Jeremy Sherman still doesn’t understand evolution

On March 19 I wrote a critique of decision theorist Jeremy Sherman’s view that evolution is powerless to explain why organisms “try” to do things and appear to “value” some behaviors more than others.  Well, of course, he’s wrong because, although he’s not dumb, he apparently doesn’t understand how natural selection could lead to “purposeful” behavior. Those behaviors, seemingly directed to an end, evolve because the genes that produce them leave more copies than genes producing alternative behaviors.

This isn’t rocket science. Parents who “try” to care for their offspring and behave in “purposeful” ways to foster and protect them will leave more offspring than parents who are indifferent to their offspring. Ergo the genes promoting parental-care behavior will outcompete those promoting parental indifference.

And so it goes for all of natural selection on animals. Because we are built by genes, which, unlike other molecules, replicate themselves (albeit with some errors), living things will evolve to show behaviors that promote the replication of their constituent genes. This is what gives nature the appearance of design, adaptation, and “striving.” That striving may or may not be conscious: an amoeba “tries” to find food and a Drosophila “tries” to reproduce, but it’s doubtful whether these activities involve conscious thought or even consciousness. Conscious thought, which is likely one way of fostering the replication of genes, is an evolutionary add-on that permits adaptation when the brain becomes a sufficiently complex computer.

Well, Sherman is back again, stung by my criticisms, and writing the same damn piece at Alternet (click on screenshot below; do Alternet authors even get paid?). In so doing, he gives an encomium to Intelligent Design:


What’s the “valid point”? That ID has a way of poetically explaining “agency” and the “effort” and “trying” of organisms: the Intelligent Designer. Now Sherman doesn’t buy it, as he says he’s an atheist, but still likes it because the God account is “beautiful, intuitive, evocative, and poetic”. But so what? He doesn’t believe it, so how could such an explanation be “valid”? Only because it gives an alternative to an explanation that Sherman hates even more: “we are just complex chemistry”, the explanation that happens to be true.

At any rate, Sherman says that science can’t explain the appearance of organisms “trying” to do stuff. Here’s his Big Mystery:

What do I mean by agency? Agency is the behavior of agents like you and me though not just of humans. Agency is evident in any living being, any organism making an effort for its own benefit, effort fitted to circumstances. You are an agent but so is a bug, begonia or bacterium. All organisms try to stay alive. Trying is the heart of agency.

Most organisms don’t know they’re trying, don’t feel like trying and aren’t trying to try better. Still, they try to stay alive. That’s agency.

Agency boils down to three basic attributes, absolutely essential to the life and behavioral sciences, and completely irrelevant in the physical sciences:

Effort: Trying, which is what’s meant by behavior in contrast to mere phenomena. Chemicals don’t try to do anything. Agents do.

Function: The effort is of benefit for the agent. An agent’s adaptive traits are functional because they improve the agent’s chances of succeeding at what’s of value to it, chiefly survival and reproduction. Nothing is of value to chemicals, but things are of value to agents.

Fittedness: Which is different from material conformity. Molecules may fit together physically but that’s different from fittedness, responsiveness to context.

No physical scientist could get away with saying that chemical changes try to keep going for their own sake. Down the hall, behavioral scientists can talk all they like about agents trying to keep going for their own sake. What explains this double standard? Scientists still have no answer, though they could.

What tries to stay alive, or rather persist, is DNA, the replicator that builds bodies—the “vehicles”. And the vehicles aren’t “trying” to do anything, as they’re not conscious, nor do the organisms that appear to have agency need be conscious. Some forms of DNA just leave more copies than do others. And that, over time, leads to bodies and behaviors—all the blind result of differential replication of DNA. No striving, no will. is necessary, which is the amazing and fantastic part of how natural selection creates diversity. The process is mindless, driven by differential replication of molecules that replicate.

So much is easy to understand once you know a bit about natural selection, and I think most readers here can understand that. Sherman apparently doesn’t. He doesn’t like the natural-selection explanation, even though it’s the right one and he has no alternative:

Most scientists today will tell you that agency emerges with evolution by natural selection, which they regard as a kind of blind watchmaker, without acknowledging that even a blind watchmaker is an agent trying to make watches.

