Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Evolution Of Evolution Or How Politics Shapes Science

This interview with Dr. Frank Vertosick, neuroscientist and author of The Genius Within: Discovering the Intelligence of Every Living Thing in H+ Magazine is well worth a read for an interesting discussion of evolution. For a very long time I've believed that evolution in humans was no longer primarily that of physical structures; we now evolve socially and technologically. But I hadn't really thought more deeply than that about the process of evolution itself. And this is the first thing that is fascinating about the Vertosick interview. As he argues:
The process of evolution itself is becoming an intelligent process. That’s one of the things that kind of bridges the gap between Darwinian evolution and intelligent design. The current view in biology seems to be that everything is evolving except the process of evolution itself, that the evolutionary process is static. The view is that all cells sit there, some mutate and they select, but the cells don’t know what’s going on.

The process of evolution is not static. There is evidence from bacteria, which is still a bit controversial, that they may change their mutation rate depending upon the stress they’re under. Bacteria, in their early development, did not have the ability to control their mutation rate. They would stop mutating. They had a fixed mutation rate. And that rate, that’s as fast as they could think, as fast as they could generate. Then the next order of technology evolved and bacteria evolved the ability to control their own mutation rate.
On one level this makes perfect sense to me - the universe doesn't have rules that exist, godlike and unchanging, outside of the rules of the universe. There is no "outside" and therefore the rules themselves are subject to transformation. It's profoundly dialectical. Futurist Ray Kurzweil, in a sense, makes the same point when he discusses his six epochs of the universe and the law of accelerating returns viz. exponential advances in information technology. For him the universe begins as utterly disorganized matter, particles and atoms but not yet molecules, with the rise of DNA and biology as the next epoch, then that of brains, then technology and finally the merger of technology with intelligence and, the last, the awakening of the universe. Personally I find the idea appealing that we are - as I once told a friend over a joint - 'striding towards godhead'; striving to achieve greater and greater connection with and dominance of our universe, though dominance is perhaps the wrong word here. Nonetheless, I think there are two problematic assumptions embedded in Kurzweil: that the universe began with a big bang and that time moves forward towards greater complexity. The first is, to my mind, a scientification of a neo-religious creation myth and the second is the universalization of American positivism that sees "progress" as an inevitable and automatic process. But I digress...

Vertosick's insight that the "law of evolution" is itself subject to evolution, is not one that I've seen before - though admittedly I'm not a scientist and haven't read scientific publications or histories of science to see if the idea has been developed elsewhere. It certainly makes an elegant sense that once bacteria and, later, more complex organisms evolved that there would - under certain conditions - be an advantage garnered to those that had more rapid and/or more controlled mutations than those that were "better" at correcting mutations (and thus not evolving) or which relied solely on the process of random, externally generated mutations. 

Nonetheless, I think that Vertosick over-eggs his argument by imputing "intelligence" or "intelligent control" by bacteria over their mutation process - as though a bacteria, at the most simple level, knows how to calculate a response to a particular environmental stressor, say, with the production of a particular protein. The need to resort to this as a means to explain the diversity that has evolved in nature, seems to me, to be the product of a lack of imagination in grasping the scope of "nature", the numberless cells, molecules, interactions, stressors, etc. that make up even a tiny niche of a corner of the planet's most inhospitable ecosystems. The multitudinous variety of potential combinations and permutations within even one shovelful of dirt is beyond even our most powerful supercomputers today.

No, we don't need to resort to "intelligent design" to deal with complexity, diversity or impressively efficient and precise adaptations. We need rather to understand that adaptations are not simply the result of random genetic accidents - a cosmic ray hits a gene, leading to the production of a protein that confers an advantage to a cell, allowing it to proliferate, etc. It is likely that there is also a significant role for Lamarckian-style evolutionary processes, as well as the more random ones of Darwin. That is, changes in environmental demands can alter the physical structure and metabolism of creatures subject to those changes and those changes can be passed along through epigenetic forms of expression, which are more plastic than genetic ones. The idea of inherited characteristics has fallen in and out of fashion over the past couple of hundred years but our growing understanding of the significance of gene expression - via epigenetic processes - and the potential to transmit such non-genetic information has revived the idea.

So, for instance, take Darwin's finches, which evolved as a result of migrating to different islands where different food sources were available - some with long beaks for catching bugs and worms, some with stubby beaks for breaking open seeds, etc. We don't need to resort to absolute randomness (as Vertosick puts it, the idea that "1,000 monkeys in a billion years could produce Hamlet") if we reject "intelligent design". Instead, a bird, faced with the need to root for grubs reshapes its metabolism and even body structures such as its beak in way that some of that is passed along without it needing to be encoded in the finch genome, at least not initially. Some of those changes in gene expression are then passed along to the offspring of the finch. There is neither intelligence, in the human sense of the word, nor absolute randomness involved here.

