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Evolution and Progress

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Posted

A key issue for philosophers of biology is the notion of evolutionary progress: can we say that progress has taken place as a result of evolution? If so, in what way? This question dates back to Darwin and, as we have seen, was a source of concern at the political implications of evolution. We might say, for instance, that the evolutionary process is one from "lower" to "higher" forms, but can this supposition be given any content? Likewise, if the backbone of one animals seems an improvement of that of another, can we justify this rather than say that each has what they need? Lastly, are we right to claim that species further "up" the evolutionary ladder have made some kind of progress from their predecessors?

One biologist who was vehemently against progress was Stephen Jay Gould:

Progress is a noxious, culturally embedded, untestable, non-operational, intractable idea that must be replaced if we wish to understand the pattern of history.
As Gould and others have noted, progress is a very recent term that came about in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries at the advent of the so-called enlightenment; before that, people typically held that man had degenerated from a golden age of the past. Many everyday references to evolution rely on the assumption of progress, perhaps best illustrated by pictures showing the transition of ape to man and ending in a business-suited fellow, the implication being that the transition is actually a progression. If we make it too simplistic, though, we end up calling the increasing death toll due to a virus "progress" from its perspective, a form of relativism most philosophers try to avoid.

Darwin himself seems, like his contemporary Spencer, to have retained the progressive outlook developed by his religious upbringing and held that genuine advances had taken place as a result of evolution, particularly insofar as moral faculties had arisen in humans. More recently, some biologists have argued that an increase in complexity is indicative of progress, but if a simple organism is perfectly suited to its environment then why should this be so? Indeed, for Darwin an improvement seems to have meant only better able to cope with the local environment and quite often simplicity works.

Usually a distinction is made between comparative and absolute progress: the former involves looking at two or more lines of organisms and suggesting that one is more advanced than another. To do this, biologists tend to look at trends, wherein we can identify (or rather interpret) structural improvement, with the result that we would expect to find more examples in the fossil record of these improvements than those they replaced. The problem here is that we can challenge the interpretation – is the trend there or do we add it in trying to make sense of the data? – and question the inference, particularly when counterexamples can be found (in looking at a general increase in brain size, say, there are exceptions wherein this characteristic remained the same even as others were allegedly progressing). There is also so much fluctuation in the fossil record that describing it as exhibiting trends is quite difficult; after all, any random process involving a "step" in one of two directions at each point (like the supposed "ladder" of evolution) is extremely unlikely to end up where it started after repeated steps, hence showing a pseudo-trend in one direction or the other.

Absolute progress is, as we hinted at above, an even trickier concept, usually involving making value judgments concerning which of two species is "higher" than the other on some kind of non-arbitrary scale. We tend to think of ourselves as the most advanced form of life on Earth, but can this opinion (some might say conceit) be justified? Critics can point to not only the difficulty in coming up with such a non-arbitrary scale, but also ethical arguments: given the way we behave towards one another and our environment, can we really say we are advanced at all? Indeed, many scientists would agree that value judgments have no place in science at all, hence some of the discomfort in this area.

Some biologists think we can see progress by looking at diversification: early on in an organism's evolutionary development, we would expect to see a "bottom-heavy" appearance in the fossil record – that is, plenty of evolutionary "dead-ends" as various adaptations failed. Later on, the record would become less diversified (or more "top-heavy") as a form that suited the environment was arrived at, and hence the remains would begin to look more and more alike. This gives us an "arrow" of evolution – a direction to it, from those organisms less able to cope with their environment to those more able. The trouble is that these so-called patterns could arise by chance, too, and we need a way to distinguish an actual line of progress from a statistical effect.

In summary, then, plenty of biologists see evolutionary progress as having occurred and laymen seem to be very sympathetic to the notion. Putting into detail what we mean by this progress and demonstrating it, however, is problematic and the cause of much debate in the philosophy of biology.

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I don't see why we can't say that, according to some goal (either vague or specific), people or animals have made progress. For example, we generally consider tool-using in chimps to be a sign of advancement. This is easily understandable and requires little justification: "According to this general scale..." (though of course we'd never say that in conversation).

The "absolute progress" that you mention seems to be nonsensical. The way I see it, it's like trying to determine how long an object is without a method of measurement. No scale is given and so we obviously have problems placing where things fit on the scale!

If someone wants to say we've made "absolute" progress compared to other animals, let's look at what sort of implied scale he's using to make this judgment. But asking whether that's the right scale to use is like deciding between using feet or meters to measure something - it depends solely on your use for it. Sometimes one, sometimes another. Both are useful in their own way.

