Saturday, July 31, 2010

323. Some Thoughts on Evolution, Natural and Cultural: 7

To put the problem somewhat differently: On the one hand, if everything, including the mind, can be understood in purely Darwinian, i.e., materialist terms, then what is left to do the understanding? Without a mind positioned outside the realm of the material, there is no way to represent it and nothing to represent it to. On the other hand, if the mind can exist outside the realm of the material, then why does it need a brain at all? why is it so vulnerable to injuries or diseases of the brain, such as concussions, brain cancer, Alzheimer's, etc.? and how can we reconcile the allegedly "spiritual" human mind or soul with the existence of a brain that has so much in common with that of animals such as the chimp or gorilla -- or even the mouse or common housefly?

If we want to insist that the world around us is fully material, then we can't represent it; and if we want to insist that it's fully immaterial, i.e., the product of pure mind, or soul, then that world can't be represented either. In both cases the all important subject-object dichotomy breaks down and we find ourselves in the quesionable world of metaphysical presence*.

Le Fanu claims that he wants to see the world as a "duality," in which both the immaterial world of the mind and the material world of the brain are independent of one another. But his notion of "duality" requires a complete rethinking of evolution along lines that clearly favor the former at the expense of the latter. In other word, the "duality" he argues for is really not a duality at all, but a realm in which the most important and challenging problems of evolution must be guided by vaguely defined, but for him essential, immaterial forces. So what he is really arguing for is a monism, in which the material world is ultimately the product of the mind.

What's important to understand, as I see it, is that neither the purely material (i.e., scientific) nor the purely immaterial (i.e., spiritual or mental) view is fundamentally wrong. Both views oppose one another, but at the same time, both have to be correct (since there is no other alternative). And not only relatively correct, but profoundly correct. The impossible position I am describing here could be called "radical dualism." Not to be confused with the so-called "dualism" espoused by Le Fanu, in which the scientific view is rejected in favor of a type of spiritualism. Nor should it be confused with the approved "scientific" position, in which the mind is reduced to a secondary effect of the brain. Nor should it be confused with the Hegelian dialectic, in which an apparent contradiction is resolved on a "higher" level. There is no higher level on which such a fundmantal contradition can be resolved. It is in fact not simply a contradiction, but an aporia, i.e., a fundamentally unresolvable dilemma, literally an impasse.

But how can we think such an impossible thing? Fortunately, we have a powerful precedent for dealing with an aporia of this kind, which has already arisen in the realm of physics, specifically quantum theory. For a long time it was assumed that light, like sound, took the form of waves, and this became the basis for just about all research in this area throughout the nineteenth century. Early in the Twentienth Century, however, it became evident through research by Einstein, among others, that light could also be understood in terms of discrete particles, or photons -- i.e., "quanta" of light. So what was light, really: waves or particles? Further research determined that neither interpretation could be falsified -- that both must be true.

It was the genius of the physicist Neils Bohr, in my opinion one of the greatest philosophers who ever lived, which recognized that the so-called wave-particle duality (or, more accurately, aporia) was fundamentally a problem of representation. According to Bohr,
There is no quantum world. There is only an abstract physical description. It is wrong to think that the task of physics is to find out how nature is. Physics concerns what we can say about nature.
(to be continued . . . )

* ". . . in truth the loss of what has never taken place, of a self-presence which has never been given but only dreamed of and always already split, repeated, incapable of appearing to itself except in its own disappearance." Jacques Derrida

Friday, July 30, 2010

322. Some Thoughts on Evolution, Natural and Cultural: 6

The human brain is a machine which alone accounts for all our actions, our most private thoughts, our beliefs. It creates . . . the sense of self. It makes the mind . . . we [may] feel ourselves to be in control of our actions, but that feeling is itself a product of our brain, whose machinery has been designed by means of natural selection.

Professor Colin Blakemore, "Britain's most prominent neuroscientist," as quoted in Why Us? by James Le Fanu (p. 231)


As should be clear from the previous post, I agree with Le Fanu that the above statement is problematic. But for very different reasons. The problem is not that such a "materialist" interpretation violates some basic principle of the sort Le Fanu raises, such as the existence of "subjective awareness," "free will," "human reason" or the "sense of self," which Le Fanu assumes to be well beyond the capacities of a purely evolutionary description to explain. This is certainly not the case. All of them can be easily explained as secondary functions of processes taking place within the human brain, which as Le Fanu himself would be forced to admit, is fundamentally not all that different from the brain of many animals.

