Tag Archives: teleological

The Mismeasure of All Things

Some 2500 years ago, Protagoras said that man is the measure of all things. By this he meant something like, mankind can know only that which it is capable of knowing, which in effect is a recognition that the human mind does have its limits; but Protagoras’ statement has often been taken to mean that man is the standard by which all other things are to be measured, i.e., that mankind is the standard of comparison for judging the worth of everything else. This meaning may have been colored by the Christian concept of man as the object of divine history, of man as just a little lower than the angels. The Christian concept, in its turn, derives from a common interpretation of the creation story in Genesis, in which God gives man dominion over the rest of earthly creation.

However, while both Protagoras’ saying and the Genesis story carry the concept forward through history, neither explains how the idea actually originated. It may have been Giambattista Vico (1668-1744) who first recognized that it is ignorance rather than knowledge that makes man the measure of all things: “When men are ignorant of natural causes producing things, and cannot even explain them by analogy with similar things, they attribute their own nature to them.” That is, when primitive men and women surveyed the world and sought explanations of phenomena, they had nothing to go by other than what they knew about themselves, so that, for example, a terrible destructive storm could be explained as the anger of the gods, since when human beings became angry they too engaged in destructive behavior; or when a gentle rain caused plants to grow, the gods were in a good mood, perhaps pleased by some human act of worship, because when humans were in a good mood, they engaged in benevolent acts. After all, the earliest humans could not have had any knowledge of the material causes of storms, droughts, etc., nor of course of animal behavior, which they attributed to motives much like their own. As Stephen Toulmin and June Goodfield summarize Vico’s views, in primitive mythologies people “could measure the world of Nature only by that which they already knew—namely themselves” (The Discovery of Time).

Both Protagoras and Genesis simply give more sophisticated glosses on this primitive impulse. They reflect the increasing body and complexity of knowledge developed by ancient civilizations, particularly those that had developed writing systems, which in turn enabled them to impose order on what had been a plethora of local myths and their variants. Simply by creating relatively coherent pantheons containing gods with discreet attributes, roles, and positions in a divine hierarchy, ancient civilizations were able to organize their intellectual world and provide authoritative explanations. Monotheism carried this further, by providing an even more unified world view, but it also somewhat depersonalized the concept of God, making him more abstract and less personal (e.g., no images or idols, no household god or genie of the local spring, etc.). This was an important achievement in the ongoing development of knowledge, a necessary step in the process that led to the state of knowledge we enjoy today, in large part because it put more emphasis on cerebral, intellectual rather than personal and experiential modes of understanding—in a sense, creating theory to replace myth. Thus we see the Greek philosophers creating the first science and the Jews creating the first inklings of theology and, importantly, teleology (a sense of history with a goal towards which it was moving). Nevertheless, the Judeo-Christian god retained strong anthropomorphic features, especially in the popular imagination and in visual arts, in which, for example, God the Father was usually depicted as a white-haired old man. Perhaps as long as most people were illiterate and dependent on visual media for their abstract knowledge, anthropomorphism was to be expected.

The Western European, Christian intellectual (literate) tradition combined these two strands of ancient thought, the scientific/philosophical with the historic/teleological, setting the stage for a modern world view that sees the world as making coherent sense and as operating according to consistent, universal laws, which then can be exploited by human beings for their own betterment. As scientific knowledge expanded and material explanations could be provided for phenomena that once were viewed as signs of divine intervention, God receded to the back of men’s minds as less necessary to explain the world—at best, perhaps, He became little more than the Prime Mover, the one who got it all started or the one who established the universal laws which continue to operate without His immediate intervention. But if the Age of Reason or the Enlightenment put God into retirement, it did not give up the belief in coherent laws and the quest for universal theories, nor did it give up the teleological view of history.

It is important to note that the teleological view is always a human-centered view; history, whether of cosmos, nature, or society, was still about man; very few thinkers hazarded to speculate that man might be merely one among many creatures and phenomena rather than the point of the whole enterprise. In this sense, at least, the early modern era retained the primitive impulse to both anthropomorphism and anthropocentrism. The widespread acceptance of Darwin’s theory of evolution by means of natural selection did little, indeed perhaps nothing, to change that for most people. It was not difficult to switch from believing that God had created man for dominion over nature and as the center of the historical story of fall and redemption, to believing that evolution is teleological, both in the sense of inevitably leading to the emergence of homo sapiens as the crowning outcome of the evolutionary process and in the sense of evolution as a progressive process. And it was easy enough, in the context of nineteenth-century capitalism, to believe that modern industrial culture was the natural continuation of progressive evolution—indeed was its goal.

