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Absent-Minded Science, Part VI: On Natural Selection and the Universal Eros
I am conscious that I am in an utterly hopeless muddle. I cannot think that the world, as we see it, is the result of chance; and yet I cannot look at each separate thing as the result of Design.
—Charles Darwin, 1860 (letter to Asa Gray)
It has now become more or less respectable to talk of purpose or directiveness in ontogeny… but it is still considered heretical to apply the same terms to phylogeny.
—Arthur Koestler, 1978 (Janus: A Summing Up)
Since the 1970s, there has been a resurgence of critiques against the mainstream Darwinian theory of evolution, which asserts that “natural selection” is the primary agent of evolution. Criticizing Darwin’s ideas and the “neo-Darwinian” framework that constitutes the modern theory of evolution is not new. What is new, however, is the fact that we seem to be in the middle of a long-overdue shift in what has become an overly dogmatic “adaptationist” view of evolution, in which all or almost all evolution occurs through the posited mechanism of natural selection.
Charles Darwin is the father of modern biology, completing his world-changing book, On the Origin of Species, in 1859, after mulling the issues he wrote about for over 25 years. Darwin’s major accomplishment was to present a plausible theory, with oodles of supporting evidence from his observations of pigeons, barnacles, worms, and many other creatures, that explained life’s complexity and evolution as a result not of divine design but of natural design. That is, design without design, without a conscious agent, supernatural or not. Darwin’s theory of evolution was an extended argument that God did not need to be invoked to explain the evolution of life (though Darwin remained agnostic as to whether God needed to be invoked with respect to the origin of life).
Darwin’s vision of evolution resulting from various natural forces, independent of a designer, was actually far more pluralist than today’s mainstream biologists generally acknowledge. Darwin invoked the use and disuse of organs as a major cause in evolutionary change (mole’s eyes have atrophied, for example, because of disuse, as Darwin argued in Origin, though this is not generally an accepted explanation today). He also invoked the process of natural selection as a major cause of evolutionary change, which has become the all-encompassing explanatory theme for too many modern biologists. Natural selection is analogous to the artificial selection that Darwin observed in pigeons and other domesticated animals of his day. Rather than a conscious agent (humans) selecting desirable traits, however, nature “selects” traits based on their tendency to result in more offspring. “Selects” is in quotes because the key point of natural selection is that it is akin to conscious selection, but it is not in fact conscious. It happens automatically, without any conscious selection.
Today’s mainstream theory of evolution, generally described as the Modern Synthesis or Neo-Darwinism, combines the insights from modern genetics with Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. As a consequence, much of modern biology is concerned with molecular change in DNA and RNA – which exist in all cells, guide the production of proteins, and are the building blocks for life – independently of larger questions about natural selection.
Whereas Darwin’s vision was “pluralist” because he suggested many agents for evolution, today’s mainstream evolutionary theory is generally “adaptationist” in that it invokes natural selection as either the only significant cause of evolution (adaptation) or, at least, its primary agent. (“Genetic drift” and many other agents are also recognized by mainstream biology but the large majority of biologists still stress natural selection as the key agent). Adaptationists see all, or almost all, traits as the result of natural selection acting on the random evolution of different traits.
Now here’s the major problem with today’s focus on natural selection or adaptationism: natural selection, as a theory, explains nothing and predicts nothing. This is a strong claim, to be sure, but it can be demonstrated very clearly. The problem arises from the use of different terms for the same concept. A common way of describing natural selection is “survival of the fittest.” This phrase was coined by Herbert Spencer, a British philosopher, but was used by Darwin himself as a synonym for natural selection. Let’s look at the content of this phrase and its meaning.
Survival of the fittest means that the fittest organisms survive and thus spread more offspring. This is how natural selection is supposed to work. But we must ask ourselves what these terms mean. What does “the fittest” mean? Well, to be “fit” in this context means that those organisms that manage to survive leave more offspring. But what does “survival” mean? It means the same thing because there is no evolution without reproduction. So it turns out that the phrase “survival of the fittest” really means “survival of those who survive,” or “the fittest are the fittest.”
“Survival of the fittest” is, then, a tautology that means nothing. It has no explanatory power and no predictive power because it is logically empty. It is akin to saying “evolution happens.” While this is obviously true, based on the abundant fossil record showing the development of life on our planet, it does not amount to a theory of how or why evolution happens. And the theory of natural selection purports to be exactly that.
