ConclusionsSome conclusions drawn from bioepistemic evolution, the generalized form of evolutionary theory described in The Architecture of Thought: A New Look at Human Evolution.
The Place of Bioepistemic Evolution
All authors hope that their work will be read by many people but this book is not an easy read and even intelligent, educated readers could feel uncomfortable with the approach it adopts. Some of the ideas are quite difficult in themselves and, although they are quite compatible with conventional evolutionary theory, they are different enough to create dissonance in the minds of readers familiar with more conventional approaches. Those difficulties will be increased by the range of fields reviewed, philosophy, sociology, psychology and biology to name but four, even mathematics is touched on in places. Respect is due to those who work their way through to this final chapter but the author cannot apologize for these difficulties, which stem, unavoidably, from the nature of the work.
The ideas presented here are very novel and, in recent years, it has become commonplace to hype novelty with such descriptions as "revolutionary," or "new paradigm." Such terms, double-edged compliments at the best of times, have now become clichés. In the world of ideas, novelty is an overrated quality, not really admirable in itself. Too often, the scientific opus hailed as a harbinger of the next revolution proves, on examination, to be a worthy but slightly pedestrian idea that could have been articulated in twenty pages; worse, it sometimes proves to be an idea that really would be revolutionary, were it correct, but which is, rather obviously, nothing of the sort.
Nonetheless, the arguments and ideas of bioepistemic evolution are certainly novel and challenge some deeply ingrained ways of thinking. Perhaps they are even "revolutionary" but one hopes they will not be judged for that, either positively or negatively. Novelty should be combined with purpose and aim to improve on earlier thinking. Worthwhile ideas do not worship at the idol of novelty, nor are they advanced merely for the sake of change, variety or amusement. Though it may make readers uncomfortable, bioepistemic evolution does not challenge the foundations of conventional evolutionary theory, rather it generalizes them and is therefore compatible with current conclusions. A the same time, bioepistemic evolution offers a number of clear improvements and creates a more coherent viewpoint with interpretative power across a wider area that includes social phenomena and the traits that emerged during the socialization phase of human development. In this respect bioepistemic evolution offers a new way of seeing mankind that moves evolutionary thinking into new areas.
Accordingly, this final chapter will summarize its main arguments and innovations and discuss why they turn out to be applicable to the particular fields discussed. It will also try to place these ideas in the history of thought and show their relevance to today's world.
Scientists have asserted for many years that humans have an evolutionary origin and that perspective is now taken to be synonymous with genetic arguments. However, bioepistemic evolution finds the assumptions of genetics too limiting; in particular, it is suggested, the idea of the gene as the fundamental unit of evolution should be abandoned. Genes, it is argued, are discrete stretches of DNA encoding knowledge that can be translated to produce protein molecules. The discreteness of these regions of DNA arise from the discreteness of functioning protein molecules. Since mutations that divide or extend those packages almost always produce non-functional proteins, the DNA sequence coding for a protein becomes effectively indivisible, an atom of evolution, a gene. However, this indivisibility, so famously discovered by Mendel, and apparent in all aspects of biological evolution, actually originates in the biochemistry of proteins not in evolution itself; a gene is a sequence of DNA, a packet of knowledge, made indivisible by the biochemistry of its translation, not by evolution per se.
If one were to find evolution in some other milieu, not involving biochemistry, there would be no à priori reason to expect knowledge to be divided into similar indivisible packets. For example, cultural knowledge appears infinitely divisible so that the concept of a "meme," Dawkins (1989), is unlikely to have the same reality as the gene. These considerations raise serious doubts about the reductionist thread, the practice of directing all evolutionary analysis to the level of the "underlying genes", that predominates in modern evolutionary theory.