It took a generation or more for it to dawn on people that Darwinism, along with the geological discoveries regarding the great age of the earth and the astronomers’ and physicists’ discoveries of the even greater age of the universe, implied there is no god at all, not even the reticent god of the Deists. One would think that once this implication struck home, both the teleological and the anthropocentric views would fade away. But, perhaps due to human vanity, neither has done so.

In a supremely ironic twist, both teleology and anthropocentrism have been inverted. Whereas the theological age measured other creatures in human terms, the evolutionary age measures humans in animal terms. We are no longer a little lower than the angels but only a little bit higher than the other animals—or maybe not even that. We are naked apes, talking apes, singing apes. We are like social insects, we are vertebrates, we are aggressive because we are animals seeking to maximize our survival, we are merely transportation for the real biological players, selfish genes. We are not rational or conscious, we do not have free will, we operate by instinct, each of our seemingly advanced traits is hard-wired. Our morality is nothing more than an adaptation. We take a word like altruism, which originally meant a certain kind of human behavior, apply it to ants, where it becomes a description of instinctive eusocial behavior, and then re-apply that meaning back onto humans. Thus making us just like all the other animals. Therefore, we study them in order to understand ourselves. We focus on the similarities (often slim) and ignore the differences (often radical).

This continues the old habit of anthropomorphism in new guise and fails to recognize the independent existence of other creatures—their independent lines of evolution as well as their ontological separateness from us. We unthinkingly repeat that humans and chimps share 96 percent of their genes (or is it 98 percent?), as if that meant something—but then, it’s said we share 97 percent of our genes with rats. We neglect to mention that apes and humans diverged from each other some 7 to 8 million years ago and have followed independent lines of evolution ever since. We are not apes after all.

Consider the fruit fly, that ubiquitous laboratory subject which has yielded so much knowledge of how genes work. It is often cited as a model of human genetics and evolution. But consider what Michael Dickinson, a scientist (he calls himself a neuroethologist) at the University of Washington (Seattle), has to say about fruit flies: “I don’t think they’re a simple model of anything. If flies are a great model, they’re a great model for flies.” To me, this is a great insight, for it recognizes that fruit flies (and, frankly, insects in general) are so other than like us that to study them as if they were a model of anything other than themselves, as a model of us, is in a sense not to study them at all. It is rather to look into their compound eyes as if they were mirrors showing our own reflections. It is a form of narcissism, which perhaps contains our own demise.

Our demise because in continuing to look at nature as being about ourselves we continue the gross error of believing we can manipulate nature, other organisms, the entire world, to our own narrow purposes without consequences. It turns other organisms into harbingers of homo sapiens, narrows research to that which will “benefit” mankind, and misses the very strangeness of life in all its diversity and complexity. It continues the age-old world view of human dominion and fails to recognize that our “dominion” is neither a biological necessity nor a feature of the natural world. Dominion is a dangerous form of narcissism which a maturely scientific age should discard.


Paleolithic Fantasies

We live in an age like all previous ages, one in which thinking people assess the state of the world, find it wanting, and consequently seek a better, even perfect, way of life. Such people tend to roughly divide into those who seek their utopias in a vision of the future (today: think digital prophets, genetically modified crops) or a return to a golden past when human beings were in perfect harmony with nature (past: think Eden and the Noble Savage; today: think organic farming, artisanal cheese). Interestingly, one finds both types among both liberals and conservatives, though usually with different emphases (liberals tend to go for the organic, conservatives for traditional morality, while both seem to think that digital technology holds great promise for the future, either through greater community or better security). And advocates of both sides seem to appeal, either implicitly or explicitly, to “human nature” as the ultimate measure of the perfect way of life (using either Darwin or the Bible as the validating text). Thus, amid all the changes of outward circumstance, human nature has remained unchanged through time.

Marlene Zuk, author of Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us about Sex, Diet, and How We Live (W. W. Norton, 2013), addresses the myth, the just-so story, of a fixed human nature from an evolutionary perspective. An evolutionary biologist currently associated with the University of Minnesota, Zuk has conducted extensive field research, particularly on crickets, and is the author of numerous specialized articles and several popular books on evolutionary biology, behavioral biology, and sexual selection. She is therefore particularly well-qualified to demolish popular myths about human evolution, which she does with clarity and wit in this new book. (Her wit is best illustrated by her statement that “After all, nothing says evolution like a brisk round of the plague.”) Her immediate targets here are evo-myths about diet and health, particularly those that base their tenets on the very false idea that contemporary human beings are Paleolithic creatures uncomfortably and unhealthily stuck in an unnatural modern industrial environment. In other words, the natural man, the Noble Savage, the Eden which we have lost, is to be found in the lifestyles of early Stone Age humans prior to the development of agriculture (the true Original Sin) and settled life, that is prior to about 10,000 years ago. Supposedly, humans of the Paleolithic lived in that much admired perfect harmony with nature, and to restore our health and souls, we need to retrieve that lifestyle and apply it to our urbanized lives today.

