What Daedalus Told Darwin – Debates
Suppose that the process of evolution underlies, not only the origin and synthesis of life, but also intelligence. Suppose further, that “random mutation with environmental selection” versus Intelligent Design are not the only two options, that there’s a third option. If the origin and evolution of life are analogous to the emergence of creative intelligence, and our capacity as designers to solve creative problems harnesses the same evolutionary principles that life does, then evolution, rather than being life’s attribute, may be the process that preceded and invented both life and intelligence. This does not imply a simple, linear sequence: evolution begat life, which begat intelligence. Evolution, life, and intelligence all progress through cyclic feedback. And their feedback cycles are intertwined.
variation as uniquely random versus variation as both random and nonrandom
Richard Dawkins: We have seen that living things are too improbable and too beautifully “designed” to have come into existence by chance. . . But the whole sequence of cumulative steps constitutes anything but a chance process, when you consider the complexity of the final end-product relative to the original starting point. The cumulative process is directed by nonrandom survival.
“DAEDALUS”: Well. . . So what does Richard Dawkins imply by saying that the cumulative design of evolution is directed by “nonrandom survival”? Who cares about nonrandomly surviving? Certainly the environment doesn’t care who survives. Dawkins would argue that nonrandom survival is the survival of the fittest.
But the crux of our argument for a third option hides, implicit, in Dawkins’ quote: Whose nonrandom choices affect its nonrandom survival? The squirrel cares if the squirrel survives. Choice, a manifestation of mind, affects survival and so drives evolution into the future.
indifferent objective universe versus a more complex universe
Richard Dawkins: In a universe of blind forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.
“DAEDALUS”: Richard Dawkins has elevated blind, pitiless indifference to the status of a household phrase. But the squirrel cares if the squirrel survives. Why assume that all evolutionary progress is solely arbitrated by an external, Objective Assessor, an “indifferent environment”? How does that mindset influence how we view the environment, our sole source of sustenance? And how we view ourselves as morally responsible Earth citizens?
So here’s the rub. If we designed a light bulb, and if turning that light bulb on were like becoming alive, then once we designed and built the light bulb, we’d turn it on. But who are “we”? If we subscribe to the traditional view, then “we” are the environment. There’s no one else at home to turn the light bulb on. But isn’t there a subtle hitch here? What does it mean to be “turned on”?
One can easily agree with Dawkins that the universe as a whole exhibits “nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.” But does the environment, with its blind, pitiless indifference, appreciate this off/ on distinction? Would it bother to turn anyone on? If the boundary between non-life and life is too fuzzy to make an off-on distinction, there’s no switch to flip.
This entire argument may boil down to a semantic distinction. Traditional evolutionists have a pat answer. Once proto-life achieved the requisite level of complexity, the next (brilliantly effective) random mutation turned life on. But the reason that next random mutation was brilliantly effective was because all the components of life were collaboratively working together. Without their integrated collaboration, the next mutation would not turn them on.
I know when to quit. And I quit on that note.
evolution versus Intelligent Design
My “argument from design” strikes the core of the debate about evolution, showing that our traditional explanation of how evolution occurs is incomplete. When “design” was hijacked into the top-down Design (with a capital D) camp, bottom-up design (with a little d) was neglected.
How evolution generally advances toward complexity and increasingly ingenious adaptations to its environment is not explained by the traditional theory of evolution. Although some adaptations, such as moles losing the power to see, seem to reverse direction, the general thrust of evolution is toward increasing complexity.
Intelligent Design begs the question about the design of intelligence by presuming a God, an Intelligent Designer with a goal. Although traditional evolution rejects both gods and goals, it leaves unanswered questions about how evolution achieved adapted complexity. Staunch traditionalists maintain that tiny incremental changes, preferred by the selecting environment, explain everything. But many are not quite sure. Invention’s toolkit may need a third option to complement random mutation and environmental selection — to reclaim the word “design.” When we focus on organisms as objects, we neglect design as a process — the process that explains how those objects come into being.
Beyond the traditional interpretation of evolution and Intelligent Design lies a third option, which answers questions raised by Intelligent Design proponents without resorting to a supernatural cause. I say little here about progress and politics, which Herbert Spencer entwined with “survival of the fittest” and the movement called Social Darwinism, still less about God and creationism, which many equate with Intelligent Design.
This third option, synergetic evolution, falls in neither of these camps: it complements the traditional view of evolution as random mutation and environmental selection and debunks Intelligent Design, offering a consistent perspective, not only on the origin and evolution of life but on life’s future prospects on Earth.
Credit: “Delivery” by Robert E. Filman