Mormonism and Evolution, Life as Emergent Agential Systems: My Presentation at the Krakow Theology Conference Part II

My talk at the Science and Religion Conference held in Krakow Poland, “What is Life? Theology, Science, and Philosophy” continued (Part I is found here) . . .

Life’s processes are often mischaracterized as a simple reductive scheme that misses some of life’s most astonishing features. Bergson criticized this as finalism in which the whole was given. This ‘whole’ can be seen in Philosopher Daniel Dennett idea of a design space. He uses it to argue for a deterministic universe, but the idea is that there are only so many possible combinations of DNA that produce viable ‘creatures.’ From a given starting point, the unfolding of different life forms, must wander around on this space, driven by local selection regimes, but the set is finite, and the steps must be small ones. Richard Dawkins uses the same notion in his view of ‘climbing mount improbable’ in which he demonstrates how evolution can completely explain the designed complexity of life on earth. They are right that evolution completely explains complexity, but the question that deserves some consideration is can we ask where the design space comes from? Of course that is in principle unanswerable from a scientific perspective.

One of the interesting things about the flat naturalism that is rarely commented on, is the ‘given all at once’ as Bergson called it, nature of the static landscape. In a flat world of with all the possibilities stretched out, it seems to me from one perspective in which we look at the entire landscape from above in a God’s eye view, time as it were where the landscape over which life wanders is given, the question of the source of the landscape seems odd from the point of view of a strict naturalism. It assumes, and it seems to me must assume a metaphysics in which the marvelous landscape of bacteria, beavers, eyeballs, ecological niches are given in the entire extent landscape. What unfolds, must be conditioned on this landscape which must be given a priori to the universe’s unfolding for it is on that that the universe unfolds, sharing a stance with naive creationist views that assume that the entire landscape is handed. This would suggest that ontological materialism actually embeds a cheep creationism.

The other thing that this idea a ontological design space approach misses, is the very point that Bergson laid out and that has yet to be addressed is where does creativity and complexity come from in the design spaces conjured to explain the evolution of life? This brings up a related question what aspects of Life (as opposed to lifeforms) seem to be those that give us broad scale principals of what life is.

To explore these two questions let’s look at brief history of life and point out some key aspects of its evolution that I think highlights some of these features that argue against these disenchanted reductive views and perhaps even suggest a very Bergsonian view of creative evolution. I will suggest an ecological emergent view helps us see life as a non-essentialist unfolding that acknowledges the establishment of dynamic networks of cooperating entities that allow for further creativity, innovation and freedom in the universe. I would then like to touch on why I think these might be theologically relevant.

I assume first that the universe is structured such that, as Latour (Harman 2009) p. 23, suggests, that “entities (as broadly construed) have struck a hard bargain with reality to allow stable configurations of chemicals that allow life to get started.” How life got started on Earth from its chemical precursors remains an open scientific question, upon which progress is being made. As we learn more about early planetary environments, and as we discover how frequent life is in the universe through surveys of distant solar systems, the question of how life begins will likely become more clear. Once life is off the ground there seem to be repeated patterns. While there is nothing, specifically teleological about life on earth in the sense that there are specific platonic forms to which life is heading, there are repeated strategies that evolve independently, that seem constitutive of how life proceeds biologically on Earth. This is different than the question of how evolved-life solves engineering problems, which under similar circumstances, arrive at similar solutions.

For example, life on Earth has had multiple species evolve to solve the engineering problem of swimming in the sea. Fish from chordate ancestors evolved the form of a torpedo shape, terminal tail movements to produce forward thrust, and fins to stabilize the motion. In addition to the initial evolutionary radiation of the fishes, this strategy for living in water has also evolved at least twice from vertebrate terrestrial organisms. In looking at three body ‘designs’ from dolphins and plesiosaurs, say, their similarities are immediately apparent. Thus, solving engineering problem solving can create some startlingly specific designs. Another example is found in saber-toothed ‘cats’ that evolved independently from rat-like mammalian precursors from both marsupial and placental lines. Biologist Conway Morris speculates that given this propensity may mean that the human shape and form may be inevitable in the universe similarly constituted planets with similar ecological underpinnings.

This allows us to ask about specific lifeforms that have evolved and gestured to the idea that all life evolves in a context. But I would like to explore, not specific engineering solutions, but to look at processes that seem to be repeatedly repeated in vastly different organisms and seem to underpin what makes life a successful enterprise in increasing complexity and innovation in the universe. And while specifics are non-essentialist and lack formal (in the Platonic sense) underpinnings, there are repeated patterns that allow for increased complexity.

To explore this, let’s look at attributes that organisms closer to the chemical underpinning of life like bacteria (There would have been a temptation in previous eras, when a Great Chain of Being was seen to structure life, to call these simpler, or even more recently ‘less evoloved’ but given the complexity we are discovering in the micro world in biology we are abandoning such notions). These are representative of the first instances of life and these organisms have continued from the time of life’s emergence on Earth to be successful contenders in the struggle of existence on this planet.

To be continued . . .

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6 comments to Mormonism and Evolution, Life as Emergent Agential Systems: My Presentation at the Krakow Theology Conference Part II

  • I think that you seriously mis-characterize Dennett’s position. He himself points out that the fitness landscape is not static in any sense. I do acknowledge that it is difficult to find a consistent thread which unifies Dennett’s use of multiple metaphors to capture different aspects of the evolutionary process. But I think it unfair to fault his entire view because one particular metaphor doesn’t highlight everything there is to the evolutionary process.

