Universal theories–the opium of the elite

Systematic thinking is like one of the roller coasters at a little amusement park, now seemingly practically defunct, that I went to as a kid called Lakeside. The roller coaster was, if I remember correctly, called the Chipmunk, and its distinguishing quality was that it made square turns which, combined with the outstanding quality of roller coasters in general that they never slow down except at the end, made for a rather jarring experience. And systematic thinking similarly makes smooth transitions between one model of the world and another rather difficult, leading to sudden massive revaluations (or paradigm shifts if you prefer the Kuhnian language which has been parasitized by barbaric business-speak), which are of course a result of pent-up dissatisfaction with the previous model and, on a society-wide scale, somewhat concealed by the piecemeal process by which disparate individuals accede to the new ideas, but nonetheless have their disorienting crucial moments of acceptance of a new mental reality. Perhaps this is why, much as one had to be 52” tall to ride the Chipmunk, Plato preferred not to teach students his formd of philosophy until the age of 40. Of course any new system embodies of necessity its own less evident strain of inflexibility. That is why if one reads a book like The Selfish Gene today, the arguments contained in its battling against pseudo-Marxist idealism, which was at its apex in the mid-70’s, seem beyond obvious today, because most people (outside of university humanities departments) have become wholly enmeshed in the view that innate genetic factors exert at least some influence on our bodies, minds and behavior. Less obviously this has been symptomatic of a progressive devaluation of the “spiritual” in considerations of human life in favor of a greater and greater continuity between the living and inanimate matter. So much so that the desire to simplify the terrain by dispensing with notions of volition or design in the evolution of life has virtually become a defining element of biological science.

And yet for all that it seems that remarkably little has been said relatively speaking about what actually generates the forms and traits of living things. The theory of how the trait best adapted for survival and reproduction is selected among those available has been chronicled almost exhaustively, but so many seem strangely content with the notion of random variations and mutations as the ultimate source of almost all the characteristics of life. Not that this is absurd a priori, but so much effort seems to have been expended in determining how traits are selected rather than how they are generated in the first place. Granted, the success of computer programs in learning complicated tasks like playing chess based solely on a random behavior generator with a command to repeat successful strategies has made the necessity of supposing some directing, controlling “élan vital” for evolutionary progress seem less evident than in the days of Henri Bergson’s L’évolution créatrice. The irony, however, is that as much success as has been attained in this fields, artificial intelligence researchers seem more pessimistic than ever as regards genuinely creating living intelligence. And the issue, as always, seems to be that of the self-sustainability of minds and living things in general, and their ability to be transferred from one environment or function to another and still operate. So perhaps it is time to consider that perhaps the essence of life lies precisely in its resistance or exception to physical laws such as “an object at rest tends to stay at rest unless acted upon by another force.” One of the first things that made me think about this seriously is the disapperance of vestigial traits, like the tailbone in humans or eyes in cave-dwelling creatures. Now, I find it hard to conceive that the difference in survival value or reproductive value between primates with little tails and those without was severe enough to drive the tailed kind into extinction or even to cause a branching of species, though of course there is no evidence that it might not have. Nevertheless, such things as that or the steady progession of certain neutral proteins in the body to fixation points in the population leads me to think that perhaps life is somehow itself an original and ongoing force pushing the development of at least some traits even if not with some ultimate goal.

5 Responses to “Universal theories–the opium of the elite”

  1. Andy Stedman Says:

    When did your parents rename you from “Lakeside” to “Curt”?

    Maybe creatures with tails get them injured a lot and die from infections, and this disadvantage is cancelled out if the creature needs the tail to hang from trees.

    What do you mean by “…the steady progession of certain neutral proteins in the body to fixation points in the population…”? Are you just talking about DNA sequences?

  2. Curt Says:

    When did your parents rename you from “Lakeside? to “Curt??

    Um, I guess I could’ve added a comma to the clause or reversed the order, but that doesn’t seem totally necessary, especially since I assume my readers are of a reasonable and charitable disposition.

    What do you mean by “…the steady progession of certain neutral proteins in the body to fixation points in the population…?? Are you just talking about DNA sequences?

    There are certain inactive proteins, whose names unfortunately I can’t recall, which have increased in hominid and human bodies steadily over evolutionary time to fixation point. In biology classes they use this as an example of the potential long-term effects of genetic drift, but that seems like a weak explanation, given that by definition there is no apparent evolutionary explanation for this phenomenon.

  3. Dave Says:

    It seem to me that what you are saying is a little heretical. But don’t worry the scientists won’t burn you at the stake. My evolutionary thinking may be a bit rusty, but if I recall the changes wrought by genetic drift were by definition random. If a population is anything but infinite certain traits will become more or less common simply by chance. By the same token the genetic combinations that maintain complex systems, such as vision, will drift and vision will be progressively lost if it has no function. The bad thing about this is that it indicates thing are always trying to come apart. The wonderful visual system we have was developed because the our ancestor “monkeys? that didn’t see the ripe fruit or guess the right distance while swinging between trees did not contribute to our fund of visual skills. Fortunately we can cheat the system for the benefit of humanity for some time. After a few billion years of natural selection maybe it is time for a break. Do you thing it will happen?

  4. Curt Says:

    I’m certainly aware that the concept of genetic drift is by definition random, I just question whether that concept sufficiently explains certain genotypes moving to fixation points in a population despite a seeming lack of evolutionary pressure. It seems to me that you are also tying the disapperance of vestigial traits to something like the tendency for entropy in a system to increase, which is a very intriguing idea, but not I think itself entirely within the Darwinian mainstream, except to the extent that the energy expenditure in building organs is deemed somewhat vaguely to cost organisms reproductive potential. And your idea is in fact something like what I think Bergson was trying to say, in very imprecise language, with his notion of the “élan vital” of creative evoution resisting the atrophy and degradation of matter into simpler forms.

  5. Dave Says:

    I wasn’t aware of the phenomenon but thanks to Google I found something that may or may not be what you are talking about. It had something to do with the “Haldane Dilemma? where you have a limited volume of mutations that can be absorbed in a given time which for reasons that escape me would put a damper on the speed of evolution. This is what I mean by being rusty. I don’t have any contact with these theories and don’t understand them. I do know that they can be seized upon by people who are more ignorant than I am for political/religious reasons. http://www.gate.net/~rwms/haldane.html This article gave the example of chimps and humans. To test the Haldane hypothesis you would determine the differences between two and see if the known genetic differences would correlate with the time differences since they separated from a common ancestor. One trouble is, how do you know that mutations occur just one at a time? For instance, I heard on NPR yesterday that one of the biggest differences between humans and chimps brains has to do with a gene that instructs up to thirty other genes what protein to synthesize. Thus a mutation in this one gene could be thirty times more significant. Could this explain accelerated evolution?

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