The Paradox of Conflicting Evolutionary Realms

By John "Birdman" Bryant


A question which evolutionists have not thought to ask directly is, Where is the locus of the evolutionary struggle? When Darwin proposed his original theory, his assumption was that the evolutionary struggle was located in living organisms which competed with one another for scarce resources, and in which the winners were determined by the rule of 'survival of the fittest'. Since Darwin's time, however, the locus of the evolutionary struggle has been postulated in at least two other places: Herbert Spencer went in the macro direction and suggested the 'superorganism', ie, totalities of living beings (eg, societies) which struggled against one another or the environment; while Richard Dawkins went in the micro direction and suggested genes, which were seen as participating in a struggle to reproduce and outnumber the genes of other organisms. Beyond this, there has even been an attempt -- albeit humorous -- to locate the evolutionary struggle in a variant part of living organisms, as is seen indirectly in the old joke, "The chicken is just the egg's way of making another egg." But what emerges from all these relocation attempts is the stark realization that there is no locus for the evolutionary struggle, and this for the simple reason that it is located everywhere; for everything 'struggles for survival' against everything else. To illustrate, consider the micro direction: While we can grant that genes 'struggle' to reproduce, we can also argue that molecules 'struggle' to maintain certain structures (such as DNA), and that atomic and subatomic particles 'struggle' to maintain the 'struggling' molecules. In fact, we don't really know how far down the micro scale we can go before finding the 'ultimate strugglers' since, among other things, we will never know whether we have discovered all the subatomic particles. Likewise, on the macro scale, we see many potential 'strugglers', from families, political parties, ethnic groups, races, and countries to species, living-vs-dead matter, solar systems, galaxies, universes and even gods. Beyond this, we have the world of 'memes', in which ideas, creeds, theories, and the like 'struggle' to be adopted, in spite of the fact that their adoption or non- adoption will have no effect on their 'existence', but only on their 'recognition' (survival in the mind and culture).

What the above observations suggest is that the evolutionary struggle may be observed from many different points of view, ranging from the extreme macro to the extreme micro, and even into different realms entirely, as the world of ideas. But no matter from what perspective it is observed, the 'struggle' is the same, and the choice of perspectives is merely a device chosen for the convenience of the observer, analogous to choosing a microscope, telescope or polarized lens. No perspective is intrinsically 'better'; the only difference is in the suitability to the observer. The whole matter is analogous to looking at a computer from such different perspectives as mechanical behavior, electrical behavior or software operation: The operation of the computer could -- at least in theory -- be described completely by talking in terms of electrical potentials or in movements of the physical parts just as it can be described in terms of the operation of its software; but the software description is usually more convenient for humans because it requires less data and is simpler.

But if we maintain that the evolutionary struggle is the same no matter what the perspective, it is only fair to note that this theory is not without a certain paradoxical aspect -- something which we may call the Paradox of Conflicting Evolutionary Realms, or POCER for short. This paradox can be seen most clearly in the case of the Hero, ie, the man who sacrifices himself so that others may live. "Narrow" Darwinian theory would hold that heroism would be eliminated in the struggle for survival, since it eliminates the Hero's chance for reproducing himself; but of course heroism is frequently exhibited among humans, so that 'narrow' Darwinism is obviously wrong. But if heroism is negative for individual survival, it is nevertheless positive for group survival, since the acts of the Hero permit others to live (and thus allow them a chance to reproduce). Thus we are faced with a sort of conflict in which heroism promotes survival in one realm while eliminating it in another; and since we have postulated that the evolutionary struggle occurs in all realms simultaneously, it seems perverse that one type of act could both promote and retard evolution at the same time, according to the realm in which it is viewed.

As an aside it is worthy of note that modern genetic theory has attempted to deal with the 'Hero problem' by the theory of 'kin selection', where the eagerness for self-sacrifice is explained as a function of genetic relatedness (parents will eagerly sacrifice themselves for their children, or other family members, but not for strangers, since close relatives can pass on similar genes, while strangers cannot). While kin selection theory makes for some very elegant mathematics, it does not deal at all with the POCER problem; rather it implicitly denies the paradox by assuming that the locus of the evolutionary struggle is in the genes. This, however, is a mistake, as we demonstrated at the beginning of this essay; so kin selection theory, however elegant, cannot be the answer to POCER.

One possible explanation of POCER is to say that our theory given above -- that all perspectives on evolution, from micro to macro, are equivalent, arbitrary and selected for the convenience of the observer -- is wrong, and that in its place we must substitute the theory that only the most macro theory is the 'right' one, because it encompasses all micro theories. This, however, is paradoxical in itself, not merely because it is impossible to know 'how macro' the 'most macro theory' must be, but because it is impossible to get any data on it (how do we get data on the 'struggle of galaxies'?).

Another possible solution to the paradox involves observing that the notion of evolution as 'struggle for survival' is really a teleological pattern we are imposing on the data of reality. That is, it is certainly true that some things survive (at least for awhile) and some do not, but a more 'paradigm-neutral' description of the data is simply to say that 'stuff happens', without saying that things and events are 'evolving' or 'struggling'. This is not to say that the teleological notion of 'struggle for survival' has not been fruitful (it has); it is rather to say that it is not necessary, and in some cases it may not even be good. What I am driving at is that what we call evolution is not really about 'evolving' so much as it is about adapting, and because conditions can change, we cannot say that (for example) humans are 'evolving' into a 'higher type', but only that humans are changing to adapt to their environment, whatever that may  be at the moment, and which may require that they 'evolve' toward genius  under some conditions, and toward stupidity under others. This, then, will solve POCER by removing our concern that 'struggle' which is positive for one 'realm' is negative for another: We merely say that 'stuff happens', and that this 'stuff' represents an adaptation of things to their current environment.

But if the above discussion is sufficient to solve POCER, there nevertheless arises another problem in adapting it. In particular, consider the computer: We usually 'explain' its behavior by referring to its programming, but this is in effect a teleological explanation because it requires references to 'goals'. We could also explain the conputer's behavior with reference to electrical currents and their effects on hardware, but this would be completely impractical because it is too complicated, at least if we were to trace a program's execution this way. Likewise, in describing the development and behavior of living organisms, it is far more enlightening to speak of 'struggle for survival' even tho it introduces the teleological element; for to say merely that 'stuff happens' is uninformative and wooden. (NB: We may wonder what the Law of Parsimony requires us to do in this case: It is surely easier -- hence more parsimonious in a sense -- to use the teleological explanation; but since teleology is 'unnecessary' theoretically, we have to ask if Occam's Razor should not slice it off.) Hence it seems requisite from a practical standpoint to use teleological explanations, even if they are illegitimate in the sense of introducing the idea of 'goals' or 'purposes' into the explanation. This, however, may not be as bad as it sounds; for mathematical descriptions of natural laws also seem to fall into the category of strictly 'unnecessary' concepts, and yet they are eminently practical.

And that's how the theory of evolution has been evolving in my mind.


* * * Back to the Home Page of John "Birdman" Bryant, the World's Most Controversial Author * * *