Some are so desperate to explain away agency that they try to redefine the word “design.” “Nothing tries,” they’ll say. “Evolution doesn’t try to design, but it designs you. You don’t try. You’re just the product of chemical (DNA, RNA) replication, which isn’t trying either. You may try to believe that you try but you don’t” By this supposedly scientific pretzel logic, agency is nowhere but everywhere.

Here, for example, is Jerry Coyne, a big name in evolutionary theory arguing that my question “what is agency?” is the product of my muddle-headed thinking.(link is external) To him, evolution proves that we are nothing but deterministic chemistry. What distinguishes us is that we are the robot bodies of DNA copying chemically under natural selection’s “design.”

Chemicals copy in any chain reaction. What then is the difference between DNA and other chemicals? DNA has “heritable material.” What is “heritable material”? It’s equivocation, kind of a homunculus and kind of a chemical. He might just as well say that DNA has a soul.

And no, chemicals don’t copy in “any chain reaction”. But thank you, Dr. Sherman, but I’d prefer that you try to understand evolutionary biology rather than give me a backhanded compliment. If you don’t understand the difference between how DNA functions in a living organism and a chemical like benzene functions in a lab, then I can’t help you.  The fact is that the one replicates and builds bodies that often have behavior, while the other doesn’t. That makes all the difference in the world.

But at the end Sherman says he does have an explanation for value: “Here’s a new scientific explanation for the emergence of agency, developed by UC Berkeley scientist Terrence Deacon.” But the video shows not Deacon but Deacon channeled through Sherman’s gobbledy-gook, and it makes no sense to me beyond the explanation I’ve given above: DNA variants that promote their own replication, sometimes through the pursuit of what we see as “value”, are the ones that persist. Ergo, some organisms have the appearance of “valuing” reproduction and survival. Nothing new here, folks, move along.

Watch for yourself:

 

49 Comments

  1. Posted April 30, 2018 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

    Only because it gives an alternative to an explanation that Sherman hates even more: “we are just complex chemistry”

    Oh the Just-ians and the mere-lings and the nothing-mores. The cries of petulant egos demanding that they be special among all things without looking again at what is and seeing the beauty therein. Complex chemistry is pretty flippin’ amazing in all the things that it does. So sorry, not sorry, that it doesn’t have a magical agency sitting on top of it to make you feel all warm in fuzzy inside.

  2. Blue
    Posted April 30, 2018 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

    in re the pix at the end of your post, Dr Coyne,
    thus as well:

    but One does need to admit even though
    ’tis a canine, it is i) a very, very cute one and
    ii) a mighty good reason, then, for One’s
    being late to work ! Not ? !

    Blue

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted April 30, 2018 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

      Charming. I would follow that doggie too.

  3. Posted April 30, 2018 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

    It’s also an example of a Obscurantist Semantic Field(TM) that contains a bit of the hard problem of consciousness, a cup of abiogenesis, a few spoons of Cartesian Dualism, flavoured with a few knowledge gaps, in one obscurantist serving.

    Complementary to the above: Humans evidently even ascribe agency to the weather, destiny, groups and crowds, zeitgeists, fictional characters, and objects that behave obstinate and unpredictable. How we say or conceive of something doesn’t mean it’s the way things truly are. People quickly even view assistant AIs, like Alexa, Siri and Cortana as beings.

    If we encountered a Golem showing some complex behaviours where a physical, mechanical understanding fails, we’d quickly view it as something with agency. If we later find the list of instructions in its mouth, we understand that it was “just” a program.

    What causes this switch between models (e.g. from physical to intentional) are insights into the mechanism. The simpler and clearer the rules are, the less we need to use the agent model. We then simply go by cause and effect, or folk physics.

    If the Golem typically, but not always goes outside to enjoy the sun, based on opaque reasons (which we technically might call “randomness”), we’d more likely use the agent model to make sense of the behaviour and say things like “it likes the sun”. This is a case where the difference between naming and knowing also comes through, because “likes it” is simply a label for the observation that a behaviour is repeated without apparent gain. If we find out that the Golem is actually a solar-powered robot, then again, we’d be pressed to swap models and say, it goes outside to charge up its battery.

    • W.Benson
      Posted April 30, 2018 at 8:57 pm | Permalink

      That sounds about right.

