A RESPONSE TO PAUL GILCHRIST’S PAPER ON ‘EVOLVING SYSTEMS’
(a shorter version was published in ISAA Review, Volume 14, number 1, 2015, p.94)
To orient readers of Paul Gilchrist’s paper I would characterise it, first, as a commentary on my own paper ‘ My Unfinished World View’ published in the ISAA Review recently and, secondly, as a vehicle for introducing various aspects of Gilchrist’s own world view, including several that are the products of his own thinking. Paul Gilchrist and I both draw heavily on others in synthesising our respective world-views, picking and choosing and, occasionally, adding in a personal insight or clarification, which strikes us as original.
Equally, Paul Gilchrist and I build our world-views around the same central idea, namely, that everything that has ever happened and will happen is the outcome of evolutionary processes. While such processes express and have expressed themselves in a multitude of ways, they all conform to what I will call ‘the principle of universal selection.’
Before I return to the idea of universal selection, let me comment on ‘quibbles’ he has with two ideas that I find useful, the ideas of ‘virtual species’ and ‘bicameral mind.’
The first of these is an ecological metaphor in which I try to capture the insight that human societies are self-organised into interest groups that pursue their own wellbeing with limited concern for the wellbeing of other interest groups. In ‘natural’ ecosystems populations of plant and animal species behave as if similarly motivated. The metaphor is rich in that many well-known processes in ‘natural’ ecosystems suggest analogous processes in human ecosystems. Having said that I am quite happy to use the term ‘interest groups’ in most discussions of human ecosystems.
The term ‘bicameral mind’ was introduced by Julian Jaynes to describe what he saw as a phase, beginning in the early Neolithic period and lasting till the end of the Bronze Age, in the development of human self-consciousness. It was characterised by a minimally developed concept of oneself and by an understanding that all thoughts and mental images came from outside, implanted by gods for example. Bicameral people had no ability to introspect and view their own thoughts. Characters in the Iliad explain their impulses to act in particular ways as being instructions ‘breathed’ into them by particular gods. Whether or not those instructions took the form of auditory hallucinations as cogently argued by Julian Jaynes is of no immediate import. Notwithstanding, as Jaynes demonstrates, it was not until what he calls the bicameral mind broke down - from, say, 1100 BCE - that people began to take responsibility for themselves and subsequently took credit for their own works and mental activity. Outside agents were put to one side as people internalised (came to believe without question) the idea that the agent directing one’s actions and thoughts is oneself.
Given this perception is worldwide amongst literate peoples Paul Gilchrist is on firm ground when he questions how such a shift in mentality could have emerged and spread globally in as short a time as, perhaps, a thousand years. As we understand genetic change in populations, it could not have been genetic. Perhaps there were multiple centres of origin beyond the Near East and the Eastern Mediterranean, all rooted in the pan-Eurasian chaos that followed the Bronze Age. Chinese literature moved from bicameral non-consciousness to subjective consciousness about 500 BCE with the writings of Confucius. And in India, literature shifted to subjective consciousness around 400 BCE with the Upanishadic writings. Notwithstanding, I acknowledge the gap in my story while remaining confident that careful research will narrow it in time.
Back now to the centrally important principle of universal selection where Paul Gilchrist and I stand shoulder to shoulder – with minor differences. In favouring the term ‘universal selection’ over ‘Darwinian selection’ we are not rejecting Darwin’s (and Wallace’s) core idea that evolution in biological species is a process of selective retention of variation in replicating populations of individual species. We are extending it. Gilchrist likes Daniel Dennett’s observation that all evolutionary processes share the same characteristics of replication, variation and differential fitness; and I agree. Introducing ‘differential fitness’ provides a basis for understanding why certain variations (for example, genetic mutations) are selectively retained during the bio-evolutionary process. The more important claim, still novel and still regarded with suspicion in many disciplines, is the idea that beyond biology, this process, this principle, is ‘universal’ across the human sciences and humanities. Operationalising it may be more problematic. For example, my own current interest is in understanding social change as a process of universal selection.
Moving on, the bulk of Gilchrist’s paper presents as an extended discussion of change in human ecosystems, in particular how we should understand it and how we should respond to and guide it.
His starting point is to conceptualise the world in terms of (a) natural and (b) artificial or human-made systems, e.g. institutions such as governments. All systems draw energy from their environment and, after using it to maintain themselves, dissipate it as (usually) low-grade heat. When a system’s environment changes it must access ‘new’ energy sources or suffer collapse. An ‘adaptive’ system is one which maintains itself in a steady state by finding new energy sources when the environment changes.
Gilchrist identifies the adaptive process as one of, to use Darwin’s phrase, ‘descent with modification’, but ‘descent with modification’ is really just universal selection in action. In a stable environment, natural and human-made systems evolve towards a steady or stable state. However, there is always the lurking contingency that ‘human intervention,’ intentional or unintentional, will change the selection process or the environment such that the system needs to change in order to survive.
This is why humans need to examine the components of the selection process (‘what’s happening’) and choose ‘what-to-do’ actions, which promote society’s values. For example, conservative choices favour stability and progressive choices favour ‘improvement’. Humans need to be ‘intelligent designers’. While we must beware of the possible unintended consequences of our actions, doing nothing, he says, is not an option because the system evolves whether we intervene or not.
Towards the end of his paper Paul Gilchrist suggests that history is a major source of information as to ‘what’s happening’ and quotes favourably from Harari (2011), including his discussion of the importance of ‘memes’ (which I think are best thought of as ‘cultural genes’). Overall, Gilchrist’s paper has made me think a little more carefully about some of the ideas I wove into my ‘unfinished world view’.