Sunday, July 29, 2012

The future of evolution and perspectives on the mind

How's that for a ponderous sounding title? Actually, it is exactly the type of title a 19th or early 20th century philosopher or scientist might choose that would get me racing to

I was thinking about evolution this week. Really the future of evolution. Two very specific issues, in particular. One concerns Lamarck and Darwin. Despite all the controversy it has always caused, when I was growing up, we were taught a very little bit about Darwin or evolution in High School. When I say a little bit, I mean almost nothing (although I paid such little attention and did not take any advanced classes – so, maybe there was more than I remember). Just phrases like survival of the fittest - not Darwin’s phrase, in fact - and the general notions. One of those notions included deriding a predecessor to Darwin, Jean-Baptise Lamarck, for his theory that it was possible to inherit characteristics acquired during a living thing’s life.

Lamarck was hardly an idiot, though through the fortunes of the intellectual world, is often ridiculed in such a way. What he really argued not surprisingly differs in a number of regards from what we are taught, but I don’t even want to get into that. In terms of biology, it is sometimes said that he offered the first complete or comprehensive theory of evolution that included change in species over time and adaptation to external conditions. But, coming a generation before Darwin, some see him as more of a philosopher than a scientist, whereas Darwin was more so of the latter. If you read Darwin with any care (not that I recommend reading his main scientific works directly), he certainly owes – admittedly so - something to Lamarck. Besides, despite what you were taught in school, Darwin also actually accepted the idea of the inheritance of acquired characteristics, and tried to develop a theory of how it might occur. This is well known if you read anything serious about them and I leave it to your own studies or whim.

But while hardly well known, Lamarck’s idea about inheriting acquired traits (which was systematized by him, but widely believed at the time he wrote) is sort of coming back into vogue and serious geneticists think he might turn out to be quite right. If they are right, in the long run, this theory might end up in the future having a far greater impact on human development than the random mutation which we commonly associate with evolution, thanks to future technology.

There is even a name for this (which name actually preceded practical knowledge of modern dna technicques and other developments) called epigenetics, deriving from two Greek words still fairly well know from their continued scientific usage. Genetics obviously concerns beginnings (as in Genesis) and epi- is a Greek preposition, then often the first part of a compound, as now it always is for us, which has to do with proximity of one thing to another - like one thing being “on,” “over,” or “against” another thing. In scientific terms we mostly use it to mean “outer” or “over,” with epidermis for the outer skin probably being the most well known usage. So – epigenetics would refer to outer genetics, that is, any development in the genome other than changes in the dna sequence (if that means nothing to you, just google dna wiki or the like or you could even google epigenetics). There are a lot of names for the techniques and circumstances that might unintentionally or intentionally lead to a change unrelated to the sequence or arrangement of the nucleotides (or genetic code). One thing, for example, is obesity, which apparently has an affect on the "expression" of a gene. But, the “outer” aspect can be intentional as well. As I never tire of saying, this isn’t Wikipedia, and I just want to discuss some related ideas, not the technical scientific aspects.

Since Lamarck and Darwin, of course, we now know about dna and how traits are passed on. It is still certainly arguable whether even adding dna to the explanation is sufficient to explain or prove evolution, and I will leave it here that I think the modern theory of evolution is still the most likely explanation and also seems to me consistent with what we know about the universe in general.

Our technology grows by leaps and bounds. In 2010 Craig Ventner’s team managed to create its own code based on the four nucleotides making up dna to put watermarks in an existing species that is now inherited with each successive generation. It is somewhat amazing that its website address, names and many other things are imbedded in its own genetic code and is inherited by this self-replicating bacteria. One can argue that this is creating synthetic life or not, but it is still a fantastic development and shows how far we have come. If you know anything about science, you know that first steps are followed by others, and that just as we went from flying on balloons in the 1700s to airplanes in the 1900s and then even faster to rocket powered flights to the moon and then out of the solar system, Ventner’s development will grow along with developments in cloning and the like.

