Kevin Kelly has published a 13,000 word essay on evolution at The Technium.  It is engaging, interesting and well worth your time to read.  He makes two assertions; one evolving from the other.  First, he says that evolution is directional, towards complexity and becoming optimal.  Evolution is then “ordained-becoming”.  His second assertion is much less developed, but states that technology follows the same path as biological evolution towards complexity with, apparently, pre-ordained outcomes.  You may have learned from the likes of Stephen J. Gould that if we rerun the great experiment of life, it would not bring about the same results that surround us today.  Kelly disagrees.

I disagree with Kelly, not because his train of thought is faulty but because it seems incomplete and because his thesis requires overlaying the evidence with value statements and judgments.  It’s amazing that the eye has evolved independently on multiple occasions, but i’m not ready to say that life must evolve eyes…which may, or may not, have been Kelly’s assertion.

His chlorophyll example was particularly weak.  Kelly discusses chlorophyll/photosynthesis as sub-optimal, but then states that its sub-optimal state is proof of ordination in-so-much as it cannot get any better as evidenced by the fact that it hasn’t.

Photosynthesis is not particularly efficient in absolute terms, but it is obviously efficient enough to power the planet.  Kelly points out that chlorophyll is optimized for the red and blue ends of the spectrum though the sun’s spectrum peaks in the yellow middle band.  The problem with saying that it’s sub-optimal because plants reflect the strongest wavelengths of light only works by removing everything else that a plant must do from the equation.  Plants are held up by water pressure.  The faster photosynthesis works (or the more efficiently), the more water is required to flow through the system, which leaves the system through leaf stomata.  So for a plant to gain photosynthetic efficiency it would need a water gathering system (roots) to at least match, if not exceed, the photosynthetic potential.  Any gain would be offset by a corresponding expenditure.

You can see this in your backyard on hot days when you forget to water the plants.  Wilting is a plant breathing out water faster than it can take it up (or not having enough to take up).  Plants that withstand drought do so in two ways.  One is the ability to close up their stomata, reducing photosynthesis further in order to survive.  The extreme examples are cacti and succulents: they hardly respire at all.

The other adaptation to overly powerful solar radiation and/or a general paucity of water is further leaf color variation.  Drought tolerant plants often have a silvery hue which is generally produced not by the actual leaf color but by hairy structures on the leaf that reflect light away from the leaf surface in order to keep photosynthesis from becoming more efficient than water uptake/availability allows.

Plants evolve to the whole situation, not just uber-efficient processing of solar radiation.  I think we can infer that all other life does the same thing, but each one is a part of – and hence influences – the whole situation.  The whole situation can never be static, and i’m not sure how – beyond the limits of chemistry and physics – we can argue that the whole situation is “ordained-becoming”.  After all, evolution has been nearly rewound (though not to the outright beginning) on multiple occasions; the result has been as different as Allosaurus and Alexis.  More importantly, the Alexis did not evolve from the Allosaurus.

Towards complexity, sure, but where else is there when we phrase the issue with a directional verb of motion?  Outside of the intelligent designer with a weird sense of humor theory, i can see no point in making dinosaurs if the goal was always a big-brained primate.  Furthermore, Kelly has a long ways to go if he hopes to convince me that the big-brained primate is more complex than a dinosaur, unless he defines complexity as “like us”.

We too often want to find reasons where none necessarily exist.  In applying the brain that we got from evolution to evolution itself (a marvelous exercise, by the way) we are attempting to find the equation from the answer, and we must fall victim to the process of affecting that which we examine by our act of examination.  Spiritually we have a difficult time accepting that we weren’t meant to be and that Nature could give a shit about our existence.  This, however, is more applicable to cultural, Occidental monotheist than it is to, say, Buddhists or Taoists.

The former have spent the last several thousand years telling themselves that they are made in the image of God, while the latter have spent the same time period telling themselves that they are part of Life, which is suffering…birth and death, which has no beginning and no ending.  The former have also spent a lot of time attempting to prove things that the latter appears rather unconcerned with.  One worries about what life is, while the other worries about how to live.

I don’t know what it all means.  Actually, i don’t think that it means anything at all.  I think in subject-verb-object relationships, but maybe it is only the verb that really matters though a verb by itself is only a command.  Run.  Live.  Die.  Eat.  Breathe.  Shit.

No wonder Zen can be reduced to the last three verbal commands, with the only instruction being to verb wholly and completely.  Subjects and objects only confuse matters.

The idea of ordained-becoming is full of subjects, objects and enough modifiers to be a Russian novel.  I think that it all comes down to the verb: evolve.  Nothing else is necessary…though all the rest is quite interesting for someone who happens to be on the receiving end of an evolutionary path that produced a brain so big he had to be delivered extremely premature just to make it through his mother’s birth canal.

5 replies »

  1. No wonder Zen can be reduced to the last three verbal commands, with the only instruction being to verb wholly and completely. Subjects and objects only confuse matters.

    But nouns always, always come first. In the beginning is the name. So Zen at its purest is… a product of evolution.

  2. It sounds like – and having not read Kelly’s essay I can only guess here – but it sounds like he’s toying with the Complexity theory conjecture as to an as-yet-unarticulated law of movement toward ever-higher levels of organizational complexity. Since that mechanism hasn’t been nailed down (as I understand it), the places where he’s talking in stricter evolutionary terms are going to be more concrete.

    Am I close?

  3. Doesn’t something have to think the name before the name comes? And before that something that can think the name has to exist. My point, perhaps unclear, is that our grammatical thought is quite unnecessary for the functioning of the planet.

    Those Eastern traditions are specifically about removing the ego, which is what desires names and even verbs. We obviously need the grammar to describe our surroundings, but that does not mean that it does or that our surroundings need the grammar to exist. None-the-less, everything is evolution until we arrest the inherent movement with words to describe the inherent movement.

    That may be what he’s doing, Sam. I’m not sure, even after one thorough reading and a couple of less thorough readings. I’m not knowledgeable enough on Complexity theory to say one way or the other. He does discuss the incredible complexity of DNA, which is funny since all the complexity that we see around us is a product – or symptom of – the complexity of DNA which appeared before all this complexity.

    But i do think that if we’re going to use humans as exhibit A for complexity we’ll first need to understand the great encephalization. Is there a reason for it? How, exactly, did it happen?

  4. Life does not always evolve eyes. Plants are alive but do not have what we would call eyes. Some plants have minimal electro-magnetic sensitivity that help them turn toward the sun. But, basically plants, which don’t move (much) and get their food from the earth, the air, and the sun, can get buy without sophisticated electro-magnetic sensors.

    If you have to find your food, sophisticated electro-magnetic sensors, what we call “eyes,” come in handy.

  5. Indeed, dr_vega. But if evolution is bent on moving towards complexity over time, then examples like plants have to be taken into account. They figured out how to make their own food a long time ago and haven’t bothered with eyes(mostly), moving(much), or brains(though some of the research on their capability to respond to external stimuli is pretty amazing).

    We have to ask the question why the Ginko tree hasn’t bothered getting more complex after so long on this planet? It still retains a very unsophisticated leaf shape. Or we could go further back on the botanical tree and wonder why ferns are still rollin’ old school?

    Eyes are handy for finding food, almost necessary. But if evolution moves towards complexity for the sake of complexity, then necessary isn’t operative…complexity is.