  4. Craw
    Posted April 30, 2018 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

    AlphaGo tries to win at Go, and beat the best human soundly. AlphaZero tries to win at chess, and beat the best programs who in turn beat the best humans. They learned by doing, playing against themselves, trying to improve. This seems like some sorta agency by his definition. No god involved.

    • Posted April 30, 2018 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

      God is everywhere, oh ye of little faith 🙂 !

      • Hemidactylus
        Posted May 1, 2018 at 4:51 am | Permalink

        God is a projection of agency found in various religions. Religion may itself be a byproduct (or spandrel) of having a brain that facilitates contemplation of mortality. Gould attributed this view to Freud, but mortality salience as a developed concept came from the work of Ernest Becker. Religion could also be thought a social glue and an indicator others in a group larger than the Dunbar number are trustworthy. I’ve been exposed to this latter notion in various sources. I think Dennett goes somewhat in this direction in Breaking the Spell.

        Nonetheless gods aren’t ubiquitous given animism or potential for nontheist religion (eg- Buddhism). So one could be spiritual or self-transcendent without attributing supernatural agency to the ground of all being. Yet self-transcendence or meaning quest cry for explanation as teleological pursuits than have outrun mere genetic teleonomy. Our gargantuan noggins have saddled us with some serious existential baggage.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted April 30, 2018 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

      Those programs were intelligently designed; that’s the ID argument in a nutshell.

    • Posted April 30, 2018 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

      The idea of AlphaGo “trying” is more anthropomorphism than anything else. One the other hand, there is no hard line between its kind of trying and the human kind.

      • Posted April 30, 2018 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

        On the other hand … (wish we could edit our comments!)

  5. Posted April 30, 2018 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

    Unbelievable! He writes “I’m an atheist with a PhD. in evolutionary theory.”

    Can a PhD. be revoked?

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted April 30, 2018 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

      he says: “I have a masters in Public Policy from Berkeley and a Ph.D. in decision theory and evolutionary theory from Union Institute and University”

      He’s hot stuff!

  6. jars634760860
    Posted April 30, 2018 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

    “What do I mean by agency? Agency is the behavior of agents like you and me though not just of humans. Agency is evident in any living being, any organism making an effort for its own benefit, effort fitted to circumstances. You are an agent but so is a bug, begonia or bacterium. All organisms try to stay alive. Trying is the heart of agency”

    I can´t avoid to compare this with what Antonio Damasio refers by “Homeostasis” in his latest book The Strange Order of Things. He talks about the “homeostatic imperative” present in all living organisms. And that it appears first than replicators (the debate about replicator first v. metabolism first). Are they try to explain the same thing? Is it something to explain at all? Nevertheless, Damasio do not deny natural selection.

    He says: “homeostasis has guided, non-conciously and non-deliberatively, without prior design, the selection of biological structures and mechanisms capacble of not only maintaining life but also advancing the evolution of species to be found in varied branches of the evolutionary tree”

    • Torbjörn Larsson
      Posted April 30, 2018 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

      I had not seen your comment before I posted mine, which has a piece on homeostasis because it would be implied by Sherman’s “agency”.

      Right now I think the evidence point to that both pathways were “first”, chemical systems can strive both for catalytic production (core of replication) and for steady state (core of homeostasis). The latest result is that the universal ancestry Wood-Ljungdahl metabolic pathway have at least 2 geological localized non-enzymatic pathways (greigite and/or free iron). So could have been exaptated for robustness and freedom when protocells became capable enough.

    • Torbjörn Larsson
      Posted April 30, 2018 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

      I should add that the new iron result makes sense in regards exaptation, since the archaea WL pathway uses iron enzymes. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

    • Posted May 1, 2018 at 11:22 am | Permalink

      Damasio is a Spinoza fan – the updating of _conatus_ is what he’s likely on about.

      I’ve heard it said that “homeostasis” is too simple, as organisms do more than maintain a dynamic equilibrium.

      (And yes, of course it is understood in outline in evolutionary terms.)

  7. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted April 30, 2018 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

    I could easily misinterpret, but it sure looks to me like Sherman is wandering wild in mystical metaphors rather than accept that his models, of say agency, are models.

