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Evolution of Empathizing and Systemizing: Empathizing as an aspect of social intelligence, systemizing as an evolutionarily later consequence of economic specialization
Bruce G Charlton*, Patrick Rosenkranz
School of Psychology, Newcastle University, NE1 7RU, UK. Email: email@example.com (*Corresponding author)
We argue that a theory of the evolution of Empathizing (E) and Systemizing (S) needs first to clarify that these are personality traits, as distinct from cognitive abilities. The theory should explain both the observed reciprocity of, and the sexual difference between, E and S in a context of the historical emergence of these traits and their balance in relation to local selection pressures. We suggest that the baseline state is that (since humans are social animals) ancestral human hunter gatherers are assumed to be relatively High Empathizers, lower in Systemizing: thus more interested in people than in things. Changes related to the development of agriculture and technology meant that it became economically useful for some men to become more interested in ‘things’ than in people, as a motivation for them to learn and practice skills that were vital to personal and (secondarily) social survival, reproduction and expansion. This selection pressure applied most strongly to men since in the sexual division of labour it was typically men’s role to perform such tasks. We further hypothesize that High Systemizing men were rewarded for their socially vital work by increased resources and high status. Because marriages were arranged in traditional societies mainly by parental choice (and the role of parental choice was probably increased by agriculture), it is presumed that the most valued women, that is young and healthy women thereby having high reproductive potential, were differentially allocated to be wives of economically successful High Systemizers. Such unions of economically successful High Systemizing men with the most reproductively valuable women would be expected to lead to greater-than-average reproductive success, thereby amplifying the population representation of genes that cause high systematizing in the population. This hypothesis makes several testable predictions.
Introduction: What is it that needs to be explained?
The first purpose of this paper is conceptual clarification. In other words, we first aim to clarify what an evolutionary theory of Empathizing and Systemizing needs to explain: we need to be clear what has evolved, before we can suggest why and how it may have evolved.
Therefore we need to define the nature of both Empathizing (E) and Systemizing (S), and to emphasize that they are personality traits or ‘dispositions’ rather than cognitive abilities (see the section below for further explanation of this distinction). We consider E as the disposition to apply ‘theory of mind’ (or social intelligence) reasoning to experience; while Systemizing is a disposition to apply non-social, abstract and systematic reasoning to experience.
Therefore, E and S are distinctive modes of thinking – so that in an identical situation, an Empathizer would use one mode of thinking, while a Systemizer would use another – even if both had the same underlying cognitive abilities, their preferences or dispositions would be different.
To put matters simply, E and S describe a fundamental orientation towards either People or Things. An orientation could be understood in terms of a spontaneous focus, or a preference. The reason for an orientation may be sought in terms of motivational systems of gratification and aversion: a concern with either people or things, will tend to give a particular person more pleasure (or less pain) than its opposite.
But the situation is not symmetrical for Empathizing and Systemizing, because Man is a social animal: thus a focus on people is to be expected, while a focus on things in preference to people is unexpected, and invites specific explanation.
In evolutionary terms, we therefore can take high E almost for granted, and the pressing need is to explain how it was possible that a preference to deal with things rather than people was able to arise, specifically in men more strongly than in women (Baron-Cohen, 2003). This need comes from our presumption that a preference for things over people would – on the face of it - be likely to cause a selective dis-advantage in terms of social relationships.
In particular, we would assume that (all else being equal) Systemizing would probably be a disadvantage from the perspective of sexual selection in its major form of female sexual choice – in a nutshell, it would seem probable that individual young women would prefer to choose high-Empathizers as sexual partners, rather than high-Systemizers. So, for high Systemizing to have evolved in at least some human populations; we need to explain how this presumed selective disadvantage may have been overcome: in particular how ancestral women of high reproductive potential could on average have ended-up reproducing with men who were relatively more interested in things than they were interested in people!
The second (and main) purpose of this paper is to describe specific hypotheses as to how and why E and S traits may have evolved in ancestral humans, what may have been their pay-offs in terms of reproductive success under specific conditions, and to clarify the reason for the reciprocity of these traits and the existence of sex differences in E and S (Baron-Cohen, 2003).
In brief; we regard Empathizing as the default human personality since, as the application of social intelligence, it reflects the great importance of social relationships to reproductive success. By contrast, we regard Systemizing as having emerged later in evolutionary history (and only in some, not all, human populations) as a result of novel selection pressures mainly due to changed economic conditions - especially the development of more-complex humans societies (such as those dependent on complex technologies or based on agriculture and trade) with a variety of socially-essential, specialized ‘jobs’: especially for men.
These evolutionary hypotheses are, at this point, necessarily speculative and intended to serve as a guide for future empirical research and testing, rather than providing definitive answers.
Empathizing and Systemizing conceptualized as personality traits
Empathizing and Systemizing are personality traits – and the distinction between personality and cognitive ability, especially general intelligence or ‘g’, is something that needs to be made clear (Dutton and Charlton, 2016).
Intelligence and Personality are the two main ways that psychologists have developed for describing ‘individual differences’ between people and populations. The two types of differences can approximately be summarized as follows: intelligence is ability, while personality is character (or ‘disposition’); intelligence is general – with the level of intelligence affecting many specific abilities, while personality can be understood as a pattern of motivations, preferences, satisfactions etc.
In terms of an analogy with computers – intelligence is something like the processing speed, while personality is more analogous to the types of software installed. Or (and recognizing that a computer analogy for brain functioning is both selective and biased), intelligence is about the efficiency of the brain, while personality is about what that particular brain is designed to do. Or, intelligence is about how well the brain works; while personality describes the circuitry, the hard-wiring – what kind of brain it is.
A further practical difference is that intelligence is measured by tests – for example IQ tests of various types; while personality is typically evaluated by human beings – either self-rated using self-describing personality scales, or else rated by other people.
But an important similarity is that both IQ and personality are (nearly always) comparative measurements. A person ‘high’ in intelligence, or high on a personality trait such as Empathizing, is high relative to other people. The terms ‘High’ and ‘Low’, when used both in intelligence and personality, therefore does not describe an objective measurement of a personal attribute in the way that (for example) high or low blood pressure or blood sugar measurements would. (This is why the psychological field is described as individual differences.)
Empathizing and Systemizing are properly conceptualized as personality traits, aspects of character, dispositions or preferences to behave in certain ways; and therefore not as cognitive abilities. E-S variations are thus not-necessarily correlated with cognitive abilities – and indeed in some studies there is no significant measurable correlation between E or S cognitive abilities. This is as expected, since personality studies were developed (especially by HJ Eysenck) to describe and compare individuals in a way that was not captured by IQ differences (Dutton & Charlton, 2016). For example, there is neither a strong nor consistent association between the ‘reading the mind in the eyes’ test (a test of a cognitive ability), and scores on a self-evaluation Empathizing scale (a measure of disposition or personality): so that an individual may score highly at reading the mind in the eyes but score low on an Empathizing scale, or vice versa (Lawrence, Shaw, Baker, Baron-Cohen, & David, 2004; Voracek & Dressler, 2006).
So, a disposition is a personality trait: understandable as a sustained tendency, an individual’s characteristic of habitually deploying a mode of cognition. A disposition can also be seen as an individual’s preference for using an ability. (In the sense that preferences can only select between a certain set of abilities; one cannot characteristically be disposed to act in any way that one is incapable of acting.) And preference to behave in certain ways is (presumably) based on a motivation, and motivation is associated with a psychological reward (or gratification) from doing something – or else a psychological punishment (or aversive consequence) of not doing something.
Ultimately, therefore, a disposition such as Empathizing reflects that certain types of behaviour lead to increased gratification (increased pleasure or diminution of suffering) – and behaviour that leads to increased gratification is preferred. Individuals differ in the types of behaviour that lead to gratification, and in the degree of gratification associated with a specific type of behaviour – so ultimately personality differences are underpinned by differences in what individuals find gratifying.
In sum, individual and group variations in Systemizing and Empathizing can be understood as variations in the type of behaviour that (on average) lead to gratification. Put simply: Empathizers gain enhanced gratification from Empathizing behaviour, while Systemizers gain enhanced gratification from Systemizing behaviour. For example, a typical High-Systemizer may have the ability to understand and empathize with other people, but he prefers to spend most of his time doing crosswords; while a typical High-Empathizer may be able to do crosswords to a high standard, but she would prefer to converse with a group of friends.
Naturally, the disposition to be Empathizing or Systemizing requires that there be the cognitive ability to do these behaviours; to empathize requires the ability to empathize and to systemize requires that different ability. And at extremes of disposition there may be a deficit in such abilities, so that the extreme Empathizer may be defective in systemizing ability and the extreme Systemizer may be defective in theory of mind ability.
However, deficiencies in either E or S ability are not necessary to the finding of variations in E-S, and it seems that there may be a wide range of E-S dispositions even when both abilities are fully intact. Therefore, these abilities must first have evolved in order that a disposition to find them rewarding and have a preference to use them may secondarily have evolved.
Evolution of the Social Brain
The social brain hypothesis sees social selection pressures as the driving force behind human brain growth: higher cortical functions have evolved to deal with the adaptive problems of complex group living (Adolphs, 1999, 2009; Dunbar, 1995, 1998; Humphrey, 1976). The relative neocortex growth in humans and other primates is due to the demands on executive brain function required by living in complex social groups. Evidence in favour of this hypothesis shows that as group size increases across primate species, neo-cortex size also grows (Dunbar, 1995, 1998). The set of cognitive adaptations that enable successful group living, such as the abilities to perceive, recall and process information about others and act according to this information, is often termed social intelligence (Dunbar, 1998), Machiavellian intelligence (Byrne & Whiten, 1988) or social cognition (Brothers, 1990).
Group living poses a number of adaptive problems for the individual: attracting and maintaining a mate, monitoring and manipulating social interactions, outwitting rivals and forming alliances, inferring dispositions, motivations and intentions of others, etc. Selection apparently favoured those individuals who were the most successful at solving these adaptive problems of group living. In order successfully to survive and reproduce within a social setting, an individual requires the cognitive ability to react adaptively to social challenges and to affect others positively (Byrne & Whiten, 1988) .
Amongst the cognitive abilities enabling complex social interaction are face perception, emotional processing, theory of mind (TOM), self-reference and working memory (Grady & Keightley, 2002). These abilities are mediated by the interplay of activity of networks of interdependent brain regions which support the behaviours necessary for social interaction (Grady & Keightley, 2002). Amongst the neural architecture that contributes to social intelligence are the amygdala, ventromedial prefrontal cortex and the right somatosensory related cortex (Adolphs, 1999; Grady & Keightley, 2002).
