Thursday, March 24, 2016

Progress & Evolution

The International Political Science Association has picked PoznaƄ, Poland as the site for this year’s conference, after pulling out from Istanbul.  While I dearly wished to visit Turkey, I think this will be a wonderful place to visit.  It is close, by rail, to Berlin. 
Meanwhile, I have been reading a very interesting book.  On the Origins of Autonomy: A New Look at the Major Transitions in Evolution documents the thinking of Bernd Rosslenbroich, whose essays I relied heavily on when I presented a paper on autonomy at the IPSA two years ago. 
Rosslenbroich addresses a problem at the center of my attention as a modern representative of Plato: understanding the forms of organisms.  Here is his point of departure.  Modern evolutionary biology models the history of life on earth as a steadily branching tree.  At the root of the tree are the simplest, UR organisms: the first living things successfully replicating their forms by communicating information to successive generations and adapting successfully to their environments.  To present the model as a two dimensional image, the vertical dimension represents time and the horizontal dimension represents diversity.  Thus the tree branches out as more and more diverse organic forms emerge in evolutionary history. 
The tree metaphor is misleading in one fundamental respect.  The growth of a real tree is teleological in the sense that the mature oak is already contained in the acorn and its growth is constantly corrected according to that organic program.  The sapling progresses toward the oak.  Evolution is rather a mechanical process.  As the lineage of life extends through time, it pushes into new environmental niches and thus produces increasingly diverse forms. 
Rosslenbroich’s central idea is that evolutionary history cannot be understood without the idea of progress.  Just because the forces of selection and adaptation are mechanical and hence not goal directed doesn’t mean that there is no progression from lower to higher forms.  He argues that evolutionary history cannot be understood without some notion of progress and that all attempts to purge such notions from the language of biology inevitably fail. 
Consider that the tree of life might, conceivably have produced an increasing diversity of prokaryotic cells, differing only in the traits by which they adapt to diverse environments.  Obviously that is not what happened.  Eukaryotic cells, with a defined nucleus emerge and then later multicellular creatures.  Eventually the plants, reptiles, and mammals appear.  To articulate the difference between the fanciful and the actual scenarios, we need some coherent account of progress from lower to higher forms. 
As usual, Aristotle was way ahead of us.  His account of organic progress was based on the idea of the incorporation of simpler forms of organic processes within more complex forms.  Plants have only nutritive soul.  They feed and produce waste; grow, flourish, and then wither and die.  Animals have these same capacities, but also the powers to perceive at a distance and move about.  Human beings enjoy all the organic powers of plants and animals, but add the power of logos.  We are aware of the difference between perception and reality, what looks good and what is good. 
Rosslenbroich looks to ground the idea of evolutionary progress in increasing autonomy.  The essence of the organic lies in the resistance to the external environment.  All organisms are organized so as to maintain their internal states in shifting environmental conditions by finding sources of materials and energy and, always, by building walls against the environment within which these processes can work.  Over time, progressively more effective means of resisting the environment emerge.  Eukaryotic cells sequester their DNA within a more protected nucleus.  Warm blooded mammals can maintain their body heat and so forage at night. 
I think that this is dead spot on.  When I first read the work of the great philosopher Hans Jonas, I have thought that increasing dimensions of freedom was the key to understanding evolution.  I am gratified to find this same language in Rosslenbroich.  As Aristotle argued, human beings are more than just animals but we are at least animals.  Even if a group of chimpanzees could produce a copy of Richard the Third by random typing, and they can, given impossibly vast resources and time, they still couldn’t appreciate the play. 
Those who are afraid of evolutionary explanations of the human origins fear that such explanations reduce us to mere animals or worse to mere matter in motion.  Rosslenbroich shows us that such reduction is unwarranted and in fact impossible.  I am going well beyond his purpose here, but I submit that the freedom of the human soul, on which all the beautiful and noble things depend, is supported rather than undermined by an evolutionary account of the human being. 
ps.  I would point out that I wrote this post sitting on my deck in my tent.  It was a bit too chilly to sit out uncovered and I wanted to smoke a cigar while I wrote.  I can't do so inside because I am married.  That is how organisms seek autonomy.

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