Observations of a Botanist, Evolutionist and Heretic
with Illustrations by Guerry Dean
(illustrations and proposal are both drafts right now)
Evolution is about self-organization, increasing complexity and the branching diversity of life forms through time, constrained by their ancestral history. It's not so much about Darwin and his theory of natural selection acting on genes or organisms - we need a deeper causal explanation. Evolution is also not about the tinkering deity central to "intelligent design." More Than the Sum: Observations of a Botanist, Evolutionist and Heretic is a book about science, biology and evolution. It is part memoir, told through my experiences, especially as a graduate student at the University of British Columbia in the early 1980s. This is where I truly began to learn about science and had the good fortune to meet biologists who were exploring possibilities beyond the insufficient neo-Darwinian focus on genetic mutation plus selection. My book describes the major parts of an alternate explanation of evolution, and many of the ideas that make it up have been around for a few decades now. At its core, this theory invokes non-equilibrium thermodynamics, that is, certain aspects of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, as the underlying cause of biological emergence, development and speciation.
This alternate theory grew initially from the ideas of chemist and Nobel laureate Ilya Prigogine (Order Out of Chaos by Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers, 1984, lays out the basic ideas and demonstrative experiments) who pointed to the Second Law, acting in systems open to the flow of energy, as causing the emergence of new forms, such as convection currents, that become more than the sum of their molecular parts. Could this be the underlying cause of self-organizing life, its intrinsic memory, its increasing complexity and its irreversible change through time? For these attributes, not shifting gene frequencies in populations, are the real evolutionary phenomena of interest. Instead of the random drifting of molecules, maybe entropy is dissipated as biological novelty, adding surprise to the universe with each unique bit of information that accompanies either individual development or the generation of a new species. Some biologists, including me, were deeply intrigued by these ideas, and I tell the stories of several who have contributed their important insights to this more accurate alternate theory. Empirical approaches to this non-equilibrium view of evolution were the focus of my masters thesis and doctoral dissertation, and I have co-authored several scientific papers on the subject.
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Chapter 1. Insufficient Explanations
Chapter 2. Exploring Data
Chapter 3. The Stuff of Science
Chapter 4. One Unavoidable Assumption
Chapter 5. Laws of Nature
Chapter 6. The Demon of Determinism
Chapter 7. Schools of Systematics
Chapter 8. Evolutionary Epiphanies
Chapter 9. Ontogeny and Phylogeny
Chapter 10. Boundaries and Systems
Chapter 11. The Purpose of a Fox
Chapter 12. The Second Law and Evolution
Chapter 13. Cornhuskers
Chapter 14. Love on the Palouse
Chapter 15. Rare Plants
Chapter 16. Virtual Codes and Hierarchies of Time
Chapter 17. Everybody Loves Complexity
Chapter 18. Guerrilla Science
Bibliography and Index
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This is a story about science and evolutionary ideas, about ways of looking at the world that provide more accurate descriptions than some classical views. Science works within a set of rules making a theory, while still speculative, more than mere opinion. Some religious views fail to acknowledge the rules of science and the structure of theories, so the assertions of "creationism" and "intelligent design" are opinions that arise from religious views. Based on a vast store of undeniable evidence, evolution certainly happens, but the traditional theory of evolution based on competition, fitness, selection and genetics fails to address the events it is supposed to explain - organisms, species and divergence. We are far from developing more than a rudimentary understanding of biological systems and the classical theory isn't especially helpful; it's more of a distraction. How do we get from genes and other molecules to self-organized entities? How do we get species and how does speciation work? We don't really know. There is no theory of morphogenesis, the self-generation of form. By themselves, natural selection and genetics, important though they may be, can't explain the fundamental features of biology or evolution. Sure, there's competition and selection in any ecosystem, but before these forces can act there must first be diverse and interconnected life forms. Natural selection is a variation-decreasing force, sometimes described as a filter, but a filter must have something to sort.
Our human complexity makes us able to reason, to try to follow rational paths of thought, to eliminate certain possibilities as either factually incorrect or as lacking logical or coherent connections to a particular question about our world. The interesting, deeper-level features of biology or evolution don't seem to be sufficiently explained by genes (the molecules that store and share information within and among organisms) and selection alone. Adaptation, too, is an important phenomenon (and also a necessary initial condition), perhaps not so much in the Darwinian "adapt or die" sense, but in the rather more Lamarckian "capture information from / integrate yourself into your surroundings" sense.
Certainly, the evidence from life on Earth tells us that increasing organization and complexity are the trends. We started with one-celled bacterial life forms, and a few billion years later we find all sorts of multicellular life. We find a living, interacting nature that is whimsical with variation and so rich with diversity that we have only cataloged a tiny bit of it. We find a zillion single-celled life forms and also big, wonderful creatures - oak trees, elephants and grizzly bears. Many species are stunningly complex beyond their physical organ systems and physiology; they have awareness, problem-solving capabilities, humor and affection. We find Homo sapiens, a species that is no more physically complex than many of its fellow life forms, with emergent properties well beyond the general big mammal attributes. Humans have language, economies, art in many forms, the ability to make intricate tools, and a fearsome capacity for destroying everything around them. Is this magic? Is this miraculous? Maybe, but those are neither satisfying nor scientific explanations. This website, the beginnings of a book, explores other possibilities and the contributions of various people to an alternative theory of evolution and development. No single person has all of the ideas, but several people have some critically important pieces. I'd like to try to put them all together because it's just too interesting to resist.
And here are some links worth visiting:
Stan Salthe's web site Read a detailed critique of neo-Darwinian theory.
Friends have offered some very helpful edits on earlier versions and I'd like to acknowledge them. Alphabetically, they so far include Ruth Deery, Melba Dlugonski, Cy Finnegan, Jack Maze and Katalina Severin. Sometimes I quote them directly and I certainly thank them for taking the time to read this thing and offer suggestions.