What Is Evolution For? Revisited
I attempted to tackle this topic in a previous post and got seriously sidetracked. The turn sent me in very much the wrong direction and though where I ended up was a good enough place to be, it was not where I had originally intended. Normally I would be fine with that. Typically when I sit down to write about a topic as complex and fraught with pitfalls as this one I am happy just to get anywhere, however in this case I felt as if I had let myself and my reader down. Basically it felt like I saw an easy out and I took it. This is my attempt to fix that mistake and try to put together a more coherent answer to the question without ducking for cover under some far out hypothesis or changing the subject.
If you read my last post you may remember that I began by highlighting an article on a seemingly unrelated topic, human consciousness and how to talk about it with others, by a Dr. Karl Fiston. Karl is a psychiatrist and physicist (quite an interesting degree combination) at University College London. In the article he argued that cognitive scientists and philosophers had fundamentally misunderstood the nature of mind by accepting it as a thing. Thus they tended to ask questions that presupposed the mind’s existence could be explained by its’ attributes or its purpose. Much better, according to him, to instead ask what “……sort of processes gave rise to the notion (or the illusion) that things exist at all.” After some long winded rigmarole he eventually summarized by saying consciousness was best thought of as a “process to be understood, not as a thing to be defined.” Finally he reworded slightly and put it like this “consciousness is nothing more and nothing less than a natural process such as evolution or the weather.”
Next he gave an example of a way to better understand what he meant. He suggested that one simply “…replace the word ‘consciousness’ with ‘evolution’ — and see if the question still made sense. For example, the question What is consciousness for? becomes What is evolution for?” He went on to dismiss the question as silly since “scientifically speaking” evolution has no purpose. At this point I went off on my tangent, first criticizing the use of the term “scientifically speaking” then attempting to show how one might address the problem of purpose in a way satisfactory to both the God fearing (religious) and Satan loving (atheists) crowds. I began that digression after first agreeing with Dr. Fiston’s contention that evolution has no purpose, that it cannot, unless one is to accept that a creator (God) endowed it with such.
Whenever I find myself agreeing with anything so quickly I worry. This is typically a sign of laziness, bias, or judgmental thinking. It is always a good idea to challenge oneself in cases like this. Attack your current belief as hard as you can, try every possible route to defeat it, prove why it is incorrect, or at the very least knock it down a few pegs. Why is it so obviously correct to say that evolution has no purpose and why must the only alternative be that if it does have a purpose that purpose was instilled by a creator entity (i.e. God). I have taken a personal vow to not appeal to the simulation hypothesis, or discuss it in any way, for at least a month so that option is not available though of course it is an obvious and attractive one for the reasons I described in my previous post. Let us take a step back and ask the question a different way. If evolution did have a purpose what might that purpose be? Perhaps if we can come to some sort of consensus on a likely purpose(s) for evolution it will be easier to determine if it need be bestowed by God or could arise naturally in our universe or on our planet.
One could argue that the purpose of evolution is to give rise to the best adapted, fittest, most well suited to survival beings for the physical environment at hand. Why should evolution “care” what beings are best suited to survive and thrive in any given environment? and why should it care even about survival, about life itself? Why not favor the least fit and so drive a planets living creatures to extinction as quickly as possible. Evolution seems to favor life and the living, in fact it favors it so much that it drives the living to become better, stronger, for the sole purpose of living longer, being alive more, and thus reproducing more, generating even more life. Contrary to many evangelical chritstian/creationist doctrines which posit evolution as an ultimate evil, on my reading it is the strongest positive force for life in the universe we have yet characterized and described. It drives all life on earth to become better and thus live longer and create more life and presumably it does the same on every other planet in our galaxy and in our universe.
I still have not answered my question though about why. Why should evolution favor life? What is it about life that makes evolution work so hard to preserve and strengthen it? What precisely is evolution? In many ways this parallels a question in physics, What is gravity? In astronomy and physics it is believed by most that gravity is a force transmitted via still undiscovered theoretical particles known a gravitons. It is interactions of these gravitons with each other and the other fundamental particles that generates the force of gravity with which we are so familiar. Is evolution a force? Is evolution transmitted by subatomic particles between living beings and the animate and inanimate inhabitants that make up the rest of the world? Is it the interaction of these evolutions ©®™ with each other and the rest of the world that give rise to the observed phenomenon of evolution. I have yet to read or hear of anyone making such a seemingly strange hypothesis. If not a force transmitted via particles what then is it? I do not wish to explore that hard question any further in this piece but instead want to return to my original question. Why should the evolution favor life?
The easiest answer is a simple one and that is, if it did not, we would not be here to be ask the question. While that is certainly a true statement a feel it is more an avoidance of the question than a real answer. The only way I can see to answer this question is to bring values into the equation. Evolution favors life because life is valuable for some reason. Life is worth all the trouble that evolution goes through to propagate it because life is good. Life is something worth propagating and continuing. Of course, being a living being myself, I am massively biased on this point. However, I truly do not see any other possible answer to the question other than it is simply a fluke. Evolution could have favored the weak just as easily but the decay of a single quantum particle at just the correct particular instant in time “flipped the coin” in favor of life. If we rule out the flip of a coin answer, and I freely admit I have not coherent reason why we must, we are left with the values answer.
In a roundabout fashion we have arrived at one possible answer. Evolution’s purpose is to propagate life and it does this simply because life is good and deserves to be propagated. No creator entity is needed to endow evolution with this purpose though a value judgment as to the worth of life is required. Somehow I find this answer very unsatisfying but it is the best I can come up with for now. Something tells me I will be revisiting this topic again. Until then, enjoy!
Suppose we accept that evolution does have a purpose then why is it a requirement that some being/thing gave it said purpose? Does anything have a purpose that was not instilled in it, or given to it, by some creator or other entity? Let’s start with some basic things. How about a wristwatch? Does a wristwatch have a purpose? Yes, I would say it does, at its most basic level the purpose of a wristwatch is to tell time. Did the creator of the watch give it that purpose. I suppose again I would have to say yes. Let’s try again with something a bit more complex. Does my computer have a purpose? Again I would say yes, its purpose is to compute. Did a creator endow it with that purpose? The short and simple answer is yes. Let’s try some non man made things now, how about air? does air have a purpose? Leaving aside the complexity of the composition of air, we will take it at face value in its most common every day meaning as used by the vast majority of people. Does air have a purpose? If you are a particularly anthropocentric type person you might say yes, its purpose is to provide the oxygen for people to breathe.