After writing this I'm getting the feeling that I'm repeating Wittgenstein's ethics paper...

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Can the notion of 'progress' be divorced from teleology? It would seem that the idea of progress, improvement over time, involves, intrinsically, elements of value judgment; what standard do we utilize to measure improvement? If sheer reproduction is our standard, we humans are far being up the scale of progress than, say, Salmonella......... who though, thinks this way? :(

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This is an interesting topic. Gould is basically right when he says that there are problems with the idea of progress itself. It has to be defined, and even then the issue isn't solved. Say you (for whatever reason) define progress as becoming more humanlike. Then you're answer is clear: evolutionary history exhibits 'progress', but the question remains - is this an inherent property of evolutionary processes or did it just happen that way by chance? The way you define progress influences the answer.

That said, probably the only interesting way to define progress in evolution is to say that evolution favours increasing complexity. Here's something I wrote to tackle that question a few years ago. To relieve the suspense, I will reveal that my answer ends up being 'maybe'.

Does evolution always favour complexity?

Short answer: no.

From the time of Aristotle until only comparatively recently, one of the central themes of biology was that of the �great chain of being�. Usually derived from natural theology, this is the idea that all life can be placed on rungs of a single spectrum from small, simple and stupid to big, brainy, and bogglingly complicated. Humans are, of course, always placed at the top of this ladder. The advent of the theory of evolution might have challenged this anthropocentric view of life, but really did not. The great chain of being persisted in the form of the idea that evolution favours complex, (and large, and smart, and generally human-like), organisms. Humans are again at the top of Natures Most Favourite Things list, being the smartest and the most complex organism of all. Could it be any other way?

Well, yes it can. There is certainly nothing inherent in the theory of evolution by natural selection that should make complexity a goal. The only goal is reproductive fitness, and few biologists could deny that simple organisms are amongst the most fit of all. Insects are easily the most successful animal, and few would argue that bacteria, the simplest known self sufficient reproducers, are definitely the most common, and probably the most fit, of all known life. �Keep it simple stupid� has shown its value in the form of tiny, simple, and highly fit bacteria.

Another example of evolution favouring simplicity is the atrophication of unnecessary system components, such as the reduction and removal of eyes in cave dwelling fish, and the reduction to practically nothing of the hind legs of whales. The lesson we learn from these cases is that complexity is not only NOT inherently favoured, but is frequently a fitness detriment: a resource expenditure that does not pay its way.

Generally, simplicity is good. I drink coffee with a cup, not with a solar powered electric antigravity intravenous tube system (a guy can dream, though). When you have a goal, be it a caffeine hit or a huge gaggle of descendants, doing it simply is often much better than doing it in a roundabout complex way.

Does evolution ever favour complexity?

Given the advantages of simplicity, can it be said that evolution would ever favour a complex organism over a simpler form? There are a few theoretical conceptual frameworks that might provide for this.

First, the Red Queen effect. Named after the queen from alice in wonderland who had to run as fast as she could just to stay in the same place, the enigmatically titled red queen effect refers to evolutionary arms races. The cheetah must be fast to catch gazelles, and the gazelles must be fast to outrun the cheetah. Evolution in both populations will favour faster and faster individuals, yet neither ever gets an upper hand on the other, or there would be extinctions all round. This effect is known to drastically change features, and can theoretically apply to all sorts of things: weapons might be locked in an arms race with armours, potent chemical poisons locked in an endless challenge with their antidotes in prey species. Two species of bacteria might develop more and more sophisticated attack, defence and reproductive systems, each simply struggling to keep up with the other. Fenced in by the economics of simplicity, it may be that the only way to go is up, to develop more complex reproductive strategies, become larger, and evolve all the necessary equipment to allow it to happen.

Why would complexity be a bonus in this case? Well, apart from making intuitive sense, someone�s spelled it out in a theory, in this case one W. Ross Ashby�s Law of Requisite Variety, which goes like this:

The larger the variety of actions available to a control system, the larger the variety of perturbations it is able to compensate.

For a detailed run-down see: this page . This is the gist, as it applies to evolution:

Evolutionary systems would be fitter if they could have greater control over their environments, because it improves their ability to survive and reproduce. The more control the better, and the more organisation and interwoven complexity the more control the organism has. A bacteria is great for randomly swimming around, absorbing nutrients from its surroundings and mindlessly replicating, but most metazoans are a veritable swiss army knife, incorporating many solutions to hundreds of different natural problems by comparison. Since incorporating a solution for EVERY problem nature throws at populations is probably impossible, evolution might exhibit a constant upward trend.

Evolutionary history � there IS an upward trend. Why?

