Friday, May 15, 2009

Where is the Subject in Natural Selection?

Here’s an interesting link that Jana recommended I watch: it’s an episode of Nova, recounting a town’s (Dover, Pennsylvania) fight over the inclusion of Intelligent Design/Creationism curriculum into the public schools’ education system.

In brief, the Dover school board mandates curriculum that the teachers and other members of the community disagree with. A trial ensues, which debates whether or not Intelligent Design/Creationism is a scientific theory and which secondarily addresses the constitutionality of mandating curriculum in the public school system. Watching the program, I was surprised that primary issue in court was the science of Intelligent Design.

Personally, I think Intelligent Design is a pretty simplistic and boring idea, but I find it funny that we had to go to court to find this out. (What ever happened to reading?) I was much more interested in whether and what kind of rights a community holds, as to what is taught in their schools.

This program focused more on Evolutionary Theory and its differences with Intelligent Design. I spend a fair amount of my spare time reading about animals, so I enjoyed this. …until, as is usually the case, I became frustrated by the program’s language.

It’s not just a problem with Nova. The problem is that almost all curriculum on Evolutionary Theory uses imprecise language.

I frequently have a beer over a chapter in one of my favorite books, called Animal Behavior, by John Alcock. Alcock uses the generally accepted definition of evolution: “Evolution is the process of change in traits of a population of organisms over time.” It is important to note that the “theoretic” portion of this definition is the PROCESS of change and not the fact that traits change over time. To emphasis this, others (Wikipedia for example) often add to end of that definition “…due to a number of mechanisms and processes.” Evolutionary Theory is not change itself; it is a process which (we may assume) contains a Cause, Reason, or Mechanism by which change occurs.

Natural Selection is this mechanism. What is Natural Selection? Merely survival. As Kenneth R. Miller says, evolutionary theory implies that “there's a struggle for existence, whether we like to admit it or not.” (link) The struggle he speaks of is both active and passive, and it is between more than 1, 2, or 3 variables. Strong species actively compete with weaker species for food and habitat, but that is only part of the struggle; weak species passively fill previously undiscovered niches, or—due to seemingly random changes like climate change, habitat change, or individual mutation—find themselves in a natural environment that is not well-suited to their traits. It may be easier to understand that, depending on the species, a species’ struggle for existence may be with many different elements of existence, including seemingly passive elements, like Time or Chance.

I get frustrated while listening to and reading about Evolutionary Theory because we speak of Natural Selection as a causal solidarity, in the same way we’d speak of a god. This is a huge language problem. It comes from two places, I think. First, as a species of story tellers, humans invented god-orientated causations for most unexplained phenomena, and this general acceptance of underlying Cause probably trickles into our language as much as it effects our understanding of our environment. Second (and more importantly) we are a reactionary species with the ability to understand abstract chains of causation. We benefit ourselves by finding the source of a stimulus, rather than immediately reacting to it. For example, compared to many animals, humans react much slower to most sights, sounds, and smells. We get around our slowness by addressing problems proactively. We might not be fast enough to outrun a flash flood, but we may have remembered a life preserver. Or perhaps we built a levy. Our propensity to compile our observations into patterns allows us to predict the future. When we find constants in our patterns, our predictions succeed more often. GOD—as a constant, the ultimate source—provides gratification to a species that is constantly thinking about causation.

For the purposes of Evolutionary Theory, our causation is Natural Selection. But Natural Selection by what, or whom? Do you see how this language gives sentience to an unknown subject?

Consider, for example, this narrative passage from Nova’s program: “…the forces of nature, such as the environment of an individual island in the Galapagos, select those organisms best suited to that environment. And [Darwin] believed that, over time, this could give rise to new species.” (link) I notice statements like this—statements that reference ambiguous subjects like “forces of nature”—everywhere, since I've started listening for them.

One might argue that “heritable traits” are usually the responsible subject, and that the term “Natural Selection” is a substitute. In other words, instead of saying “Natural Selection favored large-billed finches over their small-billed cousins,” we might say “Heritable traits favored large-billed finches...” But this is still imprecise. Firstly, it implies that heritable traits are collectively “doing” something. More importantly though, it is incomplete; heritable traits are not solely responsible for the survival of large-billed finches but not small-billed finches. Couldn’t we also say “Exceptionally hard nuts kept food sources scarce for small-billed finches because the nuts favored finches with large-bills?” We could, but we probably wouldn’t, because it isn’t clear that large-billed finches serve the best interest of the nut. Finches serve their own interest actively, and the interests of the nut (if at all) passively. Would we ever say “the Galapagos Islands favored finches by providing them with food and shelter when the birds were blown off course during a migration?” Probably not, because it’s much too imprecise an explanation for how the finches survived. Finally, one might argue that heritable traits, hard nuts, and the Galapagos Islands collectively favored finches; combined, we might refer to these variables as Natural Selection. What an imprecise statement! I might as well have said, “All natural things worked together to favor big-billed finches.” And we haven’t even discussed what variables are considered “natural,” and what aren’t.

