On Evolution

History and Evolution (from biology) are somewhat similar in that both are quite descriptive, and involve in their description some events that cannot really be predicted from any known first principles. Indeed, it will not be too much of a sin to say history is evolution of some kind by itself.

This being the case, there are atleast two ways in which one can approach evolutionary topics, which can complement or (probably more common) confront each other. All evolutionary topics that we are interested in always suffer from a lack of complete data about them. As mentioned a couple of posts back, this has motivated people to assume an underlying ‘model’, and use it to string a story through the facts which seems plausible. Another, equally interesting method to deal with the same would use the notion of a ‘constitutive absence’.

‘Constitutive absence’ is simply a way of saying that what is absent from the data collected or story woven is as important as what is present. This motivates us to ask the question ‘Why not this?’, as opposed to the question ‘Why this?’. It is my suspicion that looking at history and biological evolution in this manner will be able to structure our thinking about these subjects in a more constructive manner. For example, instead of asking ‘Why do birds have two wings?’, it may be more constructive to ask the question ‘Why are there no birds with six wings?’. It may just so happen that we have missed finding these flying critters, or there is some other reason. This to me is more in line with the theory of natural selection — Natural selection can only select against, not select for. To select for something implies evolution should ‘know’ what to select for, which is obviously nonsense. In the game of natural selection, there are no winners, only survivors. However, most biology literature seems to try and explain why a particular trait is present in an organism. Schrodinger came to the conclusion that the molecules that carry life (The structure of DNA was unknown then) must be large by asking why cannot there be small molecules of life (Answer being related to the fact that at smaller scales, Brownian motion dominates and smaller the molecule, the more suspceptible it is to change (mutation) by bombardment of other molecules).

The picture that this provides us with is not of an all-encompassing Story of Everything, but about the constraints that are put on organisms which prevent any other possible scenario from being viable. It is somewhat like trying to understand how water flows — If you look at water in a large river, trying to follow one blob of water may be hopeless, but in a stream you may have better chances. The constraints of a narrower channel makes this easy for us. Even so, you may not be able to predict precisely how the blob of water flows, but you know that it will remain within a confined boundary.

However, you will need to admit that beyond a certain stage you can’t really be sure about things when you take up this approach, whereas the Big Story approach will try and explain everything.

History is no different. Instead of asking ‘Why did the Europeans have an Industrial Revolution?’ one can ask ‘Why did the Indians and the Chinese not have an industrial Revolution?’. Instead of asking ‘Why is India mainly vegetarian?’ one can ask ‘Why did not Indians develop a meat dominated cuisine?’. You can probably see how just framing the question differently leads one to think very differently about the same problem. If you appeal to the physics of complex systems, then you are acknowledging that the trajectory of any complex system is inherently hard to predict, but constraints on the system make certain trajectories highly unlikely, and everything that happens does so within the phase space that is still viable. Historically we hoped to find laws of Nature and Society that would enable us to see forward and back in time. Unfortunately, we know now that these laws, if they exist, are probably too complicated for us to comprehend, and so a ‘constitutive absence’ is a more sensible way to move forward.

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