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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Yes I am a Christian - I've made no attempt to hide that - but I also want to genuinely understand. I'm not a head in the sand six day 6000 year fundamentalist and my questions are my attempts to merge the obvious logic of scientific methodology with the bigger picture of human experience. I've just begun reading the work of Michael Polanyi and his approaches to knowledge, and it seemed to me that the best place to test my emerging queries was here. And my fundamental problem is the one you've just expressed - how can an organism that is the result of a reactionary / iterational process develop the ability to ask 'what if'? We take that ability for granted, it is the basis of much of our reasoning and, dare I say it, scientific hypothesis, but how did it develop? Because it is the beginning of the analysis of the origins of creative processes - art being the obvious one. I read recently that the Egyptians when they built the pyramids etc recognised that the ability to create was a reflection of divinity - they could find no other way to explain it, and at this point I can't see a reasonable or rational alternative. At a fundamental level, the ability to create implies a Creator, the ability to design implies a Designer, the ability to express intent implies initial intent and so on, and unless there is another explanation, it seems that we need a mind that is capable of each of these things in order to contemplate existence in any form, regardless of what process we think it might have taken.

Can you clarify your comment that evolution is “not an active or directed force which evaluates or decides how that change should process” as you go on to suggest that it doesn't need to ask “what if”, and there are the evolutionary dead ends to prove it. What I am trying to understand, is that essentially the evolutionary process seems to be an iteration process that requires a combination of universality and uniformity to survive – we know the problems interbreeding within a community can cause, yet we require almost a production line type of process to maintain a better than expected survival rate. In order to achieve that the process requires some ability to consider or contemplate past outcomes and indicated modifications. If we take the principle of physics that says for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction and then – to turn philosophical for a moment – we include an apparent Hegelian synthesis of these two results within a sort of 'greatest good for the greatest number of evolved entities' understanding, then we have to account for the ability to consider. I can accept the ability to anticipate – the cat knows the sound of the tin of food being opened and comes into the kitchen based on the fact that in the past that sound has always produce food in its bowl – but that doesn't translate into the ability to ask “what if I learn to open the can myself and be independent of these fickle entities that think they own me?” – with memories of its Egyptian god-like status.

Your comment “changes at the genetic level occur with no regard to how useful the outcome is … propagation defines which traits are fit and which are not for any given environment” suggests change for the sake of change somehow regulated or directed by a decision that requires an immediate response over a long period of time, as environments can change a lot faster than the reactive process required to deal with it.

Regarding the self destruct mechanism, a change in environment will certainly result in change and development, one which could well result in two entities clashing within the same species due to their environmental modifications, but our self-destruction mechanism seems to be much bigger than that – it also has premeditation – again a development of the 'what if' question. A reactionary iteration process has now developed a specific behaviour that can turn on itself – suicide being an example.

Thanks for your thoughts on the gender issue – I will pursue that further.

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.

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.

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.

Augustine defined theology as"faith seeking understanding" and you've effectively said the same thing, that evolution will do what it does regardless of our ability to understand it. My point however, is that having the ability to consider and debate such issues would not appear to be the natural outcome of an evolutionary process. I'll be interested to see how Dawkins explains it.

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.

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