Human Agency and the Exaptation of Selection
27 January 2013
My title today, Human Agency and the Exaptation of Selection, is perhaps not a very good title, but if anyone out there has read a representative selection of my posts they will be aware that all of these topics — human agency, exaptation, and natural selection — are matters to which I have returned time and again, and I feel like I beginning to see my way clear to a point at which I can systematically tie together these themes into something more comprehensive than occasional remarks and comments of the sort that are the usual fare of blog posts.
All macro-historical revolutions to date have simply happened to us; they were not planned or chosen or made to happen, they just happened. And before the emergence of human agency in history, all the great transitions of natural history — i.e., the natural equivalent of a macro-historical revolution — simply happened without design, purpose, or direction.
Human efforts (including individual choices) in constituting historical realities have, to date, been like the myriad accidents of natural history that together and cumulatively constitute natural history. Even though human consciousness gives meaning and value to these individual decisions, and at times we participate in collective meanings and values, none of this has yet risen to the level of consciously constituting an epoch of history on the basis of human meanings and values. We have given meaning and value to circumstances that we have (accidentally) brought about, but have not brought about a civilization or a way of life in response to a determination to realize particular meanings and values. This is the social equivalent of Schopenhauer’s assertion that, while we are free to do what we want, we are not free to want what we want.
To shape the future of history, to plan for the kind of civilization to come, and possibly even to create a kind of civilization consciously intended and brought into being, would be historically unprecedented on a scale beyond the unprecedented events of human history (such as I recently wrote about in Invariant Civilizational Properties in Futurist Scenarios, i.e., how it would be unprecedented for an invariant of civilization to be overturned), because the trend of human history being shaped by non-human forces is far older than human history, and far older than our species.
Naturalism and its Others
It is at this point that the naturalistically inclined philosopher of history must obviously and unavoidably part company with those who retain theological conceptions of the world and its development. The idea of the world, up until the emergence of human intelligence from human consciousness, being utterly unplanned, undirected, and undesigned is a rigorously (and indeed rigidly) naturalistic conception that excludes even the most distant and unconcerned creator of deism.
Even the religiously and theologically inclined who make no attempt to defy what science tells us about the world must retain some minimal sense of purpose and direction — perhaps a quasi-Aristotelian final cause — since without this there remains nothing upon which to pun one’s beliefs that is not strictly a part of nature — no transcendent eschatology or soteriology.
It should be obvious from my other posts that I am writing from a rigorously naturalistic perspective, but sometimes one must be explicit about these things so as not to leave any wiggle room, so that one’s naturalistic formulations will either be interpreted naturalistically or rejected tout court because they are naturalistic. What I have written above about unprecedented historical developments simply makes no sense is one deviates from a strict naturalism, and that is why I make it explicit here.
The Threshold of Agency
The imposition of human will upon unthinking and uncomprehending nature began in the most rudimentary ways — the chipping of stone for tools and the gathering of sufficient sustenance such that this might last beyond the next meal. At this level of planning and provision for the future, the human mind is no different from other mammalian minds, since we know that other mammals make rudimentary tools and store food for the future.
To define the point at which human planning and provision for the future exceed this common mammalian standard, and thereby also exceed the possibility of being entirely the result of instinct refined by natural selection, genetically encoded in our biology (and the ultimate limit of evolutionary psychology), involves a sorites paradox (i.e., the paradox of the heap). While we need not define a particular point that human planning exceeds the mammalian norm, we can content ourselves with a span of time (viz. between the emergence of biologically modern homo sapiens and the advent of the historical period strictly speaking, i.e., a span of time encompassing human prehistory). In accordance with what I have called the Truncation Principle, we can in fact recognize an historical discontinuity, even if that discontinuity comes about gradually.
Over some period of time, then, human planning and provision exceeded the mammalian norm and became something historically unprecedented. We tend to magnify this transition, calling ourselves the “rational animal” and associating our reason with that which is uniquely human. One of the great themes of our time is that of human beings asserting their control over the planet, assuming de facto right over the disposition of the biosphere. In fact, we don’t even control our own history, much less the history of the planet. We affect our history and the natural history of our planet, but we do not control them.
