The Uniqueness of Humanity » IAI TV (2023)

As we reflect on how, and to what extent, humanity differs from all other species, a key question must be considered: What role, if any, does conscious agency play in Darwinian evolution?

One thing should be noted right away. According to Darwinism, evolution itself rightly has no purpose. However, living beings have their purpose. Living things pursue goals such as food, flight from predators, finding a mate, caring for offspring, defending territories, and so on. Darwin's theory states that the ultimate goal of all living things is survival and reproductive success. When everything is in order, all other goals that living beings pursue contribute to the realization of the main goal.

There are biologists who think it's heretical to use animals as targets - let alone insects, plants, bacteria or viruses. This is because they misunderstand what "deliberate action" is supposed to mean in this context. First, they may think that "goal" means "conscious intent." Of course, that's not the right concept at all. Second, they may think that the meaning of "goal" is that goal-directed action involves violating the laws of physics. In other words, they understand purpose in an incompatible sense: for something to have a purpose, ordinary physical laws must be violated.

Both concepts of "purpose" are wrong concepts to consider. What we need when thinking about the conscious actions of living beings is a concept that applies not only to living beings but also to man-made artifacts such as thermostats, guided missiles, and robots. The "atom" of practicality in this compatibilistic sense is the thermostat. Its purpose is to maintain a constant temperature in the room through two actions: turning on the heater when the room gets too cold and turning it off when it gets too hot. Everything happens according to physical laws. In fact, it is critical to the proper functioning of the thermostat.

This compatibilistic, negative feedback, control, and thermostatic notion of expediency is what we need when we talk about the purposeful actions of sentient beings. This is basically Darwinian evolution. In this sense, all living beings are purposeful things. By declaring that a thing has the goal "G" in a given environment, we are declaring that the thing will tend to behave in the environment in such a way that it strives to achieve "G" (even if that thing is not always successful). . The physics are not affected. Awareness doesn't have to be there. But feeling and consciousness can exist, and over the course of evolution both arose as a result of the conscious actions of animals.

After these introductions, let us return to our original question: what role, if any, does conscious action (in this compatibilistic sense) play in Darwinian evolution?

An extreme view to be attributed to Richard Dawkins is simply not one. Darwinian evolution rests solely on genes, and genes have no purpose even in this compatibilistic sense. Evolution is, so to speak, a completely mechanical process, a conscious act that has nothing to contribute.

This "mechanistic" version of the theory of evolution creates a critical gap between the non-human biological world and our human world. The way our human world evolves is clearly influenced by purposeful action. History is undoubtedly the result of many human activities, although natural phenomena such as floods, droughts, fires, earthquakes and diseases also influence it. However, according to the "mechanistic" view, conscious action plays no role in the development of the non-human biological world.

One way of bridging the gap between the purely "mechanistic" nature of the non-human biological world and the teleological human world is to assert that even in the human world, single-mindedness is an illusion. Dawkins defended this extreme view. In a lecture he gave at the LSE a few years ago, he showed a clip from "Fawlty Towers" in which Basil Fawlty punishes a car with a branch for not moving. The clear conclusion was that, in Dawkins' view, we are all, like the automobile, incapable of purposeful action, and that any seeming purpose in our human world is nothing more than an enduring illusion.

Fortunately, we are not obliged to take this bleak view of human life. Instead of removing the target from the human world, we can recognize its existence not only in our world but also in the non-human biological world. The fact is, the chasm between the nonhuman and human worlds is nothing more than an artifact of adopting an untenable version of Darwin's theory. The "mechanistic" version of Darwinism does not do justice to evolution and deserves to be rejected. It must be understood that conscious action played an increasingly important role in evolution long before the emergence of humans. In general, as evolution progresses, the mechanisms of evolution evolve. It is impossible to defend any version of Darwinism that does not recognize this point.

This question is discussed at length in Chapter 8 of my book, Cating God in Half—and Putting the Pieces Back Together: A New Approach to Philosophy (available online for free). There I distinguish eight different versions of Darwinism, beginning with the extreme "mechanistic" version listed above. Subsequent versions have gradually given purposeful action an increasingly important role in Darwin's view of evolution.

