The below article has just been published on Online Opinion.
By the way the last post that I put on that site, (the previous article that I put on here) is still going great guns. It has been close to the top of 'this week's most discussed' for three weeks now, with more than 250 comments.
Lessons for a New Paradigm – The Dual Drivers of Evolution
Gilbert Holmes 12/10/2010
Initiating a profound shift in the way that we understand the natural world and our place in it, Charles Darwin is perhaps the most distinguished scientist of the last few hundred years.
Continuing the rise of science and the corresponding decline in the power of the ‘church’, Darwin’s theory of natural selection told us that the diversity and complexity of life result not from divine intervention as was previously thought, but from natural processes associated with how organisms interact with each other and with their surrounds.
As with most great ideas, at its core, Darwin’s theory is very simple, and once grasped, appears obvious and logical. Essentially, the theory is that as a population of organisms progresses from generation to generation, chance variations or mutations occur. Some of these variations will be advantageous to the individual carrying them, and this will mean that the individual is more likely to breed than its companions and therefore pass on the variation to subsequent generations.
In this way we can see that as time progresses, a population of organisms will continue to evolve. We can also see that because of the chance nature of variations, two isolated populations of the same species will invariably change in different ways, and will eventually become different species.
While there is I believe an essential truth in the concept of natural selection, we can also recognize a significant error in Darwin’s thought, and this error has had important implications for how we conceptualize ourselves and the natural world.
To understand this error, we need to take a look at the broader belief systems of the post-enlightenment era in which Darwin postulated his theory. In short, Darwin can be understood to fit within a pattern of popular theorists who across a range of subjects stressed the separateness of the individual entity.
Rene Descartes, beginning his analysis with “I think therefore I am”, told us that human consciousness is forever separate from the surrounding nature, and that our goal (through reductionist science) is to conquer that nature. Continuing this theme, Isaac Newton describing the material universe as a machine made up of separate atoms that move around bumping into one another.
Hobbes described a war with “each against all others” as the starting point for the compromise which results in civilized society. Adam Smith described competition between (separate) self-interested parties as the engine of a healthy economy. Freud described the emotions of isolation, the drive toward physical pleasure and away from fear, as central to the human condition. Etc.
Into this pattern popped Charles Darwin, and with the tide swimming strongly in favour of this ‘separatism’ (my term), it is little wonder that Darwin would stress competition between individual organisms as the driver behind the processes of natural selection. This competition came to be known as ‘survival of the fittest’.
I am fully aware that many of you will be protesting to yourself right now that survival of the fittest is not about competition. Instead, it is about whatever is best suited to the situation. This may involve traits that enable an organism to dominate its environment, but it can also involve the capacity to engage in symbiotic and cooperative relationships. If an organism will benefit most by acting cooperatively, it is variations that help enable that cooperation that will facilitate the best chance of survival.
I agree with you. Darwin saw that as well as fighting with one another, organisms will also work together for mutual benefit. For Darwin however, any cooperation between organisms was just a junior player; a subcategory of the all-important competition for survival. Darwin saw cooperation within the biological realm in a similar way to how Hobbes viewed human society; as a compromise between essentially self-interested individuals.
Darwin even expressed some sadness that he should conceive of nature in such a brutal light. In the Origin of Species, he wrote, “Nothing is easier to admit in words the truth of the universal struggle for life, or more difficult – at least I have found it so – than to constantly bear this conclusion in mind.”
The most famous critique of Darwin on this front was provided by Peter Kropotkin with his 1902 book, ‘Mutual Aid’, in which he claims that cooperation is in fact far more important than competition in the processes of natural selection. Building on this claim, he then goes on to suggest that the desire to cooperate is the principle motivation of the human organism, and that we should therefore immediately reestablish our society as an anarchist paradise.
So what is the answer? I suggest that we can look for it as part of a new paradigm that can be seen emerging within our current society.
This new paradigm can be understood to be emerging from between the extremes of the separatism described above and the ‘collectivism’, espoused by theorists such as Marx, Engels and Kropotkin, which rose up to oppose it.
The new ‘balanced’ paradigm has been steadily growing over the last couple of hundred years until now it has arguably come to dominate our way of thinking. This new paradigm finds its roots in the increasing influence that Eastern philosophy, which recognizes paradox and polarity as central to nature, is having on the West.
We can also look to Rousseau, who asserted that humans are paradoxically motivated by both self interest and moral virtue, and that our social institutions should reflect this, with both high levels of social organization and high levels of freedom. We can understand the increasing levels of democracy within our systems of government over the last few centuries in this context.
Hegel gave us the dialectic, with progressions in nature swinging between the polar extremes of the ‘thesis’ and the ‘anti-thesis’, as well as tending to find balance with the ‘synthesis’. We have seen the emergence of modern physics, which tells us that the stuff of the universe is paradoxically composed of both matter and energy at the same time.
We can also see the growing influence of Karl Jung’s theories of psychology, which have polarity built into their structure: anima/animus, extrovert/introvert etc. We can look at systems theorists, with their concept of nature being composed of holons; distinct entities which can be both broken down into smaller holons and which simultaneously form a part of larger holons.
We can also understand the emergence of the human and civil rights movements, feminism, environmentalism etc, as having grown up within the cradle of this emerging new paradigm.
In short, the new paradigm tells us that we are both matter and energy, feminine and masculine, separate individuals and a connected community, self-interested and benevolent, competitive and cooperative.
Applying this new mind-set to evolution theory, we can look at dual drivers behind the processes of natural selection; parallel streams, each of which is equally important.
On the one hand we can view evolution from the perspective of the individual as was Darwin’s focus, with the individual organism competing with it’s surrounds and passing on (what came to be understood as) its genetic heritage. At the same time, we can look from the perspective of the collective, with the evolution of eco-systems and communities, interdependent and cooperative relationships and the passing on of cultural heritage.
In 1976, Richard Dawkins gave us the concept of memes, units of cultural heritage (such as music or language), passed on within the larger brained organisms from generation to generation, but Dawkins is still focused on the individual. Simply through shifting our perspective, we can readily see that the passing on of cultural heritage has been going on throughout the entire evolutionary process.
Cultural heritage can be understood quite simply as the evolving forms and relationships within our ecosystems, and this cultural heritage is equally important to genetic heritage in determining evolutionary outcomes.
As much as it is the characteristics of a specific organism that will enable it to prosper or not, it is the shape of the ecosystem within which that organism lives. Ecosystems and communities, with their continuing and evolving relationships, will squeeze the direction of evolution, destroying that which does not fit and promoting that which does, just as surely as will variations within particular individuals.
So there we have the dual drivers behind natural selection:
• The individual/self-interest/survival of the fittest/genetic heritage
• The community/benevolence/mutual aid/cultural heritage.
These two drivers feed into and overlap one another, with the individual and the community each effecting outcomes for the other. We can see dual motivations within the individual organism: to commune with and to control its surrounds. We can also see both competitive and cooperative relationships existing side by side within a community.