Critique of TSW Part 16a Univironmental Determinism: The Expansion

Blog 20140723

Bill adheres to his belief that neo-Darwinism (genes + environment) is quite sufficient as the mechanism of biological evolution and that a universal mechanism of evolution is either obvious or unnecessary.

I am ever so grateful to Bill Westmiller, whose comments are marked "BW: ". The quotes marked TSW are from "The Scientific Worldview" and my comments are marked "[GB: ".

Univironmental Determinism: The Expansion (Part 1 of 2)

BW: I'm not sure how to approach this chapter. Although you roundly condemn NeoDarwinism [ND], everything you describe is part of the ND concept. For the most part, you fault multiple statements of obscure people who aren't even NDs. As with preceding chapters, you fail to define terms, which leads to extreme complexity and vagueness.

[GB: Bill, you must remember that neo-Darwinism is only a special case of univironmental determinism (UD). It only concerns biological systems, and thus cannot be the mechanism of evolution. If you ask folks: “What is evolution?” or “What is the mechanism of evolution?” they generally will mention only biological changes. To modern evolutionists and creationists alike, the great debate is still hung up on genes and natural selection. Although it is obvious that everything in the universe is constantly evolving. Neo-Darwinists tend to be so specialized and so myopic that they maintain their steadfast claims on the mechanism of evolution. An example: We once advertized “The Scientific Worldview” at a conference on biological evolution. The result: no sales, even though the book had a parenthetical subtitle that should have intrigued all but the walking dead: “(Understanding the Universal Mechanism of Evolution).”]

TSW: Henderson: "Logically, in some obscure manner, cosmic and biological evolution are one."

BW: It's not obscure at all. Evolution applies to both, but in slightly different ways. In general terms, the word "evolution" refers to ANY "process of change in a certain direction".

[I agree, of course, but Henderson was able to write an entire book without realizing the general importance of matter in motion. I thought the word “obscure” was telling, in view of his title: “The fitness of the environment; an inquiry into the biological significance of the properties of matter.” Here is a fellow, writing in 1913, who is moving in the right direction, but never really gets to univironmental determinism. This struck me as being similar to the popular writers who still consider time to be a great mystery. To get there, you have to have all your ducks in a row. Thus, your dictionary quote does not make it either. Evolution is not any "process of change in a certain direction"; it is the "process of change,” or simply “change.” Directionality is irrelevant. Change in any direction is still evolution.]

BW: Everything changes, sooner or later, more or less. Every change is either beneficial to the persistence of the object, detrimental, or irrelevant. That's evolution, in a nutshell.

As applied to biology, evolution is the observation that organisms change; some changes are beneficial to survival, some are detrimental, others irrelevant. Obviously, every aspect of the environment affects the success or failure of every organism. That's natural selection. The only thing added by NeoDarwinism was changes to genetic material, which simply keeps a "record" of successes through generations. Nothing you've written here refutes or even mitigates the merits of ND.

[GB: I am afraid that you have grossly reduced ND. The movement from Darwinism to neo-Darwinism was a movement toward concern for the importance of the submicrocosms within the biological microcosm. Your use of the words “the only thing added” and “simply keeps a record” was in that vein—sort of an off-hand recognition of some of the insides of the microcosm of concern. Neo-Darwinists have hardly advanced beyond that, as evidenced by the popularity of such books as “The Selfish Gene.” The old guard still resists modern ideas involving group selection, generally with the rubric that “If it does not have genes, it does not evolve.” The fact that there is a great debate among neo-Darwinists over group selection indicates the failure of ND to include all of the matter in motion within and without. The fact that neo-Darwinists have overwhelmingly fallen for the Big Bang Theory also indicates that things are amiss in the ND shed.]

BW: Generic evolution is and always has been a universal concept. Biological evolution focuses on changes in the proximate influences (environment) on organisms, but it certainly doesn't deny or ignore changes within the organism itself. Because biology is primarily interested in *successful* species over time, it has to focus on successful reproduction and the genetic variables that control the changes in every living thing's essential characteristics.

[GB: How can you call biological evolution universal? It only applies to biology—most of the universe is not included.]

BW: Nevertheless, a few notes on a smattering of topics:

It's a little strange that you start the chapter with a quote from L.J. Henderson, who is either a solipsist or a teleologist: "The biologist ... may now rightly regard the universe in its very essence as biocentric."

[GB: My attack on ND starts with Henderson because he clearly shows how myopic some neo-Darwinists can be. Being indeterminists at the base, solipsism, teleology, and even the belief in freewill is not past them.]

