History, Evolution, and The Darwin Debate

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In Search of History

July 12th, 2010 · 2 Comments

In Search Of History

The debate over evolution has continued since the time of Darwin without resolution, in part because it is a metaphysical contest that is conducted beyond the limits of observation. The claims for natural selection have turned into an ideology short of real science, a kind of metaphysical reductionism. The result has thrown the study of history into confusion, and handed an ideological pseudo-science to many with Social Darwinist agendas. History should be the antidote to this kind of speculative excess, for it enforces the discipline of observation at short range, a century or less, something entirely absent in the study of deep time where generalizations about immense intervals of time are taken for granted without direct empirical observation.

A devastating question haunts standard thinking on evolution: what if the real force of evolution acts intermittently at high-speed over a range of mere centuries? The vastness of deep time would swallow up such brief episodes and leave no trace whatever. As we examine world history precisely this possibility becomes confirmed. The question of the so-called Axial Age arises in this context with an ominous warning that we can get the question of evolution completely wrong, as a myth of ‘scientism’. We are thus prone to hallucinate evolution with substitutes, using oversimplifications such as natural selection. And history simply won’t conform to the assumptions of Darwinism and reductionist scientism. It may well be that a full theory of evolution is beyond human abilities as yet, and we might do better to follow the facts of evolutionary sequences empirically, mindful of the dangers of naïve theories.

    The Eonic Effect: A dose of empiricism The revolution in our knowledge of world history has uncovered something that must challenge the Darwinian assumptions about random evolution and natural selection. As we extend the scale of history to the scale of five thousand or more years, the empirical given of the historical development of civilization in a remarkable portrait of spontaneous self-organization shows us something that Darwinism cannot explain, and, further, the result looks like a complex hybrid of history and evolution. Instead of botched theories that distort our thinking we can follow the empirical outlines of episodes of evolution using periodization and descriptive analysis.

Evolution in history? It is not clear at first how we can bring the idea of evolution in history itself. In fact, any process of developmental emergence is ‘evolution’, and the question is rather what relation this has to the earlier descent of man. The answer is that the relationship is most probably direct, and that world history can therefore suggest something to us about man’s emergence.

The moment we examine world history as an evolutionary and developmental process we see immediately that something much more complex than natural selection is at work. The great champion of Darwin, T. H. Huxley, ended by saying as much as he realized that something was missing in the Darwinian account. It struck him that there must be something more than natural selection at work since we always act as if to oppose it. The complex evolution of ethics in the descent of man is something that the Darwinian framework simply cannot explain. In fact, it is little appreciated, because always soft-pedalled, that reductionist science cannot explain an ethical agent at all. This embarrassing limitation of scientism is seldom made clear to the public as it is induced to accept the Darwinian perspective as some kind of ultimate explanation. The obsession with Darwinism is ideological, and too often connected, whether consciousnly or not, with economic assumptions.

Another approach is needed, and the study of world history provides it: we must acknowledge that there are limits to our our ability to obseve evolution in deep time, and to our ability to produce universal theories that are valid in all situations. We can make hard claims only about what we can observe at close range, and world history is about all that is so observed, this to a far greater degree than evolution in deep time. If we honestly acknowledge this limitation, a surprise is in store for us. We can observe the transition from evolution to history, and there achieve some understanding of what earlier evolution must have been like. The result is an unexpected insight into the evolutionary descent of man. In general history might show us evolutionary episodes of short duration. Such episodes are never observed in deep time, whose units of observation are very large. This braiding of history and evolution feels right, and gives us a sense of the lameness of Darwinian explanations.

We need to stop imposing simplistic theories on history. One solution is to explore outlines and periodization to highlight historical dynamism as a set of facts, instead of a theory created to satisfy some preconceived agenda. In fact, world history shows a remarkable rhythm of development, and falls into a simple outline of successive epochs or chapters in a clear narrative of emergent civilizations. This ‘narrative’ is far more conducive to historical understanding, and the question of evolution, than the counter-intuitive imposition of reductionist analysis because it respects the complexity of what history in fact shows. Further, the perennial question of freedom in relation to causality demands a larger framework of explanation than that of reductionism. Scientists are often to embarrassed to inform us that freedom is disallowed in their analyses. We need to produce a new ‘science of freedom’, at least in principle, to reconcile science and the stubborn facts of historical free activity.

History is too complex for a simplistic evolutionary schema based on the genetics of natural selection. We should therefore restrict ourselves to what we can detect in world history itself. It would seem that history doesn’t show us evolutionary processes, but this is false. In fact, once we look at world history as a whole, we make a surprising discovery: world history shows a clear pattern of universal history with meaning sufficient unto itself, and this shows us how to interpret the idea of (human) evolution in terms of the history we observe. The resolution lies therefore in looking at history itself, where the significance of man and culture alone can be found. Ironically, if we restrict our vision to the emergence of civilization we unravel the riddle of evolution that might answer to our perplexity over the descent of man.

Tags: Fourth Edition · World History and The Eonic Effect

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Richard Krasner // Jul 12, 2010 at 6:39 pm

    Does this mean that in order to evolve as a species, society or culture, humans must know where we are evolving from, something which history can tell us, but genetics and science cannot?

    Do you also mean, as I have thought before reading this article, that in order for the US (I will use the US as an example since it is the most advanced society on Earth at present, although there are others that may be more advanced in other areas, but that is another subject) to evolve as a nation, society and culture, that we must understand our history and how our values must evolve along with our advancement in technology?

    I believe that the Information Age (there’s periodization for you) with its’ networks and networking is ill-suited to our rugged individualistic values, and that therefore our values must evolve away from their 17th and 18th century beginnings, and embrace a more egalitarian, communal set of values that compliment the concept of networking and interconnectedness, and not the cowboy values we see today where everyone is on their own .

    Do you agree?

  • 2 nemo // Jul 13, 2010 at 11:31 am

    Your statment abou egalitarian values is right on.
    What I am saying here is that world history shows us
    the clue to humand evolution.
    Be sure to read the whole text: World History And The Eonic Effect, fourth edition.

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