Category Archives: biology

On the defense of ‘Evolutionary and Newtonian Forces’

Dr. Ellen Clark, a.k.a. Philosomama, has written a good review of Velasco & Hitchcock’s Evolutionary and Newtonian Forces [no paywall], one of the first papers to appear in the new open access journal Ergo. She points out that although V&H are trying to show how evolutionary forces are well described by analogy to classical causal Newtonian forces, they very nearly prove their opponent’s — the statisticalist — position. However, she comes to their defense.

Briefly, the causalist position is that evolutionary forces are causal like the force of Newtonian gravity. Natural Selection is a causal force that acts on biological organisms. The statisticalist position claims evolutionary phenomena are just the statistical result of the underlying causal physical processes. Hence, for the statisticalist, evolutionary phenomena have no force of their own.

V&H want to argue that evolutionary forces are like friction or elasticity. Dr. Clark points out that these forces can be problematic for their view, as they too note:

As Velasco & Hitchcock acknowledge, friction and elasticity are usually thought of by physicists as emerging “from the aggregate statistical behaviour of more elementary forces in certain kinds of system.” … But this is grist to the statistical view’s mill, we might say. They argue that natural selection supervenes on more basic causal events, without adding any extra causal power of its own. So these critics might happily accept that evolutionary forces are analagous to non-fundamental Newtonian forces, whilst holding their ground on the claim that natural selection is not causal.

However, causalist vs. statistical isn’t what I would like to discuss here; see her review for more discussion. Instead I’d like to focus on her appeal to the unknown as a defense of V&H’s causalist position. She claims that it is OK to consider evolutionary forces causal, like Newtonian forces, because Newtonian forces are mysterious. Since Newtonian forces are mysterious, we shouldn’t privilege their causality and should grant that right to not well understood biological forces as well. She says:

If there is anything magical about thinking of natural selection as an overall force producing all the multifarious births and deaths that we actually observe, then it is in very good company lumped in with physical forces.

This is an example of my favorite fallacy, Ignotum Per Ignotius: explaining something unknown by appealing to something even less understood. Let me explain why this is really problematic for her defense and ultimately for V&H.

Imagine a statisticalist pointing to their analogies and explanations of evolutionary phenomena and saying, “Evolution isn’t mysterious at all, and we have a perfectly good statistical explanation right here. The only causality is in the underlying fundamental physics.” The evolutionary causalist is then in the uncomfortable luddite position of insisting, without reason, that we don’t understand evolution. Appealing to an analogy with physics that supports the causal position is question begging, if there is no deeper reason why this analogy holds other than it supports the claim that evolutionary phenomena are mysterious and hence causal. Therefore without some other reason to support the causal view of evolutionary phenomena, appealing to mysteriousness does not justify the causalist position.

Moreover, without a supporting causalist argument, V&H have done the statisticalist’s work for them. As noted above, they have gone and shown exactly how evolutionary phenomena are like statistical results of underlying forces.

Posted in biology, evolution, philosophy, physics. Tagged with , , , , .

On Matthen’s Intelligibility Argument

Mohan Matthen’s post Teleology in Big Systems brought up two options explaining how someone — Tom Nagel in Mind and Cosmos — would choose a teleological explanation over a naturalistic one. The first, below, got me thinking:

First, he might be saying that though it is physically possible (by a fluke series of mutations, for example) for mentality to have come about, it would be better explained by teleology. (Let’s call this the “intelligibility” argument.)

Though Matthen was referring to doubts about Darwinism being sufficient to lead to consciousness, there is another way to understand this intelligibility argument. If we grant that consciousness is something very special, though not unphysical, someone might consider the laws of physics to be constructed, teleologically, to permit consciousness. This is to say that our physics is teleogically directed to account for consciousness. The claim is not that consciousness was necessitated by our physics, but that our physics must conform to allow the possibility of consciousness. What is one philosopher’s Nature is another’s Teleology.

Now, I can’t see any philosophical motivation for this outside of a very deep belief that consciousness is exceptionally special. But if we grant exceptional status to consciousness, then it wouldn’t be ridiculous to consider that our physics must somehow be subject to the requirements of consciousness instead of the other way around. Whereas there may be infinite other possible physics that do not allow for the possibility of consciousness, we live under a physics that does.