BW: ... but you echo his sentiment:

TSW:  "The universe inevitably and periodically contains within it matter that contemplates itself. The concepts of progress, change, and evolution grow along with thinking beings as they evolve from nonthinking matter."

BW: This statement is teleological: the end result is the cause of all prior effects. That's mysticism, not causality or determinism. Yes, consciousness is an invaluable tool of biologic survival in some environments, but 99% of the universe apparently *forbids* such a development. So, consciousness was "inevitable" only in the sense that it DID happen, not that the universe "wants" it to happen, nor requires it. If we're going to anthropomorphize nature, it apparently "likes" almost everything to be dead; it doesn't "care" whether humans exist or not.

[GB: Boy, did you get that mixed up! That statement was simply an observation. The universe per se has no consciousness. The fact that portions of the universe can produce microcosms that contemplate the rest of the universe has nothing to do with teleology, purpose, mysticism, or anything that a sensible person could construe as the “universe wanting something to happen.” I totally agree that the universe “doesn't "care" whether humans exist or not.” There is plenty of evidence for that: the Holocaust, Crusades, Inquisition, 911, and topped off with brain tumors for infants.]

TSW:  "Lamarck attempted to boost his case by claiming that acquired traits could be inherited within the first generation."

BW: I don't know why you would even mention a failed pseudo-scientist who was fundamentally an eugenicist and arguably the "father" of Fascism.

[GB: Almost every discussion of ND includes reference to Lamarck, who was one of the foremost biologists of his time. He was the first to doubt the immutability of species, invented the word “invertebrate” and, according to Stephen J. Gould, he was the "primary evolutionary theorist."[1] He recognized the importance of fossils as evidence for evolution before Cuvier, the anti-materialistic paleontologist who collected them. Remember that he wrote in 1800—a half century before Darwin. We are a bit unfair in hanging the “acquired traits” rubric on him, as he was much more than that.]

TSW:  "... natural selection saw the object of concern at the mercy of its surroundings."

BW: Some biologic changes foster survival in an environment, others don't. Nature isn't "unmerciful", it just does what it does. Some specie variants conform with natural changes, others don't.

TSW:  "Natural selection still begged questions. Why was there anything to select from in the first place?"

BW: Your formulation doesn't answer the biogenesis question any better, it just says it was a messy process. Remember that natural selection is only *half* of Darwinism; the prior half is changes in the organism. It's only a third of NeoDarwinism, which adds genetic changes.

[GB: Remember that ND only includes genes and environment. That is why it is not a suitable mechanism for biopoesis, which is the evolution of living organisms from inorganic chemicals, which, of course, do not have genes. Your comment that it is “messy” only implies that you do not understand it.]

BW: I won't offer my view of biogenesis, since you don't discuss it further.

TSW:  "Anyone who rigidly believes that genes are absolutely necessary for evolution is unlikely to believe that all things evolve."

BW: That's silly. All sane bioevolutionists also believe in the generic evolution of everything in the universe. Because they have a particular interest in the proximate natural environment of particular organisms doesn't mean that they deny other animate and inanimate changes in the universe.

[GB: Remember that the key word here is “rigidly” and I do not think the biologists who deny group selection are necessarily silly or insane. They simply believe that the individual is the microcosm of selection because that is the only way genes can be transmitted. Jerry Coyne, a prominent biologist, along with many others, believes exactly that. In other words: no genes = no evolution.]

TSW:  "... increasingly obvious that evolution is not confined to biology. We know that stars evolve. Do stars have genes?"

BW: More silliness, as a consequence of your failure to define generic terms and their application to specific kinds of investigation. Granted, the term "evolution" has acquired a normative reference to bioevolution, but no sane scientist would deny that everything - animate or inanimate - evolves.

[GB: Well Bill, I guess that I must have been insane even after becoming an atheist and getting the Ph.D. I came from an indeterministic background in which “everything” was a product of one-time creation 6,000 years ago. Of course, the awakening from that began with ND, and later, Laplace. Nonetheless, it was a surprise to me each time I discovered that yet another non-genetic portion of the universe was subject to evolution. Another surprise involved the fact that specialists had studied the evolution of particular microcosms in minute detail. The final realization that all portions of the universe evolve was not an easy transformation. Certainly, I had not been taught that there was a universal mechanism for it.