This is not a new critique of natural selection. In fact, Samuel Butler, a well-known critic of Darwin who had an ongoing feud with Darwin while both were alive, made this claim. Many others have made the same argument since, including prominent biologists T.H. Morgan and C.H. Waddington and the distinguished philosopher of science Karl Popper (though he later recanted without adequately explaining why). The response to this claim has varied over the years but a common one has been something like this: “Even if survival of the fittest is a tautology, there are other ways to describe natural selection that aren’t tautological.” This turns out to be an inadequate response because any way the theory of natural selection is described, it remains tautological. Here are a few other examples:
Natural selection is often described as “differential reproduction” of those organisms that have more adaptive traits. This just means some organisms leave more offspring than others (“differential”). But what leads to differential reproduction? Survival of the fittest. And I’ve just shown that this phrase is tautological. We can state as an empirical fact that some organisms have more offspring than others, but we are left with no additional information or insight if we assert something like, “differential reproduction or survival of the fittest was responsible for more offspring.” This statement is yet another tautology.
Another way of describing natural selection is by discussing “adaptive traits.” A trait is adaptive if it leads to more offspring. But this is also tautological because the only way we have to determine what is adaptive is to examine an organism’s reproductive success. How else could we know what is adaptive? To say that a trait is adaptive and thus leads to more offspring is to say that a trait that leads to more offspring is a trait that leads to more offspring. We are back to tautology.
What’s going on here? As I mentioned above, it’s the use of different terms for the same concept. All these terms – survival, fitness, adaptation, differential reproduction – are referring to exactly the same concept: increased offspring. Thus, to say that natural selection is adaptation through survival of the fittest sounds like it means something, but all this phrase really says is that increased offspring are increased offspring are increased offspring. And while saying that “a rose is a rose is a rose” has some poetic meaning, in biology it means nothing. (All of these statements I’ve been discussing can be described as A = A, which is surely true but contains no information).
To those readers who think I’m inaccurate or being unfair, let’s look at an actual statement by a current leading evolutionary thinker. Francisco Ayala, a well-known biologist at UC Irvine, wrote in the 2008 book, Back to Darwin,”Natural selection – i.e. differential multiplication – can accomplish adaptation because a favorable mutation that has occurred in one individual may thus spread to the whole species in a few generations…” Let’s parse this sentence. “Natural selection,” “differential multiplication,” “favorable,” “adaptation,” “may thus spread,” are all ways of saying exactly the same thing: more offspring are produced in some situations. Even more simply, all these phrases essentially say that there is some biological change occurring. In short, A = A = A = A = A. It is thus true but unhelpful as a theory of evolution.
Natural selection is, in the final analysis, simply a postulate and not a theory. It is the postulate that evolution has happened naturally, without supernatural influence. “Natural selection” stands as the counter to the long-held view of “supernatural selection,” that is, the various theories of creationism or intelligent design. To be a theory of evolution, however, the theory must say something about how and why historical changes occurred and make meaningful predictions about what kind of changes we may see in the future. And natural selection, a logically empty theory, is clearly not that theory.
What Are We to Do?
Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piatelli-Palmarini present a critique of natural selection in their 2010 book, What Darwin Got Wrong. They also argue that natural selection is empty as a theory, though their arguments are a bit different than what I’ve presented above. They suggest that the solution to this impasse is an acknowledgement that natural selection should be considered, instead, “natural history.” And natural history, like all historical writing and thinking, is “just one damned thing after another.” There is some truth to this statement and it is, in fact, largely what many evolutionary biologists do today anyway. In other words, rather than looking to a general theory of how evolution occurs – what natural selection claims to be – biologists and others should (and generally do) focus on describing the actual details of how change seems to have occurred with each species, based on the species’ environment, traits, and observed behaviors.
There are other options available, however, including a set of concepts developed by D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, a 20th-century British biologist, and Stuart Kauffman, a contemporary American biologist, that focus on “order for free” in nature as a whole. So rather than looking to natural selection as the key agent of change in evolution, these thinkers see the order arising spontaneously in all sorts of places, such as in snowflakes, crystals, and in extremely complex organisms like ourselves and many other creatures, as a compounding of these more basic sources of order.