As research in cognitive science has demonstrated over and over again, the production of exactly these sort of secondary effects is a large part of how the brain operates. Not through the workings of some simple mechanism, of course, but on the basis of very complex electrical interactions -- which may possibly also involve particle interactions at the quantum level that would be very complex indeed (and also very mysterious, since quantum interactions defy rational explanation).

And the human brain didn't just appear out of nowhere. As Le Fanu would also be forced to admit, it clearly evolved from neurological formations in "lower" life forms. Le Fanu's problem is that he can't imagine how all the wonderful functions claimed for the brain could possibly exist independent of a "mind" or "soul" that would give them meaning. But, assuming an unevolved mind or soul could exist independently of an evolved body or brain, then at exactly what stage of evolution would one expect it to appear? And on what basis would one be able to research such a question? Is such a question even scientific to begin with? And if not, then how are we to think about it? Le Fanu claims he is not arguing on behalf of a religious interpretation, and the term "intelligent design" doesn't even appear in his index. So on what basis is he formulating his objection?

The real problem with the above quotation, as with any attempt to make Darwinian evolution account for every aspect of life, is the problem I raised in the previous post: if all our mental faculties are simply products of the brain, then what is it that observes the brain as it is being studied? Le Fanu quotes a remarkably apt poem by Emily Dickenson: "The brain is wider than the sky/ For, put them side by side,/ This one the other will include/ With ease, and you beside." But if the whole universe, including the "self," can be enclosed within the brain, then what exists outside the brain that makes us aware of it? And wouldn't such an interpretation make the brain the equivalent of a kind of all-knowing, all-seeing God?

What makes science possible is precisely the fundamental duality which for Le Fanu science has rejected. Because science is, at base, a means of representing the real world, and without any means of formulating a clear and coherent opposition (in this case, subject vs. object, or mind vs. brain), there is no basis for representation. Basic linguistics -- or, to be more accurate, semiotics. And the same problem arises for Le Fanu's position as well, based on what he calls "the direct knowledge we have of our spiritual inner selves . . . the reality of my non-material self as a unique, distinct, structured spiritual entity" (228). This is the sort of thing the French philosopher Derrida characterized as "metaphysical presence," i.e. a "mystical" presence felt to exist beyond the reach of the process of represenation, which depends on linguistic/semiotic differences or oppositions. (As I see it, many if not most of the problems faced by modern scientific research, particularly in the realms of cognitive science, but also even physics, are fundamentally problems, not of the determination of what is real, but how certain entities and relationships can be represented. In other words, semiotics is ultimately more fundamental than either biology or physics.)

If the mind cannot be separated off from the brain, as so many cognitive scientists and neurologists insist, then there can be no science of the brain, since there is nothing outside the brain to study it. On the other hand, if we attempt to reinstate the dualism of mind and matter as favored by Le Fanu, we find ourselves unable to proceed scientifically at all, since the mind, as a metaphysical presence completely divorced from the workings of the brain, cannot be properly represented, much less studied.

Have we reached a total impasse? Not necessarily, as I will attempt to explain in the following post.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

321. Some Thoughts on Evolution, Natural and Cultural: 5

While the trick I described is extremely simple, it's also extremely deceptive. I'd like to think that anyone with some scientific training could easily figure it out, but I have a feeling many scientists might be just as baffled as everyone else in the audience who observed with amazement how a fly that was clearly dead was brought back to life. I also have the feeling that, even after many years of scientific research, the method by which this "miracle" came about might still remain a mystery.

The secret lies in the fact that the trick was prepared in advance. A living fly was exposed to dry ice smoke, which put it into a state of suspended animation. In other words, it simply passed out. It was then placed on the window sill by the magician, who patiently waited for some passers-by to assemble, perhaps entertaining them with some juggling. For best results, he would have arranged to have an accomplice to accept his challenge by pointing to the fly, since it would look suspicious if he chose it himself. Once the fly was warmed by being held in the hands and breathed on, it quickly revived and went on its way.

Is this a mystery beyond the scope of scientific research, demonstrating for all time that our "materialistic" view of the world is mistaken? I'll leave it for you to decide.

