Rediscovering Life

Can Darwinian Evolutionary Theory Be Taken Seriously?

Stephen L. Talbott

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Tags: evolution; evolution/as mindless process; evolution/intelligent design

Posted: May 17, 2016   (Article 30)

Please take note: This article has been superseded by a new article offering vastly expanded and more adequate coverage of the issues dealt with in the initial piece. You will find the new article, which is entitled “Evolution and the Purposes of Life”, here. The article you are now reading will eventually be retired from the website.

Please note also that a companion piece to the new article will be forthcoming this year. It is tentatively entitled “Is Directed Evolution a Necessary Assumption in Biology?” The two new articles together represent my attempt to offer a radical reconceptualization of evolutionary theory.

Evolutionary biologists today find themselves in a troubled relationship with the American public. Their great source of discomfort and wonder lies in the fact that the theory of evolution is “still under siege”1 by a substantial and sometimes aggressively disbelieving population — this despite being “an established and accepted scientific theory for 150 years”.2 “What are we doing wrong?” asks Jason Wiles, a biologist and educator at Syracuse and McGill Universities. His answer: “We do not know”.3 And, in light of the vast institutional support undergirding evolutionary science, another educator wonders why “those exposed to evolution education do not generally demonstrate mastery of the concept”.4

The usual claim is that at least half of Americans doubt the prevailing theory, if not the very fact, of evolution. Or, at least, they recoil from the theory’s standard presentation, which tells them that the entire sweep of evolution, from microbes to man, has occurred through natural processes.5 “Natural”, in this context, means something like “purely material, purposeless, and inherently meaningless”.

Of course, rejecting the natural looks rather like bad karma. But then, embracing strictly material meaninglessness is not an obvious key to enlightenment. Do the meanings and values we derive through our experience in the world really belong to the world, or are biologists merely inventing things when they deem the truth desirable and their own work worthwhile? Are mentality and purpose alien to nature? — and if not, can they be alien to fundamental evolutionary processes?

Actually, no one doubts that human culture, with all its purposes and meanings, now plays a large role, both in our own evolutionary development and in the extinction, preservation, and modification of other species. Can we believe that our cultural ideas and intentions, which so effectively re-shape the material world, arrive on the scene only through ruptures in the natural fabric of the universe?

But the problem of meaning and purpose runs through all pre-human evolution as well. To see this, we need only observe the remarkable display of wisdom and carefully coordinated, apparently goal-directed activity so evident in dividing cells, developing embryos, mating animals, and organisms seeking food. We can hardly dismiss the evolutionary relevance of these adroit, adaptive, and seemingly intentional performances.

Perhaps we should pause and take a fresh look at things.

I would like to suggest that if fifty percent of our population has gone apostate from science, then something important is afoot, and it does not look good for science. At the very least — if we assume the apostasy to be as unreservedly stupid as it is said to be — it would mean that science has massively and catastrophically failed our educational system. Or, if it’s not that stupid, perhaps half the population simply refuses, with more or less understanding, to tune into certain tendencies and philosophical commitments that have grossly distorted the interpretive framework governing most biological science today.6

The organism as a pretender

Some things are too obvious to deny, and not many biologists will flatly dispute the intelligently purposive, or teleological, character of organisms. “It would make no sense to talk of the purposiveness or adaptation of stars, mountains, or the laws of physics”, wrote Theodosius Dobzhansky, a geneticist and leading architect of twentieth-century evolutionary theory. But “adaptedness of living beings is too obvious to be overlooked ... Living beings have an internal, or natural, teleology”.7

Philosopher of biology Robert Arp puts it this way:

Thinkers cannot seem to get around [evolutionary biologist Robert] Trivers’ claim8 that “even the humblest creature, say, a virus, appears organized to do something; it acts as if it is trying to achieve some purpose” ... Darwin’s biology does not deny — rather, it reaffirms — the immanent teleology displayed in the striving of each living being to fulfill its specific ends ... Reproduction, growth, feeding, healing, courtship, parental care for the young — these and many other activities of organisms are goal-directed”.9

Here, however, is where a strange ambiguity begins. For even if what Arp points out seems obvious, he cannot quite bring himself to accept it at face value. So he hedges those remarks with a crucial qualification: “with respect to organisms, it is useful to think as if these entities have traits and processes that function in goal-directed ways” (his emphasis). In other words, the organism’s purposive behavior is not quite what it seems.