An individual potentially benefits in terms of reproductive success by being able to predict the behaviour of others within the group, maintain beneficial social relationships and even manipulate social situations to advantage (Byrne & Whiten, 1988; Humphrey, 1976). A lack of the faculties required to function adaptively within the group can have negative reproductive consequences for the individual. The inability positively to affect others, at least to a degree, and adaptively to interact within a group can lead to negative emotional effects for the individual, social ostracism and ultimately, reproductive death (i.e. failure to raise any viable offspring). This can most clearly be seen in the devastating effects of lesions and or disorders to the social functioning of the individual (Ylvisaker, Feeney, & Szekeres, 1998). For instance, individuals with the autistic spectrum disorder have abnormal face perception (Klin et al., 1999) as well as strong deficits in the theory of mind mechanism (Grady & Keightley, 2002). Autistic individuals have difficulties in adaptive social behaviour, avoid normal social contact and are generally indifferent to social encounters (Baron-Cohen, 1997).
At the core of social intelligence lies the ability to “mind read” or theory of mind: this is the ability to infer the contents (beliefs, desires, intentions) of the mind of other individuals, predicting behaviour based on these inferences and empathizing with others states of mind (Baron-Cohen, 1999, 2000, 2006b; Baron-Cohen, Leslie, & Frith, 1985; Dennett, 1971; Premack & Woodruff, 1978). Mindreading is often seen as a predominantly cognitive ability, however emotions play a key role in inferring other agent’s content of mind and reacting adaptively.
Emotions and the somatic marker mechanism
Empathizing has evolved to represent the affective states of others and to react with an appropriate emotion. The importance of emotions in adaptive social behaviour is extensive; and they are pivotal in successfully modelling social behaviour. Relevant here is the somatic marker mechanism suggested by Antonio Damasio (Damasio, 1994, 1996, 1999) and further elaborated by Charlton (Charlton, 2000, 2003; Charlton & McClelland, 1999).
Damasio (1994, 1995, 1999) makes a distinction between emotions and feelings: Emotions are changes in body state (and non-conscious brain state to a secondary extent) primed by either external or internal stimuli. Feelings are the conscious awareness of these changes in body state (Damasio, 1994, 1995). Primary emotions are those that are innate and triggered automatically in certain situations (Charlton, 2000, 2003; Damasio, 1995). For instance, a “fear” response can be triggered in the presence of a snake. The somatic response in this case would be an increase in heart rate, higher frequency of breathing, dilated pupils etc. This pattern of somatic changes constitutes the primary emotion of fear that can modify and initiate behaviour, such as a flight or fight response. These emotional changes in body states can be observed in most mammals; however, it is only some primates (the great apes probably, plus some monkeys; and perhaps a few other relatively large-brained social mammals such as dolphins, orcas and elephants) and of course humans that can be aware of emotions – that is, experience feelings (Charlton, 2000).
Secondary emotions are those emotions triggered by internal events such as remembering an encounter with a snake or planning a route to avoid a snake. Secondary emotions are induced by cognitive representations, i.e. internal events that have previously been associated with a primary emotion. These secondary emotional representations are dispositional in that they include evaluative information about the object/event priming the emotion in the first place. Thus, remembering an encounter with a snake can invoke the same changes in body state as the initial encounter. Secondary emotions can therefore be seen as being acquired through experience, and are built upon the foundations of primary emotions (Damasio, 1995). Secondary emotions therefore occur in response to cognitive modelling or cognitive simulations - such as memories or plans (Charlton, 2000).
Feeling an emotion involves secondary emotions, because feeling is the conscious awareness of a pattern of changes in body state in relation to the representation that primed these changes. Thus, representations are juxtaposed with relevant somatic states, i.e. emotions, to the extent that these representations are associated or marked with a particular emotion. This juxtaposition of representation and emotion is what constitutes the somatic marker mechanism (Charlton, 2000; Damasio, 1994).
According to Damasio (Damasio, 1994, 1996), the somatic marker mechanism is fundamental to distinctively human reasoning and decision making, especially within the social and personal realm. The neurobiological site which is critical for the somatic marker mechanism to function is the prefrontal cortex, more specifically the ventro-medial sector (Damasio, 1996). Individuals with damage to this section of the cortex have defective feelings, and face considerable difficulties making appropriate social decisions (especially in relation to context and planning), while still retaining normal intelligence and most intellectual capacities including the ability to experience primary emotions (Damasio, 1996).
Ultimately, a good decision for any organism is one that is advantageous for the reproductive success and survival of the organism, as well as the quality of survival (Damasio, 1994). Somatic markers assist and guide the decision making process by modelling outcomes of decisions through changes in somatic state. A possible bad outcome of a decision can manifest itself as an immediate negative feeling such as fears, misery or disgust. The representation of the negative outcome of a given response option is marked with the unpleasant feeling, allowing the organism to reject a possible decision from the outset. Thus, in Damasio’s words “somatic markers are special instances of feelings, generated from secondary emotions. Those emotions and feelings have been connected, by learning, to predicted future outcomes of certain scenarios.” (Damasio, 1994). The somatic marker mechanism functions as both a warning and incentive system for possible negative and positive outcomes.
When somatic markers operate consciously, they can assist in the modelling and planning of behaviour towards other organisms. By thinking about previous social encounters and being aware of the emotional /somatic responses that are evoked through these deliberations, dispositions and intentions of others can be inferred (Charlton, 2000; Damasio, 1994).This means that somatic markers are pivotal in internally modelling social behaviour.
Representations of other people are linked in working memory with an appropriate feeling, thus associating own emotional reactions with the representation of others. For instance, the perception of a rival male can invoke the emotional reaction of fear. The perceptual representation of this individual is then marked with the somatic state of fear. At a later point in time, thinking about this individual, i.e. drawing upon the representation from long term memory can similarly produce the same emotional reaction. Inferences about the disposition of the other individual can be modelled upon the subject’s own emotional reaction to the encounter (Charlton, 2000). In sum, ‘theory of mind’ is ultimately derived from awareness of the subject’s emotional response to another person.
The somatic marker mechanism can be seen as being the underlying neurobiological mechanism of the theory of mind mechanism and the empathizing system. Where Baron-Cohen (2005) describes the development and function of these two systems, Damasio’s somatic marker explain the underlying neurobiological mechanism by which both dispositions and inferences about another organisms’ mental as well as affective states can be made.
Because human intelligence and consciousness have fundamentally evolved to deal with the social world, the spontaneous and immediate experience of the environment is infused by social information. Humans are primed to interpret ambiguous situation (like the fluttering of leaves) as being caused by agency (Barrett, 2000; Guthrie, 1995) and to reading social meaning into natural events (Bering, 2002). This tendency to anthropomorphise the significant environment and to imbue it with social agency may underlie the evolution of religious beliefs (Charlton, 2002a, 2002b; Guthrie, 1995; Rosenkranz & Charlton, 2013).
Empathizing evolved to focus on people, Systemizing evolved to focus on things
Empathizing is based upon the above-described ‘theory of mind’ ability. Theory of mind refers to the ability, found in some social animals, to infer metal contents such as dispositions, motivations and intentions in another con-specific.
We conceptualize Empathizing as the disposition to apply ‘theory of mind’ cognitive ability – this can be applied to the social situations for which the ability (presumably) evolved, and also to understanding the world in general (and not just the social world). In other words, Empathizing is the spontaneous tendency of humans to focus on people, and also to regard ‘things’ as if they were people (‘anthropmorphism’).
Since humans are social animals, and in line with evolutionary concepts such as the Social Brain and ‘Machiavellian Intelligence’, we regard social intelligence as probably deriving from primate ancestry, and therefore closer to the ancient, natural and spontaneous form of human interest and motivation than is an interest in non-human-things. We therefore regard the highly Empathizing personality type as underpinned by an evolutionarily more-ancient personality type than is Systemizing.
In other words, Empathizing is more fundamental to humans than Systemizing, and is intrinsic to the species: Empathizing came before Systemizing. Further, it is possible that a preference for Systemizing did not evolve in all populations, and may be weak or absent in some human groups still extant. But in ancestral hunter gatherer situations – perhaps including pre-modern hominid ancestors – we would assume that all reproductively successful humans were not just able to infer theory of mind, but disposed to focus on other humans and their mental contents: almost everybody in these circumstances was probably a high Empathizer and so it seems likely that the Systemizing trait was low, and that there may have been few or zero high Systemizers.
Empathizing - in its evolutionary origins - is therefore personal in its application, being specifically directed towards actual human relationships. To have an Empathizing disposition is to feel rewarded by attention to social matters, and to use this cognitive style (evolved to deal with humans) as a general model of understanding. Therefore be a high Empathizer is to see the world through social spectacles (Charlton, 2000): to have a tendency to focus attention on social relationships and to understand the world as analogous to social relationships.
Empathizing seems to be the natural and spontaneous way for humans to deal-with phenomena they regard as important: this is seen in the tendency to anthropomorphise large and important animals, significant places and landscape features, treasured possessions and so on; and to treat human groups (or modern institutions) as if they were unified, conscious and intentional organisms.
Re-defining Systemizing as a preference for focusing on linear sequences of things
Systemizing is (in its extreme) the disposition to attend to non-human matters – to things rather than people; underpinned by the tendency to find non-social interactions more rewarding, hence more motivating, than social matters.
The usual definition of the trait of Systemizing relates to a preference to analyse the world in terms of the rules which govern systems: such that the Systemizer is a person who sees the world as composed of systems, and is interested in categorization and understanding the rules, patterns or principles that underlie these systems (Baron-Cohen, 2010; Baron-Cohen, Ashwin, Ashwin, Tavassoli, & Chakrabarti, 2009). However, while this is clearly an accurate description of the interests of a high Systemizing personality who also has high general intelligence, we suggest that this is a potentially misleading description of the Systemizing trait since it refers to the understanding of complex systems; that is systems of processes that are governed by rules.
Yet it seems plausible that an interest in the abstract understanding of the processes of complex systems is underpinned (and evolutionarily preceded) by the simpler abstract task of learning linear sequences. So in terms of a personality trait, the interest in complex systems which is measured by Systemizing questionnaires may be considered a more advanced type of an elementary interest in simpler ‘strings’ of facts, names, numbers, tasks or procedures.
