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Is evolutionary chance impossible? 
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Post Re: Is evolutionary chance impossible?
Interbane wrote:
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If we say we can have confidence but no certainty, we say we are certain of nothing, which means we know nothing.

It's semantics all the way down Robert. Who says we need certainty in our knowledge? You're nesting the requirement for certainty in one concept after the other in an attempt to make it a requirement.


This idea that semantics, the meaning of words, is unimportant is a key strategy of modern nihilism. If we say that words have meaning, then logic and understanding require that meanings are defined, stable and precise. This attitude, which holds that philosophy is possible, leads to the outrageous idea that systematic understanding of reality is possible.

Evolution is a key case in point. I claim, on the basis of systematic philosophy, to know that evolution is true. Geo has suggested I am being dogmatic in making assertions of this nature, and ant has accused me of promoting embarrassing fallacies, although ant has run away from actually explaining what my stupidity consists in.

I am happy to argue the corner for certainty regarding the age of the universe, the merits of mainstream science, the reliability of logic, and other simple axiomatic propositions. I also argue that anyone who disagrees with me on these simple matters of fact has lost the plot and is wrong. Sorry if that sounds harsh, but I have long been of the view that the legitimate acceptance of cultural relativism has seeped across the boundary into epistemology, such that otherwise sensible people maintain that logical contradictions and paradoxes are possible.

By definition, a contradiction is not possible. True statements are not false. Something cannot both be the case and not be the case. Such simple logic is ignored in the political demand, which reeks of solipsism and nihilism, that we cannot be sure of anything.


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Post Re: Is evolutionary chance impossible?
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This idea that semantics, the meaning of words, is unimportant is a key strategy of modern nihilism.


I'm not saying words are unimportant. I'm saying that you're not making a good case for "certainty". To say that we are certain of nothing is not the same thing as to say that we know nothing. You're tying together the definition of the concept of knowledge with certainty.

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By definition, a contradiction is not possible. True statements are not false. Something cannot both be the case and not be the case. Such simple logic is ignored in the political demand, which reeks of solipsism and nihilism, that we cannot be sure of anything.


Perhaps my position is too nuanced. I understand the phrase "we cannot be sure" to mean ambivalence. Lack of certainty is not the same thing as ambivalence. There are many things I'm not certain about, yet would die to defend. You would, as a spectator, declare that I'm certain about the things I'm defending. But I'm not certain. Confidence is the highest level achievable. Certainty is a false position regardless of how you spin it.

I'm not saying we shouldn't vehemently defend those things we are "certain" about. What I'm saying is that certainty is an unachievable ideal.

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Sorry if that sounds harsh, but I have long been of the view that the legitimate acceptance of cultural relativism has seeped across the boundary into epistemology, such that otherwise sensible people maintain that logical contradictions and paradoxes are possible.


Do you think it's impossible that something contradictory could also be true? Your answer depends on what you're referring to as the contradiction. Words, as abstractions of our world, can certainly be false, in the analytic sense. Blue is not red. But if we're speaking of the referant, whatever that may be, it's different. Quantum superposition gives us an example of a real-world contradiction, violating the law of identity.


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Thu Feb 09, 2012 7:56 pm
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Post Re: Is evolutionary chance impossible?
Interbane wrote:
You're tying together the definition of the concept of knowledge with certainty


Yes. Is Miami due north of Los Angeles? Are you sure? Are you certain? Do you know?

The answer to these questions for those with an accurate geographic knowledge is simple. Miami is certainly not due north of Los Angeles. Everyone who is familiar with American geography knows that for certain for an obvious fact.

This simple use of language is entirely congruent with philosophy of science. Our knowledge is not rendered uncertain by obscure doubts. In fact, if we have a chink of uncertainty, the correct answer is to say you do not know. All knowledge is certain. It is true that people sometimes think they know things in error, but no one can say "I know it for a certain fact but I might be wrong". That is a contradiction.

