures, now there are elephants and giraffes. Evolution is creative in ways we can appreciate from our own experience of being creative.
- Progress in the “intelligence” of creatures, in the sense that we talk of the “intelligence” in a computer, once begun seems to advance exponentially, eg in nervous systems, and brains. This suggests evolution is a process that can “learn” over time. (This should be measurable, for now it is just an impression.)
- Evolution can produce creatures that experience consciousness and free will. If through those experiences we can violate the limits set by today’s physics then evolution may not be bound by that physics either.
- If evolution is creative, if it can learn, and if it can generate creatures able to experience consciousness and free will, then we may refer to it as “intelligent.” Not doing so may lead us more into error than being scrupulous in not using the word “intelligent” in relation to evolution.
- The products of evolution generate more progeny than are needed for their mere replacement, they also freely eat each other. All those progeny seem to want to avoid being eaten, yet they must be eaten for other species to continue. This may tell us that the intelligence implicit in evolution is not being applied “for” individual creatures. Who else could it be working “for”? Who else benefits? Genes? (Are these legitimate questions? It’s a kind of question that faculties evolved in us find meaningful.)
- Because the tissues in living creatures that support development, homeostasis and behavior all evolved, what we know about those properties gives us a measure of the capabilities of evolution we need to account for. An example would be the very complex behaviors spiders show mastery of without needing any training.
- Living creatures generally come well equipped to cope with their environment and the other living creatures that impact their niche.
I welcome your evaluation of such a list.
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"This house believes that natural selection plus mutation fail to adequately account for evolution."
Get your English Department to challenge your Biology Department to debate this proposition. The Biology Department has everything it needs: 150 years of accumulated theories and data. What does the English Department need? This site, and copies of our sponsor's books.
The key to having fun over this lies in the word "adequately." What does that mean in this context? Lacks proof of being the mechanism of evolution? Here you can draw on "Big Guns Take On Darwin" in our "Critiques of Darwinism" section. Fails to account for human evolution? For this you can check out Alfred Wallace's papers on the subject. Or fails to provide a basis for the self, which you expect of an "adequate" creation story--see our "Humanities & evolution" section.
This should sharpen wits on both sides of the aisle, providing an excellent exercise for brighter students and bringing the attention of both students and staff to the issues.
Send us transcripts of any such debates, and we can post them here. Also alternative wordings of the proposition, and any other materials you think might be useful.
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I recommend using creative writing as a sort of lab. It can be used to prime the hypothesis-generating engine. I write quickly to setup a sort-of wireframe situation, then I write myself into a challenge that articulates the issue I'm trying to explore, and see what ideas spring up under that pressure.
Of course, fortune favors the prepared mind. The more familiar you are with your subject matter the better the process works. The process operates at the speed of thought, it's limited to what's already available to consciousness. You can't interupt the process to do research.
Below is an example. My self-appointed task was to explore how genes could maintain symmetry in a developing embryo. I began with a fairy story mash-up, pairing a royal household as embryo with a gnome to act as driver of development. A gnome is a narrative device allowing for the use of magic. I hastily built my scenario, cast myself into the challenge--and nothing. My imagination broke under the burden, as you'll see. I wrapped up the story quickly and put it to one side.
But a week or so later I returned to the story and picked up where I'd left off. In a new resolution I found the missing principle.Here’s how it went.
A prince (that’s my surrogate) and his new consort, snug newlyweds in a one-room cabin (the eggcell), are planning to add on enough rooms to make a nice new palace for themselves.
Funny, he'd never asked his parents anything about their palace, how they built it or how long it took. He just knew they used a manual that contained all the information you needed, and that a copy of this manual stood in a cupboard in his one-room cabin, next to the photocopier.
"Let's begin," said the prince, and he opened the cupboard.
Inside was not one manual, but two dozen huge, thick volumes. When he took one down and opened it, he could barely read the tiny type that covered each page. It was nothing but strings of symbols. He brought out each of the volumes, and thumbed through them, but there no plan or any sign of instructions for how to use the manuals. What was he to do?
At this point, there was a creaking sound in the ceiling, and a trapdoor appeared that the prince had never noticed before. And popping round the edge of the trapdoor came the face of a gnome. "Can I help?" the gnome asked.
The prince had never seen the gnome before. "Who are you," he asked.
"I'm the builder of this room," said the gnome. "Every room in the old palace was built by gnomes like us, and we lived in these attics." The prince helped the gnome down. "Then you know what these mean?" he asked, pointing to the pile of manuals. The gnome said he did. "Then you can show me, and we'll get building," said the prince.
But the gnome said no, only gnomes know how to build from these plans. The plans were much too complicated for anyone else to understand. From those manuals, you could build another palace just like your parents’, he said, with its thousands and thousands of rooms, each one different and richly furnished. But you had to know where in the two dozen manuals to look for every little detail, and how to make every one of the hundreds of materials needed. Why, it would take you more than a lifetime to learn how, he said. No, only gnomes know how. You'll need a pair of gnomes for each room you build, they'll build the room for you, and they'll have a couple of little gnomes that'll build the next room, and so on. Each new gnome will know how to build the next room needed.