All I’m saying is that we’re using a creationist language to talk about Natural Selection in broad terms. I’m definitely not criticizing the science, our methods, or Evolutionary Theory at all. On the contrary, I enjoy these concepts and hope to hear more and more about our new discoveries. But for the purposes of disambiguation, I feel compelled to criticize the language used by this Nova special and programs like it. The overly dramatic production compromises the legitimacy of several issues:

(1) Creationism and Evolutionary Theory are dissimilar areas of study, the goals of each also dissimilar.

(2) Public education, despite being a publicly funded institution, contains an elaborate hierarchy of representatives (teachers and administrators alike). The democracy within our school systems is convoluted, to say the least. The citizens of our country should dictate the public curriculum.

(3) Wealthy interest groups frequently insert themselves into the public arena, posing as a larger body than they are, with an agenda that ill-represents the constituents they claim to represent, and proceed to fuck over those with contrary opinions.

That said, I enjoyed watching the program and recommend it.


Ryan Hofer said...

I feel I am tracking with you on this and I have gnawing suspicions about all my communications because of the concerns you mention. The stunning realization I am having is that communication takes a lot of time and energy, so it's easier for 99.9% of everyone to take what comes before them. Science seems like a convoluted community of intersecting passions. Hopefully some of the science programs out there offer help in communicating honestly. It's just weird, at this point for me, to go around claiming things without qualifying them right from the start. It seems it should be a required part of any study. "Here's what we are limiting ourselves to." But I doubt that will happen because it takes a lot of (something) to limit oneself.

Matt McKenzie said...

hmmm, I am tracking with you as well. I completely agree with the criticism as well as the seeming lack of energy that goes into clarification (hofer's comment).
I believe strongly that language shapes so much. In my circles, there are often a lot of folks that are content with not understanding thier language or what it communicates over time and with assumtion rather than rationale. This is, I believe, at the core of most atrocities in human history.

SO...I notice that there is a thread goes through what you are processing. An attempt to find a why behind the what.

At this point it seems that mankind only uncovers more why's.

Granted, mankind has developed a larger/stronger/more educated foundation with which to process the new why's. However it seems that the process is infinite. Not sure what this does for a solution based process, meaning the goal of science is often to solve a question/problem. What happens then if there are ALWAYS more questions? What does that do as an input to the process and its purpose?

I think that this process and it's infinite nature should be a strong input to the foundation to the process. Not being defeatist but this needs to be considered as a part of defining the process. Again going after another why behind a what. Maybe the why is exactly this, to process the why for the sake of processing it. For the sake of evolution.

Not sure if you have read anything about the 'God particle' research, but this is an interesting input as well.

i'm rambling...

BF said...

I think I understand where you're coming from, Matt. Humans seem to delve deeper and deeper, hoping to solve problems they may not know exist. Is it an infinite process? Ehhhh, I don't know. There certainly isn't much evidence that our mind nor our questions go on forever. I don't think it's worth pursuing; you're right--it's probably defeatist to think that way.

To respond to your other thought: I don't know if I make much of a distinction between WHY and WHAT questions. The actions of a thing seem contained in it's makeup, not in some philosophy of free-will or destiny... but that's another discussion. I think that if I can better understand WHAT something is, I'll know why it acts in a certain way. To accomplish this, Language is the best (perhaps only) medium I know. And, as Hofer says, we've got to make some rules about the medium.

I love Science Non and Fiction! Love it! I blogged a bit about the God Particle in September '08. It's probably still there under "older posts."

GOD, LLC said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
GOD, LLC said...

I think you've made a good point, Free. It sounds like you/me/Matt/Ryan are the types of people who get frustrated with what we view as a careless use, or mistreatment of language. Maybe this is on account of certain ideas we've been exposed to...

Regardless, the question arises, why should we, as products of evolution and subjects to nature's inhospitality, care about language? Does it really help our survival? After all, the very tendency to take certain things for granted over other things (i.e. my proximity to the floor as I get out of bed vs. the number of Paislies on my boxers) is clearly a survival mechanism.

My feeling is that, while language might have mattered far less throughout earlier stages of human development (particularly those stages where brute violence was a more prevalent means of conflict resolution), it plays an increasingly important role in survival today—what with all the linguistic complexity built into a world of licensing agreements, U.S. Bank overdraft "protection" and Sonicare Toothbrushes, there is much to account for. While there might have been a time when "Excuse me Sir, don't you think, maybe, you're being a touch unreasonable?" would likely have been met with a club to the head, now, this ability to articulate one's self and to understand the nuances of language in general, has more to do with survival than ever.

Not that that's what we were talking about...