Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Evolution without teleology

The OFloinn recently posted on the existence of teleological principles in evolutionary theory over on his blog. TheOFloinn is certainly a better writer than I am. He writes with style, but that doesn't really make up for the lack of understanding regarding the material, or the lack of imagination being applied, which I'll discuss below the fold. I won't cover everything I dislike in his post, but hit a few items of interest. Overall, his point is to support the notion of importing formal and final causes back into science, which Artistotelians always seem to find lacking in scientific theories.

One of the early footnotes set an interesting tone.
Oddly, Mendel's work and the support from his Order are seldom mentioned during debates about church-science relationships.
The odd part is why a priest doing science, as ascientist, or a church sponsoring research into an area they do not find objectionable, would be relevant to the church-science debate. I don't think anyone objects to religious people doing science, or even science being funded by religious organizations. The issue with church-science relationships come from churches discarding, adjusting, altering, ignoring, and/or contradicting the results of science in order to preserve their preferred notion of reality. For example, when abstinence-only education classes (or people working in AIDS ministries) teach that condoms don't protect against HIV because viruses are smaller than the natural holes in latex, or when scientific funding is cut from research because a legal procedure is not supposed to be encouraged, or when children go unvaccinated because some people don't believe in puncturing the skin, the actions of the church affect everyone, even non-church members. I could only wish that sponsoring a few experiments was the extent of church-science relationships.

Later, after a recap of the well-known problem of defining a species, a solution is offered:
Darwin's problem with "species" was due to his dislike of and lack of background in philosophy; for "species" is first of all a philosophical term. It is in fact an example of formal causation, which Darwin and other Moderns are taught to deny. The form is that in virtue of which a thing is what it is.
Whatever else a species is, within biology it is not in any way a philosophical term, but one of mating potential. The fuzziness of the boundary for species does not make the idea philosophical; it means you can not quantize the concept in simple steps, but must treat it as a continuum. The putative use of form would not improve our ability to determine a species. My form is different from my third son's form (for example, we have different eye colors resulting from different eye coloration processes), even though due to the commonality within our forms, we are both of the human species. Trying to redefine species as a concept of forms adds no clarity at all to the species problem, and in particular does not alter the continuum to a simple categorization. This is an example of using a "problem" (which is not really a problem, except to people who like simple categories) to promote a position, when the position acutally does nothing to solve the "problem". TheOFloinn presents a type of thinking where the usefulness of forms is presumed, therefore forms are declared useful; that type of thinking offers no genuine insight.

Things get even more amusing when discussing the notion of finality in physical systems. We see a two-part attempt at evidence for them, which I'll address separately.
There is telos in physical systems.
1. Systems move toward attractor basins, toward equilibrium manifolds; chemical reactions run to completion, then stop. The equilibrium state may be an orbit or a resonating reaction, but this is still a "finality" to the physical process. An inanimate system tends to minimize its potential function, even if it does not intend to do so.
There is a confusion here between the achieving of a final state and the entry into stochastically equivalent interactions. Really, the only true final state of matter is complete entropy, the primary form of which is the lack of a structured form, the lack of telos. Chemical reactions run to increased entropy, stopping when the entropy is maximized, the form is least effective, and any interpretation of final cause has little play. You might say the 'final cause' of matter is to shed anything that looks lie final cause.
2. The evolution of species is more teleological than a river "seeking" the lowest attainable gravitational potential. Living beings have an integrated wholeness and possess inner principles that inanimate bodies do not. A petunia is a bag of chemicals; but it is not only a bag of chemicals. For so long as it is alive, it does things that a bag of chemicals cannot do. This is why biology at one and the same time "is not a hard science" like physics and chemistry, and also "a much harder science" than physics and chemistry.
This is an attempt to appeal to our sense that living things are in some sense superior, but it fails upon close examination. A non-living bag of chemicals identical in composition to a petunia will be undergoing processes that no petunia undergoes, just as the reverse is true. Further, I'm not convinced that biology is any less a hard science, or harder, that the more esoteric branches of physics and chemistry. Since the rvery basics reactions of biology are just physics and chemistry, it's really a matter of direction, not difference in hardness.

TheOFloinn also seems to easily confuse metaphor with meaning.
The very terms of evolution are redolent with telos.

Natural selection.
Struggle for existence.
Striving to reproduce.
Even when we dive down deep into the gene, we find teleological terms like "information" and genetic "code."
Natrual selection is ultimately a probabalistic term, referring to long-term tendencies to survive, not any sort of true selection process. Adaptation is the outcome of the long-term survival tendency within a changing environment. The struggle for existence and the striving to reproduce are also fundamentally stochastic events. Information, when stored in a linear medium such as a gene, is maximized by randomness. The genetic code is really just the chemical process where amino acids are inserted based on a particular sequence. There is no need to telos in interpreting these concepts, and no advantage offered by so doing.

It is often said that these terms are just metaphors; but metaphor is the business of literature, not of science. No one has yet successfully "cashed out" terms like adaptation for non-teleological expressions.
Actually, metaphor is a mental shorcut, whether in literature or in science. Scientists use them to abbreviate, illustrate, and categorize. TheOFloinn is kidding himself about there being no translation of the metaphors into non-teleological language; the translations are easily available on-line. They're also longer and more cumbersome to a mammal brain with an inherent bias to look for purpose.

The essence of the Scientific Revolution was a shift in scientific focus from the contemplation of the beauty of nature to the enslavement of nature to man's dominion over the universe. ... Insight into nature is seldom touted; only its practical spin-off.
He must read other scientists than I. There's no shortage of eloquence on the beauty in the study of stars, zebraish, or rock formations from the same blogger that dismiss final causes as irrelevant and unnecessary.

Edward Blyth, who described natural selection twenty years before Wallace and Darwin (but who did not call it by that name), proposed it as the engine that maintained the species type by de-selecting variants that were not up to snuff. ... Now it is easy to see that Blyth was correct.
Both correct and incorrect. Natural selection does not tend to maintain the species type nor to alter it. To the extent that is metaphorically does anything, it increases the percentage of the population that can take better advantage of the environment. This increase may narrow or broaden the differences in a population over generations.

In an article that I have long lost, these factors were summarized as follows:

The genetic factor: the tendency to variation resulting from constant small random mutations in the genetic code; i. e., a variety of differing individuals within a species capable of transmitting their differences
The epigenetic factor: the tendency of interbreeding population to reproduce itself in a stable manner and increase in numbers; i. e., the maintenance of type
The selective factor: natural selection by the environment which eliminates those variants which are less effective in reproducing their kind; i. e., the agent determining in which direction species-change will take place
The exploitative factor: the flexibility of living things by which they are able to occupy new niches in the changing environment; i. e., a feed-back mechanism which guides the selective process toward a new type which can exploit new environmental possibilities
Which the Aristotelians among you may recognize as

Material cause
Formal cause
Efficient cause
Final cause

Naturally, we see near the end plea to the four causes of Aristotle. As usual, in evolutionary terms, it turns out that the appeals to formal and final causes are not actual causes at all. There is no tendency to reproduce in a stable manner (unstable reproduction occurs regularly), rather the actions of chemicals. I actually have no problem with the idea of form as a description of the processes undergone, but it does not act beyond the inertia supplied by the underlying physics, and the physics is neutral on the maintenance of some "type". There is no guidance of the selective process, merely a stochastic effect that increases certain traits among members of populations, and a primate species that found the shortcut of interpreting events as if they had a purpose to be a handy survival technique, even when the purpose was non-existant.

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