But there's more to Le Fanu's book, and his argument, than his extremely limited, dogmatic view of science. He has an ace in the hole, conveniently provided by evolutionary science itself. According to Professor Paul Churchland, of the University of California,
'Conscious intelligence is a wholly natural phenomenon, the outcome of billions of years of evolution,' while [subjective mental qualities, as described earlier by Le Fanu] are . . . 'nothing but' the 'interaction of nerve cells and the molecules associated with them.' (224)
Le Fanu goes on to quote philosopher Daniel Dennett, who claims that "Conscious human minds are more-or-less serial virtual machines . . . implemented on the parallel hardware that evolution has provided for us." (224) Philosopher John Searle presents a somewhat more sophisticated version of the same assertion:
The distinctive properties of the brain and mind are, he insists, readily reconcilable by conceiving the mind as an 'emergent property' of the brain -- just as the phenomenon of water in its various forms of liquid, ice and steam is an 'emergent property' of the arrangement of its molecules of hydrogen and oxygen atoms (224-225)
In roughly the same terms, the mind has sometimes been described as an "epiphenomenon" of the brain, a secondary effect that has no reality in and of itself. As one might expect, Le Fanu trots out some of the usual (and rather obvious) difficulties associated with this idea, demanding explanations for
how, for example, the monotonous firing of [the brain's] neuronal circuits translates into that rich subjective world out there, or how those 'emergent' non-material thoughts can cause my hand to move so as to write one word rather than another (225).
In response, he presents a list of five "cardinal mysteries of the mind that taken together offer the profoundest of insights into our understanding of ourselves": The Mystery of Subjective Awareness; The Mystery of Free Will; The Mystery of the Richness and Accessibility of Memory; The Mystery of Human Reason and Imagination; The Mystery of the Self.
The difficulties he enumerates lead us back
to that crucial moment in the mid-nineteenth century when science changed the direction of Western society by denying the dual nature of reality, of a material and non-material realm, and asserted instead the priority of its materialist view over the philosophical view of the world as we know it to be (228).
Putting aside Le Fanu's questionable assertion regarding "the world as we know it to be," we could, of course, debate the pros and cons of the duality he invokes for as long as we like, without making much progress beyond what the ancient Greeks were able to achieve a few thousand years ago. Does it "make more sense" to assume that everything is purely material or to assume that there are two separate realms, the material and the mental, which are fundamentally different?

I'll save us all a lot of time and trouble by offering an argument that neatly parenthesizes all those countless years of endless hairsplitting to take us rapidly to the main point:

The "dual nature of reality" Le Fanu wants to assert, in opposition to the materialist view espoused by the Darwinians, already resides at the heart of science itself and cannot, therefore, support the argument he is attempting to make. But the problem cuts both ways. To get directly to the point: if we want to argue that what we think of as the mind is nothing more than a secondary effect of the brain, then we are forced into a profound epistemological difficulty. Because science is founded on the basic distinction between the observer and the observed, "subject" and "object" respectively. If there is no mind and only a brain, then what is there that can serve as the subject needed in order to observe the brain as object? And if the brain cannot be observed from outside itself, then it cannot serve as an object of scientific research. What pleases me most about this veritable aporia is that it makes no claim regarding what is "real" or "not real," or what is ultimately true or false, but goes beyond such questions to something even more fundamental: our ability to represent the world around us.

(to be continued . . . )

320. Some Thoughts on Evolution, Natural and Cultural: 4

If you thought explaining organs such as the heart, kidneys, eyes, etc. presented a challenge to Darwinian evolution, consider the brain. Le Fanu dwells on two aspects of the problem: first, the extraordinary complexity of the brain, which goes far beyond anything else we might want to consider; and second, the apparent paradox presented by the relation of the brain to things like consciousness, personal identity, imagination, free will and the capacity for language -- in short, the problem posed by what we usually refer to as "the mind."

The most interesting feature of Le Fanu's brain chapter ("The Unfathomable Brain") is his methodical review of some truly fascinating research by neurologists and cognitive scientists delving into the workings of the brain, and its relation to things like vision, memory, emotion, etc. According to Le Fanu, the deeper they have delved, the more anomalies they have discovered, until we reach the provocative heading to be found on p. 222: "2000 and Onwards: the Rediscovery of the Soul."
[T]he most striking feature of the neurosciences, 'unparalleled' in any other field of scientific enquiry, is how each of the phases of the progressive unravelling of the secrets of the brain has been marked by a further deepening of the perplexity of its links with the spiritual mind (223).
For example:
[T]he 'Big Science' of neuroscience observing the brain in action has revealed processes that defy all imagining: how every detailed nuance of the three-dimensional world is generated from within the dark recesses of our skulls, deconstructed and reconstructed within a fraction of a second; or how the brain categorises our memories into different 'baskets', shifts them from one to the other and somehow maintains them as a permanent record in those ever-changing neural circuits; or how, contrary to every known law of nature, non-material thoughts and emotions directly influence the physical structure of the brain.