The fossil record, which started the whole evolutionary ladder of life bruhaha in the first place, DOES demonstrate that life has become more complex on average over time. There are two primary perspectives that people like to look at this from.

The first one I shall refer to as the �drunkards walk� hypothesis. The basic idea is that if you take a bunch of randomly moving drunk men and place them together in the center of a room they will naturally radiate outwards. Nothing is driving them to move away from their start location, but basic statistics will ensure that some of them move out more than the move back, and you end up with a gradient. Most drunkards move out as much as they move in, and end up with no net movement, some will move out a little more than they move in, and some will randomly move almost entirely out, giving you your probability curve. Now, what happens if you do the same thing, but start them out against a wall? You�ll find that on average they move away from it, based solely on random motions. Most will stay put again, many will move partly out and partly back, and you end up with a probability curve in which the average distance from the start location has increased.

This is not empty hypothesizing, either. The work of one Daniel McShea in the last decade has been focused on empirically demonstrating that the predictions of the drunkards walk are, in fact, what we find. He ran a very intricate and involved set of experiments on vertebrate backbones, measuring the evolving complexity of the various parts and how they interacted.

The simulations show how trends can occur or fail to occur (horizontal axis = complexity; vertical = time). A group begins as a single species, and in every time step, a species can increase or decrease in complexity, speciate (split) or become extinct. In A, the trend is driven, meaning the mean rises because increases are more probable than decreases among species. But in B, the trend is passive, meaning no driving forces are present (increases and decreases are equally probable), but the mean increases anyway on account of the boundary, a lower limit on complexity. C-F are discussed in McShea, D.W. 1996. Evolution 50:477-492.

[there is no longer a web version I can link images from, but for the curious, look to the top two pictures on page 487 on this pdf, which is also well worth a look in its own right.

In the image you see, figure A is the trend we should see if all of evolution always favoured complexity. Figure B is what we should see if no driving force is present. What we DO see looks most like figure B: mostly simple organisms that persist throughout history from their origin, with a gradual increase in average complexity on top of that. Does this mean that the drunkards walk hypothesis is the explanation? Not quite.

One problem with the drunkards walk is that, in the total absence of a pressure favouring complexity, a return to simplicity is favoured. We see this in atrophication, and can theorise about it with respect to its economy. Even if there is no active drive, there must at least be a fitness benefit strong enough to preserve the complexity once it appears. McShea is well aware of this, which is why his hypothesis refers to a �passive trend�, rather than an absence of any benefit. Once the population has evolved complexity for whatever reason, there must be enough of a benefit to keep it there. Given this, it is hard for me to see why that selfsame fitness benefit would not simultaneously count as a selection pressure. I confess I do find it hard to swallow the idea that the myriad benefits of metazoan complexity are merely neutral to natural selection. In my eyes, complexity should count as a kind of ecological niche, opening new doors for those life forms with the right stuff, lifting them out of the bacterial rat race and into the unexplored and competition free world of eukaryotic organisms - and this would go all the way up.

In any case, McShea�s work sparked a lot of interest in this area and a lot of data is being gathered. There is a growing body of experimental data that seems to support the idea that no universal selection pressures exist, and that increases in complexity are not more common than decreases, on average. The important thing to remember is that even if complexity is not universally better for survival and reproduction than simplicity, we should still see a general increase in the mean complexity, simply due to the Brownian motion of the drunkards walk effect.

So yeah. Maybe.

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Posted

My opinion on progress is that it is really a determinate of two things: both the species being evaluated, and the evaluative standpoint of the organism performing the evaluation. Both elements are in a process of change, of evolution, and so a species could stay exactly the same and seem to progress if the evaluative standpoint is changing in respect to it.

From the Gould quote I want to emphasize that he says that the concept of progress needs to be replaced, so at least from the quote itself it doesn't sound like he's against progress. I think this is something that science usually does and substitutes evaluations for judgements that vary less with respect to the evaluative standpoint. For example, how well does an organism adapt to a change in environment? That is, at least, one meaning that we might have for progress; complexity is another.

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Thanks for the thread, Hugo. I hope this will bestir you to complete the long-awaited Philosophy of Biology essay for your philosophy series; of which your OP already contains an important chunk.

I agree with Gould. There is no progress in evolution. There is none, because there can’t be. Progress presupposes a goal. Evolution, at least as advertised by its materialist definition, has no goal. Indeed, it has no mind; how can a mindless process have a goal? And if there is no goal, how can there be progress?

If my goal is to walk to the store, I am making progress if I am approaching the store. But if I am going nowhere in particular, then I am just walking aimlessly about. How could that be progress?