Silly or not, ND does not get us a universal mechanism of evolution. I do not know what you mean by the “failure to define generic terms.” I clearly defined ND as genes + environment, which makes it inapplicable for evolution not involving genes. The step from ND to UD is a big, all-inclusive generalization that eschews the myopism of traditional specialization. The cry for generic definitions seems like a simple rejection of UD.]

TSW:  "This new mechanism, Univironmental Determinism, simply states that the evolution of a microcosm is dependent on the motions of matter within and without."

BW: Nothing new here, except your use of the subjective "microcosmic" terminology. Rocks erode when exposed to sunlight and waterfall - that's evolution. The degree of erosion is dependent on the atomic composition of the rock (within) and the energy of erosive factors (without). This is not a revelation.

[GB: That’s funny, I have read a lot, and was never able to find out what the universal mechanism of evolution was. In hindsight, univironmental determinism seems obvious, even trivial, as you imply. What could be simpler than the interaction between the within and the without? Nonetheless, it was quite the revelation to me. Perhaps this was because, as mainstream scientists we were expected to eschew philosophical mechanism even as we searched for mechanisms in everything we did. To contemplate the Fourth Assumption of Science, inseparability (Just as there is no motion without matter, so there is no matter without motion) was a big deal for one who had once not known what time was or considered energy to be matterless motion. To contemplate the Eighth Assumption of Science, infinity (The universe is infinite, both in the microcosmic and macrocosmic directions) was a big deal for one who had once thought that the universe was finite. Except for a few lucky ones, such as yourself, this becomes a revelation to those of us who finally realize that the universe only consists of matter in motion, and nothing more. The indeterministic resistance to materialism and its most extreme form, mechanism, remains strong, endlessly muddying the philosophical and scientific waters. The determinism-indeterminism struggle at present involves only biological evolution versus creationism. As that becomes moot, attention will turn from ND to UD.

On the other hand, some things involving UD do seem to be new to you. Apparently, you have yet to learn that microcosms are actual, real things, xyz portions of the universe. There is nothing “subjective” about them, just as there is nothing subjective about the “systems” of systems philosophy. Whether it is considered a solar system or a solar microcosm, does not change its objectivity one whit. It seems to be a shock to you that, to do scientific studies, we are forced to draw imaginary boundaries around portions of the universe. Only an absolutist or non-scientist could assume that they would naturally draw themselves.]

TSW:  "... This evolution, this motion of the microcosm, is in all cases in only one direction, toward univironmental equilibrium."

BW: Of course. That's just causality and Newton's Law: things only change when they're changed. If there's no interaction causing a change, no change happens. You can call that "a tendency toward equilibrium", but it doesn't explain anything more than causation does. However, "equilibrium" implies something that isn't always true. A nugget of pure gold in a container of liquid water will never reach "equilibrium" with its environment, even though they are in constant contact. In most cases, specific measures of entropy apply, which has always been considered "unidirectional".

[GB: Another way of stating the direction of evolution from the viewpoint of the microcosm is the tendency for “least action.” The Newtonian microcosm travelling through empty space does not all of a sudden increase its motion all by itself. As mechanists, we see the Second Law of Thermodynamics as a reiteration of Newton’s First Law of Motion, a simple description of divergence. Temporary “equilibrium” is attained when the macrocosm provides the “convergence” to reverse the process via Newton’s Second Law of Motion. You are correct that “equilibrium” is never really attained in nature. That is because all portions of the universe are constantly in motion.]   

TSW:  "No two necks are identical..."

BW: ... but all necks are necks. Your exposition on Samotherium adds nothing novel, but ignores something critical: the genetic changes are the only thing that made it possible for Samotherium - as a species - to adapt to a changing environment. You bounce between changes in the individual (calcium consumption) and the species (eating leaves) with no regard for the effects of successful reproduction, which determines which genetic changes succeed in any particular environment.

[GB: In other words, you are a strict neo-Darwinist, reducing the biological microcosm to genes. There will be no group selection for you. This myopic view does not even make sense in the case of biological groups containing members that are non-breeding. For you, worker bees contribute nothing to biological evolution. The absolutism involved is beyond fantastic. It is almost as if my arms and legs, though intimately related to my body, had no contribution to the success of my reproduction. The point made by the Samotherium example was that, to understand evolution, whether biological or non-biological, one must include all the submicrocosms and supermicrocosms within that particular univironment at all times. Evolution is not exclusive to the act of breeding. Think of it instead, as the act of surviving for one more microsecond.]

Next: Univironmental Determinism, Part 2 of 2

cotsw 034


Westmiller said...

