Natural selection is a choice – 3

As I’ve described in the previous two posts, natural selection is, despite its reputation as the biggest discovery ever, the central tenet of (only) some of the theories of evolution that have held centre stage since Darwin and Wallace popularised it. One of the negative reasons for its being recurrently in doubt is the ongoing difficulty of deciding what natural selection actually is.

Arguments have been made for its being a law of nature, but by others it is decribed as a process – and it surely can’t be both, any more than “falling” can be both a process and the law that governs it. Neither can it be either a law of nature or a process if it’s a theory, as others say. Dawkins, polemically, describes it as neither a law nor a theory, but a fact. It surely can’t be all of these? So why does the matter still get discussed?

Laws are universally applicable abstractions from repeated events usually expressed in differential equations. Theories are human explanatory frameworks that make true predictions about new events. Processes are serial events with fixed causal relations between them. Facts are brute occurrences whose careful description may lead to theories and then to laws, but which explain nothing whatsoever in themselves. None of these seems to apply to “natural selection”, which cannot be expressed as a true law, makes no reliable predictions about events above the trivial, and is derived from many different kinds of facts and innumerable different processes. Many have called it a tautology, which is hard to deny with definitions like “differential survival” or “differential reproductive success”, from which that which breeds or survives is defined as that which is naturally selected. Vicious circle complete.

It seems to me that the real problem is that something that is, in the end, purely a human mental place-keeper has been reified so that it is almost always thought to be an actual cause. That this can happen in real science is shown by the parallel concept of “randomness”, which though it only ever means ignorance of cause (on the part some specified ignoramus) has been applied as an ontological cause to vital issues like the reasons for variation (Monod’s Chance and Necessity is a classic example of transforming human ignorance, as if by magic, into a true cause in nature).

I’ve discussed this in numerous posts over several years (search on “chance” or “randomness”). Correspondingly, chance’s sister “probability” is still widely believed, even by many of those in the sciences, to determine the occurrence of these “chance” events, whereas probability is never anything beyond a metric of our ignorance with respect to a certain set of (unknown to us) causes. It is a purely mental concept that has no absolute existence in the world.

Belief in probability as a cause can be re-expressed more clearly, and revealingly, as “It is my ignorance that makes these things happen the way they do – and here are exact statistics to prove it!”. This is evidence of lack of reflection on the soundness of ones metaphysical presuppositions, or sometimes of the ignorant belief that “metaphysics is bunk.” It becomes absolutely (in the literal sense) absurd when (oh theological calamity!) Christians in widely-read articles say that “God uses chance to create”, when the only possible referent for the epistemic ignorance entailed is God himself: “It is God’s ignorance that makes these things happen the way they do.” If that is what Evolutionary Creation means, then Many Worlds Theory is a lot more rational.

And likewise, whilst we can blithely define “natural selection” along the lines of “that which causes survival”, we are fooling ourselves by imagining there is an actual “that” behind the phrase. In fact, there is a near-infinite number of actual causes for survival, both in the variations that actually occur to enable it, and in the environments in which they find themselves to prove it. One can indeed mass them all into a word like “selection,” but it has little more explanatory power than “stuff happens.” If our child asks why it is raining today, which of us will reply sagely, “Contingency, my son, contingency”, unless it’s to stop him asking clever questions we’re too stupid to be able to answer with facts.

An analogy may help. Suppose we define “what publishers publish,” as “literary success,” just as we define “differential survival or reproduction” as “natural selection”. If publishers always publish what’s best, and moreoever if that leads to increasing refinement of what’s offered for publication, then we have a theory of literary evolution equivalent to the progress towards perfection that those nineteenth century evolutionary theories assumed. But in that case the explanation of progress lies not at all in the fact that books are selected by publishers, but in the more hidden, but true, reasons that “better” books (on some clear criteria) keep being written, and that publishers have an equally clear standard of judgement which they apply to them.

But nobody now believes, as they first did, that natural selection is teleologically directed at perfection. It is just supposed to explain whatever happens to work in the immediate short term. “Evolution is a tinkerer” they say. And we are rightly more cynical about publishers, too, than to attribute philosophical “knowledge of the good” to them nowadays. How many stories are there of great novels, or world-changing theories, being rejected by several publishers before one happens to like them and publish (or not – we never hear about the failures)? Remember that band that was told by Decca Records, in rejecting them, that “guitar groups are on the way out”? It was the Beatles, of course.

But the success of the Beatles also led to the myth of the “Mersey Beat” (two years before your British Invasion, US readers!), which craze meant that any rubbish four piece would get signed for a record deal as long as it was from Liverpool, like the Fab Four, whereas better ensembles from elsewhere ended up back in the factory. Publication was based on a popular whim. Well, that’s like nature, isn’t it? Bitter winters or droughts or vermin extermination programmes pay scant regard to any particular qualities within species – death is indiscriminate. Yet those which survive by (from their point of view or ours) “chance” are still, by definition, the fittest. And the only way of refining the definition to make it useful is to particularize it: cold or drought were causes of death here, and causes of survival there, and causes of nothing in particular elsewhere. And sometimes we’ll call it natural selection – but it wasn’t: it was particular cause and effect.

In biological science publishing nowadays, it is a simple truth that anything not within the ruling evolutionary paradigm, however well-written or (in the long run) correct, may well not be published, and so will be a “literary failure” analogous to lack of reproductive success in biology. (See GD’s true comment on the last post that “NS is the basis for the biological paradigm – and such things will not change easily.”) I write this not as a comment about science so much as about publishing – Jane Austen wrote classic novels, but they would not be published now because the environment – the hidden motives of publishers – have changed since 1800. (A great cartoon I saw had a publisher saying to Jane, “Good novel, Miss Austen, but we’ll have to cut all the effing and blinding.”)

If we want to understand those changes in publishing tastes, the last thing that gives us any real understanding is “literary success”. Literary success is not the explanation for anything: it is the result of whatever sociological, scientific or other real causes decide the kind of books people write and what kind of publishers, with what kinds of decision-making priorities, decide to offer them to the public.

Furthermore, if we have in these postmodern times rejected the idea that there is some objective standard of “excellence” to which publishers adhere, but only what is expedient for undetermined reasons, then we no longer have an explanation of why there is a literary culture at all. If it exists, it is for some deeper reason than the publishers’ desire for a quick buck, or for printing something “so bad that it’s good.” We will have to study the actual causes at work within society to explain the publishing decisions – at which point, we will already know enough about the culture to be able ignore the whims of publishers altogether. If we know true causes, we can predict success reliably: if we treat success as if it were a cause, then our predictions of actual events will be Just So Stories, or “plausible narratives” – and they will only be correct when explaining the past, rather than the future.

Now, it is, of course, quite possible to bypass those contingent, but revealing, questions of why authors produce the books they do, and exactly what factors lead publishers to respond to them in certain ways. Those questions are, after all, a lot of work, and may not be possible at all with the information available. If we do bypass these real causes, we will always be able to confirm the theory that “literary” success is “what publishers publish” (just as we first defined it). We will even be able to quantify the exercise to make predictions about that limited matter, for example by making the number of Amazon reviews or some similar statistic a proxy for “literary success”. There’s a whole library of papers to be published in that exercise. But once we’ve done that, what do we actually understand about society or literature that we didn’t know already?

I’ll nail my colours to the mast: I much prefer one detailed explanation of what something in nature does, and maybe how, or even in its context why, to a hundred plausible tales about how it may have got to be that way. After all, nothing in evolution makes sense except in the light of biology… or did I get that the wrong way round?

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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