Monthly Archives: February 2016

The Main Thesis of Robert Wright’s, The Logic of Human Destiny

Robert Wright (1957 – ) is a journalist, and prize-winning author of books about evolutionary psychology, science, religion, and game theory. He is a graduate of Princeton University, where he has taught courses on the evolution of religion.

In Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, Wright argues that biological and cultural evolution are shaped and directed primarily by non-zero-sumness—a concept in game theory that describes situations where both parties involved in an interaction can gain something. (As opposed to zero-sum games where one party’s gain is the other party’s loss, that is, the sum is zero.) As a result of the interactions between individuals in non-zero sum situations, increasingly complex information-processing individuals who cooperate more readily with each other emerge, implying that we are here because of a process that made the evolution of intelligent beings likely. As the complexity of individuals and societies increases, their ability to reap the rewards of cooperation increases, thus perpetuating further cooperation and developmental complexity.

The majority of Wright’s book summarizes the biological and cultural development which follows almost by necessity from non-zero sum interactions. However, at the end of his book, Wright intimates that we may be on the threshold of developing a global consciousness along the lines suggested by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a thinker we will discuss later. This leads him to wonder if there is any spiritual or moral directionality in evolution, and ultimately to the question of whether such progress is connected with the meaning of life. The connection, as Wright sees it, resides in the fact that consciousness imparts meaning.

A strictly empirical analysis of both organic and cultural evolution … reveals a world with direction—a direction suggestive of purpose … Life on earth was, from the beginning, a machine for generating meaning and then deepening it, a machine that created the potential for good and began to fulfill it.[i]

Summary – An analysis of biological and cultural evolution suggest a purposeful direction toward more meaning and goodness.

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[i] Robert Wright, Non-Zero: The Logic of Human Destiny (New York: Vintage, 2001), 331

Jean Piaget: Knowledge Evolves

Jean Piaget (1896-1980) was a Swiss biologist, psychologist, and philosopher known most prominently for his studies of the cognitive development of children. He was a voluminous writer in multiple fields whose publishing career began at age ten and continued unabated for about seventy years. He is one of the most important psychologists and cited intellectuals of the twentieth-century.

The desire to find a bridge between biology and knowledge was Piaget’s lifelong goal, and evolution provided that bridge, since both life and mind evolve.[i] What Piaget discovered after decades of empirical study was that interactions between biological organisms and their physical environment were strikingly parallel to those found in the relation between minds and reality—in both domains evolution proceeds similarly.

The key concepts in Piaget’s thought were: organization, adaptation, assimilation, accommodation, and equilibration. An animal is an organization, a complex, physical structure. If a biological organism is in a state of disequilibrium—for example it’s hungry—it is motivated to adapt to its environment—search for food. This process of adaptation comes about by assimilating from the environment—eating—and then accommodating to what’s been assimilation—undergoing the digestive process. The end result of the adaptive process is that the organism returns to a state of biological equilibrium—its hunger satisfied.

In a similar way humans exist as organisms in a cognitive environment. If an organism is in a state of cognitive disequilibrium—say it’s unsure of a truth claim—it is motivated to adapt to its cognitive environment—say by signing up for a class about the topic. This process of adaptation consists of both the process of assimilating new knowledge—attending a lecture—as well as accommodating to what’s been assimilated—by reconciling the new information with previous cognitive structures. The end result of the adaptive process is that the organism achieves a higher level of cognitive equilibrium.

Together organization and adaptation constitute what Piaget calls the process of equilibration—essentially a biological drive to produce optimal states of equilibrium between organisms and their physical and cognitive environments. The result in biological evolution is organisms more adapted to or equilibrated with their physical environments, and in cognitive evolution organisms more adapted to or equilibrated with their cognitive environment.

The empirical evidence to support his view comes from multiple sources. For instance, the cognitive development of a child—the evolution of individual mind—and the development of better scientific theories—the evolution of the group mind—both provide overwhelming evidence for the progressive evolution of knowledge toward better theories about the world, contra Kuhn. The equilibration process drives both individuals and groups to higher levels of equilibrium between mind and reality. In other words thought gradually adapts to reality. While Piaget did not discuss whether the evolution of cognitive structures would construct or discover meaning, we might infer that meaning, if real, will be approached by the increasing power of mind—mind that is the product of the process of equilibration that in turn moves mind closer and closer to truth.

Summary – Knowledge evolves in a progressive direction characterized by a better fit between mind and the real.