This “as if” has long been a cliché of evolutionary biology. In 1909, the prominent German evolutionary theorist, August Weismann, said that “the principle of [natural] selection solved the riddle, how it is possible to produce adaptedness without the intervention of a goal-determining force”.10

The idea was simple: there is always variation among organisms, and the ceaseless culling of the less fit among them by natural selection leaves the field to those organisms bearing the most useful variations. These are the organisms most fit for survival and reproduction — best adapted for functioning successfully in their prevailing environments. They therefore appear to be goal-directed beings, whether the goal is survival or any lesser goal serving the purpose of survival. But Weismann wants to assure us that there is no actual goal-seeking going on — or, as he puts it, no “goal-determining force” at work.

Julian Huxley, who coined the phrase “Modern Synthesis” to describe the now canonical, twentieth-century formulation of what is also called “neo-Darwinism”, wrote in 1942:

It was one of the great merits of Darwin himself to show that the purposiveness of organic structure and function was apparent only. The teleology of adaptation is a pseudo-teleology, capable of being accounted for on good mechanistic principles, without the intervention of purpose, conscious or subconscious, either on the part of the organism or of any outside power”.11

Here, again, we are said to be saved from the “intervention” of an alien force, as if real purpose and intelligence would be an offense against the natural world.

And, several decades later, the author who gave us the “selfish gene” warned us how hard it can be to escape illusion: “So overwhelming is the appearance of purposeful design that, even in this Darwinian era when we know ‘better’, we still find it difficult, indeed boringly pedantic, to refrain from teleological language when discussing adaptation”. And yet, Richard Dawkins is ever ready to remind us, “the theory of natural selection provides a mechanistic, causal account of how living things came to look as if they had been designed for a purpose”12 (emphasis added).

Dawkins’ formulation has the virtue of making explicit the fact that the organism of the long-running cliché is a designed artifact, or machine. The purposes posing the original problem — purposes that seemed to arise from a live sensing of the requirements of the present moment and a directional striving — have been quietly assumed away. They now become the functions of a machine-organism. So the question about the organism’s purposeful activity has disappeared in favor of this: “Was the design of the artifactual organism purposeful or not?”

Of course, Dawkins’ own strong predilection runs toward purposeless design by natural selection, a “blind watchmaker”13 who gives us an apparent purpose that — no need to worry! — isn’t quite the real thing. On the other hand, many of the opponents Dawkins commonly has in mind prefer an intelligent designer. What seems to have fallen out of the argument on both sides is the organism itself, which has vanished into the automatisms of engineered machinery. Its living powers have been transferred to a mysterious designer, blind or otherwise, who, having messed around with everyone’s ancestors, remains conveniently obscure for current scientific investigation.

Pursuing an illusion is hard to do

A rather odd urgency sounds through all this earnest insistence that, while organisms certainly look as if they possessed intelligent agency, we should not be so foolish as to be compelled by the evidence of our own eyes. And the claim is curiously vague. How, after all, might we distinguish between an organism capable of expressing wise intention, and an organism capable of conjuring an overwhelming illusion of wise intention? Is there, in fact, evidence that can properly override the judgment of our own eyes, or ears?

Suppose, having watched a powerful drama in which the players improvise on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, we were told that its meaningfulness — all the evident thought and intention of the players, all the unpredictable, yet coherent and directed storytelling activity — was somehow an illusion. What could we possibly make of this? Isn’t an appearance of meaningful dialogue already meaningful dialogue — and wouldn’t it remain so even if we subsequently found that it came to us, not as we thought, but in a ghostly vision? Pointing to a ghost that speaks meaningful words to us does nothing to banish the problem of meaning.

The same would be true if a cleverly programmed, artificially intelligent robot spoke those words. We would recognize a real — not a pseudo — intelligence somewhere behind the production of the meaningful speech. The question would not be whether we were seeing evidence of real intelligence, but where was its live origin.

It is easy to believe that the ubiquitous and casually spoken aphorisms about as if teleology have never clearly been thought through. They may serve mainly as a convenient smokescreen for covering theoretical confusion — or, perhaps, a means of self-reassurance in the face of a powerful awareness of one’s own interior life, an awareness virtually impossible to shake off. “Yes, we are sometimes moved by profound meaning, and we pursue our own intentions; but that’s okay because none of this is quite what it seems to be”.

Or, which is much the same thing: “Darwin assumed only variation and natural selection, resulting in adaptation. The ‘results’ are the same as if they had been ‘intended’”.14 We might want to ask, “If the results really are the same as if they were intended, what makes them not really intended?” But perhaps it’s not worth the bother.

The thing to hold onto in all this is natural selection. If there seems to be real purpose in organisms, so we’re told, then natural selection explains it, or explains it away, in non-purposive terms. If there is only an illusion of purpose, natural selection is the responsible agent behind the illusion. Just as we trace the machine’s intelligence and intentions to a human designer, we must trace the organism’s intelligence and intentions, such as they may be, to natural selection, the blind, mindless, unintelligent, yet wondrously effective designer whose existence Darwin exposed.

