pseudopodium

. . .

No Single Reason in the World

"Evolution poses a metanarrative, a story of history, that seems plausible to modern people unlike, say, the old story of the infinite stack of turtles that holds up the earth. The notion that 'why' questions might find their home in 'because it's better for survival and reproduction' is one that could really guide us."
- Ezra elias kilty Cooper

A thoroughly worked-out and proven scientific theory is one which has successfully replaced a puzzle with a logical necessity that is, replaced something interesting with something trite.

But take the dull proven truths of one domain, and apply them to another where they haven't (and probably can't) be proven, and wow! They're interesting again!

And that's because they're false.

Responses

Better for survival and reproduction as far as we can see, but there's all those damn' turtles in the way...

. . .

The biggest influence on a human mind may be the meat it starts with. It's misleading to claim, however, that the initial state and suitability of that meat was determined by its winning the Gene Olympics, unless you mean the kind of Olympics where every participant is guaranteed a medal.

A species is more or less defined by the ability of its individuals to reproduce other examples of the species. It's reasonable, then, that biology traced the origin of species to aspects of reproduction: selectivity, mutation, combinatorics. The eradication of species, on the other hand, tends to have little to do with genetics per se, and species isn't the only categorization applicable to the organic world. Culture holds more than can be described by the taxonomy of species. An individual existence holds more than can be described by the taxonomy of culture.

By speaking of "the species," we've set our boundaries as survival and reproduction. That doesn't mean that most of what actually goes on among individual members of that species is directly determined by maximal survival and reproduction. Natural selection isn't obsessive or hyperactive enough to bother with optimization. It forgets important details; it remembers worthless trivia and childish habits; it scoops up its soup with its knife; it barely gets by, until it doesn't.

Which is just as well. Perfection wouldn't have much give, and life is what takes place in the wiggle room.

In brief: What does not kill me makes me living.

Responses

Our question was: Name the motivator of existence. Richard said: "The selfish gene." Ray said: "It's a trick question." And survey saaaays:
The secret agendaagent of mumbo-jumbo. Species fades into species, the line between us and the chimpanzee can't be drawn with any precision ever. But it's there. Women bleed for reproduction, men scheme for it. Individuals are vehicles for what's really going on, the journey of DNA from soup to...aaahh...nuts!
Better luck next time, Ray!

David Auerbach's genes efficiently capture the prey while my genes dawdle:

I gather you still have a ways to go with the evolution/evolutionary biology topic, but I wanted to comment that a lot of its abuses--social darwinism, eugenics, evolutionary psychology, etc., seem to come from an impatient desire to see evolution in action on humans /now/ with none of this waiting around for uniformitarian or catastrophic change, whenever that'll show up. So the laws are drawn in and used to explain cultural behaviors that disappear or mutate hopelessly over mere hundreds of years, or else the laws are applied to improve "fitness" proactively, layering "selection" over what would probably more gently be termed genetic drift.

Having taken the trouble to learn a context-dependent set of rules, our gene-given impulse is to misapply them everywhere we go, like a tourist pitting the Fifth Amendment against shock batons. Just look at all the damage done nineteenth-century psychiatry by the law of conservation of energy, or the place of competitive sports in contemporary American politics. Sorry, bub, it doesn't matter how loudly and carefully you speak: llamas don't understand English.

. . .

One possible definition of a function is that it is something whose implementation can be seen as 'contributing to the survival and maintenance of an organism'. But this gets us into the familiar circularity that bedevils ('classical') evolutionary functionalism in biology as well:
  1. The fact that an organism is alive at a given time shows that it is 'fit to survive'; i.e. 'this (living) organism is fit' is analytic.
  2. In the case of an organism that has failed to survive, the only ones where we actually know the precise cause of extinction usually do not give evidence of maladaptation in the usual sense: i.e. for the immanent 'unfitness' of the organism itself. ... If for instance the passenger pigeon had been maladapted, it would not have been as common as it was; by all criteria except edibility and vulnerability to shot it was a superbly adapted and successful organism. It is rather the case that human technology and greed were such that nothing could have survived under those precise conditions.