[GB: In other words, you are a strict neo-Darwinist, reducing the biological microcosm to genes ...]

I think I've made my points on all the other issues, but I'm not "strictly" a NeoDarwinist, in at least one sense:

Most NDs assume that all mutations are random effects of radiation. I think there are many different causes for mutation which are not "random". For example, the use of iron cooking utensils vastly increased the energy storage potential of human blood, which modified the operation of enzymes and the characteristics of reproductive cells.

I'm also strongly inclined to agree with a novel commentary on the effects of hybridization, which is far from being "random":

[GB: ... There will be no group selection for you. This myopic view does not even make sense in the case of biological groups containing members that are non-breeding ...]

Groups which share a common genetic map will have the same - or similar - responses to environmental changes. But, even identical twins will be in different environments and "evolve" (in the generic sense of development) differently.

[GB: ... For you, worker bees contribute nothing to biological evolution...]

It's an interesting case: worker bees have roughly the same genes as Queen Bees, but are subjected to "brood selection" based on pheromones, so they don't get enough food to become fertile:

It seems to me that this is a "natural selection" issue: the brood identifies the strongest and singularly most fertile female to become the Queen. Prior to selection, she is just another worker bee. So, the success of the hive depends on selection of the best worker bee to become Queen. That's as much a part of NeoDarwinism as the genetic configuration itself.

BTW: I can understand your sense of "revelation" that there is Generic Evolution of all things. Maybe I wasn't surprised because I was raised Catholic, which doesn't dispute the truth of generic OR BIOLOGICAL evolution, which is rare in religious teachings.

Rick Doogie said...

Bill says, "A nugget of pure gold in a container of liquid water will never reach 'equilibrium' with its environment, even though they are in constant contact." That's precisely correct, but it's a very narrow argument for the assertion "'equilibrium' implies something that isn't always true". Look at the big picture, and you'll see that it's misleading to put it that way.

That nugget of gold will move unremittingly toward equilibrium with its environment, but it will no longer be definable as a "gold nugget" as it dissolves into and mixes with the environment. In fact, the action of moving toward equilibrium with its environment will scatter the gold nugget's atoms and eventually reduce them to subatomic particles and smaller.

In other words, when the planet Earth is dissolved into its environment, that gold will be long gone, but its original matter will be distributed across an immense expanse of space. The gold nugget doesn't move toward equilibrium, but its atoms most certainly do.

Notice that Glenn never said that anything would "reach" equilibrium, because equilibrium is not possible in reality. Like your word "pure", "equilibrium" is an ideal concept that is useful in mathematical formulae and scientific pondering / discussion.

Bill is correct when he says, "equilibrium implies something that isn't always true", because there is no such thing as equilibrium. Everything constantly moves toward equilibrium, but nothing can ever reach equilibrium. It's a useful concept.

The assertion that "A nugget of pure gold in a container of liquid water will never reach "equilibrium" is just more sad anthropomorphizing; "whatever our instruments cannot measure must not really exist".

Westmiller said...

Good comments from Rick Doogie, but note that I was responding to the TSW statement asserting that motion is only in *one direction* ... toward equilibrium.

If that were the case, then atomic gold (or any element heavier than hydrogen) wouldn't exist at all. Glenn notes elsewhere(correctly) that convergence (for example, at the center of stars) and divergence (entropy) are concurrent, but this statement says divergence "toward equilibrium" is the only direction.

Rick Doogie said...

Bill, thanks for your response, after a pretty uppity commentary from me.

I'd like to hear Glenn elaborate on, and put into context, your clip from TSW, "... This evolution, this motion of the microcosm, is in all cases in only one direction, toward univironmental equilibrium." You're right, taken by itself, that assertion seems to conflict with Newton's laws of motion and equilibrium.

My guess is that Glenn wouldn't claim that there is never any motion toward dis-equilibrium. After all, Glenn's 6th Assumption is COMPLEMENTARITY. "All bodies are subject to divergence and convergence from other bodies."

Glenn Borchardt said...


You are correct, as usual. In all equilibria, both divergence and convergence are operating even though one or the other will dominate temporarily at any one time. The tendency toward univironmental equilibrium is another way of looking at nature from the point of view of Newton's First Law and of the Second Law of Thermodynamics and of the Law of Least Action. For instance, the sodium and chloride ions in salt will diverge when I put a crystal in pure water. The same ions will converge to again form crystals when I boil the salt water. We use the equilibrium concept to predict which direction a reaction will go. What is important is the relation between microcosm and macrocosm.