But do we have any possible grounds for taking natural selection seriously as a designer of organisms and explainer of their intelligence? Before answering that question, we need to clarify some terminology by distinguishing between machines and organisms. The issues are fateful; they make or break the entire theoretical structure underlying modern biology.

Of machines, organisms, and agency

When we build a machine, we manipulate materials of the world so as to configure a set of causal physical relations adequate to our purposes. Following this configuration, the machine’s performance is shaped by those causal relations, yielding a result that is in some regards predictable so long as outside factors do not interfere. Everything “rolls along” within the preestablished physical constraints. Engineers and philosophers speak of the “initial conditions” of the system — its original, designed arrangement — which then constrains the subsequent performance.

Organisms are not machines.15 They are not endowed with a set of initial conditions, after which they carry forward the mechanistic implications of those conditions. The organism is, moment by moment, establishing new “initial” conditions. It is as if a machine were being redesigned at every moment — or would be like that if the organism were machine-like. In reality, the organism’s life is a continual “self-redesigning” — or, better, a self-expressing, or self-transforming. Its parts are not assembled once for all; they are grown on the spot during development, so that the functional unity of the organism — the way its parts play together, and even what the parts are — obviously must be changing all along the way. If the organism were machine-like, it would be a different, newly constituted and redesigned machine each time you looked at it.

So the organism possesses, or is, a power of origination. It constantly brings about something new — something never wholly implied or determined by the physical relations of a moment ago.16 We could also think of it as a power of self-realization. The “design work” accounting for the organism is an activity inseparable from the organism’s own life. It is an expression of that life rather than a cause of it.

Machines and organisms have this in common: whatever is responsible for orchestrating causal arrangements — initially, in the case of machines, or continually, in the case of organisms — cannot itself be explained by those arrangements. This single fact calls into question the entire habit within biology of trying to explain the present purely as the consequence of material forces playing out of the past.

Biologists speak incessantly of mechanisms and of machine-like or programmed activity in organisms. But this is empty rhetoric. No one has ever pointed to a computer-like program in DNA, or in a cell, or in any larger structure. Nor has anyone shown us any physical machinery for executing such program instructions. Nor, for that matter, has anyone ever explained what constrains diffusible molecules in a watery medium to carry out intricate and elaborately sequenced operations, such as DNA replication or RNA splicing.

So, then, how do the organism’s self-designing, or self-expressing, intentions compare to our own purposive, engineering activity in designing machines? There is a crucial difference between the two. We do not cause the parts of a machine to grow together; we put them together. Our own, one-time designing activity impinges on the machine “from the outside”. This is best understood by comparison with organisms.

As we have seen, the life of the organism is itself the designing power. Its agency is immanent in its own being, and is somehow expressed at the very roots of material causation. It brings forth this or that kind of growth with no need for the artifice of an alien hand arbitrarily intervening to arrange parts and causal relations this way or that. The choreographing is brought about, it would appear, from that same depth of reality where the causal forces themselves arise, not from “outside”. However we conceive this “inner” place, it is, at least for now, inaccessible to our own engineering prowess.

At the same time, we ourselves possess varieties of conscious activity that other organisms do not. When I refer to the organism’s intelligent agency, or its purposiveness, or its directed coordination of means to serve particular ends, I do not imply anything equivalent to our own conscious purposing or planning. But neither do I suggest something inferior to our particular sort of wisdom and power of action. If anything, we must consider organic life — for example, the life of our cells — to be an expression of a higher sort of intelligence and intention than we ourselves can yet imagine consciously achieving in the technological realm.

Rather than over-defining terms and transgressing the boundaries of my own understanding, I am inclined to leave the matter there. I will tend to use words such as “intelligence”, “purpose”, “intention”, and “agency” in the way we commonly use them, with the understanding that the reader will keep in mind the above considerations. Given the scientific culture’s reflexive recoil from the psychic and voluntary in all its manifestations, I prefer to err on the side of anthropomorphism rather than to encourage the usual dismissiveness of interior reality.

It needs adding, finally, that our recognition of intelligent and intentional expressions does not require us to understand everything about their source. We would have no difficulty distinguishing the significance of letters on a page from that of pebbles distributed on a sandy shore, even if we knew nothing about origins in either case. We can declare a functioning machine to be a designed object, whether or not we have any clue about who designed it. And if we find live, intelligent performances by organisms, we don’t have to know how, or from where, the intelligence gains its foothold before we accept the testimony of our eyes and understanding.