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Quantum superposition gives us an example of a real-world contradiction, violating the law of identity.

This is one of those mind-benders. I must admit, my attitude to such examples is to say that the universe must be self-consistent as a scientific axiom, so apparent inconsistency is simply an occurrence where we do not fully understand how the universe works.

It is very interesting that the law of identity appears to be violated at quantum scale. This means our usual macro logic 'Everything is what and where it is and not something or somewhere else' has not been able to grapple with the mysteries of the quark. My view is that logical axioms are more fundamental than apparent observations in this case, so it just shows that science does not yet fully understand quantum mechanics.


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Last edited by Robert Tulip on Thu Feb 09, 2012 9:47 pm, edited 2 times in total.



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Post Re: Is evolutionary chance impossible?
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All knowledge is certain.


Perhaps for yourself, but then I'd say you're wrong. Certainty isn't a characteristic of knowledge. It's a measure of a man's doubt. What you're saying is that you have no doubts for any of the knowledge you have. That's silly, and you know it. Unless you're omniscient.

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In fact, if we have a chink of uncertainty, the correct answer is to say you do not know.


A chink of uncertainty is agnosticism? I think it takes more than a chink. I'm not certain about many of the things I know. But I still know them. It takes more doubt than a "chink of uncertainty" to move me to the agnostic position. The problem is in relating these confidence levels via words, but let's say it's more like a spectrum than a 3-point position.

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Yes. Is Miami due north of Los Angeles? Are you sure? Are you certain? Do you know?


I actually didn't know, but that's because I didn't pay attention in geography. But I looked it up, and this is a fact which I can say I'm certain about. I looked at a few maps, and you're correct. Such simplified abstractions with a digital answer aren't hard to be certain about. But when things become more complex, and the comparison is more analog(rather than the digital north/south, yes/no, forward/back), where components are along a spectrum, or of varying degrees. Things become much more complex, and the level of understanding to rule out all doubt requires knowledge and study that most people don't have time to devote.


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Post Re: Is evolutionary chance impossible?
I don't have a problem with using the word certain to describe many of the things which i understand to be matters of utmost confidence.

If someone asserted that the night sky was a blanket with fireflies resting on it’s surface, I have 100% confidence that that description is wrong. I would be “certain” in everyday use of the term. And for many things the same is true. Though I may say certain, and 100% confidence, what that really means is a confidence level so high that there would have to be extremely compelling evidence to the contrary to get me to change my analysis of the event.

So when I say 100% confident, the truth of the matter is really something like 99.9999999….. confident, with the difference being so insignificant that it doesn’t matter much, so I may as well say 100%.

Matters of utmost confidence can and should be defended on the basis of their evidentiary support, and that does equate to having “certain knowledge” in many cases. Calling it by what it is, utmost justified confidence, does not negate the accuracy of that assessment.

In any case, even a very low confidence level can justifiably defeat the most firm irrational belief, and we should not fear to endorse those expectations built on evidence as opposed to those built on wishful thinking.

I don’t know specifically why my sister’s TV keeps randomly turning on and off at night, but I am resoundingly confident it has nothing to do with ghosts. Probably a short wire. Now, even that, which is speculative on my part is still definitely a much more likely cause than a ghost, despite my sister’s fevered belief.

An incomplete understanding can and does (every day) defeat firm irrational belief. We don’t know everything there is to know about germs but what we do know has proven resoundingly more effective in the treatment of disease than any amount of shaken voodoo sticks.

So as I say, I don’t have a problem using the word “certain” in every day conversation, just as I will have no problem describing an atom as analogous to the solar system to my child when he’s old enough to understand these things. It isn’t quite the same thing, but for brevity, it will suffice, even though I know there are important differences to be found in those options when considering the topic more deeply.