* * *

I suggest that what really counts, the first reason we have for believing in the potential fruitfulness of a type of explanation, and for holding onto it in the face of a lack of obvious warrantability (or even in the face of evidence that it makes no sense) is some kind of criterion of INTELLIGIBILITY, which serves as a quasi-esthetic control on the evaluation of explanations. I think that we often judge (what we call) the 'explanatory' power of a statement or model on the basis of the PLEASURE, of a very specific kind, that it affords us. This pleasure is essentially 'architectonic'; the structure we impose on the chaos that confronts us is beautiful in some way, it makes things cohere that otherwise would not, and it gives us a sense of having transcended the primal disorder.
- On Explaining Language Change, Roger Lass

Functionalist arguments tend to take the following form:

  1. There must be an explanation for this trait.
  2. This is an explanation.
  3. Q.E.D.

But maybe the trait has nothing to do with functionality, except insofar as it didn't kill all humanity before breeding age. Or maybe there were a wide range of functional possibilities, in which case we still haven't explained why this is the one we got. Or what we see is non-optimal genetic detritus left by something that was once optimal in some way we can't imagine. Maybe it's genetic cruft that became optimal later. Maybe some eccentrics somewhere don't show the trait and yet still somehow manage to be classified as human.

Prehistory involved too many unknowable factors, human culture is too volatile and varied, and confirmation or disproof is too unlikely for the hypothesizing of "evolutionary psychology" and "evolutionary sociology" to be much better than a Just-So Story.

As a harmless diversion, is it at least no worse than a Just-So Story?

That would depend on just how the diversion is used. A fable which asserts inevitability and hierarchical value with the language of psychology and ethics might be handy in all sorts of situations. Greed and selfishness aren't personal failings or noxious to society; they're the fucking foundations of life itself, boy!

And who's going to argue with life?

You and what army?

Responses

Regarding the foundations of life, a reader suggests:
on a roll
Unfortunately I'm unsure whether that's as in "One tuna melt..." or as in "...of a die will never abolish chance." Both are possibilities according to another reader, who's drilled for a while without striking bedrock:
Greed and altruism both, and your mom's combat boots and the propensity to screech at pain and the stoic impulse, nature plays dice, late at night, when God sleeps
Almost makes me wonder if life even needs foundations. Doesn't a foundation tend to limit mobility? The poor thing's loaded down with baggage as it is.

Lawrence L White seconds my query:

An excellent question! As I'm always saying (& I have noticed the repeating myself thing, & I am dreading how this will get worse as I get older), if there's one thing I learned from Wittgenstein, it's "don't forget why you're asking the question in the first place!" What problem are we trying to solve?
Ah, that hard-nosed goal-driven Wittgenstein.... Is a hint to be found in this reader's suggestion?
Life is an undergarment
"Life is bare
Life has nothing clean to wear
Stormy weather..."
but what about the survival and maintenance of an orgasm?
Dr. Lass doesn't touch on that topic, but Dr. Funkenstein covers it somewhere On Provoking Language Change, maybe? Speaking of whom:
George Clinton was a functionalist and look where it got him

Actually, I think the good Doctor is, like me, more of a believer in Cosmic Slop and Mother Wit.

. . .

A besetting evil of popular science is its literalization of figurative language. "Light's both a wave and a particle? Freaky!" "That's right, Jimmy. Let's freak!"

A begetting evil, too. Cooperation pays off with publicity, which leads to sales, which leads to new contracts, which leads to....

Foremost among the snags of this sociobiological language is the equivocal use of words like ‘selfish’, ‘altruistic’, ‘spite’ and ‘manipulate’, a use which not only suggests psychological egoism to the surrounding peasants, but clearly at times misleads the writers themselves....

‘We are survival machines robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes. This is a truth which still fills me with astonishment.’

[Dawkins] now comments ‘That was no metaphor. I believe it is the literal truth, provided certain key words are defined in the particular way favoured by biologists.’ (This caveat can apply only to gene and selfish, since the other words have not been discussed. The ones that really need attention, of course, are machine, vehicle and blindly programmed.)
- "Selfish Genes and Social Darwinism", Mary Midgley

Survival isn't a value judgment. It's merely the stark fact of survival. A gene isn't Roderigo Borgia, scheming toward that ultimate prize. It's not even Sir Toby Belch staggering towards bed. A gene is an imperfectly replicated or shuffled blueprint which might sometime be replicated or shuffled imperfectly.

