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Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Evolution, Intelligence, and Morality

The theory of evolution by natural selection keeps being hammered at by creationists and by “scientific” revisionists of all stripes. It results in such idiocies as governments legislating that creationism must be taught in schools as an alternative “theory” of the origin of species — I say you can teach whatever the hell you want in school, but you can no more legislate away the fact of evolution than you can legislate away the fact that water is wet. Anyway, enough of my ranting. On to my raving....

Evolution, Intelligence, and Morality: Being a tentative — in intent, if not in tone — exploration of morality as a product or emergent property of evolution and intelligence.

Biological systems and sub-systems of self-replication, e.g., species and individual organisms, exhibit complexity because random replication errors (variations) by self-replicating agents occur and propagate.

Systems tend to increase in complexity because of the propagation of errors: increased errors = increased information = increased complexity.
The greater amount of time a system is in existence, the more time it has to produce variations: more time = more variations = more complexity.

There are viable variations and non-viable variations. Viable variations tend to increase efficiency of replication, thereby increasing a system’s complexity and stability as an effect of the increase in the number of copies of the viable variations.

Non-viable variations tend to decrease efficiency of replication, thereby increasing a system’s complexity but at the cost of decreasing its stability by clogging it with inefficient replicators. Therefore, non-viable variations tend to delete themselves or be deleted from a system. Systems in which non-viable variations become the primary replicators don’t last long; they are very vulnerable to system failures resulting from pressures on, or privations of, system resources. As a result, they tend to experience catastrophic system failure — they crash, baby, they crash and burn.

This is how biological systems might be said to be self-organizing. Perhaps no other theory of complexity is needed to explain the appearance, extension, and maintenance of structure in living organisms.

Natural selection is simply the propagation through replication of viable variations (a process more commonly thought of as competition to reproduce, and even more commonly referred to as “survival of the fittest”).

Evolution, then, is three-pronged: time, variation, and natural selection.

The theories of evolution, and of its driving engine, natural selection, have withstood every test thrown at them. As Steven Pinker points out, they are falsifiable.1 Evolution’s power to explain the existence, origin, and emergence of biological organisms is unparalleled.

Once we accept the fact of evolution, which is not so hard to do, really, considering the preponderance of geological, archeological, and paleontological evidence that has been amassed in its favour over the past 150 years, we realize that there is no need to invoke a god or a Grand Designer to explain either the fact of our existence or our ability to marvel at the fact of our existence.

Make no mistake: our existence is marvelous, not miraculous. We were not created in some unknowable god’s image. No, our great marvel is that we are the result of ages upon ages of accumulating copying errors — from this, intelligence and awareness arose!

The human mind itself, with its possibly illusory “I,” whether it’s an emergent property or an artifact of the various information processing modules of the brain, that massive parallel processor, is a result of evolution. (It’s quite possible that the brain’s immense processing capabilities are themselves only the three prongs of evolution — time, variation, and selection — in constant, realtime action.)

So now we come finally to morality.

We have intelligence and awareness but it is the result of evolution rather than the Design of a Creator.2 Does this imply that we are not moral agents, or, that lacking an Ultimate Arbiter, we necessarily have no basis for determining right and wrong? Does the lack of a god imply that morality must be culturally or societally contextual: that is, that a particular morality is relative only to a particular culture or society, and that an individual’s or an institution’s actions can only be judged in the context of their own culture or society?

I say no. And I say no for reasons I think are strong enough to combat the notion that the lack of a god implies there can be no moral standard by which to judge our actions, or, alternatively, that moral standards are completely fluid and relevant only contextually.

First of all, we have, apparently, intelligence, and awareness of our actions and of the actions of others. Awareness allows us to feel pain, joy, satisfaction (unless we’re Mick Jagger), envy, hunger, etc., and to observe that these feelings also appear to manifest in others. Intelligence allows us to link our feelings and our observation of similar feelings in others to particular events and/or actions of ourselves and of others. Intelligence and awareness, combined with experience (prior observations of events, actions, and outcomes), allow us to predict the result of an action.

I suggest that, this being so, these facts saddle us with a responsibility to minimize the degree of harm we might do not only to ourselves, and to the rest of humanity, but to the world (indeed, to the universe) in general. I suggest that morality is emergent from evolution, intelligence, and awareness, and that it can be best thought about and discussed in terms of the theory and mechanisms of evolution.

