Saturday, 20 June 2015

Darwinian Metaphysics vs Universal Darwinism

Momme von Sydow has a 2012 book titled: From Darwinian Metaphysics towards Understanding the Evolution of Evolutionary Mechanisms - A Historical and Philosophical Analysis of Gene-Darwinism and Universal Darwinism. The book is freely available to read online. At almost 500 pages, it's the longest critique of Universal Darwinism I've ever seen.

It's a fairly sympathetic critique - the author makes a serious effort to understand the topic before explaining where the perceived flaws lie. As the following quotation indicates, the author regards the blindness of variation as a key tenet of Darwinism:

the Darwinian tenet of the blindness of variation is challenged. It is argued that one should interpret biological evidence in a way that allows for a kind of directed and adapted process of variation – though this process is of course fallible and not omniscient. Paradoxically, this follows from pursueing a Darwinian approach up to its limits. Darwinism thus again demonstrates that it contains the seeds of its own destruction.
It is neo-Darwinism that got dogmatic about variation being undirected. Darwin himself was fairly agnostic about this topic - and indeed proposed a mechanism by which variation was directed by the experience of organisms.

This point revolves around a debate about what the term 'Darwinism' means. Personally, I see no compelling reason to attach Darwin's name to the more useless and out-dated theory - especially when Darwin himself had nothing to do with it.

The author also seem to think universal Darwinism is incompatible with the evolution of evolutionary mechanisms, saying:

Moreover, although it cannot be questioned that we can learn very much from Darwinism, it is claimed that Universal Darwinism as an interpretative framework can and should be replaced by an account of the evolution of evolutionary mechanisms – both in biology and in metaphysics.
I think the biological trial-and-error theory of Darwinism might also be urged to drop its universalism and acknowledge a certain evolution of evolutionary mechanisms.
The evolution of evolutionary mechanisms seems like a flat fact to me. Particularly the mechanisms that produce selection and introduce variation have complexified over time. Mutations produced inside minds can be a bit different from those produced inside cells. However, as far as evolutionary theory goes, the mechanism of production of mutations can be treated like a modular block box - with specific theories from genetics being plugged into it. A new mutational mechanism needs no changes to evolutionary theory itself - rather it's just a new mutation module. Much the same goes for selection. These days, selection can be produced by intelligent agents - for example by intelligently choosing compatible mate. Darwinism is big enough to include a variety of sources of selection. I think we can have a universal Darwinism while still leaving some space for the evolution of evolutionary mechanisms.

A critic might complain that, with these dependencies on other theories of mutation and selection, Darwinism barely qualifies as a theory in its own right. This has always been true, though. For example, to predict the fitness of a bat genome, Darwinism relies on theories of development, theories of aerodynamics and theories relating to radar. Dependencies on other theories has always been a fundamental part of Darwinism. Evolutionary theory doesn't stand alone.

These are some of the main criticisms in the book. I think that universal Darwinism survives these attacks just fine.

1 comment:

  1. Oooh, this looks like a fantastic project! I'll have to read it and provide with more detailed responses to it.