Evolution And Joachim Di Fiore

Such is the popular understanding of evolution that some American preachers have indignantly denied that monkey females could give birth to human beings. An equally ludicrous error is found among their enemies the fluffy progressives, namely that evolution is somehow about becoming better or nicer. The notion of the “ascent of Man” from animality to superhumanity – or even to godhood – is both very ancient and very common, especially in the interwoven areas of science fiction, woolly religiosity and millenarian politics.

The reason why people think of Evolution as a something that marches onwards and upwards is because this was the pre-existing religious structure of the European mind. Both pagan Antiquity and the East thought of time as cyclical, whereas for the Abrahamic religions, history is the great adventure of God’s self-revelation to Man and what Man then does about it. All three religions look forward to, in varying degrees, another great intervention by God, namely the Day of Judgment; but in varying degrees all three also envisage a gradual unfolding, as learned and pious men come to an ever-better understanding of that revelation. Within this overall framework of linear time, the mystics of all three traditions have imagined human beings being developed and perfected, by divine grace and askesis, into a higher kind of creature. This is an individual process; but there is also collective process, as for instance in Joachim di Fiore’s scheme of three ages, each an improvement on the other, that was surely the model for Hegel and Marx. In these same centuries European man was thinking of the natural world in terms of the Great Chain of Being, a hierarchy that ran from the plants to the Deity, with Man indeed towards the top, yet nevertheless below the angels. The theme of the Fall of Man in the mainstream religions was further embroidered, by the gnostic fringe, into a scheme of divine spirits trapped in dumb matter, and seeking to re-ascend the ladder to godhood.

Another reason why people attempt to map evolution onto the pre-existing religious mind-set of an unfolding divine history is the honest misapprehension that natural selection causes biological change. On the contrary, natural selection is not the motor, but the brake; the mechanism of change is actually mutation, that is, accidental damage to the DNA. Living things all have mechanisms to reduce the consequences of that mutation; evolution is what happens when these fail. And without natural selection as the ruthless weeder, the garden of living things would be even weirder than it already is.

With such a teleological conceptual structure latent in our culture, we could hardly avoid misreading Darwin’s theory of speciation as a scientific validation of the idea of a Creation that was not “just there”, but struggling and striving to ascend and be transformed into something else. We made natural selection the mechanism for a theosophical dream of our own transfiguration. But this dream was something we foisted on Darwin, not something we could deduce from him. The title of his second book, The Descent of Man, was offensive to his contemporaries, who thought he was making a moral judgment, whereas in fact he was merely using “descent” in the same way as the genealogist. Switching it to “The Ascent of Man”, as in countless museum dioramas, only served to reinforce our trimillennial conviction that we are merely work in progress, and that there exists a blueprint of the finished product.

In fact it is a gross misunderstanding of evolution to believe that it is aiming at anything, or wants something, or is going anywhere. This is a category mistake on a par with thinking that Newton taught us that Gravity fell off apple-trees. Just as it is objects that fall down and not gravity, so too is evolution a process whereby genes go somewhere, that is, undergo change. Shit happens to organisms, and evolution happens to species.

Evolution is just a way of saying, “Whatever works, works”; whatsoever gives an animal a reproductive advantage, there is shortly going to be a lot more of. If this seems like a tautology, well, so it is. Other things being equal, any genetic difference between individuals that causes preferential survival and reproduction will be inherited and proliferate – by definition. This includes both the physical characteristics of the animal and the way it behaves. That is why demands for evidence of evolution miss the point; evolution can be demonstrated a priori, as a mathematical necessity in creatures that shuffle their genes. All you need is random mutation plus an environment that causes some mutations to be more successful than others; all else follows by logic, and the observational evidence (which we do in fact possess) is lagniappe. We do not absolutely need sexual reproduction for selective processes to operate; binary fission with a mutation rate will do the trick, as does direct gene-swapping among bacteria. If someone tells us that there dwell tribbles on the fifth planet of the star Aldebaran, that the tribbles somehow reproduce, and that they do not all have the same number of young, then we may confidently predict that tribbles have evolved and are still evolving.

The frequent capitalisation of Evolution, however, shows that people are thinking of it not as shorthand for a natural process but as the name of some kind of world tutelary spirit.

Posted on April 4, 2009 at 08:49 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: AGAINST NATURE, Evolution Is Not Marching Anywhere

2 Responses

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  1. Written by Urban Djin
    on April 4, 2009 at 14:35

    “That is why demands for evidence of evolution miss the point; evolution can be demonstrated a priori, as a mathematical necessity in creatures that shuffle their genes.”

    Excellent, elegantly simple point. One that cuts right through the gordian knot of evangelical opposition to acceptance of evolution. The contras expend a great deal of energy arguing against a misrepresentation of what evolution implies.

    It’s impossible to argue that mutation doesn’t occur or that it doesn’t have consequences for the survival of individuals to reproductive age. The evidence is simply overwhelming.

    Striking the “E” from evolution is a great start at bringing clarity to this discussion which has been beset by so many red herrings dragged across the trail.

  2. Written by mark
    on April 16, 2009 at 11:31

    Incredible site!

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