    Sure we can impute agency in chemicals – have Sherman seen a model example of a protein folding making a seemingly huge “effort” (and sometimes fail), or the “function value” of a DNA allele survive and reproduce or the “fittedness responsiveness” of its fitness in the population – but it is still a simplistic model of their behavior. The currency of biology is population genetics, not wild hordes of individual organism “agents” who are simply glorified homeostasis examples of chemical steady state behavior slaving under the rule of genetics.

    Even worse for Sherman is that biology is an elaborated example of geological systems. How will he ever explain that to himself using a model of agency? I find it ironic when people impute anthropomorphic ideas – especially religious myth inspired ones – onto nature instead of acknowledging that it is nature that resulted in humans that evolved to eagerly detect “agency”(or risk death by claw and tooth).

  8. AC Harper
    Posted April 30, 2018 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

    Strange how at one time (in the Western world at least) people used to be worried about their immortal souls and reacted very strongly against anyone who suggested that people had no souls. Prior to the 20th century lots of headstones asked people to pray for the deceased’s soul or asserted that the soul was now with god.

    Since then social attitudes have changed. Headstones now assert how much the deceased will be missed or will continue to be held in memory – and people now get into heated debates about the existence of agency and free will.

    I wonder how much of this change of attitudes is down to evolutionary ideas becoming commonplace and exposing the myth of human exceptionalism. Jeremy Sherman may be one of those people who want the comfort of exceptionalism without the myths that sustain it.

  9. Heather Hastie
    Posted April 30, 2018 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

    Even I can see this doesn’t make sense. To admittedly-fairly-ignorant-on-this-topic me, it all sounds like an attempt to deny determinism.

    He says, for example, we focus our work on priorities. But we don’t always. We often “choose” to do stuff that’s not a priority. For example, we go to look something up that we need to know for what we’re working on, and before we know it, were watching a new kitten video on YouTube. That act is determined by physics, and there’s no agency.

    • Hemidactylus
      Posted April 30, 2018 at 7:36 pm | Permalink

      I would say such behavior is influenced by a cacophony of factors in our brains and in our surroundings and there’s some wiggle room or random fluctuation in that rewinding the tape could have resulted in something different. Brain misfire or glitch upstream of your router may have prevented that cat video. That doesn’t mean you could chosen to do otherwise within your subjective bubble.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted April 30, 2018 at 7:39 pm | Permalink

      Hey, *nothing* has a higher priority than kitten videos on Youtube 😉

      cr

  10. Posted April 30, 2018 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

    In so doing, he gives an encomium to Intelligent Design:

    I always confuse encomium with meconium. I definitely think he has produced a meconium to Intelligent Design.

  11. Ken Kukec
    Posted April 30, 2018 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    To every question, there’s an answer that’s “beautiful, intuitive, evocative, poetic” … and wrong.

  12. Posted April 30, 2018 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

    I suspect Sherman suffers from the same kind of fallacious thinking as Searle in his Chinese Room thought experiment. They start with complex mechanisms that demonstrate complex behavior. They break them down into their constituent parts, then search among those parts for the locus of the complex behavior. Not surprisingly, they can’t find it. This is all too mysterious to them so they add their particular brand of woo to the explanation.

    If we disassemble an automobile into its constituent parts, which part will take you from A to B? It’s a silly question. Yes humans are made from biological and chemical parts. Yes humans have agency (whatever that means). But you won’t find the part containing the agency. It only emerges when the parts all work together.

  13. Auguste Nahas
    Posted April 30, 2018 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

    Here’s how I see Sherman’s argument in full:

    Premise 1: Our human experience of trying and purpose is derived from simpler evolutionary origins

    Premise 2: Those simpler origins are nothing other than the fact that life does work to maintain itself within far-from equilibrium viable states (i.e resists entropy/2nd law of thermodynamics).

    Premise 3: Evolution can only get started once systems that do work to maintain themselves have emerged (and therefore did not previously evolve).

    Conclusion: Evolution does not explain how living systems maintain themselves within far-from equilibrium viable states, because it presupposes their emergence in the first place.

    Notice that in the above argument, I conclude with “Evolution does not explain how living systems maintain themselves within far-from equilibrium viable states.” and not “Evolution does not explain how living systems try”.

