Sunday, December 06, 2009

Dialectical Materialism and evolution, part 2

There are three requirements for dialectical materialism*:
  1. We have to have (at least) two of something
  2. The two somethings have to be material somethings; they must be independently determinable aspects of the physical world
  3. The two somethings have to be fundamentally irreconcilable; they can't just be two ways of talking about the same thing
*I mean 'materialism' in the looser, more general sense, technically philosophical physicalism.

In evolution, the two "somethings" are heritable variation and natural selection. They are material somethings: variation is physically inherited, mostly by DNA, plus some epigenetic factors (also material, mostly methylation and acetylation*). In other words, there's nothing outside evolution, no intelligence, no "absolute ideal", no grand scheme; everything in evolution can be reduced to material causes of genes (and other heritable information) and the natural selection of the material environment. (These material causes appear to be local as well, but locality might no longer be a strict requirement for materialism.)

*Thanks, CPP!

They are fundamentally irreconcilable because all the elements of heritable variation are fundamentally uncorrelated with selection. There are mechanisms of heritable variation that are correlated with selection, as Comrade PhysioProf notes. But these mechanisms themselves are material elements, and the mechanisms themselves evolved by heritable variations that were uncorrelated with selection.

Suppose there's some epigenetic mechanism that is correlated with selection. For example, when food is scarce, an animal might "turn off" heritable genes that promote the growth of its offspring. It's a variation, it's heritable, but the variation is correlated with selection: the parent correctly "knows" that its offspring will have better selective fitness when food is scarce if they're smaller. This specific mechanism of heritable variation, then, is not in dialectical contradiction with natural selection. However, this specific method evolved by uncorrelated variation: ancestor organisms turned genes on or off at "random" (i.e. uncorrelated with selection), and only the progeny of those ancestors that turned on or off the "correct" genes survived selection pressures.

The principle of irreconcilability or non-correlation does not mean that there's no teleology at all. Human beings are teleological — we can anticipate and plan for the future — and are still subject to dialectical materialistic evolution at many different levels. Even genetic information* is "teleological"; the genetic information "knows" a lot about the future adult organism. The principle of irreconcilability means only that there's if there's any teleology, it's part of the dialectical elements in contraction; there's no teleology outside the elements. (More precisely, at higher levels of abstraction like human social evolution, if there is teleology outside the system, there is something about the elements that is not subject to the outside teleology.) And there's no teleology at all outside the material, physical universe: no God, no Hegelian Absolute Ideal, no Platonic Ideal plane, no abstract truths that cannot ultimately be reduced to truths about the properties of material objects.

*DNA, heritable patterns of gene activation, the biochemical machinery of the blastocyst, the larger environment of the uterus or egg, etc.


  1. It is very sad that the world is grotesquely riddled with depraved fuckwits who deny the obvious truth of what you say.

  2. Joseph Scaliger12/16/09, 9:48 AM

    "The principle of irreconcilability or non-correlation does not mean that there's no teleology at all. Human beings are teleological — we can anticipate and plan for the future — and are still subject to dialectical materialistic evolution at many different levels."

    Wouldn't it be more consistent with materialism to say that human beings only appear to act teleologically? I'm not sure that one commits the fallacy of composition by saying that human beings (made of atoms subject to physical laws) are just as physically determined as a rock fall down a hill. The Baron D'Holbach, for example, thought such a determinism was the natural result of materialism (it was this point in D'Holbach's philosophy that Frederick the Great attacked). After all, if all the parts are 100% steel, the machine must be steel as well. Perhaps it is similar with deterministic physical understandings of humans (i.e. all the parts are non-teleological, so the epiphenomena of consciousness [which are determined entirely by those non-teleological parts] are non-teleological).

  3. Wouldn't it be more consistent with materialism to say that human beings only appear to act teleologically?

    I'm not sure how you would differentiate appearing to act teleologically and actually acting teleologically.

    All materialism says is that there's nothing at all (and thus no teleology) outside of physical reality. All teleology that exists is part of material reality, and subject to material forces.

    We can most easily define "teleology" as (more or less) be how humans act: i.e. with some actual knowledge of the possible future effects of their present actions, while remaining entirely agnostic on how they acquire that knowledge. Just because our best explanation of our teleology does not include the future having a direct influence on thought does not mean that we cannot have knowledge of the future or knowledge of counterfactuals. (The best explanation — which has obvious empirical confirmation — is the theory that the future resembles the past and that we thus use our directly, physically caused knowledge of the past to predict the future.)

    I also don't think that "determinism" is well-defined. How could we actually tell the difference between a deterministic and non-deterministic universe?

    Furthermore, we already know that there is no upper limit on the minimum complexity on the computation of a ideally deterministic mathematical function: determinism does not entail predictability.

    Third, materialism does not preclude the future having a direct causal physical influence on the past; only specific physical theories contain such a stricture. (Similarly, there's nothing about materialism that precludes relativity.)


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