Hence the paradox where the more we have learned from that great unravelling of the brain, the more elusive any general theory of its relation to the mind has become (223-224).
On the one hand, Le Fanu is making the point that the most thorough and up-to-date research on the workings of the brain is taking us farther and farther away from any scientific theory that might hope to explain it; on the other hand, he is simply restating, in more modern language, one of the oldest paradoxes in the history of Western thought: mind-body duality.

Before continuing, it's important to make the point that there is nothing in Darwinian evolution that pretends to explain either the workings of the brain or any other organ, nor the precise manner in which natural selection works to produce any of its effects. What Darwin (and Wallace) recognized was that 1. multiple variations are produced in all species due to essentially random effects (what we now call "mutations," though Darwin had no way of knowing about that); 2. while the great majority of such variations are transient, some persist due to the process of "natural selection," i.e., adaptation of the organisim and/or population to the environment; and 3. it is the meaningful process of progressive adaptation (as opposed to the random production of meaningless variation), that produces the "miracles" we find in nature, such as the wings of birds, the evasive maneuvers of insects, the workings of the cell, and the design of the most complex organs, such as the heart, liver, eye and, yes, the brain.

Le Fanu argues, for one thing, as though evolutionsists explain all such "miracles" as purely the result of random processes. That is most definitely not the case. It's the progressive selection of the results of random processes over considerable lengths of time that works to fine tune the population to its environment in such a way as to produce organisms and organs so perfectly adapted to the world around them. If they were not so perfectly adapted, they would not have survived in the face of competition from better adapted organisms. For another thing, Le Fanu assumes that the viability of Darwinian principles is dependent on the ability of modern science to fully explain exactly how they produce their effects in all cases. In short, he has taken what amounts to a program for future scientific research and turned it into a standard by which the underlying theory must live or die, based on his own convictions regarding what can reasonably be explained and what cannot.

Consider a simple magic trick. A street magician claims he can bring the dead back to life. To demonstrate, he points to a dead fly sitting on a window sill, cups it carefully in his hands, breathes on it, and -- lo and behold -- it ruffles its wings a bit and flies away. I've seen this trick done myself. By Le Fanu's standards, this event can either be explained scientifically or it cannot. And if it cannot, then thousands of years of scientific research can safely be tossed out the window, in view of the "miracle" that all present have just witnessed -- which "proves" that certain people have supernatural powers beyond the ability of science to explain. In fact very experienced scientists have been totally baffled by magic tricks and in some cases even felt forced to admit that certain individuals are endowed with "paranormal" powers.

In the next installment I'll explain how this trick works, which will give you an idea of how absurd Le Fanu's demands actually are. I'll then move on to the real problem at the heart of his book, to which he returns ad nauseum: the ancient, but nevertheless profound, problem of mind-body dualism.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

319. Some Thoughts on Evolution, Natural and Cultural: 3

Le Fanu's objections become more interesting when he considers relatively recent developments, such as the efforts of bioengineers to develop artificial human organs. What initially seemed a relatively straightforward project, the artificial heart, turned out to be far more difficult than anticipated. And the heart, basically a pump, is "simpler by far than the complexities of kidney or brain, or the sense organs such as the eye." Thus, "it seems merely perverse to suggest that the undirected process of nature, acting on numerous small, random genetic mutations, could give rise to this or any other of those 'masterpieces of design'." He makes it clear that "this is not to suggest there must be a Creator after all . . ." but is simply drawing attention "to the necessity for there to be some prodigious biological phenomenon, unknown to science, that ensures the heart, lungs, sense organs and so on are constructed to the very highest specifications of automated efficiency" (p. 122).