Accordingly, bioepistemic evolution abandons genes as the fundamental to evolution and takes its inspiration from evolutionary approaches that have been used in epistemology. In general, these take "knowledge" as the principle product and fundamental unit of all evolution while "an epistemology" can be taken to be the selective procedure that, when applied to information, generates knowledge. Natural selection then emerges as an example of an epistemology, which is why knowledge can be taken to be the most basic unit of evolution. This view is very similar to that given by Plotkin (1994), namely that all knowledge arises from some selective process analogous to evolutionary, trial and error. Plotkin, like Popper before him, described higher levels of knowledge and the present work adopts their approach, though using a different terminology and requiring an additional level.
The most basic meaning of "knowledge" is the knowledge an organism possesses about its environment of evolutionary adaptation, particularly knowledge of the life skills and strategies that make it evolutionarily fit and able to reproduce. Such knowledge can be held in DNA sequence but it can also be held in other forms, particularly in the brain. Viewed this way, human knowledge can be divided into levels, ranging from level0 up to level4, each produced by a corresponding evolutionary rank. Level0 knowledge arose during rank0 evolution before genes were formed and was responsible for their formation. Little can be said about this phase of evolution. Genetic knowledge is level1 knowledge and provides successful organisms with the know-how to metabolize food, to reproduce and to build their cells, organs, bodies and instincts, etc. Conventional genetics studies the evolution of level1 knowledge.
Evolutionary theorists have been well aware of other ranks of evolution, for example, sensory, level2 knowledge has often been discussed in terms of evolution occurring within Darwinian machines, such as the brain. Level3, social knowledge is also widely discussed in terms of cultural evolution or gene-culture coevolution. Like genetic knowledge, social knowledge is heritable, transmitted from generation to generation, and the human species is adapted to make itself the milieu of this phase in evolution. Level4 knowledge is the knowledge associated with a subculture and includes professional knowledge.
This work integrates these evolutionary processes into a single, integrated, hierarchical scheme of evolution, a single epistemology. Each rank of the evolutionary hierarchy can take products of lower ranks and use them as component building blocks, assembling them according to the knowledge accumulating within that rank. Thus level3 knowledge accumulates in social structures. Human, level1, genetic knowledge provides the potentiality to fit into those structures and create social knowledge.
The existence of level3 knowledge creates the potential for the group, rather than the individual, to be the unit evolutionary selection. Humans possess far more knowledge at level3 than at level1 but this knowledge is inherited from the group as a whole, not just parents, so that group selection should be stronger in humans than any other species. Group selection is therefore taken to be a fact in humans and is combined with Darwin's recently revived ideas on sexual selection.
Human characteristics are therefore taken to arise from natural selection, heavily modified by a combination of sexual and group selection. Sexual selection operates only in species with a capacity to see, hear smell or otherwise acquire and store level2 knowledge, sensory knowledge, about potential sexual partners. It works only in animals with sense organs and brains. Level3 knowledge needs even more sensory acuity and intellectual power and level3 knowledge is the knowledge pool that determines the evolutionary fitness of human groups. Group selection operates on the corpus of level3 knowledge, that is on social knowledge or culture, implying that group selection is a necessary and important aspect of human, evolutionary history.
This program of study, from which this work is taken, has developed over many years during which time the problem it addresses has steadily changed to become more and more general. As the preface discusses, the earliest form of it came from studies into scientific cheating, particularly the ways scientists distort debate to deceive others about the merit, or lack of merit, in their own work. Just as in other areas of human endeavour, and despite public portrayals to the contrary, various forms of deception are widespread in science, playing an important a role in forming its culture and the knowledge claims it makes. Such behaviors conflict with scientific philosophy and ethics, proclamations from its senior figures and the codes of behavior promulgated by its institutions - all of which declare such behavior to be impermissible, or even claim it to be impossible.
This puzzling contradiction seemed to need a resolution and it was the search for it that led to scientific philosophy and evolutionary ideas on epistemology. In contrast to idealistic ideas about scientific method, scientific results, in the form of evolutionary theory, suggest that lying and deception, apparently puzzling, counterscientific behaviors, are quite predictable in any human milieu. Indeed, almost every system of communication in evolutionary history seems to have been exploited by deception. Almost all human beings lie and deceive and human institutions do likewise, despite public claims to the contrary, deception seems to be one of the tools people and organizations use to exercise control and assert power.
