Friday, 27 July 2018

Political correctness in evolutionary theory

Probably most of the interactions between political correctness and science come in areas where I don't really have much of a stake. Most of the hot-button race and gender issues don't really intersect the topics I am interested in very much.

The issue of evolutionary progress is one of the cases where it looks to me as though many folks have been led astray by political correctness. I am influenced in my views here by physics. Darwinism is closely allied with the idea that evolution maximizes entropy. If so, that gives a reasonable universal yardstick for claiming that some ecosystems are better that others - and that there has been significant improvement over time, as organisms have gradually accumulated adaptations for converting negentropy into offspring.

Why progress is much-denied phenomenon is down to politics, I think. If some creatures are better than other ones, then it might follow that some people are better than other ones, some cultures are better than other ones, and some ethnicities are better than other ones. Such notions run into human preferences favoring egalitarianism, and avoiding the opression of minorities. The preferences can't easily change, but the facts are malleable, and subject to distortion and spin-doctoring.

Another fear about progress is that it might lead to policies influenced by eugenics. If some people are better than other ones, then it is feared that there is a slippery sloope through state breeding programs to the sterilization of the unfit. This is not just idle speculation, mass sterilizations really did happen.

Steven J Gould was one of the ringleaders of the progress denialists. He wrote a whole book on the topic, variously titled "Life's Grandeur" and "Full House" depending on the region it is sold in. It's a bad book, due to its political influence. It is not as bad as "The Mismeasure of Man" which is more heavily saturated with bad politics. Gould wrote a number of essays about how various scientists were influenced by their political views. It is thus with some irony that I have to put down a number of his own efforts as Marxist-influenced pseudoscience.

Progress in cultural evolution is pretty obvious and has been clearly documented of late. However, progress in the organic realm is almost as obvious, but has mostly been written out of the textbooks. AFAICS, political correctness is to blame. It causes much confusion, and that is its goal - to hide unconfortable truths with muddle and misdirection.

io I have sometimes speculated that political correctness is part of the reson we have a watered-down version of human evolution oriented around evolutionary psychology is popular. This ignores differences between humans and focuses on how a hypothetical universal evolved human nature reacts in a different environment. Instead of that, we could have a much more mature theory of cultural evolution and meme-gene coevolution. The popular version of evolutionary psychology mostly averages out and then ignores human differences. By contrast, memetics is heavily oriented around human differences. It wouldn't suprise me to learn that this motivates some of the critics.


  1. Hello, Being a humanist versed in biology and evolution but not so much in physics, I'd like to understand your idea that evolution maximizes entropy and that this provides a criterion for evolutionary progress.

    I found this and I understand it, but it ends on "The profound implications of this deceivingly simple law are discussed in numerous other places", with references to papers by Swenson not available online.

    I don't grasp the relevance for ecosystems. Ecosystems avoid the entropic fate announced by the 2nd law because they are open and use the free energy from the sun. I guess the maximum entropy thing has something to do with the degree to which energy is captured, but how does that translate into entropy? Energy is captured but it's not so much dissipated as it is stored in biological structures, is it not?

    If you find the question too basic to deserve an answer maybe you could suggest me some online reading? I usually quickly find explanations for technical stuff I don't understand but it doesn't seem to be the case here. Thanks. J.

  2. Ah, I just realized you have a blog specifically on this. I will read the oldest and more introductory posts on that blog and possibly comment there if need be, so that everything is in its place! J.