Dramatic advances in the field of developmental biology have in fact revealed a "prodigious biological phenomenon" of precisely this sort -- but since this represents something known rather than unknown to science, Le Fanu prefers to see it as a problem rather than a solution.
[W]hen it takes six thousand genes to build a heart, what chance was there that a 'random mutation' in any one of them might generate a beneficial variation in favour of the heart's further perfection? Perhaps there were some 'mastermind' switching genes, turning the others 'on and off' according to some preconceived plan. . . . And sure enough, in the late 1980's, . . . the Swiss biologist Walter Gehring discovered two clusters of those master genes. These Hox genes, as they are known, determine the three-dimensional organization of the front and back half of the fly respectively . . . (p. 140)
What Le Fanu is referring to is the discovery, not only of the Hox genes, but a group of genes with very special functions, pertaining not to the transmission of specific traits, but controlling the development of the organism during various stages of its life. The study of such genes has given rise to the field of Evolutionary Developmental Biology, described as follows in Wikipedia:
The developmental-genetic toolkit consists of a small fraction of the genes in an organism's genome whose products control it's development. These genes are highly conserved among Phyla. Differences in deployment of toolkit genes affect the body plan and the number, identity, and pattern of body parts. The majority of toolkit genes are components of signaling pathways, and encode for the production of transcription factors, cell adhesion proteins, cell surface receptor proteins, and secreted morphogens, all of these participate in defining the fate of undifferentiated cells, generating spatial and temporal patterns, which in turn form the body plan of the organism. Among the most important of the toolkit genes are those of the Hox gene cluster, or complex. Hox genes, transcription factors containing the more broadly distributed homeobox protein-binding DNA motif, function in patterning the body axis. Thus, by combinatorial specifying the identity of particular body regions, Hox genes determine where limbs and other body segments will grow in a developing embryo or larva. A paragon of a toolbox gene is Pax6/eyeless, which controls eye formation in all animals. It has been found to produce eyes in mice and Drosophila, even if mouse Pax6/eyeless was expressed in Drosophila [18].
The existence of these "toolkit" genes goes a long way toward explaining not only organs such as the heart, lungs, kidneys, etc., but the famous problem of the eye, which troubled not only skeptics such as Le Fanu, but Darwin himself. For Le Fanu, however, the glass is not half full, but half empty:

But when Gehring and his colleagues pursued this extraordinarily important discovery further, they found something yet more astonishing still . . . : that precisely the same 'master' genes mastermind the three-dimensional structures of all living things: frogs, mice, even humans (p. 140).

This is, in fact, a legitimate puzzle, and a legitimate concern, expressed in the Wikipedia article as follows:
Among the more surprising and, perhaps, counterintuitive (from a neo-Darwinian viewpoint) results of recent research in evolutionary developmental biology is that the diversity of body plans and morphology in organisms across many phyla are not necessarily reflected in diversity at the level of the sequences of genes, including those of the developmental genetic toolkit and other genes involved in development. . . The finding that much biodiversity is not due to differences in genes, but rather to alterations in gene regulation, has introduced an important new element into evolutionary theory.[25] Diverse organisms may have highly conserved developmental genes, but highly divergent regulatory mechanisms for these genes. Changes in gene regulation are "second-order" effects of genes, resulting from the interaction and timing of activity of gene networks, as distinct from the functioning of the individual genes in the network.

For Le Fanu, the fact that the same "toolkit" genes regulate the development of so many different creatures, from fruit flies to mice to humans, presents an insurmountable obstacle to Darwinian evolution, which, as he sees it, has no other choice but to concede defeat. For Ernst Mayr, however, the same evidence has a very different meaning: "Mice and flies share 6 Hox genes, which the common ancestor of Protostomia and Deuterostomia already must have had." In other words, "Everything indicates that the basic regulatory systems are very ancient and were later coopted for additional functions when these were acquired" (What Evolution Is, p. 110).

Le Fanu has forgotten a basic principle of Darwinian evolution: descent from a common ancestor. If the same gene (or system of genes) is found among a great many different creatures, that tells us that all these creatures may well have inherited it from the same ancestor, even if that ancestor may have lived hundreds of millions of years ago. And if that gene must have had a different function in that long lost ancestor, that tells us that genes can change their function in different settings, and thus be "coopted" to adopt Mayr's term. Truth can often be far stranger than ficiton -- and science far stranger than skeptics such as Le Fanu can imagine.

