Evolution and the Sensing of our World
Dr Victor Gostin
Lecture at the Theosophy-Science Seminar,
Springbrook, Queensland, May 2006
This lecture deals with two questions: Does evolution follow any rules? And secondly, what roles do our senses of perception play in determining our view of the world? Stephen J Gould, a Harvard biologist, stated: “Give life the slightest early nudge, and history veers into another plausible channel, diverging continually from its original path”. This is the idea of “contingency” as the major force shaping life on Earth. Thus every species today is a unique product of an unpredictable chain of events through history, each event contingent on the one before. Gould further argues that “if events had taken even a slightly different turn hundreds of millions of years ago, there would be no humans — in all probability no conscious organisms at all”. If he is correct, then there is little that can be predicted about evolution.
In contrast, Richard Dawkins, of Oxford University (New Scientist, 17.9.95 p33) states that complex life is too improbable to have happened all at once. But those cumulative small steps of adaptation can achieve heights of complexity, e.g. in the evolution of the eye. Thus natural selection is the guiding force, and natural selection is not random.
So, is contingency the major force shaping life on Earth? According to laboratory experiments, evolution is not “just history”. We can watch evolution happen over and over again in the laboratory using bacteria, exposing them to a new environment – like the world after a major extinction (New Scientist, 13.2.99 p29). The bacteria have lots of opportunity to diversify. The result is that life bounces back with greater variety than before, as new species exploit new ecological opportunities.
Therefore new environments lead to diversity. This is called “adaptive radiation” and it was noted by Charles Darwin in his descriptions of the Galapagos finches, where one original species diversified into fourteen. A similar experiment using bacteria in the laboratory resulted in the same diversity of types. So, what drives adaptive radiation? Ecological opportunity. Like Darwin’s finches, the bacteria are adapted to a specialized lifestyle or niche. There is rapid evolution and niche specialization when the environment into which the bacteria are introduced is rich in available niches. New niches appear as the resident population changes the balance of nutrients in the broth. Colonial corals, by growing into reefs, permanently change their environment, and affect their own evolution. Beavers, with their beaver dams, and humans with cities are also clear examples.
Competition for resources modifies the cells until they are perfectly adapted to whatever niches exist. Any cell with a modification that gives it greater access to the resources will gain an edge and its numbers will increase. Over time this competition for resources hones such cells until they are perfectly adapted to whatever niches exist (specialists). In the real world, however, the environment constantly changes. Experiments with the evolution of bacteria clearly show that specialists evolve under constant environmental conditions, whereas generalists evolve under fluctuating conditions (New Scientist, 19.12.2003, p 2074).
Cooperation with one’s own or other species may be a solution to survival. In nature, symbiosis has shown remarkable success. Lichens — a symbiont of algae and fungi — were the first to successfully invade the dry land. Furthermore, an important feature of evolution has been symbiogenesis — thus prokaryotes evolved into eucaryotes; unicellular to multicellular organisms, even solitary into colonial organisms [NB emergent properties arise in this way].
Genetic variation in a population is what gives it the flexibility to adapt to its changing environment. However, separate evolutionary histories do not, in general, affect the species’ ability to adapt in the future. Thus experimental evolution indicates that “while past events do shape the outcome of adaptation and evolution, over the long run they do not constrain it.” (Michael Travisano, University of Houston, in New Scientist, 13.2.99, pp 29-33). In other words, if a particular set of adaptations is well-suited to a particular niche, evolution will find it – eventually. “In the long run, it’s not the past genetic changes that constrain subsequent evolution, but rather the future environmental conditions.” It is no accident that modern dolphins and Cretaceous ichthyosaurs look remarkably similar, despite the fact that one is a mammal and the other a reptile – they both evolved to exploit a similar niche. Biologists call this convergence, and according to Simon Conway Morris (Cambridge University), it is central to an interesting predictability in nature.
Conway Morris writes in The Crucible of Creation: “What we are interested in is not the origin, destiny, or fate of a particular lineage, but the likelihood of the emergence of a particular property, say consciousness. Here the reality of convergence suggests that the “tape of life”, using Gould’s metaphor, can be run as many times as we like, and in principle, “intelligence will surely emerge”.
Experiments with microbes grown in a test tube do not prove that the evolution of intelligent beings was inevitable. But what they undoubtedly reveal is the power of natural selection to find adaptive solutions to change. And consciousness is one such solution. Travisano concludes: “So I would argue that evolution of intelligence like our own is probably very likely. One might have to wait around for a couple of hundred or so million years, but that’s not much in the vastness of time.”
Now we shall examine the senses of animals and plants, and ask: Just how do we see the world? How we sense the world determines how we make sense of the world.
