Monday, October 13, 2008

The Chisel of Death

For many of today’s intelligentsia, the reading of ‘The Selfish Gene’ was a sort of a baptismal moment, awakening them to the tragic pointlessness of the cosmos and demonstrating the falsehood of religion. In the Guardian science blogs, Susan Blackmore writes:

‘Darwin's great idea is so simple….here it is in a nutshell – plants and animals produce far more (slightly varying) offspring than can possibly survive. Starvation, disease, predation, and unattractiveness mean that only a few go on to breed again. At each step the survivors pass on whatever adaptations helped them and so gradually they become better designed. You could call it "design by death". Like a human creating a sculpture by chipping away wood, nature's weeding-out is the force that creates new design. Once you get it that's that! How can you go on believing that God created humans in his own image when you can see, because you really understand the principle, that nature's cruel and wasteful selective process can create all that design without him?’

Presented with this dismal revelation, Dr Blackmore seems to have dyed her hair in a kaleidoscopic array of colors, presumably in a bid to restore some spark of hilarity to an otherwise bleak universe. It now seems to be the orthodoxy that whilst the discipline of physics reveals a fine tuned and beautiful mathematical structure which is resplendent with order, the world revealed by biology is essentially bad. The history of life on earth is a random walk of struggle and chance which has been driven by selfish genes. Such a view is only accommodating to the bleak ‘weltanschauung’ of scientific naturalism and materialism. In our infancy we treated nature with a mixture of fear, awe and respect but following our enlightenment this superstition can be banished; we have unmasked mother nature and can see her for what she is, a haggard old witch. The philosopher David Hull remarked in an essay published in nature:

‘The evolutionary process is rife with happenstance, contingency, incredible waste, death, pain and horror. Millions of sperm and ova are produced that never unite to form a zygote….On current estimates 95 per cent of the DNA that an organism contains has no function. The queens of a particular species of parasitic ant have only one remarkable adaptation, a serrated appendage which they use to saw off the head of the host queen … The God of the Galapagos is careless, wasteful, indifferent, almost diabolical. He is certainly not the sort of God to whom anyone would be inclined to pray'

Leaving aside the issue of how sane it is to empathise with one’s bodily fluids, or to castigate insects for lopping their queen’s head off (a practice not entirely uncommon among human beings) I can’t say I have been convinced to sign up to this manifesto of misery. Possibly I might feel differently were I to be savagely gnawed to death by a passing Hyena but these continue to be rare in the suburbs of North London. Natural evil exists certainly, but is life’s slow bloody march from amoeba to hominid inherently evil?. As with so many other things, it depends on how you look at it.

Design by death

In Susan Blackmore’s view competition is presented as the engine of evolution and death as the fuel for the fire. However, the process of natural selection does not require death. Natural selection could conceivably go on in a landscape where creatures are immortal. All natural selection requires is differential reproduction of genotypes; in other words that some genotypes leave more offspring than others. Evolution is not primarily about survival but about what breeds. Obviously there’s no breeding without survival, but survival alone is just a precondition for breeding. It’s the successful breeding itself that matters and the differential multiplication of living beings. As Al Moritz has said on our forum:

‘Natural selection is not a simple “live or die” phenomenon, but one of living somewhat longer or somewhat shorter, and thereby – or for other reasons of “fitness” – exhibiting differences in reproductive capability.'

In the light of this I could just as easily construct a narrative of nature called 'survival of the randiest', after all at this very moment, thousands of organisms are copulating, birds are singing their mating songs and new life is being consummated in the hedgerows. Indeed I would include an account of this article about the evolution of South African Squirrels which shows the power of natural breeding, in a rather crude way. Although such a narrative would be accurate and entertaining, I'm afraid it wouldn't be much use in promoting an atheistic world-view.

Yet death does surely come to every organism, the inevitable consequence of a finite world. More than 99% of all species have gone extinct; something to be mourned in the case of the Dodo and the Wooly Mammoth, although perhaps something to be celebrated in the case of the Velociraptor and the T-rex which would have regarded Homo Sapiens as an appetising entrée. But in an evolutionary view of life death is not the last word, instead it is the key to replacement with new life. If nothing had ever died, nothing much could ever have lived. Death is part of the life cycle, not life part of the death cycle. In a pre-Darwin static view of creation, the problem of death was maximized. In the light of evolution we see that without death and replacement, the species cannot track the changing environment, only by renewing itself can it evolve into something else. As Darwin himself pointed out, the death of animals often does not entail suffering and natural selection employs pleasure more than pain as an adaptation.

Survival of the fittest

Ever since Darwin, Western European and American scientists have perceived nature as fiercely competitive--"red in tooth and claw," in the lurid words of Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Scenes of animal life on the Serengeti make for great television but in pure percentage terms the vast majority of life on this planet consists of plant life and bacteria, this has led certain biologists to deem it ‘green in shoot and bough’ as a more accurate tag-line. Natural selection, one has to point out, is not automatically equal to competition. Competition is a situation in which the presence of two individuals either of the same species of different species negatively influence the fitness or reproductive success of the other. But you could have natural selection simply by the discovery of a new niche where competition does not come into it at all. You might get a co-operative synergy between species in which the exploitation of a new niche positively influences other individual. This would entail evolution through the relaxation, not the employment of natural selection.