But we have yet to consider the greatest puzzle of them all: the human mind.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

318. Some Thoughts on Evolution, Natural and Cultural: 2

The problem of the "fossil gap" is especially interesting because 1. it did, for a long time, represent a genuine problem, where the evidence, or lack of it, appeared to contradict the theory; 2. natural selection continued, nevertheless, to be accepted by almost all scientists, despite what appeared to be a clear inconsistency. Was there, as Le Fanu suggests, some sort of conspiracy among scientists too arrogant to admit that their "reductive," "materialistic" view of the world could be wrong? Or is there something fundamental about science that Le Fanu has failed to grasp?

As I see it, Le Fanu is clearly out of his depth on this matter. He has presumed science to be something it is not and thus winds up attacking a straw dog he himself erected. Natural selection is accepted by most scientists, first because it is the only explanation that's ever been offered for the patterns we find, among both fossils and living creatures, that makes sense; and second, because there is an overwhelming body of evidence that supports it. What Le Fanu refuses to recognize is that, despite the simplicity of Darwin's (and Wallace's) basic insights, the whole field of evolution, now enhanced in so many ways by so many branches of biology, paleontology, geology, genetics, cognitive science, etc., is extraordinarily complex, with a great many very difficult problems still unsolved.

The "fossil gap" is, however, no longer one of them. It is now understood quite well, thanks largely to Ernst Mayr's notion of "allopatric speciation," as expanded into the more general theory of "punctuated equilibrium" by Niles Eldredge and Stephen J. Gould. What Mayr noticed was that, in the great majority of cases, new species develop by "budding" rather than "splitting"; i.e.

a new lineage buds off from the parental one by peripatric speciation [speciation occurring in a peripheral location] and enters a new adaptive zone in which it evolves rapidly, while the parental lineage remains in its old environment and continues at the previous slow rate of change. . . The rapid change of the derived lineage as compared to the slowness of the parental one will undoubtedly be reflected by a gap in the fossil record (What Evolution Is, p. 191).


In other words, while a gradual, step by step process is required by Darwinian evolution, there is no reason to assume (as Darwin himself apparently did), that all such processes must proceed at the same tempo. Punctuated Equilibrium builds on this idea by emphasizing the related notion that once a population is securely established in a stable environmental niche it may remain essentially unchanged for millions of years. When the environment changes, however, or when one branch wanders off into a new environment, the process of natural selection can accelerate rapidly, to produce a new species with very different features during a relatively short period. The intermediary stages required by natural selection are assumed to be there, but since they will have occurred over such a brief period of time, it becomes highly unlikely that any of their fossil remains will ever be found.

Interestingly, Mayr refers to the same process as "bottleneck evolution" (p. 194), which associates the same general principle with the notion of a "population bottleneck" that I've so often referred to on this blog. While evolutionists prefer to think in terms of hundreds of thousands or millions of years, population geneticists have spotted very similar processes at work over much briefer spans, including certain key moments in the "Out of
Africa" migrations.

To be continued . . .

Monday, July 26, 2010

317. Some Thoughts on Evolution, Natural and Cultural: 1

James Le Fanu's recently published book, Why Us? How Science Rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves, raises some issues regarding Darwinian evolution to which I feel compelled to respond. My compulsion might seem a bit odd, since the topics I've been covering on this blog are only tangentially related to Darwin, and I doubt there is anything in Le Fanu's book with a direct bearing on any of the ideas I've expressed here. But some of the things he writes about have triggered thoughts that might prove relevant down the line. So here goes:

The first thing to say is that Le Fanu writes reasonably well, his book is unusually engaging and, up to a point, I found myself learning from it. He is out to "debunk" Darwin and the principle of natural selection, but where he differs from most such skeptics is in his awareness of some of the most recent research, especially in the areas of molecular science and cognition. Not that he neglects some of the most notorious old, "tried and true" objections, such as the "impossibility" of such a complex organ as the eye being produced via such an essentially random process as natural selection:

Each different type of eye compounds Darwin's difficulty further, for then it is necessary to presuppose for each a series of fortuitious 'numerous successive slight modificaitions,' conferring some slight biological advantage to its possessor. It is necessary to presuppose, for, despite much effort, there is not a single empirical discovery in the past 150 years that has substantiated Darwin's proposal that natural selection . . . explains the 'puzzle of perfection' epitomized by so many different types of eye -- which remains yet more puzzling than it was in 1859 (p. 95).
In fact there has been at least one "empirical discovery" that goes a long way in helping us understand puzzles such as the development of the eye, but I won't get into that as yet. Le Fanu raises a great many objections on a similar level, none of which are new, and all of which can be easily explained by those with a background (which Le Fanu lacks) in biological science. Since I too lack such a background, I'll be referring you, from time to time, to a definitive source, by an outstanding authority on the topic: What Evolution Is, by Ernst Mayr.