Accordingly, the original problem became an attempt to merge scientific philosophy and scientific results - that is to say, merge general statements about scientific method and ethics, with evolutionary theory. An interesting, if abstract, academic question but one to which a solution appeared problematic, since evolutionary theory and scientific ethics seemed entirely incompatible. How could an idea system like scientific ethics and philosophy, involving strict rules of behavior and thought, arise from evolutionary theory, an apparently anarchic system that demands victory by any means?
There was reason for doubt but there was an equally evident impetus, namely that scientific method is essentially identical with its ethic. Evolutionary theory, must be compatible with scientific method, and therefore ethics, otherwise we are faced with a logical absurdity, namely that, according to scientific results, science cannot exist. So, to recap, the problem was to find, from evolutionary theory, a theory of knowledge that would clarify the meaning and role of ethics in scientific method. The solution, if a solution was ever found, might be of interest to a small, specialized audience of scientific philosophers but not to the general public. Accordingly, the work was, for many years, mostly a matter of personal interest, a hobby that might never yield a solution, or none worthy of print.
But with time the problem changed and expanded, taking on a different character as it did so. Science is a culture, to be more precise a subculture, so the effective problem was one of understanding the evolution of scientific culture. Expressed this way, the problem generalizes to that of using evolutionary theory to show the role of knowledge and ethics in forming any culture.
Societies, Giddens (1976) argues, are based on three communicative modalities, power, knowledge and ethics. (Chapter 12 added sexuality and humor to those three.) Of his three, power is the most fundamental, knowledge and ethical codes both being forms of the assertion of power. Accordingly, and following Giddens argument, a simple description of the scientific subculture would comprise three elements; firstly, the human members of the scientific community arranged as a power hierarchy; secondly, a specialized body of knowledge that this community creates and propagates and, thirdly, ethical rules that could be used to select the knowledge to be propagated as "scientific", choose community members and arrange them in their hierarchies.
Developing such a picture of culture might even be a significant achievement, since no previous study seemed to have used this approach. Accordingly, the problem became wider than its original statement, growing into that of the evolution of culture or society in general. Put this way, the difficulties of the problem were evident, and it was clearly too general to be contained within the frontiers of science or hidden beneath the narrower concerns of the scientific community. The initial problem of using evolutionary theory to interpret scientific or epistemic ethics had become just an instance of the larger question of the evolution of culture in general. Best to address the wider problem and leave science as a specific example.
Even so, it is notable how the smaller problem of scientific cheating offers itself as a microcosm of the larger one. Scientific cheating contains evolutionary theory because that theory is the central pillar of biological thinking. Power enters the problem because evolutionary theory merges with political science through the need for individuals to possess the power to survive and reproduce, hence the ideas of Machiavellian intelligence that have become popular in evolutionary psychology. Knowledge appears in the problem of scientific cheating, because science is all about generating "reliable knowledge" in the phrase scientific philosopher John Ziman (1978) chose as his title. At the same time, the very concept of cheating implies the existence of ethical codes to be broken.
The problem of cultural evolution is certainly a large one but even it proved too small and needed to become still more general. Historically, it is apparent that the evolution of human culture took place alongside the evolution of the human organism, particularly our psychology. The origins of each is bound up with that of the other.
In the parlance of genetics, the debate about human cultural evolution needs to consider three things about human beings. Firstly, our genotype, that is simply human genes as encoded on DNA. Secondly, our phenotype, that is the way in which these genes are expressed in our biological makeup, race, height, colour of hair and eyes. Our phenotype also includes the size and layout of our brains and many aspects of our psychology. Thirdly, our extended phenotype needs to be considered (see Dawkins (1982)). Our extended phenotype is basically the tools and environments we humans build to further our lives. Like a phenotype, an extended phenotype is a product of the way genes are expressed, albeit in a more distant way. For example, cities are part of the human extended phenotype. A culture is an extended phenotype and, described thus, it can easily be seen that human nature, meaning not just our biology but also the structure of our thought processes, will have evolved in parallel with culture.