My immediate, knee jerk response to this sort of move is that it is just a semantic shift about the meanings of teleology and nature, nothing deeper. If what the teleologist means by teleology is what others mean by nature, then there is no difference of opinion, only word use.

However, this semantic response does not engage the motivation for the teleological argument. The motivation is that consciousness is exceptional. So, if the naturalist believes that consciousness is exceptional and entirely natural, then the naturalist is left with no natural explanation for why it is so exceptional. However the teleologist may say that consciousness is exceptional, subject to the laws of physics, but unsurprising, since the laws of physics itself are directed to allow for consciousness. Since the teleological account does a better job at explaining something as special as consciousness, it is preferable.

This conclusion about preferring the teleological explanation to the naturalistic one is based on the absolute assumption that consciousness is exceptional. But how exceptional must it be? Since we are making physics, and presumably the rest of science, subject to our assumption, then the reasons for our assumptions must then be ontologically more basic and more certain than our entire scientific understanding of the world.

Personally I do not have any basis for thinking consciousness is so special that all of science must be made to account for it. From my perspective, claiming that science must conform to consciousness is a post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy, since I’d have to arbitrarily assume consciousness to be a fundamental substance and science to be constructed to allow for it.

However, there could be people who do have beliefs that strong. For them, they would not be arbitrarily assuming consciousness to be the more fundamental substance in the universe and hence it would follow that science should conform to it. Instead it would be a direct causal link: consciousness, therefore science that teleologically allows for consciousness. This kind of teleological naturalism is special in that it does not appeal to the unlikelihood or complexity of consciousness evolving, as is wont to happen nowadays, but is based on an ontological claim about consciousness. I don’t know if this is more defensible than the Intelligibility Argument based on likelihood, but, as it is different, perhaps it has a chance to fair better.

Posted in biology, design, evolution, ontology, philosophy, physics, science. Tagged with , , , .

Book Review: The Genial Gene

The Genial Gene: Deconstructing Darwinian Selfishness by Joan Roughgarden

In The Genial Gene Joan Roughgarden seeks to replace the competitive understanding of evolution, known as sexual selection, with a cooperative one. The first sentence of her book reads, “This book is about whether selfishness and individuality, rather than kindness and cooperation, are basic to biological nature” (p. 1).

So what is the argument? Taking this first line, she wants to conclude something about basic biological nature. To do this, one can either define what basic biological nature is and then use that definition to derive conclusions, or else survey the natural world and find the best interpretation for whatever empirical results were found. She opts for the latter strategy.

To this end she first surveys and compiles examples of what people consider to be evidence for sexual selection and argues that this evidence has been misconstrued or simply does not support the theory of sexual selection. Then she offers a few logical arguments against sexual selection with the aim to highlight contradictions within the theory.

She then develops her alternative, called Social Selection. Social Selection is fundamentally based upon cooperation, not competition, and she proceeds to reinterpret the empirical research with respect to cooperation. Given the results of this reinterpretation, she concludes that the cooperative approach provides a more accurate picture of the empirical data than the competitive approach. Therefore social selection, not sexual selection, is fundamental to biological nature.

Can this argument be maintained?

Her argument fundamentally turns on the interpretation of the empirical research. (If her logical arguments were strong enough to undermine sexual selection on their own, she would have dedicated more space to them. At best, in my opinion, they could raise questions about sexual selection, but are not inherently damaging enough, even if they are accepted uncontested, to force a major revision to sexual selection.) She interprets the research in terms of cooperation and her opponents are those who interpret the research in terms of competition. Roughgarden claims her interpretation is the correct one.

Insofar as she is making an inference saying her interpretation is the best conclusion, her argument fails. She readily admits that the defenders of sexual selection are able to consistently create explanatory fixes for apparent contradictions in the empirical research. Since they are able to explain the data, the fact that she is unsatisfied by their explanations (and likes her own better) is no grounds for convincing her opponents to give up their explanations. After all, they have history and authority on their side. Her coming up with better numbers, that is, having formulas that (she says) more accurately represent the research, is not a sufficient reason for discarding a theory that has held up for many years, especially one that continues to be an area of active research. So, she has not successfully argued that social selection should replace sexual selection.

However, if we consider a more modest conclusion, then Roughgarden may be able to maintain part of her argument. She makes the point that the core Darwinian theory does not include sexual selection; it is a later contribution (ppg. 3-4). This suggest that there may be theoretical room for cooperation in addition to competition. But how much room?

