Oct. 25, 2006

Evolution Considered

Richard Dawkins has come out with a new book, "The God Delusion" and he's popping up everywhere in interviews; for instance here, here and here. While a Buddhist wouldn't feel any particular need to defend the God Idea (see Nyanaponika's essay "Buddhism and the God Idea"), nor do we find ourselves in agreement with the mechanistic views espoused by Mr. Dawkins.

One of Dawkin's principle interests is evolution. I'd like to rehash some of the arguments against an overly mechanistic view of that process that I first aired on the old blog site. Forgive me if you've heard any or all of this before.

Buddhism doesn't subscribe to creationism. That is a philosophy that precludes the dependent origination; if we suppose the arbitrary will of an original first cause we are violating the deep principle of causality. (This is the old "then who made God?" argument)

However, mechanistic evolution as understood by Dawkins is also essentially arbitrary because it contains a random element. Randomness is as much an intellectual dodge as saying "God did it." In the end, it explains nothing. In the end it is a fall back on arbitrariness. Things happened that way "just because" without a reason or a cause.

The standard model of Darwinian evolution postulates that there is a constant competition between randomly arisen variations, and the fittest survive to leave offspring. The mechanism of selection through competition may explain some things, but other things are not very well accounted for.

I want to mention just two, both in the domain of mind (which modern science can't properly account for anyway)

1. Consciousness - by which I mean the simple fact of awareness; citta or vinnana to use the technical Pali terms. If organisms are simply lumbering robots "designed" by selection for the replication of their genes (as in Dawkins' "The Selfish Gene") then why and how did they ever become aware? Surely a simple stimulus-response mechanism would be far more efficient for the purposes of finding food and mates, and avoiding predators, without the totally superfluous extra layer of processing that consciousness implies. Robots would have a competitive edge of speed over the dithering of conscious entities every time. Hence, consciousness could never arise through natural selection.

2. Human Intelligence - This is quite another problem for the mechanists. The human brain is a grossly hypertrophied organ. It consumes an inordinate amount of the body's calories. The size of the human head creates additional dangers and difficulties for the female giving birth. What is more, the human baby remains helpless much longer than those of our primate cousins. If there is any selective advantage to high intelligence, it must be at least sufficient to overcome these grievous disadvantages.

It would seem to me that only so much intelligence is required to be able to catch a rabbit for dinner, and when that level had been reached, there was no strong selective edge to be had by future increase of the brain. As beautiful as the Cro-Magnon cave art is, it has no Darwinian advantage.

(One objection to this argument I have heard is that perhaps there was a sexual selection at work, as in the hypertrophied antlers of some ungulates. Maybe, but think back to high-school. Who got the dates, the jocks or the nerds?)

I would also suggest a somewhat more speculative third case; the arising of life itself in the still mysterious Cambrian explosion. Life seemed to blossom everywhere at once on the planet, in very rapid geologic time. The arising of complex life forms by random chance seems remote at best, unlikely in the extreme at the time scale it appeared to have done so.

Mechanists like Dawkins want to leave Mind out of the equation, but quantum mechanics makes it look less and less viable to do so. I would suggest that it is a gross error to assume that mind arises from matter at all. Rather, I think it is far more likely that form arises from mind (as in the sequence of the Dependent Origination) and that evolution is a process of consciousness seeking through trial and error to find an ever more refined vehicle for manifestation in the physical world.


Mike said...

I am a huge fan of Dawkins's biological writing, but I definitely think his "spiritual" writing is subpar. He tends to choose poor arguments and does not back up his own position with facts and statistics and observations strongly enough.

Being a Buddhist myself, I agree with most of your work here. That being said, I disagree with some of your conclusions regarding the functioning of evolution.

Randomness is as much an intellectual dodge as saying "God did it." Actually, I don't think this is true at all. It's not an intellectual dodge if it's true. Granted, I've heard the same arguments from creationinsts, but in their case, their viewpoint is based on belief. In the case of random variation, the entire process is highly logical and can be shown mathematically to lead toward what we see today (see Full House by S. Gould). Computer simulations have also shown that random variation can result in the world we observe today. Therefore, there is a strong empirical basis for random variation.