Timothy writes about the prospect of evolution favoring increasing complexity. Maybe that’s true, but it’s still not progress. Since greater complexity is not the goal of evolution (since evolution can’t have a goal) then greater complexity is not progress. It’s just greater complexity.

Same thing with people. Since people were not the goal of evolution, the evolution of people does not represent progress.

Evolution, in its materialist definition, is the aimless walking around of gene sequences subject to selection pressure. Contingently, you get what you get. Rewind the tape and play it over again, and you’ll get something different. That’s assured. Think of what the world would look like if the meteor strike had not wiped out the dinosaurs. Almost surely there would be no humans.

A separate and to me more interesting question is whether evolution is indeed as advertised, a mindless and fully materialistic process. The question becomes more interesting when we realize that there are some evolutionary biologists who are also Christian theists. A good example is Ken Miller. He is a harsh critic of Michael Behe and dismissive of intelligent design, yet he is a Christian theist. How does he reconcile his Christian theism, in which God’s goal is humanity, with evolution, which does not have a goal?

One way would be to suppose that God tinkered behind the scenes with evolution to produce humans. If he did that, and did it in such a way that his tinkering was completely undetectable (and hence indistinguishable from natural selection) that God would be totally outside of science, as I’m sure Miller would agree. Still, the state of affairs described above is logically possible.

A more interesting possibility is that God, being omniscient, could foresee the outcome of every possible world that he could have instantiated. Choosing, for whatever reason, evolution as his engine of creation, and humans as his goal, God would have foreseen that in most worlds, evolution would fail to produce humans. So he chose to instantiate one of the few worlds (perhaps the only one) in which evolution produced his goal, humans. But even in that case, evolution could not be said to have a goal, or to be progressive. It would be the case, rather, that God had the goal, and used a mindless process to bring it about.

It would be interesting to find out Miller’s views on this. Maybe we could invite him in for an interview.

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Indeed, it has no mind; how can a mindless process have a goal?

Oho. I wrote something related to this very topic a few weeks ago. It was an informal paper. I'll post an excerpt:

Biology before and since darwin has been incomplete with purely mechanistic answers of what and how. Questions of goal-direction, of 'why', are inescapable. The question of why does the rose grow towards bloom seems to be answered in a similar way by both Aristotle and Dawkins, who I think has a perspicatious insight into the function of processes in biology by the proposal of gene centrism. For Dawkins, the 'unit of selection' in biological evolution is the gene. According to this view, the 'purpose' of biological processes is the fulfillment of the genetic programs that reside within all living things, that programs 'purpose' being to spread and perpetuate itself. So, where Aristotle would say that the rose is most what it is when its fully bloomed, and cannot be understood without realising this, Dawkins would make what I think is a fundamentally similar claim; that the rose is most what it is when it becomes a vector for spreading and perpetuating the genes that made it

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I think one of the problems lies in the very name of the theory. The word 'evolution' just doesn't seem to signify a blind process without purpose. Actually, since the modern understanding of evolution finds the ultimate explanation of evolutionary change rooted in chance, I don't see how it can be considered a process at all. So to decouple the idea of progress from the scientific theory of evolution, I think the latter should be renamed into something like "mutationism."

However, as Timothy's last post demonstrated, biology does include some teleology, in the simple sense that creatures develop over time to fulfill their predetermined "end," their genetic programming. St. Thomas was an "evolutionist" in this sense. In Summa Contra Gentiles he put forward the idea that the human fetus develops in a 3 stage process. A vegetative soul existing at conception develops into a sensitive soul before developing enough for the infusion of a rational soul. A pretty unsophisticated theory, but genetics was a long ways off. In any case, I don't think Scholasticism can make heads or tails of evolutionary theory. The classical understanding of evolution is at least progressive in the sense that a substantial form becomes fully realized over time (such as an acorn developing to an oak tree), but species evolution implies a substantial form being replaced by another substantial form, that is itself not to be thought of as an end of the evolving activity.

I'm also interested in the problem of Social Darwinism, which is now usually dismissed as a regrettable distortion of Darwin's theories. However, if the basic standards of Darwinism are true in biology (pragmatism, what's good is that which survives), then what's to stop people from applying these ideas to other fields? Far from being an anomaly, Social Darwinism seems to me a logical application of evolution. Thank God homo sapiens aren't actually very logical most of the time! :lol:

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I think one of the problems lies in the very name of the theory. The word 'evolution' just doesn't seem to signify a blind process without purpose. Actually, since the modern understanding of evolution finds the ultimate explanation of evolutionary change rooted in chance, I don't see how it can be considered a process at all. So to decouple the idea of progress from the scientific theory of evolution, I think the latter should be renamed into something like "mutationism."