The shortest route to error is circular

We are now ready to look more closely at the picture we’re being offered when we are told that natural selection explains the illusion of purposive biological activity. The picture begins and ends with organisms who are capable of

These activities, taken together, constitute the “recipe”, as it is sometimes called, for natural selection. They require all the capacities living creatures possess. Every organism must develop and maintain its own form; sense and respond properly to its environment; obtain food for energy and for synthesis of bodily structures; transform that food metabolically; heal injuries; gather and organize all the materials required as an inheritance for the next generation; direct and coordinate thousands of distinct but intimately interwoven molecular processes; and so on. The story of natural selection is a story about all this and more.

It is easy to forget that the development, for example, of mammalian zygotes into mature mice, otters, and zebras — the concerted narratives of growth and differentiation of tissues, the subtle shaping and integration of parts into the form of the whole, the continuous and flexible adaptation of molecular-level processes to environmental conditions — all display the most impressive “force” of intention known to humankind. No organism, whatever its nature and circumstances, ever loses its grip and falls “out of character”. We witness in it an insistent power of competent coordination far outstripping, in wisdom and intensity, and in the effective penetration of material reality, any conscious intentional efforts we ourselves can summon.

In other words, all these living activities are precisely what posed the problem of teleology in the first place. To speak about organisms striving to live, to reproduce, and to contrive an inheritance for their offspring, is to invoke the very performances that most powerfully illustrate how living agents direct their own activity — how they expertly adapt available means to their natural or chosen ends in a way that rocks and clouds do not.

So natural selection, being simply another name for the outcome of all the purposeful activities of organisms, is not an explanation for them. It assumes what it is supposed to explain. It turns out that the “blind designer” is a cheat; it relies upon the not-so-blind teleological services of the very organisms it is said to be designing.

All this is a very big deal. The lapses of thought in the supposed explanation of biological purpose testify to a radical misjudgment of the explanatory power of evolutionary theory. If natural selection is defined in terms of the activities that originally suggested a wise agency on the organism’s part, then it tells us nothing about how those activities gained their teleological character.

Box 1

Misplaced Agency

Evolutionary biologists routinely speak of natural selection as if it were an agent. It shapes the bodies and behaviors of organisms, targets or acts on particular genomic regions, favors various traits or behavioral strategies, operates in this way or that, maintains DNA sequences, promotes adaptation of populations to local environ­ments, polices mutations, and, in general, causes an endless variety of effects. The phrase itself indicates a power to select, and this power is routinely spoken of as a force or pressure exerted upon populations.

Yet no such causal agent exists. “Natural selection” is merely short­hand for “the overall outcome of the lives and interactions of organisms”. Its meaning derives entirely from those environmentally situated organisms and what they do. Many evolutionary biologists, in fact, assure us that the idea of a selecting agent is “only a metaphor” — even as they themselves succumb to the compelling force of the metaphor.

If we really want to unpack the metaphor and free ourselves from its misleading aspects, what can we say about the organisms that give “natural selection” its meaning? One thing that has been said ever since humans began to think in a scientific or philosophical way about their fellow creatures, is that they possess a kind of active agency whereby they pursue their own ends.

But now we hear that this age-old and self-evident under­stand­ing was a mistake. The organism, whatever its obvious capacities for intelligently directed activity, does not exercise a real, present, and purposive intention. It only carries out certain functions designed into it by natural selection, just as a machine, or “automaton”, executes the intentions of its designer.

And so we are to believe that natural selection, which “is not an agent, except metaphorically”, manages to design artifacts; and the organism, without which we would lack even the concept of an agent, is not, after all, a creative or originating agent itself. Its agency has been transferred to an abstraction whose causal agency or “force” is, amid intellectual confusion, both denied and universally implied by biologists. Natural selection becomes rather like an occult Power of the pre-scientific age — all in order to render “illusory”, and indeed to usurp, the visible agency of the organism.

If the inescapable assumption of teleology subverts the claim that natural selection explains teleological behavior, it also has overwhelming implications for our thinking about natural selection more generally. A central aim of the theory, after all, has been to explain evolution by invoking random variation and “mindless” mechanistic interactions without any reference to the intelligent agency of organisms.

But if, in reality, every organism’s existence is a live, moment-by-moment, improvisational storytelling — a creative and adaptive, irreversible narrative that is always progressing coherently and contextually from challenge to response, from initiative to outcome, from nascence to renascence, from immaturity through maturity to regeneration — then a theory rooted in notions of random variation and mindlessness is a theory hanging upon a great question mark.

