True Darwinism is all about chance

Noah Berlatsky writes: Chance is an uncomfortable thing. So Curtis Johnson argues in Darwin’s Dice: The Idea of Chance in the Thought of Charles Darwin, and he makes a compelling case. The central controversy, and the central innovation, in Darwin’s work is not the theory of natural selection itself, according to Johnson, but Darwin’s more basic, and more innovative, turn to randomness as a way to explain natural phenomena. This application of randomness was so controversial, Johnson argues, that Darwin tried to cover it up, replacing words like “accident” and “chance” with terms like “spontaneous variation” in later editions of his work. Nonetheless, the terminological shift was cosmetic: Randomness remained, and still remains, the disturbing center of Darwin’s theories.

Johnson, a political theorist at Lewis & Clark College, explains that there are two basic kinds of chance in Darwin’s thought. The first—most familiar and least disconcerting—is chance as probability. According to the theory of natural selection, individuals with advantageous adaptations are most likely to survive. A giraffe with a longer neck has a better shot of reaching those lofty leaves and living to munch another day; a polar bear blessed with a warmer coat has a higher probability of surviving a frigid winter than one with less hair. The long-necked giraffe may not always win—it may, for example, be pulverized by a meteor before it can pass on its long-necked genes. But over time, the odds will go its way. There is randomness here, but it is controlled and predictable: It works in accordance with a rule. Natural selection makes sense.

The second kind of chance in Darwin’s work, though, is more mysterious. For natural selection to work, you need to have a range of traits to select among. That range is provided by individual variation, the fact that two different animals (whether giraffe or bear) are different from each other. Some giraffes have longer necks than others. Some bears have thicker fur than others. Why should this be? Darwin’s answer was chance. [Continue reading…]

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1 thought on “True Darwinism is all about chance

  1. John Merryman

    Paul,
    This is a long train of thought, precipitated by your recent posts; this and the various observations on the current mid-east cauldron.
    Think of reality as the dichotomy of energy and information/form. Energy manifests form and form defines energy. The primal evidence of the foundational nature of this relation is that as biological organisms, we have a central nervous system built to process information and a digestive, respiratory and circulatory system to process energy.
    Since energy is inherently dynamic and form is static, this creates tension as the energy compels change, while form resists it. Since energy is conserved, prior forms dissolve into subsequent forms. This creates the effect of time. Though we think of it as the point of the present moving from past events to future ones, it is actually the events going from future to past. Tomorrow becomes yesterday, as the earth turns, rather than the earth traveling some dimension from yesterday to tomorrow. It is just that our rational thought process emerges from the sequential order of these events, though our emotions are more cognizant of the underlaying thermodynamic processes, which is why we perceive them in scalar terms of temperature and pressure.
    Now the problem with the issue of chance is that because we think in terms of moving from past, which has been determined, to the future, which is probabilistic, our linear thought processes, which are based on the sequence of past events, doesn’t easily compute that branching of probability, yet if we view it the other way, as future becoming past, it makes much more sense, as then probability precedes actuality, as the multitude of input coalesces into the events which occur.
    Now think of this in terms of that dichotomy of energy and form; Energy is constantly expanding outward, as form coalesces inward. Energy moves onto the future, as form falls into the past. Those forms able to sustain and supplement their manifesting energy continue to physically exist. Yet in doing so, they tend to become ever more dense, hard and rigid. So while energy does flow into these forms and expands and sustains them, it also breaks away from them, while building up in areas not previously defined by forms. Think of it as the grass growing up through the sidewalk.
    The result is that the future becomes a continuation of the past, yet more unyielding, until it becomes a reaction to those dominant structures. Structure builds up and breaks down, like waves rising and falling. Evolution and revolution. Punctuated equilibrium.
    Naturally in human societies, the tendencies of the civil structures are to co-opt and channel the social energies on which they are based and so become ever more effective at understanding and manipulating these elemental desires and individual aspirations.
    The result is that people are happy with the system when it is moving forward and magnifying their collective wishes, but when it slows, the system starts to decay, as individuals poach off the larger system, or resist working within it. This effect then compounds and so the descent become steeper.
    The underlaying problem goes to some of our current religious presumptions. The fallacy of monotheism is that it assumes the spiritual absolute, the universal state of being, must be an ideal of human desires and aspirations, from which we have fallen and seek to return. The reality is that absolute is basis, not apex. The universal state is necessarily neutral, so it would be that raw essence of conscious being from which we rise, the elemental energy, always pressing forward, while the thoughts it generates are forms which come into being and then fade into the past. These forms develop from the myriad physical interactions.
    To define is to limit and to limit is to define, yet we are naturally constantly pushing against that which limits us, but the result is our definitions become ever more intransigent, as they harden from the constant interaction. So new expressions tend to form in those areas not being previously defined, or seek to break down older forms of order. Unfortunately breaking down old orders usually releases more chaotic energies than those contesting this order are prepared to deal with.
    Given that monotheism is premised on ideals, but based on absolutes, it takes various forms based on different circumstances and these should be considered as well.
    While Judaic monotheism is based on universalist assumptions, this essentially liberal intent tends to coalesce into a more conservative tribalism. The state of oneness becomes focused as the set of one.
    As an attempt to reset the hierarchal state of affairs in the first century, Christianity was an effort to push the reset button and because it was largely an underground movement for its first several hundred years, this concept of rebirth was deeply instilled and remains fundamental to it, though the institutional church has tried to obscure that message.
    On the other hand, Islam was a hugely successful social and civil movement for its first three quarters of a millennium, coasted on that initial success for the next half a millennium, before being economically overshadowed by the west in the last couple of centuries. Now it is having to address deep issues of social relations and civil order from the perspective of a deeply entrenched religious model, which revolves around a theological assumption that is more vortex than stable ground.
    Religion is a society’s vision of itself, while government is how it manages its affairs. When the core of the system is spiritual absolutism, rather than a healthy and vibrant society, when the forward momentum which previously secured the well being of that society wanes, the source of raw emotion at its center has no structure of sensible response to provide balance. Voices of moderation are treated as weakness and compromise, not the necessary lessons of wisdom and knowledge. Which is not to say Islam is any more flawed than the other monotheisms, but its history has been like an enormous wave and now we are reaching the stage of the riptide of it going out.
    I’l leave it at that, as this is just an attempt to offer some conceptual insights.
    Regards,
    John Merryman

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