This seems to forget the role of selection. Mutation is hardly the ultimate explanation of evolutionary change. It's the coupling of that chance mechanism with the non-chance selection of superior breeders that leads to adaptation.

I'm also interested in the problem of Social Darwinism, which is now usually dismissed as a regrettable distortion of Darwin's theories. However, if the basic standards of Darwinism are true in biology (pragmatism, what's good is that which survives), then what's to stop people from applying these ideas to other fields? Far from being an anomaly, Social Darwinism seems to me a logical application of evolution. Thank God homo sapiens aren't actually very logical most of the time! :lol:

Well, right off the bat I take issue with the coupling of the notion of 'good' with 'that which survives'. It should hardly need saying that this requires a leap between is and ought, which needs some serious justification.

I suppose you could propose a Darwinian breeding program for humans. We could, for example, fix the broken pigment genes that give some of us unhealthy, unprotected white skin and blue eyes (this might illustrate the problem with previous attempts at such concepts - that its ideological and lacks any biological basis). We could eradicate a number of genetic diseases - those that are simple enough that we understand them as the result of a single broken gene. Prevent female carriers of hemophilia from breeding with hemophiliac males and you'd eliminate that broken allele from the whole population in a few generations.

Now the reason this is exactly the opposite of a 'logical application of evolution' is simple - one asks, is the possible benefit from such a program likely to be worth the effort of enforcing the program on the global population. And that is what it'd take- actual, forced control of all human reproduciton. Including - somehow - eliminating the possibility of people breeding with anyone not assigned to them by the program.

As you can see, this is nothing more than science fiction. It'd work, yes, but on the other hand, it would never work at all. It's one of the least convincing reasons to propose total global totalitarianism concievable.

Besides, by the time we have enough understanding of exactly what all our genes do, we'll be able to achieve the same goals through genetic engineering, if we decide to. Thats another can of worms but it's at least conceivably workable, while a social darwinist breeding program is nothing but a pipe dream.

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Last year we had a thread going on transhumanism, and I made a short post 39 on my thoughts concerning the idea of human progress. The link is:

http://academy.galilean-library.org/showthread.php?t=6529&page=2

Reading this current thread, I see a connection, and I will try to elaborate on it. I find, (my apologies if I have missed anything) that only post 3 by DeadCanDance, and then more substantially post 6 by davidm, have any comments that might pertain to Teilhard de Chardin's ideas on evolutionary progress leading to the 'noosphere' and ultimately, for him, the Second Coming of Christ. Later posts in this current thread continue to explore the possibility of a restricted type of teleology in evolutionary biology, and I guess this is understandable in view of the title of this forum: "History and Philosophy of Science". However, the sub-title of the forum: "The interdependence of discourse", suggests that the bringing in of the wider examination of teleology, as hinted at by DeadCanDance and davidm, is not inappropriate.

To begin, for anyone interested, I will give the link to the pages from which I am taking my ideas:

http://facultystaff.richmond.edu/~jpaulsen/teilhard/isnoogen.html

I cannot help but think, reading this link, that Teilhard's thinking was far ahead of his time. Apparently the main criticism of his endeavours is that he did not consider the problem of evil to any depth. However, and this is the path that I am personally taking at the moment, it appears that his analysis, that is the movement from the geosphere to the biosphere to the noosphere is now examplified (rather than exemplified) by the advent of the Internet. If I have to attach any sort of definition of progress, it has to include an acknowledgement of the business of communication.

In my early anarchist days I could not understand why anyone would want to have secrets from others! If I had something to say, I would say it loud and clear, and to hell with the consequences! Apparently the Internet was very anarchistically oriented in its early days, but just as I experienced as I matured (is maturity a metaphor for progress?!), because we do not live in a fully anarchistic society, it now appears that the Internet is being organised into conformity. Teilhard's ideas of the noosphere lend themselves well, I think, to mass and uninhibited communication. When we all know everything there is to know about each other, then we are moving (progressing) to the omega of creation.

With apologies, those are my thoughts! As I understand Teilhard (and his books are very heavy going, I find), his knowledge and understanding of the evolutionary process from his scientific activities and in materialistic terms, gave him the foundation to extend this experience into the spiritual realm. I honestly believe that this is what we all need to do. Davidm gave, I think, a succinct description of human spirituality in a post in a recent thread. I was hoping to give a link but even after a thorough search I have not been able to find it. If I remember correctly, davidm asked me if by spirituality I meant some sort of connection with a spiritual, non-material world (e.g.theism), or the movements within all of us (emotions, feelings, beliefs) that constitute our human experiences? As with davidm, if I remember correctly, I too subscribe to the latter.

