Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Bernard Shaw's (Bizarre) Theory of Evolution

George Bernard Shaw is a fantastic playwright and social critic, but he is not a scientist.  This fact did not, however, stop him from writing a 60+ page manifesto refuting both natural selection and intelligent design, positing what he defined as a neo-Lamarckian approach, called "Creative Evolution," as the preface to his cycle of plays, Back to Methuselah (1921).  Of eyeless cave fish, intelligent design would say "god made them like this because the caves are dark," natural selection would say, "eyes require more energy than no-eyes, and are more subject to disease and injury than the lack of eyes, therefore those with a mutation for no eyes were better adapted to live in an environment where sight offered no advantage," while Lamarck's theory of use and disuse would say, "they don't use the eyes, so they lose them."  What Shaw does is take Lamarck's theory and give it a method of action.  So while natural selection operates through genetics, creative evolution operates through the will to change.  If this sounds very silly, don't worry.  It's much sillier.

    "If you like eating the tender tops of trees enough to make you concentrate all your energies on the stretching of your neck, you will finally get a long neck, like the giraffe." (19)*

And it just gets weirder from there.  In response to Weismann's experiments in the heredity of acquired traits, in which Weismann cut off the tails of several generations of mice to prove that this would not result in a lack of tails in the offspring, Shaw provides an alternate method of experiment:  

"First, he should have secured a colony of mice highly susceptible to hypnotic suggestion  He should then have hypnotized them into an urgent conviction that the fate of the musque world depended on the disappearance of its tail...  Having thus made the mice desire to lose their tails with a life-or-death intensity, he would very soon have seen a few mice born with little or no tail.  These would be recognized by the other mice as superior beings, and privileged in the division of food and sexual selection." (41)

Don't worry, it gets weirder.

According to Shaw, evolving is a lot like riding a bicycle.  No, seriously, he uses learning to ride a bicycle (and painting, and playing chess, etc) as an example.  When you start to learn something, you make a gain in each lesson, but by the time your next lesson comes around, you've backslid.  Eventually, though, you'll learn it so well that it will become an automatic process.  Whether it's riding a bike, painting, or something as simple as walking, this holds true.  Shaw then argues that, in this applies on an expanded scale between generations. He then argues that, all of evolution is the result of this, and that human gestation is literally the condensation of all the evolution that led up to mankind.  This is one of the central tenets of Creative Evolution.   That, over the course of countless generations, if it is willed enough, the time which it takes for a trait will be condensed drastically.  After all, it took millions of years to learn to walk upright and develop language, and now most people can walk and talk before they're two years old.  "The time may come when the same force that compressed the development of millions of years into nine months may pack many more millions into even a shorter space; so that Raphaels may be born painters as they are now born breathers and blood circulators." (21)    

But the great discovery and claim of Creative Evolution lies in the fact that all traits are a matter of will, and will alone.  To Shaw, there is no difference between the development of language, the possession of two legs, and immortality.  That's right, if we just want it enough, we can live forever!  This aspect of Creative Evolution, which forms the basis for the plays that make up Back to Methuselah, is explained thus:  

"Among other matters apparently changeable at will is the duration of individual life... Weismann, a very clever and suggestive biologist... pointed out that death is not an eternal condition of life, but an expedient introduced to provide for continual renewal without overcrowding.  Now Circumstantial Selection [Shaw's term for Natural Selection] does not account for natural death:  it accounts only for the survival of species in which the individuals have sense enough to decay and die on purpose... If on opportunist grounds Man now fixes the term of his llife at three score and ten years, he can equally fix it at three hundred, or three thousand, or even at the genuine Circumstantial Selection limit, which would be until a sooner-or-later-inevitable fatal accident makes an end of the individual." (15)

Shaw's Creative Evolution did not catch on, in science, pedagogy, religion, or much of anywhere else really.  The root cause of his theory seems lie in the fact that Shaw could not conceive of an existential universe that is not nihilistic, which says more about Shaw than the validity of natural selection.  As Shaw Natural Selection:  
"There is a hideous fatalism about it, a ghastly and damnable reduction of beauty and intelligence, of strength and purpose, of honor and aspiration, to such casually picturesque changes as an avalanche may make in a mountain landscape, or a railway accident in a human figure.  To call this Natural Selection is a blasphemy, possible to many for whom Nature is nothing but a casual aggregation of inert and dead matter..." (33)   

It is against this perceived "hideous fatalism" that Shaw is reacting, and is the root of the convoluted logic fundamental to this treatise.  Despite his wishes, the universe will not conform to no man's will, not even Shaw's.

* Penguin Books, 1961

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