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[i] For more see John G. Messerly, Piaget’s Conception of Evolution (Lanham Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1996).

Will Durant On Cultural Progress

Will Durant (1885-1981) was a prolific writer, historian, and philosopher best known for his magnum opus, The Story of Civilization (11 Volume Set), and his book,The Story of Philosophy: The Lives and Opinions of the World’s Greatest Philosophers, one of the best-selling philosophy books of all time. He is generally regarded as a gifted prose stylist, was a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction and a Presidential Medal of Freedom, and was one of the most beloved public intellectuals of the twentieth-century.

In a 1941 magazine essay entitled “Ten Steps Up From the Jungle,” Durant makes a historian’s case for cultural progress. He begins by retelling the story of Nicolas de Condorcet, the young French aristocrat, mathematician, and Enlightenment philosopher who penned one of the greatest tributes to progress ever written while hiding from the guillotine, the Historical Record of Progress of the Human Race. Given expanding scientific knowledge and universal education, Condorcet believed that there was no limit to human progress. Of him Durant exclaims:

I have never ceased to marvel that a man so placed—driven to the very last stand of hope, with all his personal sacrifices of aristocratic privilege and fortune gone for nothing, with that great revolution upon which the youth of all Europe had pinned its hopes for a better world issuing in indiscriminate suspicion and terror—should, instead of writing an epic of despondency and gloom, have written a paean to progress. Never before had man so believed in mankind, and perhaps never again since.[i]

Of course many legitimately question whether progress is real, whether our knowledge and technological achievements are good, for though knowledge is power, it is not justice or wisdom or beauty or kindness or hope. Civilizations have crumbled to dust and our technology may destroy us—thus pessimism may be warranted. So is progress real? Despite misgivings, Durant answers in the affirmative, for though history is full of war, it is also full of genius, the true source of the advance of civilization. The achievement of genius, preserved and transmitted as cultural heritage, transcends the fleetingness of states and empires, leaving us a legacy for which we are richer. Progress is real.

To specify this progress, Durant focused on ten salient progressive steps that together reveal cultural progress as self-evident. They are:

1) speech; 2) conquering animals; 3) conquering fire and light; 4) agriculture; 5) social organization; 6) morality; 7) developing the aesthetic sense; 8) science; 9) communication; and 10) education to transmit our cultural heritage.

Seen from a distance these steps show progress to be real and optimism justified. In the end this upward trajectory left Durant as optimistic about the future as Condorcet and Voltaire.

Do I have doubts about the future? Yes. Certainly, we shall pass through misery and terror. But I envy our children. I feel toward them as Voltaire felt when he came to Paris in 1778, aged 83, to die. He looked at the young men in Paris; he could see in their eyes the coming revolution. He knew they would suffer. That great men had died so many deaths to live so many lives—how gladly he would have died one more death to live one more life for those young men in Paris, to go through with them their revolution and their terror, their suffering and their creation. So he said to them what I should say to you: “The young are fortunate, for they will see great things. For us older ones, parents and teachers, it only remains to make straight their way.”[ii]

Summary – There has been cultural progress.

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[i] Will Durant, “Ten Steps Up From the Jungle,” The Rotarian, January 1941, 10.
[ii] Durant, 56.

Has There Been Biological Progress?

 (This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, March 6, 2016.)

We have already seen thinkers like Ray Kurzweil and Hans Moravec defend the idea that cosmic evolution is progressive. But what of biological progress? The debate between those who defend evolutionary progress and those who deny it has been ongoing throughout the history of biology. On the one hand, more recent biological forms seem more advanced, on the other hand no one agrees on precisely what progress is.

Darwin’s view of the matter is summarized nicely by Timothy Shanahan: “while he rejected any notion of evolutionary progress, as determined by a necessary law of progression, he nonetheless accepted evolutionary progress as a contingent consequence of natural selection operating within specified environments.”[i] This fits well with Darwin’s own words:

There has been much discussion whether recent forms are more highly developed than ancient . . . But in one particular sense the more recent forms must, on my theory, be higher than the more ancient; for each new species is formed by having had some advantage in the struggle for life over other and preceding forms I do not doubt that this process of improvement has affected in a marked and sensible manner the organization of the more recent and victorious forms of life, in comparison with the ancient and beaten forms; but I can see no way of testing this sort of progress.[ii]

The most vociferous critic of biological progress was Harvard’s Stephen Jay Gould (1941 – 2002) who thought progress an annoying and non-testable idea that had to be replaced if biological history were to be understood. What we call evolutionary progress is really just a random moving away from something, not an orienting toward anything. Starting from simple beginnings, organisms become more complex but not necessarily better. In Gould’s image, if a drunk man staggers from a wall that forces him to move toward a gutter, he will end up in the gutter. Evolution acts like that wall pushing individuals toward behaviors that are mostly random but statistically predictable. Nothing about it implies progress.