Humans, of course, have been long familiar with domestication and with what are arguably superficial changes in plants and animals. It is one thing to mate dogs so that we can develop new breeds. My current favorite dog, the Leonberger, was created in the mid-19th century from a Newfoundland and a predecessor of the St. Bernard known as a Barry, and perhaps also the Pyrenean Mountain Dog. Remarkably, and I mention this as an aside only, all Leonberger’s alive today can be traced to only eight that survived the two world wars.

It is, of course, a totally different thing to create a new breed entirely, or new organs, or dramatic changes like giving them wings. But, while I was not fooled a bit by the hoax in the 1970s that a dog-cat was created (a “dat” – The New York Times and many others bought it completely), I could be fooled now. That’s because it is entirely possible that in my lifetime (I’m guessing somewhere between 1 and 50 years) we will get that far.

Once the bar is truly broken on creating new species or dramatically altering them, it is not unlikely that manmade changes will quite quickly dwarf normal evolutionary method as the most normal method of change. It will not be merely tinting our eyes or increasing our height. The possibilities are daunting to think about.

Yet all this is not really even the topic I wanted to discuss. It is just the assumption that this will happen, and relatively soon historically speaking, upon which I base the philosophical question I want to ask.

If man learns to manipulate species, including his own, is that or is that not really a change in the manner of evolution?

On the one hand, you might argue that synthetic changes to dna such that new creations are made, are those outside of nature. Someday we might even be able to turn them on and off at will.

But, on the other hand, you might also argue that the taking man outside of nature because of his unique ability to manipulate tools (shared by a few other creatures like chimps, elephants, some birds and even some ants) but nature itself – electricity, magnetism, atomic energy even fire and the motor, is a gross metaphysical error (if you aren’t into philosophy, metaphysics is the part of philosophy dedicated to the nature of reality or you might say nature itself; ontology is considered a branch of metaphysics, but pretty much subsumes the category except for theology.)   

I have always tended towards the second belief. There has often been a tendency among scientists even to see human technology as somehow outside nature (even if when questioned closely, they might deny it - many write as if it is so, just as many who should know better write as if evolution is controlled by an organism's purpose). Surely human technology, a product of the human mind and our language ability is, on our planet at least, a unique and wonderful thing. But, I cannot fathom how it can be argued that it is outside of nature anymore than a monkey’s prehensile tail or elephant's trunk (forget the hyrax) is outside of nature because no other species does it. Our technology still comes from our mind, made of matter and impelled by energy. If is a product of our mind, inarguably nature, how can we say that technology is not natural and evolutionary changes that may result from it would be somehow outside of nature?

All which brings me to the second and final question. I just finished saying “If is a product of our mind, inarguably nature . . .” but the truth is, despite our causal mention of the mind in everything from casual discussions – “what’s on your mind” – to hyper technical scientific experiments, there has never been philosophical consensus on whether the mind even exists as a “thing” or, at least, whether there is any connection between it and the external world. To enter this discussion is a dangerous thing, because you could write a book on it if so inclined merely describing the views of different western or eastern philosophers. Longwinded though I can be, I have no such pretensions.

But, take a revered philosopher like Spinoza, undoubtedly in the pantheon of “great” western philosophers (though, having tinkered occasionally with Spinoza since college, I have always remained tentative about accepting his views) may have been dead wrong in claiming that the mind cannot affect the material world, nor the material world it. Here’s a similar quote from Charles Sherrington’s Man on his Nature 1940): “Mind, the anything perception can compass, goes therefore in our spatial world more ghostly than a ghost. Invisible, intangible, it is a thing not even of outline; it is not a ‘thing’. it remains without sensual confirmation and remains without it forever.” And, the great physicist, Edwin SchrÓ§dinger, from whom I first got on this topic about a dozen years ago, wrote on the mind: “For the subject, if anything, is the thing that senses or thinks. Sensations and thoughts do not belong to the ‘world of energy’, they cannot produce any change in this world of energy as we know from Spinoza and Sir Charles Sherrington.