Alas, like all utopian dreams, whether of past or future, what Zuk calls paleofantasies are exactly that, fantasies, and in the course of demonstrating just how fantastic they are, she treats her readers to a particularly clear and nonidealogical series of lessons on what evolution really is. And what it is not: it is not purposeful and it is not perfect or ever perfected. Thus, she demolishes the notion of the Noble Savage (by whatever name) when she writes that there is no utopian moment of perfect synchronicity between human beings and their environment. Both organisms and environments constantly change (and both humans and environments certainly did over the 2.6 million years of the Paleolithic period), and to think that today’s human beings are unchanged from those of even a mere 10,000 years ago “misses the real lessons of evolution” and “is specious” (p. 59). And lest we think that evolutionary change moves in some kind of logical direction, she writes that “evolution is more of a drunkard’s walk than a purposeful path” (p. 78).

Evolution never intends anything. It is a Rube Goldberg contraption, or rather the creatures it throws up are, because, rather than aiming at or achieving perfection, it measures success only by reproductive success. “If something works well enough for the moment, at least long enough for its bearer to reproduce, that’s enough for evolution” (p. 8). When you think about it, this is actually an excellent measure, simply because “perfection” is purely a human concept, and no one can agree on just exactly what perfection is. Should we eat only meat, because, as some paleo diet buffs claim, that’s what our Pleistocene ancestors ate? Or should we eat only raw vegetables and fruit, because, as other buffs claim, those were the exclusive menu items of our ideal past? Should we eschew grains, because they are cultivated and therefore not natural? Just exactly what would the “perfect” diet for human beings consist of?

According to Zuk, it depends. As she shows, various populations of human beings have evolved to utilize foods that our hunter-gatherer ancestors would not have been able to eat. For example, adults of some populations can digest milk, while the majority of human adults cannot (lactose intolerance). Certainly, the latter should avoid dairy, but the former can consume dairy products pretty much as they please. Insofar as the deleterious effects of agriculture are concerned, yes, it appears to be true that initially human health and well-being declined after people began cultivating grain crops and living in permanent settlements, but Zuk points out that it did not take all that long for this disadvantage to disappear; and as we know, agricultural societies grew larger and faster than foraging societies (reproductive success again being the measure of evolutionary success). Certainly some kind of genetic mutations could have occurred that conferred a greater ability to prosper on a diet high in grains; but it is also possible that as people improved their knowledge of cultivation and selectively improved the quality of their crops, and also exploited the advantages of settlements in facilitating trade, they overcame the initial disadvantages of agriculture. But whatever the case, it’s important to keep in mind that the early agricultural peoples themselves apparently thought that the advantages of agriculture outweighed its disadvantages—why else persist in farming?

An analogous point could be made about our modernity: If modern urban life is so bad for us, so unnatural and maladaptive, why did we develop it in the first place? If we are really, as some do argue, merely products of biological evolution like any other animal and, as some do argue, our consciousness is merely an illusion, how did we “evolve” a state of affairs so contrary to our biological being? And why do we cling to it so tenaciously? If it were really so horrible, wouldn’t we be fleeing the city for the more natural environments of the northern woods or western prairies (the United States’ closest approximation of the Edenic savannahs)? The fact that we do not suggests that urban industrialized life may not be so bad for humans after all. (How bad it may be for other organisms is a different question.)

Whatever the sources of some people’s dissatisfaction with modern human life, a mismatch between our Paleolithic natures and modernity is not one of them, and the appeal to evolution is, as already noted, based on a misconception of what evolution is. A major aspect of that misconception is an over-emphasis on natural selection. But as Zuk points out, “it is important to distinguish between two concepts that are sometimes—incorrectly—used interchangeably, evolution and natural selection. At its core, evolution simply means a change in the frequency of a particular gene or genes in a population” (p. 251). The mechanisms by which these gene frequency changes occur include not only natural selection, but genetic drift, gene flow, and mutation. “Genetic drift is the alteration of gene frequencies through chance events” (p. 251). “Gene flow is simply the movement of individuals and their genes from place to place, and activity that can itself alter gene frequencies and drive evolution” (p. 252). “The final way that evolution sans natural selection can occur is via those mutations, changes in genes that are the result of environmental or internal hiccups that are then passed on to offspring” (p. 252). In order to see whether or not evolution is occurring in humans today, one does not look at superficially visible traits but at changes in gene frequency among human populations.