It would be unthinkable to discuss the evolution of culture without discussing how and why humans became adapted to create it, how we are adapted to handle the knowledge flows necessary for culture to maintain itself. These adaptations include the structure and function of the human mind itself so that the discussion effectively speaks to a still wider problem, that of the evolution of thought, a reflection that leads to the title of the book. The title may seem presumptuous but it gives an indication of how deep these problems ultimately become.
Evolutionary theory, as Darwin well recognized, was not just a new biological theory, it was a new philosophy. This work would argue that it was an epistemology, where an epistemology is a process that generates knowledge when applied to an information set. In this, its most basic form, evolutionary theory should not be seen as a scientific theory as it is doubtful whether it could ever be practically tested. The concept of an evolved creature, possessed of no knowledge except that from evolution, objectively testing a theory of evolution, contains elements of self-reference that might lead to an infinite regress.
One suspects that there might be some inner core of evolutionary theory that is scientifically untestable and should be viewed as philosophy. Within this inner core, natural selection is important and the only known epistemology that can generate knowledge without intervention by an agent already in possession of prior knowledge; it will always attract those who follow Occam's razor. In summary, this work has generalized the epistemology that underlies evolutionary theory, not the biological manifestation of it, and has created a hierarchy of selective, knowledge-generating mechanisms, with natural selection at its base. Because natural selection remains the base epistemology, this hierarchy will not produce interpretations that compete with those derivable, in principle, from simple natural selection. Its advantage lies in shortening the journey from principle to practice and making it easier to interpret phenomena associated with higher levels of knowledge.
The hierarchical epistemology is just one example of a potentially infinite number of modular epistemologies that could be created by combining several different knowledge generating processes, not necessarily in a hierarchy. The component parts of any modular epistemology would be applied simultaneously to different information sets, so generating several sets of knowledge. These knowledge sets would then inherit the same relationships that existed between the modules in the epistemology that produced them. The hierarchical epistemology adopted here was chosen because it naturally produces the hierarchical structure of knowledge summarized in chapter 3. Thus it reflects both the way knowledge appears during the human life cycle and the way it appeared during evolutionary history.
Sexual selection and reproduction transmit level1 knowledge, from generation to generation, while educational and political selection do the same for level3 knowledge. Hence, while this generalization of evolutionary theory cannot produce predictions that are testably different from the more conventional version, it can lead much more directly to the situations that are actually observed. Consequently, it can clarify them and so be of great help in understanding the nature of man, the knowledge animal.
It is not unusual for commentators on evolutionary theory to decry its depiction of humans as programmed mechanisms, unable to make decisions for themselves. "What about free will and personal responsibility?" they say and it is a fair question, though not one to which they usually offer any real answer of their own. The answer implied by this work is that free will is itself a function of knowledge separate from genes.
Long, long ago, in one of the earth's primordial seas, some tiny, single-celled creature developed a primitive sense organ and through its use gained a limited degree of freedom of choice and free will; the creature could decide whether to swim this way or that, left or right. The extra knowledge provided by its sense organ made that choice real and, armed with this knowledge of the world, the creature could make an informed decision whether to swim left toward food, or right into the gaping maw of a predator. Our ancestors swam left.
Choice is useless without knowledge. Free will grows alongside our knowledge of the world and represents our power to make decisions according to that knowledge. The more knowledge a person possesses the more choices he is likely to possess. Freedom of choice and free will are useless illusions for people deprived of knowledge on which to base decisions. Likewise, knowledge is meaningless to a person deprived of the freedom and power to act upon it. Evolution has bestowed on mankind knowledge on which to base decisions, hands with which to implement them and ambition for the power that makes choice possible. With the passage of time, we have come to possess so much more knowledge than animals, so many more choices, that humans, alone among the animals may be said to possess free will.
