There are generally used, particularly in popular discussions, terms and terminology which discuss evolution; but which act to mislead learners or hearers about the topic.
Two of these terms are: ‘adaptation’; ‘natural selection’ and they are central to the evolutionary thesis of ‘survival of the fittest’.
Added to this misleading usage of terms is a ‘cart before the horse’ understanding of evolution; which is quite commonly used, and which I will describe more clearly after the first part of this piece is written.
‘Adaptation’ and ‘natural selection’ appear to me necessarily to imply activity and choice. When we use the words and apply them to humans, we nearly always mean activity and choice is involved.
A person who adapts applies an ‘adaptation’ to herself, perhaps not consciously, nor else maybe by conscious choice, but her adaptation shows in her deeds, that that person has changed her behaviour and possibly her thinking. She might notice that she has altered her behaviour, or else not. This wholly unconscious and wholly unnoted sort of adaptation, when it happens and a person is unaware that it has happened in them; this is the closest to what evolutionary biologists mean when they use the word.
Because we humans talk of ‘adaptation’ and ‘adaptations’, the verb and the noun, when we discuss the machines and the technology and the writing and the thinking we use and do, and when we are consciously making changes to these, so as, we hope, to make them better or make them a better fit; then are we not thereby muddying the waters for any use of the words ‘adaptation’ and ‘adaptations’ in any biological evolutionary sense. This is especially so when we use the words before say children who are learning about evolution or among adults who have a slight passing acquaintance with the theory.
Likewise ‘natural selection’ is a concept which in fact entails no selection as the word is used in normal conversation. Selection by definition in everyday conversation has to entail choice; even the noun ‘a selection’ implies the offer of or the availability of choice to the hearer of the word.
In ‘selection’ as evolutionary biologists (I hope!) understand it, whether ‘natural’ or otherwise; there is no choice, and in the first place there cannot be choice like there might be claimed to be human choice. This is because nearly all of the animal and plant kingdoms, as far as we know presently, have insufficient consciousness for them to consider making any choice.
Choice, and therefore selection have to be characteristics of higher consciousness.
Thus the word ‘selection’ is another word which acts to mislead non-scientists and non-biologists when it is being applied to evolutionary thinking. The average lay person and pupil I would say also see ‘nature’ in the phrase ‘natural selection’ as the concept’s active principle, and thus as having a character of choice inherent within it.
Further, the act of ‘selection’ in the phrase ‘natural selection’ is seemingly being applied by ‘nature’; and there is a good chance that many, many persons see this nature as an anthropoid emblem – like our old idea about ‘mother nature’. Some people maybe even see nature as if it were some kind of deity or had properties which deities generally own to.
These are all easy mistakes to make and the products of much loose popular thinking. They are likely being adhered to.
Nature is not anthropoid; it has no properties of deity; it has no consciousness (excepting a few of the higher fauna perhaps?); it has no volition of choice and selection. ‘Nature’ as we mean it in the phrase ‘natural selection’ is not all the animals and plants, neither in total nor as part of the concept. ‘Nature’ is placed in this phrase ‘natural selection’ as if it were a force, of what type I am not sure, and I am indeed not sure it can or could be a force, in this sense?
If fact ‘natural’, in the phrase ‘natural selection’, is very difficult indeed; what on earth does it signify? Nothing simple and straightforward for certain; something complex and rather nebulous for sure
‘Adaptation’ as we normally mean that word when we are talking about bolt-on car parts or the movie of the book; does not happen in the animal and plant kingdoms.
There is no active principle to adaptation or to natural selection in the biological model of evolution; nor is there any active principle to adaptation and natural selection as biologists will use these terms.
So why are these terms still in use, when they so clearly mislead greatly perhaps the majority of mankind? Can we not think of some understandable way of describing what happens when we speak about ‘evolution’; a way which does not offer so blatantly these pitfalls for us to pitch headlong into? And what exactly does happen?
Let’s leave what happens for now, and go on a little, because I want to talk a bit about random mutation and about that ‘cart before the horse’ outlook I mentioned earlier; which even some scientists I think tend to stay with.
The theory, or thesis, or hypothesis, of evolution goes like this. In the natural course of things living things reproduce themselves, – as the Bible says – ‘after their kind’ and these reproduced ‘kind’ are, as it were, hybrids or else clones of characteristics of their parent organisms. The offspring will always carry a majority of the characteristics of the parent organism(s); but there occurs (and I am not sure whether anyone at present knows exactly why) what are called ‘mutations’ which are, by definition say the evolutionists’, ‘unpredictable’, and, it is also claimed, ‘random’.