To create categorizations, to infer a pattern, and to extract the rules from a system are higher-level cognitive abilities; possible only to those of relatively high general intelligence (that is, high IQ). Abstraction of rules is, indeed, one of the main attributes of ‘g’ which is measured in standard IQ tests: for example in supplying the next member of a number series, or establishing group membership, or performing a visuo-spatial task like Raven’s matrices (Deary, 2001; Gottfredson, 2005; Jensen, 1998). Those of low general intelligence are poor at these tasks (which is why they are used to measure IQ), and this implies that a focus on understanding the rules of systems is probably only a practical definition of Systemizing among those of higher intelligence; because people with a low IQ would not cognitively be able to infer and understand rules, even if their disposition was high-S.
Therefore, while inferring categories, patterns and rules certainly count as Systemizing behaviour, we would favour a more basic and less cognitively-advanced definition of systemizing: that the Systemizing trait is a disposition to be interested by things rather than people which is seen at its most basic in trying to learn linear sequences of abstract facts or actions.
The two main aspects of Systemizing, we suggest, relate to the nature of content which is not-social i.e. abstract; and to the content being understood in terms of linear sequences of facts. Therefore Systemizing relates to:
1. Abstract phenomena (things not people)
2. Of a specific identity (these particular things)
3. In a specific ‘organization’ (in this order, or categorized thus)
A modern example of the Systemizing preference, would be the kind of crazes and ‘obsessions’ which are characteristic of people on the autism spectrum or with Asperger’s syndrome: learning lists of names and numbers from the telephone directory, or certain types of dates, or pictures make by highly-literal copying, or learning all the facts on a non-social themes such as automobile performance or the performance of a sports team, or literal recollection of sequences from favourite TV shows or passages from books, or hobbies involving collecting and arranging – such as stamps, cards or train-spotting.
These and other pastimes such as crossword or other puzzles, or some types of computer games, are often about assembling sequences of correct facts or procedures (united by theme or category) in a correct and specific order or pattern – yet these facts or procedures may not have any rule-based ‘systemic’ structure. Typically, one cannot learn these kinds of activity by learning and applying rules; rather, the activity consists in performing exact sequences of correct responses on specific material.
Interestingly, an explanation of Systemizing in terms of the disposition to focus upon ‘close-up’ consideration of abstract linear sequences, bears striking similarities with the concept of left cerebral hemisphere dominance as described in Iain McGilchrist’s The master and his emissary concerning autistic traits and ‘attention to detail’ (Baron-Cohen et al., 2011; McGilchrist, 2009); although at the same time McGilchrist’s evidence and argument renders implausible any direct equation of left hemisphere with male, right with female. The argument is complex and we flag it here as a matter deserving further and detailed consideration.
Systemizing and psychological neoteny
Indeed, this kind of behaviour focused on linear sequence of abstract knowledge is characteristic of children; for instance when they insist on a fairy story being told with exactly the same words and details. Many pre-adolescent boys, in particular, have periodic ‘crazes’ on various subjects (aircraft, trains, a type of book, a type of construction model, a particular sport) about which theme they voraciously learn everything they can manage.
These pre-adolescent boy’s crazes are typically not focused on people nor on social relations, nor are they focused on rule-based understanding; rather they are fact-based, convergent activities involving listing, collecting, categorizing, memorizing – based on learning sequences and patterns but not often complex or dynamic ‘systems’.
This similarity between pre-adolescent boys and high Systemizing men does not tell us why high trait-Systemizing may have evolved – does not tell us how high Systemizing may have improved differential reproductive success in our ancestors - but it may suggest how high Systemizing evolved: by perpetuation of pre-adult behaviour into sexual maturity. In other words high Systemizing trait in adults may be a neotenous phenomenon.
(Neoteny is one type of the more general class of ‘heterochrony’ in which evolutionary change is brought about by alterations in the timing of developmental events; Horder, 2001.)
And this may provide a clue to the proximate mechanism for the evolution of higher levels of trait Systemizing. Natural selection usually works by quantitative modification or amplification of some already-existing trait (as when a hand, or an arm, evolves into a wing in a bat, or a bird; or when a neck, or a nose, become lengthened in a giraffe, or an elephant). In humans, the evolution of the high levels of Systemizing seen in modern people suggests that there was some original trait which underwent evolutionary adaptive modification.
In other words; if neoteny – or something similar – was the proximate mechanism via which natural selection led to Systemizing, then we need to consider the trait which was present in immature humans that may have provided the basis for the evolution of adult Systemizing.
E-S reciprocity and sex differentials as a consequence of selection pressure from post-agricultural agricultural economic factors
The main observations concerning E and S which an evolutionary hypothesis must explain are, we suggest, firstly the reciprocity between Empathizing and Systemizing – that when one is high the other is usually low; and secondly the characteristic sex differential with S higher on average in men and E higher in women.
In a sense, reciprocity is an intrinsic property of some personality traits: one cannot be both highly extravert and highly introverted, cannot be both highly neurotic and very stable. Similarly, one cannot be fascinated by social relationships such as to spend most of one’s time and energy on that matter, and at the same time fascinated by learning about abstract facts and figures and systems so as to spent most of one’s time and energy on that matter as well.
Most strong personality traits can, in principle, alternate in dominance over time and with circumstance – but they cannot dominate simultaneously. So it is an intrinsic property of E-S being descriptive of a personality trait that the predisposition towards one extreme of the trait is itself a predisposition away-from the other extreme.
However, in addition the E-S personality traits have been persistently observed as different, on average, between men and women. And most of the most highly empathic people are women, while most high systemisers are men. This observation invites an evolutionary explanation. We suggest that the ultimate (evolutionary) cause of sex differentials in E-S lies in the sexual division of labour among humans; men and women having different characteristic roles: women focused on child care and food gathering and preparation, men focused on whatever other tasks require doing: e.g. hunting, fighting, crafts (Lee & Daly, 1999; Lee & DeVore, 1968; Ridley, 1997).
Specifically, we regard Empathizing as a baseline state common to ancestral men and women, and Systemizing as having been selected-for at a later stage of human evolution, primarily among men due to the ancestral economic division of labour, and the economic benefits of having some men who are high Systemizers. We assume that there were significant material rewards for those men who were both able and willing to perform Systemizing tasks, and that these extra resources would have enhanced the survival of the offspring of successful Systemizers.
Post-agricultural evolution of the Systemizing trait
To recapitulate, the Empathizing trait refers to theory of mind abilities, which would be expected to be more evolutionarily ancient than the Systemizing trait, since they are found in non-human primates. Therefore a disposition towards Empathizing (theory of mind) are hypothesized to be a feature of pre-human primate and ancestral hunter-gatherer societies. We believe that Systemizing came later in human evolutionary history, and was an ability and disposition that (in a sense) displaced pre-existing Empathizing - on average and among men.
By contrast, while it may have been beneficial for men to be somewhat higher than women in Systemizing in hunter gatherer conditions; it is hard to see any need for, or evidence for, high levels of Systemizing trait in ancestral-type hunter gatherer societies, and it is hard to imagine a plausible benefit for a personality type which is characterized by the kind of high Systemizing which can be observed in modern Europeans – for instance those of the Asperger syndrome type. Ancestral hunter gatherers were (it is assumed) well-equipped by natural selection to deal with most of the non-personal/ ‘thing’-related problems they would encounter, since they had lived in the same type of environment for up to hundreds of generations. The social brain perspective suggests that the most cognitively-complex tasks our ancestors confronted were related to understanding, predicting and manipulating human social interactions (Byrne & Whiten, 1988). And for these problems, humans were prepared by their theory of mind abilities, and the ‘Empathizing’ personality was motivated to apply theory of mind abilities in relating to the world.
Furthermore, ancestral hunter gatherers were generalists: apart from a sexual division of labour, essentially all women were involved in gathering and child care, only men were warriors and hunters. Any other activities needed to be fitted-around these requirements, but because the usual group size was small (probably around 15-35 including both the young and the old) there was only a little scope for specialization of function except in terms of sex and age (Charlton, 2000; Lee & Daly, 1999).
Systemizing abilities and interests therefore seems likely to be most beneficial in post-agricultural, more complex, less ‘natural’ human societies. Indeed, agricultural societies are usually characterized by some degree of economic specialization - especially among men (Woodburn, 1982). This is necessary because of the greater need for learned knowledge and technology – agriculture is itself a specialist expert activity requiring not just invention but significant preservation and inter-generational transmission of knowledge (which is why it was not invented as a stable and continuing social form until the past 10-15,000 years)
The evolution of Systemizing can therefore be seen in the context of life history (Rushton, 1985). Woodley (2011) sees ancestral hunter gatherer societies as characterized by a relatively fast life history – with high fertility, rapid maturation of offspring and early maturity – and this leading to an un-specialized type of human – with a narrow range or ‘manifold’ of abilities. This situation may be associated with strong sexual selection – men investing on average little in their offspring but competing for multiple promiscuous matings (with uncertain paternity); presumably men would tend toward early maturity, high vigour and physical prowess, but a short life and a mainly social intelligence (e.g. men being charming rather than Systemizing).
By contrast, as agriculture emerged, and population density increased; it is probable that life history was slowed due to greater competition between humans (Woodley, 2011) In such a situation, men especially would seek a niche in which they could excel, and this would be associated with slower and later maturation – and a wider range (or manifold) of abilities between individuals - which meant that some people were better at one thing while other people were expert at different things. The trend would be towards lower fertility but higher level of parental investment per offspring – and the father contributing economic investment to their offspring (about which they would need have had a high degree of certainty of paternity for this behaviour to be adaptive; Wilson and Daly (1992), Charlton and McClelland (1999).
How the advent of agriculture and technological complexity may have favoured higher systemizing trait in men
In ancestral ‘simple’ hunter gatherer societies there were probably a few tasks which focused on dealing with ‘things’ and where a personality preference for such tasks might be adaptive: problems such as navigating across a desert, manufacturing a spear thrower or stone axe, or preparing poison for a bow and arrow. Typically such jobs require (in pre-literate societies) learning and precisely remembering an exact sequence of steps. But such tasks are far more numerous, and more important, in agricultural societies where there is more technology, and where farming and the preparation and storage of food must be learned and repeated exactly year after year (Woodburn, 1982).