    This is because you can accept premise 1) and still deny that living systems try to stay alive, if you hold that doing work to stay alive is necessary but insufficient to count as trying.

    In contrast, if you accept the 3 premises you have to accept the conclusion that “Evolution does not explain how living systems maintain themselves within far-from equilibrium viable states.”

    I think it would be helpful to get clear on which premises people disagree with.

    • Rosmarie Maran
      Posted May 1, 2018 at 9:47 am | Permalink

      Very good! I also think that evolution is not to be mixed up with life itself. DNA is the molecule of evolution, but it is not the molecule of life. There is no “molecule of life” – this is a ridiculous term in itself. There is rather a “metabolic cell kitchen of life” – or so.

  14. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted April 30, 2018 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

    There is no way to separate chemicals (which don’t do anything according to him), and anything a living thing does, because life is chemistry.

    • Posted April 30, 2018 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

      Indeed. A confusing video. It’s possible Sherman has read Prigogine, Stengers and Deacon and misunderstood something basic.

      Perhaps he should read Nick Lane’s The Vital Question. Come to think of it, perhaps everybody should 🙂 Just to get a better grip of metabolism’s role in evolution.

  15. demfromsc
    Posted April 30, 2018 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

    So, according to Sherman, I’m supposed to believe that natural selection is not the best possible explanation for life’s diversity; the better explanation is there is a magical being up in the sky that is making all of this happen….somehow. I’d like to ask him the same question that I asked the minister of my “confirmation class” in 8th grade: so, then, who created god?

  16. Janos Simon
    Posted April 30, 2018 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

    Consider a billiard table with perfectly reflecting sides (no energy loss at reflection) except for the pockets. Now launch a billiard ball in a random direction.

    Should I describe the random trajectory as “searching for a pocket to fall into”? I would suggest that according the the folks who like agency, we should describe the experiment as showing that the billiard ball is an agent, with the purpose of getting into a pocket, and moving purposefully, if no too intelligently to satisfy its goal.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted April 30, 2018 at 7:56 pm | Permalink

      I would suggest that its trajectory is in no way ‘searching’, since (on your ideal table) it is absolutely predetermined the moment you launch the ball – and, I suspect, unless it happens to intersect a pocket quite early on, the ball will begin to repeat the same trajectory after a few laps of the table (could be wrong there though). The ball is completely ‘dumb’.

      If the ball was somehow equipped with pocket-detecting sensors that could modify its trajectory – a ‘smart ball’ – then there might be more appearance of ‘searching’ or agency (though I agree such appearance would still be illusory).

      cr

  17. Posted April 30, 2018 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

    The verb “try” is an anthropomorphism, and it’s retrospective, and it’s illusory. Nothing tried until there were minds complex enough to generate the illusion of trying. Things act. Actions have consequences. Things that act in a way that leads to more things that act in that way, you more things that make more things that make more things.

  18. Michael Fisher
    Posted April 30, 2018 at 5:33 pm | Permalink

    The guy is a bullshitter with problems. My observations are in brackets:

    Jeremy E Sherman Ph.D.

    I’ve had the luxury of circumstance to spend the second half of my life wondering carefully without a lot of social constraints. I write, teach and research full time. My income doesn’t depend upon it so I don’t have to curb what I think to keep myself fed. [I don’t have to make good arguments nor produce useful results that put bread on the table. Meh!]

    I take good insights where I find them. I’m a very fussy shopper among interpretations, not that it ensures that I find good ones. Still, I try by means more rigorous than the usual self-confidence by which we declare ourselves discerning. A lot of my articles are about the art of science, the art of shopping among interpretations.

