Darwin-L Message Log 1:55 (September 1993)

Academic Discussion on the History and Theory of the Historical Sciences

This is one message from the Archives of Darwin-L (1993–1997), a professional discussion group on the history and theory of the historical sciences.

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<1:55>From BROWNH@CCSUA.CTSTATEU.EDU  Tue Sep  7 10:56:43 1993

Date: Tue, 7 Sep 1993 11:57:57 -0400 (EDT)
To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu
Subject: RE: A reply to ordered changes


I agree fully with each of our points, although I was too tired and it
was too late for me to make them so clearly.  I regret your not having
sent your message to the list, for it makes what I think are fundamental

What I was trying to add is that there is an apparent conflict between
the meaning of evolution in the standard theory of evolutionary biology,
to which you refer, and the connotations we give the word in casual con-
versation.  Recognizing that the term has valuable use in the biological
context, I did not want to confuse the inplications it aquires there with
our notion of historical change in other fields.  That's why I prefer the
term "emergent process," which has specific overtones foreign to the
standard model of biological evolution.

Having made my point, though, I must confess to a foggy area about which
I am ignorant because I have had too little time to study it, even as a
raw amateur.  This foggy area can be articulated in thermodynamic terms,
harmlessly, I hope.  To be specific, environmental dissipation are the
engine of speciation, let's say.  That is, in time we see new species
arising.  Each species is a specific form and therefore relatively im-
probable, and thus each species represents a decrease in entropy.  But
our concern in evolution is not the emergence of one species, I suppose,
as the emergence of many species.  Now if, over a certain period of time,
new species emerged at the same rate as old species died out, then the
entropy of that process would be constant (if biomass increases, of
course, then entropy for the total biomass would go down).  Now, during
the whole span of life on earth, there has been an aggregate speciation
and increase in biomass, and so entropy has gone down.  In that sense,
then, evolution does imply a decrease of entropy.  To put it very simply
and crudely, there was originally no life and now there is a lot of it,
and so between then and now, there has been a pattern of change.

Not being a biologist, I don't know, but I imagine that it would be
hazardous to assume that there is a linear progression in the number
of species on earth.  I suspect the problem with my reasoning above is
not that it is untrue, but that it is too crude, too broad and general,
virtually tautological, to have any use or significance.  So let me
suggest another point: even if we DID find some pattern of change (and
some biologists think they may have found one or two), it does not
necessarily follow that that pattern is particularly useful in biolo-
gical science or informative.

I see things as an historian.  It occurs to us today that world history
seems to be an emergent process (comes up with novelties and its fu-
ture course is unpredictable).  This could be said of standard biological
evolution as well, and in that sense world history simply manifests
changes, not regular change.  But there is more to human capacities to
do work have increased at an accelerating pace, which in other terms
means a capacity to determine our own destiny, what de Chardin called
the noosphere, I think.  The task of the historian, then, or at least
the macro historian, is to explain this.  What is the engine of history;
in what sense is historic consciousness the cornerstone of human liberty;
etc.  That is, the historian brings to an evolutionary process a set of
questions or assumptions that may be alien to biology, with some mis-
understanding between disciplines.  This is the point I tried to make.

Not being a biologist, I have greater latitude in bending biological
terms, I suppose.  In history, for example, we speak of "revolutions,"
for example, which traditionally are seen as critical junctures or
phase shifts in a progressive process (there has been some skepticism
about this in Western circles as the twentieth century has proceeded).
But in origin, the word revolution was not progressive at all, referring
simply to  the turning of the wheel of fortune, returning one to one's
point of origine despite any efforts to achieve process.  Despite the
literal meaning of the word "revolution,", then, historians happily
ignore it to give it quite different implications.  I'm willing to be
liberal about "evolution," too, as long as everyone knows exactly what
they mean by it.

Haines Brown (brownh@ccsua.ctstateu.edu)

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