We have risen to the level of micro-historical efficacy with the first rudimentary steps of tool making and food storage. We rose to the level of meso-historical efficacy in constituting human societies. These societies began as emergent accidents of human behavior, but I think that we can assert that, over time, we have consciously constituted at least a few limited examples of communities intentionally constituted to certain ends. We rose to the level of exo-historical efficacy in constituting the largest institutions and political entities that have dominated human history. Many of these institutions and political entities have also been accidents of history, but, again, I think that we can say that there are at least some explicit examples of the purposeful constitution of human institutions and political entities.
In other words, have passed at least three thresholds of agency defined in terms of ecological temporality. For human agency to rise to the level of macro-historical efficacy we would need to rise to the level of shaping entire eras of civilization and history. We aren’t there yet. As with the natural historical emergence of human communities and later larger institutions, which began with historical accidents and were only later rationalized, human macro-history remains at the level of our accidental participation. Millions upon millions of conscious human actions were required to create the industrial revolution, but no one consciously sought to create the industrial revolution; although it was, in a sense, made by us, in a more important sense it simply happened to us.
The Problem of Progress
In several posts — Civilization and the Technium, Biology Recapitulates Cosmology, and Progress, Stagnation, and Retrogression among them — I have mentioned Kevin Kelly’s explicit arguments for progress in his book What Technology Wants. I have mentioned this because, in terms of our current intellectual climate, he is an outlier, although among techno-philosophers he may represent something closer to a consensus. Among contemporary academic philosophers and historians, almost no one argues for progress — to do so is considered an unforgivable form of naïveté.
I mention this again here because the above treatment of human agency in terms of ecological temporality might provide a quantitative way to talk about human progress and the progress of human civilization that is not tied to the development of some particular technology. Any time anyone asserts that there has been progress because we now have airplanes and computers whereas once we did not, someone else responds by pointing to the moral horrors of the twentieth century, such as genocide, to demonstrate that technological progress cannot be conflated with moral progress. Moral progress requires an entirely separate argument, as does aesthetic progress. (So too, presumably religious, ideological, or eschatological progress, but I will not attempt to address any of these at present.)
The expanding scope of human agency through levels of ecological temporality can be interpreted as a kind of progress independent of any technological development. In so far as human agency is centrally implicated in human morality, the progress of human agency could even be interpreted as a form of moral progress. Now, this is an admittedly deceptive way to formulate it, because I do not here mean “moral” in the narrow sense of “ethical” but rather “moral” in the way we would use the term in a phrase like, “the moral lives of human beings.” Another way to formulate this would be to call it human progress, but this is probably no improvement at all. I mean progress in the form of asserting human agency over the peculiarly human aspects of our lives — emotions, relationships, interactions, evaluations, creations, and so forth.
A Darwinian conception of history
A Darwinian conception of history and of civilization is simply a conception of history and civilization fully in accord with Darwin’s thorough-doing naturalism, and especially the role of selection in the constitution of historical entities (like human history and human civilization). We can understand Darwinian conceptions of history and civilization as aspects of a Darwinian cosmology. The above formulations of the ecological temporal thresholds of human agency allow us to do this in an interesting way.
When human agency crosses a threshold from being subject to accidents, including its own cumulative accidents, to asserting control over the whole process of agency and its consequences — i.e., what it brings about — what is essentially happening is that human agency is taking over for natural selection; selection, or some part of selection, is transferred from nature to humanity. In other words, the expansion of human agency is the exaptation of selection. Selection that began as natural selection, taken over by the expanding agency of human beings, becomes human selection. This is exaptation not of organic structures, but of behavioral structures, i.e., exaptation on the order of the will.
To assert that the expansion of human agency is the exaptation of selection is to formulate a Darwinian conception of history and of civilization that does not need to declare the progress is impossible to account for in a selective paradigm, and also is not obligated to argue that progress is inherent in the very nature of things, which it is not.
One can understand the problematic idea of “progress” (which we may someday be able to take out of scare quotes) as the increasing human ability to impose human direction, purpose, and design upon history.
. . . . .
. . . . .
. . . . .