    I’ve latched onto some reliable sources of insight, chief among them my mentor, collaborator, debate partner and friend Berkeley Professor Terrence Deacon, the fussiest shopper I know. For me, a lot of truth emerges from arguments with this friend. [he ‘shopped’ some ideas from other sources actually without acknowledgement, but got exonerated…]

    With Terry, I’ve spent the last 20 years researching the most fundamental question in psychology, indeed in life. What are selves and aims and how do they emerge in an aimless physical universe? How does mattering emerge from matter? How does means-to-ends behavior emerge from cause-and-effect events, life and mind from physics and chemistry? I have a book coming out with Columbia University Press on this research – Neither Ghost Nor Machine: The Emergence and Nature of Selves. It’s a short non-technical presentation and interpretation of Deacon’s Ideas. I’ve written over 1100 blog articles about everyday decision making, most of them informed subtly by the Deacon collaboration. [yeah – brag about quantity why don’t ya]

    Though the blog is called Ambigamy, sexloveromance are not my primary topic. Ambigamy was an early term I coined for what could also be called romanticynicism, or romantiskepticism – to really want to intimacy but to recognize one’s wariness. An early motto for my work was “no matter how hard I chase the truth, it will never catch me.” I’m interested in the tension between wanting intimacy with reality and with people, chief among them ourselves. Ambigamy then can be thought of as the tension between the pursuit of the likely and the liked story. [speechless lol lol – this is MGTOW speak]

    I think dilemmas are much more fundamental than principles. Universal principles are basically our strained unsuccessful attempts to escape dilemmas. I study the fundamental universal dilemmas that we deal with over and over all life long. To give a sense of it, try this:

    Hard left, hard right, hard center, hard choices

    Hard left: Love is the answer.
    Hard right: Ouch. Toughness is the answer.
    Hard center: Ouch. Tough love is the answer.
    Hard choices: Ouch. Tough love is the question, when to be loving; when to be tough.

    I spend a lot of time on the question: What is a butthead other than someone I butt heads with? In other words, what is an objective definition of out-of-bounds behavior? In a free society we don’t want to dictate what people should do, just constrain it within reasonable bounds.

    Seeking an objective definition of butthead is part of my general campaign against exceptionalism. I think our biggest human weakness is a tendency to forget our fallibility when challenged, indeed our motivated fallibility–our inner weasels, our bias and hypocrisy. My aim is to know the follies of humankind by introspection. I am my own lab, and when I find myself being inconsistent, it’s usually the inspiration for a new blog article. I aim to be “intellectually bi-curious.” I don’t think I really understand something well enough to voice an opinion about it until I can make a compelling case for the argument against my opinion. [what does this crap mean?]

    I have a masters in Public Policy from Berkeley and a Ph.D. in decision theory and evolutionary theory from Union Institute and University.

    I’ve raised three children. I was married once for 17 years. I now consider myself either retired or on sabbatical from sexloveromance. [in other words he can’t get laid & he’s a MGTOW or similar – he might have a low ride sports car with a long hood – natch or he rides a bicycle, MGTOW’s are divers failures at life] I love my wide circle of friends, and connect mostly over ideas, though I also play jazz, funk, soul music. I’m a singer and bassist, electric and upright. Occasionally I write songs, another medium for conveying the ideas that interest me.

    Feel free to contact me with questions, critique or suggestions.

    SOURCE

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted April 30, 2018 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

      divers = diverse

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted April 30, 2018 at 5:56 pm | Permalink

        “Divers” is a perfectly good, too-often ignored word in its own right.

        • Michael Fisher
          Posted April 30, 2018 at 6:04 pm | Permalink

          Point taken you old wordsmitheriser!

  19. Hemidactylus
    Posted April 30, 2018 at 7:22 pm | Permalink

    Jerry wrote:

    This isn’t rocket science. Parents who “try” to care for their offspring and behave in “purposeful” ways to foster and protect them will leave more offspring than parents who are indifferent to their offspring. Ergo the genes promoting parental-care behavior will outcompete those promoting parental indifference.

    Hmmm…something seems a bit off here. Humans and many other species are really into parental investment, but other species get by without it. They leave a larger number of offspring to fend for themselves. Gametes are cheap. There may still be a limited amount of investment in yolking eggs or digging nests (I am looking at you loggerheads) but beyond that the young uns are left to their own devices. No parents sticking around to nurse, clithe, protect from predators or lend the car on weekends. Yet parental indifference could be the case in other species in our midst. Bacteria and viruses don’t seem to care too much about offspring. Opportunistic species that settle freshly disturbed or devastated areas might be the care less sorts that get by via loads of offspring.

    I am thinking along the dichotomy of r versus K strategy here. And even the r types have what Mayr and others termed teleonomic behavior which is quasi goal oriented due to fixed action patterns or abilities to learn about and model and track the environment.