Things happened that way "just because" without a reason or a cause. I think this is a misunderstanding of the evolutionary process. While genetic variation may be random, natural selection is not random at all. Every single aspect of natural selection results because of a cause (a genetic variation resulting in slightly longer limbs in a gazelle allow it to jump slightly high and run slightly faster, which acts as a cause for its greater chance of survival against a cheetah).

Additionally, random genetic variation is also fully based on causality! My computer, if programmed correctly, can generate a mathematically pure random number. However, every aspect of its generation is an effect of the causal processes involved in the functioning of my computer (as well as the causal factors inherent in the programmer, etc.) Translating this to genetic variation, genes don't mutate without a cause - there is something behind their mutation. That "something" doesn't have to have a conscious purpose (just like the sun doesn't have a conscious purpose to warm us), it just has to act causally to enact an effect on DNA.

When you branch into the bases for consciousness and human intelligence, I am with you that mind is foremost and is likely a greater causal factor of matter than the reverse. However, that being said, I truly cannot say I know that for certain (never having seen actual evidence for either argument). I, honestly, have no difficulty imagining how the development of increasing neural connections can result in self-awareness. And I think we've seen from our modern day destruction of the world that increased intelligence beyond stimulus-response gives us a greater "advantage" over other animals than a robotic response ever could. In no way would robots have a competitive edge over our intelligence. Their speed is easily trumped by intelligence.

So not even discussing the potential sexual selection you mentioned, I see great advantages conveyed by increased intelligence and self-awareness that could easily lead toward selection of such beyond the advantage we achieved through robotic stimulus-response.

Re: the Cambrian explosion, read What Evolution Is by Ernst Mayr, Gould's Full House, and several recent issues of Natural History. There are many strong theories regarding the Cambrian explosion.

The arising of complex life forms by random chance seems remote at best, unlikely in the extreme at the time scale it appeared to have done so. Mayr clearly shows in his work that only a very very small portion of evolutionary theory consists of randomness -- only enough to generate genetic variation. Beyond that, selective pressure takes hold. The time scales you speak of are obscenely long, and I think the evidence of small genetic improvements over such a great time scale make it entirely possible for complex life to arise through the processes of genetic variation and natural selection.

As I said, I've chosen to follow the same Buddhist mythology as you, that Mind is primary and a causal factor of matter. But truly, the Darwinian model is much better-conceived, and more empirically strong today, than most people understand.

Great thought-provoking essay!

Gabriel Nunes Laera said...

Sadhu! Sadhu! Sadhu!

Anonymous said...

Waht arises from what? Matter from mind or vise versa?

I'm not sure if I'm a Buddhist or not, but when the Buddha was asked to explain the origin of the world and if there is God or not etc by one of the bikkhus he just told him to continue with the meditation. Such Q&A cause only confusion and suffering.

I havn't find in my life a good definition for matter as well as for mind, so how can we argue who comes first, who creates who?

As the electron may be a wave or a particle, depend on the experiment and the observer, the world may be mind or matter.

One cannot tell if the electron is a particle or a wave, and even what is it. According to our models it is covvenietn to define it sometimes as a wave and in other times as a particle. But- wave, particle, electron, negative electric charge- are only different reflections of the same diamond.

So do the rest of the world.


EBE said...

According to our models it is covvenietn to define..

I meant convenient instead of "covvenietn".

Sorry about the mess.


jen said...

"Hence, consciousness could never arise through natural selection."

I don't understand why not.
On the day when homo habilus first realised that a branch could be used to get apples down from the tree, the next not-very-brilliant leap would be to realise that "I" did that.

jen said...

Hmm...about the RANDOM arising of characteristics and how that leads to being one of the fit who end up surviving...

Wouldn't a realisation that "I" could manipulate my environment (starting with a simple swipe at a tree with a branch to knock down an apple) be the ultimate survival advantage?

That creative adapability is actually what we humans, for better or for worse, have used to claw our way to the top of the food chain with.

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