“The answer to the question of what status teleology should have in biology” — as Francisco Varela, a pioneer of the “autopoietic” viewpoint, came to see at the end of his life — determines “the character of our whole theory of animate nature”.17

And yet, instead of addressing the issue, evolutionary biologists have systematically evaded it by labeling the question mark a pseudo-question mark — all in order to preserve a mindless notion of natural selection, rather than the wisdom so evident in organisms, as the true agent of evolution. (See Box 1.)

It would have been better simply to realize that “natural selection” can be given a perfectly worthwhile, if rather bland, meaning. It refers to the continuing evolutionary outcome of the entire web of living and environmental relations into which any given group of organisms is woven. This informal definition may be unconventional, but it captures the inevitable tendency of other definitions, so far as they gain practical effect. And while the formulation may be so obviously true as to seem trivial, at least it has the advantage of not pretending to offer explanations independent from the organism’s teleology-soaked participation in the larger web of relations.

One other point. When we look at organisms behaving — a sheep dog herding livestock, or a cat stalking a mouse — we witness purposive activity. It is just there to see, and was, for a long while, central to our under­standing of life. However, a new hope for explaining away this activity arose at mid-twentieth century. The ascendant discipline of molecular biology, many thought, would show how all purposive activity was really just the higher-level expression of “robotic, mindless little scrap[s] of molecular machinery”.18

But the reality has turned out wholly otherwise. The end-directed character of all biological activity is fully as evident at the molecular level as it is at every other level.19 And, crucially, this activity is never explicable merely as the result of the physical lawfulness it consistently displays. When researchers examine the molecular state of a cell on the way toward division, they may be able to say, “This cell is preparing to divide”. But this is because they have seen the relevant patterns many times. It is not because they can read in the current state of the cell a physical necessity for all the subsequent steps by trillions of molecules in the drama of cell division.

As I have already suggested above, no play of physical forces coerces the cell’s molecular-level constituents to pursue the sequential, coordinated interactions, involving countless entities in a choreography complex beyond our current powers of thought — all in order to achieve an end none of them can, on their own account, “know” about. Yet, when we observe a cell dividing, we see no less a meaningful and well-directed narrative than when we watch that sheep dog harrying wanderers from the flock.

So even at the lowest levels of observation we find only more of the same purposive activity we wanted to explain through the appeal to molecular biology.

On tautology, testability, and made-up stories

It is astonishing to realize that a widely cited strategy for explaining, or explaining away, the living creature’s purposive behavior by appealing to natural selection should prove so vacuous. The scale of the apparent breakdown of reason on this whole topic might incline one toward self-doubt: “What am I missing?” But the situation takes on a slightly different feel when we recall how efforts to demonstrate evolution via natural selection have attracted charges of vacuity from other directions as well.

For example, many have alleged that the working definition of natural selection is circular (“tautologous”): it is defined as “survival of the fittest”, but when we ask what it means to be fit, the answer may come back, “the fittest are those who survive”. More verbiage and spleen have been vented on this topic than you could ever want to know about, and much of it — coming after philosopher Ronald Brady patiently clarified the issues20 — has been quite superfluous.

Brady showed that, while Darwin’s theory was not framed in a tautologous manner, it nevertheless has a closely related and serious problem of testability. We can say, as that great expositor of Darwinian evolutionary theory, Stephen Jay Gould, did,21 that the theory defines fitness, non-tautologically, in good engineering terms. But the fact remains that empirical tests of fitness tend strongly to be based on the mere fact of survival.

The problem is that organisms are simply too complex and too seamlessly integrated for us to determine how their various features contribute toward fitness. “Suppose a certain species undertakes parental care, is resistant to malaria, and is somewhat weak but very quick. How do these fitness factors add up? We have no idea at all”.22 If we give up and “let nature show us the fitness” through the calculus of survival, then we may have a good demonstration that living organisms have traits allowing them to live (survive). But not many of us will have doubted this fact, and in any case it doesn’t constitute evidence that natural selection of randomly generated variation explains the presence of those traits.

A related complaint, voiced from both within and without the evolutionary guild, has to do with “just-so stories” — the too easily invented accounts offered to explain the evolutionary origin of this or that feature of organisms. If one account is finally proven wrong (often a difficult matter), another can always be found. In a classic 1979 paper, Harvard biologists Gould and Richard Lewontin wrote, “Often evolutionists use consistency with natural selection as the sole criterion and consider their work done when they concoct a plausible story. But plausible stories can always be told”.23

This kind of thing will grate upon the ears of those many biologists conscientiously searching for demonstrable evolutionary explanations based on conventional theory. But the feeling that something here is indeed too easy is hard to shake, especially in view of what we heard in the superficial explanation of biological purpose. And, as we will now see, this feeling becomes truly jolting when we observe a kind of triviality often celebrated as the triumph of Darwin’s “Copernican revolution” in biology.