My endeavours in my science teaching career was always to encourage my students to understand that there may be far more to life than science, with its limitations.

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Mathsteach2, good to see you again. :) I am not very familiar with de Chardin; in fact, my only familiarity with his works is from Kung's Does God Exist, Kung understood Chardin's interpretation of evolution as making it possible for:

"a deeper understanding of God, not above or outside but in the midst of the world and its evolution;

a deeper understanding of creation, not as contrary to evolution but as making evolution possible; a deeper understanding of the special position of man, not as independent of the animal, of his history, of his behavior, but as a being of body and mind in his unique relationship with God."

Davidm wrote:Timothy writes about the prospect of evolution favoring increasing complexity. Maybe that

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DeaCanDance inspires me to give some more details of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and his ideas, and I also think this thread should show some acknowledgment of his work, even though the thread is in the History and Philosophy of Science forum. If people feel this post is misplaced, I am sure we can sort it out!

Here is a piece describing Teilhard and his work:

http://www.godweb.org/chardin.htm

Continuing my references to human spirituality, and to further respond to davidm's request for clarification on what we might mean by spirituality, here is a sentence taken from a report on a recent piece of research. The link to the report, in Christian Today, is also given.

"For the study, spirituality was considered as referring to an inner belief system that a person relies on for strength and comfort whereas religiousness refers to institutional religious rituals, practices, and beliefs."

http://www.christiantoday.com/article/study.spirituality.not.religious.practice.makes.children.happier/22316.htm

I take this as clear evidence that human spirituality, defined in this way, is present in us all, as I think davidm and myself agreed.

I realise I should not just give links to Internet websites without some sort of justification or comment from myself!

As with DeadCanDance, I first read about Teilhard from my reading of "Does God Exist?" by Hans Kung. I am also interested, since the advent of the World Wide Web and the early anarchist inclinations of its facility, in the possibility of realising some sort of freedom in the means of communication between us all. Since we do not have an anarchist society, I was not surprised at the demise of CB radio in the 70's as the spoilers, those who cannot handle freedom, overwhelmed the air-ways with their nonsense. It appears trolls and socks, etc. seem to ply their dubious skills on the Internet. Perhaps nothing changes!

Or does it? This thread is entitled "Evolution and Progress", both words needing careful consideration if we are to have a meaningful discussion, I think. And this is where Teilhard comes in. He did think very deeply about both concepts, evolution and progress, and although he was not aware of the Internet, he certainly seems to have pre-empted its impact. Of course the forces of law and order are stepping in to control cyberspace, just as the Roman Catholic Church attempted to suppress his ideas. The perceived threat to institutionalised authority has never been readily accepted by those very same authorities.

We do well to continue to study what we mean by evolution, and how it occurs. Progress, in my mind, does not equate with a more comfortable life based on material goods. Teilhard, I think, brings these concepts together, and being a Christian they culminate, for him, in the Second Coming of Christ. Be that as it may, the Internet has, I think, profound implications for human society.

I hope this hasn't turned into a rant :-)!

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I've got Teilhard De Chardin's "The Phenomenon of Man" (1955) right here although its been years since I read it.

One of the things I love about it is that it begins the story of evolution long before the earth forms. For De Chardin, the first few second after the Big Bang are all about the evolution of primal forces into matter of increasingly complex and stable varieties. Hadron formation looks like a natural selection process to him! And he has quite a lot of very specific things to say about the spiritual development of matter, even prior to the emergence of life. He wants the process of matter emerging and ramifying, life emerging and ramifying, and thought emerging and ramifying, to seem like very similar stories played out at different stages. He wants to insist that evolution marches hand in hand with "involution," that "complexification" goes with richer and richer forms of "withinness" or interiorality, what he sometimes calls consciousness. If Hegel thinks that history always marches in the direction of greater consciousness of freedom, Chardin thinks it always marches in the direction of either greater material complexity or greater consciousness (freedom is for him, part of the Christian epilogue of the story, but beyond the scope of phenomenology proper).

Chardin manages to confine his Christianity to an epilogue and writes a classic "great-chain-of-being" book, with a thoroughly 20th century perspective. I always think about Gurdjieff and Ouspensky when I read Chardin. In fact, I earlier claimed that the 19th century saw some great Creation Science, in the form of geologists exploring glaciation, volcanism, and astroid impacts as part of their Catastrophist strategy, but that I couldn't think of any impressive 20th century Creation science at all. Well maybe Chardin counts, although The Phenomenon of Man is much more philosophy trying to think about science and religion, than it is science itself, but Chardin partipated in plenty of legitimate science in his time.