    As for the second fault you see in his approach, that “where does creativity and complexity come from in the design spaces conjured to explain the evolution of life?” I think Dennett does address this question. For him, the source of all creativity and complexity is random, non-directed mutation. To posit any source which is not fundamentally non-directed would be to beg the question, for what would the source of THAT directed-ness be?

    I am about to post a series of posts regarding Dennett’s book which I suspect will largely parallel your paper. Any comments would not only be greatly appreciated, but I think will be highly illuminating on my end as well.

  • Jeff! Thanks for weighing in. I’m not being very clear, I’m afraid. I agree that for Dennett the fitness landscape is not static, but I’m talking about the design space being static which is different. His example of the Library of Babel makes it clear he sees the possibilities, as in the set of all possible DNA sequences, are laid out as the only possibilities. The fitness landscape (I’ve got a couple of papers on Wrightian fitness landscapes in the journal Evolution) is the genetic/environmental gradient on which the evolution of organisms takes place so Dennett would not see that as static, but the possible movement through the ‘design space’ is at once given because it is the set of all (and only) possibilities as given by DNA’s possibile structures. This creates a reductive, non emergent view of life (which may be right, but I’m skeptical).

    On your second point yes that’s right, but as I’ll point out in the third part of this, there can be tendencies without teleology (On which I agree with Dennett that teleology should be avoided at all costs.)

    These were great questions!

  • I still don’t think that you have Dennett quite right. And I think the problem lies in Dennett’s apparent gene centrism. Few would guess it from his DDI, but he is a pluralist in terms of levels of selection, but this fact is drowned out by the pragmatic utility he sees in gene centrism. This pragmatic utility is what explains the oversimplification inherent in the Library of Babel (an oversimplification which he fully admits to). Again, he was just using a thought experiment in order to illustrate evolution.

    As far as I’m concerned, I think Dennett does go too far in his gene centrism. This leads him to indulge in a number of thought experiment and metaphors which I think lend his thesis to misinterpretations of various kinds.

    Are you sure that gene-centrism isn’t the real bogeyman here? Most of the points where I take issue with Dennett are really based in this issue.

  • Just to be a bit clearer, I think Dennett assumes an admittedly false position regarding genetic determinism for the sake of simplicity in exposition. However, once you assume genetic determinism, you pretty much get gene centrism in the level of selection debate for free. I suspect that Dennett often lets these oversimplifications get the best of him, but also I think that him and I would agree that both issues are largely tangential to the main point of his book.

  • SteveP

    “Are you sure that gene-centrism isn’t the real bogeyman here?”

    No. I think that is an empirical question that’s being explored by biology and that is where it should be explored. My problem with Dennett has nothing to do with open biological questions that he uses or embraces. My disagreements all center on his metaphysics. Science I’ve argued in this blog again and again, has to use methodological materialism. It’s necessary. I’ve criticized again and again the ninnies who want to introduce God as an explanatory element in any scientific endeavor like the Intelligent Design crowd. I think science will sort out the questions of level of selection, and weither the gene’s-eye view explains everything. This is science’s domain and are questions science will answer (recent research suggests it is unlikely, more is coming from evo-devo, ecological influences etc. then was dreamed of by the Dawkins selfish genes). My truck with Dennett is nothing to do with his biological views, in fact I think in his next popular book he will have updated his views away from the gene-centered views because that’s where the science is leading. Dennett and I are in agreement about the science. His metaphysical view that methodological naturalism implies ontological naturalism is where I get off his bus. This runs through all his books (and I’ve read them all). His stance on ontological naturalism as a read of the the nature of reality is just that an assumption or a faith statement without empirical support. Without even possible empirical support.

    Keep in mind this paper is not a critique of Dennett, I illustrate the his worldview implies a cheep creationism, it’s what puts the evangelical in evangelical atheist I suppose. But I’m not out to argue against him. The paper is really about Bergson’s notion of trends in biology that transcend the instances of lifeforms, in particular individuality and sociality, which appear again and again independently in the history of life on earth. Of course the paper does a poor job of critiquing Dennett, that’s not its intent (My Zygon article on the left bar actually does critique his Atheism and was selected for inclusion in a volume of as one of the best Science/Religion papers in the last 90 years). In this paper I dismiss notions that Bergson was a vitalist, and that he was right that you can get tendencies without teleology. I’m not sure Dennett and I would disagree much over the content of this paper (except of course my drive-by shooting of his metaphysics).

  • Hmmmm. I still don’t think that you have Dennett’s position quite right, but I agree that this is a side issue hardly worth pursuing here.

    “What unfolds, must be conditioned on this landscape which must be given a priori to the universe’s unfolding for it is on that that the universe unfolds, sharing a stance with naive creationist views that assume that the entire landscape is handed. This would suggest that ontological materialism actually embeds a cheep creationism.”

    This claim could use a lot of clarification. I’m not exactly sure what it amounts to, whether it is a claim worth resisting or not, whether naturalism actually entails it or not or whether the claim is avoidable or not.

    “I will suggest an ecological emergent view helps us see life as a non-essentialist unfolding that acknowledges the establishment of dynamic networks of cooperating entities that allow for further creativity, innovation and freedom in the universe.”

    I think that Dennett’s DDI is specifically geared at showing how a proper understanding of Darwin’s theory allows for a fully naturalistic understanding of all these things.

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