Free will grows from knowledge and has grown apace as civilization has developed. As Jacob Bronowski's TV series, The Ascent of Man, discussed, civilization greatly increases mankind's stock of knowledge and is built around new ways of accumulating, storing and distributing social knowledge. In his accumulated knowledge, mankind really has ascended above the animals and become the pinnacle of evolution. In other ways a study of biology is fairly humbling experience. Primates are not an especially advanced group of animals, men are not especially fast, big, flexible or ferocious. We don't climb, dig, see, hear or smell at all well and we can't fly at all. Neither is there anything very special about our DNA, we do not possess more of it than other animals, our genes are very similar to those found elsewhere and we have no, uniquely human, extra bits.
Biologically, we are very ordinary, unremarkable animals. Human uniqueness lies, not in what people are, but in what they do and the knowledge the accumulate when they get together in groups. Mankind may have descended from the animals but our species ascended to the pinnacle of evolution by building a mountain of knowledge and climbing it.
In the closing passage of The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin said, "It is interesting to contemplate the tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing in the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us." Darwin could have replaced the English grassy bank of his contemplation by any of the other productive habitats in which earthly life has flourished, an equatorial forest clearing, a stretch of beach or a section of coral reef. Such contemplations always produce a sense of wonder at the extraordinary yet interlocking adaptations exhibited by the profusion of animals and plants to be seen. In every niche there lives a creature, seemingly designed to live there and nowhere else.
It is interesting to ask, is there an epistemic equivalent of the tangled bank within whose abundance we can contemplate human knowledge in all its diversity and profusion? Yes, perhaps there is. If that tangled bank exists, it can be found in our cities, those vast teeming metropoli clothed with buildings of many kinds, filled with men flitting around from task to task or dashing through the damp earth in tubes and women, clothed with garb of many colours. Each of these people live lives seemingly designed for that place and no other and, as they do so they spread messages of many kinds. It is interesting to reflect that these elaborately constructed lives, so different from each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by people, acting around us and upon us, under the human rules they have made. The city is the green bank of knowledge, being both the product of human epistemic evolution and the site in which that evolution finds its most tumultuous excess. Communication is the medium within which level3 knowledge evolves and it is in these cities, in the voices of their people, on the paper their bureaucracies consume, through the wires that connect them and along the tracks that interlink them, that most human communication takes place.
Within cities, professional groups come together and exchange ideas and opinions, new fashions and products are developed, are seen in use and find new converts. It is in the cities that most human knowledge forms and it is in our great capital cities that those immense repositories of human knowledge, the great national libraries, are located. It is to the city that people of ambition go to further their aspirations through knowledge. The drive that brings people to the cities is strong, as can be seen in the privations they suffer in the shanty towns that surround so many third world metropolitan centres.
It is both interesting and disturbing to contemplate the future of those cities. The rate of the evolution level3 knowledge has been striking and our cities have been built extremely fast but there are limits. Evolution depends upon a continuous throughput of usable energy, with light from the sun driving almost all biological evolution on earth. But, for more than a century, the evolution of knowledge has been driven by accumulated reserves of fossil energy that are fast being depleted. The growth of human knowledge is approaching barriers formed from global warming and limited oil reserves.
The cities of today face a challenge. People join their teeming millions to further their ambitions, their desire for power, wealth and control but those ambitions may conflict with the need to keep our communities in being at all. Can mankind retain all this knowledge, by providing the energy needs of great and growing cities, while protecting the living world from which we emerged and the benevolent, temperate earth upon which we all depend? There is no bigger question facing mankind and our current level3 knowledge set contains no obvious answer. Even if a positive answer emerges, questions will remain. Can humans, ever greedy, competitive and ambitious for more power, unite in a way that puts those answers into effect?
One way or the other, those questions will be answered by the future. Mankind's dearest hope must be that those answers will produce results that can be contemplated by some future Darwin.
© Thisis the conclusions page from the site sexandphilosophy.co.uk.
Last Modified 22 November 2005
The material in this page is adapted and extracted from the concluding chapter of an early draft of "The Architecture of Thought". It is not complete, will differ in detail and phraseology from the published version and should not be taken as definitive. If you wish to cite it, please check a copy of the published version.