Such societies also typically develop specialists in religious ritual (priests) and in various crafts – and craft expertise in particular becomes absolutely essential to the survival of societies (Ingold, 2000; Ridley, 1997). Yet such crafts must be devised, remembered, and transmitted between generations. Our assumption is that it was this kind of selection pressure in agricultural societies which led to the evolution of high levels of Systemizing seen in some members of modern populations.
Systemizing was therefore a kind of expert disposition; indeed Systemizing was exactly the trait that would enable expertise to develop; because expertise was (we infer) mostly a matter of learning and memorizing accurately precise sequential facts and procedures. Thus the development of expertise is only partly about ability to perform a type of task – equally (or more) important is the personality which is motivated to do such tasks.
In other words, we suggest that before the development of agriculture, humans were originally towards the Empathizing end of the trait and that sexual differentiation was probably very limited; and that the characteristic observed modern pattern of E-S is primarily a product of economic selection pressures after the development of agriculture. We suggest, therefore, that the primary evolutionary cause of the range and reciprocity of E-S and also the higher average levels of S in men, was the sexual division of labour in a context of agricultural economic systems.
Adding together all these factors, our suggestion is that after the advent of agriculture, and amplified as human societies became more complex, more differentiated by specialization, and more technologically advanced; those men who were higher in the Systemizing trait enjoyed greater economic success with benefits in terms of wealth. This meant that high S men would have more resources to invest in their children, enabling them to rear more children to adulthood.
This matter of resources seems, indeed, to have been the major reproductive constraint in pre-modern societies. Until the industrial revolution, fertility was high in almost all social groups, but a high proportion of children died in childhood (e.g. from starvation and infectious diseases) – indeed among the poorest people, almost all children would be likely to die without reproducing. Those parents whose children had the lowest child mortality were therefore those with the highest reproductive success (Volk & Atkinson, 2013). The main factor that enabled some families to rear above-replacement numbers of children was wealth (Clark, 2007).
Therefore if high-S men did indeed (as we suggest) offer a higher probability of economic success, then under pre-modern conditions this would be highly likely to translate into greater reproductive success.
Personality clearly affects sexual attractiveness, and may therefore be subject to sexual selection. On the one hand, common sense, personal observation and theoretical considerations suggest that, on average, women do not find the highly Systemizing personality (with its preference for things rather than people) to be (of itself) sexually attractive in men. So, in a society, where young women chose their own mates and husbands, it seems hard to imagine that Systemizing would be amplified by sexual selection – rather, it would seem that sexual selection might tend to prevent an increase in systemizing trait among men.
On the other hand, individual female sexual preferences are not necessarily an important factor in determining sexual or marriage partners in the ancient and traditional human societies. This is because parental choice of a woman’s sexual and marriage partners was the almost universal norm among pre-modern human societies, and indeed parental dominance of their daughters’ reproductive decisions seems to have increased in frequency and strength with the transition from hunter gatherers to agriculture (Apostolou, 2014).
So, most historical human societies did not allow much scope for individual female choice of sexual or marriage partners and young women were essentially allocated to husbands – mainly by their parents (Wilson & Daly, 1992; Apostolou, 2014). In such societies, sexual selection, works not between a potential husband and wife, but primarily between a potential husband and his potential parents-in-law. What was important was not so much a man being sexually-attractive to a young women (as may be the case in modern societies), but primarily an attractive prospective husband and father as judged by the young women’s middle-aged parents. This opens up considerable scope for positive sexual selection of high-Systemizing trait, if high-S is associated with the kind of attributes which parents-in-law are likely to value – that is, traits that seem like to increase the probability of rearing numerous grandchildren to adulthood.
Individual sexual choice seems, in particular, to be very limited in most stable agricultural societies and there seems to have been an increase in parental control over marriage between hunter gatherers and agriculturalists, if modern examples of these societies are taken as a guide (Apostolou, 2014) – and it is our assumption that it was precisely these stable agricultural societies in which the Systemizing trait is likely to have arisen and been amplified in men.
A further factor is that one of the most powerful factors affecting female sexual preference is male status. Insofar as a high Systemizing trait leads to higher status in a man, then it may be indirectly sexually attractive – unattractive in itself, but associated with a higher status that is attractive (Buss, 1995; Symons, 1980).
If the Systemizing trait is probably (on average) either neutral or unattractive to individual young women, this suggests that when women are allowed to choose freely, sexual selection probably works to reduce or eliminate the Systemizing trait. This would imply that under modern conditions of independent female choice of sexual and marriage partners, Systemizing would be under a negative selection pressure; and that this aspect of male personality may well be experiencing a ‘selective sweep’ in which the representation of the trait in the gene pool will currently be changing from one equilibrium towards another (Miller, 2010).
Another aspect is that a highly Systemizing disposition would presumably (like all personality traits) be substantially inherited by female children as well as male children – even when there are sex differentials (Miller, 2000). So that high-S women would become more common, as well as high-S men – simply as a by-product of the economic selection pressure on men. Then, since Systemizing reflects a person’s interests, and shared interest may be a factor in mate choice; it would be expected that more highly Systemizing women would tend to regard highly Systemizing men as relatively more attractive than would high-E women – especially if the woman was expecting to spend a lot of time with her husband. (This would be a form of assortative mating, whereby sexual partners are chosen on the basis of similarity; Miller, 2009.)
Assuming that high-S was rewarded by greater economic success and therefore the pay-off of being able to raise more children to viable adulthood – this would result in a population increasing in average Systemizing with each generation. And assortative mating between high Systemizers could plausibly be a mechanism by which ultra-high Systemizing might become a feature of populations – especially in men (Baron-Cohen, 2006a). Therefore this may be a plausible mechanism for the emergence of Asperger syndrome at a high frequency and severity – as a by-product of generations of relatively high-S women choosing high-S men as partners.
The theory leads to a number of testable predictions:
Systemizing may be undergoing (in developed societies) on the one hand assortative mating which amplifies the number of very high Systemizers (Baron-Cohen, 2006a). However, in the opposite direction, the weakening of parental influence on mating decisions and the greater operation of sexual selection in the form of individual female sexual choice would probably generate a selective sweep that would be reducing the average level of S generation-by-generation.
The male female difference in E and S may have been quantitatively less in hunter gather societies than in agricultural or modern societies – and this smaller differential may be measurable in the modern social groups which have most recently been living as hunter gatherers; and who therefore have not yet experienced many generations of the selection effects of complex societies.
The theoretical model also suggests possible methods of measuring Systemizing and Empathizing by developing instruments that quantify people’s spontaneous preferences as expressed in choices between focusing on either on people or else things.
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Friday, 18 March 2016
Reconceptualizing the metaphysical basis of biology: a new definition based on deistic teleology and an hierarchy of organizing entities
Charlton, BG. Reconceptualizing the metaphysical basis of biology: a new definition based on deistic teleology and an hierarchy of organizing entities(2016) The Winnower. DOI: 10.15200/winn.145830.07350
Reconceptualizing the metaphysical basis of biology: a new definition based on deistic teleology and an hierarchy of organizing entities
Bruce G Charlton
School of Psychology, Newcastle University, NE1 7RU, England
Modern biology was initially established by Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859 and fully implemented by the Neo-Darwinian synthesis of natural selection with genetics that solidified in the middle twentieth century. I will argue that this ‘paradigm’ is based upon fundamental metaphysical assumptions that render formally-insoluble some of the most important theoretical problems of biology. These problems include the origin of life, the major transitions of evolution, the origins of sexual reproduction and of species, and the basic mechanism behind ‘group selection’. The fundamental deficit of the current metaphysics of biology is that it lacks a unified and coordinated teleology (direction, purpose, goals). I advocate a new teleological and metaphysical basis for biology that is minimally based on a ‘deist’ conception of reality: i.e. that everything is governed by a unified principle of purpose, order and meaning. Such a teleology suggests a definition of biology around the concept of development – that is the growth, differentiation, coordination and interactions of entities; unfolding through time through the lifespan and across generations. The local and specific implementation of teleology is suggested to be accomplished by a hierarchy of cognitive organizing entities that are located outwith biological systems. These putative organizing entities work on biological entities primarily through building-in purposiveness during development. A deistic system directed by organizing entities is, of course, not a 'biological' theory; but then, neither is natural selection a biological theory: both are metaphysical frameworks for the science of biology.
Fundamental unsolved problems of biology
From more than two decades of theoretical consideration of biology, especially evolutionary biology, I have concluded that there are no satisfactory answers to some of the most important and most fundamental questions of biology. I will argue that the fundamental reason for this is the lack of any teleology (purpose) in natural selection, which is the current dominant biological paradigm. Therefore, I propose a new teleological metaphysics for biology.
Biology (including medical research and psychology) has, since the 1950s, become the most ‘successful’ – that is, by far the largest and most heavily-funded and most status-rewarded of the sciences (Charlton & Andras, 2005). However, it is striking that this progress has been at the proximate level of mechanisms and technologies, and not at the level of fundamental understanding.
Indeed, the triumph of biology was preceded and accompanied by a major act of redefinition of the subject itself. A little book called What is Life? by the great physicist Erwin Schrödinger (1944) served as a catalyst for this change, and was accompanied by an influx of physicists and chemists into biology, leading to the triumphant discovery of the structure of DNA and of the coding and transcription mechanisms by which genes make proteins (Judson, 1979).
But in paving the way for these discoveries, the definition of biology was implicitly changed from ‘The science of living things’ to ‘The science of things that reproduce and are subject to natural selection’. This move away from the livingness of biology was what allowed non-biologists to take-over the subject at the very highest level; and since then biology has been dominated by researchers who use physics, chemistry, engineering (i.e. big, expensive machines of various types), computers, statistics, economic theory and a range of other non-biological perspectives and technologies.
As I say, the triumphs are well known – but the major unsolved problems of biology from 1950 remain unsolved; however, mainstream attention has simply shifted elsewhere and there is currently perhaps less interest in these matters than at any time since before biology became a separate science.
Such lack of interest – and of knowledge – has meant that most people are not even aware, have not even noticed, that these problems are unsolved. Because, so long as an ‘answer’ to such problems is good enough to survive a couple of minutes semi-attentive and unfocused consideration by a narrowly-trained micro-specialist who is not really a biologist, and is adequate to support and sustain a program of publication and grant-getting (which are regarded as sole and the necessary requirements of modern science), then this is regarded by modern biological researchers as sufficient proof of that answer’s validity (Charlton, 2012).