And that's all that's needed by way of explanation.

Evolutionary theory liberated biological science from a priori notions of hierarchy and final causes, and from the distortions they inevitably introduce.

But from its first expression, interpeters have tried to bring those notions back, to change Darwin's descent into ascent, to mistake a stereotype as the grail at the end of a quest. By turning approximate analogies into rigid allegories, Dawkins became recidivism's latest success.

Responses

Lawrence La Riviere White:
As for your on-going evolutionary biology rant, let me say I've never quite gotten the appeal. From the start, it looked just like a hermeneutic, an interpretative key. Hey, look how many things this story explains! But it doesn't seem any more scientific than Augustine's On Christian Doctrine (& not to knock Augustine here, though I would want to have to read the whole book). For my money, a lot of the gene talk has about the same status at this time, only it has the advantage of promising the big hard-science pay-off, when we get to match up trait to gene. Or did the bank call back & already said the funds were not available on that check?
And wmr:

Too many people fail to see the difference between a research strategy and an explanation. Yes, much of science looks like a just-so story, but that's because theories are designed to take into account the facts known at the time. Newton's theory of gravity probably looked like a just-so story to his contemporaries; after all, he used the detailed observations of other astronomers and his theory had to "explain" them. What distinguished his theory from others was that it predicted new observations--Uranus and Neptune.

In a similar fashion, facile explanations of biological oddities as "survival of the fittest" should be distinguished from research that asks "how could this feature aid the spread of the genes involved?". I wonder if it would be better for biology teachers to admit that, though the theory of evolution is the considered choice of professionals in the field, it may be superceded by a better theory sometime in the future, then continue on to stress that Intelligent Design is not a candidate and point out its flaws.

Well, "the theory of evolution" seems secure enough in general terms. I'd merely suggest that the honest answer to your question is almost always "We don't know. Maybe it didn't." If certainty and uncertainty are allowed to become the terms of battle, fundamentalism wins.

A reader takes the voice of Mistress Sexy Gene:

It's main utility, it being the altruism thing, is it deflates the gassy balloon of the sacred individual, truth-shocks the ego back to its place in the peanut gallery. On the other side of your rantlet - the almost total severance of the sex-urge from its repro-purposing (accidental and arbitrary as it is, in a volitional end/means sense). It (feel-good sex) exists because without it we wouldn't. That's genes, that's mechanism, that's what's up with that. Courtship, companionship, tits and ass in advertising, all that attends, but doesn't accompany. It's merely goo-gaw, ornate gleam, the real ceremony's at the ovum wall.

I nod with pleasure, but more to the music than the libretto. Other species reproduce without apparent feel-good; I know that not all feel-good results in reproduction; I've been assured it's possible for human beings to be reproduced without feel-good having entered at any point. Given this plethora of "exceptions," isn't it safer to suggest that the apparent replacement of estrus with feel-good has influenced (or been helped along by) some other peculiarities of our species than to insist that feel-good was invented to keep the species alive?

. . .

Social Darwinians find themselves with a self-evidently secure norm that still for some reason needs to be policed, defended, and encouraged. (Here's where you might apply that volume of Judith Butler, by the way.) Eternal vigilance is the price of determinism.

Paradoxical but familiar, right? As in: "Our God is all-knowing and all-powerful and rewards us greatly here and in the hereafter. And this is why we feel persecuted and threatened with eradication."

What would it mean to be "guided" by a theory of necessity? To "follow" the inevitable?

That's called chasing your own tail. And success tastes like ass.

Why should people want to formulate a unenforceable "law" in the first place? What gives that meme its competitive edge?

As John Ashcroft can tell you, the benefit is the latitude it gives the formulator. When the nominally "unnatural" or "prohibited" is in fact thoroughly part of quotidian existence, we have our pick of targets, and we can pick them off at our leisure.

Thus we might, for example, note homosexuality as a distressing anomaly while letting other nonprocreative sexual experience off with a wink and a smile.

But what if we stay logically consistent, and treat masturbation, oral-genital contact, and the female orgasm as equally abhorrent unto the Gene our Lord?