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Fri Feb 10, 2012 1:39 pm
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Post Re: Is evolutionary chance impossible?
Interbane wrote:
I actually didn't know, but that's because I didn't pay attention in geography. But I looked it up, and this is a fact which I can say I'm certain about. I looked at a few maps, and you're correct. Such simplified abstractions with a digital answer aren't hard to be certain about. But when things become more complex, and the comparison is more analog(rather than the digital north/south, yes/no, forward/back), where components are along a spectrum, or of varying degrees. Things become much more complex, and the level of understanding to rule out all doubt requires knowledge and study that most people don't have time to devote.

Nobody ever says, "How can you be so sure?" if you say you know Miami is more southerly than Los Angeles. But they might if you say that Los Angeles is a better place to live. Then you've made a statement that requires a multi-variate analysis and is also complicated by its subjectivity. Most people have a sense of the situations where it's appropriate to claim certainty and when it's not. Opinion inevitably enters in when we get past the binary choices, and at that stage, when people don't acknowledge the role that opinion plays in their statement of certainty, we look at them quizzically.

The topic of global warming/climate change has come up in this regard, with one side saying it's impossible to be certain and the other saying not so, we can absolutely know who is right in the debate. Even if someone was able to devote himself fulltime to determining which side is right, he wouldn't get to the point of justified full certainly, because the state of what is known about climate is always changing. So it's unwise for those who think that AGW is real to couch their judgments in the language of certainty; it hurts their cause. The most they should say is that the evidence we've been able to amass shows that we are warming the planet and that counter-actions are needed. Labeling others as deniers or dolts is below the belt and subtracts from credibility.


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Post Re: Is evolutionary chance impossible?
My views on the relation between knowledge and belief are very much conditioned by my reading of the schematism presented by Plato in The Republic. The Divided Line is the key explanation. Here is a picture of the divided line, taken from this essay on Plato

Image

The divided line suggests an epistemological continuum of reliability from delusion (false belief, unreliable) to certainty (true knowledge, reliable). In the middle of the line, between delusion and knowledge, sits belief. A belief is a proposition that we consider to be true, but of which we are not certain. Knowledge is reserved for claims that have certainty. This is shown by the impossibility of the statement 'I know it is true but I am not sure if it is true'. By contrast, it is perfectly acceptable to say 'I believe it is true but I am not sure.' For example if we are asked if a person is at a location, saying we believe it has less certainty than saying we know it. 'I think he is there but I don't know for certain' illustrates this categorical distinction between belief and knowledge.

How does this all relate to this thread topic of evolution? The question is the epistemic status of the theory of evolution, and of the intelligent design type challenges to it. My view, which ant disputed, is that evolution as a mechanistic process sits at the 'certain' end of Plato's divided line.

What we have here is a basic traditional philosophical dispute, which in this case rests on Plato's distinction between intelligible ideas accessible to mind and physical perceptions accessible to sense. With evolution, we do not generally see it occurring, but rely on conceptual gathering of data, and presentation of that data as a systematic story, within a coherent theoretical framework. What this shows is the age of the earth, the changing life forms, and the operation of genetic evolution in accordance with the mathematical algorithms of Darwinian biology. Evolution as a natural process is basically as certain as the existence of the universe.


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Post Re: Is evolutionary chance impossible?
According to Plato, though, wouldn't our modern science still represent bungling around in the Cave? Certainty to Plato rested in the realm of forms or ideas, the only level deserving the name of philosophy. Empiricism appears to be a much lower level. Apprehending the form of the Good was the philosopher's goal, which isn't something we'd say can be achieved by science. Carl Sagan had this to say about Plato and science: " He (Plato) believed that ideas were far more real than the natural world. He advised the astronomers not to waste their time observing the stars and planets. It was better, he believed, just to think about them. Plato expressed hostility to observation and experiment. He taught contempt for the real world and disdain for the practical application of scientific knowledge. Plato's followers succeeded in extinguishing the light of science and experiment that had been kindled by Democritus and the other Ionians." (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plato#Criticism)

What do you think about that? Science seems unavoidably Aristotelian rather than Platonic.


