Spiraling Round

October 23, 2009 | Leave a Comment

Category: Biology, Society

I’ve been reading The Selfish Genius by Fern Elsdon-Baker.  The book feels like both a window into contemporary evolutionary biological theorist societal culture and a support of my feelings regarding Neo-Darwinism.  There are lots of fascinating historical tidbits.

One piece of the historical narrative I’ve found deeply interesting is the relationship between professionals and amateurs while the polarity between atheism and spirituality are in play.  In Darwin’s day, Thomas Huxley, Darwin’s bulldog, led the movement to place supporters of Darwin’s theory of natural selection in important positions in universities.  At the same time, he was bullying his way into establishing a professional, merit-based science community as opposed to science controlled by moneyed elites with leisure time.  Connected to this transition was the emergence of professional scientists with an atheistic point of view.

In the mid to late nineteenth century, there were several theories of evolution combating to explain patterns observed in nature.  Wallace contacted Darwin in 1858 with Wallace’s version of the theory of natural selection.  Darwin at that time had been working on three different dynamics of evolution.  Darwin had not discovered a way to integrate natural selection, sexual selection and Lamarckian selection, what Darwin called “pangenesis.”  He shelved the synthesis and proceeded with Wallace to publish a joint paper in 1858, releasing On the Origin of Species a year later after working furiously to condense the content to a single volume.

Darwin never found a way to integrate all three theories.

It is 150 years later and we seem to be circling back.  The only amateurs 150 years ago who were able to afford the time and resources required to make a contribution to science were the wealthy.  These were often religious men, deists, practitioners who believed both in god and in a material universe.  With the conversion of the science system to degreed professionals working through universities, men that often embraced no deity, society grew to rely upon a system that was both less elite based and deeply reductionist.  Less money and no god became allies.

There feels to me to be a connection between a professional community and those with a reductionist commitment that believe in no god.  This is in contrast to an amateur community characterized by a multiscale, multidiscipline, nonreductionist perspective, often with a spiritual component.

What feels particularly interesting to me right now are the signs that we are returning, after 150 years, to an amateur (Internet-based) theorizing community, one withdrawing from reductionist presuppositions to engage in multiscale, multidiscipline explorations.  Though I wouldn’t suggest that classic spirituality is returning, there are strong signs that the new nonreductionist zeitgeist features an openness to nonmythology-based spiritual interpretations of experience.

I was shocked to read in The Selfish Genius that Darwin was exploring all three theories when Wallace wrote his world-changing letter.  I’d always assumed that they were experienced in some succession related to the sequence in which the three main books were published.  Darwin was deeply aware of the anomalies that a theory of natural selection alone could not explain.  Those of you familiar with my work know that I believe that there is a way to integrate all three theories, addressing many of the anomalies that have emerged.  Yesterday, I typed text that summed this up…

If heterochrony is the study of the rates and timing of maturation, with testosterone levels impacting rate and estrogen levels controlling timing, then those environmental or social-structure adjustments that influence levels of testosterone and estrogen determine the speed, timing, features and direction of evolution.

The oroborus is a symbol I’ve found useful when exploring cycles in social change.  Some cycles seem to unfold over thousands of years.  Others unfold in a mere 150.  It feels to me like we have spiraled around to address issues in play 150 years ago.  Amateurism, reductionism, spirituality and theory synthesis all feel, to me, to be related.  Reading history can feel like reading about the present day.


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