Indeed scientists like Martin Nowak have suggested that co-operation should be considered one of the motors of evolution along with mutation and natural selection. Both Lynn Margulis and Dorian Sagan have followed the theories of Ivan E Wallin, in arguing that the vehicle of evolution is the fusion of different organisms into a symbiotic system which subsequently created new bodies, organs and species. Moreover, nearly all organisms live in some kind of symbiosis and show relics of earlier symbiosis. Organisms work together to provide shelter, protection, pest control and transportation. Mitochondria in the human cell, for instance, formally constituted independent bacteria and the basic substance of cells consists of bacterial nucleo-cytoplasma. Others such as Augros and Stanciu have argued that natural selection and competition are not omnipotent on earth. All species have their niche and nature makes use of many types of ingenuity to avoid competition. Within species there appears to be hardly any struggle or killing on a large scale. Even predator prey relationships do not fit into the picture of bloody rivalry we imagine. The predator does not hate or get angry with its prey, it kills to eat, just as we eat chickens for dinner. Few species kill wantonly. Even pain is minimised as the prey often enters shock before death. Without considerable collaboration, life on Earth as we know it would not have existed, let alone flourished. As Lewis Thomas a biologist states:

‘a century ago there was a consensus about this: nature was ‘red in tooth and claw’, evolution was a record of open warfare among competing species, the fittest were the strongest aggressors, and so forth. Now it begins to look different.....the urge to form partnerships, to link up in collaborative arrangements is perhaps the oldest, strongest and most fundamental force in nature. There are no solitary, free living creatures, every form of life is dependent on other forms.’

Evolution is therefore a much wider process which has produced sociality, generating love and altruism just as much as competition. If it had not done so, there would be no such thing as a human ethical process.

A world without tears?

Yet for all these qualifications, suffering and waste does occur in the evolutionary process and it would be undeniably panglossian to try and disguise it. There really is an aspect of nature that is red in tooth and claw as illustrated by the picture of a heron eating a bunny rabbit at the head of this post. Both cooperation with altruistic costs and competition, the latter with suffering as a side effect, are inherent and unavoidable consequences of the biological world. Here it is best to step back and look at the painting, rather than the individual brushstrokes.

Evolution shows us that there must be a mixture of order and disorder if there is to be autonomy, freedom, adventure, success, achievement, emergence and surprise. In a world without chance there can be no creatures taking risks and the skills of life would be very different. All advances in evolution come in contexts of problem solving with a central preoccupation for sentient life being the prospect of getting hurt. There does not appear to be a coherent alternate model by which a painless world could give rise anything like the dramas of nature that have happened on this planet. An environment entirely irenic would stagnate us, an environment entirely hostile would slay us. Creativity requires the context of conflict and resolution. All of our features arise as solutions to problems. There can be no heroic quality without dialectical stress, without friction there can be no muscles, teeth, eyes, ears, noses fins, legs, wings, scales, hair, hands or brains. Half the beauty in life comes out of endurance and struggle.

Organisms are what they are because of what they do, and because of what they eat. A lion is majestic because it feeds on other creatures, human intelligence emerges from our struggle to survive, to hunt other creatures and to co-operate with others. The natural environment we decry as evil is critical to human meaning and fulfilment at both the individual and societal level. Not only do we rely on plants and animals for survival, we also possess a innate attraction to other forms of life, but by anthropomorphising nature and attempting to shield it, we inevitably rob it of its purpose and dignity.

Certainly we could imagine a world in which we were all herbivores but in this instance we would be likely to be docile and would spend most of the day eating to get energy. If we were based on photosynthesis we would not need to move and therefore possess a brain. What would nature look like without if it were in a controlled state with minimised suffering, it would most probably be like a giant zoo; an emasculated, Walt Disney freak show. Edward Skidelsky captures something of this when he writes:

‘Lions and tigers are permitted to indulge their traditional way of life in subsidised, patrolled enclosures, so as to provide entertainment for tourists and wildlife photographers. These enclosures are, in effect, vast zoos. There is something sad about all this….we cannot restore to animals the fierce independence that we have taken from them, and so we console ourselves with the fantasy that we can "defend their rights" or "liberate" them. Having deprived animals of their truly animal nature, we now wish to endow them with a spurious human nature. The name for this is sentimentality; indeed, sentimentality is the general name for emotions that have their origin in guilt. Sentimentality inevitably hurts its object.’

The blundering of nature

Certainly a Devils Chaplain might write quite a book on the ‘clumsy, wasteful, blundering low and horridly cruel works of nature’, but more ink tends to be split on the wonders of genetic creativity. Life’s genetic vitality is actually a sophisticated problem solving process in which the production of errors produces knowledge. This process of random exploration and problem solving has a familiar logic to it. When one looks beyond the short term editing for survival we see that the evolutionary process scans and provides new arrivals, climbing ever upwards towards complexity sentience and mind. How blind is such a process in light of recent surveys of convergence and the findings of contemporary geneticists?. Modern biology is discovering a wide variety of sophisticated enzymes which can edit, cut, splice and reiterate gene sequences. Far from blind groping, we now see that cells are well equipped with special enzymes to tamper with DNA structure and that the scope for the self engineering of multigene families appears to be limited only by the ingenuity of control systems for regulating these pathways.

Design by life

Prior to evolution death was something that simply happened to organisms. In the light of evolutionary theory we now see that out of the life and death of living organisms come sensory awareness, behavioural flexibility and consciousness. If nature has a message it is out of death does come good, that contingency can deliver the astonishingly unlikely but ultimately reliable redemption of tragedy. A trivial example is my lunch which contains a slice of dead poultry, layered on top of the dead products of photosynthesis which were fed from a soil created by thousands of years of dead organisms. The human body it feeds is made up of the products of dead stars. Does this make me and my lunch evil?, should I have spent my break lamenting the futile blundering wastage which went into it?. Darwin said it best when he remarked:

‘Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely. the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.’

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