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Post Re: Is evolutionary chance impossible?
DWill wrote:
According to Plato, though, wouldn't our modern science still represent bungling around in the Cave? Certainty to Plato rested in the realm of forms or ideas, the only level deserving the name of philosophy. Empiricism appears to be a much lower level. Apprehending the form of the Good was the philosopher's goal, which isn't something we'd say can be achieved by science. Carl Sagan had this to say about Plato and science: " He (Plato) believed that ideas were far more real than the natural world. He advised the astronomers not to waste their time observing the stars and planets. It was better, he believed, just to think about them. Plato expressed hostility to observation and experiment. He taught contempt for the real world and disdain for the practical application of scientific knowledge. Plato's followers succeeded in extinguishing the light of science and experiment that had been kindled by Democritus and the other Ionians." (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plato#Criticism)

What do you think about that? Science seems unavoidably Aristotelian rather than Platonic.

All of that comes from a really bad popular misreading of Plato. It is like the cynical line 'I have seen Plato's cups and table but not his cupness or tableness'. It is so typical that an astronomer such as Sagan would imagine he has a clear understanding of Plato when he has probably barely read any of the dialogues, and has simply absorbed popular Aristotelian prejudices.

For a start, Plato did not have a 'theory of forms'. Forms is a really bad modern English Aristotelian translation of Plato's term "idea". We find this continual tendency, which Plato criticised in his dialogue The Sophist, for crude thinkers to say if we cannot see and touch something it is not real, whereas enlightened thinkers recognise that truth is abstract and unchanging.

There is much genuine debate within modern mathematics about Plato, notably on whether numbers are real. This is quite an obscure problem, but becomes serious in some branches of higher mathematics, as discussed in the excellent book Is God a Mathematician by Mario Livio, who suggests that the true Platonic view is that numbers are discovered, whereas the false Aristotelian line promoted by crude empiricists is that numbers are invented.

Let's consider the theory of evolution. It is not something you can see or touch, and exists solely as intelligible and eternal. The laws of evolution do not change with time and place. As Richard Dawkins has said, a prediction he would make about extra terrestrial life is that it would develop in accord with the laws of evolution that we have discovered here on earth. On Plato's divided line, the theory of evolution, like other general concepts in science, sits on the intelligible knowledge side, not on the side of opinion and belief. The central power of evolution is found in natural mathematical algorithms regarding evolutionarily sustainable strategies.

Plato's theory that the idea of the good is the highest point of intelligible knowledge is central to his concept of the philosopher king. Part of the point here is that we do not really learn what is good and bad from the evidence of our senses, which provide a swirling mess of opinion. Instead, the idea of the good is primarily intelligible, discerned from careful and systematic study of ideas, provided as conceptual knowledge. It is quite rare for anyone to have the objectivity and capacity to explore such material in depth.

Kant said percepts without concepts are blind, concepts without percepts are empty. What this means is that empiricism (sense perception and intuition) lacks an organising framework to explain what we see. Such a framework requires rational concepts (thoughts and ideas) that order the mess of perception into a coherent story. The highest idea for Kant is duty, reflecting Plato's idea of the good.

For a Platonic and Kantian approach to evolution, it is incontrovertible that if we define good as whatever conduces to human flourishing, and then do the good, then humans will flourish, barring unforeseeable catastrophe. Kant said we have a categorical imperative to treat people as ends, not as means. This sense of compassionate humanitarian duty indicates how abstract moral philosophy can be relevant to understanding how human civilization can evolve.


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Post Re: Is evolutionary chance impossible?
Thanks, Robert. I strongly feel, though, that the waters are muddied through loose use of the word 'evolution.' Darwin didn't discover evolution; he discovered, or co-discovered, natural selection, and that process is specific to sexual reproduction--or at least to organic reproduction. But you believe, as I now recall, that natural selection applies to whatever changes occur in human societies. I think this is totally wrong, but it would explain how you can think that species evolution and social evolution are the same things.