And sure enough, the gnome went back into the attic, and within half an hour returned with two little gnomes.
The two new gnomes went straight to work. They took each manual, used the room's photocopier to copy it from end to end and rebound the sheets, so they had a copy just like the original. Then they set to work building. They seemed to know just where in the 23 manuals to look for whatever they needed. In no time at all they had made another room adjoining the first, everything specified by the plans, even its own photocopier and attic, where they took up residence. And shortly there was another pair of gnomes. And another. And soon the palace began to take shape.
I've set up my wire-frame situation. Now to construct for myself a challenge. I begin by surveying around what it is I want to know.
One day, while the prince was resting in his room, he got curious. He knocked on the trapdoor in the ceiling in his room and asked the gnome to come down.
"I don't remember my parents ever mentioning that I'd need gnomes as well as the manuals," he said.
"That's because they never really understood what we did," replied the gnome.
"And I'm not sure I do either," said the prince. "Tell me, how did you learn where to go for everything in those enormous manuals, at every stage?"
"Oh, I didn't learn it, Your Highness. Nobody could learn that much information. I was born knowing how."
"But every room is different. How do you know what kind of room to build? Where's the plan of the palace that tells you what size and kind of room to build?"
"There's no plan of the palace," said the gnome. "We just know how by who's building the rooms around us. We just make a room to fit in with what they're doing."
"But what about the plumbing system" asked the prince. "It runs right throughout the entire building, and keeps growing bigger as the building grows. How do you know how to keep extending the part of it that runs through your room so it serves the rooms further down, beyond your neighbors?"
The gnome opened his mouth, but seemed lost for words.
"And, unlike you gnomes, I visit both wings of the palace, and they're both identical, down to the very last item of furnishing and the sizes of every floorboard and window. How does a gnome working in one wing know what the gnome's doing who's working in the corresponding room in the other wing? All this information couldn't be in the manuals, because the manuals are the same in every room, while what's happening in each room is different, and although the manuals don't change, each room keeps changing to fit in with what's happening elsewhere in the palace.
But the gnome, seeing the prince so concerned, came over and sat next to him. He placed his hand on the prince's knee. "Look inside my cap," he said gently.
The challenge don't have to be clever, It's just a device to prompt the imagination.
The prince removed the gnome's cap, and saw a staircase winding down inside the gnome's body. He was astonished; he didn't realize the gnome had cast a spell on him so he'd be small enough to look inside. Treading down this staircase into the gnome, he found himself inside an enormous cavern, filled with the most extraordinary and wonderful machinery, such as he'd never seen before. The whole place hummed with the sound of the thousand engines that powered all the other machinery, so the whole cavern seemed to be alive, shimmering and vibrating. He wandered for what seemed like hours, never seeing the same piece of machinery twice, or even recognizing what any of them was for. The cavern inside the gnome was much, much bigger than the old palace had been. It seemed to go on for ever
The trap is set. I have all possible magic at my disposal. What will I, as creative writer, come up with?
Well, in this case I came up dry. Apparently there wasn't enough magic down there to accomplish the task, or not magic of the right kind.
Suddenly the prince found himself back in his room sitting next to the gnome, who was removing his hand from the prince's knee. "That's what tells us how to use the manuals," said the gnome.
"But, what's inside you is much more complicated than even the manuals themselves," said the prince.
The gnome nodded.
"Then I've got one last question," said the prince. "I understand that a photocopier to copy the manuals is built into the plan for each room, and gets built as part of the room itself. That doesn't seem so surprising. And I can assume that the first gnome arrived along with the first copy of the manuals, right?"
The gnome nodded.
"But how do you...Er...reproduce? You're not just a bunch of pages I can put on a photocopier. Where does the gnome for each new room come from, and how does he know which room in the palace he's building? If I knew that, I think I'd understand this palace much better."
At this point, the gnome turned away from the prince and faced over in my direction. “This isn’t going to work,” he said. I looked around to see who he was talking to. I'd never had any of my characters talk to me directly before. But there was no one but me.
“What did you say? I asked.
“ I said, this isn’t going to work,” he repeated. And then he just stared at me.
The insolence of it took my breath away.
“Don’t just sit there, make it work.” I said.
He got up and walked to the door. He turned. “If you’ve nothing else for me to do, I’ll be going.”
I remained speechless. He paused briefly, then opened the door, passed through and closed it behind him.
When I'd recovered my wits I vowed to get even with him. Sure enough, a few weeks later I saw In my morning paper a story about a new financier who was taking Wall Street by storm, with a photo. It was my nefarious gnome. I noted the address, and planned a surprise visit.
It was lunchtime. I had positioned myself next to the entrance of the building. Sure enough, In a few minutes my gnome, dressed In an expensive and I must admit very flattering suit, came out with two companions. As they walked past me I called out, "Gnome, Gnome." He stopped, turned, and faced me. "Yes?" he said calmly.
I said things I shouldn't have said, I know that. After a moment he turned back, murmured a word or two to his companions, and they continued walking. "I'll never use you in a story again," I said, and fuming I returned home.