The idea of "intelligence" as Vertosick is important because it leads via a slightly different route to the same sort of political conservatism as those who believe the universe was created and micromanaged by God. In Vertosick's view, all of nature is intelligent and humans are no better than any other part of nature and therefore we are wrong to attempt to prevent our ecosystem from being destroyed by our actions, just as we're wrong to attempt to pursue any kind of society that isn't capitalist.

If we’re like every other animal, we have a right to do to our environment whatever we need to do to ensure the expansion of our numbers. We not only have the right to do it, we have an obligation to the ecosystem to pursue our own selfish goals because that’s what’s made the planet work for five billion years. It wasn’t because any one species decided to think for the whole planet. Each species says, “Look, screw you. I am going after what I want, try to stop me.”

If I end up being too stupid to realize that I’m wrecking the environment for myself and I go extinct, that’s what should happen to me. I’m out of here because I don’t belong here. The reason we have a planet five billion years later is because all the ones that did that have been weeded out. The second choice says we are supreme on the planet. We rule and we should manage the planet. In my opinion, we’re not stewards of the planet. We’re just another species. To spend time thinking about how to manage the earth, well, if every species did that it’d be a mess.
This ignores the fact that humans are demonstrably of a higher order of intelligence than other animals - none of whom write books about the actions of other species, for instance. And certainly human are the only animals that make abstract, conscious plans in advance of engaging in actions. We are not only intelligent, insofar as our biology follows the laws of physics and chemistry - though it isn't really intelligence if it follows external rules in a non-creative way - we are also conscious and seek to manipulate the laws of the universe to fit our needs. We have agriculture and architecture and politics and philosophy, etc etc. But more than this, it is a rather large blind spot for Vertosick to posit that evolution evolves but to suggest that this doesn't imply difference and inequality (which is the same thing) between species in given environments. Perhaps, as I suggested at the beginning, the nature of evolution can itself change, not simply in its scale and frequency but in the very character of its effects - human are not evolving physically any longer in any significant way, certainly not in comparison to our light speed social and technological evolution. We have transcended the former mode of evolution.

Of greater significance, Vertosick uses this stasis within change, the idea that there was once evolution of evolution but now that process has stopped to justify economic and political conservatism. As he goes on to argue:

Capitalism allows millions of decision-makers to mold the economy and that proved to be much more powerful intellectually than any group of the brightest minds on Earth trying to do it. It’s the same thing with the environment. If we let all the species on Earth compete for their own best interests, you’re going to end up with a better environment for everybody than if any one species decides to start manipulating it for everybody else.
But for a scientist, trained in a university - planned by a state and funded by tax dollars - who lives in a country whose largest industry - the military - is funded by taxes and owned and operated by the government according to very detailed plans to argue this sort of naive laissez faire market capitalism is pretty shocking. A large share of cutting edge scientific research in the USA is itself funded - not by capitalist corporations or entrepreneurs seeking to make a buck, but rather by DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and other defence research bodies and hospitals. The idea that capitalism - particularly in the age of massively global corporations who plan everything that they can from top to bottom - is about "millions of decision makers" and not about simply whoever wields the greatest collective power is as silly now as it's ever been. GM, Ford, Hyundai, Sony and Apple, make detailed plans for production, distribution, marketing and when the next version of their widget will be released. The internet and the telephone system and cable and the trains are planned.

In some countries the government plays a larger role in planning - like China, which has the most dynamic economy on the planet at the moment - in others the market is more preferred as a mechanism for distribution and class power. But at either end of this rather flexible spectrum there is a lot of planning going on. One of the problems is that all the detailed planning is constantly undermined by the fact that there is anarchy between the large agglomerations of capital. We end up with massive overproduction in one area and massive underproduction in another. And because the priorities that determine the planning are based upon maximizing profit - and not efficiency or useful production - we get the banking sector creating a whole shadow banking system of incomprehensible derivatives that would have brought the whole system down if the state - "the brightest minds on earth" ahem - stepping in to manipulate the meltdown by throwing money at it and rejigging the regulatory framework.

Vertosick, while having some interesting insights into evolution as a malleable system has forgotten the fact that evolution isn't about individuals but about populations and species. And he has missed the point that evolution doesn't just end because the people who support the present economic system find it inconvenient. Evolution, as it always has been, is driven by a contradiction between the needs of a population and the failure of the environment to fulfill those needs. In Darwin's finches it led to different shaped beaks and different diets. In humans it leads to revolutions and the transformation of the social order.
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