Now the interpretive problem that she set up cuts the other way. Instead of her trying to convince us that her cooperative interpetation of the empirical research is the correct one, we ask the competitive interpretation why it is the best one. Empirical research alone cannot support one conclusion over another: the data must first be interpreted before a conclusion can be reached. As mentioned above, sexual selection has history and authority on its side, but age and endorsements are not arguments for being the sole fundamental methodology of biological nature. Without history and authority, sexual selection proponents only have their ability to explain bioogical research, which is no more than Roughgarden has. Therefore, advocates of sexual selection have no further theoretical resources to support their claim that sexual selection is the fundamental method working in evolution.

This means that Roughgarden does succeed in part. Based on the arguments she provides she is unable to maintain that kindness and cooperation underpin evolution, but she is able to cut sexual selection down to her size. She has shown that it is possible to reinterpret biological research in terms that do not rely upon competition and that sexual selection has no special theoretical privelege. Therefore sexual selection proponents can no longer claim to be fundamental biological reality: even though Roughgarden was unable to fell their theory, they won’t be able to down her either, and so she has established theoretical room for cooperation in Darwinian theory.

Posted in biology, evolution, measurement, science. Tagged with , , , .

Working Hard on Special Biological Relativity

I’ve been working hard on Special Biological Relativity and it is taking up most of my blogging energy.  However, I do have some fun results:

Define Biological Energy as the ability to do work, the ability to change the environment.  Then Fitness can be related to Energy because the higher the fitness the greater the ability to change the environment.

E ∝ f

If we consider an organism that lives in a place with infinite resources – a Garden of Eden – and also replicates at the speed of the chemical reaction of replication – there is no maturation process, it immediately starts to replicated as soon as it is created – then it’s life is identical to it’s replication process.  Define d to be the speed of the chemical process of replication.  Then the ability of this organism to change the environment is given by it’s fitness, the rate it replicates at and it’s life:

E = fd2

Or something.

Posted in biology, evolution, fitness, philosophy, science, Special Relativity. Tagged with , , , , , .

Special Relativistic Fitness, Preliminary Thought Experiment

Imagine two different tribes of biologists.  The first tribe is comprised of very fast people.  They survived for thousands of years by studying biology and being faster than their competitors.  The second tribe is comprised of very strong people.  They survived for thousands of years by studying biology and being stronger than their competitors.  After all this time, the first tribe is filled with very fast biologists and the second tribe is filled with very strong biologists.

Now imagine that two biologists, one from each tribe, are evaluating the fitness of two organisms.  One of the organisms is fast, the other is of average speed.  Other than the difference in speed, they are identical.  The strong biologist recognizes that one is faster than the other, but does not find this to be significant and assigns the two organisms equal fitness.  The fast biologist recognizes that one is faster and assigns it a slightly higher fitness because of its speed advantage.

Is the difference in fitness evaluations a matter of scientific opinion?  If it were an opinion that the fast organism was fitter, this would be a scientific opinion based upon environmental and competitive factors.  Given different competition and environment, the evaluation would have come out differently.  However, the fast biologist and her entire tribe have survived by being faster than their competition.  Her evaluation is not only scientifically based but also partly based upon her evolutionary heritage and Weltanschung that is finely attuned to how speed is beneficial.  It is these factors, unique to people of this tribe, that give more weight to speed as evolutionarily significant and makes it more than just a case of scientific disagreement.

Is the fast biologist unfairly biased? If we consider the perspective of the strong biologist, we can see that the strong biologist has no greater claim to her appraisal of an organism’s fitness: strength is just as arbitrary a trait as speed and this thought experiment could have equally been set up with two organisms that only differed in strength.  Hence the fast biologist could equally claim the strong biologist is unfairly biased toward strength and away from speed.  Generalizing, we can say that no one perspective, be it speed, strength, sight, etc., or any combination of traits, is privileged.  Hence their is no unfair bias because every scientific perspective based upon evolutionary heritage and an associated Weltanschung is as legitimate as any other.

Lastly, consider that every biologist will recognize the same amount of phenotypic difference between two organisms;  difference in phenotype does not permit variation in interpretation.  Therefore any difference in fitness evaluation is not due to a perceived physical difference by the biologists in the organisms studied.