But the problems remain – and they are so fundamental as to cast doubt on the whole basis of the ‘paradigm’ that defines, controls and validates modern biology (Kuhn -1970 - popularized the idea of a paradigm governing science – but at bottom, ‘paradigm’ is just a new, and confusion-generating, name for metaphysical assumptions).
Origins of life
An example is the question: What is life? – which is the title of that influential book by Schroedinger (1944). The current answer is, implicitly: that is ‘life’ which reproduces or replicates and is subject to natural selection.
But this answer includes viruses, phages and prions – which hardly seem to be ‘alive’ in that they lack a dynamic metabolism; and also some forms of crystal – which are usually regarded as certainly not-alive (Cairns-Smith, 1990). Furthermore, some economic theories and computational programmes explicitly use the mechanisms of natural selection - and these are not regarded as part of biology.
Strikingly, there has been no success in the attempts over sixty-plus years to create life in the laboratory under plausible ancestral earth conditions – not even the complex bio-molecules such as proteins and nucleic acids. It has, indeed, been well-argued that this is impossible; and that ‘living life’ must therefore have evolved from an intermediate stage (or stages) of non-living but evolvable molecules such as crystals – perhaps clays (Cairns-Smith, 1987). But nobody has succeeded in doing that in the lab either, despite that artificial selection can be orders of magnitude faster than natural selection.
Since there is no acknowledged boundary dividing biology and not-biology, then it would seem that biology as currently understood has zero validity as a subject. What are the implications of our failure to divide the living from the non-living world: the failure to draw a line around the subject? Well, since there is no coherent boundary, then common sense leads us to infer in that case either everything is not-alive or everything is-alive. If nothing is-alive, not even ourselves, there seems to be no coherent possibility of us knowing that we ourselves are not-alive, or indeed of anything knowing anything – which, I take it, means we should reject that possibility as a reductio ad absurdum.
Alternatively, the implication is that if anything is-alive, then everything is-alive, including the mineral world – so we dwell in a wholly animated universe, all that there is being alive but – presumably – alive in very different degrees and with different qualities of life. This inference I intend to regard as valid: it will be my working metaphysical assumption, and is one to which we will return later.
So; if life is to be regarded as universal, it seems that the presence of ‘life’ can no longer be used as definitive of biology; and since reproduction/ replication is also inadequate, then we need a new basis or principle around-which may be made a different definition of the subject ‘biology’. I will argue, below, why this new principle should be ‘development’.
Sexual reproduction and the major transitions of life
What of sexual reproduction? How did such a massively inefficient reproductive mechanism arise in the face of its immediate short-term damage to reproductive success? The great evolutionary theorist William D Hamilton recognized sexual reproduction as a major unsolved problem, and worked on it for decades (2001) – but neither this recognition, nor his attempted solutions in terms of ways to combat parasites and pathogens, has attracted much interest or acceptance.
And indeed, even if he was correct, Hamilton did not really solve the problem of how sexual reproduction arose – but only clarified its advantages (mainly in terms of resistance to infection) once sexual reproduction had already arisen, and already become established. The mechanism of how natural selection managed to cross the formidable short-to-medium-term barrier of vastly reduced reproductive success (caused by the need to find a suitable member of the opposite sex with whom to reproduce, and the approximate halving of potential reproductive units) remains utterly unclear.
The same problem of short-term disadvantage tending to undermine long-term advantage also applies to the ‘Major Transitions’ of evolutionary history – which include sexual reproduction but also the evolution of the simple (prokaryotic) cell, the complex (eukaryotic) cell, multicellular organisms, and social organisms (Maynard Smith & Szathmary, 1997). Each of these transitions requires overcoming the fact that natural selection operates much more powerfully and directly upon the lower, simpler and smaller levels of organization that replicate more rapidly; so that there is a constant pressure and tendency for these lower levels to become parasitic upon higher levels (Charlton, 1996).
In sum; natural selection is much more rapidly and powerfully dis-integrative than integrative. Yet, nonetheless, these transitions did actually occur in evolutionary history. For example, in a multi-cellular organism, the dividing component cells are constantly being naturally-selected for neoplastic (e.g. cancerous) change – such that they cease to cooperate with and contribute to the organism, and instead exploit it as a ‘host’ environment (Charlton, 1996a). How, then, did multicellular organisms evolve the many integrative systems (e.g. nervous, paracrine, hormonal and immune systems) designed to impose cooperation of specialized cells and suppress non-functional and actively parasitic (e.g. mutated) cell variants; bearing in mind that all such integrative systems are themselves intrinsically subject to neoplastic evolution (as well as loss of function from cumulative damage)?
The same phenomenon and problem must (according to the theory of natural selection) apply to the genetic organelles of the complex cell (such as chloroplasts and mitochondria; Charlton et al, 1998); and also to the individual organisms in a social organization (such as human society). Yet eukaryotic cells actually did arise – despite their innate and intractable tendency to self-destruct; and there are numerous highly evolutionarily-successful social animals among (for instance) insects, birds and mammals. Indeed, it has been calculated that ants and humans are the two groups with the greatest biomass among animals on earth, with ants dominating the tropics and humans the temperate zones – termites are also highly numerous in the tropics (Ridley, 1996).
The general problem is therefore that the net effect of natural selection is to break down the major transitions of evolution before they can be established – unless (as I will argue later) this tendency is overcome by some as-yet-unknown purposive (and indeed cognitive) long-termist, integrating and complexity-increasing tendency.
The nature of species
Darwin’s first great evolution book was termed On the Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection… (1859); and that is a clue to the next unsolved problem – which is: ‘what is a species?’
Darwin was trying to explain how ‘species’ (in a very general sense of the major, as well as minor, sub-divisions of living things) originated. To do this he already had to assume that he knew, more or less, what species were.
In other words, natural selection was proposed as a historical mechanism (in practice the only mechanism) which led to modern species. In yet other words; natural selection was supposed to explain species – and species was the thing that was explained (Panchen, 1993). Unsurprisingly, therefore, there has never been a principled explanation that was based on natural selection of what species actually are and how they are divided (Hull, 1988). At root, my understanding is that impasse happens because species are being used both as that which explains, and as that which is explained – which is circular reasoning.
And, in practice as well as in theory, all possible suggestions for such a definition are refuted by data. For example, the idea that species cannot interbreed to yield fertile offspring is untrue with numerous exceptions - some natural and some artificially generated. And the systems of differentiating and classifying species on the grounds of ‘homologous’ anatomy, physiology and genetics do not map-onto the classification of species in terms of their inferred lineage (e.g. cladistics) – and the identification of homology has itself (like species) never been objectively defined (Horder, 1993).
Furthermore, there is no more evidence now than there was in 1859 that natural selection is capable of being the sole and sufficient ‘explanation’ for the diversity of life upon earth. I put ‘explanation’ in quotation marks, because it is debateable whether natural selection – being based upon contingent and variable selection acting upon undirected (a.k.a.‘random’) variation (Hull, 2001) - is actually a real explanation; because then the ultimate explanation is apparently that there is no explanation. Natural selection does not say ‘why’, but instead ‘how’ evolution occurs. The nature of change is contingent upon undirected events shaped by contingent processes, and therefore is essentially non-predictable in its specifics. In some senses, therefore, natural selection does not genuinely ‘explain’.
In effect, with natural selection, at most one can only say: Many things might have happened for many reasons, but as an historical fact ‘this’ is what actually happened.
Certainly natural selection can coherently describe the historical situations leading to relatively small differences between organisms – perhaps up to the level of creating new and related species. This was already known to Darwin and was indeed the basis of his evidential argument – e.g. he described the nature and scale of effects of artificial selection done by animal breeders, plus some effects on the shape and size of beaks among Galapagos finches. To this, modern biologists could add observations on the modification of microorganisms under laboratory conditions, for instance the evolution of bacterial resistance to antibiotics. And there are also human racial differences of skeleton, teeth, skin and hair, brains and behaviours and many others – probably amounting to sub-species levels of differentiation – again these were (approximately) noted by Darwin (for instance in the mention of ‘favoured races’ in the subtitle of his 1859 book).
But all these are quantitative, not qualitative, changes; changes in magnitude but not in form. Neither natural selection, nor indeed artificial selection done by Man, has been observed creating a new genus, nor any taxonomic rank more fundamental such as a new family or phylum. There is no observational or experimental evidence which has emerged since 1859 of natural selection leading to major, qualitative changes in form – nor the originating of a novel form. Nobody has, by selection, changed a cat into a dog, let alone a sea anemone into a mouse (or the opposite); nobody has bred a dinosaur from a bird, nor retraced, by selective breeding, a modern species to its assumed ancestral form. There have, at most, been attempts to explain why such things are impossible in practice – why, for instance, the linear sequence of evolution cannot be ‘rewound’.
The problem of group selection
The final example concerns group selection. My impression is that the most thoughtful and perceptive evolutionary theorists intuitively recognized that group selection was an anomalous residue in the post-teleological paradigm of Neo-Darwinism; because true group selection (when properly understood) entails a purposive cognitive mechanism that can predict, can ‘look ahead’ several generations, and infer what is likely to be good for the survival and reproduction of the species (i.e. future descendants) rather than for the specific individual organism under here-and-now selection – and can therefore impose this long-term groupish direction to evolutionary change, in the face of evolution that benefits the individual in the short-term (Hamilton, 1998).
Whether or not it is due to the built-in ‘spooky-spiritual’ aspects of group selection, there has been and is a powerful and almost moralistic desire within biology utterly to purge group selection from Neo-Darwinian theory (Dawkins, 1976). However, it should be noted that Hamilton himself did not reject the significance of group selection; on the contrary, he continued to believe it was real throughout his later career as is apparent from his essays and commentaries in the Narrow Roads of Gene Land collections (1998, 2002). However, so far as I know, he did not suggest a distinctive mechanism for group selection.
Group selection is most often discussed in relation to ‘altruism’. Altruism is behaving such as to increase the reproductive success of others at the expense of one’s own reproductive success (for example, sacrificing a young and potentially fertile life for the benefit of the group – perhaps in defence against a predator). Altruism indeed calls-out for explanation, since it is very frequently, almost universally, observed – e.g. multicellular animals depend on it for continued existence, social animals depend upon it for the continuation of sociality. But the proposed solutions – inclusive fitness/ kin selection and various types of reciprocal benefit (Ridley, 1996) – do not explain the origin of altruism, but instead explain why altruism – once established, may be advantageous to sustain.