But I don't know, a gnome that can manage a cell In your body and then go on to run a multi-national corporation, that's a character it's hard to discard.
This is where I broke off. I'd failed to come up with any hypothesis under pressure, but I'd left my story in a state where could pick it up again. And that's what I did.
I wasn't surprised a few weeks later when the phone rang. It was my gnome. "Things haven't quite worked out," he said. "Can I return? Can you find something for me to do"
"You've got to fix it," I said, when he walked in. He took a seat. "There's been no construction since you left. Get to work. Do whatever you have to do."
Here's where gnomes are useful in stories, particularly gnomes with experience In the financial industry. They're extra smart. You just tell them to do something, and it's their job to figure out how. They use magic to get it done. You just take notes.
"Well, don't just sit there," I said. "Get on with it."
"It's already begun," he answered. "Everything's working OK."
And it was, just like that. I didn't have any notes, any idea what he did. It took me some time to realize it was all in his head. And In that wireless doodad he brought with him from his job in finance. He'd wired up all the other gnomes so he knew everything that was going on. It wasn't those huge volumes that told him what to do, It was him. He knew everything, down to every detail, up to the working of the whole palace.
The magic principle was simply that genomes had to communicate over long distances. In the next story I wrote this gnome turned into a butler, smart as all butlers are in the ways of the world. That butler turned into a deranged and sinister autistic girl. That story I rewrote, giving my heroine a sunnier disposition. That inspired the writing of a novel where this girl's intuitions were made the basis of a TV series for children. Eventually I reduced the story about the girl to excerpts that I dropped in at intervals through the novel. I published it under the title "Me and The Genies." The gnome had become a universe of genies.
No, this isn't science. But in an area where we may not for a century or two have the means to conduct science, as I believe is true of evolution, a forcing ground like this might save us from claiming as science an idea so preposterous as the Modem Synthesis. In such a period, the humanities have the better tools.
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I greatly admire the psychologist Julian Jaynes, as portrayed in his book “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind,” first published in 1976. This semi-textbook, primary inspiration for my own interest in the self, was at one time rumored to be the Book of the Month Club’s all-time non-fiction best-seller.
Here are some of the directions Jaynes took in the course of studying the historical and psychological origins of consciousness, in the order he mentions them. Remember, he had to have undertaken all this prior to publication of his book in 1976. These subjects were not all so trendy or obvious then as they have since become.
• A survey of philosophical theories about consciousness.
• Some youthful experimental work on whether mimosa plants learn when exposed repeatedly to intense light.
• Experiments on behaviorism involving running individual paramecia (microscopic animals) in a small maze, followed up with similar work on flatworms, earthworms, fish, and reptiles.
• Research on early concepts of the location of consciousness in the brain, published in 1970 as “The Problems of Animate Motion in the Seventeenth Century” in the Journal of the History of Ideas.
• Study of the words used in the Iliad to express emotions and aspects of the self, continued on into the Odyssey and later Greek documents. He tracked the changing frequencies of these words, and showed how they converged to become a vocabulary for consciousness.
• Study of the functions of gods in ancient psychology.
• Study of hallucinations, both in the ancient world and in modern psychotics.
• Brain anatomy associated with the two-hemispheres hypothesis.
• Primate social behavior.
• Study of the origins of language, published as “The Evolution of language in the Late Pleistocene” in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences in 1976.
• Study of early tombs for what aspect of self they show awareness of.
• Survey of ancient statuary for illustrations of sites for ancient cities being chosen as a result of auditory hallucinations.
• Measurement of eye-to-head size in Mesoamerican and ancient Eurasian statues.
• Mustering of evidence for auditory hallucination being the organizing principle of early civilizations.
• Study of ancient statues for evidence of gods being face-to-face sources of auditory hallucinations, then taking leave and becoming elusive angels.
• Survey of varieties of divination in the ancient world: omens, sortilege, augury, spontaneous divination. Oracles, sibyls, idols.
• Study of ancient Assyrian documents for earliest signs of consciousness.
• The rise of consciousness in the old testament.
• Stages of consciousness manifested in prophecy, possession, glossolalia, poetry, music etc.
• History and practice of hypnosis.
• History of treatment of, and theories about, schizophrenia.
• History of science presented as attempt to substitute for lost of authority of ancient gods.
• Study of what dreams tell us about consciousness (omitted from the book but mentioned in the afterward).
• In the afterward, written in 1990, he digs down to a little known Victorian concept, consilience, to characterize his goal in studying consciousness, the same term Edward O. Wilson selected for his book published in 1998 on the need to find an overarching theory for the social sciences.
What’s distinctive about Jaynes’ studies is that they’re driven by his concern for a particular subject, in this case consciousness. More usually, academic research is driven by the availability of grants to study successive problems at the frontier of a particular specialty. That’s the shape most academic research takes because that’s how it’s financed. I suspect Jaynes’ studies were not financed through grants!
I propose Jaynes’s work as a model for how to choose likely sources of self-technology information, and for the kind of obsessive pursuit required to take advantage of them.