Thursday, October 28, 2010

Glenn Beck's Monkey Show: This View of Life

"There is grandeur in this view of life, with its
several powers having been originally breathed
into a few forms or into one; and that whilst this
planet has gone cycling on according to the
fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning
endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful
have been, and are being, evolved."

--Charles Darwin, 1859: On the Origin of Species

In my second entry on the topic of Glenn Beck's misapprehension of the theory of evolution, I discussed the fallacy that he spoke on his radio show; the idea that humans evolved from monkeys, or even from apes. Darwin's theory does not posit this idea at all; rather human beings, as well as the great apes, have descended from some common ancestor that in certain features and functions resembles us both, however remotely. But I am not quite done, because another idea was expressed, later in that same hour of the radio broadcast, that is also fallacious: Glenn Beck's claim that collectivists require Darwin's theory, because they must have a view of human individuals as endlessly malleable and therefore perfectible by other humans or, in the case of socialists and outright communists, by some unspecified "social force" that generally turn out to be a force perpetrated by tyrants.

This idea turns on another common misunderstanding of Darwin's theory, one that became a force in American politics at the end of the 19th century, the idea called "Social Darwinism."
Social Darwinism can be defined as any number of political ideologies that use Darwin's theory to suggest that societies evolve in the biological sense and that certain individuals in society are more "evolved" than others, and that they have an obligation to direct human evolution to specific ends. This ideology has nothing to do with the Darwinian theory of evolution by natural selection, except the usurpation of Darwin's name. And in Darwin's name, a whole host of fallacies have been developed to limit human freedom: the Nazi concept of the Obermenschen (supermen) is one, and so is the American progressive idea that a better citizen can be bred through eugenics.

Social 'Darwinism' includes two fallacies that make the ideology foreign to Darwin's theory. The first is that societies evolve biologically, meaning that society is an entity that natural selection acts upon, and that action changes gene frequencies due to various social pressures. The second is that Darwinian evolution is goal directed, and that natural selection is more than a mechanism, that in some way it is working to a specific, predetermined end.

I think the first fallacy is driven by a complete misunderstanding about how Darwinian evolution is defined, and the second by an equally powerful misapprehension about how natural selection works.

A society is nothing more than a grouping of individuals that are distinguished by location, and perhaps by a shared nationality and culture. There may be numerous social groups in that larger amorphous thing that we call society, and those different subsets may very well have their own unique subcultures and value systems. There is not much that defines a society except the obvious: that members of a society tend to socially interact with one another at some level. A society is not some mystical synergistic whole. It has no self-awareness and no will. If societies evolve, those changes are not biological, and they are not driven by natural selection.

Natural selection acts on the relatively fixed phenotype (the way that genes are expressed) of the individual, producing change over time in biological populations. That evolution--for change over time is what the word evolution means--is measured by the change of gene frequencies in a population over time. Individuals do not evolve, but biological populations do. A biological population is not some random group of individuals that interacts socially. Rather it is a group of individuals that can and do interbreed with one another. That they can interbreed means that they are members of the same species, but being a population means that these individuals have access to one another for the purpose of reproduction. Thus alleles (specific forms of each genes) are spread around that population. There are numerous biological populations of human beings on the earth, separated by geography and by culture and by language, which are but different barriers humans have to reproduction with one another. None of these barriers is perfect, and by migration of individuals from one population to another, novel alleles are introduced to populations, changing the gene frequencies in each population. Thus, evolution is always occurring.

When I said above that natural selection acts on individuals, I meant that the genetic traits of an individual vary in expression, creating as many unique phenotypes as there are individuals. Within a given environment, some expressions of a trait will lead to a robustness that allows an individual to survive and pass on those traits, while other expressions of the same trait may--in that same environment--lead to a weakness that means an individual does not live long enough to reproduce, or reproduces less often. Evolutionary "fitness" is defined as the number of offspring an individual has, thus influencing how many copies of the allele is passed on into the next generation, thus spreading through the population in greater or lesser numbers.

It is environment that effects the fitness of a certain trait. A trait that creates an effect that leads to the allele being passed on in great numbers in one environment, may have no such effect in another environment, or may be deleterious to the individual that carries it in a third environment. For example, the recessive allele that blocks the deposition of pigments in the eye, caused the blue-eyed phenotype, has no effect in northern climates, where the solar angle is low, but in equatorial locations, it results in a much greater risk of cataracts and cancer at a younger age. Thus one might expect to find more of the recessive "blue-eye" alleles in northern populations than in equatorial ones. Since there may be more than one direction of pressure on a trait (or suite of traits) at any given time, the end result is a variety of expression, creating those "endless forms most beautiful" of which Darwin spoke. In any given species in any given environment, not all traits are under selection at any given time. It really depends on the variety of alleles, and upon the rate of environmental change that a species may be experiencing. The point here is that fitness is not some fixed array of parameters that have been ranked by some conscious process of choosing. It is simply what variations on a trait, among those present, are most beneficial to the differential reproduction of the individuals within a population that carry them.

And this brings me to the second fallacy held by the Social "Darwinists": the fallacy that evolution has some direction, some predetermined end. Since natural selection acts on the variations of a trait that happen to be present in a given population at a given time, there can be no "goal" for evolution. If, as Stephen J. Gould used to say, we could rewind the tape of the evolution of life on earth and begin it again, we would not see the same movie. Evolution would likely run a wildly different course.