A simply delightful logic

The essential working of evolution is, in virtually every textbook, presented as a kind of core “syllogistic logic”,24 abstracted away from organisms themselves. In philosopher Daniel Dennett’s succinct formulation, “evolution will occur whenever and wherever three conditions are met: replication, variation (mutation), and differential fitness (competition)”.25 He refers to this as a mindless recipe, or algorithm — one that could be derived even without reference to organisms, while nevertheless offering “guaranteed results” in biology.26

For slightly more detail, we can turn to Niles Eldredge, Curator in the Department of Invertebrate Paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History. Eldredge wonders how we, and especially trained scientists, manage so often to be puzzled about natural selection. “Why do physicists, who have the reputation of being among the best and the brightest, have such a hard time with the simple notion of natural selection? For simple it is”. He then quotes Charles Darwin:

As many more individuals of each species are born than can possibly survive; and as, consequently, there is a frequently recurring Struggle for Existence, it follows that any being, if it vary however slightly in any manner profitable to itself, under the complex and sometimes varying conditions of life, will have a better chance of surviving, and thus be naturally selected.

“The concept”, Eldredge writes, “is definitely simple enough. This description of natural selection may be a bit longer than the elegantly brief F=MA. Conceptually, however, it is hardly more complicated.”27

Obtuse physicists apart, more than enough students of evolution are willing to go along with the bizarre notion that a simple logical formula constitutes a profound and self-evident revelation about organisms and their evolution. The widely read British science writer, Susan Blackmore, is convinced that “evolution is inevitable — if you have information that is copied with variation and selection then you must get [quoting Dennett] ‘Design out of chaos without the aid of mind’”. Blackmore goes on almost rapturously: “It is this inevitability that I find so delightful — the evolutionary algorithm just must produce design, and once you understand that[,] you have no need to believe or not believe in evolution. You see how it works”28 (her emphasis).

The hypnotic force of this gloriously simple, immaterial logic of natural selection seems to subvert all regard for actual life forms. It also explains why some biologists get excited about “digital organisms” — organisms pursuing their disembodied, logical “existence” in computers. After all, says Michigan State University geneticist Christoph Adami, the principles of evolutionary theory are “very, very general, and very simple”, so that our predictions “don’t depend on these little details of molecular biology”.29

Science indeed becomes quite easy when, armed with pleasing certainties, we don’t need to worry about the specifics of actual phenomena.

A high-minded and crystal-clear vision

The decisive theoretical idea underpinning all the truth of evolution is almost as simple as F=MA. An abstract syllogism allows us to “see how evolution works”. And the algorithmic essence of Darwin’s theory delivers “guaranteed results”, a fact that might lead us to wonder why one of history’s greatest naturalists felt compelled to amass detailed evidence from actual organisms in order to make his theory credible. One suspects that Darwin would be deeply grieved to see his life’s labors summarized in a trivial game of logic.

There is in all this an exquisitely high-minded and spectacular refusal of science. It’s “Evolution Made Simple — No Knowledge of Living Things Required”. Yet, we can hardly help asking: given the self-evidential nature of the key explanatory principle, and the satisfying sense of certainty it affords, how can it be that, 150 years after Darwin, we still have no widely accepted theory about how all the different body plans arose. Or about how, in general, macroevolution — evolution of the major orders of life — actually occurred. Or why competing and often radically discordant maps of phylogenetic relations (relations among branches of the “tree of life”) are now a dime a dozen.

If a beautiful, crystal-clear vision of “how evolution works” doesn’t give us answers to key questions about how evolution has in fact worked, perhaps we should begin to ask questions of the vision.

Misjudgment of the explanatory power of the “core logic” that so delighted Susan Blackmore may be why Darwin’s contemporary, the geologist Charles Lyell, accused him of “deifying” natural selection.30 A century later, in 1971, Lila Gatlin, a biochemist and mathematical biologist who figured centrally in developing the conception of life as an “information processing system”, could summarize contemporary usage by saying, “the words ‘natural selection’ play a role in the vocabulary of the evolutionary biologist similar to the word ‘God’ in ordinary language”.31

And, as so often seems the case, Richard Dawkins probably said more than he fully intended when discussing how some animals cleverly coerce the behavior of others. For anyone skeptical of the usual sort of explanation, Dawkins had this word of encouragement: “With natural selection working on the problem, who would be so presumptious as to guess what feats of mind control might not be achieved?”32 It’s hard not to hear in this an echo of the preacher: “Gird up your loins, brother, and only believe! Natural selection will provide!”