These mutations are what one might call deviations from the norm from that type of organism to which the parent organism(s) belongs. Like a baby born with say, three nipples, or maybe with eyebrows under the eyes as well as over the eyes?
These mutations, the theory goes on to say, are for the most part unsuccessful because they turn out to be, in the course of the life of the creatures bearing them, untenable as new developments to and for the organism type to carry and still prosper. These unsuccessful mutations fall by the wayside and in some way (I don’t know the theory) they do not spread amongst the wider organism type.
Some few mutations which happen to organisms are successful; which means that the mutations do begin to appear henceforth as characteristics of the organism type; either locally or across a wider area. Organisms of the type reproduce and do go on to adulthood and do find that their lives lived carrying the mutation are tenable and so the mutation has become tenable. The theory often goes further and says that at least some of these tenable numbers of mutated organism types carry mutations which equip them better for life than their antecedent organism types were equipped before the particular mutation first occurred.
Now as far as I am able to tell there are limits to these last mentioned extensions of the theory here. I see no reason why a mutation might not transpire to be ‘neutral’ and yet still be adopted in their reproduction by organisms. By ‘neutral’ I mean that a mutation may not be harmful nor beneficial, inhibiting nor enhancing, yet it may yet be adopted in the reproduced organisms of the type as a matter of course. Why not?
If what I think is in fact the case, then it is a mistake for a student to assume that for every mutation which ‘succeeds’ in establishing a population bearing that mutation, there must be ‘out there somewhere’ in the organism’s environment states of affairs which make its mutation of use to it.
This is ‘the cart before the horse’ type of thinking I spoke of earlier, whereby a person takes the theory, or thesis, or hypothesis and applies it across the board every time whenever x is present; x in this case being a viable population bearing a new mutation. The assumption, which is false I believe, is that when there is discovered such a new viable population, the hunt for pinning down the environmental reason for the success of that mutation is automatically on. Thus what we begin to do is to use evolutionary theory as a template on which every time x happens y has to happen also. And we do this because we ‘know’, we take as a given, that whenever ‘y’ happens ‘x’ happens. In this instance ‘y’ is a successful mutation which does have a positive and new environmental niche – as the new place occupied in the environment is called I believe.
Even the term ‘blind’ as used to describe evolution and how it works is a misleading term. ‘Blind’ is used normally of creatures which have no power of vision. ‘Blind’ in this case is a metaphor about the inability of evolutionary processes to see ahead in time, and so to plan, to control, and/or to choose. Nature is not a creature. Mutations are not creatures. ‘Adaptations’ are not creatures. ‘Selection’ is not done by creatures nor is it done by nature.
Once these misleading anthropoid ‘enhancements’ to the theory are stripped away and one’s view of evolution and of what is happening when we notice that evolution has happened – and we have a view which I hope is now better oriented – then what is left to consider is not really very startling. Nor might we consider easily or feasibly, that life progresses, or rather changes, over time, in any other way. Nothing to write home about at all.
Excepting maybe the mutations, and their alleged randomness? How might it be logically possible to nominate them to be ‘random’? I don’t see it. Are biologists claiming that things might have panned out otherwise, than the way history actually has made things to be? How might we know this? What sort of question is it? And what answer might satisfy its query?
Consider also that most biologists and scientists of the present age, I believe, would adhere to a materialist vision of reality; one which usually pans out so as to deny any reality other than material reality. This materialism, caries a collateral belief alongside it which is shown in areas such as neuro-physics, in brain-mind research, and in medicine and psychology; which leads to assertions like those that insist that the brain is the mind and that the two are identical, and that this is a material fact. The conclusion, jumped to again, of the acolytes of assertions like these, is that life and being is wholly deterministic; hence it follows that it is impossible things and events could possibly have been different in the smallest detail to what they have been and are now.
This means then; no freewill, no choice, no election. No randomness, no selection, no adaptation: everything just had/has to be – as it happened/happens.
So where does this all leave us? In confusion? Certainly. Are we all just contradicting ourselves, and assuming where assumptions are not valid, for the fun of it? Or is it that we contradict ourselves and assume just so as to squeeze the facts as we have them into the theories as we have them and to do so utterly regardless of consequence. Regardless of anything but that Cinderella’s shoes should have to be fitted to the ugly sisters’ feet; even though we have to hack and shape their feet as if with a butcher’s cleaver; so as for us to come out ahead all the time? Or at least for us to appear to do so.
Of course there is no old man with a beard in the sky. That belief is so embarrassing.