Another all too common misconception is that “evolution is progressing to a goal” (p. 252), what can be called the teleological error. Even well-known and well-informed people believe that evolution is goal directed. For example, Michael Shermer, the editor of The Skeptic magazine and the author of a number of pro-evolution books, writes in The Science of Good and Evil that “Evolutionary biologists are also interested in ultimate causes—the final cause (in an Aristotelian sense) or end purpose (in a teleological sense) of a structure or behavior” (p. 8); he then states that “natural selection is the primary driving force of evolution” (p. 9). In contrast, Zuk reiterates throughout her book that “everything about evolution is unintentional” (p. 223), that “all of evolution’s consequences are unintended, and there never are any maps” designating a foreordained destination—and she is in fact an evolutionary biologist!

A good example of an unintentional evolutionary consequence is resistance to HIV, the retrovirus that causes AIDS. As it happens, some individuals are resistant or immune to the retrovirus, but not because evolution or natural selection intended them to be so. Centuries ago, bubonic plague swept through Europe; millions died of this highly infectious disease, but some few people did not get the disease despite having been exposed to it. No doubt they thought God had spared them for some divine reason. Centuries later, some of their descendents were exposed to HIV and did not become ill. Did God plan that far ahead to spare these few lucky individuals? Did evolution? No. A random mutation happened to render human cells unreadable to the plague bacterium (or, as Zuk suggests is more likely, unreadable to the smallpox virus); consequently, the bacteria could not enter the cells and wreak their havoc. The mutation would have had to have occurred before the introduction of the disease into the lucky few’s environment (there would not have been enough time for it to occur and proliferate after the disease’s introduction), and may have had no prior function, good or bad. As chance would have it, centuries later, the same mutation also made the owner’s cells unreadable to the AIDS virus, thus rendering him or her immune to HIV—quite by chance. Pace Lamarck, perhaps we can say that it is not characteristics that are acquired, but functions. The gene mutation that confers HIV immunity has after many generations finally an acquired function.

Why then do organisms seem so perfectly adapted to their environments? Perhaps they are not so perfectly adapted as they appear to human eyes; more importantly, since environments change, organisms must change as well, but perhaps if they were too perfectly adapted (each and every individual of the species therefore being identical), they would rather quickly become imperfectly adapted to even small changes in their environment. Perhaps, then, perfection is an extinction trap rather than a desirable goal.

Darwinists and Telos

In a recent article in the New York Times, on the frequency of cross-species mating among birds, a Dr. Lovett,a biologist at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, is quoted as saying the following: “much of the entrancing diversity of the avian world, like colors, plumes, songs and bizarre mating displays, ‘has arisen in part because these differences help female birds avoid accidental matings with a male of a different species.'” Given that Cornell has one of the more important departments of ornithology, and given that Dr. Lovett is a director of its evolutionary biology program, we can take his statement as representing a mainstream and widely accepted view of evolution.

The “because” in his statement is troubling, in that it quietly implies what is seldom aciknowledged–a teleological view of evolution, i.e., that traits arise in order to fulfill a prior need or to suit a purpose. That “because” is situated between and links a trait (avian diversity) to a goal (avoiding accidental matings). This gives intelligence to evolution, makes it goal directed, therefore teleological. Whatever kind of evolutionary theory this represents, it is not Darwinism, for the picture Darwin drew was nonteleological, accidental, contingent, and undirected.

One cannot say that a trait arose because of anything, and one cannot say that diversity arose in order to enable females to distinguish between species. If a distinction arose, and if it happens to function in such a way, that is after the fact, not before. A better way of stating the case would thus be, “as various differences arose among bird species as a result of random mutation, genetic drift, and other factors, and as they became fixed through isolation and natural selection, female birds may have come to recognize males of their own species by their particular distinguishing traits. This would have the effect of preventing cross-species matings.”

Yes, that takes more words; but it is also not misleading. It does not imply a teleology behind the evolutionary process.

Consequences and (Evolutionary) Intentions

           Perhaps one source of confusion in discussing evolution is that people do not clearly distinguish between “consequences” and “intentions.”  While modified or new traits may have the consequence of enhancing reproductive survival, that does not mean that they arose with the intention of enhancing survival. 

           Consequence is a term of cause and effect analysis; intention is a term applicable to the actions of thinking and willing beings. 

Go to the Consequences and (Evolutionary) Intentions page to read the full essay.

Evolution and Creationism: Consider the Botfly

In the United States at least, the argument from design has traditionally been used to support a literal reading of the Genesis account of creation (setting aside the fact that Genesis offers two versions), and there remain today many people who believe in the “young earth theory” and that fossils and other indications of great swaths of geologic and cosmic time are simply erroneously interpreted by scientists or deliberate deceptions by God meant to trip up the proud and faithless.  Other creationists, however, conceding to the scientific evidence for great stretches of time and for evolution, resort to the dodge of Intelligent Design.  One has to fan away a great deal of smoke before one can get to the fundamental theses of the proponents of ID, and even then one may not be sure exactly what they believe.

Go to the Evolution and Creationism page to read the full essay.