07 July 2008

Historical Teleology and Intentional Evolution

Evolution does lead to greater complexity simply because it leads to greater diversity.

I don’t pretend to have the intellectual clout of people like John Gray or Stephen Jay Gould, but I disagree with their contention that evolution has no tendency to move towards greater complexity. It seems to me that discounting the forward progress of evolution is a form of intellectual mischief, a fashionable rejection of optimism. Species or institutional proliferation seems to suggest a richer, more complex environment; the species that will evolve in such an environment have the opportunity to be more complex as well.

I am reading John Gray's new and fascinating book, Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia. In spite of the fact that he seems to simply make claims as often as he argues points, the book is provocative and contains big ideas.

He writes,
"If anything defines ‘the West’ it is the pursuit of salvation in history. It is historical teleology – the belief that history has a built-in purpose or goal – rather than traditions of democracy or tolerance, that sets western civilization apart from all others.”

Yet history – or social evolution - does not need to be teleological in order to move towards greater complexity and more possibility. One can be optimistic about the direction of history without embracing the notion that today’s present was foreordained by our past.

Even more importantly, evolution in biology and society are beginning the transition to intentional processes. Genetic engineering and social change are both in their infancy, but seem to me inevitable. (Undoubtedly, unintentional evolution will continue in both arenas as well, and might even accelerate as intentional evolution is attempted.)

To me, the important point is that entities like society or history or the environment are abstractions. What matters is that individual species and people have options, have room to thrive. In terms of social evolution, the purpose is not a particular type of society. Rather, the purpose ought to be a sustainable world that creates the opportunity for a diverse set of individual to thrive.

What this means is that an institution emerging in today’s world has the possibility of adapting to and exploiting technologies as different as the stock market, legislation, and the Internet. Newly emergent institutions in such an environment need not exploit all this possibility, but some will. This means that increased complexity, if not inevitable, is highly probable.

This means that individuals in these institutions have more possibilities in terms of skill sets to tap into or develop. Given enough time, it almost seems as though possibility means inevitability. Given that a more complex environment offers more opportunity for complexity of species or institutions, it seems inevitable that it will occur in some fashion.

Gray’s insistence that social evolution has no forward direction is about as dangerous, it seems to me, as the notion that social evolution has already realized its potential, has already reached its apex in today’s world.

While history may have no purpose, we can imbue our future with one. And given that we seemed to have moved into the post-DNA period of intentional evolution, this seems rebuttal enough to arguments against increased complexity or purpose.

I might be wildly optimistic, but given how much of today is colored by how we feel about tomorrow, I’ll choose optimism.


LSD said...

Ok, so you've got to know that I'll comment on this one.

I have read three of Gould's books and, while that ensures I am no expert, I do appreciate his writing on the history of science where he demonstrates a critical eye toward intent-driven or desire-driven application of scientific method. He seems to me that he is sensitive to these kinds of influences and rejects them. I wonder if the contention you cite might have been a warning to avoid classifying 'progress' as synonymous with increased-complexity? Evolution's neglected twin is extinction, and the fossil record has shown events that had brutal simplifying effect. -All of it progress.

Perhaps there is a different meaning for 'progress' in biological evolution and social sciences. Does progress mean 'homo-centric progress', or does it mean 'change over time'?

I have wondered about a key relationship (in the biological kind of evolution) between innefficiency and complexity. If you look at animal behavior, it seems that only humans are interested in efficiency. Nature requires a million hatchlings to produce one adult blue-fin tuna. The 999,999 extras are important in supporting the system that the one adult relies on. It's a messy and robust system that makes good use of myriad extra-stuff.

Speaking of innefficiency, it's mid-day and I know this comment is not contributing to my survival...

Just the same, I enjoy your blog.

Ron Davison said...

Wow Scott.
Is it legal for the comment to be more thoughtful than the post? And it is curious, the mention of waste. From the perspective of the next adult tuna, it is wasteful to create the other 999,999; from the system's perspective, almost nothing is wasted.
And I enjoy your comments, cousin.