Therefore this thought experiment implies that our determinations of fitness are not independent of the evolutionary history of the biologist(s) making those determinations.   Insofar as we cannot escape our own biology and how it shapes our views, it will determine the fitness value we assign to organisms, if only to a small extent.

Consequences:

In one sense everything on Earth has been evolving for the exact same amount of time, since the dawn of life, and hence no organism alive is any more evolved than any other.

However, from the perspective of the fast biologists, the fast organism is more evolved.  Insofar as the fast biologists believe that life is evolving towards moving faster, the organism that moves faster has adapted before the other organisms.  So, in the special circumstance of a population perceiving evolution to move regularly towards a trait, an organism with that trait can be considered more evolved.

—– the analogs —–
evolutionary significant events are specific adaptations :: physically significant events are light flashes
regular evolutionary change is a population with trait selection :: regular motion is a non-accelerating inertial frame
difference in phenotype does not permit variation in interpretation, regardless of observer :: failure of addition of velocities of light, regardless of observer.
upper limit to adaptation- by definition, no jumps :: speed of light in vacuum defined as c

Posted in biology, evolution, fitness, philosophy, Special Relativity. Tagged with , , , , , .

Deriving Natural Selection = Fitness × Acceleration

As you can see from my previous post, I now have postulated a direct relation between Natural Selection and Fitness (N.S.=F.×A.).  This relation follows from the theory.

The short short short version of the theory is this general postulate: one organism’s traits are another’s environment and vice versa.  Hence all competition can be viewed as environmental phenomena.  This gives Natural Selection as a result of Fitness and an environmental factor, which I refer to as Acceleration.

If you want to see the paper as it stands now, you can access it here or below.[6in/120mm ebook formatted]

Posted in biology, evolution, fitness, General Relativity, philosophy, physics, Relativity, science. Tagged with , , , , , , .

Natural Selection = Fitness × Acceleration

Natural Selection is the force that changes species.

Fitness is the resistance to change in the rate of change of the species.

Acceleration is change in the rate of change of the species.

Natural Selection = Fitness × Acceleration

Posted in biology, evolution, fitness, philosophy, science. Tagged with , , , , .

Rewrite of Evolution

New theory of evolution!  Hooray!

Patched a bunch of things together to make a nice story.  Fixed the little issue about fitness being circular.  Expanded natural selection to apply more generally.  Causal structure.  Epistemological foundations.  ooOoOO0Ooooooo.

And it’s good fun.  I swear.  Epistemology, history of physics, evolution… makes me happy.  You should really read it.

Download here. [pdf, 304kb]

Posted in biology, epistemology, evolution, fitness, General Relativity, measurement, philosophy, physics, Relativity, science. Tagged with , , , , , , , .

Hypotheses Natura Non Fingo

Newton famously wrote [1] [2]:

I have not as yet been able to discover the reason for these properties of gravity from phenomena, and I do not feign hypotheses…  It is enough that gravity does really exist and acts according to the laws I have explained, and that it abundantly serves to account for all the motions of celestial bodies.

as a response to those who challenged him to provide causes of gravity.  He said, “Hypotheses non fingo,” or, “I feign no hypothesis,” or if you will, “I haven’t even a guess.”

Earlier in a letter he wrote:

That one body may act upon another at a distance through a vacuum without the mediation of anything else, by and through which their action and force may be conveyed from one another, is to me so great an absurdity that, I believe, no man who has in philosophic matters a competent faculty of thinking could ever fall into it.

These passages show that Newton recognized a fundamental causal problem within his theory: that although his mathematics described gravitational physics, it did not provide a causal explanation.  It was not until General Relativity 200 years later was this problem solved.

Recently another major fundamental theory of science has been accused of lacking the proper causal structure:  Fodor & Piatelli-Palmarini’s attack on evolution, What Darwin Got Wrong.  Consider what Fodor says in his recent reply to Block and Kitcher,

A mere chronicle of instances of adaptation would not therefore amount to a theory of adaptation. It would just be “natural history.” We haven’t the slightest doubt that Darwin thought that he had discovered a theory of adaptation. It was, to be sure, a pretty thin theory, as it would have to be in order to apply to evolving creatures as such, whatever their phenotypes and whatever their ecologies.