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Post Re: Is evolutionary chance impossible?
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All knowledge is certain.


That is an extremely arrogant assertion.

The inherent tension in science is that science must limit itself to experience and it must go beyond experience.

You can not say that evolutionary development would be the same universally without having first observed it in process in an entirely different regime. You are going beyond experience when asserting that claim.

By explaining evolution by natural selection, you have not explained the origin of life or explained away a designer.
That is the genetic fallacy the "new atheists" commit each and every time.


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Post Re: Is evolutionary chance impossible?
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As Richard Dawkins has said, a prediction he would make about extra terrestrial life is that it would develop in accord with the laws of evolution that we have discovered here on earth.


This is hogwash.

The term "evolution" is not an observable term in an extra terrestrial regime. Dawkin's violates empiricism and steps into the metaphysical realm.
Without having observed evolution in its entirety, we are stuck with defining the word as a "partial term".


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“For it is owing to their wonder that men both now begin to and at first began to philosophize; they wondered originally at the obvious difficulties, then advanced little by little and stated difficulties about the greater matters, e.g. about the phenomena of the moon and those of the sun and of the stars, and about the genesis of the universe. And a man who is puzzled and wonders thinks himself ignorant” (Metaphysics, 350 BC)


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Post Re: Is evolutionary chance impossible?
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The material on David Hume does not help you at all. All Hume showed was that without a recognition that there are necessary truths, such as the connection between cause and effect, we are lost in the mire of doubt. We should regard evolution as a necessary truth, as a condition of experience.

Matter and energy endure through time. We know this because it matches completely to all our observation and is a necessary condition for experience. The existence of God, in any meaningful sense, is not a necessary condition for experience in the same way the persistence of matter/energy through time is necessary.



I am not looking for Hume to rescue me. I need not to be rescued here.
Hume makes my point regarding first causation. We have no impression of causation. We are stuck with evolutionary explanations as limited to mechanistic processes and NOT what initiated them "in the beginning."
Our impressions of things are limited in scope. To say there is no god is to play out o the boundaries of science.
An atheist who is well versed in the limits of science and human perception would immediately convert to agnosticism. (pun intended).


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“For it is owing to their wonder that men both now begin to and at first began to philosophize; they wondered originally at the obvious difficulties, then advanced little by little and stated difficulties about the greater matters, e.g. about the phenomena of the moon and those of the sun and of the stars, and about the genesis of the universe. And a man who is puzzled and wonders thinks himself ignorant” (Metaphysics, 350 BC)


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Post Re: Is evolutionary chance impossible?
ant wrote:
Quote:
All knowledge is certain.

That is an extremely arrogant assertion.
Okay ant, let me get this straight. You are uncertain about things you know? You are not quite sure when you say you know something if it is actually true? Does that mean no one should ever trust your word?

Seriously, knowledge has to be defined as certain. If it is not certain then it is not knowledge. We have abundant certain knowledge about history, science and mathematics. Any statement that has any uncertainty about it does not qualify as knowledge. That is what knowledge is.

You should test your theory of a gap between knowledge and certainty on a judge. "Your honor, when I said I knew he killed him, I did not mean that I was certain about it". Yeah right.

You are probably thinking about situations where people are deluded. If I say I am certain that 2+2=5, that is delusion, not knowledge.
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The inherent tension in science is that science must limit itself to experience and it must go beyond experience.
Yes, this is a good point. Science makes predictions about the future, such as that the earth will keep spinning. We have no experience of the future, but we infer from the consistency of all past experience that future experience will continue to be consistent. Science also makes universal claims, such as that the laws of gravity and relativity and motion and evolution that we see operating universally within our experience also operate in the far reaches of time and space outside our experience. That is what it means to assert that reality is consistent with itself. Induction leads to deduction. Perceptions lead to ideas and theories.