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Davidm wrote:Timothy writes about the prospect of evolution favoring increasing complexity. Maybe that

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Basically agreeing with DavidM, but with one little pet peeve, literal interpretations of Genesis DO NOT support "creation ex nihilo." Creation ex nihilo was an idea borrowed from philosophers in the 2nd century, and both Christians and Jews had to do a lot of work to overcome the older, and clearly far more literal interpretations of Genesis which argued for creation de profundis, creation from the depths or the abyss. The waters, or the deep (in Hebrew Tehom, in Greek the Abyss), or mist were present even in the beginningin Genesis, (in both the Gen 1:1-2:4 version and the Gen 2:4-25 version). Early Jews and Christians all assumed that God had crafted the heavens and earth from some pre-existing raw materials, and in versions with lots of echoes of Babylonian theomachies of Marduk vs Tiamat. The sea, or the deep, even seems like a feminine co-creator along with God, to some ancients. Certainly the text says "In the Beginning Elohim created heaven and earth, the earth was tohu va bohu, darkness was upon the face of the tehom, and the ruach elohim vibrated upon the face of the waters ..." (Gen 1:1, in Keller's translation, with key bits being left untranslated, to work on interpreting them). See, Catherine Keller's great book "Face of the Deep: a theology of becoming" on the details of this. She even sees lots of Feminist issues hiding in the details of the tehom vs nihilo fights. She may be pushing it too far, but she's onto something.

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Thanks for the many excellent responses to this topic.

I think there's a sense in which talk of and thinking in terms of progress and purpose is unavoidable, in much the same way as for the freedom of the will. If I want to make sense of your actions and either explain them or predict your future behaviour then I need to make some kind of assumption that you were acting purposefully and that you made a series of decisions along the way. This is all commonplace when it comes to human interaction but it's difficult to suspend this mode of thought when it comes to understanding larger processes like evolution or life itself; indeed, perhaps it's all just one big category error and evolution - like life - is assumed to be a problem or mystery in need of a solution when actually we create the difficulty in the first place by thinking about them in this way.

There may also be a conflict on a psychological level, insofar as evolutionary accounts of incremental change don't seem to accord with the suddenness and spontaneity of our choices and ex nihilo accounts of creation. This doesn't imply that our decisions are made on the spur of the moment, without context or pretext, but we tend to think of them in this way: faced with a situation, we consider it and make a choice; but seldom do we keep in mind the myriad influences that incline us to choose one way or another, many of them unconscious, buried or apparently irrational.

Regarding judgments of progress, I think John Castillo is right to point to the utility of assessments. I wonder again if some degree of teleology is needed in order to make sense of matters, for if we believed and acted as though no form of life was any more evolved or advanced than any other then would we be inclined to notice evolution at all?

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I wonder again if some degree of teleology is needed in order to make sense of matters, for if we believed and acted as though no form of life was any more evolved or advanced than any other then would we be inclined to notice evolution at all?

I take your point, and of course the idea of higher and lower lifeforms was a major influence of pre-darwinian theories of evolution.

But on the other hand, we'd still have had more complex organisms, more intelligent organisms, and more pretty organisms to obsess over. Of course, it's us all three times but hey that's bound to drive some interest. People don't seem to like it when serious thought is aimed in some direction that doesn't involve ourselves.

"Know then thyself - presume not god to scan

The proper study of mankind is man"

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davidm wrote: "So, if we ask the question, does evolution itself, as an ongoing process, and does the theory that explains it, offer any evidence of purpose, progress or teleology, the answer would have to be

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When we look at the history of the universe, we find a universe containing within it self replicating protein molecules to one containing thinking, reasoning beings capable of moral and aesthetical judgment; to deny that this qualifies, however tentatively, as progress, to me seems to almost borderline as nihilistic....

Mmmmm. I'm split on this, but here's the standard advocatus diaboli: Isn't it simply because WE are beings that have the properties you mention, that we value them? And therefore, that we define progress in those terms? If we had evolved instead of into what we are, but into beings that did NOT value reason, moral and aesthetical judgement, wouldn't it be likely we would simply be defining progress in other terms? Thus making it a case of the puddle of rainwater water marvelling at how well it fits the pothole it finds itself inhabiting?

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When we look at the history of the universe, we find a universe containing within it self replicating protein molecules to one containing thinking, reasoning beings capable of moral and aesthetical judgment; to deny that this qualifies, however tentatively, as progress, to me seems to almost borderline as nihilistic....