Dawkins seems to find it only too natural to place God and natural selection on the same level, where they contest for exactly the same ground: “God and natural selection are, after all, the only two workable theories we have for why we exist”.33 We heard from Dawkins earlier that both options involve a machine designer, whether natural or supernatural. Given the current state of our knowledge of evolution, this insistent restriction of our theoretical options to some variety of anthropomorphically conceived machine design suggests a strangely limited — or perhaps faith-constrained — scientific imagination.

This self-imposed limitation upon the world of possibilities one is willing to consider looks especially peculiar in light of the compelling evidence for biological intention — evidence so persuasive that Dawkins and others must encourage our ceaseless vigilance in resisting its invitation.

Arrival of the fittest

We saw above that the organism is always bringing something new into being, starting with its own “self-redesign”. This enables us to greet with a certain recognition the nagging question that has bothered a number of the past century’s most prominent biologists: “What does natural selection select — where do selectable variations come from — and why should we think that the mere selection of already existing variants, rather than the creative production of novel variants in the first place, directs evolution along the trajectories we observe?”

The influential Dutch botanist and geneticist, Hugo de Vries, framed the matter this way during the first decade of the twentieth century:

Natural selection is a sieve. It creates nothing, as is so often assumed; it only sifts. It retains only what variability puts into the sieve. Whence the material comes that is put into it, should be kept separate from the theory of its selection. How the struggle for existence sifts is one question; how that which is sifted arose is another.34

It was de Vries who formulated the catchy phrasing that has since been repeated many times: “Natural selection may explain the survival of the fittest, but it cannot explain the arrival of the fittest”.35 It’s not a concern easily dismissed. Over subsequent decades other biologists have added their own accents:

“The function of natural selection is selection and not creation. It has nothing to do with the formation of new variation”. (Reginald Punnett [1911], British geneticist who cofounded the Journal of Genetics; quoted in Stoltzfus 2006)

Regarding specific traits, natural selection “might afford a reason for their preservation, but never provide the cause for their origin”. (Adolf Portmann [1967, p. 123], preeminent zoologist of the middle of the twentieth century)

“Natural selection is the editor, rather than the composer, of the genetic message”. (Jack King and Thomas Jukes [1969], key developers of the idea of “neutral evolution”)

“In evolution, selection may decide the winner of a given game but development non-randomly defines the players”. (Pere Alberch [1980], Spanish naturalist and embryologist, sometimes spoken of as the founder of Evo-Devo — evolutionary developmental biology)

“Natural selection eliminates and maybe maintains, but it doesn’t create”. (Lynn Margulis [2011], microbiologist and botanist, pioneer in exploring the role of symbiosis in evolution, and co-developer of the Gaia hypothesis)

The objection these estimable biologists were raising has never gained the traction it deserves. Nor in an era of rigidly institutionalized materialism, would it have been easy for them to offer a positive and compelling alternative to the received view, even if they had such an alternative. Certainly any suggestion that we ought to take the intentions of living creatures as relevant to evolution — creatures whose doings would then be central to the entire evolutionary story — would have produced widespread intellectual discomfort.

On the other hand, it would have been hard to find even a slight blush of embarrassment when Stephen Jay Gould, countering the sort of doubt voiced above by his peers, asked, “Why was natural selection compared to a composer by Dobzhansky; to a poet by Simpson; to a sculptor by Mayr; and to, of all people, Mr. Shakespeare by Julian Huxley?” The answer, according to Gould, is that the allusions to poetry, musical composition, and sculpture helpfully underscore the “creativity of natural selection”:

The essence of Darwinism lies in its claim that natural selection creates the fit. Variation is ubiquitous and random in direction. It supplies the raw material only. Natural selection directs the course of evolutionary change. It preserves favorable variants and builds fitness gradually.36

And so it is possible for leading theorists of evolution to declare an abstract algorithm — natural selection — a capable artist, even though the only place where we observe an actual creative and artistic activity going on is in the organism itself. And even though the explanatory appeal to natural selection simply hides the fact, as we saw above, that the explanation assumes this very same creative activity.

Questions Unasked

According to the late William Provine, a distinguished historian of biology and contributor to theoretical population genetics, “Naturalistic evolution has clear consequences that Charles Darwin understood perfectly”. In particular: “No gods worth having exist; no life after death exists; no ultimate foundation for ethics exists; no ultimate meaning in life exists”. These claims “are so obvious to modern naturalistic evolutionists” that they require little defense.37

Provine’s remark testifies to a science that has slipped its empirical moorings, unaware of its own ungrounded metaphysical pretensions. Such unawareness is probably a prerequisite for the combination of grandiose hubris and elementary explanatory failure suggested in the foregoing discussion.

