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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I'm a fan of Rand, much to the surprise of one of my teachers, as I believe she is reacting to what I call 'worm theology' - after the line in the Isaac Watts hymn - "would He devote that sacred head to such a worm as I?" I despise that line and every idea associated with it. The concept of original sin as Rand rightly pointed out in an interview with Playboy magazine in 1964 is fundamentally immoral, but something that Augustine and later Calvin held to. They got that badly wrong as far as I can tell.

You're comments "The only way that physics can be said to play a role on evolution is if rabbits start leaping off of cliffs to see if they can fly ... Newtonian concepts of physics, evolution, and philosophy do not intersect" intrigue me. Are you suggesting that evolution is only subject to the laws of biology and chemistry (presumably) but not to physics? How does a reactive process make those distinctions? First I discover that natural selection is not to be subject to philosophical scrutiny, now I'm learning that only some aspects of science are relevant to the process. Or have I misinterpreted this?

Well, if you want to get technical... Biology at it's fundamental level is chemistry which at its fundamental level is physics, which is really just applied math. The point I was trying to make is that understanding what is happening at the sub-molecular level or the forces that a bird needs to overcome in order to fly isn't necessarily relevant to understanding how bats and mice are related. Evolution is a process that occurs over millions of years. Its time span is such that the instantaneous view of the moment isn't entirely helpful is trying to understand how evolution works. Chemistry is important if you want to understand the particulars for how DNA is transcribed and copied, but only for one instance and a definite place in time. Evolution is a cumulative process that occurs over literally millions of years. It's more helpful to view the big picture of time than the quick snapshot.

So it's not that evolution is only subject to certain laws (all organisms are natural and therefore subject to all natural laws); it's that applying those laws to the idea of evolution will only prevent you from understanding how it works.

I say that it doesn't intersect with philosophy because evolution is such an established process for which a great deal of natural evidence and observations have held it up, that it is no longer a question of philosophy in how it occurs or that it does, but is instead a matter of the natural sciences.

Now that I'm looking at it, you've mentioned "reactive process" before. I have to ask, what do you mean by that? Evolution isn't reactive as in it actively makes changes if that is what you are getting at. It's more that evolution is a cumulative process. All the little random changes in DNA mixed up by chance over countless generations eventually lead a population of creatures to become dissimilar in some fashion to their ancestors. Evolution is more of an explanation for all the non-random events that lead to the propagation of a species by the random combinations and/or mutations in the genetic code.

By the way, I applaud the attitude you've approached this with! You seem much more open than most people who ask questions of us.

that was mutha fuckin eloquent dude.  I hope he reads your post a few times. 

The discussion seems to be going well - I'm learning to reappraise my understanding of the evolutionary process, but I'm not convinced that it is not subject to philosophical inquiry, and my fundamental question regarding the "what if" question has (so far) not been seriously addressed. So, I'll keep on reading and thinking and se where this goes.

What you are getting at seems to be the question, "where did our ability to imagine come from?" After all, that's what we are doing when we ask the question: what if this happened? We are imagining a possible scenario. The problem is that the answer to that question is really, really long. Seriously, that answer is a book of study unto itself. In fact, there is a whole branch of science dedicated to answering that question and more just like it: Evolutionary Anthropology.

So it's not that we can't answer your question; It's more like we don't have the time to do so.

Eric - I don't know if this willl be of any benefit to you or not:

For How Long Have We Been Human?. As a professor of biological anthropology, Barbara King decided to start the school semester with this time line of highlights of human evolution:

6-7 million years ago: Start of the human lineage, following a split with the lineage containing chimpanzees and gorillas 

2.6 mya: Onset of large-scale making and use of stone tool technology 

2.5 mya: First human ancestors in our own genus, Homo

200,000 years ago: First modern humans, Homo sapiens

30,000 years ago: Cave paintings and rock paintings begin to emerge on multiple continents

~12,000 years ago: Onset of agriculture and human settlements.

