Thursday, January 11, 2018

Hate Mail - Dump Darwin Save Science, Accept The Limits Of What You Can Know

One extremely gratifying thing in that interview of the eminent Oxford scientist Denis Noble I excerpted and linked to was this:

Suzan Mazur: There’s also natural selection, which became a catch-all term. As Richard Lewontin has pointed out, it was intended as a metaphor not to be taken literally by generations of scientists. The range of views about what natural selection is is staggering — a brand, a political term, a political and scientific term, failure to reach biotic potential, physicists are seeing it as part of a larger process now, etc. etc. Things are being majorly redefined.

In the first thing I ever wrote about Darwinism about eleven years ago I noted that I'd asked about five people whose profession was some part of biology, some teachers, some active research scientists, to define "natural selection."  Their responses were all over the place, even including such things as genetic drift which was certainly not part of any classical definition of natural selection and which I doubt could logically be considered to be contained in the idea.   I took quite a bit of heat for saying it led me to believe that when people talked about "natural selection" they weren't talking about the same thing and it was what first led me to believe that there isn't really any such thing.   I think when people use the term, even within biology, they use it as a synonym for the mere fact that the geological record demonstrates that lines of life change in their physical characteristics over time for reasons.  And I think they will include any of those reasons they come up with, even those which are not related to adaptations or "traits" that can be asserted give the organisms having them an alleged reproductive advantage.   I think when you do that the term means nothing since it has been made to mean everything, even contradictory things  

I think the term is still used even as its meaning dissolves into meaninglessness because it gives the illusion of comprehensive understanding of how species arise when there is no real knowledge and understanding of HOW it happens.  That's not to be confused with the far more reliable knowledge THAT it happened.  It's still used merely to maintain an illusion of knowledge of how it happens when there is no real knowledge.  

Other than that it's the, primarily ideological,  coercive effect of Darwinist hegemony over professional science and its extension into popular culture - no one wants to be called an "enemy of science" the god substitute of all right-thinking secularists - that has kept people using it.   Looking hard at the reality of what has happened to Darwin's claim to fame as its once held position as THE mechanism of evolution as that has been found increasingly inadequate and its lack of actual foundation in rigorous observation becomes apparent is unacceptable in polite society.  But I'm not polite, I'm a thought criminal and I don't care about what they say on those BBC costume drama-science shows that they sell to PBS here.   

As I said in the comments, the fact is that other than a tiny number of fossilized remains, an inconsequential fraction of which comes from the billions of years of who knows how many trillions of organisms whose lives, deaths and descendents make up evolution, nothing can be observed at all about how evolution happened.  And the fossilized remains can only tell you a very little bit about the individual organisms that left that evidence, it tells you nothing about the others of their kind, it tells you very little about their lives in their environments, often it doesn't even tell you why they died.  You can't know that their deaths are due to any of the physiological features of the fossils that you might interpret as a maladaptation in most cases or how many descendents any of the fossilized individuals left, the most salient fact of their relevance to evolution.  You don't even know if the stories you make up about that in the lost past are true or not or if they lead you closer or farther from the truth.  

That evolution happened is pretty well a certain fact, how and why it happened is something I don't think we'll ever know.   I doubt there is one single way it happend to know.  One thing I think is almost as certain as that evolution is a fact is that with the numbers of trillions of lives in vastly different circumstances, adding things such as chance and coincidence and the unknowable into it, I doubt there is any one "thing" any one "force" that controlled how evolution happened, I doubt it is the same one thing in the evolution of different species or even change within species.  To think Darwin nailed the great overriding reason evolution happened out of his reading of Malthus and the limited amount of information available to him in 1859 - and that his thinking wasn't primarily controlled by his own upper-class British cultural milieu as he made up the narratives and stories his theory was based in - is an extremely naive belief that has become an obligation in polite society.  

In other things I've written on this, especially about Daniel Dennett's idiotic idea of extending natural selection to universal explanatory power in, literally, everything, I noted that the eminent science writer and geneticist H. Allen Orr said that without the substrate of genetic inheritance that natural selection can't happen.  I haven't looked into it but I wonder since, as Denis Nobel, James Shapiro and others have pointed out that we now have evidence of robust inheritance of acquired characteristics (something Darwin believed in even as he promulgated natural selection) how natural selection could survive that discovery.  It certainly must diminish the "Darwinism" I was taught, which was really the neo-Darwinism of people like Fischer and Haldane, as must the discovery of evolutionary mechanisms such as genetic drift and of that thing which is indefinable even as its presence is undeniable, what Stephen J. Gould often wrote about, contingency and accidents.   

All this leaves me entirely skeptical that Darwinism will stand, ultimately, the test of time and the corrosive effects of knowledge.  I think the stretching done to glue it to genetics was probably the last time that could be done before natural selection is finally scrapped.  Considering how many millions of people whose lives were ended through the idea, considering how many lives were blighted in its application through eugenics laws and thing such as 20th century British education policy, it needs to go, the sooner the better.  Evolution will still be there, there's not much you can do to stop that.  The sooner science faces it, faces the damage that the use of St. Darwin as its mascot and the encouragement of his use of him as a cult figure in popular misunderstanding of science  has brought to science, the sooner they can get shut of it.  

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