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Birch, Charles. “Neo-Darwinism, Self-organization, and Divine Action in Evolution.”

According to Charles Birch, most biologists now accept neo-Darwinism as the methodological basis of their understanding of biological evolution, supplemented by the concept of self-organization. 1) Research areas in neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory include differences in the object of selection, the problem of deleterious mutations, subtleties concerning the role of chance, the genetic assimilation of environmental effects, influences on natural selection by modification of the environment, and both neutral and punctuated theories of evolution. 2) Self- organization refers to the production of complex order without a centralizing agency and is usually invoked to explain the evolution of the pre-biotic world. It may also help to explain complex processes in developmental biology, including cell differentiation. Stuart Kaufman applies the mathematics of chaos theory to some aspects of biological evolution without appealing to natural selection.

Birch acknowledges that both neo-Darwinism and self-organization draw on strictly mechanistic models, but insists that this does not imply that biological entities are in all respects machines. On the one hand, a mechanistic analysis seems to provide all that we need for modern biology from a purely physical perspective. On the other hand, it has little, if anything, to say about the mental experience of biological creatures, namely their experience of freedom, choice, and in the human case at least, self-determination. Such analysis has even less to say about the possibility of divine action in the living world. Birch believes this problem stems from the fact that the organism is treated methodologically by neo-Darwinists as an object and not as a subject. Compounding the problem, the mechanistic methodology has led many Darwinists to argue for an underlying mechanistic metaphysics. As a result, the evolution of mind and consciousness, and the functions which they uniquely serve in nature, have remained an enigma for Darwinism.

In its stead Birch suggests a metaphysics for biological organisms which includes their mental as well as physical aspects. The proposal is drawn from the philosophy of Whitehead, in which all individual entities from protons to people are considered to be subjects. Biological evolution is not simply a matter of change in the external relations of objects, but also one of change in the internal relations of subjects. This includes a subject’s relation to its immediate past, analogous to memory, and its relation to its possible future, analogous to anticipation. There is an ever-present urge in life which can be called purpose. Process thought thus posits mentality or experience in some form as an aspect of nature down to the level of fundamental particles. Only at the higher levels of complexity is experience actually conscious. Birch cites David Chalmers, Galen Strawson, and Henry Stapp as non-process scholars who support the validity of experience as universal in nature. The key argument is that mentality did not emerge from the non-mental at some point in the evolutionary sequence.

He then contrasts process philosophy with two alternatives: emergence and reductionism. Emergence involves a category mistake (that the “mental” emerges from the “physical”) as well as a scientific problem (drawing the line between sentience and non-sentience). Reductionism, although it is fruitful and represents most scientific analysis, is inadequate because it cannot account for the fact that the whole has properties which the parts do not; moreover, the parts become qualitatively different by being parts of the whole.

In its place, Birch claims that the best answer to the whole-part problem and the strongest argument for rejecting reductionism is the doctrine of internal relations. This process approach is compatible with a lower-to-upper causality, and it has important implications for scientific research, too, offering support for the idea of top-down causation. Theologically, the potentiality of the universe is held in the mind of God. Divine potentiality becomes concrete reality in the universe by means of persuasive love. God interacts with individual entities in three ways. First, the future is open, and God persuasively confronts entities with creative and saving possibilities for their future. Next, the entities of the world are created by God and respond to God’s feelings for the world. Finally, God responds to the world with infinite passion, taking actual entities into the divine life.

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