Well, I must chime in with the others here and suggest that you gain a better understanding of the evolutionary process, as your questions belie your misunderstanding

Evolution is utterly "blind" as to the future, and has no intentionality or goal--it cannot, it is not conscious.  (I suspect you are putting far more into it than is there, perhaps because some part of your mind is trying to jam a concept of an intentional god into the picture.) 

Although I think the Ancestor's Tale is an excellent book, it's primarily a history of what evolution actually ended up doing.  Dawkins quite correctly is at pains to tell you not to assume that it was somehow planned out in advance as he tells the Tale, but it is still hard to break out of that mode of thinking in that book--and that is precisely the error you are making now.   So I don't think it's the best Dawkins book for someone in your situation.

You complain you can't see how evolution could have planned for us--and you are correct, it cannot.  If the theory claimed that evolution could, it would be wrong.  But that's not a claim the theory actually makes.  To understand how evolution actually works, how it can sometimes result in something that's not what a conscious designer would pick (but better than any small change to it would be), you probably want something more like The Blind Watchmaker or (especially) Climbing Mount Improbable.  In the latter book his discussion of how our eyes, while not the best possible eyes we could have ended up with, are nevertheless unlikely to become much better given the way evolution actually works, is priceless.  (It has to do with the fact that a proper fix would involve a major change to the eyes, and evolution works in small changes--and there is no chain of small changes from our eyes to the better eyes that doesn't make things worse at first.)

@Steve - RE: "I don't think it's the best Dawkins book for someone in your situation."

I can't agree - somewhere back in one of his earlier comments (that I have neither the time nor inclination to locate), he asked how single cells became something else, and that's when I recommended The Ancestor's Tale, because Dawkins takes you back there, step by step. If he wants to learn specifics, like how the human eye can't evolve much further, I would say that that's for later, after the basics are understood. IF he really wants to learn, and isn't using the issue as a back door for proselytizing.

Its true that he asked that, but his difficulty is far more fundamental than not knowing the answer to that question (which Ancestor's Tale is a fantastic book for answering).  Eric James misunderstands what evolution is and how it operates and how it leads to complexity without the aid of a consciousness.  Sure, Dawkins's discussion of eyes in general (not just our own) is a different specific question than the one he happened to ask there, but Dawkins is using eyes to illustrate the mechanics of evolution and its oftentimes paradoxical-seeming results.  And Eric has been raising questions about the lack of intentionality in evolution all over his posts. 

Please let's not focus on one concrete question he asked when he is also asking a lot of broader questions about how evolution operates--and making a lot of statements that reveal a need for education in the fundamentals.  If Eric dives into AT looking for the answer to his specific question, he will certainly find it, after reading something like 700 pages of stuff that doesn't answer that question--and still be just as confused about everything else he is asking.

In an ideal world, of course, Eric would read _both_ books.

When discussing evolution with someone who doesn't (yet) understand and/or accept it, issues seem to fall into three large categories: 1) the evidence that it is true 2) what the layout of the family tree of life is, esp. how do humans fit in--what you might think of as historical evolution, what it actually did in the past, and 3) how evolution functions; how a "blind" unintentional process can lead to the complexity we see around us, including all those apparently paradoxical cases of mis-"design." 

You'll notice that category 3 is actually more fundamental than category 2; the family tree and history are pointless if you don't understand why there is a history and family tree in the first place.  In my judgment Eric's main issues are in category 3--he has flat-out asserted he cannot see how it could happen, even though he also asked a couple of category 2 questions, as specific examples of his category 3 issues.  And furthermore he is trying to be philosophical about it as well, which means he's after a general understanding of the theory.  Ancestor's Tale assumes that understanding, Climbing Mount Improbable will go far to providing it.

I think we've both said our pieces and I think we ought to leave it to Eric to introspect, try to determine where his questions really stem from, and decide for himself what he thinks would be most educational for him.

My point was that he needed a basic understanding before he and we could discuss it further - I felt that TAT would provide him with that.

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