I've been thinking about evolution, and it has occurred to me that there are 3 problems with it. 1.) evolution by definition is a reactionary process, so how can it look forward - eg how can we as end results of the process ask "what if?" 2.) humanity has the potential to self destruct - Ayn Rand in Atlas Shrugged recognised that we were the only species that could do that - how can an evolved / reactive process develop a self-destruct mechanism? 3.) At what point along the evolutionary process did it decide to split out into separate genders, and where can we point to to demonstrate this? Any thoughts?

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Eric, this is how I understand evolution: The process of evolution by natural selection does indeed look back at what has worked in the past, but not in the sense you describe.  You and I and all living things on the planet are alive because each and every one of every organism's ancestors lived to reproduce.  What works, in any given environment, is repeated simply because the organisms live long enough to reproduce or are more successful at reproducing.  There is no conscious thought to this, even if the organism is homo sapiens.  

This happens at the level of DNA. Random mutations happen and many go unnoticed.  Some have catastrophic results.  Some just happen to enable the organism to be better able to reproduce in its environment, and then more of these organism are created, live, reproduce, change, and so on and so on.  That is a gross oversimplification of the process of evolution.  You are putting way too much thought into it, over-complicating it, and attributing to it aspects that wholly do not pertain to it.  There is no consciousness involved in the process of evolution by natural selection.

Humans have evolved big enough brains and have accumulated enough knowledge and skill to both understand how we arrived at this point, and to annihilate ourselves.  If we annihilate ourselves and other life on the planet, whatever forms of life that may be left will continue the process of evolving in their environments.  Homo sapiens sapiens will be just another dead end.  The DNA that develops humans will have been unsuccessful at that point.    Organisms that annihilate themselves will not reproduce and that will be it.  More organisms have evolved and gone extinct than there are living currently. 

We humans have developed the ability to artificially select various kinds of life, including our own, because the characteristics which worked out that process enabled our ancestors to survive.  Unfortunately, those same characteristics may enable us to wipe ourselves out as a species. There are conscious processes involved in the individuals and societies affected, and I suppose we could alter our genetics to reduce this likelihood. In the end, though, even if homo sapiens survives beyond the stage of being smart enough to figure out how to wipe ourselves out and too stupid to prevent it, it is still evolution by natural selection at work.  Everything that lives, lives.

I was going to try to field that one, but since you have already replied that you will read The Ancestor's Tale, I will let it explain how it works.  

Another good read might be The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence by Carl Sagan.  It is old but a classic.

I do have to say that I disagree with you about evolution having to stand up to philosophical scrutiny.  It has been occurring and will continue to occur unabated until the planet can no longer support life of any kind, regardless of how well we understand it or whether or not we agree or approve.

RE: "having the ability to consider and debate such issues is not a natural outcome of an evolutionary process" - yes, it is, but I will leave you to your 900 pages of Dawkins and await your return with that information under your belt before resuming the discussion.

Eric - RE: "no consciousness involved in the process of evolution by natural selection”

No one is saying that now, among humans, no consciousness is involved - physical appearances, money, status, security, all of these are part of the conscious, human selection process that we use when deciding on a mate.

But does a male warthog reject a female warthog in heat because he's waiting for a prettier one? Somehow, I doubt it. But if there are other male warthogs around, there will be competition, and the fittest will mate with the female, passing on those genes that made him the fittest.

But we could go question/answer all day long - some of the answers would be spot on, while others would be less accurate. Your best bet would be to read the book I suggested - it's 900 pages, so reserve yourself a quiet evening - and come back to chat with us regarding your findings.

@Diane - I read The Dragons of Eden many years ago, but recently, I wanted to mention the limbic, "Reptilian Brain," which really formed the foundation of Sagan's book, but in a last-minute fact check, I learned that the concept had fallen out of favor among behaviorists.

I personally believe it explains a lot, and hope to see the day when it comes back in favor.

Well that's how it goes, isn't it?  New theories emerge as new information becomes available. If I weren't so busy surviving and raising offspring I'd be more current.  ; )

Been there, done that, and the T-shirt reads, "World's Greatest Dad" - I'm sure it's an exaggeration --

Evolution in and of itself is not a thought conscious process. Organisms and lifeforms  at all levels of complexity are in a continual evolutionary process. Genetic mutation and changes in the environment play a role in the development or possible extinction of species. Natural selection takes no prisoners. And all this happens at an infinitesimally slow rate of change. 

You're so right, Ed - a perfect example, two actually, are that koalas are going to run out of Eucalyptus trees and pandas run out of bamboo LONG before either animal evolves to be able to survive on other foods.

A shortage of bamboo in China! I would never of thought it possible.

Archaeopteryx just highlighted the perils of overspecialization.  And he reminded me of a related issue.  A population suddenly finds itself with no check on its reproduction, like a hypothetical highly contagious and deadly disease.  Such will consume all of their food supply, exterminating the species they rely on to survive.  Then they will go extinct.  Sure, that makes them an evolutionary "failure" but in the meantime they "successfully" wiped out another species.  The true evolutionary successes are the diseases, etc. that don't kill off their hosts, and the predators who don't succeed too easily at their hunt, and the herbivores who don't end up overgrazing.

Well, that's unlikely, but if it does happen, all things shall pass eventually, anyway. Sooner or later, what difference does it make? Once we're gone, we're gone. By a million years from now, we'll be gone no matter what and no one will remember us.

Even if all life is wiped out on the surface, it'll be a long lont time before life is wiped out subsurface.

"Diane, for natural selection to stand, it must be able to withstand critical philosophical scrutiny. I'm not attempting to over-complicate it, rather I'm just trying to get my head around it, and the suggestion that “there is no consciousness involved in the process of evolution by natural selection” just doesn't square with us as a contemplative species." (Your text will automatically post as white. You don't have to change it.)

No, it must withstand critical scientific scrutiny. Just because you aren't attempting to over-complicate the issue doesn't meant that you aren't in fact doing so.

We are a contemplative species because our ancient ancestors of a million years ago were better able to propagate because their brains allowed them to survive. Bigger brains allowed for better survival until we got to where we are today. I encourage you to start looking into human evolution and anthropology. Once you begin to see how random the process is, you won't see any notion of purpose to it.

We aren't the only species with sentience either. Cetaceans (whales and porpoises) and Elephants show exceptional intelligence especially in the way of culture, language, and social groups.

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