The infamous philosopher of science Karl Popper sowed much confusion about this material because of his efforts to separate science from politics. He argued that any claim that we can know the truth is totalitarian, leading inexorably to extremism. To protect against this danger of claiming to know the truth, Popper effectively insisted with Sergeant Schultz, 'I know nahthink'. This is where this baleful idea that we have no real certainty comes from.
Quote:
You can not say that evolutionary development would be the same universally without having first observed it in process in an entirely different regime. You are going beyond experience when asserting that claim.
If we start from the axiom that the universe is self-consistent, an idea at the basis of logic, then processes on earth such as cumulative adaptation that have an elegant simplicity can readily be inferred to be universal. That is what Dawkins thinks about it anyway, and I agree with him.
Quote:
By explaining evolution by natural selection, you have not explained the origin of life or explained away a designer.
That is the genetic fallacy the "new atheists" commit each and every time.

Apologies for being so stupid about this genetic fallacy business you keep on asserting without explaining ant. I looked up the term again. The genetic fallacy is a fallacy of irrelevance where a conclusion is suggested based solely on something or someone's origin rather than its current meaning or context. I absolutely do not see the relevance here. You will have to spell it out in more detail if you think it is any sort of an argument in favor of a celestial designer. Otherwise you just look to be using logic as a rhetorical flourish without content.

Scientific evolution actually does explain away a designer. It shows that our current life forms evolved solely by natural processes, and that this is completely plausible, without any need to invoke mysterious supernatural intervening beings. By parsimony, a designer is unnecessary and adds nothing to our understanding and so should be considered an irrelevant hypothesis. Some might say there is a hint of arrogance in the argument that mainstream scientific opinion about evolution is fallacious.


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Post Re: Is evolutionary chance impossible?
DWill wrote:
Thanks, Robert. I strongly feel, though, that the waters are muddied through loose use of the word 'evolution.' Darwin didn't discover evolution; he discovered, or co-discovered, natural selection, and that process is specific to sexual reproduction--or at least to organic reproduction. But you believe, as I now recall, that natural selection applies to whatever changes occur in human societies. I think this is totally wrong, but it would explain how you can think that species evolution and social evolution are the same things.


The essential core of natural selection is the idea of cumulative adaptation. This means that things build on precedent. When an improvement comes along, if it proves adaptive it will be adopted and will spread through the gene pool and make the species better fitted to its niche and more able to colonize new niches. Genetically, adoption is governed by whether new genes are stable, fecund and durable. Evolution is not random, but is directed to the goal of effectively filling a niche.

How does this apply to non-genetic evolution? Technology shows abundant evidence of evolution by cumulative adaptation, the same mechanism that governs natural selection in biology. When technological innovations come along, if they work they spread, and if they don't work they fail, just like genetic mutations. Granted, cultural evolution is more rapid and complex than human genetic evolution, although it is probably slower than some microbial evolution. Also, culture has some hidden constraints, such as market failures in the adoption of innovation.

Overall, culture is not as stable as genes, but nonetheless there is considerable stability. For example once the wheel was invented, it gradually spread through the memepool, as a stable, fecund and durable mutation in human cultural evolution. Market economics is essentially Darwinian, but we have power to limit the rules of the game (akin to the niche) through the power of the state to make laws to regulate free enterprise. We similarly see that law evolves by precedent in the same way as genes, continually adapting to its niche and building incrementally upon what currently exists. The universality of the incremental process of evolution is shown by the difficulty of achieving big change except at moments of systemic crisis.

Friedrich Hayek gives a good explanation of the evolutionary nature of common law and market economics in his book The Constitution of Liberty.

My view is that this evolutionary framework applies equally well to the evolution of myth, showing the gradual change process of cultural values.


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