The problems are at root the same as the previous examples – favouring the long term over the short term: in this instance imposing cohesion and cooperation that benefits the whole against the tendency of natural selection to favour the part at the expense of the whole. For example, preventing the amplification of selfish, short-termist, parasitic variants and lineages (which are immediately advantageous, and much more strongly selected-for), so as to pursue the long-term cohesion, survival and reproduction of the group. Lacking such a mechanism or tendency, any groupishness and long-termism would continually be undermined, and would tend rapidly to be undone by the strong selection pressure for individuals to exploit and parasitize the group (Maynard Smith & Szathmary, 1997).
Hence, despite half a century of exclusively selfish gene theorizing in mainstream evolutionary biology; the apparent need for some kind of longer-termist and group-favouring process remains.
The necessity for teleology in the metaphysics of biology
Natural selection is an inadequate metaphysical basis for biology because it lacks teleology - a goal, direction or purpose.
This lack of teleology means that the potential for meaning - for knowledge - is excluded from the system of biology, and from any other system which depends upon it.
Thus natural selection is radically too small a metaphysical frame - it leaves out so much that is so important, that what remains is not even a coherent subject. This is revealed in the un-definability of biology and the incapability of biology to understand the meaning of life and its origins, major transitions and categories. Without teleology, biology is self-destroying.
Indeed - without teleology we cannot know. I mean we cannot explain how humans could have valid knowledge about anything. No knowledge of any kind is possible. If Natural Selection is regarded as the bottom-line explanation - the fundamental metaphysical reality (as it is for biology, and often is with respect to the human condition) then this has radically nihilistic consequences. And this is a paradox – if natural selection was the only mechanism by which consciousness and intelligence arose then we could have no confidence that the human discovery of natural selection was anything more than a (currently, but contingently) fitness-enhancing delusion.
The reason is that natural selection is at best – and when correctly applied - merely descriptive of what-happened-to-happen.
There was no reason why things had-to-be
as they actually were, there is no reason why the present
situation should stay the same, then there will be no reason to suppose that
the future outcome is predictable. There is no greater validity to
what-happened-to-happen compared with an infinite number of possible other things
that might have happened - so there is no reason to defer to
what-happened-to-happen, no reason why what-happened-to-happen is good, true,
just, powerful or anything else - what-happened-to-happen is just what led to
greater differential reproductive success for some length of time under
historical (and contingent) circumstances. Nothing more.
Therefore - if humans are nothing more nor other than naturally-selected organisms - then there is zero validity to: cognition, emotions, intelligence, intuitions, morality, art, or science - including that there is no validity to the theory of evolution by natural selection. None of the above have any validity - because they all are merely products of what-happened-to-happen (and are open-endedly liable to further change).
In sum - Without teleology, there can be no possibility of knowledge.
(This is not some kind of a clever paradox - it is an unavoidable rational conclusion.)
If, and only if, biology includes direction and purpose, is the subject compatible with the reality of knowledge. A new and better metaphysics of biology must therefore include teleology.
A deistic and teleological metaphysics
Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy concerned with basic assumptions – descriptive of the fundamental nature of reality. Science takes place within metaphysics, and therefore the results of science (any possible results of science) can neither prove nor refute any metaphysical description – although some metaphysical systems will more clearly and simply make sense of (or ‘explain’) science than others.
For example, the ‘evidence’ that these fundamental problems are unsolved amounts only to the fact that they are as yet unsolved – failure to explain can never ‘prove’ that an explanation is impossible. Only that nobody has yet come up with a satisfactory explanation. Therefore, the ‘proof’ that these biological problems are insoluble is not any empirical finding but philosophical reasoning.
In this sense metaphysics (which is to say a ‘paradigm’) is not ‘testable’ by science. This is because metaphysics itself underpins the definition of science (or a specific science such as biology); metaphysics determines what counts as a test, what observations to make and also how to interpret observations. For instance, no amount of biological research can ever decide whether biology is 1. the science of alive things or 2. the science of replicating things. This is not possible since definition 1 leads to one kind of biology using one type of expertise and methods; but definition 2 to another kind of biology with very different personnel and methods, as we have seen emerge over the past 70 years.
I therefore suggest that a new paradigm – or, more strictly, a new metaphysical basis or frame - for biology is required to address these and other fundamental defects and deficiencies in modern biology; and to place biology honestly, accurately and fruitfully in context of the total field of human discourse in general. In a nutshell, I will be arguing that the overall shape of evolution across history is best explained as a directional process of development – somewhat like the metamorphic unfolding of a fertilized egg via an embryo towards sexually mature adult and parenthood. Processes of selection occur within this teleological development – but are subordinated to the overall goal and contributory, coordinated sub-goals.
Furthermore, I will suggest that a teleology of biology having the required properties entails ‘deism’; deism being belief in a single, overall, unifying - but potentially abstract and impersonal - source of order and meaning for reality.
Deism here refers to the assumption of some kind of deity; but theism refers more specifically to the reality of gods or God. It is necessary, therefore, to distinguish between on the one hand the general idea of deism, which I regard as essential for a coherent and viable definition of biology; and on the other hand the idea of theism, with theism being a particular sub-category of deism, and more specific than is required for the practice of biology.
Deism and theism may seem superficially to be identical-in practice; and perhaps both equally absurd! – at least to the usual atheistic professional biologist; but the distinction is both significant and important. I personally believe in the reality of the Christian God; but such a specific belief is not necessary for there to be a useful and potentially fruitful teleology of biology, as is demonstrated by the many historical examples of non-Christian biologists. (However, as a generalization, the long-term success of science as a social system, in particular its adherence to the principle and habit of truthfulness, may depend rather more specifically upon scientists having been - at least - raised in a Christian or Jewish milieu, with their somewhat distinctive doctrinal emphasis on honesty; Charlton, 2012.)
So, the adoption of deism as an assumption could be seen as constituting a cost entailed by providing a coherent teleology of biology; a cost which explains the sustained resistance to such a thing and which may explain why teleology has been for so long and so stubbornly resisted within professional biology. Because teleology at the price of deism is a cost that most modern biologists would utterly refuse to pay; since they are, as a strong generalization, the most materialistic and positivistic and anti-spiritual, militantly un-religious people the world has yet known! (Indeed, I know of only two practicing Christians among evolutionary biologists - one of them being myself; and that only for the past seven years.)
It is no coincidence that so many of the best known and most effective public dissenters from Christianity and promoters of atheism since Darwin have been recruited from a tiny minority of eminent evolutionary theorists – past examples include Darwin’s ‘bulldog’, the early agnostic TH Huxley; and his grandson, the humanist and an architect of the Modern Neo-Darwinian Synthesis, Julian Huxley; current examples include the campaigning anti-religion activists Richard Dawkins and Daniel C Dennett.
But militant atheism is not merely a product of being a scientist: biologists are typically much less spiritual than mathematicians and physicists, who often espouse deistic ideas. As examples; Einstein saw reality in this ‘deist’ way with an abstract, impersonal, but unifying ‘God’; Roger Penrose has stated he is a Platonist; the theoretical physicist Paul Davies won the Templeton Prize for his many writings from a deistic perspective; and Freeman Dyson, also a Templeton Prizeman, is a Christian, as was Kurt Gödel.
In sum – even if I can show that deism is what biology most needs, and even though there is nothing ‘unscientific’ about such an assertion, deism seems very unlikely to be welcomed or accepted by the mass of currently active and dominant professional biologists.
Why deism specifically?
So, I will assume that deism is the necessary intellectual ‘cost’ that must be paid to restore purpose and cohesion to biology; it is minimally-necessary to restore ‘a spiritual dimension’ to biology; not indeed within biology – but as the framing metaphysic of biology. That is, the spiritual dimension is located outside of biology to give it shape and bounds, meaning, and direction. Biologists needs not adopt deism as a ‘religion’; but they must at least accept it as a working-hypothesis.
But the concept of deism is unfamiliar, as is its distinction from theism. I should therefore clarify that although this deistic perspective of the primacy of consciousness, purpose and ubiquitous life is indeed spiritual, it is not necessarily religious in the sense of associated with belief in any actual religion. A deist regarding ultimate reality as having the cognitive property of purpose does not need to take the further step of a belief in ‘theism’, theism being the belief in a specific God or gods.
The deism that is entailed by a belief in teleology includes many possible forms of theism, including belief in a ‘god’ who originally created everything (and is therefore the source of ultimate cohesion); but the deity of a non-theistic deist is not necessarily the creator, does not necessarily intervene in the ‘running’ of the universe, and may be a wholly impersonal and abstract god that has no specific interest in Men or specific people. Deism therefore may mean any assumption of any ultimate, but perhaps abstract, rationality, order, or overall organizing tendency.
Nonetheless, honesty compels me to suggest that abstract deism has historically, and in the lives of many individual scientists and other intellectuals, been a metastable state which sooner-or-later falls one way or the other: either into atheism or theism (belief in a God or gods). And in that case, I am suggesting that, in the end, an adequate metaphysics of biology must be compatible-with (if not contiguous with) theistic religion. However, this move into theism is not a formal philosophical necessity, but rather a matter of probabilistic human psychology.
At any rate, it may be useful, at this point, further to clarify why a teleology for biology entails deism. The reason is that teleology (purpose) in biology is based on, requires that, reality be coherent, cooperative and complementary because reality as-a-whole must have purpose. This, in turn, requires that there is a single and unifying organizing entity to enforce coherence, cooperation and complementarity. So, for life, for reality, to have purpose, it must hang-together - and for reality to hang-together requires some unifying conception of deity.
Deism is the assumption that the universe has just such an organizing principle or entity - which may be a personal supreme creator god among other lower gods, or one God – which is theism; or the organizing principle may be something impersonal - a 'god of the philosophers': in other words an hypothesis which is inferred and assumed (rather than believed as a matter of faith). An example would be the ‘Platonic’ hypothesis that there is a coherent primary reality outside of time where dwell objective and eternal values and archetypal forms – in comparison to which the earthly reality we observe is only a derived, time-bound, approximate, partial, and more-or-less corrupt version.
Biology needs a teleology, and indeed the more specific is that teleology, the more can be inferred from it. However, if biology is to be a coherent and general science, then its teleology cannot be more specific than what can be agreed-on by deism. Therefore, scientists can, and indeed must, minimally agree on a general concept of deity. But beyond that agreement, there will very probably be disagreement concerning the attributes, nature and specific purposes of deity. In sum, the teleology of biology as-a-whole seems to be based on a general and hypothetical deity, but not on any specific God.
