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Mormonism and Evolution, Life as Emergent Agential Systems, and a Basia Bulat Concert

Where have I been? It’s been a while so I suppose some explanation is in order. I’ve been attending meetings! First I presented a paper at a Science and Religion Conference held in Krakow Poland, called “What is Life? Theology, Science, and Philosophy.” It was a theology meeting exploring questions about ‘Life’ from multiple religious perspectives. It was a blast hobnobbing with priests, monks, Jewish thinkers, Catholic theologians, and most fun of all, a stunningly bright contingent of LDS thinkers including Jacob Baker, Jim Faulconer, Ralph Handcock, Adam Miller, Joseph Spencer, and Justin White. I don’t think I’ve had more fun since I was a teenager (Which fun included a Basia Bulat concert in a small cafe in Krakow).

Soon after I got back, the “International Society for History, Philosophy, and Social Science of Biology” meetings were held in Salt Lake. I organized a symposium on “Mormonism and Evolution” with talks by James McLachlan, Duane Jeffery, David Bailey and myself. You can find the talks or slides on David Bailey’s website here. It was fascinating the see mainstream philosophers and historians of science interested in the Mormon experience with evolution. With two Mormon presidential candidates and a major Mormon themed Broadway play, there is a lot of interest in LDS thought and experience. Hence a great time for a symposium of Mormonism and Evolution for professional philosophers!

So given that I’m playing a major game of catch up I’ve decided to share my Krakow talk and my Salt Lake talk here on the blog. I’m preparing the first for publication in a theology journal so any insight you might have for it would be appreciated.

So I give you in three parts (I’ve included the abstract so you can see where this is going):

Life as Emergent Agential Systems: Purpose without Teleology Part I (Presented in Krakow Poland June 2011)

Abstract

Life is a relationship among various kinds of agents interacting at different scales in ways that are multifarious, complex, and emergent. Life is always part of an ecological embedding in communities of interaction, which in turn structure and influence how life evolves. Evolution is essential for understanding life and biodiversity. All life is subject to three attributes necessary and sufficient for evolution to operate: variation, inheritance, and differential reproduction.
Bergon’s early work “Creative Evolution” suggests a way of examining ‘purpose’ without ‘teleology.’ In this paper I reexamine that work in light of recent concepts in evolutionary ecology, and explore how agential aspects of life are essential for understanding how emergence provides a basis for a process-based metaphysics of life.

In support of this project, I will draw on the work of Godfry-Smith on Darwinian populations to explore how the major transitions of life on Earth have proceeded through increasing levels of cooperation among agents (e.g., mitochondria in animals cells forming a mutualistic relationship), which have allowed further emergences and complexity to evolve.

In the last 3.5 billion years on earth life has gone from simple single celled organisms, to motile collections of cells, to the emergence of neurology, phenomenal consciousness, and to self-awareness. This complexity always, however, emerging in a context of ecological relationships and non-teleological evolutionary process. Yet, while non-teleological, the progression of life thus far on this planet seems to hold promise that seems inherent in life itself, not as an élan vital, but as part of the way the universe is structured. This opens questions that have implications for both theological and scientific views on what life is and what its future might be.

Introduction

Life is a relationship among various kinds of agents interacting at different scales in ways that are multifarious, complex, and emergent. Life is always part of an ecological embedding in communities of interaction, which in turn structure and influence how life evolves. Evolution is essential for understanding life and biodiversity.

All life is subject to three attributes necessary and sufficient for evolution to operate: variation, inheritance, and differential reproduction.
Evolution is supported by the random mutations and variance that arise in the chemically-based genetic structures that underpin life on earth. Natural selections sifts through those organisms better suited to the environment in which that lifeform finds itself. In addition, the stochastic nature of survival, the accidents and contingency of life can cause genetic drift to also play an important role. These two processes suggest that the particular kinds of organisms that inhabit our planet are forged through processes that rely on randomness and the contingency of local environments. The history of evolution is one of false starts, dead ends, accidents, and mistakes. From all that we see by at this processes through the lens of science it strongly implies a lack of teleological aim for the forms of life on earth. Does this imply that the universe is therefore without purpose? I would like to explore this question in detail by looking at the work of Henri Bergson.

In Bergson’s views on the nature of life as creative we may find new traction as we consider how life as it unfolds seems drawn to particular strategies or processes that appear over and over again within life. As I progress, it is useful to recall Eugene Thacker’s, careful unpacking of the differences between ‘life’ as such and ‘life forms.’ Starting with Aristotle he draws a useful between the two concepts. Life is more than a nominalistic category and more than a summing over the instances of lifeforms. Life is something with properties, the exploration of which give us a sense of what is possible in the world of lifeforms. What features of life seem to be repeatedly instantiated in the instances of life we find on Earth? Are there tendencies to which life seems drawn?

Bergson felt that for life to evolve creatively, there must be an initial push. A striving forward that allowed for life to push forward into to new creative ventures. This élan vital, was structured into the beginning of life’s forward motion from duration to duration and in the gap between these durations he saw the opportunity for creativity to blossom in evolutionary processes.

There is a temptation to read Bergson’s idea of first impulse as a kind of vitalism or as Deluze did something containing the virtual as a foundation for the actual. However I think that the findings of biology since the modern synthesis of Darwinian biology and genetics the idea of a first impulse can be read into our current conceptions of evolutionary change.