The biologist Richard Dawkins is more sanguine regarding progress, arguing that if we define progress as adaptive fit between organism and environment then evolution is clearly progressive. To see this consider the predator/prey arms race, where positive feedback loops drive evolutionary progress. Dawkins believes in life’s ability to evolve further, in the “evolution of evolvability.” He believes in progressive evolution.

Darwin seemingly reconciled these two views.

… as the forms became complicated, they opened fresh means of adding to their complexity … but yet there is no necessary tendency in the simple animals to become complicated although all perhaps will have done so from the new relations caused by the advancing complexity of others … if we begin with the simpler forms & suppose them to have changed, their very changes tend to give rise to others.[iii]

Simple forms become increasingly complex, thus stimulating the complexity of other forms. This did not happen by necessity and no law need be invoked to drive the process, nonetheless competition between organisms will likely result in progressively complex forms.

There is probably no greater authority on the idea of evolutionary progress than Michael Ruse whose book, Monad to Man: The Concept of Progress in Evolutionary Biology, is the most comprehensive work on the subject. Ruse observes that museums, charts, displays, and books all depict evolution as progressive, and he thinks that the concept of progress will continue to play a major role in evolutionary biology for the following reasons. First, as products of evolution, we are bound to measure it from our own perspective, thus naturally valuing the intelligence that asks philosophical questions. Second, whatever epistemological relativists might think, nearly all practicing scientists strongly believe their theories and models get closer to the truth as science proceeds. From there scientists typically transfer that belief in scientific progress to a belief in organic progress. Finally, Ruse maintains that the kinds of scientists drawn to evolution are those particularly receptive to progressive ideas. Evolution and the idea of progress are intertwined and nearly inseparable.

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[i] Timothy Shanahan, “Evolutionary Progress from Darwin to Dawkins,” http://biophilosophy.ca/Teaching/6740papers/shanahan.pdf
[ii] Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection,  or, the Preservation of Favoured races in the Struggle for Life (New York: Cosimo, Inc., 2007), 211.
[iii] Barrett, P., Gautrey, P., Herbert, S., Kohn, D., and Smith, S., Charles Darwin’s Notebooks, 1836-1844 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987).

A Recap of Cosmic and Biological Evolution

Our universe is 13.8 billion years old; our solar system is 8 billion years old; and the earth is 4.5 billion years old. A timeline on earth from that point on reads like this (and what a testimony to scientific achievement this list is):

  • billion years of simple cells (prokaryotes),
  • 3 billion years of photosynthesis,
  • 2 billion years of complex cells (eukaryotes),
  • 1 billion years of multi-cellular life,
  • 600 million years of simple animals,
  • 550 million years of complex animals,
  • 500 million years of fish and proto-amphibians,
  • 475 million years of land plants,
  • 400 million years of insects and seeds,
  • 360 million years of amphibians,
  • 300 million years of reptiles,
  • 200 million years of mammals,
  • 150 million years of birds,
  • 130 million years of flowers,
  • 65 million years since the dinosaurs died out
  • 40 million years of butterflies and moths
  • 20 million years of giraffes
  • 15 million years of hominids
  • 13 million years since orangutan-hominid split
  • 10 million years since gorilla-hominid split
  • 6 million years since chimpanzee-hominid split
  • 5 million years of Australopithecines
  • million years of Ardipithecus
  • million years of Australopithecus afarensis
  • 5 million years of Homo habilis
  • 8 million years of Homo erectus
  • 2 millions years of Homo antecessor
  • 600 thousand years of Homo heidelbergensis
  • 350 thousand years of Neanderthals
  • 200 thousand years of Anatomically modern humans
  • 160 thousand years of Homo sapiens
  • 50 thousand years since migration to South Asia
  • 40 thousand years since migration to Australia and Europe
  • 15-40 thousand years since migration to Americas
  • 12 thousand years since evolution of light skin in Europeans

Is something happening here? Is there anything we can infer from all this?