    • rickflick
      Posted April 30, 2018 at 10:54 pm | Permalink

      “Parents who try” is just an example not a definition of evolution.

      • Hemidactylus
        Posted May 1, 2018 at 4:27 am | Permalink

        I was contrasting fecundity versus parental investment as alternative means to ensure one will have more descendants in the long term (ie- more grandkids). I wasn’t thinking in definitional terms which simply break down to changes in allelic frequencies in a population over generational time. This heritable change does not have to be due to selection. r vs. K could be irrelevant to heritable change given mutation, drift, or gene flow (sometimes as lateral transfer).

        • Posted May 1, 2018 at 5:29 am | Permalink

          I was talking about those species who have parental care, in particular humans. Nothing is ‘a bit off”.

  20. Dale Pickard
    Posted April 30, 2018 at 10:27 pm | Permalink

    Dr. Coyne said, “And the vehicles aren’t “trying” to do anything, as they’re not conscious, nor do the organisms that appear to have agency need be conscious.”

    And after the fashion of Dr. Dennett, I have to add that none of the “organisms that appear to have agency” are no more “conscious” than those that don’t appear so. Those of us “appear to have agency” are just moved by Darwin’s invisible hand.

  21. rickflick
    Posted April 30, 2018 at 10:44 pm | Permalink

    This guy is magnificently confusing…on purpose. I think the only agency he’s really interested in is a book agent. His value and his goal is $$$.

  22. Hemidactylus
    Posted May 1, 2018 at 5:21 am | Permalink

    Going on Jerry’s sufficiently complex computer aside above I think at some point we achieved sufficient complexity to have mostly left the Pleistocene environment of evolutionary adaptedness behind. This wasn’t a magical event. Contemplation, reflection, and cogent environmental modeling give us some freedom to move in directions that involve foresight and are any which way we please. We can argue with others through language, persuade and manipulate (see advertizing and PR). Proximate explanations supplant ultimate explanations (for the most part). We don’t need modules for this and that and the other thing someone proposed would give our distant ancestors more grandkids. Durkheim’s assertion of sui generis cultural institutions gain a head of steam, though I wouldn’t step into the mire of purist cultural determinism.

    And as the example of lactase persistence shows, cultural institutions (as herding of animals) can impact our adaptive evolution beyond the Pleistocene. I recall something from Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel about immunity to zoonoses. But these cases are rare. We still evolve but in largely nonadaptive ways.

  23. Posted May 1, 2018 at 6:57 am | Permalink

    Isn’t “try” a loaded word already?

  24. Jimbo
    Posted May 1, 2018 at 7:13 am | Permalink

    My how I hate when non-scientists take literally simple adjectives or analogies used by scientists to try to convey scientific theories to them without using technical jargon. “DNA has heritable material” becomes “equivocation” when balancing the entire edifice of evolutionary theory on the myriad definitions of material. Further, natural selection “designs” things which is babytalk, meant for those who see the invisible hand of agency everywhere and further, reify it. Such ignorance compounded by bad faith (arguments).

  25. c emerson
    Posted May 4, 2018 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

    It seems to me the question about agency, or purposeful behavior, in living organisms, is not a challenge to natural selection, but more a question about the scientific basis for the emergence of new properties … in this case the property of appearing to strive to survive. Natural selection says the more viable offspring an organism produces relative to competing mechanisms for the same resources or same ecological niche, the more likely the survival of that particular species. That’s Darwin’s “struggle for existence”. All well and good. But where do we go from there? Have we solved all the ontological questions about living versus non-living associations of complex chemical structures? What is it about the structure of physics and chemistry that led to emergence of any biology in the first place?

    I can’t read Sherman’s mind, but he seems to be asking questions along those lines. He also seems to be pointing mostly to origin of life issues; in other words, how did natural selection itself emerge? Origin of life issues are indeed important, but I am personally more interested (because it seems more relevant to our current global situation) in questions related to determinism in decision-making by one species: humans. If the mechanism for making decisions (weighing and acting on values) is completely determined, then is the fate of the planet (and all if its species collectively) already sealed? But that is for a different thread. [See a piece I wrote in 1994 entitled “Do Survival Values Form a Sufficient Basis for an Objective Morality”]


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