Why?

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"Progress" is a word made up by humans, to define a concept made up by humans.

Therefore, to define progress, in the context of evolution, as bringing about a universe "containing thinking, reasoning beings capable of moral and aesthetical judgment" is completely arbitrary.

One could just as well define progress from the standpoint of beetles, of which more species exist than any other animal: "Progress is a universe containing beetles."

Or one could define it in terms of microogranisms, which constitute even now the bulk of the biosphere: "Progress is the evolution of microoganisms, because microorganisms make up the bulk of the biosphere and making up the bulk of the biosphere is progress."

Or we could define it by the length of a neck: "Long necks represent progress. Giraffes are therefore the pinnacle of creation."

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And here's the devils advocacy from the other side (angels advocacy? no.)

How true is it that progress is an arbitrary concept? The unfolding, from a plant seed which is itself nothing but potential, into a seedling capable of self-sustenance, to a fully bloomed rose capable of attracting pollinators and making more seeds, thus carrying its genetic program to fulfilment, is that not progress? Is it really valid to say we can define progress just as easily as 'being a seed' and bemoan every step of the plants growth as a downhill slide of negative progress?

Just so, if there really is something fundamental about evolution that prompts organisms to greater complexity, greater ability to control and organise the world around it to ensure its fitness, couldn't that be seen as progress, even outside of our own anthropocentric perspective?. Perhaps phrased formally thus: to have a greater number of actions available, so to compensate a larger number of perturbations (derived from the concept of the law of requisite variety). Humans are certainly the pinnacle to date of an organism most able to control various influences. But is it really anthropocentrism - and nothing more - that gives us this idea?

Suppose I create a simple learning robot with orders to build more complex robots and pass on to them instructions to build still more complex robots. This wouldn't be analogous to evolution, of course, but it WOULD be a process, and over time we would see more and more complex robots appearing able to do more and more different things. Now there's the obvious sense of progress in that advanced robots were my goal in the first place, but is it only that goal that I had that makes this inexorable drive to more and more complex robots 'progress'? Maybe not: imagine instead that that isn't my goal, that I made the first robot accidentally, or better yet: it sprang into being from a shelf falling over in a robotics lab. No human has the goal of bringing about more complex robots, but it would happen inexorably anyway. Still not progress? Up to you I guess but I think these waters are muddier than you might imagine.

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davidm wrote: "Progress" is a word made up by humans, to define a concept made up by humans....Therefore, to define progress, in the context of evolution, as bringing about a universe "containing thinking, reasoning beings capable of moral and aesthetical judgment" is completely arbitrary."

Is this a case of the genetic fallacy (not to sound like a broken record)? You are stating that because of the human origin of the notion of progress, the notion of progress is completely arbitrary; in other words the origin of the concept is enough to determine its subsequent truth status; why should such be the case? I understand that 'progress' is a term that, by its nature, involves value judgments and utilizing the term in the context of evolution itself is a value judgment, but simply because a consensus on what constitutes the truth status of the judgment may not be reached, why assume that it is 'completely arbitrary? This line of thought is what is suspected of border lining on nihilism; do humans hold no more value than beetles or bacteria? Is life of no more value than nonlife? If we define progress as, improvement over time, can we honestly say that the universe as we see it now is of no more merit than the universe of hydrogen and helium, a floating vortex of silence, if you can pardon my emotive appeal?

davidm wrote: "So, if we ask the question, does evolution itself, as an ongoing process, and does the theory that explains it, offer any evidence of purpose, progress or teleology, the answer would have to be

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progress can happen without teleology

I think this is not obvious either way. In fact, I suspect that the answer to the question 'does evolution show progress' depends largely on how you answer the question 'can you have progress without teleology'?

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Is this a case of the genetic fallacy (not to sound like a broken record)? You are stating that because of the human origin of the notion of progress, the notion of progress is completely arbitrary; in other words the origin of the concept is enough to determine its subsequent truth status; why should such be the case? I understand that 'progress' is a term that, by its nature, involves value judgments and utilizing the term in the context of evolution itself is a value judgment, but simply because a consensus on what constitutes the truth status of the judgment may not be reached, why assume that it is 'completely arbitrary? This line of thought is what is suspected of border lining on nihilism; do humans hold no more value than beetles or bacteria? Is life of no more value than nonlife? If we define progress as, improvement over time, can we honestly say that the universe as we see it now is of no more merit than the universe of hydrogen and helium, a floating vortex of silence, if you can pardon my emotive appeal?

As I

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