There is a random element to Darwinian evolution, and this is why species eventually go extinct, ending their contributions to the future of life on earth. Sooner or later, a variation on a trait that would allow a species to get through a certain set of environmental changes will not be present in any of the biological populations of the species; or else there will not be time for a beneficial variation to spread through the population, and the species will die out. Just as death is part of every individual life, extinction is the destiny of every species.

I think that this lack of direction, this randomness that exists in our being here at all, in how species come and go upon the earth, is the most unsettling idea about evolution of all for many people. It certainly changes one's view of one's place in a very large and random universe. And yet, it also magnifies the uniqueness of each individual life on earth, and places a premium on human self-awareness, which is what sets our species apart from the other lives that share our planet.

Since evolution has no direction, and since no individuals in a species are "more evolved" than any others, two things are true. One is that there is no perfection awaiting the future of human life on earth. We are what we are, and as human beings we exist within certain parameters that make us human. Although we are all unique, our uniqueness exists as variations on the theme of human being. Individuals do not evolve. Each of us can only play the genes we were dealt. The second truth is that no human beings are wiser than any others in their ability to know how to shape human evolution to certain ends. There are no philosopher-kings who can see outside the cave, and select for certain traits in order to bring the rest of us to what they believe is their level.

The Social "Darwinists", who have arrogantly arrogated to themselves the role of gods and goddesses, do so using a perversion of Darwinian evolution in which selection is anything but natural, and fitness is defined as those traits they most admire in themselves. Traits that may have very little to do with the traits that are actually under selection in different human populations. Unfortunately, there are those--like Glenn Beck--who have so little knowledge and understanding of Darwin's theory, that they equate the unifying theory of modern biology with an ideology that is based on a misunderstanding of evolution by natural selection; an ideology that is as profoundly wrong as are the misperceptions of the creationists. This is what I mean when I say that the leftists and the collectivists are often equally as ignorant of Darwin's theory of evolution as are those on the religious right.

But I believe the collectivists on the left are the more dangerous. The creationists are for the most part reacting to the usurpation of their power to pass their religion on to their children. All of the equal-time debates, all of the legal challenges they make are in response to public education. If creationists were no longer forced by law to pay for their children to be instructed to accept an idea that they believe is against their religion, there would be no debates and no legal battles. But those on the left believe that they have some mandate to act as those who would select out the traits that they believe do not contribute to the perfection of humanity in the next great step of "social evolution." But all such traits originate in the phenotype of individuals, so this means that certain individuals must be selected out. This is what Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, a notorious progressive, understood his role to be when he ruled that a woman could be forcibly sterilized for the good of the State, saying:

"It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for a crime, or let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind." (Buck vs. Bell, 274 U.S. 200 (1927).

Here Holmes imagines himself to be the agent of selection, a selection that is not at all natural. He further implies that there is some direction to evolution, that a certain kind of human being--his kind--has some destiny that is the pinnacle, the perfect end of evolution. An end that would result in a deadly sameness, in which there would be no variation for natural selection to act upon. An end that would result in destruction and death, as it always does. An end that would result in the ultimate extinction of the human species from the face of the earth.

Nothing could be further from the true nature of Darwinian evolution by natural selection. This view of life predicts infinite variation in infinite combinations developing over time from so simple a beginning. There is indeed a grandeur in it, a grandeur that is missed by all of those who misapprehend the beauty of life on earth in all its wonderful variety.


陳雲惠 said...

IS VERY GOOD.............................. said...

Thanks for your series. While I may not agree with all you have to say ... I have more sense than to try to argue with you and enough sense to see merit in most of what you have written.

Tullia said...

Since I don't watch or listen to Glenn Beck, I've been focusing on the portions about education. I agree that the coercive element of our public system explains a great deal of the reactionary nature of creationist's objections. My own quarrel with public education is primarily that I see schools doing a generally poor job of teaching the basics of math and science. What they do with the larger context...I probably can't describe my thoughts in a civil way so I just won't go there.

I tend to think about the role of a priori assumptions with regard to operational science as being primarily a question of ethics. I treat them as being similar to potential conflicts of interest in public policy matters; one does not pretend that a priori assumptions don't exist, rather the goal is to acknowledge and manage them in such a way that negative influences and distortions are minimized.

It might be worth stating that my ideas on these issues were largely formed in the mid '70's by Thomas Kuhn's writing, especially The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. I also like C.S. Lewis' epilogue to The Discarded Image. Near the end he writes about changes over time of cosmological models,

"I hope no one will think that I am recommending a return to the Medieval Model. I am only suggesting considerations that may induce us to regard all Models in the right way, respecting each and idolising none."

Or, as I tell my son, exercising proper scholarly caution can save you from looking like an idiot if you happen to have the great opportunity to live on the cusp of a paradigm change. I've also tried to explain to him and my other students how very exciting it can be to lay aside preconceived ideas and approach science with an open mind. I also warn him that doing so requires courage. Even scientists, after all, are only too human.

One other matter which does not address this particular post...I'm going to be limiting computer time for the next few weeks, but hope to return soon having read more of your archives and The Fourth Turning. I will also refresh my memory on using HTML tags; something I once knew but have obviously forgotten.

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Tullia--civil or uncivil, I would really like to hear your thoughts about the poor job the educational system does teaching science.

I have my thoughts about that as well, and part of that is not embedding the story of science into its history, for one.

I will say no more here as I await your thoughts, even if they are not civil . . .