I also suggest that morality, while being somewhat flexible (what successful strategy or variation doesn’t exhibit a degree of flexibility?) both in individuals and in humanity as a whole, is not completely elastic. In order for it to be and remain viable, it must have a firm enough structure and be amenable enough to further efficient variation that it neither collapses nor becomes completely rigid.

I further suggest that some of the evidence necessary to postulate or prove an inherent morality can be found in Donald E. Brown’s list of Human Universals.

1 "Anything that showed signs of design [function plus complexity of structure] but did not come from a long line of replicators could not be explained by — in fact, would refute — the theory of natural selection: natural species that lacked reproductive organs, insects growing like crystals out of rocks, television sets on the moon, eyes spewing out of vents on the ocean floor….”

Steven Pinker, How The Mind Works, p 174; W. W. Norton and Company, 1997. [Inserted text mine.]

2 Evolution’s power to explain the world disposes of any need for the existence of a god, or a Grand Designer or Creator of humanity and Earth, and, by extension, of the universe. And Occam’s Razor then lets us assume that if we and the universe don’t need a creator, a creator doesn’t exist.

8 comments: said...

Olá amizade. Meu nome é Ernísio Martines Dias. Sou um sujeito calmo, mas de uma hora para outra posso me tornar agressivo se percebo que não estou conseguindo o que quero. Reconheço que sou mesmo um mau caráter, desonesto e sem escrúpulos, que só penso em ganhar dinheiro à custa dos outros, em ter lucro financeiro em tudo, como sonegar impostos e enganar as pessoas com minha lábia. Eu mesmo acredito na mentira que digo a todo o momento e acabo procurando fazer as coisas por baixo dos panos, pelo modo que me parece ser mais fácil.
Há antídoto para um marginal corrupto? Aceito sugestões construtivas no meu e-mail Sabe, me sinto com duas faces. A outra é diferente, pois quando não estou trabalhando, me sinto frágil e até estou com tendência a gostar de homens. Isso é agonizante! Por tudo isso, acabo tendo depressão e insônia, mas ainda estou com esperanças de mudar esta minha vida para melhor e conto com a sua ajuda. Obrigado.

MackJohnny said...

Spam, I wonder? If so, it is a determined spammer. Hmmm.

Spam, eu quero saber? Se assim, é um spammer determinado. Hmmm.

Here are the details of the visit.
Estão aqui os detalhes da visita.
Domain Name ? (Brazil)

Language Portuguese (Brazil)
Operating System Microsoft WinXP
Browser Firefox
Mozilla/5.0 (Windows; U; Windows NT 5.1; pt-BR; rv:1.7.12) Gecko/20050919 Firefox/1.0.7
Javascript version 1.5
Resolution : 1280 x 1024
Color Depth : 16 bits

Tracy said...

Did you use Occam's Razor to deduce that? Is spam the simplest answer?

MackJohnny said...

Nope, I didn't -- I rarely use any kind razor these days. But, yep, spam's the simplest answer.

MackJohnny said...

Or any mean razor, or any type of razor, for that matter.

Tracy said...

Mean as in nasty/hateful or the random variable? Or does the expectation to use a razor no longer exist? (Your dictionary is too much fun!) What language is hair anyway?

Workworkwork said...

Both Evolution and Creationism cannot be proven. While you spout your scientific arguement, there are countless more to refute them. There are dozens and dozens of websites full of supporting and contradicting information.

Having numerous scientist on each side of the fence only supports that 1 theory cannot and should not be the sole text in a public education system. Each theory deserves respect and should be presented unbiased. Students should be able to decide for themselves using the most current information for each theory.

As for morality- I think you may be assuming that Creationist do not support Evolution primarily because they think that evolution means there is no God or morality. In my opinion, the biggest reason why Creationists do not support Evolution is the Bible clearly states a 6 day creation. If people pick and choose which part of the Bible they like best, then the whole book is fiction. How can a person put 100% of their faith on not burning in hell forever on a book that is partially beleivable.

It's all or nothing.

Nice write up anyhow, it's very interesting to hear the scientific apsects of both theories.

MackJohnny said...

Both Evolution and Creationism cannot be proven.

Well, you're batting .500.

One of them is a theory with a massive amount -- with a whole world, one might say -- of hard physical evidence to back it up. And one is wishful thinking based on creation myths inherited from Sumerians and Babyblonians.

I know which one I'd put my money on.