He is saying that evolution is a mere chronicle of natural history — not a cause of it — just as Newton’s gravitation described gravity without revealing its causal structure.  Later he says,

[Biologists should] give up on the project of finding a mechanism for evolution and study the fixation of adaptive traits case by case. Since all the evidence suggests that they are extremely heterogeneous, this should keep evolutionary biologists busy well into the indefinite future.

This means that biologists should give up on repairing evolution and just try to explain individual phenomena moving forward, just as physics moved forward even as Newton knew his theory was on metaphysical shaky ground.

Hence it is Fodor now saying, “Hypotheses non fingo,”  because he believes he can describe natural history accurately, but also has no guess as to what caused things to work out the way they did.

* * * * *

In light of this analysis, consider this statement from Block and Kitcher’s counter argument:

After our critique, Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini have apparently decided that the crucial point is the lack of a “theory” of natural selection. But, as we have noted here, nobody needs a “theory” of the type they demand.

And this from Sober’s recent review [pdf]:

What is the net gravitational force now acting on the earth?  That depends on the mass of the sun, the moon, the stars, and of everything else.  It does not follow that there are no laws of gravity, only that the laws need to have numerous placeholders.  FP may object to my analogy because it is always the mass of these various objects and their distance from the earth that are relevant to the gravitational force that the earth experiences.  My reply is that this makes no difference…

Neither has understood the argument as presented above.  If Block and Kitcher had understood, then they would have recognized that yes, for the vast majority of people, the “‘theory’ of the type they demand” is unnecessary, but it is, nevertheless, of critical importance to the likes of Newton and Einstein.  If Sober had understood, then he wouldn’t have used the worst possible example to make his point:  by saying it is “always the mass of these various objects and their distance from the earth that are relevant,” and not mentioning motion, we know he was only thinking about Newtonian Mechanics.

* * * * *

Should we, with Fodor, believe that we are stuck in a philosophical absurdity?

No.  What I said in my original criticism of Fodor, found in What Fodor Got Wrong (18 March 09),  still applies.  Though the above description of the problem is likely clearer than my analysis based on his claims that Natural Selection is statistical and that the struggle for survival is only a metaphor, the problem of causal structure is the same.  My solution focuses on using individual struggles as local interactions of Natural Selection — like a gravitational field in General Relativity — and hence provides the causal structure that Fodor wanted.

[EDIT 6 April 2010:  I’m thinking I gave Fodor too much credit in this post.  I now think his arguments amount to saying that for each instance of evolution we have, we are merely relaying natural history, not a causal explanation.  The argument I attributed to Fodor above says that evolution by natural selection is natural history.  Fodor must be more agnostic about evolution’s ontology because of how he says it is possible to look for some alternative to natural selection in his reply to Block and Kitcher.  My solution is still viable though:  since I provide causal structure, this also provides how to describe evolution in a causal way.]

Posted in biology, evolution, General Relativity, philosophy, physics, Relativity, science. Tagged with , , , , , , , .

Against Physics as Ontologically Basic

1.  Biology is epistemically independent of physics:

Let’s assume that biology is not epistemically independent of physics, i.e. to know any biology we must first know something about physics.  However, consider evolution as determined by natural selection and the struggle for survival.  We can know about the struggle for survival and natural selection without appealing to physics — just as Darwin did when he created the theory — and hence we can fundamentally understand at least some, if not most, of biology independent of physics.

2.  Physics supervenes on biology:

Whatever ability we have to comprehend is an evolved skill.  Therefore any physical understanding of the world, as an instance of general comprehension,  supervenes on the biology of this skill.

3.  Biology is just as fundamental as physics:

If the principles involved in biology and physics are epistemically independent and each can be said to supervene on  the other, then neither has theoretical primordiality.

Therefore physics is not ontologically basic.

.

.

[This argument was inspired by a discussion over at It’s Only a Theory start by Mohan Matthen.

And I want it to be known that I HATE SUPERVENIENCE.  Basically if you use supervenience regularly then you are a BAD PERSON.  The only good argument that uses supervenience is one that reduces the overall usage of the word:  it is my hope that the above argument will prevent people from saying that biology supervenes on physics.  For every argument in which I thought that using supervenience might prove useful, I found a much, much superior argument that did not make use of the term.  I know you always live to regret statements like this, but right now I don’t care.]

Posted in argumentation, biology, epistemology, evolution, ontology, philosophy, physics, science. Tagged with , , , .