That Which Propagates

There is a great deal of confusion over evolution, beginning with precisely what that term embodies.  A lot of folklore has been produced on this subject and Richard Dawkins seems to be responsible for some of the more memorable tales.  One of his more notable introductions is the field of memetics to evolutionary biology. Dawkins has come out against the internet’s use of the term, describing it as erroneous.  As an internet meme is not intended to be accurate transcription of its base and often intentionally includes mutation.  Yet this is the nature of ideas and precedes the internet by a time span at least as long as recorded history.  Slogans on evolution and memetics multiply with transcription errors typical of the thing described(here phylogeny truly does recapitulate ontogeny).  This is typified by Spencer’s modification of “survival of the most adaptive” to “survival of the fittest.”  “But who still reads Spencer?”  Eager to disrupt, I’d add my own mantra—evolution is “that which propagates.”  Any further characterization of the system as such is inaccurate.  Comments on beneficial mutation, incremental advance, and selfish genes might elucidate a part, but obscures the whole.  The whole is characterized only and solely by “that which propagates.”  Divorce the system from all physical phenomena and environs, life is within “that which propagates.”  Partitions, especially when reified in example can often be opposed with a counterexample, because the counterexample has also propagated.  The unfortunate effect of this is that people who are poorly equipped to deal with theory believe the counterexample comments against and undermines the whole and not only a part.  The result is that many people believe that evolution is “just a theory(it is),” identifying theory with their own naive notion of belief.  The issue repeats itself when militant atheists take it on themselves to attack the religious and their naive notions, with their own.  Assailing an artless theology with counterexample, rarely realizing they are only convincing themselves and that to undermine a part does not destroy the whole.  The usual though often eloquent arguments that are frequently recited extend from Christopher Hitchens, and bear the indelible stamp of that exalted origin.  These would still have difficulty competing with a more sophisticated cosmology or Spinoza’s God(I believe Hitchens’ yielded that he could consider something like Spinoza’s God, but that that imagining of God has little to do with the common imagination).

There are perhaps eight general approaches to dismantling traditional religious belief, and any of them will do(political benefits of a cosmic ruler narrative, evolutionary, physical, general subversion of telos, ineffective theodicy, etc.).  What’s convincing tends to depend more on the age and temperament of the initiate than the thoroughness of the argument.  The unfortunate reality is that these arguments are rarely understood, much less deeply questioned once received(skimming the first layer for appearances), in this way I rarely find an atheist who has a convincing reason to be an atheist(its worn as a social identification, not as the corollary of a fleshed out personal philosophy).  We fair no better with those bound up in traditional religious views, unsophisticated theologies so brittle they survive only due to a total lack of examination and ordained fecundity.

In physics we are in crisis over the intractable nature of string theory and the failure of all SUSY theories to provide verifiable predictions about the world.  This is due in part to the excessive development of mathematics in the field and has largely left the discipline inaccessible and incomprehensible to most.  Brought on by the unnecessarily intelligent theoretician’s penchant for—and ease with pure mathematics.  In biology and neuroscience we find the opposite tendency in the development of their central paradigms.  As intelligent and learned as the people certainly are, there is a tendency for what is comprehensible to become popular.  But where does it say that the world should be comprehensible to apes?  Biology has taken on gradualism as its primary banner, while neuroscience has enlisted the computational approach as its ensign.  These views have the tremendous advantage of being accessible and because of this, they are “that which propagates.”  A complex and holistic problem is reduced to a local component, people and funding soon follow and aggregate shortly after.  This should not be taken to imply that these views are wrong, certainly they have been and will be incredibly successful.  Generative grammar labored in vain for a productive theory of linguistics, but with the rise of NLP(natural language processing) these efforts were soon forgotten.  With the technical success and industry demands that only computational linguistics could satisfy, people and funding soon follow and aggregate shortly after(though deep learning techniques have recently outstripped decades of NLP research).  This strongly combinatoric approach to neuroscience as featured in BRAIN will produce results and possibly dead end in twenty years.  The topological elements are left out: when we examine circuits we pretend that these are isolated components that do not interact with one another outside of the wiring diagram, but there are complex electrodynamic cross-interactions between components.  Edge effects, surface physics, and the now mostly dead antenna theory are ignored when they are irrelevant to the operation of the device(rightly so).  Consciousness might be a result of electrodynamic effects(disregarding the introduction of bio-photons which will have to accounted for going forward in any case) and would make comprehension of the brain even more difficult than it is now.  “Does the brain secrete thought as the liver secretes bile?  Is it essentially productive or transmissive?”  In the case of a holonomic theory of the brain, one could imagine that a timing disorder like schizophrenia could produce off phase states that act as minor seemingly exogenous consciousnesses which are perceived to be negative in narrative due only to their alien character and a kind of James-Lange reaction against them.  Note: I describe schizophrenia as a timing disorder as the g ratio in the schizophrenic brain(the ratio of glial matter to axon in a myelinated fiber) differs from the normal range of 0.8-2.0 A/G and changes the rate of conduction(altering the timing of affected neural circuits).  In the case of biology, gradualism cannot easily cope with many of the core features of evolution.  A question about ion channels will lead to some hand waving about cascades.  The greatest gap in gradualism is an explanation of: “why does a thing separate itself from its environs(?).”  Why is there an in here versus some out there?  Offers are made, but the cell wall and the human “I” have resisted gradualism.  A spontaneous(truly random) mutation offers some resolution and punctuated equilibrium is a crucial amendment in the description of “that which propagates.”  Still, an excessively discursive component remains and only a maximally developed biological system like an equatorial rainforest or the penultimate millennia of the precambrian era soften boundaries enough to underline the whole.

Featured Image: Feynman Propagator

©matthewludwig

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