Researchers confident that a simple algorithm offers decisive insight into how evolution occurs may easily believe that the algorithm’s lucid simplicity accrues to their preferred explanations. They just know that answers of the expected sort will be forthcoming, even if the theoretical basis for this assurance has never been put to the test. Herein lies the “unreasonable ease” with which the theory of natural selection has for so long managed to avoid genuine scrutiny of its foundations. Almost no one thinks its theoretical relevance needs to be tested and demonstrated, as opposed to being applied.38

This unreasonable ease encourages us to dance around the uncomfortable extent of our ignorance. Questions one might think are central to the evolution of living forms disappear. What is life? How can we understand the striving of organisms — a striving that seems altogether hidden to conventional modes of understanding? What makes for the integral unity of every living creature, and how can this unity be understood if we’re thinking in purely material and machine-like terms? Does it make sense to dismiss as illusory the compelling appearance of intelligent and intentional agency in organisms?

No one can deny that our answers to these questions could be critically important even for the most basic understanding of evolution. But we have no answers. In the current theoretical milieu, we don’t even have the questions. What we do have is a god-like power of natural selection whose miracle-working activity in creating ever new organisms is vividly clear to eyes of faith, but frustratingly obscure to mere empirical investigators.

This is not a science ready for submission to a larger public along with a demand for acquiescence. Not if this public has yet to dull its sensitivity to fundamental questions in the way that the research community seems to have done.


I am deeply indebted to my colleagues at The Nature Institute for conversations relating to the themes discussed here. My debt to Craig Holdrege, director of the Institute, cannot be overstated. I could never have written this paper without his groundbreaking work on evolution, conveyed in lectures and conversation (and almost completely unpublished as of this date — a situation I hope will change soon).


1. Shermer 2009.

2. Williams 2009.

3. Wiles 2010.

4. Hermann 2011.

5. Pew Research Center 2013.

6. It might be objected that much of the resistance to evolutionary theory stems at least in part from dogmatic adherence to religious doctrines. This is doubtless true, even if it is far from being the whole truth. But those persuaded of such doctrines are likely also to be those with a natural — and not unhealthy — distaste for the distorting intellectual commitments I will be discussing here.

7. Quoted in Corning 2014, pp. 247-8.

8. Trivers 1985, p. 5.

9. Arp 2007.

10. Quoted in Mayr 1982, p. 517.

11. Huxley 1942, p. 412.

12. Dawkins 1982.

13. Dawkins 2006.

14. Mackenzie 1923.

15. Talbott 2014.

16. Holdrege 2015.

17. Weber and Varela 2002, p. 98.

18. Dennett 1995, pp. 203.

19. Talbott 2010.

20. Brady 1979 and Brady 1982.

21. Gould 1976.

22. Matthen and Ariew 2005. See also Talbott 2011.

23. Gould and Lewontin 1979.

24. Gould 2002, pp. 125-6n.

25. Quoted in Lenski, Ofria, Pennock and Adami (2003).

26. Dennett 1995, p. 51.

27. Eldredge 2000, pp. 89-90.

28. Blackmore 2014.

29. Quoted in O’Neill 2003. On digital organisms, see Talbott 2007.

30. This according to philosopher of biology John Beatty (2010, p. 23), citing correspondence between Darwin and Lyell.

31. Quoted in Oyama 2000, p. 31.

32. Dawkins 2008, p. 71.

33. Dawkins 2008, p. 181.

34. Quoted in Gould 2002, p. 428.

35. Quoted in Petronis 2010, p. 725.

36. Gould 1976. By the time Gould completed his 2002 masterwork, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, he would offer a richly nuanced qualification of these statements. But his fundamental belief in the creative role of natural selection — or, as he would say, its “efficacy” — remained.

37. Provine 1998.

38. Brady 1979 and Brady 1982.

Tags: evolution; evolution/as mindless process; evolution/intelligent design

Further information:

For a discussion of the claim that evolution depends only on randomly produced variation in organisms — that is, randomly produced relative to evolutionary benefit — see “Evolution and the Illusion of Randomness”.

Also, I discuss some aspects of the organism’s intelligence and intention in the three-part article, “From Bodily Wisdom Wisdom to the Knowing Self”:


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Beatty, John (2010). “Reconsidering the Importance of Chance Variation”, in Evolution: The Extended Thesis, edited by Massimo Pigliucci and Gerd B. Müller, pp. 21-44. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

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Steve Talbott :: Can Darwinian Evolutionary Theory Be Taken Seriously?