All life, in order to survive, needs to be able to sense any dangers and opportunities to its health and existence. To communicate with fellow beings, in order to exchange information i.e. learn and to participate in group activities i.e. family sharing. Group activities assume rules of behavior e.g. colonial insects like ants, bees, animal and bird migrations and flock behaviour. Human communities include tribes, armies, sport teams and orchestras. Communication is also necessary for procreation to succeed and in bringing up the young.
There is a huge diversity in the senses of perception of most living beings, and there exist many more than the classical five senses of sight, sound, taste, smell and touch. Many animals have senses far beyond human capabilities. Bats and dolphins use sound like radar. Snakes use infrared or heat radiation. Elephants use ground vibrations to communicate. Sharks, eels and the platypus use electricity to sense their surroundings. Moths, birds and trout use magnetic sensors to navigate.
Furthermore, humans have invented ways to technologically extend our senses using microscopes to view the most tiny worlds and telescopes the most distant worlds. Instruments exist to record all types of radioactivity and electromagnetic radiation: from radio waves to x-rays and gamma-rays. We can conclude that the world looks very different depending on which senses or which instruments of observation are used.
Human evolution has included the convergence of many sensing facilities, and this convergence has enabled humanity to see the connectivity of many diverse features; of discovering, for example, the concept of Gaia.
Because our senses of perception are continuously receiving information, our brain receives much more information than we are aware of. We are therefore all subject to data overload, and our consciousness has therefore evolved to be highly selective. We select by experience — experience of what has been useful before, of what makes “sense”. Some people who cannot stop hearing everything suffer from a malady called “superior canal dehiscence”. They hear their heartbeat, the hum of distant cars, the ticking of the clock, the scratching of insects etc. A most unfortunate data overload.
Some of our unconsciously recorded sense receptions emerge in our dreams, in visions or hypnosis. But some people have experiences that are not seen by others, that are psychotic or paranormal. [NB One in five of us has experienced psychotic episodes]. The question then becomes: How do we tell what is true from what is illusion? How do we see what is truly there? Most of us see items and features that we expect to see, that match our past experiences. Those features match our past experiences, and therefore have been tested as reliable.
But it is quite difficult to find or see the unfamiliar! We may simply not recognize it, as some early people failed to see comets or supernovae that were known to be visible in the night skies. Most people have seen optical illusions (water over a hot summer road). All people have seen rainbows, and a few have stood inside a rainbow rainfall; but the colour is all in the seeing and not in anything solid. Are UFO’s real?
Auto-suggestion is enormously powerful, and people have been healed by auto-suggestion. Modern sport psychology uses visualization and auto-suggestion to improve individual and team performances. Devout Christians may develop stigmata on their hands, and brain-washed fanatics will perform hara-kiri or suicide bombings.
Science and Consistency. We generally prefer to rely on our normal senses i. e. those that are reliable because they have provided the most consistent results. It is this CONSISTENCY that forms the basis of modern science. Science relies on reproducible results, and using the tools of mathematics, is therefore able to forecast results, that can then be tested against the actual outcomes. Advanced computing and creation of mathematical models has enabled humanity to perform amazing acts of engineering and celestial navigation — the deep space probes such as the Cassini Mission and Mars Rovers.
In contrast, astrological predictions of millennial catastrophes, of planetary flooding, or of Californian earthquakes that were predicted to rift western California out into the Pacific Ocean, have all failed dismally. A closer look at astrology shows that it is complex enough, so that excuses of “lack of experience” of the astrologer, or the prevalence of “other factors”, are often used to explain incorrect forecasts. Here the “ratchet principle” is useful to our understanding. The ratchet in a wind-up clock, for example, works only in the forward direction, and free-wheels in reverse. Thus all correct forecasts [or wins in gambling] are acclaimed as positive, but all negative results [or gambling losses] are dismissed or considered as insignificant.
How should we really “sense the world”? A most important feature of us “sensing the world” is that as our minds get overexposed to activity, they become de-sensitized. Therefore for new or fresh experiences we need to clear our minds. We need to become truly aware. We need to meditate, to temporarily block the analytical mind and allow simple awareness to establish itself. A deep restful sleep is also conducive to clear thinking, and in spectacular cases, to actual discoveries, e.g. Mendeleyev’s Table of chemical elements.
In conclusion, how we see the world depends on our experience and on how our mind has filtered all those sense impressions and experiences of our lives. Since no two people have had identical experiences, there is no single concept of our Universe that is convincing to all. Our creativity and insight depend on our ability to “open up the mind” to inspiration and discovery. Meditation is most important for a clear direction to our lives, to continuing creativity, and to a holistic and healthy life.
Ford, B. J. 1999. Sensitive Souls: Senses and Communication in Plants, Animals and Microbes. Little, Brown and Co. (UK), 320 pp.
Vortosick, F.T. Jr., 2002. The Genius Within: Discovering the Intelligence of Every Living Thing. Harcourt Inc., New York.
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