Another, more controversial notion is that there is a driving force behind complexity and evolution. This idea has been championed by various biologists, philosophers, and theologians over the centuries. French biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck was one of the early and most prominent thinkers who suggested that evolution was being pushed by a “force that perpetually tends to make order.” This was one of two agents of evolution that Lamarck proposed. The second is more well-known and considered discredited today: the notion that organisms themselves, through intention, use, and disuse, can change their bodies and that some of these changes are inherited. As I mentioned in Part V of this series, however, there is an increasing body of evidence that some evolutionary change is Lamarckian (Ted Steele’s books have argued for reacceptance of Lamarckian inheritance of acquired traits).
The final concept I’ll mention, which is perhaps the best way of framing a comprehensive theory of evolution, was described well by the American philosopher Gerald Heard. Heard wrote in his classic 1939 essay, “Pain, Sex and Time,” that “from the most primitive forms of life up to the completion of man’s physique, the one clear coordinating achievement is heightened awareness.” Modern biologists know that there is no necessary progression from lower complexity and awareness to higher complexity and awareness. We have many examples of organisms becoming less complex as they evolve. However, it is undeniable that there is a general trend, as Heard describes, toward greater complexity and greater awareness (perception).
Recognizing that this trend exists, we can propose as a working hypothesis that there is a driving agent behind this trend. This driving agent may reduce to the same “order for free” tendency that Thompson and Kauffman focus on, but Heard suggests, and I agree, that there is more going on here than the simple physical and chemical ordering principles that Thompson and Kauffman focus on. Rather, there seems to be a basic force in all things that leads to greater connection, thus greater complexity, and thus greater awareness of our universe around us.
These concepts can be framed in a highly rigorous and empirical way and, in fact, Alfred North Whitehead and his co-thinkers have done exactly this. Whitehead, a British mathematician, physicist, and philosopher who ended his long career at Harvard as professor of philosophy from 1924 to 1937, described in his later works how the eros of the universe was responsible for creativity and evolution. Whitehead’s ideas rest on the notion that all matter, literally, has some degree of consciousness, of awareness. This view is known as panpsychism or panexperientialism and is an increasingly popular solution to the broad inquiry over the last few decades into the nature of consciousness (Parts I through IV of this series discuss panpsychism in some detail).
It turns out that panpsychism offers not only a powerful solution to the question of “What is consciousness?” but also to the question of “How did life arise and evolve?”
The panpsychist solution is to recognize that mind and thus purpose are inherent in all of nature – but in most cases extremely rudimentary. However, as matter complexifies in macromolecules like amino acids (which form spontaneously in many situations), this innate mind and purpose starts to play an increasingly significant role in evolution. It is, thus, a bootstrapping process that has no end in sight.
Margulis and Sagan, two respected but admittedly non-mainstream contemporary biologists, support this view in their highly readable 1995 book, What Is Life? They appeal to Samuel Butler, an early critic of absent-minded science in biology (p. 232):
Butler brought consciousness back in [to biology] by claiming that, together, so much free will, so much behavior becoming habit, so much engagement of matter in the processes of life, had shaped life, over eons producing visible organisms, including the colonies of cells called human. Power and sentience propagate as organisms. Butler’s god is imperfect, dispersed. We find Butler’s view – which rejects any single, universal architect – appealing. Life is too shoddy a production, both physically and morally, to have been designed by a flawless Master. And yet life is more impressive and less predictable than any ‘thing’ whose nature can be accounted for solely by ‘forces’ acting deterministically.
In evolution, then, God is indeed in the details – literally. The “dispersed” God that Margulis and Sagan refer to is the mind contained in each thing, in each organism, that exercises some degree of choice – no matter how small – in how it manifests. This is the Generalized Sexual Selection (GSS) I described in Part V, which is an elaboration of Darwin’s own ideas on sexual selection. In GSS, all things have male and female aspects, and choices made primarily by females have played a strong role in the evolution of life on our planet – perhaps the starring role! When we combine Thompson and Kauffman’s “order for free” with the panpsychist Generalized Sexual Selection, we may arrive at a universal theory of evolution that provides a comprehensive replacement for the logically empty theory of natural selection.
To sum up this series of essays to this point: We cannot adequately explain matter in physics or evolution in biology without re-naturalizing mind. We needn’t appeal to an archaic notion of God as omniscient Designer to provide adequate explanations. Rather, we can appeal to the dispersed god of panpsychism, the god manifested in a million million little pushes from each entity making its own choices (though we shall have a role for a non-dispersed God later in this series of essays).
Mind is inextricably part of nature, and if we are to explain this undeniable fact we can no longer ignore mind in our scientific explanations.