Again, that has a familiar ring. And haven't I read some secular exegeses that came perilously close to "Women Were Designed For Homemaking"? (via reading/writing)

Treating evolution as if it had a "design" has proven to be almost as pernicious an error as straight theocratic denial. Dawkins's flavor is just the backside of Creationism, with Mean Gene blasphemously enthroned as the intelligent designer. I'm not inclined to raise hosannas.

Responses

Richard Dawkins was my tutor at college, and man, selfish was *not* the word . .
Social-Dawkinsism. First there was the red-clawed eliminators, T.Rex and the pitcher plant, then the social triumphalist peace in the agora, then out of that peace the newly red-handed former-eliminated began their mini-tooth-and-claw, masked as abstract economic theory, then (now) they (them) wish to play fit-or-be-fitted-out. But that that Darwin's bloody pragmatic homily can be used by assholes - that doesn't mean it's shit does it?
It's a Gödelian matter of existence being bigger than any explanation of existence. Nature is red in tooth and claw at dinnertime. After dinner, however, Nature cracks open a brew and watches "The Osbornes" even as you and I.
Excellent stuff, but would it have killed you to end with a Lovecraftian reference to babbling idiot gods, nodding their heads to the insane tootlings of unwholesome flutes?

Let's try it and see!

. . .

Errata

Regarding "No Single Reason in the World," jessie ferguson writes:
right. evolution as a social narrative is already evolution bastardized, because it's pretty much all statistics, and there is *nothing* comforting about statistics except for cold-blooded skeptics like me. the teleological mistake is defining means in terms of the wrong ends, as an aggravation of defining means & ends at all: for no given point in, say, human history can you cut a cross-section through it and say that *anyone* was adapted to do this, whatever "this" is at the population level. people, however, like to cut cross-sections through history, often with more aesthetic aims in mind. the ideas both of "adaptation" and "whatever it is you're adapted to" are emergent phenomena, which is a much healthier trendy phrase -- we did not evolve to fight wars or make love or what have you; those are things we do along the way, from randomness to randomness.

but people don't like randomness? god knows why. it's so fantastic.

but: what are you talking about?

Another reader seems similarly puzzled:

Water has a design. Things that use water may get in trouble if they behave as if it doesn't. It has a design because that's the way it is here in universe-land. Attaching anthro-valent purpose to the design is no different than attaching any other purpose, or _ key item _ no-purpose-at-all-in-the-sense-of-no-design. Rules are rules. It doesn't matter who made them. It matters how they're enforced.

The point is that rules of physics call on a different enforcement agency than rules of thumb. "That's the way it is" may mean "Better than random results have been found in this test population of two dozen middle-class American college students," which is a far cry from "That's the way it always is and always will be"— which, however, is not so far from "That's the way it must be," which in turn marches very closely to "Thou shalt." Teleology without supporting evidence handwaves us into that latter parade.

If you're one of the majority of patients for whom the newest chemotherapy isn't at all useful (despite a statistically positive effect), that doesn't make you an evolutionary anomoly, even though it might modify your role as an active gene carrier. People who exhibit behavior other than what's been announced as significant results remain fully significant. Those results (almost by definition) reflect something more transient than species such as recent chemotherapy patents, or wide-spread syndication of "Everybody Loves Raymond." "Rules are rules," but premature acquiescence will leave you unnecessarily stuck with that chemotherapy and that TV show, looking for romance in New Brunswick, New Jersey.

We regret any inconvenience.

Responses

Nag, nag, nag. Any readers who've suffered through these fulminations deserve the treat of a more positive interpretation of evolutionary biology, and one has just been served up by the always delectable inanis et vacua. Enjoy and deploy.

. . .

Addendum: No Single Reason in the World

Readers inquire:

God the Ambivalent hises up his tartan petticoats, hauls out his schlong, and pisses on the beach every once in a while, to search for buried treasure. Hence these bluffs and cliffs, out of which the rockin' bones prick. (See, for instance, "Rockin' bones, rockin' bones, rock rock rock it" by The Rockin' Bones; or don't.) I think I was trying to talk about evolution, was it?
Do the pseudopodium form at different parts of the amoebae body?

Usually, yes.