Another example of a well worn objection to Darwin's thinking is worth getting into here because it involves a difficulty still little understood, even by many of Darwin's supporters: the many "gaps" in the fossil record. Along with the "puzzle of perfection" exemplified in the development of the eye, Le Fanu cites, as the second of the "two most uncomfortable difficulties of Darwin's evolutionary theory, . . . the lack of evidence in the fossil record for the 'inconceivably great' number of transitional fossils required by a process of gradualist evolutionary transformation" (p. 117).

Darwin had argued that only the most gradual transitions could account for the many distinctions we see, on so many levels, among virtually all living things, in both the present and the past. Yet he was forced to admit that the fossil record contained a great many very significant gaps, which he could account for only by noting the paucity of the fossil evidence available in his day. Le Fanu reminds us of all the many years that have passed since Darwin's time, during which only a fraction of the needed fossil evidence has been filled in. Huge gaps remain, and there is very little reason to suppose that any of them will be filled in the manner anticipated by Darwin.

(to be continued)

Sunday, July 25, 2010

316. Back

Ok, finally, I'm back here posting again. I've been busy with various projects, from a paper on indigenous music and cultural history (now completed), to a proposal for a book expanding on essentially the same topic, which I am now shopping around among various literary agents and publishers. Collaborations with geneticists and others on Cantometrics-based projects are continuing, but at the usual snail's pace.

I'm also hoping to put together a web site where some of my creative ventures in the realm of electronic and computer music can be heard. I managed to find an old reel-to-reel tape deck in, of all places, the Ethnomusicology lab at the University of Pittsburgh, and was able to make digital copies of some old tapes of compositions I'd recorded back in the Sixties, in studios at Brussels, the University of Illinois and SUNY Buffalo. After many years of storage, mostly in the extreme heat, and cold, of various attics, I discovered that they'd held up remarkably well. I'll be including more recently composed examples of computer music on this website as well. When I can find the time, natch.

I was planning on continuing this blog with an extended exploration of a question that's been on my mind for some time: the origin of competition and violence. A couple months ago I came across a remarkable paper on this topic, which I was planning to discuss at some length, as it relates very strongly to issues raised on this blog. The paper, entitled A war-prone tribe migrated out of Africa to populate the world, is the only one I've come across to date that deals with the problem of violence from the perspective afforded by the "Out of Africa" model. Significantly, it was not written by an anthropologist, but a geneticst, Eduardo Moreno.

I am extremely sympathetic with Moreno's approach, which in some ways parallels my own. For example, he associates a lack of violence with those groups whose ancestry occupies the deepest clades of the mitochondrial tree, specifically L0, L1 and L2. I'm not sure I agree with his contention that the original "Out of Africa" migrants (L3) must have been warlike, but he makes a strong case, based on inferential thinking very close to my own in style, which I find gratifying. (I'm not implying he could have been influenced by me, which I'm sure is not the case.) His paper can be downloaded from the link I've provided above, though it hasn't yet been published, unfortunately. I urge everyone reading here to check it out, because in my opinion, regardless of whether or not I completely agree, I find it a document of real importance.

As I said, I was planning to undertake a systematic study of violence, based on the overall picture I've outlined on this blog, plus the work of people such as Moreno, but I find myself at this point still not yet ready to undertake such a task, which would require a considerable degree of additional research for which I lack the time.

Meanwhile, I've recently come across a very interesting book on a completely different topic, Darwinian evolution, which set in motion a series of thoughts that I've suddenly discovered I badly want to share. The book is Why Us? How Science Rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves, by James Le Fanu. There have, of course, been a great many attempts to "debunk" Darwin, most of which are easily dismissed. This one goes a bit deeper than most, however, incorporating some of the latest findings in the fields of both genetics and cognitive science, and presenting some very disturbing and compelling arguments that would appear to challenge Darwin's thinking at its base. The book also raises some questions that I find particularly compelling in the light of some of my own speculations regarding the origins of both music and language. I'm not saying I completely agree with Le Fanu, I don't. But his book opens some avenues of thought that I can't resist pursuing. In subsequent posts I'll be summarizing some of his more challenging arguments and eventually, as long as my energy holds out, offer a response of my own.