Therefore, deism supplies teleology, but only to a limited degree. So we need to distinguish between the implications of the fact of teleology and the specific direction of teleology. The fact of teleology includes the consequences of there being an ultimate unity and an expectation of a primary and significant degree of coherence, cooperativeness and complementarity. I think the acknowledgment of teleology may also provide the basis for a coherent definition of the essential nature of biology as a subject – which I will discuss below. But what exactly is the specific aimed-at destination of teleology may be a subject of disagreement and theorizing; e.g. there will probably be different ideas of what the direction and purpose of 'everything' as a whole, and at lower levels. And there will also surely be scientific disagreement over the specific mechanisms by which teleology is implemented at the various levels and instances of biological organization.
There remains much that requires debate and investigation, plenty for biologists to do; but all biologists ought to, and need to, be able to agree that there is an ultimate teleology, hence coherence, to biology.
The nature and essence of biology as a subject: Development
When biology is defined in terms of teleology it gives an indication of how the subject may fruitfully be defined in terms of its focus; because teleology concerns direction. Teleology, as described above, entails the emergence and coordination of multiple elements over time in pursuit of purpose. In simple terms, therefore, the essence of biology as a subject has to do with development; that is with growth and form, with differentiation and cooperation.
In sum, the core of biology is ‘life as history’ – meaning here the unfolding through time, including functional interactions - of entities such as cells, organisms, groups and ecosystems. I would argue that this understanding of biology has priority over reproduction in general and gene replication specifically – which have been made the focus of biology for the past seventy-odd years.
Such a re-definition of biology around the theme of development would also serve to reconnect the subject with its deepest intellectual roots in natural history; to rebuild the subject around a core that is distinct from chemistry and physics on one hand, and medical research on the other; with organisms being of interest primarily in terms of their structure, function and interactions over their lifespan. This would surely be preferable to modern biology which has become so narrowly focused that it sometimes seems as if the only scientifically-interesting things that organisms do is replicate or die!
(I will suggest a further reason why biology might beneficially be defined in terms of development below when I discuss the causal relationship between phylogeny (evolutionary history) and ontogeny (development.)
The history of definitions of biology can be described as beginning with the subject conceptualized as ‘the study of living things’; then changing from about 1944 to ‘the study of reproducing things’; and I now propose that in future biology should become ‘the study of developing things’.
Statement of the new teleological metaphysics: The hierarchy of organizing entities
The chronological sequence of the new metaphysics is the reverse of the usual posited in biology. Current biology usually assumes that matter precedes life; life precedes the brain; the brain precedes cognition – in other words that a solid brain comes before cognition (thinking) - including purposiveness - emerged.
By contrast, I suggest that consciousness and purpose are the starting point – and that consciousness, with its ultimate teleology, therefore operates upon matter with the proximate goal of sustaining and developing itself via instantiations in matter - instantiation here meaning the specific and actual realization of an abstraction: building of abstraction into solid form. Therefore, (baldly-stated) consciousness ‘organized’ brains.
(The above conceptualization owes much to the work of Owen Barfield, who was himself expressing ideas of Rudolf Steiner, who was in turn JW von Goethe’s scientific editor for the standard collected works – so this theory has its ultimate roots in Goethe’s biology; see for example Barfield, 1982; Naydler, 1996).
So that (to put things simply); initially consciousness sufficed to organize undifferentiated matter into ‘physics’, ‘physics’ into ‘chemistry’, and ‘chemistry’ into what we recognize as the emergence of biological entities in their most basic forms. And the directing consciousness which drove biological evolution was further subdivided and specialized; for example regulating the basic transitions and divisions of life, and beyond them the further groupings down to species, then particular human groups.
This system of consciousnesses can be imagined as an hierarchy of organizing entities – an hierarchy with its apex in deity. These organizing entities operate to shape and frame the structure of reality, including biological reality – these entities all being, ultimately, coordinated and unified by the deity. These organizing entities are inferred to have various properties including the ability cognitively to model future possibilities (i.e. to have foresight, to make conjectural predictions) and choose between possibilities on the basis of innate purpose. In essence, organizing entities can understand (to some limited but significant extent) the current situation, and look-ahead towards probable outcomes – and then organize biology to reach the preferred possible outcome.
These organizing entities are assumed to have the same kind of role as the human mind does in relation to the human body; or as a good, wise and competent human leader has in relation to the society he rules. That is, the ability to infer that if X continues then Y will probably result – which means the decline or demise of the cell/ organism/ group/ society; but that if instead we do A we should arrive at B – which offers a much better prospect of survival and continued or enhanced reproduction (and, importantly, progress towards ultimate teleology) than does Y; and then the organizing entity has significant (but not absolute) power to impose A upon the system.
What then, actually, are these organizing entities – how can we imagine them? I suggest that different people may picture them in different ways which suit the workings of their own minds. Some may understand them in a mathematical or computational way; some see them as akin to ‘laws of nature’; some may understand them to be fields of force – like Sheldrake’s morphogenetic fields (Sheldrake, 1981 & 1988) but with a primary role in imposing purpose rather than form; some may understand them as immaterial but personalized entities – rather like the medieval astrological model of angels who inhabited (or rather actually were) the planets and stars – but in a realm beyond and with different properties from worldly (‘sublunar’) place, and outside of Time, and who influenced from this realm all manner of events on earth and inside Time (Lewis, 1966).
I personally have a very literal, simple mind; and cannot for long refrain from anthropomorphic representations of any cognitive and purposive entity – in other words, I imagine these organizing entities as both personalized and material entities, localized in space and time - although imperceptible and undetectable (at least, by normal sensory observation). This is of course a child-like way of thinking about causality (although not really child-ish) – but perhaps not so uncommon as may superficially appear. After all, neuroscientists are always accusing each other of treating the brain as if it was inhabited by a ‘homunculus’ (little man) which is meant to be an error both irrational and shameful – and indeed the accusers are usually correct in this accusation; because avoiding this ‘anthropomorphism’ while yet retaining a firm and imaginative grasp of science, is all-but impossible.
Famously, Einstein reasoned about relativity by imagining a man (a homunculus perhaps!) riding in a tramcar away from the medieval clock in the Swiss city of Berne at speeds approaching the speed of light (Hoffman, 1972). If Einstein apparently needed (or, at least wanted) to do the most advanced and abstract theoretical physics by anthropomorphic metaphors, then maybe biologists should not be ashamed to follow his example?
The proximate implementation of teleology
In summary - starting from some large scale purposive, conscious and unified deity (perhaps envisaged as the sun, or the earth/ Gaia; Lovelock, 1989) - organizing entities direct and shape the first and most basic forms of life, prokaryotic then eukaryotic cells, followed by the major divisions or classifications of living things down to (real) species, sexual reproduction, individual organisms and social groups. (The evolution of Man may, or may not, be assumed to require a further level of organizing entity – or else the direct intervention of the deity.)
Organizing entities are located functionally-external to the biological entities that they govern – they are not a part of biology. Organizing entities are an external focus for biological entities – thus can be imagined as a point of reference: both monitoring and shaping biology. The main role of an organizing entity is to impose goals, direction, purpose – in a word: teleology. This entails imposition of form, cohesion, cooperation – and identity. Identity is the process by which the group is defined – the choice of inclusion and exclusion, the drawing of a boundary.
It is the organizing entity that make a group a real group in the true sense of the word ‘group’– and not merely an arbitrary, temporary or expedient line drawn around a collection of autonomous entities: it is the organizing entity which makes the group a unit. Biological unity therefore derives from teleological unity.
A group of many entities (such as a collection of components in a cell, of cells in an organism, or organisms in a society) is itself a real and objective unified entity only when it has been organized by a single purposive, conscious entity.
If this is accepted, and some kind of general mechanism for teleology is assumed - such as the hierarchy of organizing entities - then the question arises as to how teleology is imposed? There seem to be two possibilities - purpose could be continuously imposed from outside a biological entity by the continuous or intermittent operation of some kind of field, force or form; or else purpose could be built-in.
While I think it likely that external forms/ fields/ forms have a role, especially in terms of organizing the simpler and more basic (physics and chemistry) levels of evolution (Sheldrake 1981 & 1988); something additional, more detailed and generative of autonomy seems to be required for biological entities. Biological purpose seems most likely to be built-in; specifically that, as an entity is formed and develops, its purposive nature is built-into the structure and organization (by the action of its organizing entity) such that there is a degree of agency and self-regulation which is also coordinated with the overall teleology (probably by means of in-built complementarity of function).
For example, in multicellular organisms there may be the mechanisms of cell-suicide or apoptosis - such that if a cell experiences a mutation that may endanger the organism - perhaps by a neoplasm such as cancer - then the cell destroys itself (for the good of the whole organism). There is, in general, considerable altruism built-in at the cellular level of a multicellular organism such that the existence of multicellular organisms is essentially an exercise in mutual altruism. Some types of motile white blood cells such as macrophages (which resemble free living amoebae) will kill themselves in the process of defending the organism against microorganism invasion (these dead warriors are found in pus): and this purpose is apparently built-into them in terms of their core functionality.
The primary reliance upon built-in teleology also makes it easy to understand the existence, indeed often at high rates, of the opposite - of behaviours which are non-functional, free-riding, and parasitic. This is explicable in the sense that teleology - including traits that are long-termist, altruistic, cooperative and coordinated – is built-into the organism during normal development, but is nonetheless vulnerable to disruption by abnormal development and subsequent, later events that disrupt or destroy these built-in mechanisms. For example, genetic damage or mutations during the lifespan of the entity: mutant mitochondria in a eukaryotic cell, cancer in a multicellular organism, the effects of mental illness in human society.
Therefore, I think it most likely that organizing entities work to impose teleology during development at the point where entities are being formed - either originally and/ or when being reproduced. The teleological behaviours are part of the design specification built into the entity. Short-term selfishness can, and does, arise in or after development – and then it is typically dealt with by built-in regulatory mechanisms found in those ‘normal’ entities who have experienced undisrupted development and avoided subsequent damage.
The coherence of everything
It is the hierarchy of organizing entities which ensures that overall and in the long run, all directions of all sub-entities are coordinated and integrated. This can be imagined on the lines of a military hierarchy of orders coming down from a General (i.e. deity) through the branching ranks of Colonels, Majors, Captains, Lieutenants, and Sergeants to the foot soldiers (i.e. the layers of organizing entities).