My recent series on the origin of evolutionary sociology nattered on mercilessly; I, like you, would welcome a change of subject. But self-publication must go where self-indulgence directs, and, you know, other folks are still talking about it, and I recently had my attention drawn to a phenomenon I wished I'd included, and, oh dear, oh well, I apologize to you and to my best intentions.

To recap a bit: When a respected compeer questioned the evolutionary value of homosexuality, I answered "Who needs one?" Sex as aggression, sex as social duty, and sex as friendly gesture are all fully capable of baby-making, and homosexual lust doesn't interfere with them. Heterosexual lust, as usually defined, is therefore not necessary for reproduction. Just look at the Hapsburgs.

But there's another common trait that's 100% effective at eliminating baby-making: infertility.

The human Y chromosome consists of decaying debris. Its presence triggers maleness, but its contents are mostly ignored. And they mostly have to be. Senile and solipsistic, the Y genes don't take part in recombination, and so there's no way for their basic structures to be reinforced over time. Genetic rot and drop-offs are common.

Among the few bodily traits blueprinted in the Y are some which help bring spermatozoa fully to term, so to speak, pampering the little dears till they grow up to be big and strong like daddy's. When chromosome rot strikes out that genetic mapping, the eventual result is someone who's indisputably male but almost always infertile, with few and immobile sperm.

How many offspring will an infertile man's genes selfishly acquire? None considerably less than the average number of offspring among my gay and lesbian acquaintances. That's about as little support from natural selection as possible.

And yet a significant percentage of men are infertile. Why is this permitted?

If you want to, you can try to work out some convoluted untestable Rube Dawkins explanation of how it might actually benefit the species.

I have a simpler, and thus preferable, answer. It's permitted because natural selection and genetic reproduction are too dumb and too hamstrung by earlier choices to be able to prevent it. Too many changes would need to be coordinated. Oh, maybe if we're left to breed undisturbed (with a pinch of radiation) for another hundred million years or so, a row of cherries will line up. How likely is that?

Admittedly, this is reductio ad absurdum. But I believe that most interesting aspects of human behavior are closer to that reductio ad absurdum than to the bill of Darwin's finch.

I can't prove my belief. I don't even want to prove my belief. I do want evolutionary psychologists and evolutionary sociologists to disprove my belief before they leech funding and publicity from legitimate science. Wild speculation from iffy evidence can be a beautiful thing in a creative writing department.

Responses

Infertile man is not permit, no. He is weeded out and all genes of him are not spread unto next generation. But think now, is his infertility controlled by his genes? Or is it function of his use of saran wrap for lunchbox, inhalation of rubbish fume from factory, imbibation of excess of absinthe or what have you. There is always environment factors to be consider. Best weeshes, Ricardo Dorkanvilla
Different type of infertility. They're all good.
okay smart guy, why do men have tits? huh? huh?
Men have tits to make Iggy Stooge possible.
why isn't elvis god?

Hoo boy. Why isn't the sky blue? Doesn't a bear shit in the woods? What am I, the IM question answerer?

That particular blasphemy wasn't mine.

I'm glad to hear it.

More topically, a long, playful message from professional speculator Paul McEnery unexpectedly reinforced my dominant thesis when I found the negative reviews of Steve Jones's innocuous works splitting between snubbed creationists and snubbed evolutionary psychologists and when I found Steve Jones espousing my dominant thesis.

Try checking out recent research on the evolution of the Y-chromosome, particularly Nature. 2003 Jun 19;423(6942):873-6. The Y-chromosome is actually able to stave off deterioration through a process of gene conversion, which is basically a form of self-recombination. A dandy evolutionary strategy if there ever was one...

The research reported in that issue was what started me off again, actually. It's great science: painstaking data collection; ingenious pattern-tracing; reasonable contextualizing with plenty of mystery left to entice wonderful stuff.... What I instead tried to apply above for entertainment purposes only were techniques of crummy science as I see them popularly applied: an assumption that for every phenomenon there must be an "evolutionary" justification conveniently tucked just up the explainer's ass.

. . .

Failing towards Freedom : Footnote

Samuel Butler's most cited statement on evolution must be "A hen is only an egg's way of making another egg." But his most prescient was "The power to make mistakes is one of the criteria of life as we commonly think of it."

 

Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.