(Is Nature perfect? Today I continue the “Our Sacred World Series,” an exploration of THE TREE OF LIFE, as offered in Dan Dennett’s acclaimed book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. Note that Darwin’s idea is “dangerous” because it is so disruptive of traditional ways of thinking. “The Wonders in The Tree” so far revealed are, first, All currently living things have an unbroken chain of ancestry that goes to the origins of Life. Second, that Evolution by Natural Selection “assures winners with huge win streaks!” But, underlying all the Wonders lurks the larger questions of ‘How do we Draw Distinctions?’ and ‘How does Nature itself distinguish its parts?’ What is the relationship of An Individual Living Thing to Its Kind (species…) and even to The Whole of Life, Itself? Wonders Three and Four, here we go!)
EVOLUTION HAS ENHANCED THE QUALITIES OF LIFE. “VALUE” AND “QUALITY” ARE REAL IN THE LIVING WORLD!
Often, we can think this world is without value. After all, it is just atoms spinning in the void, and that con man Donald Trump was elected President. We have also just endured a worldwide epidemic, and each day in the U.S. over 300 people die or are injured in gun violence (this includes suicide). I can often feel it, a sense of worthlessness in the world!
But beyond the minimal sense of “winning” as simple luck, in Mother Nature’s Natural Selection, winning can also involve skill and ability. These distinctions—to be skillful, to have abilities— simply comes to “variations useful to an organic being,” that give them “the best chance of being preserved in the struggle for life,” wrote Darwin. He declares that this is what he means by “Natural Selection.”
Dennett says Natural Selection is “a relentless culling” and its result can be “an excellence of design.” We can objectively decide, “This is a better knife.” And designs can accumulate, as in “this wing is more aerodynamic.” “A bear is fast and strong,” is a statement true in relation to many other animals. These evaluations of the quality of things are judgements upon the “adaptations” that allow some species “to evolve,” to pass through an amazing sequence of changes (“victories”) through their history. Their lives acquire additional Qualities by comparison to that of their ancestors and in the light of our own qualities. To an Adaptation in the Tree of Life, better and best do exist naturally.
How far can it go, this natural process of improvement?
Dennett calls adaptations a “lifting” upwards in “the Tree of Design.” “Design” is a difficult concept, and Dennett spends considerable time in his book to clarify and justify its use. In some ways synonymous with “organization” and definitely related to “complexity,” Dennett points out its relation to what we often call “Research and Development.” The Tree of Life’s Relations are, in that sense, a massive “research and development program.” Like a literal tree, The Tree of Life rises upwards with time, but it is different in that with time new abilities, new creatures, greater complexity, and enhanced “design” has often also occurred. For living things, Adaptations are “good ways of solving the problems that arise,” says Dennett. These adaptations ,or “mutations,” are structural and behavioral (and ‘ultimately’ genetic) variations, that happen to work! In this way, The Tree of Life rises and expands, and contrary to Ecclesiastes, There are new things under the sun.
From the spinning of a flagellum to the landing on the Moon, the history of human evolution is sometimes an example of great conquest. Biologist Richard Dawkins has charted 37 major developmental steps in the history of our biology that lead back to our kinship with the first living things, bacteria. Each of these “steps” is recorded in the recipe of our DNA and then—often—in the fossil record. For example, at 18 steps back from today, at about 400 mya (million years ago), our great-greatest grandmothers were like modern day lungfish. At about 100 mya, the 9th step back, our ancestors were like
modern tree shrew or opossum. An opossum, that is an unsavory ancestor!
Darwin contended that Natural Selection, by “acting through long ages and rigidly scrutinizing the whole constitution, structure, and habits of each creature,—favouring the good and rejecting the bad…slowly and beautifully adapts each form to the most complex relations of life;” quoted from The Origin of Species (1859), his monumental intellectual achievement. What an amazing process he had discovered and explained!
Of course, through much of history, the excellence of the design of living organisms and of their organs has been attributed to a Superhuman Designer. As a human artifact is created by an intelligent craftsperson, so are nature’s creatures; it is often thought. Traditionally, it has been contended that the value and quality of things are derived from “on high,” so to speak. Darwin gave us a different way to think of the emergence of excellence and variety; it accumulates piecemeal “from below” with great time and persistent effort.
How far can this discovery and accumulation of Adaptations proceed? “How good can living things get,” we might ask? “Very good,” “excellent,” and even,” “perfect,” some biologists have argued. “Adaptionist Thinking,” argues Dennett, presumes there are “good reasons that things are the way they are” in the biosphere. “Each part is for some particular purpose” and each organism has proven its “fitness,” argue most biologists, and Dennett concurs.
For example, biologist A.J. Cain has written a noted paper entitled “The Excellence in Animals” (1979), “excellent” because their entire structure and habits have undergone repeated modification and test for millions and billions of years.
An example from early in the history of living things (maybe 3.5 bya) is the ability to Photosynthesize. It occurred in several kinds (possibly) of bacteria and eventually ‘spread’ to other forms of simple creatures as a parasitic relationship, creatures now lived together—inside each other!—and to both their advantage: “symbiosis” we call it. Today, our most sophisticated chemists cannot duplicate this process of turning light and carbon dioxide into sugars. Also, the human Brain, and brain of other more complex animals, seems to surpass the most sophisticated computers in many ways, but not all. Of course, human artifacts should also be considered “natural,” as natural as a beaver’s dam and a spider’s web, contends Dennett, but this is a more controversial point.
In The Tree of Relationships, adaptations are realized vertically, from bottom to top, but also horizontally (or laterally) in the divergence of the branches; its bushing out. It should be noted that in the traditional upright positioning of the tree, rising upward along the trunk or a branch necessarily means the passage of time, but it does not always mean great or obvious changes in design. Some creatures exhibit histories of great adaptations; some do not, some seem ‘happy as a clam’ to be where they are. Have these creatures attained a kind of Perfection for who they are and the situation they are in?
Quality does exist within Tree of Life, but Quality—in this way—exists in an almost totally self-contained context. Dennett uses the example of a great novel; its quality (or excellence of meaning) is not discernible through an analysis of the frequency of its use of the various letters of the alphabet. Only by its relation to other written products, at the time and even through history, does a novel’s greatness (and meaningfulness) appear.
Like a great novel is evident only by comparison to other written products, so does The Tree of Life display its various qualities. Much like language, Life initially struggled to put together its persistent and unitary code. DNA molecules, as strands of amino acids, are far too complex to have originated this process and so we have a simpler form, RNA, but this too exhibits too much Design, too much organized complexity, to have been an adequate intermediary—a way-station—between Meaning and Quality and their lack, a jumble of letters or molecules only organized randomly.
But with Time, many problems were solved. It took billions of years for life and thousands of years for language-use, but more complex working products eventually did appear and did so due to a significant advantage: “Every living thing is a descendent of a living thing, it has a tremendous leg up; all but the tiniest fraction of its recipe is guaranteed to have time-tested viability,” writes Dennett. The same holds for the products of language-use; something like War and Peace arose as naturally within the growing quality of language-use as did flowering plants in biologic evolution. Each rode upon the successes of their predecessors and each persists by comparison to and in competition with the pertinent Qualities and Values of their contemporaries.
Comparative Qualities and Values are natural in the biological world, just as in the world of human artifacts.
Quality and Value—so important in our human life—have their ‘root’ in The Tree of Life and Evolution by Natural Selection. IT’S A GOOD THING TO HAVE OBJECTIVE VALUES! Maybe even AWESOME!
EVOLUTION BY NATURAL SELECTION IS “A POWER” THAT SURROUNDS US. IT HAS AN OVERWHELMING PERSISTENCE AND PRODUCTIVITY.
Evolution is like the waves rolling onto a beach. Over and over, day after day, for millions and billions of years, pushing the sand, rolling the rocks, distributing the materials. It is a churning and unrelenting process that continuously molds and remolds the beach—its rocks, its sand, the animals and plants, its drift wood and the other materials that compose it.
Evolution has “the power” of “an algorithm,” argues Dennett, though Darwin did not have this term available to him. Algorithmic processes have real powers, he argues. The wave- action working on a beach is this kind of process. Our computers work via algorithms. Long division is an algorithm (that sorts a number in terms of a given group, the divisor) and so is the method by which we alphabetize a list of words or names. “First, take all those that start with an “a,” if two words start with “a” look at the second letter…then go to the “b” words, if several start with “b”… over and over through the alphabet till the list is organized. A clock—and especially think of the old mechanical clocks with all the gears—they turn and turn and thereby arrange and tabulate the ongoing stream of time. The game “Musical Chairs” is an algorithm.
Algorithms are not easy to define, says Dennett, but first we can say they are “substrate neutral,” They are embodied in many different mediums because “their power” is in their organization, in their logic, not in the physical materials that compose them. This is why a human brain, a hand-cranked mechanical tabulator and an electronic calculator can all add and subtract. In this way, people, springs and gears, electrical circuits, food (organized in recipes), numbers, the alphabet, waves of water and a beach, can all be organized into, or thought of as, logical structures in pursuit of an objective.
Algorithms are also simple and repetitive processes. “Simple” in the sense that they always work with, or look for, a simple unit (a head or tail, an offspring or no offspring, a given number) and the steps to take with this unit are small and simply defined (as in a recipe, or in long division). Algorithms are also “simple” because the steps often run over and over again until the outcome is obtained (as in a tournament [as in Wonder Two], a number divided by a given unit, a list alphabetized). This kind of process is then, often, correctly described as “blind,” “mechanical,” “automatic,” and “impersonal.” Even the cycling of the seasons and the spinning of our planet play into the additionally developed algorithmic processes of life on our planet.
Algorithms are intelligent processes or seem to be intelligent. This may already be evident considering the examples given. Algorithms sort, arrange, guide through a series of steps, and have a logic to each of them. Whether they are truly intelligent, or only seemingly so, is the source of much philosophic debate. Do computers really “think?” is a similar question. Dennett lines up with the “Yes, they do” and the “real intelligence” side of those issues.
Darwin glimpsed what Dennett wants to emphasize, that “the idea of intelligence could be broken into bits so tiny and stupid that they [seemingly] didn’t count as intelligence at all.” (my emphasis). Darwin saw how these bits could then be “distributed through space and time in a gigantic, connected network of algorithmic processes,” Dennett contends, a network of great power and consequence. “Nature is more clever than you,” researcher Stanley Orgel is reported to have frequently reminded himself and his students as they worked to synthesize amino acids for the first time in a laboratory.
Evolution by Natural Selection is “descent with modification,” says Darwin, and then the test of that modification, which is “natural selection.” If the modification to the organism is helpful to the organism’s reproduction, that modification will (often) be “selected” by nature. Evolution is an algorithmic process by being modification-test, modification-test, over and over again for billions of years and for billions of creatures, working away at each one of their traits, “favouring the good and rejecting the bad,” wrote Darwin. And all this is based upon life’s primal reproductive machinery, of course; the DNA molecule duplicates again and again, and occasionally with slight modification.
So, Evolution is a “selection,” a “Natural Selection;” nature making choices like a person. And better, nature is “a Guiding Hand” contended Darwin, and he capitalized the “G” and the “H” as if to suggest evolution’s overarching reality. He used the term “Mother Nature” which strongly suggests nature’s singular character as a proper noun, like a person or a country. All this unusual language, unusual for a scientific theory, is justified by Evolution’s affinity to intelligent activity! And lo and behold, Darwin was fully aware that humans with their language and intelligence where very much a product of this process—though he initially tread gingerly around this particular contention. From this intelligent process arose intelligent products.
Darwin asked, “What limit can be put to this power?” And then answered his own question, “I can see no limit to this power, in slowly and beautifully adapting each form to the most complex relations of life.”
We sometimes feel and see—and imagine—great forces moving through The World around us. Not just physical and chemical mechanisms, but Qualities and Values working and working and working toward goals, and with many amazing outcomes as their product. These are the forces of Evolution by Natural Selection, of which we are part and product.
Two More Wonders in The Tree of Life Next Weekend! STAY IN TUNE WITH NATURE AND WITH “THE NATURE RELIGION CONNECTION.”