Evolution by natural selection is an a priori principle according to Christian Illies. As given, it requires no empirical content neither is it a particular law in a given universe. Philosopher Daniel Dennett calls it a sorting algorithm, but it always holds under the following conditions:

(1) Variation in traits
(2) Selection on trait differences
(3) Trait attributes are to some extent inherited by ‘offspring’ from ‘parents’

This works whether these are chemicals, digital computer programs, or beans in a jar—anything. This a priori description of evolution by natural selection is not really in dispute (try it at home with playing cards if you like). It is obviously just a sorting algorithm that sorts things based on some selection criteria, usually determined by some environment where the traits vary on how well they fare in that environment.

However, a particular claim to evolution by natural selection is a claim that the sort of system that you are working with is one in which these conditions hold. Life on Earth seems just the sort of thing where these conditions are met. The claims that some group is a Darwinian population, is the claim that it meets these criteria. In application however, it can be complex and messy as philosopher of biology Peter Godfrey-Smith writes in his book Darwinian Populations:

“Darwinian populations are collections of things that vary, reproduce at different rates, and inherit some of this variation. The basic features of these collections are startlingly routine–births, lives, and deaths, with variation and inheritance. But Darwin saw that this set-up, this arrangement of ordinary features, is an extraordinarily important element of the world. Darwin’s description was empirical and concrete. The last century’s work has included a series of moves towards abstraction, attempting to say what is essential about the Darwinian machine–which features are not dependent on the contingent particularities of life on earth.

Variation on earth, the first requirement for evolution by natural selection, arises through a random process in which mutations in the lowest level of information marking occur at random. These random mutations are expressed in a particular environment and survive differentially based on how they do in that particular environment. So at the level of local environment there is a kind of matching between those things that do better than their neighbors in passing off offspring. However it is only in that local environment that any sort of direction can be observed. In such a system there can be no goal or aim toward which evolutionary change is moving. Only local adaptation given the context of mutational changes. This is much more complex than I have time to outline, but in broad brush you should be able to see how randomness plays out with life on earth. These are empirical observations. Yet they seem to capture everything that Bergson required for this initial impulse. Imbedded in the structure of the universe is a push forward from the constant stream of randomness that unfolds and the sorting of the randomness according to local environmental conditions.

Bergson, in his book Creative Evolution, next argued that this forward impetus was structured by what he called durations that specifically provided a ‘place’ in which creativity could arise in this forward motion of life. While structured differently than he would, there are places that provide this kind creativity in the moment between durations. Let me unpack this a bit.

To be continued . . .

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6 comments to Mormonism and Evolution, Life as Emergent Agential Systems, and a Basia Bulat Concert

  • wvs

    Hey! Sounds like the Crichton novel, “Prey.” What fun!

  • Cap

    Great Post! Evolution is a beautiful thing and I wish more could see how important it is as apart of mormonism, or even religion.

  • Craig F

    “Imbedded in the structure of the universe is a push forward from the constant stream of randomness that unfolds and the sorting of the randomness according to local environmental conditions.”

    I have recently been thinking about a God designed big bang and the ever expanding universe. How maybe god is “all knowing” not magically but simply because he is just seeing what he “imbedded in the stucture of the universe” (lds translation=eternal laws) unfold and push forward in a constant stream of (what we deem) randomness shaped by local environmental conditions(stealing your verbiage)-one such environmental condition importantly being our personal agency. Idk this type of idea popped in my head but I have never taken the time to research anything like this in order to formulate it better. Obviously the idea needs to be picked apart. Any comments? I look forward to reading the rest of your presentation…by your abstract I think it might touch on some similar ideas that are probably much better thought out!

  • I will be paying close attention to this series, if only because I consider myself a fairly strong Dennettian and can’t help but feel a little revulsion at statements such as “Imbedded in the structure of the universe is a push forward from the constant stream of randomness that unfolds and the sorting of the randomness according to local environmental conditions.”

    In particular, I think if one thinks of evolution in terms of replication as the only means by which a type can resist the force of entropy side-steps all the issues surrounding “selective forces” and other vague laws which are supposed govern the biological realm. Selective forces just are entropy at work and replication is the only way to resist them.

  • “Does this imply that the universe is therefore without purpose?”

    According to Dennett purpose is both the historical and logical product of natural selection and to ask what the purpose of natural selection is would simply be a logical contradiction. In order to speak of such a thing you must suggest a logical and historical source of purpose other than (if it is to be prior to) natural selection and Dennett’s whole point is that there is no such source.

    “Bergson felt that for life to evolve creatively, there must be an initial push. A striving forward that allowed for life to push forward into to new creative ventures.”

    I find the word “creative” sprinkled throughout the paper. I’m not sure what it is supposed to mean. Isn’t evolution just a form of creativity? What would non-creative evolution be?

    “However, a particular claim to evolution by natural selection is a claim that the sort of system that you are working with is one in which these conditions hold.”

    While I think that this is true as natural selection applies to genetic based design where high fidelity replication is the norm against which mutation tends to be explained, I think that a universal application of Darwin’s idea rejects such an account. It is patterns such as high-fidelity replication which need explanation against the norm of disordered entropy. The absence of mutation is the phenomenon which cries out for explanation. Nature does not carve out differences between lifeforms by way of selective forces, but instead different lifeforms find different pockets in the world of entropy wherein they are able to reproduce.

    Let me approach this point from a different angle since I think it strikes at the true heart of the matter. Those three conditions do together constitute a clear understanding of natural selection at work in the biological world. However, if one is going to apply natural selection to the areas on the fringes or even outside of that biological domain, you will need to cache these three conditions out in terms of forces and tendencies which clearly apply to such areas. Otherwise conceptual confusion will result.

    “Imbedded in the structure of the universe is a push forward from the constant stream of randomness that unfolds and the sorting of the randomness according to local environmental conditions.”

    Once your three conditions of variation and selection in the face of replication are cached out in terms of replication in the face of entropy there is no longer any need for any kind of “creative push”.

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