For example, the fourth version of Darwin's theory states that natural selection involves the conscious actions of animals and that the evolution of a given species may well depend on the conscious actions of other animals. Caterpillars maintain brilliant camouflage because generations of caterpillars with primitive camouflage have been discovered and eaten by generations of birds. Bird perception and behavior, along with random mutations, have resulted in brilliant camouflage. Peacocks got big tails because generations of peacocks preferred to mate with the peacocks that had the best tails. Across the animal kingdom, the conscious actions of animals play a role in evolution by determining or influencing which animals survive and which do not.

The fifth version of the Darwinian theory holds that since animals learn and can learn by imitation, there is a possibility for the way of life (which constitutes Darwinism) to evolve through cultural means. Here is a rough illustration of this idea. Imagine a dog-like creature walking on land. Then the person discovers that the fish in the river can be caught and eaten. This person's actions will also be imitated by other dogs. Now there's a mutation: puppies are born with fins instead of legs. They survive and reproduce, swim and fish in the river. As a result, a new beaver-like species evolved. The key point to understand is that the result of learning and imitation, the mutation that turned legs into flippers, would go nowhere without a prior change in purposeful action. Puppies with fins would die on land. Only when the intended action was changed in advance could the pups survive and reproduce.

We humans are almost certainly largely a product of this type of cultural development. Our ability to learn, understand and speak a language almost certainly evolved in this way. Prehuman hominoids speak a primitive language. Those who speak the language well are sought after as partners and have more offspring. In this way, mutations that result in an improved ability to learn, understand, and speak a language are spread throughout the population. Language use plays a role in developing the ability to use language. Other human abilities, such as the ability to understand others, likely evolved in a similar way. However, it is important to understand that this type of evolution through cultural means is not limited to humans. It is also widespread in the animal world.

Evolutionary biologists recognize these points but downplay their importance for our understanding of Darwin's theory, which I have detailed in my book. One clue to this is the way the evolutionary process I have called "evolution through cultural means" has been misinterpreted and distorted by evolutionary theorists as the "Baldwin Effect." This is, as I say in my book, an "error catalogue". In particular, evolution through cultural means was first clearly described and understood by Lloyd Morgan and Fairfield Osborn in 1896. Then Baldwin grossly distorted their idea. Unfortunately, this is a distorted version of Baldwin's ideas, later modified by the work of G.G. known as the "Baldwin Effect". Simpson and more recently Daniel Dennett.

The versions of Darwinian theory that I consider in my book consider not only the role of goal-directed action in evolution, but also the role of sentient and then conscious action.

Once one recognizes that goal-directed action plays an increasingly important role in evolution as life develops, there is an imminent danger that the theory will become circular in invoking exactly what in trying to explain goal-directed action she tries to explain. In order to avoid this harmful form of circularity, the following principle of non-circularity must be observed: A theory cannot presuppose what it tries to explain. If Darwinian theory uses a teleological explanation at even one level of evolution, it must explain how that kind of teleology arose at that level of evolution without using the very concept of teleology that is being explained.

The intentional version of Darwinism that I articulate in my book has profound implications for our understanding of how and why we came into being and how we relate to the rest of life. As I say in my book, “The result [of this view] is a profound change in the whole way...of understanding evolution. The actions of animals, our ancestors, millions of years in the past, played a crucial role in the origin of our existence. Evolution is not just blind chance and necessity, to quote the title of Jacque Monod's book. Our animal ancestors seek life to eat, to avoid eating, to mate, to raise young—an integral part of why we exist. Of course they wouldn't want us to exist. However, we would not be here without their efforts. We owe them a debt of gratitude.”

Of course we are unique. No other species has science, art, music, literature, justice, freedom and democracy like we do. Of course, no other species is as adept at dealing with war, murder, rape, torture, slavery, and the general ability to wreak havoc, destroy natural habitats, and bring about mass extinctions. It is important that we also see nonhuman life as meaningful, lest we shut ourselves off from what is valuable in nonhuman life: feeling and the origins of consciousness; youth care; Friendship; Game; against; the general wonder, beauty and wonder of our fellow creatures and beings on earth.

Nicholas Maxwell is Lecturer Emeritus in Science and Technology Studies at University College London. His latest bookWie Universitäten zur Schaffung einer intelligenteren Welt beitragen können: Die dringende Notwendigkeit einer akademischen RevolutionIt is published by Imprint Academic for £9.95. for moreClick here.


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