Vertical, multi-level coordination therefore comes from the teleology branching-out from a single locus. And horizontal coordination within-hierarchical-levels comes from the mutual reciprocity and complementarity of functions – imposed on groups of biological entities by organizing entities.
This is the organizing principle which enables groups under direction from organizing entities to be recognized and understood (to some significant extent); it is what roughly corresponds to intuitions that there is an underlying order to the world: notions such as ‘the balance of nature’, ‘the circle of life’, the principle of ‘compensation’, or the earth conceptualized in terms of a goddess or organism termed Gaia (Lovelock, 1981).
Thus the universe of reality broadly hangs-together, as we observe it does; and does not utterly collapse into a chaos of ever-smaller and faster-replicating, more mutually-exploiting purposeless entities, as we observe it does not. There is a background tendency to homoeostasis and elaborated specialization and coordination – and there is, both overall and at each level and each individual unit of organization – organizing purpose and direction.
Of course, in particular times and places, natural selection may be amplified, may become powerful enough to overcome the cohesive and integrative influence of conscious, purposive entities; and consciousness diminishes, and cooperation, complexity and order begin to break down. The purpose is then not attained but instead thwarted.
It can happen at any level. Ultra-selfish genes (such as transposons or segregation distorters) may potentially lead to intra-genomic conflict with loss of informational-identity, functional corruption and cell death; rogue malignant (or selfishly non-functional) mitochondria may kill their symbiotic host cells; connective tissues may be naturally-selected to become sarcomas and kill the organism; or successful psychopaths may exploit, parasitize and lead to the destruction of their social group.
But the fact of life persisting; and the observations relating to evolutionary history; entails that the background reality is teleological and cooperative.
Explaining the necessity for an intermediating hierarchy of organizing entities
A teleology of biology can be accepted merely on the basis of deity, and without the kind of complex, intermediate system of organizing entities which I have proposed – and leaving aside any speculations on the more detailed way in which teleology I implemented in practice. In other words, it can be asserted that once a presiding deity has been invoked as our working hypothesis – then everything significant that happens in biology can be attributed directly to that deity.
Such a view is possible and coherent, albeit such a tactic might reasonably be characterised in terms of vague ‘hand-waving’; so why do I take the further step of inferring the existence of a hierarchy of organizing entities; and attributing to them the role of implementing teleology in a much more direct, specific, and proximate fashion?
Essentially, the reason for introducing intermediary causes of teleology, adding to the overall deist unity as the cause of teleology, is firstly in order to explain the phenomena of development of the organism; which is also termed ontogeny or within-organism change through the life span: growth, change of form, selective cell death, differentiation and maturation. And also secondly to explain phylogeny; that is between-generation, within-lineage evolutionary change: the history of extinctions, and of new and changing species.
In different words, the hierarchy of organizing entities is intended to account for the dynamic aspects of biology: to explain why biology is full of change; creating, adapting and failing.
Ontogeny and phylogeny (as types of ‘changing’), happening through time, imply that deity either cannot or will-not achieve biological form directly and finally; but either must or chooses to attain form by incremental steps from an initially very simple situations – one stage building-upon the preceding. To me, this suggests that deity works by means of intermediary causes.
Furthermore, biology itself seems to have a hierarchical and multi-branching organization – both ontogeny and phylogeny display this – that is evident both within organisms and other coherent entities in the form of development, and also across the range of biological organisms and other coherent entities in terms of the systems of biological classification. This suggests that the organization of biological teleology also has a hierarchical and multi-branching structure analogous to the taxonomy of living things (the ‘tree of life’).
If this is assumed, then it seems necessary that the hierarchy of organizing entities must pre-exist the structure of actual biological entities, in order that it is already in-place to organize each cumulative step in phylogeny.
If so, then the broad-brush resemblance between ontogeny and phylogeny (Horder, 2008) which was noted more than a century ago by Haeckel – may have its basis not in Haeckel’s formulation of ontogeny recapitulating phylogeny, with the history of evolutionary change (supposedly) being recorded in developmental sequences, nor by any modification of that idea; but the opposite. I suggest it is a matter of phylogeny recapitulating ontogeny, in the sense of evolutionary change being driven by developmental processes.
That is, the organizing entities work primarily to affect ontogeny, to build-in teleology by shaping the process of development; and thereby, as a consequence, these same organizing entities are also setting-up mature biological entities in evolutionary sequences and relationships. By affecting development, the organizing entities impose teleology on evolution.
To be even more specific, the first member of a new species (or level of biological complexity) has been shaped by the ordering entities – including by changing its various heritable structural features (such as genes, and non-genetic cellular structural formal features such as cytoplasmic structures and constituents, or cell membrane attributes). Thus ontogenetic change comes first, and then this is transmitted via heritability first to initiate, then establish, the step-wise phylogenetic changes that mark evolutionary history.
Conclusions and implications
In sum, the new deistic teleological metaphysics of biology enables the subject to re-defined around the concept of development. The scheme would not affect the perspective of biology in terms of the study of evolution specifically by natural selection, nor in terms of the day-to-day activities of most biological researchers. But metaphysics is nonetheless vitally-relevant insofar as natural selection would henceforth be assumed to operate within purposive cognitive processes that have foresight and are able to organize, coordinate, and either counteract or use natural selection, as means to the overall teleology. This background would be assumed – and we would not suppose that natural selection ‘has the last word’.
Perhaps most importantly, the new metaphysics of biology escapes the self-refuting paradox of natural selection; because it can explain how it is that humans could have valid knowledge of biology itself – as the most relevant example: how humans might have validly discovered a true theory such as natural selection. If humans had been merely contingently evolved to optimize reproductive success, it is not formally impossible but it is vastly improbable that we could have valid knowledge of anything - including natural selection; since a mechanism for discovering valid knowledge could only have happened by undirected chance and when it also happened to optimize reproductive success in the immediate short term of generations. However, if by an astonishing coincidence, it happened-to-happen that humans had had naturally-selected the ability to have valid knowledge – knowledge for instance of the theory of natural selection; then we could not know we knew this this for a fact, without a further astonishing coincidence of knowing that we had happened to evolve this way!
But - if our metaphysics posits the existence of purposively-unified, conscious, organizing entities outwith the boundaries of biology, and to that extent independent of (controlling of) the vicissitudes of natural selection; then valid knowledge might be assumed to originate from that external source. In other words, we can know about natural selection and that it is true, only because we ourselves are something more than merely naturally selected. In sum, the suggestion is that humans have been cognitively-organized via our built-in teleology such that objective knowledge is possible for us.
I am, of course, fully aware that the above purposive metaphysics of biology sounds bizarre, supernatural and indeed just plain absurd from the perspective of modern biology! I have, after all, been thoroughly educated-in and acclimatized-to that world, and have worked within it for several decades, both teaching the subject of natural selection and publishing many papers; including many which metaphysically-assumed that natural selection was indeed the last word on things – the exact framing assumptions that I am here and now criticizing as radically incomplete; for example my books Charlton, 2000 and Charlton & Andras, 2003 - especially the Appendix to 2003.
However, stepping outside of that professional ghetto, I am also aware that this general type and nature of metaphysical explanation that I am now proposing has a long and continuing pedigree among mathematicians and physicists – and indeed within a strand of theoretical biologists which includes such diverse figures as JW von Goethe and his scientific editor Rudolf Steiner, D’Arcy Thompson, AN Whitehead, Conrad Waddington (and other members of the prestigious, albeit heterodox, Theoretical Biology Club of Cambridge University), and in recent years Brian Goodwin, Stuart Kauffman and Rupert Sheldrake.
Such individuals (to a variable degree) have recognized that – if it is to be coherent - the subject and methods of biology must be conceptualized within a larger (and, as I term it, metaphysical) framework or paradigm which lies outside the discipline of biology; however the above-named biologists were primarily concerned with integration, organization and the development of form – while my focus here is on the need for an externally imposed purpose. However, I would note that there is a sometimes explicit, but more often unstated and unacknowledged, teleological assumption behind much of the work in this idealist, mathematical-geometric and morphological tradition.
The axiomatic assumptions of this paradigmatic purposive framework are the basis for all scientific work. Science is always and necessarily subordinated to philosophy, even when that philosophy is unacknowledged - or even when it is denied. Many clever and successful - but unreflective - modern scientists believe themselves to be superior to metaphysics, to have transcended and replaced it with ‘solid’ empirical scientific ‘proof’. All this really means is that they do not understand, and do not want to know about, their own metaphysical assumptions – because they want to believe that these are just-plain-true, rather than the consequence of non-scientific but instead philosophical choices made by actual people at some particular time and place.
But different choices yield different consequences; and the choice of natural selection as the bottom-line explanation of biology has had an intellectually stunting and transcendentally crippling effect on the discipline – has indeed destroyed the cohesion and identity of biology, and made it a self-refuting paradox.
My hope is that this new, teleological metaphysics of biology will provide a framework within-which biology can operate in a coherent and contextualized fashion; rather than, as in recent decades, simply ignoring its major problems and deluding itself with assertions that its partial and incomplete explanations - based on the dogmatic assumption that natural selection is the one and only true mechanism of evolution and the bottom line reality of everything - have universal applicability and eternal validity. However, I think I have demonstrated that this is merely an assertion, and indeed an arrogant, uninformed, arbitrary and indeed utterly absurd assertion! Let us then acknowledge that there are metaphysical choices that have-been and must-be made – and try to evaluate and compare these choices.
It is necessary to recognize and make clear that the above metaphysics of hierarchical, purposive and conscious, organizing entities is not a 'biological' theory. But then, neither is natural selection a biological theory. Instead, both of these are potential metaphysical frameworks for biology. Biology cannot exist without a metaphysical framework – and the current one may not be the best, since it has so many, such serious, failures to its name.
In conclusion, I suggest that biology requires wholesale reconceptualization based on a new set of deistic and teleological metaphysical assumptions.
Acknowledgement. I thank Rupert Sheldrake for pointing-out that my suggested hierarchy of organizing entities bears resemblance to the scheme proposed by Alfred Russel Wallace in The World of Life: A Manifestation of Creative Power, Directive Mind and Ultimate Purpose (1910). (Wallace was – with Darwin – the co-discoverer of Natural Selection.) Rupert also asked me a couple of pertinent questions concerning the original draft; in the process of addressing which, I (by stages) ended-up significantly expanding and refocusing this paper.
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