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April 08, 2012

Epistemology & Common Sense

Anyone interested in how we know what we think we know should also realize that to be consistent, the concept of culture should have been upgraded to accommodate the then brand new concept of evolution shortly after publication of Darwin’s landmark On the Origin of Species in 1859. Unfortunately, the many serious implications of Darwin's work have still not received the attention they deserve; probably because the most troubling of all were so contrary to the widely held (and comforting) religious beliefs of the mid-Nineteenth Century.

Ironically, the first solid confirmation was work by Mendel, a Roman Catholic cleric whose inspired insights almost certainly didn’t extend to rejection of an omnipotent Creator. Mendel and Darwin probably didn't read each others' work, and Mendel would certainly have disagreed vigorously if they had. The first decisive confirmation that an evolutionary process had been operating for billions of years was disclosure of the molecular structure of DNA (1953). The fall-out from that discovery has already been enormous and is just beginning.

Even given the relatively brief interval since Evolution was first proposed as a hypothesis, the rich context it has established within Biology renders the percentage of modern skeptics and naysayers surprising. Beyond that, the degree of denial our species is obviously so capable of is disquieting: that we are clever enough to create technology that poses serious dangers to the planetary environment while blindly pursuing it to excess is now painfully evident; but still not widely acknowledged.

The term “culture” almost certainly predated “evolution,” but once the former acquired its specific biological connotation, both terms have acquired new meanings. We can now think of culture as evolving, a concept that modifies the idea of "history." Further, if “evolution” is “true,” (an accurate theory) that circumstance necessarily casts great doubt on the concept that had dominated Cosmology (then known as Metaphysics) towards the end of the Eighteenth Century about the time the US Constitution was being debated in Philadelphia (en era still known as the Enlightenment to Philosophers and Historians). Before this short essay becomes too complicated, I just want to point out that we live in a changing world; one in which the rate of change has itself been accelerated, and that it would be unreasonable to expect that the underlying phenomena could not be having important, but so far unrecognized consequences. In other words, our IT capabilities are not necessarily a guarantee we won’t be blindsided by some new reality the same way mid-18th Century Victorians were by the most obvious implications of evolutionary theory.

The Universe may not have been planned and created by an omniscient god after all. Indeed, what we have been able to learn about what we now call the Cosmos is that it’s more likely a random, self-adjusting system infinitely older and bigger than we are yet able to measure. While our species certainly seems unique and has unquestionably had an important impact on events on our planet and within our solar system, we are comparatively insignificant on a cosmic scale.

At the same time, we can also recognize that other factors related to human thinking and behavior have been evolving in dangerous directions: there are more humans now alive than ever, and our accelerating acquisition of knowledge has unquestionably made us uniquely dangerous to both ourselves and other life forms. For one thing, we recently learned that Yellowstone National Park, in addition to being a "national treasure," represents an existential threat to all humans for reasons we are, thus far, unable to “control.”

Speaking of “control,” our species seems to have succumbed to that comforting euphemism as it has been applied to the lunatic American policy known as the “War” on Drugs. The idea that handing designated criminals a monopoly on the production of a commodity many people are willing to pay high prices for and risk arrest to possess deserves more than a quick stamp stamp of approval by politicians, academics and others who aspire to be taken seriously as policy mavens. Just what is it about Al Capone, Chicago, and bathtub gin that those smug idiots don’t understand?

On the other hand, a species so incapable of learning from its past mistakes may just have to reinvent itself. Unfortunately, and thanks largely to Harry Anslinger, John Mitchell, and Richard Nixon, hominids may have to start over from the cognitive level reached by Miocene Apes about nine million years ago. Even then, there’s no guarantee the conditions that ultimately produced Homo sapiens could be replicated.

It would be far better to learn from our mistakes before it’s too late.

Doctor Tom

Posted by tjeffo at April 8, 2012 08:10 PM