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Evolution and the Illusion of Randomness

This is the fourth in a set of essays by Mr. Talbott dealing with the new understanding of living organisms being urged upon us by the intense ongoing work in molecular biology. The previous installments were “Getting Over the Code Delusion” (Summer 2010), “The Unbearable Wholeness of Beings” (Fall 2010), and “What Do Organisms Mean?” (Winter 2011).

Most biologists, I suspect, will happily own up to the fact that they think of the organism as engaged in strikingly directed and meaningful activity. The lion stalking the gazelle, the bird building a nest, the larva spinning a cocoon, the rose flowering, the cell dividing and differentiating, the organism maintaining its own way of being amid the perturbations of its environment — they all reflect a kind of intentional pursuit we would never attribute to dust, rocks, ocean waves, or clouds.

Biologists, that is, will acknowledge that, at molecular and higher levels, they see almost nothing but an effective employment of a thousand interwoven means to achieve a thousand interwoven ends — all in an almost incomprehensibly organized, coordinated, and integrated fashion expressing the striving of the organism as a whole. The organism, they will say, as it develops from embryo to adult — as it socializes, eats, plays, fights, heals its wounds, communicates, and reproduces — is the most concertedly purposeful entity we could possibly imagine. It does not merely exist in accord with the laws of physics and chemistry; rather, it is telling the meaningful story of its own life.

And then they will take it all back.

In other words, the routine language of biological description, highlighted in the earlier parts of this series, is fully accepted, only to be effectively disowned. The explanation for this remarkable intellectual flexibility lies in a widespread view that runs as follows. Evolution produces organisms that we cannot help describing as purposeful and meaningful agents. That is because natural selection tends to select organisms that are fit — well-adapted to their environments and “designed” for surviving and reproducing. When organisms have features that are adapted for something, we naturally see these features as meaningful and purposeful. And an organism compounded of such features seems to be an agent with a goal of some sort; if nothing else, it seems to act intentionally in order to survive and reproduce.

This agency, however, is said to be more a matter of appearance than of fundamental reality. While meaning and purpose may (somehow) “emerge” during the course of evolution, they emerge from processes that, at the most basic level of explanation and understanding, know nothing of them. Certainly — as the rather strange conviction runs — meaning and purpose play no role in the evolutionary “mechanisms” that have so expertly given rise to them.

Perhaps the brashest and most publicly effective advertisements for this entrenched view have arisen from Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett. Dawkins is a biologist and award-winning popularizer of conventional evolutionary thought, having produced such bestsellers as The Selfish Gene (1976) and The Blind Watchmaker (1986). Dennett, philosopher and deconstructor of consciousness, wrote about evolution in his widely influential book, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life (1995). The two authors immensely admire each other’s work.

Dennett, in one of his characteristic remarks, assures us that “through the microscope of molecular biology, we get to witness the birth of agency, in the first macromolecules that have enough complexity to ‘do things.’ ... There is something alien and vaguely repellent about the quasi-agency we discover at this level — all that purposive hustle and bustle, and yet there’s nobody home.” Then, after describing a marvelous bit of highly organized and seemingly meaningful biological activity, he concludes:

Love it or hate it, phenomena like this exhibit the heart of the power of the Darwinian idea. An impersonal, unreflective, robotic, mindless little scrap of molecular machinery is the ultimate basis of all the agency, and hence meaning, and hence consciousness, in the universe.[1]

Or, we can listen to Dawkins: “Wherever in nature there is a sufficiently powerful illusion of good design for some purpose, natural selection is the only known mechanism that can account for it.”[2] And: “Natural selection, the blind, unconscious, automatic process which Darwin discovered, and which we now know is the explanation for the existence and apparently purposeful form of all life, has no purpose in mind. It has no mind and no mind’s eye. It does not plan for the future. It has no vision, no foresight, no sight at all.”[3]

The general idea, then, looks something like this:

  • The true nature of things is evident only at the bottom, and so we must understand life from the bottom up.
  • What we find at the bottom are scraps of molecular machinery.
  • Through the power of natural selection — which operates like a mindlessly mechanistic algorithm (Dennett) or a blind, unconscious automatism (Dawkins) — these low-level molecular machines slowly evolve into the kind of apparently purposeful, complex entities we recognize as organisms, including ourselves.
  • Whatever we are to make of this appearance of meaning and purpose — including my own intentions as I write this and yours as you read it — we are both urged to shed our prejudices and acknowledge that we with our intentions somehow arise from more basic, underlying processes that are essentially dumb, meaningless, and mindless.

Of course, questions come to mind. Is the universe so schizoid or compartmentalized that any truth we observe at the “bottom” (whatever that means) must be proclaimed real, while the truth at other levels is unreal and illusory? This would be a particularly odd position to take in biology, where characteristic explanation runs from higher-level context to lower-level part (as we saw in the previous installments “The Unbearable Wholeness of Beings” [Fall 2010] and “What Do Organisms Mean?” [Winter 2011]). And if we really did find the root essence of things only at the bottom, then where would we locate Dennett’s presumed scraps of mindless machinery amid the extraordinarily non-machine-like (and indeed scarcely material) quantum weirdness that has so preoccupied physicists for the past century? Physicists are the last people in the world with reason to claim mechanistic behavior at the bottom — and, in fact, some among them have long been driven by their own subject matter to reflect upon the mindful universe.[4]

As for the organism: are its apparently meaningful strivings meaningful or not? If they are not — if, for example, the appearance of purpose is an “illusion,” as Dawkins puts it — then what is the difference between merely illusory purpose and the real thing? Perhaps he will say that there is only illusion. But then, if there is nothing for the illusion to be a convincing illusion of, it hardly makes sense to say it is an illusion at all, as opposed to being just what it seems to be. On the other hand, if Dawkins admits that meaning and purpose actually exist as realities and are therefore available to be mimicked in an illusory way, what grounds does he have for claiming meaninglessness and purposelessness as fundamental to the world’s character?


Read the entire article on the New Atlantis website (new window will open).

Published: December 28, 2011

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