SchrÓ§dinger was of the opinion that mind and the material world were all one, being deeply influenced by eastern thought. I won’t even go into the big picture – whether all is one or as Spinoza would have it, all a form of the substance and a thought of God, but ask instead – really, you think that sensations and thoughts do not belong to the world of energy? That it must take itself out of the material world in order to comprehend it?

I don’t think we can say this anymore, nor credibly question that the mind is a thing, even if we can't hold it in our hand. We can't hold language in our hand, but cannot deny its reality or force either. MRI technology, and even more so functional MRI ("f-mri") machines show scientists day after day the processes of the mind working in an incredibly complicated but slowly understandable fashion. No doubt the mind is nothing without a body, but I am prepared to feel confident that it is mostly the brain, and differentiated from the all other minds and to a large degree the rest of the material world. More, technology has progressed to the point where we people can now, with the aid of transmitters, move electrical devices in the form of computer cursors. It is indeed part of the world of energy, if there was ever any doubt. Sure, you can say – it is the device which is doing so and I say, no, it is the device which is the tool, like a spoon is device that brings food to our mouth, but the hand, and ultimately the mind which controls it. Likewise, it is the mind which controls and wills these devices – brain computer interface systems - to move the cursors. They’ve even trained monkeys to do it.

I admit a simplification of the mind-body question – believe me, for my sake as well as yours – but I think this one question – as old as the Upanishads,  is overstated, despite the fact that as with lawyers, philosophers can always through language and fine points, find a way to distinguish.

Still an attorney by training, let me sum up. Modern science, which maybe we could define as a philosophical tool or process to test other aspects of philosophy, can settle or pop holes in long argued discussions, despite what many reknowned philosophers might think. Like history - philosophy is a discussion without end, and no doubt, good arguments can be raised against mine. Go right ahead. 

I'd be wise to expect a pretty big “so what” here, as it is a pretty normal reaction to philosophy. Either you like philosophy or you don’t, and I do, but admittedly, it is pretty easy for most individuals to go through life from dawn to dusk and cradle to grave without so much as a thought directed to it. Yet,  I will argue another day that philosophy is more productive of collective human happiness than anything else outside of random fortune.


  1. I lost the second half of your essay, Frodo, it isn't clear whether you were recapitulating the mind-body debate or trying to support your statement that technology is a part of nature (complete hogwash, of course). The first half, in which you summarize Lamarckian evolutionary theory and comment on Darwin, then question how it will play out in the future is highly enjoyable. Excellent work. I agree with Eisely in that Darwin was mostly right, but made one major mistake in kowtowing to the religionists of his day and trying to insert some nonsense about purposeful adaptation in later editions of his landmark work. I think current science is even more generous in recognizing Lamarck's significant contributions than you and rightfully so. It's amazing how critics get hung up on the mistakes of brilliant men and women and miss or understate all that they get right. Anyway, wonderful, thoughtful essay, dude.

  2. . . . (Stealing from Gary Larsen) All that got through to me in that comment was "blah, blah, blah highly enjoyable. Excellent work, blah, blah, blah rightfully so, blah, blah, blah, wonderful, thoughtful essay, dude.

    In actuality, when I looked back, I thought the first part hung together a little better too (but, think you are dead wrong - technology is no less a part of nature than a stick used by a chimp to fish some ants out of a hole - just more complicated; good luck with your argument when chips are grown [yes grown] in fetuses, if we are alive to see it). The two strands of the post are related but separate, the first part intended to seque into the second part. The problem was, once you start on mind-body, it can get so deep so fast, that I tried to collapse that whole thingee a little and focus on a just couple of issues. But, the second part, like the first part, is trying to show that modern technology has made some long held beliefs no longer tenable, but, in particular, that the mind is not a "thing" and also to some degree, that it is not affected by energy and does not affect it. As for Lamarck, no doubt some scientists are revisiting that - I think I said that - to what extent I can't say, but it is also due to modern technology. However, even not being in the seventh grade, I'm still willing to bet they are teaching the older Lamarck was a knucklehead line. Thanks for reading. Go play now.


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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .