Here in Ohio and around the nation the issue of “wokeness” is a bell constantly being rung by some conservatives.
‘Woke’ people are those liberals hip to all the repression concerning gender and race, especially in its more subtle psychological forms. It is about pronouns like using “he” or “she” when a person is bi-sexual, and it is about “systematic ” prejudices and barriers rather than very explicit and historically acknowledged overt acts of repression like Jim Crow laws. Well at least its something like that.
I must admit that I am not that good at some of these subtleties. I trip up on the pronoun issue fairly frequently when substitute teaching. Its hard to tell a lot of the girls from the boys (and vice versa) in some of my high schools. I have caught on to that in recent years and try to be more careful, more ‘woke’ about it, I guess I could say.
Much of what is being contended by ‘the woke’ is true and important, I think, but some of it does seem a little nagging , trite, and awkward; this is what conservatives especially jump upon. I do get crossly reprimanded some times when I mistake girls and boys and use the pronoun they do not prefer. In very ‘woke’ meetings among Democrats desired pronouns are often specifically clarified, and some “non-binary” sexual people want to be referred to as “them”!
The conservative columnist who I will focus on below, has recently contended that the objection by progressives to the content of some classic literature is not only trivial but book banning. Discussed in this light was Roald Dahl’s revisions to Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory(both the book and the movie) in the early 1970s. To my knowledge, Dahl made these revisions voluntarily and in response to the Civil Rights Movement of the time and more specifically to the complaints of some black organizations. Afterall, the original book said the “Oompa Loompas” were African Pygmies smuggled from that continent in crates by Wonka! Also revised was the repeated and prominent description of several of the “golden-ticket” winners as “fat” and “ugly.” It was toned down, our columnist contends, because modern parents and children are so “sensitive.” (The sissies: unwilling to be shamed and toughened-up like in the good old days!)
I do not refer to myself as ‘woke,’ and it is younger people that seem to, more generally. I do see the point of much of it, particularly the role of “systematic” prejudices. Its not laws and white-sheeted Klansmen that are the bulk of repression these days, but more ordinary and developmental barriers that restrain the open and optimal growth of too many individuals and whole categories of people. Much of what restrains America’s black community, for example, is poverty , addiction, lack of education, and violent acts and expression. These often seem to be self-inflicted wounds in a way; but this is a difficult contention, too big to specifically discuss now.
The following is my response to the columnist recently submitted to the Columbus Dispatchbut not yet published:
Conservatives Need to Wake Up
Conservatives are dreaming. They see stolen elections where none exist. They imagine evil in vaccination and a hoax in the death of a million Americans from Covid. They see ‘murder’ when a woman asserts her bodily autonomy and aborts a pregnancy long before viability.
Conservative USA TODAY columnist, Ingrid Jacques, suffers from similar delusions. She needs to wake up. In “GOP stands against ‘woke’… but what does it mean?” (3/15 Columbus Dispatch) she contends that Critical Race Theory “has been adapted at the K-12 level” and “is teaching school-children to dislike each other.”
In my 35 years of teaching social studies in the Columbus area, and especially in recent years as a substitute teacher, I have been in many classrooms and in a variety of schools. Never once have I witnessed a teacher teaching students to dislike each other. Never have I seen a lesson plan that I would have explicitly called CRT, nor have I heard a teacher advocate that approach.
Granted, there are lessons taught—and I have authored more than a few of them—that do focus on injustices both past and present. But that is not CRT, it is honest social studies teaching.
Jacques quotes a supposed expert on this topic. Those of us who are awake (‘woke’) to some of these issues think that disparities of achievement between groups are “largely if not entirely the product of oppressive social forces.” But when I see the achievements of Fredrick Douglas, Susan B. Anthony, Paul Robeson, or Ruth Bader Ginsburg for example, I see great talents, effort, and courage. I also listen to their testimony that great prejudices and unjust obstacles had to be overcome in their pursuits.
Barack Obama has recently become the first black president, but what of the first woman president? By the logic of Ms. Jacques, maybe ‘the gals’ are just not capable, or maybe they are just too happy to be pregnant and in the kitchen. Surely it is not systemic bias.
Do I hear a wake-up bell ringing?
I got a real kick out of writing that last paragraph. It seems like a real zinger! And imagine American conservatives continuing in this way their dismal sequence of supposed revelations about what is really going on in this country! They are on one pathetic roll, and they continue to double-down!
(We are starting to make some real progress here at the old Nature Religion Connection—your site for some cool, cutting-edge speculation.Imagine The Universe “speaking” through you in your every movement and utterance! That is a large chunk of imagining; let’s see if we can pull it off in any reasonable way! Here we go.)
Responsible human beings are very complex mechanisms. Humans that are not responsible for their behaviors are still complex mechanisms just more obviously mechanical. They have some causal events that are not normal, and that allow us to disqualify them from the degree of control we normally think we have. Adults not responsible might be falling down an elevator shaft, or off their medicine for schizophrenia.
When we acknowledge that we are complex mechanisms, we are saying that we have ‘given up the ghost,’ in other words, no‘soul,’ no magical kind of‘self.’ There is no single thing—in ‘heaven’ or on Earth—that is a self-initiator, a creator or a mover that is itself not moved by another. Aristotle tried to call it “An Unmoved Mover,” and Christianity just took it to be a “God” who creates the world with no obvious cause and explains ‘him’-self (to Moses) in a neat little self-enclosed definition: “I am who I am,” or “I am that I am”—i.e. Yahweh. “Ghosts” supposedly defy physical realities; they avoid the causes the rest of us cannot, but most of us have learned quite confidently to disbelieve in ghosts, and ‘souls’ too.
The same for any kind of magical “Self”: a self that does things without being caused to do them. Importantly, all our behaviors are caused; how could they not be? What we call “a decision” surely must be some physical activity of the brain. Our bodily movements are clearly muscular and electrical events (physical events) of our anatomy. Ultimately, our movements are determined by the physical laws of our environment and even the state of the particles rolling down to ‘us’ (the particles that are ‘us’?) from the time of The Big Bang.
Philosopher Daniel Dennett contends that there is a perfectly good sense of “Self” that has gotten caught up in much superstition. The self really is “a unitary and cohering point of view of the world;” it is the center of my ongoing “narrative” about who “I” am and what “my” life is about. This story-telling is a Social Reality—we all do it. It has a point and purpose to “me” (my “self”) and the “persons” with whom I live and interact. “The Self” is Real in our kind of Society; it is as real as “a game of baseball,” and as real as “responsibility,” “money,” and “music.” All of these involve very complex behaviors that take on meanings that seem to be in addition to whatever meaning behaviors may have for physics, chemistry, biology, or neurology.
Dennett contends that “The Self” is a kind of illusion, “a cognitive illusion.” at least from some of our points of view. But even then, it is one of the useful illusions needed for the way we live. We seem to be “Selves” that Act Freely and Initiate Events, just as we seem to be, additionally, baseball players, musicians, parents, and bankers.
The following are some of the reasons we believe in a magical self, reasons that have led us into the superstitious beliefs of “A Self” beyond our social realities.
An Information Processor
“Whatever else we are, we are an information-processing system,” Dennett contends, and our “information-gathering apparatus (are) our most impressive causal interface with our surroundings.”
But information processing does not have to be that complex. All processing systems are firstly a form of screening or filtering in a literal sense. A sieve separating the biggest particles from the tiniest is information processing in its simplest form. From there, it is up to you, the designer of this processing system, to use the smallest particles or the largest—the pieces thus separated—and continue their processing to some goal. The whole point of “information processing” is to be selective; it has a particular point of view and some “reasons” for it. It is “a somewhat idiosyncratic way of gathering and partitioning information about the world,” reports Dennett; much as “a self” in its demystified form.
But to demonstrate how Information Processing can be deceptive,leading us to believe that something magical—self-initiation—is going on, Dennett contends we are “essentially an organization of switches and triggers.” He replaces my older mechanical example of selectivity (a sieve, which is not very mysterious or complex) with a more modern electronic example for separating ‘the wheat from the chaff,’ and then bypassing any talk of “purposes” by simply saying that the switches are put together in “an organization.”
And his point is that “input information”into the processor (in this case, us) is often far less evident or dramatic than the “output” results. “All information-processing systems rely on amplifiers of a sort,” he contends; “Relatively small causes are made to yield relatively large effects.”That tends to confuse us; we think that something beyond causes is occurring.
“Input switches,” like photo electric cells or biological sense organs, “transduce” input information into a form usable by the processor. “The ‘firing’ of a retinal neuron may be ‘triggered’ by the arrival of a single photon on (that) receptor,” for example. That is amplification because a photon is staggeringly small. In appropriate circumstances, that single photon may “trigger output effectors”: “arms, legs, mouths, wheels, projectiles, rockets—(that) use very little energy to initiate, modulate, and terminate…(they are) activities that expend dramatic amounts of energy in clearly observable ways,” Dennett insists.
This enhanced output is the result of stored and accumulated energy in the organization or design of the information processing system. “Stored energy is controlled by modulation of lower-energy events,” he says. Human engineers and inventors, but ultimately The Universe, as Mother Nature with her process of Evolution by Natural Selection, began discovering more efficient mechanisms and accumulatingefficient mechanisms into more complex mechanical systems long ago. Little in, can seem to result in, much more out. We tend to think we are “free”, free from any causal chain—we are an unmoved mover!
But, a much better answer is: in any good mechanism, Value is in its Design—its Organizationof Parts in relation to its environment.
“The Headquarters” Deep Within!
And so in information-processing systems—like other people or animals or even some machines—we do not see, from our vantage point outside them, the processing going on, the work being done, within. Dennett: “We see the dramatic effects leaving; we don’t see the causes entering; we are tempted by the hypothesis that their are no causes.”
Even in our“self,” this deception occurs. We take our “decisions” to be “the focal events in the life of a genuinely free agent,” reports Dennett. “Decisions are ‘voluntary’ if anything is,” he says. But even from “our introspective vantage point,” the “causal paths…are inscrutable.” “We” are supposedly ‘in’ the black box ‘with’ the processing going on, and still we don’t see the mechanisms or causesor “the self.”
We do recognize a certain difficulty about “decisions.” Though we think we “make them voluntarily;” they “can also be seen strangely out of our control,” reports our philosopher. We don’t witness them “being made” in any way! “We witness their arrival,” he contends. “They bubble up to consciousness” from somewhere. We do not know their source, even when it is supposedly within us and just us.
This has lead to an awkward theory,“a strange idea,” says Dennett: Deep inside us lays “A Central Headquarters.” It is “where the buck stops.” as Harry Truman characterized himself as President. It is where the ‘Decider-in-Chief’ resides. “My True Self” is the decider who is the initiator of its own action and who is not divided among itself and so possesses the clear and only view of who it is. Like Yahweh, “I am who I am,” says Our True and Original Self!
Now in electronic information processing, we can think of this HQ as its computer program and a central processor. In biological info processing we can think of it as the Genetic Code and the brain. And these situations are pertinent to us—humans, who are biological and a bit like a computer, but to many of us—we want more. If we took “more” to mean Our Cultureand our personal history in that culture, that would be a very good answer. In society, we do have “a sense of self” and “take” a large amount of responsibility for it; we explain who we are in its terms. “Self” is more like a literary device, than an object that takes up space and made of some material: it is the main character of a story.
But even if we avoid any metaphysically ridiculous answers, like “the Self” is a special kind of material—“a soul” or “a spirit,”—we then often fall into personification and reification of a different type. “A True Self” resides in a place,“a headquarters” that is “deep within us,” and is inhabited by—What? Answer: a more unified, more singular Self! It’s like a ‘smaller’ person within our larger person! “Smaller” because—well—it is more unified and singular, but also, I guess, it does have to fit in my head. That is an awkward theory!
What we are really doing, contends Dennett and others, is taking the real Social Process of Self-Formation which is interpersonal, and internalizing it within our own self-awareness. A child learns its role and part, by interaction with parents and teachers and peers, and eventually graduates to a more demanding role—adulthood. The internal dialogue can get really intense at that point!
Do We Need A Center?
We don’t need “a center” as any postulated and supposedly material (or spiritual) “thing,” Dennett contends. We do not need ‘some particle’ that initiates itself physically or even psychologically. We have our modern society and its social roles and our biology and its instinctsand conditions; we would be more consistent and wiser if we just left it at that. Our modern problems lay not in discovering our real individual “self,” or “soul, “or “spirit,” or “god.” Our problems lay in our incoherence and inconsistencies of our basic points of view and basic needs.
We have the problem of Human Freedom and Choice flipped on its head. We do “choose” and are “free” to do what we do, usually, normally, unless we are under the influence of an abnormal cause. But “Our Choice” is the last in a line—or more like a pyramid—of Conditions Already Determined, or Screening Processes, already in motion. When we think of information processing from the top down, from “the world view or attitude of a deliberator”—says Dennett, we can distort the whole process.
But with this ‘pyramid’ of qualifications, the top of this process is not in control! By the time “we”—as in “you” or “I”—get our turn to ‘chime in’ “The Situation” has already been Qualified and Quantified through these many “layers.” Physics, chemistry, biology, all play huge roles—how could they not?—but from our point of view as “deliberators” there is still some room for determination. As Cultural Animals, the historical realities of The Human Race and Our Society are determinative, but then so are the Sociological realities, and the Psychological realities of my life, and the neurological realities of my brain. “The Decision” “bubbles up into consciousness,’ but it is only at this highest, latest, social and cultural level that that term—“a decision”—is appropriately applied.
We seem to have made it, but in many ways we do not know how. This process of human information processing has long been tested and refined. Dennett contends that our cultural history clearly shows that we have turned our pattern recognition faculties back upon ourselves—we often review our decisions in search of flawed habits (patterns). We can revise one pattern of behavior with an improved one. “We” are a set of patterns seeking to fit in with a universe of other patterns. In that sense, a pattern has no ‘real’ center; but also in that sense, We seem to do things, and in a way We do!
If we accept This Rather Optimistic Attitude, Dennett contends that we are left with a rosy thought. As Information Processors we are Complex Mechanisms whose ultimate output—its “decisions”—“come bubbling up from below.” And that is fortunate because both ends of the process are real. The bottom of the pyramid is as real and important as the top. Human choices are just as real as neutrinos, but “real” in a different way. Curiously enough, we have ended this this search, and this post, with a conclusion sometimes attained in the history of philosophy and various other abstract human pursuits: We live in a Universe that has stumbled upon a path toward Understanding or Visualizing Itself!
Our profoundest hopes, and the Universe’s course, may not be all that divergent.
What if in your entire life, you never avoided anything? Everything that was ever going to happen to you, did happen. Well, you might imagine that you did not last long; you came to a quick demise.
But what if you did last for a while, in fact you lasted as long as you lasted, and that—yes—everything that was going to happen to you, did happen to you. How could it not?
And all that is OK, I will contend, following the lead of my favorite philosopher, Dan Dennett, more from his John Locke Lectures delivered in 1983 in Oxford, England and published as Elbow Room, The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting(1984). And this is A Revised and Greatly Improved version of An Earlier Post!
I must admit, “not avoiding” seems rather bizarre. It seems like we human beings wouldn’t be as powerful as we think we are. As if, we are not in as much control as we often think.It’s rather humbling!
On ‘Avoiding’ Things
So, consider the very idea of “avoiding.” It is a peculiar idea. Maybe it is a misperception or a semantic confusion. After all, we can easily reframe many events—all events?—to be an act of avoiding one thing or another.
This very moment, my heartbeat allows me to avoid death. Gravity helps me avoid the problem ofmy coffee floating out of my cup and drifting about this room. Sitting here avoids additional wear on my shoes. In conclusion, it seems that anything that happens avoids all the things that possibly could have happened in its place. “To avoid” something presumes that real alternatives exist. These alternatives are “real possibilities,” we might say; but how real can the possible be?
Philosopher Dennett cites Mark Twain’s musings on these matters: “I am an old man, and I’ve seen many troubles, but most of them never happened.” Dennett contends that there are confusions in the way we think we “avoid.” Imagine that, confusions among some of our basic ideas. Maybe they need a little rearranging.
“To avoid” is one of the “preeminent verbs of agency,” contends Dennett, doing some philosophical analysis of everyday language. Verbs like “help”, “avert”. “protect,” “bring about,” “thwart,” are all used to describe us as “actors,” “initiators.” “doers,” as opposed to simple receivers. We are not merely passive creatures, the mere site of occurrences that happen “to us.” We can “make a difference;” we like to believe. We can “change the course of things” by avoiding, protecting, bringing about, helping, starting…, at least we often contend so, he says.
Here are some examples of some prominent events that we have recently successfully “avoided”: Donald Trump’s Presidential Coup of January 6, 2022 (narrowly avoided), The 2018 North Korean Nuclear Missile Attack on Los Angeles (avoided by a much wider margin), The Great Comet Strike of 2019 in which millions of people in China died (avoided by a very large margin, I was unaware of any such “real” possibility—but none the less, Avoided!). We can, of course, think of many other important events that did not occur;“avoided,” we might think, and some avoided due to our efforts.
So, what are “the possibilities?” If we are going to avoid things, what are the events we can possibly “avoid” and what can we possibly put in their place? Can we even remotely reign in this idea?
The noted philosopher Willard Quine, one of Dennett’s mentors, was famously skeptical of meaningful talk about “the possible.” He would ask you something like the following: “How many imaginary fat men can stand in that doorway? Surely fewer imaginary fat men than imaginary thin men. How many imaginary thin men could fit? Remember, imaginary thin men can be pretty thin, and imaginary fat men can be very fat!”
But Dennett draws our attention to a very ordinary case of possibility and avoidance, much more realistic than imaginary men in doorways or North Korean missile strikes.
You are at a baseball game and sitting along the third-base line. A foul ball comes off the bat and it is a line drive right at you. “Luckily,” you say, “it missed me; I ducked; I was going to get hit right in the face!” In what sense were you “going to?”
Now this is an especially interesting case of avoidance because “ducking” is a human reflex. It is a mechanismdesigned and evolved right into us. Biologists call it “a situation-action mechanism” and animals have many of them, like a clam closing its shell at the least disturbance. It’s automatic, considering ample stimulus input.
So, not only did the ball not hit you, it was never going to hit you because you were always going to duck (given the situation as it was). The “Duck!” response is automatic. We can say it is part of the great causal chain of nature, that long sequence of events that started quite a while ago and is like billiard balls through time ricocheting on the universe’s cosmic billiard table.
SPOILER ALERT: In the end, this reflex idea of ‘avoiding’ will turn out to be pretty much correct.
Dennett then makes a shocking claim: All acts of avoidance are (“merely”) cases of faulty human anticipation(Freedom Evolves, p.59). If you were smarter—if you had known ‘The Bigger Picture’—you would have known better! You expected the ball to hit you, but it didn’t. Your impending injury was (“merely”) a product of your limited knowledge. From a “wider context,” a perspective now provided to us by our philosopher or by the science of physics or biology, you can now see what was always going to really happen, happened; not only did you escape the peril, there never was any! It was automatic, you were made to “Duck!” and so you did.
What should we make of these contentions? Dennett allows that maybe we should consider the above case “pseudo-avoidance.” This level of reflexive avoidance is not “genuine avoidance.” After all, even the simplest amoeba ‘avoid’ some of “the bad” and are ‘attracted’ to “the good;” it’s that primitive and that mechanical.
Maybe we need to up-grade the quality of our avoidance, from “simple ‘hard-wired’ avoidance [to] fancier varieties,” Dennett contends. And so in the history of living things—in Evolution— we have done that; we have progressed and maybe now we have “genuine avoidance.”
For example, Polio. In 1988 the World Health Organization reported 350,000 cases world wide, and launched a prevention/avoidance campaign. By 2012, they reported merely 175 confirmed severe cases. Polio has been ‘truly’ avoided and preventedby extensive scientific research, mass public education and vaccination. Clearly, the course of history was changed; a difference was made: polio has been avoided, we commonly conclude and not by some simple reflex action.
ANOTHER SHOCKING CLAIM
“If we want to change the course of history we are in for a big disappointment,’ says Dennett. “We cannot point to any real event that was ever avoided...No event that actually has happened, is happening, or will happen is an event that was, is being, or will be avoided.” If we think we have “replaced one future event with another” —lots of polio for very little polio—we are wrong. In fact, that idea is, “in this undoctored form, incoherent,” he argues, because “future events” are not real events and are as slippery as imaginary thin men in doorways.
But surely, we should reply, “Something was changed! We went form polio to no polio; the future was changed!” Well, at least “apparently,“ says Dennett: “All of the verbs of ‘making a difference’ involve a tacit comparison between the way the world was apparently going to go, and the way it turned out to go.” Dennett is arguing that it is not that history was changed, but that our anticipations about history—“the future”—were wrong.
Maybe, we were never going to have polio for any longer than we had it. Maybe “the universe” and “our wishes” are not so far out of line.We may be luckier than we tend to think!
It’s an epistemic issue, the philosophers would say. More polio in the future, and the baseball smashing your face, they were never “in the cards”(the real course of history) in the first place! It just seemed to you that they were, contends Dennett; it was a matter of your knowledge and perspective.
That is an interesting contention! It was us and our expectations that were faulty, not that we hadthe power to reach out ahead of ourselves in time (into the future) and switch things around.
But don’t we have that ability? Isn’t the future “open” and being determined by us “now?” We “deliberate;“ we “think things through” and then “decide,” and “act.” This is where we started this little essay, with “the verbs of action”: avoiding, protecting, creating, doing…and thus “making a difference.” We are reaching out into the future!
IS THE FUTURE “OPEN”?
This “open future” needs careful consideration. We will find out that it is not as open as we thought. Maybe everything we thought we avoided, was never going to happen in the first place. We should think about our thinking and deciding and ‘doing’ in a different way! Our ‘doing’ may be just what we needed to do, to align ourselves with what is to happen!And that is just what Dennett and I will argue!
We Deliberate and Decide to keep up with What is Really Going to Happen: “We Act Under The Idea of Freedom.”
Dennett comments that we often acknowledge that we cannot change the past, but we should equally acknowledge that we cannot change the future! It isthe event that will actually happen, and “happen to happen—in the fulness of time,” he insists. “The future” is not some collection of events from which some will actually occur.
Once again, we are confusing what we anticipated might be the future with what the future really was.The future did not change and we did not change it only our anticipations of it are often misguided. It seemed open, but it wasn’t.
All this confusion about “the future” iscommon in our everyday lives. It is how we talk about it, and it is not consistent. In many situations, what will happen is supposedly very much up to us; in other situations it is not up to us at all. In the middle, lay a huge number of situations that are an indeterminate mess of “up to us” and “a product of forces beyond us.” I guess that is why people write novels and read them. They want examples of how this works out.
But, we have other strong evidence (beyond Dennett’s analysis of our ordinary language) that “the real course of history” is already determined. Modern physicists believe that, in principle, the equation that predicts the movements of all the particles that compose our everyday world has already been discovered; it is called “the path-integral formulation of Quantum mechanics.” But chemists. neurologist and biologists have their own “determinants” of our lives now, and in the future.
So where does this leave us? Should we stop “trying to make a difference” because the future is already set?
Dennett does not recommend that course. Instead, we should regard our fancier varieties of action—scientific research, religious faith and ritual, ethical behavior, and human planning in general—as on par with our more reflexive forms of action. All our behaviors are caused by the pastand by our current environment, that they are determined in this way, does not diminish their stature.
“Genuine avoidance” is a confusion, and even as such it offers us no better than “determined” or “reflexive avoidance.”In each case, the peril is avoided. A thunderstorm is a real thing, and now that we know they are determined by natural causes, that does not diminish their status. They are still “a thunderstorm,” as powerful and full of lightning and rain as ever, even now when we can fairly accurately predict when and where they will occur. “Genuine Avoidance,” like a “genuine decision,” is supposedly when you simply decideand do something without physical causes, you do “what has been decided upon” and, like “God,” there was no mechanism to it; it is simply a decision out of nowhere, divine fiat: “Let their be light!” “I HAVE DECIDED!” we tend to think and say.
The same is true for “deliberation,” contends Dennett. It may seem paradoxical to think that “to deliberate,” “to think things through,” makes sense even from a mechanistic, deterministic, perspective. Deliberation is Not important because the outcome of that deliberation is open. It is not. To physics and to Laplace’s Demon, the outcome of your thinking (all those brain waves and molecular jumblings) are as historically set as anything else. But this is not paradoxical in the following way.
From the perspective as an actor—as the doer of the thinking, we do not know the outcome of our own deliberations! We must carry them out. That a particular future seems open to us, just as does the future in general, is our perspective. We must “Act Under the Idea of Freedom,” the title to the fifth essay in Dennett’s Elbow Room. “The course of history” is out of our control; we have very good reasons to believe that; but from the perspective of an actor inside that grand scheme of things, we cannot “see” it in its totality nor its outcomes. We should “keep our shoulder to the grind stone,” says Dennett, we must “keep our head down” and concentrate to do the best we can with the situation we have.
It’s like “follow-through” in a golfer’s or baseball player’s swing. “The trajectory of the ball [or even contact itself] is already determined before the follow-through commences;” yet “follow-through” is a wise and rational policy, argues Dennett. We continue our swing and keep our eyes down and focused on the area of potential contact, even after the contact has or hasn’t occurred. It allows for the smoothest swing, a swing that is “most effective” and seems to give us the best results. Follow-through tends “to ensure that the right, desirable sorts of things happen at the crucial time in the swing,” even though it occurs after the outcome (the ball was already hit, or not hit) has already been determined.
And so in life, we have done pretty well acting as if we are free, and responsible, and efficacious. History has often rewarded us with a beneficial outcome, beneficial from our point of view of course. For a creature with limited abilities, it is possible to see much progress.
This above realignment of ideas is part of that progress itself, believes Dennett. We ‘only’ act as if we are free and responsible! Understanding this makes science more compatible with our everyday ideas of ourselves as actors. I believe it even allows a quasi-religious sense of awe and participation. History is one of those Big Things that give us a part to play but is outside us and our ability to control. History is our destiny. It is beyond us, and yet still us, at the same time. Maybe we should try to regard it with a sense of awe, a sense of humility and even reverence. And then just ‘keep our head down’ and our ‘shoulder to the wheel’ and do the best we can!
(The start of this essay is in the previous post. That post is situated temporarily below this one in The Menu under the category, The Connection, varied topics. Please start there for a more complete understanding.)
In the previous post, “All the World in the Flip of a Coin,” philosopher Dan Dennett explored the curious truth that a Coin Toss has two apparently contradictory characteristics.One, it is “Open” to diverse results—heads or tails. Two, it is obviously totally determined by causal forces near and far; the result (“Heads!”) had no “Elbow Room,” it had to be what it was determined to be and therefore never “Open.”
Dennett concludes that a coin toss exists on two different levels for us.Our Limited Knowledge and Powers make it seem flexible, a head or tail were possible; yet if we knew much more no mystery as to its outcome would exist. A more powerful intelligence (“Laplace’s Demon”) would have understood each of the many factors that compose its “sufficient cause,” but to us more limited knowers, we need and search for “a necessary cause,” one or two or three factors that play a more prominent role in the event. Among a world full of contributors to it (the event’s sufficient cause), sometimes a more prominent cause is apparent.
How is this possible, this co-existence on these two levels at once? It is here that Dennett applies “a promised”Third Form of Causation: Final Causes or Purposes. We are limited in our Powers of Knowing and Doing so therefore we are merely theoretically aware of the world as a massive interconnection of sufficient causes, and most often are satisfied only by the discovery of a smaller set of necessary causes that some events possess. This introduction of Purposes as a form of causation is his (and some other philosophers as well) attempt to “Resolve”—as in the title—this tangled idea of “causation”: sufficient, necessary, final.
In “All the World in the Flip of a Coin,” a coin toss was Dennett’s brilliant example of an event (“a thing”) that was both caused and not caused at the same time. Its outcome is “sufficiently” caused by a great variety of factors but “necessarily” caused by no one or two of them, that is why we have so much trouble controlling it. Will it be Heads or Tails? We don’t know, and in this case we don’t want to control all the diverse input. The open outcome of the coin toss is useful to us, its Purpose.
Consider coin-tossing in comparison to pool. Pool is designed to maximize the role of skill, not luck. In pool, the field of play is isolated and constructed to allow the player almost total control of the outcome. The vast number of contributing factors (its sufficient cause)—or potentially contributing factors—are manipulated and utilized to allow the necessary cause for the outcome of each shot to be clear and almost singular. For example, pool is never played outside in a howling storm. Quite in contrast to coin-tossing, it’s a situation with a very different design and purpose.
Other examples given of events without Necessary Causes are many of the movements of the Stock Market. Even World War One, that war was going to happen and any number of events without the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand could have, would have, set it off. But this way of saying it, “event without necessary causes,” is not the best way—only a first attempt—to describe a curious character within our tangled sense of “causation.”
Dennett focuses on Designed Events, Designed Objects that Function, as the most important examples of occurrences in this tangle. They all exhibit the importance of Purposes and Goals, and the “openness” they create.
Returning to the Original Theme
Coin-Tossing is a human convention. It would not still be around if it did not serve some useful (and important) purpose to us. It is a good way to make a decision, when a decision is needed and there are no reasonable or necessary deciding considerations. Coin-tossing is a great tie-breaker, that is its purpose or goal.
To call “purposes and goals” causes,is an old way of talking. To call them “Final Causes” is even more suspect. Aristotle ‘coined’ (pun intended) that term, “final.” We moderns tend to not want to understand a goal as a cause, except when we are talking about subjective motivations. Otherwise, we like to keep our “causes” more public and observable, like pool balls bumping for all to see.
But to the ancients, all the things here on earth were striving (like a person)to attain the Harmony of The Spheres, an eternal perfection and an unrelenting constancy that lays outside and beyond each individual earthly thing. The Spheres were self-enclosed, circular; all that was to them was within them, we might say. And this is the character of goal-driven, purpose-guided objects. The ancients thought The Universe was goal driven, but we still recognize that organisms, artifacts, and persons “can” be.
How Purposeful Things Behave
“Generally” is how things constructed for a purpose work, in our world. Especially by contrast to the Harmonious Spheres which lay in the background, objects with purposes are not forever, not consistent every time, but only generally they do what they are designed to do.Purposes are always limited and from a particular point of view. A coin-toss results in heads or tails at generally an equal rate; a dog generally barks in certain situations; a bridge generally stands; I generally pick the shirt that I rather simply “want” each morning; at least from our point of view.
To do so, each designed situation or “thing” must simplify its situation. It cannot function in the world of total causal interaction like Laplace’s Demon or the world as displayed in physics. Designed things are limited things and as such, Dennett says, they are “an information processor” in the sense that each must ‘make decisions’ about what is important to it, and keep track of that information or that stimuli, only. All the other massive and multiple factors must be somehow relegated to “The Background” for it. “The Background” is a kind of holding pen for significant things (sufficient causes) but things not of primary importance (the necessary causes) to the purpose.
Dennett explains how this is possible. The Coin-Toss is designed to “amplify’ all the sufficient causes, he says, and then ‘interpret’ them (“push the digitizer”) into one of two modes—heads or tails.A dog barks when all the causes around it are interpreted, and this means many of them ignored, and undoubtedly to the dog many causes simply cancel each other out,—but in the end “the digitizer” (The Dog) is pushed by “its stimuli,” “its information,” into “Bark” or “No Bark” mode.
The game of pool is an excellent example of that kind of highly controlled and manipulated environment. When Willie Marconi lined up a shot, he did not think about gravity, though it was one of the most vital components of the game. Even less did he think of atomic decay or fields of electrical attraction—though present and operative they were relegated to the deep background for this purpose. Much more to Marconi’s concern where the very the levelness of the table and the smoothness of its surface, the lack of debris and the chalk on his stick’s tip. Pool is a highly designed situation, and it gave Marconi the “Elbow Room” to focus on true lines, appropriate momentums, and effective angles and contact. The game of pool—like much in Our World—is a limitation that allowed him the freedom to attain his goal.
This may not seem like much, but it is! At particular points, “all the world”comes to either a head or a tail for a coin toss, or a bark for a dog, or a particular shirt for me this morning, or a bank shot for Marconi.
Back to My Old Dog
In “All the World in a Flip of a Coin,” I started this essay joking about a congregation of atoms that I keep as a pet and how confusing it is to also talk of them as a dog that I have bonded to electrically, neurally, emotionally? I don’t know, but that’s the point.
So, this is how it is possible for a thing to be more than just one thing, by it having having wide-ranging “significance.” In other words, it is a “sign” of things beyond. This outcome—a bark, or the head of a coin—is a summation of the forces around it, expressed through the situation of—the design of—” a dog,” or “a coin toss,” contends Dennett.
In all purposive objectsand events, its structured design sums up and counter-balances most causal forces around it and they are relegated to the background of sufficient causes. By doing so, its purpose has ‘the space,’ “the Elbow Room,” to operate through a few necessary causes.
An automobile, for example, stands against gravity and bares an additional load, it corners and it propels itself. When we speak of autos, we generally do not mention the expansion of the universe or the drifting of the continents; we speak of “the brakes,” “the starter,” “the chassis,” “the traction of the tires…” But this a new way of talking is not arbitrary; it is, and has been, tested against the physical background. It has proved itself. We have found some Necessary Causes in the massive background of Sufficient Causesthat surround us, and made them work for us. They have a Purpose To Us.
It is a way of talking of a situation that from some points of view is a bit contrived, in the case of The Auto we call it “transportation.” Relative to the physical background that is apparent to “The Demon” (and that is the focus of the physicist), nothing is “really” being ‘carried through’ (“transported”) from one sub-atomic moment to the next. Each massive background is a total connection of (sufficient) causes shifted in its relation to the next total background of causes.
It is us, in our limited capacities, that focus on some specific set of particles and “see” some continuity from moment to moment, from background to background, and understand some purpose for that specific focus. Why, to “the demon,” Time is not even an essential element of “reality”! To it, past and present and future are all one!
Each automobile is a summation and balance of the forces and conditions around it; just as is each coin toss, and so for every other designed thing or situation. They are an abbreviated representation of the environment around it, for the sake of carrying out a purposeembedded in their physical structure. Whether an organism or other designed object or situation, each is a system with a purpose, even if as minimally as the tossing of a coin for a method of human choice.
“There is a familiar way of alluding to this tight relationship that can exist between the organization of a system and its environment: you say that the organism continuously mirrors the environment, or that there is a representation of the environment in—or implicit in—the organization of the system. ”
Dan Dennett, The Intentional Stance, 1987
One of Dennett’s main objectives is to understand howmany of our ordinary and basic concepts are very useful, even ingenious. Ideas like “person,” “reasons,” “can,” and “rationality” are not just subjectively real but objectively grounded against their background. The same can be said for “dog,” “skyscraper,” and “Mississippi River.” It just goes to show that in our world—the world as it seems to us—Whole Things and Situations “can” be as Real as the Parts that Compose Them. Physics does not always have the last word. My dog came to a lot more than just atom-talk!
And we are lucky that our world has come to so many interesting, even if often tragic, outcomes.
My pet dog was a loveable animal. For over ten years, she showed great enthusiasm for life. Always an avid eater, very day she chased squirrels—a related kind of creature—and never caught a one. She even loved snow; it seemed to fascinate her that beneath it lay smells—signs of other things she “savored.” But she got old, and both she and I have limits. She declined faster than I. At about the age of thirteen, we “put her down.”
I sat next to her as her atoms lost the orientation we call life. Soon, she (they) stopped functioning completely. We cremated her remains and still have those ashes, somewhere. Her specific structure and purposes are gone. My pet dog is now clearly just atoms. No more squirrel-chasing for them! I think I will find those remaining carbon compounds, and release them from that plastic bag and from that tin canister, and return them to the Earth where someday soon they will be free to mingle with my own. Like they say, “From dust to dust.”
(Getting down to the bottom of things, all in a simple read! A revised version of an earlier post. The mystery of the different Levels of existing things is explored through the example of the simple tossing of a coin. Keeping it pretty lite and pretty curious while trying to popularize the ideas of philosopher Dan Dennett, from his 1983 John Locke Lectures delivered in Cambridge, England and published as Elbow Room, the varieties of Free Will worth wanting, 1984.)
HOW CAN A THING BE TWO THINGS? Well, they can, and we think that all the time as long as the many different ways we characterize a thing don’t trip all over each other. Some large degree of consistency is necessary. A dog is a mammal and a chordate and an animal, that works ok.
But also a dog can be my pet, a mammal, a Beagle, Nika, and a congregation of atoms. I guess that means that I have pet atoms, and if I owned two dogs I would still have pet atoms just two different clumps of them. Funny how my pet clump loves to run about the yard in perfect attunement to the expansion of the universe and the constant decay of her sub-atomic particles. Those adorable little particles sure do get a charge (a different electrical charge?) when my wife comes home! My dog’s brain-waves love my mammalian mate. Its cute little tail (and brain waves, I presume) wiggle and waggle all over the place on those occasions.
Now that didn’t sound quite right to me, but I guess it’s true somehow. We just have to keep all our radically different ways of talking about something in their own compartments. We cannot mix them like a tossed salad. And speaking of tossing…
When we think about coin-flipping, we have a somewhat similar issue. How should we talk about it?
On the one hand, there is “elbow room,” “wiggle room,” says philosopher Dan Dennett. We don’t know whether a fair human flip will come up heads or tails, but we do know that it will come up one of those. In fact, we have a whole set of “laws,” the laws of probability, that say in the long run heads and tails will come up with equal frequency. So if, oddly enough, you have just flipped a coin five times and they all came out heads, don’t say “Tails, it’s got to be” for the sixth flip, because it doesn’t. Yes, that is elbow room; that coin has some room to maneuver!
Dennett cites the famous 18th century English philosopher, David Hume: we want “a certain looseness” to exist in our world. It “prevents the possible from shrinking tightly around the actual,” says Dennett and is “presupposed in our use of the word “can.” The flip “can” come up heads or tails. Many things “can” do various things and have various states. Water “can” be a solid, liquid or gas. This kind of flexibility is presupposed in our idea of human freedom, and in much social science (“She can vote Republican or Democrat.”), biology (“The dog can bark.”) engineering (“The auto can accelerate.”), but also in statistics and probability (“Any gene of the father “can” be passed on to the offspring, but only 50% of the offspring’s genes will be paternal.). This “openness” is very important to us.
But on the other hand, we also believe that every flip of that coin is completely determined by all the physical laws and conditions that compose it; in other words,no elbow room. If we could control, or know, all the conditions, no mystery to the outcome of any flip would remain. “Mystery gives way to mechanism,” as Dan Dennett has stated in many circumstances.
So, is it elbow room or no elbow room? Contemporary magician turned mathematician, Persi Diaconis has developed a highly accurate mechanical coin-flipper. And Pierre Laplace, the famous 18th century French physicist, postulated that with Newton’s laws, if we had a very powerful intelligence (often called “Laplace’s Demon”) capable of discerning the position of all the particles of the universe at any one instant, to that knower the past and the future would be one, all movements and destinations—including our flipping coin—would be known. As Hume feared, to the demon, the possible has collapsed into the actual. From that perspective there is no wiggle room; what actually happened was determined to happen long ago and even far way.
So what is the truth of this two-sided event? Is it designed to allow “a certain looseness” or is it totally determined to come to the one and only outcome that did in fact out-come? How do we think both ways about this ‘simple’ event? Dennett has tried to make much of this combination and much may ride on it including human freedom.
First Dennett contends, we have limited knowledge. We are not Laplace’s Demon; we are too much in the middle of all things: too much limited in time and in space. The position and velocity of all particles at one instant is well beyond our capabilities (beyond anyone’s). We have this Ideal of Perfect Scientific Knowledge as ‘a guiding light,’ but our limitations are well known to us and deeply embedded in our way of thinking. We know we have limits and here we have run right into them.
Second, in a very important sense, The Outcome of a Coin Toss has No Cause. How could this be? A coin toss has many causes, Dennett just said that. Some of us might think that a human being can doun-caused, “free,” things, but not a dead and dumb disc of metal. But, there are ambiguities in our idea of “cause” explored by philosophers going as far back as Aristotle. A sufficient cause and a necessary cause is the distinction Dennett will use here, but at another point a different idea of causation will also be prominent. The coin toss has no “necessary” cause, he contends.
A coin-toss has sufficient causes, argues Dennett. Its outcome was caused by many things, including the positions and qualities of the particles of the universe one minute after the Big Bang. Whatever the situation of those particles, they were at least sufficient to allow the outcome of this coin flip these billions of years later.
More immediately, we are sure the outcome was caused by the many, many, specifics of the situationat the time of the coin’s flight (humidity, wind, the specific gravity of its location…), and the various exact features of the flip itself (speed, rotation, height of toss, size of coin…). All these factor into the exact outcome of any and all particular flips. In this sense, that event—and all events, you picking a shirt from your closet this morning, for example– have causes sufficient for their occurrence: they are sufficiently caused.
But who cares? Dennett says this kind of cause is “diffuse, complex and uninteresting.” We can really do nothing with it. What we really want are Necessary Causes, not sufficient causes, he says, and this is just what a coin toss lacks. No one or two or three factors exist (or are evident to us and evident to us in time) to determine the outcome in a fair human coin flip. The outcome is “up in the air” so to speak. It has no Necessary cause,in that way. It is a very ordinary event (no “spirits,” no “mind,” no extraordinary “powers”) and it has no (necessary) cause!
The same may be said for the “choice” of your shirt this morning: it had no particular and necessary cause! An openness existed to it, from our perspective. Like the coin toss it had sufficient causes but no one or two obvious and determinate (necessary) causes). “I’ll wear the blue shirt, today,” I decide, for no obvious reason. It seems to be a “choice”by me and nota causal event forced on me.
WE SHOULD PAUSE AND APPRECIATE THIS RECOGNITION. Nothing in particular (no physical force, no environmental condition) caused the coin’s outcome, or even the choice of my shirt. A coin toss is both caused and determined in its outcome (by sufficient causes) and NOT caused and determined (by a necessary cause) at the same time. Let us explore these circumstances.
Maybe this idea of Sufficient Causation is not helpful to us? As Dennett has already said, this kind of explanation is all over the place (“diffuse”), extremely protracted (“complex”), and “uninteresting” because it does not exclude much of anything. “Sufficient Cause” seems to appeal to our inclination to think of everything as being involved with everything else, at least in some sense.
In this obtuse way, the idea of sufficient causation is helpful, I suppose, and Dennett acknowledges this and then suggests: we seem to be lucky that the world we are in has the character that it has,because a lot has come out of it. All the many different things interact and it comes to some notable occurrences.
Some interesting sh!# does happen! For example, we know much about the chemical and structural character of the simplest living things, yet we cannot recreate them, cannot produce Life from Non-Life in a lab. We know much about its pieces and parts, but just can’t put them together to work There seems to be “many more ways to not be alive than to be alive,” a prominent biologist, Richard Dawkins, has concluded. We are lucky to have the degree of complexity that we do have, for even in our own universe (let alone other “possible universes”) there seem to be many places where “things” just don’t come to much.
And when ‘all’ the world comes together to make a very specific things or event, sometimes a necessary cause will jump out at us from all these sufficient causes. A traffic accident was “caused” (necessary cause) by the car that ran the light, in addition to the state of particles shortly after the Big Bang and Henry Ford’s invention of the auto assembly line in 1913 that made mass auto transit feasible— all parts of the sufficient cause that do play their role in this car crash. Stock market fluctuations, World War One, are other examples; things that may lack a necessary cause.
Laplace’s Demonis very much at home in this world of massively interacting sufficient causes. The Demon would have the capacity to know them all and precisely trace each exact contribution far into the future (and back into the past). But we humans do not; we have limited horizons. We do not even know with certainty the outcome of the day we are in. “Subjectively our future is open,” says Dennett. Objectively, from the demon’s point of view, all movements are already determined. Like a coin toss.
So, we choose by taking hold of (taking advantage of) a more limited pattern that we do see (a necessary cause, hopefully); we act, and then wait to see what happens. Choice and responsibility, free will and planning (avoiding the bad, seeking the good), and rationality, all areideas based in our limited knowledge and abilities, contends our philosopher.
It’s a good thing to be a creature with limitations, we might conclude. It seems like we are free, in a universe that is already determined! In this way, our freedom and our responsibility are conditions of “our epistemic limitations” and not our most wide-ranging ontological condition. Subjectively there is looseness in our lives; different events “can” happen!
We are freebecause often we know no necessary causes to explain much of what happens to us. We are like our flipping coin, no cause seems to stand out. This morning when I chose my shirt, gravity did not necessarily cause that, nor did entropy, nor the food I ate yesterday and every day before that (they were all sufficient causes, real and active but in a subtle way), nor was my mother abusive in my childhood by always screaming at me and demanding: “Wear blue on Wednesdays!” Like the coin rotating in the air (head or tail?), we are subjectively free to make “a choice:” red shirt or blue?
But “choice” is not always the best word to use. We do not say that the coin chooses head or tail, but we do recognizea new set of standards apply to the outcome of the flip from our perspective.A different way of talking about the coin toss becomes applicable. The Coin Toss exists and behaves at two different ontological levels:the micro-physical level of Laplace’s Demon and the hard sciences; and the macro-physical level of everyday interactions.
At the macro level this morning, an openness seemed to exist and I used it to (very briefly) consider the color for my shirt. ‘What color pants am I going to wear?’ ‘What color shirt did I wear yesterday?’ ‘It’s winter, wear subdued colors,’ I thought. Of course, gravity and entropy and millions of chemical reactions were also playing their part as sufficient causes in the background for “my decision.” But, I now had the “Elbow Room” to utilize my fashion standards and some other even more important standards, to make my decision according to The Standards for “a free and responsible person!” Or so we say.
Spoiler Alert: If you think I have put our “freedom” in somewhat of a precarious position, you are right! We are stuck between the Eternal and Fixed Background of Physical Laws and our own limits and needs to Think and Act Reasonably. “Stuck in the Middle with You!” It’s the basis of a Nature and Religion Connection! Stay tuned for the resolution!
It’s not The Christmas Tree; it’s The Tree of Life! Still celebrating Xmas here in The O-H-I-O, with the revision and republication as a group of this set of posts. I’ve shortened them and sweetened them for your Festival of Lights celebration. Some really good ideas here about that Mother Nature that surrounds us. I hope you enjoy them and may they enhance your Wonderment on these cold, cold and dark days here in the central latitudes of The Northern Hemisphere. Happy Solstice! I feel The Light coming on with the help of The Nature Religion Connection!
See Menu,naturereligionconnection.org, and click “Our Sacred World.”
(Here atThe NatureReligionConnectionwe are getting serious about a source for our awe. If religion is to have some reasonable foundation and some useful form in this modern age, this is it. The science of Evolution justifies our sense of participation in, indebtedness to, and responsibilities toward, Mother Nature and her magnificent work of living art. If we could now acknowledge that, and conduct ourselves in its light, her accomplishments would be greatly glorified. How about that forsome old-timey religious talk?The following post series—“Our Sacred World”— I try to establish what might be truly worthy of awe.)
LET’S TALK ABOUT DISTINCTIONS
“Distinctions” are those big and little differences that color the world in us and around us. One of our first deep thinkers on the topic was Plato, who sought to “carve nature at its joints,” as if it were some roast pig and he the chef making the cuts—drawing the lines—to create the pieces that would truly worked. Let us continue that effort, and, in the end, we will be able to distinguish some wonderous realities.
Let us, also, begin with living things, and ask what kinds of distinctions lie between them. If we do, we will be in for a big surprise, contends Dan Dennett, a philosopher who has written a brilliant account* of the character and implications of Darwin’s great discovery, Evolution by Natural Selection. Mother Nature, in this her great creative thrust, “draws no lines,” he contends. In amazing ways, boundaries are blurred, distinctions are mitigated, the the separateness and unity of living things becomes fluid.
How could this be? For example, we have daffodils and elephants. A clear “line,” so to speak, can be drawn between them. A huge difference exists; one is a modest sized, flowering plant, the other the largest of all land animals. Yet, they are connected in what Darwin called “a great tree” of relationship. He wrote: “The affinities of all the beings…have sometimes been represented by a great tree. I believe this simile largely speaks the truth.” It is inthe logic of the growth and structure of this “tree” that we shall find our wonders, according to Darwin and Dennett.
*Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea(1995) was a National Book Award Finalist. It was glowingly received by biologists such as Richard Dawkins, John Maynard Smith and E.O. Wilson; along with philosophers such as Richard Rorty—one of my favorites. The noted astrophysicist Carl Sagan called it , “A breath of fresh air.” Incidentally, Darwin’s “Idea” is “Dangerous” because it is so disruptive of our traditional ways of thinking, Dennett contends. Let us see if that is true.
Dendrogram 1 and 2
Two diagrams of the relations of living things; from the Greek dendron, meaning tree.
THE WONDERS IN THE TREE
So what kinds of distinction has life cooked up in over 3,500 million years of existence? And, how clear-cut are they?
As we look at the outer point of extension of each branch in our tree, we see the prolific production of this natural process—many kinds of distinct creatures exist. All the major categories are present: plant is distinguished from animal, animal from bacteria, protist (single-celled organisms) from fungus, etc. But of course, each category in the end comes down tothe Individuals of that kind and of all kinds.
In the understanding of Life, the uniqueness of each living thing plays a central role. There is a surprising and complex interplay between an individualcreature and itskind, and this will turn out to be the idea of “distinction” at its greatest importance.
So what are the wonders of the distinctions revealed in The Tree of Life?
EVERY LIVING INDIVIDUAL TODAY (OR OF ANY TIME) IS THE OUTCOME OF AN UNBROKEN CHAIN OF ANCESTRY THAT LEADS BACK TO THE ORIGINAL LIVING THINGS. FOR EACH OF US, THAT IS A LONG RUN!
Your great-greatest of all ancestor was possibly among the very first living things (“possibly”—will be explained shortly). So was mine, so was your pet dog’s, so was the cottonwood tree that lives in my backyard or any plant that lives in your yard; in fact, all of us currently living things have the same original ancestor and many others that lie between. Dennett: “All the diversity of life that has ever existed on this planet is derived fromthis single fan-out; the controversies arise about how to discover and describe in general terms the various forces, principles, constraints, etc., that permit us to give a scientific explanation of the patterns in all this diversity.” What is uncontroversial is that “this single fan-out” is an unbroken chain with a single origin that leads to today.
Our line of ancestry is unbroken, that is uncontroversial, says Dennett. It is almost a logical necessity; by definition ‘living things come from living things’—with only one exception: The Origin. If my chain of ancestry were broken prior to myself, I would not be here. And there is no evidence and even less likelihood of multiple and distinct origins for the life we find about us today. The same unique genetic code runs through us all. We come from the same stalk!
But the possibility does arise that our first ancestor was not the only “first” living thing. Surely Mother Nature conducted various ‘experiments.’ It is probable that other creatures at the same general time, of a similar general character, and likely of the same general environment or situation, were also (what we now call) “alive;” but they or their progeny came to a quick end or relatively quick in geological terms. They left no descendants that are alive today or any trail of evidence that we have found. This topic of “firsts,” first of a kind, will be returned to later. When and how do we draw that line?
How long is this successful run of successors? In human generations (and “generation” is a surprisingly complex term) this means 4 to 5 generations every 100 years, and about 100 going back “to the time of Jesus,” as they say. That means you have about 100 great grandmothers on each side of your family for that span. Every great-grandmother successfully bearing at least one daughter that soon joined that line of your grandmothers, herself, by giving birth to a daughter who gave birth, and that is only the very tip of the chain.
Biologist Richard Dawkins estimates that our 50 thousandths great grandmothers were no longer of our species; they were homo erectuswith which we, homo sapiens, would not have mated and probably could not have mated successfully (sterile off-spring).
For fruit flies, there is a similar but more extreme story. A female fruit fly can give birth in about 10 days of its own birth and its total life cycle is only about two weeks; that makes for a lot of turnover! For it, there are about 30 generations in a year(!) and that makes around 60,000 generations in two thousand years! That is quite a family tree and quite a line of successful reproduction.
EVOLUTION BY NATURAL SELEDTION IS A PROCESS THAT IS BOUND TO CREATE “WINNERS.”
Barring the destruction of the entire planet (and I mean like the shattering of the planet into pieces as if by The Death Star in Star Wars), evolution by natural selection is a relentless process; it goes on and on. In fact, overcoming challenges is one of its dominant characteristics. Challenges as significant as ice ages, strikes by large meteors, continental drift, climate change and plagues have already been received and responded to. Life continued on; evolution continued.
But “winners,” in what sense? Both Darwin and Dennett use this term and both have faced criticism for it, along with the term “natural selection,” which ‘selects’ the winners, as if nature were some kind of person choosing; like your “Mother Nature.”
In the minimal sense,“winners” are those who succeed in the competition of life, and biologically that means to reproduce. It is worth taking a moment to remind ourselves how powerful a force this is. Reproduction is a chemical chain of reactions. We, humans, with our ‘higher’ goals and wants can sometimes lose sight of this primal ‘urge’ to reproduce. Most species have their entire existence physically and chemically arranged to reproduce. In some animals and at some times, not even the need to eat rivals it. Evolution by natural selection guarantees successful reproducers.
In this minimal sense of a “winner” as reproducer, “there is something strange and trivial,” says Dennett. It is like asking, how proud should I be to have been born?You might want to think (and gloat): ‘I must be very special to be the outcome of such a long chain of success.’ And maybe that is true!
What if I told you that I could produce, on demand, a winner of ten consecutive coin flips. That a person could win in fair coin-flipping at that rate is surely improbable. You might think that this winnerwas a person of some special ability, or perhaps somehow you were being deceived. Let me up the ante, I can show you a person capable of winning about 28 consecutive coin tosses!
How? Let me organize the entire population of the United States into a giant coin-flipping tournament. I would set up the brackets, massive brackets, especially in the early rounds, but after the first round the population would be cut in half, and in every round thereafter, the remaining winners would also be halved. Finally, by the 26th round (the quarter finals) we would be down to 8 remaining citizens each with 25 straight wins so far! Then the semi-finals, 4 champion “callers” remain; then The National Finals—lights glare, trumpet blare—the remaining two citizens take the stage and the coin is flipped, the call is made, and the anointed one is now apparent; 28 straight victorious tosses! (The math is 2 to the 28th power equals approximately the population of the U.S.) For 10 consecutive correct calls, give me exactly 1024 people and I will arrange them into this coin-tossing tournament. (The math is 2 to the 10th power is 1024.) This is how Evolution by Natural Selection assures us there will be winners.
Dennett is right, there is “something strange and trivial” about the winner of this coin-tossing tournament. First,we are assured a winner with a huge win-streak, that is guaranteed by the organization of the process. It’s is like a machine, and somebody has to win. Second, we do not know before hand who the winners or grand winner will be. In tournaments and contests that involve large amounts of Luck, we have absolutely no way to recognize a winner from a loser at the outset. We only find that out retrospectively, by hindsight, after the tournament is over. As Dennett says, “It is a retrospective coronation.” (We will return to this later.)Thirdly, what kind of champion will this be? In our coin-tossing tournament our grand winner will have exactly zero special abilities or pertinent distinctions by comparison to the other competitors. That is strange; line up that grand champion in a new tournament and their chance of losing in the first round is just as high as anyone’s, 50%.
Even in tournaments that involve skill,as in the basketball tournament (from above) in which we often say— “the best team won”, luckplays its part. In Evolution with its “survival of the fittest,” luck plays a huge role in who survives and luck does this in disregard for any special distinctions—that’s why we call it “luck.” Sometimes “the best die young,” to alter Billy Joel’s lyrics. But, the idea of “luck” is tricky, and we might justifiably argue that “to be skillful” is itself a product of good luck! (This topic of luck will be returned to.)
But, whether by luck or by skill—or a combination of the two—the game of Evolution produces winners.
Let me stop here for this post. So far we have encountered the wonderous reality that each of us has a history of blood descent back to near, or at, the origin of Life. That is a shocking realization: my blood-line goes back to the start—3,500 million years ago! A curious fact is then added, Evolution assures that some living things will always live and pass on ancestors within biological struggles, barring some hugely external interference. So, someone had to do it (survive ands evolve), and it turned out to be you and I!
The next post will offer several more Wonders within The Tree of Life! Stay tuned!
(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 AnIndividual 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, Adaptationsare “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 thatNatural 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.
Algorithmsare 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; theDNA 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 LifeNext Weekend! STAY IN TUNE WITH NATURE AND WITH “THE NATURE RELIGION CONNECTION.”
(In this series—“Our Sacred World”—we have been exploring Distinctions, and especially distinctions within The Tree of Life. In this edition we will find that The Tree is very Full and the space for radically different Kinds of things is limited by the plethora of Individuals that already exist or have existed. Where do we, or Mother Nature, draw the lines for any “kind” of living thing among this array of “individual” living things? Is a Flower really that much different than an Mammal?” Are the lines disappearing?—–see the previous two posts in this section for parts one and two.)
THE TREE OF LIFE IS VERY FULL! GRADUALISM IS AT THE CORE OF LIVING REALITIES.
In his Origin of Species, Darwin imagines, “If every form which has ever lived on this earth were suddenly to reappear…all would blend together by steps as fine as those between the finest existing varieties,” (my emphasis).
The Tree of Life is full! Just as we saw that it was an unbroken chain of reproduction from bottom to top (First Wonder), so now we must understand it as full laterally around and along each branching point. Intermediate forms must have existed (and then perished).
Dennett insists that “Gradualism” is at the core of Evolution. Darwin realized that the great complexity, diversity, and intricate organization of living things was not possible without a God-like Designer, unless it developed slowly and gradually through minute incremental additions and improvements. Something as complex as an elephant or daffodil could not naturally come into existence in one fell swoop, that would be Vastly Improbable.
Darwin realized that the world of living things and the fossil record suggested (was evidence of) its tree-like relationship of kinds (“forms,” as he so often called them) and its gradual historical development. Large improbable leaps were replaced in his thinking by very small developments! Any singular species or kind came into its own only by the narrowing of (the Selection from) a large array of similar forms. (This point will be returned to and developed.)
At any one time, every species contains a huge amount of diversity. At any point along the growth of The Tree, we can surmise “a luxuriant growth of short-lived alternatives,” says Dennett, that are too temporary and singular to be represented in our dendrograms that encompass billions of years and vast numbers of creatures and kinds of creatures. Any line in our dendrogram should be imagined fuzzy with variants that met with little reproductive success!
It is here that we come back to that originalissue of individual and kind. Each individual must be (not its own species) but almost its own variety of a species, and Darwin emphasizes that every variety is “an incipient species” because it could be naturally selected to become the dominant “form” of its historically developing interbreeding and morphologically similar kind, i.e. a species. Varieties are “a less distinct and more fluctuating form,” he wrote, but “the term species…does not essentially differ from the term variety.” Nor is the term “variety” essentially different from the term individual, I think we should conclude.
Both Darwin and Dennett strongly object to the traditional idea of “an essence,” especially for biological phenomena. In Darwin’s day, each species of living thing was thought to have its own essence to distinguish its absolute uniqueness. In this way, Essentialism is the opposite of Gradualism. An essence was considered timeless; it was a piece in the creator’s mind—God’s Eternal Plan. An essence was considered a kind of immaterial cause that was not a part of history, nor were living kinds considered to change in time.
Today, we still occasionally use that term (as above) by saying two things are “essentially” the same or different. Technically, in philosophy, an essence is the total uniqueness and singularity of a thing as its prime quality. These are “the cuts made at the joints in nature” that Plato wanted to make, as mentioned in the introduction to this series of posts. They are the lines thatdelineate nature’s true individualsand kinds.
But these “joints” do not exist in the world of living things, Darwin and Dennett argue. In The Tree of Life, only The Tree itself is a singular unitapproaching an essential quality; all that is in it exists onlyby relation to all else in it, and all that has been in it. In Dennett’s heralded book, he concludes his chapter titled “The Tree of Life” by saying, “Any acceptable explanation of the patterns we observe in the Tree of Life must be contrastive,” must only be understood in relation to the rest of the Tree and its history. To be “alive,” is to be a part of this larger whole.
There are other examples of the tight blend of various kinds of living things.
Separate species do sometimes interbreed. Wolves, coyotes and dogs not only have great morphological similarity (“form”) but can and do occasionally interbreed and bare fertile offspring. Domesticated dogs are of one species (Canus familiaris) though many of their varieties are incapable of actually mating, but due to the large and varying degree of intermediate sizes and shapes of dogs, genes from the most different varieties can co-exist and form a vast array of “mutts.”
And at the other extreme, in some cases, a difference in species and a lack of interbreeding can arise from changes that are insignificant at many other points. The Herring Gull of England apparently interbreed with the Herring Gulls of Iceland and Greenland as their range stretches westward to eventually circle the North Pole. In North America this interbreeding continues but some slight coloration variations are evident. As this species’ range crosses over to northern Asia interbreeding continues and coloration differences increase. This trend continues across Siberia and back through northern and eastern Europe until this range of birds returns to England as two different species with some color differences and a refusal to interbreed! Maybe these birds see or hear or smell something more subtle and important in their slight differences than is apparent to humans! These Gulls represent the other extreme from domestic dogs: two separate species but little anatomical (and geographic) distinction between them.
At any one time, The Diversity of Kinds of living things is Vast and it can also be subtle. Each individual living thing is not its own kind, but almost its own variety of a kind. The Tree of Life is lush with Kinds within Kinds and Varieties within Varieties. In this sense, it exhibits an amazing Fullness.
Especially if we consider the Tree of Life historically, its Distinctions between species and individual living things within each species (their varieties) are very fine-grained.The Principle of Gradualism is essential to this Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection. The reality of Gradualism is supported by massive amounts of data along with the logic necessary for any Materialistic and Naturalistic theory of the character and origins of living things.
The following Wonder Six in THE TREE OF LIFE is an additional corollary of The Principle of Gradualism. AMAZING HOW SUBTLE ARE THE DISTINCTIONS IN THE WORLD OF LIVING THINGS!
THERE ARE NO “FIRSTS” IN THE TREE OF LIFE!
A shocking contention. Our ordinary intuitions deeply mislead us when we think that there must have been “a first human,” “a first mammal” and even “the first living thing.” It is as if we believe, at some exact point, a fish gave birth to an amphibian, or a lizard gave birth to the first mammal, or life suddenly sprung from non-life. That did not happen and we must learn to give ourselves over to the spirit of Gradualism and the seamless character of The Treeof Life and we will see that the idea of a “first” is only a “supposedly important question,” says Dennett. The idea of “The First…” is misleading and means a radical change at some exact point, a break in continuity.But how else can we understand it?
Biologist Richard Dawkins makes the point in the following way. In our line of human descent, if we go back into our past in the range of “185 million generations of parents and grandparents and great grandparents…we come face to face with a fish.…[then] your fish ancestor had a fishy child, who had a fishy child, who had a child…who 185 million (gradually less fishy) generations later, turned out to be you.” In this way, Dawkins resists radical jumps, his point is “No Firsts,” just infinitesimal developments all the way up (and all the way across) The Tree of Life.
A more formal way to think of this is that complex things, like “human,” “mammal,” and “life,” have no essence. As discussed earlier, they are not primarily one overwhelming characteristic (an essence) but a collection of traits highly associated. And when living things change, it is not because they are finally displaying what was really already there ‘deep down’ and “intrinsic” to them, i.e. their essence. Dennett phrases the point made above by Dawkins in the following way: new kinds of living things “must grow out of something less, something quasi-, something merely as if rather than intrinsic” (his emphasis). It is not that ‘in the heart’ of the ancestor that was common to both ourselves and the gorilla lurked the goal of being human. Living things are not related that way; they are far more contingent.
Darwin recognized this when imagining the reappearance of all former living creatures and the tighter blending that would create among species today. No clean and simple “definition” of the different kinds would be possible, only “a natural arrangement” would be evident. “It would be quite impossible to give definitions by which each group could be distinguished from other groups, as all would blend together,…nevertheless a natural arrangement would be possible,” said Darwin. No tight definitions possible; no essences found to sharply distinguish each kind of creature, he is contending. The Tree of Life flows and grows slowly from part to part, branch to branch, time to time.
Even the “Origin of Life” falls to this qualification. Look it up, what are the main characteristics of life? Are there four—sensation, growth, reproduction, self-regulation—are there five, are there eight? “Life” seems to be a collection from many different directions. Regardless, says Dennett, “a good Darwinian” will know how to deal with this familiar problem of “origins”; for each trait “a still simpler form” of it will be sought: a simpler form of genetic code, a simpler form of metabolism, a simpler form of flight…
And what will we find when move back in time—as if in a time machine, suggests Dennett—to this new situation of the simpler form? Will we find that simpler form distinct and outstanding due to its abilitiesand unusual skills in comparison to its contemporaries? Was our “fishy” ancestor—for example—better, more distinguished, than its other fishy contemporaries? Was ‘The First Living Thing’ more obviously ‘alive’ than many of its contemporaries? No! Only with large amounts of time and many further developments did one such creature turn out to be what we sometimes want to call “The First Living Thing.”
Today, Life distinguishes itself from Non-Life in many important ways, several suggested previously. But in the time span of its origin, Life displayed a “near-invisibility,” to use Dennett’s words. It did not obviously distinguish itself from many of its contemporaries and Only Time Would Tell. In the early stages, ‘Life’ was only one chemical reaction among many.
The idea “Life,” like the idea “Speciation,” has “a curious property,” says Dennett, “You can’t tell it is happening at the time it occurs.” Only many years later, many generations later, is it clear that something important had to have started in the past—many important current distinctions must now be based in some antiquity—and we may begin to search for it. It is a “retrospective coronation,” as we talked about the winner of our coin-flipping tournament in Wonder Two. This ‘origin of life,’ or ‘the first mammal,’ are understood only with hindsight.
So, many of Life’s events are not immediately obvious; they draw no clear line at the time of their supposed origin; their significance is only eventually displayed. In this way, There are No “Firsts!”
Dennett goes so far as to say, “There is not and could not be anything internal or intrinsic to the individual…from which it followed that they were—as they later turned out to be—the founder of a new species” (or even the first living thing), Dennett’s emplhasis. I feel the urge to say, “Not even some trait that was ‘small’ and beneath our notice that was there and the basis of the origination?” But Dennett’s answer is No, it is not our inability to see some break-point; it is Nature’s real and continuously unbroken form! There are no break-points; no exact joints at which to make the cuts.
That is awesome.
When our ancestors “won” in the game of life, it was much like the coin-flipping tournament from Wonder Two. But unlike the coin-flipping, the winner not only moved on to the next round so did its off-spring that then composed the species, the kind, as it faced its next round of challenges. Its off-spring and those off-spring’s off-spring created an array of varieties or variations even closer than the Spaniels pictured previously. It is from that array that the new winner was naturally selected, but at that time it stood out in no obvious way from its kindred contemporaries.*
And Luck did play a large role in its “conquest.” Lucky that the didn’t get stepped on in its infancy and die, or been eaten. Lucky that all its grandchildren didn’t all freeze to death in a subsequent harsh winter. Lucky that it just happened to possess the mutation in its genome that gave it a slight difference from its very similar co-specifics. Lucky that it had more luck than those others whose lines of descent were extinguished with time. As Dennett said of the coin-toss tournament, and this still applies, the winner was only revealed in hindsight, as the other competitors were pared away: “it is a retrospective coronation,” and “an historical accident.”
Our common sense understanding of Evolution is distorted in this way. We tend to think of the winners as advancing due to their own skill and superiority, smiting their competition in a very clear and deliberate way: head-on, mano a mano. That is not the way Natural Selection works. “The winners” end up chosen through a vast array of circumstances that stretch through a vast sequence of time, but survivors they are. This process is massively contingent, but The Tree of Life continues to grow based on, and shaped by, all these historical accidents!
Some fish slowly became more amphibian-like, and some amphibians became more reptile-like and then mammal-like and then more human-like. It is our desire for clarity that leads us to imagine sharp and once-and-for-all divergences in Evolution’s developments. It is our convention to think in terms of “firsts,” but it is not nature’s way. “So much the worse for our conventions,” says Dennett.
Dennett’s book is fulfilling its promise to challenge, and even threaten, Our Traditional Ways ofThinking. What are the implications of this extreme form of Gradualism?The Tree of Life is Full of Awe, we may come to believe; to some of us this may be threatening and even “awful” in its more modern sense.
*These are difficult concepts. I am still not sure I understand them or have them accurately stated. The issue may come down to a basic and vague issue of the unit of evolution. Is it the individual organism, the species of closely related organisms, or, as theorist Richard Dawkins has suggested, the genes that compose the individuals? If we are looking for something exact and continuous without change in the history of evolution, it may only be small bits of genetic code, not any of the fleeting phenotypic forms they acquire, i.e. organisms. I am still working on this question.
THERE ARE NO SHARP DIVIDES WITHIN THE TREE OF LIFE, BUT EVENTUALLY MORE DISTINCTIONS DO APPEAR
In The Tree of Life all distinctions are fuzzy. There are no sharp lines between Nature’s products. All is continuous and without rupture.“Natura non facit saltum,” (Nature makes no leaps) is a biological principle embraced by Darwin whole-heartedly; it goes back to the Middle Ages but was more recently advocated in Darwin’s era bytaxonomist Carl Linnaeus (1758) in his first major classification (since Aristotle) of all living things.
But what is important Philosophically and Ethically is that Distinct and Valuable Individuals only exist within The Vaguely Differentiated Whole of Life, a Whole that is itself the only True Unit.
These are the points that have been made in the preceding “Wonders in The Tree of Life” in support of the conclusion that Living Nature Is Continuous and Without Rupture. “Life” is a massive Unity of productive Processes and Products. A brief review follows.
WONDER ONE:The bloodline of each currently living thing (and every living thing at any time) runs unbroken into the past to the original living things some 3,500 millions of years ago. And let us not forget that a million is 1,000 thousands, and that you or I will be lucky to live to 100 years, which really does not come to that much. So really, we each go a long way back in a chain of ancestry. (Why is it these days that we talk about millions and even billions in such a cavalier fashion?)
Individual living things are individual, but their connection to the recent past, the far distant past and even to the future (a next generation) is essential to them. The Tree of Life is continuous from its root to the tip of its furthest branches.
WONDER TWO:Life is a competition that is “red in tooth and claw” (Tennyson), but it is organized to ensure its longevity; there are always “winners”to participate in the next round of the ‘tournament.’ Similar to an elimination tournament with brackets, The Tree of Life is also different in that many “forms” (as Darwin called them) do not always participate in the competition; they are ‘happy’ to remain (largely) as they are and many continue in that form indefinitely.
Yet some lineages of living things did ‘stumble into’ Adaptations of their structure and abilities and now obviously display An Evolved and Progressive set of characteristics. For these creatures, Nature Selected ‘winning’ Adaptations that accumulated into creatures more able to survive and reproduce in greater and greater varieties of ways.
WONDER THREE: The Tree of Life continues to display its Unity through various Values and Qualities among its many products. It is a Whole of Contrastive Structures and Abilities, each only with significance in relation to the others! Our “Values” and “Qualities” are most meaningful only within this Unit, this Tree of Life on Our Planet. Quantitatively, or more ‘objectively,’ these ideas of Quality and Value can be somewhat understood in terms of numbers of chromosomes and lengths of DNA and sequential variation in DNA seen within the many varieties of living creatures. Dennett spends much effort in his book arguing thatOur Tree of Life is An Array of Possibility that has been Actualized and Naturalized. And what is possible for “Life,” now, has its limits set by the forms so far in existence!
It is The Tree of Life that is the true individual thing; all its individual creatures are its component parts. It is the Whole of which we are a part.
WONDER FOUR: At the core of the broad processes of “Evolution by Natural Selection” is a more abstract form of process that is now called “Algorithmic.” These processes build up more complex wholes from smaller and simpler parts—as in one, two, and three digit multiplication; or break down more complex wholes into a simpler unit—as in long division; or guide a process through a series of simple steps—as in a recipe or a computer program. Algorithmic processes often “run” over and over again with the same similar and simple process to achieve outcomes, and often these outcomes can have surprising characteristics. They can build up a simple unit into complex and surprising variations, or they can break down a seemingly unitary thing into surprisingly simple components.
In this way, Our Tree of Life is a massive network of cells built into more and more complex organisms or organic “forms,” or even into biological “machines,” as Dennett and some biologist (like Richard Dawkins) contend. Also, and very importantly, Our Tree of Life is a “River of Genetic Material” (Dawkins) flowing out of the past and into the present. It is a network of strands of genetic units (information stored in a chemical structure) of often growing lengths and sophistications.
WONDER FIVE: The Tree of Life displays an amazing Fullness! There are vast quantities of Individual living creatures arrayed in a vast quantity of Kinds of creatures. To add to this Darwin asks us, in his Origin of Species, to imagine all the kinds of creatures (species) that have ever existed returning and added to all those that now exist. He contends that all of life’s kinds would then form an array as finely distinguished as that of the most luxuriant of varieties that exist today. These kinds would be so finely meshed that no formal definitions would be possible to distinguish them! A Tree without gaps!
To acknowledge the fullness of The Tree allows us to understandGradualism as the core of Evolution. Darwin realized—and Dennett emphasizes—that the great complexity, diversity, and intricate organization of living things was not possible without a God-like Designer, unless it developed slowly and gradually through minute incremental additions and improvements. Something as complex as an elephant or daffodil could not naturally come into existence in one fell swoop, that would be Vastly Improbable.
As stated in Post III (see it for additional detail), Darwin realized that the world of living things and the fossil record suggested (was evidence of) a tree-like relationship of kinds and its gradual historical development. Large improbable leaps were replaced in his thinking by very small developments! And each of these tested in the Competition of Life and built up through eons of time.
The Tree of Life has Gradually built upon itself and displays a marvelous fullness among its different forms!
WONDER SIX: There are not “Firsts!”
Talk about continuity; talk about counter-intuitive notions! With all the different kinds of creatures in The Tree, it is mistaken to think that at some exact point the original mammal appeared, or fish, or even the original living thing. “There are no firsts” is a corollary of the reality of Gradualism.
Dennett phrases it: new kinds of living things “must grow out of something less, something quasi-, something merely as if.” The ‘first’ mammals, for example, were merely a quasi-mammal and a quasi-reptile. Mammals became less and less reptilian and more and more mammalian, but there is No Place To Truly Draw “A Line,” as the title of this post series contends.
Biologist Richard Dawkins puts it: In our line of human descent, if we go back into our past in “the range of 185 million generations of parents and grandparents and great grandparents…we come face to face with a fish.…[then] your fish ancestor had a fishy child, who had a fishy child, who had a child…who 185 million (gradually less fishy) generations later, turned out to be you” (my emphasis). Dawkins resists drawing any firm line; some fish became more amphibian-like, then less amphibian and more reptilian, and so forth to mammals and humans. Mother Naturedraws no lines nor makes no leaps: Natura non facit saltum.
An interesting case of “no firsts” that was not mentioned in the initial presentation of Wonder Six involves Prokaryotic Creatures(no nucleus, just a small strand of free floating DNA) and a variety of single-celled nucleated organisms. But this case might be called,“No Seconds!”
All these creatures reproduce Asexually through “binary fission.” They double their size by duplicating the relatively little internal machinery they have, including their DNA, and then splitting in two. Biologists call the two new cells “daughter cells,” but what happened to the “parent,” so to speak?
Dawkins rightly points out an issue here. The ‘daughter’ organisms are identical to each other but also identical to ‘the parent’ and that includes its genetic material! Further, the parent’s doubling occurs through mitosis, the normal means for cell Growth in sexually reproducing organisms. Dawkins contends we could say that an Amoeba, for example, grows from one to two to four to eight Amoebas, and all copies of itself. Its Reproduction is not much different from what is often called Growth!It grows more copies of itself.
Biologist Ralph Buchsbaum, in his 1948 text on invertebrate animals (that I picked up at a garage sale decades ago), contends, “since an ameba (old spelling) continues to exist in its offspring, it may be said to be “immortal”; and every ameba which now exists is directly continuous through the ages with the first ameba” (my emphasis). Now there is Continuity!Is it One or is it Many?
So here in WONDER SEVEN, I hope we can convincingly conclude, that THE TREE OF LIFE IS AS MUCH ONE AS IT IS MANY. The DISTINCTIONS it contains are GRADUAL AND CONSEQUTIVE and are based upon Each Other TO FORM A SINGLE ARRAY OF LIFE.
More kinds of kinds:
Next Part, The Conclusion concludes with the recognition that Distinctions—gaps—do appear in The Tree, and the sources of those differences will be outlined. After all, a Daylily is not an Elephant (see Part I),and it would be very hard to mistake the two.