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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My personal advice to you Eric, would be to read Richard Dawkins book, The Ancestor's Tale, then come back with any questions that may still remain. Dawkins takes the reader from Modern Man, back to the first single-celled organism, and it's difficult to get more inclusive than that.

My first advice to you when trying to understand natural processes is: Don't anthropomorphize the natural process. The sun isn't really hot because it's angry. The reason we can't pinpoint the exact location of an electron is not because it's shy. Photons don't switch between a particle and a wave because they are mischievous. Evolution doesn't work because it is somehow cognizant of where it might direct a species.

My second piece of advice is comes from one of my favorite characters, Yoda: Unlearn what you have learned. Sometimes our preconceived notions get in the way of real knowledge. If that happens, it's best to wipe the slate clean and start from scratch.

My third piece of advice to you is: Don't do things like this: "If we take the principle of physics ... turn philosophical for a moment... include an apparent Hegelian synthesis... 'greatest good for the greatest number of evolved entities' understanding... account for the ability to consider." How does describing the forces acting on an organism at any given time lead to a greatest good for the greatest number of absolute hogwash? 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. You aren't going to ever understand evolution if you keep purposely throwing wrenches into your own works. Newtonian concepts of physics, evolution, and philosophy do not intersect. Attempting to force an intersection will only prevent you from understanding anything. Stop it.

If you want to understand evolution, then it's best to think of it in the simplest terms first. It is the process of change within a species.

Evolution has a lot to do with reproduction and the spread of genetic material. Inbreeding, as you mentioned, allows for recessive traits detrimental to an individual's survival to surface. Hemophilia for example is one of those traits. Many noble families in Europe had hemophiliacs because there was an excessive amount of interbreeding between few families. There is no actor directing species to avoid interbreeding. It's simply that if they continue to do it, then they won't exist.

You are right that environments can change faster than evolution can occur. This is part of the reason that sexual reproduction (and thus gender) is the more prevalent means of reproduction in more complex organisms. Sexual reproduction allows for more randomness to occur with the pairing of genetic material of sperm and egg which allows for a greater variance in offspring and thus a better chance that the offspring will reproduce and make more creatures. The other way around this is a species that has high adaptability. Red-tail hawks for instance can be found in almost all climates in North America. They have traits that allow them to excel in many places. Humans, because we can make things to help us survive, have spread everywhere. Cockroaches have a whole host of immunities and advantageous traits that (unfortunately for us) allow them to spread and survive nearly everywhere. Bull sharks can thrive in both salt and fresh water which opens up more habitats for them and increases their survival rates as individuals and thus as a species. We may consider that there is incredible bio-diversity on this world, but the reality is that for all of global history only the most microscopic of a sliver of a fraction of all species have survived until today.

As far as your "self-destruct mechanism," if you've read Atlas Shrugged, then I encourage you to read the Virtue of Selfishness. Rand unequivocally states that altruism, the cornerstone of Christianity, is self destructive and that all people of religion long for death, a claim I find hard to refute since I once lived it. It was one of the reasons she was an ardent atheist. I agree with her in part if not in full on the matter. Religion and altruism as she saw it was a "self-destruct mechanism," yet both of those have flourished in our history. The short answer is that while they maybe disadvantageous to the survival of some individuals, to the collective, they are advantageous to its survival and so continue to be propagated. It is because of our brains' ability to comprehend the world and analyze it (which developed in paleolithic times as an adaptation that better aided the survival of the species that would become homo habilis and eventually homo sapiens) that culture developed. Culture has since its inception been evolving in ways that mimic the evolution of organisms.

Arch mentioned Dawkins's book, which I suggest you read as well. It was Dawkins who created the concept of the meme, a sort of bit of cultural DNA that finds ways to propagate and evolve. Language is one of these memes. Religion also is. I'm currently reading a book, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon by Daniel C. Dennet that explores in further depth the idea of how the memes of supernatural thought evolved into the organized religions of today. It's fascinating. 

First of all Sagacious, EXCELLENT explanation!

RE: "Arch mentioned Dawkins's book" - I considered mentioning, The Selfish Gene, but decided if he read only one Dawkins book, and even that is asking a lot of a Christian, The Ancestor's Tale would be the more all-inclusive.

RE: "if rabbits start leaping off of cliffs to see if they can fly" - that phrase reminded me of Amish Airliines:

If you're interested, I have a considerable number of shares of their stock I could let you have at a very reasonable price --

(No horses were harmed in the production of this comment)

That's excellent. OH MY GOODNESS.

I'm still laughing...

Dennet also wrote "Darwin's Dangerous Idea" which is a philosopher's take on evolution and the impact the idea of evolution is having on our society.  But I'd first read "Climbing Mount Improbable."

I'll have to check out both of those. Thanks!

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. 

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.)


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