July 29, 2012. I’m back from a Baha’i pilgrimage to Haifa and Acre and from visits to the great Mediterranean cities of Marrakesh, Fes, Istanbul and Jerusalem. The latter – imperial cities of great empires or holy cities of pilgrimage – played central roles in emergence of three of the world’s great religious systems. The modern world and its technologies, its sciences – and its immense problems – emerged from these religious systems – networks of shared belief and moral and spiritual teachings.
What is the driving force behind the emergence of these great, world-advancing systems of thought and belief, and the trade, discourse, expansion, and creativity they brought about?
The influential naturalist and scientist Charles Darwin, inspired by his own pilgrimage – a journey as a naturalist aboard the HMS Beagle of exploration of the natural wonders of the southern hemisphere from 1831 to 1836 – concluded that the driving force was evolution.
Today’s blog explores the topic of evolution from the standpoint of emergence.
Origins of Emergence
I briefly described emergence in the preceeding blog in this series (Evolution, Science, and Religion 18: On Emergence). Emergence is “the arising of novel and coherent structures, patterns, and properties during the process of self-organization in complex systems” and can be characterized by four principles (after Goldstein 1999):
(1) radical novelty (features not observed in component systems)
(2) coherence or correlation (meaning integrated wholes that maintain themselves over some period of time)
(3) global or macro “levels” (i.e. there is some property of “wholeness”), and
(4)the product of a dynamical processes (evolution).
The basic idea of emergence is very old – the idea that order emerged out of chaos is its precursor and preceeds the axial age. And much of modern emergent thinking is prefigured in holistic philosophies of the past. Aristotle famously summed it up as follows:
The whole is more than the sum of its parts.
Nineteenth century economic theory, as developed by Adam Smith (and later further developed in the 20th century by Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, and others), was a powerful influence on Darwin’s thinking. It holds that self-organization appears spontaneously in market places as a result of natural selection performed by rational actors and is behind modern theories of capitalism and neo-liberalism. Its ideas are basically those of emergence, albeit with rationality and information playing a critical role.
The English philosopher George Henry Lewes and the evangelist Henry Drummond were the first 19th century thinkers that developed the modern idea of emergence. Drummond, in The Descent of Man (1894), wrote:
When we pass from the inorganic to the organic we come upon a new set of laws – but the reason why the lower set do not seem to operate in the higher sphere is not that they are annhilated, but that they are overruled.
These evolution-related ideas were taken up with enthusiasm by a number of thinkers in the early 20th century, but they faded into obscurity in the 1930s. It was only after the development of complex systems studies by physicists, computer scientists, and mathematicians after World War II that the ideas came again to be seen as relevant to evolution and biology.
Before evaluating the ideas of Stuart Kauffmann and other modern proponents of emergence as a neccesary component of evolutionary science – which I will to do in the next blog – I would like to jump ahead to an evaluation of ideas about emergence and evolution.
Was Darwin right?
Is evolution the driving force behind the creation of new forms of life, as Darwin was inspired to believe (and which he supported with powerful and convincing empirical arguments)? Is evolution behind the activities and creativity of man, as Darwin and many modern evolutionary psychologists believe?
The question is both very important and highly misleading, and the answer is yes, with large components of no mixed in.
The answer to the question is yes for very important scientific and historical reasons. Knowing the details of biological development processes – which evolution provides – leads to answers to a multitude of medical and biological questions, including our relationship to the animal world and a whole host of technical issues we need to understand for our future.
Was Darwin wrong?
When posed as a polemical and metaphysical question, the Darwinian question is highly misleading and the answer is both yes and no.
Those repeating arguments from 19th century theological debates, apparently unknowingly, use evolution as a creation myth that – in keeping with now antiquated and out-of-date needs for creation stories – is thought to tell us our place in the universe. (Do we really need creation stories as a replacement for old-time religion? Do we really want science writers as a new priesthood?)
The question is often postulated as differentiating between scientific points of view – ‘nature done it’ – and religious points of view – ‘God done it’. The distinction between the two points of view – as I think obvious to any clear headed thinker, religious or not – is meaningless. And this is despite the determined misunderstandings of a very many people.
This is because the widespread religious view is NOT that God intervened miraculously to modify a preexisting universe – a narrowly modern view that seems to be a poorly thought-through response to 19th century scientism – but that God created the universe, its laws, and everything in it, which includes any and all postulated or proven laws of nature.
So, at best, the issue is one of coming to grips with the age of the universe and the supposed need for miracles as a necessary proof of the existence of God. But in practice, evolution has been put into service as a political/metaphysical weapon in the fight between believers in different types of metaphysical creeds.
Those who don’t believe in God have – without scientific support for their conclusions – insisted that evolution supports their materialistic beliefs. Large numbers of people who don’t subscribe to materialistic beliefs – but who aren’t scientifically sophisticated – are thus encouraged towards a visceral distrust of evolutionary science, equating it with the materialism that their opponents declare it to be.
It is in this sense that Darwin was wrong, not the scientific sense.
Is evolution an emergent phenomena?
Yes, evolution clearly describes an emergent phenomena. Living and non-living things are clearly different, and evolution makes no reference to the underlying physics. It considers features only found in living systems, systems that are stable in some cases for millions, even billions of years. And it describes dynamical process with natural selection – something that we are intimately familiar with in our everyday life – playing a crucial role.
But, perhaps because of the high prestige of the reductionistic hard science of physics, evolution is often not considered to be about emergence. And this is despite its showing that intrinsically there is a “hierarchy” of organization with life operating on its own rules. The facts of life are NOT explained by the laws of physics – those laws play a role, but are dominated by the intrinsic organizational properties of living things.
We must ask some questions.
If life is a category not explainable by physics, why can’t we think of the mind, something which emerges from living things, as being not explained by biology. Why can’t it have its own set of rules, its own reality? Why isn’t it an emergent phenomena?
And if the mind has its own reality, what is wrong with thinking it to be a part of the universe, as life is? The idea that mind is part of the universe is – arguably – the basic idea of religion.
This is the 19th in a series of blogs on evolution and religion. The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he wrote Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution with Courosh Mehanian. He worked at NTT in Japan before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.